Gustav Stands in Front of the Display Case

Nathaniel Livermore Stebbins
Museum of the American Indian – Heye Foundation (MAI), 1916-1989
Created December, 1921

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quare shoulders, feet an arm’s length apart, hands flat on those fleshy, sagging thighs, knees slightly bent, as if leaning into a squat, but not quite squatting.

Chin up, jut forward a fraction of a degree, until he feels the first two vertebrae click into place, and the long-suffering bow of his spine curve like a pliant willow tree from the anchor of his coccyx.

The next motion is critical, the precise insertion point of a worn-out key into a cranky old lock: he eases back on his haunches ever so slightly so the grand, shining balloon of his heavy breasts and swollen gut deflate, settle like a lowered cape on the shelf of his groin, encasing him in fold after fold of skin.

Gustav stops and opens his eyes.

His reflection is frozen in the smoky glass of the display case.   The display room behind him is captured in muted hues.

He looks at his body in the glass.  It is grotesque, suspended in a partial crouch, his white skin unnatural in the grey shadows, his penis a notion, incomplete, his testicles surrounded by a halo of whispy hair.

Gustav didn’t dare move.  It was in his stillness that the mystery would play out.

The first time he had discovered the life that teemed on his body he had been a 12-year old boy rooting around in his father’s study, looking for the letter he knew his father must have left behind, just forgotten to put out where it could be found, even though he’d been thoughtful enough to run the rope over the willow tree under the big window that looked down to the river, and had taken care to put an iron garden chair on the occasional bench so that he’d fall enough distance to snap the noose tight around his neck.  At the back of a bottom drawer was a sharp spike of stone with a flaked edge; Gustav felt a prick and then a strange tickling when he jammed against it.  He held his finger up and saw an impossibly small but precise Indian high-stepping in the fatty roll of skin around his knuckle.  His blood dropped to the desk and was absorbed into the old blotter.  The Indian danced and danced tirelessly, intensely, endlessly, and Gustav could barely breath from joy.

The museum was quiet.  A drop of sweat formed on his brow.  He looked through the glass at the artifacts.  A collection of stone arrowheads; wilted, tired headdresses; round pots with impossibly narrow foundations, wide-shouldered brims.  Clay.  Pigment.  Grass.  The earth.

The movement began like a muted dawn rain.  Gustav watched his reflection.  They appeared from his bouyant crevices.  Their weight didn’t turn the clear down covering his flesh.  They wore ceremonial costumes; their bodies glistened with sweat; they looked out to the invisible horizon and began to chant, the vibrations of their silent keening thrumming Gustav’s heart.

He could barely contain himself.  He wanted to crash into the glass and gather the artifacts into his arms.  He wanted to feel the minatures rise around him and crush his chest under their weight.

He stood still.

This is where the spirit world has come to rest, Gustav thought.  Hidden in my corpulence, protected by my gluttony, unencumbered by my emptiness.  This is my purpose.

This is where Gustav stood in the morning when the old half-breed who watched the building at night shambled through the halls.  The Indian stood in front of the naked man and looked at his shrunken penis.

Gustav was barely breathing.

“Come on down now, Mr. Hey, and let’s get something warm on you,” the Indian said.  “Nothing here is going anyways.  You got it all.”

“Are they gone, Billy?  Look close. ” Gustav whispered.

The old man stroked his jaw and crouched down.  When he stood, he wet his lips with his tongue and put them close to Gustav’s ear.

“They’s all gone.  Every one of them.  You can move now.”

Gustav sighed.

“You did good, Mr. Hey.  You did real good.”  The old man took the young man by the hand and walked him along a side corridor.  Their shapes followed in the amber glass of the display cases, receding into the shadows with every step, their faint stamp on time slipping into the stale air.

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This post is one in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

Dressing Rooms


hat day had been a long day. I worked for ten hours, with a one-hour break, carrying hangers with clothes on them from the upstairs dressing rooms to the downstairs dressing rooms. Then I returned, stood around, managed the line in front of the dressing rooms, asked people how many items, handed out little numbers, accepted things back, put them on the hangers that I would then carry downstairs and so on.

It was not my heart’s desire to work in fashion retail. I wasn’t even too keen on the employee discount, because I had positively never bought as much as a black t-shirt at that store. I needed a job, plain and simple, and I had spent one Monday morning walking into every store on the high street, enquiring about vacancies. They hired me because I have a neutral face, and I can hide my annoyance fairly well.

