the museum of americana

a literary review

The Billboard—Fiction by Maxim Matusevich  

Her name tag says “Gracemarie” and I’m guessing she must be in her mid-eighties. Not the bouncy, senior village-residing, golf cart-driving, bingo-playing, Caribbean-cruising eighties, but the heavy-duty eighties that make it necessary to continue one’s employment as a cashier at Walmart. Her movements are slow and deliberate, and I smile, make a show of assuring her: “No rush, no rush at all, take your time.” She wears a simple surgical mask, and I’m not certain if she smiles back. I choose to think that she does. It’s better to think that she does. 

Back in the Soviet Union, women retired at fifty-five, which was a weirdly early age to call it quits. But then again, in the USSR, the age thing was all screwed up. My battalion commander, Major Kustov, was a sad 42-year-old alcoholic who looked ancient—his skin was parched, his watery blue eyes blinked with a visible effort. Someone told me he died “of old age,” still in his forties, soon after my discharge. My mom had me at the age of twenty-eight and when she went into labor the maternity ward doctor wrote down “geriatric pregnancy” (старородящая) in her medical history. I first got married and became a father at twenty-one and that was considered normal. Most of the women I knew were married by the age of twenty, those who were not were probably getting nervous. But it’s not necessarily because of this peculiar Soviet ageism that Gracemarie’s continuing affiliation with Walmart (“Save people money so they can live better”) saddens me so. Is she that lonely? Does she need the money? Likely yes to both questions, and that’s sad and depressing, and an accusatory strike against the fictional city on a hill.

We make small talk, but Gracemarie’s voice is faint and barely audible through the mask, I have to strain to hear her words—what I don’t hear I try to guess. “A horrid weather,” she says. I politely disagree, which usually is an invitation for someone to ask the inevitable “Yeah? So where are you from?” And that’s when I come back in force with my Russian card: “I don’t mind snow, we love snow.” Yes, it’s that pathetic and desperate, but it works. Sometimes. But not with Gracemarie. 

My origin story is of no visible interest to her. She is busy scanning a packet of organic avocados, and shrugs: “What’s good about the snow? It gets dirty and it’s a pain to shovel the driveway. If you know what I mean.” She runs the avocados over the scanner. “Why are you wasting your money on this organic stuff? The regular ones are just as good and cost half of what you’re paying.” Is she actually practicing what the Walton family preaches in their corporate motto? 

In fact, I had no idea I had picked up organic avocados. I thought they were just, you know, avocados. But somehow admitting to this frivolity in front of Gracemarie seems inappropriate, even disrespectful. 

She is finally finished scanning and now we struggle a little with the credit card reader, a nasty miniature device that is determined to misrepresent my Visa credit as MC debit. I thank Gracemarie (I really think I’m trying too hard) for her efforts and wish her a wonderful day (trying too hard). She is sort of receptive to this wish and reciprocates in kind. “You too,“ she says. “Have a nice day. I hear the snow will all melt by tomorrow. Don’t we all need some good cheer during these messed up and crazy times?” I readily agree and manage to keep any further expressions of my snow affectations to myself. I also can’t help but wonder if our interpretations of “messed up and crazy times” overlap. But it’s not really that important, because Graciemarie has a piece of advice for me.

 “Are you driving back through Honesdale?” she suddenly asks. 

I nod. 

“That’s wonderful,” she says in a way that sounds strangely satisfied. “Take Route 6 north until you get to the fork in the road in Honesdale, right past the bridge. You’ll see a CVS on your left. And right next to it there is a billboard. I’m not gonna tell you what it is—just drive up to the CVS and you’ll see it. It’ll make you feel better. I promise, you’ll come back and thank me later.”

So…I leave the store and drive on Route 6 towards Honesdale, focusing on the traffic and trying hard to ignore the endless procession of “Trump 2020. No More Bullshit” yard signs. A strange sign when you come to think of it. No more bullshit…Fine. So why then…

Oh, whatever. The last traffic light by the bridge changes to green and a minute later I have crossed into Honesdale. As promised, the CVS is on the left. Right next to it is the billboard. Massive red letters of unknown font crowd next to each other against the field of white: In God We Trust. The billboard is guarded by a substantial but forlorn-looking wooden cross, its bulk wrapped in a mesh of shyly blinking Christmas lights. It is snowing again. I turn into Church Street and pull over, waiting for the message to hit the sweet spot and illuminate the darkness. Alas, it’s a miss. The statement of faith provides neither hope nor release. I can’t even pretend to feel anything. The crazy messed-up world is still out there, mysterious and dysfunctional as ever. The billboard falls short of its promise, it does less than nothing to me. It appears Gracemarie and I will have to agree to disagree on more than the relative benefits of excessive snowfall. But I’m still grateful. The billboard turns out to be a waste of time, but somehow our brief conversation by the cash register wasn’t.

 

~~~

Maxim Matusevich photoMaxim Matusevich is a historian of Africa and the Cold War. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, he moved to the US on the eve of the Soviet collapse. His work has appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Bare Life Review, MumberMag, Anti-Heroin Chic, BigCityLit, The Wild Word, Transitions, Foreign Literary, JTA, East-West Literary Forum, and elsewhere.

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