Monday, July 6, 2015




At age ninety-eight and traveling north on the Florida turnpike with family, Abigail thought about the past and all the places she had been. As the van pulled into the Okahumpka service plaza, she drifted back to a time to when the roads were smaller, and most roads were made of  dirt.

She remember back to when she was ten years old. Each year the circus would come through town, leaving their winter home in Florida and working their way north, stopping at each town for a week or more and then taking a train for the return to warmer weather in Florida.

It was the last day for the circus in Bartow. Abigail's father took her and her brother to see the show. As they were leaving the big tent, in the crushing crowd Abigail was separated from her father. As she wandered around all the horse-drawn campers looking for her father, the Big Fat Emmy, who ran a side show on the back end of the circus, invited her in and offered her a meal.

"Young lady, are you lost?"

"I got separated from my father in the crowd."

"Stay here and rest, I will see if I can find him for you."

It had started to rain, and Abigail was cold, so the Fat Lady's offer was more than she could resist.

Her father was desperate, and the young boy was crying. He rushed from tent to tent, shouting for Abigail, but she could not be found. Fat Emmy spotted him and offered to help look for her. "Go ahead and take the boy home, I will continue to look for your daughter. She may have entered one of the tents to get in out of the rain."

After taking her brother home, he returned quickly to continue searching. By the time he returned, the big tent was down and the wagons were almost loaded. No one had seen a little ten-year-old wandering around, and they were too busy to help search. Fat Emmy wrote down his address and promised to notify him if Abigail showed up. The carny workers finished up late in the night and pulled out of Bartow before daybreak.

It was 1926 and the Great War was still on everyone's mind. The circus was a good way to shut out the memories. The circus wagons arrived in Lake City, then worked all day setting up the tent for the first show. The fat lady now had a sidekick, a little ten-year-old that she dressed up as an old lady with a gray wig. The thin, and small "old woman" made the fat lady look much bigger and drew a larger crowd. No one suspected that the old lady was actually a ten-year-old girl.

As they traveled from town to town, Abigail wondered if she would ever see her brother and parents again. The fat lady was kind, but determined to keep her sidekick for the show. Abigail got to know most all of the circus people and the side shows. She knew that she was missing school, but there was nothing she could do about it. Each night before the Fat Emmy went to sleep, she would lock the back room where Abigail slept, to make sure she did not run off.

As late fall approached, the circus loaded up and boarded a train for the return trip to their winter home in Sarasota, Florida. As they passed through Bradenton, Abigail began to recognize a few of the landmarks from when she had lived there before. The train made a last stop in Bradenton, Florida, and Abigail made her escape, getting off the train and hiding in the station until it left. The fat lady just thought she was still in the bathroom as the train departed.

Once out of the station, Abigail found her way to a friend's house. They were excited to see her, and had hundreds of questions. They sent a telegraph to her parents in Bartow, and they were soon on the way to fetch Abigail. Abigail would never forget her year with the carny and all the weird people and animals. Her father was never able to get over losing his little girl and the pain he caused her mother. When she shared how kind Fat Emmy was to take care of her, her father commented, remembering what Fat Emmy had told him, "I will write a letter to the circus and thank them!" When Abigail was older he would tell her the truth about the fat lady. 

As the van pulled out of the Okahumpka service plaza onto the Florida Turnpike heading north, once again the memory of that summer trip with the circus faded, the stream of billboards like circus advertisements brought her back to the present. 

Copyright © 2015 Hubert Clark Crowell
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