Turning left off of State Route 76, you'd be hard-pressed to find much of anything going on in the stoic fields and dusty back roads that surround Thurber, Nebraska, population 17,481. Cows graze lazily, single trees acting as sentinel among the otherwise uninterrupted wheat fields and ruddy plains.
After three miles of loose wire fencing and Old West reminders, Thurber and all of its relative big city charm expands from the horizon. There's the old gas station with the rusty Citgo sign dangling lifelessly by a few links of chain. There's Mama Dell's, the roadside diner where, for an extra $2, Mama herself will throw any entrÃ©e on the menu into a pie crust and bake it until golden brown. There's Cadillac Jack's, a saloon-style drinkery complete with old wooden floorboards and an ace of spades playing card with a bullet hole through the center.
Thurber isn't just the most populous city in this open corner of northwestern Nebraska, it's also the Reynolds County seat. Political deals for agricultural subsidies are made over cups of coffee at Dink's Donuts. The American Red Cross operates the only blood bank for two hundred miles out of an old laundromat that sits on the town square. Voting happens here, at Fellowship Church, where mischievous kids like to sneak in and desecrate Jesus on the cross with trucker hats that read ”˜Got Er Done'. Parades chock full of tractors and smiling children scavenging for Tootsie Rolls come through town three or four times a year to celebrate this wheat harvest or that national holiday. Otherwise, things stay mostly quiet and mostly dusty, a thin film of which shellacs on to any beast or building in just a few days time.
Every spring, though, this rusty little hamlet has itself a Pretty Woman moment. The quiet desperation masquerading as whorish indifference disappears, replaced by illustrious affectations of pride with a newfound metropolitan air. This is Grain Days, a three-day spring fling of sorts, with an endless combination of fried foods, boardwalk lights, late nights and dancing under the moon. The daytime hours are fully loaded, with itineraries including crafting sessions, dairy competitions, a bucking bronco show and a demolition derby at sunset.
All of this farmland flourish is pretext for the main event: the Sunday night Grain Days Beauty Pageant, a whirlwind of cosmopolitan expectations, sadness, triumph and conspiracy theories. Hearts have been broken here, minds have been lost, and more than a few friendly neighbors have found themselves on opposite sides of a Grain Days pageant victory. It's not hard to see why this real life show is so popular; you'd need the full cable package to find any TV drama this compelling.
By Tuesday evening, young ladies from every stretch of the county glide into Thurber to prepare for beauty battle, bringing with them a small army of mothers and aunts to act as stylists, handlers and cheerleaders. Come Sunday night, the beastly masses of Reynolds County stand on rocking feet at the steps of the Muriel Perkins Memorial Library, the only building structurally sound enough to accommodate such a large crowd. It's also the most architecturally stylish building in an otherwise unmemorable town square, with tan bunting billowing from every available window frame. In short, it's the only place in all of Thurber decent enough to crown the Reynolds County Grain Girl in.
It's also the only place in all of Thurber where pageant winner Darlene Moffitt has been murdered.
Darlene never fit the profile of a true Grain Girl. Her shoulders weren't broad enough, her freckled cheeks too prominent. She couldn't hop a fence in farm boots and had a penchant for quoting Kurt Vonnegut novels. She'd take any opportunity to bring up her hometown of Manokifer, two hours east. “They've got a Denny's there,” she'd smirk, before plunging in the small town dagger: “A Chili's, too.”
Yet, last May, there was Darlene Moffitt, smiling comfortably alongside 49 other Grain Girl contestants. A few rounds of voting, then: 29 girls, then 14, then 9 other hopefuls. Darlene effortlessly maneuvered the growing stages and their matching crowds, shedding competition as she went. First the outdoor tent next to the butter churning booth, then the raised indoor platforms alongside the meat smokers belonging to Quizzy's BBQ, and eventually on to the luxuriously carpeted library stage. When the other contestants started sweating from the competition, Darlene would lean over and offer them a tissue, then pull one from her padded bra. The crowds went wild.
“She was a firecracker, that's for sure”, says pageant judge Rick DiMeco. “You know, those little sticks of mini dynamite? Well, to borrow a metaphor, she was one of those. Tiny package, lots of bang.Â I guess nobody bothered to tell her that fireworks are illegal in Reynolds County. Heh. I'm sort of a comedian around here.”
Her parents, Jennifer and Walter Moffitt, moved to Thurber after Walter took a regional sales position with Rifleman Range, a blossoming startup that offers a line of DIY home gun range kits. Even with such a natural ”˜in' in this rural township, business and friendships were equally hard to come by.
