Fiction, Vol. 4.1, March 2010
“The freak is all appetite,” the Fat Lady said. Then she peeled a layer of salami from her sandwich and bared her small, ferocious teeth as she raised it to her mouth. “Eating is one thing,” she said. “Everyone eats. Not everyone consumes.” She ate daintily, taking pieces between her thumb and forefinger, sliding them into her mouth, then chewing slowly while the crowd waited for her next pronouncement. It never seemed strange that she ate so delicately. She was, after all, a lady.
She harbored a passionate derision for the Hunger Artist two cages down. Rando—the human skeleton with a strongman’s name—heard her insults, but never responded. He never spoke and hardly moved. It was probably his intention to be as still as death, to heighten the crowd’s perception that he was indeed a living corpse. “Why hould he be called a hunger artist when I am the one who hungers?” the Fat Lady said. “I am the one who is never fulfilled. That is why I eat and eat and never have enough. He is sated to the point of despair; I hunger, I eat, because I love.”
But in her trailer, away from the crowds, she said other things; “I have had many suitors, many proposals of marriage, but not one of them loved me. They only loved their own hunger.” She smiled at me and patted my arm. “They only love us for what we represent for them.” She leaned back in her chair and looked at me under the heavy folds of her eyelids. “Now, most men,” she said, “most men love only beautiful girls ¾ and if they tell you different, they’re lying. You find a man that loves one of us, and I’ll show you a man that’s got something wrong with him.”
A rat got into the house the other day. Mark heard something under the mattress. He lifted it and found an almost hairless rat that had been chewing a hole. It didn’t run; it just hissed at him. These days, the rats will fight you.
I grabbed a shovel and brought it down on the little bastard, cut it right in half. Blood got all over the place. Mark cleaned it up.
This sort of thing has been happening more and more. Ever since the factories shut down, the people in town have become listless. Some have moved away, looking for work, most have stayed, unable to sell their houses and start over again somewhere else. Almost everybody has taken to drink. Most of the shops have closed, the banks, the movie theater ¾ but the liquor store is doing a booming business.
No one has any pride left. Their houses are falling apart. Their children are truants, vandalizing, stealing, fighting. The streets are littered with garbage; yards have become dumps. The garbage attracts all sorts of vermin, and the pests have grown bold. Usually it’s just spiders and insects that get in, but every now and then there’s a rat.
I’m not scared of the crawling things anymore. I realized we’re all the same; we all just found our little cracks to crawl into while we wait out the storm.
I never really knew the Fat Lady. I just talked to her for half an hour that one afternoon. She didn’t stopating the entire time I was there: six eggs, six strips of bacon, two cold beers, all devoured with such finesse. But she was bitter. The bravado she displayed on the stage was gone, replaced by a seething hatred for the svelte girls with long limbs and creamy skin who walked the midway in sequined shorts. It was a bitterness I shared. I consumed, too, only not material things. I ate him, his strength, his patience; the bitterness inside me devoured it all, like a parasite, and more. I was losing, not gaining.
He had tried to leave me. He said he still loved me and knew he would regret it, but he couldn’t be with me anymore. I begged him not to go. I begged him and wept for eight hours until he relented and agreed to stay. It had been months, and I still doubted him, still feared he would leave me.
I liked the Fat Lady. I understood her. I understood feeling like you are never enough.
I’ll spend hours at the window, watching the wasted town. “It’s like the Rapture out there,” I’ll say. “All the good people are gone.”
“That’s not true,” he’ll say. “You’re here.”
He’s told me some stories about people he used to know: teachers who moved away long ago when the schools went to hell, kids he went to school with. One kid went to college for seven years and did three degrees, never satisfied, never settling down. Another—a girl—went to Hollywood and did a softcore film that became a top rental in the local video store. One time he told me about a guy he used to hang out with sometimes. This guy used to sit on his girlfriends’ laps and fart on them. He also cheated on them, often with teenagers, even when he was well into his twenties. (“I don’t know what’s worse,” I had joked.) Mark couldn’t understand how this guy always had a girlfriend ¾ and how all of them were amazing girls ¾ while Mark and his two friends, who were nice guys, could never get girlfriends.
“Maybe it’s because of the girls you chose,” I’d said.
He looked wounded. “What do you mean?”
He knew what I meant. The girls he had liked were cruel, strung him along, humiliated him. But they were beautiful, so he loved them.
“Why do you still get so hurt by it?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
He touches me while we’re lying in bed. He touches my face, my hair. “I love you,” he says because he knows how sad I am. He strokes my stomach and then my arm, my bad arm. He kisses me. His kisses are flies on my face.
I always wanted to grow another skin to shut myself away from this one. He touches me, and I cry because I think, How can you?
I want to get myself out of this skin, but didn’t Mama always say, “What matters is not the fabric but the cut”?
He loves me. He loves me, just not enough.
I wanted to give him something. I had nothing except words, so I wrote him a letter.
When he left the room, I slipped it into his coat pocket. Something was already in there. It was a small slip of paper, crumpled and worn, with her name and number.
He came back in the room. “What’s this?” I asked.
He didn’t answer right away. He sat down and took a deep breath. “I don’t even know if that’s her number anymore,” he finally said. “It’s just something I’ve always kept as a reminder.”
“A reminder of what?”
“Of her, that’s all.”
I started to cry. “Why do you need a reminder of her when you have me?” He said nothing. “Do you need it?” I asked.
“Will you destroy it?”
His face was red. He wouldn’t look at me. I continued to cry alone. He had kept her number. He had kept it all this time, even with everything that had happened. He had kept it for seven years. Would he have kept my number for seven years? If I had been good enough, beautiful enough, he wouldn’t have needed to keep a reminder of her. If he had loved me enough, he would have gotten rid of it.
I watched him. He looked so sad. “What’s wrong,” I asked.
“I don’t like thinking about her,” he answered.
I stood up and wiped the tears from my eyes. I went to him and knelt in front of him. “Don’t then. Don’t think about her,” I said. “Think about me.” I kissed him. “Think about how much I love you.”
He closed his eyes and wouldn’t move, wouldn’t look at me. Still, I kept kissing him, as though I could make him forget her. Still, I kept saying, “Think about me,” as though I would ever be enough to make him forget.
There was a rumor that the Fat Lady had killed her lover because she believed he wanted to be with the beautiful girl who rode the horses. She had told me, without actually confessing to the crime, “There’s a problem, though. Yes, you might kill him and prevent him from being with somebody else. Or you might convince him to stay, and he might stay for the rest of his life. But you can’t undo what’s been done. You can’t take back the hurt. You can’t lie to yourself and say, ‘He loves me.’”
I think about that now, when he’s sleeping next to me. I hunger for him, for his love. Whatever he gives me, it will never be enough.