The Big Idea
It all went south once the fatties got the gliders.
That afternoon, I was sitting with Mr. Popadokalus in the rec room on the twenty-first floor. The old man took his breaks every day at twelve sharp. You could practically set your watch by it, or so the joke ran. As noon rolled around, the other employees would mill about the salesroom floor dividing their attention between their wrist watches and Popadokalus, looking for telltale signs that the veteran was about to break. As he reached to unfasten his nametag their eyes would bulge and diligently chart the movement of second hands crawling around watch faces.
“Bingo!” Crowley exclaimed, pointing to his watch as Popadokalus exited the salesroom. “The veteran’s right on time!” The veteran: that’s what they called him.
Whoever’s watch was closest to noon when Mr. Popadokalus took his leave got lunch gratis. On some days, the wager came down to a matter of seconds, often eliciting quarrels over whose second hand crested first or whether digital watches had an advantage over mechanized ones. This is what passed for normal among our group: time keeping, the hope of free lunches and Popadokalus’ predicable habits.
I watched as Mr. Popadokalus sat at the industrial-sized table in the rec room and carefully unpacked the contents of his lunch from a crisp brown bag in silence. My eyes drifted to the far end of the room where a large window looked out over the Midtown skyline. From this vintage point the city was reduced to near microscopic proportions, the streets, bustling pedestrians and steady flow of traffic transformed into a chaos of atoms and neutrons in motion. I was contemplating the tricks that altitude and distance play on perception when I saw the dark shadow appear in the sky followed by a forceful whoosh of air as a man enveloped in the triangular cut of a hang glider darted past my field of vision.
Next, I heard Mr. Popadokalus’ thermos tumble to the floor as he shot up from his seated position.
“Good God, they’re airborne!” he squawked, pointing to the window.
I remained silent, watching as the thermos rolled about the floor dribbling concentric circles of coffee on the linoleum.
Winter mornings when the winds come blustering off the lake are the worst. I cringe as I lay in bed listening to the currents of air whip through the streets. I can recall once hating the cold. I would contract my body and draw the blanket close, idly dreaming of skipping school and spending the day in bed listening to the drone of the radiator. Now I hate the wind and its ferocious wail. It means that the sky will be teeming with them.
Around ten, I get a call from Crowley. He wants to know why I haven’t bothered showing up for my shift.
“Waiting for the winds to die down,” I tell him.
“Everyone else made it in this morning,” he snaps. “I gotta come all the way from the West Side. You know what that’s like? But I got my ass in on time.”
Crowley never misses an opportunity to remind you that the West Side was ground zero or that he had a front row seat for the Great Waif Rebellion. He’s a modern-day martyr, a model waif. Each day he punches his time card marks a new chapter in his personal hagiography. I sometimes wish I could accrete mass just to avoid being lumped together with people like him.
After ten minutes of his pedantic badgering I’m done.
I hang up the phone, ditch the pajamas and pull on my parka. I wear it because the large hood covers my entire head. I found the parka last summer while rummaging through the China Town dumpsters with Darcy and Joanie. Darcy spotted it first atop a heap of garbage bags and discarded boxes. I tried it on despite the summer heat.
“Nice threads,” Darcy said, smiling at me.
“You think?” I asked, modeling it for her and pulling up the hood so that it came down over my eyes.
She laughed and ran her index finger over the parka’s fur-lined hood.
I like to think I wear the parka because I recall this memory every time I slip it on. I can’t, however, deny the utility of the large hood, which is an excellent protective covering against aerial bombardments of drool, sweat and other bodily fluids that might randomly fall from the sky. On bad days when the winds are high waifs rush about the streets carrying umbrellas or darting from store canopies to covered bus stops with a cautious eye turned to the sky, but not me. Bundled in my parka, I have perfected a style of leisurely walk as I move through the streets. It’s the type of gait I imagine a European aristocrat might have. During August, the heat was excruciating and the sweat that poured down my face would elicit peals of laughter from Darcy. “Weirdo,” she called me as we walked through the park. “Screwball,” she said to me as we cavorted around the abandoned lakefront arcades. Utility aside, I wore the parka for her amusement and the offhanded comments that come my way whenever we were together.
