God, Oma Louise came eventually to think, could have found some better use for those last twelve inches that stretched the difference between fair and freak. Twelve more inches would enhance a giraffe or a freeway on-ramp. They could have been used to extend a vein of precious ore, puffed out a blue-ribbon melon, or been scattered like blessings among four or six self-conscious penises.
She tugged at the hem of her violet taffeta evening gown and recrossed her legs, the platform beneath her chair giving up a rude creaking sound which caused some members of the audience to look away from Alphonso to see if Oma had actually begun to do something. Her gaze held steady above them, like a bullet just creasing their scalps.
Alphonso's spiel always slid out like oil from a punctured crankcase, smooth as glass but wrong somehow. What he excelled in was getting people to believe outrageous things they only half wanted to doubt anyway. His latest pitch for Oma had to do with her impending marriage to Sir Artie Gilmore, a midget who did a tumbling and fire-eating routine and was an excellent rig man. It was being billed as the match of the century—the smallest man and the tallest woman, coming together in the immeasurable landscape of the heart.
Alphonso's hard close, just before Artie was to come swaggering down the elevated ramp that allowed the people to get a good look at him, was to speculate gravely about the progeny—should there be any—of such a union. Oma figured it was the reference to sex that finally hooked them, the imaginings of oh-such-gloriously-ordinary people about copulation among the abnormal. Worth half a dollar in any county.
She scanned the panorama slowly from left to right and estimated the house count. Alphonso would hold off a few minutes, hoping to swell the ranks that much more for their final performance of the day. The muscles around her bum eyeball twitched once and settled down again. They had been shortened by the doctor who cleaned up the mess after the accident. The last things she had seen with that eye had been stars—silvery splintered comets breaking orbit from her eye socket, that dead center of her universe going the eternal black of the coal shovel that had edged into the thin flesh at the corner of her eye, a shower of bone arrows finding the optic bull’s eye.
Her startled eyeball had shimmied like egg custard, sending her favorite cousin running for cover, the guilty shovel raised beside him like a black flag, which brought back the women. They railed at her assailant and grieved over the fate of a child born two wishes down. For a time Oma had thought they meant her hapless cousin, and she had pitied his flat shape as it edged past her good eye the other side of the new chain fence that was to have straightened things out between them, but never did.
Upon Alphonso's signal, Oma rose slowly to her feet to be led away by the Vargo sisters, former trapeze artists. They'd retired from circus life a few years earlier, when the spread of television across the land severely reduced audiences, and purses, for live performances everywhere. Now they worked the carnival circuits as ticket takers and concessionaires. Dressed as ladies in waiting, circa 1800's, their part was to take the bride-to-be away so that the anxious groom wouldn't see her before the ceremony—discounting the previous performances that day. Oma's removal also served to postpone the actual viewing of the odd couple standing side-by-side, a treat reserved for paying customers only.
Allowing herself a quick glance at the gawkers as she turned to leave the platform, she felt her stomach give a turn before her brain registered what it was that had struck her. She looked over her shoulder and ran her good eye back over the wash of faces closest to the apron of the platform. Cranked up at her was the face of a little girl who looked to have been sucked through a combiner or thrashing machine. The features were all there but twisted out of alignment. Even when Oma was safely behind the curtain, she could still see the slick maroon scars where the lesions had been. They were old wounds.
Oma responded distractedly to the chatter of the sisters, who stood on upended trunks to lift the white concoction of bed sheets and tulle over her head, and then hopped down to tug at it energetically. Trader Bull, the wagon master, was already dressed for his role as a country preacher and busied himself with the plastic floral arrangements and the steps and podium that would allow him to be visible to the crowd once Oma was in place in front of him.
Whenever Oma changed costumes in the tent, he sneaked looks at her, but his attention rarely extended beyond that, except for his baritone solicitations during the performances. He too pitched sex, although his familiarity with relevant Biblical verses extended only so far as "Go forth and multiply," which always brought hoarse whispers from the audience. She enjoyed his attention in a secret, spirited way.
