The Sad Decline of the Sideshow

The Sad Decline of the Sideshow

Marc Sheehan


The first thing I thought of when my boyfriend gave his heart to me was this shrunken head my cousin bought at some carnival one summer when we were kids. It had that same creepy, wizened, you know, shrunken quality to it. The heart was made of plastic and about the size of a strawberry—organic, since that was the only kind he would eat. It was painted with red hobbyist paint (“Mythical Maroon”) and its atriums, ventricles, and other stuff you don’t want to know about were delineated by thin lines of black enamel my boyfriend had painstakingly applied himself. It looked like an artifact from an alien autopsy—or proof that the Grinch’s heart really was two sizes too small. He presented it to me strung on a thin silver chain.


The summer my cousin Steve bought the shrunken head, he was nine and I was seven. His mom, my dad’s sister, was a single mother and sometimes Steve stayed with us because his mom thought he needed a male role model. As any nine-year-old boy would know, a shrunken head is the perfect thing with which to frighten an unsuspecting younger cousin. He got the chance to ambush me with it because instead of going with him and Dad to the carnival, Mom had taken me to see Disney on Ice.

The heart was an anatomically correct reproduction of my boyfriend’s own heart—a sort of scaled-down, model car version. His father had died young of an infarction, so when he experienced some tightness in his chest his doctor ordered an MRI. The pain went away and everything looked normal. When the doctor showed him the images on the computer, my boyfriend thought they were cool and talked the physician into giving them to him on a flash drive. He’s good at talking people into doing stuff. It’s one of the many things he’s proud of.


The first thing I saw the morning I woke up after seeing Disney on Ice was the shrunken head. I screamed, which was extraordinarily gratifying to my cousin, who stood at the foot of my bed dangling the head in front of my face by means of my father’s seldom-used fishing pole. He reeled the head in and took off down the hall in his pajamas before my parents stumbled in, groggy, to see what was wrong.

There were enough MRI images from different angles that my boyfriend was able to blend them together into one digital 3-D file on his computer. Then he took the file to a rapid prototyping shop and had them print out the heart. Our relationship was not going well, and this was his attempt at being capital-R Romantic—something I may have told him was not his forte. Although I knew it wouldn’t help, I clasped the silver chain on around my neck. And although I knew it, too, wouldn’t help, I made love with him that night. His heart kept hitting me on my chest.

The head had straggly black hair, and stiches to keep its mouth and eyes closed. Steve developed a long story about the head—how a missionary went to Java and brought it back after living with a remote tribe. The missionary lost his faith during his years in the jungle, and eventually became a cannibal and head-hunter himself. The story included a long description of what it took to shrink a head, which involved removing the brains and burying the head in burning sand.


My cousin and I came to a kind of truce that summer. I remember a tea party I held with my dolls. We invited the shrunken head, who came and behaved really very civilly. He had, after all, a certain charisma, a mythic depth of character. The heart, on the other hand, wasn’t really a heart. A heart is shaped like a valentine, or the symbol on an I ♥ NY t-shirt. A heart does more than just pump blood. You can be of two minds about something but not two hearts. I wasn’t looking for a shrunken aorta, but a dagger-pierced, Cupid-arrowed, sugary-diabetic-coma-inducing, burning-through-the-chest-of-Jesus, carved-into-birch-bark-with-our-names-and-a-plus-sign-equalling-forever heart. A heart bigger than a heart—that’s the only kind worth capturing. Everyone knows this: hermaphrodites, four-legged women, fire-breathers, human blockheads, mermaids, sword-swallowers, tattooed women, dog-faced boys, Siamese twins, even Tom Thumb, the world’s shortest man, whose heart was the size of a blue-ribbon berry and whose head looked only slightly too big.

All rights reserved to Marc Sheehan.

Illustrations by Max Mose.

All Natural and Safe

All Natural and Safe

The Age of Biology

The Age of Biology