I pause in the doorway and listen to the wind rattle the traffic lights suspended above. The streets are desolate; the sky is clear. I take it as a good sign as I begin my mile-long trek to work.
Alone, I drop the aristocratic stride I have perfected and remain vigilant. At the bakery on Wentworth, old Chinese men sit huddled around tables smoking cigarettes and playing cards. Their faces are always long and even, as though the world hasn’t imploded. They focus on their cards, rattle small spoons against glasses of tea and murmur amongst themselves. I envy their composure. It’s a testament to human fortitude in some strange way.
“Watch out, kid!” I hear as a large shadow pools around me.
I’ve been staring at the Chinese card players, distracted. Instinctively, I hit the pavement just as I feel a rush of air pass over my head followed by a familiar whooshing sound. Looking straight ahead from my position on the ground I watch as one of them alights on the sidewalk ten feet in front of me. His mass is hidden behind the triangular form of the glider, but from the shadow that flew over I can tell he is large. He throws a look over his shoulder and our eyes momentarily meet. Despite his capabilities of flight, there is nothing graceful in his movements. I am suddenly reminded of the old expression “ . . . when pigs fly.” It’s dead on. He resembles a giant hog, and I watch as he starts into a waddling trundle along the sidewalk, picking up a wind current and taking to the air just as suddenly as he descended.
I let out a breath I had been holding in and feel a hand grab at the back of my parka.
“Kid, you okay?”
The person helps me to my feet and I am about to respond that I am fine when I see that it’s Mr. Popadokalus. The words don’t come out and I am left staring at the veteran, numb.
“Kido, you’ve got to be more careful,” he says as he dusts flecks of dirt from the front of my coat.
I want to tell him about the Chinese card players and human resilience but I can’t find the words. “Yeah . . . ” is all I mumble.
Then I ask him why he isn’t at work.
“High winds this morning,” he says, pointing to the sky as if the currents of air were visibly there rolling about overhead like a Van Gogh painting. “Better to play it safe. On days like this, there’s only one person who comes in before noon and I think we both know who that is,” Popadokalus says with a grin.
Crowley’s a bastard, is all I can think.
In the beginning there was Jan . . . Or at least that’s the way most people tell it.
Dutch political spokesman and EU finance minister Jan Huitzja watched his career take a sharp nosedive as the financial crisis of the aughts unfolded. At some point during his transformation from political trailblazer to persona non grata he developed a taste for pastries. For breakfast, he would inhale three warm croissants, making certain to lick the buttery residue from each of his plump fingers. With the paper-thin crumbs of the croissants still clinging to his beard, he commenced to nibble on pain au chocolate accompanied by three espressos. After lunch, a platter of cream puffs, Napoléons drizzled with caramel, and cinnamon-beaded Apfeltaschen usually followed. At each interval of the day, Jan’s office became a veritable bakery with plates of jelly-filled cakes, fruit-stuffed strudel, and small pies oozing cream. To watch him cram these goodies into his mouth was sickening, the licking of the fingers that followed almost ceremonial in nature.
Gorging on baked goods took its effect as the muscular physique of youth melted into the flabby contours of middle-age. Jan certainly had a paunch, and one might expect it was filled with cream like so many of the pastries he devoured on a daily basis. He still possessed his thundering laugh, although lately it had been subsiding into a soft and muffled snicker to everyone’s surprise. One time, while delivering a speech at the European Monetary Forum in Zurich, he had even lapsed into a series of warm giggles after telling a joke. The following day, the communist paper L’Humanité ran a cartoon satirizing the event in which Jan, depicted as the Pillsbury Doughboy, addressed a drowsy audience of wolves in pinstripe suits. While he brushed off the cartoon, it did serve to highlight an evident truth: at the age of forty-nine, Jan, who in college had been described as athletic and well-built, resembled a bloated cartoon character. In his late thirties, he had discovered a sweet tooth which he had not been conscious of before. His stomach suddenly began rumbling, his mouth watering like one of Pavlov’s dogs. There was a need to be filled, and somehow baked goods satisfied this need.
