Three a.m. A cicada chirped. The moon shone weakly, barely visible through a thick blanket of smog. Camper Four, one of the two remaining campers at Fat People Fat Camp, jogged slow circles around the basketball court. He burned calories, and as he burned calories, he waited. A cicada chirped.
From the darkness, a figure emerged. Camper Four stopped; his belly continued to jiggle. The figure, Camper Eight–full, voluptuous, and meaty–approached and wrapped her thick arms around Four. A cicada chirped.
Four whispered into Eight’s ear, “In this material age, we can only hold each other.”
Eight’s thin lips curled into a smile; Four held her too closely to see this smile, but he could sense it. The two bodies formed a single massive silhouette. Eight whispered into Four’s ear, “If it were daytime, we’d blot out the sun.”
The sound of a shrill whistle cut through the thick summer air.
Zhao shone a flashlight on the dark blob, revealing two frightened faces and rolls upon rolls of fat. His plastic whistle, attached to a string that he wore around his neck, fell to his chest. Before he could speak, his cigarette fell from the corner of his mouth. His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. Zhao cast his eyes toward the ground, trying to catch the half-smoked cigarette before it got dirty, trying to see who was calling, and trying to stop his drool from dripping from the whistle and leaving a sloppy, wet spot on his shirt.
A cicada chirped, and into the darkness, the full figures fled.
Zhao’s eyes skimmed the contract. Hereby referred to as the employee. Can do. Can do. If this contract is broken, a penalty of 100,000 yuan will be assessed. Boring. Boring. Over the course of the summer, the employee must rehabilitate a minimum of two fat kids.
Zhao glanced up from the printed pages and into the stale eyes of the government officials who sat around the white-clothed table. The waitress, a dark-skinned country girl with shapely legs, brought a plate of salted duck’s feet.
“If my wife would allow it,” one of the officials said, “I would take that one home and keep her.” The men laughed, collectively. The waitress blushed and scurried away. Another of the officials, an older man with crinkly skin and beady black eyes, poured Zhao’s cup full of rice wine. Zhao felt his phone vibrate against his leg. He pulled it out under the table as the old official filled the others’ cups. It was his mother. Zhao quickly shoved the phone back into his pocket. The waitress brought another dish: fried peanuts.
“Zhao could take her home. No old lady to worry about, right?” The first official socked Zhao in the arm. There was laughter, and there was a glint of envy in each of the laughing officials’ eyes. Zhao did not notice this glint. He only heard the laughter, and then felt, again, a vibration on his leg. He slid his phone from his pocket. A text message from his mother. It read, “How about her?” Embedded within the text message was a blurry photo, probably snapped at the supermarket or the Grand Ocean department store or in line for a public restroom, of yet another anonymous woman’s face.
“Now, you do understand, Zhao, if you fulfill the terms of the contract, there is opportunity to move up the ranks.”
Zhao nodded. The possibility of a cushy government job after years of serving as a fitness equipment company’s office assistant was, of course, the main reason he found himself poised to sign the contract.
The officials continued to chatter.
Zhao excused himself. He strolled into the bathroom, pissed, rinsed his hands in the sink, and studied himself in the mirror. He inhaled, mouthed to his reflection, “You deserve this,” sauntered out of the bathroom, and passed the waitress on his way back to the table. She leaned against the wall outside the private banquet room. Zhao studied her: thin arms that jangled from her body like those of a marionette, a slight overbite that forced her lips into a perpetual pout, shiny black hair slicked into a bun, and skin the sandy color of unfinished plywood. Zhao briefly entertained snapping a quick picture of her with his phone and sending it to his mother with text that read, “Her.”
Zhao sat down. The men chattered on. He stared, still, out the door, at the waitress.
The chatter stopped suddenly. The air was thick, silent. The officials, each one a door to a new life, awaited his answer.
A voice from the kitchen shouted in a country dialect, and the pretty waitress disappeared.
Zhao said, “We have a deal.” He felt his phone vibrate again. He ignored it. The waitress returned at last with two substantial dishes. The crinkly official who had poured Zhao’s drink placed a pen in Zhao’s hand.
Zhao signed the contract and stuffed himself full. And he drank. And they drank. And they drank and they drank.
