people saw the freak, stopped for a moment to gawk, and then continued
on their way. Of course, most people are stupid and have no sense
for art. But I understood the significance of the freak's ears and,
like any sensitive soul, reacted viscerally. At the sight of them,
I nearly spewed my breakfast. His ears were on backwards. Just try
to imagine-the lobes where the tips should be and the actual organs
turned upside-down like the appendages on some bratty kid's Mr.
He stood by the escalator, near all
the other bloodsuckers: the priests asking for donations, the Hare
Krishnas trying to convert, and the bums who hadn't been kicked
out by the cops yet. He carried a basket that people threw money
into. The basket had some sign on it saying how the money benefited
the hearing impaired. Every time he received an offering, he grunted
hoarsely in appreciation. At first, I wondered if he were deaf.
But even then I guessed that the charity was a scam. Most charities
are. Still, I couldn't pull my eyes off him.
"Is it genetic?" I asked him as I
reached for my wallet. I rarely give to bums, but you don't see
a man like that everyday. The ears themselves were perfectly formed,
if somewhat small and pinkish, and I had an urge to fix the freak,
to pluck off his ears and set them back on straight.
"Yeah," he answered. He wasn't deaf
I'd recently broken up with Jeannette,
a beautiful artist with the most perfect breasts. And just because
I constantly fondled them, she accused me of being sex crazed. She
swore that I couldn't love a woman for anything other than her body.
Well what could I say? I never was a good liar.
As I rode the escalator towards the
metal detectors and away from the rabble, I pictured the man with
his ears on backwards, the freak. I thought about Jeannette. She
liked to paint people with deformities-men whose legs were different
lengths, people who had had limbs amputated. She once placed an
ad in the newspaper: Hermaphrodite wanted for lucrative work. The
one person who answered turned out to be only a transvestite. This
freak could be her masterpiece. When I reached the top, I turned
right around and jumped on the down escalator.
"Want to have a drink with me?" I
asked the freak.
He glanced at his watch. "I really
shouldn't. These are the busiest hours."
"I'll make it worth your while," I
said as I flashed a hundred dollar bill. He eyed me with suspicion.
"Hey, I said I just want company.
My girlfriend dumped me. She said I'm not a good person. I'm trying
to turn over a new leaf. Look, would you do me the favor?"
He nodded, and we walked to a bar
inside the airport. As I followed behind him I noticed his pants,
so threadbare that I could make out the dark polka dot print on
the boxers underneath. To top it off, his trousers were riding up
his ass. Revolting. Everywhere he went people looked at him funny-the
way you stare and stare at someone who you know has done something
different to himself, but you can't say exactly what it is. Like
when you ask if someone got a haircut then learn he's spent five
thousand dollars on a nose job. That happened with another girlfriend
"So what's it like going through your
life with your ears on backwards?"
"Not bad." He scratched at the stubble
on his face then paused at some bump to the right of his chin and
picked at it with his nail. He was about my age, and I didn't see
a wedding ring on his finger.
"Would you like to make some money?
Nothing perverted, just have your portrait painted. My girlfriend,
she's an artist."
"I thought you said your girlfriend
broke up with you." He sneered, the son-of-a-bitch. I could tell
he didn't like the way I looked. One of those self-righteous bums.
"That's just it. She did. But I really
want to get her back. And I know she'd be ecstatic if I brought
you to sit for her. I'll pay you a thousand dollars."
"I don't know," he said as he swished
a spoon in his coffee. He'd dumped about a pound of sugar in it.
I knew he expected me to raise the price, but I wasn't going to
let some homeless person take advantage of me.
"So if I do this, your girlfriend
will get back together with you?" he asked.
"Yeah, that's the idea," I answered
impatiently. I'd already finished my gin and tonic, and it was getting
"Is she a nice woman?"
"Nice, very nice."
He got up to leave. "No, sorry."
In the first class lounge, pissed
as hell, I consoled myself with the thought that after I gave my
pitch to the big guys in Rome, I'd spend a week at a topless beach
in the south of France. I'd be sure to find a girl there who could
keep my mind off Jeanette.
I had finally calmed myself down when
I saw the freak again. Somehow he'd snuck into the lounge.
"You're not supposed to be in here,"
"How would you know?"
"I'm getting security."
