(Copyright Bill Bauer 2014)
By then, she was edging towards her Forty-Ninth birthday, the divorce nearly five years old. Once it was official, her struggle, her victory, and now her burden, was what to do with the vacation cabin she was deeded in the decree, and her life beyond. The sale of the house in the city, kept in tact until their daughter left for college, finally closed, the spoils divided, the furniture stored or packed off to a consignment company, the few things she valued transported with her to her once beloved cabin, a three bedroom log style home with a raised deck that overlooked a wide, rushing stream in the mountains.
Once free of the Fat Frat — the name she had given to Donald in the years after Suzanne was born and he literally went to the hogs, both physically and spiritually — she wanted nothing more than to work out of the cabin and be alone for a while. As a young teacher in the early 80’s, then a principal, she had grown up with computer technology, designed the first website for the district’s Department of Education, and begun designing web sites for others on the side. After the divorce, she contacted several companies who specialized in website design and custom programming and quickly found her niche in the world of commerce. She was good at it and worked fast, spending no more than four or five hours a day at her paying job, more work thrown at her than she could possibly want or care to manage.
Marla, her neighbor and confidant down the road, one day asked her if she had any ideas about landscaping her cabin, and she’d spent several afternoons and evenings penciling rough sketches, then helping Marla and her friends install it. They had a great party once it was done, complete with a full course dinner catered by another local, esthetically presented outside on tables with white tablecloths, candles and cut glass goblets. At that same party, a realtor asked if she had any interest in landscaping a new home for one of his clients. She loved working the soil, spading and digging, drawing plans and supervising the installation of trees and shrubs. It was such a joy to be outside, visualizing how a mountain cabin might look if it was surrounded by the proper mix of boulders, trees, wildflowers and native grasses. When she finished a project, she’d spend an afternoon flipping through the photographs of her work to congratulate herself and just feel uplifted. That allowed her the freedom not only to live on her own but to save and invest her way well into a six-figure bracket. Between the two incomes and her share of the “nut” as Donald so grossly dubbed their assets she found she could live very well. Contrary to what she once believed, she didn’t need him at all, never did. Other than the hard asset spoils, she refused alimony, asking only for child support for the children — Donald Jr. and Suzanne — and their university tuition through the Ph.D level if they had the ambition to go so far.
Last week, her college roommate, Lottie, also divorced, called to invite her to become a partner in her San Francisco landscaping firm, a specialist in high end homes and condos in Pacific Heights and above. She ruminated over the offer during a late afternoon stroll and felt the tingle of excitement one gets on hearing a new idea. After five years of virtual seclusion, busy with webmaster and landscaping jobs, she now felt lonely. It was time, she decided, to sell the cabin, move back to the city, be a part of things. She and Lottie had become close friends again. Lottie suggested they share her apartment, at least for a while. It had three bedrooms, a spacious living area, a uniformed doorman and a balcony where they could sit together in the evenings, talk about the galaxies with a glass of wine and look out over the city.
Even with her vow to give away the trappings of her first life, she had nevertheless accumulated a number of items she no longer needed or wanted. It was time for another yard sale. She would tie signs on trees at a number of locations and be assured a good turnout. Her first sale when she moved full time into the cabin was a big hit with the locals. She had replaced the lackluster tourist package Fat Frat The Tightwad insisted upon with personally selected, inexpensive antiques he would have called junk. “There’s a thin line between antiques and junk,” he liked to say, as if he knew any better. By selling the tourist package, she pleased many part-timers who were tourists, not true mountain people. Other sales followed and she now had a reputation for laying out first rate collectibles.
What with Lottie’s call and her sudden itch to move on, she made a point to spend the afternoon with the tedious work of going through the remainders.
That’s how she found it, going through her mess in the loft. It was in one of five medium sized cardboard boxes labeled, “College.” Two of them were filled with notebooks, papers she had written, copies of articles, yearbooks. Time to throw them out. She no longer had any interest in them and the kids wouldn’t give a hoot. Unlike her generation, they didn’t seem to treasure the old stuff. Her crowd had invented the disposable life anyway, hadn’t they?
The last box held more personal items, letters from friends, her diploma, a photo album, plaques inscribed with awards, her cheerleader medals. That’s where she uncovered Kenny’s photograph of her in the sculpture garden, hidden under a literary magazine that contained her only published short story. Probably had thrown the photograph in there because she had dismissed the idea of Kenny as a young woman’s lark, a silly daydream.
Maybe she tossed it aside when she and Donald moved into their first home. They cleaned house, undoing their separate apartments to merge the best they had between them. It must have been then that she dismissed the photograph into this box, tossed it away as a tree tosses off a leaf because it’s finished with it. Since then in moments of desperation, she looked for it again, sometimes ached for it. Especially during those years when the children were small and she didn’t feel it fair to shatter their image of a loving family, the face she manufactured for the outside world. She wanted them to have the same security she had – then thought about her mom and dad, and began tearing up because they were dead, and thereby left her feeling abandoned. Left her with this clod who only wanted to dominate and control her. Control everything she did. Sit on her every impulse. Spoil her every creative thought with his wooden brain. She had endured her unhappiness for the children’s sake and theirs alone. Now they too were gone. As often as she had wanted them to know how she really felt, she held back. They were doing well, so why spoil it for them now. She deserved a Olympic gold, she thought, for fighting to keep their fantasy in one piece, fought as long as she could until the effort almost landed her in the asylum. Her cynical word for when she felt herself crossing the line.
She had no idea of what Fat Frat had been telling them the last few years. No doubt making excuses for this and that. Buying them plane tickets, getting them seats at ball games and concerts. Yet, they still called her faithfully to share. She was content with them. They were surviving so well they seemed not to need her around anyway. She could sense the ennui through the telephone in their quiet sighs. Just mom on the line.
But, then, suddenly, here was Kenny again, invisible to her behind the camera, but still standing there negotiating for the perfect frame. It was like clicking a link on a website and opening an era, a place and time she thought forever lost. There was Kenny’s face again, if only in her mind. She looked out at him with such desire and affection she wanted to sob at the sight of herself, twenty-two or so, Miss Prim first grade teacher, with some kind of street urchin character, the janitor at the school of her first teaching assignment. She’d have to check the dates. But it was her. The real her. The her before she had traded her life for security and convention. She blushed in humiliation, thinking about what she’d done to herself, to her life. No, she just couldn’t blame Fat Frat alone for that. It was at least half her fault for needing him. And she sincerely believed back then that Fat Frat was the answer, her key to a full and fulfilling life. Back then, she would have panicked if Fat Frat had changed his mind about their engagement. As beautiful as she looked in the photograph Kenny had taken of her, so young and fresh and full of ability, she would have despaired if her marriage to Fat Frat had somehow been derailed. She’d have fought tooth and nail against any other outcome. How precious a person she was, she thought. And looking into her own face, she couldn’t understand why. She saw herself now as Kenny had seen her then. Almost whole. Not quite whole but on her way to being whole. A beautiful young woman who had no where to go but down.
