A Short Story by T.A. Barnes
“These are cute,” she said. With one perfectly shaped and elegantly painted nail she slid back the half of the photo she had exposed in a rapid shuffle, flipped the back page of the portfolio closed and looked across her desk at him with precisely nothing in her eyes.
They froze that way for a moment while he fought to recover from her choice of words. He did not look for any hope behind those eyes. Whatever might be there, it would not be that.
“Truthfully, Mr. Watkins, your earlier work is awesome. These later ones… I’m not sure you’re in your element.” She stood, pushing the portfolio across the desk.
“I’ll keep your résumé. If something comes up, I’ll call you.”
When he had stood and taken back the rejected portfolio of his life’s work, he forced a smile. “Well, thank you for your time, Ms. Alexander. If the magazine ever needs local freelance work, I’m certainly available for that as well.”
“Absolutely. We’ll keep you in mind.”
She had already turned her attention to the tablet on her desk. There was nothing left to say.
Sixty minutes is an excruciatingly short time to pick up shattered hopes built up over weeks of preparing, pick them up and piece them together for the next interview that might prove more successful than the last. This was the third such sixty minute segment of this long day.
He managed it only because there was no time to process the complete rejection and deep disappointment slugging him in defenseless places. By the time he entered the revolving door of the office building housing the Tribune, just twenty blocks from the last address but considerably downscaled in pomp and ceremony, it was time to find his way through the security guards to the fourteenth floor and the office of John Upton, a person, like the one he had just left and the two before, with power to change his life. This one he had delayed as long as possible.
The lack of time to maneuver through the checkpoints, three in all, kept him from dwelling further on the disheartening fact of having to approach this particular man for work that until now he had always easily found on his own. Things were long past the point of letting pride enter the equation.
“Paul, good to see you.” John Upton met him at the door to his corner office, seizing his hand and pulling him in for a quick embrace. “Gosh, how long has it been? You were finishing college, I think, before you went on assignment in Afghanistan.”
“Yes, sir, you came to my parents’ fiftieth anniversary.”
“That’s right. Boy, there’ve been a few more since then, haven’t there? Six years?”
“I believe that’s right.” He took the chair offered him in a corner of the office removed from the walnut executive’s desk. His host seated himself across a coffee table in another of the four armchairs circled there.
“Thanks for seeing me today. I really appreciate it,” Paul said.
“No problem, Paul. No problem at all. Tell me, is your father still clinging to his 35 millimeter like some anti-gun control fanatic?”
“Actually, he bought himself some digital equipment and the old stuff is ready for the museum. We never thought we’d see the day.”
Upton laughed. “That’s a fact. He has to be one of the world’s last hold-outs.”
“The biggest problem now is that he discovered Photoshop and is manufacturing all kinds of fraudulent stuff for his Facebook page.”
“Facebook. Great God, I’m going to have to rib him over that. He has gone over the edge, hasn’t he?”
“Afraid so. Turns eighty next month. I guess he can do what he wants at this point.”
“Well, Paul, your father earned it, for sure. He was my earliest mentor. No telling how much he influenced the way Viet Nam was photographed.”
John Upton reached to receive the black leather portfolio Paul handed him, hefted it as though to weigh it. “You know, I saw some of your work while you were in Afghanistan. Great stuff. Epic.”
“War. Makes the job easy, I guess.”
“I wouldn’t say that, Paul.” Upton gave him a quick look. There were no smiles.
He opened the portfolio and the next fifteen minutes were spent in total silence. To Paul Watkins, the minutes were hours. He was heartened by the intense interest given his photos from overseas, Afghanistan, Beirut, Pakistan, Egypt, South Africa—hotspots, as some in the game liked to call them.
He was less encouraged by the pick-up in pace as John Upton reached the last of the collection, the loose samples of what he was doing now for something to show potential employers at home.
“Would you like something?” his father’s friend asked Paul, slowly closing the portfolio and setting it on the coffee table. “Water? I’m going to.”
He reached for the phone and made the request, sat back with a badly disguised sigh and faced Paul as he spoke.
“This damn economy, Paul. Every day almost they take something from us. Five more reporters let go yesterday. A seven percent RIF a couple weeks before that in production and the newsroom.”
A soft knock preceded the entry of a slender brunette carrying a tray with a bottle of water and two glasses. She set the tray on the table and poured, then backed away. “Will there be anything else, Mr. Upton? Your four o’clock is here.”
“Not now, Sherry. I’ll be with him shortly, thanks.”
They worked on their water for a moment. Somewhere a siren could be heard. Little else broke the silence.
Paul set down his glass and stood. “Well, sir, it was sure nice to see you and I appreciate you taking time to have a look at my work. I’ll tell Dad you’re impressed that he’s gone digital.”
