It was 1969, a tough time to be the only chubby kid in an athletic family. I had no idea then how many of the emaciated fashion models and actresses I adored were desperately ill with anorexia. Much later we’d learn it boasts the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric diseases.
Not that it would have mattered to my eleven-year-old self. Back then, I would have done almost anything to be as thin as my idols. But I’d have gladly settled to look like one of my svelte sisters. Or my mom, whose figure in all the fancy white tennis clothes she wore made me proud. My sisters and she shared such outfits, body-skimming tight-waisted micro dresses that came with ruffled underwear that was meant to be seen, and tiny skirts that looked like they belonged to paper dolls.
I sweated out that summer in a pair of my father’s rolled up running pants and an oversized tee shirt. It wasn’t the most comfortable way to run around the hot clay courts my family favored, but it was better than the alternative: showing my limbs in public.
The day we all went to the Eastern States Exposition, I had picked out roomy jeans and a poofy hippie top to wear, which I covered with a long button-down cotton shirt. I was armored up and ready to party as only a sixth grader can: carnival rides, cotton candy, and goofball games that earned winners plush prizes.
It was a great day for a fair. The air was replete with the mingled aromas of popcorn, fried dough, and the kind of ketchup-sauced pizza we all put up with in those days. I ate a lot of all three, as did my three siblings and parents; it would take a while for me to make a true connection between what I ate and the way my body looked.
My little brother was the one who discovered the two attractions in a side alley. One was run by a muscular man in a sleeveless undershirt, which I’d only ever seen anyone wear on television. He was in charge of a huge mallet that he loaned for a price to willing strangers interested in proving their physical strength. If the participants bashed the large button on the ground with enough force, a red disc would zoom up to the top of a flashy vertical tube and ring a bell. It was fun to watch.
After a while we moved next door, where an entirely different kind of challenge was featured. A whiskered man in a mangy suit stood next to a gigantic glitzy scale and bellowed for players. For a price, he would guess your weight. In front of a crowd. If he was within three pounds, he won. If he lost, he’d pay you back double what you’d spent. I’m not sure whose idea it was to volunteer me. But I remember someone saying that he’d never guess what I weighed, and that we could win and spend the money on more rides. It didn’t occur to me to say no. That’s not who I was.
Up close, the barker smelled like sweat and something I’d identify years later as whiskey. He didn’t smile at me or make eye contact. He went right to work. He pushed my shirt sleeve up to my shoulder and then stared at my bare flesh before closing his two hands around the widest part of my arm. He told me to relax, and he took my forearm and flopped it around, weighing it in his head like our butcher did to hamburger before putting it on the deli scale.
The man told my parents his guess. And ordered me to get on his oversized scale. The machine’s blinking lights bothered me, and I closed my eyes. When I opened them again it was because my dad was calling my name. We had won.
As we trudged back to the rides to spend the prize money, I lingered behind. My brother stopped walking and waited for me to catch up. When I did, he slipped one small hand into mine. With the other, he dug around in his pocket until he fished out a ragged square of pink-wrapped bubble gum. He handed it to me with a devilish grin; our parents had expressly forbidden us to chew gum while on anything moving fast, lest we choke on it by accident. I gave him back half, and minutes later we were on the Tilt-A-Whirl, risking our lives together for a taste of sugar and the weightlessness of centrifugal force.
A Best of the Net nominee, Carolyn R. Russell’s poetry, essays, and short stories have been featured in numerous publications. She has also authored four books. Carolyn lives on and writes from Boston’s North Shore. More at http://carolynrrussell.com/