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"The Food Mentor," by Penny Perry
I open the boysenberry jam jar and sing “With a name like SMUCKERS it has to be
good.” Usually my mother June chimes in. Today she stares at me.
“Two pieces of toast and jam,” she says. “If you keep eating so much the only job
you’ll be good for is fat lady at the circus.”
My eyes squeeze. Did my own mother just say I could be a freak?
“You’ll be as fat as Claire,” June says. Claire is June’s best friend. She weighs two-
hundred and forty-two pounds. A year ago she had sixty pounds removed surgically.
Some of it has already come back.
“I’m not trying to be harsh. You know I love you. And I love Claire. That’s why I’m
telling you this.”
Only two days ago Katy Johnson said I had so much junk in my trunk I could hold a
yard sale. I cover my plump legs, my mound of stomach with a napkin.
“Thin is power,” June says. “There is no place in the world for fat people.”
Some day would a doctor have to cut off slabs of me? “Could I really be as fat as
June’s face is half hidden by a cloud of cigarette smoke. “Last week when we bought
your training bra the saleslady said we might have to go to the women’s department and
get a plus size. You’re only eleven.”
I tap my fingers on the table. At least my fingers are thin.
“I wanted to die,” June says.
She isn’t the only one. “Dad and Claire say it is just baby fat. It will melt away.”
“Did your grandmother’s flesh melt away? It’s not all your fault. Some of it is
genetic. Some families are fatter than others. Some of it is our Jewish family’s immigrant
mentality. Your great grandmother was proud she had plump arms and a blimp of a
behind. Being fat meant your husband was wealthy enough to feed you,” June sighs, “and
then run off with a younger, thinner woman.”
“Aunt Sylvia was thin.”
“She’s an in-law. She doesn’t count.” June sits down next to me. “We can reverse this.
Look at the way you mastered English grammar this year. You gave up your Saturdays
afternoons to learn how to diagram sentences.”
“I’m a whiz at grammar, but you can’t get a man with a strong, declarative sentence.”
June starts to smile. I may be a blimp like my great grandmother but I can still make
my mother laugh. For some reason I think about how June and I fell in love with the
poetry of Amy Lowell, then we saw her picture. How could someone that lumpy write so
delicately? We stopped quoting Amy to each other.
“There is another reason this isn’t your fault,” June says.
I slide water down my dry throat. June is looking for a way to forgive me.
“You were born prematurely, only four pounds, two ounces.” June says. “You had to
be in an incubator. You were so tiny.” She looks at me wistfully. Does she want me to be
that tiny again? “We kept you on your formula until you turned into a watermelon.”
I am still a watermelon. I spit my toast out.
“Don’t think I don’t understand. I was thin all through childhood.” June sips black tea.
“But when I was eighteen, I suddenly ballooned up to one-hundred and thirty pounds.”
I try to picture her with that extra freight.
“My friend said I looked like I had a pinochle table stapled to my backside. How can
people be so cruel?”
I blink at June. “I don’t know.” I fight new tears. “How did you lose the weight?”
“I stayed with my sister and went on a liquid diet. Like vampires and bats, we only
went out at night so no one would see my huge behind. After ten days of the fabulous
fluid experiment my pinochle table was gone. ” She snaps her fingers. “I beat the genes.
And you can do.” She lights another cigarette. “Maybe I shouldn’t have started our talk
with Claire and the circus. I was too hard on you.”
“You were just telling the truth.”
“So was the pinochle table girl.”
“I hate the way my thighs melt together when I’m sitting and make that little kissing
sound when I pull them apart.”
“You can be thin.”
Not possible. “What do I have to do?”
“Don’t think of your-self as fat,” June says. “Think thin.”
“That’s it? Aren’t you always telling me there is no shortcut to excellence?”
“See yourself skinny in a bikini or a skin tight skirt. It’s a matter of discipline. It’s just
numbers, eleven calories for a prune, one hundred calories for non fat yogurt. Walk
twelve blocks and you burn off a piece of unbuttered toast. But you have to be
Walk for miles. Count calories. There is no shortcut.
I picture myself as big as Claire in a red polka dot dress waving to the circus crowd.
“Good, because you know they’ll all be against us. Your father thinks you’re perfect.
Claire’s sure you don’t have her problem.”
“Claire is my enemy?”
June points her burning cigarette at me. “Fat people want everyone else to be fat. Have
you studied her thighs recently? She’s put on another three inches per.”
I hug myself. If Claire were here, she’d be hugging me. How can June talk about her
best friend as if the only important thing about her is that she weighs too much? Doesn’t
it count that Claire gives the best hugs in the entire world?
