Jeff rolled out of bed. Leah snored softly. Her left foot dangled outside the covers. It twitched, but it was a movement from a dream. She was down for the count. She always denied snoring and took any suggestion that she was anything but an elegant sleeper as a dig. Jeff closed the bedroom door, slipped out into the living room and headed on to the kitchen. It was Leah’s place but he was there so often that he’d left his mark. His Earl Grey tea was on the counter, his toothpaste was by the bathroom sink and his laptop sat poised on the coffee table waiting for him.
Still, it wasn’t his place.
A case of Leah’s loathsome diet soda was stored under the kitchen sink and the refrigerator was filled with virtually every diet product that ever made it to a supermarket shelf. Leah was always on a quest to find the perfect balance between low calorie count and taste. Most of the products she tried were virtually inedible, riddled with potentially lethal chemicals or were falsely marketed as reduced calorie products.
Jeff checked the freezer—diet ice cream, sugar free pound cake, frozen ‘low fat’ macaroni and cheese dinners and a bottle of good vodka. The only thing that would find a home in his freezer was the vodka. He poured himself an icy shot and went into the living room. He’d had a stressful day at work, and sleep was out of the question. He flipped on the laptop and the TV, figuring that between the Internet, late-night television and vodka, he’d find a distraction from his lousy day.
He knew he wasn’t getting any younger, and it was getting harder and harder to keep his weight down.
“At least you’re not going bald.” Leah had said to him the last time he’d griped about feeling old and fat. “And you don’t have to chase the grey away, like I do.”
He knew that the ‘aging process’ was harder on women, but it still stung him. The young guys seemed to get all the choice assignments and he was worried that when his contract came up, he’d find that he’d been put out to pasture. It was time to consolidate his position. It was time to lose twenty pounds. But how? With all of Leah’s strenuous dieting and exercise, she was always five pounds away from her ‘goal weight.’ He didn’t want to eat those diet frozen dinners or drink her loathsome, artificially sweetened soda.
He was perusing weight-loss web sites, looking for diets designed for men while the last part of an old movie hummed on the TV.
This could be your last diet. It’s 100% natural and it works. Think about it. No more diets—this will be your final weight loss plan.
The announcer’s voice cut through Jeff’s late night fog.
If you’ve been on a diet roller coaster, if you felt deprived on the low carb diet and bloated on the whole grain diet, if you’re sick and tired of counting calories, if you’re ready to cancel your unused gym membership—we have the answer to your prayers.
Despite his natural skepticism, Jeff listened to the commercial message.
The Ami-Zoniana Plan works slowly at first, but once the all-natural Ami-Zonianas refocuses your metabolism, your weight loss will be rapid and steady. In week one, you are likely to lose only a pound or two, but by week six, you’ll have lost at least 20 pounds.
More than 20 pounds to lose? Don’t worry. The little Ami-Zonianas just keep on working…
Jeff checked the website and gathered that the Ami-Zonianas were some kind of natural bacteria—like a probiotic supplement that flushes the digestive system. For the first time in ages, he wished he’d paid more attention to science and medical news. As a political reporter, he needed to have a general knowledge of science as it applied to healthcare, energy and social welfare policies, but he’d never developed a depth or breadth of knowledge in the league with his science colleagues. He’d often been in the position of tossing the story to one of them, or he’d interview one of them as an ‘expert’ on the topic of the day. He’d never cared much, but now it felt humiliating. He was the anchor, the face the city trusted and now…. Now he was becoming a fat, old man.
Logically, he knew he was a long, long way away from being an OLD, FAT MAN, but…he was certainly closer than he had ever been before, and he was completely unprepared to be relegated to some OLD, FAT MAN job at the station. He’d try the Ami-Zonianas. It couldn’t be as bad as sugar-free pound cake, artificially sweetened cola or ‘low calorie’ macaroni with faux fat cheese.
He ordered the ‘Ami-Zonianas for Men’ program and downloaded all the documentation on the site. He gathered, from the fine print, that the Ami-Zonianas were tiny, worm-like bacteria that absorbed the excess calories in the food you consumed. Although the Amazon Rain Forest was not mentioned once in the literature, Jeff leapt to the conclusion that they were a Rain Forest product like Brazil nuts and the herbs that are used in medicines.
The ‘Ami-Zonianas for Men’ kit arrived two days later. The box contained six, white plastic bottles with detailed instructions on each bottle. He read the directions on ‘bottle one’ and followed them to the letter. The ‘Ami—Zonianas’ looked like, flaky white powder that dissolved into his glass of water, leaving behind a stale, metallic aftertaste. He chugged the glass down and chased it with a good, strong cup of Earl Grey tea with milk and sugar, before leaving for work.
The day was relatively uneventful, until the station manager pulled him in for a ‘chat.’
“Jeff, lots of talk about you.”
“Some of it is even good.”
“Well, that’s nice to know.”
