a short story
Gary Baker, September 2013
There’s something in the way that a sandwich cut in halvsies from the corners seems to mystify the world versus leaving it whole or cutting it like a grid. It’s like taking the first swig of an unshaken gallon of milk, or the singlemost first slice of apple pie when it’s still steaming from the oven and how the world magically contorts to make these as magical as possible. Or like how taking a bite of a chocolate bar made from fairtrade chocolate from Costa Rica or the Amazon in Brazil or something like that, where it’s meant to be snapped into smaller bits and enjoyed piece-by-piece yet choosing not to follow the unspoken rules results in a far superior taste of that one, lone, first bite.
She got up before the sun like usual, taking her shower long after baling hay and setting the pens open for the livestock and horses to roam, then tossing on jeans and a white button-up to fit the formal ruse of yearbook picture day. One good thing about having her permit at long last was that she could do her regular chores in good timing, and still have the ability to eat a solid breakfast of fresh eggs, farm-raised ham, and homemade toasted rye with butter and honey with a glass of black coffee on the side to feel more like an adult.
The coffee was terrible, as always, but the bitterness of the beverage was something dad had brought her into believing to be a “ma-too-er” morning ritual. So, relentlessly, she knocked the cooling dark liquid down the hatch and squelched the urge to heave as she practically tore the glass from her lips.
“Big day today?” Dad asked as he stepped into the dining room in his fading black Levi’s and loose-fitting baseball jersey sporting the ‘Mets’ logo across his chest in colors long-since lost through constant sun damage.
“Yeah,” Savannah stole a glance at her cell home-screen; just thirty minutes to grab her things and get to the auditorium, “it’s picture day and the whole school is going to be there.”
He smiled quietly and poured himself a steaming mug of the horrid caffeinated drink. “Well then I figure it’s about time I give you something I tend to think you may have always wanted.” He gave her an amused quirk of the lips that broke ripples of worn-out dimples across his cheeks, “just don’t you go tellin’ your mother, now.”
There was a moment between the two where nothing was spoken aloud, both feeling the returning pain that had become as much a part of their lives as anything on the ranch. No amount of time could ease it, and every time either of the two turned around there was yet another sign standing smack dab in the middle of things declaring them unable to move on.
Songs by The Band Perry had nothing on the life Savannah and her father were now forced to live.
With a nod, Savannah pushed her chair back and moved to embrace her father in a long-winded hug, staying as far from tears as she could to avoid having to redo what little makeup she wore for this day in particular. “I won’t, dad.”
He pulled away with hands on her shoulders, then, and gave that same shy smile once again. “Turn around, Vanna.” As she did so, he fumbled around with something in the lacquered oak cabinets, crinkling the edges of paper bags holding dried garlic and herbs as he audibly pulled something out. “Alright, there we are. You can look, now.”
She turned back to him only to find him now holding a small box, wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with common twine. “Dad? What’s this for?”
“Think of it as incentive,” he said. “Those grades of yours have stayed pretty good despite all the work you help me out with out here, but lets keep them that way at least until you get accepted next year.”
She pulled the drawstring, loosed the paper wrapping, and found a plain white box underneath, revealing a perfect creamy-white camera set into charcoal-gray cushions inside. Savannah pulled it out to see the light reflect off the chrome lens cap, and opaque display buttons beside the LCD view screen. It was beautiful.
“Now get yourself on to school, Vanna, you don’t want to be late.”
And that’s how it was between them. She gave him a loving smile, then grabbed her bag from the table, her keys from the hooks beside the door, and made her way to the white Dodge 4x4 in the driveway. With her bag sitting in the passenger seat, and her camera nested in the center, wrapped in a soft cotton scarf, she set out for school.
The drive took the usual time, not too much traffic this early in the morning, where most teachers had yet to arrive, so she pulled into a virtually empty parking lot. Only three other vehicles had arrived before herself: the yearbook instructor, the principal, and the primary student technician who drove a freshly-washed van meant for carting all the cameras and equipment around campus.
Savannah pulled into the space closest to the auditorium doors and turned the radio down at the tail end of a Rascal Flatts song before grabbing her bag again and leaping down onto the pavement.
