From the other side of the tent flap, skittish lambs snuffled and shuffled; bleating incessantly from the noise, dust, chicken-wire and the absence of mama. Little shrieks on little lamb feet pattered into Cheryl-Ann's mind and her body started to jolt in synaptic sympathy.
She sat on a milk crate, trying to keep the dung off her white sequinned evening gown. Purse perched precariously on her lap, she applied mascara before a frame that had mirror shards remaining. The largest piece rested jaggedly at waist level, so she hunched over. Carefully she applied another coat of mascara - a single smear or speck would be disaster. Another lamb bleated, and her hand lurched, almost paving a twelve-lane highway down her right cheek. "Dammit".
There. Done. She inspected her work. Long, lancing lashes lunged out from now-limpid eyes.
"Killer", she thought. She blew a kiss at the mirror. "Definitely killer". She checked her fingers. Sculpted nails in roseate bloom - too long for a lumberjack, short enough to type with. Then she spotted a dot of mascara on the knuckle of her thumb.
She took out a tissue and began to urgently scrub the smear off. The faux-leather purse fell off her lap onto a pile of dry dung.
Why was she here? Cheryl-Ann Rafkee cringed as the breeze wafted in, a cloying junkyard breeze kissed with the tawny offal oleo of cattle, fried food, dust, wizened dreams, ashes, and the dying words of long-dead Indian chiefs. She heard the fiddler's fiddle mingle with the pulsing bass of a Garth Brooks tune blasting out of speakers placed throughout the fairground. .Then she remembered. She was here so she could get away from here.
Moisture budded on her forehead, threatening to flower into flop-sweat. She delicately picked up the purse, pulled a tissue out and dabbed her forehead, praying, praying for it to stay dry. A piece of dung clung to the bottom of the purse. She swiped it off onto the top of a hay-bale. If one of the rosebuds sat on it, so much the better.
She walked to where the rosebuds- Branford County Corn Queen wannabes- stood waiting, freshly painted, thin-legged; knobbly knees swaying on spiked-heels. They looked like Does taking their first steps during hunting season. The rosebuds moved their lips, practiced the answers to the questions to come, bobbing to their meter. Beautiful (in degrees), every one of them. Hair undulating up and down in luscious, lustrous waves, veiling slender necks with creamy skin. Beautiful in degrees, every one of them - as beautiful as she, and she knew it. But young - the youngest couldn't have been more then 13. Cheryl-Ann wouldn't freely admit she was 26.
Cheryl-Ann had a cheery face for life in Branford County, but her inner wandering was not a thing of butterflies and rainbows. Cheryl was more Wolf then Lamb, but she only bit when it was absolutely necessary. And this was the time to bite, because she was hungry.
She had a dream, a vision that made her body ache with need.
All she needed was a one-way ticket out of here. The desperate groping of aging eyes, the banshee chorus of beer-swilling farm-boys, fatigue, famine and thirst, clinging gowns, heels on wobbly planks; all these insults were a small price to pay for that one-way ticket. First prize was $5,000, second prize was another lifetime's worth of Branford County.
$5,000, she tasted the rolling of the zeroes over her tongue. Enough for a Greyhound ticket to New York City. Where grey buildings touch the sky and overshadow the sun. Miles away from the cows, dust, farms, corn-shucking parties, beer-swilling farm-boys, unreachable horizons and ground-hugging smallness. Far removed from the lonely stoplight, nickel parking meter, Saturday Night at the Bijou-movie and-bingo game, square dances, county fairs, church and steeple, pickup trucks and Hank William's long-dead wail. Far away from acres and acres of corn, Lawrence Welk, grain silos, UFO sightings, Flesh-eatin' foeigners and gov'ment con-speer-a-cies. Forever away from reproduction shaker furniture, flat-planked floors and cheap flower wallpaper.
New York City was the place to be...
Where else could she lose herself among throbbing throngs of people, and savor the relentless, frenetic energy all around her. Where the night came alive, where else could she wander, pale skin lit up by neon lights, enshrouded in fine veils of shadow. She, a woman of mystery and allure, sophisticated, classy, a masked player at the ultimate masquerade ball. She could remake herself in her mind-eye's image - she could slip into and out of personas as others change a pair of jeans. $5,000. Enough for her to live awhile till she gets kickin'. A modeling job here, an acting job there.
Then, she'll take on the grandest booty of all, Broadway. She could feel the fever of klieg lights on her brow, the flashing of flashbulbs, the champagne and the fur coat to fight off the exhilirating chill of fall. She could feel the music rattling her bones, she could hear the people cheer, crying out her new name, Sarah, Sarah. Sarah, that's who she'd be. Queen of the City.
