The Girth of a New Way of Thinking

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Robert Henry thought that moving to France would put him as far from his father's plantation and work as possible, and it did. Robert Henry found a niche among the Bohemian French society, but his days among them are numbered as he mocks their ways and he turns his back on life in general. If you appreciate a story with a deep moral implication and philosophy than you may enjoy this story.

Submitted: December 07, 2011

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Submitted: December 07, 2011

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The Girth of a New Way of Thinking

By: Alisia Compton

 

The year was 1900 and sadly France is in a poor state with an American boy running about and causing trouble.  How did he get there?  The French were attractive to Robert Henry because of the art scene and being that his American father made a bundle of cotton and ran a plantation for years, he was rich well enough to stay as long as he liked. Robert sought to reap the benefits of an education abroad, where he would be far from the scrutiny of his father.  Only Robert hadn’t written home in six months and the education portion of his travels ended eight months prior. 

Robert Henry first became interested in the arts when he saw a young artist, Emile sitting in front of a blank canvas for six hours a day and three days straight.  Emile sat and sometimes he read but he mostly simply stared waiting for something to inspire him.  When Emile finished his painting it was done in a single six hour sitting and sold for twenty francs, which Emile did not use to pay back his benefactor who simply supported him, understanding that Emile’s process limited his ability to work in a typical sense. 

The average work day in France is eleven hours mandated by law now, whereas before there were no limits on a work day.  Robert Henry scoffed at eleven hours and that meant he would have to write home requesting more money since funds were now in short supply.  But, he could save himself by becoming an artist if he too found a benefactor.  Unfortunately, Emile would not share his.  Simply stating, “She is married and she would cut me off if I shared her identity.”  Only Emile did not speak English, so this was all said in French.

Robert Henry wrote home during the American fall, when frost and ice had come early upsetting his father, also named Robert Henry.  Robert Henry Sr. was facing a slow year and although there was plenty of money in the bank he would not part with it, not when there were workers to pay, despite how little he paid them and that it would not really hinder his own success to part with a small amount of it.  He wrote back refusing his son and demanding answers for his long silence.  Robert Henry made quick reply, using persuasive language and telling of his great education – insisting that he was learning how to make the family business much more profitable and may have even discovered the secret to protecting cotton in the colder months.  “Think of it father, all the money we could make if we were to use this new method.  Please send enough for a comfortable living and I’ll write again soon.”

Robert Henry Sr. read the letter out loud to the wait staff, the only other people in the house.  The home was staffed by the first generation of non-slaves to live there, and although Robert did not agree with the passing of the law, he freed his and paid them a small wage.  Having fought on the side of the South, many of his friends and neighbors shared his reasoning.  With a dead wife and a son abroad, Robert’s only company were those that worked around the clock in the big house, but he would not amend his thinking.  As he read his son’s letter out loud, his staff exchanged worried looks but said nothing that wasn’t encouraging as was their duty, secretly dreading the day they would change one terrible boss for the other.  In their homes, they joked, “Long live the old bat.  Evil as he is, the son is worse.” 

Robert Henry Sr. promptly wrote a note for his son, sending him plenty of money to pay his debts and continue his studies for another two months and included a return ticket which worried Robert Henry very much.  “I’m not keen on returning home,” he told Emile, as they sat in a study staring at a blank canvas.  Emile was simply happy that Robert had paid his portion of the rent.  “Maybe it’s for the best,” Emile said, before surprising them both by picking up a paint brush. 

“For the best?”  Robert could not fathom how that could be the best.  Returning to Virginia meant that Robert would have to answer for his lies.  He would also be called upon to work and then to marry.  In France he was as far from these chores as he could possibly be, living comfortably on his father’s money earned from the toils of others.  “No,” he answered.  “That is not for the best at all.  Does it tax you to paint?”  “It does, very much.  It is the hardest work I’ve ever done and to be commissioned means that I must finish on time.”  Robert did not believe Emile’s answer.  “Emile,” he said, “You are a bigger con than me!”  And then he laughed wandering out of the room.

Robert Henry found himself on the 2nd of February standing in line for the new opera, “Louise.”  Lines made him tired and so he yawned and then leaned against the cool brick.  “Why must we wait in this line,” he asked Eloise, a rich woman of society who had begun a strange sort of courting with Robert Henry, knowing him to be the rich son of an American cotton supplier.  “Please behave Robert.  It is an opera and from what I hear, we’re sure to love it.” 

