If you haven’t yet, please read the first 10 chapters of Charm.
You aren’t paranoid if they really are out to get you.
That’s what I think as I spot the dark SUV idling in the middle of the street outside.
“Found it on Yelp,” Reggie says, “Glad I did. This place has a great vibe.”
I snap back to the conversation. He’s Reggie. From Atlanta. Originally from nearby, visiting in-laws, needed a place to work.
Now you’re caught up.
“I didn’t find it too long ago myself,” I say. I also found it on Yelp. Probably the only time I’d ever admit that. Certainly not out loud. “Been coming here regularly since. Great place to write.”
“What’re you writing?”
No one gets out of the SUV. No one gets in. It sits.
“Oh, a lot of things. I’m working on a few stories right now.” What is it waiting for? “Some speculative fiction, a bit of a romcom, and a sci-fi.”
“Man, I’m a sucker for anything science fiction.” Reggie’s cool. I’m glad I struck up a conversation. “Whether it’s actually good or not.”
HONK. Someone isn’t happy with the SUV idling in the middle of the street. It pulls away.
“The point is you enjoy it, not whether someone else approves of it.”
“Agreed.” He holds his glass of wine up for a toast.
We discuss a myriad of shows we’ve seen and haven’t and have heard of and if the other has seen it and how was it. We both get good recommendations for stuff to watch.
His phone buzzes. It’s done this repeatedly during our conversation. He can’t ignore it anymore.
“Before you go, mind if I make your picture?” I hold up my camera. The film one. Loaded with my favorite film. They stopped making it.
Reggie salutes with his emptying wine glass and I snap the shot. Another one made.
I stockpiled dozens of rolls in the freezer. Now it’s a race to see which runs out first: me or the film.
I step outside with Reggie. It’s time for me to get to the play.
A dark SUV pulls away. Strange. Was it the same one?
“Hit me up when you finish. I’d love to read your story.” Reggie and I part with a hand shake.
I start walking toward the park, wishing it was always that easy dealing with people.
It’s definitely not.
I used to not try. It wasn’t worth the trouble. I just went about my own way, leaving people to their own devices so long as they left me to mine.
It was lonely. Aloof.
I hid behind my lens. I still do to an extent.
Before I used a big scary looking camera. All black with big lenses and a hood and grar glaring cyclops that hid me from people around me. If I was doing video it was even worse. Throw on a giant fuzzy shotgun mic that gave the cyclops a unibrow. Sometimes a big light to boot.
Now, something from a forgotten time. Small and indestructible. Gleaming silver. Nifty fifty. Flip cap. Colorful strap.
It invited questions and interaction with my would-be subjects. It started conversations when I wanted. Allowed me a buffer when I needed. And a distraction.
Plus it was cool. The sound it made. The weight in my hand. The feel of the metal. The pace it forced.
It made you slow down and think. Appreciate. Spray and pray was not allowed.
Click. Advance. Click. Advance.
No autofocus. No chimping the back. It worked to place you in your environment rather than remove you from it.
I don’t have time to go through thousands of shots on a computer monitor. That part of photography is boring as sin. I’d rather just get the shot right. Or not.
Either way, I know the story behind it. A story I’ll write on the back of each print I make.
“Another program, Julien?” Tyana asks. “Collect ’em all!”
I may have been to the play a few times.
“You going to be seeing the whole thing tonight?”
“As much as I can.” I tend to sneak in and out. Sometimes I just see the first half. Or the last. Or some stretch of the middle.
I sit somewhere new. Have to mix it up.
I always try to sit along the periphery though, one time I sat on the bridge.
Somewhere with an easy way out in case.
I’ve had to leave performances because Holly needed me at the booth.
And because I got sick. I don’t like people seeing me get sick. So I avoid front and center in the sea of people.
Or snuck in after the first act, before the food fight though – that’s my favorite part. Days when I had a drop off at 7.
I sit further back, kind of near Tyana and the concession stand. I like the new angles because I’ll get to see the inner workings.
The offstage entrances. The players running up and down the hill through the park around the crowd.
I’m enjoying that as much as the play itself at this point.
