The kid is thirteen months old. Round belly, curly blond hair, an easy laugh. He picks up the travel section of the newspaper and holds it over his head, giggling.
"What'cha doing there, Luke?" his mother says, lilting her voice, egging him on.
The kid hesitates for a second and then laughs even harder. I snap a photo, and then another and another. He flings the paper aside and gets up onto his feet, looks at his mother and smiles.
For the next few minutes the kid rolls and crawls around as I snap away with the camera. Eventually he tosses the paper aside and toddles around the studio holding a stuffed giraffe while his mother tries to get him to look our way.
"It's gotta be tough to do this all day," she says, her hair dropping down into her face.
"It's okay. You get used to it."
"Luke!" she hollers. "Look at Austin. Look at Mama."
Luke ignores his mother, but I fake a loud sneeze, and he looks directly at me. "Have you been doing this for long?" his mother asks.
I take a few last pictures. "Not really," I say. "A year or so, I guess."
She looks at her kid, who sits playing with blocks. "Do you like it?"
"Sure," I say. "I've done worse."
"Are you in school? At U.K.?"
"No. I'm full-time here."
"Mama," Luke says, grabbing the edge of the studio's lowered white backdrop.
She walks over to him, picks him up off the floor and kisses him. I watch her, noticing how put together she is. Stylish hair, professional clothes. Pretty.
"What a good boy," she says, hoisting her kid onto her hip. "What a real good boy."
I head for the back of the store and dump the photos onto the store computer. I enhance a few of the good ones with sepia and black and white, and then I go back out to the floor to show her the photos on the selection screen in the lobby.
"We offer seven different packages," I say, going into the pitch, "pretty much whatever combination you're looking for." She taps through the photos on the touch-screen, going back and forth, comparing and choosing. "All of the packages have options, too, if you're looking for specific sizes or effects."
"Uh huh," she says, still looking at the photos as Luke fidgets in a stroller.
"We make photo-books, too. It's all there in the information tab."
She makes her selections and pays. Luke drinks from a sippy cup as I hand her a receipt. "You have a very nice way about you," she says.
We look at each other for a second and I say, "Thanks, you do too," but all I can think about is what a strange compliment it is, like she's told me I have nice ears or something.
Luke throws his cup on the floor and she stoops to pick it up. "Have a good night," she says, as they leave the store and head out into the mall.
In Studio 2 Kim works with the last appointment of the night, a family dressed all in khaki and red, and as I pass by she gives me her please get me the hell out of here look. I give her a salute, like the kind our douchebag District Manager, Todd, gives us sometimes when he shows up at our store. Kim rolls her eyes. She's hates Todd's guts with a passion. She holds her camera back up to her face and snaps a bunch of shots of Team Khaki. "Better," I hear her say to them. "A couple of you actually look happy."
I head back toward the office where Glennie, Kim's girlfriend and our manager, hangs out. Glennie's got her glasses up on her forehead and she's looking at her computer screen like everything's written in another language or something. An Elmo puppet hangs over the top edge of the monitor, staring with his big, ping-pong eyes.
"What's the big deal about notes?" Glennie says. "I don't get that. Do you?"
"Notes?" I say.
"Yeah. They want us to write notes on each session, how it went, customer attitude, props used, yadda yadda."
"Is that a District thing or a Regional thing?" I say. Usually it's one or the other.
"I think it's a Todd thing. I honestly don't think corporate gives a shit."
"So we should do notes now?"
Glennie leans back in her swivel chair and knits her fingers together behind her head. "Yeah, I guess. If you feel like it." She shakes her head. "Or fuck it. I don't care." Her glasses slide back down over her eyes as she leans forward and clicks onto the internet. "Some manager I am, huh?"
She's on eBay, tracking an auction for some new cartoon puppet like Elmo. She bought Elmo as a studio prop for the store a year or so ago, then played with the damn thing so much she got hooked. Now she's got like twenty of them—Elmo, Grover, Oscar the Grouch, a whole collection. When Kim says it's a fetish Glennie kinda nods and doesn't disagree.
"Who are you after this time?" I ask.
"Holiday Bert and Ernie. Mint condition. Killer set."
"I would've figured you had those guys already, what with them being gay and all."
"Oh, I've got the regular ones," she assures me. "Don't you worry about that."
I go back out to the floor and hang at the register until closing time, set a couple of appointments, gaze out at the mall. Once we're closed Glennie pops open a beer from a cooler in her office. "You want one?" she says.
"Sure," I say. "It's okay?"
She hands me a can. "Old enough to fight, old enough to drink, that's what I say."
Kim comes in from cleaning up the studios, gives Glennie a kiss and takes a swig of her beer. "I'll see you at the house," she says. "Don't spend all our money." She wishes me goodnight and leaves out the back door.
