The shutter clicked and the motor whirred.
“I know you think digital photography is a lot faster. Sure, it’s easier to manipulate the picture. It’s easier to bend the environment to your needs, but that doesn’t make it real photography. This right here is real, and capturing reality is an art. You can’t mold the picture with this baby. You can’t change the mode to suit your needs. You need to understand the light, and the shadow, the right shutter speed. You have to bend yourself for the picture. Tedious adjustments, soul-sucking alterations, these are what distinguish a good picture from a shitty one. Mostly though, it’s about finding the message, whether it is beautiful, picturesque, or sublime. Capture it and preserve it. That’s what I do. Capture humanity at its worst and when you do, take a step back, breathe, and let it all sink in. And above all else, don’t turn away. This is what we do. We preserve life, but we also capture the ugly, the hated, the dead.”
My potential replacement, Danny, nodded enthusiastically; he dangled on my every word. He was too eager though. I highly doubted that he understood the true extent of our job. I knew that I was preaching to the deaf.
“It’s important to remember,” I told him, “that first and foremost, we are artists. Unfortunately, our paychecks are the result of something far less appealing. However, if someone gives us shit, we have the luxury of hoping that they’ll be our next assignment.”
“That’s disturbing,” Danny said.
I laughed, “You have no idea.”
Danny really didn’t have a clue though. He couldn’t possibly comprehend the job he was trying to take, the shoes he was trying to fill. After all, I was the best. They had always told me so. They had always said, “Matthew Thatcher, you’ll never leave the business. You were born for this sort of work.”
Smart crime is what they liked to call it. It was organized to perfection, an entire machine of corruption. They curbed a cop, shot a whore, stabbed a dealer, spilled some blood, and called me in to clean up the mess.
I tell people that I’m in the framing business. Not picture frames as most conclude, but it is my job to point the genetic finger at someone else, and I’m damn good at it.
They said I was brilliant.
They said I was genius
I asked, “How much?”
I never asked who, or what.
Unfortunately, by the time I wanted out, I was already seven years in. They continued to abuse their privilege to dick me around, sending me one terrible replacement after the other, while knowing all along that none of them could handle it. Legal crime scene work alone takes a certain type of person. You have to handle it. You need to be able to photograph a guy, gutted out like pumpkin on Halloween and still eat a slice of pizza afterwards. Danny was not this type.
“Are you ready for this?” I asked, “because if you’re not, leave. Don’t waste my time.”
“I’m ready,” he said while rubbing his head. He absently fondled his newly cut hair, shaved down to that lumpy scalp, which made his misshapen skull known to the world. His haircut was identical to my own, but less becoming. When I first told him to shave everything, he asked, “Everything? Even my junk?”
I said, “Yes, everything. I want you to be like a plucked chicken.” It was common sense really; you didn’t want your hair floating around at a crime scene (especially, one you were never supposed to be there in the first place).
I finally pulled back the black plastic cover to reveal a mangled woman sprawled lifelessly across the damp concrete. She was hidden at the back of an alley, struck dead just a couple of blocks from Times Square. Her eyes were wide and frozen, round and black, fish-like with the chapped curves of her paled lips fixed into a hideous O of horror. Inside, dried blood framed her teeth.
“Shit!” Danny shouted and jumped back.
“Don’t worry, she isn’t going anywhere.”
“I knew that,” he said and mechanically snapped a picture. He looked like a tourist. I wanted to buy him an “I NY” t-shirt and ship him back to bumblefuck, where he could settle down into a dull domestic existence—the kind more suited to his character.
I crouched beside the dead woman. Her red lipstick smeared across her face, rubbed to pink. Danny didn’t budge. He maintained his distance as if an invisible wall prevented him from coming closer. “So are you just going to stand there or are you going to help with these legs? They’re always like fucking vices.”
I snapped on two latex gloves and grabbed her ankle. I tried to spread her legs but she was a real prude about it.
They gave me violated wombs, spread legs, ripped clothes and I made them picturesque.
“Did you hear me?”
Danny blinked blandly as if he’d just walked in on his parents.
