Lately in Tierra del Fuego, down near the very bottom of the world, people were feeling heavy. Not ill or run down or bloated or depressed. Just heavy. Slowing down, like it was harder to lift a foot off the ground and easier to return it. A little girl walking home from preschool described it in an innocent complaint: ‘Mama, something’s pushing on my legs.’ A ballerina faltered on her way to spinning thirty-two fouettés en tournant: she could not muster the strength beyond the eighteenth. An old man lamented, before his daily constitutional stroll: ‘I cannot be bothered.’
Everyone felt it. Nobody had said anything about it at first, except the children and the athletes. Children because they speak without filter, athletes because they measure. Time, weight, distance. Everyone else over forty or wishing to lose a little weight thought they were simply aging.
The sports pages carried brief reports of a flurry of new world records in track and field set in Greenland. In Tierra del Fuego athletes struggled to match their previous bests. This by itself was not news. There were no future Olympians, but the Southern Inter-City amateur track and field event was many months away. And despite a reasonable amount of practice, the 4x100 relay team from the television factory was slowing down.
Their training consisted of mock relays along a straightaway 100 meters posted in the snow. Each segment was more like swimming a straight-arrow swim relay leg rather than running a quarter-circular summertime track sprint. Straight with lots more drag, not from water but from snow and from layers of sports clothing and from ankle weights. Ankle weights were really popular in training. Everyone used them. They impose a little more work during the sprint. When they come off it feels like heaven. Very liberating, like you can outrun a cat, a big one.
Lately when the weights came off it felt like they were still on. Alejandro X may have been the first to notice, he was attuned to his environment, to his body, to change. But he said nothing. Esteban T, however, was less inhibited, more distractable, multi-focused.
‘I don’t feel any difference when the weights come off,’ he said. ‘I could before.’
‘You’re getting stronger, maybe.’
‘No, I mean it feels heavy, it’s a drag with or without them!’
‘I know what you mean. I am dragging too. Everybody’s dragging. At home. At work. It’s a winter thing.’
But it wasn’t winter. It was barely autumn. Early snows had plagued southern Argentina for decades. But this heavyfoot problem was new. Climbing the stairs had become a chore. Stacking wood was now a two-man job. Inanimate objects clung to the ground. Paraná pine cones fell with impressive force; grandmothers kept grandchildren out of the forest.
‘That vulture is cruising awfully low.’
‘Maybe he knows something.’
Esteban tossed a stone toward the bird. The stone fell short and returned to Earth in a precipitous arc.
Most people had taken to sitting, as there was just too much energy expended in attempting to walk. The art of conversation was enjoying a resurgence. It was never quite lost in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. The fine people of Ushuaia were feeling good, just sort of heavy. Neighbors would sit together for hours on end. Sitting, visiting, chatting on beautiful long evenings in a magical twilight that would start as early as two o’clock in the afternoon.
Jorge Molina was a very large man. Long before these new days of everyman’s heaviness he had regularly practiced the art of extended sitting. He was now in his element. Although he could probably afford to entertain on a regular basis it was unlikely that he could perform the repeated act of getting up and sitting down incumbent on the host, so he did his sitting at neighbors’ homes. He would drop by after leaving his work, respectfully no earlier than four o’clock. He brought conversation, and very often he brought a bottle of wine, and as he had many relatives and a great many neighbors he rarely visited the same house more than three times in a year. He has not burned a bridge, nor has he overstayed a welcome.
Then one day Jorge Molina fell in his office and could not get up. He was not injured, he had broken nothing. He just couldn’t get up. He dragged himself to the edge of his desk and made a phone call to the police. Three paramedics arrived. They needed to call in a fourth and a fifth. With winch and crane they lifted Jorge Molina up and out through the front window. In this humiliating moment Jorge Molina was philosophical, recognizing that from now on he will do his sitting at home. In his head he calculated the running cost of daily entertaining, neglecting to factor in the need for delivery. Even so the cost of wine alone would necessitate his continuing to conduct business by day, sitting, at home.