But now, she was still Cheryl Ann. Coffee-house waitress in a craphole farm town in Branford County, posing for judges whose sex-play were reduced to stroking cow udders and feeling the throbbing of Peterson combines under their ever-growing asses. And her deadliest opponent was a 17-year old who could walk on cow dung and not get a speck on her sole.
Her hair was blood-red fire, her lips a perfect plum red, eyes large in the Teechian manner and almond-shaped. Her skin! Her skin was as white as a baby harp seal. Her body was ripe, almost exploding with promise like ripe corn kernels under an August sun. Like a beacon, she radiated a glowing woman-ness that could give the dead a gentle erection. Her voice was a gentle tickle with a slight huskiness. She was a siren-to-be that will draw men to their deaths. She smiled, and angels wept. Her eyes blazed with youth, vigor, honesty and an impossibly beguiling shyness. Her virtue made Dulcinia's look cheap, her face could have launched 10,000 ships, and her laughter's seduction made the Siren's song sound shrill. And she was so nice! Damn her.
Cheryl Ann could see her going all the way. Someday, she'll walk down the runway as Miss Universe, adorning the covers of magazines everywhere, Time, Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, The New Yorker, The Journal of Neuropathology, Popular Mechanics. Hell, she could have it all. Let her be crowned the Queen of the human race for all she cared. Later. Just. Not. now. Oh God, just let her lose now.
She heard feedback from the sound system, the sizzling hump of a thumb on the microphone head. The Rosebuds looked to the side, breathless, hands cradling their faces in barely-suppressed sexual frenzy as the MC greeted the crowds. He was in his thirties, wearing a dusty tuxedo and snake-skin cowboy boots. Cheryl-Ann recognized him. She had seen him at a few weddings playing his Yamaha drum-set synclavier, crooning soft pop medleys with a syrupy, sappily seductive smile, cracking insipid jokes to the polite laughter of inebriated and otherwise-occupied wedding party crowds.
He was warming up the crowd, stirring as the torpor of the day wore off and the blood-gorged sun slithered onto the horizon. The MC told his trusty "I-saw-Elvis-eating at Bud's Café" story to the polite laughter and the whoopwhoopwhoops of the farm-boys in the back. Cheryl-Ann heard them shouting, "TitsTitsTits whoopwhoopwhoop!" The MC produced his synclavier, and crooned, "Are you lonesome tonight?" He started swaying his chunky hips in spastic slow motion to the beat of the electronic drums, looking like the King in a blurry quaalude dream.
The first song over, he bowed to enervated applause. Then he put the Yamaha to the side, picked up the wireless microphone. Showtime. He shouted, "ARE WE READY?" The farmboys howled and hooted again "TitsTitsTitsTits..." The lights flashed on, momentarily stunning the MC, who just grinned idiotically, capped teeth dazzling against the blitzklieg. He recovered, reading off cue cards, introduced the audience to the distinguished panel of judges.
"Mel, the Mayor!"
"John!" (John's Buick)
"Bud!" (Bud's Café)
Chuck! (President of Elk Chapter #938)
Franklin! (the County DA)
And finally, Mizz (no-first-name) Connors (the Librarian).
Cheryl-Ann knew she could count on Bud's vote. She worked as a waitress for him for two years. Some of the others she knew she could sway - She had no idea how to handle the inscrewtable spinster Mrs. Connors. She doubt if the hip-pulsing Briggite Bardot routine would work on her, no matter what the gossip said about her sexual preference.
These six people stood between Cheryl Ann and the one-way ticket. She despised every one of them - except Bud - and she was going to have to do her utmost to seduce them all with her words and poses.
The applause settled down, the judges took their seats and the pageant started. "Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the fifth annual Corn Queen festival. And it's my hubba hubba pleasah to introduce... The Cream of the Crop of Branford County!" And there they walked - spiked-heel struts in a figure-eight behind the MC, waving at the stunned crowds while the MC belted out "The most beautiful girl in the world."
And then, the introductions... "Hello, my name is Judy from Oakvale", "My name is Jessica from Ellison..."
At each introduction, a cheer from the audience, more whoops, and stunned silence from familes. Mothers cried, Fathers stared popeyed. And brothers who had previously known these begowned visions of womanhood as giggling blue-jean sisters, suddenly crossed their legs to hide unexpected erections.
Then, it was Cheryl-Ann's turn, "from Branford City". Good. She smiled brightly, her words were strong, sure, and sincere. Bud winked at her, and Mel the Mayor grinned.
