Customer of Size
Received “Notable Story” recognition in the 2008 Million Writers Award.
After graduating from Syracuse University with a B.A. in English and Psychology, Mary Jones lived in Boston for several years where she worked as an editor. Currently, she is living in Los Angeles where she is working as a freelance writer and developing a short story collection. In addition to this publication, her fiction has also appeared in the Georgia State Review and the Chicago Quarterly Review, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Richard Foster knows that he is a fat man. He and his wife Eileen Anderson-Foster are at the airport checking in for their flight back east when they first hear the term “customer of size.” When the boy behind the counter, Charles, says it, he uses a soft voice. He says that because of his size, Richard may need to purchase a second seat for the flight. He says that in a minute, he will call a flight attendant over to escort him onto the plane, so that they can check and see if this will be necessary or not. He says it’s policy and that they have to ensure the comfort of all of their customers. He hopes Richard can understand. Richard does not respond except to tell the boy that it’s okay and that he will go along with it. He takes a seat in the waiting area with his wife.
“Wow,” he says to Eileen, “This is a new one, isn’t it,” he says. “This has never happened before.”
“Don’t start with me,” Eileen says. “I told you that you needed to do something,” she says, “And now look.” She puts her back to him and then opens her book and looks into it. When a flight attendant comes by a few minutes later and approaches Charles, Eileen walks to the bathroom. She does not turn around.
Charles talks to the girl in her ear and then points his finger over at Richard. The two of them nod their heads. “Mr. Foster,” Charles says from behind the counter in a minute, “We’re all set.”
Richard straightens his suit and tie before he makes his way over. He walks like he knows people are watching. He extends his hand to the girl, who is a pretty young thing, and he gives her a firm shake. Charles introduces her as Joyce. When she greets him she says, “You’re my first customer of size, Mr. Foster,” with a big smile, like she’s won something.
“Well,” Richard says, “Fancy that,” smiling back. “You’re the first flight attendant who says I’m too fat,” he tells her, grinning. His voice is precise. “So I guess we’re even.” He looks up at Charles, whose face has become bright red. He is fussing with some papers on the counter, and Richard says, “Well, the first or the second, anyway.”
Joyce lets out a giggle and starts walking toward the plane. “Follow me,” she says, and then she makes a point of turning around and waving her fingers at Charles. There is something playful about the way she does it, and it makes Richard wonder. Charles gets a goofy smile on his face and waves back. When Richard looks over at him, his eyes dart back to his papers. It is quiet for a minute, and then Joyce says as they walk, “So, what is it that you do for a living, Mr. Foster?”
Richard takes a second. Girls like Joyce don’t talk with him. He wants to get the tone right. “Oh, dear,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Come on,” she says. “Try me.”
“Okay,” and then feeling clever, he adds, “But I will not tolerate any laughs out of you, young lady.” He shakes his finger at the girl and says, “Under no circumstances can you laugh. Understood?”
“Understood,” Joyce says with a nod and a smile. She opens the door of the plane and lets Richard move down the aisle in front of her. She rests her hand on his back as he passes. An older flight attendant, who is checking things here and there in first class, looks at both of them for a time, and then looks away without saying anything.
“Okay,” he says to Joyce as they make their way to the second part of the plane, “I’m a professional wrestler,” he says, looking back at her. “You’ve heard of The Tornado right?” he says.
Joyce scrunches up her face. For a minute, she cannot tell if this is a joke. When she catches Richard’s eye and sees a little squint, she laughs. He says, “Oh, all right. You’ve got me,” and then, “I sell Bibles for a living. From door to door.”
“Come on,” she says, laughing again, “what do you do really?” she begs.
“No. No,” he says, turning red. “That one is no joke.” Right away he adds, “Do you have a Bible, dear?”
Joyce says, “Oh. I’m sorry,” and then, “Yes. I have a Bible—I think I do at least.” Then she adds, “I haven’t heard of door to door in a while though, that’s all.” She directs him toward the first seat in coach. She says, “Here you go, Mr. Foster. Try this one on for size,” and when she says this, she winks and pats at his shoulder with care.
“I wasn’t always this fat, you know,” he tells her, “I had my day,” he says. He sits down in the aisle seat. “It fits,” he says, holding his palms up in the air. “See that? Didn’t I tell you this was going to be a breeze?” he says.
“Hey,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with it. I’d be bigger myself if it wasn’t for this job,” she says. “They weigh us, you know—it’s a nightmare really,” she tells him, and then, “So far so good, Mr. Foster. But we still have a few things to check.” She reaches over his lap for the seat belt.
“Let me,” he says. He tugs at the metal piece with one hand and carefully guides all of the fabric out with his other hand. He pulls the fabric over his lap and says, “You see. Everything is going to be fine.” He presses the two pieces together but there is no click. He keeps his hand over it and then smiles up at Joyce.
“Mr. Foster,” she says. “I don’t think I heard any click. Can you move your hand for a second so I can get a look?”
