The Thinner Man

By David Wesley Hill

They stapled his stomach in half and wired his jaws shut but nothing worked. He just got fatter.

At the end Harry Oppenheimer weighed close to half a ton. This was only a good guess, however. He was much more than any scale could handle. Too big to leave the house. Too obese to get out of bed.

I remained with him not because it was my job to do so—I was his secretary, not his nurse—but because he was my friend. I ran his errands, ordered take-out for him, changed his clothes and bedpan, tended to the weeping red sores that erupted between his thighs and beneath the sagging billows of his chest.

The way he was going, I knew that it wouldn’t—couldn’t—be for long.

"Another pizza, Harry?" I asked tiredly. "Two weren’t enough?"

"Mere appetizers, as it were. Francis, let’s have anchovies, peppers, sausage, and mushrooms on the next."

Three months earlier he had clipped the wires from his mouth in order to free himself to eat without restraint. His stomach was, of course, still stapled, but he circumvented this obstacle by nibbling on a continuous stream of small portions rather than by having single large meals, and by chewing very thoroughly. He had refused any further hospitalization. From morning until night, for weeks on end, he never stopped feeding.

It made me sick. "You’re going to die, Harry," I told him while wiping flecks of cheese and dribbles of tomato sauce off his many chins.

"Of course I will. Death comes to all men. Is that surprising?"

I didn’t answer. He knew what I meant. Which was, perhaps, why he cried while he ate, the tears rolling without let up from his eyes and down his cheeks and into the food that he was chewing at ludicrous length with a million tiny bites. Or maybe these were tears of joy. I couldn’t tell. I’d never truly understood him, not ever, not when I had been his student, not as his graduate assistant, not as his secretary, not as his friend.

Harry washed down the pizza with a quart of heavy cream and started on a basket of apples and a rope of fresh goat’s milk mozzarella.

He’d always been a big man.

Big in all ways, not just size. His appetite for life had been the wonderful thing about him. The way he devoured novels and poetry. How he consumed women in love affair after affair. His passion for good food and fine wine and Cuban cigars and Blue Mountain coffee and single malt scotch. Standing before a class, his eyes would ignite as he read from Donne or Swift or Burns, Milton or Shakespeare or Byron, his beautiful baritone carrying easily from one end of the auditorium to the other. Eventually, however, what had been engaging vice became appalling habit. Idiosyncrasy became excess. Character, indulgence. From the two hundred pounds he weighed when I audited "The Romantic Poets" as a sophomore, Harry ballooned to four hundred pounds by the time I received my fellowship, and to six hundred when I became his personal secretary while completing my dissertation. Diets didn’t work. He’d lose twenty pounds eating only grapefruit and then gain fifty more gorging on Chinese take out. Or drop thirty pounds on appetite suppressants and then rebound with fois gras and escargot and Sauce Hollandaise. Fad diet followed fad diet; regimen supplanted regimen; health club replaced health club; retreat succeeded retreat; but nothing worked for long. It was when Harry topped seven hundred pounds that they sewed his mouth closed and halved his stomach. This was his last chance for a normal life, a fact that the doctors made sure he was well aware of, but he cut free his jaws with his own hands not two weeks later.

"Seriously, Francis," he explained, gesturing with the wire cutters as with a pointer during a lecture, and then drawing the wires slowly through the flesh of his cheek, "what meaning is there to life without living?"

"We’re not talking about living, Harry," I answered. "We’re talking about dying."

"Should I rage, rage, do you think? Or go gentle into that good night?"

"You should stay on your diet."

"That’s so like you, Francis. You’re such a small man."

"I’m not, Harry. But I am a thinner one."

I may have had the last word, but Harry had the last laugh, so to speak, in that he ignored my advice and gained two hundred pounds in eleven weeks. This was an almost visible process. I’d arrive at his apartment each morning to find him measurably bigger than the night before. When I’d leave in the evening, after a day of taking down his correspondence and editing the monograph he was writing on Blake, he’d be larger still, having spent our seven hours together dictating out of one side of his mouth while filling the other with sweet and sour pork and shrimp fried rice and crispy fried chicken and curly fries and deluxe burritos and buffalo wings and black beans and potato chips and salsa and spicy hot pork rinds and double cheeseburgers.

