Fiction by Kris Saknussemm
  Music by Guthrie Lowe
  Art by Kenney Mencher
'Camera'  2006 Kenney Mencher

Real Art

 

The moment he slipped the photograph back into its hiding place in the drawer he wanted to look at it again. Then he found that he was looking at it. It unnerved him. Especially since at any second he expected Mrs. Hines to walk in. He glanced around his little office, imagining he heard the click-clock-clack of her heels in the hall. It was late. 4:45. But he knew she'd come. His eyes wandered the walls. Ordinarily he loved lingering over the framed prints, just as he loved perusing the expensive books he'd collected over the years--books filled with the artistry of the great masters--the voluptuous bell peppers of Edward Weston--the somber dignity of Walker Evans or the mutant Americana of Diane Arbus. But he'd never seen a photographic print quite like the one he was holding now.

The composition was rich, stark and yet impressionistic. A black and white photo taken secretly in the pine forest during the Sophomore EnviroCamp. It struck him as kind of lyrical-demonic hybrid of the work of Helmut Newton and a young Ansel Adams--the way the full curve of white flesh seemed to fluoresce out of the gloom and the harsh geometry of branch and stalk, like a faint moon rising over Yosemite. Then the improbably sized shape emerging out of the white cocoon--a biological intensity that was at the same time so soft and oblique. Why, you could stare at the photo for a full minute and still not be sure of what you were seeing. A tribute to Bryn Charles' twisted humor, a degree of patience unusual in a teenager--virtually unheard of in a teenage boy, and a sense of blasphemous daring that engendered in Mr. Sheeler something akin to awe.

The best technical work he'd seen in 15 years of teaching photography. And what might very well get him fired if he wasn't careful. Posted on the Net so the rumor ran--and how it could not be true? By God, this was hot stuff, even now when all the kids were so cynical. This stripped everything back. Tania Hines, the prettiest, best-built girl in school--as well as the richest and snobbiest girl caught in a moment of total vulnerability.

He didn't know what he was going to say to Juliette Hines. He was so embarrassed on the one hand he wasn't sure he'd be able to speak. And yet, the tone of her voice on the phone and the way the principal had spoken to him had steeled him a little. The boy had rights too, and as far as his own conduct was concerned, he wasn't about to be bullied.

Of course he could understand why the family would be upset. But it was just a prank. Ruth Allen should know that better than anyone. She'd been principal long enough. Why had everything become so serious? Because it was a photograph?

The problem was that it was such a damn good photograph. You knew instantly you were looking at something you shouldn't be but you couldn't say what it was. Not at first. Then, finally, when you could say what it was you were looking at, you couldn't say why it felt so forbidden, so…

Sick? Was it sick?

How could it be sick? God, people were squeamish. And humorless. What could be more natural?

Maybe that was it. Maybe it was so essentially natural, it jolted you into remembering your own animal reality. Then, to have such a freighted impact allied with a smooth white female abstraction, in the context of a shadowed forest setting--then on top of all that to have the knowledge that the form in question was arguably the most lusted after and detested girl in school--and a powerful social and political significance emerged. He was looking at the photo again when he heard another knock on the door.

He'd never in a million years anticipated this much trouble. By God, in schools all over the country the kids brought guns! The shots they took killed people, they didn't just wound pride. Mrs. Hines said Tania was seeing a therapist as a result of the incident, only she was so humiliated she couldn't talk about it! How ridiculous, he thought. So much pampering of these little egos, so many apologies for nothing. Truth be known (although he naturally wasn't going to tell Mrs. Hines), he'd laughed when he first heard the rumor. He hadn't found the picture on the Internet, but he had to admit he'd thought it was funny at first.

But the boy had followed her--maliciously followed her. That's what Mrs. Hines claimed. There was a suggestion of a kind of deviance. And just because it was a school camping trip under the control of other teachers didn't let Mr. Sheeler off the hook. No indeed. Because Bryn had followed her with a camera intending to take a photograph--a photograph he knew would be unacceptable. That it would be held in stunned admiration by other students just made it worse.

But it wasn't his, Dick Sheeler's, fault. Or was it?

When Bernice Kuhl, the English teacher glanced over at him in the Faculty Room, he physically felt the revulsion in her eyes. He was the boy's supervisor. He'd been the one to challenge the kids with platitudes like “great photographs aren't taken, they're stolen.” He'd regaled them with stories of war correspondents risking their lives to capture a single image that at a glance could crystallize the horror and futility of battle into a moving, living window.

He could hear in his lectures, Mr. Jeffreys--his old teacher whose voice almost trembled with a passion for photography. He could still see the older man standing in that poor excuse for a lab, intoning those lines from Wordsworth that he made them all memorize, “…with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.”

“Mr. Sheeler?”

The knocking on the door had grown more insistent. But it wasn't Mrs. Hines. It was Bryn Charles.

“I'm sorry, Mr. Sheeler. I had to stop by.”