Her breasts were full and high, and she had learned early to sew even her own undergarments which she took care to fit carefully and trimmed with expensive lace and appliqués of roses and daisies. And he was a big man, only seven or eight inches shorter than she, with the large features of German ancestry. Even his teeth were large. She enjoyed watching him, as he swaggered and sweated through the last hot blasts of summer, while at the same time she was irritated that his interest in her half-naked body smacked of voyeurism and little else.
"Will you move your grumpy ass?" A plea from one of the sisters who was prodding Oma as if she were a recalcitrant beast of burden, trying to get her out through the back of the tent. From there the two of them would enter ceremoniously while the older Vargo played the wedding march.
The hot wind whipping her veil across her face, Oma caught at it angrily. She wasn't sure where the anger had surfaced from, but she was content to let it bubble around Bull and his high-handedness. She needed a place to stew with it while she waited for Alphonso to get the people into the tent. She would be careful to avoid Bull's eyes while he carried on, hamming it up as if he were a real preacher invited to be in charge of such a momentous undertaking. She would give nothing away.
Pinching her lips together and squinting against the dust that was gusting up around them, she offered her maid-of-honor the end of her veil, which they pulled across their faces for protection until the music started and they began the hesitation step into the canvas chapel.
There was just enough clearance for them to make their way along the back of the tent and up the center aisle, with Oma having to pause every little bit to free her gown from the splintery folding chair legs.
She was almost in the clear when the fabric caught again. Sighing a curse, she reached back to shake it loose, and caught sight of a spindly arm reaching to help. Her glance rode up the arm and past the red and white mesh of that same rearranged little face.
Striding swiftly the few remaining steps to the front, Oma stared hard at the soiled collar that was catching rivulets of sweat slipping down Bull's face and neck, nausea crowding her stomach like a fat tape worm. She felt Alphonso move up to her left side and could see the top of Artie's head next to her on the right.
After Bull gave his opening remarks, Alphonso agreed to give her away. Then he went to the back to slip quietly out so as to get on with wrapping things up for the evening. Bull would hype the act for a while, so she and Artie always sat down on either side of the podium, their sides to the audience. She glanced at Artie's face and was moved by the concern there. She wanted to reassure him that she was all right by returning his wink, but her good eye was visible to the audience and the cut muscles of the other one were as apt to tremble and flutter as to close and open in one neat swoop.
Her own face felt hot, and her lips tingled the way her arms and hands did when she slept on them too long. Artie was a good man, and a successful midget, one of her best friends among the regular carneys. The two of them often shared early coffee and late dinners, comparing notes on what it was like to grow up different—which in Artie's case meant not growing past 3'11".
Privately, they allowed they were more like one another than different really, caught between the real freaks—like Melva the Mermaid, with her skin disorder that gave her upper torso the appearance of having scales of mica chips glued on—and the cons. For Oma and Artie, their oddnesses weren't as much a matter of strangeness as of degree.
She dropped her head and let her eye trace the folds of petals in the plastic nosegay she was gripping. The anger was gone, replaced by the familiar press of depression. And she knew where this was coming from, as well as she had known each bed and table and shelf of the supply closet at the Waterloo, Iowa, County Hospital, where she had gotten her first real job. What it really was was an institution for the hopelessly impaired. They had needed strong girls, and she had been one of the strongest.
Tiny Rose had been her first real assignment, after months of sweeping, and lifting patients from beds to gurneys to salt baths. Not yet full grown at 6'5", Oma could handle even men, and the obese Orpha, who stole food from trays and drawers and once even from a raised fork, the prongs leaving a curious bloody bite in the thick pad of her thumb flesh. From clear across the room, the baby's crib had looked to Oma like a garden, with one massive rose shimmering off-center in a ward awash with sheeted shapes paling within steel frames, or haunting the aisles between the beds.
From halfway across the room, the two dew drops became Baby Rose's eyes, pushed wide apart by the gaping rosy hole that should have been her nose and mouth, just folds and ridges, really, with a narrow tunnel where liquid food and water could be spooned in when the wind pipe was closed off with a finger tip. The liquids would pool and bubble a little before Rose would do the magic thing the doctors couldn't name and take the nourishment in, as if there were nothing to it, just like any other baby who would grow and sit up and maybe outlive them all.
When the day finally came that the ward was all grays and whites, Oma had frozen dead center, her good eye fierce for that rosy spot of color, but even the crib was gone. Hot tears spilled first along the jagged scar that emptied out just over her flattened left cheekbone.
