Side A Fiction: “In Pictures” by J.T. Price

In Pictures

When girls asked who her father was, sometimes Norma Jeane said she didn’t know, and sometimes said she’d only seen him once, in a photo, and sometimes that her father was Clark Gable, the man in the photo. She said she could tell by his moustache, the way he styled his hair, and the cleft in his chin. He was a much younger man then, after all, as the photo was taken a long time ago, before Norma Jeane was even born. She had seen in photographs of her mother, and of Grace too, how a person’s face can change over time. It was actually a little scary, how someone could stop looking like herself.

The girls at school asked to see the photo of Norma Jeane’s father, but no, that wasn’t going to be possible, she felt awfully sorry. Norma Jeane wished she could, but she wasn’t allowed. The truth was Grace, her mother’s best friend before her mother went away, would have let Norma Jeane bring friends over to the house, at least once in a while. But to say she couldn’t was a nice way to tell the story and leave off exactly where she wanted.

Since, even now, as a grown up practically, or at least getting closer, Norma Jeane was still shuffling between homes. Aunt Ana wasn’t in the best of health anymore. So Norma Jeane had moved to Grace and Doc’s house in Van Nuys. Doc was Grace’s new husband, and Bebe Grace’s teenage daughter, sort of like a sister to Norma Jeane. At least that’s how Grace said Norma Jeane ought to think of her.

A neighbor boy—or maybe it was OK to call him a man—Jimmie Dougherty drove Norma Jeane and Bebe to high school in the mornings and back again in the afternoons.

He drove a black V8 Ford Coupe and lived just down the street. His mother was a good friend of Grace’s. It was his own car that he’d purchased from nights at the Lockheed plant. He was mostly free during the day, and liked to drive around town to impress girls.

It was Grace’s idea that Norma Jeane ought to go to the Christmas dance at Doc’s workplace with Jimmie.

It was as if Grace were showing Norma Jeane how a girl can tell a story by the way she lives, just invent the story all around herself. It felt to Norma Jeane as if probably Grace used to speak to her mother when they were younger in much the same way, inventing a wild, exciting world where practically anything could happen one minute, anything else the next.

What Norma Jeane needed to do, Grace said, was find a nice boy to marry. Because Doc’s company might relocate him soon, and if he relocated, Grace and Bebe would leave with him. Didn’t Norma Jeane want to stay near Hollywood?

Why, there was practically a war on, and all the boys would be shipping out and probably wishing for a wife back home to think about and return to! Why not our neighbor boy Jimmie? Grace asked, with a wink.

Oh, but Jimmie was her friend, and he was too old, practically a man, whereas Norma Jeane was only fifteen.

But you are grown up in all the ways that matter, said Grace.

Jimmie was going with another girl, Norma Jeane knew, a girl right around his own age, and not five whole years younger, and in high school, like she was. But what Norma Jeane told him was how all the wolves honking at her in the morning and calling out their windows made her very nervous and so she appreciated his letting her ride with him. Bebe, sitting in the backseat, rolled her eyes.

With the dance only a week away, Grace said that Norma Jeane had to ask Jimmie to take her. But Norma Jeane couldn’t do it. Because she couldn’t think of just the perfect way to ask.

When it was clear Norma Jeane wasn’t going to be able to do what Grace told her to do, Grace came out of the house on a sunny afternoon as Norma Jeane and Bebe were exiting Jimmie’s coupe. She approached the window and asked on Norma Jeane’s behalf whether Jimmie wouldn’t be willing to take her to the dance since she needed someone responsible to look after her. It was about the most embarrassing thing, and Norma Jeane guessed her face probably showed it, with the expressions a total jumble, reeling through every possible outcome at once. Oh, she needed a chance to prepare herself for a moment like that! How can a girl possibly make a pretty picture when she feels so many different things at once.

Jimmie said yes, sure. He wouldn’t mind.

Over the next several nights, Grace instructed Norma Jeane on just how to dance with him, where she ought to place her body “in relation to” his. She asked Norma Jeane to practice the steps with her, and said, “No, closer. Closer. Yes, that way, so you’re very close,” as Grace’s husband Doc looked on with an expression that made Norma Jeane feel kind of nauseated. When it was time for a slow number, Grace said, why, Norma Jeane ought to rest her cheek on his chest in the way she would show her.

And so Norma Jeane did as she was shown, and in front of the eyes of all the adults in the professional world, tall, wide-chested James Dougherty danced with her in a perfectly patient and doting way. Norma Jeane moved close to him just as Grace said she should and for as long as Grace said she should, maybe longer.

