Fiction by Thomas Kearnes ↔ Art by Kavinda Silva
“If you want a whore, they have websites for that. All I can do is kiss you.”
His sleek, small digital camera held to his face, Max Archer kneeled at the side of the king-sized bed. Afternoon light flooded through a glass patio door. Atop the plush purple bedspread, the middle-aged man rammed his cock inside a younger man laid flat on his back. The middle-aged man was losing his looks: his face was falling, his pectorals drooped, his bulbous belly made a rhythmic slapping sound with each new thrust. Max tried to line up his next shot, but the younger man bucked his head whenever his lover made a new assault.
Worried the couple might finish before he was done, Max sprang from his knees and aimed his lens downward. The younger man’s face twisted in ecstasy, his lips yanked wide, his eyes clenched shut. Terrific, Max thought. He started shooting. Soon after, his intuition and enthusiasm took hold, and he scrambled from one position to the next alongside the bed, clicking shot after shot. He was confident there would be at least two or three usable images. This was not his first time documenting sex between men.
“How we doing?” the middle-aged man grunted, not looking up.
“You’re fucking hot,” Max said. “Don’t stop. Pretend I’m not here.”
“I wanna see these when you print them out,” the younger man said, his voice unsteady from the force of his lover’s penetrations.
“You bet,” Max said. Of course, he had no intention of showing this man any of the images. He knew he would never see this couple again. The two men fucking were so fried on methamphetamines, Max doubted they’d remember his first name.
“Fucking shit!” the younger man shouted, clasping his hands over his face.
“What is it?” the middle-aged man asked.
“I think I’m gonna come.”
“That’s fucking hot, boy,” the middle-aged man replied, panting. “Hey, you gotta get a picture of this.”
“I’m just waiting for him to shoot that load,” Max assured him. But he had no plans to photograph the younger man’s orgasm. Earlier in his career, he discovered that images containing actual semen never quite worked. The fluid somehow detracted from the men’s faces, their bodies—Max’s true and only interest.
When the younger man finally climaxed, howling like a wounded dog, Max had his lens trained on the middle-aged man’s face. He was thrilled by what appeared before his lens: the man looked exhausted, his face flushed. But most intriguing, he noted a desperation, an intensity and hunger in his eyes. Max snapped only one shot. He knew the moment was far too brief to waste anymore snaps.
While the two men struggled to recover their breaths, Max stepped back from the bed. He clicked various buttons on his camera until the new images began to appear in the viewfinder. This was premature, he told himself. It was best to inspect the images blown up on his monitor. But sometimes he couldn’t resist.
The younger man stood, wiping the semen from his belly with a towel. “How do they look?” he asked Max.
“Do you have a bathroom?” Max asked the middle-aged man, ignoring the younger one’s question.
“Sure, buddy. Just down the hall, last door on the right.”
Max thanked him and slipped out of the bedroom. He wondered whether he should have pressed his luck and kept taking pictures. Often, the photos he took after the sex was done turned out to be just as compelling. Some men looked utterly spent, some looked nervous and agitated, and a few poor bastards looked touchingly lost. But Max was on a tight schedule. The nursing home began dinner service promptly at six, and he needed at least fifteen minutes to help his grandmother into her wheelchair and escort her to the dining hall. He was two hours from his home in Tyler.
Max shut the door behind him. The bathroom was unnervingly tidy, men’s fitness and gay lifestyle magazines neatly assembled in a low rack beside the sparkling toilet. It never ceased to surprise him how immaculate Dallas homosexuals kept their homes. The frantic fucking and taking hits from the pipe, the whole time surrounded by swank furniture and gleaming floors.
He gazed at himself in the mirror. After thirty minutes focused so intently on the faces of strangers, it was a small shock to find his own face, feeling like he‘d spotted it in a bustling crowd. He was a large man. Not fat, but he was over six feet tall with a solid build, broad chest, the shoulders of a linebacker. Max often felt clumsy and graceless mingling among slimmer, more boyish gay men. He lacked refinement. His face boasted blunt angles and dark, shimmering eyes that seemed to pierce other men. Surprisingly, he rarely thought about his own body, his own appearance. These meditative moments he took before a mirror after extended shooting sessions were the exception. Did other men desire him? Yes, his sexual history confirmed that. Yet, despite having taken pictures since his early teens, not once had he photographed himself. He feared discovering something he didn’t wish to see.
