There are precisely two types of people in this world. The first are those daring few showcasing tasteful erotic photography on the walls of a small art gallery located in the sort of affluent coastal California “community” where everyone drives the latest model luxury vehicle, grows their own pot, and insists on charging their rocks by moonlight. (For the sake of legalities, the name of this particular town escapes me at the moment). Meanwhile, the other sort aren’t complete idiots. And as a man we’ll call Harold stood there in a mostly empty art gallery, staring up at a clock hung between a pair of before-and-after photos of a sticky motel room, he took solace in the fact that while his idiocy was on full display, at least nobody was around to witness it.
“Hey,” a voice said, shattering the silence and dragging Harold kicking and screaming back into the harsh, unflattering light of his own failure with a thundering lilt.
Harold turned to a pink faux hawk in horned-rimmed glasses and a pantsuit, started to scream something about phoney capitalist elites sucking on the teat of artistic integrity, then thought better of it. “Hey, Brennifer.”
“Yeah,” he lied. “I think so.”
Brennifer looked to the empty gallery, then back to Harold. “Wow. Really?”
Harold looked at Brennifer for a moment, wondering if the dead-eyed woman across from him sold either scented oils or pills when she wasn’t failing to sell other people’s artwork for money. Pills, he thought. Definitely pills. “Have we sold anything yet?”
She shook her head, Nuh-uh. “But if it helps any, I’ve curated worse showings than this.”
“No. This is probably the worst.”
Harold considered this, then briefly imagined himself running through the gallery’s glass storefront and cackling his way down Main Street until finally succumbing to blood loss. “Thanks, Brennifer–“
“I didn’t finish.”
Harold shook his head, Nuh-uh. “I was going to say, ‘Thanks, Brennifer, for stomping on the shattered remains of my hopes and dreams.'”
Brennifer hung her head. “Oh.”
Harold turned back to the clock. “It’s fine. I didn’t want to have to carry home what little self-respect I had left.”
The hours didn’t slip away so much as they shuffled by, fell over, cried that they’d fallen and can’t get back up, waited a moment, and then slowly got back to their feet before finally getting on with it. During this time, Harold decided his feet hurt and got a chair. And from atop an uneven, wholly uncomfortable chair that creaked and clattered every single time he shuffled his weight, Harold’s attention alternated between the clock on the wall and the scattered handful of disinterested locals and disinterested, broke tourists drifting in and out of the gallery. At one point, a pleasant man with thinning hair and a thick Romanian accent briefly considered purchasing that pair of seedy motel photos on either side of the clock. But as the pleasant man later told his equally pleasant, squattish wife, “I would love to buy it, but that angry little man looked like he needed it more.”
This continued for much of the afternoon until a wrinkly potato of a woman with a green visor and bad highlights in her hair asked Brennifer why the lady hadn’t put her phone away and asked the shaggy homeless man in the back to leave.
“You need to leave,” Brennifer said.
“What, leave?” Harold asked, looking up from his chair, accompanied by yet another slow, echoing creak that hung between them. “Why? This is my show.”
“You’re scaring everyone away.”
He cocked an eyebrow, scoffing, “‘Scaring everyone away?’ There’s nobody here, Brennifer!” He gestured to the still mostly empty gallery, locked eyes with a concerned couple in matching shirts, watched as they slipped out the door without any sudden movements, and then turned back to Brennifer. “Okay. Maybe you have a point.”
“Excuse me,” a voice tittered.
Harold and Brennifer turned ever so slightly to their right to find a petite woman smiling a confused smile. She was a cool forty poured into a silk sundress, dark curls kissing the bare, tanned skin of her shoulders. Only the faint hint of laugh lines appearing about a pair of bedroom eyes as a devilish smile–
“Can I help you, Ma’am?” Brennifer squawked.
Harold shooed Brennifer away with a wave of his hand, but without so much as a look her way. “Go vlog in the street, or something, will ya?”
Brennifer considered this, pretended to care, thought better of it, then floated away to do exactly as Harold suggested.
“Is she going to be okay?” the woman asked.
Harold shrugged, Who knows? “How can I help you, Ms…”
Harold’s voice trailed off, and his words hung there a moment before the woman realized the man in front of her wasn’t simply at a loss for words. “Sophia,” she said, extending her hand.
Harold smiled, and did just that. “How can I help you, Ms. Sophia?”
Sophia looked at her hand, back to Harold, then withdrew her hand without another word. “Aren’t you the janitor?”
“What? No.” Harold replied. “I’m the photographer.”
“Yeah,” he said, gesturing to the many photographs hanging on the wall, but specifically to the reasonably sized sign by the door with both Harold’s name and face printed on it. “These are all my–“
“I’m so sorry,” she apologized, sneaking another look at the sign by the door, “Harold.”
“Did you actually think I was the janitor?”
“I mean, you dress so…” she trailed off, gesturing at Harold.
Harold sighed and shook his head. “No, I totally get it.”
“Poor,” she clarified. “You dress like a poor–“
“Yeah. I got it.”
She looked at him. Did you, though?
A silence fell between them until Brennifer was nearly rundown in the street by a passing bike messenger while she complained about her crummy day at work to strangers on the internet. Her subsequent shouting and swearing, though frowned upon by everyone else around her, provided a conveniently timed distraction for both Harold and Sophia.
“So,” Harold started, turning to the not-screaming woman beside him. “Sophia. Did you see something you like?”
“Actually,” Sophia replied, still seized on the pink-haired woman still shouting at the long-gone cyclist. “I wanted to inquire about a possible private session.”
Sophia turned toward a photograph of a naked woman wistfully looking out across Santiago Canyon at sunset, and sighed.
