Fat Lady to Marry Skeleton Man: Tickets 25 Cents
It's been thirty years since I saw Errol, but when he walks into the thrift store I know him immediately. He's grayer than before, but his smile and frame haven't changed. My boss Vicki, generally a kind and patient woman, stands behind the cash register and gapes. Errol weighs seventy pounds and is a man so thin he looks like he could fall through a sewer grate. That's why he was a skeleton man in the sideshow. The build seems natural on Errol once you've had lunch with him a few times and played a game or two of chess. He wears dress pants, a white shirt, and a tie, probably to cover the sparseness of his limbs, but it's still apparent how thin he is.
I'm graceful on my feet though rarely swift, but now I sweep to Errol and greet him with a hug so Vicki knows he's a friend.
“Cece,” he says. “I heard you were working here. Goodness but you've lost weight. I can almost see through you.”
“I went on a bit of a diet after the show closed,” I say. “Six hundred pounds was a nice performance weight, but you know it's not practical.”
“You're lovely as always,” he says, kissing the air beside my plump cheek.
The closed three years ago, and while I didn't think I'd be depressed about it, long hours alone in my apartment took two hundred pounds from my frame. It came off so fast I was almost scared. My size has stabilized at a neat three hundred and ninety-five pounds since I took the job at the thrift store. Old friends like Errol comment on the change. People at the supermarket comment as well, but under their breath.
Errol asks if he could take me out for lunch. I glance to Vicki who nods. She's trying not to stare at Errol, but shouldn't worry about being rude. Errol and I are accustomed to eyes. It's how we made our living for forty years.
Though my act billed me as Cece the Singing Sensation, I was a traditional fat woman bound in a politically-correct wrapper. Bastian the Sword-Swallower and Virgil the Fire-Eater and Sammy-Anne the tattooed snake charmer could be their fantastic selves and garner stares without shame, but these days it's taboo to ogle people with large bodies. We must do it discretely while standing in line at the bank, then whisper to our friends and spouses “Did you see the size of that woman?” My act gave people a reason to look at me that was not patently rude.
Errol and I stroll to the deli on the corner and stand in line as other patrons try not to peer at us. I don't know if we were blessed or cursed by genetics. We love our bodies, they earned us a living for many years, but others feel they are acceptable only in a sideshow. Yet where did they expect sideshow performers to go? We can't evaporate, though Errol might come close. He has to eat often, walks around with a few candy bars in his pocket since he has an odd condition that makes his muscles atrophy quickly. For some reason none of the calories stick.
We order large turkey sandwiches with extra mayonnaise and settle in a booth. Errol says he lives an hour away in a suburb of Detroit. I say I'm pleased he took the opportunity to find me, as I'm not sure how easy I am to track down. I don't travel much, just the block from my apartment to the thrift store every day, and even that leaves me wheezing. It's the price I pay for having a body this large for so long.
“I also had some business I wanted to discuss,” Errol says.
“What?” I say, pausing with my sandwich halfway to my mouth.
“I have no heirs,” he says, “no one to take ownership of my property after I'm gone. I never thought I'd reach sixty-five, but here I am, still my bachelor self.” He clears his throat. “I always wondered if we should have made good on that engagement.”
“It was for show,” I say.
“It didn't have to be,” he says.
“Oh my,” I say. I'm holding my sandwich so tightly I've left finger indentations in the bread. I set it down on my napkin and brush my hands together. “Oh my.” Not the most intelligent utterance, but at the moment I can't think of much else.
“I'm sorry,” he says, reaching across the table to touch my hand. “I didn't mean to upset you. I shouldn't have said anything.”
“But it's why you came to see me, isn't it?” I say.
“Well,” he says, “I also hoped we could chat. It's been a few years, and I've thought of you often.”
“Oh my,” I say again.
Errol shakes his head and picks up his sandwich. “Please forget that I mentioned the subject.”
“No,” I say. “If you wanted to say something, now is the right time. None of us know when we might... Well, I've already lost a few friends from the sideshow. That's how it goes.”
“You don't have to consider my proposal,” Errol says again, but his touch on my hand is so gentle, and his eyes are pleading. I've always loved his eyes. They're large and green and seem even bigger because of the thinness of his face.
