By Fouad Suleiman
A young man leans on a wooden fence, water falls in the background, a phony smile, a bunch of girls with baseball hats in all sorts of different positions. The same background, bright light reflecting off the sparkling water, adding some elegant light deflections, causing a certain fuzziness in the frames.
“Nice, nice job” said Mr. Joseph in a calm whispery voice. The kid turned his head, leaving the rest of his body behind. He had been sitting there for hours.
“The blue is a bit too strong” added Mr. J., as he rubbed his glasses with a thin handkerchief.
“Yes it is” said the kid.
His boss stood there in the middle of the room staring at the photos, which were gliding down the machine into a basket. All of them were linked together, forming a continuous chain of photos sliding slowly downward in dull stable motion. A new picture exhibited its colors while another was cut down, falling prey to the basket.
Mr. J. didn’t have to give many instructions to the kid. Moreover, the kid basically ran the place. He operated the main photo-processing machine, and the other two. He was responsible for the setting of the many codes that determined the quality of the color.
“So what are we going to do?" his friend, Tony asked. "Don’t you have a lighter on you? You always have one in your pocket somewhere.”
The kid did his usual pocket search and said, “guess I’ve left it at work or something. Can’t you squeeze anything out of yours?” He grabbed Tony’s lighter and started shaking it, then he flicked it with his thumb in a desperate attempt to create a flame. Even the tiniest of flames would been sufficient, because if it could be maintained for a second or two to do the job, one could then use the lit cigarette to light another. Except, the spark didn’t hold, it never did. Lighters never give you one last saving breath of flame to light your smoke, especially when you’re desperate.
A swimming beach, two guys wearing sunglasses, smiling at the camera. The same two guys holding ice-cream chunks in their hands, playing racket-ball. The two guys and another short guy in the water, throwing sand at each other while smiling at the camera. A group of teenagers sitting on a camp-table, pine trees in the background. The group eating sandwiches, horsing around with a water-hose – the wet group posing for the camera in an organized manner – tired smiles. Two girls in bikinis, one of the two girls alone, long brown hair sliding down her shoulders, perfect legs crossed together, lying on a beach towel, sandy beach in the background, cheesy colored skin turning bronze at the shoulders, green catlike eyes looking through the camera.
At that point, the kid noticed Mr. J’s presence. He was standing behind him, gazing as always from his usual watch-point. He was quietly looking around waiting for a customer to hop in while throwing glances at the sliding photos.
”Who’s that babe in the slide?” the kid asked. A brief moment of silence preceded Mr. J’s reply.
”I don’t know, but I think that her father works at the port. Yah, Mustafa is his name. He’s the one that brought in the film."
Mr. J. didn’t like it when people used words like “babe”. He was very formal in his choice of words. He always spoke as if he was reading from a script. The kid thought that Mr. J. overdid it with his business of organized formality.
The kid: “I don’t know this Mustafa, but he’s got to be one hell of a good-looking guy.”
It wasn’t easy to get hold of J’s curiosity, but as J moved closer, zooming in to the slides with his mouth wide open, the kid knew that he had struck a chord with the impact of an electric-guitar in Mr. J’s official brain.
J: “No, no, the girl doesn’t even resemble her father. She’s way too good looking to be that old rag’s kid.”
The kid started giggling, but his giggles were soon interrupted by J’s words, “See to it that the blue and the yellow don’t turn out too strong this time.”
The sun was half way down and rapidly sinking below the horizon as the kid walked out of J’s place. It was six p.m. in autumn and the light was quietly dim. It was always the end of the day when the kid checked out of work – that fuzzy time before night falls, like one big shadow on the city, making all faces suspiciously alike. It was the end of the daytime clearness as the kid strolled toward the nearest bus station. He was going to take a bus to Tony’s place. He walked downhill, facing the setting sun, looking towards it. The partially obscured disc was reddish yellow, almost bronze, almost like the skin-color of the tanned girl in the photos, especially around the shoulders.
The kid: ”Sorry. The bus was way later than usual.”
Tony: “Don’t worry about it, wanna drink?”
The kid: ”Maybe.., sure, why not?”
Tony came back after a couple of seconds with two beers. Whenever he said 'drink,' he meant beer. ‘Appetizer,’ on the other hand, would mean a glass of sizzling Champaigne with some chocolate to rap it up.
Tony: “What’s the story with those yachts today? Look. There are about seven yachts swarming around over there.”
The window screened a beautiful view of the bay where there was permanent action.
The kid: ”yah, yah, you're right, and they’re going in the same direction.
Tony: “They’re following that guy at the end.”
The ships were illuminated despite the darkness, which was beginning to be absolute. They formed a bundle of dots moving around on the dark sea.
The kid: ”No, they’re not following him, they’re just going in the same direction.”
Tony, at that moment, was watching their every move and so followed the kid. “Maybe they’re racing?”
Tony and the kid watched as the sailing boats were moved by the engine of wind, and all in the same direction. They were switching places, switching leaders and positions.
“These ships are probably racing” said the kid.
It seemed that Tony was testing his theories at the time he was watching. He said, “But, there’s a guy that always takes the lead.”
The kid: “Did you have anything to eat this afternoon?”
Tony: “No, I’m going to fix something up for tonight, something vegetarian just so you can join me” By that time all of the yachts had gone out of sight.
The kid: “Yah, great, I’ll go set some salads.”
Tony lived in his own apartment in a pretty good spot in town. The kid hung out at his place a lot, and so did all of Tony’s good friends. He loved working in his kitchen so it wasn’t long before he replaced the kid, putting him out of his voluntary job.
A family having picnic in a water park. A young child riding his little tricycle, his older sister pushing him forward. The family posing in front of a stone statue. Three old men siting in a coffee house and smoking cigarettes. The same three sitting around a dinner table having a feast. An old man wearing a French horizontal hat, holding a wine-glass in one hand and his wooden cane in the other. The same man standing up in a toast-raising position. The colorful dinner table with all kinds of salads, wine bottles, meat dishes, saucy looking meat dishes.
The kid took a sip of the small espresso that rested upon a little chair beside him. Viewing the garden, he lit up a cigarette and then opened the window, letting in a breeze. Mr. J. had called earlier. He reported his flu and the fact that the kid would have to work alone that day. Not many customers came, and the kid closed early, taking advantage of J’s absence. He also made another copy of the cat-eyes lady in the picture so that he could take it home – something that he had not done before. He then closed the place and headed toward the bus station.
The kid saw people all around him. In the photos, they don’t look back, they don’t move. In the street they live their lives, dreaming about the next set of photos, wondering around from place to place, minding their own business – all living their own slides, their personal sets of photos that they pack in their heads, pictures that the kid couldn’t see. But, the kid saw something else. He saw the photos that they keep in their albums, and he has looked at them from a place where they can’t look back – and they don’t even have a clue that he’s looking, or that they can’t look back. The kid could see people without being seen. In that sense, he was an artist, for artists can touch people without being touched back. They can enter people’s dreams without them even knowing it. Only the kid was not that kind of artist, he never got any rewards for his art, or feedback, or even criticism, except from one person.
The kid was alone with his art.
He was a lonely artist.