For an inveterate sitter like Jorge Molina the new equilibrium was not difficult to reconcile. But for others it gradually put the onus on the Light smaller quicker folks to perform small tasks, and eventually to care, for the Heavy, for one by one the Heavy became incapacitated by inescapable inertia. The Heavy by-and-large made a great effort to remain independent. When a capacious male / female overcame inertia and was set in motion, such as when nudged out of a chair or cajoled down the stairs, he/she made every attempt to stay in motion. But inevitably one morning down the road, lying in bed after a good night’s slumber, the work needed to overcome gravity and get the day started, that nominal bit of work, became too great.
The list of the incapacitated got longer and longer. The Heavy being served by the Light. By day the Light were resentful, ornery, sometimes angry. By night they were grateful for their mobility. A local bar was renamed the Night Light and briefly enjoyed a surge in activity and in profits until many of the Lights realized that with too much beer, too many calories, they might sooner join the ranks of the Heavy. Fitness clubs then sprang up, attracting those on the fence trying to stave off the inevitable. Tall women started chatting up small men. The jockey-sized husband became the best catch. In a land whose people, despite all odds, had never fallen off the face of the earth, the world was being turned upside down.
Throughout Tierra del Fuego the heaviness dominated daily conversation. Lots of thought was given to the Work Needed to Overcome Gravity, a concept that now deserved acronymization. A fair degree of ingenuity would go into staying on the right side of the WNtOG equation. Soon nearly everyone understood that weight length height strength could all be leveraged to Overcome Gravity. The absolute best scenario all agreed was to be taut, wiry and young; otherwise a pulley system should be set up over the bed. Once on your feet you can usually go the distance. But don’t sit down on the job after 3 PM unless you planned on staying the night.
It became apparent that the WNtOG equation was shifting inexorably toward threatening even the fairly lithe. ‘Will I be too heavy to get up tomorrow?’ A sinking feeling ensues when one realizes that without putting on any weight at all, without gaining a single ounce, that one might be.
This was how it was each March and every September. Then just as quickly as it came, which is to say slowly, the heaviness dissipated. Over the course of a few years a pattern emerged. At the beginning of March a nonspecific feeling would set in, a general sense of excess weight and extra resistance. The effects surged toward the 21st then receded. The same cycle would appear in early September: a burst of heaviness peaking three weeks later. By November the feeling had again faded so completely that the southern summer was thoroughly enjoyable.
In subsequent years the surge would be stronger, the dissipation incomplete. Farms were abandoned as extended families concentrated resources (food shelter medicine) and capabilities (Light people, little children) within clusters of homes in town. Houses themselves were bartered in an elaborate system that enabled the contiguity of cousins uncles grandparents. Light mothers prepared large volumes of simple meals and divided them into portions that were to be refrigerated for the long term. Heavy mothers coached their children through the same ritual. Everyone at every opportunity trained the little children just a little at a time, focusing them a little here, a little there, for the inevitable time when the four three two year olds become head of the household.
One particular autumn Jose Molina was for the most part immobile. He could not rise to his feet, he could not walk to the next room let alone to and out the door. But he could still lift his arms, not over his head, but enough to take a sponge bath. He could find a way to take care of the things we all must do. He had not embarrassed himself, save for the crane and winch evacuation at his office. It would get no worse than this, for a time, but it would also not get any better.
Jose Molina had no immediate family. His extended family, his cousins, their children, did their best to help him, but they of course had troubles of their own. In an innocent effort to get them to linger, he tried to engage and entertain the kids. He devised a word game:
‘Big Friendly Dolphin.’
‘Penguins Munching Squid.’
‘Sounds like “I Owe You”.’
‘In Out Up.’
‘Turtles Talk Tough. Because they have a hard shell.’
The kids have imagination.
‘Giraffes Doing Somersaults.’
In South America?
‘Look Out Llama.’