How could she even gauge then that what she perceived as Fat Frat’s intelligence, his drive, his thrift, were really signs of what she now knew were horribly evil qualities: his greed, selfishness, insecurity, that monstrous conservative phenomenon that served as an excuse for the ignorance and arrogance of an entire generation, for hoarding, for being miserly, for being controlling of all feeling and thought that didn’t fit the limited confines of his fear. How could she foresee that Fat Frat was not, as she thought, the protector of all that was good and decent, but a mere unimaginative, sexless dullard, a wallflower who just didn’t catch what was happening in the world, a retrograde, someone who resented that the old boys were being overturned by a new freedom, by imagination, by a willingness to risk, by the so-called level playing field white men could no longer control in their smoky back rooms and closed doors? That he was just another crotchety old fart in a young man’s body? How could she know then he wanted to be known as Mr. Republican, pontificate with his dry, constipated breath about people on welfare, advocate putting mentally ill people to death, cheat on his income taxes, go to church only to further his law practice, stuff money into his portfolio so he could die a rich man, build what he thought to be a legacy hammered onto the stone of a public edifice, never to share his riches with his family or anyone else? How could she know then that deep down he believed anyone other than a white, high income male was nothing more than a nigger, the children his wife bore his legal issue, that even with the books and movies and legislation women were still mere chattel?
And Kenny, how did she know she would always yearn for him, yearn for him in all his commonness, in his lack of education, in his lack of couth? How many times had she told herself that Kenny was little more than a throwaway, someone she could tease and be kidded by, knowing all the while she had no need to fear him? A janitor was all he was. A janitor, yes, but with a sense of humor and someone she could trust and depend upon. A handsome, competent young man who opened the school every morning and greeted the children with a smile or a grin as he leaned on a wide mop and push broom and jangled a ring of keys, brewed coffee so the teachers could have a quick cup before their first class, cleaned up after meetings, stayed late after band practice, switched off the lights, locked the doors.
Say what she would, Debbie Dawes, the ice queen principal, wasn’t the oil that kept the school running. Kenny was the oil and the nuts and the bolts. She could see that now.
* * *
The afternoon of the day she planned to say goodbye to Kenny by taking him on what they liked to call their one and only field trip, she had a serious case of nerves. She thought it was because Kenny would embarrass her in front of her art gallery friends. Even with her limited income, she’d invested in a membership, gone often to the art gallery, joined fund raisers and was well known to the docents and guards. What would they think of her bringing a guy like Kenny into their cathedral of art? She thought maybe she could warn them about Kenny in advance. But that seemed condescending. Let them see for themselves and decide.
One moment she looked forward to escorting him around the gallery; the next she didn’t think she possibly could go through with it. Just after lunch, she panicked, seeing him in the lunchroom by the doorway leaning on his push broom, crudely dressed in an old shirt, blue jeans and worn sneakers, the only clothes she’d ever seen him in, joking with the children as they stacked up their little trays. Maybe, she thought, as she watched him in his gray shirt and jeans, she was going to have to be realistic and bail out. That’s all there was to it. How to explain this to Kenny without breaking his heart? Where to begin? On the other hand, he’d be gone tomorrow anyway and she wouldn’t have to face him the next day. She could make up a story, an illness in the family, an emergency meeting suddenly called by the vestry at her church. As she passed him on her way to recess that day, she could only smile and say, “See you there, Kenny.” Rain was forecast throughout the day, a disappointment. Once her invitation had been cast, she hoped for a clear evening, a nice dinner for she and Kenny outdoors.
Standing in the grand foyer of the art gallery in her windbreaker and an umbrella draped over her forearm, she again began to plot how she might still undo her invitation. Perhaps a note handed to Kenny by the guard at the front door, excusing her due to a situation that Kenny would never be able to check it out. Maybe her car wouldn’t start and had to be towed. Sorry. Or a nose bleed and a visit to the ER, though knowing Kenny, he’d track down the name of a hospital and be right there. No, she was stuck. She just couldn’t put Kenny down. “It’s just not in you to say no even to a stray mutt,” Fat Frat often accused her later in their marriage. She paced. Kenny was already fifteen minutes late. He usually stayed after classes to lock up after the children had been picked up and the teacher’s left for the day. The bookstore at the art gallery was getting ready to close and that was a disappointment because she wanted Kenny to choose an inexpensive memento of his visit with a first grade teacher. The one he said he’d never had.
In vacillating between staying and leaving, she pictured his expression of disappointment at not finding her there if she did give into her panic, what his face might look like and the image stabbed her. He might look up her personal telephone number and call her apartment until she answered the phone. Like a stalker. What did she know about Kenny anyway? Maybe he was some kind of a nutcase. He might not know when to stop. On the other hand, it was she who had extended the invitation and made the commitment and she hated people who broke promises. Like Fat Frat typically did. The phony. The liar. The once physically fit football player and racket ball king who really did grow into her moniker of him, a truly fat fraternity brat.
She genuinely liked Kenny. He was easy to be around and he had been the first to welcome her at the beginning of the school year as one of the new first grade teachers. It was always, “Miss Pugh,” this, “Miss Pugh,” that, not just, “Cindy,” and he appeared like an apparition with mop and bucket whenever any of the children, “puked,” as he indelicately put it, which happened more often than she’d ever imagined possible in her student teaching days. His grinning face greeting the children and their parents as they arrived at the front door was the shining image of her first teaching assignment that helped her through the trying times in the days when teachers began losing out to the ideologues of the school boards.
Though he might have been some years her senior, he seemed younger than his age and acted her junior. She was twenty-two starting her first real job. He still wore his sandy colored hair parted in the middle and down near his shoulders where it flipped and bobbed when he walked with a cocky bounce. He dressed neatly in his washed out clothes, and she noticed that his fingernails were pink and well trimmed. He never smelled as some janitors do. Oddly, to her at least, he always folded a package of cigarettes in one of his shirt sleeves like a construction worker or a biker might. His belts were wide in a western style, the buckles square and plain, and he had chains dangling on both sides of his hips, one for his fistful of keys, the other for his faded black wallet. Of his faded, tie dyed shirts, he was happy to brag, “Got this at the thrift store for one dollar and change.” They showed.
As did he brown scuffed work boots.
But she couldn’t take her eyes off Kenny’s face or stop thinking about the emerald allure of his eyes. She blushed sometimes when he looked up from his push broom and smiled at her. His eyes reminded her of a mountain stream, of a forest, unspoiled. He was lean, not very tall. By any measure, his features were symmetrical, handsome. She felt a little guilty after seeing him and sometimes wanting to walk up and kiss him full on the lips and have him hug her to the bone. Fat Frat, aka Donald, came to mind at such moments and screwed up the daydream. At that time Donald had not yet penetrated her but they had undressed together and petted. They were saving the grand moment for their honeymoon. Her mother’s churchy thing, a promise she squeezed out of Cindy early on.
On the day she first met him, Kenny had a fresh scar, a gash an inch and a half long, on one side of his nose. She calculated he must have just had the stitches out because the scar was still pink.
His mouth sometimes got him in trouble with Debbie Dawes, the principal of Morgan Elementary. He would talk “rough” – her words – around the children and teachers but always looked totally amazed and sheepish when anyone took offense at what he had said. “Not in front of the children,” Debbie admonished him under her breath in the cafeteria, smiling, but with a mouth that looked like it had been fed horse manure. “Sorry, maam,” Kenny would apologize, “just not thinkin’. Like you said the other day. Same as you tell the kids. Got to put my thinkin’ cap on. Got to think afore I speak.”
Debbie wrote in her evaluation that Kenny was “too present” for a custodian, but he was so reliable and so eager – so competent – and affordable – a school board and taxpayer thing – she decided to tolerate him for the time being. Kenny worked at the school two and a half years.
Cindy had just finished lunch one day and was helping some of the children with their coats as they lined up in the cafeteria for a field trip to the art gallery when her invitation to Kenny simply spurted out of her mouth. The outside door of the cafeteria led to the playground where the buses waited to take the children on their field trips. Kenny was behind his perpetual push broom, sweeping, moving chairs back and forth, brushing crumbs from tabletops.
