On a makeshift dais that had been constructed at the front of the restaurant, a single room shack whose entirety could be seen from its entrance, set four square dining tables, placed side by side and covered with an immaculate, white, plastic table cloth. The ceiling fans, too few to matter and gilded with dust, spun indolently; on its walls hung photos of its famous patrons, the most prominent being a disgraced former city councilman turned radio chatterbox—he had asked a particularly civic minded, and modest looking, constituent whether she was “dedicated fully to the work we’re doing” while guiding her hand to his crotch, sans underpants, but was saved from conviction by a pro se performance that beguiled the jury; an aged, no longer famous musician who nearly forgot to remove his bifocals before the picture was taken; and that of its most voracious patron. Most—the crush of regulars, tourists, and local first-timers—had craned, or were craning, their necks, had adjusted, or were adjusting, their seats to obtain a view of the stage; those who were not, or had not, would not be disinterested much longer. The competitors were readying. Their instruments were being put into place. Into the eatery’s largest ashen mixing bowls, the final globs of barbecue baked beans, steamy and piquant, had been ladled, and weighed, and the wait staff, with slit eyes, wrinkled noses and lips, were carrying the containers to the tables, holding them as an annoyed sibling would hold a soiled baby brother. The contestants took their seats, each sitting in front of two pounds of food, wooden spoon, glass of water, and bib. One of the waitresses eyed the setup, the bowls, the contenders, huffed, picked up a microphone, and tapped its windscreen. Tears pooled in her eyes and descended her cheeks; she staunched them with her palms, which produced a grating sound as the mike contacted her hair, a mass of black curls with platinum streaks. Removing from her back pants pocket a scrap of paper, she introduced the eaters.
From right to left, as the audience saw them, the entrants grew more serious, formidable. Devon had entered the contest whimsically, the result of a double-dare issued jointly by her three girlfriends. She was a thin, freckled, smiley underdog indifferent to winning. Richard’s competitiveness was waning. He had been hopeful he would contend fiercely, finishing as the runner-up or, perhaps, the winner. But the crowd and the beans, the whiff of which made him a little nauseous, was too much. His elbows rested on the table, he stared at the victual and thought I’m fine if I beat her. They were becoming larger, a plumping evolution of man. George’s small breasts were more noticeable than Richard’s flabby chest. He, George, had wanted to compete for some time, had seen the competition from the front row and told himself he could triumph. He was a big eater, though not a professional, who had not trained but, nevertheless, assured himself with the adage mind over matter. Some applause welcomed the last person. He smiled and waved humbly, displaying for an instant his palm while simultaneously nodding, and his t-shirt clung to his rippled body. For twenty-two consecutive months he’d won and was nicknamed “Lights Out” because of it, which a handful had begun to chant. Like George he was not a professional. Earl, however, was the champion.
A clock setting near the stage, to the crowd’s left, displayed five minutes. The waitress began the countdown and each of them, Devon through Earl, regardless of their intentions, was nervous. Three … Two … One … Eat!
Her jaws filling but not filled, Devon quit first. The crowd’s roaring seemed humorously misplaced. She laughed, and mucus ran from her nose, and spittle trickled from her barely puckered lips until her raised hand signaled her finish as a clump tumbled from her mouth and into the bowl. For Richard there was only time to waste. He had only to outlast the woman though by a margin large enough to conceal the fact. But each tally he started, his chews or seconds, for instance, he lost in expectancy. And he’d begin again until he fatigued and raised his hand, although, as a final, private act of machismo, he swallowed the beans in his mouth. George and Earl continued; spoonful by spoonful, bite by squishy bite, they raced, unaware of how much time remained, afraid to glimpse at one another, misting those nearest them like ringside fans at a prizefight. George was confident. He felt strong, full of energy and the circumstance he hoped for was present: he was unwearied and one of two remaining. Gas billowed up Earl’s torso, and he belched, nearly losing a mouthful, a mouthful that would have needed to be re-eaten. Nevertheless, each distraction—his opponent, the diffuse shouts of “Lights Out”—receded, and though time had given the beans an insipid taste, and he feared losing despite his effort, he ate and would do so until the very end.
