Way Back, Well Before My Divorce
Equally comedic and poignant, Adam Prince’s story “Way Back, Well Before My Divorce,” winner of our 2021 William Peden Prize in fiction, examines the many faces of naivete, from hopeful crowd members betting on a rigged shell game to a young man unknowingly crossing an invisible boundary with his girlfriend’s sister.
Here’s what novelist Michael Byers, the guest judge who selected this story as the winner of our annual best-of-volume prize, had to say about the story:
“It builds a portrait of a clueless young man who thinks he has all the answers while also, and this was especially gratifying, making me appreciate the form of the short story in a new way, i.e., it never says what it’s about but is firm enough in its shape to be entirely clear; it asks questions rather than delivers answers; and it too is vivid and memorable–all while being quite short! In itself a kind of sleight-of-hand game.”
Way Back, Well Before My Divorce
by Adam Prince
There was this other thing that happened. Or really two things bundled. While visiting my then girlfriend’s older sister in New York City, I got pulled into a shell game. Then, later that night, the sister asked me to help wax her armpits.
It was a day approaching Thanksgiving—clear and wincingly bright. Just off Washington Square some guy shifted a raw pea under three shells on a cardboard box. He was balding and potbellied with a five o’clock shadow—or more like nine thirty. And something wrong with his eyes. One of them pulled toward his nose.
Five or six people gathered around: a white guy in a gray suit, a black guy in a white suit, a gypsy-looking woman with ragged flowers on her hat. Some others.
I liked their diversity. Their liveliness, too. Jumping around when they won. Throwing their hats down when they lost.
I’d just moved east for college Upstate, and remembering this now feels like watching an early-twentieth-century melodrama, with the villain twisting his mustache and the naive young man.
What happened later that night resembled no genre I’ve ever heard of.
In a narrow apartment, my girlfriend’s older sister and I were eating Ethiopian food off the same plate with our hands—which is how you’re supposed to do it—when she said, “So Gwendolyn tells me you’re into processes.”
I’d never thought about whether I was into processes or not but guessed it was probably true. Gwendolyn had gone to a better high school than me and attended a better college. And once, out of nowhere, she’d proclaimed that I was interested in the way men and women interacted. I’d never thought of it before but then realized she was right. It was one of my main interests.
So, “Yeah,” I said now to Gwendolyn’s sister about the processes.
And the sister said, “I thought you’d want to help wax my armpits.”
Which I did. But I mean, who wouldn’t? Or maybe it’s just me, interested in processes.
This shell guy had all kinds of tricks. A shift. A mix. A back-and-forth where they ended up in the same place they’d started. Still, I could tell where that pea went.
“Young man knows,” said the shell guy to himself, while the gypsy kept losing dollars, crumpled and ragged as the flowers on her hat.
“Where ya think?” she whispered to me.
I told her; she won. It made the shell guy mad. He looked me in the face—or as much as he could with his eyes the way they were—shifting the shells as he did.
“Where’s it at?” he asked.
“I don’t want to bet,” I told him.
“Never mind the bet. No bets. Where’s it at?”
I pointed. And was right.
Now, I admired my girlfriend’s older sister. She was in graduate school doing gender studies. She identified as bisexual and looked like a Norwegian milkmaid, but an empowered milkmaid who sometimes wore a beret and totally pulled it off. Blonde and broad-shouldered, a dusting of freckles on her wide cheeks.
For the record, though, I didn’t see this as any kind of sexual invitation. More like a dare.
The whole family was very open-minded. They traveled to Kenya every Christmas. The dad kept almost winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry; the mom did metal art with a blowtorch. And though I’d never actually seen it, I knew for a fact they walked around naked at home.
Open-mindedness was another thing I was into.
So, “Okay,” I said. “Sounds good.”
She heated the green-gray wax in a saucepan, stirring with a popsicle stick applicator, a good start for a process.
Then she took off her shirt. Stood in the middle of the tiny bathroom while I backed up against the tile wall, trying to be polite.
She aimed her sky-blue eyes at me. And casually slung off her bra. Which I didn’t understand at all, since anyone could see that the armpits were perfectly accessible with the bra still on.
I said, “Those look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.” Because they did look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts: exact same areolae and everything. Except the sister’s breasts were bigger and firmer and honestly more appealing overall, which I absolutely did not say.
Anyway, I meant it in a friendly way, a breezy, beret-wearing casual way, like “Hey, wouldn’t you know it, those look a heck of a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.”
And the sister said, “Thanks. I guess.” Which could have meant almost anything.
A cheer went up. The young man was right! The beleaguered, hat throwing crowd had their hero.
The shell guy said, “One hundred dollars to this boy if he’s right again.”
“I don’t have any cash. I don’t want to bet.”
“No bet. One hundred if you’re right.”
The shells went around, circling and shifting and blurring all over. The pea ticking from one to another.
I picked the shell on the left.
“You sure?” asked the shell guy.
“No!” cried the crowd. “Not that one!”
But I was sure. The young man knew.
Shell guy tipped up the left. And there it was.
But this shell guy, he just shrugged. “No bet, no money.”
The rest of the crowd knew an injustice when they saw one. They’d thrown down hats before. The white guy in the gray suit came over, leaned close. He looked like my dad, except with a ketchup stain on his tie and like he’d made worse life choices
“This son of a bitch,” he said, “been screwing us all day.” He walked me to a nearby ATM. “You’re gonna take out fifty and stick it to this son of a bitch,” he said.
I told him the ATM only gave out multiples of twenty, and then I suggested we take out forty instead.
But this guy who looked like my dad, whom I’d always admired— very straightforward—said, “Sixty. We’re gonna go for it.
Gwendolyn’s sister raised an arm, applied the goo to a furry armpit, and told me to rip it off.
I’d peel; she’d wince. Flushed and sweating. And when she moved, her breasts moved, too. They swayed and wobbled.
The green wax came off with the hair stuck to it, standing up as if the roots grew there from this whole other Frankenstein skin.
“Let’s wax you next,” the sister said, her bra still off.
She spread hot wax over my armpits. I was running out of places to put my eyes so tried keeping them closed. But then she ripped off the wax. And sudden, burning pain forced them open again. I had to make sure my skin hadn’t peeled off with the wax, and god, those breasts were close. Sweat running down them.
She grunted each time she peeled. And I grunted, too. Sexy and gross and painful all at once—but mostly just confusing—while I tried to pretend that this was how sophisticated, open-minded grownups behaved.
The guy who looked like my dad and I strode back to the shell game like lions of Wall Street. Or anyway, that’s how I felt.
I laid my money down on the cardboard box. Real money. Ten hours at the college cafeteria where I worked. A real bet from the young man who knew the pea.
He started his shifty business. All kinds of shenanigans. Shot the pea into the middle nut. Shot it to left nut, then back. But I knew. Called out middle nut.
Then he moved it left. I saw. Or, I mean, I was pretty sure. But I’d already called out middle, and he pulled up middle nut to reveal no pea.
I said, “You moved it after I picked!”
And the crowd said, “He moved it after you picked!”
And I said, “Did you see him move it after I picked?”
But none of them could say for sure.
Nothing for me to do but give up the money. Walk away. Out into the bleary light, figuring out the con as I went and feeling as foolish and ashamed as I have in my whole life.
Except for maybe later that night, when we were all done with the wax, and Gwendolyn’s sister shrugged her bra back on.
Or maybe on Thanksgiving Day in the shower with Gwendolyn, showing off the wax job and walking her through the story—breezily, open-mindedly.
But Gwendolyn’s face didn’t seem open at all. It had this rigid, judgy look.
“What?” she said. “Wait, wait, what? She did what? And you did what? And you were thinking what?”
But all that was a long time ago. Way back, well before my divorce.
