“Though he empathizes with her predicament, it’s a struggle not to laugh at this pretty red monster beside him, at how she’s clad those humongous dogs in ridiculous Satan high heels.”
(This story first appeared in Unstuck #1, 2011. Reprinted by permission of the author.)
MARVIN IS A giant. Giants die young. If A equals B, and B equals C, well…. His pop’s death two weeks ago reminded Marvin it could happen at any time. He’s an orphan now, without next of kin. When Marvin dies there’ll be no one left to write an obituary for the newspaper. Without an obituary, it’s as if you never were, an easy, if amateurish, way of becoming invisible. Marvin didn’t expect to outlive his pop and he’s grateful (not to God, because he is not a man of conviction) he got to live long enough to compose an obituary for the old man. Not that they were close—he hadn’t seen his pop in three years. Still, his pop deserved some written notice.
A wrecking yard of thoughts pile up during times of sorrow. One second Marvin is remembering his pop. One second he’s noticing a stray hair on his pants. He’s looking forward to a novel ordered from Amazon. He’s noticing a hard plastic smell as the morning sun heats the Plexiglas windows and the overhead bins, baby fretting several rows behind him adds to the stress he feels about work left undone. Too bad he couldn’t have conjured a magic spell that let him go through the motions of settling the estate in Seattle while keeping his Chicago customers happy, a spell that would allow him to be two places at once. Wishful thinking. Magic isn’t about wishes, but about suspending disbelief. Houdini said the mind believed what the eyes saw and the ears heard. A good magician is logical, like a good mathematician or computer programmer. Marvin is a good computer programmer, therefore he is logical.
He’s one of the tallest men in North America, over eight feet tall, and needless to say, travel is a bitch. He’s hunched over in the first-class, first-row aisle seat, legs and arms disturbingly bent into triangles, so coiled he can smell his socks. He owns two pairs of shoes and is wearing the uncomfortable ones. They look new because he seldom wears them. These are shoes he bought before it was easy to find big dress shoes online, precious because of what they cost, not because of what they are. What they are is uncomfortable and ugly, styled like something from the 1960s. He could buy better shoes for a tenth of what he paid, but there’s no point in buying shoes you don’t expect to wear again until you’re dead. His crushed toes are swollen and deformed. He settled for these tight, leather coffins because there were no other choices at the time. Some things get easier with time. These days you order groceries for delivery. There’s hardly anything you have to leave the house to do. Except for funerals. Even the body has to leave the house for that. Ha ha.
His suit is custom cut, gray wool. Always wear your suit in case they lose your luggage, his pop said when Marvin first left Seattle behind for Chicago. Best advice the man ever gave him. Five days since the funeral and Marvin’s suitcase still hasn’t caught up with him. You can believe in God or not, but luggage has its own theology. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or agnostic because your suitcase will always end up in limbo.
A young lady in headphones stumbles around him to claim the window seat. She’s painted into a stretchy scarlet dress. She steps on his foot so hard it hurts. It’s impossible not to stare at her boobs, which stretch the red fabric like balloons blown thin. The dress draws attention from her face. She’s attractive enough, but not so much you’d notice her on the street. You’d notice the dress, however. You’d notice the parts that stick out, the boobs, the butt. She’s like some fantasy Manga woman, exotic and unreal. It’s rude to stare but for him she’s the most interesting thing in the cabin.
Marvin’s throat is a dry bottleneck that clears with three ahems in a row. His arm aches. He does not feel well. It’s like he’s swallowed a woodpecker that has migrated to his circulatory system, and is hammering the underside of his sternum. This has been a long week. It will be a long flight back from Seattle to Chicago. His alarm was set for o-dark-thirty to get to the airport for a 6 A.M. flight. He skipped breakfast, skipped coffee. Nothing to eat or drink on travel days to avoid using the cramped lavatory. There are places where you simply can’t force yourself to fit inside and an airplane lav is one of them. The howling baby behind him expresses the smothering despair he’s felt since the call that let him know his pop died. He detests the wailing, same as everyone on the plane detests the baby’s deafening expression of need and displeasure. “Wish I could get away with that,” Marvin says.
