First Runner-Up

Red and blue lights flashing in the hot night air. The County Fair, a Labor Day holiday, and everyone always agreed, “Quite a fair this year. Yessir, quite a fair this year, every year.”

Men in stiff, new coveralls, covered with dust, hands deep in their pockets, chewing, smiling and spitting, showing gaps between stained teeth. Women in flowered dresses, a little too long, rouge over wrinkled cheeks, sucking and smacking and calling loudly to neighbors they’d seen maybe last Sunday.

And the newer people, the town people walked carefully between the rides, the livestock pens, hair sprayed and lacquered, smiles painted. They wore shiny shoes that searched for a way through the mud holes. The Midway!

Mr. Williams grabbed Linda firmly and placed her in front of the bright yellow spotlight. The stage was lit, but everything else was so dark at first. Linda stood in her bathing suit at the foot of the ramp and tried to keep her eyes down until they’d adjusted. She stared at the deep red carpet spread across the weathered, splintered wood of the platform ramp. Instead of looking up into the grandstands, she looked down at her own pale skin, so pale that blue veins began to show in the cold night air. Some dark hairs she’d missed with the razor glittered up into the light. Now everyone would see. Oh God, this was getting worse all the time.

Mr. Williams, white shirt, dark tie, and too handsome face, seemed to float in front of her. A shoe sales guy, droning on. Linda exhaled slowly. My, but wasn’t everyone being nice? People just smiled and talked on, and were so nice, and Linda thought she hated all of them. She tried to listen to her own breathing. It was just like it was Christmas or something. Once when she’d been a little girl, Linda remembered she’d wanted a bride doll for Christmas, and she was sure everyone knew she’d wanted this bride doll, but of course, no one had gotten her one. She’d started to cry, and then everyone had gotten so upset and made such a big fuss. What did it all matter though? She’d known she wasn’t going to get that doll, and besides, she wouldn’t have taken a gift out of pity anyway. Linda Cooley had been what people called “too proud” even then, and she’d also learned early that you mustn’t carry on so, not when people were being “so nice.”

Linda wanted to plead with Mr. Williams now, “Listen, I want to win this beauty contest. I’ve always done everything anyone in this town asked me to do. Please, just this once, I’m going to win. Okay?”

Mr. Williams would think she was crazy, “She’s just a little upset folks. You know these girls are under a lot of strain.” Tonight, he just went on talking into his microphone, smiling. “Yes, these girls have all been so excited!”

Linda watched Val over near Mr. Williams now, giggling excitedly, pointing and talking about being so nervous, and about how she was just going to die. Val’s blond curls bounced out around her dimples. Oh, she’d just die to win this beauty contest! Val wasn’t the only one. Linda felt a sudden sickness rise from her stomach to her throat.

The sound of her own name startled her as it hit the packed grandstands and she stared out into the darkness: Miss Linda Cooley, ladies and gentlemen, a pretty little brunette sponsored by the Senior High School Dramatics Club and Gibbons’ Dry Cleaners on the Square.

Linda finally reacted. Smile, step up. Why yes, she smiled, I’m so thrilled about all of this, really.

Then Mr. Williams stepped aside to bump into Mr. Pauls, winner of a seat in the State Congress, dark blue suit and striking gray hair, a brilliant and successful man, or so they said. “Why, I mean, he’s everywhere. He has his own real estate office, a member of the Methodist Church, the Rotary, and here at the fair. Why, the man’s into everything!” This is what they said.

Linda smiled a little. Yes, even into the girls’ dressing room not half an hour ago, the man had come in to spout, “It’s a fine night, isn’t it, a fine night! I’m so pleased, girls, with the way everything’s turned out this year. These are great little girls, aren’t they, Bill? Come from fine families, every one of them. Haha, not nervous are you? Where’d you get those brown eyes?” Mr. Pauls had touched Linda gently at the waist, but then not waiting for her to answer, he’d moved on to Val who was flinging her arms overhead, “Oh, I’m not kidding, Mr. Pauls! I just don’t know if I can go on!” So, the State Congressman had stopped to soothe Val with a side remark to the ever present Master of Ceremonies, Mr. Williams, “She’s a cute one, isn’t she, Bill?” Now from behind Linda, the two men applauded loudly. Yes, fine girls.

Linda took small steps up the ramp. She instructed herself: See that your toes don’t slip into the cracks. Lean a little bit forward and keep your eyes up now, directed toward the faces you could barely see in the grandstand.

Wayne, the high school announcer from the Thespian Club, glanced up at Linda. She could just hear the crowd commenting, “Keep talkin’, boy. You’re doin’ real good. Yeah, he’ll be good on the radio one day, I’ll betcha.”

That’s it, Linda reassured herself. Go up toward the right front end of the platform, stand and face, turn right, turn left.

Wayne seemed nervous. Linda noticed that he kept shifting his note cards from hand to hand, trying to smile and crack jokes. What could he say about this next girl? Just let me find the card, let me find the correct card, Wayne shuffled his deck.

