A man is lost in the dunes of Death Valley while searching for the 'Man in White' . sorta.
| FAT CHANCE
A Short Story
Ralph Doomas was lost.
He had abandoned the rental Fiat an hour ago behind some foothills bordering the sand dunes; scorching dunes, that he was now ploughing through in a desperate hunt for succor; or even a road; better yet, any place housing water.
Ralph had eaten lunch in Bartsow at his favorite small-bites place on the east end of the main street. Ralph chuckled with the waitresses while he consumed the equivalent of four regular lunches (or ten small-bites lunches) before quivering and jiggling his three hundred and forty pounds out through the delivery entrance and onto the scalding sidewalk. Ralph reached his car, wiggled, and shook his Biggest-Loser carcass into the red Fiat.
Ralph was five-seven, very fat and very bald.
His face wore a continuous impression of confusion while his eyes expressed an insatiable hunger.
His wife had left him when the scale read two hundred and forty pounds.
His on-the-rebound fat girlfriend had skedaddled when Taylor’s top-of-the-line scale shot out a reading of three hundred.
After a week of living alone, Ralph celebrated his fortieth birthday by swallowing four colossal birthday cakes.
Quickly thereafter, he hit the three-forty squiggle on the scale.
His ex-wife had taken custody of their four fat little girls.
Mother Bugsee Doomas declared that the mere presence of ‘Fat Ralphy’—as the girls called him—was not setting a good example. On the contrary, FR, who by now was barely able see over his five chins, had become a giant-balloon of a Poster Boy for the diet industry.
Even “Biggest Loser” spurned him—well, at least until he had dropped about fifty pounds on his own.
The Fiat had been the last rental vehicle—other than, the huge jacked-up off –road vehicle belonging to the tall skinny and very white car-washer kid with the dreadlocks.
Ralph cursed into one of his chins and grudgingly accepted the Fiat.
Very oddly, after a few miles, Ralph began to feel quite comfortable, despite the unforgiving confines of the tiny vehicle.
His next port of call was to be the worker-suburbs of Las Vegas, but a moment after switching on the radio, Ralph tuned into a live report about some fifty-year-old guy running from the lowest point in America—Badwater, Death Valley—to the top of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States, over a hundred and forty miles; non-stop; in August.
Apparently, this running-shoed lunatic had begun his trek before dawn, and was presently plodding painfully slow steps along his path to fame.
Ralph was instantly intrigued, and thought very quickly that a jogger could lose a lot of water—and weight—along the way; perhaps this would be a drastic form of weight-loss exercise to rid himself of a hundred or two.
Ralph suddenly decided to go and see this jogger in the all-white outfit and hat.
He would take an hour or so, and follow him; shout encouragement— offer him food and drink.
Such a great plan, too; this could be very been exciting; an unforgettable event.
All at once, with only about a mile or so to go before reaching an unpaved road leading to the main highway, the engine temperature began to spike; then the oil gauge hit the red zone; in five minutes, the engine seized.
He tried to get a cell-phone signal, and receiving none, set out on foot in the rough direction of the highway.
Ralph believed that his path was correct.
His father had brought him this way the very first time; when he was living the life of a skinny thirteen-year-old in Bakersfield.
Ralph’s father had managed oil rigs and his mother had taught kindergarten.
Ralph did the teen thing and listened to Buck Owens on a regular basis and never missed a laugh with Gordie Tapp on Hee Haw.
After his marriage, and before ballooning, Ralph and Bugsee had driven along the same route, which was not much more than the tire tracks of his first visit. Today there was asphalt; mostly.
He had had crossed a couple of feeble rivulets where the road had reverted to a trail for a few hundred yards; otherwise he was on course.
Ralph was by no means a stupid man; not high on the I. Q. test, but, au fond, a very practical man.
Being unfailingly practical was Ralph’s best weapon in his arsenal of positives that suffused his insurance presentations; his power points; his pleas; his grifts as well as some lies, all of which he employed to keep himself employed and his company extremely pleased with the amount of business he wrote up every year.
His supervisor was now the Senior Manager of the district, answerable only to Philly; and like Ralph, Charlie loved to put on the nose bag; belly up to a trough; inhale stacks of victuals.
In truth, they were very fat pals.
But right now, when Ralph thought of good old fat-boy Charlie James, he had an immediate stab of fear; a body-reaction slough of questions; should he have eaten so much, so many times; was he about to keel over; pass out; die, from just being a porker?
However, the stab proved to be the perfect prod for Ralph to get the considerable breadth of his extremely broad beam into a higher gear.
He was not about to let his fat ass betray his hammering heart.
Luckily, both the clean–up crew from the rental agency, as well as the previous renter, had missed the small half-full water bottle wedged under the diver’s seat.
Ralph had found it very quickly and wisely took only a couple of sips. Somehow, through all those layers, a voice had hit his mammoth gut and relayed the message through walls of tissue to his brain that ‘conservation’ was in play here; maybe even survival.
However, even the memory of those first sips of water had left him after he had struggled less than a mile.
While he staggered under the brutal August sun, Ralph was trying to remember the name of his high school chemistry teacher.
