Cult of Nancy
“Nolan Smiles. We make it precious,” read the words painted on the glass front door.
“Maybe if they weren’t so busy making it precious, they wouldn’t have screwed up,” Nancy said under her breath as she propelled herself through the door and into the lobby of the photo studio.
On the walls were the stiff smiling faces of past customers. These markers of family history provided testament to new customers that you could trust Nolan Smiles to make you and yours appear as clean and crisp as a new dollar bill.
Nancy was unmoved by all the pink healthy babies sitting on their mothers’ laps next to their proud fathers. The photo she was there to pick up would never find its way into Aunt Julie’s photo album or Paw Paw’s wallet.
Her business portrait would be properly mounted in a mahogany frame with imitation gold trim. At the base of the frame would be a gold plate with the title “Nancy Twirlly, Southeast District Manager.” It would then be hung on the wall of the lobby of Carswell Communications, the best maker of coaxial cables this side of the Mississippi, in the row of upper management portraits.
Nolan Smiles’ lobby was filled with parents and children waiting for their chance to sit in front of the camera. Mothers spit-pasted stray locks of hair on their fidgeting children’s heads while fathers checked their watches every half-minute. The scent of soap fought the stink of kid sweat and lost. At the front counter, a pimply teenage girl chewed gum and concentrated on an imaginary star in the ceiling.
“Excuse me,” Nancy said, impatiently snapping her fingers in the girl’s face.
The acne plagued girl broke away from her stargazing to face Nancy. “Hail Nancy,” she said.
Nancy’s eyes widened.
“How did you know my name?”
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
“You just said, ‘Hello Nancy.’ How did you know my name was Nancy?”
“Didn’t I wait on you the last time you were here?”
“No, I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
“I must have seen your name when I was packaging the photos. It happens all the time. I think I’ve met the person, but I’ve only seen their picture. Funny how that works, huh?”
“Hilarious,” said Nancy returning to the business at hand, “I’m here to pick up my photos and I hope for everyone’s sake that they are correct this time.”
If the girl noticed Nancy’s implied threat, she ignored it.
“Yes, ma’am, they’re ready,” she said. “I’ll tell Mr. Goodwin you’re here.”
She picked up the receiver to the phone and pressed a button from a row of buttons on the base. Resting the receiver next to her ear, she waited for the other end of the line to answer while smiling vacantly at Nancy. Seconds later, she mumbled into the phone and then hung up.
“He’ll be right out with your photos, ma’am.”
Feeling moderately relieved that she was at last approaching a resolution, Nancy’s mind wandered long enough for her to realize something odd.
“Did you say, ‘Hail Nancy’ when I first came in?”
The girl studied Nancy’s face as if she were expecting it to do tricks.
“Did you just ask me if I said, ‘Hell Nancy?’” she asked giggling.
“Never mind,” said Nancy, blushing.
She was spared any more interaction with the zit-faced girl because Mr. Goodwin appeared at the counter holding a 9 X 12 envelope. He was rural town handsome, dressed in the prerequisite shopping mall executive outfit of button-down shirt, clip-on tie, and pressed khaki slacks. Nancy admonished herself for admiring his curly brown hair, square jaw, blue eyes, and the way he carried his sinewy lanky body in a way that said he would be the perfect companion for a camping trip. What sort of executive was she supposed to be if she let a cute boy distract her with erotic daydreams?
“Ms. Twirlly, here are your photos,” he announced as he handed her the envelope while keeping steady eye contact. “Let me know which one you want enlarged.”
Nancy snatched the envelope from his hand and slipped out the contact sheet inside. She studied the variety of poses she had done at the photo shoot and tried to imagine one of them greeting visitors in the lobby of Carswell Communications.
They were all okay, but just okay. Any one of them would do only what it must do, not what it could have done. What it should have done. Nancy’s assessment had nothing to do with vanity. Her looks were best categorized as plain. Normal, everyday plain. She had never felt challenged by this fact and her plainness had actually worked in her favor in business. Ugly women were avoided, and beautiful women weren’t taken seriously.