Linda turned left and walked diagonally back across the stage. The lights were in her eyes again. God, watch that cord. When should she stop? She felt her body sway a little. Careful, keep your balance, balance. Linda picked out Mrs. Drake and Mr. Kent, her own Dramatics and Thespian Club sponsors, sitting on the folding chairs provided at the back of the platform. They sat quietly, legs crossed, smiling vacantly, and they nodded in unison. “Fine. You’re doing just fine.”

Linda smiled back. Of course, she was. A few days ago, though, she’d overheard the two of them talking behind closed doors at the library, “I know. I know. Of course, it’s all a mistake, but the members’ votes split between Madge and Julie, and so Linda somehow came out ahead. That’s it. Linda’s our contestant.”

“Well, you’d think these girls could stop their silly, little popularity contests long enough to get the club a candidate who could win. Publicity like at the fair is good for us. Theater never gets enough attention in a small town like ours, and you know it!” Mr. Kent had replied.

Then Mrs. Drake had only replied, “I know, Jack, but Linda’s a nice girl, and besides, she’s always worked very hard.”

“She’s flat-chested,” Mr. Kent had chuckled. He had added, “But, yes, a good face, and nice. Linda’s a nice girl,” Mr. Kent pronounced as if pronouncing a sentence of doom. Then both of Linda’s teachers had laughed together.

Yes, her club sponsors must have reached the agreement that nice girls should sometimes be given a chance too. Linda felt they’d been laughing at her in all the weeks up to the pageant, however. Still, Linda managed to reach the microphone, stop, turn, smile, and to begin the reading that she’d worked up for the talent competition.

She thought of all the parts she’d tried out for in school plays and everyone had known Linda Cooley was the best actress, everyone. Just give me one of the big parts, please Mrs. Drake. Madge’s banker father won’t get that angry with you, will he? So let her be the walk-on just once. Okay, so I live so far out of town, and I’ll have to drive in. I’ll drive!

After her reading, Linda’s body seemed, to her, to stop shaking some. How many more seconds, years, would all this take? It was the best she thought she’d ever done. Everyone’s eyes seemed still on her, “Hey no, you can’t deny it, Harry. That little girl’s good. Who’d you say she was? No kidding? Well, I thought she did real well. Real well.” But Linda felt she wasn’t going to win the contest anyway, and her body suddenly felt like lead.

The last time Linda remembered auditioning for a school play, the male lead had just sat there studying his hands. Just like every other time she’d had to audition really though. In all that time she, Linda Cooley, had never gotten to play opposite him. Tim. “Ti-im!” was how Madge, Val, or any of the popular girls said his name. “Tim?” was supposed to be the way girls like herself addressed Tim Beechler. They were supposed to show him a little deference in homage to his good looks. Linda commanded herself to walk front stage now, then up to the left and back across. Look into the stands.

The people in the front row of the audience all dressed alike. They dressed in dark suits, creased pants, pin-striped shirts, ties, and white handkerchiefs. The men crossed their legs, smiled widely, and clapped. “Beautiful girls, beautiful girls.” And their wives, hair piled high on their heads and sprayed, fixed just that afternoon at the beauty shop had darkly lined eyes that twinkled and winked. Lips that parted over polished teeth, “She was at Cindy’s slumber party. Linda Cooley, don’t you remember, dear? You took them all home once. Darling LITTLE girls, don’t you think so, dear?”

Where were her own Mom and Dad? Linda couldn’t see them. Her mother, when she’d first been selected for the contest: “Linda, I’m sorry but we just can’t afford all these things, these plays and contests. If you don’t tell them so at school, then I’ll have to tell them!”

“Please, Mom.” Linda had been inwardly sighing at the time, thank you so for your support.

The woman must have read her mind though as she went on, “Linda, don’t you ever think of anyone but yourself?”

“Mom, don’t you want me to win?” she’d tried.

Of course, Dad had then chimed in a few days later, “Where’d you get that thing anyway? What d’you plan to do, girl, march around half-naked in front of everybody in town?”

“Dad, all the girls have to wear a bathing suit.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to, and I’m telling you, you look silly in all that eye makeup too. That’s not pretty to a man. I’m just trying to help you now. Men don’t really like women who look like that.”

Of course, when Linda then had wanted to forget the contest, wanted to withdraw from the whole thing after overhearing Mrs. Drake’s and Mr. Kent’s vote of “no confidence” in their little library conversation, both of her parents had ganged up on her.

“Oh Linda, you can’t embarrass us now!” and “Well, I don’t think you can just pull out now at the last minute. It’s an honor, to be in a contest like this. Why, Ed Reynolds was just askin’ me all about you up at the feed store!” And finally, “Linda, you do want to go to college, don’t you? Well then, little girl, you’re just going to have to help us and win some of that scholarship money they’ll be givin’ away. It may not be much, honey, if you don’t win top place, but anything can help. You’ll learn that about money. Every little bit helps, and otherwise, honey, you’ll not be goin’ off to school anywhere. You can count on that.”

On stage, Linda felt tired. She found herself wishing she could just let her stomach out and sit down. All the kids in the audience sat above the grown-ups, the town kids in the middle of the bleachers, and the farm kids along the edges and hanging from the rails. Linda could just hear them, “Oh yeah, Linda. Yes, I like Linda Cooley. She’s in my English class. She’s awful smart, ya know. We ride the same bus in, and she wrote a paragraph up for me one time. She’s good at that stuff.”