That particular day was a little more difficult because I had to watch that one cubicle in the dressing rooms after it happened. I sort of didn’t want to be there when they would eventually find that woman. I nicked a ball point pen and made one of those “out of order” signs and stuck it to the door in question, although I was briefly wondering if I chose the right words. How can a 1.5 by 1.5 metre large cubicle with a wooden bench and a mirror in it be out of order? I put the sign on the door and continued working.

I encounter many women with issues in my job. I overhear a lot of conversations. They are dressing room conversations. Usually, they are conversations about being too fat. Sometimes, they are about having large shoulders. Occasionally, more exotic complaints come along, like somebody refusing to wear a short dress because she thinks that her knees are ugly. Or her collarbones don’t stick out the way she’d like them to in a specific shirt. People’s images of themselves seem a little twisted these days, because, seriously, whenever the woman I have heard complaining steps out of the cubicle to demonstrate her flaws to her friend or sometimes to me, I cannot see them! I see tall women, small women, women who have more fat on their bodies than others, bony women and skinny women. Every day they parade by me in an endless line and they complain.

That day a woman emerged from one of the cubicles wearing a red silk dress, just above knee length, and she looked gorgeous in it. She was on her own and she was chatty, so she told me that she was looking for a dress for a friend’s wedding. She stood in front of the mirror. She took a runway walk towards the large mirror at the end of the dressing room dead-end, turned, frowned.

“I look fat in it, right?” she said.

“No, actually, you don’t. It suits you very well,” I said.

“You just want the commission,” she said, staring at herself.

“I’m getting paid whether or not you buy that dress,” I replied. “It honestly looks gorgeous on you.”

“It’s too short. My thighs are kind of large,” she said, and pulled down on the dress.

“No,” I said. Her thighs weren’t large, they were pretty normal. It wasn’t her thighs, anyway. The poise with which she wore the dress made it seem like it already belonged to her.

“You can sort of see my soft belly when I turn that way,” she said and turned a certain way, which looked unnatural.

“I doubt you’ll ever turn that way in normal life,” I said, carefully, trying to crack a joke.

“Don’t turn smart on me,” she hissed. “I’m fat.”

She wasn’t skin and bones, but she was beautiful. She had dark brown hair that fell softly onto her shoulders. Her skin was impeccable, her eyes large, deep, and brown. So I didn’t discuss, because I have had that conversation one time too many. I’m fat—no you aren’t—I’m so fat—you aren’t—I am too—no, you aren’t. The point of such conversations is that person A is probably not fat, person B, therefore, probably is right, but person A just wants an excuse for, well, something. Rejection? I really don’t know for what concept ‘fat’ is the code word. Sometimes it has to do with men, although usually, when you speak to men honestly, as in, when they’re drunk, they frequently say how appalled they are by bones sticking out. There’s a fetish for everything, though. Maybe some do like the bones.

The woman in the stunning red dress then went on to criticize her shoulders. They looked too athletic, she claimed. “Look at all that fat,” she said, and pinched herself and wiggled her skin between her fingers.

“You look stunning in the dress, but of course you can go on browsing. I can put it on hold for you, if you want,” I suggested, smooth fashion retail professionalism.

“Yeah, I really don’t know.”

She put the dress on hold and returned two hours later. I remembered the way she carried herself and her way of walking.

“You’re back for the dress!” I said to her. “I’m glad you decided to give it another try!”

“Yeah well,” she snapped, took the dress and disappeared in the dressing room. It must have been a frustrating two hours for her. “Come here!” she ordered after a while, from within the cubicle. I went over to her.

“What is it?”

“Take a look at this,” she said. I opened the door a slit-wide. She was wearing the dress, squeezing her boobs.

“How can a person be fat and have totally no breasts at the same time?” she said. I haven’t mentioned that I had been annoyed with her earlier. I had been annoyed with her all morning, even after she had left. She had made me angry.

“I should just kill myself!” she said with some conviction.

“Why don’t I do that for you?” I suggested, smiling. She glared at me.

I’m really not sure what happened. There was a hanger, somehow. Those cheap ones, the ones that are basically a string of twisted metal. I don’t know why it was so easy, it went into her like a knife into butter that had been sitting on the table all morning. I don’t even know how I knew so distinctly where the heart was; my CPR classes are so long ago. She made this gargling sound and a thin line of blood came out of the corner of her mouth. Her expression hadn’t really changed much. She fell back on the little wooden bench and died right there, pretty peacefully.