WHEN FAT MEN FLY by Peter Nolan Smith Chapter 1

Fat people were a rarity in 1970. Jonathan Winters was the only one appearing on TV, none resided in my neighborhood south of Boston, and only a few attended my university. I had one fat friend. His name was Wayne. He made me laugh, but I never thought of him as fat.

Chubby, but not fat.

We worked at a chain discount store next to the Quincy Shipyard. Our duties consisted of restocking the cosmetic aisles with mouthwash, shampoo, deodorants, and toothpastes. This job required little physical exertion and even less mental strain, which suited the chubby 22 year-old Bronx native just fine. My parents had higher expectations for their second son and one December afternoon I asked Wayne, “You deserve more from your life than working at this dead-end job?”

“Don’t knock it. The salary covers my needs. No one gives me any shit, plus if God expected me to make something of my life, he would have given me a rock star’s body instead sticking me with one better suited for a sumo wrestler.” Wayne weighed over 250 pounds and his heart problem exempted of the draft. He was the only employee without a store uniform. None of light blue shirts were sized for XXX.

“Too bad you weren’t born in Japan.” Sumo wrestlers were honored in Japan.

“Then I’d have to eat raw fish.” Wayne shivered with revulsion and handed me a box to load onto a cart. Perspiration stained his shirt. It didn’t take much for him to sweat.

“I ate whale once. A fish shop in Haymarket Square fried it for sandwiches. The meat tasted better than beef.”

“That’s almost cannibalism. Whales are mammals.” He cleaned his smudged glasses with a paper towel. “You wouldn’t eat Flipper, would you?”

“No and I only ate whale once.”

“Glad to hear it.” Wayne walked the cart into the store. “Are you coming over after work?”

“I really should get home.” I had several chapters to read for my German 101 exam.

My parent’s house was nine miles away. No buses ran to my hometown from the store. Hitchhiking home could take two hours.

“I’ll get my old man to give you a ride.” Wayne’s stepfather worked the late-shift at Shipyard. “I have the new Love LP.”

“Okay, but just for a little while.” I loved Arthur Lee and figured that Kafka’s DAS URTEIL could wait till midnight.

The store closed at 9. We tramped up the hill to his street. Thousands of stars swam in winter sky. Wayne huffed every step of the way. It was a good thing he didn’t smoke cigarettes.

Wayne lived in a double-decker house with his parents. His mother was hillbilly thin and his stepfather was a sliver of muscle and bones. He welded steel plates on Navy ships. Wayne gave the old man three bottles of Boone’s Farm and his mother $30 every payday. The rest of his income was spent on his extensive record collection.

“How was work?” His mother was happy to see us.

“Work sucked.” Wayne spoke his mind with his mother.

“Better than sitting on a park bench.” His mother reheated meat loaf and mashed potatoes for us.

They tasted good after the cold.

Wayne ate two helpings.

After dinner we went upstairs to his room. It accommodated a bed, table, two chairs, a sofa, black-and-white TV, and a stereo. The windows overlooked the Fore River. His Pioneer stereo system was light-years ahead of my parents’ Zenith Hi-Fi. Nearly 2000 LPs were alphabetically stacked against one wall according to genres. Wayne picked up a double LP from his coffee table and pushed back his greasy long hair. I had never seen him use a comb.

“You know I could steal records out of the store real easy.” My friend, Mitch, headed the record department.

“I don’t want any trouble and I got money for records.” Wayne unwrapped the plastic from Love’s OUT HERE and placed the 33 on his turntable. The first song was SIGNED DC. I had heard it once on WBCN.

“I’ll do it then.” I owed him a good Christmas present.

“Don’t be stupid.” Wayne joined me on the sofa and lit up a joint.

“I won’t be stupid.” I should have realized that ’stupid’ was every 18 year-old boy’s middle name.

The next morning I had my final exam of the semester. I needed the full two hours to fill out everything I knew about Kafka in the booklet. I could speak German, but my spelling in that language was as bad as it was in English. I was counting on my teacher’s warm heart to keep from failing.

Professor Klein knew my high school teacher, Bruder Karl. They both hailed from Bavaria. I handed in my test and wished Fraulein Klein ‘wieher geburtstag’. The next day of school wasn’t until January 10.

