Northern Lights

Northern Lights

by Raymond Strom


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A stunning debut novel set in the late 1990s as an androgynous youth arrives in small-town Minnesota, searching for the mother who abandoned him as a child.

On a clear morning in the summer of 1997, Shane Stephenson arrives in Holm, Minnesota, with only a few changes of clothes, an old Nintendo, and a few dollars to his name. Reeling from the death of his father, Shane wants to find the mother who abandoned him as an adolescent—hoping to reconnect, but also to better understand himself. Against the backdrop of Minnesota’s rugged wilderness, and a town littered with shuttered shops, graffiti, and crumbling infrastructure, Holm feels wild and dangerous.

Holm’s residents, too, are wary of outsiders, and Shane’s long blonde hair and androgynous looks draw attention from a violent and bigoted contingent in town, including the unhinged Sven Svenson. He is drawn in by a group of sympathetic friends in their teens and early twenties, all similarly lost and frequent drug users: the reckless, charming J and his girlfriend Mary; Jenny, a brilliant and beautiful artist who dreams of escaping Holm; and the mysterious loner Russell, with whom Shane, against his better judgment, feels a strange attraction. As Sven’s threats of violence escalate, Shane is forced to choose between his search for his mother, the first true friendships he’s ever had, and a desire to leave both his past and present behind entirely.

At its core, Northern Lights is the story of a son searching for his mother, and for a connection with her, dealing with issues of abandonment and forgiveness. But it also addresses the complications, tensions, and dysfunction that can exist in those relationships, presenting an unforgettable world and experience often overlooked, with a new kind of hero to admire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501190292
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 02/12/2019
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Raymond Strom was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, and moved from small town to small town in the Midwest as a child. He received his MFA from the City College of New York, where he now works as an academic advisor and studies romance languages. His writing has appeared in Fiction, Tweed’s, and The New York Times. Northern Lights is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Northern Lights
Day was breaking when I rang the buzzer. Birds chirping, morning traffic sighing eastward, the sky lightening. When I was sure that my mother wasn’t home I rang the super and he showed up red-eyed and angry, wearing boxer shorts and an old T-shirt, the long white hair that circled his dome standing up in an odd comb-over. I stuttered a hello and began to tell him why I had come.

“Wait,” he interrupted. “Are you a boy or a girl?”

“A boy,” I said, then finished my story. I had come to Holm to find my mother, to spend some time with her for the first time in years, before I made my way to Minneapolis to begin college in September. My backpack held all that I owned: three changes of clothes, an old videogame system, and a Christmas card with the return address One Center Street East, Apartment 3D. Everything but nothing.

“She was your mother, eh?” he said, rubbing an eye with a fist. “Yeah, I remember her. Whyn’t you head into the Arlington there and I’ll meet you with some clothes on.”

The building where my mother lived was once known as the Arlington Hotel and Restaurant, though by the time I arrived the restaurant was merely a diner, a few booths, a line of Formica tables, and a long lunch counter with round, padded stools mounted on steel pillars, and there hadn’t been a hotel for decades, the rooms converted long ago into rentals, the dusty first homes of the newly divorced and others down on their luck. A bell sounded as I pushed through the glass door and two bearded men in red baseball caps spun on their stools, watched me with matching slack-jawed expressions that I didn’t like as I crossed the dining room and took a booth near the window. A waitress came over with a “Good morning, darling” and a menu and the two men turned back to their toast.

The smell of bacon started my stomach growling like a wild animal and I realized I hadn’t eaten anything warm for twenty-four hours. I had fried an egg the previous morning, before I had gone to my high school commencement, but returning home in my cap and gown I found a note from my uncle next to my empty backpack. You can fill this up, but that’s it. Be gone before I return. Bus at Cooper’s at 2:30. The house closed in on me then, the arched doorways narrowed, the walls moved toward one another, squeezing me out as I scrambled to fill my sack. My uncle and I hadn’t gotten along since my father’s death. The six months since the funeral were proof we had never been close, but I didn’t think it would come to this. Be gone before I return played as a refrain in my thoughts and I grew afraid of what he’d do if he found me there. My hurry was so great that I had no lunch and at the transfer station in Duluth, where I had waited until one in the morning, the vending machines only contained cookies and chips.

