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c h a p t e r o n e: é c l a i r
"Would you care for an éclair, sir?"
Serving Size: 1 éclair ? 4 oz.
Witness to Fitness Points: 8
James Henry stared at the attractive, chocolate-covered delight nestled in its crinkled paper cup. He knew he shouldn't even think of eating the tantalizing pastry.
He was supposed to be on a diet. For the last six months he was supposed to have been on a good-carbohydrate, good-fat diet. And at first he was good–almost a saint–but lately, more and more, his cravings for forbidden foods had overpowered him and he had cheated. Just a little bit at first, but as the months went by, he found himself eating something deliciously fattening every day. What began with a slice of pizza once a week had morphed into a jelly donut on the way to work, a small bag of cheese puffs at lunchtime, a tub of buttered popcorn at the movies, or a candy bar during evening television. It was when he began eating the cheese puffs again that James knew his diet had officially become a failure.
All his life, James Henry had had a love affair with cheese puffs. The crunchy, salty, cheesy ambrosia that seemed to be comprised of baked air and that addictive, electric-orange dust drove James to his knees. During the first two months of the diet, in which he was determined to lose weight alongside his new friends and supper club members, James had resolutely passed by the snack food aisle in the grocery store. If he didn't go anywhere near a bag of cheese puffs, he could resist buying them. He had been so strong and the pounds had come off. Slowly at first, just a few a week, as he had been told was healthy. In two months, he lost more than twelve of the extra fifty-plus pounds he carried on his tall frame and had felt confident and hopeful for the first time in years.
That was back in autumn, though. Then Thanksgiving had come, and Christmas. It was during the holiday season that he and the other members of the supper club, who had humorously dubbed themselves the Flab Five, could be seen sneaking little sugary treats on the sly. "What's a piece of sweet potato pie here or a little candy cane there?" they reasoned with one another. At their last supper club dinner, Gillian, the barrel-shaped pet groomer with the nest of wild orange hair and garish clothing sense, admitted that she had already gained back half of the weight she had lost over the fall. Now, in March, James Henry, head librarian of the Shenandoah County Library Branch, also ruefully confessed that he had steadily been gaining weight instead of losing it.
Shrugging his shoulders as if to brush off all thoughts of dieting, James finally accepted the éclair from the woman wearing a green apron and an artificial smile. He popped the soft pastry into his mouth and happily exhaled as warm custard oozed onto his tongue. He licked a centimeter-sized smudge of chocolate from his left knuckle and pushed his cart farther up the frozen food aisle. He really had no reason to be walking down this aisle. If he admitted the truth to himself, which he wouldn't, James would have to acknowledge that the only reason he came over to this side of the store was that it took him closer to the display of jumbo-sized bags of tortilla chips, potato chips, pretzel rods, and of course, cheese puffs.
As head librarian, James made quarterly runs to the discount warehouse in Harrisonburg, Virginia. His purpose was to restock necessary office supplies such as Scotch tape, staples, printer paper, ink cartridges, and the like. The small town of Quincy's Gap, where James worked, was nestled in a verdant valley beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains and didn't support a large enough population to have more than one grocery store, let alone a mammoth warehouse store. James had grown up in Quincy's Gap, so he was accustomed to driving to larger towns like Harrisonburg or Charlottesville for specialty items. And even though James worked a Monday?Friday schedule at the library, he deliberately came to the warehouse during his time off over the weekend in order to partake of the food samples.
Steering a cart the size of a compact car down the wide yet congested aisles of refrigerated food, James paused in front of a shelf containing tubs of chocolate-chip cookie dough before noticing that another green-aproned woman was serving samples of pizza bagels up ahead. James darted forward and immediately stuffed one into his mouth, ignoring the molten tomato sauce, bubbling mozzarella cheese, and the woman's sales pitch as he greedily pivoted toward the juice sampler station behind him. Tossing back the doll-sized Dixie cup filled with sugary berry juice as if he were doing a shot at a bar, James blotted his purple-stained lips with a napkin and hustled in the direction of what could only be a cart set up to offer samples of chocolate.