The technician saw her first and waved her over, standing in the olive-green doorway with a large tripod and flashbulb setup balanced on his silvery steel dolly. “Vanna! Glad you’re here!”
She quickly strode over and helped keep the precarious equipment from falling off on the way into the high-ceilinged room. “Did you guys just get here, Jeff?”
“Sort of,” he shrugged. “The principal wasn’t here to open the doors at first, so Mrs Artbury had to call him and remind him of how little time we actually have until classes start.”
She noted the red cheeks of the heavyset man as he watched the two students come inside. Mrs Artbury stood beside him with fists on her hips and that familiar scowl on her face that meant she was more than ready to put a special someone in their place again. “I guess he wasn’t all that pleased.”
“Not a chance!” Jeff exhaled suddenly. “Two-to-one bets he was sipping that bourbon the very moment she called.”
So the red face wasn’t from annoyance, but from too much to drink. It surprised Savannah to see how steady he was on his feet despite such obvious signs of morning alcoholism. “Well lets just get the equipment in place and get this over with.”
“Oh!” They put the dolly down and unstrapped the flash accessories from the high-grade tripod. “Remind me later that I have something serious to tell you!”
She gave him an amused look, raising one eyebrow higher than the other, “what? You finally got a boyfriend?”
He scowled right back at her and held the stare, then together they burst out into fits of laughter. As they calmed down he threw an arm over her shoulder and walked with her to the doors of his van again. In a hushed voice, he pulled out his cell and slid across the screen to reveal a photo of himself kissing the cheek of none other than the Sean Astin on a balcony somewhere in the foothills.
“No way!” Savannah exclaimed in an almost yell.
Jeff smirked sheepishly. “Yes way, Vanna -- and no it’s not a joke.”
They picked up crates of bulbs and cameras and began toting them inside. “Where did you meet him?”
“Well, as it turns out that cousin of mine up in the mountains has more friends than we give him credit for, and he made very good friends with Astin while working the set of Extraction back in twenty-thirteen. So my cuz invited me up and introduced us, we--” he shot a glance at the chaperons as they finally seemed to be on speaking terms in the corner door nearest the stage “--started drinking, and eventually he let it out that he’s more into playful moments than anyone around here.”
She watched him incredulously with eyes wide as saucers. “You mean you--” she looked to Mrs Artbury and the principal, too, and hushed her voice despite the obvious ignorance of the elders “--you didn’t… did you?!”
Jeff tightened the main camera onto the tripod and grinned. “No, but we did everything but.” He pulled out his phone again and put it on the camera as though he were using his level app to test to the tripod for a lean, and instead flipped to another photo of himself and Astin toasting champagne to each other with elbows wrapped around the other’s. “This was after we switched glasses, hun.”
Savannah laughed before she could hold it back, and felt the eyes of the chaperons on her back just prior to a sighed ‘kids’, which sent her and Jeff into further laughter.
“Look, Vanna,” the technician whispered, “we have got to get you a man, because once you have one I can get us all into Astin’s manor for an even better night.”
Again Savannah raised an amused eyebrow, “his ‘manor’?”
“Well what else would you call the dwelling of my latest gentleman?”
Moments later Mrs Artbury came over to help out further, and the work then finished in a flash. Before Savannah could even think about rushing off the the restroom to freshen up, a line of students began to form beside the doors, all eager to appear as ‘cool’ as possible for this year’s pictures.
“Savannah,” Artbury called, pulling her away from further gossip with Jeff and the newly-arrived Ashley, “are you ready?”
Suddenly her heart skipped a beat and her skin went pale. This was her moment, the moment where she would either ruin everyone’s photo and become the laughing stock of the school for the next and final two years of high school, or become the unknown ghost of a girl who took the best school photos that a student had ever taken. There was no other option for her.
“Yes,” she stammered far more than she thought she would, and blushed when Artbury gave her a reassuring smile.
“You’ll do fine, love.”
To her surprise, after the first handful of students, things did go fine. The picture taking process went as smoothly as her morning chores ever did after only moments of repetitive instructions of “tilt your head this way, please” and “no gum, please” and “sit down, please”, “sit still, please” and “are you sure you don’t want to comb your hair?” Everything else was simple muscle memory to the last slide of the shutter.