My results came in the mail a few days later. I had passed all my courses and Professor Klein gave me a C- in German. I was safe from the draft board for another six months, yet my parents were not pleased with the results and I promised to improve next semester. There was still two weeks till Christmas and the store needed extra help for the holiday, so I worked double shifts Monday to Saturday. Wayne was also pulling overtime.

Three days before Christmas we punched out at closing. He buttoned up a thick overcoat with a fake fur collar and pulled a cheap Chinese Army cap with flaps onto his head. I had on a ski parka, jeans, and Fyre boots. As we passed the records department, I grabbed two LPs; Wes Montgomery’s A DAY IN THE LIFE and the Mother’s of Inventions’ FREAK OUT.

“You said you weren’t doing anything stupid.” Wayne waddled toward the exit. He moved fast for his size.

“No one’s will stop us.” I waved to the two girls at the cash registers. They were counting out the night’s take. Marie was sweet on Wayne. Sookie was skinnier than the super-model Twiggy, but 20 year-old girls weren’t so interested in younger boys.

“You’re on your own.” Wayne pushed open the glass door. The air was cold and he cursed under his breath. “Shit.”

The 20 year-old assistant-manager was trailing us out of the store. His title added 30 cents to the minimum wage of $1.45/hour. This extra wealth granted him the delusion that he was a big deal with the check-out girls. They called him ‘Mr. Pizza-face’ behind his back and he was pissed at me for puking on him at the Christmas party. It wasn’t personal, but drinking Jack Daniels on an empty stomach was never a good idea.

“Shit. Shit. Shit.” Wayne was holding an ounce of pot. Possession was a felony in the State of Massachusetts. A station wagon pulled out of its spot and I flicked the LPs under a black 1965 Thunderbird.

“Stop right there,” the assistant manager shouted from twenty feet behind us.

“What for?” Wayne’s words turned to frozen mist.

“I saw you steal those records.” The assistant-manager eyed our hands and looked under the cars.

“What fucking records?” Wayne was tough for a fat boy, then again his older brother ran with a biker gang in Pomona.

“You can’t talk to me like that?” The assistant-manager stepped within Wayne’s reach.

“I can talk anyway I want once I punched out.” The squat New Yorker didn’t take any shit.

“Tell me where those records are or you’re both fired.” The assistant-manager’s voice peaked an octave.

“Then fire me.” Wayne bumped into the skinny 20 year-old’s chest.

“That’s assault.” The assistant-manager spun toward the store. His loafers lost traction and he slipped on the snow, hitting the ground face first. Both of us laughed, as the assistant-manager scrambled to his feet like a duck running on ice. Blood streamed from his nose.

“You think that’s funny. I’m calling the cops.” His clothes were wet from the slush. He stomped off to the store.

“It was funny.” Wayne shrugged to me.

“As funny as my throwing up on him?”

“No, that was hilarious.” Wayne pointed to the T-bird. “Get those records.”

“Are we giving them back?” This was my first act of larceny.

“Fuck no.” He walked off to his house. “We’re getting rid of the evidence. You take the back way to my place.”

I crawled under the car. Snow covered the records. I brushed them off and then ran from the parking lot in a crouch. Wayne was waiting on his porch. He checked the street for the cops and then ushered me inside. His mother had food on the table; a tuna-and-cheese casserole.

Wayne said nothing about the LPs.

His step-father arrived after dinner and watched HARPER’S VALLEY PTA on the TV. He had worked a double-shift. A cigarette died between his fingers and Wayne plucked the smoldering butt out of the old man’s fingers. His mother waved for us to leave and we climbed the stairs to his room.

“Merry Christmas.” I handed him the two records.

“Thanks.” Wayne laid FREAK OUT on the turntable and I loaded the bong with Panama Red. We listened to HELP I’M A ROCK in a reefer haze and harmonized to the chorus . The check-out girls arrived an hour later. Marie threw off her long sheepskin coat and sat on Wayne’s lap. Her friend, Sookie, stood in the corner like she had a curfew.

“You guys are lucky.” Marie’s big breasts were popping out of her store uniform. Some boys might have called her chubby. To Wayne she was the new Jayne Mansfield. He liked his girls big.

“Lucky how? We got fired.” No one in my family had been fired in two generations.