The quick, loud knock on the door startled him. He looked over his shoulder but quickly returned to the mirror as if fearful his reflection had disappeared. “I’ll be right out,” he called. Believing the stranger would wait, Max turned on the water and placed his hands inside the sink. As he splashed cold water on his face, the door eased open.
“Oh, shit,” the young man said, stopping in the doorway. “You should have said something.”
Max jerked up, his face still wet. “I did say something.”
The young man was perilously thin. His unbuttoned plaid shirt revealed the ribcage pushing through his smooth, pasty skin. Thick, purple bags sagged beneath his eyes. His hands trembled, one on the knob and the other grasping a small, oblong black container. This object drew Max’s attention. He’d photographed this subculture of gay men for three years. He knew what the stranger needed to do.
“Dude, I’m sorry,” the stranger said. “I guess I didn’t hear you. I’m really fucked up.”
“You’re forgiven.” Max stepped closer, offering the man a slow, easy smile. “Go ahead and come in.”
“No, I can wait.”
“Really, you should come in. I have a proposition for you.”
The young man shuffled into the room. He softly shut the door. His pupils loomed wide and unavoidable inside his head. Max bubbled with anticipation at what might soon happen. Obviously, the stranger was nearly too high to function. Yes, Max thought, surely he won’t mind.
“What is it? You wanna fuck around?”
“That’s very generous, but I can’t stay long. Family stuff.”
“You’re kinda hot.”
“You’re not bad yourself. What’s your name?”
“Glad to meet you, Steven. I’d like to take your picture.”
“You mean for a website or something?”
“No, nothing like that. I’m sort of a journalist. I work for a magazine. You probably haven’t heard of it.”
“What kind of journalist?” Steven repeatedly tightened his grip around the black container. He gritted his teeth while listening to Max. His face was blank with confusion.
Max smiled sweetly and perched atop the counter. He kept his tone warm, inviting. He was confident he could persuade Steven to pose for him. Over the years, Max had perfected his sales pitch. Gay junkies, mothers with young children, current lovers, strangers—they all wanted to hear the same thing. You have a fantastic face. You’re special. There’s no one like you in the world.
“I’m like a reporter except I take pictures. Right now, I’m doing a feature on gay guys who like to party.”
“Really?” Steven asked. His eyeballs jittered like a moth’s wings. “Why?”
“You’d be surprised what our readers want to know.”
“So, you want me to get naked or something?”
“No, I’m not a pornographer. All I need you to do is shoot up like you normally would and let me watch. That’s it.”
Steven’s eyes widened with shock. Max noted they were a deep cerulean. He briefly debated whether he should alter the final image into black-and-white or let it remain in color. No, silly to think about that now. Steven swallowed, his Adam’s apple leaping high inside his throat. “How did you know what…?” he stammered.
“And what are you gonna do?”
“After you’re done, I’ll let you kiss me.”
Steven’s gaze narrowed. Max felt a twinge of apprehension. Tyler was nearly one hundred miles east. If Steven stalled much longer, Max would have to abandon his plans.
“That’s all? Just a kiss? Why don’t you suck my dick?”
“If you want a whore, they have websites for that. All I can do is kiss you.”
“Well,” Steven said, letting the word trail off. He fell quiet, his gaze drifting to the corner of the room. Max remained seated on the counter. His foot knocked against the cabinet door, a nervous tic. He was running out of time. But he knew if he forced the question, Steven might bolt. Finally, Steven looked up and mustered a weak smile. “I guess that’s okay,” he said.
“Terrific,” Max replied. “Let’s get started.” He hopped to the floor and retreated to the other side of the spacious bathroom. He wanted to start with wide-angle shots. Steven bashfully opened his container. Spotting the cheap, plastic needle resting inside, a chill ran through Max. He’d never watched anyone shoot up before. Guys on the needle were typically so damn secretive, perhaps out of shame. Max took his camera from his pocket and brought it to his face. Steven looked over his shoulder, his face slack with fear. “You’re doing fine,” Max said. “Pretend I’m not here.”
