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Original Short Story: "Shelby's Image"

Original short literary fiction, including satire, remains one of the writing genres in my literary toolkit. I do enjoy creating characters!

A Weighty Problem

Her divorce had left Rosalee bitter; she clutched tight the one possession she felt she could hold on to—her daughter, Shelby. She was determined that her precious baby would never suffer the fate that the mother had suffered—the fate of being the wife of an unfaithful husband. She determined to create a Shelby that men would find repulsive. She could not change Shelby's sweet trusting nature, so she encouraged eating habits in the girl that caused her daughter to suffer a weight problem from the time she began Kindergarten. By the time Shelby was nine years old, she stood 4' 8" tall and weighed almost 150 pounds. Rosalee encouraged her daughter to believe that only food could make dreams come true.

In high school Rosalee had been a slender, pretty girl who attracted males easily, and she loved the attention at first. Then she fell deeply in love with Arthur Strand in their junior year, and during the summer before their senior year, Arthur decided he liked Amy Stedwell better. This broke Rosalee's heart and made her start to be suspicious of all men. During her senior year Rosalee's poor heart was again broken by Todd Ferrell. She thought that Todd was perfect and that they would surely be married after they graduated, but Todd decided that he wanted to go to the University of Paris to continue his French major and art history minor, and he didn't want to be tied down while he was away. He wanted his freedom to enjoy all that France had to offer.

So Rosalee suffered again. But the worst experience that produced the death of masculinity for Rosalee was her marriage to Shelby's father. He was a beautiful man, equal to Rosalee in physical attributes, and he attracted females as Rosalee had attracted males. Rosalee had forsaken all those other men when she married Donald Caulfield, but Donald Caulfield did not forsake all others according to the vow. After suffering through gonorrhea for the third time, and after Shelby turned five, old enough to attend Kindergarten, Rosalee took a secretarial position at Sparrow-Lakeland Senior High School and divorced Donald Caulfield.

Donald never stopped loving Rosalee, and he adored Shelby, so he remained in the town of Sparrow, Indiana, teaching junior high shop, even though he had applied and had been offered a much more lucrative position at a large manufacturing firm in Indianapolis. He and Rosalee had both grown up in this small town. And he knew that Rosalee would never leave it, because all of her family, except for one sister who had moved to Texas, still lived here.

So he remained there to be near Rosalee and Shelby. He tried to keep tabs on his former family, but Rosalee's bitterness and overprotectiveness of Shelby made him limit his visits to Christmas and Shelby's birthday; even through Donald had weekly visitation rights, he did not want Shelby to be exposed to the fits Rosalee threw when he tried to enforce those rights. So he eventually gave up, but held on to the Christmas and birthday visits, held on as tight as he could. Many of those visits were foiled when Rosalee would take Shelby away unexpectedly, so Donald went three years without a visit, from Shelby's sixth to ninth year.

Shelby Turns Nine

On Shelby's ninth birthday, Donald showed up at six in the morning with a load of toys and clothes that he was sure any nine year old girl would adore. He had not seen his daughter since she was five years old, but his live-in girlfriend, Harriet Claybourne, who also had a nine year old daughter, had advised him in picking out toys and clothes for Shelby. Both Donald and Harriet had consulted Lisa, Harriet's daughter, about the gifts. They even had her try on clothes to help them decide the size to buy for Shelby.

So here was Donald showing up at 6:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, sure that the ex-wife and daughter could not have eluded him, bearing three Barbie dolls complete with chic ensembles and four dresses any nine year old would die for, dresses that Lisa's jealously compelled Harriet to purchase duplicate copies for her daughter. Donald also bought two pairs of jeans for Shelby, and Harriet then was obliged to buy two pairs of jeans for Lisa.

When Rosalee opened the door and saw Donald, her face immediately turned sour, and she stepped out onto the porch, stood before Donald, and commanded him to leave.

"Rosalee, damn it, I haven't seen my baby in three goddam years. If you don't let me see her today, this very minute, I swear, this time I'm going to the judge and have you hauled in. I mean it, Rosie, I've had it. The little girl is my little girl, and I have rights. I've been damned patient with you for all these years. But dammit, my baby girl is growing up and I intend, by God, to see her and get to know her before she's completely out of my life because of your stupid crap. Now get out of the way." He pushed Rosalee aside as gently but firmly as he could. She followed him inside, her mouth hanging open, unable to say a word. She was so angry, she wanted to smash his face, and she might have tried, had Shelby not walked into the living room.

