Back to Issue Sixteen.

poor girls



Madeleine Boggs had been anti-piñata from the beginning, but she’d been overruled. The University of Minnesota Sports Medicine Department Concussion Awareness Club, of which she was a founding member, was a small club, so being overruled had been easy: it was basically Peter standing up in their last meeting and saying that ALS had raised $100 million doing the Ice Bucket Challenge, and getting ice dumped on you was roughly 4000 times less fun than hitting a piñata. Something about agency. “Besides,” he concluded, “it’s the state fair.” The final vote was five to one.

It was the state fair. In New Mexico, where Madeleine had grown up, the state fair had been trash: a few rides where you had to pay the kid at the booth extra for a round trip, and a place teenagers went to practice getting bombed.

But here, in Minnesota, the state fair was a rite in the oldest sense, a hinge in the seasons, a last gasp, and everyone, old and young, went. State and local candidates visited the public radio booth, pigs were born, and the likeness of Princess Kay was carved into butter in the dairy wing and set rotating in a climate-controlled rotunda with her court of runners up. The fair was nearly its own month, and effectively its own zip code, taking over the U’s agricultural campus each year, a greasy and pristine spectacle, and for weeks afterward all of St. Paul smelled flash-fried.

The piñata was, of course, maroon and gold. Peter had asked for a gopher, but the closest thing the piñata store had had was a generic Teddy Ruxpin, so Jared had printed out an M in the basement of Rapson and glued it on the torso, then snugged on a miniature plastic helmet that had once held tater tots at Big Ten. The idea: people could hit the piñata once with the helmet on, and then once without. They’d gotten permission to install a removable plant hook in the ceiling from which to hang it, and in compliance with the U’s insurance policy they kept the Louisville Slugger under the table, in a feed bucket by their feet.

“Wisconsin would never do this,” Madeleine’s boyfriend Hal had said when she told him about the concussion club’s table. “And Minnesota wouldn’t either, if they actually had a football team.”

Hal was not involved in sports or medicine, but studying the adoption of the mark in Darmstadt after German unification. Hal was from Wauwatosa, slated to have been fourth in a proud succession of Badgers, and still wasn’t over the fact that he hadn’t gotten into the University of Wisconsin. His father, who had, had been a kicker for Hillman House and had led the Badgers to victory right here in Minneapolis, in the annual Minnesota-Wisconsin touch football game of 1971. It had begun to snow soon after kickoff, so they’d paid some students from the union to come down and shovel the end zone and sidelines visible.

“You have a chip,” Madeleine said the first time Hal told her this story, and brushed it off his shoulder with her hand. Later that afternoon, as she watched him dig in his laundry basket for a shirt to dry her with, still feeling her heart in her back, she thought that maybe a chip had its uses.

She’d been working the club table for three hours and no one had approached to ask about concussion prevention, or even made eye contact. Next to her, Peter was doing his phone.

“Do you want anything?” Madeleine asked. “I’m going on break.”

He shook his head. The perfect cradle of his ear.


He looked at her this time, shook his head again.

Madeleine left, peeved by his reluctance to participate in even the simplest lovers’ code. She’d seen the goats and butter girls already, and packed her lunch, so she wandered back toward the grandstand and into the Art Pavilion, enjoying the boredom of early fall, its expiration fattening against her like a blister, a soft touchable threat.

Inside, Madeleine realized it was not the Art Pavilion but the Ideas Barn. Grandmothers from Lino Lakes and Albert Lea sat on folding chairs, propped forward on pancaked throw pillows brought from home, sifting their brochures around on the table like draw piles. Planned Parenthood, The Nature Conservancy, Minnesotans for Life. Out of idleness, she stayed. Strolled. When she reached the only table with no visible signage, Madeleine paused. Behind it, a young woman was reading a copy of The Economist. The table held a smattering of buttons, which portrayed a little clam with googly eyes and the words, “the Soul selects her own Society —”

“What are these for?” Madeleine asked. She’d read Dickinson freshman year. This one wasn’t her favorite, but her group had had to do a presentation on it.

“Monogamists Local 470.” Madeleine waited, but the woman said nothing else.

“And, what are you…for?”

“Abolishing the income tax.” The woman turned the page in her magazine.


She closed the magazine. “Guess.”

“Can I have one?” Madeleine asked.

The woman’s eyebrows seemed to move even faster than her hand, which thwapped down over the buttons before Madeleine could take one. “Have you slept around?”

At that moment Madeleine wished she were drinking something, just to see if she was the kind of person to spit her drink out in surprise, like in the movies. “Excuse me?”

“We define ‘around’ as more than one partner in any one-year period.”

Madeleine looked out toward the Swine Barn and began to fake count. She looked down the row of women, tallying up their collective annual lays, every one of them selfless or angry enough to be in here and not out in the real day, though their lives, it seemed, must have turned out okay enough to volunteer for something. It was a mysterious equation, but Madeleine got 19, rounding up. She must have left her brain’s cage door open, because the next second she was tottering on the rafter beam, looking down at the part in her own hair and thinking there were only two places you could ever be: the right place, and the wrong one, and how girls who ended up getting called poor girls were always on the one side. And then she wasn’t in the rafters anymore, she was walking, walking fast back to the Education Building, walking instead of running, because one could slow the world down by staying calm. (And if you couldn’t, why would anyone ever stay calm?) When she heard the sirens, Madeleine knew what had happened and she kept knowing. The cop doing crowd control knew too, somehow, because he lifted the tape for her.

The year Hal’s father kicked the winning field goal for Wisconsin in the big Thanksgiving game, nine people jumped off the Washington Ave. Bridge into the Mississippi River. One of them, a first-year law student, happened to jump on the same day as the game; an eyewitness put it just after dusk. The bridge is visible from the intramural field where the game was played, but by then players from both teams had been at the Brass Rail for hours, finding new uses for their dollars. Before he leaped, or fell—the witness couldn’t say—the law student had bent his girlfriend back at the neck, too hard, and left her in an abandoned railcar in the yard north of 4th Street. Nearly a week before the police pieced this all together, after a student taking a shortcut to class found her. It had warmed up over the weekend, and the carrion birds were chancing around the slush.

A baseball bat makes a sound when it connects; everything does. A lubed train door in its track. A dollar on skin, the rivet of blue jeans against the bar as you lean in to hide your hard-on. There is a sound the body makes when it is set down on a saw-dusted floor, and another lips make on cold hair, and before that day he had known only one.

Kate Petersen is from Arizona. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Zyzzyva, Epoch, Paris Review Daily, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She has received a Wallace Stegner fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and a scholarship to the Tin House Writer’s Workshop, and currently teaches at Stanford University as a Jones Lecturer.


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