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“What’d old smarty pants have to tell you about it?” he asks, looking to The Professor, who has taken the dogface teenagers’ ball and rolls it up one arm, behind his head and down the other. The teenagers applaud from the low hanging branches of a magnolia. Ignatius rolls his ham into a tube before he takes a bite.
“None of your business,” Nettie says.
Artie walks up from the cookhouse with a broom, and Ignatius grins with a mouthful of broken teeth. “Well if it ain’t the thin man himself,” he says and stuffs the whole piece of ham into his mouth before Artie can snatch it away. “Sure you don’t wanna be in the ten-in-one?” he sprays a mouthful of half chewed meat in Artie’s direction as he talks. “Maybe The Professor could fix you up, too.”
“I ain’t no sideshow freak,” Artie says and hits Ignatius with the straw end of the broom until the small man runs away, still chewing.
“You gonna sit?” Nettie asks Artie, trying to meet his washed-out eyes.
“Eat your own food. Don’t give it to that pickled punk,” he says
“What if I’m not hungry no more?” Nettie asks, and slams her knife and fork down, looking past Artie to the tree. The Professor, the boys, even Ignatius, are gone.
“Eat it,” Artie calls as he walks back toward the big tent over the cookhouse, glowing with electric string lights between crepe myrtles and swamp shrubbery, where everyone laughs, and the bender twists a knee behind his head, and the roughies deal hands of seven card stud. Nettie thinks she might sit with them now that she’s been here a while. She thinks she might have something to say about the show, about her act, but Artie is jealous of the food he buys her. He knows she feeds Ignatius and sometimes Gabriel and Angelo’s brood. “This ain’t the Red Cross,” he says when she asks about eating with the others. Nettie eats most of the ham before calling him back to clear the dinner things away.
Artemis is her mother’s cousin, and when she was a little girl with a tea set and paper dolls, Artie worked alongside her father in filthy dungarees, humpbacked over a plow digging ruler-straight rows of reddish panhandle dirt that stretched from her back porch to the horizon. Year after year, cotton and wheat exploded from those rows and they’d pick and pick and pick, red fingered and sweating, until there was nothing left, then the skeletons were razed, and Artie and her Daddy would start again.
When the black rollers came and everything, the house, the crops, their bodies, was covered in dust, nothing grew. Some nights Monette’s mother was pushing their last slices of dust covered bread at Monette and saying, “Please just go on and eat it.”
There stopped being enough daylight or time to talk to anybody. There wasn’t enough money to fix the holes in the hems of their skirts or for penny candy or for holidays. For the first time in her life, Monette was nearly thin. There were never enough wages for Artie, who Monette remembers screaming at her father on their back porch more nights than one, “You said five dollars. This ain’t no five dollars.”
“I can’t help the price of wheat. How am I supposed to help that?” her father shouted back, and Monette jumped when the screen door banged off its hinges.
When Monette was thirteen, Artie brought her a box of chocolates while her mother and father were in town. He’d worn a button-down shirt and shyly offered her the candies. The box was heart-shaped, tin, each candy contained in its own little paper cup, some cherry, some toffee, all clean and dust free, and she sat on the porch steps taking a bite of one and then another. Artie told her “Go on. Try ‘em all.” When she had a mouth full of chocolate-covered peanuts, Artie kissed her neck, and she’d felt like something was finally happening besides cleaning her plate and sweeping the back porch like she was supposed to. Artie’s lips tasted like the chocolate still coating her mouth. For a few weeks, Monette had thought they were in love, at least Artie told her he loved her, whispered it between secret chocolate and sticky fingers in secret places. She carried their secret jealously, humming to herself as she went about her little girl chores, smiling at the knowledge that she was a woman, a woman good enough to have a man good as Artie, who promised Monette her own house, full of laughing children instead of bleak farm reports and silence.
When her daddy finally surprised them one afternoon in a sweaty tangle in the hayloft, Monette got a beating and then a wedding, after which Artie deposited her in the two-room lean-to on the land he’d begun sharecropping. When there were no more chocolates, then no more lovemaking, and finally, hardly any Artie, she’d wandered from room to room, nibbling on what was around like a caged rabbit, making the best dinners she knew how and eating them alone, swallowing all the things no one cared that she didn’t know how to say in bites of roast chicken and mashed potatoes, waiting for Artie to come home and give her what he promised, but if he did come home, it was long after she’d given up her vigil by the window and fallen asleep, missing him and her mama and a thousand things she didn’t quite have a name for, changing, even though she didn’t know it yet, from Monette to Lil’ Nettie.
When he is finished cleaning her dinner things, Artie supports Lil’ Nettie to her sleeper car and helps her struggle out of her damp and sweat stained dress. “I did good today, I guess,” she says again.
He has filled a pail with water and brings it over with a bar of lye soap. She holds up her hair as he washes the folds of her neck with a coarse cloth.
Artie says nothing as he moves down her back, rubbing hard in little circles, buffing her skin like he’s washing a tractor. She imagines red streaks where the cloth has been but says nothing about how it hurts her or how she is sore when she lies down on her bunk to sleep. She lifts her arms, so he can wash underneath. “Will we go someplace cooler soon? What’s The Professor say?”
Artie stops scrubbing and Nettie wonders, not for the first time, if he knows what happened with The Professor and doesn’t care, or if maybe he arranged the whole thing, or if maybe he really is just as stupid as her daddy always said he was.
“You’d have to ask him,” he says finally. Nettie pretends it’s The Professor here, washing her while he tells her about the places they’re going, Oklahoma, Orlando. He told her once that maybe she’d see the ocean if she stayed with the show long enough. Nettie imagines the water from the pail is ocean water and that she can feel a sea breeze across her bare skin even, hears waves instead of soapy water sloshing into the bucket. She closes her eyes and without thinking reaches out to touch Artie’s leg, but he moves back as soon as she feels his dirty dungarees beneath her fingers.
When he is finished, he drops the soap into the bucket and retreats to the bunkhouse he shares with the roughies. Nettie washes her dress in the leftover water and leaves the pail by the door for Art to empty in the morning when he comes to press her dress. When she settles into her plywood bunk to sleep, her skin still stings from Artie’s attention.