“This is a very bad time, Bryn. Mrs. Hines is due any minute and it will only make her more furious if she sees you.”

“I know, I know. I didn't mean to get you into all this shit.”

Mr. Sheeler winced. “I know, Bryn.”

“But…”

“But what? It seemed funny at the time? We've been through all that.”

“Didn't you tell us that a great photo isn't in the eye of the beholder or in the subject matter, but in a kind of conspiracy between the two--that's where the discovery of meaning is made?”

“Yes, well, that doesn't excuse stalking.”

“Maybe not, but if it had been anyone else…”

“But that's just the point, it wasn't. And you wouldn't have taken the photo.”

“No, that's true,” Bryn grinned sadly.

“And I think at some level, the damage was intentional,” Mr. Sheeler finished.

“You know she had it coming--the way she struts around.”

“You see? You make it sound more and more like a mean trick all the time.”

“Do you know what she said to me when I asked her out? She told me to try again when my 'testicles descended.'”

“Bryn, it's not for me to judge what Tania Hines deserves--or you. I could lose my job--the Hines want to sue the school. You'll be lucky if you don't get thrown out, and if your parents had any money the Hines’ would go after you too. So don't tell me. I asked you for the negative and I trust that you've given it to me. Heaven help you if you're holding back, thinking that at some point everyone's going to recover their sense of humor.”

“You've got the negative, I swear.”

“OK. Now Mrs. Hines is due here any second and I'm going to give her the negative and that's going to be it, hopefully. I may have to kiss her ass but I'm not going to lose my job over a silly prank like this.”

“You said it was a good photograph.”

“It doesn't matter now.”

“You said that revealing beauty in the gross and the grotesqueness of beauty was part of the high calling of fine photography.”

“Bryn…”

“You said that fixed categories of wrong and right, good and bad, okay and out of bounds were for narrow-minded people--that the whole point of art was to challenge those ideas.”

“Listen, Bryn…”

“I did listen. You said that real art is always a little shocking--you said--”

“I didn't say you should follow Tania Hines into the woods!”

“You said it was technically masterful.”

“That's not the point!”

“You said it was ambitious and confrontational--that its mythic subtext--”

“Bryn!”

“The other side of Eve--the deconstruction of a false and romanticized ideal of female beauty--”

“I know what I said!”

“You said if we'd taken a photo of a woman plopping out a baby in a rice paddy I'd win an award.”

“Bryn--listen! That's all…”

“What? Bullshit? It's all bullshit?”

“No!”

“Then what?”

“It's irrelevant. The negative is going back to Mrs. Hines and the matter is going to drop.”

“But it's not fair! There's nothing in the photo that says it's Tania.”

“But everyone knows it's her.”

“The only reason is cause of that little butterfly tattoo.”

“What little butterfly?” Mr. Sheeler exclaimed. “I didn't see any tattoo.” Indeed, one of the things which made the photograph so remarkable was the pure white, almost luminously smooth texture of the skin.

He looked up and saw that Bryn was smiling strangely at him, and from down the long concrete hallway he heard the ominous click-clock-clack of Mrs. Hines' high heel shoes. In the empty corridor they seemed to echo impossibly loudly, nearer, and nearer. Click, clock, clack.

“Quick!” whispered Mr. Sheeler.

“I can't go out now, she'll see me!” Bryn moaned.

It was too late.

“Down here!” Mr. Sheeler hissed, pointing to beneath his old metal desk. He swung his legs out to make room for the crouching boy--there was no other choice. Good God this was awkward! What if Mrs. Hines should catch him out? Bryn could sneeze. How could he explain it? A big bubble of acid burst inside his stomach and he tried to clear his throat as the Man Ray print mounted on the back of his door exploded and the setting sun from the world outside seemed to set everything in the cramped little office on fire.

Mrs. Hines hadn't even bothered to knock--she'd just burst in and the flash of light momentarily blinded Mr. Sheeler. He tried to say hello but what came out sounded like he'd just inhaled helium. He wiped his watering eyes. She stood balanced on her scaffolding-high shoes, dressed in an ice pink silk suit with a white flounce of blouse and a pigeon's blood ruby brooch in the shape of a butterfly pinned to one of her prominent breasts.

“Hello…” he tried again, gesturing for her to sit down. Unfortunately, Bryn had shifted a pile of books onto the chair when he'd snuck around to crawl under the desk, and on top was one opened to a nude by Alfred Stieglitz. It was a very tasteful nude but Mrs. Hines slapped the book shut and dropped it thundering to the floor. Under the desk, Bryn jumped, almost bumping his head.

“Why do you have your door closed?” she snapped. “Peering away at dirty pictures?”

“I was not peering at dirty pictures,” Mr. Sheeler tried to reply. “That book you just threw on the floor is the work of one of the most famous photographers of all time--”

“I've told Ruth Allen--and the School Board about you. They're going to be watching you, Sheeler. You're not going to be able to get away with anything. Do you understand what I'm saying?”

