Beauty and the Pageant Beast


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 entrée 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.  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.  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. ♦