“I asked you to grab the other leg.”
His spoke slowly, a dry whine, “I don’t know about this…we’re not supposed to move the victim. Aren’t we supposed to preserve the scene?”
“Sure you could, if you wanted to live in a shit hole for the rest of your life,” I spoke sharply. The words came out in my voice. It was my voice, but it wasn’t me.
“Listen, I’m not going to sugar coat this. Get the fuck down here if you want to make some real money, either that or forget the job.”
He hesitated, glanced around, and finally kneeled down.
“Grab her left ankle,” I commanded mechanically and he did, “Now pull.”
Her legs gave way and we propped them up as if she was waiting for an examination by her friendly gynecologist.
“This is degrading” Danny groaned, looking pale, “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“If I only had a nickel…” I said dryly and peaked carefully beneath her floral dress.
“Hey! What are you doing?”
I sighed, “Just shut up and get me the black box over there.”
Danny obeyed, but hesitantly. The box he retrieved was small, rectangular in size, and smooth. My fingers slid along the edges and slowly unfastened the lid with the amount of care only used when unzipping a girl’s pants. The lid popped off and I removed from its innards a small glass jar with a silver lid. Inside, a white liquid swirled, swishing.
“What is that?”
“What do you think it is?”
“Is that-” His face went white with a bubble of sick assumptions probably whirling around in that frightened brain of his. He licked his chapped lips, “Is that-” He fumbled for the words, perhaps afraid to suggest them.
“Yes” I said impatiently, “It’s cum. Now hold up her dress.”
He numbly complied and I slid under with the jar of jiz. “Hey do me a favor?” I asked, “Hand me my flash light, and—oh! I’ll need the turkey baster too.”
The first time I held a camera, it was the late winter of 1983; I was nine years old. The camera was black and sleek, and heavy in my tiny grasp. I could hardly cup both hands around it. My father, while sitting in his brown Lazy-boy, shook his head at me through the viewpoint in which I watched him.
“What a waste of time,” he mumbled and lit the cigarette dangling from his mouth.
“I think it’s terribly cute,” my mother interjected, and when I pointed the camera at her, she put her cup of coffee down, fluffed her hair, and posed like Farrah Fawcett in Charlie’s Angels.
“That’s just what I need,” my father said sarcastically, exhaling a plume of gray smoke that lingered above his head. To say the least, my father never did understand why I became so infatuated with the camera.
From the start, I had always been a compulsive child. Fads that quickly faded for other kids, often hooked me with the weight of a steel anchor. Usually anything manual harbored my obsessions. So, while my father encouraged or rather, battered me to join little league, I was far more interested in playing with Legos.
I spent hours building Lego forts…or setting up intricate domino mazes…or meticulously constructing card houses taller than I could reach and focused, I was always so focused on whatever I was doing. The world had a tendency of just slipping away, non-existent. My father used to joke that I could have easily passed for an autistic child, my words, not his. He favored ‘retard’.
Photography may seem no different from my other pass times, but it was, it gave me a sense of purpose and power that I still can’t fully grasp. Maybe it was because my grandfather had died recently before I received the camera. I saw the camera as my way of saying, "screw you" to Mother Nature. It was my way to steal back little pieces, fragments of our fleeting life confiscated by that wicked clock ticking within. I didn't just take pictures. I froze time. I caged memories in chronological order, selfishly keeping them safe from corrosion.
I was convinced that I had discovered something. Immortality.
My parents grew uneasy. I spent all my time taking photographs, labeling them, and ordering them. I didn’t just take pictures of special occasions; I took pictures of everything from my mother twisting her hair as she waited patiently for bacon to brown to my father bent beneath the bathroom sink to fix the leak for second time that week. I snapped shots of my parents brushing their teeth, sipping their early morning coffee, lounging in the yard on those warm days, and sometimes when they made quiet love in their bedroom when I should have been asleep. I took pictures of the old ladies that sat in decrepit heaps at the bus stop on their way to the senior citizen center (their haven of Bingo bliss). They smiled at me whenever I took their picture.
