Riisa Saari was a freak. Even if we couldn’t read the hand-painted sign of the dirty, weather-beaten tent fabric, we knew that much. She was our favorite among the sideshow freaks—the cranky, mostly taciturn Lobster Man a very distant second.
Every year in early June, we’d sneak out of our houses to head over the hill to Walnut Beach, where the ride jocks raised tents for the carnies and assembled the rides we’d be screaming on once we were finally free from Mother of Sorrows and its severe nuns. The Northtown Fair, and Riisa’s arrival, was something we talked about long before the first carnival posters were nailed to telephone poles and the local radio station began promoting it. Her draw was her physical strength. She arm-wrestled and she always won. Her biceps weren’t as big as most of the men she challenged, but it didn’t matter.
The town’s hillbillies, the younger guys who skipped or quit school, always took her up on her dare to wrestle. They were the only ones in those days who sported tattoos, mostly the crude jailbird kind with their girls’ names in uneven block letters or “Mom” in Italic script on the tops of their shoulders. They rolled their T-shirts up to expose part of the tattoo or tuck a pack of Marlboros in there. The duck’s ass was the favored hairstyle in those days. Our older brothers and cousins all had a butch, a flat-top, or something like Frankie Avalon on one of his album covers.
Riisa was not exceptionally tall or heavy. Before she was billed as “The Blonde Gypsy Arm-Wrestler,” she was called “The Sensational Arm-Wrestling Valkyrie of Europe.” It’s possible the title was too ornate or hyperbolic, even for a sideshow tent, or else Valkyrie remained puzzling for too many locals because the following year the lettering was changed to her “Gypsy” title and that’s how we all knew her, with a few shorthand but respectful diminutives like “Blonde Gypsy” or just “the Gypsy.” She was bigger than most of our mothers who, in those days, had no muscle definition, wore themselves down with housework but never built themselves up; they carried little pouches for bellies as they aged and their triceps muscles shook like the wattles of turkeys. Nothing to match the grander beer bellies of our dads, however. That is, except for my Aunt Elizabeth, who had a thyroid condition, weighed five hundred pounds, and never left the house. But still, if Riisa was seen downtown in a print dress, you’d never think twice about her.
Because she was one of those translucent blondes with wheat-blonde hair, her face would grow dark with blood whenever she had a tougher man to wrestle. I never saw her lose but it was rumored she had lost matches in other states. Being a late-bloomer, I was drawn to her with a love that was as pure as my limited imagination made possible. I kept the family’s issue of Life magazine with Donna de Varona on the cover hidden in my closet. She was my secret fantasy girl, smiling from the swimming pool’s turquoise water in her blue one-piece swimsuit and pale blue eyes. Just her overall blonde prettiness and porcelain skin would sweep me into another realm, and her face on the cover probably ended my childishly simple thoughts of girls altogether. Now, like Donna’s prettiness, they appeared in my imagination with a warning alarm that behind the beauty lay a power they could invoke to ensnare me. Besides, I had sisters and I knew they were capable of deceit on a whim.
Sometimes I mentally overlapped the powerful Riisa with Donna’s face, switched them back and forth, admiring each, as if I could play them off against each other. But I never let the lewd comments inspired by Johnny O’Kurran’s stash of nudie books taint them, as was the case with the deluge of erotic filth bestowed onto Betty Page’s black-and-white poses on the beach by the circle of boys gathered around her photographs. Johnny, whose front teeth were missing in those days, used to say the most sexually explicit things about Riisa and the rest of us would laugh and tease one another; he didn’t need to be egged on because he was a couple of years younger and small for his age, so he acted the toughest. It was Johnny who also provided us with our first cigarettes from a cigar box full of loosies, as they would someday be called. He claimed to have stolen them and we never questioned it.
At the fair, Riisa’s extraordinary ability to beat males at a strength contest drew laughter from the crowd. She would always start the same way. She talked about herself a little, mentioning her hometown of Helsinki and how she was forced to drop out of school to help her sickly mother, who had escaped the Nazis in Latvia by pretending to be dead under a pile of shoes. Riisa’s story fascinated me as much as her strength because I could picture her mother hiding under those shoes after she was taken with all the Jews from her village to be shot outside town in a forest. Riisa would, she often said, discover her marvelous strength when she entered a wood-chopping contest and beat the men.