A clot of eager customers surrounded this particular sampling station, which was strategically located at the section of the store displaying a contradictory combination of health foods and candies. James pushed his cart into a side aisle and shoved his bulk in front of a small boy, fearing that all the free samples might be given away before he could get his share. Glancing at the stacks of cartons containing sugar-free gum, honey-roasted peanuts, and protein bars in disdain, James elbowed forward until he could see the surface of the white stand being manned by a hassled-looking elderly lady. The poor woman was cutting up squares of chocolate from a slab the size of a shoebox as fast as she could. Shoppers grabbed a square and rapidly returned to their carts, like snakes seeking some privacy in order to properly swallow their prey.
"Hey! You cut!" the boy behind James whined.
Ignoring him, James stretched a long arm through a narrow gap between the hips of two chatting women and snagged a piece of chocolate. As he attempted to retrieve both his limb and what he now saw was a caramel-filled confection, one of the women abruptly turned. Her purse, acting like a thirty-pound pendulum, smacked James roughly in the arm, which he was holding high in the air in order to avoid having his chocolate touched as he reeled it in toward his salivating mouth. He watched in horror as his caramel-chocolate square flew out of his battered hand and above a tower of granola bars. Taking advantage of James's dismay, the disgruntled boy lunged forward, seized the last square on the tray and melted away into the crowd.
"Damn!" James muttered. He cast a sidelong glance at the old woman with the green apron. "Are you going to cut another piece?" he asked, hating the pathetic tone of his plea, but unable to stop himself from making it.
The woman fixed a pair of angry, blue eyes on him. "Not only am I not going to open a new bar," she seethed, "but I am going right home to read the paper."
James was confused. What did reading have to do with sampling chocolates? "The paper?"
"Yes. The classifieds! I'm going to find another job!" the woman squawked. "I've never seen such rudeness or gluttony in my whole entire life. And mine hasn't been a short one, mind you. For Pete's sake! It's just a piece of candy. I'm not handing out hundred-dollar bills here!"
James flushed, wondering why he had been fortunate enough to have been the sole recipient of this woman's tirade. Seeing the combination of an empty tray and a lack of activity on the sampler's part, most of the other shoppers had dissipated like mist.
"I'm sorry." James offered a weak apology to the woman. Then, in a final attempt to coerce her into renewing her sampling, he decided to lie. "I don't know about the rest of these people but I forgot to have breakfast today. Suddenly, that piece of chocolate looked awfully darned good to me. I guess I forgot any sense of manners in the face of hunger."
The woman eyed him as she untied her apron. "Sonny," she said, leaning toward James. "That's a bunch of horse manure and you know it. You don't look like you've ever missed your breakfast, or any other meal for that matter." And with that, she stomped away.
Indignantly, James reversed his cart, stormed down the main aisle, and practically skidded to a halt in front of the cheese puff display. Just as he was reaching up to pull a bag down from the shelf, he heard a familiar voice.
As James swung around, his elbow grazed the cheese doodles display, knocking four or five bags from the shelf. They dropped into his cart with a crinkly plunk. He tried to block the cart with his body as he gave his friend Lindy a guilty smile.
"Who are those for?" she asked in her familiar teasing manner, her large round eyes twinkling in mischief.
"Uh ?" James fumbled for an excuse. "Well, I was going to buy one bag, but those others just fell in, I swear."
"Tsk, tsk." Lindy waved a finger at him as she simultaneously tried to block his view of her cart.
Lindy was barely over five feet tall, but her round, curvaceous body was wide enough to prevent James from getting a clear look at what his fellow supper club member was trying to hide. As James noted the blush creeping into Lindy's nougat-colored cheeks, he suddenly stood on his tiptoes and spied that the high school art teacher was preparing to purchase three five-pound bags of mixed candy.
Pink roses bloomed on Lindy's full cheeks. "They're just bribes for my students." She gestured at the bags defensively, swinging a long lock of glossy, black hair over her shoulder in defiance.
