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Today's Story by Wayne Scheer

You think because I'm a freak I have a deep, beautiful soul. I don't.

Prarie Flower

When I was six, I wanted to be like Mama and smoke cigarettes. I ended up setting the living room curtains on fire trying to work her cigarette lighter. The flames jumped to my hair and I had third and fourth degree burns over my face and body.

For the first couple of days in the hospital, it hurt so much I thought I would die. After that, it hurt so bad I wanted to die, especially when it began blistering. It felt like millions of fire ants stinging me at the same time. Then came the worst part — the scars.

One eye was partly closed and one side of my upper lip bulged so a smile looked like a sneer. Also, I had a brownish-red scar from my chest to my stomach. The first time I saw myself in the mirror after the bandages came off, I screamed.  Just one loud, horror-movie scream.

I remember this one nurse saying, “It doesn’t matter how you look on the outside, sweetie It’s what’s inside that counts.”

Had I known the word at the time, I would have said, “Bullshit!”  Instead, I cried.

My mother said, “When you get older, we’ll go to a doctor in Phoenix and get your face fixed. But God’s gonna love you just the same.”

I knew she was lying about the doctor and probably about God. I pretended to be asleep when Dr. Flynn told her how much plastic surgery would cost without health insurance. “Pray with her,” he said.  “She’ll get used to it.”

I remember praying to God, begging Him to just straighten my lip or open my eye. When I saw my reflection, I knew my prayers were as empty as the words of people telling me how pretty I looked.

As time passed, I grew tired of being alone and angry. I began playing with the girls I knew before the fire. I think playing with the freak was their way of being “good Christians.” But sometimes it wasn’t so bad, and we fooled with our dolls or giggled about boys. I tried to convince myself I was just like them.

I remember the time Rita Robinson told me I had pretty hair. Dark and wavy, my hair hung down to the middle of my back. It was the one thing that made me feel normal.

“Can I brush it?”

“Sure,” I said

She brushed it back a few times and then pushed it to the side, trying to cover my bad eye I grabbed the brush from her and hit her in the face with it.

She cried. “I only wanted to help you look normal, scarface.”

I knew they called me scarface behind my back, but no one had ever said it to my face before. She ran out of the room and I ran after her shouting, “How’d you like it if I called you fatbutt?”

The funny part was Rita was so skinny, I doubt she even had an ass.

Eventually, small breasts emerged from my scarred flesh and I’d stand in front of the mirror, naked, wondering if boys would like them. I admired how pink my nipples looked against the dark red-brown scars Once, I overheard mama say to a friend of hers, “You give a man some tit and he’s your friend for life.”  Those words stayed with me more than anything the preacher or my teachers ever said.

But I should have known better than to listen to my mother when it came to men. None of her male friends stuck around much, including my father. He did a disappearing act the day he found out I was growing in mama’s belly.

Imagine how fast he would have run had he known how I’d turn out?

There was this one boy, Eric Williams. He was fat and wore braces on his teeth. Sometimes, he’d walk me home after school, and tell me how the kids made fun of him

“I know all about that,” I said.

He was shy and didn’t have many friends. To me, that made him perfect.

One day after school, I suggested we go to the abandoned car behind the old Potter Building on the edge of town. The car was notorious among the teenagers of our town. It was called the “cherry picker.” Even those of us who only guessed at what that meant, laughed knowingly whenever someone talked about it.

Eric took my hand, and I thought this must be what normal felt like.

When we crawled into the back seat, and sprawled out on the dirty, ripped upholstery, he put his arm out and I put my head on his shoulder. We talked some and then we kissed Although his braces rubbed the inside of my lips raw, I liked how moist and warm his lips felt. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to move around or do something with my tongue. My teeth tapped his braces, and I kept thinking: this can’t be right.  But it still felt good, like I was growing up and everything was going to be all right.

Then I felt his hand touch the top of my shirt and slide over my breast. That was my cue.

