by Eric Beebe
Until I turned eighteen, my hometown of Kingston, New Hampshire seemed like the only place I’d ever want to call home. Its center is branded by a stretch of plains broken only by small byroads. The plains are lined with maples within and Colonial houses without. Bells ring on the hour from down the street at the Kingston Congregational Church, but Kingston’s iconic Church on the Plains has no more denomination than Depot Road’s cruciform telephone poles. My parents married in that church and have since dedicated countless fundraisers and committee meetings to keeping it restored.
The town still asserts itself as a somewhere in the middle of the nowhere. It’s hard to drive a mile without finding a sign harkening back to the time when Kingston was known beyond its trees as “Carriage Towne.” Transportation is no longer the town specialty, but retention could be. Kingston breeds mostly two kinds: those who found it the perfect town in which to grow up and never want to leave, and those less keen on the thought of staying that will never have much choice.
I was one of the former until I experienced Kraków’s market square when I volunteered in Poland the summer before college, and later witnessed the metropolitan rush of Montreal on a weekend with my dad at twenty. Now I’m racing to move somewhere with even a fraction of their sidewalk bustle, with anything to do after ten besides window-shopping at Wal-Mart.
The most exciting thing in Kingston is an annual festival on the plains called “Kingston Days,” where all the townies can gather and act like everyone really does know everyone. When I went as a kid, I’d climb the steps of the town’s old, retired bandstand and sit with the kids who starting smoking cigarettes in middle school and the high school stoners. I’d linger in hopes the kid who’d asked his mom’s permission to swear with friends in fifth grade could be a badass too if he just stayed long enough. Some of the badasses went on to get arrested in opiate rings, some to be parents, some to work, and some to go to college. None of that was far off from the kids at school that didn’t belong on the bandstand. I didn’t know where I belonged, but maybe they did. All I knew was where we were: some worn-out gazebo with chipping white paint and splintered seats, central to a town I thought I’d always call home.
I used to look forward to Kingston Days, they being the only three days of the year I could walk down the street and see anyone the town had to offer for company. We’d all gather at the elementary school on the first night of the event for fireworks. People would bring blankets and claim their own little patch of the field beside the playground, and we’d try to find our friends under the bursts of light overhead. The same faces just aren’t there these days, not even among the ubiquitous daytime market stands and games. The family friend who ran the strongman bell every year died last fall in a plane crash, and I haven’t seen my old rival from the pie-eating contest since I took the title of “Pie King” from him a few years back.
The last couple years, I’ve had to convince myself more and more to be bothered with defending that designation. Each time, I sit down at the competitors’ table with the King’s Crown: a bandana with a paper pie glued to its front. I shove my face into a disposable plate of chocolate pudding and whipped cream and slurp it up like an old vacuum before I stop to look at anyone else. I collect the First Place ribbon. Mom insists on pictures. I clean off and hand her my prize because, frankly, the memento means more to her than to me.
When it’s all over, I trickle out of the Days with the rest, like blood from the jugular of a slaughtered cow—probably Kingston’s spirit animal. I wonder to myself which make me sadder: the people who can’t make it out of this place or the ones who will never want to go anywhere else.