Paige Riehl

The Fat Lady at the Dairy Barn

I ring up pop rockets, a Starburst, and a cherry dip cone for a little girl with blonde braids and sticky hands. While my fingers press the dirty numbers on the cash register, I watch her out of the corner of my eye. With her vanilla skin and that Smurfette shirt, no doubt the kid is cute. She kind of reminds me of myself when I was six. She struggles to unwrap a Starburst with one hand and licks the dip cone in the other. The cone tilts slightly to the left, not my greatest work, and she licks it into the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

“Hey, careful,” I say. I gave her a little extra since she’s so darn cute, but cute or not, she’d better not slop that cone on the floor. I slam the register drawer shut with my right hip and count out her change.

The door jingle-jangles, and for a couple of seconds there’s a mind-grinding blast of chainsaws. Through the fingerprinted window, I see a group of tree-removal guys zapping this lone tree in the corner of our Dairy Barn lot, smack in between our two driveway entrances that make a convenient U. Two guys are like tightrope walkers high in the half-dead branches, their bright vests glowing as the chips spray like burned-out fireworks. The tree blocks our view of the new SuperStop, which sits diagonally across the intersection and boasts 20-ounce blue raspberry Slurpees at a discount when the locals fill their rumbling pickups. All this noise is distracting.

Then, in walks this woman.

I swear to God my mouth falls open. I stop chipping the polish off my nails and just stare. I can only think of one word. F-A-T. Fat, fat, fat. In my entire 16 years, I’ve never seen anyone this fat. She has brown hair slicked back into a ponytail, and her face is massive bread dough with two blue eyes sunk deep between layers of shiny skin. There are rolls everywhere—her neck is deeply creased, her forearms are like giant sausages tied off at the wrists, and even her fingers seem about to burst under the pressure of stretching skin.

She stops under the sign that lists items for sale: Shrimp burger $.99, Hamburger $.45, Cheeseburger $.55, French Fries $.35, Cheese Curds, $.55, Chicken Drummies $1.50, and so on. Everything is deep-fried or regular fried. I step out of the opening of the window and watch from behind the glass wall that encases all of the candy treats and gum. She’s wearing one of those sleeveless sack dresses, a blue-jean material with a white tank top underneath, both of which are soaked with sweat in an arc under her armpit. The loose dress doesn’t hide her two massive breasts, and now I really know what they mean by spare tire. Spare tractor tire, most likely.

I’m trying not to stare, but Jesus, it’s hard.

She mouths the items while her hands dig in her jean purse. The pale skin on her upper arm jiggles in waves above the elbow. She drops a coin and leans to pick it up. I can’t help but start humming, “Fat bottomed girls you make the rockin’world go round ... ” even though I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the type of fat bottom Queen had in mind. Her shoulders are sunburned, bright red like raw meat, and her nose has a little stripe of red too. The rest of her is this milk pasty color like uncooked piecrust.

I suck hard on my grape slush. How many tons of cheese curds does a person have to eat to end up with gigantic calves? I’ve worked here since 1983, a year and a half now, and I’ve never seen anything like this before. Her bulging calves, completely absent of ankles, melt into white tennis shoes.

I grab a rag and wipe up the droplets of ice cream from the dented aluminum counter top when the bells on the door jangle again. When I started training at the Dairy Barn, Doug, the manager, told me to think of them as “bells from the Cash God.” He’d said it like he was some comic with a great punch line, leaning his head back and laughing at his own joke, but I didn’t crack a smile. What was that supposed to mean to me? The Cash God still only doled out $2.50 per hour to me at the end of the week—less than minimum wage in cash to avoid taxes, mind you—and it made no difference if I sat my ass atop the ice cream cooler and ate corn dogs and sundaes all day or ran to the bidding of every farmer and school brat in town. But, that’s Doug for you. He thinks of himself as a charmer, all smiles and no hair, and the way he leans forward over the counter and chats with the locals about the weather and barley and crap bores me sick. Kari, Jake, and I, the three cash register slaves, call Doug “Dog” when he’s not around. His laugh sounds like a woof.

