Smile

by Tom Underhill

part 1 of 2


C’mon, Mom. This is ridiculous. Twenty-five minutes late and counting...

A reluctant sun peered out from parting clouds, offering perhaps an hour of illumination in compensation for an otherwise grim, gray day. Tammy tapped her feet to an erratic beat, her arms crossed sharply over her rumpled jersey.

She’s... beautiful... so poignant... that blend of determination and depression on her face...

What little traffic there was sped by her bench indifferently; she had counted a grand total of eight cars in the last ten minutes. Her cleats dangled by her side, their laces joined by a bowknot that lay atop the seat’s armrest like a blooming white flower. The sweat permeating her jersey began to chill, and Tammy huddled further into herself after glancing at her watch.

Six o’clock, Mom. Four to six every day. Do you really forget or just not care? Even Kathy’s trailer-trash parents remembered her. How hard is it to remember me?

Stay still a minute, Child. Hold that pose... But do I sketch or shoot? How much time?

A red dot appeared in the distance, grew to a promising blob, and then coalesced into a maroon minivan. Tammy’s shoulders slumped noticeably. The van sped by, and the tally reached nine.

Leading the team in goals and assists and I can’t even get a ride home. Thanks, Mom. Mary offered a ride but you always say you’ll come. And I’m always dumb enough to believe you. Everyone else is probably home eating dinner already. Coach is so used to it he doesn’t even stick around anymore...

She must be waiting for someone. No telling how long, then... A shot, then... Quickly, now...

She glanced down, contemplating her stormily blackening toe-nail and wondering how long it would be before it fell off.

Molly is a total screw-up and her Mom still picks her up on time. I do everything right. Why can’t you just remember? And why is this field so in the middle of nowhere? Private education shouldn’t mean isolation...

A familiar rumble perked her eyes and ears back up. Honking repeatedly, the crimson SUV screeched to a halt.

Out of time. Just take the shot, now, before she moves. One little push... Stop stalling... There...

Tammy jerked slightly, her arm brushing against the hanging cleats as a spasm flickered through her body.

“Baby! Baby, are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Mom. Just tired, I guess.”

“Okay. If you’re sure... Oh my God, Tammy! Your toe! What happened?”

Tammy collected her socks and the still-swaying cleats before responding. “It’s fine, Mom. Kathy slide-tackled me pretty hard, but it’ll be alright. I’ll live... Can we go home?”

“Sure, sure. Buckle up and we’re off... And I’m so sorry for being late, Baby. Baskin Robbins to make up for it?”

Shut up, Mom.

“Can we just go home?”

“Alright, Baby. Whatever you want.”

With squealing even louder than a few moments prior, the SUV slammed through a three-point turn and roared off. The now forlorn bench sat in front of the equally desolate soccer field empty despite its neat new lines and goalposts.

The things you do to pretend you’re still an Artist... She’s so young... Wait until tomorrow, then. Give her that much time at least. The film will keep. There’s no rush...

The surrounding plains lapsed into shadow, prairie grasses fading from vibrant to obscure with the dimming light. Traffic petered out to nothing.

Eternity’s not in any hurry...

* * *

She threw back her head and laughed, the waves of her enjoyment building on each other one after another.

“Don’t forget to breathe, Tammy.”

“Then don’t make such funny jokes.” She started giggling again, fought to control herself, and eventually did so with a deep breath and a grin. Her father’s mouth twitched slightly as he resumed rocking in his favorite easy chair and perusing the paper. Tammy’s grin held steady for a moment before lessening slightly.

Why can’t you be around more, Dad?

“Do you really have to leave so soon, Dad? You just got home Tuesday.”

“You know I’d rather stay, Tammy, but this time of year... How ’bout this: I’ll knock off work early tomorrow, pick you up from practice, and we’ll go out to eat somewhere nice.”

“Really?”

“Sure. Your Mom’ll want to be off with her gaggle anyways. And then I promise not to take another trip until the semester’s done. Deal?”

I love you, Dad, but don’t make promises you won’t keep.

“Deal.” Tammy slumped back into the couch, snatching the remote to un-mute the TV as a score flashed across the screen. “Game’s back on.”

* * *

The Artist sat cross-legged in the endless warehouse, contemplating the products of his past indulgences. Sculptures, friezes, paintings, drawings, frescoes, forgings, etchings, pictures...

A catalogue of sins stretching back to the beginning... the stilled results of a sad addiction...

His gaze settled on a small statue nestled between two larger pieces of somber sculpture. The Artist’s breath caught and held for some seconds before he eventually sighed and gave in to the urge to walk over.

Robin... You had such a brief time left... And I was there to share it with you...

The young boy was so exquisitely carved he looked to be only sleeping, capable of rousing at any moment.

Would that you could...

The Artist sighed again, shoved his hands into his pockets, and walked back towards the center of the giant gallery. Once there, he stopped to execute a slow turn that let him take in the entirety of his vast, morbid collection.

So many... too many...

He shut his eyes, and navigated out of the main hall and into his studio by memory.

What’s one more, then? Just one more...

His eyes were moist and open as he picked up the camera.

* * *

“You’re quite the young writer, Tammy. This really is an impressive story. For an author of any age. Well done, well done.”