Less than a week later, a FOR SALE sign planted on their front lawn, Grace invited Jimmie and his mother over for a visit. Right in front of Norma Jeane, she asked him whether he didn’t want to marry Norma Jeane, being that Grace and Doc and Bebe were leaving town? Since he, Jimmie, was probably going to ship off to war wouldn’t it be nice for Norma Jeane to have somewhere to live?

“Well, how do you feel about that, NormaJeane?” Jimmie asked her. The way he said her name, all the sounds bunched together and voiced like a question, made Norma Jeane blush.

She looked at Grace, and Grace alone, and asked in front of everyone else whether it would be possible to get married without having sex, at least right away?

“Don’t worry,” said Grace. “You’ll learn.”

Norma Jeane stood up and hugged Jimmie, pressing her cheek to his breast in just the way Grace said she should, as Grace and Doc and Bebe and Jimmie’s mother and Jimmie himself watched her. Only now she really wanted to inhale him, to treat his body like her home, if a body could ever be a home.

Jimmie followed her to her bedroom where they sat together a couple of feet apart on the bed, the door to the hallway left open. And they spoke for a while about what lay ahead, voices low, and how certain Jimmie was he’d be joining the fight overseas. After Pearl Harbor it was clear what he had to do. As a Lockheed worker, he had received a governmental deferment, but soon enough, he knew, he’d sign up. It felt like there was almost a shiver connecting them, the way when he shifted on the bed she would feel it underneath her, and neither of them had to say anything to know the other was aware.

Norma Jeane peered at this brave guy sitting right in front of the framed photograph on her bedside table of the man who supposedly was her father.

Maybe that man was only someone who wanted to look like Clark Gable, as maybe everyone in and around Hollywood was only somebody trying to look like someone else. Maybe Jimmie was about the only guy pleased just to be himself.

So she became Norma Jeane Dougherty. They got married and moved in together and Grace, Doc, and Bebe left for West Virginia, and Norma Jeane gave her virginity to Jimmie but they were lawfully wedded and it was fine.

Jimmie had a very nice body, a broad chest with red hair, and he was very involved with his physical fitness, dedicating almost as much time to it as Norma Jeane did before a mirror.

In certain respects, Norma Jeane could see, that was all Jimmie was thinking about too—although he said all that stuff about a man having to be strong, and wanting to be capable for the war. She said, “Oh, Jimmie, that’s awfully silly, are you sure you aren’t just thinking about your looks? There’s nothing wrong with that, you can tell me.” He became really stern with her in the way he did when he was cross, and she didn’t say anything like that again.

He would hold her the way she liked, big spoon to her little spoon, though Jimmie joked there was nothing “little” about her. Norma Jeane loved him very much. She did. She told him she felt safe around him when he held her in the way that she liked. And she loved how he always said her name rushed together like a question: “NormaJeane?”

She liked how he smelled, especially after a run, which he was always going out for, even on the hottest days.

Norma Jeane performed the part of housewife. She cooked Jimmie’s meals and poured his drinks. When Jimmie’s brother and his brother’s fiancé came over, and Jimmie asked Norma Jeane to prep their drinks, she went to the fifth of whiskey that Jimmie’s brother had left on the counter and with her body blocking the view of the tall glasses because she wanted to get it just right, she measured out the fifth equally between the four glasses, emptying the bottle to the last drop, then added only about three quarters of one bottle of Coca-Cola evenly on top so that the glasses were full.

Norma Jeane brought the drinks over on a tray, and when Jimmie’s brother took the first sip he immediately spit it across the table. How was she supposed to know a thing like how to make a drink if nobody bothered to show her?

That same night, as a prank, Jimmie’s brother snuck off to the pantry and peeled all the labels from the cans, so that for the next month she and Jimmie didn’t know what they were having. Jimmie would say, “What’s for dinner?” and Norma Jeane, laughing very hard, would say, “Mystery can!”

It was funny, wasn’t it, how a moment like that could seem to stand for other moments, could draw so much of what happened afterwards right inside of it? How it became almost like a symbol of something that a girl would think back to later with great tenderness and almost longing. But to recognize a symbol like that, and more importantly to feel it, she had to get outside of it first, and look back, the way she would a moving image.

Even if it was only a moving image in her mind, one that she alone of all the people in the world could see. Well, she and Jimmie.

He noticed how she spelled his name with an “-ie” at the end. Whenever he wrote his name, he usually wrote “James” but he said he’d always thought of himself as a “Jimmy.”

