When I was seven years old, my parents lost me at the State Fair of Texas. Their last sight of me, I’d slipped into a crowd of folks shuffling into a garish tent on the midway. I imagine them watching as I stood in line, my hair done up in twin pony-tails in the style we called “dog ears” and my sweaty little fist clutching the ticket to the freak show.
You’d be hard pressed to find a decent freak show now. This was 1967, when no one thought it unusual or awkward to put people on display. We have the internet for that now, but in the 60s you had to show up in person. I didn’t know what to expect from the sideshow. A bright splash of colored posters flapped against the outside of the tent and promised many miracles. An alligator boy, a sword swallower, the pincushion man, the world’s ugliest woman—they all waited inside.
The last one on this list drew me in. I’d started wearing glasses, a homely set in thick tan plastic that magnified my eyes to the size of saucers. Coupled with the elastic waisted pants and polyester tops mom dressed me in, from a distance I resembled a short, middle-aged housewife. Add in my under-bite, square jaw, and the nose I grew into, and you’ll get the picture. I couldn’t wait to spot the world’s ugliest woman.
Once inside the tent I fidgeted through the first part of the show. The only audience member shorter than five feet, I faced a solid fence of adult backsides. I hopped up and down, afraid I’d miss the one act I’d wanted to see. I caught the flash of metal as the sword swallower flourished his props, and from the collective sighs and gasps as the other performers took the stage, I understood they had displayed wonderful things.
At last the slick sideshow barker announced we could all move into a curtained off area to the side of the stage. “Only one additional dollar, folks,” he said, “and you will witness a site certain to frighten children!” The barkers gaze skimmed the crowd, measuring the size of our wallets. “Any patrons with weak hearts might want to skip the act.” I dug the last of my allowance from my pocket.
Half the crowd jostled through the curtains to arrive in a roped off space the size of my living room at home. I pushed my way to the front, determined not to miss a bit of the show. We faced a wooden platform, taller than I was, and barely large enough to support the plain kitchen chair placed in the center. Another set of curtains covered the back of this makeshift stage.
“Presenting the world famous…”
I don’t remember the woman’s name, the color or length of her hair, I couldn’t guess her age. The curtains at the back of the platform parted to allow her passage onto the platform where she settled on the little chair and dropped the robe that covered her body.
There must be some mistake, I remember thinking. This was not the World’s Ugliest Woman. Extraordinary designs—red dragons, blue and yellow birds, circles and flowers and bright flourishes covered every inch of her. I supposed the parts hidden behind her bikini top and shorts were also inked. When she smiled the tattoos moved along her face, as though they held a separate life from hers. She perched on the chair, smiling down at us, her supplicants. I wondered what she thought of me, so plain, so ordinary, without a single story drawn upon my skin.
I didn’t notice the others slipping out from the tent as I stood there, entranced until the sideshow barker, with a gentle nudge, told us, “Thanks for visiting folks.”
Released onto the fairgrounds, I wandered out into the sunlight to find my mother and father standing on either side of a uniformed policeman.
“Where were you?” My mother snatched my arm, dragging me away from the dark shadow of the sideshow tent as though it might suck me back in.
For answer I waved behind us, as a new stream of fair goers exited from the front of the tent. This was where most of the group I’d been a part of had left the show, strolling out past my waiting parents. I’d appeared almost twenty minutes later, from the back of the tent.
“Never again!” My mother vowed.
That was my first, last, and only visit to the freak show. Years passed and they replaced the freak show with exhibits of bizarre animals. The two-headed turtle, the world’s largest snake, the sheep with six legs—none of them had the alluring charm of the World’s Ugliest Woman. There was a brief time when the midway claimed to have a girl without a body, but we all knew that floating head trick was done with mirrors.
I went to the fair this year with my husband, Andrew, on a Sunday, a day when the crowds shuffled shoulder to shoulder past booths selling sheets, candles, cookware, and beef jerky. The air smelled of cotton candy, stale beer, and manure from the livestock barn. We left the carnival music of the midway fading and ducked behind a row of food stalls. With Andrew’s help I perched atop a concrete retaining wall, above the crowd as they streamed past. I wore a t-shirt with the smiling face of Big-Tex, the 55-foot statue greeting the crowd at the fairgrounds. His cheeks stuffed with fair food matched mine as I enjoyed my meal. I nodded to those passersby who met my gaze, and waved to the onlookers, the audience at the show.