Adam Prince earned his B.A. from Vassar College, his M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas, and his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee. His award-winning fiction has appeared in the Mississippi Review, the Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, and Sewanee Review among others. His short story collection The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men was published with Black Lawrence Press in June of 2012. He is currently at work on a novel and several screenplays. He serves as the visiting writer for the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama and works as a freelance editor. See Dr. Adam Prince – Writer, Freelance Editor (adamprinceauthor.com) for more information.
“Relatable Influence” by Bradley Bazzle
Instagram, mom blogs, and the theme of the artist’s relationship to her art come together in Bradley Bazzle’s funny, strange fiction from TMR 41:4 (winter 2018). Bazzle says of his interest in writing about mom bloggers, “I was drawn to their language, and to the complicated situation they must find themselves in.” You can read our interview with Bradley here.
by Bradley Bazzle
I snapped away with our best camera while Caleb and Emma twirled within a shower of leaves thrown by my husband, Jason, who had spent the afternoon raking. The sun was high enough to give the children’s cheeks a warmth but low enough to avoid the flattening brightness of midday. And the air was just cold enough to justify our matching cable-knit cardigans. Jason, who had unbuttoned his cardigan, began hurling great two-fisted piles of leaves, grunting like a monster. The children laughed with what seemed like genuine delight, and why not? They loved our lazy days at home.
For my own part, I was heartened by the maturation of the landscape. The viburnums were beginning to fill out, and the old apple tree, which we paid an arborist to restore, had finally grown a few apples. The last of the shiny reddish balls still clung to its branches, and I took photos of Caleb as he reached up, smiling, to pluck one, then another. And another. He stuck the apples into a box we kept for our assistant. The big box contained other odds and ends like freebie clothing that didn’t quite fit me and extra cupcakes and pies. So many pies. But I refuse to take an old pie out of the oven for the sake of a shoot. The warmth of a freshly cooked pie gives the air a quality that gets captured in photos, I swear.
Anyway, we were having a lovely time in the backyard, and I was free of the queer feeling I had been getting. The problems started when we went in the house.
Our living room had been rearranged to accommodate the awful giant Cozy Family Chair. Caleb and Emma fit on the chair together, but their diminutive size made the chair look absurd, and adding Jason called attention to the chair’s awkward depth: too deep for him to bend his legs at the knees but not deep enough for a full recline, such that his rather large feet sort of drooped off the end. I asked him to take off his shoes, which he did, revealing plain white socks. I must have made a face, because he said, “Come on, Claire, they aren’t gym socks.”
“They might as well be,” I said.
“We got them from Archipelago. A freebie.”
I said nothing.
“They’re ivory,” he said.
“Ivory is white.”
“That’s like saying brown is black.”
“Ivory is a chromatic shade of white, like eggshell. See the walls?”
Jason looked at a wall.
“Is it white?” I asked.
“Of course it’s white.”
Jason began to rise from the Cozy Family Chair. He would go to the bedroom, I knew, and change socks without a word. But we had been arguing recently about how often I gave him commands in front of the children, and I had decided to start picking my battles.
“Sit down,” I said. “The socks are fine.”
“Yes. I’m being ridiculous.”
He sat down, pleased, and the kids piled onto his chest. We tried several different positions, all of them unnatural and highlighted by Jason’s giant ivory feet, which protruded from the gray Cozy Family Chair like tusk stumps. Finally Jason curled into a sort of feline position with Emma reading in his lap, and I snapped a few photos I knew we wouldn’t post.
Next we turned our attention to the game of Settlers Junior that had been set up in the center of a white plush rug from Moderni. Jason scooted the coffee table against the couch to make room for us. He studied the low wooden table, topped with vintage tile coasters and lifestyle magazines.
“Think I should strike the table?” he asked.
“Leave it,” I said. “Less contrived.”
Jason mounted the camera on the tripod while I arranged Emma and Caleb.
“I’m hungry,” Caleb said.
“It’ll only be a minute,” I said. “The game is already set up.”
“What’s for dinner?”
“Which color is mine?” Emma asked. “I want green. That one’s winning.”
“Can’t I have just a nibble?” Caleb whined. “Some focaccia?”
“You have to toast focaccia,” Emma said.
“We don’t have time. The lighting’s good right now. Isn’t it, Mom?”
The lighting was excellent—evening sun through the French doors—but I didn’t want to let Emma show up Caleb. “Let’s just get it done,” I said, “so we can strike the game and eat dinner in here.” This was meant as a sop to Caleb, who loved to eat in front of the TV, but Caleb didn’t seem to hear me. He was resting his head on the coffee table, staring listlessly at nothing. His tongue was slightly lolled.
“How’s the shot?” I asked Jason, while Emma rearranged the green pieces to improve her position.
Jason said, “Caleb? Bud? Need a juice break?”
“Juice,” Caleb muttered.
“Can we just get these shots please?” I said.
In the confusion, I failed to notice that Critter had entered the room and was shambling toward us. Emma had the presence of mind to stop the sickly cat with an arm-bar before he trod across the game, but by then he was close enough that his next sneeze splattered the resource tiles.
“Critter!” Emma yelled.
“Shh, be nice,” I said, even though I wanted to grab Critter by his neck and fling him through the French doors. “He can’t help it.”
“But the rug,” Emma said.
I hadn’t noticed the rug.
The luxurious, almost pearly white rug bore a grayish dollop of Critter slime that was oozing into a cluster of fibers. Even before it set, the revolting substance would require warm soapy water to remove. Then, to finish the shoot anytime soon, the damp spot would have to be blown dry with a hairdryer.
“Aw, Crit,” Jason said, taking the cat into his arms.
“Fuck,” I whispered. Then I stood up and walked quietly to the bathroom.
Sitting on the closed toilet, I fantasized about overnighting Critter to my sister, who had dumped him on us when she moved to Brooklyn after college. But we had to feature Critter in the occasional lazy-day-at-home photo or fans would ask if he was okay. And anyway the problem wasn’t Critter. The problem wasn’t any one thing, not even the business. Business was good. Despite my age, I was still considered a relatable influencer. Women I didn’t know still trusted me as a friend. I had half a million Instagram followers, ninety thousand YouTube fans, and an average of seventy-four thousand blog readers per month, even though my blog entries were longer than those of my competitors, more like letters than breezy texts. I capitalized. I employed the occasional paragraph break. That was my niche, in addition to living in the South. My followers tended to have finished college. They skewed slightly older, with an average age of thirty-two instead of the usual twenty-nine. So yes, business was good, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was changing; or maybe what had changed was that I thought something was changing. Doubt had crept in. I had lost some of my decisiveness. The sponsors didn’t seem to have noticed, thank goodness, hence the Cozy Family Chair, the matching cardigans, Settlers Junior. But it was only a matter of time before they did. I had to right the ship. We were adding a home gym.
I first heard about Kaarlo from another blogger, a woman in Santa Barbara whose friend, also a blogger, hired him for an expensive resort vacation. The photos had to justify the vacation, my friend explained, and Kaarlo was considered a true artist. My impression was of a prima donna European type, probably gay, who would see himself as injecting artistic sensibility into the workaday photos of American women like my friend and me. I was suspicious, naturally. And when my agent, Ron, mentioned Kaarlo, apropos of nothing, I was insulted. We were lunching at Homegrown on the little patio they have there. I asked Ron if he thought my photos were slipping.
“The photos are tops,” Ron said, slurping wine, “but he’s in town for this other thing. I hear he’s very good.”
“I don’t need a photographer.”
“He’s not really a photographer. He’s more of a—I don’t know.”
“Well, what’s the thing he’s in town for?”
“This African charity deal.”
“A fundraiser? Is he a publicist?”
“Sort of. He’s helping them with their site, how they reach out to people.”
Despite my annoyance at Ron, who had ordered a pulled pork sandwich, the least healthy thing on the menu, and was gobbling it, the “African charity deal” made me curious about Kaarlo. One thing my followers may not know about Atlanta is that it’s full of Africans. Not African Americans, but actual Africans from Africa. Some of them come from dire situations, like in Sudan, and various excellent charities help support them. Jason and I have been to several fundraisers.