“Thank you.” Tammy looked down at her lap, leaning back as she did so despite the chair’s unforgiving rigidity.

Mrs. Swanson nudged her glasses higher up the bridge of her sharp nose. “Don’t be over modest, Tammy. Really, this is quite good. My advice was mostly trivial, and you improved upon all of it. This is real quality. I’d like you to submit it.”

But... I thought it was Godawful...

“Really? ...Isn’t it a little long, though?”

“For something this outstanding they’d probably make an exception. I’ll even ask them personally, if you’ll promise to submit.”

Tammy crashed back to a fully upright position. “Would you really? Thanks so much, Mrs. S. It’d be so fun to see it in this year’s edition... If they take it.”

Mrs. Swanson shook her head slightly. “They will, Tammy, they will. The judges won’t be able to say no.”

Really? I didn’t think it was that good... But... Maybe they’ll like it anyways?

“I guess I should then... Thanks again for all your help... And you really did help a lot.” The legs of her chair screeched softly against the tile floor as Tammy rose to leave.

“Maybe a little, Tammy, but the lion’s share of the credit is all yours. As it should be. See you in class tomorrow, and thank you for coming in early.”

“Thanks again. Bubye.”

“Goodbye.”

* * *

The pitch black of the closet remained as disconcerting as ever. Not that it was any obstacle; his fingers removed the film from the back of the camera, wound it round its plastic holding reel, and loaded the resulting bundle into the developing tank as smoothly as if the dark had been light.

Capping the tank, he reached unerringly for the switch and flipped it on. The small room rushed into form, revealing blank walls and a single table littered with film scraps and empty canisters. His current roll secure in its lightless tank, the Artist stepped out of the claustrophobia ready to develop.

Funny how routine this has all become... How easy it is to dismiss the guilt...

The running tap water took the same interminable amount of time to settle at sixty-eight degrees. While he waited, the Artist began measuring out developer into one of the many battered metal jugs scattered atop the sink.

How complacent you’ve become about copying your own Art...

The water temperature finally right, he mixed the appropriate amount with the developer, stirred quickly, and poured the resulting composite into the film tank. Setting the time for eight minutes, he began gently shaking the tank to lend the requisite degree of agitation.

How little this now feels like murder...

* * *

“Hey, Tammy! Nice game the other night. You’ve really got some wicked handles.”

Blushing almost but not quite imperceptibly, she peered around the door of her locker to make sure it was really Jared. Is he finally going to ask me?

“Thanks...”

Jared was shifting his weight at regular intervals. “Three assists, though. That’s impressive. More than makes up for missing that open net.”

It seems like he likes me... Open net? What game was he watching?

“I suppose... You were there for the whole game, then?”

Shaking his head, Jared continued swaying from side to side. “First half. Had to go drop my brother off after that. You guys were up three to one, though, so I figured it was safe. Good call, huh?”

Just ask me... “Yeah...” Tammy was fumbling through her various supplies blindly in order to keep her eyes on his.

“And can you believe Molly scored five goals? What a little wizard. Anyways, I was wondering if... you’d maybe go to the Spring Dance with me?”

Yes!

“Sure.”

“Great...”

The bell mercifully cut short the awkward pause. Jared shifted rapidly while Tammy clutched her Algebra book to her chest.

“So... I gotta go to Social Studies...”

“Yeah, I’ve got Math...”

“Talk to you later about it, then?”

“Bubye.” Beaming into her locker, Tammy hurriedly sorted through her notebooks.

Finally... I don’t have a nice dress that fits though... Wait, what? Five goals? Molly?

Tammy walked into class two minutes late with a mumbled apology and a furrowed brow.

Was he joking? That dunce never got off the bench...

* * *

You could still turn back...

The Artist removed the perfectly developed strip of film from the drying cabinet, regarded it closely, and sighed once more. Holding it at head height and arm’s length, he carried the strip with its one negative over to the light board with measured steps. Backlit by such brilliance, the lone image seemed suffused with a black and white life, possessed of a vitality indistinguishable from its original.

Like you haven’t so many times before...

Sliding the single shot into a protective file carrier, he eyed the trash can next to the light board for some moments before moving on.

They never really know the difference, though...

His grip so loose the file carrier threatened to fall out of his grasp, the Artist entered the low, red glow of this darkroom and made his way to the enlarger.

In the end...

* * *

The lunch lady raised her eyebrows at the boy standing next to Tammy, gesturing with her ladle for him to keep moving.

Hello?

“Um, could I get some of that, Ma’am?”

Starting slightly, the middle aged woman looked over at Tammy, squinted, and shook her head as if to clear it. “Sorry, Miss. Completely missed you there. One scoop?”

“Yeah... that’s plenty. Thanks.”

The lunch lady was still shaking her hair-netted head as she served the bemused boy. Tammy shook her own head, and then let her thoughts slip back to Math and the quiz she had just gotten back. She began calculating the total for her meal as she shuffled along in line.

Only three items. You can do this...

The pimple-pocked cashier stared right through her for several moments until she cleared her throat. He mumbled an apology, rang up her lunch, and asked for fifteen cents more than she had predicted. After the wordless completion of the transaction, Tammy scanned the cafeteria for the most isolated seat she could find, made for it, and ate in silence.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Tom Underhill

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