By Randy Drover — Honourable mention for the Cuffer Prize 2013
There was a hunger in the way he leaned forward. Long-lensed camera resting on his angled knee, shoulders rounded and taut. Finger anxiously snapping pictures of the girls in the swimming hole.
— Photo by Thinkstock.com
There were six of them, young girls with milky skin. Leslie Harris with her almond birthmark, and her pudgy friend, soft and fat like a summer rose. Some of the girls wore swimsuits, and some, ill-prepared after school, swam in underwear, with wet white shirts clinging to their figures.
They would change behind a boulder, in perfect view of Carmine’s far-off window, slopping their wet shirts on top of the rock and sending streams of water trickling down in patterns that made each of Carmine’s pictures unique. Leslie Harris rolled the sodden nylon swimsuit down her belly and hips.
And there, on the trail where the girls had dropped their bags, was a dirt bike. Todd Martin’s dirt bike, and Todd Martin sat on top, and he was not watching Leslie.
Two a.m. and Carmine was still awake and picturing Todd Martin’s pockmarked face. The panic began when the glint of blue and red lights flooded the bedroom ceiling. Carmine sank into his bed, being swallowed by the damp mattress, and then slinked onto the floor. He hooked his finger in a hole in the flowery lace curtain, pulling it gently to the side. One car, no one inside.
He was scrambling now, for excuses and a clean shirt. For the padlock that should have been on the spare bedroom door. He waited a minute at the top of the stairs for that hard knock on the front storm door.
The officer had his back turned when Carmine opened up. It was Dicky Cook, the only officer in Newfoundland cut like a bag of milk.
“Wasn’t sure if I should wake you or not, Carmine,” he says.
“I’m aw - wake.” Carmine’s stammered since childhood, usually stopping mid-word to hold a syllable for a moment longer.
“Some young fella on a dirt bike is all, painting graffiti on the shop. Not unusual for a place this rundown, but it’s too dark to make anything out tonight. Is the shop still open or what?”
“Not — since my father died.”
His father’s death had provided Carmine with two things: responsibility of running the family auto shop single-handed, and long overdue freedom. The Closed sign has hung in the window since the funeral last winter, and since, the shop has become a model of rural decay. This newfound spare time was spent peering out the back window, and developing his pictures in private.
Dicky talked for another couple of minutes about the legalities of graffiti and where it stood in the hierarchy of petty crime, and then asked if Carmine would have a look at his Dodge on Wednesday.
It wasn’t graffiti. There were three words smeared along the clapboard with black paint and a thick bristled square-top paintbrush. Carmine was dead in his tracks, staring blankly at the wall, crippling fear holding him in place. Stomach feeling like he’d chugged that pint of oil paint. Picking the skin from his thumb with his fingernail, his entire history as a voyeur washed through his head in a river. In a flood that carried cars and telephone poles that were beating off the sides of his skull. The river was dammed the second he thought about the ramifications of what he’s been doing.
Carmine found paint thinner on a shelf in the shed and took a bucket of rags from the auto shop. He scrubbed until the words “I saw you” appeared a shade whiter than the rest of the clapboard.
It was still dark when Carmine lit the fire. He poured gasoline over the front seats of a rusted-out Volkswagen and lit a picture of a blond; naked except for the towel she was drying her leg with. The blaze caught fast, bellowing up black smoke from the leather and foam. Little by little Carmine burned 17 boxes of photos, fanning the pictures out in his hands like playing cards, then tossing them through the busted window.
There were three shopping bags full of old undeveloped film that he threw on top. The hissing startled Carmine into taking a step back. The canisters erupted, popping and exploding in every direction. Carmine hardly noticed the fire spreading, charring patches of dried grass. Carmine was watching them burn, swearing he could see the girls flash in the coloured flame, projected on the smoky skyline.
Carmine was sitting shirtless against the back wall of the spare bedroom, staring at the window from across the room. Staring until there were two windows, side by side. Long-lensed camera resting on the cushioned chair. The heavy light giving each of Carmine’s ribs a shadow. It was 28 degrees, and he could hear their voices calling from the water.
He crept to the corner of the window to check for Todd Martin’s dirt bike. To see if any girls were glaring at his house.
He pinched the lace curtain, pulled it gently to the side. A dozen girls, no bike. That almond birthmark.
His fingers fondled the camera strap. The siren song was getting louder, backed by splashing water — then the screeching of an old fan belt.
He met Dicky in the shop, and Carmine’s hands started moving as they once had. Smell of oil invoking memories of passing tools to his father.
He was under the hood for half an hour when the engine started purring, and he caught himself in a halfway grin. And some of it started to come back. A little came back, like some shine in a rusted bumper.
He went outside to fetch Dicky, who’d wandered off during his smoke. “Weren’t long getting that mess off,” he says. “Must have taken you all night.”
“I get up e - early.” Carmine was putting on a pair of thin cotton gloves, a nail-biting trick he’d learned from his mother.
“What happened over here?”
Dicky was pointing to the remnants of the fire. Carmine had towed what was left of the car, but the ground was still littered with mounds of glass and ash and the corners of burnt photos. Tree line singed from the heat.
“Car fire,” Carmine says. “Left the b - attery charging t - oo long.”
“You should be careful.”
Dicky’s face turned halfway serious, like he had put back on his uniform.
“Fires can be out for days, sometimes months, and all the while they’re burning underground, clinging to roots and chaff. Then on some dry summer day, the fire comes back.”
Carmine thinks about that all the time.
Randy Drover is an award-winning writer living in
St. John’s. He works in publishing and is a poetry editor at Riddle Fence.
Next week: Randy Drover’s “The Grace”