"Mommy, what's going on?" Shelby stopped when she saw her father. She was confused. Why was he here? Rosalee had made her believe that he hated them. She had told Shelby many times about how evil men are. As she cajoled Shelby to finish her third piece of chocolate cake with fudge sauce, she'd remind her daughter that only a big, round, strong, beautiful body would keep those evil men away. Why was this evil man who hated them here?

"Go back to your room, Shel," snapped Rosalee.

Remembering Daddy

"Wait, honey, don't you remember me. Baby, I'm your daddy and I've brought you birthday presents. Come here and let me see you, Shelby-Baby?" Donald didn't quite know what to do. His baby had ballooned from the little dainty five year old; he was shocked to see how fat this child had become. But he didn't want to mention it, not just yet.

"Well, I don't know," Shelby said, as she looked questioningly at Rosalee. "Mommy, is it all right? He said he brought me birthday presents. Maybe he changed his mind."

"Look here, do you like dolls?" Donald pulled out a Barbie doll and handed it to Shelby.

"It's beautiful!" Shelby said, looking at the doll and starting to take it from the box.

"Shelby, put that doll back and hand it back to this man, and tell him you do not want it. Right now!"

"But, Mommy, why can't I have it? It's my birthday present. It's mine. He wants me to have it!"

"Shelby Renee Caulfield, you do as your mother tells you, or else you will stay in your room all day, and you will have no birthday presents from me tonight!" Rosalee commanded her daughter, and Shelby laid down the doll, turned her eyes to the floor, and went to her room.

After Shelby had left the room, Rosalee turned to Donald and demanded, "Now you get out of my house this instant. You can't come around here acting like you give a damn about that girl, upsetting and confusing her. Just get out of here," Rosalee picked up the Barbie and flung it at Donald.

"I told you what I would do, and now I guess you are going to force me to do it. I'm getting a court order and you will see who gets what. How can you be such a heartless, selfish bitch?" With that Donald turned and left the house.

True to his word, around 5:30 that afternoon, as Rosalee, with Shelby in tow, was bolting from the house, Donald pulled his car up behind Rosalee's car. Immediately, behind Donald, a police cruiser halted, and a police officer stepped out of his vehicle. The officer and Donald approached Rosalee, and the officer began to address her.

"Excuse me, Mrs. Caulfield, I have a court order signed by Judge Meyerson demanding you abide by the terms of your divorce decree that states that Mr. Caulfield be allowed visitation of minor child. . ." he looked at the paper in his hand, "Shelby Renee Caulfield. Do you understand the terms of the divorce decree and what is required of you?"

"But why is he doing this now? Why suddenly is he trying to act like he cares about his child?" Rosalee asked.

The Original Agreement

"Officer, she knows that she is the one who has kept me from seeing Shelby all these years. I explained that to Judge Meyerson, and he said I can file charges if she keeps this up." And turning to Rosalee, "And that's exactly what I'll do, Rosie. I mean it. I'm determined to be a part of my daughter's life."

"Mrs. Caulfield, you can save everybody a lot of time and money if you will just abide by the original agreement that's spelled out in your divorce decree," the officer said.

Rosalee knew she was defeated, and as much as she resented having to give in, she did what the officer suggested. She turned to Shelby and said, "Shel, take these bags back inside. I guess we have to let him in."

And turning to the officer, she said, "All right, but if anything awful happens to my child because of this lecherous scum, I'll blame you and that judge."

The officer handed the court order to Rosalee and saying goodbye to both Caulfields turned and left. Donald was now on his own to try to reason with Rosalee. She refused to look at him. She just turned and walked back inside the house. Inside, Shelby sat on the couch with the bags next to her feet on the floor. She looked like such a sad, miserable little girl, Donald thought. What has this woman, this woman I loved so much, done to this child?

Of course, the clothes wouldn't have fit Shelby. Donald could reason that from the moment he had seen her that morning, so he didn't bother to bring them into the house again. He thought to himself that Lisa would be able to use them, even though she already had exact duplicates. But Shelby was enchanted by the Barbie dolls.

After a fairly civil dinner and blowing out of the candles ritual, Donald watched as Rosalee cut about a quarter of the cake and piled on three large scoops of ice cream, and handing it to Shelby said, "There we are, Birthday Girl, your favorite chocolate cake and butter pecan ice cream."

"Rosalee, she can't possibly eat all that. She's just a nine year old kid."

"How would you know what she can eat? You could eat two plates like that couldn't you, honey?"

"Mommy, I'm a little full, can I eat the rest later? I want to open my presents. Please?"

