Here’s a little about the story “Call Me Pearl,” which originally appeared in Ballyhoo Stories back in 2005.
First, it has a nugget of truth to it, from a second or third hand story. My wife’s co-worker and my occasional pub quiz partner, Karl, told me once about a friend of his finding a box of risque photographs at the estate sale of a quite respectable old lady. He assumed the pictures were of her, though there was no way to really be sure, as all the parties to their creation had gone on to their reward. In writing this story, I wondered what would have transpired if the old lady were still alive, and if the pictures’ discovery weren’t quite exactly an accident.
Second, a reason that Karl’s story stuck with me was that I was messing about with old cameras at the time. I had taken to buying lots of antique photography gear off eBay — dusty old things that took 120, 620, or weirder film, with light leaks and balky gears and scratched lenses. I enjoyed developing the film in the basement, probably destroying brain cells with the fixer fumes, and then scanning the pictures to put up on Flickr, where I belonged to scads of toy and vintage camera groups, where we traded tips and tricks about chemicals and film stock and the ins and outs of these marvelous old machines. I never got into printing — that’s hard! — but I could put myself in the shoes of whoever was behind the camera and the enlarger in making Pearl’s pictures.
“Pearl,” incidentally, was my great-grandmother’s name. And she was a firecracker herself in her youth, marrying a boy far below her station: she was the daughter of a judge and politician, who ran for governor of Maine several times on the Prohibition Party ticket, tracing her family back to the Mayflower; he was descended from the Ulster Irish who came to Maine in the 1700s during an earlier famine than the one we all know, and belonged to a family of small farmers and fishermen. I have a little book of William Cullen Bryant poems that she sent him when he was in France during the First World War, inscribed, “To my doughboy” (I tear up a little every time I think of that). Later she became an advocate for school lunches in the 1930s and ’40s, and was a tireless New Dealer in a village that was largely Republican. She turns up in this fascinating article about Ellen Burstyn’s time filming “The Spitfire Grill” in the area, where she met Pearl and her husband Forrest (who was the model for Wyeth’s “The Man from Maine”). Burstyn says,
They were farmers but they were extremely well-read. We used to sit around the pot-bellied stove and discuss Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
So you see where my problems arise.
I did a reading of this story in October 2005, at the Open Book cafe in downtown Minneapolis, organized by the intern for Ballyhoo Stories. It was a lot of fun, and I got to meet the editor of webzine who had rejected “Bank Holiday” (there were absolutely no hard feelings, she was right to reject it and the version that was published was so much better and tighter, and she was, I recall, a delight). At the end of my reading I took a picture of the audience with a Kodak Hawkeye camera with a flash attachment (I still have a handful of bulbs for it, which I treat like treasures); if you can identify any of the poor souls who were caught in it, please pass my apologies to them — it was a much brighter and more explosive flash than I had expected.