KAHOKA, MO. — It was the first full day of the Clark County Fair, and over at the concession stand Emily Reyes was reading the novel “Ulysses,” raising her head every few paragraphs to look out through the window.
Same as ever, she thought. The old oaks along the midway. Ron from the Lions Club with the ice cream tent. Marvis selling tickets in the shade of the grandstand, where the demolition derby was the biggest draw. Emily’s younger brother Cyrus was going to be in it — Cyrus, who, along with her parents and most of Clark County had voted for Donald Trump, a reality Emily was now preparing herself to face.
She was 22 and home from a liberal-arts college near Kansas City, where she had majored in English and cross-cultural studies, spent a semester in Germany, worked a summer with refugees in Greece, and met and married a Guatemalan man who would be arriving tomorrow. She kept reminding people that she was Emily Reyes and no longer Emily Phillips — “Yes, Ray-ez,” she kept saying. “It means kings in Spanish, so I’m royalty now.”
Her father liked to say that his daughter had attained “peak enlightenment,” a sarcastic jab that Emily knew pointed to a larger truth. Her worldview had changed since she left Kahoka. She had voted against Trump. She had become increasingly worried about the country since the election. And at a moment when the phrase “cold civil war” was being used to describe the nation’s seemingly irreconcilable differences, coming home was beginning to feel like crossing over to the other side.
Emily looked around the concession stand she would be running with her family for the next three days: a long counter where she had put her iPhone speaker next to the paper cups; a shelf where she had put her bag of Starbucks coffee next to the tubs of ketchup; a fan blowing air that smelled like cows and sugar.
All the way home, she had thought about how she was supposed to act in this place she loved but now felt so conflicted about. How was she going to talk to people when every conversation seemed to slip into arguments about the fate of America? How was she going to get along for three days at a county fair?
She put down the novel about a young Irish man searching for meaning on an ordinary day in Dublin and began making some jalapeño poppers. A white-haired farmer in denim overalls arrived at the window.
“Small cup of coffee,” he said.
“It’s Starbucks!” Emily began, realizing as soon as the words came out that “Starbucks” was of course a symbol of the urban elite liberal, which was exactly what she did not want to seem to be. She poured him a large cup of coffee and slid it across the counter.
She had always been known here as “Keith and Connie’s daughter,” the fourth of five children, an introvert who grew up absorbing the conservative values of a place where patriotism was the guy who parachuted out of her dad’s Cessna with an American flag on national holidays. Kahoka, population 2,007, was a town in the rural northeastern corner of Missouri where almost every person was white, most were Republican and many were Trumps, an old Kahoka family name that has no relation to the president.
The Clark County Fair had been the main cultural ritual for 136 years. Every summer, it was the 4-H kids and the cows, the trailer-size rides, the open art show paintings of backyard flowers, the campers huddled around the crabgrass edges of the fairgrounds. At election time, the fair was also a venue for politics. Last year, a huge Trump banner hung inside the commercial building where the Clark County Republican sign usually was, and here and there, “Make America Great Again” hats replaced the usual John Deeres. Nearly 3 of every 4 voters in the county went for Trump. The fair was the living, breathing example of his rural Midwestern audience.
Emily had been going since she was a girl, and had always looked forward to the feeling of ease, the lull while the corn was rising, the unhurried conversations. But nothing felt easy to her since the election, especially conversations of the sort that she had learned could arise here.
She had tried talking to her parents during other visits home, telling them that a vote for Trump was a vote “to deport your future son-in-law.” She had tried with Cyrus, and their relationship had only suffered. She and her best friend Hannah had decided not to talk about Trump at all because of the strain the subject had put on their friendship. A sister-in-law had told Emily that she had become difficult to talk to lately, self-righteous and angry.
Now she had to figure out another way. She turned on some Bob Dylan at a low volume, opened “Ulysses” and settled into a folding chair, advancing 10 pages before Hannah arrived to help. Hannah Trump was her maiden name. Her uncle ran Trump Trucks. An aunt ran a bed-and-breakfast called Trump Haus. Her brother played football and was booed at an out-of-state game recently because of the name Trump on his jersey. Emily silently reminded herself not to mention Trump.
They began making biscuits and gravy, talking about an old high school classmate studying at the University of Missouri.