June’s eyes squeeze as if the sight of me is too painful to look at. “You have to lose at
least nine pounds.”
“I can lose that in a week,” I try a smile, “if I saw off my arm.”
Her sigh makes my smile go away.
“Think of a pound of potatoes on a supermarket scale. Imagine nine pounds of those
potatoes on your tiny frame,” she says.
I can see the potatoes on my arms, thighs, stomach, and hips. How can I hope to get
Steve Miller’s attention when my toast-colored legs looked like they should be holding
up a dining room table?
“But you don’t need to get any thinner.”
“There’s no such thing as too thin. Dieting is the one thing I do superbly well. Think
of me as your food mentor.”
We step into the small dining room in the back of the Little Hut restaurant. “Do we
tell Claire about the Big D?” I whisper.
“Tell a grown two-hundred and forty pound woman that I’m putting my eleven-year-
old-daughter on a diet? Don’t worry. We will play Hide and Destroy.” June waves to
Claire, in a floral tent dress, sitting in a corner. “Sleeveless,” June says. “She has no
“It’s summer,” I say.
I smile at the lace placemats, the vase of flowers at each table. I love the Garden
Club’s luncheon. All year I see these hard core gardeners wearing jeans and shoveling
manure. One day a year they greet each other in their best dresses. For a week now I’ve
been dreaming of the hamburger patty, the potato salad.
Claire hugs me. She smells of gardenias and licorice. “Take off your coat and stay
awhile,” she says.
“The air conditioner makes me too cold,” I lie. I wish I could be like Claire and let
everyone see my fat, but I’m my mother’s daughter. I cover myself with a red, wool coat.
Whenever I take my coat off I see those now extra seven pounds hanging on my arms,
filling out my midriff and making my legs and hips bulge.
“You’re wearing your first place ribbon.” Claire smiles at June.
“You’re wearing yours.” June smiles back.
June wins the first place iris prize every year. Claire wins first place for her Peace
rose. The two of them lean together and start talking compost teas and fertilizers.
I’m torn between drooling over the menu or reading Amy Lowell’s poems. I take the
Lowell book with me everywhere. I may never be beautiful, but I can love beautiful
words. A waitress brings the menu.
“The roast beef sandwich and potato salad look wonderful,” Claire says.
My mouth waters: roast beef, lettuce, and luscious mayonnaise. “I’ll have that,” I say.
June closes her eyes. Is she disappointed in me? Repulsed? All those pep talks and
still the minute I see the menu I succumb to the mayonnaise. “I’m sorry,” I tell her.
June bats a hand at me, makes my words disappear. “You’ll have three pineapple
slices and cottage cheese.” She turns to Claire. “Don’t you think it’s too warm for potato
Claire looks straight at June. “It’s so cold in here your daughter has to wear her coat.”
June closes her eyes again. Maybe she is trying to shut out the vision of Claire
shoveling down potatoes and hard boiled eggs while the other slender garden club
members nibble on cottage cheese. Do opposites attract? June five foot one and ninety-
seven pounds picked Claire to be her best friend. Maybe besides sharing the love of
turning compost and reading Agatha Christie murder mysteries the secret of their
friendship at least for June is that no matter how much weight June puts on she will
always feel petite next to Claire. My stomach rumbles louder.
“My daughter and I will have the roast beef on rye,” my mother tells the waitress who
is thin enough and pretty enough to be a model.
Heaven. I want to throw my arms around June and thank her. But she isn’t like Claire.
Claire hugs me back even harder. Hugs surprise June, make her shiver and shake them
off like a dog getting out of a bath.
“No mayonnaise,” June says.
I slump in my seat and listen to the artillery rumbling in my stomach.
“Do you want cottage cheese or potato salad?” The waitress stares at me. Does she
guess how much extra freight is under my coat? But I don’t care. The loss of the
mayonnaise makes me wild. “Potato salad,” I say.
June presses red lips together.
When the food comes June takes a bite of her sandwich. Since we are in this bite for
bite that means I can have a taste too. The roast beef is thick and lovely. The lettuce is
cool and sweet. I chew my food thirty times the way June taught me: “You will think you
are eating more than you actually are and you’ll get full more quickly.”
June nibbles her rye crust. She is on this diet with me. She is making this sacrifice for
me. I shouldn’t have ordered the potato salad and sabotaged our plan. The salad sits in an
enticing mound on the side of my plate. I cover the mound with the largest lettuce leaf
from my sandwich. I’ll pretend the salad isn’t there. Maybe later I’ll allow myself one or
two bites. I sip water. Since I gave up the mayo and am planning to give up the potato
salad, maybe I can order my favorite drink – pink lemonade.