The interstate traffic progressed in fits and starts. Late afternoon sunlight charged through Max’s back window. He chewed on his fingernail, clenched his jaw. He’d never been late to help feed his grandmother. He went to the nursing home whenever his parents were out of town for the weekend. Imagining Dorothy lying helpless in bed, wondering where her special boy might be this evening, filled Max with shame. The impromptu shoot had gone well, he thought. Steven looked precisely like those wasted, haunted young men who had fallen down the rabbit hole of meth and anonymous sex. Max had tried the drug a handful of times in his late twenties. So many of the men that bounced in and out of his bed raved about it, he finally gave into curiosity. While it was true the sex felt amazing and lasted an absurdly long time, the days and days it took to finally slide down from the high were unbearable. Max had felt imprisoned by his own racing, obsessive thoughts. So much intensity! No relief in sight! But he noticed the drug vaporized any last inhibition a man might have. The moment Max realized those men made ideal photo subjects still glimmered in his memory.
As for his own habits, Max made it a point to keep Xanax on hand when the stress of producing images coupled with his “real” job at the bookstore overwhelmed him. Also, he enjoyed a line or two of cocaine when he knew sex loomed on the horizon. If he were honest himself, he would have to admit he typically lacked a truly potent sex drive unless he was high. This concerned him. Most of the gay men he knew, both in Tyler and Dallas, prided themselves on unswerving sexual desire.
The wind moaned through Max’s open window. The radio played a stuttering, bass=heavy dance tune. Max softly sang along with the chorus. The traffic had thinned since he left downtown Dallas and entered the suburbs. He checked his watch. He had an hour and a half until Dorothy expected him. Whenever he visited her, Max made sure to remain reverently observant. After all, each visit could prove to be the last.
Max always felt a shiver of dread upon entering the foyer of Wakefield Retirement Home. He could never identify what precisely unnerved him about the place. Though it was no doubt similar to hundreds of other rest homes scattered throughout the state, Max recoiled to see the wrinkled, desiccated residents huddled around the local newscast in a parlor just to the side of the home’s entrance. The elderly people all gazed at the flickering screen as if it aired a test pattern. More than once, Max had flirted with the idea of shutting off the set just to see if they noticed.
Collecting himself, he walked to the nurses’ station. Behind the circular desk, a pretty Hispanic woman with purple-shadowed eyes waved at him. “She’s been waiting all day for you,” she called out as Max passed the station and entered one of the five wings that led out from the atrium. The five wings flared out from this hub like spokes on a wheel. Max observed all the naively hopeful decorations that adorned the walls. Enormous calendars drawn on colored butcher paper, each resident’s birthday denoted by a small cutout image of a cake. The streamers, the inspirational posters offering quaint truisms and vistas of sunsets or beaches—Max wanted to rip them apart and shove the garbage in his mouth.
As he crossed the room to her bedside, Dorothy smiled like a woman just told that she would be cherished forever. Max leaned over the bed and kissed her briefly. Her lips were so thin and dry they felt no different than the rest of her skin. The poor woman appeared to be shriveling, drawing in upon herself. Her grandson envisioned a hot air balloon slowly deflating, drifting back toward earth.
“Are you thirsty, Grandma?” he asked. He knew she wouldn’t answer. Dorothy hadn’t spoken for six months. Max’s mother assured him it was because she lacked the strength, not because she had nothing to say. He chose to believe this. The small plastic cup he placed before her mouth had a bending straw placed inside it. Dorothy struggled to raise her head even this slight distance but finally managed to wrap her lips around the straw and drink. Once done, she gently spit out the straw and let her head fall back on the pillow.
“No, no, Grandma, it’s time for dinner,” Max said. He jiggled the metal bedrail until it collapsed down beside the mattress. Suddenly remembering the time—he had arrived at the rest home with only five minutes to spare until meal service—he scooted the wheelchair over to the bed. He carefully placed his hands underneath Dorothy’s arms and lifted her. “I think they’re serving steak tonight,” he said. “I could smell it from the hall. Doesn’t that sound delicious?”
