The Boiler

Brandon French

HEIGHT

For as long as she could remember, Tookie Basch wanted to be tall, like one of those willowy teenagers with legs and necks like giraffes in Vogue and Mademoiselle. And one Monday morning in April, after a long night of vodka martinis and shameless flirtation with the keyboard player in the band at her married sister’s 40th birthday party, Tookie woke up seven feet tall.

She was, admittedly, very hung over but that could not account for why the blond oak floor was two extra feet from her eyes when she looked down. Or that her feet would no longer fit into her Fuzzy Froggy bedroom slippers.

She walked barefoot to the full length mirror across from the bed but she could only see herself from the waist down. She had to move backwards, banging her head as she passed through the doorway into the hall, to get the whole picture and when she did, she cried out in shock.

“Oh, my God!”

Her husband Dan woke up long enough to shout, “What?” but when he saw through half-shut, myopic eyes that she was neither hanging from the ceiling fan nor lying naked and bloody from knife wounds, he promptly fell back to sleep.

This reassured Tookie until she remembered that her husband had stopped noticing anything about her a couple of years earlier.

Born Karen Basch thirty-six years ago, her mother called her Cookie, which her four-year-old sister Monica pronounced “Tookie,” and Tookie stuck. Monica was tall like her mother and father, five foot eight by the time she reached fourteen, but Tookie was a runt, stopping her climb toward stature at a diminutive five foot three.

Tookie sat back down on her side of the bed and began to cry, her enlarged hands laying palms up in her lap like halibut fillets.

“Oh my, oh my,” she said.

Dan mumbled something about coffee and then reached over to the night table, first for his glasses and then for the clock to see if he could steal a few more minutes of sleep. He didn’t have to be at Deloitte and Touche, where he was a Senior Accountant, until 9:20.

“Dan? Danny? Could you turn over and take a look at me?”

Her husband rolled over without curiosity and faced his wife’s hunched-over back.

“What?”

She stood up and turned around to face him, her pale green nightgown barely reaching her meatless thighs. Her arms had lengthened toward her knees, which now looked knobby, and her legs, once thick with muscle from thousands of miles on the treadmill, had stretched into slender ropes.

“Holy shit.”

2

They sat in Dr. Blechner’s waiting room without an appointment because this was an emergency, Dan insisted, and they damn well needed some answers.

Dr. Blechner didn’t have any.

“Good heavens,” he said when he saw this woman he’d known for more than a decade. Tookie was wearing a pair of her husband’s trousers that looked on her like capri pants and a red plaid flannel shirt with unbuttoned sleeves that barely surpassed her elbows. The doctor checked Tookie’s heart and lungs, took a urine sample, and then drew blood, shaking his head several times in the process as if shaking would jostle the situation into perspective.

“Have you ever seen anything like this before, Doctor?” Dan asked.

“Well . . .” Dr. Blechner said, pulling on one of his earlobes, “I’ve seen pictures of acromegaly in the textbooks. But I don’t think this is acromegaly.”

“Am I going to die?” Tookie asked, trying not to cry. She felt sure her condition was fatal.

“No, no,” Dr. Blechner said reassuringly, but in truth he didn’t have the slightest idea.

3

For the first time since their marriage six years earlier, Dan went clothes shopping with his wife.

“You can’t go around wearing my clothes,” he said. “They look ridiculous and they don’t even fit.”

“I’m sorry,” Tookie said as if she’d backed the car into their garbage cans or shrunk his favorite sweater.

He should have said it wasn’t her fault but he wasn’t convinced that was true. She must have done something wrong, he thought, but he just couldn’t imagine what.

4

After Dan dropped Tookie off at home, hurrying downtown to his office in the Chicago Loop, she floated around their Sheridan Road condo like a stranger who’d wandered into someone else’s life. Feeling a little dizzy, perhaps from the altitude, Tookie sat down in the breakfast nook with her coffee and peanut buttered bagel and stared at her iphone in the charger. She felt that she should call somebody but she could not think of what to say. Oh, hi, mom, guess what, I just grew two feet last night while I was sleeping. She knew better than to give an hysteric like her mother a reason to become hysterical, and this was a really good reason. Of course, she would eventually have to tell her family. But now that Monica’s 40th birthday had been put to rest, she didn’t expect to see them for a while, which was fine with her.

