Qwerky Words: "Poses," A Short Story

Poses

C.B. Adams

     They meet at a college art class called Anatomical Drawing. Lying on his side, his head on his curled arm, he is the model providing the anatomy. She is here because it is required of all art students, even though her major is photography.

      The skritch-skritch of charcoal on paper relaxed him and now he dozes naked on the platform, tired from studying all night and taking an early morning exam.

      She reaches out and lightly touches his hip bone. It has fascinated her, that part. Beautiful, the feel of the bone, pushing knob-like against the smooth white skin that flowed around it.

      He opens his eyes and pushes himself up to a sitting position. She backs away, embarrassed.

      "I'm sorry," she says. "I just...I don't know."

      He rubs his chest and stretches. "Forget it." Then he stands, and she watches as he steps into his fluorescent green shorts and pulls on his t-shirt.

      "Can I?" she hesitates. "Can I ask you something?"

      "Fifteen bucks an hour," he replies.

      "What?"

      "That's how much I get paid to do this. Everybody asks."

     "Oh, no, that wasn't it. My question, I mean," she says. "I wanted to know if you'd pose for me." When he doesn't respond, she adds: "I'm a photographer. A student, anyway."

      "I don't think so," he says, trying to smile. "No more pictures." 

      "But you're...don't take this the wrong way...I guess what I'm trying to say is that you're so…pretty.  That’s the only word.  And I could pay.”

      He shakes his head.

……….

 

      “Of course, I guess—no.  I knew that he was always something special, something beautiful.  He's such a pretty boy," his mother cackles. "But then, every old hen thinks her chick's the best." 

       The guest nods and looks at him. His mother continues. "I hoped we'd win, but you know those contests, you never know what they're looking for, but whatever it was, they found it in him."

      Then she adds: "Oh, don't get me wrong, it hasn't always been a blessing. Sometimes when I took him shopping, he'd get spooked walking through the cereal section and seeing those rows of his face staring back at him. He'd run back to the car, screaming. Lord, those days...."

      She reaches for a thick orange scrapbook with yellowed clippings sticking out at odd angles.  The visitor glances at her watch, then the door, then to the framed cereal box on the wall.  On the box the boy is smiling and lifting a spoonful of flakes toward his mouth. The visitor remembers buying her children that brand.

      The guest looks at him again. He looks away, and when his mother starts explaining how she started the scrapbook when he won the cereal contest, he leaves. He's ten now and has been on boxes of Fruit 'N Flakes since he was four. His mother sent a picture of him smiling to a promotional contest and his picture won. Since then, countless people have stumbled into early-morning kitchens and tipped his face into a bowl, Fruit 'N Flakes spilling from his head.

      Only now he's too old. The sponsors have held another contest. For publicity, they had him choose his successor. But not really. They told him who to say.

     And now his mother spends her time talking to people like the guest about those exciting years when he had his own section in the grocery store.  “More famous than the Gerber baby,” she says, talking to anyone who might be able to use him now. 

     He meets her again at a student art show.  Her photographs cover one corner of the gallery.  She does the standards of college art photos—kitchen utensils on a chopping block, birds on a power line, a cluttered desk, rust stains on the wall of a building, sheets blowing in the wind. She does them well, but he notices there are no people in her pictures.

     "You like them?" she asks, waving a trembling hand across the static images. This is her first show and she's nervous.

      He smiles and nods.  She smiles back, then turns to straighten a print on the wall.  He returns later and asks her for a date. He likes her because he thinks she is different. She says yes, remembering the day she touched him in art class.

      The photographer is nice and and the woman in charge of the children seems pleasant.  But he’s fourteen and thinks he’s too nice to be working with the smaller children.  He’s ready to start growing body hair, looking and dressing older.

      “It’s time to change,” the woman says to him.  "You're doing underwear next." He's bashful about being nearly naked. This isn't like cereal boxes. He checks the door twice before taking off the dungarees and sport shirt he modeled first. Then he unwraps the scratchy white briefs. He pulls thin strips of tape from the sides, then puts them on.

     The woman impatiently knocks on the door. "Are you ready yet?" she asks. "It's time to go."