Three … Two … One … Stop eating!
With wet napkins, they wiped maroon-colored sauce from their faces and fingers. Because he was experienced, Earl didn’t overlook his cuticles; times before he forgot this area and had to suck his fingertips clean. For the first time he looked at George intently, was impressed, and wondered why he had dismissed him. He was formidable, only slightly smaller than himself, and self-assured. The situation had arisen perfectly—its unexpectedness, his hubris and George’s ability and certainty. Everything was ending. That would be the night of his defeat. Joy, his girlfriend, a buxomly woman as large as him, smiled and gestured a podgy thumbs up. The bowls were taken away by servers, now rubber-gloved, and placed alternately on a triple beam.
He took deep breaths, flexed his arms like chicken wings, and pulled his elbows towards each other; his chest and shoulders were attenuated, as though something was pressed against him that he was too weak to remove, not boding a heart attack, though, rather evidence of a sport injury, the effect of overexertion. His head was uneasy, too, like his brain had expanded and was attempting to burst through his cranium. It was total tiredness, mental and physical, which he had never experienced before. An unprecedented challenge produced a novel reaction, one that, except for one ounce, would have been worse. When the results had been announced, George flailed his arms and pushed from the table but calmed and returned when the waitress declared they’d measure once more. Four rounds later that ounce separated them still, and George departed, and Earl feared a rematch. As always, Joy took his winnings, a free meal, to eat in bed. And if all were unchanged, he’d join her, shirtless and teeth freshly brushed, rubbing his bulbous tummy, muttering comedic eroticisms. But his head and his chest and his shoulders … The lone light in the room flickered from the television, an action movie in which its reluctant hero discovers that a drug cartel is helping a nuclear weapons smuggler, both foreigners, and defeats them both. A coruscating explosion rendered his shadow against the wall, his tear-shaped trunk most noticeably. He collapsed into bed, which responded with a yelping creak, grasped his forehead, grumbled, and shut his eyes before she could interject. The food’s odor kept him awake for hours.
Retirement, as he termed it, was an option he considered, one that appealed to his fear and pride. With nothing else to prove, it was unnecessary to risk his title after having won so often. He was, undoubtedly, the greatest eater, the man who had reigned longer than any other, in “Rocking Rod’s” history whose record would stand for years certainly, maybe decades, possibly forever—who would dedicate himself as he had. All competitors want to bow out as number one; few, however, do. Any challengers, if they existed, would have to live with the fact they arrived too late, that their chance to face the best would never come. This was an opportunity he had never imagined. Each time he thought of that contest only: what he’d done poorly before or would do well next was unimportant. That way his mind was most focused, uncluttered by things he could not affect. Now, though, attaining a legacy was not only realistic, but probable. Eventually, with reflection, every contest—those in which he was victorious and those in which he would never take part—would become essential to his story, the absence of any one amounting to perforation, of any few erasure, and a determined man could fortify the borders of that faraway country.
Welcoming Earl and Joy was a new greeter—a short, muscle-bound teenager, with an angular, hexagon-shaped face—who shuffled them to a waitress as easily as he did other customers. She, the waitress, whose hair had been straightened, jabbered barely hearable because her head whipped back and forth as she veered through tables of diners, crisscrossing servers and busboys with clinking loads. Finally they were seated and she, with unhurried vision, recognized Earl clearly and discontinued her spiel about their specials. With a pen’s ballpoint, she distractedly scratched her upper sternum, leaving a blue thunderbolt, and clutched her waist like a little teapot. Earl and Joy snickered. It was “too bad” he was quitting, she said. Two years was a very long time; they (the restaurant) should give him an award, a lifetime achievement plaque, or, at worst, a gift card; and, moreover, that night’s event would have to be cancelled because there was only one contestant who, she offhandedly added, was “scrawny;” nevertheless, congratulations. But it had only been twenty-three months, not two years, and a victory more seemed perfect—two twelvemonths, twenty-four months, two and four: even, divisible, rhythmic. He had envisioned a smattering would expect to see him on the platform, but he’d sit with the spectators and wait for their small, earnest clamor to begin, then rise and go toward the stage, accompanied by their applause, and declare solemnly that he was no longer a participant, the he, like them, had come to watch and cheer and eat noncompetitively, then return to his table with them chorusing “Lights Out!” But there was no outcry and most looked at the little, raised stage as curiously and anticipatively as they would have otherwise.
