map The Potato Day Queen

by Cheri Johnson

Published in Issue No. 59 ~ April, 2002

As soon as I saw Ruth’s car backing into the driveway I ran out onto the lawn,
and when she opened her door I said, “In urban communities it has been the potato
which has almost single-handedly brought about the abolishment of scurvy.” Ruth
handed me her laundry basket.

“Because of the vitamin C,” I said.

“The judges won’t ask you any of that,” said Ruth. Potato Day was tomorrow,
and the pageant, and if anyone knew about it all, it was Ruth. “They like you
to be able to apply what you find out about potatoes to our area. So later you
can talk about us to the big papers if you win.”

“I’m just going to throw it in somewhere,” I said.

“Oh yeah,” she said, looking around. She stepped farther out onto the driveway
and shook her legs. Behind her the garden was bare and black, where our father
had tilled it after we’d cleared out the last of the corn. My fingernails still
smelled like old leaves. In the tall brown grass by the garden a pile of leaves
curled, along with the cucumbers that had gotten too bitter and big.

“We’ve got sixteen pumpkins,” I told her. “We carved up a few of them and froze
the rest.” We walked on the planks leading from the driveway to the house that
our father had put down last spring, to keep our feet out of the mud, although
now in October the ridges on either side of the wood were stiff.


“I’ve missed you,” I said.

In the kitchen our mother ran in from the hall, in a yellow t-shirt with a
glittery patch that said “Arizona.” She giggled and hugged my sister.

“What’s so funny?” Ruth said.

“Don’t you ever laugh just because you’re happy?” Mom touched Ruth’s head.

“That’s stupid.” Ruth smiled. She still had her backpack on. I put the laundry
basket on the washer in the corner.

Mom giggled again, squeezing Ruth’s arms. “Here she is,” she said. “The reigning

“Oh, God,” my sister said, but she looked a little happy.

At dinner Ruth said that we should hear the way the kids at college in Minneapolis
talked about some things, like Indian reservations. Oh, oh, they said. The Indian
reservations: the pow-wows and peace pipes and communal hunts. They asked her
whether it was all tundra where she lived, so near to Canada. Did polar bears
knock over our garbage cans. Did we live all winter in the dark. Did anything
grow in all that ice.

Ruth got quiet and poked her meatloaf with her fork. Mom reached out, squeezed
Ruth’s hand. Was she getting along any better with her roommate, Mom wanted
to know. Ruth said that all the roommate did was have her boyfriend over and
smoke marijuana and talk about alternative realities. The roommate was reading
Plato and had decided she wanted to be an idea. Mom asked did Ruth hang out
with anyone else. Ruth shrugged, and Mom looked quickly over at Dad.

“What do they think about going to school with the Potato Day Queen?” Dad said.
He had washed his hands after coming in from cutting up slabs but he still smelled
like cold and bark and gasoline.

Ruth tapped her cup. “Why would they care?” Dad looked at her a minute.

I said, “Potatoes delight in a cool, moist environment.”

Mom turned from Ruth to look at me and laugh. “Maybe we’ve got the next one,

“I wonder what people would say about that,” said Dad. “Ruth crowning her.”

“It’s not up to Ruth,” Mom said. “If the envelope says Carolyn she’s got to
crown Carolyn.”

“They might think it’s rigged,” my sister said.

“Two of you in a row,” said Dad. “They’d probably check the envelope.”

“Who would check the envelope?” said Mom.

“Do you think they’d boo me?” I said.

“You wouldn’t be able to help it if it was rigged,” Mom said.

I said, “They wouldn’t know that.”

Ruth coughed. “People would write the newspaper, I bet. Why not Allison Senkyr?”

I closed my eyes, thinking, Today almost every variety being cultivated can
trace its ancestry back to the popular Prince Regent. I opened my eyes. “Do
you think Allison Senkyr will win?”

“Her father’s got that farm,” said Ruth, looking at her plate. “She must know
a lot about potatoes.”

I said, “I know a lot about potatoes.”

“That’s all she’s been talking about,” said Mom. “Potatoes, potatoes.”

“I’ve learned about blight,” I said.

Ruth nodded. “They asked me about blight.”

