The Last Laugh

It was the day after the annual company picnic, held every June, that Charlene went to the doctor for her “well visit”—a requirement to maintain her insurance benefits. The timing was considerably inopportune given that the picnic was a veritable festival for the taste buds and was simply not to be missed. Charlene had a particular fondness for the boss’s wife’s spicy fried chicken which practically danced an attention-getting salsa until Charlene piled several pieces on her plate. And Philomena’s potato salad, so delectably creamy with mayonnaise and egg yolk, crooned to her until she ladled an ample helping next to the chicken. Jordan’s macaroni salad was an event in itself. The recipe was a secret, but any fool could tell it wouldn’t detract from a “full figure” like Charlene’s. To top it all off, of course, there was always Lisa’s strawberry shortcake with honest-to-God whipped cream that practically created a road block if you tried to pass the dessert table without spooning a significant portion onto your plate. So when Dr. Badnuze told Charlene that her cholesterol levels were too high, she was certain the day’s measurement represented only a temporary elevation, brought on by the preceding day’s feast. She tried to rationalize that the company picnic only comes once a year, etc., but the doctor emphatically explained that she was not understanding him. Her cholesterol levels were so high, that they might be the end of her, and he wasn’t talking about five or ten years down the road. Charlene took a couple of silent moments to absorb the shock. She tried again to raise a defense against his prognosis. “But every year after the picnic you tell me…”

Dr. Badnuze interrupted, “And your cholesterol levels have been continually climbing. You are in danger of not seeing the next company picnic.”

This was precisely the graphic picture Charlene needed to propel her to action. Not see the next company picnic? The picnic was to die for! Well, wait. That was precisely the doctor’s point; she was about to die for it. His message hit home. Charlene declared, then and there that she intended to take the proverbial bull by the horns, and throw him clean out of town. No more beef. No more pork. No chicken. No fish. No cheese. Not even a glass of milk or a bowl of ice cream. Gone were the quarter pounders, the hot wings, corn dogs and stuffed crust pizza. And she meant it. She would be at the next company picnic by hook or by crook!

At Sunday dinner with her Mama and Daddy, Charlene had only a salad with oil and vinegar dressing. This confused her overweight Daddy and hurt her fat Mama’s feelings. When Mama held a hot buttered biscuit right under Charlene’s nose, so close Charlene could smell the real butter, and Charlene declined, Mama was sure her daughter was physically ill, or had a deep psychological disorder. Everyone knew full well Charlene had never been able to turn down this delicacy in her life because her Mama was the queen of baked goods in all their light flaky splendor. (Her secret was lard, pure and simple.) But Charlene was a grown woman, so Mama bit her tongue. Daddy grabbed the biscuit before Mama could fully retract her arm. “If she says she don’t want it, she don’t want it!” Charlene didn’t let on that she was on the brink of giving in just before Daddy rudely snatched that bit of heaven from Mama’s hand, jolting Charlene to her senses. In fact, if the devil, himself, had shown up looking like a suntanned George Clooney in a thong offering to take her away to an island in the Pacific, he would’t have been as difficult to turn down as that biscuit! Meanwhile, Mama’s chicken-fried steak had been calling her as surely as if it were Mama herself, insulted by the snub. The gravy and the green beans with bacon were laughing at her, because everybody knew they were irresistible. What, for years, had been a weekly gastronomical delight had become a puritanical punishment for self-righteousness.

A week into her new lifestyle, Charlene returned to the doc, not because she was wasting away, as her mother suspected, and not because her willpower was wilted, as the nay-sayers believed. (When she asked for leave time for the appointment, there were rumors floating around the office that Charlene took the afternoon off to have an affair with a bucket of Colonel Sanders’ finest.) Charlene’s doctor visit actually had nothing to do with food or cholesterol. She made the appointment because she had an unexplained wheeze in her chest. All her good intentions were still intact. The doc said she didn’t have pneumonia, as she had feared, but he gave her some antibiotics to be on the safe side, and then their conversation turned to her new diet borne of his warning and her sheer willpower. The doc commended her highly, and encouraged her to stay on this highway to health. But then he placed a speed bump on the road by mentioning one more villain: salt. Her blood pressure was a bit high, and she ought to consider reducing her salt intake.

So Charlene went home and threw out the cholesterol free pretzels, her briny pickles, her saltine crackers, and even her saltshaker. If you’re going to do a thing, do it right, she told herself. So for good measure, right then and there, Charlene gave up sugar as well. No cookies, cakes, pies, candy, or caramel corn. No popsicles. No soda. Not even a graham cracker. If the goal was to get healthy then by God she’d put all the miscreant victuals into one big philosophical box and bury it—deep deep down into the ground. She rid her cabinets of all temptation.

Charlene ate celery with abandon, sometimes dipping it in fat-free, salt-free, gluten-free, taste-free hummus-like dip, made with “real” garbanzos. She ate carrot sticks, and buckets of salad, with low-calorie dressing—or sometimes no dressing at all. Beans were her primary source of protein, seasoned with peppers and onions and garlic. No meat. No fat. No salt.

“She’s making a lifestyle change” her supportive thin and healthy co-workers would say.

“She’s foolin’ herself,” said everybody else. “It won’t last a week.”

But they were wrong. Yet, the first few weeks on her life-saving diet were almost counter-productive. There were moments when she thought she wouldn’t mind dying for a Big Mac. But she refused to give satisfaction to the “told you so’s.” She would stick to the new regimen come hell or high water. And at the end of month, she was so pleased with herself she thought she’d celebrate. Just a little. With a couple of very close friends.