Thirty years ago, Errol and I were engaged for six months as a publicity stunt. My show was based in Cleveland, and the sideshow owner suggested it would boost attendance. I was fast to agree as I've always been the shrewd sort. After I met Errol I quite liked him, and we passed time between shows in my dressing room.
Errol worked for a sideshow based in Chicago but was also a portrait artist and drew pictures of me, most of them partially clothed, but a few in the nude. There was an intimacy in posing for him, being captured on paper with graphite skin. Sometimes I wished he would've spent the night in my dressing room. I lived there since it was easier than going back and forth to an apartment. Errol said he was always cold, and as I was too warm it would have been pleasant to lie beside him on my divan.
We did the usual publicity photos, and he appeared onstage with me as my betrothed. I think I came close to loving him, but I don't know whether it was a real love or affection born out of our similar circumstances. It's difficult not to love someone who can understand you so perfectly that you don’t have to spend much time explaining yourself.
“Do you ever think about having a family?” I asked him once.
“No one would have me,” he said. “I’d worry about poking holes in a woman with my elbows.”
“I suffocate my lovers,” I said, “so I guess that makes us even.”
We were both like that, joked about our size, but what else could we do? Physically it was impossible for either of us to have an intimate physical relationship. To have sex. To have a child. But when Errol left for Chicago he kissed me lightly on the lips. I didn't feel like eating for the rest of the day, which surprised and scared me.
I was a career woman, often traveling, and I knew love was impractical aside from other performers in the circuit. I didn't want to marry a fire breather or a sword swallower, as too many people who ate blades and flames passed before their time, no matter how many precautions they took. A man's first miscalculation was often his last. My own profession was treacherous as I knew other fat performers died at sixty, smothered in their own skin.
I considered them martyrs for the cause of spectacle. Nobody questions people who have other dangerous jobs—firefighters who die in burning buildings, window washers who topple from skyscrapers—but they don't realize the price sideshow artists pay for their entertainment, or else they scoff at us for being foolhardy. And perhaps we are, but the world needs foolhardy as much as it needs people to save others from burning buildings.
Errol and I finish our sandwiches and chat about mutual friends, but I give him the sad news that Virgil the Fire-Eater is in an old folks' home in California with a bad case of emphysema, and Damocles the sword-swallower died last year of esophageal cancer.
“And your health, my dear?” he says.
“I have bouts of asthma and hay fever,” I say, “and of course the joints in my legs don't like walking more than a couple blocks a day, but given the circumstances it's hard to complain. How are you?” Because of his “business proposal,” I'm worried news of an imminent death has landed on his doorstep.
“Fair enough,” he says. “As long as I keep eating and the wind doesn't blow me away. I don't do well in Chicago anymore without a nice pair of steel-toed boots.” He smiles, but I'm not sure if he's joking.
We walk back to the thrift store together. Errol kisses my hand and says he will call on me tomorrow and we can get lunch if I'd like. I say that would be lovely. When I walk inside Vicki smiles and says there are new boxes of donations for me to arrange on racks. I enjoy the task, as I like seeing everything neatly coded by color and size. I enjoy the knowledge that these clothes will have a new life with some other person.
Often I lose myself in the rhythm of the work, but this afternoon it's hard to concentrate since I keep thinking of Errol's question. Though he seemed to withdraw the subject, I should give him an answer.
Errol and I spent half a year together when we were engaged. After fifteen years of performing in the show, I was used to eating alone and watching television alone and reading alone in the evening. I took some meals with other performers, but I relished my hours of quietude. I didn't think of myself as lonely until I felt a new hole after Errol had gone. I missed him for weeks, but grew accustomed to the company of my own thoughts again. I've been fine for thirty-five years.
That would change if Errol came to live with me. I'd enjoy his presence as much now as I did before. But now that we know our bodies are starting to fail, is that a wise idea? How many good years might we have together? Perhaps five or ten? When would one of us have to nurse the other? No matter how much you love someone, being responsible for their daily care is stressful, and that doesn't account for the grief when you lose them. I am a woman who weighs costs and benefits, know I must be rational in my decision, though love by its nature is the most irrational thing in the world.
That is what I ponder on my walk home. Perhaps Errol is perfectly healthy, but walking a block leaves my ankles and knees aching for a chair. My respiratory problems have also gotten worse during the past year, which makes me wonder about the number of days I have left.
