Contributing Author: Quinn Roberts
Published on September 15, 2016
*Quinn's piece will also be featured in the Visionary Party 2016 Online Program Book*
A man had taped photographs of me to his bedroom ceiling. Ricky sold them to him for fifteen dollars, and now he needed them back.
Ricky wouldn’t say which ones he sold or where the transaction went wrong. All he said was that the man had a weak spot for blonds, for pale skin and slender bodies.
“That’s why you’re going instead of me,” he told me. “When you get older you can’t convince people of anything.”
Ricky gave me the man’s address, a bus map and a ticket. As I packed myself a turkey sandwich on white I watched two boys corner Ricky in the living room, turn off the TV and ask him why he was letting me leave after curfew. Once I heard the words unfair and ass-licker I put on my headphones and left.
I walked to the bus stop down the street. The summer solstice was in two weeks, and the evenings had turned thick and dense. I felt the air roll down my neck.
As I waited I wondered if I knew this man – whenever Ricky took me on sales trips he had me introduce myself to his clients and memorize their names, their faces, what they did for a living, where they were from originally. He said it was part of running a business and that these skills would come in handy when I went to college.
The bus arrived and carried me past the church and the library, the bank and the post office. It stopped at the supermarket and I got off.
Outside I saw Josh from school walking his beagle. Before I could cut behind the supermarket he called my name and crossed the street.
“I haven’t seen you at all this year,” Josh said. “Why didn’t you tell me you moved?”
“I’m not at school anymore,” I said back.
“You were always so much smarter than us. How do you like your new school?”
I shrugged and kneeled down to pet his beagle. Ricky was allergic to animal fur, so this was the first dog I had let myself touch in months. I scratched the beagle’s neck and it tilted its head up, its tongue hanging out of its mouth.
“She remembers you,” Josh said. “You should come over soon. We just moved to a bigger house a block away. It has a pool.”
I half-smiled. “Sure. I miss swimming with you.”
As I walked past the supermarket I caught a look at Josh. He had gotten taller than me, and his hair was dark and curly now. My mother used to say that my hair would get like that when I started puberty, but Ricky had forbidden puberty for all of his boys. According to him pimples and peach fuzz were bad for business.
I wondered if Ricky would have offered Josh a place in the house. During my initiation he told me that unless my pictures kept selling I’d have to move out by end of the year. He reminded me every time he measured me, weighed me, trimmed my fingernails and waxed my upper lip.
“But won’t I freeze to death?” I asked.
Ricky shrugged. “I’ll lend you a jacket.”
The man’s house was on a dead end street, two stories, painted white and caked in dirt, with a brick pathway curling around to the entrance. A rusty sprinkler leaked on the lawn. I picked it up and let it soak my hair and stain my shirt. I imagined that I’d look sultry for the man, like I had walked here.
I followed the bricks and stepped up to his door. I knocked.
The man opened his door and craned his neck out. His eyes met mine, then fell to my sneakers. I stared back, trying to determine if I had exceeded his expectations or barely met them.
“You’re early,” he said. He gestured me in.
Feathers poked out of his furniture. A lamp cast a dull orange shade through his living room and onto the man’s figure. He stood just below six feet and had a patch of chest hair peeking out of his bathrobe. He was barefoot.
His carpet was lined in newspaper. “I’m potty-training a kitten,” the man said. “It’s asleep by the vent.”
“Such a responsible cat owner,” I said. I smirked at him, the smirk that Ricky said drove clients wild.
He shook his head. “I’m only doing it for my next door neighbor. She’s deathly afraid of excretions. I’m less afraid, I just hate the smell.”
The man poured me a glass of water and handed me a roll of paper towels. “You’re sweaty,” he said. “When you do these trips you need to wear a clean shirt. You need to comb your hair, and you need to wipe your face. Ricky ought to teach you personal presentation.”
I wiped my cheeks and forehead. “He’s a busy man.”
“His last prize boy had the same problem. I told Ricky several times, straighten this one out, but he got worse and worse. He’d come in and I’d ask him, when was the last time you bathed?”
