In the Land of the Pretty People
Joseph Paul Haines
Suzi Parks passed by the slack-jawed gawkers on the narrow sidewalk as if they were trees in a thick forest. She was used to it. At three hundred and sixty pounds, Suzi hadn't seen a stranger with a closed mouth in years.
Her thick eyebrows dammed up the flow of sweat on her forehead, keeping it from stinging her eyes, but the rest of her body was drenched. The flowered dress she wore--she overheard someone mention earlier that it could even be pretty, in a smaller size of course--was patched with damp ovals of sweat that stuck to skin wherever her flesh folded. Her breath was labored, her head spun from exhaustion, the muscles in her legs were quivering, and the smooth concrete felt like crumpled aluminum foil beneath her feet. She stopped to catch her breath, and the acrid scent of exhaust fumes stung her nostrils. She sneezed until spots danced before her eyes. It was always like this when she came to the city.
She had spent the better part of two hours on her feet since her job interview had ended, where the pretty, young receptionist with the twenty-two inch waist nearly lost her meager lunch when Suzi tried to sit down on the new waiting-room couch. Things went downhill from there. It seemed that no one wanted to hire a fat dietitian. At the moment, though, all she cared about was finding a place to sit and rest.
Suzi spotted an outdoor café just ahead. She quickly scanned the area and a small sigh of relief escaped her lips. There was a chair with no arms.
Her legs wobbled violently by the time she reached the nouveau, cobble-stoned portion of sidewalk that made up the café, and she no longer cared to "wait to be seated." She collapsed into the wire-latticed seat and felt the aluminum supports give slightly. Shifting her weight a few times to ease the pinching of the wires, Suzi motioned to a nearby waiter with a tilting of her head.
Enduring the stares of those around her, Suzi consumed a double café mocha and three pieces of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, even though she wasn't that hungry. She wanted a glass of water, but the waiter was busy serving the other guests and wouldn't look her way, except to shoot her a brief, bitter glare whenever someone refused dessert. He even managed to deliver the check to Suzi's table without her noticing.
It was expensive and she was low on money, but she had over a hundred dollars worth of food stamps for the next two weeks until her mother sent her monthly check. She wished she hadn't bought the perfume.
It had brought back so many memories, though; memories she had thought long dead and buried. Fifteen years passed since Suzi last wore perfume. She had been fourteen and still moved by the romance of such affectations.
Seeing the distinctive, square bottle on the cosmetics case while shopping yesterday, her cheeks flushed with a wave of unfamiliar warmth. It was stupid. She knew it was stupid, but she couldn't stop herself. She coughed up the money, enduring the incredulous guffaw of the living mannequin behind the counter, slipped the perfume in her purse and shouldered her way to the nearest exit, head down.
That left her with just enough money to pay her check and still manage bus fare. She fished in her purse for exact change--pausing only long enough to caress the bottle of perfume--and she caught the shape of someone standing beside her table from the corner of her eye. Without looking up, Suzi pinned the cash to the check between her thumb and index finger and thrust it toward the figure. A dank odor caught her attention.
"Thank you, anyway."
The stranger repulsed her immediately.
The smell of him, now that it had a moment to fully fill her nostrils, was disgusting. Even through the light breeze lingered along the streets, the sour scent of dried sweat many days old overpowered her. He wasn't much to look at, either. He wasn't tall, he was overweight--though nothing compared to her--had shoulder length, stringy hair and an awkward, bulbous nose. Under his left arm was a large artist's sketch pad and over his right shoulder hung a tattered blue backpack.
"Do you mind if I join you?" he asked.
Shock overcame her instant refusal, and in that moment, Suzi noticed something spectacular. The clientele. The waiter. The nouveau-rich. They were no longer staring at her. They had found something even more repulsive.
"Not at all," she said. "As a matter of fact, I could use some company."
He almost fell into the chair before she could change her mind. Immediately he began to rummage through his backpack and produced a small, ornate black box. Mother-of-pearl clung to the surface in a multitude of chromatic, oily designs and seemed to intensify the deep black which lay beneath. The stranger held it in the palm of his flattened hand, brought it to his lips, and blew. Suzi's breath caught in amazement as a sparkle of colors twirled off the lid and twisted in the air briefly, then vanished like cigarette smoke in a whirlwind. Flipping the lid open, the stranger removed a colored pencil and opened his sketchbook to a blank page.
He roughed out a few lines, not bothering to look up at Suzi as he worked.
Just when she thought that he might not speak again, the stranger glanced up and said, "Oh, I'm sorry. You don't mind if I do a sketch of you, do you? At first I thought I might need a bigger piece of paper, but . . ."
Her cheeks flushed. Over the years, she had learned to expect the rude, hurtful remarks from those she called the "pretty people." But from this bum, from this street person, another outcast like herself, it was unexpected. Usually, if someone was ugly or fat or just plain didn't fit in, Suzi found that they were more conscious of how they treated others. All the freaks had to pull together, after all.
The stranger glanced up and double-checked at the look on her face. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to offend you. It was just a little--"
"No-no . . . no." Suzi waved off his apology. She was not about to discuss manners with him. Why waste her breath?
