They used to give out the pictures at the grocery store in town.
You could pick one up from a neat pile laid out in a corner on the trestle table at the exit, the trestle table with the haphazardly abandoned, paid-for fruit lying limp and desolate and decaying, the trestle table with the flyers strewn about, their colours faded by the sun, made to bleed into each other by the storms that seeped in whenever the door opened, the trestle table with the layer of dust older than the oldest man in town. You could pick up the picture, my picture, from that pile as you left with your milk and eggs and cereal.
But not anymore. Not since Bobby Kellock.
Bobby Kellock picked up my picture one sultry afternoon in August, leaving the grocery store with a bag of chips and a carton of fruit punch. He picked up my picture after having spotted it from the back end of a long line trailing after the single cash register, after having stared at it for five whole minutes as he waited in line, after having imagined a blissful life with me fed largely by what he’d always seen on TV: a put-together, affable couple we were, right out of a sitcom or an ad, dressed in loud pinks and greens, checked prints and polka dots. Blissful but also discretely sexy. Sexy behind a closed door that thirteen-year-old Bobby, not yet possessing a visual vocabulary able to satisfactorily furnish the scene, could not get past.
What had caught his attention was the red of my dress and the blonde of my hair cast in stark relief against a black velvet backdrop. I had caught his gaze and I had imprisoned it and had so mesmerised him that he didn’t even take his change, leaving the lanky boy behind the counter with his arm out, as if asking for alms, or offering. I had so mesmerised Bobby he stumbled over his own sneakered feet coming up to me.
He stared with starry eyes at my blood-red lips, parted in a languorous, voluptuous, almost sarcastic laugh – as if, having become inured to the banality of my velvet box, or perhaps way past acceptance of my confinement, I could only laugh, at myself, at Bobby Kellock. He stared with a muddled mind at my cloud of whitish-blonde hair, defying artifice, having draped itself seemingly of its own accord around my head, down my neck, flirting with my collarbones.
He lost himself in my open face and he carried me home – not taking his eyes off me for longer than it took him to, reflexively, look both ways before crossing the street. He carried me home this way, all the way on that sultry afternoon in August.
He took me home and pinned me up above his bed, right above the headboard, and then lay down beneath it, his hands behind his head, his legs crossed at his ankles, his mud-crusted white sneakers still on his feet. He closed his eyes and he began to imagine his life with me. That colourful life of bliss.
He didn’t imagine sequentially. He imagined particular events, not particularly notable events, just events. Very mundane events. He imagined doing with me the everyday things that grownups do, but in his mind these events took on a glamorous, intensely jubilant gleam. Gone were the worries and the stress and the quarrels.
In Bobby’s imagination, we went to the laundromat and had a ball. We went to the grocery store and had a ball – laughing at our inside jokes, figuring out what to have for dinner, what we needed to buy, playfully arguing about snacks. We lay sprawled before the TV on a weeknight, neither one of us really paying attention to the show, each anticipating the moment when we would be in bed together. Bobby imagined it all and it was resplendent with happiness, light, beauty.
He spent every moment he was not required to do chores, or, when school started, homework, every moment he was not with friends, everyday walking home after-school or lying in bed before falling into sleep, he spent all these moments he had with himself with me. It got to be that he found me the impetus to complete all his other tasks. I was the scintillating prize smiling at him bathed in silver light at the end of every mind-numbing task. Homework was completed hurriedly just so Bobby could sooner be with me in his imagination, where we would dance, laugh, screw – whatever that looked like.
The sex act was always precipitated by the token caresses, holding of hands, gentle kissing. The soft, circumscribed touching of flesh that would become increasingly fervent. And this hungry grasping would lead us into the shadows of the bedroom behind a closed door, and there would take place ecstatic acts veiled by an idealized haze.
And while we were there in his imagination, coloured vibrant and passionate, Bobby, real-world Bobby, would just be sitting in his chair, staring without seeing anything out his bedroom window with his chin cupped in his hand, or lying on his bed with his eyes closed. And he wouldn’t leave me until his legs began to ache as he sat still in his chair, way past pins and needles, or he felt a dull pain behind his eyes from keeping them shut up for so long so he could better concentrate on us.