I was wearing a padded bra. This embarrassed me more than showing him my little breasts and the pretty nipples I was so proud of. I made him turn his head while I took off my shirt and unsnapped my bra

“You can turn around now,” I said, certain that he was going to see me as beautiful and want to marry me on the spot. Instead, I saw the same look in his eyes I’d seen most of my life. He tightened his lips and turned away like he was going to throw up

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought it was just your face.”

I got back into my clothes and ran home so fast I didn’t have time to cry. At least until I got home.

Mama looked at me, my shirt misbuttoned and my lips all swollen and bloody, and screamed, “Who did this to you?”  She thought I’d been raped.

When I told her what had happened, she held me and we both cried.

She had already explained to me how she didn’t have health insurance at the time, and how they won’t cover me now because it’s a pre-existing condition

“It’s not fair, Mama.”

“No, it’s not, honey. No, it’s not.”


When I was almost eighteen, I met Sarah Flamingo, the woman the men at the Donut Shack called “the crazy painter lady from Santa Cruz.”  I started working at the Shack, part time, when I was still in school. After I graduated, I took on more hours. The owner used to go with my mother. He felt sorry for me, so he let me work there during the day until closing

The first time I saw Sarah, it was like meeting a movie star. Not because she was beautiful, but she looked like a woman from someplace else. That made her a celebrity to me.

She was a large woman, tall and big-boned. She wore a loose-fitting floral dress that hung down to her ankles. Her dark hair was short and I could see a smudge of brown paint on her forehead.

“I’ll have two glazed donuts and a coffee to go,” she said, staring at me. I’m used to folks staring, but she seemed like she was really trying to see me, not just my scars. Something about the look in her eyes didn’t make me feel like a freak.

She had a strange voice. Considering how big she was, she spoke in almost a whisper. I had to lean towards her just to hear her order.

She paid for the food and touched my hand when I gave her the change. Most people avoid touching me, afraid they might catch my ugliness. When I give them their change, they lower their hand a few inches and I have to drop the change into it. She raised hers, letting me place the money in her palm.

She came back every day about the same time. After a while, she sat at the counter eating her two donuts and drinking coffee while we talked. She said she had taught art at the college in Santa Cruz and now she was staying in town to paint.

“Nothing here worth painting,” I said.

“On the contrary.” She still whispered, so I had to listen carefully. “The prairie flowers are beautiful, and I love withered cactus. The tall ones look like pathetic crucifixes to me. I painted one with a contorted face on it. The picture sold for two thousand dollars at a gallery in Tucson.”

“Oo-wee.”  I didn’t know what more to say. I wanted to ask what a person would do with a picture like that, but I didn’t want to insult her.

“Crazy, huh?”  She winked and sipped her coffee.

We even talked about my scars. I told her about the fire and how my mother didn’t have the money for surgery. Instead of the usual “tsk, tsk” sound people make, she just nodded and took in the information, like I was telling her about a movie or a recipe for apple pie

And I told her about the boys who, now that my breasts had grown, didn’t seem to mind the scars like Eric did.

“At least when I take off my shirt, they don’t throw up,” I said.

She laughed and covered my hand with hers.

One day, out of nowhere, she said, “I’d like to paint you.”

Although I imagined her brushes stroking my body, I knew what she meant.


“Because you’re a beautiful prairie flower.”

“More a dried up cactus.”

She laughed and shook her head. “It’s your sense of humor I want to capture. Your ability to survive, despite….” She hesitated. “I’ll pay the standard model’s fee.”

That did it, especially when she told me how much. It was a lot more than I was making selling donuts.

The first time, she posed me next to a rusted-out Coca Cola sign. Mostly, she liked to paint me in the desert, but not the pretty part with the mountains in the background when the sun sets. She’d paint me in the middle of the day with nothing but dried-out dirt and sagebrush around me. Another time, she painted me holding withered flowers.

“Slump your shoulders,” she said. “And don’t purse your lips Let me see them as they are.”