The lady in red averts her eyes, tilts her face toward the window. He’s a giant she doesn’t notice, just as well, since he needs another few seconds to memorize her boobs before she starts to think he’s a perv. She crosses her legs and sits so that her slender arms cradle her knee, and the sharp tip of her shoe pinches his calf.
Hard to understand pointed shoes. Gotta add two, three inches to the end of the shoe. Bet they get caught in revolving doors. Pointed shoes are just foot inflation. Only a self-absorbed person would make an effort to inflate her feet. Reminds him of his pop. Self-absorbed.
The plane is stuffed full. The last passengers on squabble for bin space before taking their seats. The crew finishes their head count and seals the door. Marvin stretches his right leg into the aisle. He’s embarrassed to mention to this red lady that her foot pokes his calf, and the pain isn’t so bad, compared to everything else.
“Sir,” the flight attendant says, reaching around him to offer them each a bowl of warm nuts.
It’s a no on the nuts for him.
The flight attendant points to his extended leg and gestures in a way that tells him to do something about it. “I’ll invite you to relax after I’ve got everyone served. Wouldn’t want to trip over you.”
Marvin tucks his leg back to its crunch position.
The flight attendant says, “What can I bring you to drink?”
“Nothing,” Marvin says. “Thanks.”
Red lady orders a screwdriver. She’s fidgety and her toe hammers against his leg. He tries to catch her eye, an impossible task, as she’s in her own iPod, earphoned world. She watches the ground crew from the window. He sees a bit of her play list: Lady Gaga, Shakira, Michael Jackson, all solo artists.
The flight attendant exchanges empty nut bowl for cocktail. “Grazie,” says red lady, with an affected Texas accent.
“Prego,” says the flight attendant.
“I only know ‘grazie’,” says red lady.
“Do you know ‘excuse me’?” Marvin mumbles. He picked up some Italian when he studied at home for his GED. Red lady deepens her relationship with her early morning cocktail and doesn’t respond. They haven’t yet been introduced and she’s already treating him like family.
If he were a saint, in addition to being a giant, he might be able to ignore her nuisance shoe upon his leg. He’s never been one for small talk, ha ha, and isn’t the type to pester a woman about whether her trip is for business or pleasure. He has no introduction ready to ease into his real reason for talking with her. He nudges her with his elbow. “Miss,” he says, “you’re kicking me.”
“Sorry,” she says, more defiant than repentant. She doesn’t budge. “My legs are too long.”
From his vantage point he sees only the ruby tip of her patent shoes. Her dress is red, red, red. What color are the devil’s eyes? If he saw a picture, no doubt they’d glow red, but he can’t see them from the reflection in the window, so he may never know. “Miss,” he says. “Your shoe.” He watches the window for a bit, hoping she’ll meet his gaze there. He pretzels his elbows and torso to twist enough to face her. Wriggling the broad fingers of his large hand in clumsy wave fails to garner attention. He gives her the full once-over. That’s when he understands the real problem, which is not that this lady has long legs, but that she has big feet.
Paul Bunyan feet.
Feet that dwarf his, giant twins squeezed into giant red pumps, crimson as newborns.
Feet that draw attention, wanted or not.
He admires the pure genius of using the red dress as a distraction. Fooled him, for sure. Had he not been sitting by her, he might never have seen the reveal. She’s got the biggest feet in the world. He is genuinely impressed. Though he empathizes with her predicament, it’s a struggle not to laugh at this pretty red monster beside him, at how she’s clad those humongous dogs in ridiculous Satan high heels. If it were him, he’d coward them in neutral gray. But not Big Feet. She’s got balls. Le coglioni in Italian. Oh, well. People dislike touching other people on airplanes. She’ll move away soon as she notices.
The screaming baby’s mother carries it to the galley to request apple juice. The flight attendant fills a plastic bottle. The baby calms.
Big Feet looks back toward the baby, smiles. For a second Marvin thinks she’s smiling at him until her smile droops to a smirk, turns her head, and her gaze returns to the window. She uncrosses her legs, arches her back and stretches her arms. Now he’s really checking out those boobs, so much so he misses seeing her legs cross the other way. He’s alerted to this fact when her free foot wedges with a thunk against the curved wall of the airplane. This throws off her balance. She shifts in her seat, thighs slightly splayed, and somehow her high heel finds a resting place atop his metatarsal bunion.
