The Fat Man
For Ted Olsen
The Fat Man sat on his porch in his squeaking swing and looked out at late October. Leaves coasted from the trees that grew on either side of the walk, coasted down and scraped the concrete with a dry, husking sound.
He sat there in his swing, pushing one small foot against the porch, making the swing go back and forth; sat there in his faded khaki pants, barefoot, shirtless, his belly hanging way out over his belt, drooping toward his knees.
And just below his belly button, off-center right, was the tattoo. A half-moon, lying on its back, the ends pointing up. A blue tattoo. An obscene tattoo, made obscene by the sagging flesh on which it was sculptured. Flesh that made the Fat Man look like a hippo if a hippo could stand on its hind legs or sit in a swing pushing itself back and forth.
The Fat Man.
The Fat Man with the half-moon tattoo off-center beneath his navel.
The Fat Man. Swinging.
Everyone wondered about the Fat Man. He had lived in the little house at the end of Crowler Street for a long time. Forever it seemed. As long as that house had been there (circa 1920), he had been there. No one knew anything else about him. He did not go to town. He did not venture any farther than his front porch, as if his house were an oddball ship adrift forever on an endless sea. He had a phone, but no electric lights. He did not use gas and he had no car.
And everyone wondered about the Fat Man.
Did he pay taxes?
Where did he get the money that bought the countless boxes of chicken, pizza, egg foo yung, and hamburgers he ordered by phone; the countless grease-stained boxes that filled the garbage cans he set off the edge of his porch each Tuesday and Thursday for the sanitation men to pick up and empty?
Why didn't he use electric lights?
Why didn't he go to town?
Why did he sit on his porch in his swing looking out at the world smiling dumbly, going in the house only when night came?
And what did he do at night behind those closed doors? Why did he wear neither shirt nor shoes, summer or dead of winter?
And where in the world—and why—did he get that ugly half-moon tattooed on his stomach?
Whys and whats. Lots of them about the Fat Man. Questions aplenty, answers none.
Everyone wondered about the Fat Man.
But no one wondered as much as Harold and Joe, two boys who filled their days with comics, creek beds, climbing apple trees, going to school... and wondering about the Fat Man.
So one cool night, late October, they crept up to the Fat Man's house, crawling on hands and knees through the not-yet-dead weeds in the empty lot next to the Fat Man's house, and finally through the equally high weeds in the Fat Man's yard.
They lay in the cool, wind-rustled weeds beneath one of the Fat Man's windows and whispered to each other.
"Let's forget it," Harold said.
"Can't. We come this far, and we swore on a dead cat."
"A dead cat don't care."
"A dead cat's sacred, you know that."
"We made that up."
"And because we did that makes it true. A dead cat's sacred."
Harold could not find it in his heart to refute this. They found the dead cat on the street next to the curb the day before, and Joe had said right off that it was sacred. And Harold, without contesting, had agreed.
And how could he disagree? The looks of the cat were hypnotizing. Its little gray body was worm-worked. Its teeth exposed. Its lips were drawn back, black and stiff. All the stuff to draw the eye. All the stuff that made it sacred.
They took the cat over the creek, through the woods and out to the old "Indian" graveyard and placed it on the ground where Joe said an old Caddo Chief was buried. They took the cat and poked its stiff legs into the soft dirt so that it appeared to be running through quicksand.
Joe said, "I pronounce you a sacred cat with powers as long as there's hair on your body and you don't fall over, which ever comes first."
They made an oath on the sacred cat, and the oath was like this: They were going to sneak over to the Fat Man's house when their parents were asleep, and find out just what in hell and heaven the Fat Man did. Maybe see him eat so they could find out how quickly he went through those boxes and cartons of chicken, pizza, egg foo yung, hamburgers and the like.
Above them candlelight flickered through the thin curtains and window. Joe raised up cautiously for a peek.
Inside he saw the candle residing in a broken dish on an end table next to the telephone. And that was it for the Fat Man's furniture. The rest of the room was filled with food boxes and cartons, and wading knee-deep in their midst was the Fat Man.
