Before I wrote my own story for In Sunlight or in Shadow, I took my time poring over Hopper’s work. I looked, not for the first time, at “Automat”—and all at once a story idea came flooding in.
There was only one problem. Kristine Kathryn Rusch had already called dibs on it.
I looked at her email, and hers struck me as a rather tentative dibs. So I wrote her, saying she certainly had first call on the painting, but if she wasn’t deeply committed to it…
She replied very graciously that she hadn’t even hatched a story idea yet, that any number of paintings would serve her as well, and that I should go right ahead and write my story. Not long after, she laid claim to Hopper’s “Hotel Room 1931,” and in due course she turned in, for publication under her Kris Nelscott pen name, this stunning work, with the title “Still Life 1931.” If I’d felt any guilt over having snatched “Automat” out from under her, it vanished forever when I saw what she’d come up with.
Here’s the painting, along with the first 1000 words of Kris’s story:
Still Life 1931
by Kris Nelscott
She first noticed outside Memphis: they didn’t ride segregated in the box cars. At the time, she was standing outside yet another closed bank. The line of aggrieved customers wrapped around the block—men in their dusty pants, stained workshirts, caps on their heads; women wearing low heels, day dresses, and battered hats.
Lurleen looked just different enough to attract attention. Her green cloche hat was a bit too new, her coat a little too heavy. Her shoes were scuffed just like everyone else’s, but hers were scuffed from too much travel, not age and wear.
She clutched the double handles of her brown duffel, and stared at the missed opportunity. The sign in the window had a desperate scrawl: Out Of Cash. Come Back Tomorrow. There was no date and no signature. She couldn’t tell if “tomorrow” was yesterday, three days ago, or truly, the next day.
And she didn’t want to ask the dusty, discouraged folks who stood in line like there was a chance there would be cash. She’d seen this in six other towns in the past two months, and each time, she was startled they weren’t smashing the glass windows, opening the doors themselves and taking what was left.
Maybe everyone in the crowd knew there was nothing left. Nothing left at all.
She sighed, wrapping her gloved fingers tight around the duffel’s thick handles, trying to act like the duffel was empty, waiting for cash instead of lined with it. She knew better than to travel with so much money, but she had no choice now.
She wasn’t sure which banks to trust, considering how many she’d seen shuttered and forlorn on her trip here. She worried that if she trusted all of her savings to one of these institutions, she’d never see another dime.
She understood why people were buying safes and putting them in their homes.
But she no longer had a home. Not any more.
She hadn’t sold the house. In the end, she’d seen no point. It had become little more than a shack. On bad days, wind blew through the cracks in the wall, filling the four rooms with more dirt than she could clean off in an afternoon.
By the time Frank had passed, she’d had enough of that place. After she’d buried him in the family plot, and packed up using the two bags from her travels before Frank, still clean and sturdy like they’d been used just the week before.
She’d taken undergarments, and one clean dress, choosing to buy new as she went along. She’d taken the money Frank had left her—all $200 of it, planning to retrieve her own money, along the way.
She’d made a mistake for love.
Women did that. They forgot themselves somewhere in the brown eyes and warm smiles, in the last chance for babies that never did arrive, and a future that promised some kind of comfort—which never did arrive either.
Before she’d met Frank, she’d been a solitary woman on a solitary road, doing good works as only she’d known how.
She’d been younger, more resilient, believing in human kindness, despite all she’d seen.
She squinted at the line, unmoving around that closed bank. She shook her head slightly. It would take only one sentence to turn that despairing crowd into a mob—venting its anger in the exact wrong direction, screaming blue murder.
One sentence, and its vile variations.
One sentence that she hoped she’d never hear again.
“He done it!”
They ran past her, screaming, fists raised, faces red. Lurleen pressed herself against the post near the general store, her dolly clutched in one hand. Her mama stood just inside the door, holding her sister Noreen’s arm. Noreen twisted away, trying to free herself, but she couldn’t.
Daddy wasn’t here. He was in Atlanta buying supplies for the store. Mama spent money on a telegram, but she didn’t hear back. And so Mama had to handle it, and Noreen lied.
Two nights ago, Noreen had been clutching and clawing with George Tarlin, telling Lurleen to stop watching because that was grown-up business. Lurleen tried to tell Mama it was George Tarlin, not that nice boy who sat near the tree on the bad side of town, reading books and asking after Lurleen’s dolly.
But Noreen, she said it was the nice boy. It’d always been the nice boy. And he’d been the one what hurt her. Not George Tarlin who slapped her across the face yesterday morning when she told him he couldn’t marry her without Daddy’s permission. No, she’d said that bruise was the nice boy.
Rumors spread like crazy and now everyone knew that Noreen was “soiled” and the nice boy done it and he was gonna pay.
He done it, they said. And he did pay.
He was the first one Lurleen saw, hanging from a tree outside of town. Eyes gone by the time she saw him, face half ripped off, clothes torn and covered in blood. After Daddy’d come home, she’d gone with him over Mama’s objections. Weak objections.
Mama wanted Lurleen to know what them nice boys could do.
So Daddy took her to the place where all the yelling and cheering had come from, and then he said he was sorry he done it. He made her sit in the wagon, eyes closed, while he went and done something to that body, something that sounded meaty, like an axe to a chicken neck.
And Noreen, she never was the same. She didn’t talk to no one, and they all said it was because of that nice boy, because of what he done. George Tarlin didn’t want her no more, because of what that boy had done.
But that boy didn’t do nothing.
Both Lurleen and Noreen knew that.
And the night before she died by her own hand with Daddy’s too-sharp razor, Noreen said to Lurleen, “Baby girl, you gotta know one thing. Lies, they can kill you. They can kill everything. Don’t you lie about what you done. Don’t you lie about nothing, you hear?”
And Lurleen, she promised.
She didn’t lie about nothing for a long time. Then she lied about everything.
Because, she’d slowly realized, lying about everything was the only way she could ever find the truth…
You can read the rest of Kris’s story, and 16 stories by 16 other distinguished writers, in In Sunlight or in Shadow. As for Kris, she possesses under several names a rich and remarkably diverse body of work which I commend to your attention.