the museum of americana

a literary review

American People: Five Vignettes — Fiction by Rachel King

Author’s note: In 1956, Robert Frank traveled across America taking the photographs that later became the photography exhibit and book titled The Americans. While studying these photos, I wrote a series of fictional vignettes based on the images. The vignette titles correspond to those of Frank’s photographs.

 

Ranch market—Hollywood

Here we go again. Some lady wrapped in a silk shawl complaining about our high prices. You’re in Hollywood, I want to tell her. What did you expect? But I keep quiet, until she pauses, and then I repeat my question: “What would you like to order?” She looks at the steel racks. Pints of cold milk, packaged steak sandwiches. We’re the cheapest place for miles; she’s not going anywhere.

I hand her order to my friend, Sam, who’s slapping relish on a row of hot dogs. “I thought people ate hot dogs in the summer,” he mutters. I shrug and swing around to face the lady and wish her a perfunctory Merry Christmas. Our manager said we should smile when we say, Merry Christmas, “like Santa, on our plaque.” I study the plaque placed above the steel racks in between boards advertising steak sandwiches and hotdogs. I’ll let him do the smiling for me.

As I help the next customer, I bite at my thick, red lipstick. I’d been wearing it to show some Christmas spirit, but I didn’t have time to put it on yesterday. So many employees had asked me if I was sick or had told me I looked pale that, grudgingly, I’d worn it again today. Caked it on, really. Usually I savor the different smells—they aren’t so bad. I still eat the food here—but today all I smell is this lipstick. I wonder if now I’ll have to wear lipstick every day for the rest of my life.

I hand Sam another order. “Open your mouth,” he tells me. I crack my lips and he slides in a fry. Soaked with oil and crispy. Then the fry catches my lipstick, and I’m tasting lipstick and french fry. As I cough out the mush, Sam asks if I’m okay. “Be right back,” I say.

In the restroom, I wash my hands and dab off my lipstick. It takes two tissues and then I scrutinize my pale face, bushy eyebrows, brown hair. The others will be wondering where I am but I don’t care. I smooth my eyebrows and fit my finger into the indent between my chin and lips.

“What happened to the lipstick, lady?” Sam asks when I return. I take over the register, ignoring another where-have-you-been glare. Adjusting the white ribbon in my hair, I stare, steel-eyed, at the next customer and ask, “What would you like to order?”

This lady, who wears a fur coat, complains about our high prices. Here we go again. “You’re in Hollywood,” I tell her, as she searches for some other product to fuss about. “What did you expect?”

 

Belle Isle—Detroit

The moment Ben woke up he knew it would be a special day: they were going to Belle Isle for the first time in a year. At breakfast, he told his little sister she couldn’t go because it was a guy-only trip. When she whined, he said she was a baby, and his mom said his sister could make chocolate cake instead, wouldn’t that be fun? Women stuff, Ben said and went to wake his little brother, Troy. They waited on the stoop for their cousins, Jay and Isaac, and their uncle. They’d be riding in his convertible. Every time a friend passed and asked if they wanted to play, Ben said, Nah, we’re going to Belle Isle today and saw the jealousy on the kid’s face and was pleased.

In the car, Ben loved the wind against his face and arms and took off his shirt so he could feel it against his chest. He raised himself to his knees to feel it more forcefully and let it push him backward against Jay. Get off me, Jay said, and Ben elbowed him in the ribs. Wait ‘til we get into the water, Jay said. Yeah, you wait, Ben said. The car sped by houses and stores that ran together, and Ben told Troy they looked like his little brother’s paintings—all blurry. They zipped over the bridge too fast for Ben, who wanted to look at the river and pretend like he was swimming across, beating everyone else in a race. In the Belle Isle parking lot were more cars than he’d seen since Old Jim Keller’s funeral. Only a couple convertibles though. Looky there, Troy said, and the four boys followed his finger to a whole school of white kids. I’ve never seen so many, Troy said and squinted his eyes. Jay and Isaac were fascinated, too, but Ben wanted to go swimming. Clutching the back of the seat, he raised himself high and looked over his uncle’s head and his dad’s Sunday hat—Ben wanted to know why his dad wore his Sunday hat today but it was one of those questions his mom would have said, hush, so he hadn’t asked—and toward where black families walked, and through the trees a deep-blue sparkled and some kid sat on a dock, kicking his legs hard against the water. Ben smiled. Our swimming hole! Look! This time the other three boys’ eyes turned to follow where Ben’s finger pointed.

 

Bar—Las Vegas, Nevada

A man stands gazing at a list of song selections on a jukebox. It’s early morning, and light from the three round windows at the front of the bar spills onto the tiled floor. The tiles beneath his feet are torn, making a jagged edge where the jukebox sits. The light is harsh on his eyes; he’s had a long night—an average night in this town. He’s kept his shirt tucked in, and remnants of gel hold down his very black hair. Except for his face, which shows his too many beers, and his slouching posture, he might be ready for another night out. He’s spent his thoughts on gambles and can’t pick a song. “Earth Angel” played a while ago, but he wants something more upbeat, something to enliven him so he can drive north, home. His wife will have breakfast waiting—pancakes and eggs, good crispy bacon, not like the floppy stuff around here. She can’t complain. One of the lucky ones, he never loses. He never wins much, either, but he always breaks even.

