The wrong piece of driftwood

HQ Short Story Competition finalist 1998

I usually can't stand fat people. I hate them on sight. I think lazy, stupid, selfish, greedy. They've brought it on themselves. Call me a bigot if you like but I don't have the same feeling about homosexuals, Asians, Jews, the disabled or any other minority group. I think live and let live. It's just fat people. Which is why the whole thing with Chuck was so bizarre.

When I heard him speak, that accent suddenly reminded me of all those comforting television programs I watched as a kid after school, alone in the house. Gilligan's Island, My Three Sons, Get Smart. It was all my childhood friends come back. There he was saying cool all the time with the proper inflection, like a man who stepped right out of the TV all fat and warm and fuzzy as well. Brigitte and I started calling him the sex tub. The sexy fat man. We were only half joking.

He was big. Not just tall, but huge. They said he'd been a line backer in his youth, whatever that is. He had grey flecks through his hair and neatly clipped beard. Fat people often grow beards to give the impression that they have a jaw line. Brigitte and I started to talk about him over lunch. I like the beard, I said. It makes him kind of cosy looking.

Brigitte rolled her eyes.

I started to give him a lift home each night because he lived nearby and he hadn't got around to buying a car yet.

"I've got to tell you, I'm out of my depth in this job, " I said to him. "You know how they talk about sink or swim situations but you only ever hear about people swimming. I'm not absolutely sure, but I think I'm sinking."
We edged along in the peak hour traffic.
"I mean I don't even know how much I don't know."
He understood. He seemed to know everything.
"The minutiae will drive you crazy and if I you're not used to making mistakes that will get to you too."
He knew. The accent, the comforting voice and the sheer size of him. Big and safe. We chugged up the hill, my little car straining with the extra weight.

"I don't know how these magazines get born with legs," he said. "It's like they opened the doors and let 60 people in and then said 'now you go figure out what you're meant to do." "Oh," I said, "I thought it was just me."

They brought him back from the states to sort us all out. He would introduce systems that worked. He was a systems man, a production guy. The rest of us were creative types. That's what the management told us anyway. We hired you for your creative flair, they told us. It made us feel good about working 12 hour days. For a while. Then we had to actually produce these highly glossed, beautifully designed bits of junk mail on time and on budget. We lurched from one crisis to the next. Running around. Having a lot of meetings. I was getting tired of pretending to be in control. I was getting weary from the pretence alone. And then he came along. The fat controller. Maybe I expected too much.

He was big, I think I mentioned. But also poker faced. You could never tell what he was thinking. Everyone trusted him and his judgement. I wasn't alone in that. He seemed, I don't know, grounded.

I walked into the vast space at the conference centre on the Friday night and looked for him and thought I would never find him. There were literally thousands of men with beards and large bellies with their noses in wine glasses. Normally I would have run from such a place. It was like a convention of the fat. Men and women. Loping around from stand to stand, snouts in troughs. I was repulsed but fascinated and I really wanted to find Chuck. Just to talk, like we did in the car, but in a more social setting.

Through the bubble of voices and clinking of glasses I wandered, anxiously trying to spot him. I told Brigitte I was going. She told me I needed a holiday. She told me to get a grip. Tables were laden with cheese and crackers and fruit and the smell of wine was thick in the air. The lights were bright and people with ruddy, shining fat faces crowded around stands holding out their empty glasses like beggars. I did as they did. Except while they sipped, I gulped it down and moved on to another stand and gulped another glass. I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually I found him and he seemed neither overly pleased or disappointed to see me. He took me on his own tour of what he thought were the best wines. I didn't care where they were grown or whether they were oakey or fruity or dry or would go well with a string roast or a rare steak. I gulped as he chatted passionately with the pourers using all the correct terminology. He knew it from editing the wine guide which was part of the reason he says he decided to accept the job offer and move back. I just wanted to be drunk enough to tell him how frightened I was. Or something like that. He was happy that night. Engrossed, you could say. It was tough keeping up with the vignerons and the connoisseurs. I was busting for a piss but worried I would lose him in the crowd again so I hung on.

