Jelly Roll seemed to have never considered the idea that food needed preparation. When my mom used to cook, she’d lay out a plan, buy the ingredients ahead of time, then carefully chop, mix, season, baste, and marinate the food in a synchronized order, so that the food could be cooked and finished in unison. If her style was similar to a kitchen staff in a well-run restaurant, trying to please customers with high-standards (me and dad), Jelly Roll would be the non-discriminating dumpster in the alley, consuming the sludge and debris scraped off the grill at the end of the day.
He literally was a human trash can, shoving barely cooked food down his throat in desperation, as if competing against an imminent deadline of freshness. Jelly Roll would waddle to the corner convenience store, half a block’s worth of struggled effort that left him sweating and panting and hungrier still, and come back with a buffet-style feast full of bags of chips and frozen pizzas and cans of thickened soup and hot dogs and liters of soda. Once done shopping, he’d hang bag after bag up and down his forearms for the walk back to the apartment. The mass of food yanked down on his arms and the plastic strings would thin and strain, cutting deep, red ligature marks into his pale, flabby skin. Even with the enormous stockpile, he never bought enough food to last him more than a day.
Once back at the apartment, Jelly Roll wouldn’t bother with the cupboards. Instead, he immediately was crunching handfuls of chips and eating raw hot dogs. He’d shove a pizza into the microwave for a couple of minutes on high power and then sprinkle the soggy, half-cold mess of toppings with M&Ms and gummy bears. The pizza would be folded in half, taco-style, and in earth-shattering bites would disappear. Seconds later, thick chunks of French bread were being slathered in mayo and mustard and stacked high with pounds of meat. Hours after his walk to the corner store, the kitchen table was a littered mess of discarded food wrappers and empty grocery bags.
I tell myself that everyone has things they do well, and while Jelly Roll’s talents were evident in food consumption, I know when it’s about to rain. Actually, I can feel when it’s about to rain. I didn’t always, though; it wasn’t until the accident. When the car hit our car, I was in the back seat, and I guess I stuck out my arm to brace against the force of the blow, but my hand got wedged inside something and twisted hard with the crunching metal. I felt the pain before my head bashed out a window and I blacked out. They gave me surgery while I was still out and I woke up with a cast on my hand. It stunk to high heaven when they took it off three months later and I got my first look at the pins they stuck in. The little bits of pin-metal are raised, like there’s tiny bugs under my skin. When it’s about to rain, the tiny bugs expand. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s nothing I can ignore. Minutes later, it always starts raining.
Looking back, it must have been at least 4 months after the accident that Jelly Roll moved in. But, those first months were so full of boredom and long days of nothingness that melted into one another, the time, though empty, flew by, and it seemed like Jelly Roll had come just after the accident; perhaps that he had come with the accident – like an add-on or something.
My dad had continued going to work at the bowling alley for a little while, but his refusal to act like it all affected him took a toll. Once that toll was paid, he was exhausted: he slept late, ate little, and spent the days listlessly staring at the TV set in the front room. It was one of these mindless days of TV watching that he sat me down on the couch with him, a serious look on his face.
“Hey there, buddy, there’s something we need to talk about.”
“Well, buddy, I think we may have to take someone on again.”
My eyes shot over to the small hallway that led from the front room to the bedrooms and bathroom. The door on the right-side was my room.
The funeral had cost ten-thousand dollars. It was nice and all, but I wasn’t sure my mom needed all that; she liked substance, stuff you could use, like good recipes. Not decoration – and that’s all it was. Still, every time the man in the suit at the funeral home mentioned an arrangement of some type of flowers, special wood for the casket, or customized prayer cards for the wake: dad ordered them all. When Jelly Roll showed up as a potential renter, we needed his money.
He was as fat as they come, that’s why I named him Jelly Roll. Mom used to bring me to her work, at the salon, and I’d watch the fat old ladies getting their hair done devour a whole box of jelly donuts. From then on, I always associated jelly rolls with fat people. Plus, he never gave us a name, nor we him; he just knocked on the door, holding a garbage bag full of clothes, and my dad let him in.
We had taken in people before, but not for money. Mom had this weakness for street people that dad and I hated. After a while, dad had to start picking up her check on Fridays and bring it to the bank himself, otherwise, mom would cash it and go around buying bags of food for people sleeping on the sidewalk. A few times, she brought people home with her. These were miserable, scary-looking people on the verge of starvation or overdose, and she let them into our apartment and let them eat her delicious, well-planned meals. She also let them use my bed.
It used to piss me off to see these dirty, fully-grown people curled up on my little bed, while I had to sleep on the couch. I would complain and my mom would tell me:
“But, honey, they need it more than you right now.”