Well, Norma Jeane had changed her name an awful lot too. She had tried on different last names, and even different spellings of her first names, sometimes “Jeane” like her mother put it on her birth certificate, and sometimes “Jean” as in Harlow. What was the harm in a little changing around? A person could do what they liked, be who they liked. It was easy to end discussions like how a name ought to be spelled by getting near to him so he showed his pleasure with her and reached for her. It was a pleasure to be held like that in a very strong grip and afterwards in the quiet of their breathing.

When Norma Jeane asked Jimmie who he thought she was, he said, “A gentle person, a quiet person, a very sweet and passive person. Sometimes, though, NormaJeane, I think you’re like two people. That’s the Gemini in you. Sometimes I look and see NormaJeane. Other times, I’m not sure who I see when you look so deep in thought. That’s when I worry. I don’t know why you go to the trouble of so much thinking.”

He took a photo of her at the zoo in front of two penguins because penguins are monogamous and when they mate usually it’s for life, or so Jimmie said.

Norma Jeane loved Jimmie very much. She did. She started to run just the way that he ran. Usually in the mornings while Jimmie was sleeping off a night at Lockheed. He made good money, enough to support them both. She started to lift weights, too, little barbells, much smaller than those he used.

They went to the movies, all the time. Whenever it felt like they didn’t have anything to say to each other, they could go to the movies and step outside with a rush of new feelings and look at each other glowing and in love, even if the movie was about the war.

Norma Jeane didn’t really see any of her old girlfriends anymore. Mostly because they were all still taking classes at high school, and besides, what could they possibly talk about? Recipes for lemon pie? The best way to ration? How to keep a husband from becoming cross? She turned sixteen years old, and Jimmie presented her with a cupcake.

Jimmie loved Norma Jeane’s lemon pie, he said, and so she started to make them all the time. She could follow a cookbook just fine, but her favorite meal was steak, beets, and carrots because of all the canned meals it was the one with the nicest spread of color. Jimmie laughed at that, but it was true—why shouldn’t the colors matter?

One afternoon he returned from driving around and said he’d gone and enlisted in the Navy. Done everything but sign the final papers.

Norma Jeane cried and cried, and Jimmie got down on the sofa next to her and held her. “You’re leaving me,” she said to him, surprised at how upset she felt. She repeated it over and over until, very solemnly, Jimmie said, “Then I won’t go.”

A couple of more weeks passed, and Jimmie came to her again and said if he joined the Merchant Marine he’d be home more often. All his friends were joining up and he couldn’t stand it, to be left stateside while all his buddies went off to fight.

She said yes, she had to, or else she knew Jimmie wouldn’t be happy. He signed up with a ship’s company, and they made him physical fitness instructor. He and Norma Jeane got to live together for several months on Catalina Island in government lodging, and it was just wonderful being that close to the beach, an absolute dream.

They posed for a picture together, the two of them, he in his Merchant Marine uniform with a little white cap and two sailor’s ribbons tied at his neck like inverted rabbit’s ears, and Norma Jeane in a white jumper with her hair done up under a shawl like a much older woman would wear, the at-home war wives Norma Jeane had seen in pictures.

She told him that she wanted a baby. They were naked and pressed against each other. She told him all at once, “I want you to leave me with a part of you.”

He blinked and didn’t seem to know how to answer, and Norma Jeane became conscious of how intensely she was staring at him. It felt as if he were her entire life. A baby would be proof.

But he shook his head. “There’ll be plenty of time,” he said. “After the war.”

“Please,” Norma Jeane said, and she could feel the tears welling up, “I can feel that it has to be now, Jimmie. I can feel it has to be now for us to have a baby.”

He eyed her in silence, her naked self, her most confident self, where everything was in the open and there was no need, really, to pretend about anything, because everything was obvious and right there.

“We can’t afford it, NormaJeane. It costs enough to keep you in nice clothes. How are we gonna support a baby too? Let’s wait. Let’s wait until I’m home and around the house to help out.”

Jimmie took a black-and-white photo of her standing on the beach, with her legs fit perfectly together and her arms extended a little bit from her sides. She was wearing a dress with flowers on it that fit perfectly, a very modern cut high up on her legs, and in the photo she looked like a perfect girl, all grown up. Like Jimmie’s perfect girl. It was the photo he’d take with him while he was overseas.

