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The man who owned her wagon before Artie used it to haul rodeo horses from El Paso to Amarillo. When Nettie tries to get to sleep she can still smell them, a wild, musty smell that no amount of mopping or bleach can get rid of. It makes her eyes itch, makes her feel like she’s been kicked out of the main house and forced to sleep in some barn like a hobo who wandered up on her daddy’s back porch looking for a meal and a day’s work. She lies still, thinking it’s not fair, when she’s done so good, and gotten them all, that she sleeps in a horse trailer. The night sounds of the carnival drift to her from the big tent, muffled conversation, men’s yells and the occasional woman’s shrieking laughter until they are quiet and there are no sounds but crickets and the odd train.
In Jackson last week, The Professor had lit candles all around her when he took the picture in his tent and told her “Go on and lie down. Prop your head up on your hands.” It was hard to breathe as she walked to the bed in her new dress; Artie had bought her bright pink satin, and she’d made the dress tight, like The Professor told her. So tight her body felt crushed inwards on itself, bound up like a broken bone. She barely dared exhale.
The Professor told her to put on a little more rouge and handed her the pot and a small mirror. Artie knew she was there, but was playing poker with the roughies in their trailer, but Monette still felt like she was doing wrong.
“Your hair looks like cornsilk in these candles, Monette,” The Professor said. She blushed at the sound of her name in The Professor’s fancy mouth. “Go on and pout like Helen Hayes,” he told her.
She tried as the flashbulb popped. The Professor came over and touched her hair, She gasped, but this time it had nothing to do with her dress. “Push your lips out like you want a kiss,” he told her. She did. The Professor leaned down and kissed her a little. “Stay just like that,” he said, and the flashbulb popped again. “We got it.” Monette could not move; her lips felt bee-stung where The Professor’s lips had touched her. He leaned over her, and his little beard tickled her back. When she started to wiggle, whispered, “No,” she wasn’t exactly sure what she meant.
“Shhh,” was all he said. She knew that she could roll off the bed, easily spilling him off her and onto the floor, maybe pin him underneath her body as she got to her feet to trundle back to her cart, but it seemed she had known, or at least should have known, this would happen from the first moment she asked for his help: The Professor inevitably straddling her backside, pushing up her dress. Maybe it was what she had been after all along. Artie hadn’t touched her in years, and she moved toward the feel of these new hands, softer than Artie’s, all cottony fingertips brushing against her thighs and lower back. Or maybe she hadn’t wanted any of it. She said, “Stop,” or at least she thought it. With his weight rocking backward and forward on top of her and her head all confused, it was hard to tell if she’d spoken at all. She exhaled into The Professor’s pillow, long and slow. The dress was as good as ruined now anyway.
After, he told her Monette was too much name for a fat lady. “The marks want you to be a little girl,” he said. “A big baby.”
Now Nettie is too hot, and the stink is too much. She misses her tent, can feel their eyes on her when she closes her own eyes. She mumbles her line, “For that which befalleth man, befalleth beasts,” and she feels like Lil’ Nettie. Like the woman in the picture. Before she can tell herself to stop, she’s out of bed, and in her nightclothes and bare feet she leaves her horse cart.
The Professor is leaned over a tablet, scribbling in the weak light of a half burned candle. Nettie says nothing, just makes her way in and stands behind him. He looks over his shoulder then closes his eyes for a second before putting his pencil down.
“You can’t come here,” he says. But Nettie lies on his bed anyway, posing like she did in the picture. The Professor looks for a second, and Nettie tenses up, midway between hope and its opposite. Something breaks loose in her as he says, “I don’t want you.”
“But you did,” she says. “I did everything you told me.” Nettie’s voice is shrill and squeaky; she can’t control it. She wishes she could talk to him in the voice she uses in her act, that someone had written her lines out for her, so she could have practiced.
“I did something for you. I took a picture and you paid me in trade. We’re done.”
“What if I ain’t?” Nettie says.
The Professor takes his tablet and leaves. Nettie can feel her body, thrumming and hurting and all spread out, waiting, always waiting. She takes his quilt and binds herself in it, as tight as she can stand until she can hear seams ripping. It smells like him, like spice and black powder and last week when he’d laid top of her and touched her hair and said, “That’s a good girl.”
But I did good, Monette thinks again and can hear the sound of dimes jingling in Artie’s pocket and the The Professor’s groan as he finished with her. She puts her face into The Professor’s pillow and screams it, “I did good I did good I did good,” until she is spent and embarrassed and sure he is not coming back, then she makes her way back to her own bed and moves her hand between her legs until she can sleep.
At breakfast there are eggs, fatback, hominy. Ignatius comes as soon as Artie is gone.
“Sleep good?” he asks with dark look at her across the kiester.
Nettie stuffs a hard-boiled egg, whole, into her mouth. “What do you know about it?” she asks.
“Plenty.” Ignatius pantomimes snapping a picture, and before she realizes what she’s doing, Nettie has reached out and pushed the midget to the ground, shouting, “Go away you nasty little pickled punk.”
Ignatius collects himself off the ground and picks up the bacon he dropped, carefully shaking off the dirt before he walks away, nibbling.
Before the show begins, she can see the frayed edges of canvas over her head. Outside the flap, the roughies sulk through their chores, squinting in the sun as they clutch heads pounding from the booze and cards and kootch-shows the night before. She imagines she can smell mildew on her clean dress, emanating from her pitch-cards, her fancy chair, even Artie, who sits outside organizing the moneybox. When The Professor walks by she notices big gaps where sequins are missing from his gold pants.
“Morning,” she calls and wishes she hadn’t immediately after. He doesn’t turn his head. As the afternoon approaches, the tent heats up, and she begins to sweat like a woman with a fever.
Artie had shown up one afternoon with the horse cart and handmade chair and told her he’d made a deal with Frederique Jameson and his traveling carnival. “Since you ain’t doing nothing around here anyway, I figured you could sit and do nothing, and I’d sit and do nothing, and we’d make some money,” he told her.
Monette was picking at the dinner she’d made for Artie in case he came home. She looked up at him, confused. She wondered what it was she was supposed to have been doing all this time.