      He opens the door a crack and says, "They're too big. They fit like bags. I need a smaller pair."  The woman pushes the door open. "Let me see," she says, sticking her hands inside the waistband and pulling a little.  He feels her long, cold burgundy nails against his first wisp of pubic hair and steps away.

      “This is the only pair the store sent over,” she says.  “They’re fine”. 

       Two weeks later, the supplement is printed in the Sunday newspaper. The pages are slick, splashed with full color. The background is white. He has one foot on a wooden box; his elbow rests on his knee. To the careful viewer, his penis is visible--just barely--through the gap in the leg band. The paper gets dozens of calls, mostly from men.

     He refuses to go to school for weeks. He spends his days listening to his mother talk to the agent, the agency, the lawyer, and representatives from the newspaper. His story is detailed on the local evening news, and covered by the newspaper itself. His mother wants to sue everyone so he can have a nest egg for college. There's a settlement of some sort, but after the lawyers and the agent, little comes from his embarrassment.

     He hears her talking to a friend on the phone. When she lowers her voice he knows she's talking about him.  He steps closer to the bedroom and listens while she describes the muscle pockets on the sides of his buttocks.  She calls them “butt dippies” and laughs with the friend on the phone. 

     Later, he takes a bath, sliding down so that only the tips of his mask-like face are above the water: forehead, nose, cheek bones, lips and chins.  Through the water he can hear faucets and toilets being used in other apartments. 

     She comes in, leans against the door and looks at him, then she looks down at her own softer, fuller body. She never asks him what he sees in her, because his piercing blue eyes and sharp, angular good looks scare her, as if they might one day cut her into long strips, like film. They've been living together for a couple of months now, but still, he fascinates her--his blondness, his beauty. She studies him whenever she can.

     She remembers watching him apply the lanolin-scented depilatory to his chest, abdomen, and legs after returning from New York.  She had enjoyed his smoothness when they made love, as he slipped over her body like a new sheet.  Now, the hair was coming back, sharp and dark, and she wants to ask why he wanted to be hairless then, but she won’t because he refuses to talk about that part of himself.

     Still submerged, he follows her with his eyes as she walks over to the tub and kneels down. Her finger is cool to his skin as she traces LOVE on his warm, slick abdomen. It's a game they play, like trying to figure out vanity license plates.

     When she asks, "Well, what is it?" the words and the movements of her mouth don't seem to match, like an over­dubbed foreign movie.

      He raises his head from the water and props himself up with his elbows.  “Don’t talk about me like that.”

     "Like what?" she asks.

     “Personal stuff, like butt dippies.”

     “Oh, come on.  That was just Carol.”

      “It was personal and telling it was like giving it away.” He lowers his head back into the water.

     “Talk to me, will you?" she says. 'What does that mean?"

      From underwater his words are loud and push hard against his ears. "It's like the Indians who believed that if you took their picture, you'd steal their soul. Something is taken. It always is."

      Until he boarded the plane he hadn't been that anxious, but now that he is seated and looking out the small, oval window that smells of old liquor and cologne, he wants to be in New York instantly. He left her sobbing on the concourse, her face wet, red and puffy. She said the night before that she was afraid he'd to go to New York and never come back. He told her it was only a photo shoot--money. He wouldn't have to do art classes for a while.

     He thinks he sees her now, standing with the others behind the large, nose-smudged window.  She looks like she is crying at her own reflection.

     His agent had sent his portfolio to the magazine and he was chosen to be New College Man of the Midwest.  Everyone said this was the plum assignment—to be only twenty and featured in the largest men’s fashion magazine.  Other assignments would inevitably come, his agent assured him.  Soon, he’d be national.

      The magazine arranged for him and all the other young men to stay on one floor of the hotel. When they all meet that night, he thinks they will feel like a team because they share the common bond of the good-looking. They are all beautiful people, pretty boys. They don't sit, they fashion¬ably slouch. They don't lean against a wall, they strike a pose. And, they don't even think about it.

But they look at him, searching for an indication--a moment perhaps. Some talk about Judy Garland and Helen Morgan as if they were alive. He remembers Garland from those old black and white films she made with Mickey Rooney. "Hey kids, let's have a show!"

      Things go well, but the last day of the shoot, everyone is ready for it to end. They are relieved when the art director gets the pictures he wants. They decide to celebrate. The evening quickly fades to black.

