On the Ones We Leave Behind: God and Ghosts at the Wisconsin State Fair

“Why can’t I go a week without wondering what she might have made of the person I’ve become?”

The Wisconsin State Fair—renowned for its cheese curds and cream puffs—takes place every August on the outskirts of Milwaukee, which is the worst point, humidity-wise, during the course of a Midwestern summer. I can’t tell you why exactly I’ve decided to come to the fair. I suppose that my previous misadventures with summertime untethering (waterparks, rodeos) had failed so spectacularly that I thought it might be a surefire expedient to downhome relaxation. Yet I confess I’ve grown weary of the impulse to analyze these dog-day amusements. Who am I to scrutinize these rambling pastimes? Who am I to point and sneer?

So I’m going to refrain from the requisite descriptions of folksy activities. I’m not going to spend time on the Sizzling Pig Races or the Amateur Bench Press Competition, nor will I profile the bald, happy-faced illusionist who, during his midafternoon set, made a child’s baseball hat disappear. I’m not going to talk about the Stunt Dog exhibitions, nor the cows that I met who had stripper names (Delilah, Tanqueray), nor will I offer impressive-sounding meditations on Ferris Wheels or funnel cakes.

Instead, what I want to talk about is the moment late in the afternoon, while wandering past the food stands, when I heard, over the sizzle of the grills, a faint melody—Gershwin? Rodgers & Hammerstein, maybe?—and against my better judgment, I found myself making my way closer and closer to the music. Eventually I arrived at a fully packed auditorium, and on stage—how to describe them?—a phalanx of dancing teens, singing in flawless, four-part harmony. Was I approaching the first row and sitting down in front of them? I was. Did I feel the roil of jealously in my gut, the aftereffect of some long buried misfortune? I did. The sign in front of the bandstand read: Kids from Wisconsin.

*

When I was 12 years old, I auditioned for and was accepted into a professional singing and dancing group called Accompany of Kids, a gifted ensemble of 12- to 18-year-olds who traveled across the byways of Wisconsin, delighting crowds with our hydraulic smiles and our over-enthused jazz hands. We did Grease and Little Shop of Horrors and songs from Les Mis. We even did selections from Rent, although it still baffles me that none of our parents batted an eye when the preteen members of our group sang, in angelic harmonies, about AZT breaks. If you lived in or around Milwaukee in the run-up to the millennium, it’s possible you saw us. Owing to our garish costumes, we were kind of a hard act to miss. Our standard summertime raiment was black slacks and chartreuse dress shirts, all of it overlaid with purple or teal vests, plus a pair of jazz shoes or tap shoes, depending upon each child’s talents. Think Glee. Think Fame. Think Sister Act II.

It was my brother who recruited me—naturally, one wants to blame these things on the family. Throughout high school, he’d been a highly accomplished actor and vocalist, and in the fall of his freshman year, he’d heard about this group called AOK, which apparently had a history of producing Broadway talent. They were electric, these kids, when they performed. I remember when I first saw my brother on stage at their annual winter Gala event, and bedecked in era-appropriate costumes, he and about two dozen other boys were singing “Bui Doi” from Miss Saigon, their honeyed, mellifluous voices wholly out of keeping with their pimple-flecked miens. Who can say how these things happen exactly, but I remember sitting in the audience with my parents, and when the boys sang, “They are the living reminder of all the good we failed to do,” I felt the floor drop out beneath me.

That I wanted to audition came as a surprise to both me and my parents. Up until that point, I had harbored boring, heteronormative aspirations to be a professional football player, and as a white kid from the suburbs, I tended to hang out with ballcapped boys who wore Polo’s and watched Adam Sandler movies. We called ourselves “The Sexy Six” and, even though we were in middle school, insisted upon wearing the designer imposter version of Aqua Di Gio cologne. It was just awful.

There were two kinds of performers among us. Those who actually had preternatural talent and could maybe make a legitimate run for Broadway. And those of us who were simply good child performers. I fell into the latter category. Because I was only twelve, my voice hadn’t yet ripened, so its timbre tended to waver awkwardly between notes. The group’s directors, they were kind to me about this. Whereas the other boys were given solos that showcased their glass-clear tenors or their mannish baritones, I got a lot of talking parts, and one season, a rap solo, specifically “Pump Up the Jam,” the famous Jock Jams anthem, which I performed while wearing copious MC Hammer pants and a pair of yellow-tinted sunglasses. Sometimes, when my family and I are debating politics at Thanksgiving and I start getting a little haughty with my English-professor locutions, my older brother will bring me back down to size by humming the melody of this number, occasionally miming a few of the appalling dance moves that I had hazarded on stage at the time.