Looking over the menu and taking in the dining room, the aproned waitresses, the symphony of jangling silverware and glasses, I was glad to see that my mother had a good place to eat while she lived here—I often wondered about her after she left, hoped she was looked after, well taken care of. Like my uncle, and my father before he died, I hadn’t ever had anything nice to say about my mother, but when I turned seventeen, the age she was when she had me, I could no longer say what I’d have done in her place. She had been trapped from the inside into a life she didn’t want. Until then I had blamed myself, but it became clear on my birthday that she hadn’t run from me but rather the situation, and I planned to tell her before I went on with my life that I understood her decision and had forgiven her. My uncle had done me a favor by kicking me out this early in the summer because I wouldn’t have had the time to stay and look for her if I had found her missing in August—I’d have had to get right back on the bus to school.

The next time the bell on the door sounded, it was the super in paint-splashed blue jeans and a gingham vest. He turned to the waitress with a finger in the air and answered her question of “The usual?” with a nod and a smile, then I blotted my eyes with a napkin and ordered what I thought my mother might have gotten: bacon, chocolate chip pancakes, and coffee. The super took a seat across from me and said a soft “Thank you” when the waitress brought our drinks.

“Karen,” he said, “do you remember this boy’s mother? She used to live upstairs.”

Her face betrayed her when he went on to say my mother’s name. Karen had known her and, though she said nice things, I could tell she wasn’t a fan. I wasn’t offended. My mother did what she pleased—I knew that better than anyone.

“You don’t happen to know where she went?” I asked, but only got a “Sorry, darling” in return.

We sat there in silence for a moment preparing our drinks, my spoon tinkling softly on the ceramic as I stirred in my sugar while the super squeezed the last drops out of his tea bag before setting it aside.

“I checked my records and saw that your mother left just over a year ago,” he said. “Her place is still open if you want to take a look or whatever. Shit, you could even stay a week. No charge.” He dug down into his pocket, then threw a key ring on the table. THE ARLINGTON HOTCL, it said on the plastic fob, the thin crossbar of the lowercase e scratched away so it looked like a c. I picked it up, this object my mother had held, and my hand trembled.

“No one’s going to need that room and even if they did, I got six other rooms open now anyways. Maybe you could poke around town and see if you can find out where she got off to. Who knows—you may know where she went before the week is up. Let’s hope.”

“That’s very generous,” I said, happy for the first time since I had left Grand Marais, and my face must have lit up because the super’s eyes widened at my reaction. “I’d love that.”

The super gave me a price for the remainder of the month, nearly all the money I had, and said we could talk about it on Thursday. He stuck his hand out across the table and I shook it, then Karen brought our breakfast. I ate like the howling wolf that my stomach had become while the super forked cut fruit into his mouth. His meal was small and he finished quickly, throwing a ten on the table as he stood to leave.

“Boy, I wish I could still eat like you do,” he said. “Chocolate and bacon in the morning. What, you gonna have the peanut butter burger for lunch?”

“That sounds delicious,” I said, pushing my bacon toward him. “One won’t hurt.”

“There’ll come a time in your life when you too will need to make decisions that go against your desires. It hasn’t come for you yet so you better enjoy it while it lasts. I’ll see you on Thursday.”

I didn’t watch him leave, too concerned with the final smears of chocolate on my plate, and when the bell that sounded his exit evened off into silence I signaled Karen for a refill and turned to the warm summer morning outside. A red light hung over the intersection, blinking, swaying on a cord in the wind. How many times had my mother stared out at these streets over her morning coffee? The handwritten letter inside the card that led me to Holm described a simple life: her job at the plastics factory, her long walks around town, and her inability to save any money. It looked like a lonely crossroads but, given life as it had been lived in my father’s house, it must have seemed to my mother a world of opportunity, as even this small town was five times larger than where we had lived according to the sign posted at the city limits.