As I walked away he called to me,
"Go ahead. I'm sure Jean Michele would be happy to explain why I'm
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Jean Michele R...R..." he struggled
with the French "r." God, he made a horrible sound. "Jean Michele
something. You know..." He rolled his eyes. "He's a famous French
director. He just hired me for a part in his new movie." He grinned
so proudly that I wanted to knock him down.
"A movie about what-freaks?" I asked.
"Exactly. He's already found a man
with Elephantitus of the hand, another with two mouths teeth and
all, and a three-foot tall woman with a beard. It's a documentary
on our lives."
He snickered, and I caught sight of
his ears wiggling. It was enough to make me sick. "Really, and where
is this famous director? Writing up your contract?"
"In the john. He's wants to talk to
me before he catches his flight."
A minute later, a security guard spotted
the freak and escorted him out of the lounge. Up until the last
moment, the freak kept swearing that the cop would regret this as
soon as Jean Michele got out of the men's room.
I surveyed the lounge. Jesus, I thought
to myself as a short Euro-trash type in sunglasses and a baseball
cap stepped out of the john. The guy scanned the room, shook his
head, and then took out his cell phone. I strained to hear him,
but I couldn't. I think he spoke French. I got up and moved slowly
towards him on my way, ostensibly, to the men's room. Just as I
approached, he tucked his phone into his jacket. He caught me staring
at him, and I rushed into the bathroom.
Sitting on the crapper, I pondered.
I should have been out there in the lounge briefing myself on my
pitch for tomorrow. At the time, I was selling machines that destroy
documents, mostly powerful shredders, but there were other products,
products that left absolutely no incriminating evidence. I was good
at it, Head of Sales in fact.
But instead of preparing for the meeting,
I thought about that crazy freak. And then I thought about Jeannette.
I wanted her back. I needed her. Maybe I was in love. I stopped
imagining the tanned, well-stacked French women with their hairy
armpits. I could think only about Jeannette. I envisioned her masterpiece
of the freak's face painted in bold strokes and bright colors. I
knew the perfect title: Genetic Defect. It would be famous world
wide, a new Mona Lisa. And I'd be Jeannette's agent and adviser.
We'd be rich and in love. And she'd owe it all to me.
Maybe it was that time in my life.
I was over thirty with no real dream. I mean, the document disposal
business, although stable, did not fulfill me emotionally or financially.
Something bigger awaited me. I could feel it. Just a week before,
while sitting in the dentist's office, I'd read an article in GQ,
"Forty and Satisfied?" In it, they interviewed this attorney who
had left his corporate stint to build wood chairs in Vermont. He
looked so goddamn happy in the photo. No wonder-each chair sells
for over a thousand dollars. Another guy, a former tax accountant
from Santa Clara, crafts clay pots in the style of some extinct
Indian tribe. He's raking in the dough too.
I went to Rome, but I couldn't concentrate
on my work. I kept thinking about the freak standing at LAX, waiting
for me. Now he would agree to sit for the portrait. I was sure he'd
had a change of heart, really sure of it. With the freak on my mind,
I paced the worn cobblestone alley behind my hotel. I decided to
leave Rome right away, cancel the meeting, skip Saint Tropez. It
was a beautiful moment. My whole perfect future stretched out before
me. I grabbed the dirty gypsy kid trying to pick my pocket and twirled
When I returned to LAX, I ran, luggage
and all, directly to the escalators. I saw the Hare Krishna, the
priest, the missionaries, but he wasn't there. I waited an hour
sitting on a soft, black couch, watching people pass by the priest
who was seeking donations for Mexican kids. I noticed on the front
of the priest's collection bucket the photo of a boy with only one
arm. I thought about Jeannette again, my plan, the perfection. The
priest caught me looking. I have a way of staring for inappropriate
lengths of time.
"A horrifying picture, isn't it?"
the priest said as he sat down next to me. He seemed tired.
"Sure," I answered. "Are there many
children like that in Mexico?"
"Well, I imagine, but I do my work
in El Salvador. And, unfortunately, I can assure you that there
are plenty of kids there with even worse problems."
"I meant deformed. What kind of deformities
have you seen?"