It was as if she were mocking our attempt at authenticity, as if to say you think you’re not always on stage? You want to call me a fraud?

We were never not performing. I don’t mean that in a winking, postmodern, Erving-Goffman-ish sort of way. I mean that since our chosen pastime was fundamentally histrionic, even when we weren’t officially onstage, there was always at least someone play-acting. Our group parties, which usually took place around fire-pits in our parents’ backyards, tended to consist of small bands within our troupe doing concerts—“shows,” we called them—for the rest of us. Some of the older guys were in a group that only played Pearl Jam covers. Another girl, who eventually became a collegiate gymnast, would occasionally impress us with round-offs and backflips.

Around Christmas, one 16-year-old boy, who had a serrated wit and whose parents were brashly affluent, would invite the whole troupe over for a catered dinner at his parents’ McMansion, which all of us would attend in starchy formalwear—yet another performance. At some point in the night, he would pass around his pristine cherrywood acoustic, a fetching Martin guitar on which he’d play James Taylor covers, often with a soulfulness and dexterity far beyond his years. Some of the girls would sort of gather at his feet whenever he played, kneeling on the floor in their poofy dresses. The rest of us boys would loiter in back near the snack bar, sipping our cokes expressionlessly, no doubt seething with envy.

Every August, there was a banquet to celebrate the end of the season, where the directors would give out awards for superlative achievement. Think of it as our version of the Grammy’s. One year my brother got Best Male Solo. Another 12-year-old named Tim, a tall boy with a mop of brown curls, received the Rising Star Award (he’s now on Broadway, in the cast of The Greatest Showman). Almost every year I could be counted on to receive the distinction for Best Stage Presence, which in hindsight I am tempted to read as a back-patting consolation. After all, within in the AOK culture, all “stage presence” meant was using one’s gestures to communicate pep and enthusiasm regardless of the song. I suppose at this point I can no longer avoid admitting that I was the type of twelve-year-old who, while singing on stage, would lock eyes with an older lady in the audience and, without the slightest twinge of self-consciousness, wink at her like an old crooner.

Someone who frequently took the distaff version of this award was one of my best friends in the group, a person named Mandy. Mandy liked to wear Jinko jeans and Nirvana t-shirts whenever she wasn’t performing, and people frequently told her that she should model, that she should act. With the other kids, I was usually sensitive enough to perceive when they were feigning dolefulness or sophistication—I’m so depressed, one might say, as we put on makeup before a performance—but the thing about Mandy was that I could never be sure what was real and what was a put-on.

Once, on a bus ride to a group retreat in the woods, she suggested that we become “blood siblings,” and with the restive quirks of a sparrow, began rummaging through her purse. Eventually she extracted a glinting Swiss Army knife. The parent chaperones were distracted up front, unacquainted with and thus unprepared for children of such morose temperament, and by that point, most of the other kids in our row had either fallen asleep or were gazing moodily out the window, their ears buzzing with the solipsism of their Walkmen. Our wounds were small and delicately made. And I was surprised by the volume of blood each of us could produce. We mashed our fingers together until the tips whitened and lost feeling, and when we finally unglued them, the girl smiled at me in a cozen, knowing way and licked away the blood that was squirming down her palm. That she toggled holographically between these states of being—from one angle, she was being serious; from another, sardonic—was what I think made her such an uncanny performer. She could remove herself the very scenario of the theater and become a fleeting container for whatever sentiments the moment required. An hour passed like that, maybe more, with me sitting there in utter bafflement, until the bus finally exited into the Wisconsin woods, my scalp prickling brightly, my heart walloping in my chest.

*

The earliest known usage of the word “presence,” as outlined in the OED, is associated with the Christian idea of the Eucharist, the supposedly consoling notion that the spirit of God resides nearby even when He himself is not there. It is a haunting, in other words, this presence—shapeless and without discernment. And it’s this connotation that fits most easily with the kind of “stage presence” I’m trying to describe, those electric, pulsing moments when an actor or a singer on stage becomes not a product of rehearsal and training, not a bearer of individual talent, but instead assumes the properties of a medium of some kind, a channeler for other ghosts. In certain artists, you can almost perceive that little click of disappearance, the moment when something changes in their eyes, when they’ve left the crude materiality of the stage and have gone off to some other realm.

