On the morning of the day Mr. Fillmore blew up, the women were already in line. In front of the Cabildo in Jackson Square where he normally set himself up, he’d become as much a daily fixture as the statue of the seventh president.
Since he was a stickler for routine, he arrived every morning no later than eight, even on weekends, carrying a huge camping haversack from which he miraculously produced two collapsible chairs—the larger, sturdier one for himself—free-standing placard, bottles of water, red-lidded plastic containers of peeled eggs doused in salt, pepper, and tabasco sauce (one for now, one later), mixed nuts (mostly almonds), celery or carrot sticks depending on his mood when he packed his snacks in the morning, four small squares of whole wheat bread and peanut butter (no jelly) sandwiches, his current novel (John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces purchased a month ago in Pirate’s Alley to replace his old, over-thumbed, tattered one), credit card reader (he no longer took cash), digital timer, flask of quality whisky aged twelve to fifteen, and pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses that, according to Mrs. Bundren, made him cute as the dickens or Charles Dickens (he was never sure which) though he much doubted it in either case.
Once everything was set up to his satisfaction, he positioned the double-sided placard where most people could see it, brawny Atlas on both sides bearing upon his wide shoulders the world, and large, bright fire-inked words,
Tired of Carrying
Weight of the World
Upon YOUR shoulders?
Allow Mr. Fillmore to
Ease your load.
9 AM-6 PM
Originally, he’d tried a slogan to squeeze at the bottom, a pun using his name: You Unload, I Fill More or Let Mr. Fillmore Fill Up So You Can Fill Less, but he couldn’t get to the right phrasing.
Mr. Fillmore’s specialty was listening to women (although he didn’t discriminate), and he’d honed his talent from an early age. His mother was the first to exploit it, bending his ear on a nightly basis about his father’s penchant for poker, booze, and prostitutes. Along the way, she inadvertently made him aware to be respectful of women’s troubles.
His older sister, who died young, due to chronic eating disorders since she was twelve, wanted to be like the other girls, thin, sexy, beautiful, and popular. From her, he learned about loneliness and the significance of self-worth.
His only girlfriend, whose dirty, calloused feet he’d massage every night on the broken couch in her apartment while they watched true-life crime shows, would prattle on about her classes, parents’ bourgeois tendencies, fears, goals, and ambitions, and how she wanted to have lots of money in the end. On campus, she walked everywhere in bare feet, even to 20th-century American Lit. where they first met. She taught him patience and to love Ignatius. She introduced him to Toole’s novel by reading it to him at night. In the end, things didn’t work out for she thought him woefully unambitious even though he was a wonderful listener.
All his life, women gravitated in his direction to tell him their woes—in high school, college, work, bars. He never invited or sought out these confidences, but they came just the same. Colleagues, friends, neighbors, relatives, strangers, wives of friends, wives of acquaintances. Some unique feature about his face, perhaps, pulled them in, inspiring trust, he supposed, if not passion or lust (for he was never good that way).
Mrs. Bundren was at the head of the line, chattering away with the other regulars, Mrs. Little, Mrs. Jackson, Mrs. Defarge, Miss Sanchez, Miss Clarke, Mrs. Lafitte, and so on, women he’d gotten to know since he first arrived in New Orleans over a year ago, a healthy trail of them, young, older, and in-between, waiting patiently for their turn. He counted thirty or so already, which is why business boomed: they couldn’t get enough of him.
It was Mrs. Bundren who’d gotten the ball rolling at the beginning; she was his most loyal customer, and he couldn’t ignore the serendipity of her name. (He enjoyed Faulkner, too, who’d lived in the Quarter as well.) She helped spread the word about the fabulous Mr. Fillmore in Jackson Square, who listens to you and only to you, and all your worries go away, poof, like magic, and you walk away feeling like you’re carrying a piece of him for the rest of the day, reminding you that life is good and the world a good place.
Summer heat in New Orleans could be brutal. Regardless, he wore button-down shirts, slacks, and penny loafers. His short hair was neatly smoothed down with his favorite leave-in conditioner, and he was clean-shaven. He thought it important to look the part, like a psychiatrist of sorts, except much cheaper, of course.