She learned that the baby's family wouldn't come even to take care of the burial. They hadn't bothered to christen her, either. It was Oma who had given her the name Baby Rose. The tiny carcass had been placed in a plastic bag and remained in the basement all morning and afternoon, until Oma had finally convinced the administrator to let her take the remains away and bury them herself. Telling her to say nothing about it to anyone, he had filled out the usual paperwork and filed it away, and then, his face pink with an unhealthy blend of relief and shame, he had led her down to the storage room.
She buried the tiny bundle exactly as she had the birds and cats that died on their property, and even her father's English pointer that had upset the vet by dying of heartworm too far north.
Oma wasn't aware of the murmurs from the audience until the tug of Artie's hand brought her to her feet. He whispered "What's wrong?" but she couldn't answer. There was a lump in her throat the size of a small, perfect fist and her eye was so flooded with tears she couldn't even see Bull's face clearly, much less Artie's upturned one far below her.
Bull was beginning the bogus marriage ceremony, the wrenching—and totally fabricated—histories of the happy couple's unhappy lives up to the point of having found one another finally over. She willed herself to stop the flow of tears and get the show over with—nobody was paying enough for any real emotions —but she couldn't regain control. Her shoulders shook with suppressed sobs, pity for Rose mixed in with pity for Oma and the years of grasping and having to let go.
The final straw was a thumb, Artie's thumb softly caressing the back of her hand as she stood there mute and trapped in side show stupor. Then her cries surfaced, choked and long, as if layers deep within the earth were twisting apart, the tension traveling to the surface in serpentine bellows.
Bull stopped talking, and the entire tent seemed to balloon with the outpouring of hushed whispers. Oma kept her face straight ahead, not daring to look down at Artie, whose grip on her hand had tightened, or at Bull, who seemed not to know how to carry on in light of this unexpected response from the oft-wed bride.
After what seemed to Oma like evening going into morning, Bull's voice rose over her sobs, which had quieted a little and were becoming gaspy. He was perfect. She acknowledged that even while she was still struggling to collect herself. In a tone fully patronizing, he allowed how it was only normal for her to be emotional and all worked up on her wedding day, and that since she was a lot more woman than the average bride, it was to be expected that the outburst be of greater dimensions also. Instant, pure hatred for the man and his glibness dried her up like a peach in a drought. Dropping the plastic nosegay, she reached over the podium and took Bull's thick hand in both of hers, squeezing it so hard he winced visibly.
"Get it over with," she hissed under her breath. "Fast."
Her vision cleared, and Bull's face pulsed before her like a red globe. It was as if the salt had crystallized in her eye, making everything brilliant in hard, clear facets. Even as Bull was making a hurried pronouncement of man and wife, Oma was turning in place, bending for the plastic nosegay and rising up again to her full height. Then with an alarming vitality, she drew her hand back over her shoulder and hurled the bride's bouquet up toward the top of the center post, where it bounced against the canvas and then tumbled down into the thicket of up stretched arms.
She spun again and cleared the front flap before the prize was claimed. Artie darted out also and scampered after her for several yards before giving up the chase. Shimmying up a tent pole, he watched Oma cut through the midway, the train of her white gown calling up a fine spray of dust behind her through which gawkers, frozen in their tracks, peered at the giant bride until she disappeared around the Coney Island wagon.
The noise on the campgrounds always lessened noticeably around ten o'clock at night, when the booths started to shut down, and individual voices could be heard again cutting cleanly through the cooling air. For Oma, that was always the best of the day. She coveted the return to normal, the wind-down pace of tired workers and performers who had had to keep themselves hyped for the public.
Most of them didn't bother to eat until after closing, gathering in one of the tents or outdoors if the weather was right to finish off the cooked foods that hadn't gotten sold. Occasionally, some of them would take the trucks to the edge of town and eat at an all-night truck stop, but Oma rarely went with them. She had no fake whiskers or putty to shake off at the end of the work day so that she could exit, stage left, and amble casually and unnoted along the midway.
She forced a few more items into the top drawer of her trunk and went over and stretched out across the mattresses that had been butted together for her in the corner of the supply tent she had been using as living quarters. The trailers were too low for her to stand up in, and she hadn't wanted a bunkmate, anyway.