Certainly she loved it, but Robert did not and he didn’t even want to be courted, even when Eloise asked to return with him to his apartment where she compromised herself over and over again to be with him.  He made love with all the robust and vigor of sap pouring from a tree and he made no attempt to win her favor after that, leaving Eloise to marry the next man who courted her and feel shame when she bed him on their wedding night hoping that he could not tell she was not a virgin.  He could but they never spoke of it.

Robert Henry put on a great deal of weight and when Louise made its second run through France, touting a reputation for being one of the world’s greatest operas, he was beginning to draw attention to his blubber and society had begun to whisper and joke behind his back attributing him to fat Polynesian kings, always commenting on his money and beginning to perceive him as gluttonous as he would rather eat, drink and sleep than do anything cultured, yet he surrounded himself with artists.

Emile had grown very tired of Robert Henry and his girth in their apartment was taking up space and disturbing the process it took him to paint impressions.  Emile was planning to have a large party and his benefactor would be present, but he would not tell Robert Henry who she was.  “You’ll never figure it out,” Emile returned, hoping that this would quell Robert and that he wouldn’t attempt to figure it out, ruining Emile’s position.  The party continued at length after dinner and Robert had ignored Emile’s request and began extensively questioning the rich ladies present, about all manners of things, while he drank heavily and his girth pressed against the buttons of his shirt. 

He had not written his father in a month now and was running low on funds, yet he’d convinced no one that he too was an artist and so his only hope of surviving was to seduce Emile’s benefactor and hope that she would support him to begin an illustrious career in staring at canvas.  “Do you consider yourself to be Bohemian?” The question was daunting and came from a well-dressed man married to a beautiful, bored creature named Fabienne who Robert was beginning to suspect.

What is Bohemian?  The rich often saw these artistic types as lazy, but Robert knew different.  They were always taxing their brains, trying to stay rich and hip with ideas.  Robert imagined he could keep up, if he wanted to, but he didn’t want to.  No.  He was not Bohemian nor was he of the working class.  He was of a new way of thinking and planned to stay rich on his father’s money, secretly hoping the old man was near death so he could return home and collect.  He did not care about women, because with the money they would come to him when he required servicing and then he could dispose of them.  Certainly he considered himself much more creative than even a bohemian.

Fabienne’s husband, Augustan, disappeared into a crowd fawning over Emile’s painting of a dark skinned man they’d all come to know and love.  They considered Amos a rescue from America, but kept him hidden just the same as those darker hues were often jarring to women with a gentler nature who feared the image of a savage man, from a savage country.  Africa.  Fabienne did not fear Amos as he stayed in their guest house and worked for a living on their property and wrote the most beautiful poems she’d ever read so when Robert Henry approached her, laughing that Amos came “a dime a dozen in America,” she was quite tempted to coat his face with champagne. 

“How much are you giving Emile, seriously?”  Robert was slurring his speech now and the gentlemen at the party were casting glares in both his and Emile’s directions, despite Emile hiding across the room, trying not to be associated with it.  Emile hung his head, a softer man, unable to deal with the Robert situation in company such as they were having now, nor even when they were alone just the two of them.  Fabienne had tried to retire from his presence, but he left her when he needed to go for a drink and there was no place she was safe as he’d barge into any group she stood in and Emile did nothing but try to avoid them both.

When they’d all disappeared Robert Henry wasn’t amiss, even though the hour was quite early still.  He settled into the groove of a sofa, a gift from Emile’s benefactor which now featured an indentation in the shape of Robert’s ass.  “Robert,” Emile approached him cautiously.  “We are terminating our relationship.  I leave the apartment to you as I’ve been invited to live with my benefactor and her family in Paris where we intend to study the work of Van Gogh.  “That sounds fantastic, Emile.  I’ll join you, of course.  We can unload this apartment, no sense in keeping it.” 

Emile was flustered that Robert did not understand that he was clearly not invited.  There was no more room for Fat Robert.  He had no good ideas, and he was causing a stir with the gentlemen husbands of beautiful French aristocratic socialites.  He was impolite to women, unabashed with his nugatory statements and he refused to contribute anything but his father’s money.  It was becoming such a pain in the ass, but Emile was unable to convince him of any of this and before he knew it, Robert Henry was watching him pack, offering no assistance despite the ticket he held in his hand.