Over dinner a couple of weeks ago, Dad raised his fork and pointed it at me. There was a tannish clump of meatloaf hanging off the end of the tines.

“Be thankful,” he said. “Every little bit helps.” His eyes were tired.

Dad reminded me that Doug works around my cheerleading schedule and that the job has tips. I do like counting the stacks of ones I keep in an envelope in my middle desk drawer. Sometimes I dream of taking some of my stash and going to Minneapolis for a weekend to see a concert or do something crazy. John Mackey went to Minneapolis once. He came back with an awesome Def Leppard T-shirt and a black eye. Still, the Dairy Barn isn’t exactly the Holiday Inn dining room—no black pants and sharp green vests here. Doug says the most important thing you can wear is a smile. His philosophy is that if people like the counter kids, then they like to buy more stuff. I figure if they don’t like me, I’ll have less work to do.

* * *

At the sound of the cash bells, in comes Fred Meyer fresh from the field. Fred’s face is narrow, and it has a thin layer of dirt that bunches up around the ears and in the creases of his neck. He’s been out on the tractor all day, no doubt, and it’s hot enough to melt wax under the white sun.

Fred kind of starts a little when he sees this woman, almost hops back, and then touches the corner of his cap all gentlemanly when they make eye contact. “Ma’am,” he says, and motions with his hand for her to order first.

“It’s okay,” she smiles. “I’m not quite ready yet. You go.” When she smiles, there’s this niceness on her face. It’s like I’ve heard my mother say: She’d be a pretty girl if she wasn’t so fat.

“Hey, Fred.” I lean forward, palms planted on the cool aluminum.

“Hey yourself, Lisa. Let’s see ... I’ll have a burger, fries, and Coke, and I’ll pay for a large vanilla cone now, but can I get it later?”

I tell Fred sure and ring up his sale. He gives me two bucks and tells me to keep the change, which I drop loudly—ching, ching ... chi-ching—into a Kerr jar near the register. He politely sucks in his skinniness to shuffle past the woman into the seating area where there are five brown booths under a row of windows and a poster of a freckled kid eating a chocolate cone. I leave the woman to call Fred’s order.

Doug is cooking today. I hang the order on the spinner and holler, “Wheel! Burger and fries!” He sticks his head out from the supply closet. He’s been cleaning and organizing, no doubt, checking off items from the “When business is slow, do the following” list of duties. He thinks that wiping down massive cans of no-name ketchup, cleaning the parts of the ice cream machine, and stocking the candy somehow makes one a better person, and by God, he’s going to inspire us counter kids by example. Chipper as usual, he whistles as he walks to the deep freeze, rummages for a frozen patty and a handful of fries, and soon the grease hisses.

“Hey, Doug, what’s up with that tree out front?” I ask, stalling.

“Oh, the silver maple? Rootbound,” he says with a touch of sadness. The guy’s all melodrama. I ask what rootbound means, and he straightens his back and talks like he’s some tree expert. “As the tree matured, the roots circled around and around in the dirt, snake-like, instead of spreading out and away from itself,” he says, using his hands to demonstrate. “Eventually the roots grew thick and knotty, staying too close to the tree and unable to find true sustenance, until basically it choked itself.”

Fascinating, I tap my pink fingernails on the countertop to illustrate my boredom. I sigh and turn on my heel. Back to the cheese-curd queen. Now she’s ready to order. Her frame fills the whole counter window. I stand a little way back. “Ready to order?”

She smiles with perfect white teeth. “Yes, I believe so,” she says in a creamy voice. “Is the pizza burger good?”

I shrug my shoulders. “Not bad,” I decide is ambiguous enough. I’m not going to be responsible for directing her to the sauce and mozzarella-topped, calorie-laden pizza burger.

“Okay, that’s what I’ll have. A pizza burger, fries, Sunkist, and a large swirl cone, but I’d like to wait with the cone too.” I ring up the sale, and she counts out dollars and change. I find myself staring at those bare fingers, thinking about all the action hands do in a day. Wouldn’t it be possible to slim down the fingers even if the rest of the body was huge? Some Richard Simmons’ finger aerobics, say? One-two-one-two, fingers up and out, up and out. “Is that correct?” she asks.

