Tiny Kline

Some children on 77th Street, my mother included, knew her as the woman who barked if they crashed their bikes into her faultless lawn and flower-bed edges. They’d heard the adults: Did you know she crossed Times Square in the air? Did you know she can hang from the sky by her teeth? In 1949, my mother moved to Inglewood, California, into a house whose cheap Spanish stucco revival style was rampant. The house’s façade was adorned with a metal decorative plate – a design of the times – and hydrangea beneath the front window. If a house could be chaotic and changeable – a structure where, within, a family could fall apart and be rejoined in days – then the outside was similar but magnified. In a designated radius, kids rode their bikes. They had to be careful riding past Tiny Kline’s driveway and her shadowy open garage where she practiced. Other garages were filled with men and tools and sawdust. In the aerialist’s gym, she’d installed rings to practice holding herself up. A mouth bit. All the contraptions the former performer wanted. By then, she was in her fifties. She twirled. Traversed horizontal bars. She wore shorts. Showed her tan legs. No one else bared her legs or let her hair go like that – uncolored – into a classy, silvery white. In the garage, my mother’s sister, Mary, once turned the pages of Kline’s scrapbook: feats, pictures with blue sky behind them, and photos of Kline’s husband who’d died young. That afternoon, Tiny taught my aunt the Charleston. It was a piece of cake to dance like that. That body had broken records from the time it was still a girl: in burlesques, cooch shows, and as a racy chariot driver. She’d clutched a tooth fixture – metal and leather – as she crossed Madison Square Garden and never heard what they said below. She’d made so many slides for life that, in the air, suspended by her teeth, what was time for her?  In 1960, after my mother had grown, Kline became “Tinkerbell” – a first – at Disneyland. The former star, at seventy, slid from the Matterhorn peak to the ground of the new theme park. For years, she braced and bit down – iron, hook, leather, acid – until she must have felt her muscles and forgotten them. From building to building, she moved above the earth, whose details might have mattered as much as dangling in air. The blue above, like the world below, needed to be harnessed.

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