So days later, when Ron forwarded me the link to Kaarlo’s update of the African charity’s site, I perused it with interest. There were none of the usual trappings of such sites: men in dashikis, women with baskets on their heads, smiling children, goats. Rather, there were many close-ups, some of them quite brooding. There were snatches of first-person narrative, beginning and ending with provocative ellipses. A boy described holding a friend who was dying from exhaustion. I found myself getting emotional, but not with the cloying emotions elicited by Save the Children and sites like that. It was something deeper and somehow tangled up in my feelings about my own children, or rather in my guilt about those feelings. Recently, I had gotten angry with Emma because her smile in a photo I liked had a smirk-like quality. I hadn’t noticed the smirk when I shot the photo, only when I blew it up to tinker with it, soften the colors, brighten our teeth. The smirk was understandable. The photo was posed, possibly the sixth or seventh try at the same shot. What annoyed me was that she was capable of smirking. Emma, nine, was old enough to smirk. But later the same day, Emma had put her hand on my arm and asked why I “seemed sad.” A two- or three-year-old, chubby cheeked and smiling though she may be, doesn’t care like that.
After the meeting with Ron, I asked Jason how he would feel about bringing someone in.
Jason’s excitement surprised me. He said he thought a professional photographer (I couldn’t disabuse him of the notion that Kaarlo was simply a photographer) would help us “take it to the next level.” I wasn’t sure what the next level was, since we were doing about as well as could be expected for a couple in their thirties with two non-baby children, but I told Jason I completely agreed. Really, I only sort of agreed. I remained suspicious of Kaarlo. But I wanted Jason to stay excited in case Kaarlo proved difficult. Jason found artistic people baffling. We had a friend at the High Museum who made dry jokes at such a clip that Jason would literally sigh from exhaustion in the middle of conversations with the man.
I called Ron to tell him we wanted to meet Kaarlo.
Ron told me Kaarlo didn’t take meetings, which was awkward, but the upside was that Kaarlo didn’t charge for his first consult. And he was still in Atlanta, so we wouldn’t have to pay for his travel.
“Then tell him we’d like to try him out,” I said, “at his convenience.”
“I’m on it. Exciting stuff.” Ron paused. “The thing is, though?”
“He’s kind of trying you out.”
I had never been to Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia, even though it was only an hour north of Atlanta, and in my embarrassment over this fact I might have given Kaarlo the impression that we went to Brasstown Bald all the time. He wanted to meet at a trailhead someplace called Young Harris, which was very hard to find. We were half an hour late by the time Caleb yelled, “There! There!” and pointed at a dapperly dressed man sitting on a stump near a trail sign. Jason swung the SUV around, kicking up gravel, and parked illegally by the side of the road.
The man had his legs crossed and was reading a small paperback. Noticing us spilling out of the SUV, he shoved the book into the inside pocket of his blazer and rose, bowing slightly. Then he shook all our hands, including the children’s, and introduced himself as Kaarlo. Jason addressed him as “Mister Kaarlo,” but I was pretty sure Kaarlo was his first name.
Kaarlo was of average height but quite slim, with closely cropped hair that was mostly gray but had been black at one time. He wore glasses with frames made of what looked like bone or ivory. I knew at a glance that the frames cost thousands of dollars. The lenses were tinted slightly yellow.
Jason tried to make chitchat about what a beautiful spot it was, but Kaarlo only nodded. I wondered if his English was poor.
“Maybe we should get started,” I said, to put Jason out of his misery.
“I will bring up the behind,” Kaarlo said. Then he brushed back one side of his blazer in the manner of a gunfighter, to reveal a small camera hanging from an unusual strap.
“Should we pretend you aren’t with us?” I asked.
He smiled. “How could you pretend this?”
“I just meant,” I said, wondering why I sounded nervous, why I felt nervous, “that maybe we should pretend we’re on a normal family outing?”
He was still smiling. “Is there such a thing?”
Jason laughed. Then he buckled the chest strap of his backpack and rustled the kids onto the trail ahead of him. I followed closely, my own camera hanging around my neck. I didn’t dare glance back at Kaarlo but assumed he was following close behind. So imagine my surprise when, fifteen minutes later, we stopped for water and saw no sign of him.
A confused silence settled over us.
Jason unzipped the backpack and handed out Hydro Flasks.
“Maybe it was some kind of test,” Jason said, sipping from a Hydro Flask, “to see if we were willing to do this. To get out of our comfort zone, you know?”
“How would he know our comfort zone?” I asked.
“Maybe he reads the blog.”
I dismissed the idea, but as we started back up the narrow, rocky trail, I found myself imagining Kaarlo with a look of amused disdain on his face as he flicked his thumb across an expensive phone, scrolling through our photos and posts. I felt embarrassed, which annoyed me. Embarrassment was for when your child throws a tantrum at the grocery store, not this, whatever this was.
It was less than fifteen minutes before Caleb wanted to stop again. Jason offered to carry him, even though Caleb was being a baby, but I didn’t say anything. I decided it would be better to be seen by Kaarlo—whom I imagined watching us unseen from the top of a tree, commando style—as having a weak child than having a strained marital dynamic.
Within the hour, my feet were hurting. I had owned the day hikers I was wearing for two years but never wore them. I said nothing, lest I encourage the children to whine and complain, but to persevere took enough concentration that I wasn’t able to take photos. I had taken a few at the trailhead, and some of Caleb looking at a pinecone, but that was it. I hoped Kaarlo was getting something, wherever he was. Or maybe he had turned around? He had been wearing stylish walking shoes, almost like loafers.
Emma was the first to smell cigarette smoke, but it was Caleb, on Jason’s shoulders, who saw Kaarlo standing in a clearing up ahead where the trail began to switch back and forth for the last of its ascent. Kaarlo had an elbow propped on the back of a wrist, his cigarette hand cupped near his face. There was no sign of the camera.
“Lovely,” he said as we approached.
“Thank you,” I said, thinking he meant our family, but then he started talking about the scenery. He said it reminded him of home. Jason asked where home was, and Kaarlo said something that sounded like gibberish.
We walked for a time in silence before Kaarlo scampered ahead of us. Emma sped up, following him. I felt a surge of panic and called her name, but Jason put his hand on my arm.
“It’s cool,” Jason said.
“Letting our daughter follow a strange man into the wild is cool?”
“I can see them. And the top’s right up there.”
He was right. Just ahead of us was an oddly shaped viewing structure, a sort of tower like the forecastle of a ship. A narrow asphalt path led from its base down to a parking lot.
I was stunned. “We could have driven the whole way?”
“I’ll be damned,” Jason said, chuckling.
My surprise gave way to annoyance. We had spent two hours walking when we could have driven in ten minutes, and the photos wouldn’t be any better for it. Worse, probably. If we had driven, my hair wouldn’t have been matted to my face. Jason wouldn’t have sweated through the armpits of his shirt. Caleb wouldn’t have been so tired he looked drunk.
We found Kaarlo at the north-facing side of the viewing tower, near a family in matching UGA gear, pointing at something in the distance. Emma stood next to him, nodding. Neither spoke. When he noticed us, Kaarlo smiled in his steely way and told us again about the lovely scenery.
“Couldn’t help noticing the parking lot,” Jason said, cresting a wheelchair ramp. By this point, he had hunched beneath Caleb’s weight such that Caleb appeared to be riding his neck instead of sitting on his shoulders. “I guess they don’t drive where you’re from?”
Kaarlo made a single guttural sound that might have been laughter. “There is always an easier way,” he said.
While Jason doled out snacks and I took a few photos, Kaarlo circled the viewing tower. At some point I noticed him speaking animatedly to an elderly couple in wide-brimmed golf hats. They were laughing. Soon Kaarlo came around to tell us that the couple, Beau and Nelda, would drive us back to our car.
Jason thanked them profusely, but all I could manage was a tight smile.