Max was a large, strong man, and he had no problem transferring Dorothy from the bed to the wheelchair. Also, she was quite petite. Even in the prime of health, she’d weighed no more than 95 pounds. Max noticed with alarm that she seemed even lighter than she had at his last visit. No matter what drugs the doctors pumped inside her, Dorothy’s appetite remained nonexistent. But she would eat if her grandson were there to feed her. No matter how tired she seemed, Dorothy always opened her mouth when Max held the spoon to her lips.
While Max wheeled Dorothy toward the dining hall, she listed to the side of the wheelchair like a broken doll, her head drooped upon her shoulder. He worried she might tip over if he let go of the chair. As they passed room after room, an old woman in a pink bathrobe who inched forward with a walker waved at them.
“Hello, Dorothy!” she cried in a surprisingly clear, strong voice. Dorothy continued to gaze blankly ahead.
“Are we late?” Max asked the woman.
“They started serving just this minute,” she replied. She crouched over her walker, trying to look Dorothy in the eye. “Hope you have a good night, Dorothy!” she said.
“Grandma says thank you,” Max said, speeding past the woman. His breath caught, a mist appeared before his eyes. How many more weekends would he endure this, pretending his grandmother had not come unmoored? The two entered the dining hall. Max looked out over the dozens of elderly diners, all gathered around small card tables covered with plastic checkered cloths. A few stole glances at this man, this young man, in their sanctum and quickly turned back to their meals.
“There’s a place right over there,” Max said, leaning down so Dorothy could hear him. “Let’s get you ready to eat.” He pushed Dorothy up to a table already claimed by two elderly women sitting adjacent to one another. One held a spoonful of peas before her mouth, but her hand trembled too badly for her to make contact. The other woman was plump with a beaming smile directed at no one.
“Do you mind if my grandmother and I sit with you?” Max asked.
“Why certainly, young man,” replied the plump woman. “We always enjoy it when Dorothy joins us.”
While Max collected a tray of mushy, monochromatic food from the service window, he thought about the plump woman’s face. The way her green eyes sparkled when she spoke, the way her face opened up when she smiled at Dorothy. The camera in his pocket took on a nagging weight—he must photograph this splendid woman. As he stepped among the other diners, Max calmed himself. He refused to take pictures of other people in front of Dorothy. He worried she wouldn’t understand, and he doubted he could explain this compulsion even if he thought she could.
Dorothy smiled and wiggled her jaw when Max set the tray before her. She slowly lifted her hands above the table and clumsily picked up a spoon. Max watched her with rapt attention. He had forgotten all about the friendly plump woman until she spoke.
“You should see Dorothy when someone wins on The Price Is Right,” she said, her tone so drenched with affection, Max thought she must be speaking of someone else.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He quickly glanced at the woman before returning his attention to Dorothy.
“Every time someone wins, she just claps her hands and smiles.”
“We used to watch that show together when I was a kid,” Max said.
“It’s not quite the same since Mr. Barker left,” the plump woman said. “But still, it’s always nice when someone wins.”
Dorothy had been trying to scoop up some peas with her spoon, but each time they fell from the utensil long before they made it to her mouth. Max finally took the spoon from her and dipped it into the food.
“Is that right, Grandma?” he asked. “You still watch The Price Is Right?”
Dorothy turned her head to look at her grandson but her eyes showed no comprehension of what she’d heard. She blinked. Max held the spoonful of peas aloft, but for a moment forgot what he should do with it.
“Come on, Grandma, these are good for you.” He gently pressed the edge of the spoon against Dorothy’s closed lips. She finally opened her mouth and allowed Max to feed her. She chewed slowly, still looking at Max as if waiting for the punchline of some elaborate joke.
The plump woman sighed and said, “Everyone here just loves Dorothy.”