He studied me with his two dull, tired eyes, trying to guess my
motives, but like I said, he was worn out. "I've seen everything:
children born with webbed feet and hands and with heads as big as
bowling balls. Some at age ten are no bigger than small dogs, except
for their enormous eyes and mouths, and they can do nothing but
cry." The priest, an old man maybe in his sixties, didn't look so
There wasn't much left to say. "I'd better be getting back," he
concluded after a few moments. When he got up, I could hear his
We could travel to El Salvador, and
Jeannette could paint pictures of the retarded kids. We'd tell the
buyers that a percentage of the proceeds went to help the poor.
Nobody checks these things out. It's all paper work. I know rich
people, and rich people would go crazy for the art. The wealthy,
they collect. Especially momentos of poverty. They collect them
just for the hell of saying they know the poor. The wealthy like
to know everything.
I sat waiting on that damn black couch
for three hours. The freak might have taken a day off, I said to
myself, and I went home to my empty apartment and drank some cognac
and fell asleep. I dreamt I was making love to Jeannette.
The next day, bright and early, I
returned to the airport, but he wasn't there. I saw the priest though,
and the Hare Krishna. The police had wiped the place clean of bums.
I approached the priest.
"Father," I'd been raised Catholic,
"there's this guy who sometimes hangs out here. He's got these ears."
"You mean Bob with the genetic defect."
"Yeah, Genetic Defect."
Father rested his hands on his bony
hip. "I haven't seen Bob for a few days."
"And you're here everyday?"
"Not everyday. Some days I work with
needy children in juvenile hall."
"Jesus, the bishop really gave you
the depressing jobs."
He moved closer. "The bishop doesn't
like me. Last parish I had was in Death Valley."
"What have you done?" I was thinking
he messed around with little boys.
"I speak to the poor about the injustices
The conversation was going off track,
but I had to keep this guy on my side. He was my one connection
to the freak, and to more, to possibly innumerable portrait subjects
in El Salvador.
"So how often do you work with kids
in El Salvador?"
"Depends. I went a year ago, and as
soon as I raise enough money I'll go back down myself and distribute
clothes and food and medicine to them. I work with a school down
there." He scrutinized me, checked out my silk suit. "Are you interested
in helping out?"
"I am. I'd be interested in going
"You would? It's an amazing experience.
A true purification of the soul. You would need money to travel
there, of course," he said as he inched ever closer.
"Do you have any pictures to show
me? Of the children from there? The retarded ones?"
Now he shifted his eyes around, confused,
and it struck me then that this guy hadn't heard me right. He was
thinking that I wanted to go down there and help children. He had
no idea. "I'd love to see pictures of the kids." He moved away.
He probably thought I was the perverted one. "I'm interested
in helping children," I said, but it was too late.
"You're looking for Bob?" the priest
asked flatly as he planted himself at the edge of the escalator
"Yeah. I'm a friend. I'm trying to
help him out. Would you give him my card when you see him?"
He took it reluctantly. He saw through
me-just as Jeannette had when I tried to convince her that I really
loved her. But everything was different now. Now I really did love
her. I was sure that if I said the same words again she'd understand
through just the sound of my voice that I was speaking the truth.
I left the airport with high hopes.
I figured that Bob was, at that very moment, filming his bit part
for Jean Michele. But I know the film industry types. They'd spit
that freak out the second he stopped being useful. Then the freak
would be back to begging in the airport. I just had to wait it out.
I called Jeannette. She refused to
talk to me. I called again.
"Why should I speak to you?" she asked.
"You never listen."
"I'm listening now," I said.
"You're such a bastard. You should
be excommunicated from, from the whole world."
"What did I do?" I asked.
"You didn't do anything. You do nothing.
You play no meaningful, human part in this life. I dated you during
one of my weak moments, when I convince myself that money actually
matters. I dated you for your money. See, you couldn't possibly
be in love with someone so selfish and shallow."
"I am. I love you." I don't know if
she heard me. She'd hung up the phone by then. But it was all right.
She wanted more than words. Women are like that. They need flowers
or jewelry or, in this case, men with deformed ears.
It took longer than I anticipated
for the freak to film his movie. All the while I thought about nothing
but my future, the masterpiece. I couldn't concentrate at work,
and I let three big accounts slip by. My boss kicked me down a few
rungs of the corporate ladder. I fell from the Head of Sales to
Sales Associate. No more traveling to Rome. But it felt good, like
throwing away a stack of old porno magazines. Cleaning house. Every
other day before work, I visited the airport.