The doctor is always asking him to rate his pain on a scale of one to ten. Marvin’s used to pain. The intensity of this moment is a six, maybe a seven. That sharp point, his bone so close to the skin. “Oh, jeez,” he says. “You gotta move.”
At the front of the plane you’re partially invisible because you don’t notice other passengers all around you. It’s the illusion of a one-way mirror. Big Feet pays him no mind. The flight attendant picks up Big Feet’s empty glass, disappears to the galley.
Marvin must crook his neck and lean slightly forward to fit. His head is near the blower; cold air burns his scalp. His tongue sticks to his palate. The rush and whoosh of a headache pulses behind his eyes. It’s like he’s intoxicated–squiffed–as his pop used to say, though it’s most likely dehydration. The temperature warms with the revving engines and for several minutes, cool air stops flowing. He rises to a standing hunch. He shrugs off his jacket. His button-down shirt is wrinkled and stained. He’s no more comfortable standing than sitting. He’s aware that being upright makes him the airplane sideshow to the rows behind him. As a kid he read H.G. Wells and wrapped bandages around his head, pretending to be invisible. That didn’t work. He learned magic, saved his money and bought a desert camo flight suit from army surplus. Didn’t work any better. Maybe the problem was he didn’t live in a desert. Whatever the reason, trying to be invisible was a stupid trick. The key to every trick, even stupid ones, involves distraction, what they call hand waving. Invisibility can’t work on airplanes, where there’s not much to look at besides you. Too bad he isn’t wearing camo. He folds his jacket like a flag and sits with the jacket on his lap.
They taxi, lift off, gain altitude.
His pop’s gold-filled watch is in his pocket. Though the face is cracked, the thing keeps time better than it ought to for something that was never nice, even when it was new. His briefcase holds a Netbook, pictures of his folks, a thirty-year-old family portrait from Sears. By thirteen, he’d grown out of the camera frame. No more family photos.
Big Feet re-crosses her legs. Her pointed toe is a dart in his skin. She’s rocking out to something that sounds vaguely Beyoncé. He can see her chin and nose in the glass, but the light diffuses as the plane rises through clouds, and her reflection disappears. He watches for her face to reappear so he can meet her eyes. Doesn’t happen.
“Mi dispiace,” he says. “Your foot.”
No response. No affirming nod in his direction. Maybe her feet are squeezed into her shoes and maybe her toes are numb and she doesn’t know she’s touching him. He’s so jammed into his seat it takes some maneuvering to tap her shoulder. “I’m so sorry to intrude,” he says. “You absolutely must uncross your legs.” This is not a phrase he’s ever uttered to a woman, or anyone else for that matter. He’s embarrassed to say it, though he shouldn’t be, as headphones plug her ears. She offers him a brief glance and a yawn, and turns back toward the window. Her reflection ignores him.
Magic is the science of misperception, of making people look for something that isn’t there. Marvin was accomplished at simple sleight-of-hand until his joints started to swell from arthritis secondary to gigantism. He can still pull off a few illusions, do stuff like change the color of a silk rope from red to blue. Every Halloween he sets up a Pepper’s ghost in his apartment. It’s one of his favorite illusions. First performed onstage in the 1890s with an angled glass plate, one actor hiding in a secret room, a bright light shining upon the actor, a public who can only watch in wonder as the actor’s reflection is projected on the glass. It’s the illusion used at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion for the ballroom filled with dancing ghosts. To accomplish the trick in his apartment, Marvin positions a black curtain long enough to pool over the carpet. He props a cheap rubber mask over a bleach bottle and aims a light at a sloping glass square so from the outside all you see is the reflection. It scares and delights passersby, who see a ghostly reflection from the street. Last year he covered the mask with a photo of his pop’s face. In retrospect, it was mean. A lot of things are in retrospect. Mi dispiace, pop. One more thing to regret.