Claire watching me chew, winks at me. A tall woman in teal stands on the platform in
the front of the room. Soft music plays. The fashion show is about to begin.
What does Claire think about a parade of thin women? Does she believe that’s who they
are and I’m who I am? Or does she hope with a lot of will power and June’s thirty chews
per bite I can wear a skinny dress too.
“Is that one hundred per cent linen?” June leans over my plate to get a closer look at
the suit the model (all eyes, cheek bones, teeth and hip bones) shows us. The model is
beautiful, except she has no breasts. I look down at my chest. Maybe my beginning
breasts should be the next part of me to go.
“Lovely.” June points her burning cigarette at the white linen suit. She edges her
cigarette under my lettuce. Ashes drop. The cigarette resembles some awful garden pest,
a fiery caterpillar burning up a cabbage leaf.
My once lovely potato salad looks like an erupting volcano. My hands make fists. I
want to knock the cigarette out of June’s hand and run to the kitchen and bury my face in
a lovely tub of mayonnaise. How can June do this to me? Yes, she said we would play
Hide and Destroy but I didn’t think she meant she would destroy my entire potato salad. I
thought maybe she would drop crusts from the sandwich in her purse or scrape off some
of the mayo but the whole salad? She has gone too far.
I grab my plate and pull it close to me and out of June’s reach. I hope that part of the
potato salad has been spared, I lift the lettuce leaf. My potato salad is now a perfect
replica of Mt. St. Helen’s. June’s mission of Hide and Destroy is complete. I tell the
waitress at the next table, “I’ll have pink lemonade with loads of sugar.”
Claire looks up at the model’s face. The model’s long lashes flap a few times. She
studies Claire’s arms. “Dusty pink,” Claire says.
At first I think she is talking about my unauthorized drink. “Do you have that suit in a
dusty pink? That suit would look,” Claire pauses and studies the model who is trying to
appear calm and ready for anything that this very large woman might say. ”That suit
would look lovely on my friend June,” Claire says. “She could be a model, don’t you
June is busy sprinkling cigarette ash on her pineapple slices. She cocks her head and
waits for the model’s answer. But the model just shoots a wrinkled smile at the two of
them and walks as quickly away as she can walk in heels and the tight skirt that ropes her
Claire says, “Heather would you like some of my potato salad since yours has met
“Yes, I’d love some,” I say.
June shakes her head. “Heather you can have my parsley.”
“Parsley, wonderful,” I say.
June frowns. “It’s loaded with Vitamin A.”
“It’s too small to be loaded with anything.” Still, I take a sprig, stick it between my
teeth and chew ten times.
“Have you lost weight?” Claire asks June.
“Maybe half a pound,” June says.
“You look pale,” Claire says. “You’re getting a little too thin. Have you talked with
If June looks sick it is my fault. She is going bite by bite for me. How can I be so
ungrateful? l ignore her instructions and make sarcastic remarks about parsley.
“I have a doctor’s appointment coming up,” June is saying. “He has an unfriendly
“How is it unfriendly?” Claire asks.
“It’s three pounds heavier than mine.”
“All scales are unfriendly to me.” Claire wobbles to her feet. Her varicose veins make
her pale legs looked like slabs of blue marble. “I’ll be right back.” She tilts her head. Her
eyes are bright and defiant and ready to meet the stares of the mostly slender garden club
June squeezes my hand. Her touch warms me under my winter coat. “You were so
brave, so much will power,” she whispers.
I shove Claire’s offering of potato salad away. “I’ll make you proud,” I tell June.
At the beach I wear my winter coat over my swim suit. When the July sun gets too hot I
take off my coat and drape a towel over me. The Pacific shimmers. A fat seagull swoops
down and eats a potato chip. Does the seagull’s mother care if the seagull is plumper than
the others? I shut my eyes and pretend that the waves breaking on the shore are white
caps of vanilla milk shakes.
“You look cozy,” a voice says.
I open one eye a crack, squint at skinny tan toes on the edge of my beach towel. I look
up at the rest of him. Long thin legs, thin tan torso. Windmill arms. Those arms could
leap up and catch a high fly ball sailing over second base.
“Hi Bones,” I say.
He kneels to get his face closer to mine. “Have you been sick?”
“I missed seeing you too.”
“Heather, you look sick. Look at your arm. It looks like mine.”
“So, we’re both sick?”
