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“I can’t teach you a joke,” The Professor told her, but not in a mean way, in a smiling way. He had nice, straight teeth.
“I could remember. I’d write it down,” Monette said.
“They wouldn’t laugh.” The Professor stopped smiling and lowered his voice, but not his eyes, and she wanted to look away, but more than that, she wanted what she came for. She sometimes thought she’d kill herself if it came to sitting under that livestock sign for another week or forever. “People only want two things from a woman in the show. They want to want her, or they want her to make ‘em feel sick.”
Now Monette did look away. It was a trick after all. She turned to go, blinking fast.
“Only thing, though,” he called after her, “they don’t know which.” Monette didn’t understand the punch line. She wished she could run. “Quote the Bible to ‘em, you want to talk.” Monette stopped to listen, her back still to him because this wasn’t any joke she’d ever heard.
Then she could feel him, right behind her, so close his breath tickled the back of her neck. He smelled clean but a little spicy, like cinnamon. Or gunpowder. “Tell the marks any old line,” he said into her ear. He stopped, but Monette didn’t go. After a beat, “Ephesians. Something from Ephesians. I’ll take a sexpot picture for your pitch card, and you can sell it for a nickel.”
When she did walk away, it was to The Professor’s laughter. “They won’t know what to do,” she heard him say above the sound of a cheap sword sliding into its sheath.
Now Nettie understands the trick, and she lets the marks have their nudge and chuckle, keeps her chins up and smiles a wide smile at each of them, deciding whose money she can take.
“Now I know you folks been waitin’ to see me walk,” she tells them, “and I’m gonna walk around for you. But first,” she stops. Her yelling and laughing make her light-headed, and she must rest before she walks for them. “But first let me talk to just the men.” The navy boys and the farm boys and pinched faced little business types all look at her, and their wives and lady friends and little girl children all watch them watching Nettie’s eyes, her face, her huge bosom. All over her. All at once.
“I got a little picture for you. Just a silly thing, but it’s not for the ladies. It’s just for those fellows who want it. And while I walk around for you all, you boys can stop me, and for a dime, I’ll have this picture for you.”
Monette hoists herself out of her chair now. Its thick wooden arms creak beneath the pressure, but she knows it’ll hold, not like the cookhouse benches or even the bed she had a month ago; this chair is special for her. Artie had a Henderson woodworker carve it out of solid oak, the last present he’d given her just before they came to the show.
The chair does hold, and Lil’ Nettie shuffles through the crowd. She smiles at children, who slink back. She nods solemnly to old couples, who nod in return, but most of all she takes dimes, dollars and dollars in new paycheck dimes, from the boys who just have to see the picture, the boys who don’t know it’s the same one they can buy from Artie’s kiester outside the flaps of the tent for a nickel.
Nettie feels as shiny as one of those new dimes when Artie sets down her ham, her potatoes, her greens, a couple of korn dogs left over from what the cake-eaters didn’t buy that day, a few biscuits, everything he could wrangle together and have the cooks fix her for an extra dollar or two. She doesn’t eat in the cookhouse with everyone else. She eats at Artie’s keister, stripped of its gold cloth so that it’s just a plain old table that wobbles under the weight of her meal.
It never matters to Monette. She used to have things she liked and didn’t like. She remembers hating hard-boiled eggs and carrots a long time ago around her mother’s kitchen table. Her mother was a half-starved looking woman whose sallow skin stretched tight across her sharp bones. She’d shoved plates of boiled potatoes and coarse homemade bread at Monette, her only child, and Monette’s father, a wiry, angry little man, who rarely ate more than a couple of mouthfuls, who had seemed to live on farm reports and silent fury. “Y’all please eat,” her mother used to say, and her father wouldn’t and Monette would, and if her mother was going to smile that day, it would be because Monette had been a good girl and cleaned her plate.
But today there was more money in the kitty than there’d ever been. She can hear it jingle in Artie’s pocket; she feels so good her insides shake and tremble, not with hunger, but some new feeling. Her mouth is too dry to swallow.
“I did good today,” she says.
“That Professor taught you good,” Artie says before he goes. Nettie yells behind him that it was her who made the money, and thinks to herself that she must have done The Professor proud. When she sees him walking up the dusty stretch that leads from the front yard to the back, he is smoking a cigarette and whistling.
“Fourteen dollars,” she calls, grinning like a woman who’s won something.
“That’s a fine day.”
Nettie looks to her left and right; most everyone is in the cookhouse except a couple of Gabriel and Angelo’s furry teenagers who throw a baseball slow and underhand to Ignatius Tolberone, the midget talker. Nettie slicks her dress down, pats her hair, motions to The Professor. He glances at the group, too, but comes over.
“Will you come to me tonight,” Nettie whispers in a low voice she hopes sounds as smoky and secret as a revue girl’s.
The Professor shows her his big movie star teeth, but nods toward the trailer Artie shares with the roughies, and says, “I better not.”
Ignatius comes as Nettie saws through her ham with shaking hands. He is child-sized and little-boy dirty, his suit stained with what could be baked beans. His lank hair leaks dandruff onto his hunched shoulders. Sometimes Nettie is so starved for company and conversation that she wants to pretend he’s a child, her child, take him lovingly to the rain barrel and sponge him clean with a bar of Ivory.
“Give me some of that,” he says, already reaching his little hands for her carving knife. His nails are yellow at the base and black with filth underneath. Nettie pulls the knife away, but begins to cut him a small piece.
“How bout a little more than that?”
“To the bitter soul, every morsel is sweet.”
“Don’t give me your God voodoo talk. I ain’t paying to watch you shake.” Nettie looks up with hard eyes, but softens when she sees the midget is smiling. She doesn’t smile back but cuts him a little more meat.
“I heard you done good today,” he says.
“Alright, I guess,” Nettie replies, still thinking about The Professor as she chews her ham and tries to swallow over the knot in her throat.