Mary Jones’s “Customer of Size” is a story of the pervasive indignities and cruelties large Americans face in a culture that despises fatness, as well as a story of the surprising ways strangers touch us and teach us about ourselves.
Jones begins, “Richard Foster knows that he is a fat man.” Richard knows what the customer service agent, the flight attendant, his own wife, and so many others think when they see him at this moment in the airport, being informed that, as a “customer of size,” he may be required to purchase a second seat and must be escorted onto the plane before boarding to discover whether this will be necessary. He hears the judgments laced through that euphemism, sees the stares of the other passengers as a flight attendant, a “pretty young thing,” walks beside him onto the plane.
That pretty young flight attendant, Joyce, becomes a secondary protagonist, but she remains intriguingly opaque to readers through the majority of the story. She walks Richard through the various indignities required of him with grace and kindness, but she seems, at times, to accede to those mocking Richard that he is, indeed, a joke. And yet, at other moments, she is his ally, quietly but palpably empathetic.
What stood out to me most reading this story was that Jones writes with affection and forgiveness toward both Richard and Joyce. Richard possesses dignity even while moving readers to pity—he remains human through every embarrassing and degrading moment—while Joyce seems, even in her moments of potential selfishness, gentle, someone wishing to do no harm.
The final moments of the story are imbued with a tenderness rare in fiction: the kind that does not excuse flaws but offers grace in spite of them. Such an embrace of our essential humanness lends the story a very touching aspect.
“Customer of Size” appeared in our Spring 2008 issue and received a “Notable Story” recognition in the 2008 Million Writers Awards. Read or reread it here.