The Fat Artist and Other Stories

Benjamin Hale

The Fat Artist and Other Stories

For my brothers, James and John

And in memory of Ryan Gosa

Don't Worry Baby

When they became outlaws they gave themselves new names. He chose Miles Braintree: the first part after Miles Davis, the second after Braintree, the T’s southernmost stop on the Red Line. She chose Odelia Zion: Zion for the Promised Land, and the baby name book said Odelia means “praise God,” but mostly she just liked the sound of it. Hamlet’s Ophelia but not quite. Lives of the Saints tells of the murdered virgin Odilia, patron saint of the blind. Can be shortened to Delia, Ode, O. A martyr, a lyric, a letter.

• • •

Miles had had his disagreements with SDS, split the organization before it crumbled, and formed the Obscure Reference Collective with a handful of other radicals disgruntled with the direction the movement was taking. The bloodhounds were sniffing from day one, ORC’s plot to firebomb the New York Stock Exchange was botched by inside treachery, and the remaining true believers went into hiding. Odelia followed Miles to Paris, where they stayed for a few months, and then to Tangier. Money wasn’t a problem. Miles had money.

• • •

In Tangier they spent two years sitting on woven mats in cafés, eating roasted dates and drinking coffee as thick as motor oil, smoking kief from hookah hoses, sometimes holing up in their second-story two-room flat for two, three, four days at a stretch without putting on clothes, drinking wine, smoking, tripping, making love, friends sometimes dropping by to join in, the daily rising and setting of the sun as inconsequential and amusing and unreal as a TV show.

They burned incense and lit candles at night, and the days were bright blue, blinding bright, their flat acrid with the smoke of goat meat crackling below their unglassed windows. Bare-footed brown legs pattered in dirt streets and in blue alleyways resonant with voices squabbling in Arabic and French. The streets were a jumble of North African and Western clothes: It wasn’t uncommon to see a man wearing a keffiyeh and a double-breasted pinstripe suit. The call to prayer echoed across the city at dawn. That’s why they’d come here, in part; to do the William Burroughs thing, do the Paul Bowles thing. The sunlight was sharp and harsh and made every shadow look as if it were painted on with ink. They took hashish and heroin and acid and opium and other, more exotic drugs, the names of which Miles told Odelia and Odelia forgot. Miles learned to fish for octopus: You dive down in the shallows, stick your arm under a rock, and let the octopus wrap itself around your fist, then you swim to the surface and beat it against a rock till it lets go, which also tenderizes the meat; then hang the octopus to dry on a clothesline. Dead tentacles dangling from strings. For a while they had a pet monkey, but it got sick and died. Miles and Odelia were married in a ceremony conducted in a language neither of them understood, officiated by a poet from Rhode Island in a turban with half his face painted red. Odelia gave birth to a boy they named Abraxas, after a Gnostic deity mentioned in a Hermann Hesse novel, who simultaneously embodies all eternal cosmic dualisms: life and death, male and female, good and evil. But soon they began to itch with paranoia. Strangers were following Odelia in the streets. A tall man in a gray suit and a gray hat showed up everywhere she went. Letters from friends in the States arrived with pages missing, the seals of the envelopes broken and taped back together. Miles thought he could hear the ghostly-faint feedback signal of a wiretap whenever he picked up the phone, so one night he ripped it out of the wall and threw it in the fire. It melted and stank, and then they had no phone.

• • •

Miles contacted a guy he knew in Lisbon who hooked them up with some artfully forged Canadian passports, and that August, Miles, Odelia, and their girlfriend, Tessa Doyle, sold or abandoned everything they owned except for what fit in suitcases, and they traveled, the three of them and the baby, under blandly fake names they had trained themselves to answer to, by boat from Tangier to Algeciras and by train from Algeciras to Madrid to Paris, where they would board Pan American World Airways Flight 503, with a brief layover in Miami, to Mexico City, where a contingent of former ORC were hiding and could offer asylum.

It worried the hell out of Odelia to set foot on American soil, even for a forty-five minute layover.

Miles said: “Relax, O, we’re gonna be in International. We won’t even leave the tarmac. Trust me. It’ll just be flip flip flip, stamp stamp stamp, enjoy your flight.”