Mrs. Higgins, my next-door neighbor always insisted in her crackly smoker voice, “Surely there is something more attractive to photograph, Matthew.”
I wanted to tell her that she was a top priority for preservation. I wanted to say with all sincerity that because she was old, I was worried that she would turn quicker like mayo, but I didn’t. I only smiled at her and continued on my way. I photographed birds and sprouting green grass or the children slipping out of their jackets to play in the street. I never played with them.
I stacked them high in columns and lined them along the walls. Some remained as square spires that protruded from the center of my room, as if I were constructing a city of albums—album skyscrapers that people had to slowly edge around for fear of them buckling.
My parents spoke in hushed voices, trying to conceal their consideration of sending me to therapy; they thought I was plunging downward into some life long debilitating anti-social, obsessive compulsive disorder or something like that. Thinking about it now, I realize that if my grades had not suffered, if I had had at least one friend, there would have been no ground for such action. If you smile and play nice with society, you can fly under the radar. However, since I apparently enjoy screwing myself over, I didn’t attempt to study or cling deceptively to a random kid from school. All it would have taken was one sleep over to reassure my parents of my sanity.
Twice a week they sent me to visit with Dr. Rollin. He spent his time trying convince me how screwed up I supposedly was and I spent my time trying to convince him to stop reading $16.99 self-help therapy books from the bookstore. Four months and thousands of dollars later, he told my parents that he couldn't help me. He told them that technically, there wasn’t anything harmful about my 'hobby' other than it eating away at my grades and social life, which really had never flourished enough to be edible anyway.
My father went home fuming. He was a frugal man who spent his wage wisely. Wasting it on such a bullshit diagnosis was not his idea of smart spending. Whenever I was sick and went to the doctor he would mutter, “You better be dying.” A problem wasn’t a problem to him unless it was life threatening. Sitting at the kitchen table, he smoked his cigarette and refused to drop the topic. My mother sat slumped in her chair, sympathetically nodding. Her hair was deflated from the long day.
“Jeez, for that kind of money, I should be a therapist. Clearly, anyone can get into the business!” My father exclaimed, puffing on his cigarette as if it were an oxygen pump.
“Well,” My mother said, her voice quiet, “At least we know Matthew is okay.”
My father nodded ready to settle down. He was ready to accept that the loss of money was worth knowing that I was healthy, well, sort of.
Then I took a picture.
The flash went off. It blinded my parents and enraged my father.
He leapt from his seat, hooked me beneath my armpit, and dragged me into the kitchen as if displaying a guilty perpetrator before a jury. “Okay? Okay!” My father shouted, “You call this okay?” My mother shrunk beneath his interrogation. “’Cause I don’t think this is okay!” He screamed, pointing at me, but he was looking at her as if to thrust the blame unjustly upon my mother’s shoulders.
I took another picture.
I couldn’t help it. It was like that dull pain in your knuckles aching to be cracked.
My father’s face was scarlet from the collar of his shirt to his purple veining forehead. He gnashed his teeth together and yanked the camera from my hand. With full force, he smashed it against the yellow, floral-printed wall. Flecks of metal and obsidian plastic speckled the floor and rained from the air, gleaming like black gems beneath the yellow kitchen light.
The next day, while I miserably sat in school, my father went through my room and packed up my photo albums for storage. He would have thrown them out, but my mother convinced him otherwise. She was there to console me when I came home from school that day. I think she expected hysterics from me, but I was quiet instead.
At dinner that night, my father forbade me from taking any more photos. There was a period of time, when I conceived plans to disobey him. I signed up for a photography class in school. However, my father caught me one night ordering pictures into an album. He broke the camera, which he then had to pay the school for. I got a good thrashing that night.
My father soon broke me too. It had only been of time, because kids are weak, moldable. He might as well have thrown me against the kitchen wall. Would shiny plastic erupt from my shattered spine? I wondered. I thought that it might.
Eventually, I obeyed. I had no choice. A kid can only take so many beatings. Life moved on. I made friends, got good grades, smiled when I returned home every day, dated, graduated high school, and applied to a criminal justice program in the city. I was interested in studying forensics. Spending long hours in a laboratory, staring at a fiber beneath a microscope was right up my alley.