After Shelby promised to finish the cake before she went to bed, the three went into in the living room, and Shelby opened all of her gifts. In addition to the Barbie dolls and to replace the clothes that Shelby couldn't fit into, Donald had bought her a typewriter, a pair of skates, and a bicycle after he had requested the court order from Judge Meyerson. Rosalee gave her a pink sweater, three nightgowns, and a toy bake set. Her aunt Janice in Texas had sent her several games and a huge box of chocolates. The rest of the family, grandparents and aunts and uncles, would celebrate Shelby's birthday on Saturday, and she would receive another load of gifts.

Shoving Food

Donald noticed that Shelby didn't touch the candy and all through dinner he noticed that Rosalee kept shoving food at the girl. He was beginning to realize that Shelby's weight problem was not really her own; it was Rosalee's. Shelby didn't show any more interest in food than a normal child. At least, according to what Donald expected. When he first saw how fat his daughter was, he expected her to gobble up dinner, rip the paper off the chocolates and start stuffing her mouth with them. But she did not. Rosalee kept urging Shelby to try the chocolates. But Shelby was more interested in her other gifts, especially the Barbie dolls.

Donald found it difficult to keep a polite conversation going with Rosalee, but he gave it all the effort he had. He asked about her job, about her parents, about her plans for going back to college. A few times he felt that perhaps he was breaking through that ice. But Rosalee would catch herself, when she felt she was speaking too freely, and she would find some excuse to leave the room.

During one of her exits to make coffee, Donald asked his daughter if she would like to come and spend the weekends with him and Harriet. He told her about Lisa and how they probably would become good friends.

"Oh, Daddy, I'd like that a lot," said Shelby. "But Mommy won't let me. She never lets me spend time with friends. I have a friend at school. Her name is Shane. And Shane always asks me to come over and spend the night, but Mommy always says it's too dangerous, because Shane has a father. Daddy, what do fathers do that is so dangerous? Do you do dangerous things?"

"Well, Shelby, your mother is just remembering some things I did when we were married that hurt her very much, and I wish now that I hadn't done those things, but I can't change the past. I'm really a lot different from back then. You know, people can change. When they see that they are making mistakes, they can stop making them."

"Yeah, I make mistakes, that's why I'm always glad pencils have erasers," Shelby explained.

"Yes, that's a good example," said Donald. "But, of course, some mistakes that people make can't be erased so easily as pencil marks, but still the person can learn and do better next time."

"Yeah, like once I answered the wrong questions on my homework, because I wrote down the wrong page numbers. Mr. Johnson gave me an F for that paper. I was so upset that I decided to look really hard at the numbers he wrote on the blackboard, so I wouldn't write down the wrong numbers again, and I never have," Shelby said.

She and her father were communicating so well, and Donald felt quite proud of his daughter's ability keep up her end of the conversation. She could pull out examples for every generalization Donald came up with—from mistakes and erasers to sickness and getting well. They had a fine talk, and Donald felt relief that he was getting his daughter back.

Shelby Changing

For the next two years Donald visited Shelby often, and the more often he saw Rosalee the less defensive and bitter she became. She even started to date a man she met in her psychology class; she had decided to go back to college and finish her bachelor's degree in psychology, and Indiana University offered courses at its extension in Richmond, which was only about twenty miles from Sparrow. Rosalee became much less cynical about men, but that cynicism remained in tact when it came to her daughter. She still forced Shelby to overeat so the girl remained extremely fat.

But Shelby was slowly changing too. Her exposure to Harriet and Lisa had given her a new perspective on female attitudes and body size. She had become aware of the thin craze. Her Barbie dolls now became new symbols of an ideal that she had been taught to believe was the downfall of womankind. How many times had she heard her mother say that if she had been a big, round, strong, beautiful girl like Shelby, she would never have suffered so badly because of men, who all crave women who are stick figures.

She told Shelby time and time again, that if she could she would gain a hundred pounds, if that would make men not look at her anymore. But she claimed it was too late for her, that the habit of eating very little was so ingrained, so all she had left was to scoff at them, to belittle them if they approach, and just generally tell them to go to hell.

Shelby was beginning to hate the way she looked. Rosalee had stopped the reinforcement of how wonderful being fat was, not because she had changed her views, but simply because she was occupied with other thoughts. She was interested in her class work, and she was especially interested in Paul. And Shelby would see Rosalee dress up in pants and sweaters or skirts and blouses before her dates with Paul. She began to wish she looked like her mother. She began to wish she looked like Harriet, and Lisa, and Barbie.