“Where you off to, today, Miss Pugh?” he asked Cindy.
“We’re going to spend the afternoon at the art gallery,” Cindy smiled. “There’s a special exhibit of children’s art from around the world. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
“What a deal!” Kenny whistled and winked.
“Oh, Kenny,” she had said, for that was all she could think to say, she felt so flustered. She loved taking the children to the art gallery and found it thrilling to be there with all those brilliant works of art. To her, it was a holy place, more holy than a church, though Fat Frat berated her when she told him that.
“I ain’t never been to a place like that,” Kenny had said. “Drove by it. Big ole place. Looks one like of them funeral parlors. They never took us kids out like that. Guess they thought we’d scribble over things. Or get sick and puke.”
“‘Course, there again, maybe that’s how come we never did know much about ort and such.”
He turned to the line of first graders Cindy had formed. “You kids is sure a lucky bunch to have a teacher like Miss Pugh. I hope you’ll behave yourselves. Wish I was a gittin’ on that bus.”
Cindy had blurted out, “You will some day. We’ll go together. Just you and me.”
“You serious, Miss Pugh?”
“Of course,” she had said, and instantly regretted it.
“You’re on then. I’ll hold you to it. Yes I will.”
Since then, either she or Kenny had found some excuse not to settle on a day. Now, they had no choice. A week earlier Kenny suddenly announced he was leaving. Today would be Kenny’s last day and then he would be gone, gone he said to another city, another job, but when he was asked why, what or where, he simply smiled and winked. Cindy decided, if they pushed it, they could catch the two hours before the art gallery closed. She desperately wanted to keep her word but felt equally certain she didn’t want to be caught dead with Kenny at the art gallery. Besides, Donald seriously would have buggered nose out of joint if he knew she had cavorted off with another male. For one thing, Kenny was so much better looking than Donald, even if he acted somewhat stupid and uneducated — dumb actually — that Donald immediately would have been jealous and insisted she call the excursion off. But Kenny, as though he had been saving up psychological coupons to cash in, gave her no room to cancel. He seemed hell bent on having her host him around the art gallery, take him on their own special field trip. Fortunately, Donald had driven to St. Louis for a study group for the bar exam. That bit of luck temporarily took her off the hook, so she crossed her fingers on the backside of the evening that he wouldn’t discover by accident or otherwise that she had spent time with Kenny.
Just as she looked at her watch again, Kenny pulled open the tall, heavy door of the art gallery, stuck in his fresh face and grinned. Oh, oh, she immediately thought, he has a camera. It was slung over his shoulder on a strap. He might not understand about the prohibition against cameras. I hope, she thought, he won’t cause a scene.
Before she could say hello and casually ease Kenny into the idea that he wouldn’t be able to snap any photographs, one of the uniformed guards, a squat, vole looking person who could have been male or female, slipped around one of the marble columns and snapped, “Sir, you’ll need to check that camera,” as quickly and with as much apparent pleasure as taken by the kind of people who wind themselves up in the back of theatres, ready to pounce on latecomers, fingers at their curled lips, with a loud, “Shhhhh!”
“What?” Kenny blurted out, huffing, acting annoyed..
“It’s a rule,” Cindy cut in. “Flashes from cameras can damage the surface of paintings.”
“Well, I’ll be. I’ll just leave off my flash then.”
“The rule here, sir, is no cameras,” the guard reiterated, folding his/her arms, grimacing.
Kenny paused, considering what to do next.
“It’s ok, Kenny,” Cindy said. “We can take some pictures outside. There’s a sculpture garden.”
“Dang. What am I going to do for souvenirs?”
“There’s a gift shop. If it’s still open, we can buy some postcards,”
Cindy pleaded, catching a faint whiff of tension from her underarms.
“I knew there had to be some money making angle,” Kenny said,
lifting the camera strap over his head. The guard escorted Kenny to the check room while he handed over his camera. “This here is an expensive cam-er,” Kenny said. “Treat it as one of your own.”
A younger woman inside the checkroom, not smiling but matter-of-factly assuring him, said, “We’ve had very few problems, sir. Your camera is in good hands.”
Kenny eyed the camera carefully as he stuck the receipt she gave him into his pocket. “Hate to let go of that thing,” he grumbled to Cindy as she tugged at his shirtsleeve and pulled him in the direction of the admittance counter.
“You can go on in, ma’am,” the attendant smiled. She was a darling black girl, as Cindy recalled her, probably a student, and had not yet lost her sense of joy.
“You get in free?” Kenny wondered out loud.
“Not really. I’m a ‘friend of…’ meaning I make an annual donation.
One of the benefits of this card is that it allows me and one other special person to be admitted without additional charge. Except for certain events, that is.”
“Oh,” Kenny winked. “I guess I must be your special event, as for right here and now. One day gonna get me one of them cards. Then, you can be my special event.”
Cindy blushed, and they passed through the turnstile into the great hall. It was a large domed marble room lined with tall sculptures on ornate pedestals in the classical style. Arches off the great hall led to galleries that led to more galleries. It was more than one could experience in a few hours. Kenny stood in the middle of the great hall and whistled. His whistle echoed.
“Man, oh, man. This must a cost somebody a pretty penny. Like a castle, ain’t it? Ain’t never been in a castle really. But if I was a king, this’ud be my spot.”
“Now, Kenny, we will need to use our best quiet voices here,” Cindy said as she would to one of her first graders. “Sorry, but we have to hurry a bit. The gallery will close in about an hour and a half. So this will just be a quick run through.”
Because Kenny had to surrender his camera, and because Cindy knew that photography was Kenny’s hobby, she led him through the special photography exhibit first. “Faces of the Mid-West: The Depression,” was the title.
“I’d have to spend a whole day in this section alone,” Kenny said, after peering closely at the first few photographs and realizing he would never finish the exhibit by closing time, that is, if he stood before each photograph and fully analyzed it. They strolled through the exhibit until Kenny stopped in front of a photograph of a prostitute somewhere in Indiana. It was called, “Prostitute, 1931.” She was posed, smiling, partly nude, in the doorway of a saloon.
“Dang,” Kenny said. “Look at the goods on that gal.”
“Kenny!” Cindy shhhed, completely off balance, then found herself giggling, even as she looked around for eyewitnesses. This was the kind of thing she had feared. Yet, she and Kenny giggled together, hands over their mouths.
Across the room, a guard appeared, an older man with glasses,
circling the room, trying to be casual in oversized shoes that squeaked.
Cindy was used to Kenny’s forthright remarks. She had become accustomed to them, and actually looked forward to what would be his next faux pas. She never had a clue of what would come out of his mouth. He could tease her about her appearance or tell her off color jokes and make her laugh because there was nothing disgusting about his telling of them. Their conversations felt familiar, not invasive. In fact, she felt much more relaxed and fun loving with Kenny than she ever had with Donald. Donald was very proper and she admired him for being so. His demeanor would be important when he graduated from law school and tried to hack it. But Kenny was much more fun to be with. He was able to make her laugh, not always with full intent. Donald’s off color jokes, when he told them, often after sucking the necks of several bottles of beer, much like, she discovered later, sucking her neck red and raw, sounded, well, downright nasty. In only a few years after their lavish marriage ceremony Fat Frat turned out to be one of those loud mouthed, never-in-combat, forever flag waving, throwing up in the alley, jerks, who closed down bars, danced a gig, sang, “hey! hey! ho! ho!” and had to be dumped into bed with half his clothes on.
