Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Nights when the laughter lingers

When the nights are as hot and sticky as they've been for a few weeks now, my mind and my body go different places. My body heads indoors in search of air conditioning, but my mind, triggered by the moist heat, travels across the miles and back through time to the hot, humid nights of Missouri in the late 1940s and early '50s.


Wherever we walked, I could hear the lady laughing, a raucous, almost malicious cackle that simultaneously repelled and attracted me. I was afraid of her, but she fascinated me. I wanted to get closer to see her better.

The fat lady rocked from side to side as she laughed, as if she alone were privy to the funniest joke ever, and the rest of us were so stupid we wouldn't understand the joke if she told us. Her hair was unnaturally black. Her eyes were black, too, flat, empty eyes that belied the smile on her painted red lips.

My mother said my sister and I weren't old enough to visit the house where the fat lady stood on her porch and laughed at the people passing by. I pleaded. We'd be okay if Mother would go with us, I argued, but she insisted that the house was for grown-ups, not children, and led us away.

I understood that the reason the lady laughed was to get people to come closer, to lure them into her house, and I knew it cost a lot to go in there. I noticed that the adults who came out the door were laughing, but teenaged girls seemed to duck their heads and huddle closer to their boyfriends, and a couple of kids who went in with their parents came out crying. Maybe Mother was right.

At least once every summer we visited the neighborhood where the fat lady lived, more often if we went to the nearby skating rink, but it wasn't until I was twelve that Mother gave in. Our visit to the lady's house was brief. All I really remember about it now is the darkness, the spiderwebs in my face, and the fear I felt at the sudden appearance of an angry wraith who reached out as if to snatch us when we passed.

That was our one and only time inside the house. As advertised, it was indeed a fun house, but the reality of it wasn't as thrilling as the anticipation we'd felt during all the years when we weren't allowed to go inside.

Nevertheless, when I think about those summer evenings we spent at Doling Park, I remember the fun house. I remember it in the same way I remember the carousel, the bumper cars, the cotton candy -- warm, pleasant memories, but not necessarily magical ones.

The magic still belongs to the fat lady, the mechanical gypsy whose laughter reached the farthest, darkest edges of the park and the deepest recesses of a little girl's mind. More than half a century has passed since she captured my imagination. In all that time, she's never let it go.


  1. Velvet, I have a similar fascination with the lady on the swing on Bourbon Street.

    What a lovely story!

  2. Your "Gertie" of Doling Park sounds like enough to give anyone nightmares! And I can sure understand why you still remember her.
    I have great memories from grade school age, of many trips to Playland Pier (long gone) in Coeur d' Alene ID where we lived, and then as an early teen, visits to Natatorium Park in Spokane WA (also long gone). Thanks for reminding me.

  3. That's so interesting! I've never liked funhouses, they scare the crap out of me. Same with haunted houses, and those rides at amusement park with animatronic people. Gee, now that I think of it, I scare kinda easily.

    Anyway, I can understand the reality bing more disappointing than the anticipation.

  4. the anticipation often is better than the reality, in many things. interesting to hear you grew up in Missouri as did we, in fact we still live there.

    thank you for the recollection of something we can identify with.

    peace and blessings


  5. I wonder if the fat lady came at a discount...I have always felt that there is nothing sadder in the universe than an old whore...just think they have sold who they are...nothing inner self.
    that is the way it seems to me. The way to die is--young--if you are a whore.

  6. Holly, I forgot about the lady on the swing, but I certainly understand that she'd have inspired similar fascination.

    Jackie, amusement parks like the ones we remember were the best things going for those of us born before Disneyland, Six Flags, etc.

    Janet, I remember your comment on an earlier post that you didn't like puppets or ventriloquists' dummies, so I'm not surprised that their life-sized counterparts scared you. You would have hated this laughing fat lady.

    Keepers, I have so many good memories of living in Missouri. Still miss it sometimes, even though it's been fifty years (next month) since we moved away.

    Sister-Three, LOL, you apparently traveled right down the path where I intentionally misled you, but I must have failed to make it clear enough at the end that the laughing fat lady wasn't real. She was made out of wood or fiberglass or something else, but she was life-sized. Even as a child I knew she wasn't real, which was what made the whole rocking, laughing thing so spooky.

  7. Velvet...I am a sucker everytime. If you get to wanting to pull a joke on someone...I am here. teehee

    Is the peacock real? He is isn't he?

  8. Sister-Three, I'm so confused! What peacock? ;-)

  9. Great story. You are a terrific writer.


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