When Marvin was twelve he invented an illusion where he changed a raven into a dove, then changed the dove back into the raven. His pop said it was a lousy trick.
“A person worries about the dove,” said his pop.
“I didn’t hurt the dove,” Marvin said. Doves were expensive.
“Prove it,” said his pop.
“You gotta trust me,” Marvin said, but his pop said, “Show me the frigging dove so I know you ain’t lying.”
The dove was safe, tucked inside a secret compartment. This wasn’t about the dove. The real problem was that nobody cared what happened to the raven.
Marvin gave up on the trick.
He’s off his game now. His knees and hips ache more than usual. He picked the first row to avoid someone reclining into him, and though it would help a little to recline, he won’t do that to the guy behind him. Marvin is in business for himself. Web design. His greatest challenge is to make content small enough to fit on one page. He’s a big believer in the idea of divine proportion, the mean of Phidias. He likes order. Magic is a lot like math. Just add smoke and mirrors.
But he’s out of condition and wore himself out this past week, clearing out his pop’s estate, sorting and packing boxes of family history into stuff to throw away and stuff to give to charity. He can’t make himself fit. His back muscles throb. The seatbelt extensions pinch. His brain feels squeezed by his skull. His muscles and joints burn as much as they burn at the end of most days. He feels like an old missionary who’s climbed one too many hills.
Tonight he’ll lie fully stretched and relaxed on the floor in his own apartment. His pop had a twin bed and an extra-long couch that was only extra-long if you were normal. His neck has kinks in his kinks. And that harsh toe, how it nips his calf. “Can you please pull back your feet?” he asks. The pleases and thank yous are a burden. He would tell her to get the eff away except that you should never a curse a lady or an elder. His pop taught him well. She’s crossed the imaginary line, dissected the space that belongs to her from the space that should be his. “Please,” he says. “You really need to move your feet.”
She opens her eyes, purses her lips, faces him. “There isn’t anywhere to put them,” she says, returning to stare at the endless sky outside the window. “You think I’m a turtle?”
“No,” he says, but he’s thinking, snapping turtle maybe. He shuts his eyes like he’s pretending to be invisible, tells himself this is nothing compared to what he’s been through. At least he’s on a plane that’s taking him somewhere he wants to go. He’ll disappear into his adopted city, Chicago, a place where even a giant can live anonymously. His apartment is an oversized studio on the first floor of a five-story building. The kids down the hall make fun of him, the way kids have always made fun of him. He’s a geek, a nerd, a private man who lives large, ha ha, and has been an outcast since adolescence. He’s used to it. There were worse things than collecting magic tricks and comic superheroes. There was going to school and swimming in the public pool. There was fantasizing about girls who laughed and called you a freak.
The flight attendant offers them seconds on nuts and another round of drinks and Big Feet says yes to both.
“Would you like the frittata or the pancakes?” asks the flight attendant.
“What’s a frittata?” asks Big Feet.
“It’s like an egg with things in it,” says the flight attendant.
Marvin says, “It’s not like an egg with things in it. It is an egg with things in it,” and the flight attendant mistakes his chastisement for a breakfast order and says, “Do you want whole wheat or sourdough?”
“I’m afraid I don’t care for anything,” he says, which is clearly some infraction of an unwritten code of first class airplane behavior. They’re flight attendants now. No more stewardesses. They talk up safety but their real job is to placate passengers with food and drink. His real job is to give them money and comply. His sin is refusing to be placated. His stomach growls in an embarrassingly loud protest.
Aromas of bacon and eggs and plastic and burnt paper drift from the galley. The coffee smells good, better than it can possibly taste. He hadn’t seen his pop in three years. You tell yourself there’s time, if not this year then the next. There are lots of reasons not to see someone. Why did it matter so much whether you saw a person before they died?
The minute the captain says they’re allowed to walk around the cabin and the cart has passed his row, Big Feet pokes Marvin’s shoulder with a skinny-bone finger. “I need to piss,” she says, not use the restroom, or go to the lav.
“Just a moment,” he says. When he stands to let her by his jacket tumbles from his lap. There’s no room to bend over to retrieve it.