“The assistant manager wanted to call the cops.” The blonde cashier had graduated from Weymouth High School last summer. Her job at the store was full-time. She had planned on attending beautician school in the summer. Her make-up was impeccable. “He said you beat him up. I told the manager that you hadn’t stolen any records and he had slipped on the snow. The manager ordered him back to work.”

“So we’re not fired?” I was counting on my Christmas check.

“No, you’re fired all right.” Marie grabbed the bong out of my hands. “What’s that shit on the stereo?”

“The Mothers of Invention.” Wayne hummed two bars of the melody.

“You guys are really high.” Her favorite LP was Pink Floyd’s WISH YOU WERE HERE.

“I guess so.” Wayne rose from the couch.

“Hi.” Sookie settled on the sofa next to me. Her eyes sparkled within kohl-blackened make-up and her mouth glowed with pale pink lipstick. Small gold loops hung from her earlobes and she twirled a long strand of brown hair.


“Anyone want to hear anything special.” Wayne had been to Woodstock. He was our music guru. The next record was IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY followed by Dave Mason’s ALONE TOGETHER and Pink Floyd’s WISH YOU WERE HERE.
At midnight Sookie offered to drive me home. My town was five miles away. I said sure and we crept downstairs. Wayne’s stepfather snored in front of the TV. Out on the porch Sookie motioned for me to wait, while she fetched the car.

“She’s a nice girl.” Wayne blew into his hands. The temperature was below freezing.

“Yeah.” She was nice. I must have seemed worried, because Wayne asked, “What’s the problem?”

“My parents will kill me.” I was a shoplifter.

“Don’t tell them a thing.” Wayne bounced on his feet to keep warm.

“What about money?” I needed cash for school.

“My friend drives cab in Boston. You can make twice as much hacking a taxi.”

Snowflakes floated in the dark. Headlights approached the house.

“What about you?” I had fucked up his job.

“You did me a favor. I’ll sign on unemployment and after Christmas we can hitchhike down to New York. We’ll buy a pound or two, take the bus back, and sell ounces for fast cash.”

My Calculus 101 professor had given me a D+, but I was good at simple math. Ounces sold for $20 at my college. A pound cost $150. The profit was $170.

“Count me in.” I pulled on my gloves.

A tan ’65 LeMans skidded to a halt. The convertible was a present from Sookie’s parents for her 20th birthday. They came from Hingham. It was a town with money. I sat in the passenger’s seat.

“You two have a safe ride home.” Wayne winked at Marie’s friend.

“I passed driving school with top honors.” Sookie drove with both hands on the steering wheel. Her car had good heat. We made out in the Blue Hills, a forested reserve surrounding my neighborhood. Her body was unearthly thin. I couldn’t remember ever seeing her eat food. My hands fumbled beneath her silk shirt to encounter a lace bra and panties. She pushed me to the other side of the car.

“Not now.” It was almost 1 am.

“What are you doing for Christmas?” My hands were warm from her flesh.

“Going to Vermont with my parents.” The dashboard lights illuminated her face with an angelic glow.

“Oh.” Her holiday plans left me out of the picture.

“What you doing for New Year’s?” Her question begged an invitation.

“Maybe go to New York with Wayne.” I wasn’t saying why.

“I’ve never been to New York.” She backed the car out of the dirt road, the ties spinning on the fresh snow.

“I’ve been once with my parents and older brother in 1962. We stayed at the Hotel Manhattan, ate at Tad’s Steakhouse, rode to the top of the Empire State Building, and saw the Rockettes.”

“I always dream about New York.”


“Sure, it has to be better than here.

“What’s wrong with Boston?” I liked Paul’s Mall, Durgin Park, and the Boston Club.

“Nothing other than it’s a small town and this town is even smaller. The only thing to do is make-out in the woods.”

“I like making-out in the woods.”

“I’m sure you do.” She shifted the car into drive and headed toward Route 28. My neighborhood was off that road. “But you can’t tell me you don’t dream about living someplace where people have fun. Where they don’t go to sleep after dinner. Where they never sleep.”

“I used to lay on my backyard praying for a UFO to take me to someplace like that.” The suburbs had been claustrophobic for me as a 10 year-old.

“Then if you let me drive you to New York, this car can be the UFO.” She turned on the radio.

