The Story of a Dirty Picture

I’ve talked about Davy Rothbart before. He’s a great guy and we met several years ago as he was starting up his now-huge Found empire. Right now, I’m halfway through his new essay collection, My Heart Is an Idiot (the title of which is also the name of an awesome Davy documentary by David Meiklejohn). It’s another gritty, beautiful creation by one of the most endearing dudes I know. I’m so excited to introduce Davy at Powell’s on Monday night.

Davy the dreamboat

A couple of years ago I was excited to have a short story in the Found-inspired anthology, Requiem For a Paper Bag (Simon & Schuster). It was a different sort of Found book–instead of photos of actual found artifacts, the book includes stories and essays about found stuff. It included a ton of cool writers and celebrities including Susan Orlean, Jim Carroll, Seth Rogan, Miranda July, Aimee Bender, Sarah Vowell, Andy Samberg, and a bunch of others. My story is one of the strangest things I’ve ever written and I was honored that Davy included it. I thought I’d use this occasion to post it on my blog. So, here it is–now on your Internets for the first time!!

I Was Torn From a Book

A young boy found me between cars in the church parking lot. He held me with both hands and carefully blew the dirt off me. He folded me twice and stuck me in his pocket. He walked somewhere that was silent and full of trees. He took me out and unfolded me. He stared for a long time, his eyes darting off to the side and blinking. The upper right corner was burned from a fire, the mark just a flicker away from my face. He folded me up again, but this time added another fold. I was tight in his pocket for several days it seemed. I didn’t know where I was.

I used to be complete, snug in a book. Warm. Surrounded, I’m sure, by other images of beautiful woman.

I remember being at the photographer’s house, in her studio, posing, primping, drinking wine for five hours. Only one shot from the session was used for her book. I’m on my hands and knees, looking just above the camera’s lens. Biting my bottom lip. Wearing a pair of black panties that fit too tight and a Cleopatra wig. She told me to bend my arms like I was doing a pushup. More, she said. A little more.

My breasts touched the floor just barely and the flash went off.

That’s me. Page 65.

I wonder what happened to the other shots that day. I never saw them. My whole day is captured in a moment when I felt the least in control. But here I am.

This book, this retrospective of an early career, was kept in the library of that photographer. Her students looked at me often and sometimes took me home with them. I noticed the different ways they looked at me. The men would nod at me in some vague way and paw me with their flat, dry fingers. The women were different. Sometimes they would point at me and laugh. A few of them would linger and stare.

The boy took me out of his pocket and moved me to his pillow. There was a tear in its seam and he put me inside. It was better there. I imagined I was a cloud and when his fingers would brush me, I wanted real skin and a shape. There’s nothing more I wanted than to have hands. To put my fingers through my boy’s fingers and to go under his covers with him.

Yes, I started to think of him as My Boy. His eyes dreaming all sorts of things when he looked at me. I didn’t care that he was so young. He was the only one who looked at me in real awe.

We both wanted me to be real.

A man once looked at me with loud, pounding music everywhere. He would look at another page sometimes too. But he’d always turn back to me and bite his lip.

It would start off calm. And then his eyes would switch from a casual search to a look to a look of business. His shirt would come off. The page would turn. I heard the click of his belt buckle, the sound of leather sliding through belt loops.

The boy showed me to his sister and her eyes danced all around me. “Do you think she would like me?” the boy asked her.

“You shouldn’t be thinking of this stuff yet,” she said.

“Do you think mom would kill me if she found this?” the boy said.

“Maybe,” she said. She scowled at me and then looked at the boy. “Give it to me and I’ll make sure she doesn’t find out.”

The boy folded me back up and told her to go away. I felt myself become a cloud again. I felt a wave of pride like something fought over. Then a nothingness, then sadness.

I remember being ripped out. The man seemed so studious as he folded me back and forth in a careful straight line. His hand pulled me slowly out of the book. Meat coming off a bone. He held me up to the light. I felt suddenly limp in the air. He put tape on me and stuck me to a metal wall. There were pages from other books or magazines that had been torn and stuck around me. It felt dirty and cold all around me, with a pungent smell of rubber and gasoline. The man wore glasses and overalls. He spent most of his time underneath a car, his legs stiff and sticking out, as if he was sleeping. The radio played voices, not music. Sometimes I heard laughing and I didn’t know where it was coming from. Once in a while, the man would look at me like he was looking into a mirror. He’d take off his glasses and rub his eyes and smile. I must have reminded him of something good.