James sighed as he took all the bags of cheese puffs out of his cart and replaced them on the shelf. "Well, you caught me out. Not only have I eaten every sample in this place, but I was going to gorge on cheese puffs all the way home." He looked at the snack display with longing.
"I've eaten everything in sight here, too." Lindy glumly pointed toward the checkout area. "Let's get out of this place before we get any fatter."
"Ha! We're going to lose five pounds before we ever get out of here," James said, indicating the long lines. Every shopper's cart seemed to be exploding with stacks of books, cartons holding three-dozen eggs, ten-gallon Tide bottles, steaks the size of footballs, and sixty-four rolls of toilet paper.
James and Lindy pulled into adjoining lines. The woman in front of Lindy had a similar body type to her own, being short and round with large hips and full, heavy breasts. James couldn't help but notice that the woman's cart was stuffed with cookie assortments, two cheesecakes, potato chips, ice cream bars, a giant-sized box of Frosted Flakes, rice pudding, and several varieties of candy bars. As James watched with interest, the woman opened the box of Twix bars, pulled out a single candy, and began to struggle with the foil wrapper. The gold packaging, which seemed to be illuminated with an ethereal glow beneath the fluorescent lights, was successfully preventing her from having a tasty treat while waiting in the endless line.
As James and Lindy stared, the woman tugged at the wrapper, grunting with exertion. She even put it down for a moment, then wiped her hands on her purple floral dress, and tried again. Just as her line moved forward, she was able to rip the stubborn wrapper apart, sending one of the chocolate and caramel-covered Twix bars soaring through the air and into the cart of a stick-thin brunette dressed in workout clothes standing in front of her.
Lindy's eyes grew large as she, and everyone waiting in line around the Twix Lady, ogled the brunette as she fished the candy bar out of her cart. The brunette's mouth compressed into a thin-lined smile as she turned around and looked appraisingly at the plump woman behind her.
"I'm so sorry!" Twix Lady gushed, holding out a pudgy hand in order to retrieve the offensive snack. If she was expecting to have her piece of candy returned however, she was to be disappointed.
"I'd rather stab myself in the heart than give you this"–the brunette eyed the candy as if it were a piece of dung–"disgustingly unhealthy, chemical-filled piece of trash! Darlin'," she cooed as if talking to a baby, "you don't really want this back."
Twix Lady put her hand over her heart in shock. James and Lindy looked at one another with wide eyes. As the cashier waved James forward and he scurried around the other side of his cart so that he could unload it, he now found himself standing parallel to the brunette.
"Look at your cart, dear!" the woman continued, her voice rising in concern as she rifled through Twix Lady's cart with frantic energy. "Nothing but sugar, nasty carbohydrates, and nicely disguised lard! Honey! How can you do this to your body?"
Twix Lady looked around for help, but the other shoppers only stared in embarrassed fascination. It was like watching a lioness circle calmly around a wounded wildebeest.
"Don't you know that you are too beautiful to ruin yourself with food like this?" the brunette asked in a deep drawl, her hand held over her heart as if to express her earnestness. "If I were your friend, and I'm sure you have tons of friends, I wouldn't let you out this door with this cart, sugar."
"I dunno." Twix Lady looked as though she would burst into tears at any moment. She then frantically opened a new Twix bar and desperately bit off an end as if the sweetness could ward off any further attacks from the brunette. "I like this stuff. It makes me feel good."
The brunette smiled at her victim in sad disbelief. "Darlin', this doesn't really make you feel better. I mean, only for a few minutes. But later ? ," she let the words drift away as she took a step closer to Twix Lady."You are killing yourself," she said so softly that James almost couldn't hear. "And it's breaking my heart." Then, smoothing back a few wisps of hair that had escaped her ponytail, the brunette perked back up and spoke in a singsong voice. "See my cart? I've got fruit, vegetables, cheese, lean meats, and sugar-free candy for when I need a little reward. My cart is why I look the way I do and your cart is why I'm real worried about your future, sweetheart. Do you live around here?"