He sat in his oversized chair for oversized people, his thick legs crossed at the ankles, breathing hard from the exertion of setting up, and retrieved a hard-boiled egg from one of his containers. He enjoyed acclimating himself to the morning hubbub of tourists and locals, nibbling on his egg, the yoke solid and dry the way he liked. He much admired the French Quarter, especially because of Dunces and its hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, a big reason he decided to settle in New Orleans in the first place. He even almost bought a hunting cap, in homage to both Ignatius and his other literary hero, Holden. Ultimately, he couldn’t decide between green or red.
The first thing he did upon arriving was to seek out Ignatius’s statue. It wasn’t that easy to find because it’d been moved from its original location. How his heart broke when he found him on the sidewalk on busy Canal Street, looking small and forlorn, no fanfare to commemorate who he was, no pedestal to stand upon, graffitied and vandalized, and ignored by the common pedestrian. Under Ignatius’s right eye, some ignoramus had painted a white teardrop.
He rented a tiny studio apartment near enough to the Quarter. He was never about lavishness anyway, nor was he lonely for he liked solitude and books. But, lately, a curious gloom had befallen him, and he suspected his drastic weight gain was the cause. He used to be thin, but now he was as big as a small house. He couldn’t say exactly how much weight he’d put on in only the last six months because his scale (and the one he’d replaced it with) had broken, and he couldn’t read the numbers anymore anyway. However, his almost-six-foot frame, lanky, tall, and lean was now round and stout.
As the big clock above the St. Louis Cathedral moved closer to the hour, the women, no longer chatting, morosely silent, began to crowd the front of the line, and Mrs. Bundren used her arms and designer handbag to keep them behind her. They’d gotten more aggressive, more fanatical about him, and some of them returned two or three times a day. Arguments erupted when someone tried to cut the line.
At the beginning, their complaints were about inconsiderate husbands and wayward boyfriends or wayward husbands and inconsiderate boyfriends, but recently their worries had broadened, turned darker, heavier, and increasingly centered on tragedies. When he was feeling fanciful, he thought his inexplicable weight gain the result of the daily deluge of sad news he was taking in, and it wasn’t just the extra pounds, but his belly ached constantly. He was constipated all the time, and the gas pains were agonizing. He took longer breaks between customers, so he could walk to Jackson’s statue and back, releasing canon fire and silent daggers every step of the way.
His face grew jowly, his arms and legs thickened and bloated. At the end of each day, he didn’t need a scale anymore to know he’d gained another absurd load of weight. Something sad was percolating deep down in his guts, haunting him even when he tried to sleep, and he began to question his perception of things, wondering how much a human body can take.
“Are you well, Mr. Fillmore?” Mrs. Bundren asked him once, patting the back of his pudgy hand. She never mentioned his abrupt weight gain directly.
“Yes, Mrs. Bundren,” he said. “I’m fine.” And that’s as far as it went.
He glanced at the other merchants arriving early, his “competition”—acrobats, dancers, singers, musicians, jugglers, comedians, tarot card readers, psychics, painters, caricaturists, mimes, hypnotists, trinket sellers, con men, cheaters, hustlers—hoping to commandeer the choicest spots, situating their tables, chairs, and signs, loosening up, getting ready. Everyone had a gimmick, some original, some not.
The snake woman was already walking about in front of the Presbytere, her normal haunt, a large, thick, yellow boa wrapped around her neck and shoulders. She charged people to pet the huge creature, and, for the more adventurous, she’d transfer the heavy load onto their shoulders for more money.
Mr. Fillmore uncapped his flask and peeked at the big clock. He had a few minutes still, so he opened the novel randomly and was treated to Ignatius’s travails selling hot dogs in the Quarter. He knew the book backwards and forwards, so he enjoyed flipping through it. When his phone alarm chimed, he wiped his hands on a cloth napkin, removed his reading glasses, closed Dunces, and waved over Mrs. Bundren, whose face erupted into a huge grin of relief, the women behind her frowning in counterpoint for they knew she liked to monopolize his time. Often she’d talk over the five minutes, even sometimes for more than thirty minutes straight while the women in line scowled furiously.
“You’re a balm, Mr. Fillmore, an absolute balm. Do you know that? No, I suppose you don’t,” she said, plopping herself familiarly in the chair directly across from his, handing over her credit card. He ran it through his reader and started the timer. She always began with the same words, designer purse in her lap, legs crossed demurely at the knee. She wore black pumps and a fitted dress. “I’m bothered again, Mr. Fillmore.”
