Walker Evans, Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead, 1936 | Elizabeth Graver

Walker Evans, Kitchen Wall, Alabama Farmstead (1936). Courtesy Williams College Museum of Art.


We say down to the bare bones, expose the framework. Down to the square nails, hand hewn, raw. Unfinished, we say. Barn, ship, cradle, manger, belly of the beast. We say expose; the contractor says insulate. We say rustic; he says code. We say reuse: doors, windows, hardware. He says okay but expensive—to make it work, to get it flush. We don’t mind if it’s a little off, we say. He says I can’t walk away from a door that doesn’t shut. Beautiful bones, he says. Also moisture, mildew, heat loss, neglect. We say loft; he says triple-sump pump. Let’s call the whole thing off. In the attic that might, in our dreams, become a vaulted ceiling, some of the wood is pressure-treated, but some is ax-chipped, charred in spots, and an iron pole bisects the cross ties, a twisted beauty. Gut. Expose. How much?

What we have: An old washboard with a painted black horse galloping across the top. An egg candler hanging on the wall. A cranberry rake with long wooden teeth. A shoemaker’s table, its hole like a toilet. A broken time punch clock; we stow our bills inside. Candles, lots. In the cellar, a rusted lathe too big to move, great oxen in the stillness. Walter Wood tractor seats from E-bay. My grandmother’s meat cleaver. Two jobs, one with good benefits. The spatula my other grandmother stole from a synagogue. 401K’s. Shards of china our daughters find in the furrows of the plowed fields behind our house. Stove. Microwave. Washer. Dryer. Dishwasher. Food processor. Waffle maker. C-pap machine. Roth IRA. Computers (three). I-pods (three). White noise machine. Slow Cooker. Piano. Violin. Wooden spoons. Chainsaw but he doesn’t use it, prefers the feel of wood, to find, haul, saw, chop, burn.


To distress the jeans, wash the denim with special pumice stones soaked in a bleaching agent. Sandblasting is also a popular method. Factory-applied techniques give wood a furniture-aged look. Random wormholes, compression marks and corner over-sanding are distressing elements used to convey gently aged fine furniture. Home tools for distressing include sandpaper, steel wool, candle wax, tack cloth. A hammer or small axe can, in the hands of an experienced distresser, be used to obtain intentional nicks.


And the time clock takes the card in its teeth, chomps, spits it at the worker. And the washboard like the washerwoman’s knuckles, knobbed and scoured. In the egg candler, a few eggs glow red above the flame but the rest are for eating, and the rake combs the bog for cranberries, and the he or she of the body that once, in the womb, grew the hands that held the rake, stands thigh-deep in the bog, bends and pulls, pulls and bends, does or does not see beauty in the riot of color. Pulls in.


“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement.”—James Agee


She takes down the forks and spoons, they are a family. Ma says put them back. After supper, she takes them to the basin on the porch for washing, the creek water hot from the stove, soap on the tums, soap on the bums, on the silver faces where her own face goggles upside down, and they’re a family again, but Ma says finish, I got pots to do, so she steps off the porch with the pitcher and rinses with cold, which cools her feet and turns the dirt to mud. There’s sun still so she could set them out to dry but she wants more time so she dries with the rag, four medium, one big, one little, that’s the girls, and the boys are forks, one big, two medium, but the baby’s after her, grabbing again, and from the porch Ma says give him one, he’s cutting a tooth, so she hands him a fork and Ma says you want to blind your own brother? So she takes back the fork and gives him a stone too big to swallow, but Ma swoops down and swaps out the stone for a spoon and slaps her on the cheek. The spoons sleep bum to bum; she’s stacking them, waking them, marching them in the dirt. They keep their legs together ladylike or else they’ve got one leg each, an accident or born wrong, but Ma takes all the spoons, says you’ve filthed them again, and she says I’ll wash them again and Ma has nothing more to say.

Later, inside, Pa takes off the strip where the spoons live so he can move it higher. Already they highered it once and then again, but still she grew. He drives in one nail and another and puts the cutlery back all disordered, and she says I can climb on a chair inside her head. After, Ma orders them nice in the new place, fork fork, spoon spoon spoon spoon spoon spoon and the two knives, and she says You playing, Ma? and Ma shakes her head, and she says You ever play with them when you were my age, and Ma says I made you a doll like the doll I had. There’s a stain on the wall where the first strip was and a stain where the second was. She asks tomorrow can I silver them with baking soda and salt and Ma says go to sleep.


Interviewer: “Do you think it’s possible for the camera to lie?”
Walker Evans: “It certainly is. It almost always does.”


“Another question comes up, of course: are things ‘beautiful’ which are not intended as such, but which are created in convergences of chance, need, innocence or ignorance, and for entirely irrelevant purposes? I can only answer flatly here: first, that intended beauty is far more a matter of chance and need than the power of intention, and that ‘chance’ beauty of ‘irrelevances’ is deeply formed by instincts and needs popularly held to be the property of ‘art’ alone: second, that matters of ‘chance’ and ‘non-intention’ can be and are ‘beautiful’ and are a whole universe to themselves.” ¾James Agee


Did he create the symmetry by his framing of the photograph or rearranging of the objects, or find it there and capture it? Did the people who lived there hang and place the objects with an eye toward order and/or beauty, conscious or not, or was it an accident: the small, medium, biggest hung from nails; the round, rounder, roundest, and is that a rabbit foot dangling there, or a tiny bird fashioned of burrs and wood, or a dead mouse or dream-catcher? Zoom; the pixels cube and separate, break into boxes. A kind of charm, to ward or welcome? A gift? A trap? To the far right, a crack in the wood, the smallest sliver. The light comes in, or out.

Sometimes, before shooting, he gave them time to clean the children up, arrange themselves. Sometimes he took pictures of them cleaning themselves up, an arm lifting hair, a face turned away. Sometimes he just shot.


“Stare. It’s the way to educate your eye, and more. Pry. Listen. Eavesdrop.”—Walker Evans


Fork in mouth, sweet acid taste, and cold. He jabs where his gum aches, feels the press of metal against gum, his spit gathering, pooling and startles from the pain and forgets and jabs again. If you looked—if you pried open his mouth and angled the camera and looked and shot (as in a dentist’s chair, as in a close up), you might catch the topography of pink and bump and foggy whiteness, the tiny bulge of not-quite-erupted milk tooth, the stretched-thin wall of gum. Stone in mouth. He put it there, his own hand did; still, it’s a surprise. He gags, then sends it to the pocket of his cheek, and there’s the hook of finger—soap, lard, soil, sweat, the fabric of his want—and from above No no! He understands some things—Ma Milk No Hot—and how, when one thing is taken, sometimes another thing appears.

And if he does not know “spoon” yet, still he knows, quite expertly, how to grip the stem and angle the metal head against the gum, how to bear down hard but not too hard, until the pressure speaks louder than the ache.

Elizabeth Graver’s novel set in a summer community on Buzzard’s Bay from 1942 to 1999 is forthcoming from Harper Collins in Spring, 2013. She is the author of three novels: Awake, The Honey Thief, and Unravelling. Her short story collection, Have You Seen Me?, won the 1991 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories (1991, 2001); Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards (1994, 1996, 2001);The Pushcart Prize Anthology (2001), and Best American Essays (1998). Her story “The Mourning Door” was awarded the Cohen Prize from Ploughshares Magazine. The mother of two daughters, she teaches English and Creative Writing at Boston College. http://elizabethgraver.com/.

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