I waved Karen away when she came by with the change. The super had left enough for both of our breakfasts plus a two-dollar tip, and as I watched her walk back to the kitchen my attention was drawn to the bearded men still sitting at the counter, now harassing the girl working the coffee machine who was at least ten years their junior.

“Just a date,” the guy sitting on the left said. “I don’t see why you won’t let me buy you dinner. I’m a gentleman.”

“It’s true,” the other guy said. “And he’s got a huge cock.”

“I do have a huge cock,” the first guy said. They laughed loudly and slapped a high five before the girl blushed and ran off toward the kitchen.

I wanted to say something to these men, to show them this wasn’t right—no one deserved to be treated like that, especially a woman so young—but the impulse sent quakes of fear through my body, driving my heart to pound like a trip-hammer. Unable to confront them, I lifted the last of my coffee to my mouth and then stood, took up my backpack, and made my way to the door, spinning the unoccupied seats at the lunch counter like prayer wheels as I passed, leaving the grown men to continue acting like children, uncorrected. The same bell that sounded my entrance now marked my exit and then I was in the street, free from all but guilt and the resonance of my pounding heart, my pulse so loud in my ears I was deaf to the world, the blood vessels behind my eyes throbbing so that colors appeared before me. Lightheaded, I stepped to the curb, turned on pointe, and looked up at my new home.

Four stories of dark brick, the Arlington was the tallest building in Holm. Nearby, many of the downtown storefronts were empty, windows papered over, names still legible on the signs above the doors. Kristina’s Pet World, Karl the Kobbler, and The Bible & More were all closed. The dime store and the rodeo supplier were still open, for now. The barber shop. The Spirit River Theater two blocks down. Beyond a string of chain restaurants—tacos, pizza, and burgers—a Tweed’s Discount and a More-4-You stood at opposite ends of the Old Rail Terminal Mall, a long brick building that housed the army recruiting station and a dozen other empty storefronts. Holm wasn’t quite a ghost town, but given half the stores were now abandoned it was clear something was eating away at it.

After fumbling with the keys for a minute I was inside the door where I had met the super, creaking up the stairs in the near dark, each flight turning back on itself once between floors. The other key opened the door marked 3D, my mother’s square room with windows in two adjacent walls looking out on the intersection. I stepped in and took a deep breath. Nothing. The passing year had erased her smell, leaving that of an old closed room. A beat-up mattress on an iron frame took up most of the space and an old desk stood near the sink and mirror in the corner, all covered in dust. The door I assumed was the bathroom turned out to be a closet, as the shower and toilet were down the hall past the pay phone.

I opened the windows and stripped the bed—I would need to do laundry—then took a pillowcase and wiped all the dust from the windowsills, bedside table, the chair, the desk. Opening each drawer, I hoped to find some lost thing that had belonged to my mother, an old picture or a note, but I found only more dust. I had to turn the pillowcase inside out to get the last of it. Once that was finished, I sat on the corner of the bed and tried to take it all in, this room where my mother lived, realizing finally that I might not find her, that this might be as close as I would get. Who was I kidding anyway? I was no detective, but I had nowhere else to go. I’d put in some time looking for her, but it was only a summer after all, then I’d make my way south for my first day of college. If I didn’t find her I could still see what she saw, do what she did. Work and wander the streets. Spend all the money I could find.

As I considered my mother’s life in Holm, a flash of red played across the wall among the shadows, catching my eye. The traffic signal at the intersection, blinking outside the window, battled the rising sun so that the hairline cracks in the plaster took on alternating hues of light and dark to the beat of a pulse. The slow encroachment of the white light held me captivated, the flickering shadows on the wall growing into images familiar yet unnameable, until finally the red light was overpowered by the day.

I asked the man at the laundromat if he had known my mother while he changed my five for quarters but he said he’d need a picture.

“Don’t get to know too many names here,” he said. “People like the anonymity of it, I think. You got dirty clothes and cash? I won’t judge.”

