RUNNING SHAME: chapter 6

The old loon who’d wanted photographs of her husband’s funeral had probably called to complain. Ted pulled up to the curb and set his parking brake. There wasn’t a baseball game scheduled at the Coliseum that day and Ted couldn’t think of any other reason why Billy would call him in on his day off. He turned up the radio to here the husky stylings of the red headed vamp who headed up the Divinyls. Natalie had told him once that he was the subject for her interpretation of the song, which was something of an anthem to masturbation. But now he was lost, and nobody was going to find him. Maybe Billy was finally going to fire him.  Ted closed his eyes and listened to the song. He hooked his fingers to the top of the steering wheel and, for a few minutes, dwelt in the past.

Closing the f-stop for the white-coated officers and opening it up for the warrant officers’ and enlisted men’s dark dress blues, Ted photographed the varying shades of hail and well-met sailors gathering for Naval Air Station Alameda’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. The drab grey ceiling tiles bounced the light back softly, canceling the harsh shadows that were inevitable if the flash was directly applied.

Ted noticed her sequined dress and defined calves accentuated all the more by the high heels she was wearing. Her shoulder length blonde hair was curled  at the ends in a classic wave that made him think of Hollywood bombshells he’d seen in black and white pinup posters from World War II, designed to motivate the troops through lust and titillation. The name Rita Hayworth flitted through his mind as he caught her striding through the crowd, flanked by her two girl friends. Later, he would learn she had very nearly not come, convinced last second that she needed to get out of the heavy, tear-soaked tent of Kleenex she was drowning under. The family friend who’d invited her was volunteer with the USO.

Once he’d become aware of the Blonde Goddess in his midst, Ted shot the job with one eye, while keeping the other scanning the crowds for his next brush with the girl of his dreams. And a dream was all she’d ever had been if she had not noticed Ted with the same feeling of possibility and intrigue, for Ted would never have been so bold as to approach her on his own. 

 “Hello,” she had said.

“Hello?” said Ted, glancing over each shoulder to see if there was someone beside him he hadn’t noticed to whom she may have been speaking. Pretending to cough to cover the awkward pause his reaction caused, the smoky air lent a thread of credibility to the obvious ploy. Seeing that it could only be him, he nodded his head and muttered “Hello ladies. What brings you out tonight, besides the anniversary?”

 Dimples dotted her cheeks as her large green eyes swirled with subtle luster. Her straight, well-defined teeth, not exactly pearly, brought out the beauty only hinted at when her face was straight.

“Would it be too much to ask if you could take our picture?”

Ted, mesmerized by her smile, took a second to register the fact that she had again spoken.

 “Are you ever gonna get out of your car!” shouted Billy, his nose flattened against the driver’s side window, jolting Ted from his reverie.

Ever since the girlfriend disaster Ted had not only been an emotional zombie, but had also started to exhibit traits Billy could only describe as creepy-crazy and a lot weird: laughing at stuff that was not funny; nodding knowingly to himself as if somebody only he could hear had whispered in his ear; staring over Billy’s shoulder as Billy talked to him, making Billy stop to glance over his shoulder to see what the crazy bastard was looking at then forgetting about what he’d been talking about in the first place. It was irritating as hell, to say the least. Enough time had passed now that Reliable Ted was showing up more often than Useless Ted. But, judging from Ted’s glazed expression it was going to be a long morning. Oh Joy, he thought to himself as Ted’s car door popped open.     

Ted sat up and nodded at Billy as he pulled the handle and opened his door. 

“Good morning, boss,” he said, back footing the door closed. “Happy to see you, too.”

It was only 8 in the morning, and already pulses of infrared shimmered across the blacktop in the middle distance of the store-lined street. The exhaust from passing cars soaked into the tarry blacktop. Ted followed Billy up the steps, taking them two at a time. Billy held the door for him and then followed him inside the lab.

“It was a funeral,” said Ted, getting ahead of the controversy that was sure to erupt between them. “Who in their right mind photographs a funeral?”

“Funeral?” Billy’s smile disappeared faster than it had taken him to paste it on. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Ted looked down at his feet and bit his tongue; he stopped himself from saying too much. Billy’s response was one of confusion instead of the bellicose insults Ted had been expecting. It didn’t seem as if Billy knew about the fiasco at the church. Or he could have been setting a trap. It was still too soon to tell. The fat old guy was surprisingly cagey, so Ted decided not to go at him directly.

“Stewart’s starting the first game tomorrow?”

“You know it,” said Billy, unwittingly swinging at the junk Ted had thrown him. “I can’t wait.”

“Yeah,” said Ted, doing his best not to smile. “Well…then it’s the Giant’s funeral, right?”

“Yeah…right,” said Billy, biting on his index finger, feeling like he’d just been played though not knowing exactly how. “What kind of tricks are you playing?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” said Ted, feeling pretty good about himself despite the possibility he was about to get canned. “Why are you calling me in here on my day off?”   Then, before Billy could answer, he threw the heat. “Are you going to fire me?”