I sip my beer and Glennie watches her computer. "You don't have to drink that if you don't want to, Austin. I just didn't feel like drinking alone."
"I know," I say. "I don't mind. And I like beer. I guess I just drink it slow."
"You're a weird dude, you know that? Not as weird as me, but I'm kinda special that way."
I smile and take a drink.
"To weird," Glennie says, holding up her can.
"To weird," I say, leaning forward to toast.
Tamara Stoddard is her name. It's a week or so later and she's come back to the store. "Hi, it's Austin, right?"
"Do you remember me?" she asks.
"Yeah," I say. "Tamara. Tamara and Luke."
"Wow, I'm impressed."
"Was there a problem with your pictures?"
"No," she says, "They're lovely. I was just shopping, and I saw you, and I thought maybe you'd like to get some coffee when you have a break. Or whenever."
Glennie's been standing at the front desk with me the whole time, acting like she's not listening. "He's actually going on break right now," she says.
I give Glennie a look. "Take your time," she says, and then waves.
Tamara and I walk to the food court. "I hope I'm not getting you in trouble," she says.
"It's fine. That's just how she is."
We get our coffees and sit down in the food court. A few people eat at tables here and there, but mostly it's pretty dead.
"Is this strange? It's a little strange, huh?"
"I don't know. It's what people do, I guess."
"The pictures you took really were great. Is photography what you do, like even aside from your job?"
"Sometimes. I'm not like a pro or whatever, but yeah, I do some."
"Have you ever heard of Lewis Lane? It's a gallery downtown, where I work."
I shake my head. "I don't really know about galleries so much. There used to be a place here in the mall, but I don't think they're around anymore."
"We sell mostly local artists," she says. "Horse farms and bourbon barrels, tobacco barns at dusk, that kind of thing."
"Do you do any of that stuff? Because if you do I might be able to get it in the store. Not for sure, but probably."
"I don't really have anything like that, not that I can think of. It's nice of you to offer, though."
"What kind of stuff do you usually do?"
"I don't know. Just whatever, really."
"I'm totally interrogating you here, aren't I? I'm nervous, I guess. I'm sorry."
"It's fine. I'm just not used to talking about it. You're basically the first person who's ever asked."
"I'm sure I won't be the last."
"Bridges is probably what I do, mostly. Bridges and rivers, I guess."
"Oh, I could totally see those selling. Totally." She stops and takes a drink of her coffee like she's trying to picture my stuff on the wall of her gallery. "You should see the people who come into Lewis Lane, Austin. People with more money than they know what to do with. I'd love to have something cool and different to recommend. These people, they always seem to go for the same old silly thing."
"I should probably head back."
"Yeah, no problem. I'm really glad we got to talk."
We get up and start walking back to the store. When we get there, we stop. It's kinda awkward. "Here's my card," she says. "And thanks again."
"Sure," I say. "Tell Luke I said hi."
Glennie stares at me as I come into the store. "What the hell?" she says, like she's got to have the scoop.
"Who is she? Are you gonna go out with her?"
"I don't know. Maybe, if she asks, I guess."
"She's hot, Austin."
"She's got a kid."
"So what. You're nineteen years old. Daddy's not what she's looking for."
I know I'm blushing. I can feel my face and neck getting hot.
"I'm just messing with you, Austin. But she gave you her freakin' card."
"I should have put something in the notes about all this, huh? 'Customer's hot. Probably wants me.''"
Glennie laughs. "Now that's what I'm talking about. But fuck notes. Todd's a prick. If he salutes me again I'm gonna kick his bitchy little ass."
On a Tuesday I take Glennie to the Winchester Bluffs bridge where Joy, my foster sister, committed suicide. Glennie brings a joint along and we smoke it during the drive. I park near the bottom and point up. "Right there," I say.
She looks up at the railing, a hundred and twenty feet high. "Dude."
"Yep. Twenty-one years old, naked as a baby."
Glennie nods like her theory's confirmed. She's decided that I'm an old man even though I'm just a kid, and Joy's swan dive is the explanation. "Fucked you up, right?"
I shrug. The weed's pretty good, and I'm feeling kinda stoned.
"I've been there, man. Not there, there, like looking down at a frozen river. But back in the day I had some days." She tells me about her dad, who kicked her out of the house when she was still in high school. He was some old-school army type, and no goddamn daughter of his was going to be a goddamn dyke.
"You didn't jump off a bridge, though."
"Got stoned and laid a lot is what I did. Bummed around for a couple of years, turned eighteen and joined the Army."
"Seriously?" I say. "The army?"
"Damn right. The old man practically shit himself, but fuck him. Apple doesn't fall far from the tree, even when it turns out to be an orange." She laughs, tells me more. Her and Kim hooked up at Fort Dix—"You heard right, Fort Dix," she says, laughing. She put in her twenty years, retired, and here she is.
