AFTER MISS COLUMBIA
by Kathryn Fitzpatrick
On Memorial Day other small towns watch parades. There’s hotdogs and fireworks and tall bearded men dressed up like Abe Lincoln with plastic top hats and that old man who might ride the streets in his vintage Mustang, decked out with streamers and his pre-teen granddaughter. The topiaries are usually draped in American flags or sprayed with blue and white paint. The toddlers run in the street while volunteer firefighters chewing tobacco throw fistfuls of Bazooka at them, almost missing their heads. Veterans march. Wives throw rice like they’re at a 1970s wedding.
Thomaston’s Memorial Day celebration is almost like that. We do the parade and the candy and the cars, the police smoke cigarettes and glare at the kids on skateboards, but at Thomaston’s parade, everyone wears white. Thomaston’s parade trickles down the center of town and builds momentum as it marches up the hill up to the cemetery with the manmade lake in the middle. Miss Columbia recites the Gettysburg Address in a boat in the pond. Girls toss daisies at her. Women cry.
Miss Columbia is the prettiest girl in the senior class. Maybe she’s sporty, involved. Each year she’s the product of a long line of Thomaston folk—the daughter of the basketball coach or the owner of the Country Grocer or the head of the Thomaston PTA. She’s blonde, usually, and her destiny is set in stone the minute her parents decide to bunker down in the town they grew up in. Voting for the event takes place in September, when the PTA picks three girls who’s names they recognize in the senior class and nominate them. It comes down to the senior class to make the decision. Sixty kids hold the fate of the most important title in all of Thomaston.
When my mother was a senior in high school, she was a Miss Columbia. There’s still pictures in the house: 80s feathered hair, a white dress with sleeves puffed up to her ears, the little brown boat. Men in curly mullets nestled between headstones, their children splashing in the water.
Her mother was a Miss Columbia too, only it was the fifties and people had big dreams: nice cars, nice wives, nice place to raise a nice family.
My senior year of high school saw me shave my head and walk the halls in Birkenstocks and Hillary 2016 t-shirts. I didn’t shave, and I wanted everyone to know. In class once, when the English teacher asked why Holden Caulfield called everyone phony, I proudly raised my arm to show off my armpits, bleached and dip-dyed blue.
“He doesn’t fit in to the adult world,” I said.
When Miss Columbia voting rolled around, I wasn’t nominated, and I didn’t care, but my mother, clinging to the window when I got home from school, wanted to hear all about it.
“So who is it?” she asked. “Did you get it?”
I gave her a look.
“Well, who was it?”
She looked concerned, panicked. As if she’d just received news that her parents were both in intensive care. She busied herself with the dishes, wiping nonstick pans and putting them in the lazy Susan beside the stove.
“I don’t know yet.”
Everyone in town could tell you who Miss Columbia is, but no one could really tell you what it is—the strange boat ride across the man-made pond filled up with dog piss and green scum, the gravediggers halting their work to catch a glimpse of thong under a flyaway skirt.
The tradition started as a welcome home celebration in mid-July in 1919, when Union veterans were still alive and the most important pillars of the community. Thomaston was at its height back then, and the fanfare of the celebration matched the commerce. The New York Times had called Thomaston the ideal place for families and businessmen alike (just two hours from the city and three hours from Boston), so the Miss Columbia celebration served as both an honoring of war heroes and a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Businesses closed their doors at noon and everyone marched together and Miss Columbia stood proud as the pure symbol of victory, white against the murky water, driving her community forward in the “best parade event” the town had ever seen.
But then the last Union soldier died, and the Great Depression rolled through the area with all the force of a crumbling building, and everything was consolidated. The armistice homecoming was kicked out in favor of a “Miss Columbia Celebration” during the annual Memorial Day Parade, and the boat ceremony was rebranded to suggest pride for Naval officers serving in World War I. Organizers added a convertible ride through town for their queen, along with a firing squad and a trumpet.
Of course, if you asked a local today what Miss Columbia stands for, they’d probably say it’s an excuse to drink Bud Light in public.
The year my mother was named Miss Columbia, she took her then boyfriend, Scott Lambert, to prom. He was a skinny white guy, with one of those wiry haircuts parted straight down the middle. In pictures he’s wearing a white tux and too much acne, cradling my mother in an awkward, sexually-charged embrace that saves almost enough room for Jesus. From the pictures, it’s clear they didn’t belong together; she didn’t belong with any of the people she took pictures with that night. She was six feet tall and played JV basketball—which meant she was still womanly enough to be desired, not muscular enough for the big leagues. All of her friends had home-done hairdos and messy eyeshadow; dorky, shy boyfriends with bad teeth.
At family parties she’ll pull out the pictures and say something like, “look how pretty I was,” then rattle off the story about dumping Scott Lambert after a quickie in the car when he sneezed, and a booger fell in her mouth.