“You don’t seem too happy about your future.”
He said this because I didn’t smile big enough to show him that I was really excited about all the money and fame I would have in the future, the near future, soon, because of these pictures. He said this because I failed to feel the genuine emotion that would relax certain of my muscles. He said this because I appeared stiff and petrified as a corpse.
“Okay,” he said with an exasperated sigh. “You’re in school now, right? How about you think about how good it will feel to graduate without any debt.”
Another sigh. Because I hesitated before I smiled, and then my smile stopped at my lips, didn’t bleed up to my eyes to light them up with molten lust for a debtless future.
“Okay, how about you think about how good it will feel for you to eat tonight. Go to bed on a full stomach.” He waited some and I couldn’t see him there, behind all the studio lights shining on me and the black velvet backdrop, which seemed to be eating the light up like a black hole and I had so much powder on my face that he couldn’t tell that I was boiling. “That’s it! Keep on smiling like that!”
And he didn’t sigh this time because I was able to involve my eyes in the drama of my smile because the thought of eating made me almost cry. What he took for molten lust in my eyes was the welling of tears at the thought of food other than, more than a slice of white bread.
“Okay, now you need to take your clothes off.”
And he sighed because I hesitated before I moved. But before he could give me another reason to find this all worthwhile I moved out of the lights and started to take the red dress off. I placed it carefully, because it didn’t belong to me and I didn’t want to have to buy it if I broke it, on the chair next to my pair of jeans so old I could no longer remember when I bought them or from where crumpled on the ground along with my t-shirt and my book bag spilling over with my textbooks. The book bag I had dropped hurriedly when I had arrived late to set because class had run late.
I slipped it all off, carefully so as to not tousle my styled hair too much, my hair that I had dyed blonde over the sink in the coed bathrooms on campus because that’s what Matthew said I ought to do. Carefully so that nothing, not the straps of the dress, not my forearm, might touch my face and prod a section of the makeup to break off like the outjutting edge of a melting iceberg.
I slipped it all off and then I went back to the black-velvet heatwave to have my picture taken.
“What are you thinking about all the time?” Bobby’s mother asked him one day as he poured orange juice into his cereal instead of milk.
Bobby tore himself away from my naked embrace in the cottage in the woods that we went to every September, from our cozy spot on the rug before the amber glow of the fire. He looked at his mother with her keys in her hand, staring at him worriedly. He looked down at the strange soup he’d created. He laughed.
“Nothing,” he told her.
Bobby nodded yes.
While his mother drove him to school that morning, as Bobby sat in the car staring out through tired glassy eyes at the window, watching the raindrops run urgently, as if fleeing a monster, down the pane to the rubber at the base of the frame, only to be blasted away by the wind, an alluring thought undressed itself in front of him.
What if Bobby should really meet me? Not in his imagination, where he looked as he did now at thirteen, despite being a grownup and living married with me and away from his mom, and I looked as I did in the picture of me, glowing and glamorous. What if he should meet me, the real me, as I am? Then surely he might have a proper chance at pulling his dreams and imaginings out into reality. Then surely he might have, really have, his dream bliss forever, bliss with me, and maybe then I wouldn’t have to pose for such pictures.
And so, as soon as Bobby got home from school that day, he ran up to his room and tore me off my spot on the wall above his bed. He turned the picture over and found there affixed a little paper sticker on the bottom left-hand corner.
Matthew Price #132513
Bobby didn’t know who Matthew Price was. Bobby didn’t know what #132513 meant. The only reason he had looked to the back of the picture was because this is what people did. Every time his grandmother asked who a certain person in a certain photograph was, his mother would always, always turn the picture over and read out the name written neatly on the back, and his grandmother would exclaim, “Oh, of course it is!”
But Matthew Price #132513 was of no help to Bobby. It didn’t tell him how to get in touch with me. How to find me and save me.