“Okay,” Harold blinked.
As she shared some emotionally charged story about her fading beauty and the men who once painted images of her, Sophia drifted from one image to the next, pausing dramatically as necessary. Harold watched this from his creaky chair, but mostly tuned in and out until Sophia stopped long enough that he simply assumed she had finished.
“I would love to photograph you, Sophia,” he said, still creaking in that damned chair as he did so. “But, why me?”
She considered this for a moment. “Do you believe in fate, Harold?”
Harold didn’t consider this at all. “No, not really.”
And then for the sake of dramatic conflict, it was at this time that Sophia’s previously unmentioned husband appeared.
He was a square jaw in khaki shorts. A head of luscious, perfectly coiffed hair wearing socks with sandals. Broad shoulders and meaty arms with a tiny wristwatch. Not since Charlton Heston descended from that mountain top in his finest robe and slippers has a chiseled work of divine art commanded the attention of all those in attendance. So it didn’t surprise Harold that, even as he stood on his chair, he was but a boy, in both stature and dress, to the animated slab of beef before him. And all he could think to say was this: “Is that a tailored polo shirt?” (It was.)
“Harold,” Sophia interjected, just before Harold could physically inspect the beefy man’s arms without permission. “This is my husband, Oliver.”
“Doctor,” Oliver corrected, extending his hand to Harold like a Greek God reaching out to a chimp, “actually.”
“Of course you are,” the chimp said without thinking.
But before Harold could even begin to consider constructing a lie to hide this strange and confusing mix of fear, insecurity, and pure animal attraction, he realized that what can only be described as Oliver’s massive paw was crushing his teeny-tiny baby-man hand. And as the bones and joints bent and popped in ways they never evolved to do, Harold recalled a date with a petite Vietnamese woman at a Japanese seafood restaurant. He couldn’t remember the woman’s name, or even why this scenario occurred in the first place. But he did remember the way he struggled to crack the shell of a crab with the big metal cracker they’d given him. And the way he felt uncomfortable watching his date rip and tear crab leg after lobster claw with her bare hands.
“I said, ‘You’re crushing my hand.'”
Oliver released what remained of Harold’s hand. “Sorry.”
“Oliver’s an experimental surgeon,” Sophia added, for some reason.
“Experimental? What, like ripping people open with his bare hands?”
“Wait,” Oliver said, with a not-insignificant amount of concern in his voice. “What have you heard about my bear hands?”
Harold looked at Sophia. “Is he serious?”
“Sweetie?” Oliver said, his eyes never leaving Harold, which made Harold all sorts of uncomfortable, if we’re being perfectly honest.
“Why are you introducing me to the janitor?”
Harold looked over and quickly examined himself in the glass of a photograph depicting a young interracial couple mid-coitus beneath a pier, the sunset behind them, the long shadows of the pillars caressing their naked flesh as the waves threaten to consume them whole. All-in-all, a rather impressive image. And it hardly took any convincing from Harold to get the couple to sign a release form. “Do I really dress that bad?”
“He’s a photographer, Oliver.”
“Always good to have a hobby, I suppose. But why are we speaking with the help?”
Harold snapped his attention back to the beefy man and pretty lady. “Rude.”
“No,” Sophia said. “This is his show. These are his photographs on the wall.”
“My face is on the poster, man.”
“Bit gratuitous though,” Oliver added as he looked about at the skillful, if poorly marketed work around them, “all these pictures of naked people and their wobbly bits. Don’t people share this sort of thing on the internet for free these days?”
“It’s okay,” Harold said. “He’s not wrong.”
Sophia rolled her eyes. “Yes. Well. I want to book Harold’s services for a private session.”
“Is that right?” Oliver asked, once more staring deep into Harold’s soul.
Harold shrugged. “Yeah, I don’t get it either.”
“You want to take private, erotic photographs my wife?”
“Possibly in some state of undress.”
“And you want to be paid to do such a thing?”
And just when it seemed like something might come about from all this awful tension, Brennifer took a moment from her nonsensical ramblings on the internet to stick her head back inside the gallery long enough to ask if someone’s latest model luxury vehicle was parked in the handicap spot across the street.
“Yes,” Oliver replied. “Why?”
“Because they’re towing it, Dude,” Brennifer duh’ed.
“Not again,” Oliver groaned. “Okay. Look. Henry?”
“Harold,” Harold and Sophia corrected.
“Don’t correct a man when he’s giving you a job, Henry.”
“Yes, Sir,” Harold said, realized what he’d done (in response to Oliver, with his life…), then accepted how stupid he truly was.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea to have a total stranger take erotic photos of my naked wife.”
“I mean, when you put it that way–“
“Right,” Harold conceded, spineless, gutless. “Well. Let me get you a business card, and–“
“No,” Oliver said, shaking his head and slapping Harold’s hand away from his own pocket. “Nope. No business cards.”
“What the hell?”
Oliver wiped his hands clean on the back of Sophia’s dress. “I don’t do business cards.”
Harold puzzled this, then decided it hurt too much. “What?”
Oliver dismissed this with a wave of his hand, muttered something about poor people, then took Sophia by the wrist. “Don’t worry about it, Hank. We’ll find you.”
Harold attempted to correct Oliver once more, saw Oliver and Sophia were somehow already out the door, then stepped off his chair.
“Did he threaten me?” Harold asked no one in particular. “‘Cuz that sounded like he was threatening me, maybe.”
“A little,” Brennifer said, still standing in the gallery’s doorway. “But if it helps any, they totally towed his car away. He’s super pissed.”
Harold smiled. “Yeah. That does kinda help.”