“Aren’t you going to pack your things?” Robert Henry grumbled and mentioned that he had hired a porter to come for his things and ship them later, for now he had a bag and it consisted of money and clothing.  Emile looked around suspiciously at all of Robert’s belongings in the apartment.  He did not want to leave a bad tenant so he would ask for Fabienne’s help when they arrived in Paris.

Paris did not last long as everyone was quite aware now that Robert Henry was a very sick man.  He took to sleeping except when he was eating and drinking.  He was gluttonous but, he also had health problems and therefore the sympathy of Fabienne and her husband.  Without realizing she had become it, Fabienne was tricked into becoming Robert’s benefactor too, since he was no longer writing his father, after his father wrote to him suggesting again that he return home and refusing to pay for no more than a return ticket.

Amos watched Robert Henry from the shadows, taking in the very girth of him and writing it in a private journal he kept about all of the society people he was meeting.  He described Robert as being a girth quite like the steel plows fashioned by that Illinois blacksmith, John Deere.  He detailed his chins, describing them as loose and many.  He also mentioned that it had been quite a while since Robert had seen a bath.  Amos wrote worse things after he discovered that Robert Henry was the sole heir to a cotton fortune and figured Amos to be a servant and not a guest.

“Amos,” Robert Henry would call when he saw him passing by the floor to ceiling windows that framed a courtyard that Amos enjoyed turning from a place of dead plants to a flowering garden and where he spent his afternoons with hands in the earth, thinking about words and how he would fashion them later.  Fabienne referred to this as his process.  “Amos, come here boy.”

Amos would answer Robert Henry because despite being told he was a guest he had learned very early that you have to be respectful to a white man, if he wanted to continue to be in their good graces.  “Amos,” Robert would begin, not meeting his eyes nor standing to greet him.  “Run to the kitchen and tell that fat bitch to make me a hearty stew this time.  More rabbit, less carrots.  Can you manage that?”  Amos would nod and turn, making his way to the kitchen to tell Martha, who was a great deal less fat than Robert himself, to make a meatier stew and then she would suggest tainting it with her own saliva and Amos would laugh agreeing that he deserved it.

By this time Robert Henry was beginning to make quite the commotion.  He stayed often in his quarters, never participating in their sports, arts or business but he did not miss a party and he’d begun to express his notions to guests and anyone who would listen.  He called himself the true Bohemian, attributing both its culture and people to be lazy and carefree.  At one particular party he suggested that party goers color his face using different hues of brown with Emile’s paints, and then he would simply sit where he was.  “A true Bohemian,” he shouted between sips of champagne, that he noticed tasted quite a bit cheaper than the stuff Fabienne usually served.  This was because Fabienne no longer cared to serve Robert anything more than the cheapest of champagnes, reserving her good stock for company she actually cared to keep.

Amos was listening, standing once again to the shadows, preferring to drink in their conversation and only talk to the beautiful women who were unafraid of his dark skin, as his nature was more shy and sensitive and it did not make him feel good to be looked at with fright.  Slowly he was winning them all over, but he missed his people and looked forward to returning to America, maybe New York City.  But, he could no longer stand idly by as Robert was allowed to shout all sorts of racist things, interrupting the quiet conversations of the groups of people who mingled among one another – no one mingled around the sofa, but still his voice was heard loud and clear as it tore passed them and although no one was laughing, they had no choice but to listen.

Amos made his way over to the sofa and sat down next to Robert, having to sit at the very edge as his girth had become so that instead of a man’s shirt, tailored and buttoned, he wore something quite like a table cloth, over pants that hung loosely and still these fabrics clung to his body in the most unfashionable way.  “Why do you say such things,” Amos asked him, quietly.  “Don’t speak to me in that tone boy,” Robert screamed, shrill and high pitched, not at all like a quarrelsome man, but more like a spoiled toddler reaching for something set high so they can’t have it.

