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Big in Japan
By Jennifer Griffith
Jolly Fish PressCopyright © 2012 Jennifer Griffith
All rights reserved.
DESERTION AT DAWN
Buck Cooper squared his shoulders and tucked in the back of his damp shirt — again. In thirty seconds, Alison Turner would be off her phone, and he would do a strategic walk-by past her desk, the desk with the polka dot coffee mug and the eleven purple Sharpie markers and the picture of her vacation to South Padre Island last fall. Today was the day she'd shake her long hair and glance up when he passed, look at him with her melting chocolate brown eyes and finally really notice him.
The Eaglestone Pharmaceuticals break room stifled with heat, but it gave him a view of the receptionist's desk. He shifted his weight, no small task, and listened for her fetching Texas drawl of "buh-bye." It was almost go-time. He moved his stack of statistical analysis files into his right arm, just in case she wanted to give a high-five to his left hand as he passed. Not that she ever had before.
The water cooler bubbled behind him.
"Ooh, hoo-hoo, Mr. Buck. You watching that woohman again? Ar-har-har-har."
Great. Ranjit and his super skinny frame in the brown argyle sweater, the same one he wore daily. He wasn't even breaking a sweat, but he still smelled like curry.
"You know, of course, a girl with luscious hair like that is never going to be looking in the direction of a 400-pound man. Ar-har-har-har. Why are you discombobulating yourself over her?" the lothario of Mumbai sniggered. "Well, of course there's the luscious body."
"Ranjit. Didn't your mama teach you how to talk about a lady?" Buck got enough of Ranjit on his stats team. But the jerk was right about her hair. It was luscious, the way it cascaded in spun gold waves over her shoulders. She was the only bright spot in this pain cave of an office.
Sadly, Ranjit was right about the other thing, too. When in history had the enormous guy ever snagged the hottest girl in a five-mile radius? Worse, when had Buck ever snagged any girl in all his twenty-four years?
"Give it up, Mr. Buck." The Indian accent lilted and Ranjit bobbled his head side to side. "Take a look at yourself. Your body is a superstructure constructed entirely of junk food." Ranjit patted his own stomach and then Buck's before punching him in the arm.
That buh-bye should be coming any second now. He wished Ranjit would evaporate in the orange cloud of curry vapors that followed him everywhere.
"You should be more worried about getting laid off. Impending doom for all of us." Ranjit cackled all the way down the corridor to his cubicle.
Layoffs. Whatever. Buck pulled more than just his own considerable weight in the stats department. He pulled Ranjit and Gupta and all the other Indians' weight as well. Management should be considering Buck's application for the promotion just about now, not whether to lay him off.
Alison hung up the phone. Yes! Buck made his move. His damp shirt had come untucked again. Stupid heat. Somebody turned off the air conditioning again. Just because the calendar read September didn't mean Texas heat was done. It was probably one of those underweight exercise freak boys on the company soccer team, the kind who were perpetually freezing and wearing cardigan sweaters even in the dead of summer. The kind Alison Turner probably dated on weekends.
He attempted a swagger, but it came out more like a lumber. "Hi, Alison." Buck lifted a hello hand, but his greeting got swallowed up in the ring tone of her cell phone, which she snapped open immediately. She didn't even look up when he passed.
Thwarted. His smile faded.
He stumped back to his desk. Superstructure. He rolled a hand over the shoddy addition out front and winced. He just had to lose some of this weight — he had to. Maybe he would take the stairs today when he went to lunch. But it would be hard to take them on the way back, especially after a plateful of Charlie Unger's barbecue. Today was Thursday — Brisket day! But he would definitely take the stairs.
"Who left this window open?"
Buck walked up to his cubicle to find another Indian coworker, Gupta, complaining at Buck's desk. He had his head out the window across from the line of desks and was reaching for something.
"What's going on?"
"Some idiot left this window open and now my best collector card of Aishwarya Rai blew out onto the ledge and some stupid seagull is going to come along and use it to line its nest, and that is just sacrilege." Gupta had a piercing whine Buck knew too well.
Buck pressed Gupta aside and leaned out the eighth story window. Sure enough, the photo of the Bollywood actress was about five feet away, perched on the ledge and about to fall eight stories to the streets of Dallas.
"I was the one who left the window open. What were you doing at my desk, anyway?" Buck leaned farther, but the card was just out of reach.
"You always have a twenty-dollar bill in your top drawer, and it's lunchtime. Brisket day at Charlie Unger's. I forgot my wallet." As usual.
Buck leaned back in and gave Gupta a look of disbelief. "Give me that chair." He grabbed the steel chair from Gupta and stood on it, adding another eighteen inches to his already six-foot-six frame. With a long stretch over the lip of the windowsill, Buck procured the card and brought it back to safety. Gupta snatched it and kissed the card.
"I missed you, Aishwarya!" Another kiss. "Now, Mr. Buck, how about that twenty dollars? I'm good for it. I'm not going to be cut in the layoffs."
It was worth twenty dollars to Buck to see Gupta scatter.
