BY MEGAN HARLAN
The World’s Smallest Woman has her own stage. People pay two dollars to approach the elevated trailer, then peer over a chain-link fence into the impromptu living room where Thea spends every other summer week. Thea trades off with Charmaine, another World’s Smallest Woman who is, in fact, a half-inch shorter than Thea. Charmaine, originally from Quebec, speaks like Brigitte Bardot. The evening before she had called Thea and breathed into the phone, “I yam soo tiyerd. My booyfrehnd jest retehrnned from Montrreahl, end everr seence hee duss not leht me sleep.” Thea had agreed to cover for her with a curtness meant to deflect any more kittenish giggles. Charmaine, everyone at Coney Island who knows of such things agrees, is the fun Smallest Woman. Crazy, but fun. Like Thea’s daughter, Nikki, who sometimes works the Funnel Cake counter, but is usually on the boardwalk with her friends.
On this Tuesday morning, upon a jumble of pink and red pillows, Thea lounges like a world-weary pasha. Thea’s stage—really, more of a pen, she has complained to Johnny, the grey pony-tailed ticket-taker, bigger and of course neater but with the same basic set-up as the World’s Biggest Rat’s the next trailer over—is strewn with plastic Diet Coke liters and Triscuits boxes. All day Thea watches a 26-inch TV and snacks, and will talk to the paying public if they politely broach a conversation. They usually don’t. In which case, she stares at whoever is on television, currently the cast of Magnum P.I.
The paying public often behaves like this teenage couple, who trot quickly up the steps, their laughter as crisp as their sportswear. When they glimpse Thea, they emit a bashful, beseeching hello, then look down at their feet, well of course—Thea can almost hear them thinking disappointedly—she’s just a midget, and there they slink away, feeling bad but not so awful that they won’t try their luck next with the Rat. Such an uncomfortable experience, in Thea’s opinion, is hardly worth two dollars. Nikki once voiced loudly to Johnny that people just plain forget about midgets. Little people. They see the drawing of a tiny, willowy woman resembling a house-dressed Donna Reed under the “World’s Smallest” sign, Nikki had continued, and are misled to imagine some kind of living doll. Thea had silently agreed: people forget about the change in proportions.
Thea makes better money doing this than she did as a bank-teller. She munches on a low-salt Triscuit. It takes her five minutes by train to get to Coney Island. The job itself couldn’t be easier: she just sits around all day! And it’s not as if people don’t stare at her and make comments anyway; might as well make some money from it.
An endless loop of eighties dance songs blasts from the tilt-a-whirl’s speakers. Screams snake skyward from the rickety, whip-fast Cyclone. The scents of spicy sausage and cotton candy fluff intermingle as the wind catches and carries them. The ocean mutters to itself, mutters and hisses. Thea is not tall enough to ride the rides. Seated on her stage, she can’t see any of the amusement park, only a tin can-colored slip of sky. The Woman’s Smallest World, is more like it, she often thinks, until she counters: it could be worse. Lord knows it certainly has been worse.
Thea can hear Nikki say to Johnny, “Hi big man. My mama’s in today, right?” Here is Nikki: her long hair streaming in glossy waves. Her black cherry lipstick and gold hoop earrings
the size of fists. “Mama why’d you take over for Charmaine. You need a day off.”
“To do what, honey?”
“Well, get away from TV for one. You might fall in.”
“No lip from you.” In fact, there rarely is from Nikki. It is with Anthony that Thea has the problems. The last time she saw Anthony they had argued about his drugs and he had tried to pick her up. You do not ever, she had rasped like a woman possessed, pick me up. He knew that: family rule, ever since the kids were growing close to her size, surpassing her, up and up. She had thrown him out, a temporary throw-out, practically a monthly occurrence. He would stay with friends, clever boys with too much money from nontaxable sources.