On the day news of his dismissal from the finance ministry arrived, Jan was sitting at his desk in the office he rented off Rue Wiertz. He had recently had an indentation cut in the desktop to accommodate his protruding gut, giving observers the impression that he was somehow surrounded by the piece of furniture rather than sitting in front of it. After reading the official memo requesting that he clean out his office in the finance ministry, Jan slowly rose and was in the process of calling for his secretary when he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks—or rather something stopped him. His mammoth form no longer fit through the door, and it was there, wedged in the doorframe for a good hour as he contemplated this turn of events, that Jan received his first epiphany. It came in one simple word: mass.
This monosyllabic uttering would be expanded upon in later writings detailing the inevitability of human desire and need, the ways in which the accretion of mass supplanted these needs and the means through which the conquest of space—and by this Jan meant one’s actual physical presence—had now become the single human telos. Jan’s writings were abstract and philosophical but he employed various acolytes adept at translating his teachings into layman’s terms. Their slogans were simple and direct: Does the world make you feel small? Get Big! and Our power is in our size! The religious-minded were urged to Celebrate the Holy Mass! These catchphrases summarized a new and complex human philosophy, a “paradigm,” as Jan liked to call it, measurable in sheer size and girth. It was a revolt against modelesque fashion, classical beauty and contemporary advertising culture, they said; a mantra for the plus-size woman, the all-you-can-eat-buffet aficionados and the morbidly obese doggedly patronized by public health officials and medical experts. Within four years’ time, it was evident that a sea change was in the making as eating competitions were deemed en vogue, as “tipping the scale” became a euphemism for cool and as porcine physiques increasingly replaced slim, toned bodies in Hollywood blockbusters.
I was a small child the night Jan Huitzja appeared on international television and gave his famous Big Idea interview. I remember sitting on the living room floor running a toy fire truck back-and-forth over the carpet and receiving static shocks from the friction. My father was slumped on the couch, sipping a beer and watching 60 Minutes. Huitzja—now an imposing 357 pounds—sat across from Charlie Rose, a lop-sided grin on his face as he repeatedly peeled the wrappers from Snicker’s bars and gnawed off big chunks of nougat and peanut.
“Do you see yourself as leading a movement?” Rose was asking him.
“No,” Huitzja said in between lip-smacking bites, “it’s a quiet revolution. Martin Luther King had a dream and I have the big idea that I want to share.”
“And what is this big idea?” Rose plied.
“No,” Huitzja replied, “you misunderstand. It’s not a big idea. It’s the Big idea.”
I recall looking up at my father, his face washed in the pale glow of the television. The Mass Electorate Party, the waif identification cards and the coup were still three years away at this point, but I believe that on that night I saw an expression of unease creep across his face; a portent of dread perhaps or simply revulsion for the likes of a three-hundred-pound-plus primadonna like Jan Huitzja.
The doors slide open with a pneumatic hiss and we enter. As expected, Crowley is the only one on the floor going through the ritual of taking inventory. He lays down his pad and pencil and puts his hands on his hips affecting a managerial pose.
“Finally decided to show up for work? Sooooo thoughtful . . . You think inventory gets done by itself?”
I could remind him that nobody is interested in buying electrical goods anymore and that the trickle of customers we did have has dried up. However, there is little point. I let him play at manager and walk with my head lowered as I go to gather my work shirt from my locker in the employee lounge. Nobody really comes to work anymore because they have to. They do it because it feels normal. I am as guilty of this as anyone else.
