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.