"Getting stoned with a weirdo," I say.
"To getting stoned with weirdos," she says. She motions to toast, but we didn't bring anything to drink.
A few hours later I've dropped Glennie off and my buzz is gone. I get back in my weed-smelling car and head to Nicholasville Court, the neighborhood where Joy and I used to live. It's forty-five minutes away, but it doesn't feel like a long trip. I'm on the highway, I'm off the highway, and then I'm there. The neighborhood is smaller than I remember, the houses closer together, the stop signs shorter, but otherwise everything's the same. I pull into Keener Lane and stop at the end of the cul-de-sac. Mr. Barker's truck is parked alongside Mrs. Barker's minivan, and the only light in the house comes from the TV in the living room. The whole room flashes and darkens like there's a little thunderstorm inside. I think about Joy and me in the house when I was twelve and she was fifteen. I'm underneath her as she rides me on the Barkers' matted downstairs carpet, looking into her raccoon-shaded eyes, telling her that, yes, it feels good, and no, I'm not scared. It's the only picture I have of her; it's in my mind but it's as vivid as if I held it in my hand.
I see Tamara a dozen times before it happens. We see movies and have dinners, go for long unplanned drives. I go to her gallery and look at the horses and bourbon barrels. She comes to the store and sees her son's photo on our wall. We have coffee and bagels, pizza and tea. I take a few pictures, she takes a few, too. Then one night, when Luke is at his father's house, I go into Tamara's house and we go to her bedroom. She takes off her jacket and I stand waiting dumbly, noticing us out of the corner of my eye. We're two warped reflections on the screen of a dark TV. She walks up to me and unbuttons my shirt, just looking into my eyes, not saying a word. She pushes my shirt off my shoulders and kisses my neck. On the dark TV screen I can still see us. We become a single thing, a distorted oblong shadow climbing up a smudged glass wall.
We lay naked on her bed and she tells me to get my camera. I remove the lens cap and focus. Tamara's tiny beyond my lens, like an eyelash on my skin.
The next morning, when I go to open the store, Todd is working on the computer at the front desk, typing so hard he makes the keyboard click and clatter. He sees me and glances at his watch. "Well, what do you know, an honest to goodness employee of Picture People," he says.
I give a little wave. "How's it going?"
He gestures for me to stop where I am. He points a finger at me like's he Uncle Sam and I'm a potential recruit. "You just got a promotion," he says.
"Assistant manager. Congratulations."
"What happened to Kim?"
Todd takes a sip of from a paper Starbucks cup. He loves that I keep asking questions. It's like I'm dying to hear his secrets. "The short answer is because Glennie got fired," he says. "Kim—dear that she is—left a more detailed explanation on my voicemail. Remind to play it for you sometime. It's really quite entertaining."
"Why did Glennie get fired?" I ask. Another question from me, another smirk from Todd.
"How much time have you got?"
"I'm scheduled until four."
Todd chuckles. "Austin, my boy, where did she find you?"
"So why did she get fired?"
"Well, let's see: failing to complete appropriate documentation, misappropriation of company funds, alcohol consumption on store property—she actually told me about that one after I fired her. Need I say more?"
"If you're talking about the puppets, she bought those with her own money."
"Not that it's any of your business, Austin, but she returned one using company funds for shipping, and at this point it doesn't matter."
The place feels empty and useless all of a sudden, like a pool with the water drained out. "So what now?" I say.
"You've opened the store before, correct?"
"Good, because I need to go to the Louisville store and placate the rabble there before I have a fucking mutiny on my hands." He lets out a big sigh. "So you can handle it on own your own for a few hours?"
"Sure. I'm the Assistant Manager, right?"
"That's the spirit."
"If you need anything, call me, but I won't cry if you don't." He grabs his Starbucks cup, gives me a little salute, and walks out through the mall.
I go back to the office, and it's ridiculously tidy. Everything's been shelved and dusted, and Glennie's stuff is gone. I wonder how long I'll last without her, and after only a few minutes I decide that if I sit any longer in this bland, neutral room, I'm sure to die of old age. I grab my camera, hook it up to the computer in the print room, and open up the photos I took of Tamara. A thousand black-and-white curves stare back at me, skin into shadow into darkness into light. I select and select and select some more, and dozens of oversized prints drop slowly into a tray—mischievous smiles, eyes closed and eyes open, staring right at me and turning away. I seal them all in a Picture People envelope. It sways in my hand as I walk out of the store. It has a rhythm all its own as I exit the mall.
BIO: Jonathan Gotsick is a native of Kentucky and a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh's MFA program in fiction. His work has appeared in The Drum Literary Magazine, and he currently teaches writing at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.