“See?” said Mom. “She’s going to win.” She took a drink of milk. “Tell us something
about blight, Carolyn.”

“The first sign is a spot on the leaf, which turns black. It spreads down to
the stem, then into the tubers. An equivalent condition in humans is gangrene.”

“See?” Mom said again. Ruth didn’t look up.

“Would you quiz me?” I asked my sister after supper. She ignored me. I went
to the bathroom. When I came out Mom was hugging Ruth by the kitchen sink, Ruth
saying, “I hate it,” into Mom’s brown sweater. Mom stroked her back. When Ruth
saw me she slid out of Mom’s arms and hurried past me into the living room.
Mom beckoned me over.

“Carolyn, I know you’re excited,” she said. She was wearing her yellow dish
gloves, which were wet with soap, but she put them on my shoulders anyway. I
threw my head back a little. She said in a low voice, “You know your sister
doesn’t like school very much. She thinks all the other kids are so much more

I said, “She knows things they don’t.”

Mom smiled and touched my head. “It’ll be easier for you next year,” she said.
“But Ruth” She stopped. I pulled away from her, then went upstairs. The thing
to do was to learn so much about potatoes that the judges could ask you anything
about them in the world. They gave you a sheet of questions to find the answers
to, but the girl who won never stopped there. Ruth hadn’t. Last week I’d gone
to a potato farm on the other side of the county, watched all the potatoes and
dirt run down a chute. The woman there had made us doughnuts. I went with two
of the other candidates, who were my friends. The other five went to schools
in other counties. We met them once, the day we all got our pictures taken for
profiles in the paper.

“The guy at the paper said this girl Summer has the best smile,” I told Ruth
in her room. She was looking at the walls, at all her old posters, at her old
pink cowboy hat with the purple feathers hanging off it.

“Will that have anything to do with it?” I said.

Ruth shrugged.

“Would you ask me these?” I gave her the sheet of questions. I had scrawled
all the answers in with a pink pen. Ruth looked at it, then laid it on her bed.

“I want to go for a walk,” she said.

“Don’t you want me to win?”

“That’s stupid.”

“It’s stupid that you don’t want me to win,” I said.

“I didn’t say that,” she said slowly.

“You don’t want me to.”

“It’s stupid,” she said. “What’s the point?”

“There’s a scholarship,” I said.

“It’s like six hundred dollars.”

“I wouldn’t mind six hundred dollars.”

“You don’t just get it,” she said. “It goes on your tuition.”

“So what. So it goes on my tuition.”

“Do you know how much tuition is?” She sighed. “Let’s go for a walk,” she said.
She put her hand over her eyes.

We went outside, into the dark. The grader had come by that morning, so the
gravel and dirt made thick, soft ridges along the edges of the road. I walked
on top of one of them, sinking in, then jumped off, ran down the road to the
culvert, then ran back, breathing hard.

“I clocked myself at a six and a half minute mile in September,” I said. “I
think I’ll get it down to six by spring.” Ruth walked slowly, hugging herself.
She looked down, and the part in her hair gleamed white in the moonlight. “It
hasn’t snowed yet,” I said. “Can you believe it?”

“It doesn’t always snow before Potato Day,” she said.

“Usually. The gym is always so cold.” The dinner, and the potato judging, and
the kiddies costume parade, and the dance, were all in the old Williams School
gym, as was the coronation, at four o’ clock in the afternoon. “In ancient Peru
they called them papas,” I yelled at the stiff grass in the ditches, since the
nearest neighbor was a mile off, and there was no one with us on the road. Ruth
kept staring out into the empty fields flanking us.

Back at home I convinced Ruth to quiz me. She sat in the chair at her desk,
sighed, leaned back, rolled her eyes, curled the corners of the paper, waited
a long time between asking questions.

“Give me another one,” I said, again and again.

“That’s enough,” she said.

“Tomorrow’s it.”

“I’m tired. I want to go to bed.”

“What happened to you?” I said, looking down at her turquoise comforter.

Ruth closed her eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Is it that you want to be the only one to win?” I said.

“I don’t want to be it at all,” she said. “I don’t want to ever have been it.”