I told him that was fair then walked over to a washer near the Pac-Man game and threw in my dirties. As I prepared the wash I noticed a couple in the corner arguing in hushed tones as a young girl danced around their legs, oblivious to the conflict. The woman had half her head shaved and the other half’s hair hung long and straight, down to her waist, fire-engine red. Her partner had done something wrong, his shoulders slumped, eyes on the floor.

“I can’t believe we have to wash everything we own and use this cream because of your stupid ass,” the woman said. “Have you seen your daughter’s arms? Rashes up and down. Are you a fucking idiot?”

At this question, the man slammed a fist down on a washer, then walked out the door and the woman picked up her daughter and ran out after him, hair trailing behind her, like a superhero with a long red cape. I wanted to step out behind them and find out what they were talking about, what this guy had done, but instead I turned back to my washing.

Once I got the machine running, I set all my money out on the nearby folding table. After taking out what I’d owe for the remainder of the month and setting aside money for food I had eleven dollars leftover, enough for laundry and toiletries. Certainly no money for cigarettes—I wasn’t old enough to buy them anyway—but I had alternatives. The wash cycle still had at least thirty minutes on it so I stuffed all my money back in my pocket and went outside, stood on the sidewalk, and looked both ways down Center. That was when I heard the catcalls.

“Hey pretty lady, look over here. Yeah you, blondie.”

I didn’t think they were yelling at me until they got more specific:

“Hey, you in the flannel!”

An old, beat-down pickup truck slowed as it rolled by, young men leaning out the windows, leering. Another whistle stopped in the middle, then came the yelling: “Get a haircut, faggot, you look like a woman.”

A bewhiskered young man in a cowboy hat snorted like a pig and spit at me. The loogie slapped the ground near my feet, an unsettling green in the mid-morning light, then the engine roared as the truck hurdled the train tracks and the boys disappeared around the corner.

I did look like a woman from behind, I’m sure, though more like a tomboyish girl. My hair hung past my shoulders and I wore jeans and flannel shirts no matter the season. There is something about seeing a thin figure with long hair on the side of the road that makes a guy want to be heard, I guess.

The crossing arms came down, red lights flashed, and steam whistles sounded in the distance: two long, one short, one long. A minute later a train engine chugged out from behind a grove of leafy trees, pulling a hundred and fifty boxcars, creaking and groaning as the weight shifted, railroad ties keeping rhythm with odd clicks and snaps as the wheels passed. Graffiti covered the sides of many cars: thin-lined scribbles, illegible tags, and squared-off pieces that must have been done with a paint roller, but only one artist had any consistency: HOPE. This word appeared most often in three-dimensional lettering, blocky or bubbly, but sometimes shaped into odd representations: a clown juggling four balls that hovered above his open hands spelling out the word, another time four raindrops falling from a cloud said the same. I had always loved graffiti—it was a special way of remembering, of reminding the world of what has gone overlooked, been forgotten. Everyone gets caught behind a train from time to time, and though much graffiti is of the “i wuz here” variety, the true artist sneaks in a bit of style and optimism for the captive audience.

The caboose passed, the arms came up, and the few cars and trucks that were waiting pulled up the slight incline to mount the crossing. I got onto the tracks and turned north, hoping they would lead me to the Old Rail Terminal Mall, and once I got around the corner, past the grove of trees that must have been planted to conceal it, I was in the old rail yard. The tracks I walked split in two before me and that second set split into five that came to dead ends, where a number of train cars were parked. I thought I’d go climb up the ladders and look in the open doors of the empty shipping containers, images in my mind from old television programs of hobos hanging their feet out of the cars as trains chugged through the countryside, but I came up on another amazing piece, this one a sculpted mountain—no, a volcano—with a single rivulet of lava trailing through the ridges of the mountainside to spell out HOPE. It was a mishmash of browns and blacks and warm colors against the rusty maroon backdrop of the car but it worked. I couldn’t look away. At the bottom corner were numbers: 6.6.97. I stepped to the car and touched the stream of lava, leaving a perfect fingerprint in the wet paint. The piece had been painted that day. June sixth. This artist lived in Holm. I reminded myself to keep an eye out for graffiti around town and cut over to the grocery store to see if I could find a cigarette, or at least a halfie in one of the ashtrays.