We spent almost every day out in the desert, talking while she painted. She told me a little about herself. She was thirty-eight years old and never married. Her parents died when she was young and she lived with different foster families until she inherited a life insurance policy when she turned eighteen. She went to art school, sold paintings and won awards. Then she got a job teaching at the university in Santa Cruz. When I asked   why she left, she changed the subject.

But mostly, she let me talk about myself. I told her I didn’t have much to say because I hadn’t had much of a life, but she seemed fascinated by every detail, especially about how I felt being a freak.

Sometimes, we’d go back to her “studio,” which was really two adjoining rooms at the Prairie Motel. There, she’d pose me completely naked. I wasn’t sure at first, but she paid me more and made me feel so comfortable I figured there was nothing wrong with it. I remember one time she had me lying on the bed with my knees bent and my legs spread. She put her sketchpad between my legs and drew from that angle for what seemed like hours.

She painted a whole series of pictures of me in that pose, but she added cactus and desert cadavers as if we were outside and I was just one of the sights you see out there. “Prairie Flower” is what she called the series and it won some kind of award. I was her muse, she said, and whenever she sold a painting, she gave me a bonus.

But I always thought the pictures were ugly. At first, I was afraid to hurt her feelings and tell her what I thought, but one day I said I wished she would paint me without scars since I thought my body looked pretty.

“Your body is beautiful,” she said. “But it’s the blemishes that make it unique.”

“I don’t want to be unique,” I screamed at her. “I want to look like you or my mother.”  I was so angry, I ran into the bathroom. I brushed my hair and cried.

Sarah knocked on the door, gently “May we talk?”

I opened the door and threw the brush at her, hitting her on the hip. “You’re just like the others,” I said. “To you I’m just a freak.”

Instead of being mad, she held me and let me cry. I hadn’t cried like that for a long, long time.

That night, we became lovers.

She kissed me and caressed my hair. Then she cupped my breasts and licked the outline of my scar down my stomach. I tried to pull away, but she felt so warm and gentle.

Afterwards, she just held me in her arms, expecting nothing from me in return. I felt loved.

She told me about a woman in Santa Cruz that she had lived with for over twelve years before moving here. She left when the woman underwent a sex change operation.

“I loved her so much, I even helped pay for the operation because she wanted to look like a man more than anything. But before the operation even started, when she was undergoing hormone therapy and growing facial hair, I was no longer attracted to her. I loved her as a woman, not as a man.”

“But if you really loved her,” I said, “wouldn’t you love her no matter what?”

“You’d think so, dear.”  For the first time, I heard Sarah cry. “I just wanted to take care of her,” she whispered.  “I wanted to help her accept who she was.”

“No,” I said, surprising myself and rising on my elbow. “You loved her as a woman because as a woman she was a freak. She was really a man.”

“And how do you know so much about this?”  Her voice grew above its usual softness. “Your main concern before we met was whether or not a boy liked your breasts.”

“Don’t you see?  It’s still my concern. You think because I’m a freak I have a deep, beautiful soul. I don’t. Down deep, all I want is to be normal.”

I left Sarah that night when I realized that the bullshit I had heard all my life — “It’s what’s inside that counts” — was right after all. Sometimes you just need a good plastic surgeon to see it.

Sarah helped me find a doctor in Phoenix. She even offered to pay for the surgery, but I told her I had saved most of the money she had already given me. My mother, also, had been saving her money.

I live in Phoenix now. I’ve already had my lip corrected so I don’t snarl nearly so much. The next operation on my eye is scheduled for a few days. I have a job working in a supermarket and I plan on going to a junior college in the fall.

I saw Sarah not too long ago. She was in Phoenix, lecturing on “inner beauty,” and I went to hear her. She looked shocked to see me, especially when I smiled.


Wayne Scheer has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Web.  His work has appeared in a variety of print and online venues.  Revealing Moments, a collection of twenty-four stories, can be downloaded at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. A film adaptation of his story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting,” is available at http://vimeo.com/18491827.

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