Gupta called over the cubicle wall on his way to spend the cash. "You ought to keep your window shut, Mr. Buck. It's September already."
Right. Autumn. Of course.
Buck lifted his shoulder-length hair off his neck in a wad. He swiped at a lock of hair frizzing at his brow line. Cutting this mop would make sense — to help cool his head in this heat — but he hadn't had time. The quality control analysis of this latest drug trial kept him past eight every night for the last month. He could finish it up this afternoon, but then tonight he needed to look for an apartment. Mrs. Jenkins put him on notice two weeks ago. Her nephew was moving into the place, and Buck had to vamoose.
Plus, the Rangers game was on tonight, and Mays had first at-bats —
His phone rang, yanking him out of his field of dreams.
"Mr. Buck? Hi. This is Alison Turner."
Alison? Buck jumped to his feet. His pulse ratcheted up five notches.
"A-a-alison?" Over the tops of all the cubicles he spotted her head at the front desk. That hair — he could see it rippling over her shoulder from here, like metallic honey.
"At the front desk? Do you speak English?"
"Alison. Uh. Yeah."
Sort of. He sort of spoke English. Gack! He was being such a dork. Get it together, pal — this is your big chance.
"Oh, thank goodness. You do speak English." She gave a long whew. "I really need a favor."
"Sure, Alison," he stuttered. "Anything." Buck's heart thumped like a jackrabbit's leg. He knew it! He just knew today was the day. He stood up straight and tucked in that damp shirt — again.
"Fantastic. It's about lunch. Oh, shoot. There's my other line. Gotta take it. Can you just, like, drop by my desk up here in a few shakes? Whoops. Gotta grab that. Thanks. Buh-bye, Mr. Buck." The phone clicked off.
Yes! Buck danced a little jig. Finally, the nice guy was going to win. Lunch! She said it was about lunch. She wanted him to take her for the brisket, obviously. Cha-ching! He'd have to hit the ATM real quick. He could make that work. A plate of savory beef and Alison Turner. He plopped down in his chair and stared up at the popcorn ceiling in joy.
He'd always sensed Alison Turner was the one girl who had the X-ray vision that let her see through all Buck's outer layers into his inner goodness.
Most people had more than X-ray vision when it came to seeing Buck: they saw clean through him. How could someone who took up as much of the visible spectrum of light as he did still be utterly invisible, the fat guy no one noticed? Sometime he'd calculate and find a quantifiable ratio between a person's becoming less noticeable and reaching a certain body mass index.
Buck thought back. What marked the beginning of his invisibility? When he hit three hundred pounds? And he wasn't invisible just to women. Barely a handful of guys — mostly Ranjit's countrymen — knew his name, and only as "Mr. Buck."
Suddenly it hit him — the reason Alison noticed him today. The promotion! It had to be the promotion. Management had been bandying his name about, Alison caught wind of it and called to congratulate him. Joy melted him into a puddle of grease.
Then reality resurged and bit hard, and he pulled open his desk's bottom drawer. Book titles stared out at him:
You and Your Super-Slim Hardbody.
Ripped Abs Without Steroids the Dwayne Johnson Way.
Lose to Win.
Several promised quick weight loss with little effort. Others required vast amounts of dedication and time. None of them recommended deep fried okra from Charlie Unger's five days a week.
A-ha. There it was — the fake "before and after" picture of himself he'd photo-doctored on a free website. It showed how he looked now at 375 pounds, beside a potential picture of himself at 220 pounds, the perfect weight for his six-foot-six height according to web experts. His Gold's Gym membership haunted him. Maybe if he hadn't avoided it so religiously for the past year, he wouldn't be sitting here cursing the sweat pool between the layers of flab on his back like some panting beached walrus.
"My, my, son. You have got to get that hair of yours trimmed." A woman's voice cut the air, and Buck snapped awake. Mom? "You're starting to look like Jon Bon Jovi. Or is it David Lee Roth? The blond one."
"Mom, what're you doing down here?"
She never came to downtown Dallas. She stood over him in her daisy sundress, clutching and unclutching the strap on her patent leather purse. He stood up and let her have his chair. He perched on the edge of his desk.
"Is there an emergency? Dad —" There'd been an accident at his lab —
"No, no, Buck. Everything's fine. Oh, look at that picture of your grandma and grandpa's farm. So peaceful."
Yeah, it was. The photo served as his escape hatch some days. At least the family hadn't sold the farm when Grandpa died but kept it in a family trust.
"I mean — well, Buck, I came down to ask you a little favor." Worry lines wrinkled her forehead. She wasn't the favor-asking type. His mom was the favor-doing type. "I mean, it might be a big favor. I need you to go somewhere with me tomorrow."
Tomorrow. Friday. Friday looked free. "Okay, Mom. No problem. Where?" He could maybe slip out for a family thing during lunch — lots of people did. Not Buck, but lots of other people, people with families, people with things to do.
Buck double blinked and shook his head.
"It's in Japan."
"I know where Tokyo is, Mom. What are you talking about?"