She intended to pack up everything and clear out first thing in the morning, but her resolve was wavering. It wasn't that she felt herself to be a part of the carnival family, although she had grown as comfortable there as anywhere she'd been. But there was never any place to move on to. Just moving away. Away from home, where her parents' failure to have a normal child and therefore a normal life had kept them all lashed together in a half-hearted conspiracy against those on the outside who got nosy enough to make things just that much harder. Especially for her mother, a superstitious, religious woman who fretted in silence over the atonement she must be making for some indefinable sin.
Oma frequently tried to recall her earliest life, the years before anyone realized exactly how oversized she was destined to become. There were memories of the linoleum floor, and of wooden spools and plastic toys that rolled around her mother's feet as she worked at the counter high over Oma's head.
And there had been a church picnic at the river where Oma had nearly drowned when she slipped off an inner-tube and had to be hauled over to the bank to have the river water squeezed out of her. She had come to to the supplications of the pastor of the Holy Brethren of the Second Coming Church, who asked that if it be God's will this child be spared. Her good eye full of river bank grass and her nose and throat clogged with mucus, Oma had thought it might already be too late. A few years and feet of growth later, she would recall that day of the near-drowning and play with the idea that she might have been better off left sinking in that river, like a stone to the bottom.
Oma closed her eyes and tried to recall what it was like to have been small enough to be dragged up onto a river bank and tended to, adult- sized hands clamping an arm or leg securely, wide palms fanned clear across the span of her back. She couldn't remember, exactly, but she could imagine how delicious it would feel to be lifted in strong arms, herself light as a feather boa, limp and helpless with her head drooping against any manly chest. Sometimes the sensation was so real to her it was as if she were levitating, floating right up off her bed, adrift in daydreams of hollow bones and feet so small and arched that high-heeled pumps slipped right off her heels and dangled girlishly.
"Yo! Anyone home?"
Oma recognized Artie's British accent, and called out for him to make his way back. By the time he negotiated the stacks of emptied crates and coils of ropes, she was up and sitting on a box in front of her dressing table, working globs of cold cream over her face to remove the theatrical makeup she'd applied before the aborted wedding ceremony.
He hopped up on the open trunk and sat there cross-legged. "So, you want a divorce or what? I'm telling you right now, I get custody of the step ladder."
Oma looked back at him in the mirror.
"And this trunk. I really like this trunk."
"Artie, I'm sorry about the scene back there. It was real stupid."
"Hey, that's okay, Kid. I thought it added a little high drama." He held his hands up, palms out. "No pun intended. Want to talk about it?"
She gazed down at the jar of cold cream and shook her head back and forth. "Huh-uh."
"Not really." Her chest felt heavy, as if it were slowly collapsing over her lungs. She sighed deeply and tried to rest her forehead against her hands, but her fingers kept slipping in the cold cream. "Damn." Grabbing a handful of tissues, she wiped vigorously at her face, staring back at herself grimly.
"Here now." Artie jumped down behind her and pulled her chin up. Then taking the tissues, he began to gently stroke her forehead and cheeks and chin, working from the center to the edges and refolding the tissue often to bring up clean spots to work with. Oma leaned there rigidly, barely breathing.
She could feel his heart beats against her back and felt at once embarrassed and privileged. When he finished, he studied her in the mirror and then looked directly into her eye. "You have beautiful skin. With a glow. Like the English girls who live outside London. You ought to be kinder to it." He ran his fingers lightly over her cheeks, and a shiver ran down through her shoulders and arms.
"What's this, now? Can't take a compliment?" He grabbed her hair and gave her head a playful shake. "Surely you've seen you're a fair looking girl. See here, especially from this angle." He turned her head so that her face was three-quarters visible in the mirror. "When you can't see that eye that got buggered up, you're a right pleasant sight."
She glanced at herself and then at Artie, who was smiling at her. "Didn't anyone ever tell you?"
The flow of blood to her face was so strong that crimson splotches blossomed on each cheek, like latent birthmarks. She opened her mouth, but couldn't speak. Still looking back at him in the mirror, she watched as his head moved forward until he was leaning around her, blocking her view.