“This isn’t a sight-seeing trip.” WBCN played Fairport Convention’s MATTY GROVES.

“I know, but we won’t be any trouble.”


“I’m sure Marie will come too.”

“I’ll have to talk with Wayne.” A ride was certainly preferable to thumbing on the highway.

In front of my house Sookie kissed me with thin lips. I felt her flat breasts and imagined more in New York. I had no idea where we would stay. Hotels weren’t cheap. Maybe $20 a night.

Early the next morning I phoned Wayne from school. He had been out of bed an hour. His mother had made him breakfast. Unemployment agreed with him.

“The girls want to come along.”

“Cool, we can stay at Eddie’s. He’s my brother’s friend. We went to Woodstock together.” Wayne was as proud of going to Woodstock as if he had flown to the moon. “Eddie deals pot out of his apartment in the East Village. We’ll crash with him. It’s around the corner from the Fillmore East. We can go to a show. This will be fun. We’ll go two days before New Years.”

He hung up and I hitchhiked over to the store. The manager gave me a check minus the price of two LPs. He didn’t lecture me and I didn’t argue. I took a bus to the Fields Corner T station and then the Red Line train into Boston. Checker Cab Company was located behind Boston Arena. They hired me in a second. The cut was 55/45 off the meter. Tips were your own. I gave the union steward $10 to join the Teamsters. I called my mother and informed her about the new job without mentioning my shoplifting.

“It’s easy than working at the store and pays more money.”

“Is it safe?” She was concerned about the increasing number of hold-ups.

“The dispatcher says those robberies were blown out of proportion.” He said never drive into Roxbury after 11pm.

That night I drove taxi until 2am. My last two rides were into the ghetto. Both fares were so grateful for the ride that they tipped a dollar each. My take was $45 from fares and another $15 in gratuities. I stayed the night with my friend Nick. The sophomore from Staten Island was a sophomore at my university. We had met in European History 101. His apartment was on Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton. I slept on the sofa. In the morning I mentioned the upcoming trip to New York.

“You can come out and visit on Staten Island.” His father was a doctor. Nick was in our university’s pre-med program. His grades were better than mine. “The ferry is only a quarter back and forth.”

“Cool.” That was a good price.

That afternoon Nick departed for New York in his Mini-Cooper. He lent me the keys to his apartment. The work schedule for Checker Cab was loose. Drivers worked as much or as little according to their needs. I drove taxi every night to finance a pound of pot.

Wayne and I had already lined up enough customers to sell half the pot on our return. Sookie came over to see Aerosmith at the Hi-Hat Lounge. She had received an 8-track player for Christmas. I gave her CLOUDS by Joni Mitchell and CIRCLE GAME by Tom Rush along with a silver necklace. Driving taxi paid better than working at a store.

Aerosmith put on a monster show for almost 300 fans. The bartender was my friend. He gave us free drinks. Sookie danced to several songs. The lead singer checked her out. He liked skinny girls. Walking to her LeMans I asked, “You have a good time?”

“I love the band.” She held my hand. Hers was icy cold.

“So Boston’s not so bad?”

Sookie and I had the sidewalks to ourselves.

“It’s better than my hometown, but it’s not New York.” She took the car keys out of her fringed purse. There was no hesitation in this gesture.

“You want to stay the night?” Nick’s apartment was around the corner.

“I can’t.” She pushed me away from the LeMans. “I’m leaving for Vermont in the morning.”

“Then I’ll wait for New York.”

Christmas I rode the subway to Ashmont and the trolley to Lower Mills. My older brother picked me up at the station. My family was happy to see me. I gave everyone gifts. My mother cooked the world’s best apple pie. My father dealt with the turkey. He liked it a certain way. I handled the vegetables, otherwise they would have come out of the freezer. I ate thirds of everything. My mother gave me a Levi jean jacket and suede Dingo boots.

“Here’s two records.” My father’s hand held the same ones I stole from the store. “I hope I don’t have to buy them again.”

“No, I’m happy with these.” The assistant-manager must have called the house. I was lucky that my mother hadn’t answered the phone.

“Good.” He was a man of few words.

I called Wayne later that evening.

“You know if Sookie is still coming to New York?”

“Marie says yes, but who knows with women?”

“Not me.”

Sookie was a woman and I felt very young for the five days before our departure. I was 18.

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