“Yeah, sure she did. Hey, but when’s that other one, that cheerleader going to come out, though? Yeah, her, that’s the one. Great! Didn’t I tell you?” One boy would nudge the other with his elbow, “I think I’ll take me out a cheerleader this weekend!”

“Bull. Bull you will, farm boy!”

Linda had to look up once more. There. There he was right in the middle of the bleachers. Tim. Smile at Tim. He’d said that first to Linda, “Smile at me, and I’ll fix that stirrup for you.”

And she, terrified back then that she’d smile and gawk at him, just like all the other girls in school, had very carefully raised just one eyebrow. Linda had replied, “Guess I’m the one who knows about horses.”

Tim, from town, had half-way smiled, but then stopped and held himself carefully slouched, eyes back on his work with the stirrup, until Linda had moved first. She’d met her match all right. Always, always when they were out riding together, Linda had had to be the first one to reach out, the first one to touch. She and Tim had begun to ride almost every Sunday afternoon. This was their time out by their lake.

“I’ll never tell,” Tim would always shrug and never look at Linda if she dared to discuss the subject of “us.” “I promised you, didn’t I? I’m a man who keeps my promises, and I’ll never tell anyone about us.” Tim would pause, but still not turn to face Linda. “I’ve told you. You’re different to me than the others, okay?”

Well, Linda had no doubt. No, Tim would not tell. He wouldn’t, but then that was the real problem, wasn’t it? That’s why you want to win this contest, isn’t it, Linda? Linda accused herself, while still smiling out toward the front. Those snobs in the school just wouldn’t believe who the boy spent his time with, would they. I mean really, with Linda Cooley? She’s the kind of girl who only reads or studies. Like Tim Beechler never had to. Tim, who won every award there was, scholastic and athletic, not to mention, dramatic. Tim, whose future the whole school discussed. Tim, high school male lead. Linda tried to think, though, but Tim wants me to win. I know he does. Then he could take me out openly to just one lousy dance, right in front of everyone, okay? I’m begging, just one dance. Linda knew better than to beg any man.

Now Linda watched Tim’s lean, dark face turn to answer Jan Mitchell. Jan Mitchell, all long hair and blue eyes. Jan Mitchell, a pretty little principal’s daughter who sat in the middle of the bleachers next to him tonight, Tim’s hand in her lap. They were only holding hands though, Linda reassured herself.

All finished now, Linda stood in line. The judges smiled up, saying to all, “You did fine, hon. Just fine.”

Linda couldn’t look at them this time, thinking, “Finished? I mean, is everybody finished? Seen enough of me standing up here naked?” That’s how she felt.

Then a wash of noise and voices seemed to surround her. “Linda, Linda, hey you got first runner-up! Great goin’, some money comin’ in, huh? Congratulations!” Everyone was saying all this to her at once. Dazed, Linda stood and watched.

Another higher voice descended upon them, “Oh Val, honey, you look just too beautiful. I’m so proud of you!”

“Momma, I just can’t believe it,” Val shrieked. “I never thought I’d win!”

Mr. Williams was calling out Val’s name and moving her up the ramp. “Yes folks, she’s quite a little girl. No sugar, you’ll have to walk right up here, up this ramp to have your picture taken. That’s a good girl. Oh here, what’s that now? No tears, darlin’, no tears. Why, just think of all the new clothes you’re gonna be able to buy! Think of all the contests we’ll be wantin’ to run you in.”

The whole town to Linda seemed to be crowding around Val, and so Linda crowded in too, though Mr. Williams then put an arm around her shoulders as well. “Yes, we’re proud of this one too. Yes, Congressman Pauls, if we need her, our little Linda here is one smart girl. Yessirree.”

Congratulations, and then Mom and Dad were there next to Linda too. “Yes, this one. This one’s ours. Oh yes, we’re awful proud, but Linda comes from good stock, ya know. Good stock! We’re going to use her money toward her college, this one!” Mom always talking and Dad’s heavy hand on Linda’s shoulder.

When Linda turned, Tim was right there behind her, but he bent over Val’s wildly clinging form instead. Val was still screaming, “Oh, what a night! I’m so happy!” Laughing, Tim looked past Val and said very quietly to Linda, “So you’ll be making it out of this town after all, right?”

Linda knew she couldn’t just blurt out, “But it’s you I want,” and so she stammered, “Yes, I guess so.” Linda figured she’d won just about enough money toward college to leave them all behind. Of course, Val would win more, but Linda felt Val would never be leaving anyway. No, Val could stay home. “Stay put” so to speak and “cash in.”

“Quite a fair this year!” Mr. Pauls was saying. “Oh, quite a fair this year, every year,” her own father was answering.

Linda wanted to lose herself in the crowd. Suddenly, the crowds, the noise, the smells were overpowering. Please let me go. Let me. I want to grow up right now and be myself.

Flash! Someone was taking pictures of all the contestants. The County Fair, a holiday. Stand still, honey. Say cheese. There’s a smart girl. Give everyone a smile!