In the back, I find Brubaker shoveling empty boxes into his locker. His lips are smeared with chocolate glaze. Every chance he gets, Brubaker attempts to accrete mass by ingesting large quantities of baked goods. Unfortunately, it will only lead to the early onset of diabetes. Like me, Brubaker has been cursed with a killer metabolism. We simply can’t accrete and so suffer the brand of irreformable.
I wish I had inherited my father’s genes. When the Mass Electorate Party assumed power, my father was deemed reformable. He was ordered to report to one of the farms set up in the west where mass is accreted and new citizens made. I haven’t seen him since. I constantly keep my hopes up though, and wonder if I will one day encounter him swooping down from the sky with extended arms. I know that if all went well out west he would come back to find me. Of this I have little doubt.
I am not certain of my mother’s genetic makeup. I can only assume my metabolic imperfections come from her side. She left my father when she fell in love with a radio DJ from Detroit. It was something about his voice apparently. Before leaving the two of us, she sat me down and tried to explain everything as best she could. When I asked why she had to go she gave me an honest reply, which I can appreciate now. “Sweetie, you’re father is a milquetoast, and I was not raised to be married to a milquetoast.” I remember this explanation because at the time I didn’t know what a milquetoast was. Later, I looked it up in the dictionary and had to agree it seemed a fair assessment of my father.
The real reason I want to accrete mass, though, is because Darcy can. Last summer we were pedaling bikes along the downtown thoroughfares when I had to stop and remove my parka. She continued pedaling furiously down the street, never pausing or looking back. I loosened my coat as quickly as I could, hopped on my bike and doubled my pace. My calves ached by the time I finally caught up and found her leaning against her bike beaming a triumphant look.
“What gives?” I yelled, panting.
“I was wondering how long it would take you,” she said coolly, deliberately checking her wrist watch.
“Didn’t know we were racing.”
“Didn’t know you were that slow,” she said with a roguish smile.
Things continued like this for a few weeks. Our bike rides together became competitions of speed and endurance. She dusted me every time, darting down streets and avenues like it was the Tour de France. I would always find her two or three miles ahead, shirt drenched and hair matted with sweat. One day, I was lingering around the train depot when I spotted a stash of old comic books in a box on the curb. I got excited when I saw a few of them were dog-eared issues of Nancy Drew, Girl Detective, Darcy’s absolute favorite. When I arrived at her house to tell her the news she was in the middle of an aerobic workout.
“Look at this!” I boasted, fanning out the glossy covers on the floor.
“Not now!” she huffed. “I’m busy.”
“I thought . . . ”
“Just go read them over there,” she nodded, continuing with her oblique twists. “I’m almost finished.”
The next night we were sitting on her roof watching Joanie play in the yard below. I was feeling hurt, although I didn’t say as much. Without a word, Darcy began to cry. I started to ask what was wrong but checked myself. Instead, I slid my arm around her shoulder to comfort her. I had seen this in a movie once and thought it was the kind of thing a grownup might do in this situation.
“She’s planning on building a feeding tray,” she said with a weak laugh. “She thinks she can attract them, like pets.”
She just shook her head, and I understood that this was not the reason for her tears.
“I’m up,” she finally said.
Those words rang like a death knell in my ears. I suddenly understood but tried to hide my distress. We didn’t say anything after that for a long time. Dusk was descending. A thin layer of purple clouds hugged the horizon. Down below I watched Joanie playing in the dirt as the last glints of daylight faded and streaked the yard with crimson. Why not her? I remember thinking.
The second phase of the revolution began in Poughkeepsie, New York. It was there that a young engineer named Corey Sand invented polyalloy knit fabric, a synthetic material composed of small metallic fibers capable of withstanding high-speed gradient winds. Sand was fond of sailing on Martha’s Vineyard and designed the fabric to sail through category three hurricanes. That summer, he braved Hurricane Hector in a trial run and lived to tell of his feat. There is a now-famous picture of him standing in front of his storm-battered boat, The Majestic, defiantly holding up his metallic sail. The dock behind him is bathed in the golden light of late afternoon, evocative of the magnificent Indian summers that once drew tourist to the Martha’s Vineyard area.
