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Lil’ Nettie wonders again what she’s supposed to be doing. She has her chair on its platform. She says the Bible verses and takes their money like The Professor told her. She’d cleaned her plate when her mother asked her and taken off her dress for Artie. She’d sat still while The Professor took her picture and given Ignatius his ham and laid still while the two men she almost knew rocked, frenzied, above her. How could I have done any better? Nettie thinks as she sits, blinking and confused, waiting for the show to start.
Eventually the gates open and finally she can hear Ignatius doing his spiel: “I’m gonna wake up the fat lady folks. Sweet Lil’ Nettie from Texas. It takes four men to hug her and a horse cart to lug her. She’s gonna do a little dance for you, and when she does, the whole tent shakes!”
Artie ushers in an old couple, him in coveralls, her in a housedress.
“How y’all doing?” Nettie mumbles, unsurprised when they do not speak. Soon there is a full tent: Mothers and fathers and children and farmhands and sailors and schoolgirls, and all of them watching her, wanting what they paid for. She doesn’t bother to search their faces before she starts.
“For that which befalleth the sons of man bafalleth beasts. As one dieth, so dieth the other. All go unto one place. All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.” Nettie does not yell or lift her skirt. She sits still and doesn’t care if they see her for what she really is: a sad fat lady with a squeaky voice and eyes full of tears.
“All the labor of man is for his appetite, yet his appetite is not filled.” Now her voice breaks, and a single tear does slip down her face. The cake-eaters shift from foot to foot, looking at each other, at the floor, at the exit. A few leave.
“For who can eat more than I?” she mumbles. “All is vanity.” Monette stops speaking now and looks at the floor. When she looks up, she is alone, save for Ignatius, who stands right in front of her, his hands clasped over his chest like a man saying a prayer. He doesn’t look her in the eye, instead his eyes dart around the tent. When he finally looks at Nettie, he looks all over her all at once, not just her stomach, her bulging arms, the fat that skims the top of her slippers, but her hair, her eyes, her clean, filed nails.
Monette is not sure what to do, so she stammers back into her routine. “There is nothing better for, that he should eat and drink. This I saw was from the hand of God.”
“You’re alright, Nettie,” Ignatius says. “You’re doing fine.”
“For who can eat more than I?” she answers.
He moves forward, cautiously, but not like a man approaching a wild animal, like a courtesan approaching a queen. Monette sits up straighter, pushing her back up and raising her chin. She stretches her arms out along the armrests of her chair, and crosses her legs at the ankles.
Ignatius moves closer to her, closer than he’s ever gotten, so close Monette can smell him. He smells of bacon and sweat, but something else, too. Something savory but also a little bit sweet, and she knows immediately that it’s chocolate. The midget smells of chocolate.
Monette looks out the tent to Artie, but he’s selling pitch-cards to the old couple, so she looks to the top of the tent flap at a tiny patch of blue-grey sky. She can hear the voices of the crowd outside. Babies crying. Vendors yelling for folks to buy sausages and candy floss. Beneath that she can hear fire burst from The Professor’s tent and then the explosion of applause.
She feels Ignatius’s fingertips across the tops of her knuckles, as light and soft as a cat’s tail. She stiffens. She’s seen this trick before.
The Professor told her once about the tattoo girls and the revue girls whose after-catch is to take the men back to a notch joint and show their naked bodies for three dollars. When he told her, she said, “You’ll allow that sort of thing?” And when he’d thrown his head back and laughed, she’d tried not to let on her confusion. “Ain’t no allowed to it, little girl,” he told her finally.
Lil’ Nettie turns her head and looks the midget barker right in his dull brown eyes. He smiles at her, a faltering, unsure little grin. She knows she has him as she jerks her hand away.
“Ten-in-one’s a dollar,” Nettie says. “Touching’s extra.”