She knew little about the technical aspects of photography or cameras per se, only what she liked to see in the results. Kenny hadn’t been schooled in photography either that she knew of but planned to take courses in his new position, whatever that was and wherever it might be. But his comments about the exhibit amazed her. He speculated on the type of camera, settings and how the shot had been taken. He zoned in on just what was unique about a photograph, its composition, light, contrast. He knew, she thought, about a photograph instinctively. No school could teach him more than that.
“Heck,” he said, “I really don’t know the first thing about it. I just know when I see something worth a shot, I say to myself, hey, now that there’s a pitschure. So, I snap it. Got me a book of photos I’d like to show you some time. I got some as good as any of these,” he told her when they moved across the great hall into the Impressionist exhibit. “When I get back, I’m gonna set up my own studio. Have a darkroom. Maybe get into some contests. Have an exhibit of my own.”
“When you get back? Are you coming back?” She frowned, confused about his plans.
“Hope to,” Kenny said, looking around, saying nothing more. When he went on to the next photograph, she said, “Bet you’ll do well, Kenny.”
“Well, my stuff’d be a damn sight better than some of the junk in that exhibit. They call that ort? It’s a joke to me.”
Later, Cindy would remember that Kenny liked the Impressionists best. As did she. He especially enjoyed, “Reen-ooo-are,” which was how he pronounced, “Renoir.” And “sewer rat,” for “Seurat.”
“I wish I could catch me some light like that in my shots. I seen that kinda light a lot in the late afternoon in the summer and fall. It’s got a kinda smoothness to it that falls upon thee trees and people’s faces. Like wax. Don’t know why, but it makes me sad or something. That light. No, no, not sad, uh, lemme see. Oh, it gives me a longing for something I cain’t have, for something I ain’t seen yet. Makes me want to sit by a crick and cry. Makes me hungry for something.”
“Maybe you are getting hungry, Kenny.”
“No, not quite yet. Are we still gonna have some of them noodles.”
This was part of the plan. Since Donald was out of town, her plan was to go to the art gallery, then have dinner at an Italian restaurant she liked. Noodles was what Kenny called pasta. He couldn’t get used to calling plain old spaghetti or elbow roni, pasta. Just couldn’t make his mouth get it out, he said.
“I’ve got a reservation at a sweet little restaurant by the river,” Cindy said. “It’s run by a family. The Patrones. You’ll like them. Even the grandmother helps out. She actually hand makes some of the pasta. Most of the salads too.”
“Yeah, well,” Kenny snapped. “My grammaw used to help out too. Help out beatin’ the crud outta me.”
Kenny stopped for a long time in front of one of Cezanne’s “Bathers.”
He propped his chin in one hand and supported his elbow with the other.
“Now them’s nekid. I ain’t never seen a nekid woman with such a majorly huge ass.”
“Kenny!” Cindy said, putting her hand over her lips. “I’m going to have to get some soap and wash your mouth out.”
“Sorry,” Kenny said, bowing his head. “But you see the problem is that it’s so much out of shape with the rest of her.”
“I think that makes her kind of special.”
“Well, maybe. Not my type, I guess.” Her looked at her disappointment. “Sorry.”
Kenny hurried through the Medieval period. Boring, he thought, flat, and too churchy. By then, he was leading Cindy by the hand. She hardly noticed when he first took it. When she did, her hand began to sweat and her heart pounded. It was a combination of fear (what did she really know about Kenny anyway?), guilt (Donald would die!) and excitement. A tingle down her neck. Kenny’s hand was firm and excitingly rough.
“See what I’m sayin'” Kenny went on. “All them devils and virgins and saints. Good colors, I will say that for them. But the pitchures themselves, blah,” he said, giving them the strawberries with his tongue.
“Gives me the creeps. As when I am in a church.”
He was amazed, though, by the carvings and masks in the African section and excited by the scrolls in the Asian collection.
“I’ll tell you what,” Kenny said. “I seen places like that in North Carolina. Up in the mountains where I come from. Lookin’ down at horses, things like that. Again, it’s a matter of catching things in the right light.”
He looked at his watch and his face dropped. “Runnin’ outta time, dang it.” Again, he took her hand and began to rush. He stopped to relish a few of the Renaissance paintings.
“They do a nice job on skin, I’ll say that for them. I’m not so sure about the eyes, though.”
“What do you mean, Kenny?”
“Well, I done took a lot pitchures of people and I can tell people’s eyes from animal eyes. Those eyes,” Kenny said, pointing to Bronzino’s ‘Portrait Of A Young Man,’ “seem to me to be animal eyes. Now maybe that’s just my imagination. I’ve shot a deer or two and that’s what comes to mind. But them’s to me is your animal eyes.”
Kenny’s comments in the contemporary art section ranged from “That’s just plain weird,” to “You call that ort? Shit, give me a little plaster and glue, a few days in a trash bin, some cans of spray paint and I’ll be a rich man. I run into this old fort (fart) from Chicagoland at those free ort shows now and again. We talk here and there. He’d call that your NYC hoo’ey, meaning fancy dancy BS, I believe.”
Cindy had expected as much and decided to keep quiet. It would be over in a few minutes. Even so, she found herself looking around to see if anyone, including the ghosts of the artists themselves, could overhear him.
She was starting to feel more stressed than she thought she would. Ready to move on.
By the time they had finished their tour, the gift shop had already closed and the guards were locking the doors and dimming the lights. Kenny traded his ticket stub for his camera and checked it over, up, down, and backwards, eyeballing the cloakroom attendant carefully in between. Cindy tried not to watch Kenny but smiled knowingly to the attendant with her lips in a wide, thin way.
Kenny looked down hard at the check out attendant.
“Now, lady, this better be in the same condition as when I brought it in. Elsewise, somebody’s gonna pay for it,” Kenny mumbled. The attendant raised his/her eyebrows in surprise as if she’d never heard that before. Cindy felt mortified and again wanted to hide.
“Done deal,” Kenny finally said. “I sure need me a smoke,” Kenny said. “Tromping through an ort gallery can give a person the jitts.”
Cindy asked Tom, an older man who’d worked as a guard at the gallery, seemingly forever, if he would let them out the back door of the great hall into the sculpture garden. Tom bowed kindly to them as they exited and Kenny, thinking it might be a custom of some kind, bowed back.
Outside, Kenny asked, “Don’t those guys ever say anything?”
“They try to be invisible.”
“Ain’t that the shits.”
They walked down the forty steps out of the front of the gallery into the acres and acres of grounds. At the bottom of the stairs, Kenny stretched, yawned and belched loudly and long.
“Kenny!” Cindy scolded, looking around automatically for witnesses.
Kenny looked offended and stepped back, shocked that Cindy would be so upset. Taking a cigarette from its pack and tapping it against one of his knuckles, Kenny turned to the bronze statue of a wood nymph to apologize and said to it, “Scoo-oooo-eeeze me, may-dams-mooo-e-eee-zeee-elll,” shaking his head in mock reverence.
Cindy sighed and sat on one of the stone benches, thinking she could just walk up to her car and drive away. Why not? She’d taken him on his stupid little field trip. The pre-planned dinner was an extra. Still pondering what to do, she watched him meander through the garden while he smoked.
“Osserve nature,” Kenny said, spreading his arms wide, cigarette between his thumb and forefinger like a dandy, like an Oscar Wilde impersonator. He stood to the side of a nude gladiator in a helmet. The statue had been cut down the middle by the late sun, half sunshine, half shade. “Osserve how, on thee one side, thee sun. Osserve how, on thee other side, thee shade. A wonder of thee world.”