The stranger's eyes fell back to his canvas and his face reddened. "I was just making a little joke," he said. "I thought that you didn't mind your . . ."--he searched for the word--"condition. You know, like those women in that magazine. What's it called again? 'Large and Lusty,' or something like that?"
"I think maybe you should change your reading material."
He seemed to consider this with the utmost seriousness, and said, "You are probably right. It won't happen again."
"Good." Deciding that a change of subject was in order, Suzi looked up and smiled. "That's a beautiful box," she said. "Where did you get it?"
The stranger brightened. "I found it a few months ago. In a different city."
"Oh? What city was that?"
"Memory. Ever heard of it?"
Suzi swept a few leftover crumbs off the table with the side of her hand.
"You probably have, but just forgot."
Suzi pursed her lips. "Cute," she said. Deciding to pin him in his own game, she said, "What's it like there?"
"It's wonderful," he said. "There, all the streets are paved with time."
Suzi scrunched her nose. "Very, very cute."
He looked up suddenly, squinting as he stared Suzi in the eye. "Was it?" Shrugging his shoulders, he said, "I don't know. It's your memory?"
"Do you smell that?"
Suzi flinched. "What?"
"Do you smell that?"
Her upper lip curled in a sneer and, thinking better of it, Suzi bit her bottom lip.
"Perfume," he said, "old perfume."
"No." Suzi stared into her empty coffee cup.
"It's wonderful." The stranger closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, his head falling back in pleasure. "It smells of . . . first love."
Suzi glanced at her purse. She leaned forward and said, "I'm sorry. I can only smell--"
"Me," the stranger said, his eyes popping open. "And I smell just the opposite."
Suzi formed her mouth around the word, "no" but didn't say it.
Instead, she settled for a grimace.
"It's all right," the stranger said softly, as if he were more embarrassed for her awkward moment than he was of his scent. "So," he said, "do you live around here?"
"No, I'm just waiting on my bus."
The stranger switched pencils, pulling cranberry red from the box, and continued his work. "How much longer do you have to wait?"
"A couple more hours."
He looked up. "Really? It's that long between buses here?" Suzi glanced away. "No. They come every thirty minutes or so."
"Then why don't you take one of the--"
"They're all too crowded."
"Surely someone would offer you their seat."
"Chivalry?" Suzi said, her eyes wide in amazement. "You really aren't from around here, are you?" Suzi paused, took a deep breath, and continued, "People just don't do that anymore."
"I don't know about that," the stranger said. "I've seen it a couple of times--lately, I mean."
"Really?" Suzi said with disbelief. "And were any of the women offered seats fat?"
The stranger's hand stopped.
"Or were they," Suzi asked, "pretty and delicate?"
He shook his head in dismissal. "Taking a crowded bus still can't be as bad as sitting here waiting for hours."
"I don't like being touched."
"Oh." He changed pencils again and began to work, the broad strokes switching to a more delicate intensity.
"So," Suzi said, distaste curling her upper lip as she spoke, "why did you decide to draw me, anyway?"
"You're really quite beautiful."
"No, I mean it," the stranger said flatly. His eyes were still glued to the sketch pad.
"Okay then," she said, "don't look up."
"What color are my eyes?" Suzi grinned, knowing that he wouldn't be able to answer. People didn't notice such details about a fat person. When they looked, they saw only the fat.
"Well." Suzi blinked. "Then what color is my hair?"
"Van Dyke brown--at least that's the color of the pencil I need to get it on paper."
"You're an artist, "Suzi said, moving a strand of hair behind her ear. "It wasn't a fair test."
"No," he said, "the only thing unfair about the test was your expectation of the outcome."
"Well." Suzi picked up her coffee cup to take a drink and, seeing it was still empty, put it back on the table. "I guess we both have to deal with unfair expectations." She sat up straighter, then said, "But you're right. I, of all people, should know better. Sorry."
If it bothered him, it didn't show. "Do you have family living around here?" He asked.
"No. Why so many questions?"
"It's essential to my art," he said. "It helps me fill in the finer details. "But, do you have family?"
Suzi hesitated, then said, "A brother."
"Where does he live?"
"I don't know, really. The two of us had a falling out. He left home and I never saw him again."
"You don't know where he lives?"
"Haven't seen him in what, twelve, thirteen years."
The stranger stopped for a moment and looked up from his work.
"So he might even be dead."
"He's not dead."
"How do you know? You just said that you haven't seen him in--"
"He isn't dead!"
The café fell silent. Suzi eased back in her chair and took a deep breath.
The stranger waited a moment, then said, "But how can you be so sure?"
"Look, "Suzi said, "have you ever heard how if you truly love someone they stay alive in your heart forever?"
"Yes," the stranger said.
"Well the reverse holds true as well."
The stranger paused, wrestling with her words. "I don't think I understand," he said.
"And you're the one from Memory." Suzi glanced around the café. "It doesn't matter."
The stranger shrugged and kept on working. "Quick," he said, "give me a number between one and twenty."
