fourteen-inch woman

Saturday I took Calvin to fill his new lens prescription. Our last appointment with his neuro-ophthalmologist in Boston revealed that his vision, which is five times worse than what is considered legally blind, has worsened. He enjoyed the car ride to the optician listening to his favorite album, Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, for about the bazillionth time. And, although the music that I used to think was so groovy when I was a kid now annoys me, I do love peering into the rearview mirror and seeing Calvin’s toothy grin spread across his face when he hears the first song.

I parked, unbuckled him and he tumbled out of his car seat, awkwardly got both feet onto the ground and righted himself. I took him by the hand and escorted him to the curb, past a row of parked cars, all of which he banged on one by one. As we approached the storefront, Calvin pigeon-toeing the entire way and walking like a bobbleheaded noodle, I watched several shoppers behind us in the reflection of the glass doors—a young man with his mother and another middle-aged woman. They all gawked at us in a way I recognized from having done so myself in the past—heads tilted downward, brows raised—as we crossed the parking lot and stepped up onto the sidewalk to enter the shop. They each had what seemed like a mixed look of repulsion and incredulity on their faces. Somehow I felt sorry for them. Perhaps they felt sorry for us.

Instantly, I was taken back to the time that Michael and I went to our first Independence Day carnival after having just moved to Maine. The waterfront street of the small town had been blocked off to through-traffic then crammed with kiosks, carnival rides, games and shacks selling ice cream, fried dough, corndogs, blooming onions and the like. We had just strolled past the twenty-one-foot alligator, which was housed in a long trailer and could be viewed for six tickets, when the sight of a painted placard stopped us in our tracks. In a turn-of-the-century script the sign read, Fourteen-Inch Woman, entree fee four tickets.

Michael and I stepped back to let a large group amble by, some sporting waxy bags filled with popcorn, others with clouds of blue cotton candy atop paper sticks so sweet I could taste it on the breeze. Then two women emerged from the throng and stood in front of the fourteen-inch woman’s booth. As they handed their tickets to the attendant we watched with great curiosity, trying not to stare but failing in our attempt. The women, both unremarkable with their frosted hair, pastel t-shirts, khaki shorts, thick knees, white sneakers and purses slung over their shoulders, entered to the back of the booth, turned then stopped. The subject was hidden from us behind a makeshift half wall. Their stunned, nauseous-looking gazes appeared to travel up and down the mystery figure like pervs at a striptease and though their mouths gaped open like a couple of unhinged mailboxes, they were silent. Then they simply turned and walked away without so much as a single word.

I wondered what they’d seen hidden behind that kiosk wall. Was it truly a live, fourteen-inch woman? Is that even possible? Didn’t that kind of vulgar exploitation only happened in nineteenth-century freak shows? But if it were true, I felt the urge to talk with the woman, to say hello, to ask her how she was, to know her thoughts about her job, her lifestyle, to be her friend. But of course I couldn’t bring myself to purchase four tickets to do the kind of probing that in some ways was no different from the last two gawkers.

I never learned the mystery of the fourteen-inch woman. We returned the following year but she and the alligator had not, but I've thought about her often since then, especially when Calvin and I find ourselves being stared at. It happens all the time, though that’s not to say I’ve grown accustomed to it. I suppose people leer at—and at times avert their eyes from—that which they don’t understand, that which is peculiar. In the past when that kind of sour attention was new and shocking to me I’d stare back and give the oglers my very best stink-eye. Once or twice I might have even told them, “take a picture, it lasts longer,” though perhaps I’m imagining that. But now I usually just smile at impolite onlookers and keep on walking hand in hand with my sweet little bobbleheaded forty-three inch boy.

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detail, photo by Michael Kolster

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