When he topped eight hundred pounds, Harry lost the ability to care for himself. He had become too huge to reach the appropriate areas of his anatomy or even to dress himself in the monstrous terry cloth robes made to order for him. At this point his long-term-care insurance began providing a part-time aide to assist with personal hygiene and the other tasks of everyday life that he wasn’t capable of performing alone. Between the two of us we kept Harry presentable and as comfortable as he could be, considering that merely sitting up had become a monumental task, that the natural act of breathing now involved conscious exertion, his lungs weighed down by acres of flesh.

I stopped arguing with him. And stood aside as an army of boys parked their bikes and scooters and skate boards at the curb and came up to the front door in never ending succession to hand over their deliveries.

I’d finally realized that the problem wasn’t that Harry was tired of life. The fact was that he just couldn’t get enough of it.

"So much to eat. So little time," he sighed around a mouthful of squab paté on Melba toast with Dijon mustard, orange marmalade, and capers that Zabar’s had sent over, his eyes half closed with pleasure.

Then they jerked open. A projectile of partly chewed terrine exploded from his mouth and spattered on the wall. He clutched his throat and tried to breathe but could only wheeze desperately.

"Francis—"

"I’ll call a doctor."

"No. Don’t . . ."

He was right. What was the point? He was dying and we both knew it and there wasn’t anything that anyone could do—not now, not for months, not for hundreds of pounds. They’d never fit him into an ambulance. They’d never squeeze him through the door of the room. They’d never even get him off the bed. His complexion, so red only seconds ago, was now white, his cheeks mottled with clammy spots of gray. His robe fell open as he thrashed like some vast pelagic mammal stranded above the waterline. The huge soft slabs of flesh that were his chest quivered with the laboring of the overwhelmed organs beneath them. I took his hand and held it with both of my own.

"Can’t breathe . . . get knife."

"What, Harry? What do you want?"

"Get . . . knife."

He was scrabbling at his neck, as if to dig the bloated sausages that were his fingers through his dozen chins into his trachea.

"Please . . . Francis . . . the knife."

I could never deny Harry anything. So I went to the kitchen and returned with a stainless steel chef’s knife and placed the black plastic hilt in his hand. Without hesitation he plunged the blade into his sternum.

His eyes twisted up into his skull so that only the whites were visible. His breath came in shallow spurts as he drew the knife with excruciating deliberation from his breastbone down to his groin. The flesh fell away from the edge, revealing strata of fat a foot thick.

Strangely there was little blood.

At the bottom of the cut, below the creamy suet, damp tissue gleamed, perhaps muscle, perhaps membrane. Harry let the knife slip from his grasp. Then he took hold of his belly on either side of the incision and with a soft wet tearing sound pulled himself wider apart. I couldn’t look. I couldn’t not look. I didn’t know why he still was alive.

"Help . . . me. Francis."

There was a stirring deep inside him. He was trying to reach it but his arms couldn’t stretch around his own bulk. I peered closer. Instead of intestine and stomach and pancreas and liver I discovered a bloody film of tissue, taut as a drumhead. Beneath it something was struggling to get free. I couldn’t make out what it was. I didn’t want to know.

Harry gasped: "Please." Then he stopped breathing altogether.

I really had never been able to deny him anything. So I took the chef’s knife and slipped the tip through the membrane wall and slit it open.

A glistening knee came up and wedged itself in the opening. There was a moist sucking noise and a second knee joined the first. Harry’s legs began collapsing in on themselves, deflating slowly like old balloons.

I plunged my hands and wrists up to the elbows in his abdomen and began tearing out fistful after greasy fistful of fat, little by little excavating the live body within. With furious tugs, it wrenched one arm free, and then the other, from the sleeves of lard encasing them. Then it contorted feverishly and liberated its shoulders, neck, and head, emerging into the world like an insect from a cocoon or a child from its mother.

For a moment it simply sat there in the remains of Harry and gulped down great mouthfuls of air. Its skin, the angry bruised scarlet of a newborn, began turning a healthy pink. Then it faced me.

"For the love of God, Francis," Harry said. "Don’t just stand there. Get me some clothes, why don’t you."

"Harry?" I gawked.

"Who else?" He rose to his feet and stood there in the dregs of himself, a much thinner man. He gave the corpse a contemptuous nudge with one foot. "What mortal hand or eye could frame my fearful symmetry," he paraphrased. Then he laughed, his vast voice reminding me of all that I loved about him.

"Oh, and Francis, while you’re at it—" Harry went on—"give the Shanghai Palace a call, will you? I’m starving."