“I said, ‘I’m better than this,” she’ll say. “I deserved better than him, so I ended it.”
Dumping Scott Lambert, to this day, remains one of her biggest achievements.
I, on the other hand, wore Dr. Martens to senior prom and brought a kid from church. There was enough room for Jesus to stretch out his legs.
Holly’s is Thomaston’s townie bar. They’ve got green felt carpets, wood paneling, a sink with rust stains in the bathroom. On Fridays and Saturdays Holly’s does karaoke, where white guys do Darius Rucker covers or “God Bless America” on an infinite loop. They sell Cheetos by the bag and fine cheese platters for $3.99, and the owner, Holly, is always sipping Absolut behind the counter, so you have to tell her how to pour a Guinness while she slurs along in agreement.
Holly’s is always open. On Christmas and Easter they open at four, but most days they start serving at noon, perfect for the old men who loiter at the sticky bar and complain about their wives and kids. Holly’s does Veteran’s specials on national holidays: red, white, and blue Jell-O shots for a dollar, which works, because every surface of the place is draped in American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” paraphernalia.
Everything’s cheap there—the clientele, the drinks, the ladies’ night specials—so I’ve recently become a regular, but my mother, who’s worked as a fine dining waitress for the past thirty years, never dared.
“That’s where the homeless go,” she said once. “They’ve got bedbugs.”
Once I got her to go with me, drove the quarter mile downtown in her red Audi to the bad side of town near Reynold’s Bridge where the people without cars loiter.
“I can’t do this,” she said. “What if somebody sees me?”
“It’s fine, I’m here all the time.”
She gave me a look.
The bartender that night was Courtney, a girl a few years younger than me who was expelled from school for starting fights. She was pretty in that way aging actresses might be pretty, like her time had run out, except she was only eighteen.
“What can I getcha?” she said. She sounded like cigarettes.
My mother asked for a sauvignon blanc.
“What? We don’t have that.”
I asked for a Beefeater soda.
“What kind of soda, hun?”
I asked for club, but she said they didn’t have that and gave me Sierra Mist.
“I hate it here.”
“No you don’t—it’s fun. And cheap,” I said. The gin and lemon-lime combo wasn’t working, but at $3.75, I couldn’t do much better.
“Anyway, what’s that bartender doing here?”
I laughed. “Courtney?”
“Yeah. Wasn’t she a Miss Columbia?”
Maybe it was unclear to my mother, but we all belonged there. There were old men she recognized from high school sitting at plastic tables, mouths caved in where their teeth should be. The place was owned by Holly Chandler, longtime Thomaston raggie. Her family had worked in the lipstick tube manufacturing plant for years till, like everything else in town, it closed up and moved South.
There’s always a desire to escape in Thomaston, with the label “raggie” lurking overhead with the seagulls. Most people get their biggest escape at Holly’s, since they can get piss drunk on cheap Yaeger shots without worrying about getting home. My mother tried to get out once, got her degree in fine arts alongside kids who wore parachute pants and asymmetrical mullets. But she failed art history—twice. Now she paints people’s dogs on canvases in our living room, stacks them against the wall and takes pictures for everyone else to see. It’s her side hustle—she’s lucky if she gets forty bucks apiece.
I thought I was better than Thomaston at one point too, so I went away to a private liberal arts school where the girls shaved their heads and wrote communist propaganda. When I came home the second weekend into the semester, crying over the lesbians who’d called me apolitical, over the gluten-free food and the Lunar Howling Society, I decided I was a raggie too. Not even a nose ring could disguise my hometown roots.
My mother was mad at me after I brought her to Holly’s and I was mad she didn’t like it, which was immediately obvious as we drove home in tense silence, with not even the radio to mediate. I wanted her to see Thomaston for how it was and what it wasn’t and what it never would be. There weren’t any cul-de-sacs or gated communities, and most people lived in the sort of ranch-style houses she liked to point out as a place she was glad she didn’t live. Miss Columbia was the cover that people in town used to pretend they lived somewhere special, even though nobody really knew its roots. Maybe going to Holly’s was mean-spirited or selfish, but in the same way it’s mean to tell your friend she looks fat in that dress. At least it was honest.
Miss Columbia, my year, went as expected—it wasn’t me. The honor went to some girl who was head of the student council and played field hockey, and all the men in town were there to watch and lip-synch to her quiet rendition of the Gettysburg Address. Some old veterans played a march on out-of-tune trumpets. I went for the free beer someone else’s dad might offer me. But my mother, who was in the market for some new cabinets, went to the Lowe’s Memorial Day Sale instead, dreaming of the kitchen she’d always wanted.
Kathryn Fitzpatrick’s essays have been featured in Out Magazine, Gravel, Crack the Spine, and elsewhere, and were called “brutally honest and not school appropriate” by her high school principal.