Everyone turned to see what the commotion was and Amos was for once, unafraid.  He didn’t care if anyone did not share his opinion.  He had left America with Fabienne and her husband because they bought out his employer for him and they requested that he be himself and that he grow and learn.  His mother and sister were gone, long dead and he hadn’t anyone to leave behind.  He was afraid of what may happen, but they’d kept their word and he was beginning to have trust their pale faces, the same could not be said for the crowd but he was leaving soon anyway and as far as he knew there was no Klan in France and he didn’t have to fear a lynch mob.

“I am not using a tone.  Why do you say such things?”  Everyone was looking now.  Robert laughed uncomfortably and answered Amos.  “Because I am laissez faire, an individual.  I cannot be governed.  I am Bohemian, completely.”  “But you are not,” returned Amos.  “You are none of those things and you are nothing but a fat, gelatinous man who takes advantage of kind strangers.”  A gasp ran through the crowd and Augustan, Fabienne’s husband, stepped forward, clapping causing a murmur to run through the crowd before more clapping began and then quieted so a now spirited Amos could explain further.

“You do not work.  You do not love.  You do not fight.  Perhaps you should be made to.”  The commotion continued while Robert Henry worked at his limbs, willing himself to stand and retire for the evening.  The consensus was now that Robert Henry should be forced and they were all in agreement that he either work, or retire from their company permanently.  “That is not enough,” sweet Emile’s soft voice rose from the crowd.  “Oh Emile,” Robert Henry offered, thinking his friend would save him from this mutiny.  Emile crossed through the crowd until he was standing in front of Robert and eyeing him with indifference, before speaking as if Robert were not a man, but one of the paintings Emile studied often.  He held his arms together with a hand under his chin, and eyed Robert as he continued to attempt to maneuver himself off the sofa.

“He cannot even move to get up.  So, he cannot work.  He must be starved to begin with.”  Amos took the champagne from Robert’s hand where Robert promptly used his free hand for more traction and found himself on his feet finally.  Emile took a step back and drank in all of his fat.  “Who is making his clothing?”  Fabienne had been feeling quite guilty as she had a tailor commission Robert’s clothing against her better judgment, but not wanting a fat, naked man sleeping around her house.  A sometimes honest woman, she admitted to the action.

“Take his clothing,” someone shouted from the crowd, and it seemed a good idea.  And so they did.  They stripped Robert Henry of the fabric and he was left standing naked before them.  They allowed him to retire to his chambers, but the four of them woke him first thing in the morning and requested that he set about some chores, which he refused to do.  They prodded him, goaded him and took turns each slapping his gelatinous face.  Still, Robert Henry did not work.

For a period of two weeks Robert only moved when they hurt him.  He stopped speaking and became quite like an invalid until the threats of having him institutionalized began.  Robert thought of the implication.  Being an invalid would mean nurses to bring his meals and certainly his father would call him home and take care of him.  Yes, this was quite a good plan and so he readily agreed, igniting another passionate outburst from Amos.

“Why should he be taken care of?  He is a man in a bubble and despite it being pricked it does not pop.  He is useless and no one will want him.  He does not know of institutions.  The man is delusional.  He will be left to rot in his own shit, if we allow this.”  “Quite right,” Augustan agreed, but Fabienne and Emile were not so sure.  They did not want to put Robert out, nor did they want him to suffer being that he was so obviously plagued by a disease of the mind. 

Amos was not so sure.  “His mind is not diseased.  He has made perfect sense up until now.  The man is living a fantasy of nothingness and it is disgraceful to God and kind society.”  Amos stopped there, unable to think of anything good that could from any of this, but not wanting to say more negative things.  “Let’s think about it,” Fabienne suggested and Emile agreed.  But, Augustan was not so sure and had grown weary of the whole thing and so he left the room, bursting in moments later with a shot gun and a sick grin that reminded Amos of something he had seen when he was little, only the man held a rope and not a gun, but the look was the same.  It was a look that suggested murder.

Despite Amos feeling no sympathy for Robert Henry, he did not condone murder in any sense.  Emile and Fabienne fought against Augustan but he easily tossed them back and with a murderous cry, yelled, “I’m putting an end to this!  If you’re not going to help me, get out of my way!”  He pushed passed them and entered Robert’s dark chamber, expecting him to be lying in bed as always, but having heard the commotion, Robert was working his fat through an open window, finding the process difficult.  The sound of the gunshot flying from the gun and tearing through pillows, causing feathers to fill the space, motivated him enough to make it through the window.