Max struggled to smile, made sure the woman saw this pleased him. He nearly dropped the spoon when he heard his cell phone ring. He regretted selecting a shrill, piercing bell sound as his ringer, for nearly every diner in the room turned in alarm upon hearing the noise. Max took out his phone and checked the caller ID. His brow lifted in surprise. He certainly hadn’t been expecting him.
“I’ll be right back, Grandma,” he said and kissed her cheek. He grimaced, looked at the plump woman and apologized. After retreating to the hallway, Max answered the call in a strained whisper.
“Hank has to produce the late newscast tonight,” Trevor said on the line. “Can I come over?”
“What? I thought—uh, sure, sure,” Max said. “I’d love to see you.”
“Where are you right now?”
“I’m with Grandma. I have to go.”
“I’ll be there around seven-thirty.”
As Max returned to Dorothy’s table, he paused for a moment to study the plump woman. All the deep lines radiating from her eyes, the deep crevices around her mouth, the loose skin collected beneath her jaw. Max feared if he didn’t capture this heartbreaking face, it would disappear forever, and he would have to carry the memory all alone. The woman must’ve noticed him staring at her for she gave a dainty wave and gestured for him to rejoin the table. Max finished crossing the dining hall, not noticing until he was almost to his seat that Dorothy listened intently to the plump woman as she spoke, Dorothy nodding her head as if pulled by a string.
Back in her room, Max drew the blankets over his grandmother. “What book are you reading now?” he asked. “Is it one I brought you?” She jutted her chin toward the nightstand and Max understood this was her signal for him to open the drawer. Inside, he found a pulp mystery novel he’d stolen from the bookstore. The cover promised blood and mayhem. He placed the book on Dorothy’s lap, but she made no move to open it. Instead, she simply gazed at Max.
“I have to go now, Grandma,” he said. “But I’ll see you next week.”
Dorothy smiled and nodded. Max kissed her cheek. “You’re my special lady,” he whispered, as if someone unwelcome might overhear. She stared at the wall.
Trevor lay on the couch, his head in Max’s lap. He stretched and yawned like a contented cat, his small, bony fists swooping before Max’s face. When he was done, he looked at Max with such calmness and certainty that Max felt an instant comfort. Moments like these were the reason he kept meeting Trevor, always risking discovery, pretending their friendship was merely casual when another man was in the room, especially Trevor’s live-in boyfriend, Hank.
“So,” Trevor said, playfully drawing out the word, “what pretty boys did you photograph this time?”
“Oh, just some of the usual. Your basic fuck. Not very attractive men, to be sure, but…very compelling all the same.”
Trevor pouted. “I like it better when you show me pretty boys.”
“Pretty boys are easy. There’s no art in pretty.”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Trevor said, bolting from Max’s lap. “Hank might call me from the station. If he does, just don’t say anything, all right?”
“I never do.”
“He’s been so fucking clingy since he started that new diet.”
“Oh, Christ, another one?”
“Out of nowhere that fucker throws away all our bread, all our pasta and says we’re cutting out carbs.”
“Carbs give you energy.”
“No shit. I’ve been dragging ass all week.”
“Sounds like you need a boost,” Max said, smiling. Trevor blushed and looked away. Max guided his head back around and kissed him. It was a slow, delicate kiss, a kiss between two men who had already explored each other totally and were content with just this brief pairing. The two men had not made love for at least four months yet continued to see one another whenever Hank was busy at the station. Max wasn’t sure if this lack of carnal activity disappointed Trevor, and he was too afraid to ask. The equilibrium of their arrangement might shatter if challenged.
After they parted, Trevor squeezed Max’s wrist and said, “Fire up the TiVo. I wanna see who got voted off this week.”
Excited, Max clapped and reached for the remote. “You’ll love it. That bitch with the bad hair extensions has a total meltdown at tribal council.”
“Don’t spoil it!” While Max punched buttons on the remote, calling up the saved episode, Trevor flopped upon the opposite side of the couch. “You’re meeting that kooky lady this week, aren’t you? Margo?”
Max pursed his lips, his enthusiasm suddenly gone. “She’s not kooky. She’s a brilliant artist.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t show her, you know, the real smutty pictures.”
“I have to, Trevor. I’ve been creating in a vacuum long enough. I need to know if they have any real worth.”