“Oh, very good, Kenny,” Cindy sniffed, “very observant. I’ll give you a D+ for that one.” Again Kenny looked surprised. He turned his head slowly, dramatically, in her direction.
“I can see you don’t always appreciate the finer angle on things,”
he said, wagging his head. “Spend some time behind this here cam-er and you might begin to see a few things a lot of people miss.”
“I’m not even going to get into that, Kenny,” she said, and found herself snickering in spite of herself. Clod.
Kenny put out his cigarette military style, and taking Cindy’s hand again, (gosh, she thought, she hadn’t even resisted; it felt so natural), lifted her from the bench and led her down the trail that circled the gallery grounds. It was early May and the leaves had just begun to show. The jonquils had come and gone and the tulips about ready to open. The sky was uneven, dim and smelling of rain, splintered with streaks of light blue and late sun. Did she hear distant thunder? Maybe that was something her memory threw in.
“I’m sure going to miss all this,” Kenny said, spinning around to face her.
“Spring will come again, Kenny,” she said.
” ‘Spose so.”
Just after that is when he snapped it. She had wandered ahead of him, enjoying the outdoors, the excitement of a coming storm and its cooling effect. She stood looking up at the sky through an arboretum. In summer, roses and ivy climbed up the columns and thatched the roofs with leaves, thorns and flowers. At that moment, there was just enough green to give the arboretum the semblance of a primordial grove painted in watercolor from a wish or a dream.
“Here’s to the gods,” Kenny shouted from several feet ahead, waving at her to pose, smiling at her, focusing his camera, and that made Cindy laugh. Kenny waited until she stopped laughing, looked down at the ground, then up at Kenny. The flash startled her.
“What made you think about that? About gods?”
“All them little cupids in the pitchures.”
“Kenny, they’re not gods. You’ve got to bone up on your mythology.”
“Well, sorts of gods. From the same era, let’s say.”
“Okay, I’ll accept that answer.”
Kenny had snapped the photograph in that split second between Cindy’s contrived smile and her next unconscious laugh.
“Well, now, you’re immortal,” Kenny smiled sadly, looking down at his camera. “You’ll be a goddess, yessir. Got you now forever.”
Watching Kenny fine tune his camera and the intensity with which he did it made Cindy sad for him, even though it would still be a few hours before she knew Kenny’s secret. She could feel the breeze and smell the sweetness of things and knew that Kenny did too, though he continued to busy himself with his camera and pretend he had nothing to worry himself about except the next photograph. Maybe that’s what some people call dignity.
“That ought to do it,” Kenny sniffed proudly, elated by his good work. “I’ll mail you a copy.”
“Thanks, Kenny,” was all she could say. After all.
They hurried through the other sculptures, Kenny holding her hand, she feeling both embarrassed and uncomfortably excited, almost put upon, though not quite fearful. Suddenly, Kenny stopped on the path under a large sycamore and turned back to face her. Neither of them spoke. She felt herself sway and hoped that she was not about to faint. She felt herself in a kind of trance like those the Romantics called delirium. She thought Kenny was about to faint too, he looked so pale.
She remembers reaching out to hold his other hand and they slowly sank in unison to their knees. It was a long, sweet kiss, one that allowed them to disappear into each other. She couldn’t remember how long it lasted, only that both of them had broken into a sweat, said nothing for a long time, and she again felt weak, somnolent. They lapsed into drowsiness against one another. She might have actually have dozed an instant. She had often read and heard the word “swoon” and now she felt it.
Kenny rose first, wobbling backwards as he stood. He lifted her by the hands and she laid her head on his chest. Their hands locked as they walked slowly back to the parking lot. They stood by her car, looking at each other. Finally, Cindy woke.
“I want to drive, Kenny,” she said. “I’ve never ridden with you and I’m a little frightened right now.”
“Okay by me,” Kenny shrugged, as if he understood.
“I’ll drop you off back here after we eat.”
As she drove, neither of them said anything about their kiss.
“If I open a window, can I smoke? I’m kinda nervous, Cindy,” he finally said.
Cindy, for an unknown reason, wanted to cry, wanted to pull over and spend the evening kissing and holding Kenny. She held back her tears and pretended to be calm and in full control.
“Okay, Kenny. But, please blow it out the window.” She was thinking of Donald who didn’t smoke. Or drink then. Or eat, except what he thought acceptable for him and the whole world to eat or…he would surely notice.
“Yes, maam,” Kenny said softly.
“Kenny, it’s ok to call me, Cindy.”
“I have had a hard time of it. But I will try.”
She drove on to Patrone’s in silence. Kenny flicked the dead ashes off his smoke and stuck the filter into his watch pocket. She might have gotten into some nervous talking but simply drove on, holding her anxiety inside. She knew now that Kenny could smell a phony a mile away.
Just before they reached Patrone’s Kenny said, as though he’d been saving it up, that “You know, don’t you, Cindy, those kids in your school need lots more trips than field trips.”
“Like what, Kenny? I’m open to new ideas.”
“I don’t quite know how to catch it. But there’s a whole world outside them walls they won’t see until it might be too late.”
The school was a wonderful school, Kenny said, a kid’s paradise.
But not too many children in the world could afford a school like that. Some of them would fall hard, as Kenny said, “like out of one of them pitchures. Yep, it’s purty within them walls. Teachers like Miss Pugh.
Bluebirds a flyin’ out of their books. Sunshine and rainbows ever which way. But then, they ain’t never spent much time downtown, and I doubt if their moms and dads have neither. Not many of you teachers, I betcha.”
Cindy couldn’t tell by his words if he was trying to help her or hurt her. She let his words blow by.
Early as it was, Patrone’s was nearly full. Its simple old country signage was in a row of shops, art galleries and high priced boutiques along the riverfront. The evening had cooled, no mosquitoes yet this early in the season, but the birds gave a sundown concert. Cindy reserved a table on the deck that overlooked the river, reluctantly admitting to herself she had done so to impress her handsome janitorial friend. Above them hung the thick and budding vines of one of several flowering artificial plants in wide wooden pots. The branches swayed in a dusk that was quickly becoming night. A string of all year Christmas lights blinked on.
Cindy could tell that Kenny was trying his best to mimic her every move. She knew he wasn’t naturally that naïve but probably didn’t want to give the impression he didn’t know what to do.
Kenny declined any liquor. Ordered a Coke right off. In deference, she declined her usual, a specific Merlot. They held their menus close to the kerosene lamp in the middle of the table better to see.
Kenny fidgeted, then said, “Now, this here’s an I-talian restaurant.”
“Can’t you tell?”
“Yeah, but I don’t see no spaghetti and meatballs.”
Before Cindy could speak, Mr. Patrone spoke from over Kenny’s shoulder.
“You will want the Bolognese,” he said with authority.
“It’s the same thing,” Cindy added.
“Well, why don’t they just say so,” Kenny said, wagging his chin and pursing his lips.
He attacked the basket of bread even as it was being set down and quickly asked for more butter. He ordered another Coke and, after a few sips, again emitted a long, low belch from the side of his mouth but caught himself, looking side to side to see if anyone noticed.
Cindy was less mortified than with the first of his belches and was heartened that he had taken note. Even so, she wanted to hunker down, suddenly wanting the evening to be over soon. Though she was still dazed by the kiss, it was awkward, the whole damn thing. Out to dinner with the school janitor.
