people labor under the misapprehension that a beauty queen’s
life is nothing but glamour from dawn till dusk. Yet here I
stand, Ms. America Happy Pennington, dressed as a sexy Santa
in a red velveteen monstrosity, preparing to preside over
the opening ceremony for the new Giant W big box store in
doesn’t disabuse you of the all-glamour all-the-time
fantasy, I don’t know what will.
girl manning the public-address system cranks it once again
into life. “Sale on bloat-free suppository laxatives, aisle
queen BFF Shanelle Walker sets her hands on her hips. Like
our partner in crime Trixie Barnett—the reigning Ms.
Congeniality—she’s done up as a hot-to-trot elf in an
emerald-green minidress complete with capelet and lace-up
high-heel boots. I will say the color looks fantastic
against Shanelle’s cocoa-colored skin. Their hats—green
versions of my red Santa cap—perch awkwardly atop both
Shanelle’s black waves and Trixie’s chin-length
Shanelle says, “if that infernal teenager makes one more
announcement, I am going to boot-kick her all the way to the
“She is a
little over enthusiastic,” Trixie agrees. “But this is a
vantage point behind a display of inflatable fruitcakes—yes,
you read that right—I assess the gathering throng. “Half
the town may show up to this thing.”
exaggerating. I’m told Winona boasts about 27-thousand
residents. But I bet a few hundred are already massed on
the other side of the cash registers, escaping the frigid
temps and ogling the discounted merchandise. They won’t be
able to get at it until 7 p.m. at least, when the
speechifying is concluded and the opening ribbon cut.
her eyes at the crowd. “I don’t see your dad, Happy.”
“You see the
couple who are both wearing two-foot-tall Christmas tree
“There he is!”
Trixie cries. “Wow, does he look happy.”
I am forced to
admit that even though he’s sporting the tackiest headgear
this side of Minneapolis, yes, Pop does look happy. And it
is largely due to Maggie Lindvig—Winona native, Cleveland
transplant, and lady love. I watch multicolored lights
blink atop Maggie’s longish brunette hair. She may be in
her early sixties but she still favors a sex kitten look,
with tight clothes and a shimmy in her walk. “Those hats
were Maggie’s idea. Pop keeps telling me how many fun
things she thinks of for them to do.”
pretty different from your mom,” Shanelle observes.
drive your mom batty,” Trixie says. “I wish she were here,
December’s a busy month in the used-car business. She
claims she can’t get away.” Ever since my mother took a job
as receptionist for Bennie Hana, notorious in the greater
Cleveland area for executing a karate chop in his TV
commercials about chopping prices, she’s become surprisingly
slippery. I’m convinced only some of her elusiveness is due
to her new 9-to-5 gig. The rest I attribute to her
burgeoning social life, which also revolves around one
Again the P.A.
system blares. “Santa toilet-seat cover and matching bath
rug in aisle three!” the teenager chirps. “Trim the family
throne with Old Saint Nick!”
I lay a
restraining hand on Shanelle’s arm as I turn to Trixie. “I
wonder what you’ll think of Maggie’s sister Ingrid.”
“She’s one of
the people giving a speech, right?”
amazed if that woman lets anybody else get hold of the
microphone,” Shanelle says. Like me, Shanelle arrived
yesterday, so she has the lay of the land where Ingrid
Svendsen is concerned.
like Ingrid had a lot to do with convincing Giant W to put
an outpost here in Winona,” I say.
“At least to
hear her tell it,” Shanelle adds.
“She’s a big
muckety-muck in town,” I go on. “Organizes a lot of social
events, serves on all the committees—”
for everything,” Shanelle adds.
“I get the
picture.” Trixie nods sagely then brightens. “Well, we
should be thanking her because if Ingrid didn’t get this
brand new Giant W for Winona, we wouldn’t be seeing each
other again so soon!”
“Truth is, we
have Maggie to thank for that, too,” I say. “She’s the one
who suggested to Ingrid that we be part of the opening.”
Ingrid made sure this is an official Ms. America appearance,
organizing it with Atlanta headquarters, but it was Maggie
who got the ball rolling. And I know why: she’s trying to
get on my good side and thinks booking pageant gigs is a way
to do it. It’s clear all she wants for Christmas is an
engagement ring from Pop and she knows that’s more likely if
I’m on her team.
Problem is I’m
not ready to play ball yet, and I may never be.
“I can’t wait
to look around Winona more,” Trixie says. “This town is so
cute! Especially with all the Christmas decorations up.”
we can get some of our shopping done here,” I say.
a small-town Christmas,” Shanelle says. “I put some bubbly
in the fridge so we can kick off our celebrations as soon as
we get back to Damsgard.”
eyes widen. “We’re staying at a house that’s got its own
name? That’s like Tara in Gone With the Wind!”
I bet Ingrid
wouldn’t mind being likened to Scarlett O’Hara. “Damsgard
isn’t that big but it is pretty impressive. It’s
named after some mansion in Norway.”