Nikki snaps her gum; she does this, Thea knows, when she is nervous. “I brought you a cake,” announces Nikki, and hands down a coiling mass of crisp fried dough dusted with powdered sugar. “You don’t stop giving me those, I’ll be the World’s Fattest Woman,” Thea jokes, one of her standard lines. Nikki holds up a hand to Johnny.
“Mama, it’s Anthony.”
“Don’t want to see him.”
“He’s not here. He’s in the hospital. He partied too hard, and when he passed out he didn’t wake up. Somebody dropped him off at the hospital. The nurse said he’ll probably be okay. We can see him when he wakes up.”
Thea finishes swallowing a piece of funnel cake, so that she won’t choke. She asks, “You got the car?”
“Yeah. I’ll call Charmaine.”
“Shit,” says Thea definitively. She watches Nikki run off, car keys in hand. A panicky coolness unfurls from the back of Thea’s neck, over her head, down her spine.
“Will you suck me off? Don’t bother getting up,” cracks the sudden vision of one rough-looking kid, accompanied by his friends’ cutting laughter. T.C. whoops during a high-speed car chase up a volcano. Johnny is just outside if she needs him, but the rough kids shuffle off.
“That’s not a bad way to make a living, sitting there watching TV all day,” ventures the next one, a neat, pinkish young man. She ignores him too, thinking testily: I didn’t pay money to stare at you.
It’s not that Thea doesn’t understand what they want. She understands, better than anybody! Even her own expectations for the World’s Smallest Woman quicken something inside her, some hope to witness a mysterious
incarnation of humanity, right before her eyes.
But what she also primarily thinks is that people are just so bored with themselves. They want to know: is it really different to be Tom Selleck? Or the size, permanently, of a toddler? They want it to be the same; they want it to be different. They cannot decide.
Two teenage girls, one carrying a baby, take in Thea with generically startled expressions.
Thea meets the wide eyes of the girl with the baby, and states with aggressive precision: “You were once this small too, you know.” The girl gapes, blinklessly, at Thea. Then she glances at her baby’s pretty, nubby face, and back down at Thea. Have I just lost my job? thinks Thea. Will this girl complain, and will the Coney Island Side Show recruit another World’s Smallest Woman? Thea had answered an ad in the Post; would they put another ad in the Post? But then the girls exchange glances and burst out laughing. “Right, huh?” the young mother says, nudging her baby’s forehead with the tip of her nose. The other girl, gazing at the TV, mutters, “Magnum P.I.” The young mother watches for a second—it was the jokey wrapping-up scene on the estate, palm trees shading the Ferrari and Magnum’s brunette love-interest—and says conversationally, “I’d love to be in Hawaii right now.” They all three agree that they’d rather be in Hawaii right now. The girls make polite goodbyes.
Thea lies back and pictures them marveling over the World’s Biggest Rat next door. The rat isn’t really a rat, but some kind of semi-aquatic mammal from the Amazon about three feet long and as barrel-chested as a pig that has the distinct misfortune of resembling a rat. It barely moves. Thea believes it is dying of boredom, claustrophobia, zoo sickness. No one cleans its cage, and so everyone hates it for stinking. Thea can hear them calling it disgusting, a piece of shit, throughout the day.
But now Thea hears Nikki talking to Johnny. Nikki appears, her face flushed from running around in the morning air. “Charmaine’s coming right over. She feels bad ‘cause you weren’t even supposed to work today.”
“Charming Charmaine,” murmurs Thea. The woman can wrap her accent around any situation and squeeze something amusing from it, she worries not one bit about the Rat (“that smehlly theeng”), she can rise to any occasion.
But I, admits Thea, cannot. That fact seems to matter in a way that size—her own, the world’s—doesn’t. It seems to require from Thea a certain extra vigilance towards herself.
Nikki tilts her head. “Mama, you okay?”
“It’s gotten worse,” says Thea. “But I’m okay.” She grasps onto the metal fence, pulls herself up. “My Nikki,” she says, lifting her arms for the first time. “Help me out of here.”