Richard lets go, and the belt falls loose on his lap. “Let me give it another try,” he says. This time he sits straight up and holds his stomach in. He yanks at the fabric, and then, in a second, the belt clicks together.
“Okay,” Joyce says, “That’ll work out all right, I suppose. Now just one more thing,” she says. She leans over him and starts to push at the armrest. Richard lifts his arms over his head to make it easier for her to do it. She moves the armrest a bit, but then sees that she is pressing it into his flesh, and she notices that his body is taking up a bit of the next seat, too.
“Mr. Foster,” she says. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we have a problem here. Both armrests have to be able to go down all the way.”
Richard forces at the armrest for a while, but he can’t get it to go down. He takes some breaths and lets his eyes close for a minute. It is clear to Joyce that he is done making jokes. She watches him undo the seatbelt, and she tries to think of something to say. When she opens her mouth to offer her words, she notices that Richard can’t make the armrest move back up again either. He says, “Dear. Oh, will you look at this now,” he says. “Now how do you like this?” and then, “Can you do me a favor, dear?” He raises his arms in the air again, “Can you give it a try for me?”
Joyce pulls at the armrest but it won’t go. She moves in front of him and gives it a push from that angle, and then she tries it from the other side, too. “Oh, Mr. Foster,” she says, “I can’t get it to budge,” she says. “I’ll have to go and get Charles, or else someone from security—they’d be better at this.”
“No,” he says. “That won’t be necessary.” He pulls at the armrest some more. He squirms about this way and that, but he is fixed in his place. “Just get my wife,” he says. “I’m sure she can help me with this. She’s done it before, you know.”
“Of course,” Joyce says.
As she turns and starts to walk off, Richard says in a soft voice, “I hope you won’t look down on me, dear,” and then, “I’m trying.”
Joyce hears him. She closes her eyes, but she does not turn around or stop walking. She leaves the plane and walks over to the counter where Charles is standing. The waiting area has filled up, and there is a line now. Eileen notices Joyce get off of the plane, and then she watches her lean in close to Charles and talk for a minute. She sees the smile form on Charles’s face and watches as they both have a laugh together. She knows it has to do with Richard. In a minute, when Charles calls her name over his speaker, Eileen follows Joyce onto the plane.
“Oh. Perfect,” she says when she sees Richard in his seat. “Look at him now,” she says, “He’s stuck.”
“Come on, honey,” Richard says. “Please. It’s not the time now,” and then, “Just help me out of here,” he tells her.
Eileen shakes her head back and forth. She stares at him for a while, and then she gets this look on her face. She leans in close, like she is going to kiss him, but instead she says, “Fatty-Fatty two by four. You can’t fit through the kitchen door.” She moves her neck around in this way when she says it, and she gets to laughing really hard. She looks over to Joyce for a laugh—like they are in agreement here.
Joyce turns away. She says, “I tried to pull the armrest up myself, but I couldn’t manage it,” and then, “He said you’ve helped him with this sort of thing before.”
Eileen stops smiling and glares at her husband. “Yes,” she says, “With this sort of thing.” She seems to be contemplating something, and Joyce is not sure what will happen next. After a few minutes of standing there, Eileen steps over Richard’s feet and sits down in the window seat next to him. She turns her body so that she is facing him. She puts her feet up against his middle, and she says, “Now lift your arms, Fat Boy,” and then she forces her feet into different parts of his stomach.
“Christ,” Richard says, “Your heels.”
“You be quiet,” she tells him, and then she looks at Joyce, pointing to the armrest with her free hand. She says, “Now give it a try.”
Joyce pulls at the armrest but it doesn’t move. Eileen presses her feet deeper into her husband’s flesh, and Richard lets out a whimper. Joyce gives the armrest another try, and this time it goes up.
Richard does not say anything for a while. He just sits there. He looks at the floor. He seems smaller to Joyce, next to his wife. After a time, he stands up and wipes some sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. Joyce notices all of the shoe prints on his jacket, and she looks away. Something big is going to happen here, she thinks. But Richard just leans over to his wife and kisses her on her forehead in this really gentle way. He looks at her in the face for a while. Neither one of them says anything.
. . .
That night, for the first time in a while, Joyce goes straight home after work. She puts her son in his little bed early, and then she looks through her bookcase and finds her Bible. She puts it on her bedside table and opens it. She reads a few lines from the page she opens to, and then she does up a nice dinner for her husband. She is careful about how much gravy she puts on his meat, and she does not use butter with the mashed potatoes. In bed, she tells him about it. She tells him about how fat the man was, and about how he sells Bibles, from door to door. She tells him about how the man was stuck and about how his wife kicked at him right in his middle. She tells him about all of the nasty things the woman said and how when it was all finished, she thought there was going to be some big fight. She’d have to call security to break it up, but then instead, the man just gave his wife this really gentle kiss, and she tells him how it made her want to cry when she saw it—when she saw the forgiving.