      The next morning, his head pounds and there is a strange taste in his mouth. He tries, but cannot, remember much from the night before. He looks down and sees his roommate's arm across his stomach, then catches a sliver of memory about being in a bar filled with men.

      He pushes himself out of bed. His head is dizzy as he weaves toward the shower. His flight home leaves in two hours.

      "How're you doing? You OK?" his roommate asks be¬fore he reaches the bathroom. He can't answer the question. He steps into the shower. As the water hits his porcelain body, he catches his breath.

      Later, as he steps back into the room, he sees another of the models talking with his roommate. 

"Some night, huh?" says the model. "We're leaving New York talking. The new Glam Boys."

     "Yeah," says his roommate.

     When he doesn't answer, the model asks, "How's things?" He shrugs and continues packing.

     "He isn't talking," his roommate says.

      As he walks down the hall, he hears one of them shout after him. "See you in the funny papers!"

     On the plane he sits alone. He is positive everyone is looking at him. They all know. When a man touches his arm to inquire whether the seat next to him is taken, he pulls away and says yes. The contact seems primal and lecherous. He is heavy with the attention he always receives, unable to escape from under his own attractiveness:

     Across the aisle, a mother sits with her two children: a boy and a girl. The little boy is cute, but he has a flesh-colored bandage catty-cornered across his forehead. Good, he thinks, always keep that bandage on. Keep away from perfection. The mother smiles at him. He looks away.

            "I want you for my final project," she says. It is the first time she's asked him to pose since that day in art class.

     He says no.

     She asks why not and he replies, "It will change things between us."

     "But I need you," she said. "A photograph is only as good as its subject."

     "A picture is only as good as the photgrapher."

     "Why won't you help me?"

     "Why me?"

      "Because people look at you. I've seen them."

     "So what. They cry at movies, too," he says.

     She begs, then hectors, him for weeks. Finally—on the day his agent called to say the New College Men feature didn't get him any new offers--he agrees to pose for her.

     They came to this far corner of the state looking for a place to shoot his picture. A portrait in natural light was the assignment. They made love even though he didn't want to and she did. Now he lies on his back, shrinking. Lately he has been distant, slipping away. She knows. That's why she wanted the lovemaking, to connect with him, touch him.

     It was over now, and she felt unashamed for tickling the bottom of his neatly defined pectorals, running her warm fingers across his rippled stomach and deep into his jeans until he acquiesced. It was something she wanted from their day together, from the light wind softly blowing through the trees, and most importantly, from him.

     She sits next to him on the blanket, fondling the webbed cotton strap of her camera bag, twirling it first one way then the other. He stares into the trees above.

     "You know," she says, "you could be in one of those coffee-table books. You're David. Adonis. A great fallen statue."

     He rolls his eyes. She opens her bag and takes out her camera. She peers through the viewfinder, and he cov¬ers himself with his hands.

     Later, she finds the place for his portrait. Here, the young man in her photograph will be slouching against a tree, his head slightly bowed, his eyes melancholy, but somehow evocative. His body will be lithe, taut, and supple. At rest, but capable of action.

     "Just stay where you are," she says, squinting through the camera. "I think I've just about got you the way I want you. Keep that look."

      The day's final rays of sun filter through the trees at a low angle, illuminating his tousled, golden hair.

      "This is it," she says. "Don't think about anything but this instant. Think only of this photograph."

      As she presses the shutter, he raises his head and sticks out his tongue.

     "You ruined it!" she screams.

     He smiles as clouds roll overhead. The sun slips down. The light changes. That image is gone. There is nothing left to take.

Author's Note:

I once saw an anthology of poems by Sylvia Plath. One section caught my eye because it was called Juvenalia. I like that term for one's early works. This story certainly fits into this category. It was my first published short story. It was also chosen as one of the winners in the Missouri Writing! competition sponsored by the Missouri Arts Council back in the mid 80s. They printed a promotional poster, which I have since lost. But I remember being embarrassed by the black and white photo of a mule in a muddy pasture. It was not enough that the competition name had an exclamation point, as if to tout the fact that Missouri had writers. They also made it appear that those of us who won the competition were something out of Deliverance. Still, I present this bit of juvenalia to demonstrate my potential and perhaps how little I have followed through on it.