“Listen, I’ve got to give you a heads up. There are going to be some changes, some re-shuffling on the schedule. The news department is going to be experimenting with some new formats, new time slots, new everything….”
“I’ve been thinking about doing a blog,” Jeff blurted out.
“That’s a start. I could see a senior reporter’s political blog or, better, a human-interest focus. People who are out in the community, making things happen, changing the way people live…I can see you in the soft side….”
“A blog and a daytime show.”
Jeff, who never, ever interrupted the station manager, broke in again. He felt impatient and anxious. This was his moment and he’d better seize it.
“A blog and a daytime show?” The station manager repeated Jeff’s idea, mulling it over. “Yeah, I can see it. We take you out of the six o’clock slot, put the new guy from DC in the anchor….”
“No. I keep the anchor spot at six and add a daily, political, half-hour talk show supported by a blog.”
He was impatient and anxious, but he was also assertive and commanding. It wasn’t until the next day when everyone in the station was buzzing about how ‘the old guy was stepping up’ that he began to credit the ‘Ami-Zonianas’ weight loss program with his renewed energy and enthusiasm. He worked late for the rest of the week. Plotted, planned, maneuvered and played politics until his proposal was being taken seriously. He was being taken seriously for the first time in years.
It felt great!
The ‘Ami-Zonianas’ flakes in the second week’s bottle were pink and a bit salty. No one had noticed the two pounds he’d dropped that first week, but the pink flakes seemed to absorb the roll of belly fat that had accumulated above his belt and the puffy jowls that had been wobbling in the mirror. He ate and continued to drop weight. The bosses noticed. His colleagues noticed. Everyone at the station noticed. Some of them joked about him getting liposuction and he just chuckled his reply.
“Did you start going to the gym again?” Leah asked over dinner. “You’ve tightened your gut….”
“Nah…who needs the gym.”
By the third week—the week of grey, salty, flakes— Jeff’s weight loss was dramatic. He behavior was changing dramatically, too. He ate with ravenous, energy, spoke forcefully, but rarely finished a sentence and paced through sleepless nights at Leah’s.
“Come back to bed. Jeff, it’s three in the morning. Come back to bed.”
“Too much on my mind. No time to waste on sleep.”
By the end of the fourth week of the program, Jeff did not have an ounce of fat on his frame. He’d also lost a bit of the gravitas that had given his television persona a sense of authority. He was whip-thin and on fire—but there wasn’t much substance behind all the heat. The station management didn’t seem to notice, but his colleagues in the newsroom did, and the gossip mills were churning.
Something was up with Jeff.
He went out to dinner with Leah and seemed to inhale everything on the table —pasta with cream sauce and cheese, bread and butter, cheesecake with strawberry sauce and anisette cookies with his coffee. He was abrupt with Leah, rude to the waiter and drove the cab driver crazy by continually changing his instructions.
“Get some sleep. Stop taking whatever drug you’re taking. And then call me.” Leah got out of the cab and walked to her place. She couldn’t remember a time when Jeff and been so infuriating.
It wasn’t until Leah had dressed him down that he experienced any negative thoughts about the ‘Ami-Zonianas’ diet. But he looked at his slim reflection in the picture window of a store and dismissed any problems with his new weight loss plan.
He was spending so much time at the station that he kept the bottles in his office. He flew into a rage when he found Shelia, the junior science reporter, examining the blue, bitter-tasting, flakes.
“Do you know what’s in these things?” she asked.
“None of your business. Now, get out of my office before I throw you out!”
Shelia left, but she returned with Tasha—the senior medical reporter. Tasha had an MD as well as a Ph.D. and she covered the health beat at the local station and contributed to the network and the affiliated cable network, too.
“It’s some kind of parasite! It’s like swallowing a tapeworm so you can lose weight. I can’t believe….”
Jeff tuned-out Tasha’s tirade, and turned his attention to work.
“Can we wrap this up, Tasha, I have a meeting with the station manager.”
But Jeff collapsed in the hallway on his way to the meeting. He came to in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The paramedics described him as agitated and checked his pulse and blood pressure, suspecting amphetamines, but there was none in his system. He was admitted and sent to a private room in the VIP wing of the hospital With glucose IV fluids, he was barely hanging on, but he kept insisting he was fine and all he needed was a lift to the station in time to do his six o’clock broadcast.
As Leah was not his wife, she had no standing in his medical decision-making. She rented a car, drove up to Connecticut and brought Jeff’s 85-year-old mother to the Manhattan hospital. Jeff’s mother took one look at her now skeleton-thin son and fainted.
“Why are they starving him?” she asked as soon as she could speak.
“I think he’s on some kind of diet,” Leah replied.
“It’s this,” Shelia popped out of nowhere. “I’ve been running around looking for Jeff’s doctor, but no one will speak to me.”
