Sarah Lawrence students Elissa Hutson and Bianca Galvez, both juniors, both took novelist April Reynolds Mosolino's fiction-writing class last fall. They both have writer Melvin Bukiet as their "don," or faculty advisor. And both shared the top prize in the recent fiction writing contest held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which asked college students to write a short story in response to Robert Frank's photographs of Americans in the 1950s, "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans," a special exhibition that ran through January 3.
Neither Hutson nor Galvez knew that the other had entered the contest, organized by the College Group at the Met, which had 55 participants from around country. It was a cause for celebration in Mosolino's classroom.
"I was so excited when Bianca told me she had won," says Mosolino, who suggested in early October that her students enter the contest. "Then Elissa came in to tell me she'd won too. I couldn't believe it."
Christine Larusso, the museum's college marketing coordinator, says the entries were narrowed down to finalists by a committee, and then shipped to author Aimee Bender, without the writers' names or school affiliations. Says Larusso: "Good for Sarah Lawrence."
Hutson's story, The Death of Jim Taylor, was inspired by Frank's photograph of three black men standing pensively by cars at a funeral in Helena, S. C. She told it from the point of view of a white man, who felt he couldn't be seen at the funeral of a black man in the segregated South of the 1950s. The story came to her after she visited the exhibit of Frank's photographs, which were taken in the mid-1950s on a cross-country trip.
"I was mesmerized by the photo," says Hutson. "It spoke to me, the painful look in one man's face, the dust, and the feel of the South in the 1950s. I went back home, kept thinking about those guys at the funeral, and came up the story of Jim Taylor."
Galvez's story, Barbara Stanwyck It's Your Time to Shine!, was drawn from Frank's picture of a dreamy young woman, who was operating an elevator in a New York hotel. The story, written in one paragraph, is the woman's inner monologue about her life and the people she encountered in the elevator.
Galvez says she wrote her story on the evening it was due, and she sent it off by email a minute before the midnight deadline on Nov. 1.
"I was in a friend's room, and she was cheering me on," says Galvez. "I didn't have any time to revise, and sent it at 11:59."
Winning the contest brought both students to Symphony Space on Manhattan's upper West Side in mid-November to hear their stories read by professional actors as part of National Public Radio's Selected Shorts program. The segment is expected to be aired this spring on WNYC.
Hutson says she was stunned to hear actor Boyd Gaines read her story. She recalls that growing up in New Mexico, she listened to Gaines read stories by legendary American author Ernest Hemingway on audio tapes her mother played on her car's cassette deck. Now he was reading her work.
"It was an out-of-body experience hearing my words performed," recalls Hutson. "Boyd Gaines has a deep, manly, southern voice that was perfect for my piece. I loved the way he brought it all to life."
by Elissa Hutson
Beneath mustard-colored cranes and dump trucks filled with dust, the earth opened itself up to the man torn in two. The workers said that the garbage truck had pinned the man down, splitting him in half. The man snapped like a boy's toy train set, his body bursting evenly, delicately to the ground.
That evening, the workers went home, told their wives and children about the accident. Suddenly the man's death became the total of his life. He became a fable in and of himself, not as an example of mortality, but of pure recklessness. He had not given enough attention to his surroundings, he had not grounded himself in his work, they said. "Had he been more careful around the machinery," they murmured over greasy chicken dinners or under hot pool-table lamps, to their sons or to their bartenders. "I always knew he was a careless old man, that poor son of a bitch." What the workers did not say, but simultaneously observed, was that his accident was somehow different than others they had seen. The nature of his death was in a way, gentler. He had come apart softly.
The paper said his name was Jim Taylor, but no one paid much attention.
He was black.
I could not stop thinking about the way he died. I was awake at night revisiting the accident I didn't see. I envisioned the men at the construction site shouting as they tried to turn off the garbage truck. The machine hovering over the man, pressing against his broken body with an unearthly force. The men, pounding boots to dirt, lifting him from beneath the truck, but he was already dead.
Late at night, I'd drive to the construction site and imagine the man on ordinary days. And I'd watch him, from my car-window, shoulders heavy against the sky, as he pulled back hard the truck's lever. Some nights I'd fall asleep in my Cadillac, and I'd wake up thinking that he was still there, hauling dust.
I wanted to go to the funeral, even though I had never met him. I knew I'd stick out. Me- white skin, white Cadillac- watching black skin, black suits listening to the cries of a preacher underneath the tender bosom of a sweltering St. Helena summer. I imagined the gravedigger, opening deep the taut, wet soil with a sense of urgency. But I knew not to go. The folks at work would say that was no place for a white man.
Sometimes I still think of Jim Taylor and the funeral that I never went to, and I imagine Jim Taylor in the casket—a wet fish on a cutting board, slipping into darkness.
by Bianca Galvez
It's one of those lousy days, squalls of hot rain the size of barnacles smacking the sidewalk, where the girls think it's too much of a chore to head out for hamburgers after work. If Frank Steinhoff were here, he'd slink his hand around my waist, reel me in and say they're just small, because he goes on like that. He's the only boy who I can stand to go on like that. I look straight ahead at the paneled walls fussed over and shining deep, corroded brass. The manager keeps running off on how I've got the loony bin look, but he knows no one's got the smarts to take a marvelous job like this. A couple step in, the old man with a stump of cigar pressed to his lips pushing his Misses over left, and the car doors rumble shut. I say the obligatory "Evenin' folks," pull the lever, and head for the sub-main floor. The Misses has a crisp pair of show tickets and the old man is plucking car keys like a set of dry matchsticks. It's not difficult to see that they're old money: camel hair topcoats, heavy silverware, the works. Frank Steinhoff has a family like that up on Bal Harbour, but, I've seen him on Biscayne wearing dungarees and creeping around his fellows: dingy, brutal, pretending they live in a dump. Nancy thinks he's funny-looking with those lopsided ears, the right lobe nicked along the coast when he swam out and slipped of the narrow shelf, but he's a real swimmer, sleek as a dolphin, with gusty man-arms snubbing the purling claws of sea. "It's those shrimp enchiladas, Boss," he says. He's a nice guy I tell you. Sure, I'd bring Frank home sometime, but every MiMo on the Miami shore has a corny bolt of roof shooting pas the driveway like greased lightning that he'd be bored in a minute. "Lady," the man says to me, "I said we're getting off at the lobby." I mumble an excuse and jockey the car up a floor. Some people can't relax. The late shows aren't starting and the only place open is a counter-and-booth restaurant that serves everything with tabasco sauce. A group of boys walk in with wet robes and dots of zinc salve on their noses. One of them is Frank's friend with the combed back ducktail, but he doesn't recognize me. He's got this yellow balloon on a wooden stick and lobs it in my hair. I tell him to knock it off, but he's just having a ball. "Barbara Stanwyck" he says to me, "it's your time to shine!" They get off on the fifth floor, knocking into each other, and it takes all I've got to keep from running off on how Frank'll slug him next time I see him. Really, these hams have nothing on Frank. I stand a little straighter and smile because I know what I'm talking about.