“Is it Harold?” he asked. He knew a good deal of Mrs. Bundren’s troubled marriage.
“No,” she said.
“Then, what is it, Mrs. Bundren?”
Mrs. Bundren squawked. “It’s…everything!”
“Everything?” This was a recurring theme with many of them lately.
“Yes, everything! How is a person supposed to live a happy life, when there are so many terrible things happening all around us? We’re under siege, Mr. Fillmore, bombarded by a constant barrage of awful news and events.”
“Perhaps, Mrs. Bundren, the answer is to ‘turn off’?”
“Mr. Fillmore, one cannot ignore reality. After all, the world is too much with us!” He wondered if Mrs. Bundren had stumbled luckily upon the phrase or knew the poem by Wordsworth (great name for a poet!). It didn’t matter. The levee was breached, and for the time remaining, if things went the way they always did, his role was to listen.
Mrs. Bundren mentioned war, poverty, climate change, presidential politics, pandemics, terrorism, NATO, abortion rights, voting rights, reality TV, cancer, the economy, health care, drugs, public education, gun violence, gang violence, car fatalities, raging fires, white power, and, then, for good measure, she threw in what’s it all about?, what’s it all for?, and what’s the point of anything anymore?
When Mrs. Bundren went past the five-minute mark for the fourth time, Mr. Fillmore’s attempt to keep a long tendril of gas from jettisoning began to ebb. A button from his shirt popped off, and his belt was a hangman’s noose around his waist. When the timer rang for the sixth time, Mrs. Bundren relented: “I feel so much better, Mr. Fillmore. Thank you for listening! You’re such a dear.”
“You’re welcome, Mrs. Bundren,” he said with tears in his eyes, running her credit card once again before handing it back. His stomach was about to explode.
She sauntered away happily, swinging her designer purse from knee to knee while he toiled to his stubborn feet. Even his oversized shoes had narrowed. He waddled toward Jackson atop his horse, thankful again for the invisibility of flatulence.
For the next five hours or so, the women grew more out of sorts, more bewildered, more frightened. Something was in the wind, and there was an overwhelming sense of helplessness. One after the other, women (and now, a smattering of men) spoke of their troubles, fears, anxieties, much of it centered on the general state of the world. In between customers (patients? clients?), he continued to trudge to Jackson and back and, every time he returned, the line had become longer, snaking down Chartres Street. He loosened his pants as much as he could without being obscene for he felt he’d gained a great deal of weight since the morning. He was feeling wretched and, not for the first time, thought about pursuing another line of work. This used to be easier, he thought, but, lately, he was feeling the weight of the world everywhere upon his beleaguered body.
And then, he heard a clamor coming from the direction of Royal Street, and he glanced up to see Mrs. Bundren running as if her own death were chasing her, screaming his name: “Mr. Fillmore! Mr. Fillmore! Mr. Fillmore!”
She was in her bare feet, carrying a black object in one hand, and aiming straight for him. Everyone in line glanced in her direction. When they recognized she had no intention of getting behind them, they broke ranks and rushed toward him as well.
In fear, Mr. Fillmore tried to jump from his seat, but his backside had become wedged in it, stuck, and he had to extricate himself violently instead, the chair breaking away in pieces. Unsure what to do, he plunged in the direction of Jackson and Decatur, huge balls of angry fumes bursting from him as he went stumbling down the path. The crowd called after him: “Mr. Fillmore!” “Mr. Fillmore!” “Mr. Fillmore!”
“No more,” he mumbled, thickly, trying to cover his ears, but his hands were too swollen, and he couldn’t sense them anymore. He was wheezing. He fell and an elderly couple coming from the opposite direction helped him, somehow, to his feet.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Mr. Fillmore!” “Mr. Fillmore!” “Mr. Fillmore!”
“No, no, no,” he cried, resuming his plodding.
He reached Jackson’s statue and collapsed at the base of it, and the crowd formed a semi-circle around him, some falling to their knees in supplication while others pelted him with clumps of dirt and small stones, wanting his attention. Mr. Fillmore could feel his body thickening, expanding, and his shirt and pants crumbled away as if he were some supernatural creature in the act of transformation, and he worried he would suddenly be naked in front of them. His skin split and bled, and his eyeballs bulged, and his organs pressed up against other organs, and he grabbed his head because his whole body was swelling like a balloon whose exterior had reached its breaking point.