And then, She spoke. "Hello, my name is Eleanor, I'm fron Branford City". The crowd fell silent, and the MC stopped singing for a beat. The Judges ' eyes glazed for a second. Then the next rosebud spoke, and the clamor returned. Eleanor. She had a name now, and it was a beauty. Eleanor, the name just made love to the tongue. She won that round!
The Pageant started with a bathing suit competition. That was followed by the exhaustively rehearsed History of the Corn Queen Dance, then the Talent Round, and finally, Question and Answers.
T's and A's, Q's and A's. In a direct manner, the pageant covers the mind, the heart, poise, tits and ass. In some places far away, pageants like this end in an auction. Cheryl-Ann was selling her body. It was a small price to pay for that one-way ticket.
Cheryl-Ann ran into the hastily made-up dressing room.
Ignoring the lambs, who were now getting hungry, she changed into her bathing suit. It was mail-order, from New York City, and she scrimped for months to buy it.
It was worth every cadged penny. Aerospace-designed to cover the minimum area with the minimum of material. It was tiger-striped, very open - high and low, just verging on the Supreme Court's definition of obscenity. She added a little makeup to give her cleavage a lambent glow - a small deceit, a blushing of the truth perhaps. She very carefully stepped into it, and spent the next ten minutes pulling, pushing, tugging until it fit and shimmered as she moved. To preserve the fit, she stood still, barely breathing until the last minute, when the stern-faced usher mouthed "Time". She carefully walked out, casing the competition. The rosebuds were wearing Mervyn's-vintage off the rack stock, one was wearing a bikini - she looked around in growing mortification. Cheryl-Ann spotted Eleanor. There she was! She wore a simple, beaded white one-piece that looked damned saintly, yet perfectly, utterly curvaceous in the best possible way. And she wore a rose over her left ear. A Rose! Why didn't she think of that. Suddenly Cheryl-Ann felt dirty, dingy somehow. She felt her hundred dollar Burbank-design bathing suit shrinking and sagging, turning leathery and tacky. She felt like a whore in a charm school- Then, a glimmering of an outrageous, desperate plan. Desperate times call for desperate actions.
Very well, so Eleanor had unbeatable beauty, innocence, and purity. She was Heidi, Joan of Arc, and Norma Jean rolled into one. But, Cheryl-Ann finally realized, maybe she didn't have to play by the same rules. If you can't play pretty, play dirty. Her only weapon against the formidable Eleanor was sheer, naked sensuality.
The gauntlet's been thrown. Cheryl Ann turned her face away, her clenched hand holding lip gloss. She slathered it on. Time to see what the Pageant was really about.
The Emcee played the first tremolo notes from Billy Joel, crooning "I love you just the way you are". The original song lasts about 4 minutes, the bathing suit competition lasts about 14. MC's going to have to improvise.
She waited her turn in line. Eleanor was two places in front of her. This gave the advantage to Cheryl (it's not Cheryl Ann anymore.), since she would end up the fresher in the judges' memories. The MC called Eleanor's name, and an expectant hush fell on the crowd. Eleanor walked out, her stunningly white pumps hardly making a sound. She moved with such honesty and coyness, not smooth at all, except for the striding of her feet. Her shoulders swayed with each step, and she smiled out of pure joy. The judges put down their pens and stared, Mizz Connors too, pupils very black and very wide behind granny glasses. The stunned MC wasn't aware that he repeated "I love you, I love you, I love you" for a solid minute.
A few minutes later, it was Cheryl Ann's (Cheryl!) turn. Better buckle up, Boys, it's gonna be a hard night.
She strutted, she swayed, she swept her tongue over her teeth surreptitiously, but not enough that nobody would notice. She moved in liquid, lustful locomotion. The judges put down their pens again and stared a-goggle. Mizz Connors suppressed a gasp - or was it a giggle? - behind her hand. Bud looked punch-happy, Cheryl turned at the edge of the stage, then pertly rotated, and started walking back towards the wall with her derriere swinging like a pendulum, tick tocking in time with the clack of her heels. Then, when she could go no further, she bent over and waved prettily between her legs. Then, with a mighty shake of her head, she started off the stage.
She walked past Eleanor, smiling cattily. Eleanor glared back.
After a quick ten-minute change into the surprisingly revealing Corn Maiden outfit, Cheryl was waiting in the wing. She dreaded the imminent idiocy of the Corn dance. Oh is there no more dignity in my life? But she remembered her one-way ticket, and felt better.
