“Appetite” – a short story by Brian Greene

February 20th, 2023

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“Appetite,” a short story by Brian Greene, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 61st Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.

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Image by vector4stock on Freepik

Image by vector4stock on Freepik

 

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Appetite

by Brian Greene

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…..Ben was alone. He felt mostly calm about things, didn’t have any pressing worries. But he ate too much. His company had a health expertise group come into the workplace and offer a free assessment to anyone who wanted one. Ben went for it and got told he was 25 pounds overweight. 5’10 with wavy brown hair cut in a nondescript way and big, sorrowful/thoughtful brown eyes, Ben was neither noticeably handsome nor clearly physically unattractive. The health people talked to him about wiser food options, and portion distortion in whatever he ate. They said he should try to stop eating for the day after dinner. They advised him to develop a regular exercise regimen.

…..But Ben kept on going the way he had been. He looked at the diagram they gave him that showed how much pasta should be considered a full portion, and he kept eating about five times that when he had pasta for dinner. He kept getting burgers and fries and pizza for lunch from the food court in his work building. One time he ate a burger and fries for lunch and decided it tasted so good, he wanted another helping. He went back to that vendor and when the man at the counter seemed shocked to see him again so soon, Ben said, “It’s for a co-worker who can’t leave his desk today.” And then he went outside and ate his second lunch out of the man’s vision. He kept eating popcorn and ice cream and potato chips before bed. He kept watching sports games on TV instead of participating in any exercise activities.

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…..The person who worked in the cubicle next to Ben’s retired. He was replaced by a woman named Barbara. Barbara stood 5’8 and wore her dark hair in a bouncy bob. She had small green eyes that danced around when she talked. She was just slightly overweight, also attractively curvaceous in places. Barbara was friendly to Ben. On a Monday morning she’d ask him how his weekend went. She’d stop what she was doing and look into his eyes, like she wanted a real answer and not just the usual pat responses. One time she brought in some homemade chicken noodle soup and ate it at her desk while working. Ben said, “Mmm, that smells good.”

…..“It’s my mom’s homemade soup. She lives close by to me and she brings me home-cooked food every Sunday. She’s so funny. I’m 35 and she still treats me like I’m a starving college student who needs care packages from home.”

…..Ben was 35, too. His mom was dead. He and his dad, who lived 180 miles away, didn’t talk much.

…..On the first really cold day of winter, Ben came to work in a thick hoodie. His winter coat that he’d used over recent cold seasons got torn when he got it stuck in his car door the previous February. He never got it mended or replaced. On cold days, he just wore the hoodie with extra layers like a flannel shirt over his regular shirt, and then he’d take the flannel off when he got indoors. Barbara saw him hang his hoodie up on the office coat rack. She smiled and said, “That’s your coat for weather like this?”

…..“It gets me by. It’s kind of a makeshift coat when I combine it with a flannel shirt.”

…..“It’s not enough. Winter’s just starting. You know how our winters are.”

…..On a Monday morning not long after that conversation, Barbara presented Ben with a new, heavy Eddie Bauer down winter coat with a hood that had faux fur trim.

…..“It should be the right size. I looked at the size tag of your hoodie – I mean makeshift coat – when you were in the bathroom one day last week.” Her eyes were dancing around.

…..Ben’s voice sounded a little shakier than it usually did when he said, “Well, tell me how much it was so I can pay you for it.”

…..“Nonsense. It’s a gift. You’ve made me feel welcome to work here. That was your gift to me. I just wanted to give something back. Also, I can’t stand the idea of you going through the whole winter with just that hoodie as your coat.”

…..There was an after-work retirement party for the man who used to sit in the cubicle next to Ben’s. The guy had some health issues, which was why his celebration happened several weeks after he left the company. About 20 people gathered in a private room of a restaurant, ate finger food and had drinks and toasted their former colleague. Barbara didn’t go, since she’d never worked with the guy. The man’s loving wife was by his side throughout the party, one of her hands usually supportively on his shoulder. When Ben got home from the gathering, he took a hot bath (he usually never took baths). He kept picturing the adoringly affectionate way his former co-worker’s wife treated the man. He closed his eyes and slipped off into a waking dream state while sitting in the tub. He imagined that something happened that landed him in the hospital, like he’d been in a car wreck and sustained life-threatening injuries. In his vison, he saw Barbara rushing to the hospital in tears, sitting in a chair by his bedside and holding his hand. He had a long cry.

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…..Ben started to notice how nice Barbara’s lips looked when she had lipstick on, especially when it was the frosty kind. He’d been aware of finding certain women’s lips appealing before, but he’d never thought about lips and lipstick in quite this way. Nights at home, he replayed in his mind conversations he and Barbara had at work that day. He started to not like weekends, wanted Sundays to hurry up and get over with so the work week and Barbara would arrive.

…..Once, Barbara got reprimanded for making a mistake on a work report she wrote. Back at her desk after talking to a supervisor behind closed doors, she told Ben about being scolded and she cried a little. Ben told her, “They’re lucky to have you. Don’t let it get you down.” He stopped exchanging pleasantries with that supervisor when they crossed paths at work.

…..On a Friday, when Barbara brought in some shepherd’s pie from her mom’s kitchen, Ben said, “Her food always smells so good. You’re lucky to get those care packages from her.” He had gotten to the point where he felt nervous any time he talked to Barbara. That morning she came in with frosty/creamy pink lipstick on. It made Ben feel dizzy when he looked at her lips. He’d been wondering if there might be a man in her life, somebody she didn’t talk about at work but saw on evenings and weekends.