“I really think this Grain Girl thing became her way to make an impression”, says Jennifer, fighting back tears. By August of that first year, Darlene had bought out the full supply of Taylor Swift calendars from the kiosk at the nearest mall and hung them interruptingly all over the Moffitt home. Three going up the staircase to the second floor, one next to the mirror in the downstairs bathroom, two more on either side of the fake fireplace and one that flipped open when you pulled on the refrigerator handle, meaning every time you wanted a glass of milk you had to be reminded — in a large red circle around the date — that Grain Days was coming up.
At Warrick Morris High School just beyond Stinker's Clunkers used car lot, the Grain Girl pageant is such a big and unswallowable topic that most of the girls choked on their words just thinking about what it. Only a few of the younger ones dared to dream about becoming the next great Girl, poring over well-worn photographs of legends like Patty Morton or Lucy Dimple. The older ones, the ones who knew they'd missed their shot, spent most of each spring cutting classes to hang out by the junkyard and smoke cloves. Even there, the aromatic smoke would eventually carry conversation of the pageant, tinged with talk of scandals and intrigue gone by.
There's the year that Tracy Winger faked a bloodborne pathogenic disease to win the sympathy vote. Or there's the time Cindy Grainger's mom chloroformed a judge and then stole her credentials to try to vote for her own daughter. Eventually the widening ripples of any pageant conspiracy theory conversation would wash ashore on one simple, whisperable truth: in the event of a reigning Grain Girl's death, the previous year's winner retains the title. Sure, Sue Blanchard had gotten her arm ripped off in a wheat mill, but she didn't die so that doesn't count. But what if she had, leaving her precursor as the only two-year Grain Girl in Thurber history? How much would that mean to a young woman, steeped in the pageant tradition and desperate to hold on to her crown — at any cost?
Lacey Findle remembers well the day that Darlene announced her Grain Girl intentions to her classmates. “We were all shocked,” she says cooly. “You don't just walk into NASA and decide to run for President Space Mayor, or whatever. That's what it felt like.”
“I mean, you could smell trouble three fields away. Real trouble, too. Not just horse shit on a light breeze.”
If anybody should know, it's Findle. In a classic ”˜Hometown Girl Makes Good' headline, she became last year's Grain Girl after most of the town told her she was past her pageant prime. Born and raised in Thurber, Findle flunked out of her senior year of high school three times, believing that being enrolled in school was a qualification for acceptance. Halfway through her fourth year at Warrick Morris, with a D- in Typing and an F+ in Kinesiology, Findle was finally appraised of the rules: there are no academic restrictions whatsoever on the Grain Girl competition. You don't even have to graduate at all.
From that moment on, Findle carried herself (tucked into her signature halter top) with an air of grace and an attitude of superiority that coasted her to last year's crowning. She cried, she smiled, but most of all, she knew how hard she'd worked to get there.
“It really becomes a lifestyle, not just a title. I can go down to Dixie's and get a scoop of pecan flavored ice cream any time I want, free. On. The. House.” Sitting in Dink's, her fingers wrapped around a cup of coffee, the 22-year old high school dropout and pageant winner is all neck and eyeliner, with a little less grace and a lot more of that superiority. “Some people think they're ready for the pressure, but they ain't. There's a lot more to this than just cutting the ribbon on a few new feed stores.”
It's 9am, but as we sit, tucked into a plastic booth, her winning sash drapes across her chest. It's backdated by one year, of course. Since Darlene Moffitt died in hers, splayed out on the floor in the reference section of the Muriel Perkins Library, it didn't seem right to pass it back to Findle.
Besides, the less confusion the better. It was already more than enough that the dumpster speculations had proven to be true: with Darlene Moffitt dead and buried, Lacey Findle is this year's — and last year's — Grain Girl.
She smiles, her fingers bouncing around the ceramic mug, treading water in this blissful fact.
Tell me about Darlene, I say. After all, her death is the reason you're still wearing that sash. Her fingers freeze.
In 1997 an enraged thoroughbred in downtown Thurber broke free of it's harness and pushed Marvin Lerner in front of a grain truck. Witnesses say the mare had murder in her saucerplate eyes, and even let out a little whinny when the deed was done. (They gave that horse the chair.) More than a decade later, there remains an old photo of the horse hanging over the bar at Cadillac Jack's, and the old-timers swear on cold nights you can still hear that whinny.
Less than one year after her grizzly Grain Girl murder, there are no photographs of Darlene Moffitt. Not in the Grain Days flyer, not dangling inside some tacky frame at the library. To know anything about what happened that night, you'll have to dig. Into people's lives, into the dark underworld of competitive pageantry, through stacks and stacks of receipts, notes, diaries and interview transcripts. Though her body was returned to Manokifer, Darlene Moffitt's life is buried in Thurber.