It was obvious Kenny wasn’t comfortable with her either. She sensed he really didn’t enjoy his pasta. It was served in the old Italian style and he had probably anticipated the thicker American version. But he mopped up all the sauce with the last of the bread from the third or fourth basket — she lost count — and then the remainder of the oil and vinegar from his salad bowl with the crust. They brought Cokes to him, one after the other, and he slurped the last of these through a straw before he ordered a coffee and she an expresso, something he had never sampled. After she offered him a taste from her spoon, he said how glad he was he had ordered regular black coffee with sugar and cream.
“Bitter stuff,” he smirked. “Stronger than whiskey. Now this here, what I am drinking, is your real live coffee.”
God, he’s green, Cindy thought. She longed to get back to her apartment and have a hot bath and a nice glass of wine. She had not ordered a bottle in deference to Kenny because he had jumped right in, almost cutting the waiter off, by ordering a Coke.
“You know, Kenny,” she said, “you haven’t told me a thing about your new job.”
Kenny grabbed his pack of cigarettes and his hands shook so hard he had trouble knocking one out of the pack and lighting it. He looked straight at her but didn’t speak for an indeterminable amount of time. What he said may have eventually changed her whole life, if not at that moment, then almost thirty later when she again found the photograph he had taken in the garden.
“Cindy, I…I ain’t got no new job. The truth in this here life of mine is that tomorrow at 12 o’clock noon my lawyer is going to drive me to the penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth to surrender my sorry ass for a five year prison term. The truth of it is I’m going to jail for burglary.”
Again, Cindy thought she was going to lose it, either keel over, throw up or scream. The restaurant with its background violin music, the early spring air, waiters shooting back and forth, the smell of garlic everywhere, seemed nightmarish. She felt she was floating above herself looking down at the scene through smoke and candlelight. She could hear Donald scolding her self-righteously, “Out in public, alone with a bona fide felon!”
Once she caught herself, she managed to whisper in a hoarse voice, “Kenny…for godsakes…”
“I’m sorry maam – I mean Cindy – to spring this thing upon you. I just wanted so much to go with you on one of them field trips. I thought if I told you about all this you’d get scared and find some excuse not to go.”
“I tried to think of one, Kenny,” she heard herself say, “even though I had no idea. It’s so complicated. Now, I feel like you’ve lied to me by not telling the whole truth and nothing but.”
“That may be,” Kenny said. “But by the same token, knowing you as I know you, you probably lie all the time.”
“You don’t know that, Kenny.”
“I do and I don’t,” was all he said and cleared his throat. “Back to complicated, you don’t know how complicated this whole thing is.” For the first time she could see his green eyes tear up. “See, I thought I was burglarizing houses so’s I could send money to my mom. That’s how I told myself it was okay to do it. Okay, because of the Fat Man. Now, maybe you don’t know much about the Fat Man. You’d have to grow up poor to know about him. But me, I was taught it was okay to take from the Fat Man. ‘Cuz he takes from everybody else. And see this here now, this isn’t my first felony offense. It’s my second. That’s why I got five years. If I didn’t have such a good lawyer, I’d have gotten seven to ten. Even so, I’ve been thinking a lot. What I been thinking lately is that this burglary business I been doing has a whole lot more to do with me than with my mom or with the Fat Man. Sure, I wanted to send her some moolah. Sure, I wanted to get back at the Fat Man. But the real reason’s stranger to me than that.”
“This sounds scary to me, Kenny. I don’t think I can hear it.”
“If you don’t want to hear it, get up and walk out that door,” Kenny said pointing to the Exit sign, his voice rising, “you go right ahead. I will understand. Me, I will.”
A part of Cindy wanted to get up and run. Another part wanted to stay and hear and just be with Kenny. Later, she would let in that she, no matter what Kenny said, just wanted to be with Kenny. There was no logic to it. Dammit, she wanted to curl her face into Kenny’s neck.
“Kenny, I am interested in why you had to burglarize somebody’s home. But do you know how frightening that can be? To have someone digging through your home in the middle of the night?”
Kenny looked down at the table, then up, up but off to the side, mostly off to the side that faced the river. As he might have said, “The moon was upon it.”
“Well, all I can say is that I couldn’t help it. Now, some people will tell you that you can help it, that you can decide what you can do and what you cannot do. Me, I try to go to sleep at night but find myself restless. I find myself getting dressed, putting on my black sweatshirt, my black jeans, my black shoes. I have me a mask of sorts I made outta my stocking cap. I will have a house in mind, a house I’ve been by many a time.”
“I know lots about locks. I once worked for a locksmith company. Most locks are simple. You can get into lots of houses with a paperclip, a narrow screwdriver, a dental pick, a credit card, whut nut. Me, I done made me a copy of the locksmith’s master key. That helped me into most houses.
Now the thing that excites me most is that I can walk around in someone’s kitchen as a mouse might. Once inside, I’d lean against a wall for a while until my eyes got used to the dark. Then, I ‘magined my fingers were like antenna and I put them before me and to the side of me, like a bug, like a roach. I like feeling like a roach because they live so long. They can survive most anything. They can survive our secrets. Sometimes people would groan in their sleep, cough or get up and look around. Now and then, they’d even stumble right past me, me standing upright against a wall. I can’t tell you how exciting that is. Or to turn a knob on a bedroom door and slide open drawers and see with a small flashlight what was hidden in there, knowing the people of the house are sleeping only a few feet away. Sometimes I’d get on the floor and crawl along the carpet, up the steps.and ….”
“Oh, just stop it , Kenny,” Cindy almost shouted, putting her face into her hands. “You’re scaring the crap out of me.”
He’s a nutcase, she decided. I’ve let myself be suckered in by a psychopath.
“Sorry,” Kenny whispered, again bowing his head.
Mr. Patrone appeared from the shadows, quietly circling the table as if to see if it was current, but Cindy knew he was simply looking after her, father that he was of five daughters. He stood above Kenny for a moment, glanced at Cindy’s face and moved to the next table gathering and lifting away soiled plates.
After Mr. Patrone handed the plates to a server and greeted guests at another table, Kenny leaned on his elbows towards her and said, “You see, it’s really about me being able to see in the dark. It’s about the light in the dark.”
She might have been afraid. She wasn’t. He was just Kenny again, talking. Kenny, the Kenny with the smile and emerald eyes.
Thinking back, she probably seemed judgmental and indignant. She wanted to tell him she hoped he’d get help in prison. Ha! How stupid she’d been. Get help. What did she or anybody know about getting help in prison.
They sat a long time in silence watching the lights of the restaurant blink in the flow of the river. The air started to get chilly and they put themselves inside their jackets.
“I’ll write you, Kenny,” she said at last.
“Please don’t do that,” Kenny said softly. He was getting very nervous; she could tell. She both wanted to go, wanted to stay. He had a draw about him. He kept lighting one cigarette after the other. Tomorrow, he would be a prisoner. He cleared his throat and said, “It will be hard enough. A guy like me, to be in jail for one thing, for another to have a beautiful woman I can never be with again writing me letters. That would be torture, ‘specially knowing I can’t have you.” Again, his eyes showed tears. “If you send letters, I will have to think about you. I’ll think a lot of things that aren’t true, that aren’t realistic for me. I’ll think you’ll be here when I come back. But you’ll move on, you know you will. They all do. I seen several start teaching, say they’ll stay forever, then get themselves married a year or two down the line, move on, and never be heard from again.”