“I thought you’d sold some of them?”
“Erotica magazines mainly. They’re not officially porn publications, but I’m sure there’s a whole world of ugly old men jacking off to my dirty pictures.”
“Well, I think they’re really hot.”
“Too bad you’re just a humble bartender.”
Trevor threw a tiny pillow at Max’s head. Max laughed as it bounced off his skull and fell to the floor. They smiled at one another for a blessed moment before that shrill, piercing bell began its cry.
“Oh, shit!” cried Trevor, grabbing at his pocket.
“Don’t worry, babe. It’s my phone, not yours.” Max checked the caller ID. His mother. He didn’t want to interrupt these very few hours with Trevor but some instinct told him he should answer. Trevor was already entranced by the show’s rapid-fire opening credits, but Max scurried to the doorway for privacy anyway.
“I have some news about Grandma,” Meredith said. His mother’s voice was high and breathy. Everything she said sounded like a last confession.
“What’s wrong? Did she fall?”
“No, honey, it’s—we’ve decided to move her into the Hospice. We’re doing it Monday morning.”
“The Hospice? That’s where people go to die.”
“Well, Maxwell, there’s more to it than that—but yes, that’s what’s happening, I’m afraid.”
Max felt the blood drain from his face. He stared at the television. A bone-thin young woman in a polka dot bikini discussed her strategy while a helpful caption at the bottom of the screen supplied her name. He would never again step through the doors of Wakefield Retirement Home. No more awkward attempts to insert the spoon into his grandmother’s mouth. You’re my special lady.
“You can see her Monday afternoon,” Meredith said.
“Of course,” he said. He listened to his mother’s ragged breath on the line. Was she crying?
“Maxwell, are you going to be all right?”
“Yes, I’ll be fine,” he said, his tone even. “Um, I have company right now. Can I call you back?”
Max returned to the couch and studied Trevor’s face as he laughed at the silly, silly contestants on that stupid show. He photographed him once, when they first started seeing one another in secret, when they were still lovers. But not a single shot turned out as he’d hoped. Trevor—so lively and free-spirited—appeared dead in pictures, no light in his eyes. That was the brutal reality of photography: some people can’t be captured on film.
Max grabbed Trevor’s leg. “You know what I’m going to do?” he said. “I’m going to fix you a massive dinner.”
“But you’ll miss the show.”
“I’ve already seen it.”
“What are you making?”
“Let me worry about that,” Max said, jumping with forced glee. “But I will promise you one thing: there will be carbs, carbs and more carbs! I’m going to fatten up your skinny ass.” He darted from the couch toward the doorway, paused to take one last look at Trevor. He must’ve seen something in Max’s face, something Max failed to hide. He asked, “What was that phone call about? Was it bad news?”
“Of course not,” Max said. “Everything’s fine.” He pointed at the screen. “Oh, you have to see this. You’ll laugh yourself stupid.”
His black imitation leather portfolio jammed underneath his arm, Max climbed the steps to the small gallery on the campus of the junior college. His mind throbbed with doubt, all sorts of demeaning scenarios popping up in his imagination. What if Trevor was right? What if his erotic photography was meant for no higher purpose than artful filler in obscure publications and websites? He couldn’t bear the thought of humiliating himself in front of Margo.
Max strolled through the connecting wings of the gallery, his head swiveling back and forth, admiring all the new work that had been displayed since his last visit. Perhaps one day very soon his work would adorn these same walls. His ambition urged him to ponder even grander possibilities: galleries in Austin, Dallas, Houston. All from the lens of a country boy in the cultural dead zone of East Texas.
In her office, Margo took the portfolio from Max delicately, as if receiving an infant. She opened it and studied the first photograph. It was a portrait of a woman in her thirties. There was a yearning in her eyes, her face soft and unformed. The image had been drained of color. The feathery shadow of a tree branch fell upon her face.
“This is fantastic, Max,” Margo said. “How did you get her to look at you like that?”
Max peeked at the photo. “I really can’t remember anymore,” he said. “That one’s a couple of years old.”
“Really? You should’ve shown it to me sooner.”
