Denise Tolan

Fifty-Four and Fat

We were near the end of the pandemic. So the experts said. Still, I was careful. When I was alone on the walking trail I pulled down my mask so I could suck in some air before tackling the biggest hill in the park.

Turning toward the final assent, I saw a young couple walking downhill, toward me. I pulled my mask back over my nose, smiling at them with my eyes. The young man was bearded, large and eager, like a neighbor’s dog. He looked like the kind of guy who would hike at a park. The girl, small and thin, was out of place with her nightclub hair and dark, heavy eyelids. She seemed edgy, like people who don’t eat much. I wasn’t completely surprised when she spoke.

“Relax. You’re outside, Lady. You can take your mask off.”

I nodded, put my head down, walked toward the horizon.

“I’m sure you’ve had the vaccine anyway,” she said, “You have to be in an eligible category. I mean, you’re fat as fuck.”

The shaggy boyfriend’s laugh sounded like tiny pebbles tossed at my head.

“Excuse me,” I said, looking up at them and smiling, “but fuck you.”

They had been about to pass me. Now they stopped.

“What did you say?”

I smiled brightly, all fifty-four fat years of me. I repeated, “Fuck you.”

The girl inhaled. “Can you believe this,” she said to the boy. “Fat old lady wants to start some shit.”

“This fat old lady certainly does not,” I said. The girl walked toward me. I felt certain she was going to push me. Even when the boy took her shoulders and held her body tightly to his, the muscles in her arms jumped.

From behind the couple, two men began walking toward us. They spotted trouble.

“Quick,” I said to the girl. I pointed my index finger and pinky straight at her chest, like double horns with an attitude. “I curse you. Your life will be as ugly outside as you are inside.”

“Everything okay?” the men said, standing beside us. The girl had gone limp. The boy looked at the ground, mumbled sure.

“If you gentlemen are walking out, I wouldn’t mind joining you.”

It was no problem, of course. I was fifty-four and fat. I was like beige shoes, fine with anything.

“It looked like she wanted to kick your ass,” one of the men said.

“She did,” I agreed. “My mask offended her. Bored kids, I guess. I’m glad you two came along though. Never know these days.”

We spoke pleasantly while making our way to the parking lot. I learned the men walked together every day at this time. We made plans to meet at the trailhead the next day. 

In my car, I cranked up the radio, put on my sunglasses, forgot I was fat.

The next day, I waited in my car for the men to arrive. In the rear-view mirror, I saw the girl. She knocked on my window. The boy was not with her. I rolled it down an inch.

“Did you put a curse on me?”

I smiled, rolled the window back up.

“Take it off,” she yelled. “Please!”

My Italian American family had spoken of curses, mostly as jokes. It’s where I got the idea for the horns I threw at the girl. That and Sophia on the Golden Girls.

When I was fifteen, a man called our house. He asked for my mother. I yelled for her and she grabbed the phone. When she began speaking in the Friuli dialect of her childhood, I left.

Later that night, I asked who had called.

“An old boyfriend,” my mother said. “He left me at the altar when we were young. I was so hurt. My mother thought I might not survive the pain. But I did, and it turns out his life has been nothing but bad since he left Italy. Somehow, he heard my mother put a curse on his family after he left me. He called because he wanted me to ask my mother to take the curse off.”

“Did Nona put a curse on him?”

“It doesn’t matter if she did or not. It only matters that he believes she did.”

“You aren’t even going to ask her, are you?”

My mother smiled and stroked my hair. Her fingers felt like tiny, loaded canons.

After the day at the park, I started handing out curses like it was Halloween.

One afternoon, at Target, a woman opened her car door and hit mine. She looked away, refusing to apologize or even meet my eyes. When she walked back to her trunk, I opened my door and stood by her. She was in her twenties. I was fifty-four and fat. She was not worried.

“You hit my door,” I said.


“You could have apologized.”

“Whatever,” she said, slipping her foot beneath the bumper to close her trunk.

I walked in front of her. Extended my pinky and index finger. “I curse you. I hope your life is as damaged as your heart.”

“You what?” she said, suddenly looking me in the eyes. “Did you say you cursed me? Like put a curse on me?”

Her green eyes widened. She was beautiful, thin and tall like an evergreen.

“I’m sorry about your car. I had a bad day. I mean, I know you’re kidding, but take it back anyway. The curse.”

I narrowed my eyes at her, forgetting I was fifty-four and fat, and walked into Target.

At first, people are surprised by being cursed. Then the fear appears like a shadow on the ground, looming above them.

A few times, people surprised me by making double horns of their own and cursing me back. We ended up laughing, going our own way with our own curses tucked back into our pockets.

But for most people, there was no denying the power of two fingers.

Then one day, I simply outgrew the curses.

Instead, I turned fifty-five, lost a bunch of weight, and really started to piss people off.  

Denise Tolan’s work has been included in places such as Atlas and AliceHobartLunch Ticket, and The Best Small Fictions 2018. Denise was a finalist for Best of the Net 2021 and both the 2019 and 2018 International Literary Awards: Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction. Denise currently has a memoir in essay, Italian Blood, scheduled for release in 2023. You can find out about her Moby-Dick obsession on her website.