I’ve watched from near the wings, up on the hill, the bridge too far away to hear any but the loudest performers. The ones who can project. I haven’t watched it from the park backstage. That would be creepy.
I’ve wanted to though, I love being backstage.
Behind the scenes of anything, really. Special. Different from the crowd. Love the access.
The food fight is even funny from this angle. It always is. So big and larger than life and the actress playing Katerina the Cursed can really fill the park with her protests. Wow. I’d be surprised if the cops hadn’t been called at least three times. (This is why you notify local authorities of any plays or filming going on in an area…not a mistake you make twice.)
“Well met good sir, My name is Lucentio a gentleMAN of Pisa.” She hands me another card and is very close.
She leans in, unfolds the photo, and speaks.
“My real name is…”
“My good sir, I saw her over there on the…” I crash into her line.
“Oh, if so then I must hurry…” And she bolts.
She went off script. I jumped cue. My timing is awful. As is my extemp.
I’d already committed to my gambit. Attempted my clever script devised after the first encounter. She had something else in mind. Awkward clash.
Seriously…? ‘My real name is…’ Where was she going with that?
Confused I look up the hill. Her legs work furiously as they propel her up the hill. She pulls her hat down on her head.
The memory of her face plays in slow motion. Karen. She’s peeled the mustache off. Breaking character. Cardinal sin. Why? My awkward fumble broke the moment and the intense earnestness in her eyes shatters, replaced by Tranio-as-Lucentio again. Face steels and she’s gone.
Funny how blind you can be in the moment. I saw none of this.
Not really. Not as it was happening.
Seems photographers are like that, I’ve noticed.
Did you know we never actually see the exact picture we take?
It’s true. We see every moment leading up to and after we press the shutter button. But the moment the shot is made, we are blinded. Trading our sight for the image.
I wonder if it’s similar. Active thought doesn’t register the moments etched in memory. A sacrifice for permanence. Only available for review after.
“You fucked that up,” Tyana stands next to me.
“Yeah, yeah I did.” I look at Lucentio up on stage. Early?
“You should stick around until curtain one night.” Tyana checks a text. “Not tonight though. Rain’s coming.”
They were speeding up. I thought something was off. Thought it was me.
I make a picture. One to etch the story from tonight on.
“You’re not supposed to take pictures.”
“I know Ty, I’m a rule breaker.”
I leave early. Before the sky opens.
Rain that is. Maybe a few drops and some dry lightning and a little wind.
Back at the Grounds.
“I just feel like you don’t take my thoughts on the subject into consideration, I feel like we’ve had this argument several times and nothing changes.”
This is awkward.
“I don’t even want to be here discussing this. I just want to go home.”
“And once again, I believe you have misunderstood me and are projecting the worst you can imagine onto me without ever even asking me about this.”
So awkward I can’t help but listen.
“You don’t support me like I need you to if we’re going to be successful!”
Oooh, it’s about to get juicy.
“Look, I’m tired of Reinhardt.”
“My Torbjorn needs the shield! You’re sabotaging our team if you don’t Reinhardt!” Almost in tears.
“It never works. You set us up for failure each and every time!”
“You’re supposed to protect me! Where have you been when I needed you?”
Not sure if they’re talking about their relationship, a video game, or both.
Either way, the mood is sour.
People have packed in here to shelter from the impending storm that never came.
Their mood is reflecting my own. Makes you wonder if it’s contagious or if I’m projecting or just tuned to the negative vibes in my own funk.
Or is there some sort of universal conspiracy that causes people to bork things up simultaneously causing the cataclysmic downfall of society?
Probably not. I just fucked up.
The moment keeps replaying. It needs to stop.
I need to get out of myself and sitting here listening to relationship drama isn’t how to do that.
Is this the kind of dialogue I can expect from women these days? Shudder.
I scan the crowd in the Grounds. Isolated pockets, closed up, only a moderate din. For so many people in here it’s relatively quiet. Not open and boisterous and inviting.
Slim chance for fruitful conversation, I head for the door and out into the non-storm.
The air is electric. Cliche but true.
I breathe deeply, taking in the charged air of the storm. Mind wrapping around the storm brewing in me.
Itchy fingers stroke the camera around my neck. Thumb running across the rough leatherette on the back. Toying with the film advance.