The smiling face in the photos was a competent leader, but the smiling face that Nolan Smiles bungled from her first photo session was a leader who inspired. Nancy knew this implicitly even though she had never laid eyes on any of the results of the first session.
On that day, Nancy had been perfect. All her preparations to look her best had been executed without a single flaw. She had made special trips to the hairdresser and the mall to transform herself into the image of the perfect district manager. She had made sure to get a full eight hours of sleep the night before and had arrived at Nolan Smiles a half-hour early.
Most important, she had felt perfect. Her life was on track. She was the master of her destiny.
Then a week later came the awful phone call from Nolan Smiles informing her that the first photo didn’t take. Her heart sank right through her office floor. First, they said something in the camera had malfunctioned. Then they claimed that the negative had been accidentally overexposed.
Nancy figured that since they couldn’t keep their stories straight that she was obviously dealing with an inept company. She wanted to have the photo redone someplace else. She couldn’t understand why Carswell Communications, a company dedicated to cutting edge technology, would use a place like Nolan Smiles that still shot on film instead of using digital cameras.
Nancy was informed that Carswell Communications had an agreement with Nolan Smiles to handle all their photographic needs. Going to another photo studio would make waves. A good district manager, especially a brand new one, did not make waves.
Despite her misgivings, Nancy smiled bravely through a second Nolan Smiles photo session. She looked the same as the first time, but the inspiration was missing. She was making do instead of making magic. She just didn’t believe that Nolan Smiles could really make it precious.
Precious was a concept that had been missing from Nancy’s life for some time. It was one of the things traveling salespeople like Nancy left behind. She believed women who travel for a living leave more behind than men do. Men didn’t have to leave their fiancé behind.
Barry had given her a ring and they had made wedding plans, but then Nancy got her dream job as a traveling salesman at Carswell Communications. He didn’t understand what she found so exciting about eating in greasy spoon diners and driving endless miles of highways to stay in an antiseptic motel room on the edge of a field of weeds. She tried but couldn’t make him see the adventure in traveling the highways, meeting new people, and making a sale to someone who didn’t realize how much they needed her product until Nancy made them see the light.
“Don’t you realize how dangerous it is out there?” Barry asked. “I saw a report on TV just the other night about how women on the road especially have to be careful that criminals don’t follow them to their room and break in. You could end up getting raped or killed or even worse, robbed.”
No matter what precautions Nancy promised to take, Barry demanded that she not take the job. She took it anyway. After a few months of coming home from the road in one piece, she confronted him.
“Are you really that afraid for my safety?” Nancy said. “Or are you more afraid about being home alone while I’m out on the road?”
Barry’s face turned red as a turnip.
“I’m a grown man,” he said. “I’m not afraid to be alone.”
“That’s not what I meant. Are you afraid of being seen as the housewife who waits patiently for her man to come home? Are you afraid of being less than a real man?”
“I am a real man! The problem is you’re not a real woman. The wedding is off. Give me back my ring.”
Nancy thought about keeping the ring, but it reminded her of what could have been. She felt anger more than loss. Barry may have been a real man, but he wasn’t the right man. He was as competitive in business as she was, but he was so old-fashioned that he couldn’t handle a wife as good at her job as he was. Looking back, she had always hated that he would go on for hours telling her of his mundane victories at his office job, but shut her off whenever she tried to share with him the joy she felt driving alone on a sunny day, singing with the radio, knowing that she was on her way to her next challenge. She had a need to conquer and she wasn’t ashamed to admit it. It wasn’t an exclusive trait of men.
She also wasn’t ashamed to demand that things be done to her liking. Right now, she wanted a photo as good as the one from the first photo session. She wanted a photo that properly represented her new life, her new conquest. She was leaving the road for a corner office. She was going to have her own sales staff reporting from the field. She was going to earn their respect. She was going to do it all and still have time for a life. She was going to have friends, important friends, and who knows she might even get a cat or a male companion.
