At bedtime when I was a kid, Dad would lean against my doorframe, scrape his calloused fingers across the peeling paint and in his low quiet voice tell me the Norwegian fairytale, “The Trolls and the Pussycat.” His eyes narrowed and his mouth twisted as he described the band of marauding trolls that ravaged the same farmhouse every Christmas Eve. The trolls, he told me, with their open, slobbering mouths, yellow teeth, and bristly hair, were so scary the farmer ran away to Denmark at the sight of them, leaving his wife and kids to spend the night huddled in a cave in the woods. The more he could frighten me the better, until I’d squint out the dark windows of our farmhouse, heart pounding but unable to tear myself away from his story. In the window I watched an even more distorted version of Dad reflected against the night, but when I pressed my nose to the cold glass I could just make out the form of Big Gus, our billy goat, standing guard in front of the shed. Not even trolls could get past Gus.
Like the farmer in the story, my dad ran off—not away from trolls, but with Dawn, the checkout girl from Piggly Wiggly. I was only nine at the time and heartbroken he’d chosen Dawn over Mom and me. It was a big scandal in Battle Creek, our tiny Minnesota town. Teachers hissed to each other behind their hands when I walk past them at school. I had to promise my friend Amanda that I wouldn’t punch her before she’d tell me what “cradle robber” meant. Later, when I did the math I understood why—Dawn was seventeen then, less than half my father’s age at the time, and three years younger than I am today.
After Dad left with Dawn, Mom and I moved from the farmhouse into a gray rambler in town. At first Mom sat at the kitchen table in her ratty green bathrobe surrounded by wads of crumpled tissues but, after a while, a legal pad and a calculator replaced the tissues. She applied for and was awarded a grant to create Battle Creek Quilts, a non-profit that hired underprivileged farmwomen to sew quilts in their homes that Mom sold to rich city people hungry for a slice of Americana.
Now, as I draped quilts over the display bed in Mom’s tiny showroom, I thought about the trolls. Twice a year l accompanied Mom here, to the High Point Home Furniture and Accessories Show, where she sold the quilts to store owners and merchandise buyers. For a week every spring and fall Mom and I, and hundreds of thousands of other vendors and buyers, invade the little town of High Point, North Carolina. I imagined the citizens of High Point huddled in caves in the surrounding foothills while their town is ransacked by vendors seducing buyers with chandeliers, Persian rugs, or leather sofas, and the carnival of others who make their living feeding, boozing, and entertaining the crowds. Everyone here expects to be dazzled by the merchandise and everyone expects a party.
I’d only been in High Point for two days and already my face ached from fake smiling. I was sick of squeezing into a showroom the size of my dorm, hidden deep inside a cement building—a hive of other tiny showrooms. Enjoy the show, Mom always told me. You never know what can happen.
I’d missed the fall show last year. It was my first semester at the University and I thought I’d finally escaped stupid, backwards Battle Creek for good. I was surrounded by people who didn’t think I was weird because the sight of deer corpses in the back of trucks made me cry. And they’d never heard the story of my father and Dawn. We went to Amnesty International meetings and started Students for Peace. Mom loved to hear about my friends. She mailed donations for Amnesty International and sent us flowers on the day of our Iraq War protest.
The first time I met Kyle was at a Students for Peace meeting. I thought he looked like Jesus. He was sprawled across a couch in the Student Union talking about how he wanted to go to Baghdad so he could take photos to document the war crimes the U.S. was committing. My cheeks burned like I’d been slapped when I overheard him tell a girl with long braided that he had to break up with his girlfriend over the summer because she was a real psycho.
I stood at our showroom door and plumped the pillows on front display bed. A cluster of young muscular men, their green Buyer’s badges swinging across their black shirts, strode past the showroom without glancing toward me. An image of Kyle pulling up his pants flashed through my mind. I blinked hard to escape it. When I opened my eyes, a big sweating man in a tuxedo and top hat grinned at me as he pushed his drink cart past our showroom and down the hall. He had the waxed moustache of a cartoon villain. The Wine glasses hanging upside down by their stems on top of his cart clanked so violently against each other I knew they were going to shatter.