Afraid to look any more she closed her eyes, just as he pressed his mouth against hers, the sudden intrusion of his tongue between her lips causing her to jump. She could taste the smoky residue from the torches he used in the eight o'clock fire-eating act. It was a tangy, friendly taste that went well with the warmth of his mouth and the insistence of his body as he wedged himself between her knee and the make up table, coming to rest in the V of her thighs.
Oma didn't dare to move. It was Artie's hand gripping her hair at the back of her head that moved her mouth against his, his other hand slipping inside her robe, which fell easily from her shoulder to expose her breast. His hand swept gently in smaller and smaller circles, until his finger-tips were at the nipple, and what little breath was left in her came rushing out.
"Ah, there's a good girl." Artie worked his mouth along her neck and collar bone, and down over the fullness of her breast, his tongue and teeth working the nipple. Oma moaned softly, her head thrown back in the pose of someone parched greeting the first drops of long-awaited rain.
Reaching over to turn off the lights on the dressing table, Artie whispered, "Let's move over to the bed, Girl."
There was enough light left for her to see Artie's outline and some shadowy definition of his face and body as he undressed beside the bed. Wondering whether she should take her robe and pants off, she lay there flat on her back with her fingers hooked in the waist elastic while she tried to make up her mind. It would have been better to have done it on the way to the bed, less awkward. But then Artie was beside her, his own fingers at the elastic, his mouth and hands traveling over her deftly. She closed her eyes and rubbed her fingers through his hair and down over his shoulders and back, her strokes becoming more urgent as his body stiffened in response and pressed into hers.
His breath heavy, he sounded hoarse when he spoke. "Are you sure about this, Girl? You know, I'm nearly old enough to be your father."
She couldn't tell whether he was teasing or not, but there was nothing to reconsider, she was already slipping backwards, like Alice down the hole, growing smaller and smaller, as the mattress swallowed her up, Artie tumbling in after her, looming larger.
At 5:00 a.m., the crew had begun tearing down and packing up, the late August sun already promising a scorching day of transport to North Platte. By six o'clock, Oma had finished packing her trunk and duffle bag and sat on a box outside the tent, mending tears in the bridal veil. At least that was what she appeared to be doing to the passers-by who called out greetings and curses on the weather if she happened to look up, which she did frequently. In reality, she was waiting for a sign—whether from God or Artie— as to what she should do.
She kept easing back and forth between the sense that what had happened between Artie and her was so special as to be nearly sacred and the more insistent notion that even through their own eyes, or maybe especially his, in the cold light of day they would appear unbearably absurd—a harsh embarrassment, like some of the side shows she'd heard about where performers who drank on the job or had just grown bitter or calloused would go too far.
By eight o'clock, she decided that neither God nor Artie was as interested as she might have a right to expect. Carefully rolling up the veil, she stuffed it into the bag and went to Alphonso's trailer to collect her pay. "The hell, you say! Why do you want to leave now? Sit down, will ya, so we can talk about this. Had any coffee yet?"
Sunk down in the center of the sofa with her knees too high and her feet too far out in the narrow living space, she felt like Alice again, only in the bad part—where she grew so large she threatened everything around her, yet knew herself to be the vulnerable one.
"I have to go, Alf." She reached for the cup of coffee he'd poured. "I can't explain."
Leaning on the corner of the desk with his arms crossed over his chest, he reminded her of her substitute teacher in the seventh grade. Mr. Stubblefield's chest, too, had seemed thick enough to balance a coffee cup on when he leaned back like that, or tipped back in his chair in the one room school house that was nearly filled just with him and Oma alone. She cocked her head at Alphonso in an attitude of listening, but she kept slipping back to that school room, the slide rule that looked like a Popsicle stick in Mr. Stubblefield's huge hands, and the way his thighs bulged in his pants when he'd stand up and stretch.
He'd been the most wonderful person she'd ever seen, and she'd wheedled her folks into inviting him to their noon meal the opening day of the 37th annual Black Hawk County Fair. All afternoon she had followed along after the teacher, basking in the largeness of his company.