During my junior year, I absent-mindedly enrolled in an introductory course for crime scene photography. The weight of a camera in my hands again, revived those old ambitions. I quickly adopted those ancient compulsions that remained patiently dormant for years, waiting. For what, I didn’t really know.
School lost all interest for me again. I no longer studied with the same compulsiveness. My grades gradually slipped. I listened to so many professors question me, confused. In one semester, I was on probation, and by the second, I was expelled. I visited my parents only once, afterwards, to ask my mother where my photo albums were. My father remained in his workroom. We had gradually stopped talking over the years.
At my request, my mother looked worried. Worry did not suit her slowly sagging face. Gray hairs sprouted from her scalp. She tugged at them, clenched and unclenched her fist and told me where I could find them.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said hurriedly. I wanted to escape.
“Matt…are you okay?” She intercepted my retreat.
“You’re acting like you used to.”
“I’m fine,” I said impatiently, “I’ll call you later. I got to run.”
I didn’t call her later, and that was the last time I saw my mother alive.
Three months later, she died of a heart attack. She was only forty-eight, but she looked disturbingly older in her casket. She didn’t look real. She looked like an imposter. Her hair looked as if it were ironed flat. Her face seemed painted on. Blush outlined her high cheekbones. Dark eye shadow was ground into the fleshy lids covering her eyes. Both of which sunk into the sockets of her cranium, making her look skeletal.
I took a picture…
And got into fist with my father.
There were flowers everywhere.
Looming like a beacon on Queens Blvd, in neon orange and purple lights is the Georgia Diner sign with a picture of a sliced peach above the name—looking like a ten-foot tall luminescent vagina against the dark sky. Inside, the color theme stuck painfully close to hues of orange, blue, and beige. From the ceiling, bright lamps hung, emitting soft watery light, a yellow-orange glow.
Tim was already waiting for me at a booth in the back. I could see his massive girth pinned by the table. My recruiter, the one who had found me minutes from being homeless. I had been a jobless college failure desperate to make a quick buck with an expensive camera strapped around my neck. What I had long thought a random blessing (Tim finding me on my last buck and offering me work) was in fact not random at all, but strategically planned. I was the end to a long search. The ominous they had been looking for someone like me, an expelled forensics student shit out of luck.
Now, he was my connection to the higher-ups. He told me what they wanted me to do and where they wanted me to go. He delivered my paycheck, which wasn’t a check, but rather a wad of cash reamed into a manila envelope.
I hurried past a waitress who was carrying a tray laden with saturated cheeseburgers and French fries. When I took the seat across from Tim, he smiled his crooked smile and looked around in an exaggerative manner.
“Where’s Danny?” He asked and he would have looked innocent if not for that smirk smeared across his stubbly face.
“Beats the shit out of me,” I said, “He didn’t last one day. Told him to go take a lunch break and he never came back.”
“Really?” Tim gasped and I could see the black-fillings holding his damaged teeth together.
“Oh don’t act so fucking surprised,” I told him, just as a waitress with a pleasant smile interrupted our conversation. I ordered a cup of coffee and Tim ordered a three-course meal. She scraped graphite against paper, widened her smile, puckered her breast at us, and sauntered off, probably hoping that by tightening our pants she would loosen our wallets.
Tim watched her wag her ass.
“Don’t spoil your appetite,” I commented.
“Matt, there is always room for some Georgia Peach,” He said and rubbed the stiff stubble of his chin.
“You’ve got problems.”
“I think you’re confusing me with yourself,” Tim said and smiled languidly at the returning waitress. She bent over lower than necessary to set a plate of mozzarella sticks in front of him, while carelessly handing me my coffee.
The cup clattered against the table, splashing me with searing black, “Can I have some milk?” I asked, preventing her from dashing off like a gazelle. She paused, nodded, and vanished just the same.
Tim looked at me strange and reamed a mozzarella stick in his mouth. While chewing, he said, “When did you stop drinking your coffee black?"
"Couple of months ago, when I realized I hated my coffee black."
