‘Thinner,’ the old Gypsy man with the rotting nose whispers to William Halleck as Halleck and his wife, Heidi, come out of the courthouse. Just that one word, sent on the wafting, cloying sweetness of his breath. ‘Thinner.’ And before Halleck can jerk away, the old Gypsy reaches out and caresses his cheek with one twisted finger. His lips spread open like a wound, showing a few tombstone stumps poking out of his gums. They are black and green. His tongue squirms between them and then slides out to slick his grinning, bitter lips.
This memory came back to Billy Halleck, fittingly enough, as he stood on the scales at seven in the morning with a towel wrapped around his middle. The good smells of bacon and eggs came up from downstairs. He had to crane forward slightly to read the numbers on the scale. Well… actually, he had to crane forward more than slightly. Actually he had to crane forward
quite a lot. He was a big man. Too big, as Dr Houston delighted in telling him. In case no one ever told you, let me pass you the information, Houston had told him after his last checkup. A man your age, income, and habits enters heart-attack country a roughly age thirty-eight, Billy. You ought to take off some weight.
But this morning there was good news. He was down three pounds, from 249 to 246.
Well… the scale had actually read 251 the last time he’d had the courage to stand on it and take a good look but he’d had his pants on, and there had been some change in his pockets, not to mention his keyring and his Swiss army knife. And the upstairs bathroom scale weighed heavy. He was morally sure of it.
As a kid growing up in New York he’d heard Gypsies had the gift of prophecy. Maybe this was the proof. He tried to laugh and could only raise a small and not very successful smile; it was still too early to laugh about Gypsies. Time would pass and things would come into perspective; he was old enough to know that. But for now he still felt sick to his too-large stomach at the thought of Gypsies, and hoped heartily he would never see another in his life. From now on he would pass on the palm-reading at parties and stick to the Ouija board. If that.
‘Billy?’ From downstairs.
He dressed, noting with an almost subliminal distress that in spite of the three-pound drop the waist of his pants was getting tight again. His waist size was forty-two now. He had quit smoking at exactly 12:01 on New Year’s Day, but he had paid. Oh, boy, had he paid. He went downstairs with his collar open and his tie lying around his neck. Linda, his fourteen-year-old daughter, was just going out the door in a flirt of skirt and a flip of her pony-tail, tied this morning with a sexy velvet ribbon. Her books were under one arm. Two gaudy cheerleader’s pom-poms, purple and white, rustled busily in her other hand.
‘Have a good day, Lin.’
He sat down at the table, grabbed The Wall Street Journal.
‘Lover,’ Heidi said.
‘My dear,’ he said grandly, and turned the Journal facedown beside the lazy Susan.
She put breakfast in front of him: a steaming mound of scrambled eggs, an English muffin with raisins, five strips of crisp country-style bacon. Good eats. She slipped into the seat opposite him in the breakfast nook and lit a Vantage 100. January and February had been tense – too many ‘discussions’ that were only disguised arguments, too many nights they had finished sleeping back to back.