"Eleven," she said, and then paled as she felt her stomach heave. She bit back the urge to vomit, tasting acrid bile in the back of her throat. She swallowed and took a deep breath, the heavy scent of the stranger filling her nostrils. Yet this time his scent seemed less foreign--more . . . recognizable. The memory came crashing in: The beast with eleven digits.
"That's two digits, right?" The stranger continued. "One and one . . . or is that eleven digits?"
The stranger stopped sketching. "Which hand?" He asked.
Suzi forced herself to breathe. "What are you talking about?"
"Your brother. On which hand did he have the extra digit?"
Suzi fought down the panic. "I wasn't talking about my brother," she lied.
"You weren't?" The stranger asked, his head bobbing in an attempt to regain eye contact. "I just assumed--"
"You were wrong." Suzi looked him straight in the eye. "Drop it or leave." Her voice rose as she finished, and Suzi noticed the occasional glance from the patrons surrounding her.
"No problem," he said. "Eleven digits. Five on each hand. Was he the one who made you hate to be touched?"
"Shut up." Suzi looked for an empty table. There were only a few, but none with a chair into which she could easily fit. If she moved, she would have to take her chair with her. She wanted to get up and leave, but there was nowhere else for her to go, and even if there were, Suzi doubted that she had the strength in her legs to walk another block.
"So then," the stranger said, "it must be easier your way."
"What's easier?" She asked. "Just being fat."
"Now look--" Suzi spat, and was interrupted by the waiter, who paused just long enough at the table to snatch up the money and the check, before he once more disappeared amongst his other tables. Suzi looked back at the stranger, took a deep breath, and said, "Okay, have it your way. Easier that what?"
"Facing the reason why you are fat."
"That's none of your business," she said, "and if you insist on pursuing this, I'm going to have to ask you to leave. I'm not going to discuss that kind of thing with the likes of you."
"Sorry," the stranger said.
A few moments passed as the two of them just sat there, staring at each other.
"I'm finished," he said. "Would you like to see my sketch?"
"That was fast. It can't possibly be any good."
"That's for you to decide. Would you like to see it?"
Suzi thought about it a moment, then said, "Why not?"
The stranger pulled the picture back. "Why not, as you put it, is because you may not be able to handle my interpretation."
"You'd be surprised," Suzi said, "what a fat woman learns to handle."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
"Well quite honestly, I couldn't care less. Just make up your mind one way or the other."
"No, that will never do. I will show it to you," he said, "but it has to be your choice. If you aren't certain, then walk away, like you were planning. Nothing changes."
"That's a fairly melodramatic statement," Suzi said, pushing her chair out from the table. "I must say, you seem to have quite an opinion of yourself, don't you?" She didn't know where she was going to go, but as long as it was away from this lunatic, she didn't care. "You know, I only let you sit down--"
"But you'll have to leave your perfume behind. Don't worry, you'll forget all about it again in no time."
Suzi sat back down. "Show it to me," she said.
Around the outside of the sketch were the familiar trappings of the outdoor café in which they now sat. The table, the chair without arms, the other customers; they were all rendered flawlessly. But she wasn't in the picture at all, except as an empty outline filling the middle of the page where her features should have been. It was reminiscent of an open door into darkness, except that the darkness was not all that was contained inside.
Deep in the recesses of Suzi's void, there was a teenage boy walking away, looking back over his right shoulder. He carried a two dimensional outline figure of a fat woman under his right arm. On the bottom of the sketch was a title.
"Portrait of the Past as a Work in Progress."
Suzi ran her fingers over the portrait approvingly, tears forming in her eyes. When her fingers reached the middle of the page, Suzi started as her fingers no longer felt the resistance of the rough canvas. Suzi pushed gently and her hand slipped into the void, her arm vanishing into elsewhere.
She jerked her arm free from the sketch and stared at the stranger.
"It's a fair rendition, then?"
After a moment, Suzi asked, "How did you know?"
"How could I not? You know where I'm from. But you're the one who bought the perfume."
Suzi shook her head from side to side, weeping openly. "What do I do now?" She asked.
"How should I know? I'm just a street artist." He stood up and starting packing his supplies into his pack.
Suzi panicked. "No! Don't leave! I have so many questions to ask."
"None of which I can answer," the stranger said. With a nod of his head, he motioned toward the sketch. "Maybe you should ask him." And then the stranger left, off to his next scheduled appointment.
Suzi looked down at the sketch and took a deep, shuddering breath. Then, she pulled the sketch down over her head until she disappeared from sight, leaving a blank piece of paper on the ground beneath a seat with no arms, in the middle of an outdoor café, somewhere in the land of the pretty people.
Joseph Paul Haines has at one time been a police officer, a restaurant manager, a professional bodyguard and a title officer. Discovering he was no good at any of the above, he fell from grace into a life of fiction and hasn't even considered seeking redemption. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his beautiful wife Catherine, and Gryffyn, the notorious feline Schattenjaeger. His fiction is forthcoming in Scrybe Press and from Aeon Magazine. You can find him on the web at http://www.journalscape.com/jphaines
Previously published published in Kenoma E-zine. Re-printed by permission of the author.