“She was asking me to help her work on a project about diversity in small towns — she wants to know about any racial targeting,” Emily began.
“You may not see my opinion Emily, but around here a college degree is not as needed,” Hannah said.
Emily tried bringing up an English teacher they both had.
“Remember we took that class from him, contemporary issues? And we had to pick an issue and talk about it? It was so good for us kids,” Emily said.
“Yeah, he said he was conservative but he was more liberal,” Hannah said.
“He made me love literature,” Emily said.
Hannah slid some biscuits into the oven.
“Two minutes,” she said.
They talked about other classmates, one who was a lawyer in Arizona, another who was a hair stylist in Los Angeles, and then Hannah considered Emily.
“You’re different, but probably not so different as you think,” she said.
“What do you mean?” Emily said.
“You’ve always been different than everybody else. A lot of people who grew up here want to get out, but you’re different in that you like coming home,” said Hannah.
Emily decided not to spoil the moment by explaining how complicated home was to her now, how difficult it was to understand how Hannah could vote for a person who had demonized the Syrian refugees and immigrants that Emily now considered her friends, or how a liberal arts education really was worthwhile because it had taught her how complicated the world could be, or how all of this related to her growing concern about the country. She let the conversation wane.
“We need some music,” Emily said. “What do you want to listen to Hannah?”
“Anything,” Hannah said, so Emily turned on some country music, and when Hannah left to take care of her dog, she went back to “Ulysses.”
She was on page 246 when her husband Cristian arrived, a relief because he understood everything about this situation. He was 22 and a natural diplomat, an immigrant from Guatemala who grew up from the age of 8 in a mostly white corner of southwestern Missouri where Trump had gotten 72 percent of the vote. He wore a T-shirt with a huge American flag, and assured Emily he was in “full PR mode.”
He was chopping potatoes when Emily’s brother Cyrus arrived to help with lunch and began talking about a friend of his who was in the military. The friend had told Cyrus he agreed with Trump’s attempt to ban transgender people from the service. Cyrus was saying he agreed with Trump too.
“It just costs too much,” he said, dropping potatoes into hot oil.
“It’s not true,” began Emily, feeling her anger rising, then deciding to stifle it. “I mean, some people think that. But.”
She retreated to the sink to wash dishes.
“I’m not allowed to serve in the military,” Cristian said.
“Why?” said Cyrus.
“I’m not a citizen,” Cristian said.
“Can’t you go to training camp?” Cyrus pressed.
Emily sensed the conversation veering toward an argument and tried for a distraction.
“The fries!” she said.
“Oh!” Cyrus said, dumping the charred potatoes into a paper boat.
“They look good,” Cristian said.
“Try one,” Cyrus said, and Cristian did, and they moved on to talking about a sick cow Cyrus had to take care of, and the car he was driving in the demolition derby.
“Hey Em, are you going to watch me in the demo?” Cyrus said.
“I’d love to if I can get away,” Emily said, calming down, and after Cyrus left, Cristian said to Emily, “It’s like how do you say anything without offending him?” and Emily said, “Yeah.”
Maybe the best path forward was avoidance, Emily thought. Avoid Trump, avoid all related controversial subjects. Talk about biscuits and fries and the demolition derby and appreciate what Kahoka was, not what it wasn’t.
She ate a tenderloin. She ate a fried peach pie. She and Cristian shared some Lion’s Club ice cream, which was mysteriously good, and after a while, she began to feel more relaxed.
They decided to drive to the grocery store for supplies, pulling out of the fairgrounds and under the wrought-iron arch that said “Clark County Fair, 1883.”
They turned onto a two-lane road and got stuck behind the only traffic, a man on a riding lawn mower. Emily looked out the window as they inched along. A cornfield. A decaying brick bowling alley. Trump Haus.
“I forget,” she said, referring to the slow pace of home.
Back at the stand, they unloaded the potatoes and buns and were talking about how fried tenderloin is sort of like the Spanish dish chicharron, when Emily’s father arrived, red-faced and sweating from the farm, and began talking about how the expected rain hadn’t fallen.
“We were supposed to get three inches,” Keith Phillips said, working on the french-fry slicer. “We got about a quarter inch.”
