By Petrina Crockford
The first summer our dads were in Afghanistan, our moms on the base got together and organized a parade and pageant. Streamers hung from the tree branches and blew in the breeze; balloons tied to the community mailbox batted against each other; in the center of the cul-de-sac at the end of my street, our mothers made a stage out of pallets they borrowed from the grocery store. They draped a pink vinyl tablecloth over the pallets; behind the stage stood an American flag on a pole, and on top of the flagpole sat a giant brass eagle. They set out two loudspeakers, one on each side of the stage. In front of the stage, they put down a row of lawn chairs, for the judges. Linda’s mom helped organize the festival, and in her house were boxes of streamers and balloons and confetti and consolation prizes—finger traps and glo-bracelets. We rummaged around in those boxes. We talked about who would win Little Miss 2002.
“Erica,” said Linda. “Have you seen her lately? She’s got the blondest hair. I wish I had blonde hair.”
“What’s wrong with brown?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Linda said. “It’s just boring is all. Who likes brown hair? Even black hair like yours is better.”
“Who cares?” I said. “Who cares?” I stuffed my fingers into a finger trap and pulled until it felt like they would explode.
“Do you think Veronica will win?” Linda said, “’Cus she has black hair, and maybe that’s the thing now.”
Maybe,” I said. I secretly hoped black hair wasn’t the “thing.” I was scared that the winner would have to assume all kinds of responsibilities: Linda’s mom had bought a sash and tiara for the winner, and for how long did the winner have to wear that? (a whole week, it turned out); and what if everyone stopped being your friend because they thought you didn’t need friends anymore, like winning meant you were officially pretty and popular and didn’t need friends?; and all the pretty and popular girls on base seemed to forget everything they knew. Like Claudia, who grew breasts right after her dad went overseas, even though she was only ten years old, like the rest of us. And she had gone from knowing how to spell k-e-t-c-h-u-p to forgetting everything. She acted helpless and made us tie her shoes. Of course I always refused, but all the other girls bent right down. They conspired to help her forget that she had been a kid once, just a little girl.
My mom said I had to be a part of the pageant because all the other girls were, and what made me so special? She spent weeks sewing my outfit. I did get to pick the color of the fabric—silver sequin and pink tulle—and my mom measured me and pricked me with pins, and at night, her sewing machine hummed. But picking the fabric was all I got to do. The rest seemed out of my control.
I woke up the morning of Little Miss to find my outfit spread across the bottom of the bed. I propped my pillows against my headboard and leaned against them and stared at those sequins shining in the light coming through the blind slats. My mom had made me a leotard with pink tulle around the waist—like a ballerina’s outfit—and rings of pink tulle around the upper arms. I put on my costume and buckled my shoes and walked down the hall, to her bedroom.
“Are we ready?” my mom asked.
She was sitting, cross-legged, on her King bed. She had propped her light-up, magnifying mirror on her lap and she was looking in it and putting on her make up. She smeared concealer over her face. The side of the bed she sat on was unmade. On her bedside table was a box of Kleenex; a glass of water with air bubbles climbing up the sides of the glass; the picture of my dad on the beach. The Kleenex partially blocked the picture, so I saw only one-half of his smile. The room was dark. I leaned against the wall, next to the light switch, and thought about how, now that my dad was gone, my mom didn’t even make the bed. I scratched my arms beneath the tulle. Books and clothes lay scattered on my mom’s bedroom floor.
I got bored waiting so I went downstairs and looked out the front window. Outside, the girls were gathering for the parade at the bottom of my street. Lawn chairs lined both sides of the street and some moms sat in them. It was a sunny day, and the sky was blue, and I could hear already what all the moms were saying: “Isn’t this just the most beautiful day for a parade?” And: “Aren’t our girls so beautiful?”
“Hold still,” my mom said. She gathered my hair with a brush and made a bun, and she slicked my baby hairs back with gel. I hadn’t heard her come down the stairs, but I could see her reflected in the window. I smelled her perfume, like roses. I saw her red lips.
“This way,” she said, turning me around. She got on her knees and rummaged in her make-up bag. “Look up, look up,” she said, pumping the wand in the mascara tube.
I looked up. The wand came near and then swept upwards and disappeared. I blinked and looked at the ground.
“Don’t blink, Shelby,” my mom said. “You’ll ruin it. Come on, one more.”
I looked up again.
“Suck in your lips,” she said.
And I did, and my mom swept blush across the hollows of my cheeks.
“Hold your lips still.”
She ran hot pink lipstick over my lips—“hold on,” she said, when I rubbed them together—and I held them still while she covered them with sticky gloss.
“Let’s have a good look,” my mom said. “Smack-smack,” she said. “Smack your lips like this.”
I smacked my lips.
“Beautiful,” she said, but I had a feeling that I looked like a clown. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. I looked at the ground.
“Oh come on, Shelby,” said my mom. “Please, this is fun. Please have fun.”
Outside, the sun hurt my eyes. “There’s Shelby! There’s Shelby!” I heard, and Linda came running up to me. She had on an electric blue two-piece, and a ring of fake jewels around her belly button. She handed me a small American flag. “Look,” she said, and she leaned back and shimmied so that the sun hit her jewels. She waved her flag around. “I think I’m gonna win,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I’m gonna be Ms. Little Miss.”
We stood with the other girls at the bottom end of my street. We wore bright colors, our lips shone, and we waved the little American flags that Linda’s mom had ordered in bulk. I imagine we looked like a strange swarm buzzing in the street. From the opposite end of the street, near the cul-de-sac, Linda’s mom said into a bullhorn, “Welcome To All Of Our Little Misses!”