For the past two years, Max had been taking his new work to Margo once every two or three months. She had been his professor in an art photography course. Max took the class solely because after so many years of learning his craft in solitude, he desired the confirmation from others that he indeed had the skills to capture any subject with precision. He had been publishing his photos in modest print and online publications for nearly five years, but his insecurities would not be silenced. Fortunately, Margo admired his work so much she offered to mentor him after the class ended. Max knew she had at least a few connections in the arts scene, connections beyond Tyler, but he was waiting for Margo to volunteer her help; he refused to ask for it directly.
Margo continued to murmur praise as she slowly flipped from one portrait to the next. Sometimes she asked how Max met a particular subject, and sometimes she simply sighed with satisfaction. Still, as she turned the pages, Max’s teeth clenched, his palms grew moist. Each successive portrait brought her closer to the few samples of erotica. He had to warn her before she stumbled upon them herself. It would be tacky to plunge her headfirst into what most would consider pure filth. Max cleared his throat.
“Not all the pictures are portraits,” he said.
“Oh?” she said, not looking up from the portfolio. “What else did you bring? I know they certainly aren’t landscapes!’ She laughed, her leg kicking up in a flirty gesture. “You never were fond of nature.”
“No, ma’am. No landscapes.”
“Are you experimenting?”
“Well, you could say that.”
“Oh, Max, don’t be coy. Tell me what you’ve been doing with that lens of yours.”
He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hands cupped under his chin. He gazed at Margo as if she were a vision of Jesus discovered in a grease stain. She was the one person in Tyler he respected as a fellow artist.
“What do you know about erotic photography?” he asked with caution.
Margo paused, narrowed her eyes. For the first time since opening the portfolio, she focused her eyes on Max. “What? You mean boudoir photography, those tacky things women give their husbands?”
“Well…not really. More like—“
“Oh, Max! Enough with the nervous schoolboy routine.” She hurried past all the safe, respectable photographs. “Let’s see what you’ve done and take it from there.”
His eyes popped as she finally paused upon an image. He strained to glance at which particular photo she’d uncovered, but Margo held the book at too high an angle for him to see. Instead, he watched her face.
She frowned, brought a finger to her lips, absently began to chew a nail. Her eyes blinked rapidly as if exposed to a sudden flash of light. Finally, she looked up from the portfolio and scowled at Max as if he hadn’t finished an assignment.
“How long have you been taking shots like these?”
“Three years maybe.”
“Where on earth do you find your models?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
“No, Max, believe me, I do.”
“It’s not something I’m proud of. Let’s leave it at that.”
Margo turned the page and sampled another image. Max saw in her eyes the same utter bafflement he’d seen from his grandmother just two days ago. Grandma! He planned to visit the Hospice right after he left Margo, but he’d managed to forget all about the trip since entering the gallery. He tried to imagine Dorothy lying in some anonymous room with his mother and father standing by, but he couldn’t. All he could contemplate was precisely what image had disgusted Margo. Unable to stop himself, he bolted from his seat.
“Which one are you looking at?” he asked, his voice shaky. “I could tell you—“
But Margo silenced him with a quick wave of her hand. “You know,” she said, “I do have some history with photography of this nature.”
Max took a deep breath. He stood before her with shoulders slumped, fingers drumming against his thighs.
“Before I came to the college, I had friends who dabbled in erotica. It didn’t turn out well for them, I’m afraid.”
“It’s quite simple, really. They became so well-known for this sort of art that when they debuted more mainstream work, no one took them seriously. They were trapped.”
Max gulped. He remembered the young man who had fucked for his camera two days ago. He’d wanted to see the pictures. Maybe Max should have just shown them to the doped-up fool. Pretend I’m not here.
“You haven’t published these, have you?”
His gaze lurched from object to object in the small office, anything to avoid Margo’s penetrating gaze. His jaw slid from side to side, unable to form the words he needed. Finally, he said, “In a few places…”
“Well, take my advice, Max. Please. If you feel compelled to keep producing work like this, keep it private. You’re too talented to short-circuit your career before it’s even begun.”