And though she was gone and it was just me and dad, my room was once again to be taken from me, this time by a man the size of a large whale. I was sure my bed would collapse.
Thankfully, Jelly Roll didn’t even risk it. He took one look at my tiny bed and told my dad it wouldn’t work. My dad mumbled that Jelly Roll could sleep in his bed and he’d take the couch. Jelly Roll agreed without another thought and they talked a little about rent money. After that was settled, Jelly Roll threw his huge garbage bag on the floor next to his new bed and followed my dad to the front room. Dad plopped back on the couch and Jelly Roll squeezed into the arm chair next to it, the spot my mom used to drink tea and watch the nightly news. They then sat in a comfortable silence while my dad toggled through the channels, like an old married couple used to predictable routines, and not strangers who had just nonchalantly decided to live together.
I guess it made sense on some level. Jelly Roll never seemed to care about anything one way or the other and my dad was an open man. He was open-minded, loved openly, and sometimes left the milk open on the counter. It’d go bad and my mom would get angry: she hated wastefulness. When she went, my dad’s openness and simple nature went with her. He hadn’t touched the milk since. I kept an eye out, to make sure he was eating, but I couldn’t cook, and most days, he would glue himself to the couch, his eyes to the TV, and not eat a scrap all day. After Jelly Roll moved in and the weeks went on, my father continued to waste away while our new roommate got fatter by the minute.
Jelly Roll didn’t care about his weight or obsessive eating. It was something he did to pass the time like how my dad watched TV or how I watched my dad watch TV. Usually, the three of us sat in silence, while the low hum of the TV echoed the deep, labored breaths of Jelly Roll while he ate. Summer eventually ended and school started up. No one said anything, so I didn’t go. The phone rang and no one answered it. We started watching a lot of soap operas during the day. On the screen, people deceived and plotted and killed and died, while my dad lie comatose on the couch, I sat opposite him on the floor, and Jelly Roll continued to eat. Briefly, it bothered me that my friends at school would wonder where I was, but I figured, like me, they’d just accept that things were different. One year I was there, the next, gone.
More weeks went by and Jelly Roll became a part of the apartment, as expected and permanent as the brown carpeting or horizontal blinds. I saw him sleeping one night and his huge, bulky body took up the entirety of the bed, a space that once comfortably fit my mother and father. When I was small, I’d nudge my way between them, scared of a storm or a bad dream, and we’d still fit. Now, Jelly Roll took up the entire space where my whole family had once slept.
The TV shows we watched blurred between re-runs and originals and devolved into half-remembered nothings. I barely paid attention. I was shocked to find out, one night, that Jelly Roll did.
We were watching the news. There was a report about a new male polar bear that was coming to the downtown zoo. It was brought in to replace another male that had died. Zoo officials claimed the new male was supposed to be company for a female polar bear that lived there. I knew that meant they wanted the two bears to mate, but it sounded nice that she’d have a friend.
“I’d like to see that.”
Jelly Roll didn’t speak often, hardly at all really, and my dad lifted his head off the couch pillow briefly, interested that the fat man had said something. The interest quickly dissipated and his glazed eyes returned to the news report. The newscaster explained that the bear was caught in the wild, in the artic circle, and zoo trainers are being careful assimilating the potentially dangerous, powerful animal into its new habitat.
Compared with the boring days in the apartment, a trip to the zoo sounded almost mythical. I didn’t fully believe we would go until the next day when Jelly Roll woke me up early and we walked to the bus stop on the corner. After a lengthy stop in the store for Jelly Roll’s “road snacks”, we got on the downtown bus. Two giant plastic bags worth of cookies and candy later, we arrived at the zoo. The people on the bus had stared at Jelly Roll while he popped open bag after bag of sweets and licked traces of sugar off his fingers. I was used to his gorging by then and tried to enjoy the ride. It was November and cold, but still a nice day out.
Jelly Roll paid for my admission and we used the free map to find the polar bear exhibit. We stood at the railings that ran along the edge of the enclosure and spotted the female polar bear, wallowing lazily on a flat surface of rock. Suddenly, bursting out of the watery pool beside her was the zoo’s new arrival: a giant hunk of soaking wet, white, meaty fur that was dipping and bobbing around in the water. The male polar bear ignored the tired-looking female and jutted around the pool with energy and confidence, laying claim as the master of his new home. We watched for several minutes and then Jelly Roll elbowed me in the side, pointing to my right.
“Let’s go down.”
I followed Jelly Roll around the side of the exhibit to a stairwell that led underground. The stairwell opened up to a darkened cave that was carved around a large wall of glass. Behind the glass was a blob of clear, white-blue water. Jelly Roll walked up to the glass a leaned his blubbery forehead against it, peering into the icy blueness.