Ruth was quiet for a minute. Outside a truck went by on the road, and I thought
of its thick tires pushing through the softness, little rocks flipping up, then
skittering off into the grass. Ruth hit her desk. “It’s all so dumb. I’m sorry,
Carolyn, I know you’re all excited about it. But for God’s sakes. Fucking Potato
Day. We’ve been doing this our whole lives. Those goddamn potato pincushions.
All the potatoes laid out on that stupid table; well, what do you know, here’s
another one that looks like Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan, Carolyn. They’ve still
got them looking like Ronald Reagan.”

“You can’t just tell it to grow another face,” I said.

“Ronald Reagan,” she said. “Every goddamn year.”

“What happened to you,” I asked again.

“I just don’t give a shit.” She looked straight at me. “And Carolyn, no one
really gives a shit.”

I looked at the ceiling. “I give a shit. Mom gives a shit. Dad gives a shit.”

Ruth closed her eyes again.

“Allison Senkyr does,” I said.

“No one outside of here,” she said.

“You’re the only one who doesn’t care,” I said.

“Look Carolyn,” she said, and she leaned forward in her chair, gripping her
knees. Her movement shook a line of little glass horses behind her on a knickknack
shelf. “You can’t leave here thinking you’re all the shit because you’re the
fucking Potato Day Queen.” She hit her legs. “Please.”

Downstairs Mom turned on the TV, and an audience laughed. I looked at the sheet
of questions, which Ruth had rolled into a tube, then let fall to the carpet.

“So you do think I’m going to win?” I said.

We got up early the next morning for the parade. On the street everyone had
on Potato Day buttons, Ruth’s face beaming on all of their chests, her crown
knocked a little crooked in the excitement of winning, her sash folded into
a sparkly red dress. Once this summer the customs officer had recognized Ruth
when she was going over to Canada, and he had let her across hardly even remembering
to ask her whether she had brought anything over to claim. As the only candidate
from Graceton Township I sat on the float with the Williams girls. It was too
cold for dresses so I waved wearing jeans and the heavy stiff gloves Dad used
to bring in wood. I thought of Ruth on the last float, which was covered with
the most decorations, streamers and a big sign written in glittery, puffy paint.

After the parade we had to change clothes fast. The interviews started at eleven.
I sat in the hall outside the little library in the school, waiting with my
friend Janet, who was running for Baudette.

She said, “For the dance they got a real D.J. from Grand Forks.”

I couldn’t think past the afternoon.

“Is it fun having Ruth home?” she said.

I nodded. One cannot overestimate the nutritional value of the potato. As a
source of calories it surpasses white bread. It contains iron, calcium, ascorbic
acid, aneurin and nictonic acid, it fights against beri-beri and pellagra. The
library door opened. Allison walked out simpering. Summer from Warroad walked
in. It can be baked in foil, I thought. It can be baked without.

When I went in for my interview, I smiled and held up my head. The two women
I knew. They were farmers. The other, a man, was an expert. He taught at a university
in Canada. He was tall and had a strange accent. He leaned back in his chair,
closing his eyes against the sun, quizzing me on whites and reds. I stared at
him, wanting him to ask why I wanted to win. I would talk first about representing
the community. I thought of going to the legislators in St. Paul if we had a
drought or a flood, to ask for help. I am the Potato Day Queen, I would say,
carrying a bag of shriveled vegetables, dumping them on their tables, watching
the squash and stunted onions roll across the gleaming brown wood, leaving smears
of dirt, some of the sickly peppers dropping into their laps. The expert looked
down at the table, while one of the women asked me about growing seasons. Then
she asked about my future plans. “College,” I said. “My parents didn’t go. So
it’s very important to them that my sister and I do.” I thought of Ruth alone
in her dorm room, staring dully at her books. The tall man was looking out the
window. I wanted to kick him and make him listen. “I’m very excited about college,”
I said. “I think I’ll learn a lot.”

“I bet you’ll teach them a thing or two,” said one of the women, and I laughed
and said yes.

Mom and Ruth were in the hall when I came out. Mom asked how it had gone. I
told her pretty well. I had answered all the questions, smiled a lot, looked
at them in earnest.

Ruth crossed her arms. She was wearing her sash over a blue and white dress.
Little kids ran by with costumes on. “There she is,” said a little girl dressed
as a cow.