I snap out of my trance and slide the bill and change toward me. “Uh, five cents short.”

“My goodness, sorry.” She takes another nickel out of her coin purse and holds it out for me. I cup my hand, hoping she’ll just drop the coin, but she lays it gently in my palm, her fingers rubbing against my skin. Her skin is smooth and soft. I throw the nickel into the register.

“It’ll just be a minute.” She takes small steps to a booth where she squats down and tries to slide in. She struggles and pushes her midsection against the table. I damn well better not have to create a special seat out of a couple of folding chairs or anything. Eventually, she sandwiches herself between the bench and the table.

I pour the fountain Sunkist and Doug yells, “Order up.” Fred takes his tray. Soon the fat lady’s pizza burger is up too, and when I call her from the window, the struggle begins. She wraps her arms around the end of the table and rocks to dislocate her midsection from its trap. I briefly consider unlatching the counter and bringing her the order to save us both the discomfort. But, tough love, man. I am not the Jaws of Life. My coming to her is not going to help the situation. With one more pull, she’s up, and I give her the tray and a smile.

* * *

As she returns to the booth, I think about God punishing the people by flooding the entire earth. What if he’s still into that retribution stuff? What would I do if I woke up one day and my ass was the size of Texas and my thighs rubbed until the skin was dry as wood?

Maybe she did something to tick God off, and he repaid her with fleshy forearms. It could be punishment, sins of the fathers, all that Sunday sermon stuff that Pastor Fearson spouts while his face turns strawberry and his sweaty hands grip the lectern. His sermons used to scare the crap out of me when I was a kid. I’d close my eyes and mentally sing, “Somewhere over the Rainbow” when he got all hell-fire and brimstone. I still watch my parents for sins that might end up causing me trouble. Dad curses at the pigs when they are uncooperative. Once he threw a hammer that glanced off a pig’s butt and made it squeal. Mom drives the station wagon too fast down the country roads, and my brother and I egg her on, tell her she’s in the Indy 500. She tromps her foot down and guns it, the rows of tall corn blurring outside the open windows and the car fishtailing on the loose gravel. Still, speeding isn’t a sin really. My eyes glance over the brightly-colored candy wrappers. Naw, I know better than to blame some higher power. It all comes down to self-control and self-respect.

In a couple of minutes, Fred asks for his ice cream, so I pull a fresh cone from the dispenser and pull down on the steel handle. The ice cream comes out smooth yet firm, and I flawlessly fill the cone and begin the swirls with dexterity that comes from making hundreds of cones. One, two, three swirls and a half, pull up, and the tip of the ice cream looks like a crested wave. It’s a work of art.

I hand my edible art to Fred, and he thanks me and smiles as he takes the first bite, the best bite, smashing the wave over his tongue. “I’ll take my cone too, if you’re ready,” the fat lady says from the booth. I pause and look for a minute, but the paper fry holder really is empty.

As I stare at her body, something dawns on me.

* * *

She wants swirl, so I place a fresh cone under the second spigot. I pull down, filling the bottom of the cone and then one, not quite two, and a quick pull up leaves the ice cream not with a perfect crested wave, but a sad-looking flop hanging down the side. I wipe the flop off with a napkin. I turn and find her standing at the counter, staring at me.

“Here you go,” I say. I march with purpose past the fountain pop dispenser and the deep freeze loaded with ice cream sandwiches. She gently takes the cone and pauses, looking like she’s going to ask a question.

My heart beats hard, and tips of my ears feel hot. Shit. Our eyes meet, and I can’t peel mine away from her deep blue ones, although I’d like to look away more than anything. The front door slams, and a branch hits the ground with a crash outside as Fred leaves. I can’t stop looking at her eyes. Her blue eyes are open windows.

