At the zoo lives a polar bear who swims in a plaster pool made to look like stones from the mountains. The bear dives to the bottom and brings up a drain cover in his paws. Then he plays with the cover like a juggler.
Jane I go to the zoo often, and spend more time at the bear pavilion than anywhere else. We were there on Saturday, in fact, and spent an hour watching the bear. Then Jane said that the carnival was in town again.
"Again?" I asked. "The year went by so quickly."
"For some it has," she said, and she pressed her lips together tightly.
I couldnt believe it. It had also been a year since we had last seen Willy. We go to the carnival every year, ride the Tilt o Whirl and The Bullet, but mostly we like the midway shows. Some are gruesome, I admit, including the blue fetuses and cancerous organs, the exploded hearts and the shrunken heads. Everything floats in big bottles of formaldehyde.
Our favorite exhibit is the Snake Girl, a young woman who sits beneath a wooden stage with only her head exposed. Coiled around her is a long, upholstered tube that passes for the snakes body. The first time we saw the Snake Girl, Jane said she recognized the snake skin. Her mother had once owned a recliner in the same blue, yellow and orange plaid fabric.
This year, something was different. The carnival had not changed, but Jane and I had. Walking through the midway displays of human errors and cast-offs, I knew Jane was feeling as awkward as I was.
The Snake Girl was still in residence, but she had also developed an attitude. On the review stand, where customers could stand and gawk, was a very large woman who wore a straw bonnet festooned with plastic gardenias. Jane I were standing next to the woman. She was rocking back and forth, like she had something that needed saying. As it turned out, she had a question for the Snake Girl.
"Whats it like, bein a snake?" she asked the girl who sat with her head wound up in all that plaid upholstery.
Part of the magic of being the Snake Girl was the way she could pull an invisible cord with her unseen hand. When she pulled that cord, the plaid python tail would wiggle and thrash around menacingly. After the hefty woman asked her question, the Snake Girl sighed loudly and started tugging on that cord to beat the band.
"Whats it like, bein dressed like a donkey?" she asked the woman in the plastic gardenia hat.
The woman began rocking furiously, and I was afraid that the platform would collapse. But she didnt say anything else. She stomped down the stairs of the review stand in a huff and disappeared into the crowd.
As our own five minutes for gawking was up, we decided to leave as well. I had begun to feel a kind of pang in my stomach. Not a pain, but more a twinge of nausea. I wanted to go home, honestly, but then Jane reminded me that we still had to see Eric The Viking.
I wanted to know what the pang in my stomach meant. Maybe it was a kind of sorrow. But it was vague enough that I decided not to mention it to Jane, who was already on her way to the Viking exhibit.
Eric The Viking was supposedly discovered in a Russian glacier about the time Lincoln was president. Jane and I had given a lot of thought to Erics dubious origin. To us, he looked like a retired department store mannequin that had been dipped in tar. He was stretched out in a red, white and blue plywood coffin, and he wore a helmet that reminded Jane of the man in the old Rembrandt painting.
We did not linger at this exhibit, only long enough to note how much of Erics tar skin had vanished, worn away by another year on the long, carnival road. Still, Jane felt like we were visiting with an old friend. Maybe Eric was but one more low budget exhibit in a shoestring midway, but there was some continuity about him as well.
As we walked away. I noticed a sign which advertised a search for a new Snake Girl. We studied that sign. I decided that there were not many women in this world who would care to twitch an upholstered python tail for a living. No wonder this current woman had such an attitude.
Jane said the Snake Girl probably didnt make much money. And neither did we, I reminded her. But all in all, money had never been a problem for us, at least not until a few months before, when we started going to the doctor. Then we wished we had more. But we dont, Id say. I know, Jane would say. If we did, I would say, things would be different. For sure, she would say. And thats how we would leave it, collecting dust until the next time.
"Lets see Willy," Jane said.
"I dont know," I said. I was thinking about my stomach. "Think hell be here?"
"I hope so. Id feel better, seeing him. Knowing that nothing has happened to him."
"You mean, nothing else."
"I guess thats what I mean," she said.
It was getting dark. The midway was beginning to glow garishly with neon. The air was pungent with caramel popcorn and cotton candy, with cigarette smoke and gas fumes from the carnival rides. We walked on, looking for Willy.