Soon, Hannah arrived and she and Keith began comparing rainfall totals, talking about the scourge of Japanese beetles this year and whether global warming was a factor, which Keith thought was overblown, like so many things, including all the anxiety over Trump, and for that matter all the talk about divisions in America.
Emily listened, spraying ant killer on the line crawling across the counter.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Keith went on. “Everybody agrees to be divided. Where if you just let the walls down, talk and just be open, you soon realize you have a whole lot more in common.”
Emily wiped the counter, listening to her dad rather than engaging him, or arguing about global warming, or explaining how hard it was to understand why her father — the person she considered “one of the most generous people I know” — could vote for a man like Trump, whose character seemed his opposite.
She stayed quiet and took orders at the window. And when there was a nice long lull later in the evening, instead of bringing up any of those things, she started talking about soda.
“We’re a Pepsi family,” Emily said.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of those glass bottles of Coke made in Mexico using real sugar,” said Cristian.
“When we were in Nicaragua,” Keith said, referring to a mission trip he took there once, “they had these coolers full of grape pop and it was so good.”
And that was how conversations were going, not only at the concession stand but all over the Clark County Fair.
At a moment when Trump was making news almost every day, when the Trump campaign was under investigation for possible ties to Russia, when some Americans were still rooting for his agenda and others were convinced that his presidency amounted to a national crisis of historic dimensions — no one seemed to be talking about Trump at all.
In the very heart of Trump country, no Make America Great Again hats were in sight. No Trump T-shirts. No Trump bumper stickers or placards.
When asked, people said the standard things Trump voters have been saying, that the president should “stop tweeting so much,” or Congress should “give him a chance,” or that he was always “the lesser of two evils.” Then they went back to talking about how good the corn was looking, or the car crash yesterday, or which garden photo won the open art show.
Sitting in the shade of the grandstand, Marvis Trump, a member of the fair board and owner of Trump Haus, had her theory. She had supported Trump, she said, and for a while, she even had a Trump sign up at her house because it irritated her liberal daughter-in-law. It was a lot of fun, she said, but sometime around Easter, she said, that feeling faded.
“Probably the fun’s over now,” she said.
“The smoke from the election, it’s gone out of here,” said Karl Hamner, another fair board member, idling in his golf cart for a moment before zipping down the midway.
And that was one way of understanding the 136th annual Clark County Fair, as a return to normal at a moment when nothing in America was normal. That was how Emily wanted to feel. She wanted the kind of ease she had with her family and friends before all of this, before college, before Germany, before meeting Syrian refugees in Greece, before everything became more complicated and almost everyone she knew and loved voted for Trump.
“You guys been down to the cattle show?” she said to a man in jeans and boots.
“Hot out there?” she said to a man in a John Deere hat.
In the evening, Emily’s dad arrived to help with the dinner rush, and when she asked him a question about the tenderloin batter, he said, “Should someone reading ‘Ulysses’ be asking that question?” and Emily let it go.
When Hannah arrived and joked that the only reason Emily was reading “Ulysses” was because she “wanted to say she had read ‘Ulysses,’ ” Emily kept her mouth shut.
She put “Ulysses” on the shelf by the ketchup tubs. She ate a homemade doughnut. She stirred barbecue sauce into the pulled pork.
Soon, her mother arrived to help, and with all of them there chopping potatoes and frying pork, Keith said, “We got the Phillipses here and we got the Trumps! What more do you need?”
Emily thought maybe father was right. Maybe this was all that was needed after one of the most divisive elections in U.S. history — the Phillipses, the Trumps, fried meat and the Clark County Fair, the same as ever.
Then Cristian arrived with the new Reyes wing of the family. His mother Ana and his older brother Oscar had driven two hours from their home in Iowa to visit, and now Emily rushed outside and hugged them.
Because Ana and Oscar spoke little English, and Emily spoke little Spanish, they mostly smiled and nodded in silence, and when the dinner rush was over, Emily’s parents came outside to say hello.
Ana gave Emily’s mother a gift she’d brought for her, a glass serving dish.
Emily’s mother gave Ana the cake she’d made for her.
“Oh thank you! It’s beautiful,” said Connie.
“Oh, thank you,” said Ana.
“Thank you for coming,” said Keith, and seeing all this, Emily felt relieved.
