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My Freak Bob
by Anne-Marie Pedersen

Most 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. Potato head.
     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 after all.     
     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 of mine.
     "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 late.
     "Is she a nice woman?"
     "Your girlfriend?"
     "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," I said.
     "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 in here."
     "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 him around.
     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 hot himself.
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 bones crack.
     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 of capitalism."
     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 down there."
     "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 once again.
     "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 discuss.
     "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 was."
     "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.

Anne-Marie Pedersen parades as a 26 year-old George Mason University MFA graduate from Long Beach, California. At night she floats through the biosphere in search of fresh blood. She is currently consuming the inhabitants of Amman, Jordan.

Publications: Fiction forthcoming in Crab Creek Review


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