Suddenly, the male polar bear dove deep into the tank and harshly angled towards the glass. Jelly Roll’s flattened face was pressed against the invisible divider; the division that separated man from water and beast. As the bear glided forward, Jelly Roll stayed still, unflinching. The animal came close to Jelly Roll’s spot against the glass and for a moment their eyes connected. Then the moment passed and the bear changed direction and effortlessly pawed his way upwards, back towards the surface of the water.
Jelly Roll leaned back and stepped away from the glass. I looked up at the fat man’s face. He was smiling lightly to himself. His fatness suddenly seemed appropriate: a suit of armor for a strong spirit. He had stared down a beast greater than himself and held his place. I stepped forward.
I pressed my own head against the glass. On cue, the polar bear swooped down and scuttled in my direction. Rushing water preceded the emergence of his giant head. It propelled itself towards me, towards the inches of glass that separated me from him. I held my place.
The glass was enough.
After the bear had reached the glass, he bounced upwards and re-directed towards the breezy, November air. I stepped away from the glass, triumphant. Jelly Roll was still looking into the tank, the same light smile on his face. Without looking away, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a Hershey’s Bar. He unwrapped it and let the plastic fall to the ground. He snapped the chocolate bar in half and extended a piece to me, the dark chocolate supported by his pink, puffy hand. I took it. We ate our bits of chocolate in silence, surrounded by the mysterious shafts of blue light that filtered through the water and glass and danced into the cave.
The rest of that week, I picked what channel we watched in the apartment; I usually chose nature shows. I started walking to the store with Jelly Roll everyday to pick up items for dinner. I taught myself how to make simple salads and pastas and Jelly Roll and I would sit at the kitchen table and eat a meal together. Regardless of how bad my food was, it had to be better than the crap he ate, and I could have sworn he started losing weight. I’d make my dad a plate and he’d eat it on the couch.
After Christmas, I decided to go back to school when winter break ended. My dad called the school for me. In January, Jelly Roll walked me to my first day back. My friends were the same: simple kids who lived second by second. I realized I had missed them. My days became full of homework, gossip, and bedtimes. Time passed.
In May, our class had to do Science Fair projects. I did mine on polar bears and it basically was an information collage supporting protection of endangered species. I used a bunch of stuff I learned on those nature shows. I printed out some fact sheets at the school’s computer lab and my dad helped me glue them to a three-sided poster board. A girl won the class award with a complicated experiment using inclined planes. I liked my project better.
One night, Jelly Roll and I walked to the movie store and rented my mom’s old favorite movie: Caddyshack. We laughed almost non-stop: Jelly Roll’s chins flapped up and down like bobbing tree branches. After, we both went to bed, Jelly Roll to my parent’s bed and me to mine. Lying in the darkness before sleep came, I could hear my father crying in the front room.
The next day was a Saturday, with no school, but I got up early anyway. The sun was barely out. I shuffled across the brown carpet to the kitchen and poured two bowls of cereal. I walked back to the little hallway and knocked on Jelly Roll’s door. It swung open, unlocked. Jelly Roll wasn’t in the bed. His garbage bag suitcase was gone. I ran to the front room and shook my dad awake. At length, he rubbed his eyes and sat up.
“What is it?”
“Who do you think?”
He looked around and thought for a moment.
“Oh. I see.”
We fell silent as the shadowy morning light seeped through the horizontal blinds and blossomed on the floor. I looked at the kitchen.
“I poured two bowls of cereal. You want one?”
My father looked up at me.
“Anything else? I can microwave some bacon.”
“Look at you, Mr. Chef. Sure, bacon sounds good.”
“Okay, I’ll get the paper.”
My dad had cancelled the paper almost immediately after money got tight, but for some reason they kept delivering them. In the old days, we’d let them stack up into depressing mounds of rough paper that would clutter the landing. I had started to make a point of bringing in the daily paper and not letting that happen again.
I unlocked the door and stepped outside. The paper rested quietly on the door mat. I reached down to grab it, but felt a tingle in my hand. The pins were stirring. I bent back up and looked out at the dim morning sky. Clouds were gathering. It was going to rain.
I rubbed my tingling hand. It felt warm. I smiled. It was going to be a light, spring rain. The tiny bits of metal in my hand couldn’t stop the rain or protect me from it, but I’d always know when it was coming. And maybe, I could grab an umbrella in time.
I picked up the paper and stepped back inside. My dad was sitting at the table waiting for me. We attacked the bowls of cereal and after many sloppy, slurping spoonfuls the bowls were empty. Without a word, my father stood up and grabbed the cereal box to pour us more. He took the milk from the fridge and filled each bowl to the top. He sat back down and started spooning the milky flakes into his mouth. The gallon of milk was sitting on the counter next to the microwave, its blue cap noticeably missing, right where my father left it.