The Fat Man had two large trashcans next to him, and he was bending quite nimbly for a man his size (and as he bent the fat about his middle made three thick anaconda coils, one of which was spotted with the blue half-moon tattoo), picking up the boxes and tossing them in the cans.
Harold raised up for a look. Soon the cans were stuffed and overflowing and the Fat Man had cleared a space on the floor. With the handle of a can in either hand, the Fat Man swung the cans toward the door, outside and off the edge of the porch.
The Fat Man came back, closed the door, kicked his way through the containers until he reached the clearing he had made.
He said in a voice that seemed somewhat distant, and originating at the pit of his stomach, "Tip, tap, tip tap." Then his voice turned musical and he began to sing, "Tip, tap, tip tap."
His bare feet flashed out on the hardwood floor with a sound not unlike tap shoes or wood clicking against wood, and the Fat Man kept repeating the line, dancing around and around, moving light as a ninety-pound ballerina, the obscene belly swinging left and right to the rhythm of his song and his fast-moving feet.
"Tip, tap, tip tap."
There was a knock at the door.
The Fat Man stopped dancing, started kicking the boxes aside, making his way to answer the knock.
Joe dropped from the window and edged around the corner of the house and looked at the porch.
A delivery boy stood there with five boxes of pizza stacked neatly on one palm. It was that weird guy from Cab's Pizza. The one with all the personality of a puppet. Or at least that was the way he was these days. Once he had been sort of a joker, but the repetition of pizza to go had choked out and hardened any fun that might have been in him.
The Fat Man's hand came out and took the pizzas. No money was exchanged. The delivery boy went down the steps, clicked down the walk, got in the Volkswagen with Cab's Pizza written on the side, and drove off.
Joe crept back to the window, raised up next to Harold. The Fat Man put the pizza boxes on the end-table by the phone, opened the top one and took out the pizza, held it balanced on his palm like a droopy painter's palette.
"Tip, tap, tip tap," he sang from somewhere down in his abdomen, then he turned, his back to the window. With a sudden movement, he slammed the pizza into his stomach.
"Ahhh," said the Fat Man, and little odd muscles like toy trucks drove up and down his back. His khaki-covered butt perked up and he began to rock on his toes. Fragments of pizza, gooey cheese, sticky sauce and rounds of pepperoni dripped to the floor.
The Fat Man's hand floated out, clutched another box and ripped it open. Out came a pizza, wham, into the stomach, "ah," went the Fat Man, and down dripped more pizza ingredients, and out went the Fat Man's hand once again.
Three pizzas in the stomach.
"I don't think I understand all I know about this," Joe whispered.
Five pizzas, and a big, "ahhhhhh," this time.
The fat man leaped, high and pretty, hands extended for a dive, and without a sound he disappeared into the food-stained cartons.
The Fat Man surfaced. His back humped up first like a rising porpoise, then disappeared. Loops of back popped through the boxes at regular intervals until he reached the far wall.
The Fat Man stood up, bursting cartons around him like scales. He touched the wall with his palm. The wall swung open. Joe and Harold could see light in there and the top of a stairway.
The Fat Man stepped on the stairway, went down. The door closed.
Joe and Harold looked at each other.
"That wall ain't even a foot thick," Harold said. "He can't do that."
"He did," Joe said. "He went right into that wall and down, and you know it because you saw him."
"I think I'll go home now," Harold said.
"No, I ain't kidding."
The far wall opened again and out popped the Fat Man, belly greased and stained with pizza.
Joe and Harold watched attentively as he leaped into the boxes, and swam for the clearing. Then, once there, he rose and put a thumb to the candle and put out the light.
He kicked his way through boxes and cartons this time, and his shadowy shape disappeared from the room and into another.
"I'm going to see how he went through the wall," Joe said.
Joe put his hands on the window and pushed. It wasn't locked. It slid up a few inches.
"Don't," Harold whispered, putting his hand on Joe's arm.
"I swore on the dead cat I was going to find out about the Fat Man, and that's what I'm going to do."
Joe shrugged Harold's arm off, pushed the window up higher and climbed through.
Harold swore, but followed.
