Let me tell you how it is: There are two men in a truck, sludging and bouncing their way down a rutted country road, the Arkansas winter drifting wet around them. Both are in their early thirties, both are balding, both have red beards. Despite the cold, the driver has removed both jacket and shirt, revealing a lean white vee-neck stretched vivid over tanned skin, bunched into hard easy hills at his chest and biceps. As he talks, he flashes white teeth glinting with braces. His voice is confident.
The other man sits quietly beside him, listening. He is heavyset, doe-eyed, pale. Beneath his ripped olive Army jacket he is wearing two heavy shirts, a black one atop a red one. Every once in a while the driver illustrates a point by reaching out and touching the fat man's jacket with strong dry fingers.
"We are what we make ourselves," the driver is saying in an easy patter. "Everything we need is in our heads. We can choose to change just as we choose to stagnate. I know what you're thinking. You're mad. I was mad, too. It's easier to be a victim sometimes. Staying hurt keeps you in control; there's no high to be brought down from." He grips the fat man's left hand and squeezes it. "One morning I woke up and said to myself, ‘Enough of this shit. This is it.' And that was it."
The truck windows filter afternoon tree-flicker. The driver, falling silent, does not let go of the fat man's hand. Suddenly the fat man feels as though he is drowning, and when the driver lets go of him in order to maneuver the truck through a tricky turn, the fat man buries his hand in his lap, where it will be safe.
At the driver's farmhouse, there are groceries to be put away, and two other men, a couple, and introductions. One of the men is tall, wave-haired, and darkly craggy; the other is short and boyishly fair. They have brought a dog, a big black Labrador named Goop. The fat man makes himself helpful and pleasant but slips away as soon as he can.
He slogs through snow-mulched leaf-litter, past stands of elm and birch and white oak. There are many birds. The trail climbs, and in due course a reservoir reveals itself, embedded in a round of broken cliffs of granite and quartz, their lips bristling with juniper. His host has suggested he come here and meditate upon things he likes about himself. He sits down atop a boulder and stares at the glass-calm water, his cock and heart equally full, equally desperate.
Old trees, long dead, stick up from the water's edge, drowned when the river was dammed to form the reservoir. Looking out through their black trunks to the center of the lake, he spies an island, lined with little white beach houses like cardboard boxes. He wonders what it would be like to live there. Gradually, his cock and heart detumesce, and he feels the peace of the woods flow into him. A Dowland song tugs at him, and he sings it softly to himself: Full fathom five my father lies.
He likes his voice, which has an earthy medieval quality. He finds, too, that he likes his way with words, and food, and flowers. He realizes that he has many acquaintances, most of whom have praised him for his kindness and empathy. And it comes as a shock to him when he computes the variety of sexual partners he has enjoyed. He tries to think of the things they have liked about his body: his Teddy bear warmth; his lips, which are full and judged kissable by some; his ass, which he has always considered flat and flabby but which more than one man has declared irresistible. He wonders why he has never felt touched by any of this praise. It is as though when it has been given he has been in the next room, or on a long journey.
Nevertheless, he is feeling good, even light, when he catches sight of his host, the two other guests, and the dog. They are heading for bluffs higher up the cliffs. He joins them. They share wine. The fat man throws a stick for Goop, and he and the dog play together for some time, while the host and the couple talk of people the fat man does not know. The Labrador flirts and leaps; the fat man loses his bearings in laughter and icy leaves. When he comes to his senses, the other men are walking arm in arm through the darkening trees back toward the farmhouse. The Labrador bounds after them.
The meal is good, his part in it lauded. After supper the host and the couple build a sweat-lodge in the back yard. They take off their clothes and go into the steam. He demurs, saying through shy smiles that it is too chilly out for him. They disappear in a flurry of towels, cocks, and pubic hair. He sits in the house and wonders if they are having sex. All at once his host is standing in front of him, chest gleaming, eyes foolish from vapor. "How are you?" he asks.
"I'm fine," the fat man says gently.
"I know that," responds his host, who then bends over and down and kisses the fat man once, twice on the lips. Then he goes away. The couple comes in, says hello; there are sounds of dressing and towel-flicking. The fat man thinks of high school gym, and the time he was pinned to the spot by the intense gaze of a red-haired senior standing arms akimbo three lockers away. His host returns and joins the couple in the bedroom. The fat man slips out the back door and flees into the white-roofed evening.
The moon has gone behind a cloud with most of the stars. The cover of the lodge has been removed; the fire is burning low. He sits at the edge of the circle of coals and lets the warmth slap his face. Why are you doing this? he asks himself. Is it really easier to have no love at all than not to have the love you want? The fire burns lower. A section of log transmutes to ash.
His weeping catches him by surprise. He is helpless before it, clutching his olive shoulders. His belly shakes under its layers of cloth. He struggles with a furious impulse to strip naked and rush off down the cold tunnel of the lane, on and on without stopping, until there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do but sit down in the dark and wait for it to catch up to him. After a few minutes he stops crying and goes back inside the farmhouse. The men are sitting around in the living room talking. He gives them a story about going for another walk and is cordial, even funny, until bedtime.
The middle of the night finds him still awake in the guest bedroom. Outside in the dark, the wind chimes are swaying. Elsewhere his host is sleeping alone; in the host's bedroom, the guest couple is groaning to climax. The following morning, when the fat man awakens, he will find the couple and their host in bed together, naked and chatting and at their ease.
Now shadow has accumulated like dust-bunnies in all the corners of the cluttered house. His host's cat has fled the attentions of Goop and lies dense and immovable between his legs, comforting him. He wonders if being muscular and beautiful would take away his pleasure at the wind chimes, erase his love for Dowland, dampen his enthusiasm for joking over the telephone with his under-the-weather mother, put a stop to his placid evenings of embroidery, lavender, and grey satin hearts.
He listens in the dark to the men, hands cold on the heavy mounded fur of his belly, feeling as fat people do every hair a nerve of tight passion. When finally he sleeps, he dreams of soaring, the wind a nest in his gut, and all the lands below him, and all the ships at sea.