As we wound along country roads, crammed in the back of Beau and Nelda’s stinky RV, Jason made a point of making admiring comments like “This couch really feels like a regular couch” and “What kind of mileage do you get in this rig?” Beau was all too happy to answer at length. Caleb, for his part, fixated on the sink and toilet.
“Where does it all go?” he asked me.
“Who knows,” I said, staring out the large window at the passing trees. Tree after tree. Who knew there was such a desolate wilderness so near our comfortable home?
Based on the Brasstown Bald experience, I wanted nothing to do with Kaarlo. Jason, in contrast, wanted to hire him immediately. That night in bed, where we conducted most of our business after the children went to sleep, Jason told me again about his comfort-zone theory. I said, “If by ‘get us out of our comfort zone,’ you mean make us uncomfortable, then yeah. He nailed it.”
“The element of surprise goes a long way,” Jason said.
“Maybe next time he’ll brandish a gun.”
“I’m serious. It was so beautiful up there, and so close, but we had no idea.”
“Fine, we’ll do more wilderness shoots.”
Jason was staring dreamily into the space above our bed. “It’s like, by showing us something new, he made us see ourselves as new.”
“Hmm,” I said. The whole ordeal hadn’t made me see myself as anything but a sweaty and haggard parent.
“The man is a genius,” Jason said, “clearly.”
“It was a stunt meant to give the impression of genius.”
“But how can we be sure? What if we go to our graves wondering if we had a brush with genius?”
I hadn’t known Jason was so interested in the phenomenon of genius. As a compromise, we agreed to suspend judgment until we saw whatever photos Kaarlo sent us.
He sent none.
Instead he sent a message, through Ron, that he had to think about “what it would mean to work with such people.”
“Such people?” I bristled. It was the next night, and I was reading Ron’s e-mail in bed on my phone. Jason was nodding as though the message confirmed his idea of Kaarlo-as-genius. “Of course he has misgivings about us,” Jason said, “just like you have misgivings about him. Clash of the titans, you know?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said, turning my attention to the laptop on my thighs. I had been scrolling through our yield from the lazy day at home. Despite the drama with Critter, there were several promising family shots from brunch on the patio, and a nice full-body of Jason raking leaves, really showing off his jeans and work boots. The boots were part of a sponsored campaign exclusively for him. The prize, though, was a shot of me and Emma lying on our bellies in the grass near the koi pond, gazing into each other’s eyes. You could even see the reddish top of a fish. The photo was emotional, or at least it made me feel emotional. I wondered if I should blur it heavily, like a wedding photo, or leave it alone to preserve the delicacy of the moment. It was an important decision. The photo had the quality I was always looking for: the sweetness, for lack of a better word, that caused highest engagement in our followers. If I got the text right, it might go viral, especially if it was the first post to mention the cable-knit sweaters. I had been having doubts about the sweaters, but the photo made me see just how Pinnable they were. The photo wasn’t perfect, though. While Emma’s smile didn’t have the smirk-like quality that so annoyed me, there was something odd about her expression. Or maybe it was my expression. Or some strange new alchemy between the two. Photos had been much easier back when Emma had a babyish face that screamed “Cute! I’m cute!” so loudly that no one bothered looking at mine. I have a blogger friend who’s thinking of having a third baby, and I swear it’s only because of the blog. She’s worried her kids are getting too old. Maybe they are, maybe mine are too, but that’s too much. Kids aren’t props. Besides, there’s my body to consider. It was much harder getting back into shape after Caleb than after Emma, and there’s only three years’ difference between them. I’m thirty-seven, already on the old side for a lifestyle blogger. Much older, and photos of me holding a newborn could be distasteful.
I shut the laptop. Beside me, Jason had turned off his lamp. His loud breathing filled the room. I closed my eyes and did a thing I do to relax, which is to imagine my body spreading thinner and thinner, like a puddle, until it disappears completely. But the koi-pond photo kept popping into my head, only in my head Emma looked about twenty and I looked sixty, like my mother but thinner and unfriendly.
By the time Kaarlo related, again through Ron, that he would like to work with us, it was two days later and my temper had settled. I had come around to Jason’s way of thinking: that a change of pace might be good for us. After all, we didn’t have to use whatever Kaarlo came up with, and he had explained that he wouldn’t require payment unless he came up with something we liked. It was an unusual setup, almost as though Kaarlo were an independently wealthy flâneur, not a working photographer or publicist or whatever he was.
It was arranged he would meet us at Pinocchio Park, with its photogenic playground and miraculously scum-free duck pond. He had chosen Pinocchio from a list of places where we often did shoots, a list that had included the busier Inman Park and the wilder Grant Park, where the zoo and good farmers market were. It was a surprising choice. Pinocchio was so suburban. So American.
When we arrived on that Friday afternoon, Kaarlo was already there, pacing. At first I thought he was pacing to pass the time, and I felt badly. We were late again. But then it became clear from the way he was studying the ground that he was measuring distances: from the pond to the play structure, from the play structure to the wooden bench under the pecan tree, from the bench to the duck food dispenser. When he noticed us, he gave a single crisp wave and approached.
“Caleb,” he said, ignoring the rest of us, “do you play on this play fort?”
“Sometimes,” Caleb said.
“Please play now.”
Caleb stood there uncertainly.
“Go ahead,” I said, gently shoving Caleb from behind.
Caleb began a tentative walk toward the playground, periodically glancing back at Jason and me. Upon arrival, he pushed a swing a couple times, dug his foot into some bark dust, then eyed the wooden play structure as though considering whether to brave it. Finally he walked up a ramp to the second level of the structure. He waved.
“Sorry,” I said to Kaarlo, who hadn’t even raised his camera. “It’s because we’re staring at him.”
“Caleb!” Kaarlo yelled.
Caleb came running back to us.
Kaarlo sank to one knee. “Caleb,” he said softly, eyeing the play structure, “confronted with this ghastly perversion, neither nature nor house, you may feel fear. This is understandable. But surely the animal instinct stirs within you. Embrace it. Make your wild and carefree mark.”
I was confused by this pep talk, if that’s what it was, but Caleb nodded seriously. Then he hollered like a wild man and charged toward the playground.
Kaarlo lunged forward with one foot, as though beginning a deep quad stretch, and suddenly he had his camera in both hands and was snapping photos. I felt a flash of pride, but the feeling dwindled as Caleb tried, and failed, to shimmy up a post.
Kaarlo turned his attention to Emma, who was watching Caleb.
“She is too old to play in this manner,” Kaarlo said.
Was he talking to Emma? To me?
“She regards it with disdain,” Kaarlo continued. “Seeing her brother in this way, she is reminded of past embarrassment and filled with loathing for her child self, as well as dim expectancy for what she is becoming.”
Again I was confused. Was Kaarlo giving Emma some sort of direction, or was this his insane guess at what my nine-year-old daughter actually felt?
Emma, for her part, seemed to be internalizing his remarks. “I think I can do that,” she said. “I think I can feel that.”
“But why?” I asked.
They ignored me.
Emma positioned herself near a tree and leaned against the trunk with her arms crossed over her chest. She glared at her brother, who had successfully shimmied up the post and was now monkeying around on the steep gabled roof of the structure.
“Whoa there, buddy,” Jason said.
“This,” Kaarlo said, crossing his arms like Emma, “only indicates what is meant to feel this way. Feel it.”
Emma’s arms fell to her sides. Her mouth wrinkled in a way that made me wonder if she was about to cry. I felt a confused rush of emotions. Emma wasn’t used to being criticized, but I didn’t want to embarrass her by saying something. And what if she wasn’t acting? What if she really did feel those feelings? And even if she was acting, did that make the feelings any less powerful?
“Whoa there,” Jason repeated. He was next to the play structure now. Kaarlo had followed him, camera in hand.
“Command him,” Kaarlo said.
