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There’d be pictures of hunting dogs and shotguns and soapbox-derby cars. There’d be playing cards and fishing gear and funnies from the Sunday paper: Gasoline Alley-to-Dagwood. Paste ‘em up with school glue. There’d be a close-up of a trout breaking the surface, vested in a hand-tied fly. There’d be a wire waste basket, looking like an upended fish trap. There’d be a small calendar from a carnival company, trumped by a larger one urging church attendance. The smaller illustration is about the alacrity of hillbillies. The larger one depicts a family entering a modern church, hand-in-hand. The family is slender and scrubbed clean and uniformly dressed, the way we were when God was into grooming.
And you can see, too, that the workers began to lose interest in style, and slowly returned to utility. They hung tools and stencils and chunks of equipment over the faces of starlets, because that’s where the hooks were located. Fashion ran its course with them, the fever broke. Here was a rash of domesticity that could no longer take the itching.
Today the pictures in the shack are touchstones, dim little lozenges of light. My favorite is a print of a cowgirl starlet. It’s glued to the east wall, just past the potbelly stove, not quite visible from the door. Some knucklehead long ago picked at its left edge, enough to gain a grip, then tried to rip it from the wall. He got about half of it, including most of the girl’s mid-section, forehead and hands. She’s now a double amputee, witless and gutless. But what survives is a wonderfully-buoyant smile, floating above its cheesy context. Was it this concentrated smile that sent the ripper packing, made him lose his nerve? It would otherwise have been easy to finish the job.
So this is the miller’s shack. Without temperature and humidity controls, its décor will continue to crumble. Still, the state keeps the water out, and that almost makes it a fair fight. What it can’t endure is traffic, which is why its only working door is locked, why its contents are viewed through glass. Its walls already seem flimsy, hidebound. The place is a mirror losing its silver; already few of us can see ourselves there. It’s a shrine to mannerism. It’s like a core sample drilled through the heart of the 20th Century, the very center of the century, where I was born a Capricorn.