“It's hard to know what happened; there's so much going on backstage. The ten finalists alone fill up most of the Creative Non-Fiction aisle.” Rick DiMeco was one of three pageant judges that night, alongside schoolteacher Margie Ritenaur and Mayor Pat Lerner. He is a machinist by trade, milling out small cogs for old threshers or sometimes doing small engine repair to make a few extra bucks. DiMeco doesn't exactly have the flair for pageantry that one might assume in a Grain Girl judge. Instead, he won his seat, like one third of every Grain Days judging panel since it began, by filling out a raffle ticket.
“When you're in the library, you think it's so big that there's no way you could fill it up with people. But come showtime, it's packed in like an elevator. Contestants, make up artists, show runners. You'd never notice if a single girl went missing in there, even if she had just won the crown. It's standing room only from Zilgarian to you-can-kiss-my-Asimov. Heh. There I go again, tellin' jokes.”
A single photograph from that night corroborates DiMeco's tale of sardine conditions. It's one of those all-and-nothing shots, where there's no central focus and the framing is awful. Some heads are cropped clean in half, others blurry from motion; only one man is looking directly at the camera. Dark suit, one hand in a trouser pocket, he stares straight ahead, into the lens, a perplexing expression of bland contentedness amidst a room full of revelry. In the upper right-hand corner, Darlene Moffitt is mid-step, forever lurching towards the corner of the picture amidst a row of books.
It's her last photograph, and she doesn't even know it.
Over dinner at Mama Dell's, I ask DiMeco who the intensely gazing man in the suit is, and he almost chokes on his Salisbury steak pie. He says he doesn't know. Later, after attendance records don't provide a name and a few other witnesses come up dry, I drop in to DiMeco's machine shop, where the din of whirring blades and crunching metal seems to afford him some level of security from upturned ears.
“You won't find his real name, because no one knows it,” says DiMeco, while aimlessly pushing a belt sander across some old copper piping. All anyone listening in would catch is the shrill grind of metal on metal. “He's a ”˜Ringding', has been for years. I venture the only reason he's backstage is because he lost a lot of money.”
All across America, ”˜Ringdings' is popular parlance for pageant show ringers, brazen men with the skills and desire to rig shows no different than the Grain Girl pageant. These smoky, back room tellurians have become as much a part of the pageant experience as the talent portion or the blindfolded thresher reassembly. Every year the girls are different, but in Thurber, the Ringdings (and their motives) always remain the same. Stakes are placed on the final ten contestants, and come show time the men find themselves tucked inside the library just like everyone else, waiting for the biggest moment in Reynolds County since they inadvertently got redistricted into Wyoming in the 1926 census.
The whole thing is a lot like horse racing, really. Money changes hands as fates rise and fall throughout the evening, but one thing is constant: the Ringdings all came here to win, often up to $30,000 for each beautiful specimen trotting around in front of the crowd.Â The average betting spectator might get lucky and pick the right long shot, but the house always wins the real money. Especially when there's an inside girl.
“I got in deep with the Ringdings last year after I put down some money I didn't have on the surefire winner,” he says as we transition to the high rattle of a 4,000 rpm steel saw.
Lacey Findle, I say. No. Another girl.
“The only reason Lacey ever won is because the Ringdings fixed the whole shebang. The moment she put on that sash, I knew the pageant was a fraud, and I knew I was in a lot of trouble.”
The M.O. of any pageant fixer is roughly the same: do whatever it takes to alter the outcome favorably, take everyone's money and move on. Sometimes that means bribing a contestant to take a fall, other times… heavier… methods can be applied to judges and influential pageant members. Whatever happened at the annual Grain Days Pageant last year, it didn't go well for the Ringdings.
Within days, DiMeco says he was contacted by the man in the photograph about his outstanding debts. Cries of an unfair betting disadvantage fell on deaf ears, and when he woke up one morning with a mower blade stuck in his front door, he decided to strike a deal to wipe out the unpaid debt in exchange for a seat at the judges table in the next year's Grain Girls pageant. The raffle would be rigged for him to win, and all he had to do was vote the way they wanted him to. Simple as that.
An ego-driven Lacey Findle. A desperate Rick DiMeco. A faceless, money-hungry group of pageant fixers. Darlene Moffitt never stood a chance.
In any investigation, you learn pretty quickly that even though they can't talk, paper receipts tell one hell of a story themselves. In a dusty manila folder (everything is dusty in this town, even when it's kept indoors), Darlene Moffitt's receipts read like a walking transcript of her final days leading up to the Grain Days Pageant.
