Sunday Stories: “Heathens”


by Cameron Stewart

Brooks DeAngelis did not wear coveralls the Friday he showed up cologned and flowered on Dana’s front lawn, ready for once to hear the word “Yes.” She had a maple near the door and it flamed in fall color. The wind stole his scent, carried it away. He hated cologne but appreciated what it stood for. He’d spent all yesterday rearranging himself, tiring of each person uncovered. In the back pocket of his Dockers was a little boxed surprise for Dana.

He stood there five minutes, realizing only then he’d yet to ring or knock or text. His phone was turned off in the car. Going back for it would mean sweating and he couldn’t taint the fragrance he’d concocted. The car was 15 feet away—just far enough.

Brooks had been fat all his life.

“We’re big ‘cause our hearts are. Nothin’ wrong with it,” his dad used to say.

Even as an adult he’d join his parents for Sunday pancakes. They were all close in age, peers almost, and had laughed like it. With Seger (Bob) in the background, they’d slice the gleaming doughy layers, fork them folded into their mouths. Sometimes Brooks had looked across the table at his parents and wondered how he could be so lucky.

He was in the shallow end of a neighbor’s pool when someone waved him inside, told him his dad was dead. Heart attack, age 49.

At the funeral, Brooks avoided looking at his dad’s face. He couldn’t bear to see those lips pinned shut. His dad was a mouth breather in life and a damn good listener. Somewhere near the bouquet corner he heard two people, strangers, in blue suits, clicking their tongues.

“Well it’s no surprise,” said one.

“I mean really,” said the other. “He made Rosie look trim.”

They just stood there shaking their heads.

He drove his mom home and they stood wondering why the house looked so empty. She cried into his chest and they filled the family room with their misery and mass.

A few days later, he opened a beer for Ronnie in his kitchen. They were neighbors but sometimes it felt like they were closer. Ronnie had volunteered to bludgeon the strangers in blue suits, and Brooks, appreciating the offer, declined. “But it’s got me thinking,” he said, taking a sip. He was having water.

“About?” said Ronnie. His gut was half beer, half muscle. He wore tank tops like they’d never gone out of style, displaying the ink—of varying quality and imagination—on his arms.

“This,” Brooks said, jiggling his breasts.

Ronnie drank his beer. “Well,” he said. “Little weight loss couldn’t hurt.”

Brooks hated most kitchens. The chairs were always rickety. He’d masked the fragility of his own with a cushion illustrating various horse breeds. He was glad he’d yet to break a chair. His dad hadn’t been so lucky. One night at an Italian restaurant he fell through a seat and everyone in the place stared at him, sunken, with marinara in his lap. Brooks wasn’t there but he’d heard the story. People talked.

“Where do I start, though? Is the thing,” said Brooks.

“Like what part of your body?”

“Yeah. What part do I exercise?”

“I don’t think it works that way,” said Ronnie, opening beer #2. He looked at the can and shook his head.


“From what I’ve heard, exercise is like sex,” said Ronnie. “You gotta pay for the best kind.”


Two weeks later, Brooks went to the Presbyterian church along the Detroit River. He led his mom from the handicapped parking space, gripping her gown. The coal factory across the river sent black swirls into the sky. Sermon that day was mercifully brief, the minister squirming the whole way through it; Brooks approached him as the congregation poured out.

“Of course you’d like to talk. Of course,” said Phil. “Just give me five, okay?”

Brooks’ mom remained alone in the pews, cupping her kneecaps. They were smoother than Buddha’s scalp.

“I’ll be out soon,” he called to her.

“Take your time,” she said. “I’m happy here.”

The minister’s office was a ruined library. Far too messy for a holy man, thought Brooks. He already regretted coming today. In the past, he’d received the sermons from his parents. They’d delivered them condensed and palatable to him over pancakes. Because of this, Brooks had associated religion with maple trees, sugar. Today, though, he woke with questions, lots of them, and no one to ask, so he stood now smelling a bouquet of rot and age.

“Sit. Please,” said Phil, nodding at the chair. It was narrow, framed by armrests that couldn’t contain Brooks. Phil realized this and bit his lip.

“It’s fine. No problem standing.”

“I am. So sorry.”

“Please. Don’t be.”

Phil sat at his desk. Brooks noticed a monkish bald patch on the center of his dome. Accidental, he thought.

“You must be having a hard time,” said Phil, breaking the silence.

“It’s not easy on us.”

“You and your mother?”

Brooks thought of his mom, alone near the pulpit, alone near the TV. “That’s us,” he said.

“I can imagine. I can imagine,” said Phil.

Brooks wished for something to lean against. Standing was harder than walking. He shifted his weight between feet, transferring the burden. “I’d like to not be this way,” he said.

“Which way?”

“Big,” said Brooks. He hated that word, it made him feel dangerous, not to others, but to himself.

Phil shifted in his chair. “It certainly looks difficult,” he said, drinking the coffee on his desk. “Also, well, some say.”

“Say what?”