Billy leaned his elbow on the outside of the display counter, cocked his head to one side and smiled. “The thought has crossed my mind a time or a thousand, but that’s beside the point.” He pushed his butt off the display case and walked around the front counter toward the door to the finishing room. “Come on. I think technology is going to can us both.”

Billy turned, and Ted followed him through the door and into the finishing room, over to a long, chrome table where they judged which negatives were fit to print. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. It appeared the old loon had not complained about the funeral shoot he’d sabotaged. The remark Billy made about both of them getting canned by technology went right over his head because he was so happy about still having a job.  

“Behold the future of photography,” he said, unzipping the padded canvas bag and removing a massive slab of heat-molded plastic resembling a compacted version of Darth Vader’s helmet/head. “The digital video camera.”

“Is that…a camera?” said Ted, with genuine confusion.

“For all intents and purposes.”

Ted reached out and felt its smooth contours with his hand. “Where do you load the film?”

Billy shook his head and laughed. “Doesn’t take film. Transfers images direct to your home computer.”

“Home computer?” laughed Ted. “Who can afford a home computer?”

“Pretty soon they’ll be as many of them as there are televisions.”

“I doubt that,” scoffed Ted. “I’ll bet the image quality sucks, too.”

“For now,” replied Billy, lipping an unlit cigarette he’d just thrown in his mouth. “But, as is your habit, you’re missing the bigger picture.”

“Oh yeah?” said Ted, chafing at the mention of his naivite. “What am I missing?”

“We are going to go out of business,” said Billy.

“Oh…”

“If we don’t adapt.”

 The familiar glaze over expression transformed Ted’s face, and Billy immediately switched gears. “And I’ve got another last second job for you.”

Ted blinked, registering the ‘job’ and the ‘for you’ saying weakly, “But it’s my day off.”

“You’re it,” said Billy. “It’s all hands on deck now that we’re almost dead in the water.”

Ted smiled despite himself. Could Billy cram any more Naval expressions into his motivational speeches?

“Prince of Peace. Christening. Noon.” Billy ticked off the essentials as he pulled his wallet from his back pocket. “I’ll even throw in lunch,” he said, handing Ted a Hamilton. “Ten dollars per diem is a pretty good deal, no?”

“Thanks,” Ted nodded and accepted the money. Understanding the shit was going to hit the fan regardless once Billy found out about Genevieve’s funeral fiasco, he knew he better damn well do everything he was told to minimize the damage until then. “I’ll get my shit together.”

“Good to hear,” said Billy, slapping Ted’s shoulder as his protege walked by him heading for the dark room. “We’re in this together.”

Ted nodded as he stepped into the portal, twirled the plastic housing and disappeared.

“Be there at noon!” shouted Billy as he reached in his pocket for his lighter. “Esprit de corps!” Then he headed out the back door onto the porch for a smoke. Standing on the landing in the morning heat, he breathed in the ozone, trying to pacify his doubts whether they could survive the imminent photographic Armageddon.

The trades had been touting digital technology for years, full of dire predictions for film-based labs. Now, since the products were finally catching up to the advertising, it was all about accepting the inevitable and managing an orderly extinction. He’d survived worse, he thought, as he gave flame to the tip of his tobacco but it was going to be a bumpy ride.

Oh Joy.    

Billy leaned his elbows on the railing. Maybe Ted was right about digital cameras and the images they produced never equaling the quality of film-based photography. But even if they were just marginally as good, the convenience of not having to take them to a photo lab would override that consideration. Billy took a hard drag on his cigarette. He had to face the fact his business was about to be oxbowed out of existence, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. Technology was great until it cut you out of the money. He felt like taking a baseball bat to the digital camera, but he knew the euphoria of smashing it to pieces would last but briefly: a futile gesture in the face of inevitable mass production.    

The new way of doing business meant he’d have to sell all his equipment. The processors; enlargers; light-tight canisters and boxes; trays; chemicals; filters; finishing tables; display cases and their merchandise, everything within the studio walls behind him, would be obsolete in the very near future. He figured the realtime revolution was about to overtake the theoretical one, and he was going to have to sell it all to remain viable during the transition, well before the clock struck midnight and it turned into so much worthless junk. All he needed once digital photography came into its own was a camera, some lenses and some other unforeseen accessories of the coming digital age, as well as room enough at the end of his kitchen table for the computer that would rule them all. 

Billy exhaled a plume of smoke and watched it descend to the filthy pavement. Traffic was picking up on Otis, and there would be customers soon, but nothing like the good old days. By all indicators he would soon have to become a one man operation.

“Noon,” said Ted, bustling out the back door with the camera bag over his shoulder. “Guess I’ll go get some chow mein.”

“Good man,” Billy nodded as Ted jumped down the steps, then walked out to the street through the alley.

 The burgeoning heat of the abnormal Indian Summer radiated off the concrete and back into the atmosphere in waves you could see squiggling up into the open air above the cloistered brick-and-mortar buildings. There weren’t any storm clouds rumbling on the horizon or promise of a break in the weather. It seemed as if the world was about to crack in more ways than one. Billy smoked the cigarette down to the filter and flicked it into the alley with his thumb.