Cindy blushed. His whole speech flew by her except for the part about a “beautiful woman.” She repeated those words to herself as he spoke them.
Cindy thought about Donald, then about Kenny, and decided Kenny had hit the nail on the head. Somehow inside she felt slightly rotten, but weighing the two, she knew didn’t want a loser like Kenny. Donald was a a winner, a jock in fact, in spite of his chronically bad breath. But he was working on that with his dentist. He could have played football at the university, sure could have, but decided not to. It would have taken too much away from his studies. He did everything right. He read a novel a week, recited poems to her, had hair on his young but massive chest, loved to hike and travel and ski, scuba dive on winter holiday’s on his family’s money. He was clean too, didn’t smoke, and offered her a healthy pedigree. Sorry, mom, she thought, he had a thing on him as large as a big banana. Still, a few things worried her even then. Though he was kind with her dog and cat, he was hell bent on becoming a prosecuting attorney and dead set on putting murderers to death. It was his ideology that troubled her then; it was his determination to put people to death that put her off sometimes. She had many questions about that, about mental illness, about guys like Kenny who hadn’t had much of a chance starting out but who had unusual talents. More talent, she reflected later, than Fat Frat had ever had or could ever buy.
“What will you do, Kenny, ” she asked, “once you get out?”
“I think I’ll try to get me into a college. Oh, not maybe like yours, but some kinda college for a guy like me. Get into photography. Then again, maybe just work in an office. I don’t look forward to a lot of hard work in the rain and snow. ‘Course maybe nobody will have me after this.”
“You got the job at Morgan Elementary.”
“Yeah, but I lied, to tell the truth.”
After she drove Kenny back to his car at the art gallery, they stood outside his car and kissed again automatically. A short kiss, but hard and, for her, arousing . She wanted many more. As they left the restaurant, a slow rain fell. Now it dropped to a fine mist. He took her in his hands naturally and held her at a distance to look at her one last time, kissing her goodbye on the cheek with a “glad to have known you,” look. To her surprise, she pushed her large warm breasts back into him, so that she caused him to gasp and then pulled her to him for a hug that became an embrace. He tried to pull away but she wouldn’t allow it. His was a sweet kiss, firm, moist and rich, not like Donald’s with his thick, often poor, bottom of the boat, tongue. Kenny didn’t force his hands down her pants to grasp her buttocks as Donald did. He kissed her again fully, smiled at her with his bright eyes, stood back admiring her and let her go. That was it. What she really wanted was for him to rough her up, take her to what she imagined was his tawdry apartment and give her the works.
Unlocking the door to her apartment was a disappointment. Now she was keyed up, sexually excited, wanting to finish. Donald was out of town and Kenny here in town but gone for good. The phone began ringing and kept ringing every ten minutes or so. She knew Donald was on the other end; later she found he wasn’t calling out of love, but to keep control, of her, of her life, of that nice place between her legs. She was just another asset in his concept of a social contract.
She let her pets out and waited for them to return, uncorked a bottle of Chardonnay, put on a heavy coat and sat on the small balcony of her studio apartment, petted the tiny heads of her kitty and a little mongrel she’d named Roy. She rubbed their tiny heads until she thought they might be rubbed raw and she sobbed the sob of those who live a lie but seem unable to live without it.
Two months later, during summer vacation, she received the photograph in the mail. It arrived in an irregular envelope with all kinds of odd prison stamps, unsigned, and there was no note, just her black and white photograph smiling under the arboretum in the milky haze of an unearthly and timeless light. She could see a small droplet of sweat to one of her eyes. Kenny, poor Kenny, she thought, but moved on from there to her packing and future plans and decided to shove him out of her thoughts as some kind of anomaly, a freak, a hippie moment that had come and gone.
After she moved with Fat Frat to California from Kansas years ago and pieced together their first family album, the photograph of her under the arboretum in early spring was one of the first photographs she slid under a clear plastic cover. For some reason, Fat Frat not even knowing its history, had objected to it as being banal, and insisted it be removed. “Cindy,” that’s not you,” he’d chuckled nervously. “Where’d that come from. That’s just a pose of some kind. So grandiose.”
With each of her children, Donald, Jr., her first born chubby boy and Fat Frat look alike, and her sweet Suzanne, she assembled a new album and another, and out of those albums fashioned an “all time” album that held her most precious photographs. She must have tossed Kenny’s photograph into her college box then.
Seeing the photograph now in the stale afternoon light she couldn’t decide whether to shred or frame it. She set it on the old wooden kitchen chair beside her. Looking out on the mountains in their distant perfection she wondered if it was a perfection that was not hers to have.
She thought again about Lottie; not sure about her either. Sometimes she sensed Lottie might have a hidden agenda – a sexual attraction, a plan to seduce her. She would have to wait and see. Fresh after leaving the house and moving into the cabin, she’d had a fling with a young Brazilian woman, Claudia, whose father built a large chateau-like structure further up into the tree line that the neighbors dubbed “the mansion.” She said she was twenty-six but Cindy wondered if she wasn’t much younger. They met at a house warming party, immediately clicked and talked freely about the details of their long lost lives, stayed late and drank a lot, a whole lot. Too loaded to drive, Claudia drove Cindy to the mansion and tucked her into a guest bedroom. Late the next morning she brought Cindy a small breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast that she ate off a TV tray by the bed. After showering she joined Claudia on the massive deck that sited down the canyon and they picked up the conversation that stopped the night before at the place where they were no longer making any sense. They were sitting on a three-person chaise, side by side and hugged after a body bending laugh, then stopped laughing to look each other in the eye. It was sex at first kiss. Cindy had always wondered what it would actually be like and for several weeks stumbled around in an erotic stupor. She never met Claudia’s father. Claudia talked to him often on the phone and Cindy heard his voice once. The two spoke in a native Portuguese, softly, slowly, like two good friends.
He had a deep comforting voice and spoke in a leisurely style as though there was no problem or tomorrow. Claudia never spoke of her mother and though tempted Cindy never asked.
Cindy was struck by how worldly and carefree Claudia was and envied her for it. She too was in between lives, procrastinating at writing a doctoral thesis in comparative literature. She had studied in Barcelona, Paris and Rome. She often talked about taking to Cindy with her back to Italy where her father had a villa in the hills in wine country. Cindy admitted to being slightly uneasy around her and was afraid of losing control, control over what exactly she couldn’t define. Her body, her sexuality? Claudia was years ahead of her in terms of knowing her body, knowing herself as nature intended. Claudia’s words.
The fugue of the affair ended abruptly one morning when Cindy woke at the cabin and examined her skin and features in the mirror. She suddenly felt she was wasting her time. Claudia was just too young, not much older than Suzanne. And too much. Her energy level, curiosity, excitement for adventure, felt overpowering, made her tired, worn out. The initial glow of the forbidden fruit gave way to a deeper truth. It wasn’t her. She didn’t feel gay after all. At that moment, she didn’t feel much of anything. Claudia had given her the permission to experiment with her body and feelings, the running around time she had missed being the wholesome daughter her mother wanted to be.
And as for men, the kind of men you bumped into these days, throwbacks to the 50’s, Fat Frats like Donald, just wouldn’t do either. What had she read about them? The wallflowers of the 60’s. She only wanted to keep her days coming and going, alone with no one giving orders or raising expectations, take in some concerts, read some books, stroll by herself through the streets, sit on benches in art galleries, watch the way natural light touched things, the tops of trees, water sliding in rivers, the faces of people who had lived some. She wouldn’t have time in her life-to-come for a Twenty-First Century Man, unless perhaps he would be a guy like Kenny.
