Notes from the small pond: Grape pop
January 7, 2022
When Mary Jo was 7, someone called her “Fatso” as she and her family were walking out of the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart church on a sunny Sunday morning. The offending girl was Mary Jo’s age and she leaned into Mary Jo’s ear as the crush of exiting churchgoers pressed them together, the Confirmed adults reaching for the Holy Water font, dutifully dipping their fingers.
“Yer a fatso,” she’d whispered and then pulled away, back to her place between her two parents, who remained perfectly ignorant of the psychological tatoo their precious daughter had just carved into the self consciousness of someone else’s.
Until then, Mary Jo had never considered herself fat. Or skinny. Or tall or short or pretty or ugly or smart or not-smart. In fact, until then, she’d never really considered herself at all. She was just a part of the world. Until then, she’d been Unconsiderable.
When she got home from church that day, Mary Jo went immediately to the mirror above the bathroom sink, standing on the toilet for a full-body reflection, and stared. At herself.
“Fatso,” she heard her mind say.
From that moment on the church steps, steeple bells pealing in the robin egg sky, Mary Jo was hyper-self-considerable. The picture she kept of herself in her mind’s eye was the image of her standing on the toilet, looking into the mirror at the person she loathed ever since.
By middle school, Mary Jo embraced her self-loathing with the same subconscious intentionality that addicts of every stripe perfect. And she fed her self-hatred as she fed her self. I’m a fatso … so I’m gonna act like a fatso .…
But, honestly, Mary Jo didn’t really overeat. Fatso was way beyond food. Mary Jo acted fat to fit into her Fatso self image.
Meanwhile, as her self-loathing enveloped her psyche like a python on a rabbit, Mary Jo’s disposition toward everyone else was gentle and pleasant and emotionally generous. Even the kids that teased and harassed her mercilessly, brutally, if thunderbolted with truth serum, would have had to admit that Mary Jo was a deeply good person. And for anyone with a modicum of emotional intelligence, that goodness radiated outward from Mary Jo as intensely and obviously as her self-depreciation stabbed inward.
Ken was in his mid-50s when he met Mary Jo. She and her dad had ridden their bicycles past Ken’s house as he was watering his lawn, shirtless and beer-bellied, sweating bottle of Pfeiffer’s hanging loosely from his fingers, empty.
Ken and Mary Jo’s dad were acquainted. Small-town stuff. Mary Jo’s grampa and Ken were about the same age and Ken had known Mary Jo’s dad since he was Mary Jo’s age. Mary Jo’s dad was a local hockey legend. That mattered.
That day on their bikes, Ken had waved and whistled his notable, shrill whistle, an invitation to stop and “BS awhile.”
They stopped. Mary Jo’s goodness radiated, even as she looked down at the street, self-conscious. Ken read her immediately, and as he and Mary Jo’s dad BS’d, he slowly and gently pulled her into their conversation, hinting at a sense of joy that was possible and present, always, even when one’s internal monologue was anything but joyful.
“Pretty nice bike you got there, Kiddo,” Ken said. “Yer dad must sorta like ya.”
Mary Jo looked up, smiling; her sweetness showing in her eyes — the same brown eyes that hid the darkness roiling within.
“Thank you,” she said, and smiled. “I sorta like him, too.”
Her dad laughed and gave her a little shove, kissed her on the crown of her head.
“Especially when he buys me nice bikes … ” she added, sensing the tease-able atmosphere.
“HA!” Ken laughed, fully smitten, and turned to throw his empty beer bottle into the yard of freshly cut grass. He looked back at Mary Jo’s dad, “She’s a little smart aleck, ain’t she!”
Mary Jo’s dad was smiling, nodding his head, exaggeratedly.
“I love it!” Ken said and reached out, tousled Mary Jo’s dark hair. “And she’s cuter’n a bug in a rug, too!”
Something in Mary Jo flitted, like a dimly flickering candle in an enormous, dark castle.
“She sure is,” Mary Jo’s dad said. Then slower and lower, “She sure as hell is.”
There’s a particular kind of helplessness and smothering grief familiar to every daughter’s father — the helplessness and grief of knowing your daughter is suffering and struggling uselessly to hide it, knowing her compulsion to hide it is due, in large part, to the fact that she does not want to trouble you, hurt you with the truth of her suffering — a sort of protective mechanism, daughter-to-father.
Ken, sensing all of this, himself familiar with this dynamic, via his own daughter, chronically uncomfortable with being uncomfortable, changed the mood.
“You two want anything? Bottle of beer? Can of pop? New bike?” He lightly kicked the front tire of Mary Jo’s bicycle, bent down to her eye level. “Huh? Whaddaya want, Sweetheart? Punch in the nose?”
Mary Jo laughed and her brown eyes sparkled, the candle within her brightening.
“Kinda pop do ya have?”
Ken straightened up.
“What kind ya want?”
“Kind ya have?”
“Kind ya want?”
“Kind ya have?”
They teased back and forth, each of them leaning forward toward the other, when delivering their respective lines, like a pair of improv comedic actors, while Mary Jo’s dad beamed, shaking his head satisfyingly.
Finally, Ken said, “We got Pfeiffer. We got Old Milwaukee. We got Michelob. We got Blatz. Which one ya want there, Sunshine?”
Mary Jo’s dad doubled over, laughing uproariously. Mary Jo, not quite getting the joke, but absolutely overjoyed at being part of it without being the cruel brunt of it, smiled like a cat.
“Grape,” she said. “I’ll take grape.”
“Perfect,” Ken said and turned to go get it.
“Grape Pfeiffer!” Mary Jo called after him, a happy naughty smile across her face.
Ken and Mary Jo’s dad burst open with thunderous laughter and Ken spun around to face them, bending at the waist, hands on his knees as if to steady himself on a spinning planet.
“Holy smokes there, Kiddo! You are a little firecracker, ain’t ya!” He was still laughing as he returned with the can of Welch’s Grape Soda and handed it to Mary Jo. “There ya go, Sweetheart. Stop by any time and I’ll always have a can for ya.”
And so did he.
Cloquet’s Parnell Thill is author of “Killing the Devil and Other Excellent Tricks,” available online. His opinions are his own, as are a few of the moments he describes to make his point. Contact him at [email protected]