He studies me. A laugh makes his head turn. Amy Wilson serves a ball over the net on
the volleyball court. Even his deep tan doesn’t hide Bone’s blush. Then his glance is back
at me. “Whatever this is about, some boy that’s made you lose your appetite, just know
that you’re worth a lot more.” Skinny fingers ruffle my hair. His thin, strong legs take
him across the white sand. His beach towel flaps against his thin back. His brown gold
hair set off its own light even in the glare of the summer sun.
My scalp still glows where he touched me. It wasn’t a romantic touch. It was almost
sacred. As if he had anointed me with Coppertone tanning lotion and set me apart from
the others. I shut my eyes and this time the waves aren’t milk shakes, they are just
whitecaps. That’s all they need to be.
At night I dream of food, mounds of potato salad slabs of beef. Ice cream sodas with
whip cream and cherries. In my dreams the refrigerator door squeaks open and reveals all
the goodies inside. Once I dreamed Claire was my mother. I sprawled on her upholstered
couch, and broke open a bag of potato chips waiting for me on the floor. Claire wrapped
her big arms around me. Sun poured in through the window. “Darling,” she said. “Today
you can eat everything you want.”
I wake up from a food dream, roll up in a ball and hug myself. My stomach howls. I
picture myself sneaking into the kitchen and grabbing a slice of cheese. But that would be
cheating. One slice would lead to another and soon I’d be ready for the circus.
I live on carrot sticks. By the end of August I have shed my winter coat and seven of
the nine hated pounds. I wear shorts and tank tops. At the market, I pick up a carton of
Rocky Road ice cream to celebrate. Steve, our class president glances up from the
magazine rack. “Heather, you look great.”
So Bones is blind as well as skinny. The boy who really counts is looking at me as if I
am a juicy roast beef sandwich. I put the Rocky Road back and choose a six pack of diet
soda. “You look great too.” I wink Claire’s wink at Steve.
His answer is a grin.
I run the three blocks home. I can’t wait to tell the food mentor that every stomach
rumbling, every hunger pang is worth the suffering. I earned that grin.
June sits at the kitchen table. She tips her glass back.
“Drinking in the afternoon?” I ask.
“It’s vinegar. Want some? It burns calories right up.”
The vinegar is bitter and tickles my throat. “I don’t need this. I only have two pounds
She looks at my thin legs. “No more diet. You’re ready for maintenance.”
Margarine appears on my toast. A whole sandwich, plus fruit and carrot sticks and
even Jell-o make a bounteous lunch. For dessert at dinner I have seven fat prunes at
eleven calories each. At first it is hard to finish these larger meals. But one night after a
dinner of meat, salad and a quarter ear of corn, I still feel hungry.
“Our maintenance is just like someone else’s diet,” I tell June.
“Don’t be silly,” June says. “You’re not losing any more weight are you? Besides, bite
for bite, I’m on maintenance too.”
The refrigerator door squeaks. I open my eyes. My bedroom is dark. I’m having my
refrigerator dream again. My stomach rumbles. One small carrot stick and a glass of
water will comfort me. In my slippers I tiptoe down the hall. I open the kitchen door a
June and Claire sit at the kitchen table. They are eating roast beef sandwiches. Roast
beef sandwiches with thick mayonnaise. I bang the door open. They both look up. June
has a mayo mustache and a guilty grin.
“It’s my fault,” Claire says. “I know about your bite for bite diet but I asked her for a
sandwich and once she got cutting all that meat…”
“Now that I’m sinning would you like to sin too?” June sounds so casual, as if wolfing
down a sandwich is normal behavior.
“Two pieces of bread at the same time,” I shout. “A meal in the middle of the night?
Bite for bite you said. It’s harder on me than it is on you. I starved all summer. You’re so
called maintenance diet can barely keep a flea alive. And meanwhile you’re having a
secret orgy. What are you trying to do?”
“I wanted to keep you thin,” June says. “If you thought I was doing the diet you would
have the courage to do it too. Plus, I get more exercise than you. I need the extra
“I told your mother it wasn’t a good idea,” Claire says. “You’d find out.”
I look at the two of them. The bulky woman in a polka dot house coat and skinny
Minnie in some tight-fitting thing with a high collar that makes her skin look yellow-
gray. “This isn’t your first midnight feast?” That squeaking refrigerator door wasn’t just
in my dreams. It is a real life refrigerator door opening up its goodies to my hypocritical
mother. “You’ve been binging.”
“I did the diet for you,” June says. “And it worked.”
“You lied. You told me anyone could live on this diet and you ate in secret. You told
me I was a freak.”