After Norma Jeane said goodbye to Jimmie at the port with all the other sailors and their mothers and sisters and girlfriends, she moved in with Jimmie’s mother, and Jimmie’s mother got her a job at the Radioplane factory. It was kind of funny, wasn’t it, about Radioplane? The company was owned by a real-life movie star named Reginald Denny, and it was Norma Jeane’s job to brush dope on the Radioplane, which were small aircraft that could fly without a pilot.

The military was ordering a whole bunch to use as targets for target practice, and it was Norma Jeane’s job to use the dope to attach the parachute fabric that would open when one of the small planes got hit and started to fall from the sky. What a thing it was to have her own job, and earn her own money, and not have to rely completely on Jimmie. In a way, it made her feel closer to him. It made her feel more like him, to have thoughts she imagined he must have had too.

She wrote a letter to him every day. And she wrote to Grace who had recently moved by herself to Chicago for film work, separate from Doc. She let Grace know how perfectly in love she and Jimmie had turned out to be, and how grateful she was to Grace for bringing them together. She wrote how much like a mother Grace had been to her, a fact Norma Jeane would never, ever forget.

Norma Jeane had delightful apple cheeks, and eyebrows styled in the latest fashion, and curly brown hair like a doll’s hair all in a mop on her head, and maybe a nose that was a little too big, and a jawline that she felt was a little too round when she compared it to how her favorite movie actresses looked on screen.

Living alone with Jimmie’s mother and writing letters to Jimmie every day—letters she’d hear back from only a couple of times a month—Norma Jeane got to thinking, as the words flooded out of her, about being in pictures, more and more about being in pictures, what an escape it would be from the feelings inside of herself she didn’t want.

When the army private showed up at Radioplane one afternoon and asked Norma Jeane whether she would like to appear in photographs for an army magazine, why, she knew someone had been listening to her wishes. The man introduced himself as Private David Conover, sent by “Captain Ree-gun’s office,” and said, without even a moment’s hesitation, that the camera loved her.

“Norma Jeane,” he said, stating her name calmly and all spaced out the regular way, “Have you ever thought about going into the modeling profession?” She felt undeniably alive in front of the lens, her lips dry from smiling so much so that she had to rewet them. David Conover spoke of his wife, said modeling was strictly a business proposition, a way for a girl like Norma Jeane to earn a better living. “I have a lot of contacts,” David Conover said. “I’d be more than happy to put you in touch.”

In touch. Yes, Norma Jeane said, yes, she’d love that, she’d love nothing more. David returned the next day to take photographs only of Norma Jeane, talking to her the whole time, telling her how lovely she was. He gave her the number for a modeling agency, a business run by a lady named Emmeline Snively.

When Norma Jeane saw the photographs, she wanted to cry for how beautiful they were, in such color. That was her, her green blouse and long gray skirt, ruby red lipstick, a Radioplane ID pinned to her waist as she held up the propeller for the red remote-control aircraft. Her curly brown hair like a doll’s hair in a corona all around her head. That was Norma Jeane, completely separate from her sadness, no longer in black-and-white and alone on the beach waiting for someone to come home, someone she heard from hardly ever.

So even if Jimmie’s mother wasn’t happy about the photos, or when Norma Jeane paid to have her hair straightened and dyed blond, that was fine. It was Norma Jeane’s life, not Jimmie’s mother’s! She couldn’t make herself fit into the box of that woman’s expectations.

In modeling everything was revealed for what it in fact is: a variety of make-believe. She could call herself whatever she wanted to call herself and that’s how people would speak to her. Jean Norman. Or Mona Monroe. Monroe was her mother’s maiden name.

She waited for word from Jimmie and she waited some more. He was stationed on the Yangtze River outside Shanghai, which she recognized was very far away. But when his next letter finally reached her, impossibly, a magazine with her photograph had made it all the way around the globe to him.

She couldn’t believe it!

She was so excited for what he might tell her.

It is a tough business, he wrote, probably about the toughest in the world. All the boys here love the pictures. But when I cover your mouth and look only at your eyes, Norma Jeane, all I see is sadness.

Well.

Didn’t that sound almost like a challenge?

Why, how many more pictures she could take, more than Jimmie could possibly imagine.

Then let him see, let Jimmie see, whose sadness it really was, how far it could possibly follow.

Mini-interview with J.T. Price

HFR: Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?

