Before unlocking, the jailer asked if I had any weapons.
“A plastic spoon,” I said.
“Nothing else?” he asked.
I held up my fists but they’d turned to marshmallows with hot dogs for fingers.
“That’s it?” he asked.
“I’ve never been good at defending,” I said. “I think it’s why I’m here. Again.”
“Okay,” he said. “But if things get too rough, just holler. I’ll pull you out.”
With my hot dog hands, I went for my wallet.
“Nah,” he said. “No need for that.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“No problem,” he said. “You seem okay.”
He unlocked the cell door. I stepped in. In the half-light of the sun filtered through polyester blends, all 400-plus pounds of her was sitting on the bed.
Seeing me, she smiled. The door shut. The lock turned. She’d been waiting a long time.
Her dress was one I hadn’t seen before. She looked like pale pancake batter poured into it. There’s this thing called The Uncanny Valley. I think it can apply to un-sexiness masquerading as sexiness as much as animation masquerading as real people. Something like the Uncanny Valley of Un-sexiness – the unappetizing trying to be sexy, crossing the threshold into disgust.
She knew I knew her dress was new.
She offered me a seat on the toilet, the only place for a guest to sit since she enveloped the bed.
I sat, asking, “What’s new?”
Again, she knew that I knew the dress was new.
“Very little,” she said. “You already know how things don’t change for me.”
I wondered if I was supposed to feel sorry. I decided not to.
We sat in silence for a very long time. Her cell smelled like her and nothing else. I imaged she never opened the windows. I imagined the concrete and iron smelling of her breath and the oil from her pores.
Finally, she confronted me.
“You know this dress is new.”
There was never an easy out. I looked at my fists, still marshmallowed and hot dogged.
How should I lie? That was always the question. Because to tell any truth was always far worse.
“Is it?” I asked. “It’s dark in here, with all your other dresses hung over the windows.”
“You know it’s new,” she said. “You’ve never seen one this shiny before.”
It reminded me of the skin and scales of a rainbow trout spun around her like glittery bubble wrap.
“Okay,” I said. “Maybe I’d have noticed if it was a little brighter in here.”
“I like it dim,” she said. “It’s softer on my eyes.”
“But what about the dress? It’s just okay?”
“It’s a nice dress,” I said. “It’s nice and shiny.”
Everything with her was slow. So goddamned slow. Like a 45 record played at 33 1⁄3 RPM.
“Goddamn you. What about me?” she asked. “How do I look in it? Do I look fat in this dress?”
Of course she looked fat. She weighed over four hundred pounds. Nothing in the fucking world was going to change that.
“You look like yourself in a shiny dress,” I said.
“You’re avoiding the question,” she said.
I didn’t know how to answer.
You like fine? You look good? You look normal? You look abnormal trying to look normal? You look skinny? Robust? My marshmallow hands felt heavier.
I sat on the toilet with time dripping like a clogged sink.
“How do you think you look in your new dress?” I asked.
“You already know what I think.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then tell me.”
“Tell you what you think or what I think?”
“Today will go much easier if they’re the same, won’t it?”
More time passed. I began to lose track as I sat on the toilet in her prison cell, staring silently at her in that shiny, new dress.
“So?” she asked again.
Finally I said, “You look nice.”
Satisfied, she asked, “What about my toes?”
She held up her freshly painted and peticured toes.
I took a deep breath.
“I need a minute,” I said.
In reality, I needed a lot.
Again, I sat there, smelling her and silently cursing the concept of time as I stared stupidly at her toes.
“They’re toes,” I wheezed. “They’re just toes. But nicely sculpted and painted, I guess. I’m no expert on toes.”
“But they’re mine!!!!!” she screamed. “They’re my fucking toes!!!!”
“Yes,” I said. “And that makes all the difference.”
“So they’re marvelous,” I conceded.
I could see the jailer peeking through the tiny window in the door. The screaming had alarmed him.
I gave him the thumbs up.
“Why didn’t you say anything about my toes?” she asked. “You had to notice how nice and fresh they are. And I did it all for you.”
“All for me?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “All for you.”
I knew she only did it for the attention she wanted them to draw out of me.
Again, I wanted to say, “Okay.”
But I knew it would be much easier to say, “Thank you.”
Then she turned away as if she’d just smelled something rancid.
I waited a long time, slumped over on that jail cell toilet before asking, “What?”
“Nothing else? Nothing else you’ve failed to notice?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What about it?”