The girls around me squealed. Our moms clapped. “Come on,” Linda said. “Say something! This is so fun.”
She was jumping up and down and looking all around, and I felt bad for not wanting to be there, acting that way, too. But it was hot and my costumed itched. I tried to forget about it.
“Little Miss!” I shouted half-heartedly, and all the girls around me laughed and shouted Little Miss!, too.
From the cul-de-sac, music came out of the speakers.
“Ohhh…” Linda said. “We love this song!”
They were playing Nelly’s Hot in Here, the song all the radios played that summer. The bass came heavy and scratchy through the speakers.
Good gracious, ass is bodacious, Linda sang.
“Shhh!” I said, turning my head to see if one of our moms heard. That summer, we had all sung along to this song, but until then, we had never sung in front of them; this seemed like an important difference. I looked for my mom, and at first I couldn’t find her, but then I spotted her standing on the sidewalk in front of Claudia’s house. She clapped and shouted at me through her cupped hands. She made big dancing gestures with her arms—she dipped her knees and her hips—and I knew this was her way of saying, “Come on, Shelby, dance.”
“Come on, Shelby,” Linda said, grabbing my wrist and shaking my arm, “you love this song, too!”
Linda and all the girls sang:
Let it all hang out!
Give the man what he’s askin’ for!
Linda’s mom blew a whistle into the bullhorn. This was our cue to march down the street. The girls waved to their moms sitting in the lawn chairs, and they waved their flags. Our moms clapped along to the beat. Linda did a cartwheel, all the girls around danced and cartwheeled, and in the back, someone started a kickline. I marched along. I waved my flag.
We stopped at the stage. Linda’s mom said into her bullhorn, “And now each of you will please line up behind the stage and walk across it, one by one, and explain to us why you should be Little Miss.” She turned off the bullhorn and it made a loud beeping noise. Linda’s mom turned to sit, but then she turned back around suddenly, like she had forgotten something. She shouted: “And girls, let’s get creative.”
I stood behind Linda and pulled my costume away from my body. My sweat made the itchiness worse. I looked past all the girls’ heads—through the neon and sequin hair bows—and watched as they went, one by one, across the stage. Some of them danced across, and some of them sang, and when it was Linda’s turn, she walked right to the center of the stage, and, with her hands on her hips, shouted, “I believe I would be the best Little Ms. Miss because I’ve got brown hair.” The judges laughed, even Linda’s mom.
And then it was my turn. I stepped onto the stage. I did the only thing I could think to do: I walked right across. I didn’t dance or sing or wave to anyone, I walked right on across the stage. I remember feeling brave. I felt good. But then I heard, from the sidewalk, my mom say, “Oh, Shelby!” My face turned red when I realized all the girls were looking at me. Linda shook her head and giggled.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked me, pinching my upper arm. “What’s so hard about playing along?”
That night, Linda slept over and we were in my bedroom with the lights off, twirling our glow bracelets. Neither of us had won Little Miss. In the end, Emily won, and Linda’s mom had put the tiara on her head and the sash over her shoulders, and Emily had said, “Gee, thanksh.” Emily’s mom made her wear fake teeth for the pageant, because one of Emily’s top teeth was coming in over another one, and everyone knows, Emily said, that only babies have ugly teeth.
“Her teeth looked stupid,” I said. “She was talking all stupid.”
“She spit on me that one time. Remember?” Linda said. “Do you think we should tell our moms? Do you think they just forgot? I thought Little Miss was supposed to be good.”
“Who knows,” I said.
“They laughed at me,” said Linda. “I don’t know what I said that was so funny.”
I was lying on my bed and Linda lay on the floor and it was strange being in the dark like that because I couldn’t see anything except our bracelets. Linda twirled hers around. One minute, she twirled it near me, and the next, she twirled it from way across the room. She moved all over and I kept track of her with that pink and yellow light. It disappeared—I had no idea where she put it—and the light disappearing made me feel lonely.
“Hey, Linda,” I said. “Where do you think our dads are, like right now?”
“Who knows,” Linda said. She put her bracelet over her foot and kicked her foot in the air. Her toes glowed pink. “Like, right this second?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“They’re fighting,” she said.
“What do you think it’s like there?”
“It sucks,” she said. “Why do you think they’re there? To make it less sucky.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Hey,” said Linda. “Did you know the girls over there wear sheets?”
I tried to imagine this. “They do?” I said.
“Yeah,” Linda said. “They cover their whole bodies up, except for their eyes, and they walk around like that and it’s like a hundred degrees.”
“Why?” I asked.
‘“Because that’s what they do. That’s part of why our dads are there. So the girls don’t have to wear sheets.”
“It is?” I asked.
“Sure,” said Linda. “That’s what my mom said. I mean, just imagine it.” She leapt up and pulled my comforter from out beneath me. I helped her by rolling to the top of my bed. “Imagine it,” she said, and her voice muffled. The light of her bracelet was gone. I turned on the lamp next to my bed and there she was, Linda, standing in the middle of my room—the comforter over her head—saying, in a ghost-like voice, “Help me, help me, help me.”
Petrina Crockford was born in Del Rio, Texas and raised in California’s Central Valley. She studied at Yale University and received her MFA from Johns Hopkins. She has written nonfiction for the Paris Review and Words Without Borders, and her fiction is forthcoming in r.k.v.r.y. She has received honors from the Cincinnati Review and the Rolex Foundation and is a 2012 fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives in Baltimore and is working on a novel about a bi-ethnic girl growing up on the US/Mexico border.