Heavy-Set: A Fairy Tale by Jude DeXter
Trigger Warning(s): Body Shaming, Homophobic Language; Child Abuse
When he sat in the dirt and picked at the worms, his grandmother would kick at his fat thigh with her toe, nicking it with the yellow toenail that hung over her shoe, and say, “Git from there, boy. You’ll mess your clothes and eye ain’t fixin to do a load today” and when he went running through the weeds in the backyard, his skin damp and salty-sweet, sweat pooling under his breasts, she would holler across the yard from the back porch, “Don’t you dare come in this house with no bugs stuck to you or eye’ll tan you!”
She would swat the back of his hand if he reached for a cookie in the icebox and would throw all the food away before he could get himself seconds, scolding, “You’re getting fat, Jeb boy, looking like a big ole hog, eating all these sweets and drinking all those Coke-colas,” poking at the folds of fat beneath his dirty shirt with her spatula or with her fan. He believed her when she told him this; the children his age snorted like new piglets at him, and if both his grandmother and his classmates thought he was fat, it must be so. And really, Jeb reasoned, he could not see himself, except when he looked in mirrors, and even then he worried he was not getting a full picture; so maybe it was true—he was husky, heavy-set; his grandmother hissed it like a swear word.
And so the grandmother punished his fatness and his dirtiness and his sweatiness, as if she hated the stinking grime that could not be scrubbed from his body no matter how hard she tried. If he ruined his clothes or got the new rug dirty or spoiled his appetite by sneaking a Little Debbie cake or belched or sweat through Sunday clothes, she would swat at the back of his legs with the square blue fly swatter that hung near her stove.
Though the women in her church knew her as a lady who never had a run in her pantyhose and whose Bible was worn from use, privately she was a mean woman, with a voice like a grinding hacksaw. She was very ugly and she always wore dresses instead of pants because her left leg swelled; the boy did not know how old she was but was convinced that, however old she was, her meanness would keep her alive forever. She was fervent in reading her Bible and praying and told Jeb that, in punishing him so severely, she was teaching him the way of the Lord. “Spare the rod,” she would chant at him while whipping him. “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” She would whip him hard or soft, depending on the crime: a sliver of a rip in his new britches earned him only a paddle that ended quickly enough but a smelly belch in front of the minister earned him a wallop that left his legs red and fat with welts. “Eye won’t be the laughingstock of my church because my own family doesn’t know how to behave in front of the pastor!” she screamed at him once. “Eye made that mistake with your daddy!”
She liked to bring up Jeb’s father often. She never said anything nice about him; she would usually tell people he was dead, even though he wasn’t; he was living two towns over, on Route 5, with a woman Jeb did not know but had seen once, when she peered at him through the window of the car the day Jeb’s father left him, promising to come back after the weekend was through. Jeb was five then. She did not know that Jeb even existed, his grandmother told him, you could tell it by her face. Jeb’s father was too ashamed of his mistakes. “She’d run screaming if she knew,” his grandmother wagered. Jeb thought she was pretty enough; he wondered if she was nice. He thought about her often. She’s not heavy-set, he thought to himself, so that must be what she don’t like, staring down at himself. Heavy-set, she called him, as if it were the most unfortunate fate a boy could suffer.
That next year, as Jeb turned nine, the grandmother died, clutching her chest while bathing, and he found her in dirty water up to her saggy breasts, her eyes staring blankly at him, her jaw slack. Jeb ran to a neighbor’s house who phoned the police and gave Jeb a Coke and cookies while they wheeled her out. Jeb did not cry at her funeral; he only noticed how bloated she looked. She would have hated the dress her sister chose for her. That dress always made her look heavy-set, she’d say.
So Jeb went to live with his father, who agreed, rather reluctantly, to take him in. He had heard his father talking with his new girlfriend, who had introduced herself as Brandi with an I.
“You have to take him, Leroy, he’s your boy!” She had a thick Southern accent that made her sound stupid but Jeb imagined that she was plenty smart. She was very pretty.
