On their twenty-eighth wedding anniversary, Bob and Flora Boyle decided to sprout. They had thought about it for years, of course, and wondered aloud whether they were mature enough for sprouts. Expense was no longer an issue; Bob had just graduated to senior partner in his Santa Monica architectural firm, and last year Flora had broken six figures on income from her web-based personal make-over consultancy business. No, they could afford sprouts. In fact, every year at tax time their accountant told them they could scarcely afford not to sprout.
Successful, childless (like the rest of their generation), and overweight, they met all the prerequisites. Sure, they had their problems; what married couple didn’t? They weren’t about to let a touch of marital strife slow them down. A pair of sprouts might even pull them closer together.
At the recommendation of Your First Sprout, they planned for sixty-pounders. They fixed up the guest bedroom with bunk beds, bought appropriate-sized clothes from Kid’s Gap, applied well ahead of deadline for Sprout Certificates. No one could accuse them of unpreparedness. Yet the sixty pound mark came and went, sixteen weeks into the diet for Flora, fifteen for Bob, with no happy sprouts to call their own.
They lost seventy pounds. Eighty. They took turns crouching on the ground to read the scale as the other weighed in, each outwardly helpful but secretly incredulous. When the low water mark reached eighty-five, Bob visited his doctor, the wiry Arnold Fox.
The doctor’s size twenty-eight lab coat hung on him like a poncho. This man would never know the joy of sprouting. As Bob pulled up his trousers, Dr. Fox scratched his bony chin and said, “I wonder how committed you are to the idea of weight loss, Mr. Boyle. Perhaps you haven’t sprouted because you have yet to completely relinquish the weight.” He tapped a skeletal finger against his sunken temple. “I’m talking about up here.”
“You’re saying I’m still a fat man, up here?” said Bob, tapping his own temple.
“Mr. Boyle, a five-foot-eight man weighing two hundred seventy-five pounds is fat by definition. I’m saying . . .” Dr. Fox sighed. “Think about it from the sprout’s point of view. Would you want to separate if you thought your host planned to pile the calories back on a week or two later? There’s nothing sadder than watching one of those little guys waste away.”
“He could eat.”
Dr. Fox shook his head.
“Remember when you were a little guy, Mr. Boyle? Putting on weight wasn’t that easy. But, now . . .”
“One trip to Thirty-One Flavors is worth two pounds,” said Bob.
A bony hand glanced off Bob’s shoulder. “Kiss those pounds goodbye,” said Dr. Fox, “I mean really kiss ‘em goodbye, and I’m sure you’ll wake up tomorrow to find a rosy-cheeked, bouncing eighty-five pound sprout in bed beside you.”
Bob tried to do just that. He joined a gym and put in an hour every day, attacked his meals with new vigor, and scraped two-thirds off every plate, silently vowing, This is for you, Bo. He bought and read Are You Lipo-Retentive? The New Freudianism, and paid several hundred dollars to a Burbank hypnotist to aid him in visualizing Thin Bob. It didn’t help matters that Flora sprouted Florette the week after his visit to Dr. Fox. Now, each night over the dinner table, mother and sprout stared at him with the same sad brown eyes, clucking at his every forkful of carbs. Later, as he undressed for the night, they rifled through his pockets expecting to find Mars bars and other forbidden goodies.
“You always were a selfish boy,” his mother told him on the phone one month and negative sixteen pounds later. “I don’t think you’re willing to share your life with a sprout.”
“When you’re older, you’ll regret it,” said his friend Max. “No sprout to chum around with . . . what a sad, sad existence.”
His accountant was more pragmatic. “You and Flora won’t qualify for the Family Tax Benefit unless you both sprout, Bob.”
Over the following months, he thought he sensed something new from Flora’s little Florette. She leered at him disdainfully when she thought he wasn’t looking, and punctuated his greetings and compliments with derisive sniffs. “The terrible tens,” Flora whispered sleepily in his ear one night, but hell, Bob could add and subtract, he knew Florette had passed a hundred pounds weeks ago. She had breasts now, a taste for Kahlua, and a sprout boyfriend who came around every evening in his vintage Honda Civic.
“He’s a lawyer with an office on Wilshire,” Florette said one night in answer to Flora’s pablum complaint, “This boy, we don’t even know him.” Then Florette snapped her gum, tossed her ponytail, and slammed the front door behind her.
“Sprouts,” said Flora, shaking her head.
“I wouldn’t know,” said Bob, and retreated to the den.
Time passed. Florette grew big, moved out, came back to borrow Flora’s older and fatter outfits. The young sprout’s increasingly pendulous breasts and squarish buttocks prompted Flora to wonder aloud if Florette was planning to have a little Flo of her own soon. Florette’s smile shattered like a wine glass at a Jewish wedding and in tears she fled to her car.
One afternoon at the gym, Bob stepped on the balance beam scale, set the big weight at two hundred, and gaped when the bar clunked down in its bracket. Thanks to a growing sense of hopelessness, he’d been avoiding scales for weeks. Months, even. And now . . . Tremulously, he pushed the big weight to one hundred and slid the little weight from ninety to eighty-five, eighty, seventy-five . . .
One hundred seventy-five pounds, less than half his starting weight and only twenty pounds heavier than his college weight. The mirror didn’t lie: beneath those great sagging folds of loose skin coiled a sleek panther.
In an electrified fugue he showered, dried, pulled on his clothes, and drove home, thinking, Flora sure would look fine in that Cat Woman costume she wore at the Silversteins’ party in ‘90; wondering, as he bounded up the stairs two at a time, whether a Benadryl or two might keep his latex allergy quiet long enough for a good, hard, sweaty –
The bedroom door drifted open, revealing Bo: taut-skinned, one hundred eighty-five pound Bo, Bo who probably wore a winning smile if only Bob could see it; but all Bob saw were Bo’s rosy ass cheeks bouncing in bed atop Flora.
