A glorious, buttery-warm light lit the summer of 1966. This was the summer that surpassed all remembered summers. They started to call themselves The Quartet as school let out. Mary, Colleen, Helen, and Anne were secretly teasing their brothers, who patterned their vacant lot tournaments after the escapades of Zorro and The Three Musketeers. The Quartet fought no wars. Thrilled to gain a sudden independence from their parents and younger siblings as their twelfth summer dawned, they were content to explore every tree-lined street and the surrounding concession road on their bicycles.
Warm summer winds carried Anne’s voice back to the group as she led them down Nelson Street to the swimming pool, the girls behind picking up three rounds in a never-ending camp song. On another day they would pedal single file along First County Line to the riding stables, singing favourite songs from the Hit Parade. Roy Rogers’ tunes were their choice as slow-footed horses carried them over the winding trail behind the stables. On each excursion, they adapted the swinging arms and harmonies of groups on American Bandstand to their travelling caravan.
That was the other reason for calling themselves The Quartet, though they dared not speak of their aspirations aloud. They’d been raised to the understanding that to speak of them is to lay a curse upon your dreams. In the secret realm of musty basements, they practised their future debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. They bowed to standing ovations in their older sisters’ prom gowns, the taffeta and chiffon bodices revealing a cleavage they did not possess. Wherever they went The Quartet blew kisses to their audience from cupped hands. They even sang Broadway Show Tunes for the cows huddled under the shade of trees by the fence line as they hiked out along Second Line to eat a picnic lunch by the river.
This was the summer of dreams, a summer that coaxed them toward the life altering events that would precipitate their coming of age. The girls put slow music on the stereo to practise dancing cheek to cheek, each of them taking turns as ‘the man’. The leading partner made all of the moves they’d never yet experienced with a boy, even to the point of planting a clumsy kiss on the lips of their dance partners.
On the weekends, their parents took turns as chaperons for sleepovers in basement TV rooms. Snuggled deep in their sleeping bags, they watched horror movies that scared them sleepless. Adrenaline raced through their veins, their screams whispered behind hands, so as not to disturb the adults sleeping upstairs. They invented gory tales of strange relatives and spooky neighbours, confessing the truth only as the honest blue light of morning filled the casement windows. Their bond was so deep, they were sure they’d be friends when their own children were old enough to be playmates.
Of course, it couldn’t last. As long summer days began to shorten their thoughts turned back to school and the problem of new wardrobes. In a few weeks their shorts and sleeveless blouses would be relegated to the bottom drawer. Even sandals were not allowed at school. The comfort of their summer clothes would be exchanged for sweater sets, skirts and dress shoes.
“My mom is taking me shopping for school clothes tonight,” Anne said, adjusting the pale blue plastic headband that swept chestnut curls away from her face. “But I don’t want to shop with her,” she complained. “Its like torture. I hate most of the things she wants me to wear.”
Colleen giggled, raising a hand to hide her braces.
“Don’t laugh,” Anne objected.
“No one’s laughing at you,” Mary countered. “We all hate what our moms want us to wear. The thing is, I still don’t know what I want to get, either.”
Colleen’s suggestion to solve the problem was simple and perfect. “Why don’t we just go pick out the clothes we want together? That way, we’ll know what we want before our moms take us shopping.”
There was a murmur of agreement before the Quartet grabbed their bicycles and pedaled toward the mall. Under the clear blue sky of that August morning, there was a flash of sunlight on bright aluminum as they propped their bicycles in the mall’s bike rack.
Helen pointed across the parking lot. “Hey, what is that?”
A long mobile home was set diagonally on a corner of the lot. The streamliner would have been eye-catching even without its great size. Sun glinted on the curved metal panels of its hull. Yet, someone had strung a line of triangular flags in red and blue along its side. They fluttered in the breeze, inviting attention, and folding steps lead to open doorways on either end of the vehicle. Beside the driver’s cab, a sandwich board sign had been set out on the blacktop.
“They’ve put out a sign,” Mary said, stating the obvious.
“Yeah, but I can’t read it from here,” Anne returned. “Let’s go!” She started across the parking lot, always the leader, simply assuming their agreement. “Oh, come on!” she hollered, when she turned and saw that all but Helen had followed her.
Colleen turned back to take Helen’s elbow. “It can’t hurt to read the sign,” she said. “They wouldn’t put it out if they didn’t want us to read it.”