But this second photo didn’t come close to showing Nancy as she wanted to be seen, as she needed to be seen. She couldn’t allow it to be the first impression people had of her when they walked into the lobby of Carswell Communications.
“This,” she said, her voice starting at a whisper and rising octave by octave to a shriek, “is unacceptable! Unacceptable, unacceptable, un-ac-ceptable!”
Everyone in the lobby stopped what they are doing to stare at Nancy. The parents looked at her in anger and disgust while the children grinned and pointed at the funny crazy lady. The front counter girl’s mouth dropped open, allowing her gum to fall onto the front of her shirt. Mr. Goodwin winced, but kept his calm.
“Can we please discuss this in my office, Ms. Twirlly?” Mr. Goodwin asked.
“I don’t see why we can’t discuss it right here,” Nancy said.
Mr. Goodwin leaned close enough for her to smell his aftershave which was rather pleasant.
“Please,” he said. “I will do everything in my power to make this right, but can we please discuss it in my office?”
Nancy took a deep breath and gave the room a steely once over.
“Sure, your office sounds fine,” she said. “Let’s go.”
He led Nancy into a back hallway, past open studios with cameras resting on tripods in front of carpeted boxes, to a row of doors. He opened a door and held it for her. Inside was a small windowless room with wood paneling on the walls, a desk that was too big for the room and three chairs, one behind the desk and two in front. It smelled of photographic chemicals. As Nancy settled into one of the chairs in front of the desk, she noticed a nameplate among the order forms and bits of negatives that covered the surface of the desk. It read “Cody Goodwin, Store Manager.”
“So, Mr. Cody Goodwin Store Manager, how do you plan to fix the fact that you totally ruined my photo?” Nancy asked before he could get settled in his chair behind the desk.
“We’d be happy to take your picture again, Ms. Twirlly.”
“That won’t do. It would be just as wrong as this one.”
“Well, then what do you suggest?” he asked with the hint of exasperation reserved for impossible clients.
“Give me the first photo! Resurrect the negative! There must be some kind of advanced photographic doodad that can make it happen.”
“Believe me, ma’am. I would if I could,” he said with a deep sigh.
Nancy sighed back and tapped her foot. She looked around the room, noticing that there were no photos on the walls or on his desk. Odd that someone working in a photo studio had no photos in his office. Nancy decided it was probably due to his lack of ingenuity.
Her own options were fading fast. What could she hope to accomplish? They weren’t going to give her what she wanted. She still couldn’t accept that her first photo no longer existed. It was too great a loss.
Since she had taken her demand this far, she wasn’t comfortable with walking out with her tail between her legs. She struggled to come up with something she could demand that would make her the winner of this standoff. She needed time to collect her thoughts and devise a plan.
“May I use your restroom?” she asked.
Panic flashed on Cody’s face for an instant before regaining his composure. Nancy wondered if their bathrooms were horrible. They couldn’t be any worse than the ones she’d seen on the road.
“Could you wait?” he said. “I’m sure we can come to an agreement soon.”
“No,” Nancy said. “I’m pretty sure we can’t. And I really need to use the bathroom.”
Cody tapped his fingers on the desk and then sighed.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Let me show you where it is.”
“Come on, Mr. Goodwin,” Nancy said. “It can’t be that hard to find.”
She had bested him, and he knew it. This was almost as good as making a sale.
“You’re right. Go to the left and it’s the door at the end of the hall.”
Nancy left the office quickly. At the end of the hallway, she realized that in her haste, she’d turned right instead of left. There was a door at the end of the hallway which probably didn’t open into a bathroom. It didn’t matter. She didn’t need to use one.
Hopefully, the door led somewhere where Nancy could collect her thoughts. She opened the door and entered. Feeling against the wall, she found a light switch and flipped it on. She was in a small storage room. There were wood shelves along one wall. She wondered if maybe just maybe her first photo was in here. She searched the shelves and found a number of photos, but not hers.
She was too short to reach the top shelf, but she could see the edge of a frame peeking over the edge. Maybe this was her photo! Maybe it was so wonderful that they framed it. If they had, she would be so happy and so angry that they didn’t tell her.