Phil removed a hair from the cup and said, “It’s a sin. Gluttony. Some say it is.”

“I know,” said Brooks, crossing his arms. “We’re aware. But I always thought it was better than others.”

“Sure is. Sure is. At least you’re not heathens,” said Phil, looking out what would’ve been—had it not been eclipsed by books—the window.

Brooks ran the word over his tongue. It was prettier than some, rolled off easily: Heathens.

Phil grew pale, wiggled in his seat. “Are you familiar with Shigellosis,” he asked.

“Is that scripture?”

“No. Intestinal. I’ll be right back. Right back,” said Phil, surging to the bathroom.

Brooks left the minister there.

Sunlight poured into the nave blue and purple through the windows. There was someone in the pews next to his mom. Another woman. They had their heads lowered and were talking. The woman’s hair sparkled in its bun. Brooks approached them lightly.

“Mom,” he said to them.

They looked up. His mom was crying and the woman, the prettiest woman, was holding a tissue to her face.

“Just were sharing memories,” said the woman.

“Was telling Dana about your dad. How he was afraid of squirrels. Thought they could fly.”

“And would pluck his eyes out,” said Brooks. They smiled, the trio.

Dana straightened her dress, a blue number with flowers cascading down the sides. Her paunch was visible, showing proudly like some purchased accessory. Now here was someone with confidence, thought Brooks. Her excess weight—all ten pounds of it—etched an outline he found admirable. She was truly the right size. She was someone he’d like to see again. He knew this already.

“Your mom’s a strong one,” said Dana, standing. She tucked his mom’s meaty arm under her own.

“Oh. I’ve had practice,” said his mom, giving the other half of herself to him. Together they made their way out into the day.

Brooks became a regular at the church, even bought a new pair of pants, a brown set of grizzly legs he wore with his newest shoes. Finding the right pants had been a challenge.

In the store—Bigger Boy—there was an anemic employee with sausage breath that spilled over Brooks every time he asked, “How about this one?” His name was Bret. They didn’t get along. Brooks wondered what sick joke Bret was playing on the customers. There was a dishonesty in their exchange, as if the clothes he showed Brooks were punch lines, and would do little to bring him comfort.

These were common scenes, ones he knew well.

Brooks worked at Belle Tire. The break room’s entrance was so narrow he had to push sideways to make it through. Wanting to be social and eat with his coworkers, he squeezed by the first couple times and sat with them at the long plastic table. But then one day, when five others were seated in the room, bored with each other and watching Brooks, he tried entering and just couldn’t. Tumid with shame, he took his brown bag to the car and cried into a Ziploc.

At Meijer, it felt like the whole store eyed him during checkout. Downriver Michigan, the suburban web he called home, had no shortage of elastic waistbands. Yet something about him earned looks from the whole store. It felt like that, at least. Wonder Bread, sharp cheddar, Faygo, ground beef, frozen lasagna: none of it seemed so bad. But the cashiers saw the Oreos gliding past his groin on the conveyor belt and shook their heads. He saw them do it and felt powerless.

Two weeks later Dana sat beside him at church. A soft hello was all she managed before the service started. He sweated in ribbons. His mom wrapped herself in the minister’s words. She always needed to be tied to something. But the sermon fell at his feet. It had nothing to do with Brooks and what he was experiencing at that moment. After all, Dana was pressed against his shoulder. Her perfume entered him through every pore. He was lifted by the honey of her hair; he wasn’t in the pews anymore; he floated through the slanted pillars of light shining on the dandruff and dust; he inhaled it, floated to the ceiling and looked down at the hair loss and shoulder pads, his eyes lingering on the yellow folds of Dana.

“Great sermon!” he told Phil, exiting the church.

With his mom gripping his wrist, he walked to the car. Dana’s flowery baptism lingered on his shoulder, immune to the sour odor he emitted after two hours without AC. Driving home, he wondered what kind of man Dana liked. He wanted to be that man.


That Monday, after work, he went to Ronnie’s. “So I think I love her,” he said. “You think that’s possible?” He was in Ronnie’s kitchen. Dishes dirtied long ago teetered in the sink. Brooks had never seen Ronnie eat and thought he’d lived off beer. The table was meant for poker and its chairs were plastic straps meant for the beach. Brooks always left Ronnie’s with his ass looking plaid.

“Man,” said Ronnie, fingering his curls, glancing at Brooks and the kitchen mirror. “I only believe in love right after a great fuck. God too. It’s all the same for me.”

“But. I mean for me?”

“I’d say it sounds like you’re distracted, man. Losing focus of the fact you just lost your dad. I’d say you’re transmaking your sadness into love, putting it in a jello mold and calling it Dana.”

They locked eyes and Brooks said, “Huh?”

“I sell popcorn, man. Why are you asking me this shit?”

“You’re my friend,” said Brooks. The word left him on its own; he didn’t mind its implications. Losing his dad meant needing others. There was no shame in that.

Ronnie’s hair wagged as he said, “Well. A friend knows when to stop giving advice. And I’m stopping.”

