When I read it was being pried from its planetary pedestal I skewed from my own orbit. Not Pluto. The newsprint still stained my thumb even after I repeatedly tried wiping it off on my trousers. As a doofy kid, I was aglow when Pluto swept within Neptune’s ring, those few months it morphed into a parvenu. For me, it was the Little Engine That Could chugging along the rim of our galaxy.
I didn’t sleep much, opting to pace the warped muzzy hall in my boardinghouse. The brittle creak underfoot was only a temporary distraction. The real blight was the crystallizing fact that I was twenty-nine and still hadn’t seen the world. I combed the knots from my hair in the bathroom sink I shared with lame duck beatniks. When I caught an unforgivable glimpse of myself in the mirror I’d deflated into something that could have flushed down the drain. I wanted to stuff the glint of my youth’s promise into the abyss, but it whispered its grievances.
The neighborhood swami told me to keep a scented jar by the bed to give my synapses a much needed boost. Wake up and sniff. Smells can be real dangerous. They can throw you off course. I was already out of whack so I snuffed my allotted potpourri and I finally had an ounce of wherewithal. I jogged to work hoping to lose my shadow but it somersaulted behind. The trees bloomed thick and green. Acorns bounced off my chukkas. Two strides per sidewalk square I ran in sync with my cardio pulse. Not a single sweat dripped off my chin. Unbridled, untrammeled beauty fit between my outpunched palms. My chest stretched wider than the Wheat Belt. I tried slowing my heart to the pace of plausible dreams.
In the office, I sniffed rubber cement. I appraised my surroundings, the maze of cubicles, the split-pea green walls and the chockablock of folders waiting to be filed. A numbing sensation bore through me as if my fibers might untangle right there and leave a carbon ball of goop on the balding rug.
By lunchtime I needed amnesty and planned a getaway. I pinned a note on Big Boss’s door that said I’d be at my chiropractor getting fixed. I felt like Martin Luther tacking up the Ninety-five Theses. Maybe I did this because I never completed his biography back in high school and this was my way of making amends. I flirted with the idea of an official resignation and motorcycling through one-horse-towns in Europe.
The rest of the day I spent catching buses to nowhere. I got a kick out of jamming my floppy plastic pass into the mouth of the cast iron pass-eaters and that it read
unlimited each time as if I was soaring toward infinity. The third time I swung by Springfield Boulevard and Cunningham Park I bailed. The southbound Q 45 docked on the east side of the Boulevard and when it sped off it deposited a svelte redhead with a clunky camera belled around her glorious Modigliani neck. Strapped over her shoulders was an enormous alpine backpack big enough to fit a tent, pots, pans and probably a small microwave. I stared a few seconds too long at the fleshy ampersand pressed into her cheek and drew a jolt that reminded me of licking battery shock.
She tended to her business and I nosed into hers. She snapped whatever drifted into her
zone. After she memorialized the ball field, the parkie napping in his rig,
the lopsided swings, and a pair of recalcitrant cardinals tweet-tweeting she turned
her camera on me. She cropped me from the collarbone to the roof of my noggin;
then without a say
cheese or a shutter clap she nabbed three consecutive profiles -- all from my bad side.
We stared with transformative zeal, two curious interlopers. She wasn’t my type, but she smelled amazing like azaleas stripped from the soil. She wore a giddy grin and kept one hand glommed to her elbow, the other in a faux karate chop or samba move I really didn’t pay enough attention to the stitches in between kooky and cool.
I wanted to unburden myself, sit back to back and spout bad poetry and share feckless, incriminating tales from my past. I wanted her to pet my cheek and tell me it all would be better. She had clammy hands and I really didn’t mind.
I was from that tribe of galoots who embraced strangers. It was my friends with whom I was obtuse.
“Most people have a pinched look,” she said.
“You’ve got a face that begs to be shot.”
“No, just dying to be framed. I spend my days groping for a sense of inner space.”
We’d known each other a whole three minutes when she launched into a full-fledged diatribe on the enterprise of photography. She claimed that pictures were five times more memorable than moving images. This irreverent claim didn’t bother me so much as the fact that she used such a low number to stress her hyperbole.
“Go back to the epics,” I dared. “Homer never said Helen was five times more beautiful than the other Trojinas. Her face launched a thousand ships.”
She told me her poetic license was her own freaking business. I told her I was a bona fide mutt and she fished out an oatmeal-colored folder filled with photographs encased within clear mylar sheets.
“What’s your earliest memory?” she asked.
“I guess around eight or so when I went to camp.”
“That’s the farthest back you can remember?”
“Everything else is in fragments."
“Well, toss me your earliest fragment.”
“I’m not sure how old I was maybe two or three. I was in a stroller.”
“So there I was sitting alone in my room with a peanut up my nose. The harder I pushed the further it shooped. When mom checked in on me and saw me wheezing she twisted my nose."
“You were covering it?"
“She must have been petrified."
“I remember wearing homemade mittens after that?"
“When I was three, I saw a man going into convulsions in the gutter. My mother zoomed the carriage around and we nearly got flattened by an ice-cream truck.”
“Later that same day my cousins stopped by and I squirmed on the floor for them. They were hysterical, but my mother was fuming. She yanked me by the ear upstairs. That was the first time she locked me in the closet.”
After I let too many beats pass she returned to her camera. A gust of wind scattered leaves they fluttered in a Technicolor ellipsis. A golden patch drifted from its orbit and settled by my shoe.
I grabbed the folder of photos she had in her hand and when I leafed through them I was stunned how familiar they looked. Gray muted faces wet with earnest lips of folks who wanted nothing more than to rob the world of its lust and hide it in their side pockets. There was a matchbook-sized image of a small girl kicking her legs over a bridge rail, a ladybug perched on her knee. How peaceful she seemed? A tornado could’ve whirled by and she still would have been demure.
I’d never seen that bridge nor the girl, yet a wisp of déjà vu encroached. The air was thick with the sweet fledgling scent of fertilizer. I feigned memories.
“I’m thinking of moving on,” I said.
And the redhead nodded with the foursquare aplomb of a chess grandmaster.
“You know, it takes guts to walk out,” she said.
“It’s sort of cowardly too,” I admitted.
I waited for her to snap another shot, but she didn’t. She tuned into my insecurities and while I prepped for a snub-nosed pursuit of my inner shell she handed me her camera. It was heavier than faith. And I peered through the lens ready to put a blind eye to the fruitless past.
©2009 by John Gorman