The Big Pants: final
Well, he’d got her agreeing with him on Doug’s black shirt and navy tie combo. If women liked that hipster/gangster thing, Tom would add his boss’s style points to his thin-guy list. But he hadn’t believed in it.
Another thing he didn’t believe…
He saw Jackie wander off, before he was done talking. Down in the valley some co-op, in conjunction with the Messerman compound, farmed rows of shining greenery in cages; that radio free veg the Messermans sold to their clients, along with the online courses. A flag flew next to a pole barn, in and out of which workers in black tees wheeled carts loaded with crates of produce. The flag had a tree of life design, tangled roots and branches forming continent-shaped gaps, the globular whole flanked by the letters EF.
Cool, Tom thought. He thought also that there was—he itched to get to his phone—something about that EF. Something he’d heard…a little negative.
The other thing he didn’t believe (the point lingered, so he finished this conversation with himself) was that, once at home, he would stick for even a day with the Messerman Method. The website’s promise tantalized—you could eat more, they said, not less; there was a secret to weight loss that had nothing to do with counting calories.
He didn’t know if being thin could be so rewarding maybe you’d just buy yourself a new shirt, stop for a sip at a water bar, check your reflection along the way in windows…find all that worthwhile, fair compensation, as you starved to death. But he knew that to be miserable and still fat was the deal-breaker. It had been with every diet he’d tried so far.
He did not feel unconvinced of the Messermans’ rightness; he no longer suspected the Method too good to be true. Yes, he could swallow it, hook, line, and sinker, now…now they’d gone all in, weaned from their first two days’ “transitional” meals. He believed it with a wholehearted lack of commitment.
He was not going to get up four hours before he needed to start work. He was not going to eat a 1200 calorie breakfast of nothing but raw fruits and vegetables (easier going, if, like the Messermans, you spent most of your day outdoors). He was not going to do this again, to the tune of 800 calories, at lunchtime, and end with a protein smoothie (however high in “good fats”), and a piece of chicken, or a boiled egg, rigorously fasting afterwards from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.
He was going to get himself, tomorrow, a cheeseburger, some curly fries, maybe a milkshake. And coffee.
Jake and Paul were walking Perry down by the chicken house. Putting it like that was probably uncharitable. Jackie, Tom thought, would call me on it. She thinks I’m the obnoxious guy. Well, I am…
I always end up being. Why is that? No, I’m jealous. Jealous of Perry, who’s ten times worse off than me. He reconsidered. Maybe, in some ways, Perry wasn’t. He had his own place. He worked in customer service, sitting home taking help desk calls for three or four different companies. I gotta ask Perry, Tom counselled himself, how much he’s making.
He saw Luisa was with them, too. All day, the Messermans had been pulling a few of the twenty aside, asking for a private talk. Being what he was, a telephone goon, Tom’s first accounting for this had been rubber checks. But the chosen were going around beaming, and smugly.
“Hey, John,” he called out.
John strolled over, eyebrow raised.
“What’s that EF?”
This, for an opener, pointing at the flag. The habit was sort of ingrained—engage the other guy first, then hit him with the real question.
“Earth Fighters. Iffy, kind of paramilitary, tree huggers’ group. You didn’t hear Toby say? Maybe you didn’t.”
Say what when? Tom thought, and answered himself. Sometime when the guy they don’t really want around, wasn’t around.
“The Earth”—John was trying Toby’s accent—“is our mother. Ha!” He dropped the accent. “Probably mother with a capital M. Anyway, she needs soldiers to fight the battle. I don’t think he said it exactly that way. Something about recycling useful people. The ones who have been discarded by society.”
“Well then, what’s wrong with the people he doesn’t pick?”
“So…he didn’t pick you?”
“I don’t want anything to do with it.”
A chanting group came jogging, in what looked like formation, over the rise of the hill…well, not group, Tom thought…a couple squadrons, I guess. He looked askance at Paul. Paul squinted back, and giving Perry his arm, veered off with him up the hill, towards the main compound building. Tom and John edged from the path, making the way clear.
These men and women were not yet thin, but they seemed ultra-fit. Their leader was a stranger to Tom, and wore the same black uniform as his…uh…
He asked the question aloud.
“We are the puma. The earth belongs to us. We are the whale. We are the timber wolf. We are the cave bat. We are the honeybee. We are the sky, the forest, and the sea.”
The chant faded. Jackie and Luisa walked up.
“Fighters.” It was Jake Messerman, remaining with them, who answered. “I don’t think you’re ready, Tom…but ask yourself…what do I call giving my all? Can I do it? Do I think there’s enough at stake?”
Tom looked at Luisa. “You?”
Her face, not smug, struck him as enlightened, maybe…something like that. But she shook her head.
“I think Leon will say yes.”
Jackie gave Tom an embarrassed smile. “I haven’t made up my mind.”
So what—he tried it—do I call giving my all?
His dad might have asked him the same thing. “If you hate your crap job, Tombo, what’re you doing? You’re living here free, why don’t you get a degree in something? Why can’t you learn a trade?”
Get a student loan. Tom’s heart went out to the people he talked to, guilting them, as coached by Doug’s tip sheet: “You think it’s fair, ma’am? You were made a deal in good faith, weren’t you? And you’re not holding up your end. Are you? Would you call what you’re doing right? Wouldn’t you feel better if you gave just a little? How about fifty a month?”
Those were a lot of questions. Jake’s. His dad’s. The script’s. Had he ever tried seriously to answer them?
“Okay, listen…don’t tell me I’m not ready! I know what’s at stake. It’s all gonna collapse around us one day, right? The planet’s at the tipping point, and when you tip, you fall. Yeah, I know that.”
Tom said other things, with a kind of passion he hadn’t suspected himself of, and Paul, coming back down the path, Gerda and Toby, following their son, completed the circle.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)