I wasn’t built to love women—let me tell you that right away—I know that now, but over the years I have been drawn to certain people no matter their gender. Whether male or female, however, the mere thought of approaching someone made my heart quake and my eyes pulse but I couldn’t stop myself when I saw the girl I’d come to know as Jenny standing among the cut flowers near the entrance to the More-4-You. She had a hypnotic quality that drew me, that pulled my words from me. Something inside had to come out, and it ended up being the stupidest, most awkward question I could have asked.

“Sniffing for butts?” I asked, leaning in next to her. This was what my father had said when he had caught me stalking ashtrays two years back. I regretted saying it before I had finished, my heart again entering panic mode, quaking in my head.

“More like sniffing for packs,” she said, eyeing me up and down once before turning back to whatever she had been looking at before. I stood there next to her long enough to get a deep breath of the soft floral perfume she wore, roses and violets, and in that time she glanced my way twice but did not meet my gaze. Thinking she might not like me, might not like being approached, I took a few steps back to let her have some room and understood suddenly that I had done to her what the boys in the truck had done to me. I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable and she had gotten there first, after all, so I tried to mind my own business for a while, tried to look away. I studied the roses and the chrysanthemums in their buckets, bundled into dozens by color, but I was drawn again and again to Jenny, her bold blue eyes, soft slope of a nose, and the way the slight breeze lifted her blond hair in wisps. I might have gone and left her alone if I hadn’t seen in my stolen glances that she was sneaking looks my way too.

Before long, a Cadillac pulled into the lot and angled into the first row. A woman got out with a long, thin cigarette hanging from her mouth, the brand I associated with this type of older lady. Pantsuit, perfume, expensive car. Digging in her purse as she moved toward the store, I thought she was going to walk right in, cigarette and all, but as the electric doors opened she tossed it without looking in a flash of sparks on the sidewalk.

After the store swallowed the woman, Jenny looked around to be sure no one would see, then crouched and picked up the cigarette. She took a deep drag, then handed it to me and stepped off the curb into the parking lot. I leaned back against the store and puffed as I watched her approach the car, open the door, reach inside. After the car door slammed, she kept on in the same direction, past the next row of cars parked facing the store, but turned to me with her hand in the air to show me what she had gotten. It was the rest of the woman’s pack, of course, and I would have laughed out loud if a car coming down the next lane of the parking lot hadn’t come to a screeching halt, the driver laying on the horn as Jenny walked into traffic. She didn’t get hit, but she did slap hard on the hood of the car.

“Watch where I’m going why dontcha!”

“Get outta the road!”

I had other, more important business in Holm but I couldn’t look away. I should have stepped to the ashtray, sunk my cherry in the sand, and again took up my position on the wall to wait for another wasteful smoker—I was quite certain that this careless girl wouldn’t lead me to my mother—but instead I called after her, ensuring everything that came later. She stopped and turned but didn’t try to meet me, let me walk all the way to her with my heart pounding.

“Any chance I can get a square or two off you?”

She reached into her shirt and took the pack from her bra strap.

“Do you like music?” she asked, holding two cigarettes out for me, a white V from her closed fist.

“Music?” I hoped my face didn’t show how odd a question I thought this was. “You bet.”

“There’s a concert at the fairgrounds tonight,” she said. “Out past the Walmart.”

I put one cigarette in my mouth and the other behind my ear. She flicked a lighter inside a chimney made with her left hand and I bowed to the flame.

“Are you gonna be there?” I asked.

“I might be,” she said and walked away, rounding the corner at the movie theater without looking back.

I figured my laundry had finished, so I went back to the laundromat and moved my clothes into a dryer. To kill some time, I dropped a quarter into the Pac-Man machine and beat four levels, but the ghosts won eventually, as they always do.