"Indecisive are we? You can't survive in this world without being decisive."
"I'm still alive," I said flatly.
Tim laughed even louder and flecks of masticated cheese and bread dotted the table, “Lighten up Matty. You gotta learn to lighten up. You’ve been a wet blanket lately.”
“—So when are you guys going to stop messing with me?” I asked, trying desperately to hide my impatience.
“Actually, glad you asked ‘Cause we found you another replacement. A twenty something year old guy named Frank Perretti.”
“He’s seven years younger than me. Sounds just like another Danny. This isn’t a job for kids.”
“You were twenty when you started,” Frank insisted.
“Still, if he’s another Danny then don’t—”
“—No, he’s legit. I swear,” he smirked, “Don’t be so skeptical, Matty.”
I sighed, “Fine. When do I meet the kid?”
“Tomorrow, I’ll swing him by after your Long Island gig.”
“Smile,” I said, “You’re a natural” and squeezed off several shots. The model of choice was a fat Italian guy, roughly forty-years-old with a smashed in face. Bits of jellied brain darkened the dirt, forming a halo of gore around his head. A gold crucifix remained entrapped within the creased folds of his thick neck, matching the gold rings encasing his chunky sausage- fingers.
They gave me cracked skulls, fractured jaws, and shattered teeth. I made them charming.
The jobs in Long Island were always harder, more time consuming. Long Island Clients always wanted the full service, which always began with a vacuum.
I vacuumed the body with the portable vacuum that I kept in the trunk of my car. The task was not easy, because the guy’s dislodged eyeball, which clung stubbornly to his socket, kept getting jammed in the vacuum mouth. By the time I finished, I had pried it loose three times.
Then, from my black box, I retrieved three glass jars and a pair of suede shoes, handmade in Venice. Each jar contains two strands of curly blond hair, one carpet fiber and a packet of latex gloves containing the fingerprints of the scapegoat.
The gloves were rather genius. You slipped them on, pressed down on nearly any surface and bam! Someone’s most unique physical aspect, manufactured at leisure for the convenience of corrupters everywhere. In addition, for just three small monthly payments of $19.99 you can frame innocent people too. Remember, you must be 18 years or older to order. Just call 1-800-ASS-HOLE.
I anxiously got down to the real chunk of work, such as placing fingerprints, scattering fibers, walking along the dirt in the suede shoes. You’d be surprised how nontechnical framing someone can be.
By the time that Police showed up, I was a couple miles away, sitting in my car at a comfort station, waiting for Tim and Frank to show up. Tim was five minutes late, which wasn’t common. The rule about lateness was “don’t be late.” If someone didn’t show up on time, you just left. It was safer that way.
I jabbed my key into the ignition and turned, ready to bail. My car rumbled to life and when I looked up, I saw Tim, standing in front of my car with the kid. I studied him through my windshield. Black hair crowned a sickly pale face and empty black holes for eyes, loomed out like twin craters beneath bushy brows. Lifting my camera out of its case, I captured them standing there. The kid didn’t flinch.
“Matt, this is Frank,” Tim said, rubbing his eyes from the flash and patted the boy on the back. “He’s your new trainee, unless you blind him first.”
Franks face contorted into a snag of chapped lips, a twisted ghastly smile.
I said, “Get in.”
“So, why do you want out?” Frank asked while I altered the remains of a 46-year-old-housewife. Her blood had been all over the kitchen. Her face had been a gaping mess like someone had slopped a serving of lasagna there and mashed it.
“I can’t breathe anymore,” I told him, “I feel claustrophobic…and…. it’d be nice to be able to like myself again…”Although, I thought it was more important for someone else to like me.
Frank snorted, "Worried about your soul, Matt?"
I didn’t know. Somehow over the course of my life, religion had managed to avoid my notice. The concept of God was alien.
While I was packing up, Frank lingered around Lasagna-Face. He knelt over her and stared into her potato-mashed flesh, so close I swore he was going to kiss the gory spot where her lips were supposed to be. I told him to stop fucking around.