Twix Lady blinked, overwhelmed by the brunette's concern and startled by her question.
"Um ? not really. I live north of here."
"Anywhere near Quincy's Gap?" James and Lindy quickly ex¬changed wary looks.
"I live in Hamburg. It's 'bout twenty minutes drive from Quincy's Gap."
"That'll be close enough." The brunette handed Twix Lady a business card. "My name's Veronica Levitt. I'm opening a new fitness and weight loss center called Witness to Fitness in Quincy's Gap. Matter of fact, the Grand Opening is next weekend. Why don't you come by and I'll help you change what you put in your cart and in your mouth. I will save your life, if you give me the chance."
The brunette put a hand on Twix Lady's shoulder and squeezed it tenderly. Twix Lady began to cry, her shoulders and chest jiggling as she wept.
"You can help me?" she sobbed, a bit of chocolate drool running down her chin.
It seemed to James that Veronica hesitated for a fraction of a second before her lips curved upward into an enormous smile. "Oh, yes, my dear. Now, it's going to be tough. Real tough. But if you stick with me, you're going to be a newer, stronger, sexier you in just six weeks!"
"I'd like that." Twix Lady sniffed, holding the business card to her chest as if it were a treasure she might lose. "Thank you." She reached out and hugged Veronica.
"Excuse me!" Lindy called to Veronica from behind Twix Lady. "Did you say six weeks?" Lindy's tone was clearly dubious.
Veronica's bright green eyes fixed on Lindy's figure. "That's what I said. Are you interested as well, hon?"
Lindy hesitated. "I've been on a diet for over six months, actu¬ally."
Veronica began unloading her cart. "And is it working for you?" she called back, eyeing Lindy sweetly as Twix Lady turned around to get a good look at the person who might next be transformed by the magical fitness guru.
Lindy shrugged. "I've lost some weight." She pointed across the way at James. "There are five of us on the diet together. We've got a supper club going."
"Good for you!" Veronica cheered Lindy. "But now ? is that candy a part of your supper club's menu?" she asked, using the type of chiding tone that a doting grandmother might use on a child who has eaten too many of her homemade cookies before dinner.
Lindy looked down at her cart guilty. "It's for my students! Look, I still have some curves," she added sulkily, "but we don't all have your kind of bone structure. I have always had a very full-figured build."
Veronica finished paying for her purchases. "Of course we're not all the same," she said soothingly, pushing her cart out of the way so that Twix Lady could check out. Veronica then approached Lindy as if she were a lost puppy in need of adoption, her face a perfect mix¬ture of sympathy and friendly concern. "But you can still have the curves of Jennifer Lopez instead of the fat rolls of Jabba the Hutt. Why, with that gorgeous hair and those huge chocolate eyes, you could have men lined up for miles just to get your phone number!"
Lindy's jaw seemed to have come unhinged as her face burned red with embarrassment. Veronica seemed oblivious to the emotions she was provoking. "Here, just take my card. I'm giving discounts to all those who sign up for the six-week plan during my Grand Opening." She bent to retie the shoelace on one of her spotlessly white running shoes. "But I've got to warn you. You won't be eating any candy with me as your food advocate, so you may as well get out of this line and put it back on the shelf. That'll show you just how much you want to change your life. Go on, darlin', put it back. You don't need that candy to make you happy."
James waited for Lindy's Brazilian half to raise its hot-tempered head and verbally reduce Veronica Levitt into a smoldering pile of ash. Customarily, Lindy was an easygoing and fun-loving person, filled with a positive energy that seemed to infect all those who spent time with her, but on occasion, she could have a fit of rage not unlike a two-year-old throwing a tantrum in the toy store. Lindy always blamed these infrequent bouts of passionate wrath on her Brazilian mother, a former supermodel. Lindy claimed that the traits she had inherited from her mother were limited to her skin tone and her ability to pitch a fit when backed into a corner. But amazingly, Lindy's temper remained completely checked. She simply nodded her head in silent agreement, scooped up the bags of candy, and left her place in line in order to return them to their proper shelf.