JTP: Sure, a sustained one. For several years in high school, I was unwell in a bodily sense—for almost the entirety of my high school years, in fact. I didn’t really grow like the rest of my cohort, and developed an extremely pronounced sense that I was, in that time, somehow ‘other’ than I was, than I would be, once better; I made the no doubt deeply formative decision, as a young person, to keep what I was going through almost entirely to myself. I mean, my family knew, and pitied me, which at a certain level I kind of hated—I wanted to grow into a bold and capable man, not be seen as the 4’11, 93 lb. dependent I was—and a few of my friends knew too, although these weren’t really kids emotionally equipped to understand what I was going through. To be fair, I wasn’t really emotionally equipped to understand what I was going through either. Except that I did have a lot of emotions. As I now see, in my great and abundant wisdom, to have been a condition general across high school. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Blind Melon, The Lemonheads, Pearl Jam, the Singles soundtrack were a source of commonality then, something to rally around. During that interval, years both painfully and undeniably real and also, at the same time, suffused with a belief that nothing of my actual future life had really begun yet, I grew extremely attached to books (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, their biographies, Salinger, a copy of Charles Baxter’s Believers my aunt sent me, Willa Cather’s My Antonia) and certain storytelling musicians too, specifically, Bob Dylan. My dad waited until after I had graduated and was on a gurney on my way to surgery to pass along what became the first Dylan disc I ever owned. After I woke up, half-in and half-out of consciousness, feeling like a Thanksgiving parade float above my own body, and convinced at last, even with the rawness left in my throat from the tubing docs had put there, that here, now, finally, real life was set to begin, I managed to hit ‘play’ on my Discman. And there came Bob singing about levees overflowing and masterpieces on the Spanish stairs. Peeking through a keyhole down upon your knees. The Mighty Quinn. I was in this cottony painkiller darkness with a wound in my side and there, a voice reaching across. This is also right around when I started to write my own fiction, which I took, at that time, as the most incredibly serious thing a person could do in life. Ok, now, what’s the question again?

HFR: What are you reading?

JTP: I find myself in probably the most advanced state of readerly promiscuity of my adult life. Usually a straight-thruer, one-at-a-time type, I’m currently hopping between something like twelve different books. Among these are James Hannaham’s Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, Zain Khalid’s Brother Alive, Robert Coover’s A Public Burning, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, a debut novel someone sent me called After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz, J. Ryan Stradal’s Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club, Christine Sneed’s funny Please Be Advised, Martha Southgate’s Hollywood-centered Third Girl from the Left, and shamefully, only when I’m on the subway because it is easy to carry in a coat pocket, that George R.R. Martin book they based the Dragon series on. Reading so many books at once, and never quite getting to the end of any of them is “a matter of infinite hope,” as that Fitzgerald line goes, but not so much a sustainable one. I’m also reading a whole slew of submissions for the Brazenhead Review and way too much midterm election coverage. Some good will come of this. At least I don’t see any point to professing otherwise.

HFR: Can you tell us what prompted “In Pictures”?

JTP: The story is excerpted from my novel manuscript, A Leading Man, which I drafted in 2020. What I managed during the pandemic. It’s set in World War II era, Golden Age Hollywood and revolves around young actor and outspoken member of the Hollywood left Ronald Reagan, as well as the actress Jane Wyman and their family. I learned, probably from Karina Longworth’s great food-for-the-imagination podcast You Must Remember This, in maybe 2018, that Reagan had a very glancing part in the discovery of the woman we usually call Marilyn Monroe, or Norma Jean Baker. That spark, I’d guess, set off my interest and is how she found her way into the novel. The manuscript, among other things, is about someone in a state of incipience, of becoming, even when he doesn’t quite recognize what he’s becoming, as he longs, or more like sort of believes in an almost religious way he will receive his due, i.e. that his hard work as an actor and general steadfast worthiness will be rewarded with secure and undying fame. A place in the firmament. Which it turns out, as Marilyn Monroe could tell us, if maybe not Norma Jeane Dougherty—the person she was, or really the child she was at the time of her

first marriage before she became who she became—isn’t actually how undying fame works. A lot of my fiction, apparently, is about states of incipience. Who can say why.

So that’s where I went to try and understand the woman who made herself into Marilyn Monroe. Definitely someone ahead of her time, whose enormous and continued presence on screen and in the American psyche has rippled across years and decades. Three quarters of a century now. Really, so many ways in which we understand ourselves as contemporary Americans found expression in her performances and in her life. Plus, she spoke well of Brooklyn, which, holy shit, was she ahead of the curve on that one or what?