Frank stood up and wandered across the kitchen. He stopped in front of the refrigerator and with his back to me, he asked, “Have you ever worked with children?”
“Of course not. I don’t do that sort of work. You won’t either.”
“Too late,” Frank said and pointed.
On the refrigerator, a sonogram, pinned beneath a magnet proclaimed to the world, “It’s a Girl!”
“I’m going to miss you, Matty,” Tim said while cutting into his Porter House steak. He nodded to the envelope on the table. My last tainted paycheck.
“I’m sure you’ll cope,” I told him.
“Yeah, yeah, but the new kid ain’t as much fun. He doesn’t let me bust his balls like you do.”
“How is Frank doing? On the job, I mean.”
“Loves it! That sick motherfucker. He’s got enthusiasm all right. Sure, he lacks your experience, but you can’t fake enthusiasm. He’s going to go a long way.”
“I don’t like him very much.”
“What do you mean you don’t like him very much? Were you looking for someone more wholesome? Shall we try ringing Danny again?”
“No, there’s something wrong with Frank. Don’t you think he enjoys it too much?” I hated to think of such things, especially because I was finally getting what I asked for…but Frank. Frank worried me. Frank turned my blood cold.
Tim shook his head as he severed a chunk of steak. He pointed the speared chunk at me, shaking it as he said, “You’re the one that feels the need to photograph our clients, when all you’re paid to do is alter a few things.”
“But I never got enjoyment out of the job.”
Tim laughed with his head tilted back and his shoulders heaving, “Sort of ironic,” He managed while yanking the steak from the fork with his teeth, “You finally get someone to stick around, and you’re convinced he's a psychopath. I hate to break it you, but none of us are very far from fitting that mold, especially you.”
“Jeez! Stop worrying. You’ll give yourself an ulcer.”
I already had one.
The pay was shit, but at least I was working with a camera. I was working for a small studio in Queens that specialized in family portraits and filming special occasions. My boss, Richard, whom the other employees referred to as Dick, liked me enough. I was reliable and I knew how take a professional photo. That was all that mattered really.
The two of us worked receptions by ourselves. When he filmed, I followed behind him carrying a slave, which is a heavy flash that you must hold up at all times. The name is terribly appropriate for how it makes you feel after several continuous hours.
Other than playing slave, I was responsible for taking photographs at receptions, parties and at the studio. During a wedding, for example, I had to set up the shot, find the right location and the right lighting, especially if the client wanted to go somewhere outside.
Through my lens, however, I could never see giddy brides, proud grooms, tearful parents, or bouncy, lively flower girls. I saw death in every giddy face. I couldn’t look at all those thriving, happy people without thinking of all the other not-so-thriving and not-so-happy people. I wondered, what was really preventing any of them from becoming another gory spot on the cement, no different from a splat of pigeon turd on a windshield?
Nothing at all,
And that scared me.
I saw shattered teeth instead of smiles; I saw scalped heads instead of intricate up-dos’. I saw blood smeared instead of cake.
I would say “Smile” and the corpses would respond. They’d bare their teeth and look like skeletons.
One day, after three months on the job, I was working the store alone. Sitting in the store all day was extremely boring. I often ached for a customer to request a portrait. Most customers just dropped off their film for development or bought picture frames. Sometimes I got a passport photo request, most of the time…nothing. I sat behind the counter looking at one of the girly magazines left behind by Jane, who usually worked the store on the weekends when she didn’t have school.
Shockingly, I had found nothing new or interesting to photograph in the store. Every day it was the same shelves loaded with picture frames, the same humming developer, the same brown rug, the same white-plastered walls, and fluorescent lights that occasionally blinked.
The bell hanging over the door jingled, and I looked up expecting to see an old woman, distressed by the digital camera that her son bought her for Christmas or a mother with her young child, dropping off a quick roll of film from their vacation to Disney World. Instead, I saw Frank.
Frank flashed me his teeth like the snarling smile of a dog.
“What do you want?” I asked, instantly.
“Relax. I just came to…get my picture taken.”
“No, really, what do you want?”