“You said you would take it all, Mr. Fillmore. Every bit of it.”
And every time they said his name, he felt himself grow larger and he knew he couldn’t take any more, not one more thing or he’d bust or go insane or worse, and from somewhere deep inside he pooled what was left, all he could muster, for one more effort, one more cry, one more burst, and it came, it was there, and he lifted his head, and he shouted,
“I CAN’T LISTEN TO ANY OF YOU ANYMORE!”
His shout pierced the throng, and everyone fell instantly silent, and he labored again to his bloated, unsteady feet, and he sought Mrs. Bundren with his eyes, and she stepped forward.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Fillmore,” she said, and she held a gun up to her temple. “I can’t carry the weight of the world any longer.”
Mr. Fillmore reached a bleeding hand in her direction. “Put it down, Mrs. Bundren,” he said. “I will listen.” It was all he could do to remain upright.
Mrs. Bundren let her hand drop to her side, and everyone leaned in with expectation, hoping for vicarious relief at least, and they were all there, all the women, all the men.
“Yes,” Mrs. Bundren began. “Thank you, Mr. Fillmore. You’re a balm, you know that? The world is too much with us, yes, yes? It’s gotten so hard to sleep anymore, to be optimistic or feel peace of mind, and…and…what happened was…I came to realize I can’t seem to hold on to good feelings anymore. I need you, Mr. Fillmore, or I must end it. It’s one or the other. The world is broken, and I need you.”
Mr. Fillmore glanced at Mrs. Bundren, his large eyes, of whose eyelids he couldn’t close anymore, bulging, and he was about to say something profound because the moment seemed to call for it. Everyone stared at him, hope, expectation, and even terror on their faces, and he opened his mouth and….
There was a deafening boom and a gush of wet wind, and the skies darkened, and everyone was knocked off their feet, including unsuspecting tourists, shoppers, and merchants too unlucky to be closest. Andrew Jackson was sheared clean off his horse and rocketed high in the sky and into the Mississippi. Mrs. Clarke was pierced in the lungs by a jagged tibia from Mr. Fillmore’s left leg. Mrs. Defarge was made blind by stomach acids and bile that had fermented in Mr. Fillmore’s stomach and intestines. Mrs. Lafitte was blown headfirst by Mr. Fillmore’s profound gasses through a plate-glass storefront on St. Peter Street which, among other things, sold books about the Louisiana Purchase and the Battle of New Orleans. The elderly couple who’d helped Mr. Fillmore to his feet was killed instantly when a large slab of Mr. Fillmore’s abdomen smashed into their heads like concrete, and Mrs. Bundren was struck unconscious by a clod of gray matter formerly belonging to Mr. Fillmore, which hit her squarely in the jaw. The concussion blasted the gun all the way toward Bourbon Street.
Everyone was covered in a combination of entrails, organ matter, excrement, blood, bone, skin, fat, urine, partly digested egg, veins, ligaments, cartilage, muscle, as well as microscopic fragments of an undiscovered tumor growing in Mr. Fillmore’s brain. Remnants of him hung from nearby tree limbs, those still upright, and the air above them was a small mushroom cloud, red and dark blue with pieces of falling viscera.
When police and rescue personnel arrived, there was nothing to do but declare Jackson Square a crime scene, tend to the casualties, take statements—he just blew up, I’d never seen anything like it, he just blew up—and send people home who didn’t need to be transported to nearby trauma centers, except for Mrs. Bundren, who snuck away without anyone noticing, groggy and tentative in her step as is seen nightly in the Quarter.
Upon reaching North Rampart Street, she began to feel better, mainly when she realized she was carrying on her person pieces of Mr. Fillmore’s brain, heart, liver, and other matter, on her face, her hair, her clothing, her hands, and she had a fleeting idea she could carefully remove and conserve the many pieces, and place them in her freezer to take out afterward whenever she needed solace because, after all, when would there be another Mr. Fillmore?
Over New Orleans and a little beyond, for the next few days, pieces of Mr. Fillmore floated and fell, including on the forlorn statue of Ignatius on Canal Street and, in time, took root there and, like a good scouring agent, began to cleanse the statue of all its imperfections, beginning with the white teardrop some ignoramus had painted there.