Fat People Fat Camp convened in June with sixteen overweight campers, all in dire need of direction and rehabilitation. The camp was held on the campus of the Wuxi School for Exceptional Students.
Five amphetamine-swallowing counselors and two cooks served as Zhao’s staff. Zhao floated through the first days of camp like a tycoon in a dream. The campers exercised. The counselors encouraged. The cooks steamed vegetables. But Zhao was born under an auspicious moon. Days one and two passed easily, and he felt an acidic burn in his gut, and he knew that his luck would not last.
A cicada chirped. Morning three of Fat People Fat Camp. Camper Thirteen, a boy with cystic acne and grease-heavy hair, undressed and waddled into the communal shower. He squeezed a bar of soap between his sausage fingers, turning it to goo. Fourteen rubbed this goo across his chest and in his armpits, where hair had only just begun to sprout. He took a step toward the faucet to adjust the temperature. As he shifted his weight, he lost his footing and slipped on the slick floor. Thirteen’s arms flailed, reaching out for something to grab, but they found nothing. His head cracked against the tile wall.
An hour later, Thirteen’s bunk-mate, Camper Nine, eyes still crusty with sleep, stumbled into the shower and stepped in a hot pile of Thirteen’s brains. Nine refused to set foot in the showers again for the remainder of his stay at the camp; fortunately, Nine’s stay only lasted another day, and so his weak body odor did not offend.
The following afternoon, Nine suffered a fatal heat stroke during relay races. Nine’s friend, Camper Sixteen tripped over Nine’s unconscious body during the final leg of the relay race and broke his arm. Sixteen survived his fall, but his team lost out on the grand prize: a special dessert of low-calorie, low-fat, carb-free ice cream.
Zhao ordered the counselors to carry the bodies into an unused storage room. The counselors, fitness buffs, jumped at any opportunity for physical exertion. They referred to these particular opportunities as “dead lifts.”
And then, for two whole days, there were no deaths. There was ice cream.
Zhao felt a burning in his stomach, and he knew it was not due to his ice cream consumption, nor to his lactose intolerance.
On day five, Camper Seven, bored and starving, began gnawing at her own arm during the activity night film “Your Body and Global Warming.” By the time the credits rolled, Seven had ingested fifteen pounds of her own flesh and complained to the counselors of an agonizing stomach ache. The counselors did nothing—cartwheels, flips, jumping jacks. Vomiting ensued, and in the girls’ communal restroom, Seven begged her bunkmate, Camper Eleven, to smash her over the head with a brick. The girls were unable to locate a suitable brick in the restroom, but substituted a torn-out water pipe. The next morning, Eleven, overcome with guilt and remorse, hanged herself. Shortly after Eleven’s body was discovered, the bunk bed collapsed.
Zhao felt burning in his stomach, a burning all the time, and by July, there were just seven campers left.
Four and Eight panted. They had run in the dark from the basketball court to Wuxi train station, a distance of three kilometers. Side by side, they leaned against the building’s wall and slid to sitting, their four legs sprawled in opposite directions in a cellulite compass. Eight looked into Four’s eyes and said, in her gentle voice, “Love is not a vice,” and she took his hand into her own.
A legless beggar, riding a makeshift plywood skateboard, wheeled over to the pair. “Ah,” he said, with a nod, “You must be the fat camp runaways.”
Four replied, “We are.”
Eight lightly punched Four in the arm.
The man nodded again, harder this time, and nearly lost his balance on the skateboard. “The camera crews are on their way.”
Four wiped his nose on Eight’s sleeve and eyed the man, “How did you lose your legs?”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yes,” the man said, and as soon as the word exited his mouth, a massive gang of ill-groomed, dark-eyed city people with cameras and camcorders and notepads and tape recorders appeared behind him. The legless man wheeled into what remained of the night’s shadows.
“Why,” a voice shouted, “do you think China is facing this childhood obesity epidemic?”
Someone shoved a microphone into Four’s armpit. “Who sent you to fat camp?”
A photographer snapped a picture of Eight’s kneecap. “When will your wedding take place?”
A reporter jotted down the words, “Plagiarism dizzy.”
