Robin Hemley is the author of eight books, and his stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and many literary magazines and anthologies. He is the editor of Defunct magazine, where this piece was first published. Robin received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop; he currently directs the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and lives in Iowa City.
Queen for a day
The photo on my basement floor appeared one day seemingly out of nowhere, amid the boxes of belongings salvaged from my mother’s long life, salvaged from the flood that hit my town two years ago. In that flood I learned that you can live on high ground and still suffer. The water seeps through the walls and soaks books and records and papers and photographs, and what the water doesn’t ruin, the mildew will. Ultimately, everything is about letting go, but still we let go reluctantly. Now and then a ruined photo will rise to the surface, still intact in memory. I suppose I could have saved more, but the flood had bad timing. On our way out of town for a year, my wife and I didn’t have time for sentimentality. Anything ruined stays ruined. Throw it away, forget about it.
But on our return from our year away, on the basement floor lay an oversized photo, more of a scroll, rolled tightly into itself, so that only its white backside showed. Unrolling it, I recognized it immediately, not as anything with personal meaning, but as a cultural artefact. A studio shot for a television show from the fifties, the first reality show, Queen For A Day. It’s a wide-angle shot of the entire audience with larger photos of the host and co-host inset in front of the anonymous audience.
I stared at the studio shot in befuddlement. What was Queen for a Day doing on my basement floor? Obviously, it separated itself somehow from the rest of my mother’s boxed belongings, but how, and more importantly, why would she own such a shot, except perhaps as some ironic memento purchased at a thrift store when she was in a giddy mood? But this was more like something I’d buy than she. My mother would have scoffed at the photo, rolled her eyes, and tossed it aside. She hated television. She would have read Candide for her understanding of human misery, not watched Queen for a Day.
In Queen for a Day, the contestants and much of the audience were made up of bedraggled housewives who had suffered more misfortunes than most of us. Their homes had been washed away in hurricanes. Their husbands had left them with nine children to feed. They had been diagnosed with Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura and harlequin ichthyosis. They had lost jobs. They had lost teeth. They had lost faith. They had lost the will to live. But they had not lost the desire to appear in front of a live television audience and tell their tales of woe. The audience would clap loudly to determine the most miserable of these women and she would be given as a prize an Amana Radar Range, a refrigerator, a washer and dryer, some consumer good bobbing through the raging flood waters of her life, onto which she would scramble, standing for a moment sure-footed and restored to her rightful place in her peaceable queendom.
Queen for a Day started something in America. It stood for something. It bred. It had nine kids, then twenty.
I should come clean here. I am no expert on Queen for A Day. I have never watched a full episode if any exist, but only snippets, and even these are unwatchable for long. So I cannot say for certain that any one contestant had Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura or harlequin ichthyosis or was left with nine children to feed, but these were the general parameters of the show. It celebrated the human spirit in the face of adversity.
I suppose it was doing this still on my basement floor, celebrating the human spirit in the face of adversity. But why? What was it doing on my basement floor?
Actually, I’d known about this show from an early age. The co-host of the show, Jeanne Cagney, was the sister of James Cagney, the great Hollywood actor, and also the mother of an elementary school friend of mine. Jeanne Cagney’s daughter and I could have made appearances on her mother’s show, at least in theory, as I suspect almost everyone in the world could have made an appearance. But we would not have won. My father had died when I was seven of a heart attack. My mother returned to school and she, with the help of my grandmother, supported us. Jeanne Cagney and her husband divorced and my friend, like I, left town, and we did not see each other again for many years, until in middle age we compared notes on our unhappy childhoods. We had been scarred certainly, but not enough to merit a household appliance.
Perhaps the creators of Queen for A Day found their idea for this show in Voltaire’s Candide. Misery has never been more pleasurable than in Voltaire’s hands. In one of my favourite scenes, Cunegonde and the old woman with one butt cheek (the other having been eaten by pirates) compare notes:
‘God grant it,’ said Cunegonde; ‘but I have been so horribly unhappy there that my heart is almost closed to hope.’
‘You complain,’ said the old woman, ‘alas! you have not known such misfortunes as mine.’
Cunegonde almost broke out laughing, finding the good woman very amusing, for pretending to have been as unfortunate as she.
‘Alas!’ said Cunegonde, ‘my good mother, unless you have been ravished by two Bulgars, have received two deep wounds in your belly, have had two castles demolished, have had two mothers cut to pieces before your eyes, and two of your lovers whipped at an auto-da-fé, I do not conceive how you could be more unfortunate than I. Add that I was born a baroness of seventy-two quarterings – and have been a cook!’
But Cunegonde has met her match in the misery contest with the old woman’s tale. In fact, every person Candide encounters has a tale of woe and thinks he or she is the most unfortunate person alive.
After I came across the publicity still for Queen for a Day, I placed the photo back on the basement floor where I’d found it. I did this partly out of laziness and partly because this is where the photo lived, on my basement floor. It seemed to belong there. Over the next year, I came upon this photo a dozen times or more, and each time I unrolled it and studied it, wondering why I owned it. Each time I unrolled the scroll, it tore a little more. Each time, I stared at the studio audience in the Queen for A Day publicity still for a long while, noting of course that everyone in that photo was most likely long dead. Each had suffered in private, no studio audience to hear their last breaths. How many had died lingering, painful deaths? How many had died sudden deaths? What minority had died peaceful deaths or still walked among the living?
A few months ago, I came upon it again and unrolled it for a look. I still had no idea why my mother would carry around such a thing. But this time as my eyes roved the studio audience, two people separated themselves from the rest. They sat in the front row, their faces so clear I don’t know how I ever missed them: my grandmother Ida and my half-sister Nola. Both of them were long since dead, my sister, diagnosed with schizophrenia, had died of a prescription drug overdose when she was twenty-five. My grandmother Ida had died at the age of ninety in 1981. Her kidneys had failed and my mother, who sat with her in the hospital, reported to me that as she died she had begged to be brought to her porch where could see her garden and feel the sun on her face.
Instantly, I had some context for the photo. My sister was eleven or so in this photo, well before the onset of her illness. She had never known her father who, after finding out that my mother was pregnant, abandoned her. My grandmother had taken Nola on a trip out West to Disneyland. Apparently, they had also visited Queen for a Day and watched an episode taped. The photo was snapped as a souvenir to be sold to people who buy such things. My grandmother was one such person. To her, Queen for a Day would have been the perfect diversion. A widow for over thirty years by then, her husband had died in his early thirties of an aneurysm and she had supported a large extended family through the Depression on a meagre teacher’s salary. But by this time in her life, she was quite comfortable if not wealthy. She would have made a terrible contestant on the show. She had both her butt cheeks. She had not been ravished by Bulgars. But there were things that happened in her life, that happen in anyone’s life, that she never would have shared, that she would have brought to the grave.
I had always envied my sister this trip, which happened well before my birth. She kept a diary of her adventures but had not mentioned this show, which probably horrified her, or at least confused her. When I was ten or so, I broke the lock and read of teacup rides and other fantasies. I felt cheated. Why had my grandmother taken Nola to Disneyland and not me? Didn’t I deserve rewards?
Staring at the photograph again, as if for the first time, I saw my dead grandmother and sister from the perspective of the person taking the photograph, from the perspective of one of the contestants. My grandmother smiled. My sister looked curious. I almost felt compelled to tell them something of my life, to fill them in on everything they had missed.