Bad Axe County
Whistling Straits Golf Course, The American Club, Kohler, WI
Afternoon, July 9, 2004
The clammy hand of state representative Cyrus Johnsrud (R-Portage) has released her elbow and is drifting down her spine, stopping to savor each vertebra through the fabric of her gown. The representative is about to grope her royal behind, for sure, when the queen spots her chaperone anxiously scanning the crowd—searching for Her Highness, who else?
When she wears heels, Heidi White, nearly eighteen, becomes a young woman of average height, but in addition to her gown and sash, she wears the tiara of the Wisconsin Dairy Queen. This should make her easy to find. But her chaperone, Mrs. Wisnewski, is trollishly short and also too vain to wear her eyeglasses at swanky affairs. So the Dairy Queen hangs in there, clarifies a faraway pocket of Wisconsin geography for the representative, the distinctive place where she is from.
“No, I’m from Crawford County. Bad Axe County is one county to the north. They kill us in baseball, but we beat the hide off them in rodeo. We’re the Vanguards and the Bobcats, they’re the Blackhawks and the Rattlers.”
“Excellent,” he says. “You betcha.”
“We’re both the coulees, though. We’re a different world from you guys.”
“Oh, you betcha.”
“We never had the glacier, so we’re like a million years old.” A camera flashes in her face. She doesn’t flinch anymore. “We actually have bobcats and rattlesnakes. We have more caves than the Ozarks. Blackhawk ran away there to hide from the army.”
These points of pride are lost on the representative from the rolling cornfields and pastures of the central state. His fingers have fathomed her tailbone. She can feel him delicately sorting out her layers—gown, slip, nylons, panties—mentally getting her undressed.
“Well, the folks in the coulees must be real proud of you, young lady. You just gave a heckuva speech up there.”
She has given it dozens of times. It is not a speech, really. She won the Crawford County and state dairy crowns nine months ago with a real speech about her family’s heartwarming struggle to survive as small milk producers in the rugged southwest corner of the state. But since she became queen, her role has been to deliver a promotional message, scripted for her by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. She begins by reporting new scientific findings that chocolate milk is good for recharging the body after intense athletic workouts. She next announces upcoming opportunities such as the Grilled Cheese Academy—people think she’s joking, but she isn’t—and the Master Cheesemaker certification program, as well as entry deadlines for various Dairy Youth Fund scholarships, “of which I myself have been a recipient.” She goes on to note consumer cheese trends, identifying “eight ways Americans will eat cheese in 2004.” Following that—and she does this all in seven minutes—she invites one and all to look for her on the floor after the program, where she will be handing out samples of seasonal cheese flavors as well as information on cheese-and-beverage pairings and easy-cheesy recipes. As a closing act, pure vaudeville, her own touch but approved by the marketing board, she starts to count as fast as she can, with no given reason—letting the suspense build—then gives up and shouts: “Thirty-five billion! That’s how many dollars are generated by the Wisconsin dairy economy!”
Then she goes, “Phew!” and grins—she is a naturally beautiful girl, wholesome and healthy—and chugs a glass of chocolate milk to cheers from audience. She has three more months of Dairy Queen duties to go.
She is doing her floor show now, big smile, two hands beneath a platter of cheeses, cameras flashing away. State rep Johnsrud has progressed, plying her underlayers with a sensitive horizontal stroke. Mrs. Wisnewski has plunged off in the wrong direction, toward the golf clubhouse—probably because the chaperone has forbidden her Dairy Queen to enter what is clearly adult male territory. Heidi White is a good girl, but she is also headstrong, curious about boys versus men, and bored with the demands of a cheese queen. Meanwhile, Johnsrud is asking her why—pretending that she fascinates him—why did she compete for the throne?
“I admire my parents, my grandparents, I admire all farmers, all the incredibly hard work it takes to run a farm and treat animals well and make a good product and feed people and take care of the land and make the world a better place, and I want to do my part . . .”
He chuckles gently. She knows her answer sounds pat. Everybody knows girls just want to defeat rival girls, wear pretty dresses, and get attention from men. Coming from a backward corner of the state, she must seem too naïve to cover her tracks. Good time to strike, Johnsrud ascertains. She reads all this without alarm. People are basically good. No worries.
“You are just blowing me away with how wonderful you are. Smart and beautiful, and, gosh, what energy.”
His hand finally connects with her rear end: a faintly brushing touch, a probe for permission, deniable if she takes offense. The state rep could bounce a quarter off what he’s about to grab. In addition to farmwork, Heidi White competes in roping and barrel racing and plays high school softball. The 2004 Wisconsin Dairy Queen looks good in her gown, for sure, but it’s another thing entirely to see her in faded jeans and a snug tee, a John Deere cap with her red-blond ponytail out, wearing her shit-kicker boots—in her real element.
“You really melt a guy’s cheese,” he confides into her ear. “Ya know?”