He reached for the portfolio.
“Sit down a minute, Paul.”
The words were quiet. His breath came harder, he felt his heart pick up. It seemed to take forever to stop his upward movement and translate it to a seated position with the leather book gripped in both hands between his knees. He made his eyes meet Upton’s. The lack of a smile tempted him to be disturbed.
“There’s a daughter now, right?”
“Yes, sir, three last week. Big party. Amanda’s going to have another, we just found out.”
“Well, that’s great. So you’ve been going out three-four months at a time?”
“Five months in Europe the last time. Home about four months now.”
“I’m sure your family prefers that.”
“They do. They really do.”
Another siren. Another moment stretched between them.
“It’s the adrenalin, I think, Paul.” Upton did not wait for an answer. “That’s the magic ingredient. Put a guy behind a camera and throw him into danger, put him with bullets flying past his head, beside fellows taking a bullet between the eyes or a child pulling at her dead mother’s arm to get her up…. It takes an eye, don’t get me wrong. And guts. And more. Anybody can make a body look dramatic. But not just anybody can make you cry—or hurt so bad you can’t.”
Another pause while he sipped and put the glass down.
“You’ve got that something. Throw in the adrenalin… that’s the thing that moves these from great to epic. In my mind.”
“Your dad was one of the greatest. I think you’re certainly his son.”
The siren was gone now, someone dead somewhere, a building burned or maybe saved, a robbery foiled or not.
“These others, your later work…. Are you determined to work stateside? To stay close to home?”
“I’ve made that promise.”
Now it was Upton who stood. Paul followed suit. “Let me see what we might have open up, Paul. This damn economy is killing us.”
“Thanks again, Mr. Upton….”
“Good Lord, son, make it John, will you? You make me feel old.”
“Yes, sir, John, thanks a lot for seeing me. I… I would take anything to get a new kind of start. Sports….”
This time Upton did smile and that felt a little better.
“Sure, right up my alley.” He forced a grin. “Or celebrities. I can slink through shadows.”
Upton laughed for real. “You’re a great kid, Paul, I always said so.”
“Well?” She met him at the front door, throwing it wide in welcome, her bright eyes washing away the dust and grime of the bus trip out of the city, the shades of depression layered on by a day alone among millions, a day that produced no encouragement.
He smiled and pulled her into his arms. He held her a long time, partly to bring her essence into himself and partly to gain a last moment of delay.
She pushed him away finally with a laugh and pulled him by the hand into their cramped living room. “Well, out with it, Mr. Watkins, how did it go?”
He set his backpack near the table by the door, where his old go-pack had once sat ready for any call that might come, and shrugged off his sports jacket, handing it to her when she reached for it. “Good,” he said finally. “I think good.”
“Really? That’s great. Come in and tell me all about it. I want to hear everything they said. I bet they’ll have a bidding war for you, all of them, the ones today and all the others, too.”
He followed her into the kitchen and received the beer bottle she put in his hand.
“Daddy!” Annette trotted through the door and into his arms as he stopped to embrace her. “Daddy, I’m a dancer. See?”
She twirled on a toe, pointed hands high above her head, a smile aiming at him like the beam of a lighthouse as she whirled.
“Well, look at that,” he told her. “You are certainly a dancer, the most beautiful one in the whole world.” He pulled her into his arms again and squeezed her until she squirmed.
“Okay, Miss Dancer, off you go. Dora is on TV in the living room. We’ll be in after a little while.” Amanda tugged her daughter loose from her grip on him and aimed her toward the front room.
She turned then, and opened the door to the tiny balcony that looked off the rear of the kitchen to a strip of a back yard.
The gentle embrace of her presence in their private place slowed his mind, eased the worry that seemed with him all the time now, through all these weeks of watching their meager savings dwindle while he sought work that would not take him away for months at a time; work that would not put him in the hotspots of the world where survival chances became something like a lottery. Work he once thought his purpose in life.
He closed his eyes. “I don’t know, darling. Everybody is saying the same thing, the economy has people worried and nobody’s doing a lot of hiring. John Upton said they’ve been having lay-offs at the Trib.”
“But they are doing some hiring? They can always use somebody like you, I bet.”
“Well, they all really like my stuff, the overseas work.”
They sat in silence while he finished his beer. Her lack of more questions told him she had gotten the message. He could hardly stand her disappointment, the disappointment that she did not express but could not hide from him.
“Well, something could come of one of them,” he said at last. The editor at GlobeWatch said she might call me. And John Upton wanted to check into some openings he thought might be coming up.”
“Good. That’s great. Something will develop. You’re too good, Paul. Too good to go long without somebody snatching you up.”