I walk down the street looking for shots. Looking for character.
Wind blows vape my way from the crowd around a bar entrance. Giant clouds of cotton candy. A couple of smokers gather as well, but they’re outnumbered.
I take a shot through the fog. Advance.
“Evening,” I approach.
Big biker dude. Muscles. Leather vest. Bandana. Long beard shot with grey.
“Hi there, how are you this evening?” Courteous and polite. Not the monosyllabic grunt I expect. He takes a hit on his vape.
“Well, thanks.” I lie to myself. “And you?”
“Oh you know, same old,” he’s very nice. “Nice camera.”
“Thanks, I hope you don’t mind I grabbed a picture earlier. It’s an interesting mix out here.”
“No, not at all.” Eclectic group. Biker tough, surfer bro, yuppy, a grandmotherly type – is she knitting?, and a bunch of kids who haven’t found their cliche. “You shoot film?”
“Yep, Julien,” I offer my hand.
People are nice if you let them.
“Mind if I get another shot?”
He laughs, “Sure!”
He blows a big cloud at me as I take the shot. He’s laughing large when I click.
“Pleasure, Derrick,” I shake his hand again. “Have a wonderful night.”
The street itself is quiet, pools of light and noise spill out at odd intervals.
Rowdyness from the sports bar. Twang and strum, western bar. Thump thump goes the club wannabe.
None of them appeal to me. I keep walking.
I slow the shutter to let the light in. See if I can capture the texture of the clouds wet and heavy with unborn storm. Maybe catch a crackle of lightning.
I kneel in the middle of the street. Bracing my camera arm against my knee.
Desperate struggle of the human spirit against the encroaching gloom, these pools of forced merriment dotting the scene.
Defy the portents of doom and live.
I spot a peculiar sight. Bright in the quickening dark. Illuminated in passing headlights.
Riotous. Discordant. She crouches to do her makeup in the chrome reflection of a motorcycle headlight.
The powder blue fake fur coat falls open framing neon orange high heeled platform boots.
I quickly reframe and compose the shot. Head piled high with ringlets of dark hair, she gives the chrome a toothy smile, rubbing the tip of one nailed finger across to remove some stray lipstick.
Wow. What a shot. Even black and white, I can slash it with color later.
The image is etched in my
I fall backwards in the street as the car passes.
“Are you okay?” She calls over, waving a taloned hand as she clips her way over to me, clutching her coat closed with the other.
She crouches again, this time by my side. I laugh and take another picture.
“Are you drunk?”
“Look you pindick motherfucker, you can wait a goddamn second. Have some fucking decency for fucks sake. FUCK.” She stands and shouts at the headlights.
People get really brave behind the wheel of a car. All honky and shit. Impatient and inconsiderate.
Until some brash woman in a powder blue fur coat and orange platform heels with a short skirt and some fishnets starts screaming at their car. Then they reverse and retreat.
One indignant BEEP follows the whir of the electric. She flips them off with long fingernails.
I like her.
“That was amazing,” I brush myself off.
“Why thank you sweetie,” she fixes her perfect hair.
I try not to stare, but damn. And too, I really don’t know what to make of this colorful – on several levels – woman. Part C, the whole scenario isn’t jiving.
“Looking for some company tonight, big boy?” She steps close.
Then laughs and pats my chest as she steps away.
“Relax,” she laughs again. “I’m just fucking with you.”
“What brings a pretty woman like you to a corner like this?”
“Aha! I see what you did there,” she says. “Really, not a hooker. I can prove it! Hookers are named something like Trixie or Amber or Eugene, if you swing that way. Not Veronica. Which is my name.”
Is it now.
“Amber is a stripper name, everyone knows that,” I counter, “Like Kandy, with a K.”
“I’ve known some whorish Ambers.” She grimaces. “In fact I just left the skankiest one of them all in Chances.” She spins and throws an empty, crumpled pack of cigarettes at club wannabe.
An elongated ‘Agh’ is akin to the noise she makes.
She reminds me a little of my ex. But more colorful.
“So, sloshed, stoned, stupid, or suicidal? Which?”
“Why were you playing live action Frogger? You sure were crouched down like a hippity hop man in the street dodging Dodges.” She smashes her hands together.
