A Matter of Substance

Ever since she was small, Muriel had trouble counting. Numbers never seemed real to her. They didn’t form tangible things. Their movements were too static, their operations too chaotic. For instance, why was it that twelve was not written with a six if it is the sum of two sixes? Shouldn’t it actually be written as two sixes sequentially? And if that were the case, then how would one go about writing sixty-six? As a child, she was frequently scolded by her teachers for making “silly” mistakes on her mathematics assignments (e.g. 35 + 33 = 338). She was notorious for forgetting friends’ and relatives’ birthdays simply because the numbers slipped through her mind like sand through a sieve. Muriel hardly ever pondered numbers and their notation, and if she did, she seldom got past the number twelve. Now, she did, however, find herself collecting and managing numbers on a daily basis. She had to do it for a living. It wasn’t her job per se—she compiled English dictionaries and accumulated absolutely no income through counting—but she needed to count in order to live. And some may have said that numbers plus Muriel’s inability to conceive their value equalled the root of her heftiest problem: her weight.

*

The till display read thirteen thousand three hundred and forty-seven. Already Muriel could feel the sweat begin to trickle down the nape of her neck.

“That’s much too much,” she sputtered, avoiding the sharp eyes of the man behind the till.

“You’re telling me. You need to knock off at least four thousand, ma’am.”

Calories. Too many calories. She’d gone over her weekly allowance again. Muriel never liked counting calories. Would she ever learn to count them up properly? Packaging was even color-coded to indicate fat content, but that didn’t do much for her—red only reminded her of tomatoes or strawberry jam. All she knew was hunger and that food would make her feel full.

The man drummed his fingers on the till while Muriel quietly panicked. What could she live without for a week? How many calories were in a bowl of cereal again?

“You do it,” she barked at the cashier. She stole a look over her shoulder. No queue behind her. Thank god. She might have died from embarrassment (as if the sight of her weren’t already enough). The man punched the till’s touchscreen a few times, clearly impatient.

“For the healthiest option, the system suggests you dispose of the following items: the jar of marshmallow spread, the two jars of strawberry jam, the clotted cream, and the box of chocolate mints…leaving you with one hundred and fifty-five calories to spare,” this was all said by the man in a somewhat official-sounding voice.

“That won’t do. Leave the mints, but get rid of the custard creams, the cereal, and the two packs of bacon, please,” Muriel sighed.

“Alright, ma’am, if you’d kindly step off the scale and collect your items from the bagging area…”

*

The bane of our society. The pain in our backs. The clog in the arteries of our National Medical Services. Obese people needed to be eliminated, and they were, ounce by ounce, whether they liked it or not, through a rigorous (and slightly controversial) government-sponsored regimen. Something that Muriel, and other obesecians hated. But how did the government go about implementing such, forgive me, a gargantuan undertaking?

The Freedom of Obesity Disorder Act

According to the F.O.O.D. Act, citizens hereby found to have a body mass index exceeding twenty-five, and thusly deemed overweight, will be reported to the Regimen Implementation Department (R.I.D.) for appropriate weight loss action and obesity prevention. All treatment is obligatory and failure to comply may result in taxation, community service, denial of healthcare, and/or imprisonment. Classification of treatment is divided into three levels.

Level One: Citizen is reported to exceed the legal maximum body mass index and is enlisted for basic Level One treatment. R.I.D. requires a weekly nutrition education and diet management class in addition to a tri-weekly exercise program at a government-registered weight loss rehabilitation gym. Citizens have three months to return to legal weight.

Level Two: Citizen has failed to return to legal weight within time allotted by Level One treatment. Level Two Citizens will be denied access to basic healthcare amenities. Level Two Citizens will maintain the regimen stipulated in Level One whilst taking new steps to achieve target weight. Additional steps include, but are not limited to, a weekly calorie allowance*, and daily weigh-ins at a general practitioner’s office or local R.I.D. centre.

*Weekly calorie allowance depends on sex of citizen. Adult males are limited to fourteen thousand calories per week. Adult females are limited to thirteen thousand. A six percent increase of tax on all edible products will be levied against Level Two Citizens. Credit cards, debit cards, charge cards, bank cards, and other financial means are monitored by the R.I.D. Level Two Citizens’ bank accounts are forbidden from dispensing cash in order to prevent unregistered and illegal purchase of food and drink. Establishments selling or trading edible goods and other consumable products must weigh all Level Two Citizens prior to purchase in order to monitor for weight gain. All weigh-ins and purchases are automatically recorded by R.I.D. through the electronic Weighing and Tracking Consumer Health (W.A.T.C.H.) system. Parties found to be tampering or interfering with W.A.T.C.H. will be subject to imprisonment. Online purchase of edible goods and other consumable products is illegal. Upon graduation to Level Two treatment, Level Two Citizens must adhere to the above regulations until target weight loss has been achieved and maintained for at least twelve months.