They all noticed his accent and wanted to know what part of the states he was from. When he said California they perked up asked him how the wine compared and he gushed about the local stuff, saying it was far superior and everyone adored him. He was a hit. He became more gregarious with each glass. I was impressed. But I just hung there, swaying, saying inane things like "That's a nice one, can I have a little more of that. I'm not sure if I like it better than...what was it, the cab sav?" Blah, blah blah. Hands kept filling my glass and I emptied it just as fast. After a while my mouth was numb and I felt a crust coating my lips. My heart was galloping and I wanted to sit, but there was nowhere to sit so I stood with my feet crossed and swayed and stared at him as he spoke and noticed the lines dragging down from the corners of his brown eyes and disappear into his beard as he laughed. His shirt was ironed and he wore giant-sized black Levis and a pair of Blundstone boots. His hairline had a widow's peak and a playful cow lick and his nose, I noticed, was too small for his big fat man's face. Like maybe it had been done.

We drank together, and laughed and later went to a bar closer to where we both lived. "I'm so pissed" I shouted at him over the music and he said he didn't believe me.
At midnight he said he had to go and I panicked. How could he leave now. Just when we were having such a good time.
"Come to my place and lets drink that bottle of red," I said.
My place wasn't far from the bar and when we arrived I lit a fire and opened the red and played music and told him how much I loved American culture. It reminded me of my childhood.
Gilligan's Island, Get Smart.
"That's not American culture," he said, "That's American trash."
"I was an only child," I told him.

I walked over to where he was sitting on the arm of the couch and put my arms around his massive neck. He jumped to his feet and grabbed his leather satchel and his jacket and said "I have to go. This is me. This is me leaving," he said. "I'm going. I'm out the door, sorry. This is me."
I thought a fat man would have relished the opportunity. But what did I know.

I stood at the front door and watched him take flight down the stairs and along the side path. He moved fast for such a bulky guy. The wind tossed his hair up and made his leather jacket flap. I leaned in the doorway and waved and smiled. I shut the door and sat down and rolled a joint. As I smoked it my head started spinning and I became obsessed with the idea that I must apologise immediately. I couldn't stop thinking about it. So eventually I went to his place. It wasn't far but I drove. I probably shouldn't have because I was very drunk and a little bit stoned. When I say his place it wasn't really his, he was just staying there until the wife arrived. He'd shacked up with a younger friend, a long haired, skinny, metal head. I banged on the door and fell in when he opened it.

"I'm sorry," I panted through my boozey, smokey breath. "I'm really sorry."

A pained laugh issued from him, a kind of derisive snort. As if I was a spoiled brat and was just trying to ingratiate myself. He acted as if I wasn't really sorry at all.

"I like you," he said. "I want to be your friend. I guess I thought that a man and a woman could go out and have a drink and a good time and that sex wouldn't come into it. Well, I was wrong. I'm the one who should apologise if I gave you the idea that that's where it was heading. And I am sorry. And I should have explained that. You know, you would've loved me when I was a kid. I did all that bad stuff. I did a lot of coke and I slept around a whole lot and without wanting to sound like a cliche, my wife did the country and western thing, y'know, she stood by her man and I have to tell you, I am passionately in love with that woman. It's been 15 years and she's stood by me and I miss her like hell. I'm just your average lonely guy. So, I can't touch you, I can't fondle you, I can't do any of that stuff with you."

I lit a cigarette and coughed and stared at him and said finally;" I was wrong. I was wrong, I was wrong.." I couldn't stop saying it.

"I think you'd better get some sleep," he said and shoved me gently out the door.