“What?” Jason said, turning to Kaarlo. Jason seemed annoyed, which pleased me; he was so composed all the time, even around Kaarlo, who seemed to be needling him. Jason turned back to Caleb, who had balanced on the peak of the play structure and was now trying to stand on one foot. “I don’t think it’s good to be on the roof,” Jason said.
“You don’t think it’s good?” Kaarlo asked, raising his camera and crouching behind it. “Is it good or isn’t it? Is he allowed this or is he not?”
“Get down,” Jason said, ignoring Kaarlo.
“No!” Caleb screamed.
Jason stood as though stunned. Kaarlo was snapping away. Then Caleb leaped insanely from the play structure toward Jason, who opened his arms and caught Caleb but stumbled backward, nearly falling.
“What the fuck was that?” Jason asked.
Caleb ran to me.
“Brilliant,” Kaarlo said, holstering his camera. “I am finished here.”
“That’s it?” I asked, holding Caleb’s head against my stomach. In retrospect, I’m not sure what surprised me most: the brevity of the shoot, Caleb’s wild leap, Jason’s curse, or the fact that Kaarlo hadn’t, as far as I knew, taken a single shot of me. It was my blog. I mean, it was my family’s blog, but I was the face of it. The voice.
“For me, yes,” Kaarlo said, “but you’re welcome to continue playing. The ducks are eager.” He waved toward the pond, where some green-headed ducks were eyeing us.
Because leaving the park so soon would be a tacit acknowledgment that we were only there for a shoot, not a family outing, I told Emma and Caleb to swing in the swings. They did, a little tentatively, while Jason stewed in guilty silence. I should have told Jason he had nothing to feel guilty about, and neither did Caleb; it was Kaarlo who had commanded them to do what they did. Though I suppose it could be argued that Kaarlo had simply teased out what they themselves wanted to do. Either way, Kaarlo was to blame. He was decisive and powerful.
Presently Kaarlo had wandered over to the ducks and produced a wadded-up piece of bread, which he began to tear and fling into the water.
“He’s not supposed to do that,” Caleb whispered. Then, when no one responded: “Because of pollution.”
“It’s probably different where he’s from,” Jason said.
“A cultural difference,” Emma confirmed.
“Is that true, Mom?” Caleb asked.
I didn’t answer. I was busy watching Kaarlo, who had taken out his camera and was photographing the ducks.
We hung around for ten or fifteen minutes, to keep up appearances, then told Kaarlo we were driving home.
Kaarlo came toward us. It was then that I noticed a small suitcase sitting on a park bench. I got a sinking feeling.
“Where are you staying?” I asked.
“With you,” Kaarlo said. “I told your man, Ron, to ask this of you. He did not?”
“He must have forgotten,” I said, not sure why I was covering for Ron, who might have left it out on purpose, knowing I would have come up with an excuse. “But it’s no problem. We have a guest room.”
“For two nights, then home.”
Kaarlo picked up his suitcase, and we headed for the SUV.
During the short car ride, I started to worry that Kaarlo had detected my annoyance about his staying with us. It was hard to tell, though. He was staring out the window at the refurbished Craftsman bungalows gliding past. I tried to make chitchat: “So, I take it we have a busy weekend ahead?”
“Not busy this way,” Kaarlo said, turning to me and wafting his hands as though directing an orchestra. “This way.” He placed both fists near his heart and twisted, as though wringing the blood from it.
Kaarlo was very complimentary of our home, which pleased me more than I cared to show. He said it was less cluttered than he expected and more tastefully decorated than the homes on American TV. Still, it wasn’t long before he lit upon the Cozy Family Chair. He called it “an American behemoth, like the Bigfoot.” He wanted to get rid of it, but when I told him it was from a sponsor, he seemed to understand. Or I thought he understood.
Moments later he took a sort of razor out of his pocket, like a small box cutter, and began slashing the back of the chair. We stood back, stunned, as he slashed again and again with flamboyant Zorro-like swings of his arm, all the while muttering about “unmasking” the chair to show its “chairness.”
“What the heck?” Jason said, turning to me. “Won’t they be mad?”
Kaarlo grunted. “Tell them a madman broke into your home.”
“But what about our followers? Claire, is this okay?”
Jason was clutching the children to his body as though to protect them from the madman, but I only shrugged. In that moment, I didn’t care about our followers. I couldn’t take my eyes off Kaarlo. My arm tensed with each slash of his blade, as if I were defacing the chair myself.
In contrast to the shocking if not unwelcome slashing of the chair, the shoot that followed was surprisingly tame. Kaarlo had the four of us share a bowl of microwave popcorn while Jason, sitting in the disfigured Cozy Family Chair, read aloud from a collection of fairy tales that Kaarlo produced from his suitcase.
That night in bed, Jason spent a long time lying on his back with his eyes open. Beside him, I checked my e-mail and pretended not to notice his conspicuous silence.
“Maybe it was a mistake,” Jason said.
“Maybe what was?” I asked, feigning ignorance.
“This whole Kaarlo thing.”
“I thought he was a genius.”
“An evil genius.”
I laughed. “Except for the chair, which had it coming, frankly, the rest of the shoot was perfectly normal.”
“What about the part where Caleb damn near broke his neck?”
“Kaarlo didn’t tell him to jump.”
“And those fairy tales were totally weird.”
“Because the character names had umlauts?”
“There was incest, Claire. And in the one, they pretty much dismembered that poor witch.”
“She was dismembered by bears. It happens. Maybe fear of bears is an important childhood lesson where Kaarlo comes from.”
“The magician guy sent the bears, though. He pretty much murdered her.”
“He was an evil magician.”
“He was the hero of the story!”
We went back and forth like that long enough that I considered creeping into the guest room to retrieve Kaarlo’s fairy tales and prove to Jason that the “magician guy” was not, in fact, the hero of the story but rather that the story had an ambivalent position on good and evil, which was the whole point, if you ask me. But instead I said I was tired and turned over. I was about to get my face mask, but Jason turned off his light.
Honestly, I found Jason’s complaints bourgeois. And that was the exact word that went through my head: bourgeois. It wasn’t a word I ever used, and Kaarlo hadn’t used it, so it was as if the word had popped into my head in response to Kaarlo. Was Kaarlo the first un-bourgeois person I’d ever met? I tried to think back to college. I had majored in literature and was sure at least a few of my professors or TAs had been Marxists, but which ones? The memories were fuzzy. All of college was fuzzy. There wasn’t much to remember about studying, of course, but I couldn’t remember what I did for fun, either. I had hazy memories of Jason’s dirty frat house, of cavernous beer bars, and of long drunken walks in the middle of the night, but there must have been long sunny days, too. Days without children and jobs. But whatever we did with those days was, is, lost to me now. For me, ten years has always represented a sort of cutoff, at which point memories begin to lose their fidelity. Now even college, those beloved college years everyone waxes nostalgic about, has wandered off into the cruddy recesses of my crowded mind. Soon Emma’s babyhood will do the same. Sometimes I wonder if the blog isn’t just a way to stave that off: a way to catalog the present so that later, when I’m old and alone, I can cling to the past.
Though Jason found reasons to grumble, the next two days of shoots were uneventful. Yes, Kaarlo had some outlandish ideas that had to be quashed, such as when he wanted snow for a shoot and, after being told we couldn’t fly to Vermont, proposed buying six hundred pounds of salt and crushed Styrofoam. And yes, to get us in the mood for shoots he made us listen to dissonant, sorrowful music by composers with Russian-sounding names. And yes, he conducted shoots at dawn. But Kaarlo roused the children himself with a small wooden whistle he had, the sound of which was so high-pitched that Jason couldn’t actually hear it. Kaarlo said that where he came from it was called a “child whistle” or “youth whistle.” All teachers had them. Anyway, I was glad to let Kaarlo direct us in his series of shoots, guiding us throughout the house, in and out of the backyard. The break from supervising made me realize just how much of the responsibility I bore, how many of the choices I made. So when, at the end of his time with us, Kaarlo came striding into the kitchen to announce he wanted to direct Caleb and Emma in a “drama pathétique,” I didn’t ask questions.
