Fat Mark didn’t look that way when he was a freshman in college, at least that’s what I heard. He was so bony, and with his height, several inches over six feet, he could have been nicknamed Beanpole although no one did. No one ever called him Fat Mark to his face. He wouldn’t have stood for either.
When I met Mark Barnum, he was the editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, and I was a would-be reporter in the second semester of my sophomore year. In those years, the newsroom was located in the old ticket office outside the auditorium of the college’s administration building. The literary journal’s staff met in the mezzanine. Our group hung out at either place or in the commuter lounge in the building’s basement, a noisy, but more interesting place to study than the library.
The paper used to be called the Stillwater Gazette, in honor of the college, until Fat Mark changed it the previous spring to The Hard Truth, much to the consternation of the college president, who threatened to cut funding. But in a moment that became legendary, Mark stormed into a trustees meeting and told them what this world needed was the hard truth, and so the president backed down.
It was just after winter break when Fat Mark agreed to let me write a column, called Who the heck is that? It was my idea, and when I explained I would write about interesting people on and off campus, he stroked his heavy, black mustache and said to give it a go, that he would make his decision after he read one. My trial story was about a kid in my class who played air-guitar on the steps of the administration building, performing as if a crowd filled the quadrangle instead of the snow that piled up that winter. People cheered whenever they saw him. He was that entertaining. His favorite musician was Jimi Hendrix. He would sing “Foxy Lady” in a sexy rock kind of way, which made me laugh and Fat Mark smile when he read the story I had typed in my dorm room. Mark played with the hairs of his mustache and gave me a questioning look.
“Well, Nora Devine, think you can crank these out every edition?”
I told him yes, which meant I was now entitled to sit in The Hard Truth office to use the equipment and not just visit my friend, Joey, who was on staff. Joey was the arts reporter, reviewing books, music, and movies for the paper. He was pretty good although I disagreed with his opinions of 2001 Space Odyssey. He loved it, and I thought it was the stupidest movie ever.
“You’d have to be really, really stoned to think it was any good,” I told him after we left the movie theater.
He frowned as he pushed his misshapen, black-rimmed glasses back up his nose.
“Well, yeah, but you could have at least pretended, Nora.”
Mark was always in the newspaper’s office. He greeted us by our first names then gestured with his thumb where we could work. Sometimes, he was hunched over a portable typewriter, punishing its keyboard with two fingers so fat their skin looked ready to split as he wrote one of his no-holds-barred editorials. “That bastard Nixon is going to get us all killed,” began one. When Mark left for a break or to use the men’s room, his belly plowed furniture out of his way.
A great deal of the time, Mark wrote in a blue spiral notebook he pulled from a beat-up leather briefcase. It was his journal, and I knew from someone asking it was supposed to be none of our goddamned business what was in it. Well, if that was true, why did he flash it around people I had asked Joey and he shrugged.
One night, we were working at the office. I was finishing a “Who the heck is that?” column about the retarded man who rode his bike around campus when Mark started chortling. Joey asked what was so funny, but he wouldn’t answer. He raised his hand above his journal, and then pawed the air. Joey’s eyes locked with mine. He passed me a note: “M. is a big fat phony.”
I shoved the paper in my pocket in case Mark found it. He wouldn’t care about being called a phony, but he would about the fat part. Mark was a hardship case, one of those guys who stuck with platonic relationships, because he didn’t know how to have a girlfriend. I knew he liked being around me and the other girls who worked at the newspaper. He’d mention my costumes, the gypsy clothes and beads I wore. Once when I braided my hair, then wound it around my head, he called me the Madonna of Stillwater. I grew up Catholic so I thought it hilarious.
But Fat Mark could also be cruel. One time in the commuter lounge, where we had gone to get coffee, he commented about one of the night students sitting at a nearby table.
“Shit, that woman has a mouth like a horse,” he said almost loud enough for her to hear.
I was embarrassed when he whinnied.
People had lots of stories about how Mark got so fat. The predominant was that he came to college half-starved, the result of growing up poor with a stepmother and two half-sisters after his father died. He was only nine when that happened. So, when Mark, a scholarship student, found out food was in unlimited supply at the dining hall, he began to fill himself. People talked about his going for thirds. He learned to drink cheap beer fast from a pitcher when he joined one of the college’s three fraternities.