“Lots of folks
in these parts are Norwegian,” Shanelle says. “Like Ingrid
and Maggie. And Ingrid’s second husband, who left her the
nice of her to put us all up,” Trixie says.
“And,” I add,
“there are so many bedrooms we don’t even have to share.”
Though the second those words leave my lips, I feel a teeny
tiny bit glum.
The last time
I was a guest in somebody’s house was last month in Miami,
when we all stayed at Mario Suave’s Spanish-style manse. It
may not have as many bedrooms as Damsgard but it’s pretty
splendiferous. I don’t have to tell you, dear reader, that
some large fraction of the appeal of Mario’s home’s derives
from its owner—pageant emcee and host of America’s
Scariest Ghost Stories—whose hotness, smartness, and
all-around scrumptiousness continue to haunt my dreams.
And, I will admit, sometimes my awake moments, too.
That would be
A-OK if I weren’t married to Jason Kilborn, my high-school
sweetheart and the father of my 17-year-old daughter
Rachel. The self-same husband who just the other day threw
me for a loop so big, I’m still spinning in circles.
public-address system succeeds in distracting me. “Not done
putting up your holiday décor?” the teenager inquires.
“Then check out our Shotgun Shell Christmas Wreath in aisle
nine! Less than thirty bucks when you mail in the
“My wreath at
home has red twigs and rhinestones,” Trixie whispers.
“Rhett thinks that’s tacky.”
I’m about to
make an uncharitable observation about the Giant W’s
merchandise when Ingrid bustles up to our trio. She’s one
of those women who look wispy and ultra feminine but in fact
are totally take-charge. She’s got platinum blond hair
styled in a sleek bob and a svelte build she’s showcasing in
a red satin dress with jewel detailing. Unlike her sister,
she has enough sense not to sport pine-needle headgear.
She homes in
on Trixie and extends her hand. “You must be the third
beauty queen. I’m Ingrid Svendsen.”
“So nice to
meet you!” Trixie says. “I’m—”
her head toward me, brandishing the opening-ceremony
schedule. “You’re clear on your marching orders? Why
aren’t you in the sleigh yet?”
“We were just
be quiet while the mayor is speaking. I don’t want you
drawing attention to yourselves during his speech.”
Shanelle shoots me a look. I know what she’s thinking.
Ingrid doesn’t want us drawing attention to ourselves during
her speech. Not to be immodest but I don’t think
you should invite beauty queens to an event if you don’t
want heads to turn. Just saying.
her instructions. “And keep quiet when the lights go off
for the Christmas tree lighting. Don’t ruin the drama of
hear a peep out of us,” Trixie assures her.
I steel myself
before I speak again. “I think only two of us should ride
in the sleigh.” I watch Ingrid’s brow lower. “Shanelle and
I did a trial run earlier and I’m not sure it can handle—”
Three is what we planned.” Ingrid spins away.
Our trio has a
moment of silence. Then, “She’s not the nicest person I’ve
met so far in Minnesota,” Trixie observes.
harrumphs. “Just you wait till you get to know her better.
You ask me, it’s no accident she’s got two husbands in the
grave. If I were married to her I’d probably want to punch
“I hope for
your dad’s sake Maggie’s nicer than her sister,” Trixie says
That doesn’t mean I want her as a member of the family.
my arm. “Girl, you really worried about that sleigh? I
want to survive this holiday season.”
“I never even
heard about a sleigh until now,” Trixie says.
“They put it
in special for the opening ceremony. I’m only a tiny bit
worried about it. It’s on an elevated track,” I explain to
Trixie, though by now she can see that for herself. I lead
us toward the sleigh, lying in wait at the rear of the
store. Here and at the front, just behind the dais, are the
two locales where the track is at floor level. It’s like an
in-store rollercoaster. “It just seemed so herky-jerky when
we were in it this morning that I got scared it might not
take all our weight.”
the sleigh with suspicion. “Tell me again when I sing my
song?” Since Trixie’s the only one of us with any voice to
speak of, she has the dubious honor of belting out the Giant
W holiday song, set to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”
“Your music is
supposed to start when the sleigh does,” I tell her. “When
we stop at the dais, jump out and sing. Shanelle and I will
be right behind you.” I climb into the sleigh. “Come on,
let’s get into this thing so it doesn’t take off without
us.” Ingrid would really read us the riot act then. I’m
halfway in when I hear the P.A. system’s latest 411 and
freeze in place.
kielbasa only four dollars and ninety-nine cents a pound!”
the teenager announces. “Aisle thirteen!”
“That’s a good
price!” I cry. “Especially for smoked chunky.”
“You can get
it when the festivities are over.” Shanelle gives my
backside an encouraging push.
ourselves in the sleigh with Trixie in position to jump out
first. The Giant W’s overhead fluorescents blink to signal
that the festivities are about to begin. Trixie takes a few
deep breaths. “I’m always nervous before a performance.”