She tramples the sleeve as she squeezes past. It’s like she’s walking over him on her way to where she wants to be. You are where you’ve walked, his pop used to say. At the cemetery, Marvin was careful not to tread upon any graves. He manages somehow to brace himself and lift the fabric with his foot and grab hold of the jacket collar. The effort takes away his breath. He scrunches like an L-square ruler in the aisle to wait. He’s too big for his heart is how the doctor explained it. There’s no treatment, no cure. He’s just too big. It’s not like you can go to Heartmart for a transplant. There are no donors in your size readily available. It’s a simple calculation. He can do the math for what size heart he’d need. Sometimes knowing the right answer doesn’t help. The flight attendant reminds him to keep the aisle clear, so he backs into a crouch in his row. The flight attendant offers to hang his jacket in the closet.
A woman across the aisle says to the woman beside her, “They’re quite the pair.” She and her friend gossip until Big Feet returns. In their world it’s okay to talk about someone behind their back. Marvin steps into the aisle and twists sideways to let Big Feet through. She belts herself in. He sits. She fiddles with her headphones, looks out the window. He takes his seat. She crosses her leg, her rosy toe pricking his calf.
The plane dips and the captain tells everyone to take their seats.
Marvin taps Big Feet’s shoulder. “Your foot,” he says. “I really can’t take it anymore.”
She acts like he can’t see her inside her headphones.
A week’s worth of everything (maybe it’s a lifetime’s worth of everything) flares. He stares. His pointer finger trembles. He’s not used to talking out loud. He wants to say something cutting, something to put her in her place. He’d tell her to eff off in Italian if he could remember the conjugation. What comes out is, “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” followed by an ironic uttering of, “Oh, that’s right, there isn’t anyone else your size. You have big feet. Really big feet.”
No anger, no acknowledgement whatsoever, but he’s gotten her where she lives. She stares out the window and fiddles with her iPod and the switches out Cyndi Lauper for The Bangles. Her toe digs deeper. He looks for a glimmer of recognition in her reflection on the glass. Her face moves in and out of the pane as the plane passes through clouds and the light diffuses. Her reflection appears, disappears, reappears.
People want to believe that anyone who is different will automatically like everyone else who is different, that shared experiences inspire empathy. But what if you look in a mirror and dislike what you see? Big Feet must detest him. It’s how his pop acted for years after Marvin’s mother died. His pop blamed Marvin, and maybe Marvin blamed himself the way children do. Nothing to do but wait it out and know eventually you’ll get away from home. Only problem was he never went back and now it’s too late. Just like magic: you blow the trick and you don’t get a second chance.
His leg stings. He’s sweaty and ill-at-ease and annoyed. There’s something intriguing about her fragrance, more spicy than floral. “Your foot,” Marvin says with incalculable measures of hostility and desire. “That’s enough.” The plane is excruciatingly hot. His shirt is soaked. If she can’t see him she can certainly smell him. He unbuttons a button to make it easier to catch his breath. The moment is like a magic trick that’s gone on too long.
Big Feet switches out The Bangles for the Pussycat Dolls, an obviously desperate musical choice. The noise and the heat and the choppy ride make him woozy. He bends forty-five degrees over, dry heaves, wipes his brow, and calms himself with a breath. He manages to bring himself to a sitting position. He turns his head to see if anyone is watching. Maybe he’s invisible, ha ha. You’d think if you were invisible you wouldn’t feel anything, that once the body disappears, all blows will be deflected. Instead, all that’s left is pain. A nine. He can’t get away from the sharp sting of her toe, from the crush of his big heart inside his ribcage. His chest feels like it’s been hit with ball lightning. The baby in the back is wailing. How he wants to be that baby, but he holds his scream inside. The flight attendant straps the cart to its stays and takes her jump seats.
Big Feet watches the clouds with focused intention. You learn to look at things that don’t matter because that helps you avoid seeing things that do. If he had the nerve he’d tell her that he matters. That she matters. That it’s possible they could matter to each other. But he can’t talk to someone who doesn’t see him. He meets her glance in the reflection of the double-paned window. In that reflection, she is smiling. It’s another side of her. He shifts his gaze to her actual expression: narrowed eyes and tight mouth of hurt. He’s drawn to the soft focus of her reflection. I’m sorry he says, and her reflection says, It’s funny how someone as big as you can’t intimidate anyone.