Standing on her toes, she stretched until her fingers got hold of it. She brought it down and was shocked by what she saw.
It was a photo of Cody Goodwin.
But it wasn’t the Cody Goodwin she’d left in his office. There was no need to sugarcoat the truth, this Cody was an ugly man with bad skin, flat nose, and beady eyes. Nancy recognized parts of the handsome man she just been talking to you in this hideous face. But the only reason she knew it was Cody was because there was a small shiny plaque nailed to the bottom of the frame that read: Employee of the Month. Cody Goodwin.
This had to be a joke. Someone at Nolan Smiles must be good at photoshop. They probably took Cody’s photo and manipulated his features to be as unattractive as possible. When Nancy became manager, her employees will be banned from wasting time on stupid office pranks like this one.
She’d wasted enough time in the storage room. Cody was probably wondered where she was. Looking around she saw that there were doors on either side of the room. Nancy couldn’t remember which one she came in. She opened the door she thought she’d come through, but she picked the wrong one. The room was pitch black. She was about to go back when she heard people singing.
Something about the singing drew her in. Standing still, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, Nancy could dimly make out that she was in a hallway lined with stacks of boxes. Moving towards the singing voices, she smelled incense. The light grew stronger the closer she came to the singing. Rounding a corner, she stopped abruptly.
The hallway opened up into a large warehouse. In a far corner, a small group of people huddled in front of a makeshift altar. Candles and long sticks of sweet incense lined the base of the altar. At the center rested an ornate gold frame. Coins and dollar bills lay scattered in front of the frame. Inside the gold frame was a photo of Nancy. The people chanted “All Hail Nancy” over and over again in a deep drone.
A chill ran down her spine. What had she stumbled into? Part of her wanted to run and call the police. There were crazy people in here. Another part of her had to find out what exactly was going on. That part wouldn’t let her run away.
Nancy tiptoed closer to the worshippers. Seeing people pray to her photo was a shock, but not as big a shock as the photo they were using for their altar. It was the first photo; the one she was told had been destroyed. Even though she had never seen it before, she knew it had to be the first photo. She was absolutely perfect in the photo. Her hair, her smile, the twinkle in her eye. It was the perfect Nancy.
“This is not the bathroom, Ms. Twirlly,” said a voice behind her.
She turned to face Cody Goodwin, the handsome version. The chanting stopped as the people turned to look at Nancy.
“That’s my picture!” shouted Nancy. “You lied to me.”
“Please, could we discuss this in my office?”
“I want my picture!”
Nancy moved toward the altar. The worshippers gasped. Cody wrapped his arms around her waist. She struggled to get loose but couldn’t break free. This version of Cody was not only handsome but very strong as well.
“I promise we will work this out,” Cody said. “In my office.”
“I don’t want to go to your office,” Nancy said as she tried to stomp on his feet. “I want my picture.”
“Give me a chance to explain everything.”
“What’s to explain? You stole my picture and lied to me about it.”
“It’s more complicated than that. Please, Nancy. Can I call you Nancy? Please hear us out, Nancy.”
Nancy knew Cody was going to try and sell her something she didn’t want. But she also realized that if these people were crazy enough to worship her photo, then they might be crazy enough to hurt her. Barry had been wrong. A woman didn’t have to be on the road to get raped or killed or even worse, robbed.
“Okay, Cody. Can I call you Cody?” Nancy said. “Explain, Cody.”
Cody let Nancy go and she straightened her clothes. The worshippers joined them. Nancy recognized a couple of them when she first came in. They seemed to all be employees of Nolan Smiles. Their silence added to the creepiness of the situation.
“So, where do I begin?” said Cody.
“Start with my photo,” Nancy said.
“There’s something special about that photo of you. It can perform miracles.”
“And you know this because?”
“It all started when the Keeper of the Negative, that’s our photo processor, Judy, felt something divine when she first gazed upon your negative.”
Judy raised her hand.