“My aunt Beverly agreed to take Jeb-boy in for a while. I’m just not fit to be a father.” Jeb had only met Beverly once at the funeral.
“He’s your son!” Brandi repeated and later she took him out for ice cream to try to explain. “Your daddy’s just a hardworking man, is all. He loves you so much. He thinks you’ll be happier this way.”
“I know how much he loves me,” Jeb said plainly, which was to say not at all.
But then, after a few days, Jeb’s father relented. Jeb did not know what had happened, except maybe Brandi had talked some sense into him. He would learn later that when his mama’s will was read, Jeb’s daddy found out that she had set up a rather large trust for him, with payments to whomever took care of Jeb until he was 18.
Jeb’s father had a rather large farm out on Route 5 and to tend it, he paid some of the little neighbor kids a dollar a day to pick the cotton, which was grueling work indeed. Jeb watched them from the window as they’d move down the rows of white fluffy cotton. Some of them were only a few years older than him, had dropped out of school to go to work and support their parents. Picking cotton required you to firmly grasp the entire boll and pull or else you would leave some behind. Jeb’s daddy would holler at them if they left any behind and they’d have to rework that row while the other kids got to go home.
Jeb’s father also owned several chickens, and Brandi did an excellent job cooking their eggs for different meals. Jeb ate and ate and Brandi would smile at him. She didn’t make him feel gluttonous, neither did she call him heavy-set. She’d just look at his empty plate worriedly and say, “Are you still hungry, Jeb-boy, there’s plenty!” But before he could move, she was on her feet, scooping more eggs and fresh bacon onto his plate. He wasn’t heavy-set here. He wasn’t whipped when he got dirty. He didn’t have to sit in no smelly old church. He was afraid to pass gas in front of Brandi because she was so pretty but once it happened on accident and she exploded with laughter.
Jeb liked to watch the chickens strut about. When he first arrived, they would stroll up to him, curious, and inspect the new boy. He would pet them and they were really very nice to him. One of them he named Betty Chicken and he loved her the most. She had beautiful white feathers and a vivid crimson orange beak and dainty feet. Jeb thought she laid the most delicious eggs and he would go out to the coop to pet her and hold her like a baby and thank her for the delicious food; he did not know they were her babies. He would grab extra grain from the feed bag and feed her by hand, which Jeb’s father hated; he warned Jeb that once chickens got too fat, they weren’t good for laying anymore and could lose him money.
Jeb took a liking to Betty because she was heavy-set like him. He had heard his father use this exact word one morning. He was helping his father clean their cages, which meant you had to scrub their shit and dried blood and dirty feathers. It took several hours and made you stink but Jeb wanted Betty’s home to look nice for her.
When Jeb’s father picked Betty up to take her out, he whistled and said “Goddamn, Miss Betty, you sure are getting to be a little heavy-set girl.” But he didn’t spit it at Betty the way Jeb’s grandmother would hiss that word at him. It seemed to be almost desirable. I’m heavy-set, Jeb said to his reflection, whistling like his father did.
He loved Betty and took extra care of her. He’d feed her extra every morning so she could maintain her voluptuous figure. He rigged up a leash so he could walk her but she took such a liking to him that, before long, he didn’t need to use her leash; she would just follow right behind him, waddling after him. He would read to her the books Brandi helped him pick out and he painted her picture with the watercolors Brandi wanted him to have.
Jeb’s father had fought that one. “He ain’t fixing to lounge around all day paintin’ like some queer. He’ll work in the field soon as he gets a little taller and can see over the stalks.” But Jeb continued to paint and Brandi hung his pictures of Betty in her room.
“Always that damn chicken,” his father said disapprovingly. Jeb was spying on them as he often did and he saw his father shaking his head at the chicken painting. Jeb had several times noticed his father watching as he fed Betty or walked her or petted her, staring disapprovingly at the two of them.
“He’s just lonely,” Brandi said.
“Plentya other playmates than that goddamn fat chicken.”