He stopped a few showrooms down. “Ladies’ hour!” he called. Vendors celebrating successful business deals poured from nearby showrooms. “Two-for-one margaritas!” he called out. “For the ladies!” I glanced at Mom, trying to catch her eye. She hated the word “ladies.”
“We’re women,” Mom would correct anyone who used what she called “the L-word.”
After Dad moved away we were the odd ducks of Battle Creek. My parents had moved to Minnesota from upstate New York when I was two, and, fifteen years later, we were still not “from Battle Creek.” Despite the fact that I agreed with Mom’s convictions, she was a constant source of humiliation in a place where people expressed outrage with a mild cluck of their tongues and shake of their heads. My sophomore year of high school Mom overheard Leroy LeFave call his buddy a “pussy-whipped little bitch” when they were behind us at the checkout counter of Florian Drugs.
“Young man,” Mom snapped. “Those disrespectful and degrading words will never leave your mouth again!” I dragged her from the store still scolding. I was afraid of Leroy. His pointy-toed cowboy boots left black marks in the linoleum when he strutted and stomped down the school halls. I wanted Mom to be afraid of him too. I wanted her to keep me safe from Leroy, but instead she threw me in the line of fire.
For weeks, each time I walked by the locker where Leroy and his friends hunkered, they bleated, “Biii-aaaach,” as I scurried past.
Angela, a furniture designer who had taken my mother under her wing, breezed into the showroom. “Have time for a margarita?” She smiled at my mother with her perfectly white teeth.
“Oh, of course, Angela!” Mom’s voice sounded too high. “Kristen can keep an eye on things.” Her neck and chest flushed bright pink.
Angela was from New York. She was tiny with perfect blond hair. She always whispered to Mom and me the brand name of the handbag or shoes she had and made us guess the “amazing bargain price” she paid for them. Part of me was grateful to Angela, she didn’t write Mom off as a hick like most of the buyers, but the way Mom acted around her reminded me of how she’d been around Dad.
Even though Mom talked like a feminist, she was a puddle around my father. For at least two years after he left, she called him a couple of times a week crying and begging him to leave Dawn and come home. “Don’t you understand,” she’d say over and over, “this is where you belong.” I knew I should have been extra sweet and kind, but instead I’d lock the door to my room and I imagined myself slapping her red, swollen face just hard enough to snap her out of it. To make her act the way a mom should act.
As I watched Mom follow Angela to the drink cart, I imagined what my impression would be if I’d never met her. Her salt and pepper hair was cut very short but chic. Her skirt, rich brown velvet, was too long to be fashionable, and her shoes were unapologetically practical. Until recently the only scent I’d ever smelled on her was homemade bread and patchouli. She stepped down the hall where she was swallowed up by the booze-seeking crowd.
After Mom left I grabbed a handful of tasteless rice crackers and a couple cubes of waxy looking cheese we served to buyers, crept into the closet-sized back room and shoved them into my mouth. Tacked up on the bulletin board in the back room were photos of the four years mom and I had been coming to the High Point Show. I unpinned one of the two of us taken last spring. Her arm is around my waist and she’s smiling at whoever was taking the photo. I’m looking the other direction and laughing a big open mouth laugh. I can’t even remember what I was laughing at now. You don’t fucking know shit, I told the me in the photo before I replaced it, sticking the thumbtack through my forehead.
Now I wish I could tell mom the truth about why I missed the fall show, tell her about Kyle. About what he did to me when he walked me back to my dorm after the meeting. I think about telling her sometimes, but I stop when I remember how she looked on those late-night phone calls to my father as she pleaded with him to come home.
“This stuff is so authentic!” a woman said from the front of the showroom.
