Fall 2005




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Challenge Prompt

stung by fate
Matthew Spillum

The blame for Millie Skarsblad’s demise…that question seems to keep popping up. The eagerness of the crowd, her naiveté, my negligence, all of these are well wide of the mark. I know; I was there. We never remember the experts discussing the mundane facts: her cotton candy-covered fingers, the large hornet’s nest left by the Ferris wheel crew to grow unchecked at the hub of the ride. It always has to be a person. Someone to blame.

I’ll have a beer, thanks.

I have to say that it was interesting to work for Ms. Skarsblad, though not necessarily what I had in mind studying English Language and Political Science in university. I had envisioned myself translating for the diplomatic corps, or working with the Danish delegation to the E.U., not managing and translating for the world’s foremost one-legged tap-dancer (probably the only one: I was never able to ascertain the fact of that matter). Still, in a world craving novelty, the Platinum Pogo Girl was a rising star, one easy way into public life. Her second world tour brought her perhaps inevitably to the Midwestern United States, where her Danish nationality played strongly among the fields of swaying wheat, soybeans, corn and the hordes of Scandinavians.

The Minnesota State Fair was to be one of the highlights of the tour. The showcase revue, Stømpen, was well received critically, but here would come the popular exposure needed to move into the Riverdance realm. Fresh from our WCCO interview, with all the obligatory questions about lutefisk and whether we felt at home (certainly not…where was the ocean?), Millie leaned over to me and said she wanted to see the midway, maybe generate some buzz for the evening show.

She was a sensation off the stage as well as on. I know it seems as though her unusual physiology wouldn’t captivate without the trappings of a show, but the way she hopped everywhere on her hypertrophied single leg, like a mermaid with a foot…they ate that up.

“Sven, let’s show them how high I can jump! Or how far! Get some people to lay down and I’ll hop them!” She was always eager to impress her fans, passers-by, really anyone at all.

It was strange, you know, being a highly trained interpreter asking people to “please, yes, we ask for volunteers to lay down here on the ground.” It couldn’t be helped, though; she loved to show her stuff, loved the attention.

“Sven, we must stop. I want some of that fluffy sugar!”

“Cotton candy?”

“Yes, whatever it is called…get me some.”

“Sure.” I stood in line, while she signed autographs and feigned ignorance of what people said to her. “No good English,” she’d say, with a wink to me. Almost every European knows some English. It was at times like these I felt like a failure, like I was wasting my life shepherding a circus freak.

Then I saw something I’d never seen before. Perhaps the one thing that humanity owes to the American State Fair is the variety of foodstuffs available on a stick. And I had seen it…alligator-on-a-stick. Alligator? Did people really eat alligator? I determined to get some just as soon as I had Millie’s cotton candy.

Sure, I’ll take another.

As I have stated for the record on so many occasions, it was while in line that Millie made her fateful decision. “Sven, I’ve had a wonderful idea! Look at the Ferris wheel…it is all metal and enclosed. What do you think about doing one rotation with the enclosure wired for sound and my tap boot on? It would be amazing, wouldn’t it? The whole fair below us, the rhythm…”

The unbearable noise, I continued in my head. “Sounds good. When do you want to do this? You have to get to the dressing rooms in three hours for makeup.”

“Oh, tell them now, tell them that I want to do it now!”

I relayed her request to our Fair escorts. How was I to know that she would be whisked away while I was still in line? I was just paying for my food when I heard the first rhythmic clangs sound.

From a strictly aesthetic perspective, the idea was a hit. The acoustics of the steel gondola really brought a nice tonal range to Millie’s frenetic rhythm. The Danish Dynamo at her best, with the whole midway looking up. No sign of trouble could be ascertained as she neared the top, the rhythm increasing. Thinking back now, I keep imagining a stutter, some definite spot where I knew something had happened, but I know it isn’t true. Even as the tapping slowed on the descent, her tapping was intricate, polyrhythmic joy. A true show person.

During his testimony at the insurance trial, Dr. Marvin Gloustenbury, entomologist and expert on hornets, was quoted as saying that the combination of the tapping vibrations and the sweet scent of cotton candy on Millie’s hands and face created a “kind of perfect storm of hornet aggravation and attraction.” Her finest performance, her whimsical treat…a summer day of fun conspiring to her downfall. I still think about that.

Anaphylactic shock is not a pretty way to go. As the car slowly swung back to the platform, the tapping was feeble. The attendants opened the door and we all were stunned. There, swollen almost beyond recognition, the Mono-Thighed Marvel tried gamely to tap from the floor. I reached for the epi-pen in my pocket, and jabbed it into that huge single thigh. Too late.

I still think about that…I haven’t done any translating since. Just teaching Danish at these damn language camps, trying to move on, you know? Don’t get me wrong, the kids are fun and all, but, and I never thought I’d say this; I actually miss it. The life with the dance show, the touring, I miss it.

Get me another beer.

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