“That’s me,” she said.
“For reasons that she could not explain,” Cody said, “she felt compelled to ask it to grant her relief from the pinkeye she was afflicted with. Can you guess what happened next?”
“The pinkeye miraculously cleared up on its own?” Nancy said.
“That’s exactly what happened,” Judy said, pointing at her healthy eye.
Nancy put her hands on her hips and glared at Cody.
“Please Mr. Goodwin,” she said. “I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.”
“Wait, Ms. Twirlly, that was just the beginning.” Cody said, placing his hand on Nancy’s shoulder.
Nancy was about to pull her hand away, but something stopped her. She studied his face. If she had believed in angels, this is what they would look like.
“Damn, Nancy,” she thought to herself, “Why don’t you just tear his clothes off and force him to have sex right here in front of these fruitcakes!” Out loud, she said, “Okay, Mr. Goodwin, finish your story.”
Cody moved his hand off Nancy’s shoulder.
“Well, the sudden pinkeye cure was not enough to qualify in anyone’s mind that the photo was divine,” he said, “So the Keeper of the Negative approached Our Lady of the Loupe, that’s our quality control supervisor, Marcia.
Marcia waved at Nancy. She had the magnification device in her hand.
“Hey,” she said.
“The Keeper of the Negative told Our Lady of the Loupe what had transpired,” Cody said. “Our Lady of the Loupe asked the photo to straighten her teeth. Right away she felt a tingling sensation in her mouth and next thing she knew, her teeth were perfectly straight.”
“It was a divine experience,” Marcia said. “And it tickled.”
“We have before and after photos of her,” Cody said.
Nancy rolled her eyes.
“Before and after pictures?” she said. “Were they taken the moment before and after the miracle? Or did a certain amount of time take place between them? Say, long enough time for ‘Our Lady of the Loopy’ to have braces on her teeth?”
“The testimony of those who have been touched are all the proof we need.”
“Have you been touched?”
Cody smiled at Nancy showing her his perfect teeth.
“When I was looking for you,” he said, “I saw that someone had moved my old photo off the top shelf in the storage room. I believe you have seen what I asked for.”
Chills ran through Nancy as she stared at Cody. She took a deep breath and tried to fit together what he told her with some kind of logic.
“Let me get this straight,” Nancy said. “You and who knows how many employees of this particular Nolan Smiles sit around and worship me. You know, you don’t treat your god very well. The least you could have done was invite me to some of the services.”
“You don’t understand, Nancy,” Cody said. “We don’t worship you. We worship this particular photo of you. That is the Nancy who brings us joy and tranquility. That is the Nancy that performs miracles.”
“But it’s a photo of me!”
“But you’re not a True Believer of Nancy,” Judy said.
“True Believer of Nancy?”
“Or Nancies as we like to refer to ourselves,” Marcia said. “We pray to perfect Nancy. She is blessed and sacred. You aren’t.”
Nancy pointed at the photo.
“Do you know how hard I worked to be perfect that day?” she said. “Do you know how much I have sacrificed to get to where I am today?”
“But you were only perfect for one day,” Cody said. “Just long enough to give birth to perfect Nancy. Can you truly say that you are still that perfect?”
Tears welled up in Nancy’s eyes. It wasn’t fair. Nobody can be perfect every day. She swallowed the lump in her throat and let anger take over.
“Why are you telling me all this?” she demanded.
“I wanted you to understand why I can’t give you back your photo.”
“At least make one print for me that I can use at Carswell Communications.”
“That would be blasphemy!”
“Come on, I’m still the real Nancy. Don’t I deserve to have one print of myself, even if I’m not as holy as my photo?”
“Please, Nancy,” Cody pleaded, “We just want to be able to worship in peace without persecution. Giving a non-believer a copy of the photo would go against everything that is holy to us”
“Then let me join. I believe in the photo.”
Nancy really she did believe in the photo. Not like Cody Goodwin and Our Lady of the Loupe, but she did believe. With her belief she felt a stabbing anxiety inside her. She was afraid that maybe the Nancy she aspired to be was stolen from her and preserved in the photo. Like those old superstitions about your soul being stolen by having your picture taken.