I peeked through the curtain, chewing furiously. She was young with a Buyer’s Badge and beautiful auburn hair—the color that only comes from a good salon—and was leading her client, a grey haired guy in an expensive suit, into the showroom. The guy looked at his watch and sipped from a plastic cup in his hand. I knew I should go out and give them the spiel about how our quilts are handmade by displaced rural farm women to help supplement their family income, blah, and blah, blah. Make it sound like our quilts were made by little apple cheeked grannies or some earthy woman with her hair held back with a bandana who’d, maybe, just came from the barn where she’d bottle fed spotless, shitless adorable baby lambs. I knew how to sell us. Of course I never mentioned how we had to pack the quilts Delores stitched in pine scented potpourri for three days to kill the cigarette smell, or when that didn’t work, spray them with Lysol, or that Marjorie used her earnings to buy cheap vodka and almost didn’t have the quilts ready for market because she spent last Sunday in jail for a DUI.
The auburn-haired woman cleared her throat and walked to a display bed. She looked longingly at the quilt—a Jacob’s Ladder design in purples and deep blues. She picked up the corner and examined the stitching then asked over her shoulder, “How’s that bourbon, Charles?”
The guy frowned and swirled the liquid in the plastic cup. “Tastes like cough syrup.” He plunked it on a table by the crib display and turned away like the drink was a waste of his time.
The woman laughed. I could tell it was fake, but the guy looked smug as if he’d said something really witty. “Tell you what the beds make me think of, though,” he said in a low voice and grabbed her forearm.
I brushed the crumbs off my lips and stepped out of the back room before I realized what I was doing. “Can I help you?” My voice trembled but I looked the guy right in his round red face.
He dropped her arm and made a big show of looking at his giant gold watch. “If we’re going to catch up with Charlie,” he said.
“The stuff is really lovely.” Auburn Hair smiled apologetically, “Very authentic.” She smiled down at my feet. “And I love those shoes!”
“Wal-Mart.” I gave her my best authentic smile. “On clearance for six dollars.”
“Oh-h,” she said walking for the door.
I grabbed the asshole’s cup from the nightstand and gulped the contents. The taste made my stomach lurch. I crushed the cup with shaking hands and tossed it in the trash, then walked around the stuffy showroom fidgeting with tags on the pillows, wishing Mom and Angela would return. Every so often loud bursts of laughter from the direction of the drink cart made me jump. Two more days, then back to school. At least my philosophy class was okay. I could drop the two others I was failing, and maybe, the Housing Director had told me, I’d be able to move to a different dorm. Though it’s rare to allow a student to move, he’d added, without a good reason.
As I leaned down to tuck in the sheet on the baby crib a pair of meaty hands covered my eyes. I froze. I smelled Kyle’s skunky, suffocating cologne. The back of my throat tighten and the inside of my mouth taste like metal—the taste I’d learned was fear.
I knew I should say something, but couldn’t catch my breath. The hands slid down my arms and rested on my hips. I wheeled around. It was just Steve. I’d been a nanny for his son and daughter in Long Island two summers ago, after my junior year of high school. He was a fabric salesman and friend of Mom—the only one to ever come up to Battle Creek to sell his fabric in person. The only Jew to ever set foot in that forgotten part of the world, he liked to joke.
Steve reached his arms back around my waist and hugged me. Could he smell the bourbon on my breath? The wool from his tweed coat scratched my cheek. Too tight, too long. I pulled away, surprised he’d missed me. My time as his nanny was somewhat of a disaster. I’d backed their car into their neighbor’s parked Lexus. I won’t tell them, Steve had said glancing out the window, and neither will you. And I’d walked in on him and his wife, Rose, having sex on the couch after a Greatful Dead concert. Even though I’d seen plenty of naked men in Amanda’s older sister’s Playgirl, actually seeing two people I knew in the act was startling and unreal—like the first time I saw Mickey, my sweet tabby catch a squirrel. I could never think about him the same way again.
“So how are you, Kiddo?” Steve looked around. “Where’s Mom?”
“With Angela.” I nodded to the hall.
