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Miss Missouri’s Daughter

A photograph of my mother hangs on our living room wall. My father tells me their wedding picture occupied the space first, followed by an oil painting of him. I have no memory of the first two pictures hanging but have seen both exiles in the attic. This picture of my mother that I look at every day shows her in 1967, barely more than an adolescent herself, when she was crowned Miss Missouri. She signed the picture, Devotedly Yours, Winnie Price, in big letters that covered the bottom third. A time ago, when men still whistled at her in public, when I could first read what she had written for myself, I asked her why she did that, but she only smiled and covered her ears with her hands.

In the picture, dominating the wall, she wears an aqua evening gown. If I could touch the dress, it would feel corrugated. Her brown hair is combed forward and almost touches her left eyebrow. She combed it back on her right side. Her eyes are the color of her dress. The bright light creates a highlight on her cheek. She wears a white sash with gold lettering, ISSOURI 196. In her hands, white-gloved past the elbows, she holds red roses.

She sat in a red barrel chair under her picture as we talked over the cheerleading offer made to me. “I just want you to be happy,” she said. “Cheerleading did that for me.”

“I’m uncertain that being on public display as the-little-engine-that-could is going to make me that way.”

“It’s a way to expand your association with other girls.”

“Dummies, most of them.”

“If a pretty, popular girl like you dared to do something, it might encourage others with handicapping conditions to try too.”

“Like that autistic kid who sounds like he’s filling his pants.”

“Cruel words.”

“Words for real behavior.”

“I want you to do it, Roxie.”

“Give me another reason.”

“If you do a good job, they may put you up for homecoming queen.”

“But I would never know if I got it for my beauty and charm or for my gutsy performance playing Miss Pitiful.”

“I loved being Miss Missouri,” Mother said.

“No stuff? You’ve told me everything except why.”

Mother’s eyes glazed and lost focus on anything in the room. “Attention. Appearing on national television. Desired by many men. But the biggest prize I reeled in was Prince Charming, your father.”

Constructing my forty-two-year-old father, Leroy Page, into Prince Charming takes the same effort as floating in warm water. Grow black hair where he’s bald in front. Paint some rest in his dark eyes. Splash color on him. Even though he complains that his busy law practice keeps him from exercising, I can still see his muscles dance up and down his arms when he exerts himself.

At our regular Sunday afternoon chess game in the family room, he told me I had been brave. We set a timer for five minutes for each move. He keeps his fingers on the piece after the timer dings and talks, giving himself extra seconds to think before he releases it, making the move final. If I did that, would he lecture me on cheating? Maybe no, but if I had money to bet, I’d lay it on yes.

“You think I’ll ever walk again?”

“No, you cut your spinal cord in two.”

“How about the miracles of modern medicine?”

“Be happy if you get one, but conduct your life as if it all depends on your effort.”

He lifted his fingers from his knight and nodded at me as he set the timer for five minutes.

Like father, like daughter. I have sneakiness in me too. I slipped out an upstairs window, across a roof, and down a ladder to ride away with my boyfriend, Billy Adams, the night he was killed. High on grass, into a bridge he drove giggling, his last sound. Add to that the sound of Mouthing Project, a rock group, playing from a tape on the stereo I had just installed in his car. Reality was parked miles behind us, but in an instant it zoomed up and wrecked my legs.

In that same crack ended my mother’s dream of seeing the Miss America crown lowered to my head. Since the accident, Mother has encouraged me to be positive as she tries on the role herself. At least I can be a cheerleader for my high school, the Aerie Eagles. I put my stamp on positiveness, with busyness, interest, passion—and, of course, the school child’s most badgered friend—creativity.

I took a risk as those who preach living wisely and well urge you to do. My fascination with electronics led me to install a voice-activated cassette recorder in Mother’s bedside table drawer. Once when my parents were gone to Kansas City shopping for the day, I drilled holes in the back of Mother’s table for good sound pickup.

I know she stays out of the dresser. I wrote a note that I put on top of the goods there: an old diary, photographs of her in various beauty contests, matchbooks from night clubs, a booklet on makeup, a deck of cards, locks of her hair at different ages. When one gray hair appeared among the fading brown, she retired the scissors. If she had read my note, her soft, civilized voice would have changed to snarls. As a beauty-contest true believer, she would have failed to appreciate—

I will be the first Miss America in a wheelchair. When the

TV camera zooms in for my crowning, and I am supposed to be laughing/crying, I will lick my lips and wink to seduce male viewers.

However, typical of disappointing wheelchair fun, my parents’ pillow talk bores me. They can do the deed, and while the bed squeaks, talk about getting a loan to remodel the house, or if they should plant zoysia in our yard. Once, I did pick up something above average.

“Do you think I’m still as pretty as when you married me?”

“I think you’ve matured.”

“In other words, no.”

“Winnie, if time and gravity can nail Elizabeth Taylor—”

“Does it matter?”

Dad laughed. “Only when I lapse into immaturity.”

“Is that often?”

“More often than I want to admit.”