If she slouched a little and kept her weight on her right leg, which was an inch shorter than the left one, she and her teacher stood just eyeball to glorious eyeballs. She could have gone on forever just trailing and slouching, but for a passing remark, a joke really, that passed between her teacher and father. Near the melons, they spoke of entering Oma for a sure prize, agreeing that she must be the best growing crop in the entire state of Iowa.
Their laughter slammed an invisible door on her, and left a gnawing, empty space in her chest, the sense of something lost that she'd never even had a name for. There eight days and gone, Mr. Stubblefield left behind his 49-cent slide rule and a pack of Camels that she smuggled home in her underwear. She announced she wasn't going to school anymore, and that summer she taught herself to smoke, all 20 Camel cigarettes. She believed a lot less in God, for a time, holding more to the rumor that smoking could stunt growth, even in places like Iowa.
"Oma? You heard a word I said?"
She nodded and finished her coffee. "You said I should stay. But I can't. Can I get my money?"
He went back behind his desk and sat down. "Well, I'll send you a card next year. Let ya know where we'll be startin' up." He totaled her week's wages on his adding machine and wrote out a check. "Sorry ta see ya go like this."
Ducking through the doorway, she stepped to the ground and turned and said "Thanks," which didn't seem enough for the occasion, but was all that she felt safe letting out. With a little wave, she headed back to get her things and round up someone to give her a ride into the bus station. She looked for Artie along the midway, and was a little relieved to find no trace of him. She didn't know what she could have told him anyway.
At the cafe in the Grand Island bus station, Oma sat in the far booth with her back to the door and steadily dunked one doughnut after another into her coffee, swallowing without tasting. Her mother's voice still coiled through her ear canals. Not just the words, but her mother's tone—shamefully flat and thin, like watery oatmeal with all the vitamins cooked out. Oma always regretted her calls home when it was her mother who answered. Her father kept the disappointment out of his voice. She had to look into his eyes to rediscover his sorrowful concern.
Her mother could make a place for Oma in the keeping room, the second bedroom having been given over to a daughter of one of Aunt Charlene's widowed friends. The girl was earning money for her second year at Wartburg College and needed a cheap place to stay during the corn detassling and bean picking. The quilting group her mother had recently joined was meeting in their dining room later that very day. Her father had the lawn mower apart in the shade of the ancient walnut tree out back, sharpening the blade.
Her mother had droned out the mundane details of their lives like a litany of normalcy. She was finally running a typical Iowa household.
Oma tilted her head back to let the tears flow to the outer corners of her eyes and blinked hard. There was still time to hike out to the highway and catch a ride to North Platte, but she didn't have the heart for it, so she sat there with her vision blurring and clearing and her mind scrambling aimlessly from point to point like a connect-the-dot picture gone wrong.
As she turned to her purse beside her to pull out some tissues, she became aware of the couple sitting to her right glancing her way and speaking in hushed tones. Wiping her face, she concentrated on the wall in front of her, with its bulletin board full of business cards, and a sign above with the message, hand-written by someone who had taken a course in calligraphy: "The Grand Island Cafe, just like home. You don't always get what you want."
In the middle of the wall was a large red, white, and blue poster for the Harlem Globetrotters with a Negro basketball player leaping up past a hoop, the ball extended in one hand and a broad smile across his face. Scattered around the lettering that told of an upcoming exhibition were sketches of the team with their names written under them like signatures. She'd always liked the name Meadowlark Lemon, but it didn't sound black. Goose Tatum seemed more like it.
Near the bottom, in large block letters, was the announcement "Wilt the Stilt, over seven feet of dynamite action!" Oma read it three times, then a fourth. Her sinuses dried up and she inhaled deeply through her nose. She read the entire poster all the way through. In three days the Globetrotters would be playing the Washington Generals in Lincoln, Nebraska. With a man over seven feet tall.
She got up and went over to look at the drawings more closely. The new one called Wilt had flat Indian cheekbones and eyes that tilted up at the outer corners. Over seven feet. She shook her head at the wonder of it. Back at the booth, she bent to get her purse and took out a handful of change, dropping it on the table. She didn't notice how much she left, nor the other people in the restaurant, most of them staring openly as she passed by and went out into the terminal. She was already imagining the field house in Lincoln, with its red, white, and blue streamers and helium balloons, the printed programs with their pages for collecting autographs, a pair of almond-shaped eyes, and she was looking up.