I remembered this boy – the day I moved into the house he turned sixteen, and Ricky had bought him a slice of ice cream cake. His roommates screamed at Ricky about their diets, how they hadn’t gotten ice cream on their birthdays. That night I fell asleep with my hands pressed against my ears.
“I hear Ricky kicked him out,” the man said. “What a shame. He photographed well.”
I gave the man the cup and the towels. He placed them on the couch and headed to his staircase, and I followed him in silence.
His bedroom had a musty odor and a dim glow from his bedside lamp. He had one tiny window adorned with dusty blinds. Stacks of notebooks stood on his desk next to stacks of dictionaries and encyclopedias. I looked to his bed, unmade, covered by a tattered blanket. I tipped my head up and scanned his ceiling. All I saw was a clump of tan paint.
“My photos are missing,” I said.
“They are,” he said back. “I threw them out.”
“But Ricky needs them back.”
The man shook his head a second time. “Ricky doesn’t know how to run a business. He told me the photos were revealing, but I disagree.” He went to his desk, opened a drawer and pulled out a camera and a band of dollar bills. “I want you naked.”
I stood still and folded my arms. He raised the band to eye level.
I tried to count how much he was offering – thirty, forty, possibly fifty. More than my photos usually sold for. Maybe enough to buy my own bus pass, or a turkey sandwich from the deli down the street, one with provolone and mayonnaise on a Portuguese roll. I wondered if I could exchange some of the bills for quarters, find a payphone and call Josh, ask him if I could spend the week at his house. He’d let me borrow his brother’s swimsuit.
I heard myself ask how much he’d pay me.
I untied my sneakers first, then slid off my shirt. I ran my hands down my torso and rubbed the sweat, its moisture drying onto my skin. I unbuttoned my khakis and shimmied out. I stuck my thumbs between my pelvis and my boxers, waiting for the man to approve, but he was sitting on his bed and loading film into his camera. I took my boxers off.
The man positioned me directly in front of the lamp and kneeled on his bed. I turned my head towards him and stared at the lens. “What should I do?” I asked.
“Tilt your chin down,” he said. “Bring your eyes to the floor, and think of something hot. Think of heat.”
I heard his shutter click. My penis filled with blood and hardened. I shot a quick glance at the band of bills on the bed and mouthed the word heat.
The shutter sounded like Josh’s beagle barking at a deer in the woods. I thought of the summer solstice last year – he said he’d never been this hot in his entire life. We raced each other to the lake and dove in, our arms extended above our heads. We swam for hours, wrestled in the water, hid beneath the surface whenever we saw a wasp.
As soon as we got out of the lake Josh bolted for the woods, shouting that I’d never catch him in a million years. I chased him, tore through bushes and branches, climbed over rocks and drummed my chest like a gorilla. I saw him slip out of the woods and ambushed him. He cursed and squirmed and I pressed his shoulders into the grass. His skin was wet, damp, as hot as concrete. I felt it burn beneath the sun.
I loosened my grip and slid my hands down his arms, wrapping my fingers around his.
He turned to me and smiled. “I wish you were a girl,” he said. “I wish we could do this the rest of our lives.”
“Stay in the moment,” I said back.
When the shutter stopped I almost lost my balance and fell to the floor. I tried to figure out how much time had elapsed. The man crouched down on the carpet and lay his pictures in a grid, an inch between each. They developed and I took shape, my bare chest outlined, my skin fuzzy and gray.
“These are trash,” he said. “You don’t look like a prize boy.”
I felt my cheeks turn red. “But you’ll still pay for them?”
“You can sell them to someone else.”
I folded my arms. “I can’t go back to the house without something to give Ricky,” I said. “I heard you had a weak spot for me.”
The man shook his head a third time. “Ricky is clueless,” he said. “You are unremarkable.”
He collected the grid and arranged the pictures into a stack. He took his wad of dollar bills, removed the band and wrapped it around the pictures. I put my clothes back on, took the band and followed his gesture to the staircase.
When I reached his living room I saw the kitten by the door, sitting on a layer of soiled newspaper. Its eyes narrowed. I bent down and placed the photographs on the newspaper. The kitten slid forward and laid on them. It coiled into a tight ball and closed its eyes, falling asleep, purring softly.