The sandwich board was hand painted. Ornate yellow lettering with blue borders arched across a red background. There was no illustration. At the top of the board was a title, “Freaks of Nature”. Beneath that, one word: “Midgets.” The girls glanced at each other, the buoyancy of their laughter suddenly deflated. With its last line the sign announced a viewing fee of 50 cents. The Quartet stood in silence, the sudden quiet revealing the depth of their confusion.
Anne was usually the first to rise to a challenge. This time she faltered, her brow furrowed as she looked up to watch the line of flags blowing in the breeze against the curved aluminum roof. Her parents were the kind who divided the subjects of adult discussion under headings like “for children” and “for adults”.
Some things were simply never discussed in her hearing. Anne felt a sudden sense of betrayal as the safe world that she had inhabited a moment ago … vanished. She realized an obvious gap in her knowledge.
“Do you think this part of a Circus?” she suggested.
“Of course not! It’s a travelling Freak Show,” Mary said, recognising her friend’s lapse in bravado.
“Lets go in!”
This suggestion upset Colleen. “No. My mom won’t let me go into those shows at the Fair. She says no one is a freak, and no Christian would ever make the people who are made different from us feel bad by staring at them.”
Anne felt more unsettled about Mary’s sudden rise to leadership than she did about the invitation to gawk at an aberration of nature. “Feel bad about what?” she challenged. “It’s not a crime to take look if they invite us to. Don’t be such a baby. Your mom isn’t here to stop you now.”
Colleen was also hesitant. She told the group that the entrance fee was half of her allowance for the week, but the group had decided and they were already fishing in their pockets for change.
“I can help you to pay, if you haven’t got enough,” Mary said.
Coins in hand, the group turned to the streamliner, their eyes following the stairs up to where a thin man sat in the shade, just inside the door. They hadn’t noticed him before. He said nothing, not even look at them, but he held a wooden box with a slot cut in the top to collect their entrance fee.
They paused before climbing the stairs now, not because they were afraid to see the show but because their parents’ persistent warnings not to enter strange places and never to speak to unknown men had suddenly crowded past their decision. They looked back, across the mall parking lot as tens of well worn, moralistic homilies pressed against their conscious thought. There were no chaperones here, but neither were there any witnesses to counter the deep embarrassment they felt for hesitating in front of this unknown man.
Regaining her composure, Anne found the courage to take the first steps. The others followed in single file. Gingerly, the girls deposited their coins in the collection box as they passed by the man at the door. He simply inclined his head to indicate they should travel down the narrow hall that stretched the length of the streamliner. They stepped into the shadows and passed the flimsy folding doors on a small bedroom and a toilet.
Inside the mobile home, the air was stale despite the open doors. The air itself was embarrassing, the smell of unwashed clothes mixed with the smell of greasy cooking, even as smudged images of midgets were still forming in Colleen’s mind. Their passage stopped so abruptly that Colleen nearly stepped on Anne’s heels. Coming up short like that, Mary pushed into Helen’s back.
The hall was narrow and cramped. Mary and Helen could not see what Anne and Colleen had turned towards, illuminated by electric light in the motor home kitchen. Yet they could see the anxiety on their friends’ faces and suddenly felt claustrophobic. In that moment, they wanted to quit this impromptu adventure. Yet, stuck between as they were, something unknown on exhibit ahead of them and that silent stranger behind them, they felt they could neither advance or retreat.
Anne and Colleen had been stunned speechless, their eyes riveted, their mouths hanging open after their first startled gasp. They remained speechless, even as a woman’s voice called out.
“Come in! Tell your friends to come in, too.”
Anne and Colleen took only a few steps before they were frozen in place again. Helen was pressing at Mary’s back, nervous of the man behind her. Urged forward, Mary stepped into the light, her blood thick with premonition. Still, she was unprepared for what she saw.
A small couple sat on either side of an arborite kitchen table. They seemed perfectly formed, except for their size. The man wore a dark suit jacket and grey flannel pants. His thinning black hair was parted and slicked over a bald spot and his moustache was well trimmed. Roughly four feet tall, he seemed a parody of a boy dressed up like his father. The woman was of similar height. The ruffled skirt of a green taffeta dress reached her ankles. A rhinestone tiara was perched on her dark curls, but it did not detract from her most startling feature. Defined by a thin black pencil line, accentuated by mauve eye shadow, she had the same, unforgettable, smoky violet eyes as a young Elizabeth Taylor.