She wanted to wear a swimsuit. She wanted to wear jeans with the blouses tucked in, instead of those bulky sweaters that were intended to cover all that fat. After all she was eleven years old, just two years away from her teens. She wanted to look like the other females in her family. She wasn't praying for the perfect legs, the perfect lips, the perfect hair—she just wanted to reduces her size to be within a range that was close to the other females with whom she associated.

Harriet began to notice that Shelby seemed more melancholy than usual. Shelby was almost twelve now. And she had been aware for several months that she just could not get it out of her mind the desire to be thinner. So when Harriet asked Shelby why she seemed so unhappy lately, Shelby tried to explain.

Body Hate

"I think something is wrong with me. I think I'm sick or something. I hate the way my body looks. Why do I have to look like this? Mom says it's to keep men away from me. But why? You don't want to keep men away from you, and neither does Mom now that she met Paul. But she still thinks if I don't stay fat, some man will hurt me."

"Well, I guess your mom wants to protect you, but you know you could lose that weight by just not eating so much. Come to think of it, you don't eat any more than Lisa on weekends. Does your mother still make you eat a lot at home?"

"Yes, but I'm so used to it that she doesn't have to say much now, I just do it, so she won't." Shelby sighed and continued, "What can I do, Harriet? Sometimes I have dreams about food, that I'm drowning like, I'm stuck in the middle of a cherry pie, and try and try to get out and I can't. Can you tell me what I can do?"

"I think you need to tell your mother how you feel, that you'd like to lose weight, and maybe she will help you. Maybe she has changed, you know, since she met Paul. But Shelby, Sweetheart, if she hasn't, I tell you what I'll do, I'll talk to her myself and see if I can't reason with her." That promise gave Shelby hope that she hadn't had before. The rest of the weekend seemed to float by; Shelby felt that her problem was finally going to be solved.

But the problem did not solve itself so easily. Shelby did explain to Rosalee that she wanted to lose weight. And Rosalee insisted that Shelby needed to be protected, that she didn't know about the ways of the world, that she must do as her mother told her because her mother had more experience and knew what was right for her little girl. She told Shelby that her dreams about food merely meant that she liked food; she said people dream about what they like, that dreams were wish fulfillment. So Harriet kept her promise to Shelby, and she had her talk with Rosalee, who flatly told Harriet to mind her own business.

But Shelby with Lisa's help decided she would lose weight with or without her mother's blessing. She became aware of everything she ate. She read books about food and nutrition. She talked to others girls at school, girls she had seen lose weight. And she set out to shrink her body to the size she wanted.

Luckily for Shelby, Rosalee was spending more and more time at school and with Paul. This new liberation gave her the opportunity to practice what she had learned from all her reading, and she even learned to cook for herself. Rosalee would leave Shelby lavish instructions for mashed potatoes with gobs of butter and gravy, and Shelby would bake the potatoes and leave off the gravy. Actually, she still had to remain secretive about her activities so she'd make the fattening foods, and leave their remains in sight, so Rosalee would think she was following her instructions.

The first month of Shelby's new eating regimen, she lost fourteen pounds. To keep Rosalee from noticing she wore her largest bulky clothes. By the end of the third month she was wearing three pairs of pants at a time, and stuffing her nightgowns in them, to keep Rosalee from noticing her weightloss.

During these months, Donald and Harriet had begun to have some problems with their relationship. They tried hard to keep it from both Lisa and Shelby, but tension began to show. They would snap at each other, and they did fewer fun things than before. Then suddenly Rosalee and Paul broke up.

Rosalee began to notice Shelby's habits closer than she had and Shelby, who had stopped trying to hide her thinner body, became very tense, fearing that Rosalee would start hassling her and forcing her to begin overeating again. But Rosalee just concentrated harder than ever on her classes, and Shelby concentrated even harder on losing weight.

A New Image

Her weight had dropped to 100 by the time she turned 13, and she was now about 5' 3" tall, only about 2 inches shorter than her mother. Rosalee had gotten used to a thinner Shelby, but she had an attack of her old fears when Shelby announced that she was going a movie with Steve Norrell, a boy from her algebra class. Rosalee flew into a fit of anger. She forbade Shelby to leave the house. That night Shelby ate a whole box of chocolates and cried herself to sleep.

The next day Shelby went to Harriet and asked her if she could come and live with her and Donald. But Harriet explained that she didn't think she and Donald would be together much longer. And Shelby noticed some bags and boxes sitting out on the porch. That meant that Lisa would be leaving too. Shelby went home and ate the mashed potatoes and gravy that Rosalee had made. Then she went to the grocery store and bought three large bags of potatoes chips, five Mars bars, and a 2 liter Coke Classic, and before bedtime she had consumed all of her purchase.