I thought it would be best to have a short life of spectacle and live in stories repeated to children and grandchildren. My picture has appeared in a couple of magazine articles and books about sideshows. The physical sacrifices have been worth the fame, but I'm still not the marrying type. So why can't I tell that to Errol?
After dinner, Vicki's daughter Abby comes to help with my nightly sponge bath. She lives two blocks away and has a degree in nursing. I've needed assistance bathing for some years. Errol helped once or twice when we were performing together, but I blush to think of it now.
“Mom said an acquaintance of yours stopped by the store today,” Abby says as she draws warm water in a plastic basin and adds a little of my violet-scented oil. “She said he looked very interesting. He must have been a friend from way back.”
I've told Vicki and Abby a little about the sideshow days, but not about Errol.
“Yes, an old friend,” I say as Abby helps me into the bathtub. I sit on two plastic chairs while she sponges the parts I can't reach. “And a dear friend. I haven't seen him in years.”
“It must have been a great surprise,” she says.
“It was something,” I say.
When Errol comes by for lunch the next day, he takes me to a little cafe where we get coffee and sandwiches. He remembers how I love fine coffees. Errol says he's staying for a while with a cousin who lives in town. They're catching up on old times, stories of when they were kids.
“I started losing weight when I was twelve,” he says. “My parents thought I was going to die. I went to so many doctors before we got a diagnosis, and then they just told me to keep eating. Nothing else could be done. This body earned a nice nest egg for my savings account.”
“Do you like living near Detroit?” I say.
Errol cocks his head. “I like it, but I don't love it. I could move if I had a reason. Do you like it here?”
“Very much,” I say. “I enjoy my job, and Vicki is a sweet woman and a kind boss. Those are difficult to find.”
“I understand,” says Errol.
We say a lot during our conversations, but nothing that answers the real question. It's easier to dance around it, consider repercussions. I've never been a woman who made rash decisions, and Errol knows that. In the evening when I go home, I look at the recliner chair across from my couch and wonder how I would feel about him sitting there. Cheered by his presence? Worried at the spectacle of pushing him like a baby in a carriage when his body wore down? It's so hard to sort out emotions when they jumble in your head.
Errol is patient, takes me out to lunch every day for a week. When I ask how long he plans to stay in town, he says for a few more days.
“I don't have a departure date,” he says. “It's been a while since I've seen my cousin, and there's nothing pressing to do back home.”
He's waiting for an answer to the question I'm supposed to forget he asked.
I invite Errol to my apartment for dessert one evening, and buy a cake from the bakery after work. We look at pictures from the sideshow I have on my walls, including the drawings he did of me thirty years ago, and a few photos of us in our engagement clothes. I wore a red dress that made me look like a cherry. Errol's suit was too large even though it was tailored, so he appeared to be a well-dressed scarecrow. We laugh about how young we were, standing in front of that fake chapel beside a sign proclaiming we'd be married in a month. The engagement was “broken” shortly after that, when Errol returned to Chicago.
“Did you ever get engaged again?” he asks.
“There was never another man as thin or sweet as you,” I say. “The sideshow owner figured the gag had a good run and shouldn't be repeated. Were you engaged again?”
“For a few months,” he says, “to a nice young woman. She was a violinist and toured Europe. She wanted to take me with her so I could see the museums, but I broke it off.”
“Why?” I say. It sounds like an honest engagement, something I didn't expect from him.
“I liked Chicago,” he says. “Travel was nice, but since we were a stationary sideshow most of the year I got to stay in one place and eat a lot of pizza.” He smiles. “Without pizza I would've blown away. And I didn't know if I loved her. I was so happy that someone wanted to be with me that I got carried away and proposed before I thought about what I was doing. But I was young, and everyone gets to break a heart or two in their lifetimes.”
“I suppose,” I say, remembering those long nights in my dressing room after Errol returned to Chicago. I told myself that my heart was not broken, I was just readjusting. The engagement had been for profit, not for love, so of course it had to end.
My moping was cut short by the death of my father, a hearty man who loved chocolate and sausages and could've had a career in the sideshow if he'd been less shy. I went home for two weeks to comfort my mother and make her German chocolate cake. In our sweet mourning I gained ten pounds, which made the sideshow owner pleased when I returned. My mother wrote me letters every week after that until she died. She told me little bits about her mundane life, the birds she saw at the feeder, the ladies at the store who asked about me, and what she'd made for lunch. She always said she missed my father. They'd been together for forty years. Her sadness was deeper than anything I'd ever experienced. I promised myself that I would never marry. My social life was my friends in the sideshow, and I was happy with that.