A man adjusted his glasses and looked concerned. “How will you deal with the humiliation of being a fat camp dropout?”
The legless beggar reappeared, on his skateboard, from the darkness, with a notepad, and boomed, “Who’s really to blame?”
Zhao felt around in the darkness of the storage room. The air reeked of old cheese, rotten eggs, dead blubber.
Zhao couldn’t locate the light switch—just flesh, hair, fat. He wanted to run away or to vomit, but he remembered what his mother always said, “Lose your mind, and that’s just fine. But lose your job, and lose everything.” Zhao held his breath, carried on searching.
Zhao had not alerted the dead campers’ parents, or anyone, because he knew, per the contract, that he would be to blame for the non-rehabilitations and he would be assessed a 100,000 yuan fee and be forced to go back to his old job and never receive a promotion, and never, ever get a date.
Zhao searched with his hands, but couldn’t find the light; only darkness. He gave up, shut and locked the storage room door, walked back to his office, stared at the phone on his desk, wondered when it would ring, wondered when the two runaways would tell the world everything they knew. He waited and as he waited, he smoked his entire pack of cigarettes, lighting each new one from the dying ember of the last.
Zhao woke up at his desk a few hours later and retrieved the newspaper from the doorstep. A cicada chirped. The front-page headline read, “China’s Fattest Couple!” Zhao spat on the floor. The telephone rang. He picked up. It was his mother. He screamed into the receiver, “Yes, I am at work! No, you absolutely will not fix me up with my own cousin! No!”
He hung up. The phone rang again.
The voice on the other end was low, not maternal, “Come to The Old Meeting Place Restaurant tonight at six.”
Zhao hung up again. He picked the empty cigarette box from his desk, shook it, hoped for a miracle. He peered inside. It was still empty. He stood up, shut his open office door, and unzipped his pants. He thought about the pretty waitress that he had eyed at the restaurant the night he signed the contract. The shrill voice of his mother echoed in his head. He fell limp in his own hands.
At six, Zhao strolled into The Old Meeting Place Restaurant. Its decorations were not ornate. The walls were white. The tile was scuffed. The tablecloths were an atrociously bright shade of yellow.
A waitress, the same waitress who had waited on him the night he signed into the government contract, appeared behind the hostess podium. She said, “Oh. Hello.”
Zhao nodded. “Small world.”
“Follow me, please,” she said. As Zhao followed her through The Old Meeting Place Restaurant, he stared down at her legs. He found comfort, then, only in the tiny flexes of her calf muscles.
Six p.m. A car horn blared. Four and Eight had, at last, freed themselves from the camp and its over-excited counselors and under-flavored food and from the media and its nosy reporters and their even-nosier questions.
Four and Eight wove through Shanghai’s traffic and skyscrapers and trees and people. They shut their eyes, and no one could see them. The sun began to set behind the smog. The city lit up. Four and Eight ducked into a restaurant in the French Concession. They ordered salads. They chewed and they smiled and they giggled; they held hands and never once did they open their mouths.
The officials sat around the table with stern looks painted on their shiny faces. In his head, Zhao prepared his self-criticism speech and awaited the verdict, the scolding, the shame, the demand that he pay the 100,000 yuan penalty.
The eldest of the officials cleared his throat.
“Zhao. What you have done—”
Zhao felt his cell phone vibrate against his leg (surely, his mother calling).
The phone continued to vibrate.
“Rehabilitated all but two campers! A record, Zhao. A glorious and remarkable achievement!”
Each of the officials picked up a shot glass, stood up, cheered, and clinked the glasses together. The men drank and they drank.
Zhao sat, stunned, as the waitress entered the room with a tray stacked high with huge cuts of meat. The men began to feast. Zhao’s phone continued to vibrate. He slid it from his pocket, dropped it in his soup, and pushed the steaming bowl away. He sat back in his chair and felt, once again, the burning. He recognized it now as hunger.
Zhao picked up his chopsticks. He ate and he ate and the burning faded, and the delicious, fatty, juicy meat soon disappeared, and the waitress took away the last plate, and Zhao felt lucky, and so he shouted over the din of the chattering officials, “Bring that back, lady legs. I wanna lick the grease!”