They went as quietly as they could through the boxes and cartons until they reached the clearing where the pizza glop lay pooled and heaped on the floor. Then they entered the bigger stack of boxes, waded toward the wall. And though they went silently as possible, the cartons still crackled and popped, as if they were trying to call for their master, the Fat Man.
Joe touched the wall with his palm the way the Fat Man had. The wall opened. Joe and Harold crowded against each other and looked down the stairway. It led to a well-lit room below.
Joe went down.
Harold started to say something, knew it was useless. Instead he followed down the stairs.
At the bottom they stood awestruck. It was a workshop of sorts. Tubes and dials stuck out of the walls. Rods of glass were filled with pulsating colored lights. Cables hung on pegs. And there was something else hanging on pegs.
And though they were featureless, hairless and sexless, they looked in form as real as living, breathing people. In fact, put clothes and a face on them and you wouldn't know the difference. Provided they could move and talk, of course.
Harold took hold of the leg of one of the bodies. It felt like wood, but it bent easily. He tied the leg in a knot.
Joe found a table with something heaped on it and covered with black cloth. He whipped off the cloth and said, "Good gracious."
It was a row of jars, and in the jars' drooping over upright rods were masks. Masks of people they knew.
Why there was Alice Dunn the Avon Lady. They'd know that wart on her nose anywhere. It fit the grump personality she had these days.
Jerry James the constable. And my, didn't the eyes in his mask look just like his eyes? The way he always looked at them like he was ready to pull his gun and put them under arrest.
May Bloom, the town librarian, who had grown so foul in her old age. No longer willing to help the boys find new versions of King Arthur or order the rest of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars series.
And there was the face of the weird guy from Cab's Pizza, Jake was his name.
"Now wait a minute," Joe said. "All these people have got something in common. What is it?"
"They're grumps," Harold said.
"Uh huh. What else?"
"I don't know."
"They weren't always grumpy."
"Well, yeah," Harold said.
And Harold thought of how Jake used to kid with him at the pizza place. How the constable had helped him get his kite down from a tree. How Mrs. Bloom had introduced him to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Max Brand, and King Arthur. How Alice Dunn used to make her rounds, and come back special with a gift for him when he was sick.
"There's another thing," Joe said. "Alice Dunn, the Avon Lady. She always goes door-to-door, right? So she had to come to the Fat Man's door sometime. And the constable, I bet he came too, on account of all the weird rumors about the Fat Man. Jake, the delivery boy. Mrs. Bloom, who sometimes drives the bookmobile..."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying, that that little liquid in the bottom of each of these jars looks like blood. I think the Fat Man skinned them, and..." Joe looked toward the puppets on the wall, "replaced them with handmade versions."
"Puppets come to life?" Harold said.
"Like Pinocchio," Joe said.
Harold looked at the masks in the jars and suddenly they didn't look so much like masks. He looked at the puppets on the wall and thought he recognized the form of one of them; tall and slightly pudgy with a finger missing on the left hand.
"God, Dad," he said.
"He works for Ma Bell," Joe said. "Repairs lines. And if the Fat Man has phone trouble, and they call out a repairman..."
"Don't say it," Harold said.
Joe didn't, but he looked at the row of empty jars behind the row of filled ones.
"What worries me," Joe said, "are the empty jars, and," he turned and pointed to the puppets on the wall, "those two small puppets on the far wall. They look to be about mine and your sizes."
"Oh, they are," said the Fat Man.
Harold shrieked, turned. There at the foot of the stairs stood the Fat Man. And the half-moon tattoo was not a half-moon at all, it was a mouth, and it was speaking to them in the gut-level voice they had heard the Fat Man use to sing.
Joe grabbed up the jar holding Miss Bloom's face and tossed it at the Fat Man. The Fat Man swept the jar aside and it crashed to the floor; the mask (face) went skidding along on slivers of broken glass.
"Now that's not nice," said the half-moon tattoo, and this time it opened so wide the boys thought they saw something moving in there. "That's my collection."
Joe grabbed another jar, Jerry James this time, tossed it at the Fat Man as he moved lightly and quickly toward them.
Again the Fat Man swatted it aside, and now he was chasing them. Around the table they went, around and around like little Black Sambo being pursued by the tiger.