I told Brigitte exactly what happened and she said I was cracking up. In retrospect I think probably she was right.
"You've become a chubby chaser," she said. "The stress is getting to you."
I was in no better condition the next time I went around to his house. I dropped in on my way home from a party. I thought we could be friends. When I got to his front door the music was so loud I had to bang my fists hard on the door and he didn't hear until I had been banging away for about five minutes. When he opened the door I said; "The neighbours sent me to tell you to turn the fucking music down, you're keeping them awake." I barged past him. He was wearing shorts and a T shirt and watching MTV. His belly looked all doughy. His inner thighs were big and white and soft.

I stayed a while sitting next to him on the camp bed but the whole time I felt like I had made a mistake and he just wanted me to disappear. We didn't really say much to each other. When I went to leave I discovered I had locked my keys in my car.

He stood in his shorts as the light rain glossed the tram tracks and I wrestled with a coat hanger breaking into my car.

"You bring out the fool in me." I said.
"Don't blame me," he said.
After that I had a tendency to stand closer to him than I needed to at work and he made churlish remarks about the way I dressed or the music I liked. The fat man teased me in a cruel way, sometimes. Maybe he felt I deserved it. Every time I offered him a lift, he declined as if it wasn't safe. He smiled at me sometimes almost sympathetic. At other times he spoke about me in the third person as though I was an animal that wasn't house trained. He took over my work. He wasn't helping so much as trying to render me obsolete. By then I didn't care any more He made me feel so small and insignificant. And the whole time I never knew why it mattered to me so much what he thought or how he treated me. After all, he was just a lazy, stupid fat man.

Months later when his wife arrived the three of us were talking at some work do, some magazine launch at which the proprietor would suck up all our arses and talk about creative flair and commitment. Chuck was standing slightly behind her. I made mention of that night, the wine, something that happened, something harmless and forgettable and he stared at me, his eyes glaring and shook his head as if something really had happened, something he should feel guilty about. He looked frightened for the first time ever. Out of control. It was unnerving.

After I'd quit and had some time to think about things I called him up and he agreed to meet me.
We were sitting in a pub and I had one mouthful of beer and started to shake.
"Let me explain something," I said.

He saw the termors.

"Let's get out of here," he said "you don't want that beer anyway. Lets go sit in the park."

We walked down the street and when we were sitting on a bench, I began again.

"I want to explain something, " I said. "Not long before you arrived, my father was diagnosed with cancer. I couldn't concentrate on my work. Everything was out of control and then he died. I tried to pretend I was okay at work. I overheard people talking about me. I heard them say 'she seems okay'. Brigitte kept telling me to take some time off. But I thought I seemed okay. That's how people treated me, as if I was okay. When you arrived, I saw a strong person, in control. I kind of fell apart. I was sinking, not swimming. But after that night, you made me feel like a piece of shit."

He was sitting with his hands resting on his fat thighs and said. "You picked the wrong piece of driftwood, is all."

"I know that. But I was desperate." Then I looked at him and said, "I didn't mean that the way it sounded."

"I know what you mean. I know exactly what you mean. And yes, I did want to put a wall there. There are people that I care about and then that's it. I try not to give any more. I thought you wanted more and I tried to keep our relationship professional. I don't have to explain myself. But that's the way I am and it's not my problem and it's not up to me to explain to anyone. Anyway, this conversation is going in ever widening circles," he said. I don't know what he meant by that.

So, we went our separate ways and as I was walking back to my car I wondered if we might have been friends if not for me and my error of judgement. I saw him walk into a shop so I followed him.

"If I hadn't done that thing, would you have still put me at such a distance?"

He stared at me with that inscrutable expression and said "I don't know".

"Okay, fine," I said and walked out of the shop. A few paces up the street I saw him coming up next to me. "Probably not," he said and we walked together in silence until he said; "I often felt that you still wanted something more that I couldn't give."

"I don't want anything from you. I just wanted you to understand. Anyway, I have to go back the other way, to my car."

I thought of offering him a lift but it was too late, he was out of sight, around the corner and gone.