Go and watch a YouTube clip of Nirvana playing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” on MTV’s Unplugged, and pay close attention to the last time they do the chorus. At this point in the song, Kurt has shrugged off his sleepy, gravelly tenor, and what has arrived in its place is a wonderful melodic shrieking, that tuneful, water-pure scream. In no way does this sound seem to be issuing from a male voice. To me, it is the sound of a prairie-woman reprimanding her wayward daughter. It is the sound inside a mother’s mind when her child has stayed out long past curfew. But this is nothing compared to what happens next. Throughout the song, Kurt’s eyes have been cast pensively downward or pinched into soulful little asterisks, and remain so as he sings, “My girl, my girl, where will you go, I’m going where the cold wind blows. In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine, I’d shiver, the whole…”

But then he pauses, just a tiny half-second of a pause, just long enough for you to wonder whether something has gone wrong. Perhaps a glitch in the video feed or a hiccup with the stage’s amperage? But soon Kurt opens his eyes, and whatever else you might think about his visage at this moment—his greasy blond tresses, the geriatric sweater, the emergent beard—you have to admit that this is a person who is no longer performing for an audience. We are now apprehending the eyes of a man who is looking out onto a world that simply isn’t there, not a world of cameras and headsetted producers and onlookers in their seats, but a world he alone has taken us to, almost close enough to touch.

I could get there sometimes, in other words, even as a boy—could reach that plane of disappearance. Mostly it was accidental. I’d be standing on stage, singing “The Phantom of the Opera” or whatever, and something inside of me would come unhinged. A self-forgetting would occur. But in the next instant, another song would start up, and I’d be back to my snapping and toe-taps, my little vaudeville of winks and grins. Mandy, though, was something else. She seemed always in control of the occasion of her disappearance.

*

She came to Jesus that weekend. I don’t mean that metaphorically. A few of the girls in our group were stalwartly evangelical and were not exactly shy about their fervor for the Lord. At some point that first night, two of the Christian girls came out of the bunk house to make a special announcement. “OK, OK,” one said. “I know we’re all here to prep for the winter Gala. But, you guys, something really special has happened here tonight.” They were standing in the doorjamb, blocking any view of the interior, and a crowd of us had gathered around, ever-willing to serve as an audience. With child-actor panache, the girls then parted ways in perfect synchronization, and in the gap their bodies made, Mandy less walked than floated out of the room. It was bizarre—it was like they had rehearsed it. Mandy’s face was swollen and red, and I remember the pearlescent edge of a single tear was still clinging to her eyelashes. She was fidgeting with the cuff of her sweater as the girl said, “You guys, I’m happy to announce that Mandy has just accepted Jesus Christ into her life.”

What commenced was a round of hooting and applause, and as the other cast members hugged and congratulated her, Mandy glanced over at me and smiled, somewhat wearily, perhaps even conspiratorially. Then, I’ll never forget: she shrugged. How could I help reading this as a tacit acknowledgment of deception, that on some level she was simply playing games with us? A grumpy adolescent streak ran in her temper, I knew, and maybe this was a Holden-Caulfield-fuck-the-phonies type protest? It was as if she were mocking our attempt at authenticity, as if to say you think you’re not always on stage? You want to call me a fraud? She killed herself a few years later, still a girl, sitting on the floor of her childhood bedroom, with her father’s gun shimmering near her temple and her mother fixing supper only two rooms away.

*

Some weeks later, my brother granted it was probably for the best that I didn’t attend the funeral. I was still in middle-school at the time and didn’t exactly have the neural wherewithal to process that sort of thing. Did he say there were hundreds of long tallow candles arranged around the altar, or is that just how I’ve imagined it? Our fellow cast members, they didn’t know how to act. Some had assumed the world-weariness of faux-adulthood while others could do nothing but become loudly unglued. Several of the girls were shrieking as they wept. Toward the end of the service, a contingent from AOK approached the coffin, and after a moment of silence, one bold girl with wheat-colored hair (who later made a name for herself on Broadway) began humming “In the Arms of the Angels,” a song by Sarah McLachlan. The way my brother tells it, the girl then started belting the lyrics in a plush, flawless soprano, and about halfway through the first chorus, the other kids joined in, layering the harmony, threading their arms around each other as they coalesced around the coffin.