• • •

They conscientiously dressed down for travel. No hippie freak shit, no saris, no serapes, no leather knee-high boots with frilled tops. Just normal drab white people in vacation clothes, nothing to see here, folks.

Miles wore cowboy boots and a yellow-and-blue Hawaiian shirt with parrots on it tucked into his tight stonewashed jeans. He’d shaved the Zappa mustache he used to have, the one he wore in the old mug shot that was on all the wanted posters, and sported a pair of yellow-tinted shooting glasses that turned his eyes as pink as a white rabbit’s. Sheer vanity kept him from shaving his furry sideburns or cutting the blond hair that hung down to his jaw. Odelia pinned her hair up and wore no makeup, minimal jewelry, and a frumpy blue dress with white polka dots that buttoned down the middle so she could breastfeed Abraxas. Tessa had her long brown hair down and wore jeans and a blouse, but had a decorative bindi stuck like a little red-and-gold teardrop on her Ajna chakra, right over her third eye. Tessa Doyle was nineteen years old. Her parents probably assumed she was still in Cuba cutting sugarcane with the comrades, and had no idea she’d been sharing a bed with Miles and Odelia in North Africa for eight months.

Odelia said: “Please take off the bindi. It makes you look like Linda Kasabian. People will think we’re a cult.”

“Don’t freak out about it,” said Miles. “She’s cool. She won’t get us in trouble.”

Tessa kept it on. Miles rubbed Odelia’s knee and thigh with his hand. The hand felt firm and heavy on her leg. His hands were wide and strong. He gave each a kiss, first one and then the other. He took away his hand.

The plane began to accelerate up the tarmac and Odelia’s stomach tightened. Odelia sat in the window seat with four-month-old Abraxas asleep in her lap, Tessa sat in the aisle, and Miles sat between them. An eight-hour flight from Paris to Miami, and then the layover, and then another five to Mexico City, to Tenochtitlán, where the Aztecs cut out hearts and burned them still-beating on the altar, and rolled the bodies down the steps of the pyramid, and the smoke of burnt blood swirled in the blazing New World sun. Peyote, mystery rituals. Blood running down pyramid steps. An eagle perched on a cactus with a rattlesnake thrashing in its mouth. Worship of birds, worship of snakes, worship of the sun, worship of water, worship of human blood, and worship of death. Mexico City.

The plane tipped its beak skyward, Odelia felt the wheels push off the screaming runway, and now there was nothing beneath them. Fluid sloshed around in her gut as gravity’s familiar tug was suddenly waving up and down, and they were climbing, traveling along axes both vertical and horizontal, midmorning Paris rapidly expanding in scale below them, the twelve grand avenues spidering outward from the Arc de Triomphe, the tiled rooftops, the sidewalk cafés where Odelia imagined people were smoking cigarettes and eating dainty little desserts and discussing philosophy, second by second growing smaller and smaller and less real.

As the plane climbed steeper and higher Abraxas woke up and started crying. The pressure throbbing in his head. Odelia held him to her chest and rocked him as he struggled. His pink monkey face was contorted in a grimace. She kissed the top of his head.

“Shh—. Shhh—.”

How confused, how exhausted he must be. They had already been traveling by boat and bus and train for days and were ragged and dirty and tired before they even got on the plane. Sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep, she thought-projected to the baby.

“Nnn nik ik eeaaah,” said Abraxas.

“Hey, kiddo,” said Miles. “Be cool.”

Abraxas quit crying and flopped his head into the nook of Odelia’s body where her neck met her shoulder. His tiny hand fingered the edge of her dress.

“It hurts him,” Odelia said to Miles, whispering. “The pressure.”

“Poor baby,” said Tessa, talking across Miles’s lap. “He doesn’t know how to pop his ears.”

“God, I hope he’s not gonna cry the whole flight,” said Odelia.

“No shit,” said Miles. “Eight hours, Jesus. He’ll be all right. Won’t you?”

Miles reached over and tugged on a plump pink foot, which almost set Abraxas crying again. He uttered a couple of starting-up noises—“uk! uk!”—that could have been the prelude to a shrieking fit. Odelia saved it by kissing the top of his head and blowing on him with her lips brushing his skin. A trick she’d discovered by accident. She didn’t know why it worked, but it usually did. She would kiss the top of his head and blow on his skin and say, intoning it again and again like an incantation:

“I will keep you from harm. I will ...

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