RUNNING SHAME: chapter 2

The driver’s seat of his GLC rocked back as he threw it into first gear, then slammed back down as he applied the brake at the intersection of the alley and Otis. How many times had he told himself to get that fixed? The fact he hadn’t done it yet spoke more to his wanting a constant reminder of Natalie than not being able to swing it financially. It would also have been a killer brag if he’d had any friends to tell it to.    

All he had was the memory of her hot, panting breath in his ear as she grinded down on him, thrusting him inside her, her arms wrapped around his neck, his hands kneading the sweaty skin on her gyrating torso, helping out with the motion. Then the sharp screech of metal and the unmooring of the seat, the manic clanking as their rutting increased, no attention paid to the broken welds until they were done and she collapsed forward onto him, her chest mashing into his, her laughter accompanied by a tiny scream as they relined back once again.   

“Fuck,” he said, popping the clutch too fast and stalling the engine in the bicycle lane of Otis, distracted by the intensity of the remembrance. He stamped on the break so he didn’t roll into traffic and the car creaked to a halt.

Since his breakup with Natalie, he’d sleepwalked through his days in a nightmarish fog.  He could sell film and camera accessories in a zombie-neutral kind of way, but photo shoots and anything to do with processing and developing film had been out of the question. The only time he halfway came out of it was when he masturbated. An animal with no concept of the true meaning of making love, he was all about the pressure build up and ecstatic release. The idea of having the responsibility of being a father had so terrified him. He’d had no qualms about begging Natalie to have an abortion.

In the end, it was Natalie who decided, and she’d done so without Theodore by her side. Ted wasn’t even sure what had happened. The months passed like the worst of bad dreams. Had she had the baby? He was curious, but not that curious. And so he had gotten off the road of from here to there to hide out in the blank spaces in between.

There was a break in the steady stream of automobiles and he pulled into traffic, letting out the clutch and smoothly sliding into gear this time with the precision of practiced muscle memory.  He knew the church, Prince of Peace on High Street: after a few jogs and turns, and stops and starts, he was there. He pulled up to the curb a block from the church and cranked his window shut, then realized Billy had not specified whether the job was a baptism or a wedding.

If it was a wedding, well, he wasn’t exactly looking forward to all the extra time on the job that a marriage required. Not to mention how it magnified the recent wreckage of his own personal life, reflected in the resplendent light of someone else realizing their dreams in the adoring gaze of the their significant other. For a photographer, a wedding was an all-day and half-the-night affair, what with the ceremony, then the reception: the insipid speeches, the bouquet, the smearing of the cake onto the newlyweds’ faces, the first dances, the zany antics of all the wasted groomsmen and drunken bridesmaids.

Oh God please let it be a christening, he thought. A quick prayer, some water. A bit of crying and maybe some cake. A family shot. Zing bam boom and you are out of there. Yes. Please God, let it be a baptism.

As he walked toward the church with his camera bag over his shoulder, his thoughts settled back into their deepest rut: You’re not even a man. You’re a fucking coward. In the olden days they’d have dragged you out of your house and executed you by now, or at least beat you to a bloody pulp. Natalie’s got uncles in the Long Island mafia. Holy shit, maybe someone really will come and drag me out and knock me off and it’s not even as though I don’t deserve it!

Despite being weighed down by his troubles, his mind temporarily rose above it enough to register the large amount of vehicles lining the streets, very probably meaning the ceremony was a wedding. Resigned to the extra time required for the shooting of a hitching ceremony, he was confused by the solemn organ music filtering onto the street as he drew closer to the building. It was unlike any prenuptial arrangement he’d ever heard, something of a plodding, depressing march more suited to a funeral.

 A funeral, he wondered, aghast at the idea of it. Finnegan’s Photography had never taken such an odd request before. Who in the hell wants photos of a funeral?  

Before all these questions could cycle through Ted’s brain, he was accosted by a lady who appeared conspicuously close to her own final rite of passage, all but certifying the fact that, unless this was one of those nursing home romances that went straight from the honeymoon to the crypt, a funeral it was.

“How delightful you made it, young man,” said the old lady, taking him by the arm. “My name is Genevieve. I’m the bride.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, madam,” said Ted, his sense of equilibrium reeling once more at Genevieve’s mention. “Uh, Am I early?”