“Tell me,” she insisted.
I breathed and slouched and cursed the concept of time some more. My fists began to tingle, as if turning more solid.
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It was hard to tell from the shadows crawling across the cell since most of the sunlight was filtering through her clothes.
“Tell me,” she said again.
I stated, “You’ve lost weight,” knowing a statement would be far better than a question.
“Guess how much.”
“Please, tell me,” I implored.
“Guess,” she insisted.
I sat there biding more time, knowing the difference between 1, 2, 5, 10 or 20 pounds to a 400 hundred pound person was negligible. I knew that it should be negligible. I knew that it was. I also knew that it couldn’t be.
My hand were growing weightier. The fists felt more like iron and the hot dogs more like blades.
“There’s hardly any winning,” I said, wanting to kill. “So please tell me. I concede defeat. Just say it, please.”
“Two and a half pounds,” she said.
“Fantastic,” I lied.
I stood up. I opened the toilet lid. I got on my knees.
“What’s wrong? You going to be sick again? Why do you always come here and get sick?”
I vomited. I wiped my mouth. I flushed.
“Is there any medicine?” I asked.
“No. You need to bring your own. I spent everything on this beautiful dress and these lovely toes I got done just for you.”
I got up. I banged on the door. The jailkeeper opened. He could smell the vomit.
“You’re leaving?” she whined.
“I’m sick,” I said. “Besides, it feels like I’ve been here a long time.”
I looked at the jailer.
“Nearly six hours,” he said.
“That’s a lot of time,” I told her.
“When will you be come back?” she pleaded. “You never come to visit.”
“He’ll let you out anytime,” I said, referring to the jailer.
The jailkeeper affirmed it.
“You know I can’t leave,” she cried.
“Cause she’s too fucking fat,” the jailer said.
“Oh, curse you,” she said. “I look fantastic in this dress. I look fantastic, damn you. Don’t I?”
I stood there solemnly. Silently.
“You already said I do,” she said to me.
“He already said I look fantastic in this dress,” she told the jailer.
“He’ll let you out anytime,” I said again. “It’s your choice.”
“He’s a pig,” she said. “I hate him.”
“You love your hatred of me. Me and your hate of me are the necessary conditions for the little love you have,” the jailer said.
“He’s a scoundrel. A beast,” she said to me. “Doesn’t care about my dress or toes. Nothing.”
He told her, “You pay me to be your keeper, not your priest. Not your confessor or your vanity project.”
“It’s not his job to care,” I reminded her. “That’s mine.”
“Your job?” she screamed. “I thought you come because you love me, not because it’s your job.”
The jailer said, “C’mon. Time’s up. Time to go.”
I stepped out.
“Thank you,” I told him. “More than you can know.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m here standing guard all the time.”
“I’ll come back when I can,” I told her through the doorway.
“But when? When?” she cackled.
The jailer shut and locked the steel door.
“You’re better than me,” he said.
“But to her I’m as much a scoundrel as you.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Sorry about that.”
I looked down at my hands. They were still marshmallows and hot dogs.
“Sometimes I wish I could murder,” I said. “Sometimes I wish I could slaughter.”
“It’s not inside everybody,” he said.
“I wish it was.”
“If it is was in you, I’d have to stop it,” he said. “I got a job to do. And it’s all I got.”
I loathed her, and only he knew it. Only he understood it.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “There’s enough murder – enough carnage – going on in there without you. I know because I’m always out here standing guard. I hear the screams when you’re away.”
“Really? What does she scream about?”
“She screams for you,” the jailer said. “Screams for you day and night.”
“That must drive you and all the other inmates crazy. All her screaming.”
“Other inmates? Ain’t no other inmates,” he said. “Ain’t room for anybody else in this prison. But I’ve gotten used to it – the solitude and all her wailing.”
“And me coming here. It’s the only thing that stops her screaming?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“I think I’m living in hell.”
“Nah,” he said. “Least you got other places to be.”
I took that as my cue to leave.
“See you next time,” he said.
I started to walk away. I paused to ask him if he liked his job.
He said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do. I think I was born for it. Tending to the Weak. Though it goes by other titles too.”
“Never you mind,” he said. “You’re strong enough to walk away. I’d advise you just keep walking. Not cause I don’t like you. Cause you don’t belong.”
I took his advice and went back to walking down the hall. Then I heard the wailing. But it got fainter and fainter the further I walked away.