And every few days when he would see Betty, Jeb’s father would lick his lips at her and whistle at her, “Goddamn Miss Betty you sure are getting nice and plump!” Like it was a good thing. So Jeb kept feeding her and petting her. His heavy-set girl.
Jeb’s father tried to convince him to play a sport, or work in the field, or hunt like Jeb’s father did. He offered to take him fishing or to take him to church so he “could get some pretty girls” although he wasn’t sure what to do with them after he got them. Jeb’s father bought him a small gun and made him wake up at the crack of dawn to go shoot small fowl like pigeons or doves; sometimes he’d shoot a squirrel or rabbit. He liked it enough not to make a fight but when he got home, he’d march out to Betty’s cage with a book or with his kills so he could show her the tiny animals wrapped up in paper for Brandi to cook. He always made sure Betty had enough to eat and he’d lie back and talk to her.
Soon Jeb tired of being forced to go hunting. It hurt his knees and his back and he didn’t want to stand all day or traipse out into the mud to retrieve the poor dying animal. He hated the metal smell of the blood, and the cold of the early morning, and the long walks while his father talked about hunting. He would always lie around with Betty afterwards. She’d poke about the yard and when she got close to him, she’d stop for a pet. He started spending all his time trying to teach her how to walk backwards and to play a tiny piano he had found at a yard sale. He knew he could do it: he was an excellent trainer of course but Betty was smart.
This infuriated Jeb’s father. One afternoon, when they came back, Jeb went to wash up for dinner while Brandi cooked. He wanted to say hi to Betty but he had to shower first, as he was covered with blood and guts. He had caught a fat rabbit and was excited for Brandi to cook it.
He ate quickly. After he bathed, he saw that his father had fixed up the rabbit he brought home with a nice sauce of onions and peppers fresh from their garden. Sautéed, Brandi called it. The dead rabbit laid in small, pale pink pieces on their dinner table. Jeb’s father tore into it ravenously, even before grace had been said, and Jeb noticed that Brandi kept her eyes on her plate. Throughout most of the dinner, she was silent. Brandi did not even laugh at him when Jeb shoved two small bones under his lip and pretended to be a walrus. The rabbit was good; Jeb enjoyed it very much. This time, she did not say, as she always did, “Jeb baby if you’re hungry there’s plenty.” But he ate more while she quietly cleared the table and went to bed. Female problems, Jeb’s father explained clumsily.
Jeb awoke the next morning extra early so he could get a head start on training Betty to walk backwards. He had missed a whole day and didn’t want her to get lazy.
But she was not in her cage, nor did he find her waddling around the yard. He ran back into the house where Brandi was cracking eggs and whisking them, stirring in pepper and milk to make them extra creamy.
“Where’s Betty?” he asked her and for a moment she didn’t respond. “I said where’s Betty? I went out to see her and couldn’t find her nowhere. I’ve been teaching her how to walk backwards.” Brandi didn’t respond. She looked away.
At that moment, Jeb’s father walked in, carrying two sacks full of vegetables he was taking to the mercantile in town to sell. Brandi looked back at Jeb’s father and said plainly: “Leroy, Jeb wants to know where Betty is.”
Leroy laughed and then said, “You ate her, Jeb boy. Last night. She was delicious.”
Jeb felt like he had been punched, like he was in a dream. “That was rabbit,” he said angrily.
“Wasn’t no rabbit,” Jeb’s father replied laughing. “No rabbit I ever seen is that fat.”
“That was rabbit,” Jeb insisted angrily. He looked to Brandi who avoided his eyes; hers were filled with tears. “That was rabbit. So where’s Betty?”
She began to mouth “I’m so sorry” but Jeb’s father saw her and only laughed once again.
He explained: “Sometimes chickens get too heavy-set and they can’t lay eggs no more and then they’re only good for one thing. Now come on, son,” he said as he slapped Jeb’s back, “go fetch the other bag of vegetables out back and bring ’em to my truck and let’s see what we can sell.”
Jude Dexter lives in the South. They have published fiction and poetry elsewhere and can be found at twitter.com/batyehudit.