“So she’s going big time.” He raised his eyebrows knowingly. “Pretty soon you two’ll have to move to New York.”
“How are the kids?” I asked, not really caring. Zachary, the younger one was pleasant enough—a sunny, chubby kid—but Rachel could be moody and always seemed suspicious of me.
He plopped down on the display bed, totally verboten in Mom’s book, saying something about ballet and soccer. I smiled and pretended to listen. That summer Steve and Rose had often taken me and the kids to Jones beach. I loved the tattooed and pierced freak show on the boardwalk and the smell of the grimy ocean washing up globs of seaweed and shells. Nothing like it existed in Minnesota and I knew it made me cooler than anyone in Battle Creek just to have seen it. The last time I went with them we met up with a couple of Steve and Rose’s closest friends. I forgot the woman’s name, but the husband was also named Steve.
“If you get us mixed up,” the other Steve told me, “just remember he’s the skinny Jew and I’m,”—he flexed his pecks—“the Italian stallion.”
I was wearing a new tie-dyed bikini that Rose had picked out for me at a funky little boutique in the city. I’d never worn a bikini before. It’s perfect for you, Rose had assured me. I splashed around with the kids and scanned the beach for boys my age, sucked my stomach in and tugged at the bikini straps. The sun and wind on my back and belly—parts that had never been exposed in public before—felt good. Powerful, I thought. I felt like a different person than the Kristen from Battle Creek whose father ran away with a high school senior. When I headed back to my towel to warm up, the two Steves were sitting together on beach chairs and chuckling.
“Leave the girl alone already,” Rose handed each of them a Corona. “You’ll give her a complex.” She punched her Steve on the arm and picked at the label on her beer.
“Now Rosie-Honey,” the other Steve said, “your darling husband here was just repeating something his mother told him. Right, Steve-o?” He took a swig of beer. “She told him the only way you can tell if a woman is truly beautiful is to get her wet,” He chuckled again. “If she looks good getting out of the water, she’s a true beauty.” He held up his beer and winked at me then leaned back toward Steve.
Later that night was when I walked in on Rose and Steve. I was making my way to the kitchen for a late snack, not expecting them back from the concert for at least an hour. Halfway down the stairs I saw them; Rose was lying down with one leg thrown over the back of the couch and the other stretched wide. Steve’s face was buried between them. The corners of her mouth were turned up in a little smile. Rose’s eyes met mine, but she didn’t see me. She was someplace wonderful and far away. The rest of the night I tossed and turned and pressed against my pillow. I tried to picture the man who could transport me to the place Steve transported Rose.
Mom’s face was still flushed when she returned to the showroom. Steve stood up from the bed and kissed her once on each cheek. The flush spread down the front of her neck.
“What’s the news?” Steve asked, putting his hands in his pockets.
“Angela says we’ll be on all the Lane Furniture beds for the fall show!” She fanned her flushed neck.
He hugged her and twirled her around in a mock waltz. “I know someone who needs to buy fabric!”
While Mom and Steve planned his next trip to Battle Creek I walked to the front of the showroom and watched the people streaming past. Everyone wore a bright green buyer’s, or a red and white Vendor’s Badge. Vendors were allowed only in their own showroom, but buyers could enter any showroom they wanted and the vendors would hand them a drink and try to entice them with whatever they were selling. I was sick of being a vendor, sick of being someone who had to let everyone in.
This, I whispered to the crowded hallway, is my last High Point Market. But what would I do if I didn’t come here? Flock to Panama City or Daytona Beach with the other student hordes getting drunk and sunburned? My Students for Peace friends had organized a trip to New Orleans to build Habitat for Humanity homes. I wanted to go, but Kyle would be there. He was probably hammering away on a beam right now, thinking he was a good person. A nice guy who’d never plead, and shame, and finally force someone to have sex when all she wanted was kissing and maybe a just a little more. But not that.
“Hon?” Mom put her hand on my shoulder. “You okay?”