After a few weeks, Father left for
El Salvador, got lucky one day when some overweight white businessman
felt pangs of guilt and blew a thousand bucks. That's what I call
a moment of weakness. Maybe he was having a heart attack. He looked
pale and out-of-breath. As he dropped the wad of cash into the priest's
bucket, he asked the father to pray for him. Father answered with
an enthusiastic, "Yes my son." But when I asked Father, just before
he left, to send me some pictures, hell at least a postcard, he
only said he'd try. What hypocrisy.
At the airport, I began observing
any freak I could. I saw all the usuals: midgets, stumps. One legless
guy propelled his torso along on a skateboard. In awe, I watched
a guy pull his fake nose off and expose scabby skin marked with
two holes. But these freaks were gaudy and overplayed their part.
My freak Bob had a subtle abnormality, unique, even beautiful in
its perversity. He inspired masterpieces.
I began to paint. I became so caught
up in my art, I forgot Jeannette. She was right. I didn't love her.
From the moment I first set eyes on the freak, it had been about
me, not her. I would paint the picture that made a million, that
spoke to people. "Genetic Defect." Admirers would stand in a museum
and gaze on it for hours. Bullet-proof glass would protect it.
In preparation for my masterpiece,
I sketched faces at the airport. I chose the most hideous ones,
like pimply teenagers or old, fat women with folds of pasty flesh
hanging down their turkey necks. Mongoloid kids. I bought myself
a fancy pad of paper. The guards left me alone after I told them
I was an art student.
So I waited, and after three months
the freak came back. This time he approached me as I drew a humpback
with a horrendous overbite. I think he observed me for a while.
I could feel the weight of someone's stare. When I finally glanced
up and saw those ears, I leapt out of my chair. He looked the same,
maybe a little thinner. To be honest, I'd forgotten his face, his
hair, everything other than his ears. I grabbed his arm. I couldn't
let him get away. When he began to push against me and elbow me
in the stomach, I released him then stood blocking his way. I didn't
bother to ask him about the film. I had more important things to
"Bob? Don't you remember me?" I asked.
"Who the hell are you?"
"I'm the guy who offered you a thousand
dollars to sit for a portrait."
He scratched his head then pulled
on his ears. The movement mesmerized me.
"You? You're just a bum."
My appearance must have thrown him
off. It was a Saturday. I hadn't shaved. I wore a pair of faded
old trousers and a T-shirt splotched with paint.
"No. It's me. I looked a little different
when you first met me. I was wearing a suit. We talked. You had
a cup of coffee. I asked you to sit for my girlfriend. I wanted
to win her back."
"Oh, yeah. Maybe it was you. What
happened with your girl?" he asked.
"We never got back together. It was
probably for the best. I never loved her. It was all about me-always
"Hmppph," he said. He bent over to
get a better look at my work. "Jesus Christ. What the hell is it?"
I was getting antsy. No time for chitchat.
I ached to draw.
"Look, would you sit for me? Please?"
"How much will you pay me?"
"A hundred dollars."
"Wasn't it a thousand last time?"
"I don't have that much money to give
you any more."
He shrugged his shoulders. "I've got
nothing else to do. It'll attract attention."
And that's what we did for the next
two hours. But Bob grew bored with sitting still and moved, with
his basket, to the escalator. He stood in the priest's old spot.
A few days later, Bob left once again,
said he wanted to travel the world. I begged him to stay, just until
I finished the portrait. I told him that when I sold it, I'd give
him a ten percent cut. He'd be a millionaire. He laughed and handed
me a bent photograph of himself standing in front of a monstrously
tall redwood tree. He looked like an elf in a magic forest.
They threatened to fire me last week
for coming into work late four days in a row, so I quit. I spend
all my time at home now, painting. I'm not sure when I'll finish.
Because I'm creating a masterpiece, I don't rush myself. It took
Michelangelo five years to paint the Sistine Chapel.
I see everything in my picture. I
try not to limit myself to one theme or subject. I guess at heart
it's me, a self-portrait. You can still find Bob's ears of course.
They did begin it, but they no longer attract the viewer's immediate
attention. They're somewhere to the side, in the corner, near an
explosion of red paint, which represents my inner turmoil. It's
all very complicated, and that's why as I paint, I'm writing my
memoirs. Without the story of my past, my admirers might not understand
the significance of my masterpiece.