It was past noon by the time the bedclothes were washed and back on the bed, so I stopped in for a burger at the Arlington. I got the one with a scoop of peanut butter like the super had mentioned—somehow more sweet and delicious than I had imagined—then I snaked a spiral through the west side of town. As my mother had told me in her letter, the Arlington stood at the intersection of Old Main and Center and the streets that crossed Center had been named after trees. Those trees grew along each street with the exception of Elm, whose trees had all been lost to disease. First Ash, then Birch, the middle school was on Cypress, followed by Dogwood and Elm, and Fern ran parallel to those for six blocks in either direction before turning eastward to meet up with Old Main making two grids, planned and predictable. The streets named for trees had no sidewalks; rather the blacktop broke into gravel near the edge of the road where grass then picked up, the lawns of wooden houses with peaked roofs or the occasional three-story brick apartment building. Churches here and there and nothing more to Holm than that. I took Fern north past where all the other streets ended and found the high school and beyond that the cemetery, and then turned around to take Fern south, ending up at the hospital and the government center. Beyond Holm to the west, the forest grew thick before it dropped off into the Spirit River, then came up just as thick again on the other side before it turned into farmland. Center crossed the river valley on a long bridge, became a four-lane highway on the other side.

A few hours after lunch I ended up at the library—the librarian was adamant that she had never heard of anyone by my mother’s name and refused to check the records—then across the street in what passed for a park. I sat in a swing in a playground that shared a small square of grass with a picnic table, a couple of benches, and a water tower. I had talked the librarian into letting me take the newspaper outside and was reading about the recent conviction of Timothy McVeigh, guilty on eleven counts and likely to be sentenced to death by lethal injection later in the summer, when a young man stopped his truck, sauntered over, and introduced himself as Sven Svenson. Six feet tall, all field work and sunburn. Boots, hat, Confederate flag for a belt buckle. Cheek swollen with long-cut tobacco. As he approached, I saw he had one of the nicer trucks I’d seen in town, painted cherry red and fixed up with a shiny chrome roll bar. Hat in his hand, he called me ma’am, spoke softly, politely, then stood tall before me with his thumbs hooked into his pockets. Blue eyes and straight teeth on display, his similarity to McVeigh in the photo next to the article I was reading was striking.

“And if you like to get a little rowdy,” Svenson said, pressing one of his nostrils closed with an index finger and sniffing, “well, I can take care of that for you, too.”

I raised my head so that he could see my face. I didn’t speak but when he saw I was no lady his smooth talk turned rough, making the bearded men in the Arlington and the boys in the passing truck seem like gentlemen. When he ran out of swear words he bent down and pushed my shoulders, sending me backwards on the swing and, unready for such force, I tumbled for half a flip in the air before I landed in the grass, the newspaper splayed out next to me, peeling away in the wind.

“I better not see you again,” he said, hovering above me, holding his fist in the air between us. “There’ll be trouble if I do.”

I lay there for a time, thinking that every boy in this town might have a slight case of myopia, but decided in the end that they were merely desperate. I was in the habit then of making sweeping generalizations, defining large groups of people by a single shared characteristic. It was easy for me to do, since I had been so isolated for so long that by this point I always felt like I was outside looking in, even back in Grand Marais where I had spent my entire life. Holm, it seemed, would be no different.

When I finished gathering the paper and refolding it, I lay again in the grass to gaze at the sky and saw that I might have a friend in town, or at least a sympathetic ear: someone had climbed the rusted ladder of the water tower and spray-painted the word sucks after HOLM on the tank.