At first, the big ones posed little threat. They were sluggish and lethargic, often more amusing than menacing. The first attempt to conquer the mobility problem was a comic failure. High-powered segways were manufactured with triple-reinforced wheels to sustain the driver’s extreme weight. They looked like miniature tanks as they trundled along the streets and had a nasty habit of tipping over when exceeding speeds of more than five miles per hour. You would be walking along and find one turned on its side, the driver laying supine on the pavement or rolling about in a futile effort to get upright. Pedestrians gathered round, laughing and poking them with sticks. It’s hard to admit now, but in the early days the Big Idea felt more like an elaborate joke.
Yet Huitzja and his inner circle were relentless. They purchased Sand’s patent for the polyalloy knit fabric and within months were mass producing reams of it. The transition occurred so quickly. Everyone was caught off guard as the conquest of space was followed by the conquest of the air. It did not take a genius to realize a material capable of withstanding category three winds was capable of getting the big ones airborne. Almost overnight they acquired speed and maneuverability; they could suddenly mobilize swiftly and with precision.
I remembering the feeling that crept over me the day I saw two of them pinning down a waif in the street. They were perched there like bizarre predatory birds with bulging guts and hulking limbs.
“Whopper him!” one said to the other with an evil grin.
The waif shrieked.
From my hiding place, I watched as one of the big ones spread his arms wide and tipped his massive body forward, collapsing on to his screaming victim. The cry cut short, followed by a nauseating squelching sound and demonic chortling. I had watched a man be compressed into nothing but a smear on the cement.
Later, when I recounted this story to Crowley he gnawed at his lower lip and shook his head.
“Careful,” he told me. “You don’t always recover all the way from something like that.”
At the time, I didn’t comprehend what he meant, figuring he was referring to the victim who had been turned into human purée. Of course you don’t recover from that, I thought. You’re dead! However, mornings when I wake up washed in a cold sweat I understood what Crowley was telling me. You don’t recover fully. Not from that.
From the roof we watch them swarm into the yard. They flash by in a rapacious blur of motion, whizzing from the sky to the ground and back. Joanie points at the gyre swirling in the cloudless afternoon sky. She is ecstatic.
“They’re coming! They’re coming!” she whispers with delight.
Joanie has constructed a large trough from plywood board running the expanse of the yard. For her age, she is quite ingenious. The stench of the slop draws them from the sky. On the first day, the trough attracted a mere two visitors. By the end of the week, there were at least twenty. Now it is a feeding frenzy. They formicate and crawl over one another like feasting larva, their sickening grunts and smacking of lips filling the air.
Each afternoon, we come to watch. Joanie takes a certain pleasure in the daily gorging, relishing in the fact that she can summon them. Darcy’s concern is evident. She can’t understand her little sister’s fascination with these creatures. We pass furtive looks between ourselves in silence, keeping low to avoid being sighted. I don’t know why it is at these times—times when it is impossible to speak—I want most to tell her of my concerns and fears.
My eyes drift across the seething mass below. I wonder if one of them might be my father returned from the west. He would surely come back to our old neighborhood in search of me. Each day, I find myself scanning the throngs of rotund bodies and clattering metallic wings that fill the yard looking for a familiar face, something recognizable and human.
Darcy places a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s go,” she says.
“But they’re not done!” Joanie pules.
“But I am,” she replies sternly, nudging me and leaving Joanie on the roof.
On the West Side, remnants of the Great Waif Rebellion can still be spotted by a discerning eye: charred buildings, an overturned car rusting in the August sun, a ransacked Piggly Wiggly with a vandalized picture of the store mascot hanging in the grime-streaked display window. Darcy stares at the cartoon image of the smiling pig and traces a finger over the streaks of old spray paint.