I was thinking that some year we would come to the midway and Willy would no longer be in residence. He would have died somewhere along the carnival road. The poor man would be buried in a childs coffin. But then Jane announced that she saw Willys picture up ahead.
It was not so much a picture as it was a bad painting on the worn exterior of a tent flap. There, below Willys portrait, hung a large red and white banner which proclaimed Willy to be "The Smallest Man in the World!" We bought our admission tickets and climbed a short metal stairway to the official viewing platform.
There he was. Willy wasnt as tall as a yardstick. Sitting down, it was even worse. He sat in a childs booster-chair, the kind used in cafeterias. People were allowed within a few feet of Willy to ask him questions, but Willy only spoke into a microphone. A person might be only a foot, or a third of Willy, away and still he used that microphone. Jane said this was show business, and I had no problem agreeing with her.
Every year, Willy gave the same little speech to those gathered around him, just prior to the question-and-answer period. He spoke of his great smallness, of the difficulties he had trying to do things that the rest of us took for granted. Then, at the end of the speech, out came the postcards. These postcards were colored photos of Willys family. The first time Willy brought out the postcards, years before, I was afraid to look at them. As bad off as Willy was, I could only imagine what other freakish ailments lurked in his immediate family.
But when I finally looked at the postcards, I was surprised. Except for Willy, everyone seemed normal enough. His wife was a thin, willowy woman, not pretty or ugly, and looked like she was from the country. In her arms she held a healthy-looking baby. At her side stood a small boy, who seemed shy, who clutched at his mothers skirt. Willy himself was in this photo. He sat in a small chair that had been decorated to look like a royal throne.
Seeing Willy again was the same as it had always been. His speech hadnt changed. Jane and I thought that some of the questions from the audience were ones we had heard before. One thing had changed, though. As we drove home, Jane was very quiet. Usually she would make jokes about Eric The Viking, saying he needed Clearasil. Or she would make light of the Snake Girl, wondering aloud what a corduroy snake would look like.
Jane was quiet as I drove. She passed the Willy postcards back and forth in her hands, like she was trying to shuffle them. I knew what the problem was, and it had nothing to do with the carnival or the midway. We had not discussed the doctor in awhile. I had thought about it earlier in the day. I had a feeling Jane was thinking about it too. But our thoughts never left our tongues.
It had been six months since we decided to have a baby. We talked and talked about it--how it would change our lives, how we would have to organize our lives differently. And all the while we were trying and trying. But nothing happened. We tried some more. Nothing. Months passed.
Later--I cant remember when--we realized that something might be wrong. We went to the doctor for tests. We didnt even know if we could even afford the tests. We didnt have insurance through our jobs. But the doctors office let us open an account, and we could make monthly payments. That was the beginning of what Jane called, none too fondly, the baby business.
At some point, the doctor, an older man who looked like an owl, said he needed to perform a small operation on Jane. He said he was looking for something. He would send a small camera through Janes navel to check on her reproductive organs.
On the morning of the operation, I sat in the hospital waiting room. I looked up from my magazine to see the old owl man coming toward me. When he put his hand on my shoulder, I knew to expect the worst. He told me that Jane could not conceive.
Later, between the time of the operation and when the carnival came to town, the doctor called us to his office. He told us that he had looked at our records and decided that we were good candidates for in vitro.
It sounded very good when the doctor explained what would happen. He was like some odd fairy grandmother doling out wishes. But then he turned to the matter of financing the program.
It was well beyond our means. When we told the doctor, he said he understood. He gave me another pat on the shoulder, for emphasis I guess.
We sat in the car outside the doctors office for a good while. There didnt seem to be anywhere to go. There was nothing to talk about. Then, just when I was deciding to start the car and go, I heard Jane sigh. It was a long, exhausted kind of sigh, the likes of which I had never heard from her before.
A sigh like the Snake Girl--when asked what being a Snake Girl was like .
* * *
Christopher Woods is a native Texan who writes poetry, plays, fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, Glimmer Train, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Columbia, and Rosebud. His plays have been produced in Houston, Memphis, Ft.Lauderdale, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and New York. His recent books are Heartspeak, a collection of stage monologues for actors from Stone River Press, and Under a Riverbed Sky, a collection of prose poems and brief fictions from Panther Creek Press. He has taught writing workshops in Houston at the Rice University Continuing Studies Program, and at The Women's Institute.