Issue 159, Fall 2001
Helen still had trouble believing her eyes: Walter, all five-hundred pounds of him, lay naked in the bed with a girl, also naked, beneath him. Extending two fingers, Helen poked Walter's arm as if gauging the quality of a supermarket chicken. She asked the girl her name, and the muffled reply came back: Genevieve.
“Are you sure he's dead?” Genevieve asked, tilting her head slightly to carry her voice past Walter's shoulder.
Helen poked Walter again, watching several rings of fat ripple around his bicep. “I've been married to him twenty-six years,” she replied. “I think I can tell.” She had no idea how long the girl had been this way, stranded beneath Walter, and was not sure she wanted to ask. In fact, she could only think how fortunate it was—ii fortunate were the right word— that she had decided to take the train home for a few hours in the afternoon rather than stay through the evening in Manhattan. She was supposed to dine with the Glidden Paint people at eight-thirty: Oceana, scallops, some shoptalk. She had not been able to get Walter on the phone earlier but had never imagined anything like this.
As Helen turned to leave the room, Genevieve muttered, “Are you calling the paramedics?
“I have to cancel a meeting,” Helen replied.
“Can't it wait?
“I'm not sure. Are you in pain?"
“Well,” the voice continued, “not really. A little warm.
“I'll turn up the AC,” Helen replied, not sure what else to do.
She called her office—Walter was sick, she told her assistant— then came back with the portable phone. The room was cooler. Genevieve was moving what body parts she could.
“Can you please put the blanket over my feet?” she asked Helen. “My toes are in the draft.
Out of reflex, Helen drifted down the two naked bodies and covered the girl's feet with the white cotton throw. For some reason, she was careful to loop the blanket around Walter's legs so that they remained exposed. As Genevieve's feet disappeared, Helen recalled that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the witch's legs curled inexplicably under the house and the ruby slippers appeared on Dorothy's feet. She saw the slippers clicking together in her head.
“That's much better, thank you,” Genevieve said. There was a pause, as if each expected the other to do something.
Finally Helen put down the phone. “I'm going to push."
When I get him far enough, you roll toward me.” She leaned over Walter to where she could see the girl's face. Genevieve bumped her nose into Walter's meaty shoulder as she nodded.
She had high cheekbones, brown hair, and dark brown eyes.
Against Helen's fists, Walter's belly seemed clammier and softer than usual. “Okay,” she announced, then drove forward with all her might. She could not tell if Walter were moving or if she were merely sinking into him. Her stocking feet skidded on the hardwood floor. “Anything?” she groaned.
Helen reached one leg back and propped it against the dresser. Then the other leg. Soon she was almost parallel to the floor, her legs driving the dresser into the wall against the full resistance of Walter's weight. Suspended in air, she marveled at how nimble her forty-eight-year-old body remained.
“Nothing,” Genevieve repeated.
“Push with me, then.
“I'm pinned, you know? My arms . . . “ Helen set her feet back on the floor. Part of her was tempted to leave, return to the ad agency for dinner, come back later to see what had shaken loose.
“I'm really sorry about this,” Genevieve managed.
Helen frowned. “I'm going to move his legs. Maybe we can get him off a little at a time.” She returned to the foot of the bed and wrapped both hands around one of Walter's ankles. Her fingers did not touch one another. She started to hoist his leg over Genevieve's.
“Ow. Ow! Stop!"
“What is it?"
“He's grinding into me. When you move his leg . . . I mean his hip . . . it falls right on me."
Helen realized what she was saying. Somehow, even in dying, Walter had managed to prop his body above the girl, using his arms and legs as supports. It was like some earthquake movie in which a man throws himself over the body of a child in order to protect it from a falling building.
The problem—Helen realized—was that when she tugged on Walter's leg, that side of his body began to collapse. She would not be able to move Walter without having his entire weight, at least for a while, rest squarely on top of the girl.
For some reason, she remembered several times when she'd had to ask a man for help twisting the top off of a stubborn jar or bottle. She felt sick. She considered Walter's butt, pale and luminous, like a pile of snow melting in sunlight. “We'll have to call for help.
Helen frowned. “I think we need more than that.” She considered dialing 911 but decided that hers was not an emergency in the strictest sense. She checked the list of phone numbers in the bedstand, then dialed the Irvington fire department and explained the situation, then again. Finally the man at the other end said they would send a truck. Helen leaned over Walter to look Genevieve in the eye once more.
“I'll wait downstairs."
“I wish you wouldn't. Talking makes me feel better.”
“I'm not sure I want to talk.”
There was a small cough. “I understand.” Another cough.
Helen only felt more miserable. “Fine. I'll stay. But don't expect much.” She crossed her arms and sucked in a whistling breath. Across Walter, she could see the Hudson River through the far window. A barge was moving slowly up the water's length toward the Tappan Zee. At night, Helen knew, the boat would have sounded its horn several times before reaching the bridge. She had often been wakened in darkness by the call of the barges—or else by Walter's snoring which, she only realized now, was about the same decibel level. A small wake flipped outward from the barge's prow, the only visible sign that it was moving. She leaned against the dresser.
“So, Genevieve, tell me about yourself.”
“You can call me Gennie. I mean, my friends call me Gennie.”
“All right,” she acquiesced. “Gennie it is.”
Walter and Helen had been living in Irvington for about nine years, ever since Walter had tired of Manhattan. He had weighed three-fifty back then and got out on a regular basis.
It had only been a short skip from their three-room apartment across Central Park West to the park itself. Walter had always insisted on a regular afternoon stroll alone. “For my health,” he had claimed. Once, purely by accident, Helen had spotted him on a bench near the Plaza with two bags of sugared peanuts.
Looking back, she found it amusing that Walter had been the one to insist on leaving the city. He had grown up in Glen Cove, and his father had done the daily Manhattan commute. Helen, by contrast, had grown up in western Virginia and met Walter during college in Richmond. She had loved to hear him talk about New York: SoHo, Jones Beach, Fifth Avenue, the Village. It had all sounded so exotic. They got the apartment across from the park right after they were married, with Walter's parents chipping in. Walter had gone to work for his father designing sports equipment. Helen had taken a position with a Midtown advertising firm. They had always talked about moving to the suburbs, whenever they had kids, but then they found out about Walter's sperm count. They had taken it as a sign. They learned to live with things—and without—and stayed in New York.
So when Walter announced that he wanted to move out of the city, it took Helen by surprise. Even more surprising, he had quit his job without warning her. By then, Helen had started her own ad firm with three partners, so money was never an issue. She figured that Walter needed time to find himself. They bought a house the first day they went looking, a two-story white brick colonial in a suburb with wide streets, trees, and a park, just a half block from the river. Walter kept gaining weight but seemed fine otherwise. After several months, he took a job doing sports reports for the local Westchester television station, becoming a small-time celebrity. He did man-about-town features from local bars and sometimes helped with the play-by-play for Army football. People began recognizing him whenever he and Helen went shopping in Scarsdale or White Plains. He seemed to like the attention.