We’d started walking down the street. Not sure where to.
“You’re one to talk,” I hold up my camera.
She recalls the position I caught her in.
“OOOOH,lemme see!” She grabs the camera and looks at the back. Pulling me forward by the strap. “Where’s the screen?”
Her face is very close to mine.
“No screen.” I say.
Her piercing blue eyes stare into mine.
“It’s film.” I say.
Her red red lips brush close to mine.
Her accomplice shoves a gun to my spine.
“Phone, cash, now,” he says, moving around me to grab her.
He shoves the gun at her head. “Shut up!”
It was almost convincing. The scream wasn’t quite loud enough.
“Come on man!” He gestures with the gun, his arm across her chest. “Camera too!”
“What?!” Gun to her head, he grips her close. “I’ll do her!”
“Do it! Please!” She wails.
“I said. No.” I take a step closer to them. “You can stop your fake hysterics. I don’t buy it.”
She stops. They back away.
“You’re very good,” I say. “You tried to lift them, but they’re not in the usual spot. And then you checked me for any kind of weapons before luring me to – what – your boyfriend here? And now, you’re shielding him in case you missed something. Presuming I’m a good guy and wouldn’t risk hurting you.”
I clap my hands.
“Bravo. Really. But,” I point to ‘Veronica.’ “Any woman with the brass to cuss out a Prius in the middle of the damn street isn’t going to take shit from this tub. You’d have planted those stilettos square on his instep the moment he pulled you back to him, fuck the gun, and then you’d have ripped his fucking balls off with those talons for having the audacity to touch you.”
She stepped away from him. “Damn fucking right, asshole. FUCK.” She screamed. Frustrated this time, not acting. “Now give us the fucking goods.”
The big guy pointed the gun at me.
Now I’m getting angry.
“I believe I said ‘no’ perfectly clearly before.”
I slip my arm through the camera strap, sliding it to my back.
“I’ll shoot you!”
I feel it welling up inside. I didn’t know just how angry I was tonight.
“Not the clever one, I see. That is generally implied when one points a gun at another. You don’t need to restate it.”
I’m mad now. How dare they? I step forward.
“He will shoot you.” She’s getting nervous.
“Worst he could do is put my eye out,” I say, “And I’m pretty sure these glasses can stop a B.B.”
He puts the toy away and looks to her.
“You should have just gone with it, Frogger,” she said, “Now brother Simon is going to have to get rough.”
It was there right in front of me all along. I’ve been LOOKING for this all damn fucking night.
Spoiling for a fight.
“You remind me of my ex,” I slip Simon’s punch. “The second one.”
Done taking shit from people.
I clench my fists and let go. All the anger walled up inside of me.
Simple Simon punches again. Brute force attack. Clumsy.
I slip inside and go for the liver. He grunts. Shows his chin.
Upper. All the rage. Flows from me into his jaw.
He’s not a good boxer, is Simon.
It’s how I deal with some of the stresses put upon me by, you know, dying.
“Come on then.” Jab Simon’s nose.
Some of it anyway. Jab Jab Cross.
There’s a lot. Jab Cross Jab Cross Upper Hook.
At least that’s the combo I try to fire.
Instead I feel some fire in my face as his fist lands. Arms encumbered by a screeching she-demon.
There are two of them. I forgot for a second.
He returns the liver, followed by a gut shot and a rib cracker. She knees my kidneys for good measure.
And then tries to choke me out with my own camera strap. Fiesty!
I can only imagine what this tableu looks like and wish I could take the picture.
I roll down with the choke, flipping her further up on my back as Simon goes for a clobbering time style punch. I shit you not. Boy’s been watching too many cartoons.
Square in her face. That’s where it lands.
Blood starts gushing from her nose and even more obscenities from her mouth.
To her credit, she doesn’t let go. That could be a problem.
She has my back. She’s got her hooks in. She’s wearing me down.
Simon telegraphs another punch at me.
I grab for it, trying to break his arm, but she twerks and throws my balance instead.
I kick out his knee as I go down though, sending him sprawling.
Ref blows the whistle. Foul.
Things go dark.
The storm finally broke as I lay there, broken.