Now I have the thrift store, Vicki and Abby and all our customers. For two years, that has been enough.
Errol sits across from me at my kitchen table, daubing cake crumbs from his plate.
“That was an excellent choice,” he says.
“It was,” I say. I'm caught in the conundrum that cake tastes better when it's shared with someone else. Errol fits perfectly in that kitchen chair, takes up just enough space in the room. Another large person couldn't inhabit my apartment, but Errol is sparse. I could fit him into my bed. I could warm him on cool nights. Either of us could go tomorrow, or in ten years. The body is hard to predict. Could he wrangle my girth on his own?
I take another bite of cake.
A week and a half after his arrival, Errol walks me back to the thrift store after lunch. We enter just as Vicki hangs up the phone. She says it was Abby, calling to say she'll be out of town for a few days. Her friend had a baby a month early and needs help, so she won't be able to bathe me for a week.
“I could help,” Errol says quietly when Vicki is out of earshot. “I did it a few times before. Would you trust me to assist you?”
I agree after a moment's pause. I get awfully warm during the day and like a nice bath at night. Errol has seen me naked before, when he bathed me and when he drew me. Certainly I'm more comfortable with him than with Vicki. She helped me once when Abby was out of town, but she was squeamish and I didn't feel like I got very clean. Errol has told me more than once that I'm lovely. I know that, but it's nice to hear him say.
Admittedly it's hard to eat dinner because my heart is fluttering. I bought another cake from the bakery to thank Errol for his time, so after the bath we can have a treat.
Errol arrives at my apartment wearing jeans and a t-shirt, so different than his usual dress pants and tie. The fragility of his limbs is more apparent, but I invite him in and walk him to the bathroom. I unbutton my blouse and Errol helps me untie the sarong skirt from around my hips. I keep my bra and panties on, and he holds my hand while I step into the bathtub and sit down on the chairs. He draws water in the plastic basin, adds a bit of my violet oil, and swirls the water around with his hand. The odor of violets makes me lightheaded. Sitting on the chairs in front of Errol wearing just my underthings, I am very slightly embarrassed of my body. I love my girth, my abundance, my softness, but now I feel myself blushing. Errol is calm, wrings out the washcloth and starts bathing my warm skin.
His touch is gentle, like Abby's, but there is something else as well. Her fingers are clinical and caring, those of a nurse. His are...different. They linger. They caress. Errol holds both my hands as I step out of the tub. We both towel me off. He takes my robe from the hook on the bathroom door, and guides my arms through the sleeves. We pad to the living room and sit on my couch. I am six times as large as this man who puts his arms around me and hugs so tightly I almost start crying.
Errol rests his fingers on the collar of my robe and pushes it back, off my shoulders. He undoes the clasp on the front of my bra, and slides the straps off my arms so my breasts are left bare, glistening and pale. All of me is smooth and plump, not a wrinkle to be found. Errol leans over me and kisses my my shoulders, my cheeks, my lips, then he moves to my arms, my stomach, my hips, my legs. Even though his mouth is wrinkled, his lips are so soft, so delicate, and I cry because in some places his kisses feel so good my skin hurts.
“Oh dear,” he says. “Are you going to weep every time I bathe you?”
“If the routine is the same,” I say, “I won't be able to help it.”
“Would you rather I not do this?” he says.
I shake my head no, but my tears have answered the question, the one I'm not supposed to remember. My body can only bear so much more strain, be it physical or mental. I have never fancied myself a Juliet, too practical to slide into matters of love until Errol came along, but now I can imagine myself back in the descent I felt years ago after he left. Am I cruel to want to linger in loneliness, padding to and from the thrift shop and comforting myself with customer chatter and cake? If he stayed with me, if we grew accustomed to these baths and then something happened to his sweet and fragile self, how could I continue?
I cannot tell Errol my response for a few more days, not until Abby returns to wash me again, but I will savor the week with him before he returns to Michigan. Maybe I'll buy a cake to share with Abby after he leaves. She says she shouldn't eat sweets, but rarely refuses. After another month I'll be used to the satisfaction of my own company again.
|© Teresa Milbrodt, 2014