"Oh, I knew this was a mistake." Her big blue eyes glistened. She pulled a handkerchief from her purse and dabbed at them.
"No, Mom. Just tell me what's going on." Usually she was a pillar, a brick.
"I told your father we should just use a travel agent, but he said the Yoshidas had everything worked out. Plane tickets, sightseeing, accommodations. They want us to stay with them, you know. I'd never ask you if —"
"Back up, back up. What are you talking about?"
"You know how your father is, Buck." She rolled her eyes upward. "Hank Cooper. Head full of dreams."
His mom never spoke this candidly about his dad. She must be really upset. Buck repositioned himself on his desk and folded his arms across his chest to listen.
"Did something go wrong with Nangrimax, Mom? The FDA didn't deny the application, did they?" Dad's latest invention could be the best wonder drug since penicillin. "I thought he had a deal in the works." With a guy in Japan. Ah, Tokyo.
"Oh, sweetheart. We're still waiting on that process." She heaved a sigh. "He does have a sweet deal possibility, but that's the thing. There's this Mr. Yoshida, a man with money and connections in Tokyo. Your father believes he could be key to getting the product off the ground there. It could mean the difference between glorious success or spectacular failure."
Buck tugged at his shirt. Failure. Not good.
"We're going to see Mr. Yoshida. And his family. And for some reason they insist on meeting our whole family, meaning you, too — even though it's during baseball playoffs, and I'll miss three games. I'd get your Aunt Nancy or your Aunt Phyllis to go, but no. It has to be the three of us. The Yoshidas have two sons, your dad says."
She got up and walked the five steps around the middle of his cubicle. "I don't know. We've invested so much ... The point is, we're desperate to make a good impression, and it starts with all three of us showing up. Buck, I tried to tell them you have a job." A wince wrinkled her nose. "I'm so bad at these social things, and your father's worse."
And she thought Buck was better? Aunt Nancy or Aunt Phyllis or any of his dozen other aunts or umpteen uncles or bazillion cousins could make a good impression. Not Buck.
"Ma, I hadn't told you and Dad yet — but I've put in for a promotion. This might not be the best time —"
Her look of sheer despair brought him up short.
"But don't you think about that. I'll just run the trip past management."
"I'm afraid, Buck." His mom cast her eyes down at her shoes. "I'm afraid this is it. Your father only has one failure left in him."
Buck's throat caught. It sounded like he had no choice. "Tokyo. Tomorrow, then. I'm with you."
Relief spread across her face along with a happy smile. Buck glanced around and caught a glimpse of Alison's hair swinging along an inter-cubicle corridor. His heart skipped.
"Mom, I have an appointment to get to, but — tomorrow. Tokyo!" He shot a finger toward the ceiling, and the flab of his underarm wobbled. His sweet mom gave a little jump of delight and pulled a plane ticket from her purse and slung it onto Buck's desk.
"Oh, thank you. You'll help us so much. You see things. So. Six o'clock flight. Don't forget your passport. Oh, and don't bring that ugly duffel bag. The one with the stripes? It's just awful." She bustled away, purse swinging at her side.
Tokyo. Tomorrow. He'd have to find his passport. Oh, and pack boxes to move out. There was no way Mrs. Jenkins would object to his vacating the apartment two days early. Hey, maybe he could wrangle some frequent flyer miles out of this deal. Wasn't Japan about ten thousand miles round trip?
Holy nightmare, thousands of miles on a plane. In coach. He peeked at the ticket. Groan. He really didn't want to go to Japan. At least not this Friday. Sure, some other time, Japan would be great. Not tomorrow. The promotion was pending — but so were layoffs. Not that he should worry about those.
Still, his mom needed him; he might as well go and make the best of it. He owed them a lot more than simply taking a vacation with them. After all, it was ten days out of his life. What could happen in ten days?
He ran his fingers through his hair and huffed in exhaustion. Japan. And now, to Alison. Hot fear pooled in his gut.
Buck stopped by the men's room to freshen up. With a little water on his fingers he smoothed aside some of that long blond hair. He pulled at his left eye. If he stood up straight, squared his shoulders, maybe — just maybe — he could pull it off, as long as he kept the goofiness out of his grin. He practiced a captivating smile, a casual smile, a winning smile. There. The right choice, the one he wore during his promotion interview. Yes. He got a vision of her hair shaking free behind her, and his heart kick-started again. Geez. He'd look like a beet in a dress shirt by the time he got out front.
As he passed his desk his phone rang. Stupid thing. Oh, but it could be Alison. In case it was, he should wait 'til the third ring — the perfect blend of I'm busy, but not too busy for you, Alison. How should he answer? Hi, Alison. Oh, hi, Alison. Hi. Alison. You look nice today. Hi, Alison. You called? No. He didn't want to sound like other guys, guys with lines. She'd probably heard a million lines.
Excerpted from Big in Japan by Jennifer Griffith. Copyright © 2012 Jennifer Griffith. Excerpted by permission of Jolly Fish Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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