The MC was finishing his high-spirited Elvis "Jailhouse Rock", complete with flashpots and a mortified chorus-line of county deputies holding their batons like canes and shuffling their boots across the stage. The song finished, the crowd stood and cheered, the deputies retreated off the stage for good. The MC took the microphone, and on cue to a taped drumroll, announced, "And now, The Branford County Corn Queen Festival proudly presents, the annual Tribute to the Corn!".
To a tinnily taped tremolo of Mascagni's 'Cavalleria Rusticana', the contestants pirouetted out in very tight, green dance tights and a skirt composed of green strips. In the center of the stage, propped by a series of daises, stood a grossly exaggerated ear of corn, clothed in green fabric. Running in a half-circle before it, they peeled off a piece at a time, and finally, when its yellow paper-mached kernals gleamed in nakedness, they stepped to the middle dais, stroke it, kissed it, and kneeled. Cheryl Ann made sure she was the last one to stand, and with a flourish, caressed the monument in kernel knowledge.
Cheryl Ann was so intent on not making a mistake in the performance that she almost didn't notice Eleanor's absence. She was asking herself, "Where is she?", when to everybody's surprise, she came out of the wing, leaping mightily like a leaf in a windstorm, valiantly carrying a Christmas Tree star. She leaped over the heads of the contestants onto the highest dais, and planted it with a kiss on the top. For that the audience gave her a standing ovation. The Judged murmered together, but looked like they were going to accept Eleanor's improvisation.
Damn! She won that round too.
Eleanor smirked at Cheryl as they walked in. Cheryl gave her the finger. She changed for the Talent Round. She had thought that her dance tights were too daring for the pageant, now she feared they weren't sexy enough. She made a few strategic rips. It was translucent, baby blue and emerald green, very tight, spangly, freshly ripped gauze skirt. She tousled her hair, and prepared to go on the stage. When it came her turn, her music tape was put into the machine, and she strutted her way into Clapton's Slow Hand. She did the dance of the slow motion cobra with a few suggestive leg splits. And during the climax, she straddled in front of the judge's desk, beating the floor with both fists in great fell swoops. When she looked up and ran her tongue over her small, sharp white teeth, she nearly gave Mel a heart attack.
She left the judges curiously devastated. Killer, She said again. Then it was Eleanor's turn. Eleanor's performance was eponymous of American tackiness. In a white peasant blouse and flowered square-dancing skirt, she juggled ears of corn, sang God Bless America, and tap-danced at the same time, and then finished with a heart-rending aria from Don Carlo. She got another standing ovation.
The next round was the Q&A, in which the MC gets to ask questions about global economic policy and particle physics, and the contestant responds that proper dental hygiene would bring world peace cause everybody would be smiling and you can't hate someone who smiles at you. In the Pageant, there's a difference between what's right and what's correct. If the Judges want the Corn Queen to know particle physics, then they'd invent the Quark Queen. The answer had to embody the spirit of the Corn Queen, it had to have a corniness count, taste, and texture to it. Cheryl Ann would have to play this by ear.
The MC pulled out the set of index cards from his breast pocket. And the questions began. "What would you do if you were crowned the Corn Queen?"
"I would make children happy everywhere around the world, and that includes Bosnia-Herc-herc-hercgeevna."
"What does Community Values mean to you?"
"Community values are very important, that's why they're so valuable."
"If you had the money, what kind of Buick would you buy?"
"A really big one! From John's Buick right here in Ellison, with a friendly and knowledgable Sales and Service staff and GMAC Financing."
"What are your hobbies?"
"Knitting, Horseback-riding, Bobby Joe, my sweetheart, uh, Jesus and God, baking, did I say knitting? Oh, and World Peace."
Then it was Eleanor's turn. "What would you do to bring about World Peace?" Christ! Cheryl Ann cursed. She had to get the Grandmother of all Pageant questions. And her answer?
"I believe that we all have to learn to talk to one another, but the most important communication is action. We all have to learn to trust one another, and the best way to build trust is to give of ourselves. My greatest inspiration is Mother Theresa, who has given of herself to feed hungry children, and this one frail old woman has gotten through to more people than all the Presidents and Kings of the world in our lifetime. If she has the power to move the world, than I have that power, and so do you, and if we all put out shoulders to work together, than we can move the world!"
She got a standing ovation, and Mizz Connors was weeping openly. Cheryl Ann felt like weeping too, for she started to feel the lights of Broadway dimming, the chants of an unseen audience fading away into the cry of farm animals.
When it was her turn, she walked out with as much dignity as she could muster, in her sequined gown and pumps on wobbly planks. She still had a chance, if the question was right. The MC looked at her, eyebrows rising as he remembered her performance earlier. He asked, "How important is your Mother and Father to you?"