So Bobby did the next best thing. He went to the grocery store to see Mr. Newsom, the store manager and the baseball coach at school.
“Mr. Newsom,” Bobby said. “Who is the woman in this picture?” And he thrust me up into Mr. Newsom’s face.
Mr. Newsom screwed up his eyes to see me better, but this apparently did him no good and so he, with a sigh, pulled out his glasses from the breast pocket of his shirt and put them on. “I haven’t got the slightest idea, boy. Who on earth is that?”
“Well, don’t you know?”
“Bobby, if I knew that young lady do you think I’d still be married to Mavis over here?” Mr. Newsom asked, nodding to Mrs. Newsom behind him down the aisle scanning the shelves of canned food, counting them – the cans, not the shelves – with the back of her pen leaping along an invisible line before her face, and then scrawling something down onto a sheaf of papers jammed in her clipboard.
“Ted Newsom, what did you just say?” she said, feigning admonition and keeping her eyes on the clipboard, still scrawling.
Mr. Newsom chuckled and, winking, patted Bobby on his head and began walking away.
“But Mr. Newsom, what about this picture?”
“What about it, son?” Mr. Newsom called back over his shoulder.
“Well, maybe you could tell me who gave it to you, and maybe I could talk to them.”
But Mr. Newsom was already waist deep in a heated debate with Mrs. Newsom about whether they really needed to put in an order for canned peas. Mr. Newsom refused to believe Mrs. Newsom when she insisted that they still had two palletized stacks in the back.
Bobby frowned deeply and turned away. At the exit he cast a plaintive glance at the pile of my pictures on the trestle table. The pile told him nothing. Outside in the rain he looked down at me, and I wish that I could have told him that it is not real. It’s just a picture, I would have said. It’s just Matthew Price #132513, I would have said.
But I didn’t say that because I wasn’t there. And if I was there Bobby wouldn’t listen to me because you don’t look like the girl in the picture, he would say.
And in the rain, with his eyes on me, filling and then spilling with tears, Bobby began crossing the street. Reflex didn’t come to tell him to look both ways that day, because Bobby’s mind was mired in thoughts of me, thoughts about picking me up and rescuing me out of my cage of black velvet and carrying me to our entwined bliss. And reflex didn’t come because I had swelled so big in Bobby’s mind, I and my big red pincushion lips and my cloud of blonde hair – the drama of me had snuffed him out.
And Bobby didn’t look and was hit by a red pickup and the picture of me went flying up into the air, but it wasn’t so light that it was blown away. The rain pummelled me back onto Bobby, and I lay down on his chest, just as it crested in its final breath.
And Bobby’s mother made Mr. Newsom get rid of that pile of my pictures. “They’re inappropriate,” she said to Mr. Newsom in a voice quivering under a leaden sadness. “They’re scandalous,” she said. And so Mr. Newsom threw them into the recycling bin.
And I read this story of a little boy who got hit by a truck in front of the grocery store in a small town printed in a small corner of the newspaper from inside the penthouse Matthew said I should live in, because it would go with my image. And I read this story of a little boy who had my picture in his hands when he got hit by a truck in a letter his mother sent me, written on paper so grey it looked wet, written in letters trembling and huddled close together.
I read twice this story from inside my white walls and amongst my white furniture and my red shag carpet that looked like a splash of blood, spilled by some passing animal on its way to die in a secluded area.
And as I put on my makeup and became the girl that Bobby Kellock thought was real I wondered if it really was as his mother had written, if it was my fault that Bobby died. But then Matthew called and told me that I had gotten the part he said would be perfect to launch me, the image of me, and make me famous. He then said you’re gonna be huge, kid. And then he hung up.
I sat back down at my vanity and flashed myself my megawatt smile that came so easily to me now because I had been practicing, and my reflection in the mirror looked so beautiful. And then I ran a brush through my whitish-blonde hair because I thought about how good I will feel tonight, showered and curled up in my white bed with a book.
They used to give out my pictures at the grocery stores in all the towns across the country. But not anymore.
Because I’m going to be huge.