Trixie’s leg as I assure her she’ll do great. Though that’s
easy for me to say. I don’t even have a speaking part. All
I have to do is cut a ribbon.
As the hush of
a deep winter’s night settles over the Giant W, the cheerful
opening notes of “Jingle Bells” blast from the sound
system. Before I can get the words “Brace yourself” past my
lips, the sleigh takes off.
should have seat belts!” Trixie cries as the sleigh zooms
heavenward and we three are slammed back.
suddenly the sleigh jerks to a stop. I catapult forward,
barely able to prevent myself from launching. I have a
devil of a time keeping my Santa cap on my head, my
meta-grip bobby pins, which perform so well on pageant
night, stretched to their limit by this monster of a ride.
Trixie cries. I’m sure her panicked vibrato carries to the
front of the store. It might have carried all the way to
Lake Winona. Ingrid will not be amused.
I manage to
return my butt to the bench a nanosecond before the sleigh
takes off again. We three queens clutch one another for
dear life. I knew I was right to be worried about
abominable conveyance plummets to floor level and lurches to
a stop behind the dais, just past the 30-foot-tall silver
Christmas tree that soon will be ceremoniously lit. Trixie
doesn’t so much jump out of the sleigh as pitch out.
Shanelle and I follow on unsteady legs, her elf and my Santa
cap seriously awry. Ingrid glares at us but my whiplashed
neck and I are past caring.
Trixie bursts into the Giant W holiday song:
W, W, bargains every day!
Oh, what fun it is to fill my shopping cart this way,
W, W, discounts every day!
Oh, what fun it is to bring a bargain home today!
Dashing through the aisles,
A coupon in my hand …
masterfully whips through the refrain, Shanelle and I clap
to the beat. A photog from the Winona Post captures
the moment for posterity. I catch my breath and Pop’s eye.
Like everybody else in the crowd he’s bundled in his winter
coat. I note that both his and Maggie’s Christmas tree hats
are now unlit. Ingrid probably made them turn them off so
they wouldn’t draw attention from her speech. Pop winks at
me like he’s done a million times before as I stood on one
Ohio stage or another competing in some rinky-dink pageant.
He’s been such a good dad. I just wish he and Mom were
still together. Their divorce is this year’s lousiest
development. Heck, I’d give back my Ms. America title to
see them reunited.
the chorus one last time, giving the final phrase “bargain
home today” a special flourish. Shanelle and I cheer along
with the crowd and then our trio relocates to the back of
the dais, right in front of the Christmas tree.
Ingrid kicks off the proceedings. “Happy holidays, fellow
citizens of Winona!” she brays. “I’m so glad you could join
us this evening to celebrate the opening of the Giant W in
our fair city! Of course as soon as I heard— ”
predicted, Ingrid takes credit for luring Giant W to
Winona. There are two men on the dais with her—the mayor
and a store executive—but it takes forever for her to cede
the mic and retreat to the rear of the dais to stand in
front of the sleigh. The suit kicks off with a lame joke
about a reindeer in a bar before detailing the Giant W’s
mayor takes control. “What do you say we light the
Christmas tree?” he calls, and as the crowd roars its
approval the overhead fluorescents switch off and the Giant
W is plunged into darkness. Indeed it is a dramatic moment,
and as Ingrid ordained I remain as silent as Santa creeping
down a chimney.
expecting the tree’s lights to blaze on—I know from this
morning’s run-through it’s decorated with about a thousand
strings of multicolored W’s—but they never do. In the
distance a train’s lonely horn pierces the evening quiet.
The crowd inside the Giant W begins to shuffle and murmur.
Then several feet to my right, where Ingrid is standing, I
hear a sharp popping sound.
Trixie clutches my arm. “What in the world is that?” she
whimpers. I’m afraid I know but I don’t dare say it aloud.
A few screams rise to the ceiling while I hear a thump, like
a heavy sack dropping. Then the sleigh noisily whirrs into
“Turn on the
lights!” the mayor hollers and none too soon we are once
again bathed in their fluorescent glow.
Shanelle grabbing me. “Where the heck is Ingrid?”
She’s not on
the dais with us anymore. The mayor and the suit still are,
but not her.
the furthest cash registers, the fast-moving sleigh jerks to
one of its famous stops. To my astonishment I see that it’s
not empty. Nor does its cargo remain inside.
Svendsen, snazzy red holiday dress and all, pitches
headfirst from the sleigh like a duffel bag being tossed
onto an airplane’s conveyor belt. I thought I heard a
gunshot and now I know I did, because there’s no mistaking
the bloody wound on Ingrid’s chest. The crowd shrieks in
horror. We all watch in morbid fascination as the hostess
of the evening’s festivities belly flops onto the linoleum
floor of Winona’s brand-new Giant W, narrowly missing a
register and upending a display of Christmas sweater
On cranks the
P.A. system one last time. “Ceremony’s over! Clean-up at