Sometimes the details changed, but there was always a reference to her mother and the Nazis. Not long after the wood-chopping victory, she said, a small European circus came through her village and she ran away to join it. An American carnival man saw her feats of strength and invited her come to America to join “The Greatest Show on Earth,” but she never got around to saying how she wound up in the ragtag little affair Northtown hosted every year.
Right after she beat her last victim—sometimes two, four at most, and never another woman challenger—she would resume her monologue with the crowd. Some defeated males did not always take the crowd’s laughter well and they shouted demands for a rematch, which Riisa always ignored with banter or a compliment to salve the bruised ego: “My oh my, folks, that was the toughest one yet!” Some of the rougher hilljacks, as we called them, did not like the crowd’s abuse when they lost, and picked fights outside Riisa’s tent.
In my thirteenth year, my intense admiration drove me to seek out Rissa’s tent without summoning my cousins or any of our gang of neighborhood boys. At first I told myself it was just to see if her tent was up. The real reason was that I hoped to speak to her or to have her see me and say something. Johnny had once received her attention when she challenged him among the crowd. Some wanted to push him up onto the stage, but he fought his way free and ran out of the tent. For weeks after, he bragged about it. I saw her reach out to ruffle his hair, yet he claimed to have deliberately brushed up against her “titties and felt a boob” while he was being jostled. He said it felt like iron. Danny, Johnny’s personal tormenter, accused him of losing his front teeth by trying to pop it into his mouth. Johnny was called the Smiling Cobra all year, and his “Iron Tit” story became a legend.
The fair was always scheduled to open Saturday afternoon, so it must have been late Friday when I went down there alone. This year, the trucks had arrived so late we never saw them come into town. Normally we’d have lined the streets at dusk waiting for the first trucks and semis to appear coming up Lake Avenue, then stayed to watch the slow procession of trucks with their murals and banners drive down Walnut Beach hill to the huge gravel parking lot south of Lake Erie to begin setting up for the next day. Mostly the men who worked on the rides would ignore us, but sometimes they swore if we got too close. I decided to come down from the hill behind the library so I wouldn’t have to deal with them.
Riisa’s tent was always in the same place, the last of the three billed events. The Lobster Man occupied the middle space by dint of seniority, we thought, assessing his face and deformed physique. The first slot was a surprise from year to year. Once it was a comedian whose jokes didn’t make sense to us. Another time it was The Fierce Voodoo Man from the Congo, who turned out to be a sad-looking, elderly black man dressed in feathers and a bright hoop skirt; he was streaked with paint and he mumbled incoherent incantations and shook some gourds filled with sand or beans. One girl with red hair in my class at Mother of Sorrows asked our teacher, Sister Helen, if it was a mortal sin to go see the Voodoo Man if he showed up again. She said it was. She also said it was a sin to watch Popeye the Sailor Man cartoons and The Three Stooges, which nearly precipitated a palace revolt in the front of the classroom.
Riisa’s tent was already set up and a sign hovered over it, promising an “Amazing Creature Never Seen Before in Human History.” The tent flaps in back were pulled open for the night air. I peeked inside and saw her sitting on a three-legged stool wearing a loose nightgown and over it a man’s checkered shirt. Her thick blonde hair was pulled behind her head in a messy bun. In those days, my older sister spent an hour every day before we even had to get up for school fixing and spraying her hair in front of the bathroom mirror.
I stood near the flap in the dark, instantly mesmerized by my proximity to the very woman I had fantasized about. I was too stupid to realize how easily I could be seen.
“Fuck off, punk,” she said.
It wasn’t said harshly, but I jumped at her voice. I wasn’t aware she’d noticed me. Then I noticed the syringe. She crossed her leg, exposing flesh all the way to her stomach, and gave herself an injection in the thigh.
“I told you to fuck off,” she said without looking at me but without the same heat in her voice.
I was about to bolt, humiliated, ashamed, and frightened, too.
“I’m diabetic, kid,” she said suddenly in a lower voice. “Just in case you get the idea I’m a dope fiend.”
“No, no, no,” I clucked, ashamed now, stammering, unsure what my bearings were. I felt dizzy, exhilarated that she’d even deigned to say something to a wretched peeper like me.
“I wasn’t thinking that at all,” I blurted, almost choking on the words.
That might have been a lie but I’m not sure. Back then the only dope I’d heard of was the “devil’s weed” the blacks in town were rumored to smoke. One white man, Tex, who wore a Stetson and ran a whorehouse on West 32nd Street, was alleged to get it for college kids at a price. Also Charles Moorehead, a black man with a dangerous reputation in the sole black bar on Bridge Street for knife-fighting. The Northtown Tribune used the same phrase whenever he was arrested: “Charles Moorehead is no stranger to police. . .”
