Lately I’ve been wondering where Nicky the dwarf wound up. Kids at my grade school used to taunt Nicky because he had an oversized head, was 2-and-a-half feet tall and rode around the playground on his tricycle. He had a heck of time walking with any haste, and he wore his hair in a fluffy manner fashionable during the late ’70s. The whole situation was pretty tragic, a bully’s delight.
I was more of an acquaintance than a friend of Nicky’s, and never a bully. This was in third and fourth grades. Nicky was a little younger than me and always wore this tiny jumpsuit that was gray with red pinstripes running up the abbreviated legs. He always wore sandals with white socks, too. I have no idea why I remember these details, but I’m pretty good that way. Ask my amnesiac brother, whose childhood memories begin at age 30.
Once when I went up the street to visit a kid named Billy, who was closer to my brother’s age, I was startled to find Nicky there. Were they related? Billy had elfin features, so maybe he was secretly an elf, and he and Nicky made toys. Maybe the two of them are very rich men today.
What stuck out most about Nicky was his voice. It was high and piping, yet it also bore the moaning, otherworldly timbres of the humpback whale’s song. Adult supervisors called yard duties walked about the playground with whistles around their necks — bored, lumbering sentinels scouring for youthful mischief. Too often it came in the dependable razzing of poor Nicky, and that’s when he would let out this pitiful cry in the voice of an old woman with laryngitis: “Yaaaa-rrrrd duuuu-tyy!” What broke your heart was that his voice had no muscle, so it didn’t carry beyond the circle of tormentors. It was like steam from a broken train whistle. It’s a sound, so many years later, I still hear precisely. (I actually do a pretty good imitation of it, if you just ask. Bring cookies.)
Now, I hope this hasn’t gathered into one of those “insensitive” articles that elicit exercised emails. I don’t really care, because I don’t think it should, and I won’t read them. I suggest you don’t put “dwarf” in the subject line.
Truthfully, Nicky comes up only because he’s a vivid memory, and I spend an uncommon amount of time sifting through my past, which thrives in my head, brilliantly and fondly. His random invocation has nothing to do with a book or a movie. Those close to me know I think about that kind of stuff all the time. I can still, if you’d like, expound on Grace McDaniels, the Mule-Faced Woman, nearly 30 years after first seeing her in the book “Very Special People.” (Even Tom Waits has sung about homely Grace.)
My memories are active things. Here are a couple that just popped up: In 1976, at SeaWorld in San Diego, my mom got drenched by a walrus that sprayed a mouthful of water at her. On my ninth birthday, two friends and I threw dirt clods at the house next door and I busted one of its windows. We had to clean up the mess the next morning. At age 13, some friends and I dumped a bag of dog doo on someone’s doorstep. I got blood poisoning from a nasty BMX wreck at about the same time.
Nicky’s there, too, wheeling about on his tricycle, not knowing where he’s going, and unaware that some of us, so many years later, would think about the answer to just that.