I lived in many small towns growing up.
“A moving target is harder to hit, Pearl,” my father would chortle.
As the continual outsider in a world where kids knew each other from birth, I was forever new. I didn’t know about David wetting his pants in kindergarten, I didn’t know that Bonnie’s mom had taken off with a traveling salesman, and I didn’t know where the old Schmidt place had been before it burned down.
Wherever we went, I was a freak.
Eventually, this came to appeal to me.
I had missed the era of circus sideshows and bemoaned the fact: “Siamese” twins, the Dog-Faced Boy, the Mule-Faced Woman – all of these people were an outward expression of “different”. My obsession with human oddities was further spurred in one town by a friend’s father, who had a bootlegged copy of “Freaks”, a movie starring a cast of, as they were known at the time, circus freaks.
Years of migration and being the “odd one out” lent a morbid streak to my curiosity. I regularly envisioned myself having been born without arms, how I would use my bare feet and overcome my affliction to become Homecoming Queen, go to Juilliard on a music scholarship and make a living repeatedly filling Carnegie Hall with the adoring fans who came to see the Armless Wonder of the World.
Of course, I also imagined myself covered in hair, growling at the populace and flinging excrement at it for five bucks a head.
So you can imagine my delight when, there on the Minnesota State Fair’s Midway, land of carnival rides, mini-donuts, and ring-toss carnies, my brother and I discovered an exhibit proudly declaring itself to contain The World’s Fattest Man.
It was 1972, or thereabouts. The gaudily painted canvas outside of the exhibit depicted an enormous, fleshy man standing next to an elephant, dwarfing various farm animals, all the while sucking the meat off a turkey carcass.
Our little eyes glittered with excitement.
And we got in line on a hot August day to see The World’s Fattest Man.
The funny thing is that I got in line to see one thing, but experienced quite another: it was my first time at having been swindled.
And to further emphasize the realization, it was the first time I had asked for it.
We filed in, me, Kevin, and perhaps 20 other people, in through the tent flaps, the stifling humidity of the bare earth filling the space. Minneapolis in August is a sweaty, swampy affair, and our hair clung to our necks in curly, tendril-ed exhaustion.
Sitting in a recliner and surrounded by whirling, oscillating electric fans, The World’s Fattest Man never looked up from the book he was reading.
He was, honestly, not all that much bigger than Fat Karl’s Uncle Buddy, who sat in the backyard in a kiddy pool drinking beer.
Kevin hissed in my ear as we filed past the sweating man. “The World’s Thinnest Fattest Man!”
And that’s when it hit me, one of my first real moments of clarity: Had I really expected The World’s Fattest Man to be standing in here astride an elephant, sucking down a whole turkey and spitting out the bones?
I had paid two dollars, looking for something new, only to discover something really new: that sometimes you can’t tell, by looking, who the freak is.
And that if you can’t tell by looking, the freak just might be you.