The boy’s mother saw him looking at me. It was late in the day, almost dark outside. The boy looked sick and half-asleep. He had stayed home from school. I was smoothed out on the pillow with shaky fingers. He took something out of his pocket. It was a school photograph of a girl. Her hair was a long swooping blonde wave that ended neatly just above the white border of the photo. Her mouth looked too full and experienced for her age. Her eyes were open wide, as if she had been startled. He placed this face gently on top of mine, positioned it so we might somehow merge in his mind. I felt ashamed in that moment. Like those uncomfortable moments when the photographer kept saying More, more, a little more. But then his bedroom door opened and I was swiped away with his frantic hand. The two elements of his fantasy fell separately to the floor. His mother stood there in the doorway, her eyes alarmed and recoiling. Her whole face grimacing. She turned and walked away quickly, as if she were being chased.

I try not to think of the fire because fire means death. I just remember his legs under that car and the heat suddenly everywhere. His legs did not move. I thought he would shoot out from under there like I had seen him do before. There were loud popping sounds and flames splashing like waves against the walls. The smell of burning flesh and metal. The man’s work boots were flickering torches on the end of his stick legs. One wall collapsed and a burst of smoke rushed to the sky. It was raining. Thank God for the rain. I blew up in the air for a moment, fluttering with a small lip of fire trying to eat me from one corner. When I settled on a patch of concrete, someone stepped on me and the flame near my head stopped.

Smoke and water filled the air for a long time. I realized that it probably wasn’t raining after all. It was merely a couple of firemen wrestling their thick thrashing fire hoses. It eventually became dark after the flames died. Someone turned on a floodlight and people began to pick up some of the debris. Some of them were crying and some of them talked softly and discreetly, even laughing quietly. I was thrown into a cardboard box which was tossed into the back of a pickup. I was smothered by a fireplace kind of smell. Burnt wood, paper turned to ash, the sick stench of melted plastic and Styrofoam. Not long after the truck drove away, a bunch of papers got loose and escaped out the back. I was glad to find myself slipping out too. But then the truck stopped and parked in front of church with a big glowing cross. Church of the Nazarene it said. A man and a woman stepped out of the truck and started grabbing some of the lost trash. But some had already rolled and tumbled away from their view. Screw it, the man said. They adjusted a few boxes in the back and continued on their way. I skidded across the parking lot all of that night, not sure if I was in heaven or hell.

The boy and his father had a talk about me. It was the first time I had heard his voice and it was unfamiliar, too loud for the house. I suspected that the father did not even live in this house. There was an uncomfortable tone to their talk. It sounded scripted, as if they feared the mother was listening on the other side of the door. The boy, my boy, told of how he found me but stopped short of saying why he kept me.

What does it make you think of, the boy’s father asked.

I don’t know, the boy answered without thought.

Let me see it, said the father.

My boy reached into his pillow and set me on the bed between them.

Is there any more in there? the father asked.

My boy shook his head and looked at his doorway. His mother was nowhere to be seen. The father took his glasses out of his shirt pocket and scooted closer to me.

Does this picture make you feel excited?

My boy looked at his father sideways, unsure of the question. The father’s eyes stayed locked on me a little too long. It’s not so bad, he finally said. He took off his glasses, slowly folded them into his pocket. Then he picked me up, folded me just as gently, hands shaking a little.

I thought I heard my boy starting to cry.

I was slipped back into the pillow.

The father’s voice got softer then. It’s okay, he whispered. Hush now. It’s okay.

I heard the father’s heavy steps walk over to the door and close it.

I’ll throw it away, my boy said.

No, no, no, said his father. There was a pause. Just hide it somewhere else, he finally said. Don’t let your mother find it. I’ll say that I took it.

Really? I heard the boy wipe his tears, his drippy nose.

They talked a while longer until the mother knocked on the door. Okay, said the father, I’ll see you later. He left his son’s room and talked to the mother in another room.

My boy took me out of the pillow. He unfolded me and gave me a look that was more guilty than I’d seen from him. He walked me to a wall and quickly took down one of the smaller posters. With a piece of tape he stuck me to the back of the poster and returned it to the wall. It felt good to be unfolded and safe. He stood there a moment and inspected the poster to make sure I wasn’t visible. I heard him sigh loudly and then his bedroom light went dark. I knew it might be a long time before I was seen again.

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