February 9th: A workout DVD titled “Fit It or Quit It.”, $14.99
March 17th: Three bottles of hair coloring, dark brown. $29.15
March 29th: Fake eyelashes, $8.72
April 7th: A two-hour session at Lee Nails in Dekalb Junction, $32.18
April 7th: A cheesy Gordita, two soft tacos and Diet Coke, $5.27
April 11th: Camouflage four-inch pumps, $98.99
April 19th: Brute For Men cologne, $7.17
April 20th: Store credit for a bottle of Brute For Men Cologne, $7.17
April 20th: Brute For Women: Cologne For Women, $7.17
As the red-circled calendar date nears, the receipts become anomalous.
April 27th: A slice of spaghetti and meatball pie from Mama Dell's, $8.13
And later that same night:
April 27th: A root beer float, $4.25
Barbara Gargle was waitressing the night of April 27th, and recalls seeing Darlene come in once with some friends for a pasta snack, and then again later that night with a tall man she didn't recognize. Dark suit, one hand in his trouser pocket, a quiet stare. He ordered black coffee (receipt unavailable) and talked without moving his hands, while Darlene mostly sat and listened. Whatever it was that man was offering, Gargle recalls, Darlene wasn't interested. Then, she stood up, walked to the door and left.
Five days later, and two weeks before the pageant, another receipt crops up:
May 1st: Nightlight, $6.16
Two days later:
May 3rd: Maglite flashlight, $39.99
Three days later:
May 6th: Horse-Strength Mace, $41.40
Less than fourteen days before the biggest night of her life, Darlene Moffitt spent $87.55 trying to protect herself from someone. Or some thing.
At some point during that fateful night, under the bright lights in the front hall of the Muriel Perkins Memorial Library, things went from bad to irreversible for Darlene Moffitt. Those who were there recall Lacey Findle pacing just off stage, gripping her Grain Girl sash and tiara tightly, as if they'd fly off her body the moment she loosened her grip. After begrudgingly crowning Darlene Moffitt the champion, she disappeared out a side door, which is why she doesn't show up in the lone backstage photograph. Though she had her motives, Lacey Findle did not kill Darlene Moffitt.
Over a clamoring sheet metal riveter in his greasy machine shop, Rick DiMeco unwinds his version of the tale. He was told by the Ringdings to throw the votes to Tracy Lamiken, an unassuming puffy-faced pageant girl whose long odds made her the perfect candidate for the fixers to cash in big. All they needed was for Darlene Moffitt to fall. And when they couldn't bribe her, they tried to use Rick DiMeco.
Yet, through it all, Darlene remained a charmed girl, largely unaffected by the magnitude of the forces surrounding her. She had her morals, she had her fan base, and most importantly she had the Grain Girl spirit. All night long Rick DiMeco threw low scores at Darlene, but it was never enough to break her. By all accounts, she demolished the competition with a dance routine to “Baby Likes to Rock It” by The Tractors that moved Tracy Lamiken to tears. The audience cheered and roses were thrown and, for a brief moment in the universe, Darlene Moffitt was Thurber's own Grain Girl, and no one could take that away from her.
“I thought the Ringdings were going to kill me,” whispers Rick while a spot welder arcs loudly behind us. “You don't lose that much money in one night and let the inside man live to tell about it.” In a desperate bid to save his own life, Rick agreed to take Darlene's, a one-time hit man for hire on behalf of the Ringdings in their quest for retribution. He's quiet as soon as the words pass his lips. Resigned to the idea of murder.
The man in the photograph, dark suit with one hand in a trouser pocket, was simply waiting for the deed to be done. A little nod from Rick, emerging from the book stacks, to indicate that the grizzly crime had been accomplished and all of his debts were paid. A moment that would never come.
The police found Darlene Moffitt in the Science Fiction section, clutching a Kurt Vonnegut hardback open to a page containing only the words “So it goes”. No knife wounds, strangulation bruises or bullet entry wounds, just a trampled body covered in horseshoe prints. The escape route, littered with hay, led to a shattered back door. By the time witnesses traced the route back to the broken door frame, all that could be heard through the cold air was the faint galloping of horse hooves. The old timers down at Cadillac Jack's were right all along.
Darlene Moffitt's murder is one year older now, and though there are no photographs of her in the Grain Days flyers or the library, someone down at Cadillac Jack's has started a tally next to that photo of the horse. Two checked off — Marvin Lerner and Darlene Moffitt — and room for more.
Lacey Findle has relinquished her two-year tiara. Rick DiMeco's machine shop still whirrs on into the night. At a pageant in the deep South, or perhaps out West, a quiet man in a dark suit stands patiently, waiting to count his money. And somewhere out beyond the Thurber county line, crisscrossing the fields near Route 76, a ghost horse roams free, murder in its saucerplate eyes, seeking random revenge for a death penalty sentence from years past.
So it goes. ♦