I found this interesting but unseemly, awkward, and embarrassing. However, the unseemliest experience was when the basketball cheerleaders requested that I be made one of their number. After all, I had a fracture in the tenth thoracic vertebra which severed my spinal cord. My lower extremities are paralyzed. My hands and arms work, but my bladder and bowels are out of my control. I perform intermittent self-catheterization and watch the clock for the time my bowels move every day. I sit and wait on them.

In cheerleading, I sit but do it actively. As hokey as grinning and flapping your arms in front of sports fans is, it held good news. I joined my friend, Heather Legrand, to do it. In the Academic and Social Resources Room, she was reading a paperback so old its pages were brown, God’s Little Acre. I wheeled up and told her the squad now had two members with brains.

“I haven’t been so excited since they expelled Marybarb Foy for shit-coating the toilet stalls.”

“Something to do. Mother says if I make myself smile, boys will forget what I’m sitting in.”

“You ever fear that someday you’ll be packing a child’s head full of crap like that?”

“You like chanting ‘Eagles fly, Eagles claw, Eagles win’?”

“Mother made me, Rox. Thought it would make me popular.”

“Think it will?”

“You believe in feces that smell like lilacs? Do I care about popularity?”

“You don’t seem to, but Seem, who knows her?”

During the first home basketball game’s halftime, the head cheerleader, whose high-pitched voice and rapid speech reminded me of a furniture-store commercial, announced through her amplified megaphone a special cheerleader presentation—“Eagle’s Soar—You’ll see Roxie Page dance and hear her fly.” I smiled the smile at the crowd I’d rehearsed until my bedroom mirror told me perfect—lips relaxed and natural-looking, happy-teenager-enjoying-what-some-half-wit-said-were-life’s-best-years, the look Mother assured me would captivate boys.

Standing in two parallel lines, the cheerleaders in one staggered in relation to those in the other, they grinned at me. I zigzagged around them in my hand-propelled wheelchair. Each time I faced the crowd I smiled courageously and “danced” my wheelchair, right wheel forward and left wheel back, left wheel forward and right wheel back in a continuous motion which shook the black and white pompoms taped to my chair’s back. Taped and stapled to my wheelchair’s frame, white and black cards extended into the spokes. I chattered when I rolled.

After I’d circled the last smiling cheerleader, the crowd thundered. I gritted my teeth. Inner ice filled my hands. My smile felt as if it were made of yellowed paper. The silence the crowd maintained for my performance of rolling back and forth in front of them left me breathless. It, like the unseemly cheering which followed, dunked me in embarrassment.

After the game, Mother danced down to the court. “Oh, Roxie,” she gushed, “you looked so happy doing your number.”

“So natural feeling,” I said and thought of the car wreck to keep from smiling.

The head cheerleader put her head on my shoulder. I smelled her sweat.

“Good job, Page.”

I watched her swaying rear as she walked away and wished I could still make my body capture men’s and boys’ eyes.

Heather Legrand stood back and waited until everyone else had gone. She squatted beside me. How fair-skinned and delicate she looked. On this day, her mother had failed to find time to apply her makeup. Since Heather’s father left them, her mother has insisted on being her daughter’s beautifier.

“God saw you do that, Rox. Before you get home, she’s going to cause your right arm to shrivel, unless you promise her you’ll never fake it again.”

I laughed. “Hey, thanks for the vinegar when I needed it most.”

“The makings of a great country say-a-song here,” Heather said.

“‘And at that basketball game our hearts grew three sizes, for, you see, we had to stretch them to let Roxie roll in.’ ”

“Cards a-clattering,” I said. “Next time, I’m going to screw something up.”

“I dare you.”

At our next home game, we played the Castleton Knights. My performance consisted of honking an oogah horn bolted to my wheelchair’s side.

“Here in Eagle Land,” the head cheerleader said over her bullhorn, “we hate to say the word Knights, so tonight, every time we would say that, Roxie Page is going to toot.”

As planned, every time the head cheerleader nodded at me, I honked—one, two, three beats too early or too late, as disquieting as a kazoo solo in a symphony. Anyone doing something absurd needs a clown’s makeup to disappear behind and the able-bodied person’s mobility to run out of the ring. I had neither. I could, however, share some of my tension. I honked three times in the middle of Eagle cheers when I knew the honks would queer everything. I noted the pained expressions on people’s faces and felt my smile stretch. I made eye contact with fans and frowned.

“Great job, Page,” Heather said at the game’s end. “Retarded girl in wheelchair screws up her honking job, but, hey, the only people who don’t make mistakes are those who just say no to high school sports.”

“I want to quit,” I said.

Heather smiled. “We’re thinking of a way out while we hide it with our smiles.”

At home, in our living room, I told Mother I’d screwed up on purpose and wanted to quit cheerleading.

Tears swelled in her eyes. “I thought you enjoyed it.”

“It’s always somebody else’s way.”

“That’s life. You do it other people’s way until the time is right for you to do it yours.”

“I jumped in early, figuratively speaking, of course.”

“I’m so embarrassed.”

“Why can’t you laugh? I made cheerleading creative and fun, all those do-bees teachers preach.”

“It’d be the first time you took them seriously.”

“They were right this time.”

“Keep on, they’ll kick you off.”