It was Sunday evening. I was washing dishes, and Caleb and Emma were sitting at the kitchen table in their pajamas. The shoot Kaarlo had in mind seemed fairly straightforward. Caleb was to slip into the kitchen in the dead of night for glass of milk and then to “emerge from the kitchen bearing this milk with solemnity.”
After explaining to Caleb what solemnity meant, Kaarlo followed Caleb into the family room, where Jason was watching poker on TV, and then followed Caleb back into the kitchen. Kaarlo held his camera at the ready while Caleb opened the fridge, took out the gallon jug of milk, and poured four or five gulps into a giant plastic Atlanta Braves souvenir cup.
Kaarlo lowered his camera. “Do you have glasses?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said.
“But I’m not supposed to use them,” Caleb said.
“Surely this once,” Kaarlo said, barely disguising his annoyance.
The milk was funneled back into the jug, whereupon Caleb went back to the family room and repeated the process. Kaarlo followed closely behind, snapping away as Caleb took out the milk, took out the glass, and began pouring the milk into the glass. I watched the glass closely. It was one of a set of eight from Glass Haus. The big jug of milk teetered in Caleb’s unsteady little arms, and the mouth of the jug kept bumping against the rim of the glass. Then, when the glass was filled to its brim, Caleb grabbed the glass one-handed and sort of winged it off the counter and around his body toward the door. Kaarlo, who seemed to share my misgivings, stopped the shoot.
“Who carries milk this way?” he asked.
Caleb said nothing.
“The milk is precious. Yes?”
“Caleb,” I said sharply, not because Caleb was being rude (he was) but because I didn’t want him to tell Kaarlo that we often poured out milk after letting it spoil. “It isn’t good to waste food.”
“Even milk?” Caleb asked.
“Especially milk,” Kaarlo said. “This is special milk. This glass of milk is for your lovely sister. A profound inner sickness has left her bedridden.”
“In bed? But she’s right there.”
Emma sighed. “Use your imagination, Cale.”
“From the top,” Kaarlo said, and the milk was funneled back into the jug.
After the third, fourth and fifth failed attempts, by which point Caleb’s hands and arms seemed to have lost coordination, Kaarlo announced we would watch a mood-setting movie. He went to the gues troom and emerged with an unmarked DVD. [“guest room”!!!]
“Please forgive the quality,” Kaarlo said, watching Caleb load the DVD into the player.
Jason, who had turned off his TV poker without a word, went to the kitchen to pop popcorn.
What the three-hour Russian sci-fi movie about a sentient ocean had to do with our photo shoot, I still have no idea. I fell asleep almost immediately. The little I saw of the film was strange, full of long silences. There was an astronaut alone on a space station. He had a love interest, who was either his dead girlfriend or an extraterrestrial apparition of her produced by the ocean. Or something. Anyway, I assumed the children had fallen asleep too, but at one point I awoke to the sound of Emma’s voice.
“Maybe the woman is in his imagination,” she was telling Kaarlo, who was nodding. Emma seemed to be referring to the love interest, who at that moment was standing naked in a brightly lit corridor of the empty space station, facing forward. Abruptly she began to fade, or dissolve, and then to rematerialize facing the other direction. Was I dreaming? “Or maybe she’s the alien thing,” Emma sad, “from the ocean . . .”
“Hmm,” Kaarlo said. “Go on.”
“But the symbolism is unmistakable. She’s two women. The question is if he ever really knew her.”
The inscrutable conversation gave me a panicked feeling. Kaarlo seemed to be indoctrinating my children, or at least Emma, into something I didn’t understand, but what? At the very least, the same man who had slashed the Cozy Family Chair with a box cutter was now showing my children a foreign movie with full-frontal nudity. Not that I had a problem with nudity, done tastefully. But I remembered a story that a blogger friend told me about one of her friends (also a blogger) losing her nanny unexpectedly and hiring a fan, out of desperation, only for the fan to turn out to be deranged. One day, the woman came home to find the new nanny taking photos of her children playing Sorry! in the nude.
But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced Emma didn’t say what I remember her saying. She was only nine. Did she really know words like symbolism? Maybe she said some version of what I remember, and her words were warped by my half-dreaming mind. Anyway, I must have fallen asleep again, because the next thing I remember, the credits were rolling and Kaarlo had turned his attention to Caleb. “Well,” he said to my son, “what did you think?”
“It was kind of scary,” Caleb said, which surprised me. I would have guessed that Caleb, if he had managed to stay awake, would be too bored by the movie to be scared.
“Do you like scary stories?” Kaarlo asked.
“I as well. I find them reassuring.”
“How so?” Emma asked.
“The ghosts,” Kaarlo said. “To see a ghost means our loved ones survive death. Time, though it marches like Russians across the Karjala, cannot snatch them from us. This is optimistic, don’t you agree?”
Emma and Caleb nodded.
“Back to the milk,” Kaarlo said.
After poking around in the kitchen for a plastic TV tray, Kaarlo instructed Caleb to place the glass in the center of the tray and then bear the tray with proper solemnity to Emma’s bedroom.
“Should I be in bed?” Emma asked.
“Yes,” Kaarlo said, “feeling weak, dispirited. You appreciate the gesture of the milk but know that milk cannot cure you. Not even your mother’s milk.” Kaarlo glanced at me, which made me uncomfortable in conjunction with the mention of my milk, but I was too tired to give any indication of this. Instead, I followed wordlessly, almost zombie-like, as the procession of the milk was shot three times. After each cut, Kaarlo reassured Caleb he was doing nothing wrong, but the shot was so important that we needed several versions.
“I’m pretty tired,” Caleb said.
It was after midnight. Jason was snoring on the couch. I wondered if I was losing control of my family, and if so, did I care?
“Tired is good,” Kaarlo said. “Your soul must be tired.”
By the time we got to Emma’s bedroom, I expected her to be sound asleep, but she had the covers tucked up to her chin and was staring listlessly at the door. By the dim light of her horse-shaped bedside lamp, her face had a pallor.
“Sweetie?” I said.
“The milk . . .” she intoned.
Caleb bore the tray of milk into the room with the slowness and gravity of an orthodox priest. He sank to his knee beside his sister, who raised the glass in a trembling hand and let the rim touch her lips. But she didn’t actually drink.
“The milk itself would turn my stomach,” Emma said, “but to feel the coldness of the glass against my lip reminds me that I’m alive.”
Kaarlo circled the bed, shooting photos faster than I had ever seen him shoot them. “Keep talking,” he told the children from behind his camera.
“Let me watch you drink it,” Emma told Caleb.
“What?” Caleb said.
“If I can’t drink it myself, that’s the next best thing.”
Tentatively, Caleb raised the glass of milk and began gulping it. His throat moved up and down with each gulp, almost sensuously, and there was the faint suggestion of an Adam’s apple on his throat. Emma seemed transfixed by this. Kaarlo got very close to them, snapping away. “Thank you,” Emma said.
“No,” Caleb said, “thank you.”
The words were among the most civil they had ever exchanged.
“Again,” Kaarlo said, and Caleb went back for more milk, followed by Kaarlo. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to follow them but found myself unable to rise from the old nursing chair we kept in Emma’s room. Emma’s chair, unlike the one in Caleb’s room, had a big stain on the ottoman. If I’d known we would be shooting in her room, I would have swapped the chairs.
Emma was sitting up in bed, staring at the closed door.
“Aren’t you tired?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “I feel too alive.”
Kaarlo orchestrated three or four more takes. Or maybe it was five. I had closed my eyes in the nursing chair and was enjoying the sound of my children’s voices and even of Kaarlo’s voice. There was something pleasing about the way he gave his succinct and cryptic directions. I wondered if he was approximating something that defied language, and for a moment, as sleep overtook me, I pictured the children and me, and Kaarlo too, as planets orbiting a mysterious celestial body whose properties we had just begun to understand.
