Power and Powerless
creative nonfiction by Marie Manilla
In West Virginia, the housekeepers are often wiry white women. In the deeper south, usually Black. Texas, mostly Latinx. On that trip to the northern plains, many were Native. It’s a commentary on the nature of available work for women of whatever hue.
After reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, I try to make light work for hotel housekeeping. Or maybe it started after Chris relayed her exploits in The Travelers Motel. At the end of my stay, I’ll collect all my trash into one bin, wipe down surfaces, pile used towels in the tub. In West Virginia, the housekeepers are often wiry white women. In the deeper south, usually Black. Texas, mostly Latinx. On that trip to the northern plains, many were Native. It’s a commentary on the nature of available work for women of whatever hue.
Back on the road in our rental, we headed to the Badlands, as eerie as I’d hoped. Bald hills striated white, pink, and gold, so different from the verdant Appalachians—strip-mined peaks notwithstanding—but beautiful nonetheless. A man at an overlook let me peer through his binoculars at a herd of bison grazing below in the distance, a skimpy remnant of the thirty million that once roamed the central plains. Though it’s true I wanted to see this spooky landscape, visiting the Badlands was a proximal ruse.
When I taught early American lit. I included selections from Native orators and writers: Red Cloud, Chief Joseph, Zitkala-Ša. Black Elk’s account of the Wounded Knee Massacre. That’s why I wanted to go there. Not to gawk, but to pay respects, head filled with images of the dead frozen in snow: Sioux men, women, and children, many mowed down by the Cavalry’s Hotchkiss revolving cannons on that 1890 day. The bodies were unceremoniously dumped in a mass grave.
We had to drive through Pine Ridge Reservation to get there, and I said more than once: “This could be West Virginia.” Dusty roads lined with sun-bleached trailers and slap-dash houses. Junked cars and appliances in the yards. Mutts milling aimlessly. I felt bad for saying it, for thinking it. Sucked back into my father’s car when he drove us by those shotgun shacks near the railyard in The Patch. I’ll leave you here!
I also felt bad for having the means to run away from the derecho’s destruction. An inconvenience, not a way of life. That’s in part why I overpaid for the dreamcatcher and beaded necklace from the Native woman selling them at the Wounded Knee Memorial on Cemetery Hill, the site of that mass grave. What else could I do, with a baby on her hip, as we stood on the very rise from where those Hotchkiss cannons had been fired? My mother would have held her arms out for that baby. My mother-in-law would have tucked a few bucks into the mother’s palm. I didn’t regret overpayment even after an official sauntered over to tell us to buy authorized goods only from the giftshop.
It was meant to be a way to dip our toe into Nebraska and check it off our list. Whiteclay was just a dot on the map, a one-street town of a dozen weather-worn buildings and ten inhabitants, according to the 2010 census. Badlands of a different kind that sold four-and-a-half million cans of beer per year. That’s a lot of beer for ten people. The residents of Pine Ridge two miles north did most of the buying, since selling alcohol on the reservation was prohibited.
I didn’t want to see what I was seeing outside the four beer-selling establishments—all white owned. Clusters of Native men, mostly, slumped over on curbs, some passed out, drunk. We never want to see stereotypes come to life. See? The damning blanket thrown over whole peoples. It’s not racism, the white county commissioner said in defense of those liquor stores eager to make a profit off alcoholism. It’s just good old American supply and demand. I didn’t take any pictures of those slumped-over men. Didn’t pull out my camera to clandestinely aim and shoot. Even if I had, I doubt the pictures would have come out cloudy like the illegal ones I took of those regalia-clad men at the pow wow years before. In their present state, those inebriated men likely didn’t have enough power to fog film.
The images shot me back to store vestibules in downtown Huntington where I’d seen homeless folks hunkered down against the elements, or passed out. Or drunks shambling around outside the City Mission. They weren’t allowed inside under the influence, so they’d bounce off the outer walls. More recently, though, it was individuals OD’d in gas station bathrooms that made the nightly news, whole clusters Narcanned back to life in shooting galleries. The Sackler family who owns Perdue Pharma made millions over-peddling OxyContin in West Virginia—the drug that jumpstarted thousands of habits. In a ten-year period, nearly twenty-one million pills were sold in Williamson, population thirty-two hundred. The Sacklers don’t have to crash in vestibules and shooting galleries. They live cushy lives in Boca Raton.
In their book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco spotlight four American regions they refer to as sacrifice zones. Whiteclay is one of them, as is Welch, West Virginia. These are areas of the country that have been used up and spit out in the name of capitalism, natural resources and people’s health gobbled up, profits often funneled out of state. Once drained, the residents are abandoned, left in environmental and existential crises. Alcohol salves the ache. As do drugs.
It’s a despairing reality that’s hard to look at head on.
Whiteclay was hard to look at and I was eager to leave. Lucky for me, I could.
As we drove away, I fumbled with the map, told Don to take a right here, a left there. We aimed for the next state line, the next reserved hotel, where women were no doubt at that very moment going floor by floor, room by room, stripping sheets, wiping surfaces, vacuuming. Backbreaking labor in the service of people with means.
West Virginia native Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly (Houghton, 2014), received The Weatherford Award and was the 2021 One Book One West Virginia selection. Shrapnel (River City Publishing, 2012) won The Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories in her collection, Still Life with Plums (WVU Press, 2010), first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and other journals. Her essays have appeared in Word Riot, Cossack Review, Hippocampus, and elsewhere.