Danny was the entrant; his clothes were baggy, fingernails dirtied, glasses tiny and worn close to his eyes; the bristly, auburn chest hair vining from his opened collar was twinned, in look and texture, with his Fu Manchu mustache. They shook hands and sat. Danny said he had never participated in an eating contest and asked Earl whether that was his first. Assuming the question was subterfuge, purposely or not, Earl replied that he had done a few, won some, and counseled against nervousness. Sundry thoughts, however, distinct and equally potent, that he could only suppress singly, beamed and cross-beamed within him. To overcome the fear of losing, he had to belittle Danny’s ability; and to motivate himself with anger at the crowd’s indifference, consider his own insignificance. But he thought, too, of action and inaction: how, win or lose, the former, though more fearsome, was also most reassuring. He knew its contours and could navigate them blindly. The countdown was beginning; he clenched the spoon, cleared his throat, and leaned forward. He could see the lumpy food dwindling, its residue staining the concave, then him razing, with paws and utensil, patches of gooey lakelets and squashy hillocks; Danny’s mustache speckled with hardening sauce in defeat and Joy, perforce smiling, flashing that same dextral digit.
“Earl …,” she said unsurely, patting her drizzly forehead with the back of her hand then sweeping an unfurling curl from her eye.
“Yep, I’m surprised you recognized me. I wondered if you would when I saw you,” he replied.
He and Joy had entered “Rocking Rod’s”—which since their last visit had been sold to another person, also not named Rod, and now possessed a permanent stage and lectern—with interlaced fingers and giddily speculating about who, if anyone, would identify Earl first and, if so, whether her presence would be a hint. He had suggested that he arrive before her but relented when she protested, asserting it was as important to her as it was to him to see that first incredulous face. Wondering how that moment would transpire, he had pictured an amazed shriek followed by a gathering of those who knew him; and he’d turn at their request, once, twice, thrice, and again, as they ogled him, his winnowed physique and mug that revealed, still beneath somewhat chubby jowls, his mandible. But it was only a scenario; and he was happy with what had come.
“Unbelievable,” the waitress continued, “you look like a totally new person, younger too. I almost didn’t recognize you—It’s your face. Even though it’s thinner, I can see you in there, in your eyes especially. How much weight did you lose?”
“About a hundred twenty-five pounds so far, I still have a little more to go, but I’m on my way,” he said, tapping his stomach, “Tonight won’t set me back too much, hopefully.”
“It won’t. You look completely different from the last time I saw you,” she said. “That was, God, I don’t know, when—”
“The night that guy beat me, about eight or nine months ago.”
“It’s been that long?” She squinted, brought her hand to her mouth and spoke slowly, using elongated syllables and pauses to burrow her mind. “I—can’t—remember—his—name—”
“That was it, Danny. He never came back after that,” she continued, “Regardless, I can’t believe how thin you are now.”
“He never came back…,” he reiterated, the sentence evanescing into the restaurant’s bustle as its mental precursor had into his stream of thought.
“I can’t believe it,” she repeated, surveying him. “That’s amazing—amazing.”
Joy began to swing her and Earl’s held hands as though some unseen force had sent the pendulum into motion; the server readied a couple of menus.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody lose as much weight as you that quickly, not in real life. If you were on one of those television shows you might’ve set some kind of record.”
“I don’t know,” Earl answered, “maybe, maybe not.”