Bob imagined he could remember the instant he and Bo parted ways. He and Flora had been celebrating their recent decision to sprout. In their bedroom’s far corner, a red forty watt lightbulb burned within its rice paper globe; a bedside Felix the Cat clock glared at them with unblinking, darting eyes; patchouli wafted in from the bathroom; Jim Morrison sung Crystal Ship; they were stoned on Flora’s medical marijuana brownies, diets on hold in the interest of their mental health. They were enjoying a flashback moment, and might truly have believed they’d slipped the hold of time to find themselves in the warm stoned past, were it not for the waves that threatened to toss one of them out of the waterbed whenever the other got up to use the can — a reminder this was the Teens, baby, and they were thirty years older and two hundred pounds heavier. Apiece. They’d sadly abandoned the sixty-nine idea — topologically impractical, said Flora — in favor of a more conventional position, and as he rocked into her, thinking of naked Olympic gymnasts, high school cheerleaders fucked up on vodka gimlets and Ecstasy, lap dances with that chick from Kinko’s, thinking of anything to stay hard, a rivulet of sweat rolled down his back and soaked into the sheet. Or so he had thought.
Bob could see it vividly now. Droplet by droplet, a pound rolled away, maybe two, and found refuge in a mountain of socks and dirty undies. There it lurked for weeks, gaining mass as Bob cut calories. It hid under the bed on laundry day, watching them, listening, stifling its laughter during their fits of weekend lovemaking. He remembered the sprout’s lilliputian snorts; he had attributed the noises to Flora, who had become increasingly vocal in her dissatisfaction.
And on those days when Bob slipped from the salubrious path, gave in to that extra helping of cannelloni, a third Tecate, his nth Lay’s Potato Chip . . . when, in short, he failed to satisfy the sprout’s cravings, it must have staged furtive nocturnal refrigerator raids on their Weight Watchers strawberry moussecakes and Jenny Craig cheese curls. Bob had noticed the nibbles. Flora noticed, too. Each had cast suspicious eyes on the other.
And why shouldn’t they — who had ever heard of a sprout leaving its host so soon after the beginning of a diet? And since when had one of the little bastards decided to hide?
It was unnatural.
Flora gasped and rolled out from under Bo. Wide-eyed, she looked first at Bob, then at Bo, and said to Bo, “Honey, you never told me –”
“What do you think you’re doing?” said Bo.
Bob moved his lips soundlessly, confronted by this trimmer, tighter vision of himself. By this stage of Bob’s diet, Bo would outweigh him by ten pounds, and might have just enough meat at the love handles to fool Flora. The crafty devil But he couldn’t have Bob’s flabby rolls of excess skin, nor his diet-atrophied, V-shaped man-titties. Bob ripped off his shirt, exposing himself to his wife and this . . . this impostor.
“Bob? BOB?” said Flora, her horrified gaze planted firmly upon him.
Nor could Bo, concealing himself beneath beds and in closets these past several months, possibly have Bob’s muscles. Bob the panther sprang at the heavier man, knocking him back on the waterbed. His momentum carried him onto the sprout and he rode out the swell, pinning Bo’s chest with his knees. Bob’s right hand flailed out, felt for the Felix the Cat clock, found it, grabbed it, and brought it down squarely between Bo’s eyes.
The clock shattered. Felix’s eyes rolled off the bed. “Help me ” Bob barked as he rolled the stunned sprout off the bed.
“Get me something to tie him with.”
Clutching a pillow to her waist (Bob wondered why she had suddenly become self-conscious), Flora rummaged through her dresser drawers until she found something black and shiny. She tossed it to him.
“Your Cat Woman outfit?”
“Strong as hell.”
Bob nodded. Working quickly, he bound the sprout’s ankles, and had just finished tying his wrists when Bo’s eyes fluttered open. Fear played across those too-familiar features.
Bob chuckled grimly. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth . . .”
“You can’t –”
“No one knows you exist,” said Bob. “I can do whatever I like.”
The image of Bo atop his wife flashed across his mind’s eye. On impulse, Bob shoved a black latex glove into Bo’s mouth.
“Bob, no ” said Flora. “It’ll kill him!”
“What do you care?”
“Idiot, there’ll be a body. Now, come on — there’s a better way.”
Three weeks and countless cheesecakes, bowls of pasta, quarts of chow fun, and gallons of Dreyer’s ice cream later, Bo fit neatly into a six-inch Critter Keeper.
“Hard to believe I ever thought he was you,” said Flora.
Testing the waters, Bob thought, wondering whether he should relent. Sometimes you had to believe your wife no matter how unbelievable she might be. He ran his finger around the inside of his carton of SuperSize fries and licked it clean.
Flora held the Critter Keeper up to her eyes, shook the cage, and clucked softly. “Li’l feller’s kinda cute.”
“Not a chance,” said Bob. He peeled back the foil from his Big Mac and waved at Bo. The sprout slammed his tiny hands against the plastic, demanding satisfaction in a voice even a dog couldn’t hear.Bob polished off the burger in five bites.
In the Critter Keeper, only a pink smudge remained.
“You can try again,” said Flora.
He patted his hands against his belly. “Yeah, better luck next time. So, Skinny — how would you like to make love to a fat man?”
Her mouth twitched into a smile. “You mean it?”
“I’ve been itching to see you in that Cat Woman outfit for the last three weeks.”
“You got a deal, Doughboy,” Flora said, and plastered him with sloppy kisses.
Copyright, Douglas Hoffman