Harold bolted for the stairs, hit the bottom step, started taking them two at the time.
Joe hit the bottom step.
And the Fat Man grabbed him by the collar.
"Boys, boys," said the mouth in the Fat Man's stomach. "Here now, boys, let's have a little fun."
"Run," yelled Joe. "Get help. He's got me good."
The Fat Man took Joe by the head and stuffed the head into his stomach. The mouth slobbered around Joe's neck.
Harold stood at the top of the stairs dumbfounded. In went Joe, inch by inch. Now only his legs were kicking.
Harold turned, slapped his palm along the wall.
Up the stairs came the Fat Man.
Harold glanced back. Only one leg stuck out of the belly now, and it was thrashing. The tennis shoe flew off and slapped against the stairs. Harold could hear a loud gurgling sound coming from the Fat Man's stomach, and a voice saying, "ahhhh, ahhhh."
Halfway up the steps came the Fat Man.
Harold palmed the wall, inch by inch.
He jerked a glance back again.
There was a burping sound, and the Fat Man's mouth opened wide and out flopped Joe's face, skinned, mask-looking. Harold could also see two large cables inside the Fat Man's mouth. The cable rolled. The mouth closed. Taloned, skinny hands stuck out of the blue tattoo and the fingers wriggled. "Come to Papa," said the voice in the Fat Man's stomach.
Harold turned, slapped his palm on the wall time and time again, left and right.
He could hear the Fat Man's tread on the steps right behind, taking it torturously slow and easy.
The wall opened.
Harold dove into the boxes and cartons and disappeared beneath them.
The Fat Man leaped high, his dive perfect, his toes wriggling like stubby, greedy fingers.
Poof, into the boxes.
Harold came up running, kicking boxes aside.
The Fat Man's back, like the fin of a shark, popped the boxes up. Then he was gone again.
Harold made the clearing in the floor. The house seemed to be rocking. He turned left toward the door and jerked it open.
Stepping out on the front porch he froze.
The Fat Man's swing dangled like an empty canary perch, and the night . . . was different. Thick as chocolate pudding. And the weeds didn't look the same. They looked like a foamy green sea—putrid sherbet—and the house bobbed as if it were a cork on the ocean.
Behind Harold the screen door opened. "There you are, you bad boy, you," said the voice in the belly.
Harold ran and leaped off the porch into the thick, high weeds, made his way on hands and knees, going almost as fast as a running dog that way. The ground beneath him bucked and rolled.
Behind him he heard something hit the weeds but he did not look back. He kept running on hands and knees for a distance, then he rose to his feet, elbows flying, strides deepening, parting the waist-level foliage like a knife through spoiled cream cheese.
And the grass in front of him opened up. A white face floated into view at belt-level.
The Fat Man. On his knees.
The Fat Man smiled. Skinny, taloned hands stuck out of the blue tattoo and the fingers wiggled.
"Pee-pie," said the Fat Man's belly.
Harold wheeled to the left, tore through the tall weeds yelling. He could see the moon floating in the sky and it looked pale and sick, like a yolkless egg. The houses outlined across the street were in the right place, but they looked off-key, only vaguely reminiscent of how he remembered them. He thought he saw something large and shadowy peek over the top of one of them, but in a blinking of an eye it was gone.
Suddenly the Fat Man was in front of him again.
Harold skidded to a halt.
"You swore on a dead cat," the voice in the belly said, and a little wizened, oily head with bugged-out eyes poked out of the belly and looked up at Harold and smiled with lots and lots of teeth.
"You swore on a dead cat," the voice repeated, only this time it was a perfect mockery of Joe.
Then, with a motion so quick Harold did not see it, the Fat Man grabbed him.
So go on, now, and order your pizza. Then mark your calendar for Thursday, October 25, when we'll offer up another dose of Mojo madness by Champion Joe!
"The Fat Man" originally appeared in The Horror Show. It later appeared in Bestsellers Guaranteed, a collection published by Ace, and Bumper Crop, a collection published by Golden Gryphon Press. "The Fat Man" © 1987 Joe R. Lansdale. All Rights Reserved.