She stood, pulled him up by his hand. “Spaghetti tonight. Your daughter’s request. I think we’re raising a little Italian.”
He stopped her, pulled her around to face him, kissed her long and slow, taking in her essence, taking it in and arming himself with it.
“Well, the thing is, Mr….” the man glanced at the resume before him, “Watkins. You’re really quite over-qualified for what we need.”
“I might be able to bring a different approach to the work. Admittedly I’ve never shot portraits, but I’m sure I can.” Paul paused. The man had stopped listening and returned to the photos from South Africa.
“Were you really right there when they shot him? Just like that?”
“I was across the street, eating lunch. I saw them begin to beat him and I got over there in time to get that one.”
“But how did you catch it? Good Lord, he’s still falling.”
“Right place, right time, I guess.”
“There’s more to it than that, I’m sure.”
“Well, on stuff like that you get one shot to get it right. The trick is to know it when it comes.”
His interviewer turned a couple of pages. “This one. They’re buddies, right? Posing with their guns? This one guy’s arm is crooked. It doesn’t look natural. Why didn’t you shoot another one where he would have looked better?”
His arm got broke a couple hours before that. The medics hadn’t gotten to him yet.”
“Oh. Raw stuff, huh?”
“It’s the way it happens.”
“We don’t do so much of that here. In fact, this is just a whole different thing, Mr… Watkins. Why aren’t you continuing this kind of shooting? There’s certainly no lack of violence and war in the world.”
“I have a daughter now. Another one on the way. I’m trying to stay close to home.”
“Yes, I can see where that would be important.” The man closed the portfolio and nudged it across his desk. The diamond in the ring on his little finger shot a ray of light directly into Paul’s eye. “Still….
“We need someone who will stay with us, grow with the company, someone who is really as much salesman as photographer. You know, these days, with the programs there are, we’re able to make a quite plain portrait much more appealing as something the family wants on the mantle. All the stuff we used to have to do?” He waved his hand and blew out his lips in a puffing sound.
“I can sell people on larger packages, I’m sure. That’s what you mean, right, upselling? I can do that, I’m sure I can,” Paul told him.
“Yes, I believe you could, but I just don’t see a pro like yourself remaining content with what we do here for long. And I’m sure the pay is far less than what you are accustomed to earning.”
He stood. Paul reached for the leather portfolio and also stood.
“Tell you what. I’ll think about it. I’m going to fill the position late this week. I’ll call you if we all agree it could be a fit.”
“Hey, man, what’s going on? I heard you were in the city today.”
Paul moved out of the flow of bodies on the sidewalk and held the phone close to his ear to hear better. “How’d you hear that?”
“Called the house. Your bride spilled the beans. Where are you? Time for a slice?”
He started to say no. He paused long enough that Jack sensed it coming and worked his typical charm.
“Aw, come on, man, it can’t hurt to take an hour off the hunt. I’m only in town for another week, then to the Congo. Last chance to see your old buddy for six months. You better do it. You know when they tell you I got offed somewhere you’ll feel like a dog if you don’t.”
“Only the good die young, buddy. But all right, Angelo’s?”
“So any prospects?” Jack reached for his second slice of pizza, loaded with enough toppings to make a casserole.
“Yeah, a few. Maybe.”
“So that means zip. I’ve heard it’s tightened up over here.”
“That’s what they’re telling me. That and that my city shots are cute.”
“Jesus. Not really? Cute?”
“The editor at GlobeWatch.”
“Did you, um, kill her? I mean, is her body stuffed under her desk and they’re going to find it and you’re going to be on the news?”
“Naw, I let her live.”
“So, there’s nothing at the Trib or the others here in town? What about freelance stuff? Anybody paying much for that?”
“Well, sure, they’re always paying for the good stuff, but it’s hit or miss as you know. If you’ve got any leads on where any bombs are going to be going off, I could do pretty well with that.”
They ate and watched the game on the overhead television.
Jack slugged the last of his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You ever think about going back out?”
“Every day. Every hour.”
“Well, what about it? Will you?”
“I promised, man.”
“I never thought you’d do it. Blew me away. Did you know I lost five hundred bucks on you?”
“That’s why you two were so engaged in my wedding ceremony. Even Amanda noticed it. You guys in the front row gawking and poking each other.”
“Well, it was the ring. If you put the ring on her we called you married.”
“Five hundred dollars? You were that sure?”
“Never been more sure of anything in my life, buddy. Think you know someone.”
“Hey, I won it back at the track next day. No worries.”
Paul finished his ice tea, looked at his watch.
“Any more interviews today?” Jack asked.
“Who are they? Which newspapers?”
“These aren’t papers. One’s a camera store. One’s a little school. Needs an instructor.”
