I spend a lot of time on the floor behind the deli counter at Buford’s Grocery, watching the top of the case where the heads of customers emerge between big jars to talk to Momma. Most of the jars hold bologna ropes, pickled pigs feet, snouts, ears, liver, giblet slop that old men eat. But today they’re full of coins and wadded dollar bills. They’re for a contest to find the prettiest girl in the county.
Taped to the front of the jars are pictures of girls I know from school. Whoever gets the most money by the end of the month will be crowned Little Miss Buford in the parking lot out by the gas pumps. The winner gets a big Christmas ham and a picture on the front of the meat case.
There’s usually at least one money jar on the deli counter at any given time because somebody has an emergency. Momma explains their fundraisers as she slices meat for customers. One month the jar is for the old school lunch lady Mrs. Weaver whose cancer under the bandage on her nose has grown back into her brain. Then it’s for Danny Hogg’s leukemia, which he has to go to Lexington for because he’s only five and the Pikeville hospital doesn’t know how to take care of all these kids with leukemia. Or somebody’s trailer burned down out in Wayne holler. Somebody’s trailer is always burning down out in Wayne holler. And there are funeral expenses. Between the box and the hole and the stone that goes on the top, it costs a lot of money to get a body released from Indigent Burial Services. “So sad,” Momma says back and forth to the customers all day. Sitting behind the counter with her, I shake my head, too. “So sad” is a good thing to say while customers wait for their pickle-loaf slices.
I’ve never seen as much money in one place before as what’s collected for the Little Miss Buford contest. It’s like a fundraiser, but nobody has to die. Grandfathers of contestants come in to empty their pockets into the jars. Grandmothers stand barely taller than me on the other side of the meat case and sigh up at their granddaughters’ beautiful pictures and ask who the daddies of the other girls are and where they got off to. Momma takes the jars down one by one at the end of the day and locks them in the back storeroom for safekeeping.
“Where’s your jar?” an old man asks me with a wink, and tucks a twenty-dollar-bill into his own granddaughter’s jar. But besides telling me I don’t have to talk to a man just because he wants me to, Momma says I can’t enter beauty pageants. Maybe it’s because she knows I wouldn’t win, since my grandparents are already dead and don’t shop at Buford’s. So when old men heads gawp between the pig parts jars, I just shake my head no at them until they say “So sad,” and order a slop of giblets.