When I woke up, the lights were off and the dark room was filled by Emma’s loud breathing. A blanket had been tossed over my legs. I stood up from the nursing chair and watched Emma’s chest rise and fall. Orange light from a streetlamp outlined one side of her face.
On my way down the hall to my own bedroom, I noticed light glowing beneath the door of the guest room. I resisted the urge to knock and ask Kaarlo what he was doing, if he was going through the day’s photos or planning something for the morning, as well as other, more difficult questions I had just begun to formulate, such as what is the nature of your art? What is the role of the artist in general? How do you feel about Jason’s sponsored clothes? Too much denim?
The procession of the milk was our last shoot with Kaarlo, but it wasn’t my last experience of his methods. That came the next morning. I woke up around five, as usual, figuring I would have at least two hours alone; the kids had stayed up so late the night before, and Jason always slept as late as the kids would allow. But at some point, as I sat at the kitchen table fiddling with the photo of Emma and me by the koi pond, wondering again what was off about it, Kaarlo wandered in. Instead of opening cabinets and drawers to inspect our belongings, as he usually did, he observed me from a distance. Maybe he thought I hadn’t noticed him. So I pretended to notice him—“Hey there,” I said—and angled the laptop as though to invite him to take a look at what I was working on. He did so almost greedily, hunching from a standing position to examine the photo.
“Beautiful,” he murmured.
I experienced what had become a familiar succession of emotions: pleasure, then embarrassment for feeling so much pleasure. “I think I’m going to post it,” I said.
“You hesitate, though?”
“There’s something about it I don’t quite like, but I can’t figure out what.”
“The eyes,” Kaarlo said without hesitation. “Her eyes are unlike yours. Really, she is not much like you at all.”
I wasn’t sure how to take that. It was something parents said about their own children in a joking way but was rarely said to them by someone else.
“Have I offended?” Kaarlo asked.
“Not at all,” I lied. “I appreciate your honesty.”
“In my study of your medium,” Kaarlo said, “I see that members of a family must all be similar to each other, especially the children, with the exception of small quirks such as one child with freckles or red hair.”
I thought about that. It was true none of the prominent bloggers had partners of other races, or even partners with different-colored hair. Pale Mormons were prominent.
“Consider changing them,” Kaarlo said.
“Her eyes? Like, with contacts?”
Kaarlo shook his head and gestured at the computer, as if to say “May I?”
I nodded, and Kaarlo’s thin fingers began spidering all over the keys in the way I imagined a computer programmer’s might have done. Soon my own irises were duplicated, reversed, shrunk, and set on my daughter’s open eyeballs. The effect was strange. Next, Kaarlo began brightening my hair using the same tool I used to lighten teeth. As he did all this, he muttered confusingly about the doppelgänger and how it is taken as sinister in many cultures and must be avoided. Then he made a few more keystrokes and stepped back from the laptop.
I leaned forward to see the arresting results: my daughter and I gazing at each other as though on two sides of a warped mirror, or a sort of time-machine mirror, with me looking into the past, her into the future. That this dynamic was the appeal of the original photo seems obvious now, but it hadn’t been clear to me until that moment. Though it was to Kaarlo, of course. Kaarlo was maddening in that way. When I looked up at him, meaning to ask about this or that technique—to sound smart, basically—he had gone across the room and was opening a drawer beneath the cabinet where we kept the crystal.
“This is impressive,” I said, a little hesitantly.
Kaarlo took a bottle opener out of the drawer. “But?”
“It makes me uncomfortable.”
“Because it is unreal.” Kaarlo inspected the bottle opener, which was pewter and shaped like Texas. “Have you ever reached out for a handshake only to feel the cold rubbery touch of a prosthetic limb?”
I told him I hadn’t.
“You must use the photo,” he said.
“But you just called it unreal.”
“The artist destroys his materials.” Kaarlo waved the bottle opener vaguely, almost dismissively, and it occurred to me, with some discomfort, that by “materials” he may have meant my children.
“Some say I photograph victims,” Kaarlo continued, “but they are only people. Flawed people, oftentimes. What I create is a fantasy of victimhood.”
“Are you saying my children are victims?” I asked, a little stunned. But I shouldn’t have been stunned. It was a criticism I had heard many times. One that simmers beneath the surface of the whole lifestyle blog endeavor. In response, I say that professional lifestyle blogging allows us to spend time together. We go somewhere every weekend. We visit family, even family Jason and I don’t particularly like and wouldn’t otherwise make a point of visiting. But Emma and Caleb like our families. One day they may tire of it, but by then they won’t be little kids anymore and the whole thing will be over anyway. It’s already on its way. It’s ending.
I heard myself saying some version of all this to Kaarlo, which wasn’t like me. I barely knew the man. I expected him rebut me in some way. I had come on too strong, and in doing so suggested that maybe there was something unsavory about what I did, or at least that it bothered me.
“You misunderstand me,” Kaarlo said. By now he was sitting in one of the six vintage Pollock executive chairs we had reupholstered to put around the kitchen table. “I meant the photos.”
“You should edit them more liberally. To say ‘an artist destroys his materials’ was perhaps overly dramatic. I simply meant you should not tether yourself to reality. The blog, it is a fantasy, yes?”
“I’m sorry. I just thought . . .” I trailed off, embarrassed.
“You do not exploit your children,” he said. “Your art gives their lives a shape.”
“I guess so,” I said, flattered he thought of me as an artist.
“You had an unhappy childhood, yes?”
“What? No. I mean it wasn’t particularly happy, I guess, but not unhappy. Just busy. Both my parents worked. There were three kids. I was the oldest.”
“You were poor?”
“I don’t think so. But I guess I don’t know, really.” I told Kaarlo about our cluttered ranch-style house in Marietta and the deafening inside of our Dodge Caravan and the way Eric, my little brother, would go all day with big smears of yogurt around his mouth. “My parents didn’t take photos, that’s for sure,” I said, with a feeble laugh. “Jason’s mother has entire albums full of photos of him breastfeeding.”
Kaarlo nodded. “A great writer once said the only worthwhile art is the art of living. It was this idea that drew me to your medium. Why not make an art of the art of living, yes?”
“Sure,” I said, not really following.
“It is much harder than I anticipated.” Kaarlo shook his head ruefully. “Taking on your case was meant to be a break, can you imagine? I believed that to package lifestyle, life, would be simple. I see now that this was naïve. The artist gives life a shape, as I said, but you must do this in the literal sense as well.”
“With my family, you mean?”
“Yes, and you do this now, elegantly, but as their lives grow in complexity, as the perversions of adulthood begin to simmer beneath the surface, will your hand remain steady?”
I didn’t know what to say. I was startled to hear him detect, and diagnose, my insecurity and also to hear the word perversion in reference to my children.
“Family,” Kaarlo murmured, squinting. There were more wrinkles around his eyes than I expected, which made me wonder if I had ever looked closely at his face. After a pause he said, “My father butchers reindeer. He packs their meat into tiny sausages that are sent all over Europe. Can you imagine this?”
I shook my head.
“He has three stores. Two in Helsinki, one in Turku. But mail order, that is where the sausage money is. For many years I boxed sausages in the back room with other part-time boys and sausage men. There was much rough joking.”
I tried to imagine Kaarlo butchering reindeer, but it was hard to imagine anyone butchering reindeer, let alone a young Kaarlo with his stylish glasses and thin, pale hands. Presently, one of those hands came across the table and rested on the back of my own. In his other hand, Kaarlo was holding his small camera. He began to raise the camera to his squinting eye.
“Oh, come on,” I said, but it was too late.
In the weeks that followed, I posted several of Kaarlo’s photos. I rolled them out slowly, as Kaarlo suggested, mixed in with some of ours. I wish I could say we had the breakthrough we had hoped for, but the numbers stayed steady: the same number of readers, a modest increase in Instagram and Youtube followers. In the latter case, a lack of increase would have been conspicuous. And no readers sent anything but the usual feedback about Kaarlo’s photos. This, for example, from Taylor in Tampa: “Caleb is such a helpful kid! Hope Emma’s feeling better!!!”