“No,” said Genevieve, pulling Ted up the steps by his arm. “The fact is you’re a bit late.”

 “Pardon me, madam,” replied Ted, nonplussed at the rough handling by the surprisingly brutish woman. “I took this job on very short notice.”

 “Really, I don’t mean to be critical,” she grunted, hauling Ted up with her onto the landing. “But you’ve got to get your ass in gear!”

 Finally she unhanded him and they hurried toward the elaborately fashioned wooden doors. The music stopped and the double doors whooshed open automatically, then closed behind them. The priest on the dais in the front of the church recited a homily by rote.  It only took Ted a few seconds to guess the ‘groom’ (to Genevieve’s ‘bride’) was room temperature in the casket beneath the pulpit. The high-ceilinged acoustics of the church echoed with the concussion of Ted’s camera bag hitting the floor. Some of the mourners turned their heads and stared for a second before turning back in the direction of the Mass. The priest noted the newcomers’ presence with the briefest pause, before continuing on with his clerical duty.

 “Are you sure about this?” whispered Ted. 

 “Of course,” said Genevieve, raising her hands to the oak rafters. “I told everyone there would be pictures.”

Ted saw Genevieve was a bit cracked. He’d not be surprised if she had next walked down the aisle, climbed into the open casket and renewed her vows. The hybrid ceremony was neither a wedding nor a funeral, but some twisted amalgamation of the twain.  

“Well,” said Genevieve, pushing him forward with the tips of her outstretched fingers. “What are you waiting for?”

Obeying orders, Ted took a 30mm SLR out of the bag and screwed on an all-purpose variable zoom lens, attached a flash and clipped the battery pack onto his belt which he twisted at the waist to plug into the flash via a short extension cord. He glanced back at Genevieve and cocked an eyebrow. She waved her hands and shooed him forward.

Ted turned back and got to work. Judging his environment, he closed his lens to 11, counting on the church’s large stained glass windows to provide him with enough ambient light to be able to use a small F-stop that, in turn, would give him a luxuriously wide depth-of-field. He always kept the shutter speed at 1/60sec per frame. He could manipulate the light well enough by adding or subtracting space, messing with time was one too many layers of complexity and, as far as he was concerned, unnecessary.

Once he had it configured to his liking, he shoved his tripod and the rest of his equipment under one of the back pews and stepped boldly forward, loading film and then clicking shut his camera back as someone would cock a shotgun using only one hand. 

 “Ruben has never looked so good,” said Genevieve, clapping her hands demurely as he advanced down the aisle.

 Ted raised the viewfinder to his face and started shooting. The electronic flash strobed the church, stopping the scene in brilliant white friezes of light.  Ignoring the whispers and dirty looks of the dead man’s friends and relatives, Ted proceeded down the aisle like a horse with blinders. The click-whirr of the lens and the motor drive disrupted the funeral only as much as they would let it. So what if he was making a mockery of the whole she-bang? He was just doing what his client wanted him to do.

 Ted stopped to change lenses and examine some second thoughts he was having as he neared the coffin. He swiveled around to glance at Genevieve, who stood at the back of the church bathed in a ray of light that shone through a recessed porthole of stained glass high on the altar’s back wall, not far from the nailed-to-the-cross right hand of the crucified Christ. The terrifying and, in some way, beatific image made him believe he was a part of something greater than himself. It was just Ted and Genevieve accompanied by exalted choruses of angels. He turned back down the aisle as she jumped up and down on her tippy toes, excitedly urging him forward.       

Peering over the edge of the open casket, Ted came face-to-camera lens with Ruben’s corpse.  Here lies Genevieve’s bridegroom, in repose not so much a marker of what was once a living, breathing, laughing, struggling, loving, human being, as a symbol of what lies ahead. All is hevel, sayeth the preacher, the briefest puff of wind: for some a span of four score years and ten, others only a matter of minutes. Ted was stymied by the contrast, wondering whether the time span even mattered in the end. 

And as he clicked one more photo, what he saw again through the viewfinder made him gasp. The black-framed, coke bottle glasses were slightly askew on the familiar plaster-white face not of Ruben, but of his grandfather, Frank. He turned his head, and tried to blink away the premonition. He had not visited his grandfather for going on half a year now and the vision released the flood gates on his shame.