“So, what do you write in your journal?” I asked him.
His face barely moved from the page, but his eyes bore into me.
“Everything about everyone.”
“So, are we in it?”
“You’ll never find out.”
He kept his fleshy hand curled around the edge of the notebook, which was silly, because there was no way Joey or I could make out the words across the room. He lifted his head.
“On second thought, show me your tits and I’ll let you see one page.”
I felt my neck and cheeks fire up. Joey, who had been working on a review of an album, did not know where to look.
“In your dreams,” I said, pulling my things together.
I heard Mark’s laughter still as I was leaving the building. I did not return for three days, and he acted like it never happened when he saw me again.
Joey and I were alone in The Hard Truth office one afternoon when he asked whether I thought Mark was a virgin. It was February, but the thaw made winter seem like spring, a false one, we knew, but we had the door open in the windowless office to let air into the place.
“How should I know?” I said.
Joey figured that if Mark were not a virgin it happened when he was a freshman and still thin. He said if Mark were to do it now with a woman, he would have to be careful not to crush her.
“That lucky lady would have to be on top,” he said aloud.
When Mark came in moments later, Joey and I glanced at each other, wondering if he could have heard. Mark didn’t say a word as he took a chair next to Joey, and then opened his journal. When I glanced across the table I thought I saw him jot our names. This was getting to be a little creepy. If his journal was so private why didn’t he leave it at his place? I wasn’t the only one. I’ve heard others on the newspaper staff grumble about it. Maybe someone should steal his journal and teach him a lesson.
That happened much easier than I ever thought it could. One night I spied a notebook on the floor of the news office as I was working alone on a column. When I bent to check, I saw that it was Mark’s journal, but sensing a trick, I straightened in my seat and awaited his return. He and Joey left minutes after I arrived to score some pot. The dealer was only going to be around for a short time, so they had to hurry. Mark, if I recalled correctly, was carrying his briefcase, because Joey told him it would make the dealer nervous if he brought it into his apartment.
“So leave it in my car,” Joey said.
Fifteen minutes later, no Mark and Joey. In that time, I resisted reading the journal, but that is exactly what I did an hour later in my room. I carried the notebook out of the building beneath my coat. No one had seen me, except the janitor who was sweeping the foyer with a large push broom. Mark started this edition of his journal a couple of days after Thanksgiving, in which he wrote he spent alone despite invitations to friends’ homes. He skipped visiting his half-sisters, as he called them, and ate a half-gallon of ice cream while watching a football game on TV.
I skipped ahead to see if Mark wrote about his offer to see my breasts, which he did, although he knew I wouldn’t let him. He said it gave him a hard-on. Like I said, creepy. I flipped through the pages. Much of it was his rambling thoughts about politics. He had made a list of professors, noting which ones had leftist and rightist tendencies. He wrote about our friends. Joey, he decided, was a hopeless pothead. He was less kind about the others.
Then, I found another entry with my name. He described a night early this semester in which he announced in the news office he was having an acid flashback. He said his skin looked like it belonged to a snake and the floor was about to break in two. I had offered my hand, which he crushed. Another girl massaged his shoulders, and once, when he groaned, she gave him a hug.
“You both are making me feel normal,” he had told us.
But the truth, Mark’s journal revealed, was that he faked it. We stayed with him for two hours, trying to talk him down, and then we walked him home where we handed him over to his roommates. He felt ashamed, but not too much.
“Mark’s fucking nuts,” I muttered as I flung the notebook across my room.
I jumped when I heard a knock at my dorm room door, but I didn’t answer when the girl down the hall said I had a call on the pay phone. The guy didn’t give his name. I didn’t answer, so she went away. I pulled the blanket over me. Music from the room next to mine beat through the wall. If I got up early, I could take the book back to the office, but maybe Mark had found me out. In that case, I better rip it into pieces and dump it down the garbage shaft. I wouldn’t admit to anything.
I lay on my bed and stared at the open notebook on the floor. Words in thick, black ink filled each line. I kept wondering who was worse: the liar or the thief who found one out?
Yes, there was a Fat Mark although he didn’t have that name. The only true part of this story is that I once read his journal when he left it hanging around. The characters in this short story and Ripple in the Jungle appear in my novel, Last Weekend in Westbridge. Fat Mark Writes It Down was accepted for publication by the magazine Thereby Hangs a Tale.