Max couldn’t look at her. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Margo cackled. The joyous sound gave him a small, fleeting comfort. “Oh, don’t worry about me. I saw some pretty wild shit in my day.” She closed the portfolio and handed it to him. “But I knew better than to share it with the world.”
Dorothy lay in the soft, enormous bed completely still. Even her shallow breaths failed to expand her chest. From her bedside, Max gazed about the room: so different from the drab, sterile whiteness of the rest home. The walls were painted a soothing apricot, the large picture window framed by heavy drapes the same color. The room was toasty, worlds away from the nasty late autumn chill that awaited him outside. Plush purple chairs were arranged smartly around the room. Max never thought to drag one close to Dorothy’s bedside. Instead, he crouched beside her and grasped her hand.
Meredith stood across from her son. Her mouth twisted into a strange knot. It was impossible to tell whether she wished to cry or laugh. Her pixie cut of bright blonde hair clashed with her deeply tan face, a face badly weathered under years and years of sun. She looked older than her fifty-nine years. Her husband, Walter, sat idly reading a paperback Western in one of the plush chairs at the far side of room,
“So what happens now?” Max asked his mother.
“Well, they’ve killed the pain, and so now we just wait until…”
“Maxwell, Grandma had a long, long life. You know that.”
“What are they feeding her?”
“Honey, there’s really no point in—“
“You mean she’s going to starve to death!”
Meredith balled her hands into fists and swung them at her sides. Her voice cracked as she said, “I told you: she can’t feel any pain.”
Max shook his head in disgust and looked at Dorothy. If he were to photograph her, capture this awful moment, the untrained eye would believe she was already dead. Her closed eyelids didn’t flutter. Her face was completely slack.
“I’m coming every day,” he told Meredith. “I’ll just sit here.”
“What about the bookstore?”
“Fuck the bookstore.”
“Maxwell, don’t talk like that.”
Dorothy made a sudden, noisy gasp. Max and Meredith forgot their argument and watched her closely. Her tiny chest surged upward only to fall again. She took a series of short, shallow breaths, all of them producing an eerie rasp that devoured the silence. Even after Meredith shied away, Max refused to look elsewhere. He had to remember this. There would be no photograph to save him.
There was one photograph Max had never tried to sell. It wasn’t because the image died under his scrutiny like many promising ones often did. Indeed, he believed it to be one of his most accomplished works. He finished it over two years ago, framed it and placed it next to the monitor in his office. Whenever he grew frustrated or despondent while working on a new image, all he had to do was gaze at that picture and he felt a renewed vigor.
In the photograph, Dorothy sat in a recliner at Meredith and Walter’s house. It was Thanksgiving Day. She wore a gray hooded sweatshirt. Meredith had placed an enormous plastic bib around her neck, covering her entire chest and stomach. On her lap waited a plate of turkey, dressing, yams. Her eyes were closed, her lips flat and solemn. She had lost so much of her hair that stark white patches of scalp peeked through her gray curls. Strangely, her hands appeared folded before her chest, as if in prayer. Max had never asked his grandmother what she believed. He was too afraid she would ask him the same question. Despite all this, it was a serene photo. The old woman appeared to be at peace. Trevor once confessed it depressed him every time he saw it, but Max didn’t care.
The same night he learned Dorothy would die, after his disastrous meeting with Margo, Max threw himself into work. He spent a whole hour altering and fussing over a photo of poor Steven shooting dope into his arm. When Max blew up the untouched image on his monitor, he could hardly contain his delight. The naked fear in Steven’s eyes, the delicacy of his emaciated frame, the pucker of skin at the injection site. Max knew it would blossom into a powerful image, and he couldn’t wait to present it. Clicking away with his mouse, it struck him how bizarre that Saturday had been, how many versions of himself he’d offered to others. He kissed three people that day: Steven, Trevor and his grandmother. Max closed his eyes and tried to remember each kiss individually, but the sensations refused to separate. They mingled and merged like watercolors. Only a fool would expect more from mere human memory. Max Archer had his photographs, his proof that those who passed from his life were not lost. All it took was a simple command, spoken gently: Pretend I’m not here.