Past the laundromat and the railroad tracks, Center Street led me out of the planned part of Holm and set me on a path to the fairgrounds. To the north was the industrial part of town, where I found a green street sign that read BIG LAKE PLASTICS, my mother’s old place of work, with an arrow pointing up East First. I’d be sure to make my way over there to see if anyone knew her but for the time I had Jenny on my mind so I kept on eastward. Beyond the plastics factory a few other smokestacks towered in the distance, and to the south was a run-down residential neighborhood, a few blocks of smallish square houses placed at odd angles on spotty lawns. Driveways here were gravel or dirt ruts in the grass. Broken walkways led to thin doors hanging loose on their hinges. No tree lines had been planted on this side of the railroad tracks, random oaks grew in a front yard here and a side yard there, marking out the makeshift gardens in the empty lots between houses. This went on until the sidewalk ended, then I walked the shoulder past a Pump ’N Munch and a short strip of businesses that faced the highway. After running across the southbound entrance ramp, I stepped up onto the curb and kicked through the knee-high weeds that grew through the cracks of the cement incline under the overpass, where country music and exhaust hung thick in the air around the idling cars and trucks. Beyond the highway the Walmart came up on my right, a cement box five hundred feet by five hundred feet with a parking lot somehow larger. It hung on the horizon for a while, by far the largest property in Holm that I had seen, not quite as tall as the Arlington but covering much more ground. A short while later I saw that the fairgrounds were on the other side of Center so I scurried across the road when the traffic grew thin.

The band was four guys with shaggy hair, mustaches, and beer guts and they only played songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I sat under a tree a good ways back from the stage with my eye out for Jenny. The wind was coming in over the horse stables and blowing straight through the concert so I watched the first couple songs with my hand over my nose. No one else noticed the smell. People had spread blankets in the grass and children ran from family to family waving and smiling. A man was selling beer and snacks in the shade near the band shell and beyond him was a gateway made of balloons, the entrance to a small carnival of games and rides.

After the singer told us what he hoped Neil Young would remember, a thin noodle of a boy about my age walked over to me. He was wearing a Twins hat pulled down so low that the bill hid most of his face and his clothes hung baggy on him, jeans sagging to the side. He sat down next to me and bobbed his head to the music, occasionally mumbling along with the lyrics between sips from a bottle that said MOUNTAIN DEW on the label but must have been mixed with something because the soda looked much darker than I remembered it to be.

The band went on break at the end of the song and many in the crowd groaned and stretched, went to buy beer or popcorn. The boy took off his hat and squeezed at the bill with his hands, bending the deep bow in the visor even further. His blond hair was short and stood up in tufts, a month or two of growth since his last buzz cut, but when he turned my way I saw a heaviness around his eyes that drove straight through me. He seemed on the edge of crying, as if he were doing all he could to hold back tears, and I felt my body lurch in his direction. My heart started up with the palpitations again, eyes pulsated—forces uncontrollable roiled my body. I couldn’t speak but found I could respond.

“What do you play?” he asked.

“I used to play baseball,” I said.

“No, what instrument?”

“Music?” I asked. “No, I don’t play.”

He took another drink, wiped the mouth of the bottle on his sleeve, then handed it to me.

“Black Velvet,” he said, smiling in a way that pulled the sad corners of his eyes up a little.

I held the bottle to my nose. I had never drunk whiskey before but I knew the smell.

“You a singer then?”


“Then why do you look like you are?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You ain’t gonna make any friends looking like that.”

I handed the bottle back without taking a drink, avoiding the boy’s eyes so as not to be drawn in, then stood up and brushed off my pants. Unsure if I was fleeing what he said or how I felt, I looked off to the stables and then turned toward the midway, leaving the drunk in the baseball hat sputtering insincere apologies behind me.

The fair was like any other I had been to up around Grand Marais when I was younger. Maybe the same fair, they did travel after all. A round man fried doughnuts and sold popcorn from a red cart. Another had milk bottles balanced on blocks and taunted me with a “Looks like a girl, throws like a girl” as I passed. Young mothers were led from booth to booth by screaming, happy children. One boy followed his father closely, finger linked into the older man’s belt loop, crying and red-faced, begging for cotton candy. Beyond the games were the rides: Alice’s Teacups for the kids, the Scrambler for those a bit older, and the Ferris wheel for everyone.

“Hey you,” someone called. “Hey you. Lucky!”

I don’t know why I looked up—I didn’t feel lucky. I turned to find a young man with his eyes closed to mere thin red slits. His hair was shaved up the sides but long on top, just to his ears. He wore a flannel over a T-shirt and jeans. I looked down at my own clothes—we wore the same outfit. Next to him was a girl wearing glasses with big red frames, her hair pulled into a ponytail so tight I thought at first her head was shaved bald. She hugged a large stuffed bunny to her chest and he held a thin plastic ring in the air between us.

