by Charlotte Hogg
The pageant begins with the swimsuit competition. There are six contestants ranging from absurd to almost sexy in halter tops, shorts, and high heels (or cowboy boots). They stroll across the stage as the emcee describes their attire and refers to their sponsors. Some have short-haired wigs, some didn’t bother to shave mustaches, and all have garish lipstick. Yet, this is a competition, not just a show, and we find ourselves making judgments about a boldly-striped dress or white shoes as if we are watching the Miss America pageant on TV: “She has nice legs,” Ladette leans over to whisper. Though we say we came out of curiosity and details for a story she is working on, the draw was greater than that; I am happy to be here, and I can tell she is, too. Her husband is at home, but she had confided that she wanted to bring me because I would get it. We remind each other of where we come from.
I’ve traveled with Ladette to Loup City, Nebraska, a town of around 1,500 people, for the Polish Days Queen Pageant. Miss Kielbasa was the winner last year, when Ladette first read about the event—only she was a he, as the contest was for men dressed in drag. Ladette had reserved a room at the Frederick, the only hotel in town, back in January, figuring Polish Days would fill the rooms. When we arrive at the hotel and adjoining café, someone eating dinner tells us that the manager was not in because her daughter is a Little Polish Dancer and will be performing at the pageant down at the high school. We are from small towns in Nebraska and should know these things, but I’m reminded that even though I only live two hours from here, I’m further from my rural past than I like to admit.
When we head down to the pageant (driving three blocks to the school—another faux pas—of course it would have been close enough to walk) the gymnasium is nearly full, both the bleachers and metal chairs on the court. The audience is packed with families, and toddlers loop around parents and siblings. The emcee has already begun introducing the judges, all winners from past years, including Miss Kielbasa. She’s the most stunning of the panel in her sleeveless dress, broad smile, and blonde, bobbed hair. She actually looks quite poised, and from our seats at the back of the gym even borders on elegant. Two of the other judges look older and wear knee high pantyhose and polyester dresses with wigs slightly akimbo atop their heads.
The intent of the pageant is obviously humor, but we can tell that some (probably wives or girlfriends) have put quite a bit of effort into the ensembles. Dresses look to come from mothers or appear homemade especially for this night and range from shapeless cotton to lacy full-length gowns or extra-large slips. As in most pageants, there are four categories of competition: swimsuit, talent, evening gown, and the interview portion. By now the judges and last year’s winner are all on stage, sitting with their legs apart in their skirts (even Miss Kielbasa), yet they don’t seem uncomfortable even in the stuffy gym. Ladette and I have both remarked a few times by now that some in our department at the university in Lincoln, where we are doctoral students, would not understand or appreciate this moment we are laughing in, would find the pageant, the town, the people, a quaint “cultural moment” at best and hick at worst. Wanting to separate ourselves from those who migrated to our home state with such disdain I’m sure their Nebraska students can smell it on them, we claim to each other and for ourselves a kind of insider status in the gym that’s as hot and loud as I know it must be during basketball season. But my claims feel a bit forced; though I resist it in some ways, the cool reserve held at such a premium in academia has permeated, has left me feeling more of an observer than I’d like to admit. And my trajectory could not feel less rooted from the lives thrumming in this gym: I’m newly single, finishing a dissertation, and trying to conjure life in some far-flung college town if my job search is successful. I’ve now been gone from my hometown more years than I lived there. I crave the familiarity that is palpable around me more than ever.
The contestants emerge in their evening gowns, attempting to glide gracefully across stage in their heels. They are posed a question by the emcee: “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only take one of these three things, what would it be: an alarm clock, a spare tire, or a garbage can?” Only one answers in a way that truly spoofs real pageants, telling the crowd she would take an alarm clock in order to promote world peace through being punctual. Laughter echoes in the gym, and two teenage boys near us bellow to a contestant onstage, another show of collective intimacy. I can almost hear the conversations they’ll have about this next week in the grocery store, the jokes these men will endure at the post office.
While the judges are deliberating, the Little Polish Dancers come onto the stage in red and black outfits. There are more girls than boys, we notice, as they circle the room in two lines. The younger ones are giggling, the pre-pubescent ones awkwardly adjusting their vests or avoiding the gazes of their dance partners. “All the boys look alike,” Ladette muses, and I see she’s right. Each young boy has white-blond hair shaved for summer, and soon it seems the room is spilling over with pale, bobbing, close-clipped heads. They polka to at least four songs, including the Chicken Dance, which I’m shocked to hear my friend doesn’t know, as I’ve shimmied to it in at least 10 weddings, standing in a circle flapping my elbows and shaking my rear, usually in an ill-fitting bridesmaid dress. In a move we can see by the gape-mouth reaction of the Little Polish Dancers is unplanned, the Queen contestants and judges begin to join in, locking elbows and swinging during the chorus. The polka music is loud, the Dancers are distracted, and glossy wigs are sliding from contestants’ heads. I catch myself staring nakedly toward the stage like the kids, suspended in the movement of men, in their synchronicity and absurd charm only enhanced by their whirling dresses.
Again, like real pageants on TV, we are confident in our predictions of the winner and shocked when our least favorite choice takes the crown: Miss ElectroCute. She is well over six feet tall and does not have the grace of Miss Rosy Lane, who in a light blue dress just performed a stunning lip-sync rendition of “I Beg Your Pardon (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden),” complete with huge cardboard props and hand movements, sashaying across the stage with a yellow sun behind her. “It’s probably political,” I speculate to Ladette, who gives a knowing nod. “He probably owns a business in town or was the star football player.” I can envision which men from my hometown would prevail in such a contest.