And then he stepped up to the chair.
She didn’t even know his name, as she had never really been one to remember everyone, but at once she wanted to.
He wore a red flannel button-up loose over a white undershirt, both tucked into dark navy blue jeans, had a somewhat small almost-Hawaiian beaded necklace with a shark tooth pendant, and a smile that outshone the flashbulbs by far.
“Name?” She stuttered, nervously.
He didn’t answer her aloud, instead lifting a paper for her with all of his information on it. At that, he turned to the seat and sat down perfectly the first time through. He didn’t even need instructions on how he could make the photo look more perfect, it just came naturally to him as is.
“Um,” she hesitated, looking for an excuse to keep him there longer than the usual few seconds per student. “You know...Henry...normally I try to get the gist of someone’s personality before I take their photograph, you know: so I can help take the best picture that I can.”
He shook his head, letting the longer strands of his hair slide to and fro across his forehead and eyebrows.
She scowled. Why wouldn’t he talk to her? Was he just too ‘cool’ to associate with someone as lowly as a student photographer for the yearbook? Perhaps he simply didn’t associate with anyone but his buddies, or girls he wanted to pick up and take to parties and beach-side gatherings and bonfires in the desert.
With each excuse she could think of, Savannah began to think of him less and less while still hoping he would mentally turn around and say it was all a prank, that he was just too nervous to speak to her, and that he would love to take her to Jeff’s invitation-only party.
Yet that was a fairytale, and an obvious fantasy.
Struggling with a battle of hope versus annoyance, she snapped the shot and somehow moved it midway, blurring the photo and causing the tripod to offset itself. He gave her a laughingly grin that turned her insides to mush and transformed the inner battle into a riot of nerves that only worsened the situation.
She cursed herself under her breath, then smiled at him for what she hoped would be the last time. “Sorry, I’m still getting the hang of this whole thing, but…” she trailed off and looked to her bag suddenly, “maybe it’s the flash! Maybe it’s not me at all, but the lighting.” She quickly grabbed her bag and slid her new camera out of the scarf, knowing that the first photograph taken by any camera is destined to be the best picture it would ever take, like the magic of milk jugs and sliced sandwiches and all the other mystical objective firsts.
Scrolling through the initial setup phase of the camera took much longer than she hoped it would, but in the process she found out her dad had already provided a moderately large memory card and a full charge to the battery for her.
Finally she turned back to Henry and placed the camera atop the primary school camera, on the flat space where it wouldn’t get in the way or mess up the actual photograph.
“Alright,” she prepared to feel Artbury’s eyes on her, condescending her for taking technically ‘illegal’ shots, unasked for and in a moderately secretive manner. “Ready?” She didn’t even wait for him to disregard her, and instead set her camera to flash and took a deep breath, then snapped both photos in such a succession that neither one would be affected by the flash of the other. It worked as planned, appearing as though she were using the additional flash to make the primary even better when, really, she had taken one of her own.
Henry stepped off the stage area and she traced his movements with her gaze, only to be shocked back to reality as the young man passed behind Jeff, staring right back at her with a devilish grin.
“What?” She asked defensively, feeling accused.
“Oh nothing,” he grinned even wider and followed her now-hidden stare back across the room to the fountain where Henry now leaned for a drink, “just never figured you for the type to go for a mute -- albeit a gorgeous mute, at that.”
She stopped, almost choking on the very air that kept her alive. Impossible.
“By the way, Vanna,” Jeff nudged her with his elbow jokingly, while staring at the screen of his cell, “Ash says to get your chin off the floor. Says people might start talking to him, even before you can ask him out.”
Savannah simply gave him an amused glare and looked once more to the young man by the fountain, "well I guess I should say goodbye to my grades, shouldn't I?" At that the two fell into a fit of laughter lasting into waves of giggles for several long moments.
The rest of the student picture day went by in a haze, during which Savannah found herself wanting to look back at that first magical picture on her point-and-shoot. The one magical photograph that virtually declared her crush on a young man she had only just met moments ago.