We were promised magic.
Instead we spend our summer as plushies. Those larger than life, bobble-head characters walking around the Magic Kingdom. Every intern prays to the great round-eared mouse that we will not be punished to this category.
Our group director is spackled in make-up, her forehead pulled so tight by two buns of hair that she has trouble blinking. We call her Tightass.
Tightass explains our duties. Wave, she says. Pantomime and soft shoe, she says. We can even hug the guests. But never try to speak. It breaks the illusion.
Our job is as we imagined, miserable.
The heads are so big our necks stay cocked to one side after trying to keep our balance. Our backs ache. We breathe recycled air and fill the heads with halitosis and smoothie burps. We switch characters and have to hold back bile as we slip into sweat-drenched underwear sewn into the costume.
The tourists become our targets. We mumble through the mesh in Chip or Dale’s smiling mouth, the words bouncing around that empty head never reaching the dupes in their careless joy.
“Mickey and Minnie bride and groom T-shirts, how original.” We moo at the herds of Alabama families riding rascal scooters. More often, we’re lazy and say, “Go fuck yourself, there’s really just a sweltering, angry teenager inside this Goofy” as we pat a child on the head.
In our real lives we were picked last for kickball, never got asked to a school dance.
But these people, children, teenagers, retirees, multiple generations of families, they’re here to see us. They want pictures, autographs. They hug us across our wide mid-section, arms overextended, faces smushed into the plush costume.
These people tell us we’re their favorite character.
They jump up and down, shouting, “I love you, Winnie the Pooh.”
Nourished by affection, we begin to crave the devotion from children of all ages.
Sliding damp underwear up our legs becomes ritual. The breath and spit in the heads are familiar and we can guess the previous wearer by the fragrance.
We dance. We wave. And we kneel so kids can rest their heads on our shoulder. We try to speak. We want to tell them we love them, too, but our sincerity fades before reaching the tip of Buzz Lightyear’s chin.
One day Tightass announces that this year’s Super Bowl winners will be in the park. We don’t know who the Broncos are, and John Elway doesn’t make it any clearer. We suit up as usual, tighten the suspenders on our hunched shoulders, and slip an empty noggin over our head.
As we flop around inside Toy Story’s Woody, dancing for the tourists like a trained monkey, our line breaks and attention shifts to a man in a jersey. “Elway! Hey John!” they yell. “Over here! My kid loves you, he has cancer!” This Elway eats up the handshakes and high-fives that should be ours. Helpless, we watch through the mesh, our vision filtered through our character’s eyes. Photo after photo, the man waves and laughs and hugs – and speaks. The children are happy. The grown man in the wheelchair is happy.
In a few months we’ll shed our stuffed animal shells. No one will wait in line, or pull their mom across the street to take a picture with us. No one will tell us we’re their favorite.
For now, we’ll dance, and pantomime, and sweat, and we’ll try to connect as best we can.
We pray to the round-eared mouse for more. More trapped burps in the oversized head. More his and her Mickey and Minnie T-shirts. We want more days of soggy communal underwear.
Just a little more.
Dusty Cooper is writing a novel expanding on his story “The Small Reflection of Things,” published in Pleiades, June 2017. His work has appeared in Weave Magazine, Crack the Spine, Berkeley Fiction Review, Eunoia Review, Bartleby Snopes, and Litro, among others. Dusty is a content creator for a tech company in Louisiana.