“I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck either,” Cody said. “You won’t trick me into giving you a copy of the photo that easily.”
Nancy could see that she wasn’t getting anywhere with the Nancies. She had only one avenue of action left.
“Give me my photo and the ‘sacred’ negative or I’m calling the authorities,” Nancy said.
“You won’t do that,” Cody said.
Nancy looked at her watch. It was a quarter to eleven.
“I’m giving you one minute to hand it over. You have to either give me the photo or kill me, but I’m not leaving here without my photo.”
The Nancies made a human wall around the photo and began to chant.
“Save us, Nancy! Save us, Nancy!”
Nancy tried to push through them, but they didn’t budge as they continued to chant.
“Save us, Nancy! Save us, Nancy!”
The light in the room began to shimmer. Nancy stared at the perfect photo. She seemed to be smiling at her.
“Save us, Nancy! Save us, Nancy!”
And then there was darkness.
When Nancy regained consciousness, she found herself lying on the floor of an empty warehouse. She checked her watch. It was five to eleven. Ten minutes had passed. She frantically searched the building. The place of empty of human life. There was no one waiting in the waiting room. They were all gone, Cody, the Keeper of the Negative, and Our Lady of the Loupe. It was if nobody had ever worked there.
The photo was also missing.
Nancy called the police. She didn’t tell them about the Nancies or her perfect photo. She just told them that she came in to pick up her photos and found the place looking like the rapture had come. The police searched the store and discovered that not only were the employees missing, but all sales records, employee files, and photos were missing. Not all the photos. The police found photos of Nancy from the second photo shoot in a filing cabinet.
The police continued to search for clues for a couple of weeks and then filed their results in the unsolved section of their filing cabinets. Nolan Smiles did their own investigation and found just as much nothing as the police did. They decided to close that location rather than start from scratch.
Nancy gave Carswell Communication the second photo. They said it was perfect. They had it properly mounted in a mahogany frame with imitation gold trim. A gold plate was attached to the base of the frame that read “Nancy Twirlly, Southeast District Manager.” It was hung on the wall of the lobby of Carswell Communications, the best maker of coaxial cables this side of the Mississippi, in the row of upper management portraits.
Nancy held the position of Southeast District Manager for a year. During that time, her division had top sales. Both her employees and her supervisors said she was the perfect manager. But then, at the end of the year, Nancy requested a demotion. She wanted to go back on the road. At first, Carswell Communications refused. They said she was too valuable to waste as a mere salesperson. When she threatened to quit and work for their competitor, they relented. She asked for her old territory and they gave it to her. When they asked her why, she said, “It’s where I belong.”
She was happy on the road. But there was still something missing in her life. Nancy wanted a copy of that photo. Not to pray to or ask for miracles. She wanted that precious evidence that for one impossible moment in her life, she had been perfect. That was the miracle she craved.
She was sitting at a window booth in a roadside diner, sipping on a cup of coffee, and watching trucks kick up dust as they drove past when she heard the person behind her whisper the words clearly and distinctly.
She turned around to see what the person looked like, but there were too many people and they all seemed to be ignoring her. For a moment she thought she recognized the pimple-faced girl who worked the front desk of Nolan Smiles sitting at a booth in the corner. But this girl couldn’t have been her. Her skin was too smooth and free of blemishes.
Nancy didn’t mind. She knew she had to be patient. Someday she would find the Nancies and convince them to let her join them. She would use all her skills as a traveling salesperson to make them see the light. Until then, she was content in the knowledge that somewhere out there was a miracle with her name on it.
Mickey Dubrow is the author of American Judas. For over thirty years, he wrote television promos, marketing presentations, and scripts for various clients including Cartoon Network, TNT Latin America, and HGTV. His short stories and essays have appeared in Prime Number Magazine, Full Grown People, and McSweeny’s Internet Tendency.
Photo Credit: Alison Law