“Yep, fine.” I tried to sound chipper.
“She looks done in,” Steve said. “Why don’t I get her something to eat and bring her back to the hotel.”
“Thanks.” Mom tucked a strand of hair behind my ear.
I got my purse and walked out with Steve. On the escalator ride down, I felt weariness wash over me and was grateful to Steve for stepping in. I thought about how good it would feel to lie down in the quiet room. We stopped at a little deli in the food court on the first floor. I wolfed my pastrami sandwich without tasting it, but Steve complained about his sandwich was stale.
“I can’t even chew this thing!” He gestured toward the man in a red apron behind the counter. “What does he think we are? Animals?”
We walked into the muggy North Carolina evening. On the corner by the shuttle bus stop two men painted head to toe in metallic gold wearing only Speedos were passing out free drink coupons and posing for photos with the crowd.
“Go stand with them!” Steve shoved my shoulder.
I walked up and stood between the men. They both leaned toward me and put their arms around my shoulders. They smelled like Vaseline. Sweat ran down my lower back sticking my dress to my skin. For an instant I felt the plastic-covered dorm mattress against my back and Kyle’s weight pressing me down. While Steve rummaged through his shoulder bag and took out a camera, I laughed loudly and pretended I thought mostly naked gold men were hilarious. All part of High Point fun.
I climbed on the shuttle and sat near a window in the back. Steve slid next to me. I leaned my head on the window and looked up at the building as we headed toward High Point’s small downtown. A children’s furniture company had set up a petting zoo in front of their show space to lure in buyers with potbellied pigs and miniature donkeys. For a moment I had the crazy idea that maybe Big Gus got sold to a petting zoo and was here in one of the pens, but I looked carefully and there weren’t any goats. The bus stopped at a red light.
“There are sharpshooters on all the roofs.” Steve squinted up at the roof of a bank.
“The government hires a big anti-terrorist squad every market.” He squinted up at the roof of a bank. “So many people here all at once—High Point’s a security risk.”
I looked at his face thinking he’d laugh at me for being gullible, but he didn’t smile. For the rest of the trip I watched the rooftops trying to get a glimpse of a sniper, but I didn’t see a trace. They must have been camouflaged or hidden behind things. I could picture them, though, scanning the crowds through their scopes. I wondered if all the buyers and vendors walking along the sidewalk in the shadows of the tall brick buildings, chatting and laughing, knew about the snipers. Maybe a sniper had me in his crosshairs through the bus window at that very moment.
When we got to the hotel, Steve asked if I wanted to get a drink at the bar. Even though I wanted to be by myself in my room, the idea of walking into it alone made my stomach do a weird flip-flop and I could start to taste that metal in my mouth again. “Sure,” I told him, trying to sound casual.
I wasn’t quite twenty-one but nobody seemed to care in High Point. The bar was crowded and noisy. A guy with a flushed face and rumpled suit was singing a terrible Karaoke version of “Love Shack.” Steve steered us to a back table away from the chaos. I ordered a gin and tonic because that’s what the adults in this story I read drank. I liked the way the words looked together on the page, and tonic sounded like something that could make you feel better. At that moment I just wanted something to make me feel better. The gin and tonic was pleasantly bitter, like a little bit of punishment for drinking something I wasn’t supposed to have.
Steve got a cardboard basket of peanuts and set it between us. He drank whiskey Cokes and talked about the cities and towns he’d visited for work as I half-listened. I thought about school, spring break and my friends and how far away I felt right now. Like I’d just skipped those years and became an adult. Steve stood and waved toward the door. Mom stood fussing with the hem of a short black dress she must have borrowed from Angela. She waved back and walked over to us. Her eyes were shiny. I waited for her to scold me for being in a bar, but she didn’t.
“Isn’t High Point fun, Krissy!” She put her arm around me like I was a friend. “Isn’t it a hoot!” She giggled. “Angela and I are going dancing!” She leaned in close. “Don’t worry, honey. It’s a gay bar. They’re so sweet!” She stepped away from me and turned to Steve and whispered something into his ear. His eyebrows arched and his mouth dropped open in surprise then he shook his head.