This was what she wanted, too, for Cristian’s family to feel welcome, especially here and especially now. And that was how the second day of the Clark County fair ended. In the heart of Trump country, it wasn’t the Phillipses and the Trumps but the Phillipses and the Reyeses lingering a while in the grass.
On the third day of the fair, Cristian had to drive back to Kansas City, and said goodbye to Emily’s mother at the concession stand.
“Thanks for everything,” he said.
“No, thank you,” Connie said, hugging him as Emily looked on.
It was the last big night of the fair, demolition derby night, and soon the midway was busy and people were lining up at the concession stand, where Emily’s dad was working the fryer, and Emily and her mom were taking orders at the window.
“Mom, can we cut the tenderloin in half?” said Emily, who had decided by now that the best way to get along was to stick to fair talk and see what happened.
“Yes we can,” said Connie, who sometimes wished she understood her daughter better.
The truth was she was amazed by how much Emily seemed to know, and was also self-conscious when conversations turned to politics or global issues, because she had never finished college herself.
As Connie put it, “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that I didn’t know that.’ ” And sometimes the impasse made her feel sad “because as a mom, you want your kids to think you’re cool, and then she moves four hours away and things change. But.”
In the calm before the rush, Emily turned on some Louis Armstrong, and as Connie made a pulled pork sandwich she said to her daughter, “You know that song ‘Losing Cinderella’?”
“I don’t listen to country that much,” Emily said.
“Come on, you know it — I heard it at church, and it made me cry,” Connie said.
“I don’t know it,” Emily said, turning back to the window.
“You think I’m hallucinating,” Connie persisted, and looked it up on her phone.
“ ‘Stealing Cinderella’ — that’s what it is. Stealing, not losing,” Connie said, referring to a song about a daughter leaving her parents for a new life, but Emily was taking an order at the window. She asked her mom a question.
“What’s that honey?” Connie said.
“Fries?” Emily said to her mom.
“Fries coming,” said Connie, dropping the conversation.
A band she didn’t know was playing on Emily’s iPhone, and she made a request for something more familiar. “You have any Ronnie Milsap?” she asked, and Emily scrolled through her phone and found the relic songs of her childhood.
“Here you go mom, ‘Smokey Mountain Rain’!” Emily said, turning up the volume and belting out the lyrics word for word.
“I didn’t know you knew that song!” Connie said to Emily, and soon, they were dancing around the concession stand, and Keith was remembering the last time they went to a Ronnie Milsap concert, and they continued dancing and singing until the loudspeakers along the midway crackled to life.
A man announced that the demolition derby was starting soon, and asked people to please be silent for the national anthem. Emily turned the music off.
Up and down the midway, people stopped wherever they were, facing the barns, or the grandstand, or the fair gates and every which direction because there was no obvious, centrally located American flag.
In the concession stand, Emily and her parents listened, and when it was over, she headed over to the dirt track to watch Cyrus in the demolition derby.
She inched up to the fence as the sedans began revving their engines, spotting her brother’s green car among the other wrecks.
“Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Go, go, go!” the announcer yelled, and as the cars bashed into each other, smoke rising, dust flying, the crowd cheering, Emily joined in. “Woo!” she yelled.
The next morning, the fair was over except for some harness racing in the grandstand, a last vestige of how the fair used to be, but otherwise everything was shutting down. Trucks were hauling off the carnival rides. Trailers were hauling off the cows and sheep. The campers were almost gone, the fairgrounds reverting to barren acreage.
Emily arrived at the concession stand in the early afternoon to pack up.
She dumped the ice out of the cooler, poured the last tenderloin batter into the grass, and put some paper cups in her tote bag, where “Ulysses” was buried at the bottom. Her mom and dad stopped by to help with the last of it all. They looked around the concession stand.
“It is what it is,” Keith said.
“Anything else?” Connie said.
“No, that’s it for now,” Emily said, and it was.
She thought about the conversations she had avoided, about Trump, about racism, about everything that disturbed her about this moment in America.
She thought about the conversations she’d had.
She padlocked the screen door.
“Dad, are you going to be home later?” Emily asked.
“Yes,” Keith said.
“I’ll see you at home,” she said, knowing she wanted to swing by before leaving Kahoka.
He watched her pack up her car, her iPhone speaker, her coffee.
“You going to go home tonight?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Emily said, deciding she wanted to get back to Kansas City sooner rather than later. “I think I will.”