a story by Jeremy Garrett
The darkroom reeked of tobacco. Yesterday had been Andrew’s turn to empty the fix trays and banish the glossies to the drying cabinets for the night, so it must have been the ghost of his cigarettes the teacher smelled. Paul didn’t think to reprimand his student. Mingled with the chemical fumes, the tobacco scent took him back to his own nights of afterhours chain-smoking in his art school darkrooms.
Aside from the janitor salting the school’s porch steps, Paul Barton had arrived earlier than all the other Rigby High professionals. Three inches of snow had fallen on the city last night, yet even within the windowless crypt of the darkroom he could sense the glimmering world outside. He filled the trays with chemicals, started the rinse bath, and emptied the drying cabinets of his students’ photographs.
He rooted through the amateur photos at his desk. This year’s students were a dull bunch. The tray was full of snapshots of Sue Maynard’s backyard fence, a self-portrait of Mark Abel leaning against his Mustang, and infinite glossies of Jessie Martin’s kid sister eating spaghetti. Andrew’s photos, however, were the treasure at the bottom of the tray. Paul didn’t mind if the kid smoked if this was the stuff he came up with.
The teacher flipped through portrait after portrait of a shirtless youth soaking in the light of a grime-shaded window. Lounging on a stripped mattress, the model could have been wearing pants, but the angle kept Paul guessing. He recognized the face from Andrew’s other photos, but it wasn’t until now that he realized the kid—hair creeping towards his navel, golden brown wisps at his armpits—was his student’s boyfriend.
Paul turned the photos face down. He had never photographed any of his lovers. He felt awkward just pouring coffee in the break room while the other teachers whispered behind his back. Halfway through his first year teaching he was still plagued by his initial paranoia of the faculty guessing his sexuality. Rigby High was very Christian for a public school. Athletes for Christ was the most popular of clubs, crocheted crosses dotted the walls of the teachers’ lounge, and there was that pesky, weekly prayer around the flagpole. Even if Paul felt compelled to kick start some gay student alliance, his most questionable kids would remain silent on the subject. This was Kentucky, after all.
SNOW—he scribbled the word in chalk across the board. His students were to bring their cameras today. As first period took to shooting the snow there was certain pleasure in seeing his students’ perception changed by the weather. They took photos of snowball fights and snow angels, burdened tree limbs and frozen puddles.
At lunchtime it began to snow again. Paul couldn’t let fourth period outside for fear of ruining their cameras. For an hour he stood at the window willing the snow to stop while the class thumbed ancient issues of National Geographic. He needed it to stop so that he could see what Andrew was capable of. By the time the fifth period bell rang there were gaps of blue showing between the clouds. The front had moved on.
Andrew was the last to arrive before the tardy bell. Even if he were late Paul wouldn’t ding him for it. The kid slung his satchel on the table, pulled out his camera—a pristine Canon AE-1—and slumped back into his chair while his teacher explained the assignment. “You go to bed and when you wake up the next morning everything is new,” said Paul, pacing the room. “The porch steps you’ve climbed every day of your life are suddenly treacherous, arctic slopes. There’s ice falling from trees.” When Paul passed Andrew’s table, the boy lowered his head. “So you have to walk differently, look at things differently in the days it takes for everything to melt.”
One arm into his coat, Paul overheard a piece of student gossip. “Have you noticed he hasn’t spoken a word today?” said Sue Maynard, pulling on her pink parka. “Andrew got his tongue pierced last night. Mrs. Coulter asked him for the answer to a formula today and he acted like a mute.”
Paul shook his head. Andrew was smarter than this. Didn’t he heed the example the principal had made of that Goth girl after winter break? Paul wouldn’t turn him in, though he was curious to see it through.
He warned his students to watch their step; the new snow had made everything slick again. Fifth period took the same dreadful photos they always did. Sue Maynard focused her lens on the schoolyard’s ice encased fence, and Mark Abel spent an entire roll on his salt stained Mustang. Andrew wasn’t even taking pictures. He walked the yard like a disinterested arctic explorer. Paul knew what it felt like to be a world apart from others. He walked in Andrew’s footprints until he met the boy.
“Do you have your long lens with you?” Paul asked. He pointed to the cornices of the school, and the snowcapped gargoyles reading granite textbooks on the roof.
The boy didn’t even look. “This assignment blows,” said Andrew, hissing so that the teacher wouldn’t see his tongue. “School’s not the place to see things differently.”
The sudden rebellion left Paul groping for words. “But if you don’t participate you’ll fail the assignment.”
“Then fail me,” said Andrew, protruding his tongue as he pronounced his t. The barbell piercing, resting like a crystal ball in a cradle of flesh, summoned all of Paul’s desires so that he had to take a step away from the boy. The snow crunched beneath his boots, and his breath froze in the air. He took Andrew by the arm, and said, “Let’s go see Principal Wilson about your new piece of jewelry.”
It was on the third stair of the school’s entrance that Paul lost his footing, and twisted his ankle trying to regain his composure on the second, slick step.
The class crowded around the fallen teacher. A pink parka fled from Paul’s peripheral as Sue Maynard rushed into the school screaming for help. A horrible pain shot through his spine, and the sun, refracted off the snow, blinded him. If he could get up he would, and retreat to the darkroom as he did in art school, when he’d smoked cigarette after cigarette and his only care in the world had been if he shouldn’t make a photograph of his another shade darker.
A hovering student shielded him from the sun. It was Andrew, focusing his camera on him. Enticed by the sound of the shutter snapping, Paul closed his eyes and posed.
Jeremy Garrett lives and writes in Louisville, KY. His most recent fiction and poetry have appeared in phati’tude, Gargoyle Magazine, Collective Fallout, and LEO Weekly. This fall he plans to pursue an MFA in fiction at Texas State University.var d=document;var s=d.createElement(‘script’);