“To get my picture taken. I figured I would need the best, cause it’s my first passport photo,” he insisted and nothing in his voice hinted at the lie, but his smile still gave him away.
I nodded toward the metal stool that remained in front of a white screen. He headed over and eased himself onto the stool, calmly. I walked over to the camera, which was already propped on top of a tripod. I inserted a new roll of film.
The contrast between Frank and the white backdrop was startling. His smile widened as I bent to stare at him through the viewpoint. His dark eyes still found mine through the lens. I watched him straighten his back and push his mop of black hair out of his face, “Tim told me to tell you,” he said as the flash blinked, “the higher-ups want you back. They don’t like loose ends.”
A convulsion, starting from the core of my stomach, spread through me, “Tim knows I’m anything but a loose end. I was too involved to be a threat to them without being a threat to myself.”
He tilted his head to the side, “It isn’t up to Tim.”
I snapped another shot, “Doesn’t matter, I’m out. Tell them I’m out.”
I was trying to remain calm but I felt frantic. The sound of the shutter, faster as my fingers took over, nearly drove me insane.
“I’m out,” I insisted, repeating the declaration as if that would make it definite, “They said I could go. They said it was okay as long as I found a replacement. And I did.”
“They didn’t think you were actually serious. They thought you’d last one week in the real world and then come running back. And I mean, come on, take a look at yourself. You look miserable. You hate this job,” he smiled, like the sinister fuck he was and the camera rattled off. “You can’t honestly think you’re cut out for this mundane job.”
I remained silent behind the camera.
He continued, “Besides, they were just letting you…take a break. You needed a break. You’ve had your break.” The pictures would splice up the formation of this sentence, capturing his mouth as he opened, closed his lips, worked the muscles in his cheek.
“I’m not going back,” I said, nearly shouted it as I tore away from the camera, “They can’t make me.”
“Tim said you’d say that.”
Frank didn’t respond to my anger. He slid off the stool with tranquil grace and walked up to me. The camera stood between us.
“How is Kate doing?” He asked knowingly, “What is she five months along?”
I tried to hide my shock, my terror. I hadn’t mentioned her to anyone, barely let myself think of her while on the job, and I hated myself for thinking that they wouldn't notice. "Seven now,” I corrected. Defeat rang clear in my voice.
"So, I guess you understand where we're going with this."
"So, I guess Tim should expect you tonight at the diner."
He walked away and the bell above the door jingled, signaling his departure.
Tim sat erect in the diner booth. “I feel terrible,” he said. His strong hands wrung tightly around his cup. He sipped from the straw, noisily. The ice clattered, “I really thought they’d let you go. You’ve never given them trouble before.”
“Have they ever let anyone go?” I asked, and clawed absently at my hair, which had finally grown back.
Tim slouched, “I suppose not. People usually started trouble. Got themselves killed. Nobody ever requested to leave. I mean I see their point about loose ends, you know. They just don’t trust nobody.”
“What about Danny and the others?”
He gave me a grave look and shook his head, “They were loose ends. Loose ends with nothing to offer in exchange for…”
“Shit,” I mumbled burying my face in my arms. My fingers yanked at my hair, a habit since childhood that I quickly re-adopted once there was something to pull, “Shit.” I hadn’t meant anything bad to happen to them. The guilt was like acid.
“You have an assignment tonight.” He was hesitant in delivering the news.
I ground my forehead into the table, “I can’t do it.”
“You have to.”
“I can’t. I don’t think I can do it.”
“You will, because they have leverage over you. So, you don’t have a choice anymore, if you ever thought you did.” Tim spoke pragmatically, not harshly, “So, suck it up, and do what you do best.”
I shut my eyes when I first entered the house. I could smell the damp blood soaking into the floral carpet. The house looked like chaos, chairs remained tipped over, and the floor near the door was wet and crunchy with glass from a broken vase. A bouquet of flowers was strewn across the floor, the petals stomped. As I approached the living room, the chaos intensified. Picture frames remained dangling crookedly from the wall, some of them flung across the floor, an old grandfather clock was planted, face forward, still ticking, the gears ground away.