“They’ll speak to ME,” the old lady rose with grace from the plastic chair in the hospital cafeteria. “I want to get to the bottom of this before my son starves to death.”
The three women entered Jeff’s hospital room just as the doctor’s frustration hit a new high.
“I have to leave so I can do my broadcast,” Jeff insisted.
“That’s not going to happen, but if you don’t relax and let us help you, we’ll have to get a psych evaluation….”
“The Ami…the Ami…I have a message. I have to leave so I can do my show. The message….”
“Maybe you can reason with him.” The doctor turned to his mother.
“I think you ought to talk to this young lady from the TV station,” she introduced Sheila. “She says she knows what my son has been doing to lose so much weight. It’s some all-natural nonsense. He must have taken too much of it or had an allergic reaction.”
“I doubt that any, over-the-counter diet aid could do this kind of damage. He must have taken….”
“You may change your mind,” Shelia blurted out. “This stuff is weird. I sent a sample to the lab that I used when I did a story checking the calorie counts on menus. They can’t figure out what it is. It’s some kind of unknown parasite.”
“A parasite?” The doctor sounded amazed. “We ran all the tests we could think of, nothing popped, and he had not traveled to any regions where….”
“You didn’t hear me.” Shelia was losing her patience. “This is an UNKNOWN parasite. Like nothing else the lab had ever seen—a new species, a new killer….”
“Marketed as a diet?”
“On the Internet and on late-night TV,” Leah added. “When Jeff can’t sleep he watches late-night TV, and he’s been worried about losing the anchor spot, getting downgraded, ageism….”
“The Ami…the message,” Jeff shouted.
All heads turned to him.
“The Ami have a message?” Shelia asked.
“Yes, yes, the Ami-Zonianas have an important message. I am the messenger. The Ami…”
“He’s delirious.” The doctor said.
“Or those tiny worms have invaded his brain and they want him on TV with their message,” Leah’s tone was sarcastic, but Jeff’s mother and Shelia didn’t take it that way.
Shelia whipped out her laptop and plugged in her WiFi connection.
“The site’s gone. It was there last night. It was there this morning.”
“The Ami message. It’s time for me to deliver the Ami message. “ Jeff tossed and turned in the bed, pulling at the IV line attached to his hand.
“Everyone out of the room!” The doctor shouted.
“I’m his mother!” the old lady stood her ground.
“We’re going to have to flush his system and get those worms out….”
“No need to tell me more,” she replied and led the other women out of the room.
It took days of ‘cleansing’ procedures and heavy-duty anti-microbial therapies before the doctors even began to understand how thoroughly the Ami-Zonianas had taken control of Jeff’s body. The manner of their ‘invasion’ of his mind was a subject of great speculation, but remained a mystery even as his body healed. During the months he was recovering, big changes were made at the station.
Tasha took over the anchor desk. The six o’clock news now had a unique science slant, and the ratings were reflecting an interest in what Tasha would say about a variety of newsworthy subjects. From the city’s new school lunch program and the First Lady’s obesity prevention campaign to the role played by big pharmaceutical companies in health insurance reform and the FDA’s latest rulings, Tasha’s expertise brought in viewers.
The big surprise was Shelia. She won an Emmy for her documentary on dangerous diets. It was an in-depth look at the ‘diet industry’ and was enough to lead Leah to remove all the ‘diet’ products from her kitchen. The last ten minutes of ‘The Final Diet’ was devoted to Jeff’s story. The buzz on the Internet was huge, and Shelia wound up with a regular slot on the five and six o’clock broadcasts, plus a sponsored blog and frequent appearances on the network’s cable news station.
The FDA, the FBI, the FTC and Congress all opened unsuccessful investigations into the Ami-Zonianas company. The company had completely disappeared. Plenty of people remembered having seen the infomercial and the website. Some even admitted to trying the ‘little worm diet,’ as it became known after Shelia’s documentary. Recordings of the 15-minute long commercial existed, and screen shots of the colorful graphics were presented as evidence, but whoever was behind the scam was long gone.
While Shelia’s documentary attempted to keep an even keel on the ‘worms from outer space’ theories that flew around the Internet, her calm approach and measured conclusions were still a wake-up call for many dieters. The old-style diet programs that promised slow weight reduction by simply eating smaller portions, gained renewed interest from the general public. Shelia, a yo-yo dieter since the age of twelve, relaxed and stopped listening to the station manager who wanted her to lose those ten pounds.
“You’ll look so much better on camera.”
“My body weight is normal,” she told him. “I’m not going to swallow a bottle of parasitic worms so I can wear a size 0. Look what happened to Jeff when he tried to lose his middle-aged gut.”
She put on her gym shoes and headed out for a walk. Her next project was going to be about exercise addiction. There was nothing extraterrestrial about it.
“The Final Diet” is one of seven stories by Candy Korman that appear in the Mardibooks Collection entitled “Unexpected Tales from the Ends of the Earth.”