The farm girl from remote Crawford County keeps two hands on the silver platter, bearing up ten pounds of Colbys, Swisses, Cheddars, Havartis, and one firm chèvre.
“Tell you what. That speech you gave, you said your dream after high
school is you want to be a public servant, get into law enforcement, live out there in the boonies, run a little farm on the side, make some babies, milk some cows, but, heck, how about instead you come look me up at the state capitol? I got a job for you in my office. How about you really use your talent?” He brushes her butt again. “That sound good? You come to Madison, be my girl Friday?”
The grope is about to occur. But so what? She has perfect balance. On her mind is a late supper of her mom’s pork chops and potato salad, after which she will bottle-feed a motherless calf and curry her horse, and after that there is supposed to be a kegger tonight—a half barrel off the tailgate of some boy’s pickup, a bonfire, fireworks, good kids having good times on a bend of the Kickapoo River. All things considered, the 2004 Wisconsin Dairy Queen will probably just step free of the grope and shrug the whole thing off, keep smiling as she takes her cheese platter and goes elsewhere—
But then this happens instead.
Mrs. Wisnewski is completely frantic as she elbows herself between important men in suits. She has even put her eyeglasses on. They magnify the black mascara streaking down her wrinkled face. She is crying about something. Unbelievable. Mrs. Wisnewski is crying.
“Uh-oh, spilled milk.”
State rep Johnsrud tries to joke. He uses the opportunity to loop an arm around the queen’s waist, handle her at the hip as if he needs to squire her clear of the charging crazy lady. Instead Mrs. Wisnewski stiff-arms him into a waiter bearing flutes of Door County cherry lambic. She forcefully tows the Dairy Queen—cameras flashing, cheese ungluing from the platter, slinging out—through an exit door onto a patio. Across the crisp green golf course, Lake Michigan lies still and silver beneath an early-evening sky.
“Oh . . . oh, dear Lord . . .” gasps Mrs. Wisnewski.
“Oh, Heidi . . . your mom and dad . . .”
“What about them?”
She will always remember how slowly she caught on. She was thinking that her parents had decided to give up struggling and sell Cress
Springs Farm to Royce Underkoffler, the bankruptcy specialist preying on farmers across the coulees. So Mom and Dad finally did it, she is thinking. OK. Well. So now they move to Florida. They stop breaking their backs every day while sinking deeper into debt. Her dad gets his anxiety under control. Her mom quits clerking the night shift at the Kwik Trip. The land by itself is worth a small fortune, so her parents stop fighting with each other, head down south, and take it easy. She is thinking, yeah, it was dumb of her to try to save it all, to romanticize the past with the Dairy Queen gig, which has become tedious and lame, on top of being a shill for Big Ag. But her queenship won’t last forever. Like her parents, she will move on . . .
“Sit down,” Mrs. Wisnewski commands her.
“Heidi White, I’m telling you to sit down.” The chaperone takes a clawlike grip on her forearm. She lunges toward a wire bench, choking out her words. “Sit down, young lady.”
“They were shot.”
“They were shot at the farm.”
“My mom and dad?”
“After you left this morning . . . first your dad shot your . . .”
Mrs. Wisnewski gasps, can’t finish.
“I . . . he . . . what? He shot who?”
“Your . . . oh, my dear girl . . . your mom . . . and then he shot himself . . .”
Her abilities to think and speak and hear—these dissolve. She stares at a golf course against a vast silver lake without any idea what either thing is. Little Mrs. Wisnewski, crouched on the paving stones in her black formal dress, becomes a gargoyle clawing at her hands. State rep Johnsrud looms in, expressing concern. Mrs. Wisnewski leaps and snarls as if to bite his face. The Dairy Queen whispers, “No.”
This word becomes the entire shape of her response. No becomes her universe. No! The tiara—like a talon on her head—she tears it off with a shriek—No!—in a terrible handful of strawberry blond. No! No!
Mrs. Wisnewski has to stop her from running into the resort’s driveway, where huge buses loom with their crushing weight. Then somehow she is inside the car, contained by a seat belt, a fiery sunset ahead, landscape streaming in dusk light. This is not real, no. This cannot be real.
“You’re lying,” she blurts. “Somebody’s lying. Dad would never do that.”
“The deputy told me—”
“Dad was stressed, but he would never . . . Just last Sunday morning someone stole a trailer full of hay from our neighbors . . . Mom and Dad must have caught somebody stealing. It’s a lie.”
“I don’t think anyone is lying,” says Mrs. Wisnewski from behind the steering wheel, her face stained, her voice stiff. “Nothing was stolen, the deputy told me. They don’t think anyone else was involved. These things just happen. Somehow we have to accept them to survive.”
Her whole world is no. No, no . . . never, never. A thousand kinds of no and never, across two hundred miles of landscape to a rugged place that now frightens and bewilders her.
She will go to war with no and never and “nothing was stolen.” She will fight to accept and survive. But former Dairy Queen Heidi White will need twelve hard years, many of them black-souled and lost, before she can call her beloved coulees home again.