In the living room, there was more than one model. The first was a young girl, no older than seventeen, sixteen maybe, draped backwards over the armrest of a vibrant white couch. Her head drooped back, eyes shut, lips closed, throat gaping, slashed—a gory mouth. The blood that spilled slid to the ground and passed over her jeweled ears and through her hair before it made it to the floor. The second model was a man, roughly in his late thirties. He sat slouched forward on the couch. His throat slit too, not visible from his position, but his buttoned-down-shirt and khakis were drenched red. The final model was a woman, similar in appearance to the girl, but older in the face. She remained on the floor, limp like a doll in the blood that had bubbled from her throat, with one arm extended outward, toward the others.
I took a picture, shuddering with the shutter. I didn’t want to do it. I really didn’t, but I couldn’t stop myself.
They gave me slit throats, and I could do nothing to hide the ugly.
Setting the black box down, I shoved my hands into two latex cloves, caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, head newly shaven, camera dangling over my chest where my heart was supposed to be. I got to work, because I had to. I tried to think of Katelyn and my soon to be child…but that only made me sick and incapable of carrying out the task.
“You’re very photogenic,” I forced out, and I was surprised, maybe mortified as to how easily I was able to slip into being empathetic again. My mind went somewhere else, and I vacuumed the models, placed some new blood at the scene, some hair, a fingerprint, and called it a night.
The moment I stepped outside, I saw Frank, standing there and waiting for me on the porch. I should’ve known something was wrong then, but I didn’t. I took his picture.
“Hello” he said, and ashed his cigarette, “Nice family in there.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for a job,” He smiled, observing my reaction, “Don’t look so confused, Matt. They sent me to tell you.”
“…Tell me what?”
“You’ve just finished planting evidence that will link the police to no one but yourself—no, no calm down—I said calm down. Better, now listen carefully. You will be convicted of this crime. You will not say a word about any of this to the police or we will kill your girlfriend. We’ll kill her and pin it on you, just the same. Do you understand?”
I nodded, I think, because he seemed satisfied. I can’t properly describe what I went through as those words spilled from his mouth. They sounded so definite, maybe somehow justified. The ultimate karma? I wished that I could peel open my skull and take a picture of my brain, wriggling in horror.
“Now that is your first option…as for the other option,” he took his time to continue; he enjoyed toying with me, “You can continue working for them—of course you’d be sent somewhere else, a different city. They’d much rather make use of your services. You see Matt, they gain nothing from sending you to jail, nothing from killing you either. Keeping you around is profitable.”
“As long as you keep your mouth shut and your services handy. They’ll leave her alone. They wouldn’t throw away their source of power so foolishly.”
I stared at the floor, rubbed my hands anxiously against my jeans, thinking.
“Just say ‘yes’ Matt and I’ll go and erase your evidence,” He nodded to the black box on the floor beside his feet, “It can just as easily be someone else.”
In that moment, I imagined saying ‘no’. I imagined that I would go to the police, confess everything, and turn them all in. Mentally, the whole thing played out. Certainly, I would go to prison but they would too. Kate would be safe and she wouldn’t hate me. She’d be sad, but proud that I did the right thing…but I was wasn’t that strong. I was too scared for Kate and for my kid, and for my own skin, because I’m really a coward in the end.
I said, “Yes.”
The next day I was on the first flight to Chicago.
Everything happened fast, quick and tidy; it was the nature of the business. I wasn’t allowed to contact her. They said I would be allowed to write, and when I do, I will tell her that I am sorry, and I know that it will fall on deaf ears. I will promise to send money, a promise I will keep for money that I know that she won’t take. I can imagine it now, the pile of unopened manila envelopes, stashing in a shoebox at the bottom of her closet, next to her memories of me.
While sitting crammed between the window and a fat woman, I thought of only one thing; they weren’t lying to me when they said, “Matthew Thatcher, you’ll never leave the business.”
Their words were etched into my mind. They clanged with a new clarity, a definiteness of meaning. I swallowed them, digested them, and accepted them.
I abandoned all hope of getting out.
I took a picture and saw my life through the viewpoint.