“Reality ever that good?” I wheeled around and rolled to my room. Actually, embarrassment roiled me too, but how could I have admitted that? I could hear Mother, sobbing, where I’d left her in the living room. I wanted to race out and hug her. I slapped my hands on the push rims to turn the wheels, but there was no second slap.

The next day, Saturday, my parents left early to go to a dog show in Kansas City. They’d been talking of buying a Weimaraner. I listened to the recording I’d made by bugging their bedroom. They talked of the dog, squeaked the bed, and said life insurance is a poor investment. I heard the sound of a kiss followed by a denunciation of politicians and their cheating the public.

A new scene followed with a frightening suppressed rage in my mother’s voice. “How long, Lee?”

“I don’t know.”

“Six months? Two years? Longer?”

“Six months.”


“She was attracted to me. Made me seem new to myself.”

“Is she pretty?”

“And young. You know my weakness for those two qualities.”

“I felt your maturity and commitment to me—“

“I’ll break it off.”

“If you don’t, I’ll be looking for a lawyer.”

I turned the cassette player off, dropped my head, and noticed my splayed feet. Before the car wreck, I could have walked to a friend’s house and talked for two hours or ridden my stationary bike and felt the tension ease out of my muscles or walked, cried and cussed. Now, I felt tears that wanted out being strangled. How can I help you, Mother?

On Monday night, even though the papier-mache white and black eagle smelled cleaner than the other enclosed spaces I found myself in, after twenty minutes inside our rolling mascot, I verged on gagging. I could barely see out of the slit in its throat. The flitting, incomplete images gave me a headache.

“No, Roxie, you’re out on the court. Back this way,” a cheerleader sister commanded.

“Fly, Eagle, fly,” said another.

The tacky creation stopped the air’s movement as effectively as a metal tank. Sweat ran in my eyes and stung. My arms ached. I gasped for breath. I saw myself baked a golden brown when they pulled the joke off me.

“Your chance for stardom, Eagle. Make the most of it.”

“Get this abortion off me,” I hollered. “I face extinction.”

I heard giggles and felt myself being pushed. “Succeed for your school, Eagle.”

At halftime, two cheerleaders lifted the eagle from me. Drenched with sweat as I was, the gym fan chilled me. I shuddered.

I pointed my finger at the eagle. “Bang. He dead. Remove the carcass, Staff.”

“You trying to kill school spirit?” a cheerleader said.

“Before it kills me.”

“Weird,” another cheerleader said.

Heather rushed up and grabbed my chair’s handles. She handed me rubber vampire teeth. “Payback time,” she announced. “Put them in your mouth. I’ve got some like them.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Well, I do. I could see how embarrassed you were when they lifted that corny eagle off you. Hot—you needed a fire extinguisher.”

“They ain’t going to like this.”

“They’ll eat it up. Yuk, yuk.”

I opened my mouth and slipped the vampire teeth in. Heather popped hers in and wheeled me around the cheerleaders.

“You’re a dog with wheels, Page,” one of them whispered to us as we rolled close to her.

“I smell your underarm odor,” I sang to her and smiled.

Heather slowed my wheelchair. “Hey, kiss my friend’s shriveled-up ass. You’re seeing some awesome creative cheerleading.”

“I’m seeing two babies playing,” the girl said and hissed at our backs.

If people exaggerated their cheers for my cards chattering in my wheelchair’s spokes, they deflated to an eerie silence for our vampire teeth show. When the second half started, I sat close to the outside door. Cold drafts made me shiver.

“Very cute,” Mother said at the game’s end.

Bizarre. “Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.”

Mother smiled. Her face relaxed and her shoulders dropped a fraction of an inch.

Wednesday, at school, Heather told me the principal told her she’d have to quit cheerleading. “ ‘A basketball game is no place for vampires.’ Really said that. This older generation.

“I’ll pick a future day when my mother quits bitching at me about losing cheerleading. You pick one. Closer picker wins fifty dollars from the loser.”

I waited for a message to reach me from the principal that he had a boot for me. Nothing came.

After a Friday afternoon pep assembly, on a clear day, the cold wind burning my face and hurting my gloved fingertips, Heather pushed me in my wheelchair in the street.

“Force them to make you an ex-cheerleader,” Heather lectured. “I’ve thought of some stuff you can do. Put on gray makeup and cheerlead with an undead face. Black out a tooth or two.”

“No, wrong time.”

“When’s it going to be right?”

“I’ll let you know.”

“You told me you wanted to quit. Your mother wants you to keep on, right?”


“Tell me why you’re allowing someone else to make up your mind?”

When I said nothing, Heather said, “I want a best friend who trusts me enough to share big stuff.”

“I want a friend who never tries to bully me.”

She turned my chair and thrust it toward an approaching car. Fear sent its squeeze through my body. I grabbed the push rims with hands that felt like frigid blocks of wood. I turned my chair back to parallel with the curb and rolled alone down the street as I watched Heather, arms swinging, striding, and diminishing.


Eugene H. Bales has published fifty-nine stories including a volume of humor and satire by Washburn University’s Press.

Read more stories by Eugene H. Bales


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