* * *
The tourist secured his camera bag onto his shoulder and opened the door of the small shop, causing an overhead bell to tinkle. The glass window advertised the usual surfing posters, 24 hour photo service, hours, credit cards accepted, passport photo service, types of film and cameras for sale.
He shifted the case off his shoulder and gently set it by its long strap onto the floor. No one stood behind the glass display counter. He heard the sound of processing equipment in the back room through the door leading to it. In a few seconds a middle aged man appeared. He was of medium height, slender build, with long, blondish thinning hair rubber-banded into a short pony tail, an island man, tanned and lined by many years in the sun. He wore a faded tank top, nondescript shorts, discount store thong and a small gold ring in his left ear. He smiled as he wiped his hands on a stained towel and approached the counter. It was a kindly smile under unusually sparkling green eyes.
“How may I hep you?” he asked.
The tourist was struck by the youthfulness of his voice. Under his years of windburn, his face had also stayed young, challengingly serene.
“My camera seems stuck. I don’t know much about them,” the tourist said. “But, to put it simply, it just won’t go. It blinks, so it does have power. But the shutter jams. No response no matter what buttons I push.”
“They can be stubborn. Let’s have a look at your gear.”
The tourist lifted the case onto the countertop and unloaded it: the camera, wide angle lens, a large zoom lens, and standard lens.
“Quite a rig,” the man said. “By the way, name’s Kenny.”
“Hal,” the tourist said uncomfortably. He just wanted to get on with it. Get the camera to work and be done with it. No useless chit chat.
Kenny picked up the camera and tried to put it through the motions. He set it back down and leaned toward the tourist on his elbows. Those eyes again. The tourist was not used to having someone look so directly at him.
“Hal, this here thing’s a machine some engineer with a lot of time on his hands done dreamed up. Now, I’m not one to make a guy feel bad. Not right. Not right at all. But whoever sold you this monster sure saw you a comin’.”
The tourist felt deadfooted in his Birkenstocks . His first impulse was to break Kenny’s nose. He felt talked down to. But Kenny didn’t have that silly grin on his face like the blue collar bearers of bad tidings usually had with white collar types.
“Hal, I don’t know of any professional photographers who’ll spend this kind of money for cam-er equipment.”
The tourist noticed right off how Kenny said the word, “camera,” like “cam-er.” His confidence fell two notches.
“For one thing, it’s not needed,” Kenny said.
With that, the tourist felt his confidence level immediately rise. He wasn’t going go let this lowlife take him to the cleaners.
“Most professional photographers I know put their own rigs together to suit themselves. The people who make this stuff—and that’s all it is – stuff, just do it to make money. It don’t make pitchures any better than the old box cameras your grandfolks carried about. I don’t tell you this to make you feel bad. I tell you this because I don’t want you to spend any more money on it. As for today, I can’t help you. There isn’t anybody on these islands can help you. How long is your stay?”
The tourist felt irritated knowing that Kenny knew he was just another tourist.
Not just irritated. Slightly pissed. He’s a cool one, this island rat, the tourist thought. Underimpressed by anything or anybody, it seemed. Washed over by sun and sea. He didn’t care a damn about who anybody knew or what they’d done, about Wall Street, about him, about how famous he was in the world of finance, any of that, no, not this guy. Oblivious about his new girl friend, his neurotic kids, his nagging ex-wife, none of that. An old hippy probably, this guy. He could bury this guy in a fingersnap. But he probably didn’t care. An untouchable. Because he didn’t care. Nothing could hurt him, not this guy.
Yet, at this particular moment, two kids and a girlfriend back at the five star hotel whining and complaining, he needed this insignificant runt more than he needed another customer.
“Only the manufacturer can fix this,” Kenny said. “On your return to the mainland, you will need to mail it off to them. Looks new. Still on warranty?”
“Good. May I suggest something?”
“Okay.” The tourist found, much to his annoyance, he could barely speak. His voice had gone down under. A kick in the nuts. Despite all his independent research, a flop, or perhaps this smoothie, was trying to local court him.
“Once you get the cam-er back, advertise it. Sell it. There will be many a person who will pay a good price for it. You will at least recover some of your investment. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Hal.”
No, sir, no mister, no anything. Just Hal. Only his girlfriend and a few close friends were allowed to call him that.
Kenny exchanged a sympathetic grimace with the man.
“Now, as to your current situation, I offer these three options.”
Here comes the rip off, the tourist thought. Still, he was ready to scream. He was in a hurry. Where was his executive assistant? But what could he do? This guy had him by the short hairs.
“You can just buy disposable cam-ers to cover you while you’re here. You know the limitations. No zoom or a very limited one. They will take as good a pitchture of you and your family as any. Two, I have three different cameras here for a few hundred dollars with zooms and auto flash, all of about equal quality, that you can use for the remainder of your trip and perhaps hand down to your kids or your nephews. Good beginner’s cam-ers. Three, I have two keepers, in the four, five hundred dollar range that will last you for years. Amateur types but solid. If you decide to spend a lot of time in photography, then you can decide on your own about what equipment you want to spend a lot of money on. Now, you don’t need to take my word for it. There are two cam-er shops just down the way and, of course, several large ones in Honolulu.”
Kenny slid open the glass on the case from behind the counter, removed several cameras and set them on the countertop.
“These on your left are the least expensive. The other two are ones you will want to give some thought to.”
“Give me a minute.”
“In your own good time. Excuse me, though, my wife is out, so it’s just me here with a backlog of film to develop. Ring that little bell once you decide. Look around. I’ve got some fine shells and polished coconuts. Some framed ortwork too. My wife does watercolor, more than sloshed on stuff. And I’ve got photography up on the walls. I can make larger or smaller prints. There’s my portfolio you can browse through. I don’t charge much to ship.”
Kenny nodded politely to end the conversation, then added:
“That’s really how I make most my living. I travel to ort shows
now and again.”
Kenny turned into the doorway to the back room. The tourist glanced
up from the counter to the wall behind it. Awards were hung in frames in
chronological order. Few years were absent. Some of the awards were
international. He then scanned the other two walls and saw several photographs of the same woman. He was in a hurry, his girlfriend probably in a twit with the two kids. Even so. Though he didn’t count himself as connoisseur, the larger framed photographs surprised, no, astonished him, especially in a small shop on an Hawaiian island like this.
The woman in the photographs appeared to be in her late twenties, early thirties, a dark skinned island woman. Athletic looking, with flowing black hair, barefoot, luxurious lips needing no makeup, in simple, strapless, dresses. The largest framed photograph had a small “Not For Sale” tag in one of the bottom corners. The photos pictured her in several places and poses, against the backdrop of a waterfall, a large volcanic rock, in a sunset, on a beach with the ocean behind her. Though the woman was their central feature, they did not seem to be portraits. They were studies — that’s what they were — studies of nature in unusual hues and dimensions of light and dark. Even the darkness glowed with reflections off the sand, the ocean, the sky and the hills. He felt spellbound as he went from one to the other.
What held the tourist, though, more than any of them, was a particular black and white photograph of another woman hanging at the very end of the long display, a younger, striking Anglo-Saxon woman in a blooming Victorian garden that the photographer may have been astute enough, or lucky enough, to have caught at the exact moment in a certain late afternoon light in which the woman stood under an arboretum captivated by something or someone very rare, hands slightly opened at her side, lifted as if in a greeting or state of surprise, standing, so it seemed to him, in the full perfection of her youth.