“History,” she mumbles.
“Pieces of history. Or what passes for it now anyway.”
“What? A cartoon pig?”
She nods silently.
The afternoon is still. There are more people about than normal. The weather report that morning on the radio warned of approaching high winds from the north later in the evening. Everyone walks along the streets furtively, like birds afraid of their own shadows.
I am suddenly uncertain why Darcy wanted to come here. We had heard rumors that the minimart on the corner of Ash and Grove was unloading cheap bottled water, but I can see that this has nothing to do with water or supplies. She is trying to connect with this place in some way but is finding it extremely difficult. Crowley has given me various accounts of the events that took place during the GWR, some of which seem contradictory I might add. Yet here, I find it hard to connect these stories with the actual streets and rundown buildings I see, the alleys dotted with old plastic bags and crumpled wrappers. They just look like ordinary streets.
“History,” Darcy is still mumbling under her breath.
On the ground, I watch as an old, balled-up hamburger wrapper begins to stir slightly in an oncoming breeze. I pull my parka hood lower over my eyes despite the afternoon humidity and sun.
“Maybe we should head back,” I say.
Darcy remains silent, her eyes fixed on the cartoon pig.
I contemplate the balled-up wrapper dancing along the pavement like an omen prophesizing impending doom and I shudder.
We inhabit a world of diminishing returns.
I once saw this phrase written on a wall. I was never sure what it meant, but it always felt like there was some poetic truth to it that I couldn’t quite grasp. Mainly, I liked the sound of it. Sometimes if people ask my opinion on a certain topic like politics or store policies, I will just shrug and repeat it. It has a sophisticated and wise ring to it.
On the day Darcy left, Crowley asked how I was holding up and I simply repeated the phrase.
“What is that supposed to mean?” he asked, eyeing me oddly.
I told him I didn’t know and we left it at that.
Since then, he has tended to lay off me whenever we are working the floor. He is less officious and reluctant to remind me of the tasks that need to get done. Sometimes, he catches me in the rec room reading the letters that Darcy writes to me. The old Crowley would have thrown a fit and pointed out that I am still on the clock, but these days he just passes without a word. Mr. Popadokalus says he feels sorry for me, although I find it difficult to believe that Crowley could possess such a broad emotional range.
On the days I receive Darcy’s letters, I read them three or four times. Life out west does not seem horrible from her accounts. She tells me about the school she attends, the new friends she is meeting and how she is enrolled in preliminary aviation courses. The handwriting on the letters has gradually changed over the months. Her swirling Os and loopy Ls have flattened out and become more oblate. Her girly penmanship now looks clunky and less defined. Sometimes when I think about this I get sad. It instantiates the time and distance that has been put between us, as though with each letter I receive the Darcy I knew is progressively diminished.
Mr. Popadokalus can tell whenever I receive one of her letters, and he will usually put a hand on my shoulder or pat me on the back. “It gets better kid,” he tells me with a calm smile.
“I know,” I tell him.
When our shift lets out, we walk over to Darcy’s old house. Nobody lives there now, but you can access the roof by the fire escape that runs along the side of the building. We climb up and sit there with our legs dangling over the ledge, looking down at the yard. The big ones soar around us, diving from the sky to Joanie’s trough below where a sea of bodies and gliders collide and tussle. Neither of us says much because there is nothing to say. We just sit there and watch the dusk quietly descend on the city. I no longer look among the horde for familiar faces. In a world of diminishing returns, nothing comes back.
I glance over and see Mr. Popadokalus staring into the welling evening shadows below, his face expressionless like it always is at these moments. He just sits and gazes, oblivious to the groveling that emanates from the yard. I sometimes wonder if he is lost in an old memory or whether he is concentrating intently on the multitude beneath us. Either way, they call him the veteran, I think to myself. And in that instant, I can see it.
|Copyright © 1999 – 2020 Juked|