For what it’s worth, and for reasons I can’t rightly defend, I think Mandy would have hated this. I think she would have mocked their attempts to sacralize their sadness, to prettify it with a song. I’ve spent a lot of time in the intervening two decades trying to understand the logic of her act—the logic of any suicide, really—and what I am tempted to conclude is that hers was an effort to pull back the hard rind of her mask, to reveal the mayhem and shattered sadness that lurked beneath. Children, in particular, are so often made to put on a brave face, to play-act competence in moments of senselessness, to pretend that they’re better off than they are, and I think hers was an act performed to mark the end of performativity. For those AOK kids to sing about angels and white robes and heavenly thermals was to insist upon performance. And she had had enough of that.

The children had left the stage, and I was left here, as I have ever been, to make sense of her disappearance.

It’s not like I could have given voice to any of these concerns at the time. Still, they manifested in ways that were oblique but no less mournful. I started lying to my parents all the time. And sometimes I’d jab the bottoms of my feet with freshly sharpened pencils, a mutilation that any therapist would tell you was a clear sign of survivor’s guilt. But the telltale came when I decided to leave the group for good, soon after our performance at the Wisconsin State Fair. We had already finished our set, and a group of us were walking around the fairgrounds, eating corndogs and talking about the upcoming school year. That’s when we saw them. Performing at one of the main-stages, in front of a packed audience. Our arch-rivals: The Kids from Wisconsin.

There’d been a scheduling mix-up, apparently, and the booking agents must have slotted both of our groups for the same day. Watching them, my friends began snickering disdainfully, the way you do when you know that your competition is your obvious superior. But I couldn’t muster the effort. What I felt instead was a sickening lurch in my stomach, the sort of existential queasiness you’re apt to feel whenever you cross paths with your Jekyll, your Janus twin. As I watched these kids smile and dance on stage, enunciating the lyrics with a practiced crispness, I was able to recognize, perhaps for the first time in two years, the falseness of my own performance. A couple days later, I gave my parents the news. Given all that happened that year, they assured me the directors would understand.

For a long time afterward, I wasn’t willing to admit how much I cared about Mandy. Perhaps because she was a few years older than me, she usually treated my affections as cute, little-brother offerings, an interpretation that promptly dismantled any romantic tension in our relationship, however one-sided it may have been. But I came to love her, in my own small way. And isn’t there something to be said for the fact that I’ve mentioned her in every meaningful relationship I’ve ever had? Why can’t I go a week without wondering what she really thought of me, without wondering what she might have made of the person I’ve become?

*

As the Kids from Wisconsin settled into their final number, a group of EMTs were carrying away a body. An elderly person had had a heat stroke in the bleachers, and now a posse of uniformed men were rolling away her away on a stretcher. On stage, the children didn’t miss a beat. They were in the midst of a medley called “From Now On” and one girl with feathered bangs was delivering a bone-jostling solo, one whose otherworldly contralto, I confess, had set my hair on end.

Then she arrived, as she does sometimes, at moments when I’m at my most performative. I’ll be reading at a bookstore or lecturing in front of my students, and I’ll begin to perceive the slightest tilt in the room’s atmospherics, which is how I know Mandy is there. It happened just before the Kids from Wisconsin finished their set, just before I made an anguished bee-line toward the exits. The auditorium had erupted with applause, like the roar of a Roman coliseum, and the kids were taking their bows, and I felt, on the wings of the stage, the presence of a girl, sixteen or seventeen maybe, with brown, ironed curls and starkly painted lips. She was glancing nervously at the audience, her face empty of affect, as though she were waiting for some on-stage cue to make her final entrance. I kept hoping she might catch my gaze in the audience, maybe offer a little wave of recognition. But by the time I came to my senses, the crowd was filing out of the bleachers, the children had left the stage, and I was left here, as I have ever been, to make sense of her disappearance.

__________________________________

Lost In Summerland

Lost In Summerland by Barrett Swanson is available via Counterpoint LLC.

Barrett Swanson
Barrett Swanson
Barrett Swanson's essays have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Believer, The New York Times Magazine, and The Atavist, among other publications. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and has been anthologized in two editions of The Best American Travel Writing. He was the Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and he and his wife live in Madison, Wisconsin.





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