Joyland

a hub for short fiction

Welcome to My Harem

The summer after my nineteenth birthday, Cedar Point paid me excellent money to wear a wig of raven tresses and full-length gown of rich blue satin and to be trailed by seven little people with names like Bashful. My friend Sara had gotten me the job. Thirty-two with a youthful face, she’d been hired the previous month as Goldilocks. 

On our lunch breaks, I took off my wig and scratched my scalp while removing cold cuts out of my Chef's salad; Sara talked incessantly about her new boyfriend Leonard, who worked at the local Lube Stop and with whom she was dabbling in S&M. 

Throughout my workday, I’d rest with the little people on the benches scattered throughout the park, waving grandly to Pinocchio, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rumpelstiltskin. We were all paid the same rate. Some of us, like the Big Bad Wolf, were paid to scowl and look menacing; others, like Sara, were paid to look bedraggled and confused. 

The Cedar Point enactment of my life had me frozen between evil stepmother assassination attempts number two and three (poisoned comb, poisoned apple). The only disappointment about not being able to die from the apple was that I got gypped on resuscitation by a besotted prince.

I never had to worry about what to feel either, having been given a worksheet on my character. “You are troubled,” it said, “by concern for your father, who, in order to save your life, brought the queen (his second wife) a deer heart on a silver platter and told her it was yours. He paid dearly for that act of deception. Every time you survive one of the queen’s attempts on your life, the mirror informs her of same. This galls her, and renews her commitment to killing you, though you have enough self-esteem not to let her evil machinations impair your enjoyment of your newfound family. Have fun!”

So, basically I had it made: no happy ending, but not a care in the world. I ate, therefore, with genuine gusto and gratitude, the candied apples and cotton candy the customers offered.

On the weekends I rode the bus in my work outfit for fun.

“About time ladies dressed like ladies,” said a half-blind gentleman. I was on my way home from the library. 

“Did you see the ruffled bodice?” I asked. He shook his head. I reached for his hand and guided it along the seam. “Fancy stuff.” 

“Amen,” he said. “May you live a long and prosperous life.” 

I thought Sara had it bad in the romance department, but by the end of month two I had fallen in love with Sleepy-neé-Rick. His after-work disclosures, in which he claimed to be the anonymous philanthropist sweeping our town, accelerated my ardor. I thought: only someone seriously interested in me would steal the identity of a do-gooder to impress me. 

“Have you read the papers this week?” Rick asked me one night. We were at the bar. 

“About that guy who leaves $100 tips for busboys?” I reached for the pretzels. “What does he say on his notes? God Bless You and Yours?”

“That nut is me,” Rick said.

“You made an anonymous donation of $10,000 to the local animal shelter?” 

He nodded proudly.

“Not interested in the tax rebate, Huh.” Rick was about three feet one inch tall, with sandy brown hair that sloped off his forehead in a way that suggested styling product. “I don’t buy it,” I said.

“Random acts of kindness trump random acts of violence.” 

“I’ll toast to that.” We raised our glasses. 

“To your effervescence,” he said.

After the next after-work drinking session ended in sex, curled up on his four-poster bed, our eyes level, I tried to think of the words that would get him to confess.

“You should have seen the face of that busboy after he counted the twenties,” Rick said. “Pure astonishment.”

The papers the next day read: “American Cancer Society Receives Anonymous Donation of $25,000.” I confronted Rick. “Don’t you think it’s shitty to take credit for someone else’s heroic deeds?”

He asked, “Have you ever saved a life?”

The next day at work, I was sitting, with Dopey, under an oak tree, taking a much-needed rest (I might have been playing a Disney character, but that didn't mean I ran on batteries).   Before long, a family approached, the mother holding onto the hand of a little girl.  “She wants to meet you, but she’s shy.”  The girl was covering her face, so I tapped her pinky finger. 

“She wants to meet you, but she’s shy.” A family approached, the mother holding onto the hand of a little girl. The girl was covering her face, so I tapped her pinky finger. 

“Hello!” I said, grimly. “I’m Snow White! What’s your name?” 

“Marissa,” said the father.

The mother took a few Polaroid shots with Marissa, the dwarves, and myself, and gave us a copy. One of the girl’s eyes peeked out, buggy and cyclopean, from the shrimp-colored web of her hands. I fanned the picture and passed it around. “We all look pretty freakish,” I said. “Let me see your savings account statement.”

“That’s a pretty crass request, Snow White,” Rick said.

There was no missing the headline that next morning. A picture of several handicapped children flanking a new specially-equipped van, a purchase made possible by a generous donation to the Special Olympics, accompanied the article. 

“Gimme that blond wig,” I said to Sara in the dressing room. “I’ll be Goldilocks today. No, gimme that wig,” I said, pointing. “The long one. I’ll be Rapunzel! I can’t do Snow White anymore.”

“Are you stoned?” she said. She threw my wig at me. “Look alive.”

By noon I had tripped twice on no discernible obstacle. A rip in my hem that had knifed the back of my gown a good ten inches. “Who did it,” I shouted to the dwarves. “Who the fuck stepped on my dress?” They backed away from me nervously.

“You’re pale and sweaty,” Happy said. “Your bra is showing,”

I took a week of unpaid sick leave. 

On my first day back, I pulled the morning paper out of its plastic sleeve in the lounge; in bold type, splayed across the front page, were the words “Anonymous Donor to Multiple Charities Caught Red-Handed.”

The accompanying story told all; a retired car mechanic named Franz, who’d won the Illinois State Lottery the year before, lingered too long over tiramisu after giving the bartender $200, and the local press was alerted to the scene.

The picture of Franz was blurry, but he looked fifty-ish and embarrassed. Franz’s largest donation had been to a family whose son had been killed in a hate crime. In the picture, Franz was missing, quite noticeably, an arm; his viable arm wrapped around another man his age. His only quote: “I wanted to thank the people who have thankless jobs and who feel ignored by society because of their deviation from the so-called ‘norm.’” 

I closed the paper and rouged my cheeks. “What’s worth living for,” I asked Sleeping Beauty.

She scratched at the zinc oxide strip on her nose. “Don’t you mean who?”

Publicity stunts for money are shameful. No money? Ridiculous. Rick came in and took out his brown-bagged lunch out of the refrigerator, refusing to look me in the eye. When his bag of popcorn got stuck in the vending machine, he kicked the machine’s Plexiglas surface and went home early.

That night, after the park closed, I sidled up to our controls operator, and asked him to let the six dwarves and I ride just one coaster. As dusk came on, we climbed the staircase to the Gemini and took our seats. The dwarves raised their twelve arms collectively as we descended the first drop in silence.

“I never believed him,” I told Bashful.

After work I drove by Rick’s house. I changed out of my costume in his driveway, and put it in a bag, along with my wig and black heels.

He opened the door and I handed him the bag. 

I caught a glimpse of the house’s interior: there were four little women inside, cavorting in negligees. A fifth woman emerged from the kitchen, brandishing a whip.

Rick grinned sheepishly. “Welcome to my harem,” he said. “Care to join?”