Wrong question. Years of pent-up guilt scrabbled at her conscience. When was the last time she called her Mother? She only talked to her Father once since running away, and the memory burned its brand into her. She thought about it, and started to reply, "I believe that my Mother and Father are very important to me. They had given me life, they had given me a home-" Then she stopped.
"This is no good, this is not right. What are you people looking at? What are you looking for? Hey? Do you think I'm real? Do you think that this primped up puppet is really me? This pageant is stupid! Stupid! Corn Queen, hah! That's rich!"
The MC stood there, microphone transfixed by Cheryl's meltdown.
"All I wanted was to get out of this dunghole! I've been stuck here for four years! Four years! The best years of my life wasted, gone, blown away in the wind, four years gone kaput! I want out, but this goat jamboree is not worth it! What are you doing here? Hey you, farmboys, throw a football, tip a cow, do something!. And you men, make love to your wives, hell knows they're not getting enough as it is. And you, judges, give your goddammed corn crown to Miss Eleanor here, you deserve her! Do you get my drift here people?? Get a life!"
And Cheryl-Ann stormed off. The MC shrugged and said, "And now, our next contestant..."
Eleanor was crying. In pain, sympathy, or triumph, Cheryl Ann didn't know, didn't care. "Oh stuff it you milk-eyed udderjob, save it for the crowning."
An hour later, Eleanor was crying again, under the glare of the lights as the MC tried gamely to sing, "Here comes Miss Corn Queen".
Cheryl-Ann stood in the audience. Wearing jeans and an old army jacket, her makeup off, her hair pony-wrapped, nobody recognized her. The contestants dispersed, some crying, inconsolable except for the expectation of solace in the arms of their boyfriends. The crowd calved off into the night, to catch the rides, the rigged shark games, some square-dancing and as much cotton-candied-apple-popcorn-dogs as their stomachs could cram for a year. The judges wandered off after kissing Eleanor's cheek for the camera. Mel the Mayor lingered longest to hold a press conference about a bond issue for a new stoplight on the corner of Main and Tassle. Life goes on in a small town, business is business and politics needs a red light to run.
Mizz Connors approached Cheryl Ann, having recognized her. She spoke below-voiced, "You know, I could have avoided that language, but I agreed with what you said at the end. This will be my last year as a judge. Good luck to you, honey." She flashed a look of pure lust, then, rearranging her face, she stepped into the crowd, parting miraculously as most crowds instinctively do for spinster librarians.
Bud saw her, waved weakly. "I never knew you felt that way Cheryl-Ann. I thought you were happy. I always paid you the best I can, let you have days off when you needed them. And I always threw out the creeps who put their hands on you."
Cheryl Ann hugged Mel. "I owe you a lot Mel. You gave me a job and you always listened to me gripe about this and that. I really didn't mean what I said, especially about you-"
Mel held a finger to her lip, "No, you meant it Cheryl Ann. Take my advice, if getting out of here will make you happy, do it! I wish I could help- Anyways, see you tomorrow."
Yeah, tomorrow. The first day of the rest of my life. The dream was gone, Cheryl-Ann saw the New York skyline fading off into the dust, the lights of the windows flying off like fireflies into an airless summer night. Sounds faded to silence, replaced by a telephone picture, an image of her Mother and Father that last time they all spoke on the phone. She was in Idaho by then, at a dingy little bus station. The rain pelted off the phone booth as she tried to explain to them why she ran away from one coast to another; that she didn't want a Sears Catalogue life complete with house, kids, husband and a dog. She could see them, sitting in their plush colonial-style lounge chairs, sharing the phone, Mother crying, Daddy's face drooping, running in a wax mask of hurt. Her dream was so grand before, it seemed pretty shabby now.
"Excuse me, Miss?" She turned around. A man approached her, slicked-back hair, Italian jacket and a silk-shirt, Ray-bans resting on his forehead due to the absence of anything to shade against. His face was acne scarred, his head jerked like a lizard, and he had a toothpick in his mouth, which she could see was rotating while he spoke. He had a proposition for her. And she walked away with him, contemplating the dislocation of her dream.
She just won her one-way ticket. West. She was going to Hollywood. Low Hollywood. Her visions of marble, masks and mystery replaced by Leather, whips, handcuffs and hoods.
Cheryl-Ann Rafkee, soon to be known as Simply Sylky, thought, Ah hell. When I get settled, I'll call up Mom and Dad. Just to let them know I'm ok.