As a dumbfounded James began unloading his cart, Veronica appeared at his side and gave him the once over with her calculating green eyes. She placed a pair of tanned hands on her nonexistent hips and offered him a flirtatious nudge in the side.
"So you've been on a diet for six months, too?"
James slapped a heavy carton of copier paper onto the conveyer belt. "Yes."
Veronica smiled with encouragement. "You'd do so well on my program. Men always do." She reached out an arm to help James empty his cart. He stared at the appendage. It looked more like a jungle vine, sinewy and leathery in texture, than a part of the human anatomy.
"You know, you've got a good frame and a real handsome face hidden beneath all of that cushion," Veronica said, tossing a very weighty carton filled with printer paper onto the belt as if it were a box of Kleenex. "I bet you were a looker in high school and college, weren't you?"
James was amazed by her strength, considering her overall lack of body mass. He was more than a little intimidated as well. He felt more comfortable with women who had softer bodies. He liked curves and solid limbs and dimples in the cheeks. Suddenly, he had a vision of Lucy Hanover, another supper club member who worked for the Sheriff's Department. The only thing sharp about Lucy was her mind. The rest of her was all softness, like a warm and cozy chair that one longs to sink into at the end of the day. A flash of her sunlit, brown hair, eyes the shade of bachelor's buttons, and a pair of plump lips that he had dared to kiss just once a few months ago made James forget all about Veronica's presence.
Veronica was not the type of woman to be ignored, however. She shoved a business card into James's hand and then patted him on the protruding mound that formed his belly.
"Let me help you. We can change you from looking like Santa Claus to looking like one sexy ?" she eyed his empty ring finger, "bachelor." She smiled again as James shifted uncomfortably. Veronica traced the curve of his cheek with her finger and then moved off to collect her cart. "Hope to see you next week, handsome!" she called over her shoulder as she exited the store.
James flushed as he noticed the other shoppers gawking at him. He quickly balled up Veronica's pink business card and shoved it deep into his jeans pocket just as Lindy reclaimed a place in the checkout line. James waited for her by the exit, standing close enough to the outside doors to note that the cold March rain had ceased and the formerly congealed clouds were finally showing signs of thinning.
"I thought you needed that candy for your students," James said as Lindy pulled her cart next to his. She shrugged. "I'll have to get them something else as a reward. Truth is, I would have eaten half of that stash if I had it at school."
James shook his head in disbelief. "How could you listen to a sanctimonious woman like that? She's part cheerleader, part used-car salesman, part Dr. Phil."
Lindy paused in the middle of the parking lot and turned to look James in the eye. "I don't know, James. But let's face it: we haven't done so well on our own. Maybe it's time we seek professional help."
"But she's ? she's like Richard Simmons on speed!" James splut¬tered in protest.
Lindy unlocked her car, a red Chevy Cavalier with a sizeable dent in one of the rear door panels, and began loading her boxes into the trunk."Exactly! That woman will get our energy levels up and get us to be more honest about ourselves. We haven't been accountable to one another. When was the last time we ever shared our weight loss progress?"
James fidgeted with his key chain. "At least two months," he admitted.
"That's 'cause there hasn't been any! It's time that someone coerced us to get back on a scale and made us exercise. If it means that Veronica's going to be the Head Diet Cheerleader, so be it. We need someone to champion us, someone who truly cares about our health and happiness. Tomorrow night, during our dinner, I'm going to suggest we all go to her Grand Opening. It's time to face the fact that we've slipped." Lindy opened her car door and squeezed inside. "The Flab Five is about to get back in the swing of things and Veronica Levitt is just the woman for the job."
James groaned. There was something about the fitness instructor that he didn't like. His instincts were warning him not to trust her, but he couldn't explain his feelings to Lindy, let alone come up with a good argument as to why they shouldn't join Veronica's program.
On the way back to Quincy's Gap, he stopped at a Food Lion and bought himself a large bag of cheese puffs.