Robert Henry ran for the first time in years.  He ran through the courtyard at a pace most people walk at.  His heart pounded in his chest and he considered stopping, wondering if Augustan had come to his senses.  A second gunshot zipped passed his face and landed with exploding rock into the side of the house, and Robert disappeared out of the courtyard.  “Let him go,” Fabienne shouted out the window to her husband.  “Please!”  Augustan put down the gun, content to allow the fat naked man to rush through their society, not caring what their neighbors would think.

The neighbors thought nothing and when Robert found himself knocking on the doors of familiar faces, he was dismayed that they slammed doors in his face unwilling to help him or clothe him.  He ran through parks, avoiding police and a class he did not know – a working class who were busy taking care of their families and stopped only to laugh at the fat man streaking passed.  If he spoke to them, they began by laughing and then they threatened him and hollered for the police to haul him away.  He feared Paris prison, knowing the gallows to be a dark, dank place where men died from the hard labor.

He found himself clothed in a stolen blanket, taken from a laundry line in one of the lower class neighborhoods, someplace he’d never been before.  There was no one who would help him, he thought as he breathed heavy underneath a tree.  He had spent the last six hours out of breath, and only now was able to stop to catch it.  Robert hung his head and thought angrily of Emile.  Emile who was the same as him, hadn’t that been what had drawn them together?  Emile did not attempt to save him after that dark skinned fellow had spoken against him, something that would never have been stood for in good society or in America.

Amos, Robert thought.  “That is who I hate the most,” he said out loud.  “Who do you hate?”  Amos was again waiting in the shadows, and his voice scared Robert Henry.  He had tracked Robert down after a great deal of internal debate.  “Please,” Robert said.  “Haven’t you done enough?  Just leave me.”  Amos considered turning and leaving, but something kept him on.  “Why are you?”  Robert considered the question.  At first it didn’t make sense, but then as he caught his breath, he began to miss the feeling of having it pulled from his chest in great heaves.  He was cold all of the sudden.  When he was running he had been so warm.  “Why am I?”

He considered Amos, tall and lean.  He worked and Robert Henry had always agreed that he should, because of the nature of him.  But, Amos didn’t actually have to work being that Fabienne and Augustan were so considerate and giving and willing to help him in any way.  What motivated him, Robert thought.  It was himself.  He motivated himself and it made him happy to work as it did Emile.  It made Fabienne glad to give willingly of her riches to support the urge to create art in others and Augustan made his money in railway dealings and was gifted with the ability to work out numbers. 

“I have nothing to give,” Robert said, and tears welled and spilled onto his thick cheeks.  “It seems maybe you have learned a lesson.”  “I do feel different,” Robert said.  He wiped at his cheek and looked up to find that Amos had disappeared.  Robert called out to him, insisting he was changed and begging to be taken back in, to prove that he was a different man, but there was no response from Amos and he was left alone in the darkness to spend the night.

Robert Henry squatted in a dirty apartment in the gutter end of the city.  People were repulsed by him and so he could only eat what he picked up off the ground, but with daily attention to trash he often found what he needed to sustain him.  Slowly his mind went dark and he began to lose his wits, especially after receiving word from his father that he was no longer willing to send money and that there would be no tickets to be ignored and used for their cash value.  As his brain changed, there was more talk of a medical intervention, but the rapid weight loss made him nearly indistinguishable among the other street people. 

Soon Robert Henry’s past was only a mirage in his mind, and he began to wonder if he had imagined all of the drinks, the money and the high society.  When he told stories to those dirty, filthy faces around him, they rolled eyes in disbelief.  There were no friends and no help on those streets and there was violence until he learned to defend himself and there he died an old man, living alone in a single room above a perfume shop where he assisted in fills and churning mixtures, but was too hideous for shop work.

Amos did return to America where he went on to live in New York.  His work became famous in France which helped him to do well in America, where he wrote about his people’s struggles and published their stories.  He was quite famous, but would not allow himself to be the pet of any society, instead building his own character and supporting his own people until he was lucky to see them demanding equal treatment late into his life, where he died a wealthy old man with a wife and two children, one of whom integrated a white college and the other, a daughter, who invented the comfortable high heel. 

 


© Copyright 2017 Alisia Compton. All rights reserved.

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