The couple had been propped on the cushion benches of the kitchenette like over-sized dolls. While their heads were of average size, they were out of proportion for their Lilliputian bodies. Their arrangement on the bench seats of the kitchen only emphasized this, their short legs sticking out stiff-kneed and at awkward angles, their feet not reaching the floor.
“How are all of you girls doing?” the woman asked with interest. “Are you out shopping at the mall together?”
The Quartet nodded, virtually in unison. Shock had initially crowded out the power of locomotion for Anne and Colleen. Gradually, as the initial shock of confrontation wore off, the reality of their situation began to register, point by point. This was not a set of mannequins or an exhibit in a pickling jar. This was the couple’s home, not a circus tent.
Sympathy for the girls’ surprise in what they saw was written clearly on the faces of this tiny couple, and that was what suddenly terrified Anne and Colleen the most. They realised they had been expecting something like their class trip to Madam Trousseau’s Wax Museum, the figures inanimate, but this couple was not waxen. They were living, breathing people.
Anne and Colleen were so overwhelmed by embarrassment for their open-mouthed stares; they simply turned to rush out of the motor home. Mary and Helen watched their friends go and stepped further into the kitchen light.
Turning her attention to the second pair of visitors, the woman on the bench seat said, “My name is Marie. What’s your name?”
Mary managed a weak smile. “Mary.” After a short pause, she indicated her friend, “This is Helen.”
“My name is Ricardo,” the man had a deep, asthmatic voice. His breathing was loud and laboured. “Have you got any questions that you’d like to ask us?”
Helen’s mind was crowded with thoughts. Of course she had questions. Now she had seen them, she realised the midgets were not only human but also adult; even if they were smaller in stature than any of the girls in The Quartet. Surprised by her own line of thought, Helen also recognised the couple’s concern about the girls’ reaction to their size. It gave her comfort to understand them as caring adults, even as she was washed over by a deep sense of shame for paying to see them in a Freak Show.
Helen suddenly wondered if this tender-eyed woman was someone’s mother. Instinctively, she knew the ordinary desire for children must bring this extraordinary couple pain. In her mind’s eye, she calculated a newborn child had almost a third of the height of this woman. She noticed Marie winced, as if in pain, as she shifted on her bench seat. It was clear that this couple understood and forgave the girls for their curiousity, but this did nothing to ease Helen’s embarrassment.
In unison, Helen and Mary shook their heads, now, declining their invitation to ask questions. As if a spell was suddenly broken, they stumbled rudely from the motor home, heaving a sigh of relief as they returned to the familiarity of the mall parking lot.
Not waiting for the others, Anne and Colleen had rushed across the parking lot. They stopped only as they reached the doors to the mall. When Mary and Helen caught up to them, Anne and Colleen wordlessly turned to enter the mall. Helen followed slowly, frustrated that the group could return to their search for a new school wardrobe, as if nothing had just happened.
“That was so sick,” Mary said, reaching the door of the first store. “Can you imagine having to open up your home to complete strangers, just so they can come in and gawk at you?”
At this point, Helen stopped and shook her head, “No way.”
She stood stiffly, unable to turn her focus back to picking out a school wardrobe. Anne and Colleen made no comment, until Mary; borrowing a phrase she had overheard in adult conversations, said, “That hit me out of the blue. I never knew that I was such an idiot. I still can’t believe that I didn’t know midgets are people.”
Helen turned to her friend, reassuring her. “We’re all idiots,” she said. “I wish I could take it back. I wish I’d never done that.”
Anne had been brooding over her shaken sense of leadership after she and Colleen rushed to escape the streamliner. “You’re such a pussy,” she challenged.
Helen did not back down this time. “Yeah, well you’re a liar if you say you feel anything different,” she insisted.
Anne started to say something else, but thought better of it as Helen turned to leave the store. This was a turning point for all of them.
“Where are you going?” the group called, almost in unison.
Helen simply called over her shoulder as she headed back toward the mall doors, “I’m going back, to apologize.”
About the author:
Sharon Berg is a Canadian writer with publications in periodicals across Canada, in the USA, the U.K. and The Netherlands. She is also the founder and general editor of Big Pond Rumour Press and its online Zine. Her books have been published by Borealis Press, Coach House Press and Big Pond Rumour Press. Her audio poetry collections are published by Public Energies, Gallery 101 and Big Pond Rumour Press. Sharon’s M.Ed thesis is a polyphonic historical narrative about Wandering Spirit Survival School, the first Native Way School in Canada. In her life outside of academics or writing, Sharon teaches elementary school.