Jason took the lack of a breakthrough as evidence that Kaarlo was a waste of money, that he wasn’t a genius after all. Jason was annoyed, moreover, that the weekend had screwed up the children’s sleep schedules and that the catch-as-catch-can meals had left Caleb expecting Gogurt pouches every two hours.
“The best thing we’ve posted,” Jason said, “is the shot of you and Emma by the fish pond. And I took that one!”
I was surprised Jason hadn’t noticed the changes Kaarlo had made to that photo, but I didn’t say anything. I wanted to reaffirm Jason’s role in our process.
For my own part, I hadn’t looked at the photo since posting it. Nor did I intend to. But one night I came upon Emma browsing our site, which she often did, only she wasn’t scrolling through it quickly, as was her style; she was staring at the doctored koi pond photo, sitting up in bed. Jason and I had come in to say goodnight. I asked Emma what she thought about the photo. She didn’t answer. Instead, she looked up from her tablet and asked if we would ever see Kaarlo again.
“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “It will depend on whether his photos and blog ideas increase traffic over time.”
Emma nodded, but I wondered if she cared about things like site traffic, or if she only pretended to in order to please me.
“When you were at the top of Brasstown Bald with Kaarlo,” I said, “what was he telling you?”
Emma shrugged. “He was talking about the hills.”
“Like their history and stuff?” Jason asked.
“No,” Emma said, “he was just describing them. He used lots of words. He said they were like a thousand breasts.”
Jason made a face, glancing at me, but I managed not to make a face back at him for being a prude. I liked the idea of hills as breasts. I remembered something like that from a book I’d read in school, and the allusion, intended or not, put me in a reflective mood. The wilderness had been kind of beautiful, I decided.
Bradley Bazzle’s first novel, Trash Mountain, won the Red Hen Press Fiction Award, judged by Steve Almond. His short stories can be found in the Iowa Review, New England Review, Epoch, Third Coast, Web Conjunctions, Bad Penny Review (as Dirk Morgus), and online at bradleybazzle.com. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his wife and daughter.
An interview with Bradley Bazzle
Bradley Bazzle is the talented author of Trash Mountain, as well as our featured short story “Relatable Influence.” You can read the story here. This past week, we were able to talk with Bradley about the composition of his exceptional piece.
Caleb Seymour and Paige Teeman: Do you have experience with photography or blogging that helped in writing the story?
Bradley Bazzle: I don’t, though I’m a parent and do take many poor-quality photos of my three-year-old daughter. This story was inspired by “Instamom,” an article by Bianca Bosker that appeared in the March 2017 issue of the Atlantic. The article is about a popular blogger named Amber Fillerup Clark, a.k.a. Barefoot Blonde. Because I don’t read blogs or spend much time on the Internet, the scope of Clark’s operation really blindsided me. Some of the colorful blogging lingo and other details from the article made their way into the story: relatable influencer, lazy days at home, warm pastel hues.
Paige/Caleb: Specifically, looking at Kaarlo, have you worked or met a photographer who used some of these rather unusual methods? How does his character help to reinforce the theme of the story?
Bradley: Again, I don’t know much about photography, so Kaarlo’s methods are all made up, but I rendered him the way I did in order to make it clear that he’s a person who considers himself an artist. Part of the narrator’s journey, I hope, is toward considering herself to be an artist as well, and not just a person who’s commodifying her family. That would be pretty low-hanging fruit.
Caleb/Paige: Is there a relationship between fiction and Instagram in your mind? If so, what is that relationship?
Bradley: I don’t know anything about Instagram! I hear people talk about it and about these Instagram “stories,” but I have no idea what one looks like. My knowledge of social media began (and ended, recently) with Facebook.
Paige/Caleb: Caleb and Emma seem to understand Kaarlo’s methods better than the parents do. Why do the kids get it and the parents don’t? Does it have to do with their youth and imagination?
Bradley: Yes, I think you’re right. If the husband, Jason, is at one end, then Emma is at the other. Like her mother, she’s naturally artistic, and she’s old enough that her own aesthetic is beginning to emerge. In the furthest reaches of this story world (if not in the story itself!) I imagine that Kaarlo provides, by his own behavior and with examples like Solaris, an artistic lens through which Emma can reconsider things she may have taken for granted, like her life as a blogged child and her parents’ relationship.
Caleb/Paige: The notion of “destroying your material” in order to make it your own seems to be the main idea from which Kaarlo’s genius stems. Do you apply this to your own work in any way?
Bradley: This is a tough question to answer. I use material from my own life, but less than most writers, I think. What I’ll say is that I’m pretty brutal during the revision process, and I don’t hesitate to cut stuff, even stuff I really like, and to move stuff around until the final draft is very different from the first. A little like Kaarlo when he edits the pond photo (minus the stylish clothes).
Paige/Caleb: Seeing as this piece is rather satirical, do you ever make commentary on other contemporary themes in your other work?
Bradley: Yeah, I guess it is kind of satirical, in regards to what’s sometimes called “mommy blogging,” but my inspiration wasn’t that I found mommy bloggers ridiculous and wanted to make fun of them. The story is way too long for that! I was drawn to their language, and to the complicated situation they must find themselves in: commodifying their families while at the same time enriching (in both senses of that word) their family life. Along the same lines, I wrote a story about an actor turned acting coach for which I drew on the language of actors I used to know, as well as from books like Joseph Chiakin’s The Presence of the Actor. And I wrote a story about a business self-help writer that drew on that genre’s lingo. I usually think of myself as someone who “does voices” in his head when he writes, but the result might be something like satire. So I guess the answer is yes!
Short and Sweet
I’ve always read novels because as a child that was what I found in the library. Well, when I first started they were slightly shorter children’s novels but novels nonetheless. Short stories for me were dull things I had to study in English class, chosen not so much for their entertainment value but their convenience of teaching literary techniques to teenagers alongside the even less appreciated classical poetry. Yet I had an epiphany about two years ago: a short story is actually more than just the sum of its metaphors and alliteration; it’s a story as entertaining as any novel.
Okay so this may not be the greatest revelation to most people reading this blog post, or even to me really; I have always loved stories in all their forms and shouldn’t have been put off by the shorter ones. I’m certainly not the only one who found studying some of the greatest works of literature in school to be one of the biggest tortures a 14 year old could endure because if you tell someone what is good and why they should think it’s good a lot of people are going to do the opposite. The only way I came to love most literature was when I thought I had found it for myself and the same happened with short stories. I started reading everything Neil Gaiman has ever written a few years ago — his novels, his graphic novels and eventually made it to his short stories. Reading his Conan-Doyle-esque short story ‘A Study in Emerald’ at the height of my addiction to the BBC’s Sherlock certainly helped me see that great stores can be succinct. It really shouldn’t be a shock that I enjoyed them as much I had his other work. So from there, I tried other authors I had enjoyed, like Diana Wynne Jones, before trying some authors new to me like George Saunders and the rest of the short story elite, and still liked it, I got the same usual joy of reading but without the dead arms from carrying a 400-page book. Since, I have voluntarily taken a creative writing class centered on short stories and now read about 20 a week (fiction and non-fiction) as an intern at The Missouri Review; I guess I’m converted.
I’m coming to value the short story more as my life fills up with more places I have to be and people I have to see. It takes me three times as long to read a book as it used to, and it’s only when I am on vacation that I make any headway through my “To Read” list. The convenience of being able to fully embrace a story from start to end in one commuter trip, no more forgetting what happened the last time you had a moment to read or never quite making it to the end, would make anyone happy, (except maybe bookmark manufacturers!)
I see short stories as a new way to get my literature fix but they’re unlikely to replace my novel addiction entirely. I may be a little late to the party of short stories but it seems the terrors of taught literature do fade in time so I guess there’s hope even for classical poetry in my life.