There’s something behind those eyes. It’s something momentarily soft and malleable. Some kind of electricity flows through me, all the way to my fingertips that feel like they’re on fire. When I was a kid, my grandma pushed my hand into fresh concrete on her sidewalk. Over the years I’ve put my hand again and again against the hard imprint, a small permanent moment, unchanging beneath my now long fingers. The fat lady tilts her head and opens her mouth to speak. I glance nervously back at the kitchen, hoping that Doug isn’t watching me. I know he’s piddling around back there somewhere. I feel her eyes steady on me, as if she’s sees past my skin and through my blood, searching for something. She says, “I ordered a large.”

“That is a large.”

“I don’t think so.” She reaches the cone out toward me.

My legs are shaky, but I try to stand casually. I jam my hands in my pockets. “That is a large.” My voice cracks.

She holds the cone firmly in her outstretched hand. A drop of the flopped vanilla succumbs to gravity and splats on the countertop. We stare at each other. Her cheeks flush, and her eyes change and crackle like blue fire.

“Listen,” I say with a nervous half-smile, “I can’t make them look exactly the same all of the time ... but, I guarantee you—that is a large.”

As if on cue, the doors jingle, and someone enters to the grating of chainsaws. My guts are in knots, and I try to pull my eyes away again. I think about Pastor Fearson asking, “What would Jesus do?” and I imagine myself apologizing and making a new cone, one shaped like a Christmas tree, one that is perfect and glistening. But really, is that what Jesus would do? Isn’t gluttony a sin? A person shouldn’t lead somebody to sin. I imagine Jesus behind the counter, his soft eyes and sandaled feet. I picture him smiling gently at the woman and telling her the cone is just as it should be. She would nod and understand. Yes, that’s what he’d do, I think. So, I put an end to the situation. “Come again,” I say.

Then she smiles at me, but it’s a slight smile, and there’s no mistaking the look of pity. She lowers her eyes. “You’re forgiven,” she whispers. A hot wave rushes down from my head to my core. What? My hands ball into fists inside my pockets. What? First to question my knowledge of what’s a large or a small cone? And then to say something so ridiculous? She glances at me, and her eyes are calm again, her face smooth and peaceful. As she walks to the door with the cone in her hand, I want to yell. I want to ask what she meant, but for some reason, I’m not positive she actually said it.

My ears are filled with a high-pitched whir. I’m forgiven? What the hell? She is going to pity me? I’m B honor roll for God’s sake, work a decent job, and look at me—cute and blonde and thin. T-H-I-N. I don’t lift any skin to wash between the rolls; I don’t walk sideways through the door. I don’t shop in the Kmart tent section. I can control myself.

I grab my grape slush. The icy slurp cools my head. I’m a decent person. Once a month I volunteer at the nursing home and read books to old people with glasses as thick as car windshields. I don’t dine and dash like some of my friends have done at Jack’s Corner Café in Wheaton, and when I knew Dad was short on cash, I slipped a twenty into his wallet. I have faults, right, like anyone. Who doesn’t? Sometimes I run my mouth before I think. I swear in front of my little brother. Once I raced the station wagon against Jen’s family pickup and ended up in the ditch only to be chewed out by some random old guy in a Buick. So what? Today my motives are positive. I’m trying to help. If she can’t see that, then, then she’s blind.

I ignore a kid waiting at the counter. The woman pushes open the door and steps into the bright sunlight that gleams off her hair and skin. A blast of heat bursts through the Dairy Barn like a slap. I’m a good person, I keep repeating to myself. My guts feel tight, and I blink again and again, holding something back that wells up almost uncontrollably. My throat aches, but I’m not sure what would come out if I opened my mouth, so I force it back down. The woman walks across the gravel parking lot, her hips swinging. She shades the sunlight with her hand and smiles at someone out of my sight line, and then, just for a moment, she glances in my direction. She knows I’m watching, unmoving from behind the counter. Behind her, the dead tree is cut apart, bit by bit. The branches crumple in a desiccated heap near the base, a sad pile of all that’s left of something once so beautiful. The entire corner looks different now, wide-open, empty, and the sunlight hits the windows of the Dairy Barn with full force.


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