Yeah, he says to her reflection. It’s funny how things work. It’s funny that someone with bigger feet than Marvin’s doesn’t feel grounded. Are you at the beginning or the end of your journey? he asks her reflection. Her reflection looks confused by the question, but recognition dawns, and she says, I’m passing through Chicago on my way to New York. Sorry you don’t live closer, he says. You’ll have to come visit, she tells him. Really? he asks. Really, she answers.
There’s a subtle shift in axis as the plane climbs and the captain announces they will attempt to fly above the weather. The seatback sips his spine as the force of acceleration pushes against his chest. Big Feet stretches out her legs so that her heel digs into his tender and swollen toe. She sings a Pussycats Doll song that asks him to imagine his girlfriend was hot like her. And of course he does wish for that and for every impossible dream.
She rocks her foot and the heel repeatedly comes down again on his toe. He’s the biggest man in North American and everybody still walks all over him. “Move your foot,” he says. No response. “Move your big foot.”
Her reflection tells him, Make me pay attention.
How? he asks.
You’ll think of something.
But before he can think, a bulldozer crushes his chest. He gasps for a breath and in unthinking protest and terror lifts his heavy leg and stomps on her shiny red shoe.
Big Feet stifles a cry and pulls away.
That’s the spirit, says the reflection. Now you’ve got her attention.
Big Feet’s actual response is nowhere near as positive. Her toe homes back in on its target. He feels the valves open and close in his pounding heart. Her reflected expression is a cheerleader but Big Feet looks at him like the grandmaster who has just declared checkmate.
Indeed, it appears he’s lost the match. His jaw clenches. Pain darts from his chin to his shoulder. A flight attendant releases her seat belt and rushes toward him. It’s weird to think about this now, but he’d always expected to die alone. At home. Unnoticed. Like his pop. Without an obituary. This is not how he expected things to play out. Dying mid-flight is newsworthy. Tomorrow, people will read the headlines and say, “I was there.”
Big Feet isn’t watching, but the pressure on his leg changes from annoying to something more divine. His brain is a seismic tumble of thoughts and images. He’s overcome with desire to kiss Big Feet’s translucent mirror lips. At the same time he knows the kiss would be unsatisfying and cold. He hears the rustle of fabric as the guy in the row behind him retrieves a cell to snap a photo or movie. Instead of being upset he is pleased. Once the photos are posted on the Internet he will live forever.
Notoriety trumps invisibility as Marvin’s final wish. He hears a startling rattle in his throat, realizes you can still be conscious for a few moments, even if you cannot breathe. He’s lightheaded–his heart is, after all, a long ways away. His vision floods white.
Big Feet tilts her head and mutters something incomprehensible. Her reflection gives him a come hither look, and he wants to come hither, more than he’s ever wanted anything before. He lurches toward Big Feet and grabs a breast for balance. The encounter is clumsy and coarse and briefly inappropriately satisfying. “Grazie,” he mumbles. Ha ha. People in the rows behind them stand and shout and stare. Houdini said that nobody wanted to see a man die but they all wanted to be there when he died. In his last few seconds of life Marvin manages to meet Big Feet’s glance. Hello, he says. She flashes an expression that shows genuine concern, just before that A equals C moment, when he looks beyond Big Feet, beyond her reflection, beyond the thin veil of white clouds. Puff, and the giant topples across the armrest and into the intimate, soft, unknowable space of Big Feet’s lap.
© Leslie What, 2011
From See the Elephant, Issue Two, Love and War in the Slipstream. Click here to purchase the whole magazine in ebook or PDF format for only $2.99. Every sale supports the future of this magazine!
Leslie What is a fiction editor of Phantom Drift: New Fabulism, and co-editor, with R.A. Rycraft, of Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging from Serving House Books. She won a Nebula Award for a short story published in Amazing Stories and was an Oregon Book Awards finalist for her collection, Crazy Love. www.lesliewhat.com