Whenever they sat together in the his-and-her backroom, there were women from the reservation who drank ice tea and complained and made jokes about their husbands. They would ask his wife, “How does he do it?”

“He’s got good luck,” she’d say and grin. “Only Indians call breaking even good luck.”

“I call it good luck when my drunken man collapses on the couch and not the front steps,” another woman would say. And they’d all laugh.

The song titles in the jukebox finally come into focus. Hastily, afraid they’ll blur again, he chooses “Rock Around the Clock.” He turns his body away from the noise, the tune grating on his nerves. A young white man slides off a bar stool, whoops, and moves his body to the song’s rhythm. The light’s glare doesn’t hurt the man’s eyes as much now, or maybe he’s used to it. He rubs his pupils and spits on his hands and rubs the spit against his shoes to polish them. No matter how he’s feeling or how much money he’s got in his pockets, it’s important to look good. Listlessly his eyes search the bar for his ride. He knows he’ll have to hitchhike. No big deal, he thinks. Done it dozens of times before. Resisting the urge to sit down, he completes his hardest task of that day: pushing himself out the double doors and into the bright morning.

 

Elevator—Miami Beach, Florida

A lady, wearing a white fur, exits the elevator. She moves so quickly that she’s a blur. Another rider, a man wearing glasses, turns to exit, too. A shadow, he stands to one side of the elevator operator. The young woman leans toward the buttons, watches the exiting passengers, at something or someone outside the picture’s frame. It could be a man—a hotel patron who has ridden the elevator all week and with whom she’s now in love. He can’t be looking at her—her eyes are too sad. Or maybe he caught her looking at him. Either way, he didn’t notice she styled her hair for him today. All night she lay against curlers, and this morning her older sister molded a high, side wave into her shoulder-length brunette hair. “You look all grown up,” her sister said, but the young woman knows the man sees only her innocence. Maybe her naivete will be an incentive, but she doubts it. Each time he rides, he gives her a tip and a smile which may as well be a pat on the head.

This time, the man doesn’t get out on the main floor with the others. She hopes he wants to ride back up with her alone, to talk with her. She re-adjusts her white uniform and tries to think what she’d say. Nothing appropriate comes to mind. “I may be young, but I know how to do things,” she wants to tell him. She would never say this out loud. She kissed a boy only once, after prom last year. Her dad’s best friend, a janitor at the hotel, had warned her against this very thing when he got her the job. “I’ve seen girls fall for rich hotel patrons,” he’d said. “But you seem pretty levelheaded.”

The best scenario, she thinks, is this: without his asking, she takes him to his floor, floor nine. On the way up he adjusts his brown sweater and taps at the face of his old-fashioned pocket watch, as though everything can be solved between people by staying on schedule, keeping to a routine. On his way out he takes her arm, friendly yet firm, and leads her left out of the elevator toward his room. Even when they’re inside, he wouldn’t need to say a thing.

 

Picnic ground—Glendale, California

I’m outside the zoo, at a picnic table, when I see this guy skulking around with a pretty nice camera. I’m about to tell him that the lion, for once, isn’t sleeping, when he raises his camera and snaps a photo of me. I glance behind me where a boy running toward the zoo, and ahead, where two metal garbage cans sitting on bare ground. Not a great picture. The guy approaches and leans on a tree next to the picnic table. “Nice socks,” he says. “There’s better picture material in the zoo,” I say. “I doubt it,” says the man. He scans the terrain: the zoo sign in the distance; a hill ten yards from us, rising up out of the flatness, spotted with coniferous shrubs. “Animals don’t interest me.”

He’s silent, then, and seems comfortable in his silence. I wonder why he’s talking with me. I scoot to the edge of the picnic table—this guy’s standing too close to me, like some damn European—and I check my watch. Five more minutes until I go make more sno-cones. “Nice watch,” the guy says. Animals don’t interest me, either. Sure, they’re smart and strange but they have no history, and besides baseball and girls, history’s the only thing I care about. After my shift today, I go to my American history class at L.A. junior college. Someday I’m gonna teach high school history—probably ten years from now at the rate I’m taking these classes. I don’t mind, I’m in no hurry.

The guy offers me a cigarette but I shake my head no. He says he’s traveling all over the country taking pictures. He says maybe that picture of me will be in a photography exhibit. “A little piece of history.” I stand and re-tie my white apron and run a finger over my head’s bald strip that a friend shaved last weekend. “Not much history around here,” I say. I’ve studied Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs—those are historical; this is, well, nothing worth documenting. “There’s history in the mundane, too,” the guys says. “Yeah, well, I gotta get back to work,” I say.

As I walk toward the zoo, I wonder what used to be here fifty years ago—if green grass or trees actually grew in this desert. A red Buick Century is parked at the zoo’s entrance. Fifty years ago there weren’t cars; in fifty years would cars fly? A lady sporting a ridiculous white-feathered hat won’t let me pass her. In three months,no one will wear those hats. I take a mental picture of her and file it away.

 

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king_headshotRachel King studied English literature and Russian at the University of Oregon. She holds an MFA from West Virginia University. A native Oregonian, she currently lives and works in Northern Colorado.

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