Jack did as only the best friends do at such times and made no answer for a while. Traffic sounds and the clatter of pans behind the counter filled the space.
Finally Jack asked, “How many interviews have you done, Paul?”
“I don’t know. Lots.”
“Like how many?”
“I don’t know, fifty, maybe, counting the Internet stuff.”
“You’ve been home what, three months?”
“Looking that whole time?”
“Wow. Remind me not to piss off my boss.”
Paul reached for his wallet.
“On me, guy,” Jack said quickly. “Next one’s yours.”
They stood and moved to the counter to stand in line at the cash register.
“I don’t want to be the devil in this picture,” Jack said quietly, looking straight ahead. “But I actually was asked to let you know that they’d really like you back.”
“Who asked you?”
“Sandy. She said they have some big plans and need you in a bad way. I’m supposed to tell you that there would be a significant increase in pay.”
“Out and about, of course?”
They talked no more until they were out the door and on the sidewalk. The afternoon heat washed over them like a wave. The stream of people flowed as relentlessly as time around them; they must join it or step aside to let it pass.
Jack slapped a hand into his and they half embraced. “I’ll call you next time I’m in town,” Jack said. “Anything I should tell Sandy?”
“Tell her I’ll think about it. That I appreciate it. A lot.”
“There you are.” She looked up from the sink where she was washing the dinner dishes.
“Sorry I’m late.” He moved across the linoleum to kiss her.
“Sure. Just stopped to shoot a few in the park. Great basketball game.”
“I’ll warm your supper. We went ahead. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not. I should have called.”
She dried her hands, moved to the stove. “Jack called today. I told him you were in the city.”
“He got me. We had lunch together.”
“How’s he doing? Back to stay a while?”
“Oh, same old Jack. Off to the Congo next week. Looked good.”
“Did he… So he’s good. That’s good. Nothing exciting to tell you?”
“Well, he was pleased about getting out of Pakistan alive.”
“Paul! That’s not funny.”
“Aw, he’s good, darling. Everything’s good.”
Paul held his camera between his knees, hunched on the bench and watching out across the grass. Two kids played on the swings while their mothers chatted on a nearby bench, casting cold looks at him from time to time. A couple of squirrels chased each other from tree to tree. A dog chased a Frisbee out across the wide expanse of green. The basketball court loomed vacant in the afternoon, shaded by tall trees, full of leaves and scattered pieces of trash blown over the tall fence. The padlock on the gate was large enough to see from here, just below the Closed sign finally placed months before by reluctant park officials when it had become too much of a draw for the bangers.
The dog was in the air with the Frisbee caught between his teeth. It would have been an action shot, cute, as the editor from GlobeWatch would have called it. He could have shot it from here, the lens would reach.
He watched the dog return to its owner, taking a zigzag path as though teasing, holding onto the thing just a little longer having worked so hard for it, then come to stand looking up with a big dog grin and mighty wags of its tail as the young man laughing reached a hand to take the Frisbee—there. The two of them in agreement. The teamwork having achieved its purpose. The dog thrilled because his friend was pleased and surrendering the thing it worked so hard to get. Communication completed. That was the real shot.
It was gone. He had not raised his camera. Other chances would come along to capture something like it. But not that shot.
All the times he’d fought through a mass of close-packed bodies, elbowed, shoved, did whatever was necessary to get clear for the shot of a bomb victim clutching his dismembered foot, or a mother huddled over the mangled body of her child or the soldier on his back with the tidy black hole in his forehead or countless other scenes of cruelty and violence. All those times that he had put the shot first, getting to it, knowing the moment, grabbing it at any cost without a thought as to what would happen to it; knowing only that it was the shot of that particular story, the one shot, and that it would never happen again.
She threw the door open and pulled him into her arms and squeezed him until he had to complain. “You had a call! One of your interviews. The man said they had decided to give you a try, that they thought you would be a good fit.”
“Who? Did he say which publication?”
She dragged the silence for a moment before answering. “I think it was the portrait studio. He sounded really nice.”
When he had finished the call, they sat on the balcony in the shade of the summer evening, he with an unusual second beer, she with her green tea.
“How’s the baby today?” he asked.
“I think I felt movement. I swear I know it’s early for that but I think I did.”
“A lively one. Sick this morning?”
“No, we’re past that now. Now it’s all comfort and bliss.” She grinned—it was a grin, he’d always told her that. Other girls smiled with their teeth. When Amanda’s face expressed amusement, it was all in.
“Will you hate it a lot?” she asked after a while.
“Naw.” The silence dragged.
They sat without words again, letting the evening settle and the sounds of traffic fade into a quieter background roar. A bird was calling. The breeze was still.
“Another?” she asked, nodding at his empty bottle.
“I’m good,” he said, and took her hand.