She rubbed the place on her leg and stood up to face me; she didn’t tower over me. Off her platform, I realized, she wasn’t that big. I noticed crow’s feet around her eyes, the lack of any makeup that always made her look formidable yet feminine on her platform in front of the crowd.
“You come here all the time, don’t you? I’ve seen you every time I’m in this shithole of a town.”
“Yes,” I said. The insult to Northtown didn’t faze me at all. But acknowledging I was always at her show was like admitting to masturbation, a practice I’d recently taken up with enormous zeal.
“You wanna guess how I’m able to beat all those men?”
“Because—because you’re Riisa Saari, the world’s strongest woman.”
At the moment I said it, I blushed. I knew I was the kind of guy who would always seek to flatter women for approval.
She laughed—I think she laughed. It sounded more like a dog’s yip.
“Come here, boy,” she said.
She pulled me inside the tent by one arm. The smell of sawdust was much stronger inside. I was surprised how quiet it was. No crickets or chirping cicadas. No sounds of metal ringing from the construction work outside. I didn’t dare cast my eye around her quarters, a tiny area sealed off from the stage where she performed. However, my peripheral vision took in a dressing table with jars and bottles, makeup, and an amber bottle of what I assumed was whiskey. A tattered bible with a red ribbon like a lizard’s tongue extended from the edge. The whiskey was a surprise, not because she was a woman but because my parents drank only beer except on St. Patrick’s Day, when the whiskey bottles arrived with my uncles for an all-day celebration into the night.
“Feel my arm,” she ordered.
She bent lower to accommodate my height, and I had the merest glimpse of swaying breasts that sent a rush of blood to my face.
I gently touched the ridge of muscle through the fabric.
“You’re really. . . strong.”
The lameness of that observation embarrassed me further. I was worried she’d seen me cut my eyes to the front of her unbuttoned shirt. All I could think of was this: Her bra is white just like Mom’s.
She said a word I’d never heard. I thought she knew what was in my mind and she was cursing me in a strange language. I had a vague idea that Gypsies were from Europe.
“It means I’m very strong,” she said. “It’s like having six fingers. I beat those men fair and square. There’s no trickery.”
I knew sometimes people left her tent saying it was a fix and the guys she beat were “ringers,” whatever that was. But I was flattered beyond words: Riisa Saari thought I was worthy of having a conversation with her.
Her eyes were moist as they considered me. I’d seen enough drinking around my kitchen table to know when adults had alcohol in their systems. She returned to her stool to sit again and more of her hair came undone in the back. She reached behind her head and pulled the barrette free. It was one of those spring-loaded kinds my sister used that looked like big insects with crisscrossed legs.
“What—where is this place?” she asked me.
“It’s Northtown,” I replied. “On Lake Erie,” I added as if that would pin our little burg firmly in her mind, but I was wondering how she couldn’t know that by now. I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. How could you be in a town and not know its name? Of course, I’d never left Northtown and lived my entire life within seven blocks of where I stood.
I was afraid she might have reached that point in her drinking when long silences replaced chatter. I’d seen that, too, often enough in my parents’ case, and it generally acted as the prelude to a big fight.
She hadn’t smiled once despite the pleasantness, or her tolerating me. I’d seen her on stage with a smile accentuated by lipstick so often I had thought she was like that off-stage too. Having a meal and talking to her carnival peers, she’d be mascaraed and painted, gleeful, proud, a swagger in her expression—not at all now. She seemed gloomy and I felt I was failing to lighten the mood for her by being so dull, so local.
“You look small. How old are you? Do you play sports?”
“I’m thirteen. Football,” I said. “I’m a wide receiver.”
That would be the truth but not for long. By the end of August, I’d be sitting on the bench watching a faster and more agile kid slathered with freckles named Jimmy Rodell take my spot on first string; it would be one more of life’s many disappointments awaiting me.
“What’s your name?”