…..Barbara hesitated to respond to Ben’s comment about her mom’s dish, then said, “She’s bringing me lasagna this Sunday afternoon. Why don’t you come over for dinner and have some with me? I’ll never be able to eat all of it.”

…..They started a ritual of Ben going to Barbara’s apartment every Sunday evening and sharing her mother’s home-cooked meals. Her place was nicer than his, decorated in a festive way that made his minimalistic one-bedroom bachelor pad feel devoid of life. On the fourth of those Sundays, Ben spent the night at Barbara’s.

…..The more time Ben and Barbara spent together, the more his diet changed. When he had pasta for dinner, his portions looked like the ones on the handouts from the health expertise team. And he often didn’t even eat all of that. At the food court at work, he bypassed the pizza and burger places. He usually made a plate from the hot and cold bar at the Korean deli, and put so little on it that one time the woman owner said to him at checkout, “That’s all for you?” When he was in his own apartment, alone, he didn’t eat anything at all after his miniscule dinners. If he and Barbara were together at night and watching a movie or binging on a TV show, she’d bring out popcorn and he’d only take in the occasional kernel, so unlike when he used to stuff his face with a full sharing size bag of white cheddar Skinny Pop. If Barbara had a homemade cherry or apple pie baked by her mom or herself, Ben just had a small sliver and usually didn’t finish it. He wasn’t forcing himself to eat so lightly. He just didn’t want much food suddenly. Barbara was the first girlfriend he’d had in eight years.

…..Ben started journaling. He hadn’t kept a journal to record his private thoughts since he was a freshman in college. His anguished written observations were all about Barbara and what might be happening between them. One night through those weeks, an old friend of Ben’s, who lived around 400 miles away then, called him to catch up. After they talked a while, the friend said, “You sound nervous or something. Your voice seems different. Is something up?” Ben didn’t want to tell anybody about Barbara, at least not yet. He wanted to be sure this was going to be something good before informing anyone else about it. When his previous girlfriend abruptly dumped him after they’d been dating for around 10 months, telling people in his life about their split was almost as painful for him as the breakup itself. He said, “Work’s been a little extra stressful lately. That’s probably what you’re hearing.”

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4.

…..When the lease on Ben’s apartment came due, he didn’t renew. Instead, he moved in with Barbara. An only child, it was the first time he’d ever lived with a woman who wasn’t his mother. Their workplace didn’t have any rules against what was happening between them. The head manager had a meeting with both of them and she said, with a sly smile, “It’s fine as long as you two don’t start having lovers’ spats on company grounds.” They all laughed, then she added, “But I am moving Barbara to a workstation not so close to Ben’s. I think that’s prudent.”

…..By the time he and Barbara had been living together for a year, Ben’s eating habits were somewhere between where they’d been before they met and how they were when they first started dating. His plates were closer to full and he generally ate everything on them. But never seconds. When they shared popcorn while watching TV, he ate handfuls of it, although not a whole large bag’s worth by himself. His slices of homemade pies got a little larger. Barbara was a good cook who made health-conscious dinners like baked salmon, herbed beans and brown rice, and light chicken-based dishes. When they had salads, she showed him that putting salt and pepper and some lime on them could taste good enough that it was okay to leave off the fattening bottled dressings. They went on miles-long fast walks together on weekend mornings. She said to Ben, “If we eat healthy dinners and exercise, it’s okay for us to have nice pies for dessert.”

…..Ben felt calm again. He had stopped journaling. He told his old friend and some other people about his new girlfriend. He had some occasional stealth unhealthy meals. He and Barbara couldn’t always take lunch together. When he ate alone at work, he sometimes had burgers and fries and pizza. But never a second helping of burger and fries, and generally two slices of pizza was enough (he used to have as many as four before he met Barbara). He discovered that he liked the Greek salad from one place, and when he got that, he used their dressing and liked it so much that he drank what was left of it after all the salad parts were gone.

…..It all seemed to balance out. The health advice team came back to the workplace about 18 months after that previous visit. Ben got his checkup and was told he was now only five pounds overweight. The health counselor who sat with him and went over his bloodwork and scale reading did still advise him on some alternative eating and exercise practices, so that he could reach a fully healthy weight. But she also congratulated him on taking off the 20 pounds. She smiled and said, “How did you do it exactly?”

…..In his mind, Ben heard himself say, I fell in love. Best diet ever.

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Brian Greene writes short stories and personal essays, as well as journalism pieces on music, books, film, and visual arts. His work has appeared in 35 online and print publications since 2008. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina. He’s on Twitter @greenes_cirlces and his writing blog is here: http://briangreenewriter.blogspot.com/

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Listen to the 1957 recording of Horace Silver playing “Home Cookin’,” with Silver (piano); Art Farmer (trumpet); Hank Mobley (tenor saxophone); Teddy Kotick (bass); and Louis Hayes (drums).  [Universal Music Group]

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Click here  to read “Equal,” Chris Simpson’s winning story in the 61st  Jerry Jazz Musician  Short Fiction Contest

Click here  for details about the upcoming 63rd  Jerry Jazz Musician  Short Fiction Contest

Click here  to subscribe to the  Jerry Jazz Musician  quarterly newsletter

Click here  to help support the continuing publication of  Jerry Jazz Musician  (thank you!)

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