My first beauty contest certainly wasn’t my idea. My ideas at the time generally consisted of trying to beat boys in foot races and kickball. And it wasn’t my family or some puppet master pageant hag, either. It was a teacher. Not so surprising when I browse back through the years. Almost everything rotten and self-destructive and shameful I ever got into I picked up at school and church. And most of the self-actualizing, educational, salvationary stuff I ever turned a hand to was something I picked up from psychos and criminals and whores and otherwise upright citizens stooping to illegal behavior.
But be that as it might, it was one of my teachers who said I should get entered into the Bible Baby contest. At the county fair, no less. This was fairly common in the time and place, actually. For years that was my whole idea of beauty contests: county and state fair things, kind of like pie-eating and greased pig chasing. Showing off the breeding of the prettiest little girls, right along with the prize hogs and heifers and ponies and tomatoes. Hang ribbons on our dreams and stand us up for the admiring throngs, out there admiring out thongs. Not really. The really tawdry stuff all came later.
I was generally considered adorable. Not that anybody adored me particularly, and some might have preferred to pinch my little golden head off, but they agreed that I was an adorable little thing just because of the way my face turned out.
So she mentioned it to my Ma and that was that. Daddy like to had a fit, which he didn’t do all that often, but she was dead set. She wanted me for a sunbeam, let that little light of mine shine. And she generally got her way. So I stuck a tiny toe into the shallow end of the pageant pool.
Of course we didn’t have a pot to piddle in, those days. But it wasn’t that hard to get up the outfit for the Baby Breeders Cup. I wore this simple white frock, handed down from Flora Lee by way of Selah. It was so worn it was soft as a downy duck, and bleached so white it darn near glowed in the dark. Just a soft, simple line from shoulder to toes, such a supple hand it flowed around me seafoam. Ma brushed my hair even more than the usual hundred strokes, and it just flowed down, too, each little filament floating off the others through sheer sheen. No jewelry, no cosmetics. Which some of those other little sluts were showing. No shoes.
The word that kept coming up was “angelic”. And I was, too, baby. You can scribble that down and take it straight to the bank. I’m surprised a big white hand didn’t come down from heaven, scoop me up, and slap me onto the ceiling of some chapel in Varona. Ma had a real genius for that sort of thing, unexpected since she generally looked like an unmade bed. And she was on a cloud. Her little angel. Ironic, you’d have to say, in view of, shall we say, subsequent chapters.
But there was no two ways around one thing: it lit Ma up like a Christmas wreath. I could see her out there, staring at me. Something swole up inside her, as she’d have put it, and beamed out of her eyes like high beams. I have never had anybody stare at me with more joy and love in my whole entire life. I was hooked. Ma had very, very little to light up her life and if I could do it, I was all in.
So I got into a lot of little beauty contests. It was easy and cheap at first. All I had to do was simper. But at some point you had to start having more in the way of clothes. (And later on, of course, less.) I think the first “bathing suit portion of the competition” I stood up for was when I was about ten Not a big deal, little girl’s suits were cheap enough at the dry goods store and Bethany could always wear them someday. Little one-piece tubes of offshore synthetics. Perfect, actually. And what happened, I didn’t win. In fact, I got shunned off stage.
I’ve given it some thought and have no idea why it occurred to me to just reach back and pull the hind end of my sweaty little suit up into my crack: it just seemed like the way to go. It was pretty obvious to me that the suits were so people could see more of my perfect little bod, so I figured I’d go with the play, maximize it. I guess. Or possibly the Devil got into me and made me do something stupid and catastrophic without knowing why. Highly likely, matter of fact. Not the last time, either.
So here’s all these other little hick town mini-hunnies prancing upstage and doing their turns, and I’m like second from last because of my height and I shoot those clucks the moon. That whole “tanga” look was rather a novelty in rural Georgia in that day and time, and most especially on the dimpled buttocks of the see-saw set.
Another one of those foreshadowing things, that’s pretty clear. The first time I flashed my ass on stage, first time I shocked a bunch of simpletons into silence and outrage. But the last time I ever got the heave-ho.
And it wasn’t just the Fairest of the Fair under-nubile division judges and personages that failed to hide their distaste for my little dumpling show, either. Remember the whole thing about me being a PK? Well there were a lot of very forward-thinking, progressive churches around the South by those days, but few of them would have brought my Daddy into their bosoms, and the crummy little clapboard chapel and run-down parsonage we called home in my tenth year was definitely not among the liberal legion. I went from being Angelic to Junior Jezebel overnight. In a matter of a few seconds, actually.
I didn’t come out of it too bad myself. Ma actually seemed to find it funny, but I picked that up by radar vibe, because she wouldn’t let it on. Bethany was horrified, didn’t speak to me for weeks, and was ostracized by the snitty little bitches she cultivated at school. Flora Lee was actually impressed. Probably the first time she’d ever looked up to any of my foolishness. I had mixed reviews at school and Sunday school, some of the girls snooting on me (but pretty careful not to say anything that might end up with them on the ground with my pink sneakers on their face) and some thought I was some superstar of famous raciness.
Who suffered most was Daddy, which I deeply regretted but couldn’t figure out how to make it better without mentioning it, which I immediately figured out I shouldn’t do. I figured it was going to be long stints of him praying over me and preaching on me, but that didn’t happen. We just kind of got distant, which of course was worse than getting my fanny tanned with a hazel switch. Much worse.
The congregation, let’s say, did not overflow with a spirit of Christian forgiving. There was no opportunity to turn the other cheek. I’d already done enough of a cheek turn to last them a good while. The good wives of the flock treated me like some sort of morals marauder. Years and years later I was telling the story to these girls I used to run Melrose with and one of them said, “Those psalm-singing old skanks knew all their husbands couldn’t think of anything but getting their hands on your buns, hon.” I’d never thought of that before. I’d been thinking of it the way I did at the time, like a lapse of decorum and indecent exposure. But the grown-ups, one way or the other, all interpreted as a sexual broadcast.
So it definitely impacted Daddy’s vocation in a big, bad way. Alienated his spiritual charges, polluted the witness of his family with the seeds of forni-porn, got him relocated to an even worser congregation off in some tobacco-shed hell with red clay underfoot and sunburn up top. And that was after a typical period of unemployment where he was drifting around trying to live my ass down while we huddled under the somewhat begrudging wings of a couple of wet hen aunties and cousins. I was a major Jonah for that poor man and what’s worse, it just got worse.