I told her. She seemed to mull that over, pronouncing it a few times like someone practicing a speech. She stared at me with her bland expression and watery blue eyes, not drunk, I was relieved to see, but saddened and burdened with what I could never know. She scrutinized me like no female ever had. I withered under her stare. I was keenly aware of how slender and poorly dressed I was for what was intended to be a sneak-attack reconnaissance. My Levi’s were unwashed, twin holes at the knees, not from fashion but from rough play, like football and baseball by the pavilion not far from her tent. And mostly from things we kids did daily in our carefree summer lives in Bumstown, our private stomping grounds, also not far from the fairgrounds; we played in these woodlands and marshes and fields between the breakwall and the coal piles of the Conrail yards in Northtown harbor all day long—running, fishing in ponds near the railroad tracks, climbing trees, chasing one another, and building forts. I tried not to look down at my sneakers, which were coming apart at the soles and making my socks black with filth by the end of each day. I stood there awash in rue that I was supposed to get new tennis shoes that very day down at George O’Leary’s shoe store on Bridge Street.
She hopped off the stool as if it were electrocuted and walked around it. She dropped to one knee and propped an elbow on the stool. Her fingers wiggled at me.
I didn’t move.
“Come here, little boy,” she demanded. “Life is about doing things, not standing around waiting for bad things to happen. My mother saved her life by jumping before she was shot.”
I had no idea what that meant; it sounded exotic, made up, impossible. Mothers didn’t get shot in Northtown as far as I knew. This being a fair, a carnival of sideshow freaks and rides named for dangerous animals, I assumed exaggerating came with the territory of gaudy outfits, frying grease, and aromatic smells of burnt sugar from cotton candy and waffle cones.
What I had dreamed for years in secret was about to happen. I was about to arm-wrestle Riisa Saari! I knew before I leaned over the stool to put my hand into the cup of her larger one, not being tall enough to have to kneel, that I would lose and badly—so many men had—but I would resolve to make it a good effort and then carry off the memory to cherish forever.
“Ready,” I said and curled my fingers around hers. They were stubby, not fleshy like a typical woman’s hands—my mother’s, for example, were brittle sticks, delicate and bony, unlike, say, my aunt Bunny’s. The warmth of Riisa’s hand surprised me and sent another jolt through me.
“I’ll count to three,” she said. “On three we go, OK?”
“OK,” I said.
I tensed myself, prepared for the inevitable but resolved to do my best.
“One, two, three,” Riisa said.
Her arm came down so fast my whole body twisted off my feet and I wound up in a half-cartwheel spin past the stool. When I opened my eyes, I had a mouthful of sawdust. A second later, a white-hot pain rippled from my shoulder socket to my fingertips and made my eyes fill with tears. I fought back a sob. My vision blurred.
“Now get the fuck out of here,” she said.
I stood up but I couldn’t lift my right arm at all.
“What are you waiting for, asshole?”
It was a word my mother used only when very, very drunk. My father never swore when he was intoxicated. He was usually happy. But he could get violent and that was scary for me and my sisters. I’d seen him hit my mother in a strange way: he lifted her arm and punched her hard beneath it so the bruise wouldn’t show. Sometimes, she wasn’t so lucky.
I must have been dazed because I heard a tearing sound that I didn’t connect to my T-shirt being ripped half off my body. She’d bunched her fist under it right up to my neck and with a single thrust propelled me outside the tent, where I fell once again in a heap.
I sat up right away in case she was coming to finish me off. The tent flaps had closed, however. My arm was still useless. The pain was worse. I didn’t know what to do.
I became aware of a man’s legs passing in front of me. I didn’t see above his belt. He pushed the flaps aside and went in.
“Riisa, what did you do to the kid out there?”
They spoke too fast for me to comprehend. Then I realized they were speaking Finnish, a strange language I had heard once or twice when my father took me to work on the tugs with him. The Finns came to Northtown for the fishing and work on the docks and railroads after the Irish clans had moved on to more genteel occupations. Their speaking Finnish told me I was no longer a subject of interest.
I worked my way up to my feet, my legs wobbly. Dizziness resulted from the pain—more than I had ever experienced up to that point. I was afraid I might vomit right there.
I made it home without my parents seeing me. They were at the kitchen table talking and drinking. I avoided the squeaky boards on the side porch and carefully opened the door, my ears trained on the noises from the kitchen. My mother’s voice climbed the upper registers as she scolded my father about some sin of their common past—a long-familiar sign she was well into her drink by then. Weekends were for drinking; by Sunday, it would probably be a big blowout. I managed to get into my bed. Being the only boy, I had my own room, unlike my sisters, who had to share a room and fought constantly, all of us being close in age.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. I’d had a third-degree sunburn last summer that kept me up, but this was far worse. I was nauseated, humiliated, and full of a fear that I would die from my injury. Years ago, my mother told me the infected blister on my thumb from being pricked by a rose thorn could turn into a blood infection and kill me “in a matter of hours.” She had wrapped my swollen thumb in bread soaked in milk and pricked it with a clothespin she sterilized with a match. Now I didn’t know if I could make it to morning because the pain was so intense—a line of steady red waves rolling over me, drowning me in hellfire until the next line of waves came.