Tookie decided to call her friend Wanda. Bizarre as it sounds, Wanda had been abducted by aliens from the Leda 25177 galaxy in the Hydra Supercluster when she was a pimply-faced teenager. They returned her to earth with clear skin and the formula for a spongy white mud that cured acne, which her parents subsequently sold to Merle Norman for a very large undisclosed amount. Tookie felt sure that Wanda, who thanks to the abduction was now independently wealthy, would know how to put Tookie’s transformation in perspective.

“When I woke up this morning, I was seven feet tall,” Tookie said when Wanda answered.

“Are you at work?”

“No. I called in sick.” Tookie usually called Wanda from her office at Leo Burnett, where she was an advertising media buyer.

“Are you sick?”

“No, but I’m seven feet tall, Wanda. Actually six foot eleven and a fourth. The doctor measured me.”

“You went to see the doctor?”

“Dan thought a doctor would know what was going on.”

“Did he know?”

“No, he wasn’t sure.”

“It’s God’s mysterious will,” Wanda said, which was what she always said when strange things happened.

“Dan had to buy me a bunch of new clothes. He went with me to Marshall Field’s.”

“Well, that’s good,” Wanda said. “They have a lot of nice things at Fields.”

5

For the rest of the day, Tookie explored the upper half of the condominium. She replaced the burned out bulbs in the dining room chandelier, the track lights in the living room, and the carriage lamp in the entryway. She dusted the tops of the bookcases, which had not been touched since she and Dan moved in. She pruned and watered the hanging plants on the balcony, and she tackled the floor to ceiling windows with vinegar and newspaper.

Then she went outside and took a walk. She touched the soft, moist leaf buds that were opening on the oak tree branches, peeked into a robin’s nest and counted three spotted blue eggs, and observed that most of the neighboring rain gutters were clogged with winter debris. She also discovered that she scared small dogs and startled old women, most of whom could only make eye contact with her navel. And every so often, if she stood on her toes, she caught a glimpse of the silver gray waters of Lake Michigan. Tookie began to think that short people were as tragically handicapped as the deaf and blind, and imagined organizing a fund raiser to promote compassion and understanding for the vertically challenged. Waking up tall, she thought, was certainly not the worst thing that could happen to a person.

6

That night, Tookie put on the new black extra-long Marshall Fields nightie that Dan had bought her and for the first time in six years tried to initiate their lovemaking.

“I’m a different woman now, Danny. Don’t you think we should re-consummate our marriage?”

“I don’t know,” Dan said, shying away from her. At five foot nine, he barely came to the top of her chest. “You feel like a stranger to me, Took, I can’t help it.”

“I thought men liked new women,” she said.

“Not this new,” Dan said.

“Well, it’s not new down there,” she said.

“How do you know?” he said. “Everything else is different.”

“Not my breasts,” she said.

“That’s true,” Dan agreed sadly.

“You’re such a shit,” Tookie said, surprising herself with the exclamation, and she wanted to say even more. But instead she just crawled into the bed, which was now a foot too short for her legs, and wept.

7

Tookie woke up very early the next morning and got into the office at 7:30. After Dan’s reaction the night before, she was determined to avoid attention. But when The Morning Show caterer went past her office in the hallway at 9:30, Tookie called to her, hoping that if she stayed seated, the girl wouldn’t notice her height. Tookie craved something sweet like a cinnamon bun or a maple bar and now that she was as tall as a Chicago Bulls shooting guard, she could eat anything she wanted without worrying about getting fat. It would have been great if only her height weren’t quite so extreme. Six feet would have been plenty, she thought, but her predicament was like Alice and the eat-me pills.

Almost the same thing had happened to Tookie when she was twelve and wished for breasts. She went from nothing to a C-cup practically overnight, and got teased for being “chesty.” Then she lost too much of it when she was on Weight Watchers in her twenties, and never got it back. You had to be careful what you wished for, she thought, making a mental note.

Fortunately, the lunch date she’d scheduled was with a new client, NaturalCat Organic Cat Food, so he wouldn’t look shocked when she met him at the restaurant. She spent all morning tweaking her media plan, carefully addressing the changes her boss Luther had requested to beef up the organic-only pubs. She stopped only long enough to learn that all her medical tests had come back normal and to respond to Wanda’s text message urging her to contact Oprah or Dr. Oz.

At noon, Tookie left the agency by a side door, feeling relieved that she’d survived the morning without being outed.

8

Evan Collier was waiting for her at the bar when she arrived at The Gage, one of the trendy new downtown lunch venues. She was relieved to see that his cocktail was a Perrier with lime, because her last Cat client had been a raging alcoholic. Better still, Collier was tall, over six feet two, she estimated, although he only came up to her chin.