Ralph could see the mirage of his chemistry instructor out there, in front of his dehydrating, gyrating body. There was the spotless-white lab coat dancing along with its occupant upon the waves of one hundred and twenty- four degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley.
Ralph began to sorely resent the fact that he had been in Barstow earlier in the day, flogging a new line of insurance recently concocted by his employers—mostly older white men—who were presently squatting in air conditioned offices in Philadelphia while he was trying to cope with a near-death experience in the territory of the Devil’s Golf Course.
Suddenly he realized that he had a mantra mantraing; ‘beat the heat’, ‘beat the heat,’ beat the heat.
Quickly his gigantic mass was quivering to the rhythm of his—he hoped—life saving beat; his march.
He was Alec Guinness, smartly marching to the Colonel Bogey March, beside the River Kwai.
He imagined columns of soldiers struggling bravely behind him as he strode proudly past the menace of the enemy dunes.
Ralph was, from his perspective, really moving along; most of the rest of us would think he was barely stepping out.
Nevertheless, what truly mattered was what the scene was to Ralph; and his setting was that of the hero defying all the negative predictions and conquering all the odds; the leader; the commander: ‘the hero’.
Up on Highway 190, Al Arnold slowly slipped over the tiniest of heat waves rising from the Death Valley road, now measuring 144 degrees Fahrenheit. His odyssey; his unimaginable quest could be just another Quixotic footnote in the endless ledger of delusions, the timeless recordings of man’s failures to outwit—even defy, Mother Nature.
On the other hand, he might just be that one person at that one precise moment in the tear of the social construct of time to succeed; filling that fleeting break between the passing moons and reach the summit.
Al had always believed that he was the one who could pull out a hidden and unimaginable force from inside his core to eliminate all structural breakdowns; all the unreasonable demands; all the mental barriers; the grinding pain; the unthinkable dehydration.
Moreover, so far, he had been able to successfully find and destroy all these impediments to his progress as soon as they poked their heads into his consciousness; some he took out early with preemptive strikes.
Most would return later.
On two previous attempts at this trial, this heroic pursuit to confound all physical and mental conformity, they had beaten him; conquered his will; left him retching and thinking he would never catch his breath and quickly die.
However, this time—so far—this time, just about everything was different. Some strange invisible mantle of serenity was allowing him to relax, to the extent that he felt as though he was directing this ‘show’ from outside his body; from the side of the road; watching himself go by.
The quiet was virtually complete. While Al was rearming his will; reinforcing his early advantage, he was able to suppress even the murmur of his own breathing. It was there; steady; confident; very low.
He had managed to get his pulse to 38 in training sessions; now it was higher; but not much; probably the thrill of a new beginning; the elation when he passed the spot where he had been forced to quit two years ago. Yes, a quiet confidence had settled around Al.
But what the hell is that?
Ralph had lost or forgotten the number of refrains of the River Kwai March that he had hummed or whistled, but he was still on his feet; wobbling; lurching toward—
My God; the road! . . . But what the hell is that?
Al slowed just a half step while he took in the industrial –sized immensity of . . . of this thing, that was jiggling toward him.
Jesus, if we collide, I’m done. Wait now; c’mon man; wait now; be steady; don’t stop; he’s going damn near as slow as you are; just let him pass; just miss him.
Ralph relaxed and smiled.
Oh my God; an angel; all that white; I’m dead.
Then, very slowly, Ralph got it.
This was not an angel; he was not dead; it was the guy in white; there he was, barely moving; slightly; almost just skimming over the surface.
But . . . he’s going away.
A proper panic finally filtered into Ralph's little daydream; the man in white was not stopping; he was not going to help him.
Oh well; I’ll get help from his crew; somebody must be with him.
Ralph stopped, and made a point of standing squarely in the middle of the steaming asphalt.
He looked West and saw the back of the man in white barely moving away from him; clearly too intent on his quest to bother to help poor Ralph.
Ralph turned to the East.
Not even the speck of an approaching car.
An “On the Beach” scene in Death Valley.
While Ralph stared at the vacant East, he sighed and wondered how Greg would have handled this predicament.
Then it struck him between his widely separated-by-fat-forehead eyes.
Meanwhile, under his white hood, Al did a quick systems check. All lights remained green; no troubles for Huston yet.
I wonder what that was I saw? Was that really a half-naked guy about the size of Reno coming out of the dunes?
Al had suffered not only many delusions in his fifty years but also an equal number of illusions, especially while running around the clock on Mount Diablo.
Whatever. Keep it cool guys; really cool.
Ralph decided that he would have to move only slightly faster than the Man in White to overtake him within a half a mile or so.
He would ups to him and ask him for water.
And where’s your crew? And what the hell are you doing this for?
Somewhere along the naked stretch of the Devil’s Anvil, Al Arnold heard whistling.
He managed only a slight frown, to preserve his energy, while the eerie sounds of the whistling drew closer. Creeping even closer, the whistled notes were now recognized by Al.
Something was coming his way; up behind him; and it was whistling the mournful notes of “Waltzing Matilda.”