Donald had been so proud of Shelby when he noticed all the weight she had lost. And now he couldn't understand why she had started to gain it back. Donald had not talked to Rosalee for several months. He still tried to avoid Rosalee as much as possible, and Harriet had been the one to pick up Shelby for her weekend visits. But now that Harriet was gone, Donald arrived at Rosalee's to pick up Shelby for the weekend.

"Hi, Shel, Sweetie, you ready to go?" Shelby opened to door wider so her dad could come in. "Where's your bag, hon?"

"Daddy, I don't feel like leaving home this weekend. I think I feel sick again."

"What do you mean, baby, sick? How?"

"I don't know. I feel like I want to eat all these foods that made me get fat. I want to feel safe again. Mom always used to make me feel safe when she talked about how making my body get really big and round would keep me safe. I don't understand it. What should I be safe from? But she'd say safe from men. I still don't understand that."

"Shel, is your mom home?"

"Yes, she's in her room studying, she has a big test Monday. She says she has to study tonight and all weekend."

"Do you think she'd come out just for a few minutes? I need to talk to her; I need to tell her something that just can't wait any longer."

"I'll go ask her," Shelby said. She was gone for just a moment, and when she came back Rosalee was with her. Shelby's phone rang and she went to her room to answer it.

"Hi, Donald, what is it?" said Rosalee, rubbing her eyes.

"Rosalee, could we talk for few minutes? I got something really important to tell you."

Donald told Rosalee about his breakup with Harriet, but he also emphasized how grateful he was that Rosalee let him get to know his daughter again. He repeated all of his old sorrows about the mistakes he had made with other woman while he was married to Rosalee.

"Is that why Harriet left?" Rosalee asked.

"No, she left because she knows I've never really been out of love with you, Rosie. At first she accepted it when I said my only concern was Shelby and getting back a relationship with my daughter, but Harriet's sharper than I am, I guess; she insisted that I face the fact that I still love you and want us to be family again. But. . . oh, dammit, this is the hardest thing I've ever had to say, I have to tell you, but oh, Rosie, it's hard to say."

"Just say it, Donald. What is it?"

"Last year I started thinking again about taking that engineering position in Indianapolis? I had a complete physical examination this time as part of the application process, and well . . . ." Donald stood up, walked over to the window, and tried to finish his sentence. Rosalee walked over to him, put her hand on his shoulder; she felt him trembling.

"Donald, please, tell me, what is it?"

A Family Again

"I have cancer, Rosie. There, I said it, I have cancer. Damn it—there I said it again. I have said it a million times since I found out," Donald said. But instead of breaking down as Rosalee thought he would, he seemed stronger, straighter, and in control.

"Donald, I don't know what to say. I mean I hear about that all the time, but I've never known anyone who had . . . ." Rosalee felt sick and helpless. "What happens now? Are you seeing a doctor?"

"Yeah, I see a doctor. Hell, I see a whole arsenal of doctors. But, Rosie, my main concern is Shelby, and you. I want you two to be taken care of. And I've always felt like that was my duty. Even when I didn't see either of you for those years, I thought about you every day. And you know I've always sent you all the money I could. Harriet was right; I wanted us to be family again, and now this, just as I finally know exactly what I want."

"I don't know, Donald. I don't know if we could. I'm not sure I know myself as well as you seem to know yourself now. But you shouldn't be worrying about us, you know Shelby and I are all right. Shelby is an intelligent kid. She'll always be fine," Rosalee tried to assure Donald, but she wasn't at all sure herself.

"Shelby is confused. Where is she? Did she hear all of this?"

"Don't worry, she's on the phone in her room."

"What am I going to tell her, Rosie?"

"We'll have to tell her the truth," Rosalee said. And Donald looked at Rosalee, and very strange feeling washed over him. He thought of all the years that she had not told Shelby the truth. All the years that she had led the girl to believe a twisted version of the truth.

"The truth," repeated Donald. "How will she handle the truth, Rosalee?"

"I wish I knew, Donald. I think I'm only beginning to learn to handle it myself." She walked over to Donald, took both of his hands, brought them up to her face, and looked into his eyes. He smiled faintly as she said, "Will you help me with the truth, Donald? Will you help us both learn what the truth is?"

Donald pulled his hands from Rosalee's and put his arms around her, and as she leaned against him, putting her arms around him, he said, "Yes, I'll do what I can."

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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