The story is mainly about the precarity of her life then, and also this foundational relationship about which so much of what came later appears to have been somehow both longing to return to and rebelling against. I wanted to get across that this pairing, while in some longer-term sense impossible, at least without a revolution in the consciousness of both parties—Norma Jeane, clearly enough, was ready and willing to change—did, too, contain these moments of joy and fond remembrance. Even if they ultimately never spoke again.

Jeff Mangum wrote his album about wishing to go back and save Anne Frank. So “In Pictures” must be my attempt, however errant and hopelessly self-involved, to go back and rescue Norma Jeane. I know I’m not the first, won’t be the last.

HFR: What’s next? What are you working on?

My former readerly steadfastness aside, my dilemma as a writer has always been having too many ideas and wrestling with the question of which one I had best commit to. The ‘Reagan novel’ is something I talked myself into very slowly over multiple years, inching in with the research, then upping the pace as I made a full dive into that world and that time. For the entire period during which I was drafting it, I only read or watched fare either set in or made during the years I was writing about. So as far as what’s next? I’m doing my best to return to the present. Something, I’d guess, that requires less research. Though never say never, and I’ve been wrong about what’s next before.

HFR: Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?

JTP: A Leading Man grew out of the Trump era, as I wrestled with how the fucking hell we got to where we were as a country, where we still are, are maybe trying to break our way out of, and also with what I guess I’ll call the necessary performance of self that goes hand-in-hand with our social media-driven age. People have always performed themselves, yes, some more consciously than others, but I guess what I was despairing of, or trying not to completely despair of, was the learned inclination for people to identify primarily as users of social media platforms over and above any sense of self as citizens in a democracy. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon—publishing a novel is as much a form of platformed existence as standing in front of the cameras for Warner Brothers in the 1940s—although maybe it has gotten more pervasive, more insidious, as we collectively feed ourselves into the big machine. It isn’t just ourselves we see there. It’s Mom, Dad, baby June, the family dog, Carpe, too. In a serious way, I feel like this state of political in extremis we find ourselves in is the story of a generation attempting to sort out what exactly it is the giant social media apparatus taking a great big seat on our collective consciousness has done to us. John F. Kennedy Jr., all our country’s squandered potential, will come home soon to save us from evils we can scarcely imagine, the pornographic squalor, or whatever. Climate change isn’t real if you choose to deny all. All the paranoia, the conspiracy mongering, the rage, the baiting of rage, and reward for stoking those fires is kind of built in to these expressly capitalistic (although, as we have recently seen, not necessarily undying) social media platforms, and our sense that dark things we don’t entirely understand are happening behind closed doors as we are lied to in public over and over again, or collectively played for fools. I mean, do we know how to code? No, most of us do not. So we’re going to be in the dark on some things. Perhaps many things. Politicians are meant to be the faces of public accountability in a democracy, and so they get blamed, tarred with various projections, sometimes well-merited. I’ve probably projected all over Reagan, the poor guy. The Dems, the Dems, the Dems. Everyone has to be either a saint or a demon. Even as everyone I’ve ever met is, to a person, surprise surprise, imperfect. But we are America, and America is supposed to be the best, the city on the hill! Well, no, as it turns out, America isn’t a story of perfection in any way, shape, or form. It is a story, though, if we can keep it, of having the freedom to tell the truth about imperfection, human frailty, falling short of the highest ideals, without drowning those ideals in the bathtub and completely losing ourselves. If it’s the best, it’s the best for that reason, and not for being ‘holier-than-thou’ or blind-deaf-and-dumb to human suffering or human frailty. If we believe in American democracy, we believe we can have these conversations in a socially constructive way, and not as a ripe opportunity for a 3-min viral video owning the other side.

Kind of a non sequitur, but if there’s a lesson in ol’ Ronnie Reagan’s political ascendance and longevity as a symbol it’s one about movement politics and coalition-building. And how to effect lasting change, a single election is never the end—it’s a push that has to sustain itself for years, if not decades, and to find more than one vessel for expression. Corey Robin wrote a great column about this not too long ago. And his bio of Clarence Thomas turns out to have been another source of inspiration for me as far as scrounging up the free will to dig deep into the incipience of a Republican icon.

So other than all that, no, no political opinions whatsoever.

J.T. Price has lived in Brooklyn since 2001. His fiction has appeared in The New England ReviewPost RoadGuernicaFenceJoylandThe Brooklyn RailJukedElectric Literature, and elsewhere; nonfiction, interviews, and reviews with The Los Angeles Review of BooksBOMBThe Scofield, and The Millions. As of February 2023, he will be the Editor-in-Chief of the Brazenhead Review.

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