I was the entertainment inside one of one of those leisure stalls at the Iowa State Fair. That’s what I called them. Picnic tables and trash cans inside of little shelters that happened to be equipped with miniature stages and crackling sound systems.
My mom had been Mrs. Iowa in her younger years. She was around the Fair, somewhere. Her connections had gotten me this gig. Since ten years old, I’d been a member of one band or another; she thought I had dreams of being a famous singer.
I was supposed to sing Disney songs. All day. Twenty minutes on, twenty minutes off. There were lots of family friendly attractions around my stall. Whoever was in charge must’ve thought this kind of music would sedate overtired, overhot children.
Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat…
Be. Our. Guest. Be our guest…
I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware…
Little girls with sweaty, scarlet cheeks hopped and swayed. Little boys jumped from table to table, oblivious of their neighbors. Moms and dads took sanctuary in a brief moment when the attention wasn’t on them.
There were also retired old farmers and their white-haired wives watching, chewing hot dogs and looking at me like I was something grave, offensive to all the hard work they’d known growing up. However, I felt like something meaningless, insubstantial. They shouldn’t have bothered paying attention.
When the twenty minutes on was up, I went around to all the different food stalls. I had this special pass, in lieu of a proper payment for services rendered. I could get anything, anywhere, any time. Blended lemonades and kettle corn. Turkey legs and shaved ice. Bacon on a stick and donut sliders. I had a vast map of all the vendors. I marked them off with thick red X’s as I partook in their wet, sugared, greasy delicacies.
I was also making myself sick. Though I was making myself sick no matter which twenty minutes I was in.
By late afternoon I left the “BACK IN 20” sign up permanently. I clutched my stomach in the shade by the roasted nuts guy, sipping sodas and hoping the carbonation would lash and tame the gurgling beast inside, which was when I heard a voice coming out of the PA. My PA.
I can show you the world. Shining, shimmering, splendid…
The girl was my age. Seventeen, eighteen. She was plain—jean shorts, some kind of tank with a pretty blue print, long brown hair, freckles. Plain, not unlike me.
She sang the song without one of my background tracks, but she did well, even if her voice shook at times. When she finished, the audience clapped and she hopped off the stage to zip down the wide avenue between vendors and barns and exhibition buildings.
She walked right past me. Our eyes crossed paths. “Just visiting,” she waved.
I followed her. I didn’t care that she’d done what she did. I would never deny those parents a little mercy. But I had to know what she meant. What exactly was she doing? Where else was she going like a little White Rabbit?
I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date…
Not on my set list, but I couldn’t keep the song from bouncing through my mind as I watched her, as she popped into a bakery cart when the owner stepped out after having no customers for a few minutes. A boy came up, asked for a chocolate chip cookie. She gave it, took his money, fled the cart for another visitation.
A girl brushing the coat of her show horse.
A mother rocking her infant’s car seat, who had stepped away to chase down her toddler.
A trash hauler.
One of those guys who drives old and obese people around in a golf cart.
On and on. She stepped in, then stepped out.
At the end of the night it was my mother she found. My mom was a singer like me. Or, I was one like her. She wasn’t big, wasn’t known, though she still thought she was too famous to demean herself by stopping by my stall to do a little duet with me. Her daughter.
This girl I was following wandered all the way to my mother’s trailer. She peered in for a while. She hid in time to remain unseen when my mom stepped out to head for the Pepsi Co. Stage in a sequin jacket and designer blue jeans. Sometimes I would stare into my mom’s closet at these objects of luxury. Sometimes I would let my fingers feel the bright textures of brand-spanking-new things.
The girl went into the trailer. I went to the window to watch what she did—what had my mom done as she had watched?
The girl was wearing my mother’s Mrs. Iowa sash, her glittering Mrs. Iowa crown. She was staring into the mirror framed in bright lights, palming wrinkles that weren’t yet present on her teenage skin. My picture was there, pinned on some wall. The girl didn’t even look. She just looked at herself.
I followed the girl all the way to her home.
I circled around once I saw where it was. Parked a couple blocks down and waited a minute. When the summer sky finished darkening, I snuck into the backyard.
Her family was plain, but they smiled a lot. A mother, a father, two little brothers. Her mom looked at her, a lot. Her mom’s smile was the biggest—so big I could count all her teeth. The girl’s father was there—he was close, touchable. He must have thought all this was important. Her brothers’ giggling sounded like a prettier song than I ever sang.
And the girl wasn’t sad. Weird, maybe, to do what she’d done today. But I was sure she had peace in that chest of hers. Because she danced a little while she brushed her teeth. She picked at an inconsequential blemish on her cheek without once looking back to make sure her mom wasn’t staring at her through the cracked bathroom door. Everywhere she looked, her eyes found solid, trustworthy things.
She got into bed and stretched out of her day. Closed her eyes. Slept.
I climbed into the boys’ tree house, eye level with her room. My food-sickness had subsided. I lay down, just as she did, arms placed the same, legs bent the same as if this outward configuration could change what was inside. I closed my eyes.
Amy Holt has lived on both coasts and many places in between, and is currently in the process of moving to Louisville, KY, with her husband and two imaginative daughters. She has her master’s in art direction and can’t stop taking photos and drawing little pictures of her daughters battling monsters and chasing rainbows. Her work has appeared in Passages North and is forthcoming from Selene Quarterly. Find her on Twitter @storieswandered and on Instagram @amyjl.