“Our luck has run out,” he said. “Will you blow on this?”


“For luck,” the ponytailed girl said.

“Okay,” I said, stepping over to them, leaning in to blow a short breath at the ring.

They both turned back to the game, a table full of soda bottles a few feet away. He tossed the ring with a high arc and it came down a winner, then his girlfriend jumped with delight and wrapped her arms around him. I was happy I could help them win but, consumed with bartering the bunny and the winning ring for a new prize, they left me behind them and I folded back into the growing throng of Holmers.

As the sun was setting, the crowd changed from parents with small children to teenagers and young adults. Guys my age smoking cigarettes, arms around girls, none of them Jenny. A group in the shadows with tallboys wrapped in paper bags. The crowd thickened and I was afloat in a sea of cowboy hats, baseball caps, and teased-up hair. I thought I saw her a number of times but after a couple of hours I couldn’t remember what she looked like beyond an undefined beauty and blond hair. The lights on the rides streaked across the darkening sky. I stepped out of the mass to get in line for a hot dog but I should have known better.

“I see you, faggot!”

It was a yell from above. At the top of the stalled Ferris wheel, the silhouette of a man in a cowboy hat stood against the darkening sky. Svenson. A moment later, the ride shook back into motion, almost tossing him from the car. A woman near me covered her son’s eyes.

“I told you there’d be trouble!” he yelled, leaning out of the swinging car.

The vendor put my hot dog in a bag and I slipped back into the crowd, invisible again. Svenson was now stalled at the nine o’clock position so I turned back toward the game corridor, hoping it would lead me out of the fairgrounds, but I soon found myself at a dead end, a double-wide gaming booth where children kneeled on fake grass and plucked colorful plastic swans as they floated by on a twisted, narrow river.

I didn’t look to see who owned the strong hand that came down on my shoulder. Rather, I slipped out from under it and ran down the lane of games to a chorus of heys and fuck yous from those I jostled. As I made my way through the concert, the singer bemoaned Tuesday’s passing to a much thicker crowd—the open grassy field now checkered with blankets, a mass thirty or forty people deep around the stage, dancing and singing along. I had to slow down and sidestep to get back to the entrance gates where I picked up my sprint.

In the parking lot I heard quick footsteps behind me but they turned off before I reached the exit. I was running along the shoulder when I heard Svenson’s truck. My heart was pounding from fear, as I had no doubt he would run me down right there, so I cut across Center and hurdled the median, stopping traffic in the oncoming lane with a screech. Svenson paced me, his head out the window, and another young man climbed out the passenger side, both yelling but their words were lost in the wind. I passed the Walmart on my left and then I was at the exit passing under the highway. Svenson sped ahead to turn back for me but got stuck at the intersection so I cut across the Pump ’N Munch lot and ran toward the long building that housed a few shops and a café. I looked for a sign but the only one I saw said HELP WANTED.

“Welcome to the Aurora,” a man said. He wore a white chef’s jacket and had long dark hair pulled into a ponytail. “Table for one?”

I held up my hot dog and took a few deep breaths. “Actually, I’m here to apply for the job.”

An engine revved in the parking lot, then a siren sang and red and blue lights flashed through the window. The man who would become my boss and I turned to see an officer climb out of a car marked HOLM COUNTY SHERIFF on the side and make his way to Svenson’s truck.

“Take a seat there,” he said, pointing, then ran out the door.

I sat at the table for two near the window and watched him approach the sheriff and Svenson, who were now outside their cars. He must have called out because they both turned toward him and, after the sheriff reached into his open car window to switch off his lights, let him talk for a minute. Heads nodded all around before he shook hands with each man, then the sheriff and Svenson shook hands before they turned back to their vehicles. A moment later, he took a seat across from me.

“Where were we now?” he asked.

“You were just about to hire me,” I said.

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