“I’ll be late.” She turned and wove through the crowded bar, wobbling in pair of high heels.
After she left I drank two more gin and tonics very quickly. Steve kept talking, eating peanuts and ordering us drinks. Time seemed both sped up and stretched out. Men and women came in and left the bar. At some point Steve moved his chair near mine. The heavy feeling I’d had on the escalator returned.
“Let’s get you to bed.” His mouth brushed my ear.
I shivered and nodded.
Steve stood close to me in the elevator even though there was only one other couple—a large woman in a sequined dress nibbling on a man’s ear. The woman had hairy muscular arms and a cleft chin. I watched them in the elevator’s mirrors, pretending not to notice how close I was to Steve, unsure if I was swaying a little or if it was them.
“Good night, y’all,” she whispered to us in a low voice and winked at me as she and the man stepped out of the elevator a few floors below mine.
Steve followed me to the door of my room. I fumbled in my purse for the key. My heart pumped harder. It might have been fear, but it didn’t matter because my heart felt far away, part of some other body. When I looked up Steve was looking at me. He touched my arm. For a second I felt Kyle’s weight. No, I thought, and stepped closer to Steve.
My heart was beating terribly hard now but it was okay. I could feel every artery like a pulsing rope tying me to that distant place outside my body. I shouldn’t be upset, I thought, this is no big deal. Walking alone into the room would feel worse. I squeezed my eyes shut, put my arms around Steve and pulled him the rest of the way to me, resting my head on his chest like I was in a romantic movie. After a moment I let go and opened the door. We stepped inside.
In the dark room we kissed again. His mouth tasted like whiskey and I wondered if my mouth tasted like metal. His hand slid down my back and rested on my ass. It’s no big deal, I told myself again, pressing my hips against him. I tried to conjure up the look of deep concentration on Rose’s face when I found them on the couch. If I remembered it clearly maybe I could feel that way. He patted my ass softly like the head of a friendly dog. My nose was running and I kept snuffling. We stood together like that for a long time and then he turned on the light.
I sat down on the bed beside Mom’s open suitcase. Steve walked to the bathroom. I could hear him peeing and running the faucet. When he came back he handed me a box of tissues and sat beside me.
“Kristen.” He looked sad and tired. There was a fleck of peanut skin stuck to his bottom lip. “It’s late,” he said, “and we’re both a little drunk.”
“You’ll be okay?”
I nodded again.
He went to the door, stopped with his hand on the knob and looked over his shoulder at me. “Good night,” he said gently. For a moment he opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something more, then shrugged and walked out.
Mom’s skirt was flung over the back of a chair, a hand-woven purple scarf trailed out of her suitcase and her brown clunky shoes waited beside it. The room seemed to ring with her absence. I wished she was back with me now, even if she was crying on the phone to my father, asking him to please, honey, come home. Please. I turned the lights back off and looked out the window down at the street. So this is how it is now, I thought, I’m alone and waiting for someone to make me feel safe. And this is how it will be for the rest of my life. But even at that moment, I didn’t truly believe it.
Far away a police siren wailed and I could see its faint red light swirling in the distance. I could see the muted shapes of people walking below me on the street, all the vendors and the buyers. I could feel the pane vibrate with the rumble of traffic and the murmur of people talking and laughing. The young, muscular men, the auburn-haired designer, the men spray painted gold, the drink cart man, even Mom and Angela at the club, dancing and high—they were all out there. And on the rooftop the sharpshooter squats peering through the scope of his rifle, alert and ready to respond to any hidden danger.
Sara Dupree’s work has appeared in Alligator Juniper, Conclave Journal, and the Ashland Creek Press anthology Among Animals. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Dakota where she has received the Thomas McGrath award for poetry and the John Little award for Fiction. She looks forward to raising Nubian goats after she graduates.