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.

“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.

“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.

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.

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.”

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