“I didn’t want you to have the struggles Claire and I had.”
Wonderful, now, a ninety-seven pound woman is comparing herself to a two-hundred
and forty-two pound woman. I grab half a cold baked potato and stuff it in my mouth. I
open the top of a bottle and pour maple syrup down my throat. I snatch two pieces of
bologna from the deli drawer.
“Don’t eat,” June yells. She tugs at the bologna, but I have already chewed it.
I reach for what I want most, mayonnaise. My tongue swirls around the inside of the
jar. The luscious cream lines my cheeks, fills the top of my mouth slides down my throat.
No matter. I will have a happy death.
Claire pats my back. “Stick your fingers down your throat and throw it up,” June
Claire slaps me harder. White stuff dribbles down my chin. When I was little they
used to fight over the wash cloth. Each wanted the honor of cleaning me. Now, neither of
“Traitors,” I shout. “I’m sick of your Laurel and Hardy Binge and Purge show.” I grab
my red coat from the hall closet and run out into the night.
Bologna, maple syrup and mayo taste like sour tears in my throat. I walk twelve long
city blocks. “Liars, hypocrites,” I scream. “You both belong in the circus, the fat lady and
the lady without a brain.” Tears run down my face. A woman at the corner of 11th and
Margarita pokes her head out the window and stares at me. “I believed,” I cry. “I thought
she knew everything.” The woman shuts the window and closes her Venetian blinds.
I run toward the ocean. “Do I belong in a circus or on the cover of Vogue?” I ask a
stray dog. Does the dog care that its tail is too big for its body? “I’ll never go home
But even as I run I am counting calories. Twelve city blocks equal one mile. One mile of
running might work off three mouthfuls of maple syrup.
The scent of night blooming jasmine fills the air. I stop running. Now, I smell roses
and gardenias. Under a street lamp, I see a garden at a corner house. Foxgloves
columbines and my favorite flowers, larkspurs bloom. I bend to look closer. Amy Lowell
called larkspurs “blue spears.” If I hadn’t given up on my own beauty and decided to hide
in my winter coat I wouldn’t have looked for beauty in the pages of a poetry book. I
wouldn’t have stopped and noticed this summer garden. I turn toward home.
She is waiting for me outside. Not June, the coward, but Claire, her messenger, the
one who June always sends to deliver bad news. The street lamp shines on Claire’s moon
“There’s nothing that either of you have to say that I want to hear,” I announce in my
formal, snottiest tone. I jog in place, burning calories.
“I think your mother has a problem. Ever since she started your diet I’ve been worried.
Her skin is yellow. She eats in secret. She covers perfectly good food with cigarette
ashes. Her daughter’s weight is more important to her than her daughter’s mental health.
She diets before she goes to the doctor’s because of his unfriendly scales. Does that
sound normal to you?”
I look at the five foot three two- hundred and forty-two pound woman. “What’s
“She wasn’t trying to hurt you on purpose. She’s involved in some kind of crazy war
of her own.”
“She didn’t have to enlist me as one of her soldiers.”
June’s cigarette glows in the dark. Something sloshes. Vinegar in a tumbler? She
drinks vinegar as if it were water. A little vinegar might be healthy but eight glassfuls a
day? This is the person I count on for answers? I snap on the light.
“Maybe I needed to lose a few pounds. But I wasn’t ready for the circus. Bones
Gilbert said my arms were too thin. Bones Gilbert,” I shout. “You made me hate myself.”
She puffs her cigarette. “I’m different than those blimps, my cousins. Claire. I didn’t
want to you to be one of them. I’m better than they are, don’t you see? I’m thin. I can
stay thin. I want you to have that power too.”
“I’d rather be Claire,” I say. “She smells of good things. Hershey bars, potato chips.
Not cigarettes and vinegar. And she’s not afraid to hug me.”
June stares at me. I look at her, the one thin person in a fat family. Bite for crazy bite
she has always been on her own. I bend down and hug her. She hugs me back. We hold
onto each other, two people without a mentor.
Author’s note: My mother died of anorexia at the age of 43.
Penny Perry has been widely published as a poet, most recently in Lilith and the San Diego Poetry Annual. Her fiction has appeared in Redbook and California Quarterly. She was the first woman admitted to The American Film Institute screenwriting program, and a film based on her script, A Berkeley Christmas ,aired on PBS.
A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee in both fiction and poetry, she was born and raised in Santa Monica, the setting for her first collection of poetry, Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage (Garden Oak Press, 2012), available at Amazon via CreateSpace.