Charlene, Lisa, and Philomena went out to a night club. Lisa and Philomena were glad to see their dear friend had returned to her senses, and were anticipating a long sweaty night of drinking and dancing, punctuated by snacks laden with salt and cheese. But Charlene could not be persuaded to have more than one glass of wine. No beer. No margaritas. No Irish Coffee. No pizza. No salty nuts. Not even a fistful of popcorn. Charlene stuck to her guns, and when her wine was finished, she didn’t order another, aware that more than a glass might threaten her willpower. She encouraged her friends to partake as they would usually, but somehow the spirit of the night had been quashed by Charlene’s good intentions. Everyone went home early, Charlene in a state of new-formed confidence; Lisa and Philomena in defeat.

In two months’ time, it became evident from looking at Charlene that her new diet was having unintended side-effects. Nobody could see her cholesterol levels or take a measure of her saltiness, but her shape was subtly changing. Bulges were beginning to flatten. Rolls were giving way to curves. The do-gooders all said, “Lookin’ good, Charlene!” and the disbelievers said nothing at all—to her face. Behind her back they commented that Charlene was getting too big for her britches by getting smaller. Her holier than thou dietary habits were getting on their nerves. (They were gettin’ on Mama’s very last nerve, to be sure. Charlene had all but stopped coming to Sunday dinner, and when she did come, she brought a bowl of green salad as if this was a pot-luck event.)

Charlene continued her health plan for another two months and her clothes began to feel too loose for comfort. She asked her Mama, whose tailoring rivaled her biscuits, to help her take in some skirts and pants. Mama obliged her daughter, but worried all the while. The bigger the seam she sewed, she more acute Mama’s concern that she ought to be dragging Charlene to the hospital. Daddy remained oblivious, in front of the television with a bag of Cheetos. Women were beyond comprehension sometimes.

Six months in, Charlene quit messing around with alterations and tossed the old clothes that were too big. She started over, with a whole new look. More modern. More shapely. More bewildering to her mother who thought perhaps Charlene had been brainwashed by some cult. Charlene had her hair cut; a dramatic short do. And she joined a health club so she could walk the indoor track and swim laps in the evenings after work.

It wasn’t long after this change of style that Stuart, in the cubicle across the aisle from hers asked her out. Stu was a looker. He worked hard at it. Clean diet. Regular workouts. He was the sort of man Charlene had never even noticed before because he was out of her league. But now she had joined a new league, it appeared. She accepted his invitation and before long they were an item—often seen together in the break room eating tabouleh sprinkled with sunflower seeds. Charlene’s supporters said, “Way to go, girl!” Her old friends simply rolled their eyes and left the couple to themselves. Mama was heartened. Maybe Charlene would find a man and settle down despite her apparent disability.

Pleased that Mama was pleased, Charlene brought Stu to Sunday Dinner. Stu carried in the pot of vegetarian chili, but Mama forgave him because, being new to the family, he probably was under the impression that he was supposed to contribute a dish. When Mama brought out a platter of fried catfish and her homemade tartar sauce, Stu said it looked delicious and put a small piece of fish on his plate (to be polite). Charlene stuck to veggie chili and ignored Mama’s pinched expression. She thought she might have heard the catfish saying, “This girl is messed up,” but supposed she was just reading Mama’s mind. The hush puppies and corn relish were snickering, but Daddy didn’t seem to notice and took enough of each to make his plate disappear.

Almost a year to the day after Charlene had taken the first step that would change her shape, her health, and her social status, she again found herself at the annual company picnic—with Stu at her side. Tables were laden with goopy potato salads, meaty noodle casseroles, piles of fried meats, cream pies, shortcake, chocolate chip cookies, and of course, the conciliatory vegetable tray, with a bowl of dip at its center. Charlene and Stu munched on vegetables, forgoing the dip. Charlene had all but forgotten that it was this very event that had motivated her to change her life—the desire to once again attend the company picnic. The foods that had once sung to her in delicious harmony no longer even registered on her dietary radar. She heard nothing. The spicy fried chicken lay there quietly, it’s oily coat glistening a warning. Jordan’s macaroni was silently drowning in its own sauce. Philomena’s potato salad sadly seemed like neither potato nor salad. And Lisa’s shortcake remained discretely on the dessert table, not getting in anybody’s way.

The party was pleasant, although not as raucous as Charlene remembered. Why she had been so hell-bent on attending, she wasn’t sure. But determined to have fun, she thought she’d join the annual volley-ball match—men against women. She’d never played before—always sitting on the sidelines with a plate of food balanced on her fat lap.

While strolling to the women’s huddle to join the game, Charlene chewed on one last carrot stick. She was waving to Stu, who was plotting with the other team, when she tripped over a small branch that had fallen from one of the many shade trees in the park. She reflexively dropped her carrot stick so her hands would be free to break her fall, but despite her ability to use her hands, she found she couldn’t breathe when she hit the ground. And just before she lost consciousness, she thought she heard the fallen carrot laugh at her. A solitary sardonic chuckle.

Everyone swarmed around Charlene. Two co-workers took turns trying the Heimlich Maneuver. At least ten people called 911 for medical assistance, although it would take longer than a breath of air for an ambulance to get to the picnic grounds, and that was all the time Charlene had. The carrot was anchored in her windpipe, and would not yield, no matter what the do-gooders and nay-sayers tried. It was a company picnic to end all company picnics.

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About the Author

Born in San Antonio and raised in assorted cities across the United States, Cara Bianca settled in the rural Ozarks a decade ago. She is supremely grateful for the privacy her country home affords her, but she now suffers from Pastoral Dependency, a degenerative disorder that makes her resistant to intrusive technologies and renders her unable to resist bird watching—especially in winter. She and her husband are thrilled by bald eagles, red-bellied woodpeckers, and tufted titmice in equal measure...