Level Three: Citizen has failed to comply with Level Two and Level One regulations and treatment either by excessive absence from the exercise program, nutrition and diet management class, weigh-ins, and/or by gaining weight, or eating and obtaining consumables illegally. Upon graduation to Level Three, citizens will be detained and subject to controlled internal treatment until legal weight has been achieved and maintained for at least thirty-five months.

*

Where was he? Closing up had never taken him so long. Maybe she’d gotten the time wrong? Muriel could have sworn that Max had said “half nine,” but she wondered whether that meant nine thirty or eight thirty. Half of sixty is thirty, isn’t it?  There’s no way he could have meant four point five, but that is half nine after all. What a mess!  She fondled her chocolate mints with jittery fingers, sucking one down to calm her nerves, the golden wrapper carefully folded and pocketed.

Level Three hadn’t even crossed Muriel’s mind as she hovered amongst the locked garbage bins in the alley behind the grocery store. She always got a bit anxious waiting for her dealer—even though Max was her cousin. Her handbag was heavy with bottles of cough syrup, the currency she paid him in, a product not yet considered a consumable by the R.I.D. His favourite flavour was cherry, but the pharmacy was out of it, so her only option had been pomegranate and lime. What a mess! The weight of the entire situation coated her neck with another trickling of sweat.

By the sixth mint, Max had finally appeared holding a black garbage bag in his right fist.

“For you, Auntie,” Max said with a smile, handing the bag over to an elated Muriel.

Inside the bag was a mountain of baked goods: croissants, muffins, scones, and even some meat pies. Muriel shoved her head into the bag and took a big whiff of their buttery scent. They were still warm.

“About sixty thousand calories altogether, Auntie,” Max added, still smiling. What a nice cousin he was, indeed.

“Sure smells like it! And your payment, as promised,” Muriel chirped as she passed him the bottles one by one from her purse. “They didn’t have the kind you liked this time, so I—”

“No worries, Auntie. I like lime. Just be careful with your stuff, okay?” He waved before turning to leave.

Muriel was so hungry that she didn’t even mind the blatant lack of small talk this time. She waddled off with half a meat pie already in her mouth, each bite ricocheting her mind into euphoria. A quarter of the garbage bag’s contents depleted by the time she arrived home.

Muriel and her peers were not alone in their hatred of R.I.D. and the F.O.O.D. Act. Shopkeepers, fast food chain owners, and candy factories hated the F.O.O.D. Act. They lobbied against it. They marched alongside obesecians to protest in the early days of R.I.D. development. They modified their business plans, going so far as cancelling overly caloric products and revising recipes. Even so, their efforts were still no match for the pro-F.O.O.D. front. Doctors and celebrities hailed F.O.O.D. as ‘a cultural shift in the right direction’. Gym franchises, yoga clothing retailers, outdoor gear distributors, weight loss shake manufacturers, and even pharmaceutical companies backed the new legislation. As soon as the law was passed, the pro-F.O.O.D. front knew, with all the obesecians desperate to lose weight, there was money to be made.

But the numbers! Too many numbers. Muriel could not keep track. First, it had been thirteen thousand, three hundred and forty-seven calories, and then it was reduced to how much? Did the cashier say five hundred and fifteen to spare, or was it one hundred and fifty-five? Meaning, her total purchase was either twelve thousand, four hundred and eighty-five or twelve thousand, eight hundred and forty-five. In any case, both totals ended with five. So, Muriel could either have one thousand, seven hundred and eighty-three calories per day, or one thousand, eight hundred and thirty five calories per day. What a mess! She was already up the stairs and through the door before she could factor in the calories she had already consumed and the additional sixty thousand calories Max had sold her.

“Oh, fuck it!” she said, knowing that she couldn’t win.

She ate everything that night, all seventy-two thousand, eight hundred and forty-five calories. To this very day, nobody has heard of an obesecian that out-binged Muriel. Some say, in order to avoid such a temptation, she should have resold some of what Max sold her. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know any other obesecians who’d be willing to buy. She knew tons. It’s possible that calculating the price per hundred calories per pie (or croissant, or scone, or muffin) seemed too daunting, or maybe she just didn’t realize. According to a local newspaper report, emergency medical services were first notified of Muriel’s situation when the tenant living below her heard a loud boom. R.I.D. investigators later concluded this ‘boom’ must have been Muriel’s chair collapsing. Upon hospitalization, a team of seven doctors and nurses began the arduous task of pumping Muriel’s grossly enlarged stomach, and the in-house psychiatrist diagnosed her with an overeating disorder, thus graduating her to Level Three on the spot. Max was found guilty of “providing contraband to an at-risk obesecian” and subsequently sentenced to three hundred and thirty-eight days of community service.

*

Now recovering in a weight loss rehabilitation clinic, free from the burden of calculating and ciphering, Muriel has since learned to appreciate the single vanilla wafer given to each patient for dessert at dinnertime.

Always a daydreamer, Arthur Thompson has been imagining short stories from a very young age. However, it is only until now that he has thought to write any of them down. Originally from Los Angeles, he currently resides in London, where he completed his undergraduate degree in Chinese and linguistics. His vices include coffee, books, analogue photography, and chocolate mints.

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