I heard my father get up to go to work at dawn. He had to drive fifty miles to Erie to work on the docks because of a strike in Northtown, and he chose to work rather than give up his income, which he needed for our big family.
I learned a pair of strange words later that day when my mother found me lathered in sweat and barely coherent. I’d torn shoulder ligaments and some tendons called the “humerus to the glenoid,” according to the family doctor my mother took me to. I was medicated for the pain and would never regain complete use of full motion in my right arm.
I didn’t go to the fair that year, but my cousins did; they told me how Riisa had “demolished” some big guy who worked on the railroad. They laughed while telling it. I told everyone I’d fallen out of a tree.
Riisa Saari never came back to Northtown. Her place in the third tent was taken by the Incredible Fat Lady who talked about her breakfast, lunch, and supper meals. I remember her saying she could easily consume “a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon, ten pieces of toast, cereal, and a gallon of orange juice every day” and had done so for the last twenty-five years. However, she didn’t look even as big as my aunt with the thyroid problem.
I’ve often wondered how my life had changed from that June evening when Riisa Saari mangled my arm. Would I have lived a different life? Been a different man? I don’t know the answer to that. She changed my destiny to some degree because I never played sports again. I became a bookworm and studied history. My doctorate focused on atrocities in the Baltic States during the Second World War. I learned about the high-ranking Nazi Friedrich Jeckeln, who improved the method for mass executions, killing a hundred thousand Jews, Slavs, Romani, and others deemed “unworthy of life.” The “Jeckeln Method,” as it came to be known, forced people to lie facedown on the pile of dead or dying bodies that preceded them.
There were escapes, amazingly enough. In the Babi Yar massacre of Ukraine, three women managed to crawl out of the pit of dead bodies by nightfall. These women emerged nude, covered in blood but unharmed, screaming at the guards on post that they were Latvians, not Jews. Only one was spared. In the Rumbula Forest massacre outside Riga, another woman was spared when she hid under a pile of shoes and later testified against Jeckeln himself. Not many survived and their stories could never balance the horror of the vast numbers of dead, but they spoke to resilience and courage—and, it must be said, guile.
I never found a Riisa Saari on the Internet. Months ago, thinking of her as I often do, I paid a genealogist to do some research into Helsinki’s public records. There is no record of a Riisa born to a Saari during the relevant years, but there are, not surprisingly, hundreds of Saaris in the Helsinki phone directory. It’s reasonable to assume her mother had escaped war-ravaged Latvia before the Soviets locked down all three Baltic States after the war ended and the Cold War began. Records were scattered, destroyed, often incomplete. Most of that history can’t be digitized and uploaded. Only the memories of the living preserve it now.
The word Riisa spoke to me that first time, the one I didn’t understand, was probably sthenia. To be “sthenic” means to possess unusual musculature, a high number of twitch cells, a freak genetic accident that means the possessor, male or female, is gifted with an excessive level of strength or energy.
My left arm, bulked from obsessive weightlifting, is now noticeably bigger than my right. Being a freak has an advantage: guys in bars think me an easy mark for arm-wrestling. After losing with my right arm, I make money with the left. The losers go back to their bar stools muttering about the four-eyed solitary drinker who just beat them so easily.
I think of Riisa and me as equals, two snakes of the caduceus climbing the staff. I ache to return to her tent and demand a rematch. She’ll look at me in surprise as our arms lock. But as I force the victory, I’m no longer daydreaming, and she retreats into the folds of her tent, undefeated, intact. Memory dishes up the same image of me running home, sobbing, holding my damaged arm, then unspools a reel of soiled memories until I come to this same tattered, showy self-loathing, a regret for other losses, a deeper fear of bigger losses to come.
by Terry White
Terry White was born, raised, and still lives in Northeastern Ohio. He has published three novels in the Thomas Haftmann series, two noir novels, three collections of short stories of crime, and horror under the names Robert or Robb T. White. His latest works are the serial-killer novel Perfect Killer (2017), and another hardboiled private-eye novel, Northtown Eclipse (2018). His website:
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