The stilts were necessary. If I’m being honest about it. Sure, in most settings, they were goofy, but Liz, they made me taller than you and your bully friends. The summer after Dad died, I begged our next-door-neighbor, Mr. Hansen, to fashion them. The old man took pity on me, and I lurked outside his garage workshop, listened to his circular saw whine as it chewed through two thin railroad planks he then painted sea-foam green, the color of lunchrooms from the 80s.
For days, I used all my free time learning how to walk on those stilts. I gripped the splintery handles, planted my heels on the wedge footholds, hoisted myself up. My first attempts were a disaster. I’d invariably lose my balance and tumble ass over teakettle onto our driveway, raspberrying my knees and elbows. But I persisted. Soon, I rose nimbly in one swoop, and my new appendages became extensions of my stubby legs. That season of slanting shadows, folks in the neighborhood stood in their front lawns and cheered me as I scuttled up and down the street. Sometimes, I even moonwalked or braved a herkie jump. Wow, would you look at that!
But when it got cold, I abandoned my precious stilts down by the creek. Kids are like that, I guess, leaving important things behind, moving on to master something new. Anyway, no matter how many jokes I made, no matter how many tricks I learned or how tall I was on those stilts, Liz, all the adults liked you, not me. They were stupid.
Years of ballet and tap followed at the Fleetwood School of Dance. But Mom loathed the other stage mothers and stopped paying for my lessons. My dreams of sugarplum fairies were dashed, so I aimed my sights on the school talent show instead. I made do with what I had. For my costume, I dusted off the old stilts I pulled from the basement. Then, I blacked out a tooth with a crayon, plopped on a hat like some Minnie Pearl hick. Donned a red gingham shirt. Overalls.
I was the last to take the stage. The velvet curtain parted, and the first notes of “Mr. Bojangles” crackled through the speakers, and from center-left, I romped to the song’s banjos, the spotlight following me. All the Sacred Heart of Mary School kids, first to eighth grades, egged me on. Go, Annie! Go, Annie! GO! They clapped at the chorus, and I transitioned from boring shuffle-ball-changes to wild antics, slapstick, strategic slips. A herkie jump. A moonwalk. Go, Annie! Go, Annie! GO! On the front row, Ryan Richards, perfect like a comet in that dark auditorium, laughed. He thought I was funny. They all thought I was funny.
Later, after college, I didn’t move home. You got Mom’s adoration; I got stand-up and bus tours and TV appearances. Last year, after your funeral, my manager, Mike, and I went to clean out your house, and I ventured out back behind the porch. Under the eaves, I found my old stilts tucked in a veil of cobwebs. With the clouds speeding above me, I hopped on, the plunkety-plunk of wood on the walk. I sang and danced to “Mr. Bojangles,” hamming it up, and Mike hooted—You’re a carnival freak, Miss Thang! We laughed and laughed, though there’s nothing funny about me.
Cate McGowan is the author of the short story collection True Places Never Are (2015), which won the 2014 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her debut novel These Lowly Objects is forthcoming from Gold Wake Press, and her writing has appeared in Flash Fiction International, Glimmer Train, Crab Orchard Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and numerous other outlets. Find out more about her at www.catemcgowan.com.