It didn’t matter. Brooks knew what to do. At Meijer he bought a set of weights and a yoga mat. A book on Steve Austin. Vegetables. Watching the items pull away from him, he crossed his arms, looked at the guy behind him like, “Yeah. That’s right. Yoga.”


Brooks felt like a beached whale on the yoga mat. The tape said to focus on the breath, to do it through your nose. “The nose is for smelling, the mouth for breathing—and eating.” That was his dad’s line and he resented the guide for disagreeing. For most of his life Brooks had taken his dad’s phrases to be absolute truth. But now they seemed like one person’s interpretation of the world—one that Brooks wasn’t sure he even understood. He sighed. Then, with the rubbery yogi, he took a long inhalation, bringing himself up slowly, feeling the smothered muscles flex within him. This felt good, different. So he shut his mouth and kept breathing through his nose. He loved his dad but didn’t want to end up dead at 49.


Later that month he ate frozen custard with Dana at Bob-Joe’s. Or Dana did while he counted the sugary drops blotting her car. He liked watching her eat; it looked guiltless. There was pleasure, still, in her experience. Eating was different for Brooks. After most meals he felt shameful, as if what he’d done should be repented or regurgitated. His dad was never that way: he’d eaten with aplomb. He cut steak with style! Cooking was his way of expressing his love, eating his way of capturing it.

“I see you went dessertless,” said Dana. She had a napkin looped through the steering wheel.

“I know. Very sad,” said Brooks. He truly meant it. “But. Well. I’m cutting down, you know? Trying to lose a few.”

“You are, huh? Well I guess after what you’ve been through, I’d do the same.” Dana wiped her mouth, nodded her head.

“Yeah, you know. I don’t wanna feel gross all the time. I wanna be fit.” He pictured himself on a beach with an inflatable ball, playing catch with Dana. He’d be thin and no one would think anything of it, no one would stare.

“Man,” Dana said, finishing her cone. “ I hope you’re not doing this for me.”

“Ehphheewsmee?” said Brooks, sneezing. He’d assumed she’d be flattered. Not that he was doing it only for her. No. There were many reasons. Too many to tell Dana. But why, he wondered, couldn’t she be one of them?

“I don’t want someone losing weight for me,” she said. “Bless you.” There was food on her chin, a streak of cream Brooks wanted to brush away. It made him hungry and then guilty for being hungry. He wanted to kiss her. “Not like you shouldn’t want to be healthy,” she added. “I want my friends to be healthy.”

Hearing this, he backed away, drew closer to the window. His chest hurt, a sudden hot pain. If he’d eaten there’d be food sprayed across the windshield. He’d feared that word ever since their first—and only—kiss. Dana had withdrawn, covered her mouth, leaving Brooks to wonder what he’d done wrong. Initially he’d blamed it on his breath, his timing. They’d kissed in a Radio Shack while buying a phone charger for his mom and maybe, he thought, she’d wanted it to be somewhere else, near a lake or movie theater. But the vista hadn’t mattered. “Might be time to drop me off,” he said, sticking his head out the window.


A month later his mom fell down the stairs. He was at work when it happened, a Thursday. She wasn’t hurt but requested Brooks move her bed to the family room, where she could, as she said, sleep with the TV and the moon. Just to be safe. She watched him trudge down the stairs, crammed between the mattress and the wall, huffing. It was a miracle he even fit. He paused halfway down when his mom started talking. “Haven’t seen much of Dana,” she said.

“Mhmm,” said Brooks.

They’d gone bowling two weeks ago. He’d debated going, after what happened at Bob-Joe’s, but couldn’t refuse an opportunity to see her. The place was crowded and they’d waited for a lane to clear. Dana had thrown missiles. His were tumors, lodging themselves in gutters and other peoples’ lanes. After one of his more awkward lobs, Dana approached him, asked if he was okay. “Fine,” he’d said, staring at his red bowling shoes. “My game’s off, is all.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she’d said, touching his shoulder.

Inhaling, he recognized her perfume; it was the same one she wore to church. He sat waiting to be lifted above the lanes and pins, to brush the ceiling with his new body and to respond to Dana from up high. But he remained in the plastic seat and was forced to speak to her from there.


“Well,” said his mom. “She called here. You break your phone or something?”

“Been off is all,” he said.

“Better keep after a girl like that,” said his mom, coughing. “Otherwise. She’ll be gone.”

There was a yellow silhouette on his dad’s old side of the bed and Brooks was half its size. He wished his dad could see him now. But would he be concerned? Brooks was shedding X’s, wearing tighter clothes. His doctor was amazed, his mom in disbelief. Pretty soon he’d be squeezing his heart into a sacred, sculpted chest. He wasn’t worried about it fitting. There was always room for the heart. When he buried his face in the mattress he did not cry or yell. He smiled. Tomorrow he’d go see Dana. He gripped the mattress and brought it down the stairs.

Cameron Stewart was born and raised in Michigan. His fiction has appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Joyland, and the Smoking Poet. He currently lives in Brooklyn. 

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