“Who?” asked her brother with feathers around his head, and the girl hit him
on the arm, saying, “The queen, stupid.”

Mom laughed. Ruth smiled a little. “Help me get dressed,” I said to my sister.
Now I had to put on a poodle skirt. The theme for the candidates’ skit was Sock
Hop. All we had to do was giggle and squeeze each other’s arms for a while,
then sing a medley of fifties songs. That was at two. In the bathroom I ate
a cheese sandwich. Ruth stood and looked in the mirror. She had her crown on,
and she touched it.

“If anyone from school was here I’d shoot myself,” she said.

I chewed, looking at the floor. She turned to look at me. “Everything’s so
weird down there,” she said. “Everything’s so hard.”

“You shouldn’t listen to them so much,” I said. My toenails kept getting stuck
on my tights, which were thick and pink.

Ruth shook her head. “I don’t want to go back,” she said. “But everything here
feels fucked up, too.”

In France a pregnant woman has to stay away from potatoes, to ensure that her
baby will have a small head. I remembered I didn’t have to know about potatoes
anymore, unless I won.

Ruth hooked my skirt. When I hugged her she sighed. “You just wait,” she said.
“You’ll see what it’s like.”

“I’m not like you,” I said quietly. She turned away. “Remember last year at
the dance,” I said. I reached for her arm. “We got so drunk and you kept the
crown on all night. You tripped over that buckle in the floor, remember, and
then that guy caught the crown before it fell.”

“I fell on my ass,” she said.

“At least you had changed out of the dress.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“That was so much fun. I can’t remember having so much fun.”

She didn’t say anything, and I had to go to the gym. I stood backstage with
the other girls. The audience clapped when we came out. All of us had on pink
tights. We all smiled with our teeth. Ooo ooo mmm bop bop, we sang. We
swayed and linked arms, Allison kicking the wrong way. In the bleachers kids
chased each other, shrieking. Mmm bop bop mmm bop bop. It was over in
a few minutes. We ran back to the library to change; this was the last time.
I had a long purple dress. Ruth came in to change with us. She crossed to where
I was brushing my hair in Nonfiction. She looked pale.

“Are you all right?” I asked her. She shrugged. “Are you nervous?” I said.
“Do you have to do a speech?”

“No,” she said. She squeezed her eyes shut, standing with her garment bag.

I said, “You’d better get dressed.”

She nodded slowly. I took the bag and hung it for her on the stack, then unzipped
it and pulled out the dress. It was short and black. “This is cute,” I said.

“I got it at a place near school,” she said.

She stared at it. I shook it a little, and finally she took it. I fixed my
tiara in the compact mirror propped on a shelf. We all got to wear little silver
tiaras. After a few minutes one of the judges came in saying everything was
ready for Ruth. It was one of the women, not the tall man, whom I had seen in
the audience during the skit, watching us with a little smirk, every once in
a while looking around the gym with his arms crossed tightly, at the button
stand, the stage trimmed with crepe paper, the cafeteria table with one loose
leg, neatly laid out with scrubbed potatoes and little paper ribbons for prizes.

As we walked down the hall I thought that by now the gym was dark, except for
the light coming in from the windows whose shutters were half falling off, the
highest ones that no one could reach to fix. I imagined Ruth walking out on
stage in her black dress, after being announced. She was now in college, doing
fantastic things. The announcer would hand her the envelope. Ruth would stare
at it, blinking. Then, looking out at the audience, she would begin to smile,
because everywhere she looked, up and down the aisles of folding chairs, everyone
had on their buttons. When we came out onto the stage in a line, Ruth was touching
her crown. She did not look at us graciously, as I had heard the judge instruct
her to do. Instead she stayed turned out toward the audience, where the white
lights from the stage reflected off thousands of circles of her face from a
year ago, and flashed back into her eyes.

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Cheri Johnson grew up in Lake of the Woods County in northern Minnesota. Her fiction and poetry have been published in many journals and magazines, including The Blue Skunk Review, Dust and Fire, Gypsy Cab and Poetry Motel, and her reviews and essays have been published in The Minnesota Women's Press, Siren and The Hollins Critic. She has an MA in English and creative writing from Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.