“Mrs. Hines, there's no need for that kind of tone,” he tried, trying to smile. “This has all been blown way out of proportion.”

Just then he felt Bryn's exhalation, warm against his leg.

“Out of proportion?” Mrs. Hines repeated, smiling her coldest, most brittle garden party smile. “I can adopt any tone I like. I can have you fired this afternoon if I want. Your conduct has been unacceptable from the moment this sordid little episode broke. I can only imagine what sort of goings-on preceded it. Now you just hand over what I came for and tonight when you crawl back to whatever filthy little burrow you can afford, you be grateful that we're not pushing for morals charges against you--or a civil suit. You understand?”

“I--”

“What? What are you trying to say? You sit cowering behind your little desk, probably playing with yourself. I came here for one thing--just one thing--and I don't have time to stand around waiting for your testicles to descend.”

“Listen, being abusive isn't--”

“Abusive!” she said slamming her matching pink calf-leather purse on the desk. “I want that fucking negative and I want it NOW!”

Bryn flinched hard under the desk and Mr. Sheeler could feel the boy's breath on his crotch. His head throbbed.

“I don't have it!” he squeaked.

“What?” Juliette Hines rasped. “What did I hear you say?”

“I don't have it,” he repeated, this time slower and more certainly. “I don't have it,” he said again. “The boy lost it.”

Bryn choked almost audibly in the metal box of the desk. The heat was intense and he was looking right at Mr. Sheeler's groin.

“What are you saying to me, you pervert? Are you trying to kid me? You think I believe you? I told you on the phone that I would personally have your nuts and your pension if you didn't give me the negative. Now you're saying you don't have it? Are you sure?”

“I--I'm…sure. It was an accident. The boy lost it. It's gone. There's nothing anyone can do. I mean--what's the harm? It's gone…”

“THE HARM! I'll tell you what's gone--it's your fucking job--your future, my friend. You listen to me!”

He could almost feel Bryn's head between his knees now. His own head swam.

“I'm meeting my husband for cocktails at the Country Club and then we're going into the city to the ballet. If you're not on our doorstep when we get back, with the negative, you won't be working here tomorrow. And it won't stop there. My husband is friends with Judge Combray--and I'm going to do everything possible to get a search warrant to search your--wherever someone like you lives. I bet there's some interesting things we'll find. I'm going to make your life hell, Sheeler.”

He shifted in his seat and cleared his throat.

“Say what you like, Mrs. Hines--I understand that you're upset. But I don't have the negative. It's gone forever. You'll just have to take my word on that.”

“I see,” Mrs. Hines sneered. “All right, Sicko. You have it your way. Just remember what I said. On our doorstep tonight when we get home or you'll be fucked. Seriously, permanently FUCKED.”

She wheeled on her towering heels and the silk of her pink sorbet suit swished through the door into the hall. Down the long corridor he could hear the clack-clock-click of her sharp shoes receding until the sound was very faint, like someone grinding their teeth in their sleep. Then the shoes were gone.

Bryn scrambled out from under the desk, his legs stiff and cramped, face pouring sweat. “Shit,” he said. “What a bitch, huh?”

“Yes,” Mr. Sheeler mumbled absently.

“Like mother, like daughter,” Bryn tried to smile, but all he wanted to do was to get out of the office.

“Yes,” Mr. Sheeler nodded, but he wasn't listening--he was thinking back to Mr. Jeffreys--the personal collections the older man had shown him long ago--when he'd been Bryn's age.

He had a beautiful series of pictures he'd taken over many years. Empty laundromats and telephone booths from all over the country, many taken late at night. There was a haunting sense of loneliness and expectation about those images. They were literally alive with absence.

“Mr. Sheeler, I'm going now.”

Then one day, in a box he shouldn't have been looking in, he found other images. Boys. Swimming. Naked. Under the railroad bridge. The ripples in sunlight reflecting on the underbelly of the great brick arch, clothes hung in the willow trees, like their bodies, wet flesh turned by the camera's gaze into pure golden light…

“Mr. Sheeler!”

He was one of the boys. He recognized himself and had a feeling of falling, as if he'd jumped from the bridge into the river and was sinking down in the cool black water. He remembered peering deeply into the mirror, his naked body gleaming in the liquid sunlight of the telephoto lens. The look on Mr. Jeffreys' face when he came into the room…

“What? Oh, I'm sorry, Bryn. That was--”

“Don't worry. But what are you going to do with the negative?”

“I haven't decided,” Mr. Sheeler said. “Go on now. We'll talk later.”

“All right,” Bryn sighed, glad to be at the door, eager to be gone. “You all right?”

“Of course,” Mr. Sheeler sighed. “Go on now.”

“But what are you going to do when she…”

“Don't worry. These things have a way of sorting themselves out,” he said, noticing that his Cartier-Bresson print was hanging crookedly.

Bryn nodded and disappeared out the door. His shoes made almost no sound down the long concrete hall.

Mr. Sheeler straightened the Cartier-Bresson, then went over to the door and locked it.