In the silence just before the grounds open and the show begins, Lil’ Nettie can hear the far off whistle of a Memphis-bound freight train clattering its progress through Vicksburg. In the city,there are laws about decency. The show sets up outside the limits to keep away from the laws and, at eleven, the roughies open the gates so the people can come to her. Her husband, Artie, leads the marks to the center of the tent. The Professor stands in the middle of them, dressed like a regular man today in patched slacks and a tie. Only Nettie knows who he really is; only he and Nettie know what she’s about to do.
When Artie ducks through the tent flap to man the money box, the marks begin to chance looks at her puffy pink fingers, curled around the carved oak armrests of her massive chair, or at the neatly crossed ankles bulging above her slippers. Sidelong, they take in her too-tight cotton dress, pressed this morning but now damp with sweat in the early afternoon heat so that it clings beneath her arms and around her waist. She smiles at them with her sticky rouged lips although nobody but The Professor has looked her in the face yet.
The sailors have had their payday. She can tell by the beer stink of them and because of the lipsticked, nervous girls in pretty Sunday dresses who stand beside them, playing with their thin white hands, looking at their sailor boyfriends for permission to look at her. Lil’ Nettie stays still as the children poke their tired-looking mothers and point while the women slap their rude hands down. The Professor told her it’s best to give the cake-eaters time to sweat and shuffle, to let them wonder what they’re doing here before she gives them what they didn’t know they came to see.
Finally, a ginger-haired little boy says, “Well, gosh, that’s the fattest woman I ever seen.” The crowd titters while his mother shushes him. The Professor nods, so Nettie knows it’s time to start.
“For that which befalleth the sons of man bafalleth beasts. As one dieth, so dieth the other,” Nettie says in a voice that fills the tent, bounces off its walls and rebounds against the marks, forcing their faces up to hers, her trembling jowls, her bright red mouth. “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” As an old man in the back gives a quiet “Amen,” Nettie slowly uncrosses her legs; she clenches a bit of her dress in a closed fist so that her hem rises, just the way she practiced, and she shivers in spite of the damp, hot air, imagining it’s only The Professor who sees the white flesh of her thigh. The old man chokes off his follow up, “Praise Jesus.”
“All the labor of man is for his appetite, yet his appetite is not filled.” She looks to her stomach at this, pushes it out and moves her hands slowly over the sides of her belly. The seams of her dress pop.
“For who can eat more than I?” she shouts as she raises her hands toward the top of the tent where mosquitoes move in wobbly circles. She can feel the marks’ eyes on her breasts, which roll and sway just beneath the lace trim of her sweetheart neckline. A sailor wolf whistles, a woman gasps. The Professor is smiling, smiling at her, and she knows she’s doing it right. Nettie throws her torso forward, buttons straining, and the ones who care to look can see the white of her brassiere and maybe the rolls of bluish-pink skin that overlap.
“I can see your jugs, darlin,” says a flinty-looking farm boy from the back. Lil’ Nettie doesn’t smile, but she wants to. She knows she’s getting them, and more than that, he’s watching her get them.
“All is vanity,” Nettie whispers, and they are quiet, leaning forward to hear, drawn now into a semi-circle before her. The Professor stands back, so only Nettie can see him, nodding along, keeping time. “For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief, yet his heart taketh not rest in the night.” She looks them over one by one now, her eyes wide, her Coke bottle curls shining under the string lights, and they look back at her. Every one.
She has them.
“There is nothing better for, that he should eat and drink. This I saw was from the hand of God.” The Professor laughs, and she remembers it’s her time to chuckle. They want to see her shake. She laughs until she can feel herself vibrating. Her stomach, her chin, her breasts and thighs. She laughs until it all moves for them.
“For who can eat more than I,” she says again when she is through shaking. And now they laugh. Now they all whistle and point, nudging each other to see if everyone has seen. And she has them, just like The Professor told her she would. He gives her a little salute as he leaves through the partially open tent flap.
Nettie spent her first few weeks in the show sitting still in her big wooden chair trying to smile at folks as they filed past. She’d say, “How y’all doing?” sometimes to the young, tiny mothers with their towheaded little ones, and the little ones would hide their faces and the mothers would smile at the space over her shoulder. She’d sat under Artie’s handwritten sign, “Monette Peters 585 lbs,” like an exhibition in a state fair livestock contest instead of an act in the show. All the time she forced her smiles and tried to make conversation, she could hear the sounds of Professor Fredrique the Faqir breathing fire in the next tent over. The exhale, the rush of flames, the gasp of the crowd, the joke, “Sorry folks. Must have been something I ate,” and the relieved guffaws of the men and women who, minutes before, had simply gaped at her.
One night she’d found him alone behind the cookhouse, polishing the tin sword he’d push down his throat the next morning.
“Professor?” she’d asked quietly. She was always quiet back then. Holding her breath around the midget, the geek, the dogfaced twins, the Siamese twins, the pinhead, the dancing girls, the girls that did more than dance. Holding her breath to avoid the stink of them. That dirty carnival smell of sad stories, burnt grease, old sweat, and desperation. Talking only to say, “Fine” to their disinterested “How’re yous.” Monette held her breath and wondered if that smell was coming off her, too.
Even without his glittering pants, with his chest covered, the Professor looked fancy to Monette. He had long, white fingers that held a plain old handkerchief like silk. He polished a sword like a man playing the violin.
She’d stood in front of him for a long time, not sure how to ask what she’d come to ask. She tried not to look at him and instead watched the children of the dogfaced twins, some furry and some smooth, cartwheel around their wagon. Finally, The Professor put down his sword and said, “Can I do something for you?”
“I wanna know a joke,” Monette said, hoping she sounded pushy, like Artie used to when he thought her daddy was trying to cheat him out of wages. “Maybe a card trick.” And now The Professor was quiet, just looking at her like a doctor or a real college-type professor. She added, “Something?”
The Professor patted the bench beside him, but Monette stayed where she was. She thought she was starting to understand tricks. From folks being nice so they could act mean later, to Artie pinching her so hard it left a purple mark when she said she was too tired to keep sitting in her tent, to the disinterested stares of the people that came to look at her like she was in a zoo or sometimes nudged each other and said something about taking her to the stockade to have her weighed, to what her daddy had done to her when he found out about her and Artie. To what Artie had done to her in the first place.