“Delighted to meet you,” he said, grasping her hand and looking her over like she was a brand new Maserati. He had the kind of man’s face that usually came with a dusty Stetson and a big open sky. Tookie had been stooping a little when she approached him, but his smile made her stand up straight.

9

How she ended up at the Hotel Sofitel Water Tower that afternoon, wrapped in Evan Collier’s burly arms, she could not explain — although the two apple martinis she downed probably smoothed the way. She had not only betrayed her husband, she had violated a cardinal rule of business. Of course, she knew that plenty of people, including her boss Luther, violated that rule, but it was so unlike Tookie. What was it about being tall that had changed her so profoundly? And the worst of it was that she wasn’t even sorry. She hadn’t let herself realize until today how neglected she’d felt, how unnoticed and unappreciated by Dan. This man, Evan Collier, had made love to her like she was a gorgeous, sensual gazelle, delighting in her long limbs and soft skin and sweet taste. No, she definitely was not sorry. And if he asked her to join him for another romantic rendezvous, or even a runaway weekend in Belize, she just might say yes, and yes, and yes.

10

When Tookie returned to Leo Burnett late that afternoon, she no longer tried to hide. She strode through the lobby with a big smile on her face and laughed with enjoyment when the receptionist gaped at her. Get used to it, she thought.

“What the hell happened to you?” her boss Luther said when she came into his office. “You look like a goddam flamingo!”

“I had a growth spurt,” she said, and sat down in his love seat, crossing her legs in the becoming manner that only tall, skinny women execute properly. “By the way, the lunch went well. Evan signed off on the media plan without any changes.”

“Really? I heard he was a sonovabitch,” Luther said, holding his stubbly jowls in the cup of his hand.

“Not to me,” Tookie said, smiling provocatively. She knew Luther wouldn’t believe what she’d been up to that afternoon even if she showed him a videotape, but it was fun to tease him a little.

“What the hell happened to you?” he said again with a low, soft whistle.

11

That night, after Tookie slid under the covers with her husband, she said, “we’ll have to get a bigger bed, honey.”

“Maybe you’ll wake up tomorrow and be short again,” Dan said, continuing to read the latest Alex Cross mystery. He seemed to have lost interest in his wife’s predicament once Dr. Blechner couldn’t diagnose it.

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Tookie said, although the thought made her a little anxious.

“Well, we’ll just have to make the best of it,” he said, which was Dan’s way of telling her he had stopped listening.

12

Later that night, Tookie’s cold toes woke her up and she went into the kitchen to make herself a cup of herbal tea. She augmented it with a slice of red velvet birthday cake left over from her sister Monica’s party, scraping the remnants of cream cheese frosting off the plate with her fork.

In the soft light of the kitchen dimmers, she examined her legs and arms, stretching them out to their full lengths and taking deep, relaxing breaths. Goddam flamingo! she thought, smiling at the recollection. She realized that this bizarre transformation had given her more than height. It had given her perspective, enabled  her to — what was that expression? — to see the forest for the trees. And she knew that even if she woke up five foot three again tomorrow morning, she would not be the same woman she used to be. She intended to ask more of Dan, to insist that he rise to her occasion. She would no longer mouse around like a timid housemaid, or let him treat her like a footstool he only noticed when he tripped over it.

The stove clock said 2:10, but she did not feel pressured to return to bed. She savored all the tiny sounds that punctuated the night’s silence, the refrigerator motor, the ice maker, a window’s hoarse rattle as a car sped past outside, even the soft click of the clock hand to 2:11.

Tookie decided that her friend Wanda was right. Whatever happened, it was God’s mysterious will. Somebody’s mysterious will at any rate, she thought, embracing the mystery without fear. And while it meant that some poor soul in Prague might wake up one morning as a cockroach, on a different morning a hundred years later, a short woman in Chicago could just as well wake up tall.

____________________________________________________

Brandon French is the only daughter of an opera singer and a Spanish dancer, born in Chicago at the end of the Second World War. She has been (variously) assistant editor of Modern Teen Magazine, a topless Pink Pussycat cocktail waitress (that’s another story!),  an assistant professor of English at Yale,  a published film scholar,  a  playwright and screenwriter,  director of development at Columbia Pictures Television,  an award-winning  advertising copywriter and creative director,  a psychoanalyst  in private practice and a mother. Seven of her stories have been accepted for publication by literary journals and she was nominated for the Kirkwood Prize in Fiction at UCLA.