On our way to the car, we look at county numbers on license plates to see how far people came, surprised and pleased to be the only car from Lincoln, as if this validates our rural credibility. We check into the Frederick Hotel, only a half block from the carnival and street dance. There is nothing to sign, nowhere to fill out the license plate number; the manager simply hands us the key (an actual key!) and directs us upstairs. Each room’ is decorated differently; ours is the only one with its own bathroom (the vacant rooms—all but ours—are open for us to peek into). Below our window is Main Street. In the morning we will be awakened to polka music being played over the loudspeakers just outside this window. In the café downstairs we’ll eat heaping portions of pancakes and eggs and sausage for less than three dollars. At the parade we’ll clap for the Color Guard, four groups of Shriners, classic American cars, old John Deere tractors, Miss ElectroCute waving from a blue convertible, and the floats with banners (“Computors May Fail, but God Never Fails Us,” boasts one church that is either clever or forgot to spellcheck). Just like the Labor Day Parade in my hometown—a third the size of Loup City—I will watch kids—some Little Polish Dancers, I’m sure—scramble for candy and hear them shriek when the fire trucks sound their alarm.
At my grandma’s urging, I entered our parade just after moving to Paxton at the age of 11, skeptical that anyone could just be in it; the parades I’d seen before were in cities, flaunting celebrities like Captain Kangaroo. I rode my ten-speed with red, white, and blue streamers woven through the spokes. Still, I felt conspicuous riding through the center of town on the street that used to be the Old Lincoln Highway, even though I held some insider status because my dad and grandma grew up there. I wasn’t yet used to being a part of the shared closeness of a town so small. But it would come. Ahead of me was the band float I would ride throughout my high school years as Mrs. Stokey held on when the flatbed trailer scraped the speed dips. Biking next to me was Scott—whom I would sit near in our K-12 school for the next six years—a few limp streamers haphazardly dangling from his handlebars. A few blocks away my grandma was organizing the flower show at the Community Center, though she took a break to watch me, she who always knew the place she belonged to.
Walking down Main Street after checking in, Ladette and I don’t stand out, or at least not to the point where we feel conscious of it. But I’m also sure people know we aren’t locals, simply because in a town this small they would know us if we were. It’s just past dusk and just barely chilly. The carnival has about five rides and a modest midway where we could throw a dart at a balloon to win a gaudy stuffed animal. There is one booth with live rabbits as the prize, and we stop to watch the sleek black and white bunnies twitch and sniff. I smell Polish dogs and cotton candy as we walk, inhaling fully as though I could contain the goodness, especially now when I feel most nomadic, when people tell me how lucky I am to be untethered, able to move anywhere.
We turn back once we reach the end of the street and share an undercooked funnel cake with powdered sugar on top. Then we ride The Tempest, the only adults in our car, asking the kids belted next to us if they know any of the pageant contestants. We are fascinated, watching every freshly-showered man who walks by in case we might recognize the farmer who’d been dressed in drag just an hour before. “Could that be Rosy Lane?” I ask Ladette when I see a man with rounded lips and face walk past just before the ride starts, and then everything blends until faces and hats and jeans are brush strokes around us.
The Tempest makes us queasy. The kids laugh at us, and we deserve it, sick from a little ride that barely raised us from the earth and cost three dollars. We need to sit and head to the bleachers set up behind the gates of the street dance. A polka band, the Urkowski Orchestra, is performing. The beer garden is in a lot next to the street dance and is pulsing with people, but we are too nauseous for beer or crowds. Instead we stay perched on the bleachers with older couples and get hypnotized in the rhythms of the polka dancers. The couples dancing fit so well together as they turn and step in sync that I feel exposed without a dance partner. For a moment I can imagine living here, selling tickets to the street dance while a husband in Wranglers sells Budweiser over in the beer garden.
For the rest of the summer this solitary feeling will linger as I host ten year high school reunion dinner where my classmates are as settled with mates as the polka dancers. I’m surprised the envy I feel is not from being single but from hearing the stories my former classmates tell from elementary school, before I moved there. Only six from our class of 16 show up to the reunion, and four of these were born in Paxton. I become acutely aware as I sit around the table filled with grilled pork and beef and the cheap Class of 1989 cake that there is a settledness among those at the table, even though none of us live in Paxton anymore. Being in graduate school, not sure when or where I will find a job that will take me away from my home, I am the least rooted of us all. Still, except for my brief stint in Oregon, the furthest anyone has gotten from Nebraska is down to Oklahoma. We stick around. One of my classmates moved to another small town in northeast Nebraska and married a man whose family owns a business there. They work at the Czech Festival each summer, she told me as we cut the cake, and probably will for the next thirty years. She lives in a spacious old, two-story house with her husband and six month old baby girl, and when I visit her and we walk Sophie around town, I ache, but I’m not sure if it’s for my past or my future.
At the Polish Days street dance a contest begins, and after calling for more entries, ten couples finally enter with numbered signs pinned to their backs. Later Ladette and I will find Miss Kielbasa, or Mike Krajewski, in the beer garden: the first person we asked pointed him out to us. Clad in a light blue polo, he is as affable as we could have hoped for. Tomorrow on the drive back to Lincoln we will become graduate students again, deconstructing the ways this pageant plays with gender in a small town. But for now all I want is to be here. There is an elderly couple seated beside us, and the woman tells us in a strong Polish accent that Number Nine will win because they are the best. And they do. I hear her husband ask, “Remember when the dance floor was full?” I have to stop myself from nodding in agreement; I can remember, even though I’ve never been here before.
Charlotte Hogg is Associate Professor and Director of Composition at Texas Christian University. She has published three books on rural literacies, including “From the Garden Club: Rural Women Writing Community” (University of Nebraska Press). Her creative nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Puerto del Sol, Clackamas Literary Review, and elsewhere.