My father said, “The decisive moment is overrated. I can’t tell you how many students of mine have wasted God-knows-how-much film trying to capture it.” Fifty or so wannabes stood outside the auditorium pretending to be cool, listening to him as if his talent would wear off on them. I leaned against the wall feeling forgotten.
He spoke to the crowd, but it was my sister Victoria who grabbed people’s attention, sneaky looks. The blond hair, red lipstick, white skin, four-inch heels: she was runway model-pretty. Her black widow dresses made her head float. Stylists across the city drooled over her sculptured hair.
She was next to me on the wall, listening, with a plastic glass of wine in her hand. I whispered to Victoria, “You know he’s full of shit.”
“This is his game, Tom,” she said under her breath.
“He’s selling the brand,” I said.
“I’m not buying,” she said.
A nearby door opened. More people poured in. Mary was last in line, and I smiled at her before she could see it. I waited for her eyes to find me. The summer heat followed her inside and polluted the air conditioning that surrounded us.
Touching shoulders to part the crowd, she finally slid her arm around my waist. “I missed it, right?”
She waved her hands in the air. “This could be hours,” Victoria said.
“I think he’s totally cool, kinda sexy too,” Mary said.
“Jesus, Mary. Just the thought could make me blind,” I said.
“As his children, we know what to look forward to,” Victoria said.
“What?” Mary asked.
“That we’ll never match his fame,” Victoria said.
“I don’t even think about being famous,” I said.
“It’s all you think about,” Victoria said.
Standing together, we watched people shuffle toward our father. He had just given a slideshow of his work to our senior class and spent time talking to each one of the students. His leather bomber jacket would have looked good on a man twenty years younger. At least he was showing some sort of style, even if it was MacGyver -inspired.
To everyone, he was Johnson Crown, Time Magazine’s Photographer of the Century. But to Victoria and me he was just our father. Eventually everyone left, and he dragged the three of us off to dinner.
After three courses of ass-kissing, everyone had a cup of coffee and a piece of victory cake. The ashtray, as centerpiece, was full.
“New York City. That’s where you should go,” he said.
“Dad. I don’t want to talk about this,” Victoria said.
“Victoria, you’re going there already. I’m talking to Tom.”
I took another cigarette from the pack on the table.
“Tom. Those street portraits you were working seemed very urgent. You should keep going,” he said.
He acted like some king handing out parcels of property. In that moment, he made a difference to Victoria. I was on my own.
Mary ran her hand along my back. I shook it off. “It’s okay,” she whispered.
Victoria basked in his attention, and I wanted to punch her in the face.
“I’m taking a piss.” He got up and walked away from the table.
Looking at Victoria, I said, “He got you a job. Right? Fuck you.”
Victoria pulled a cigarette out of the pack and looked anywhere but at me. I slammed my arm down on the table and cleared the cups, desserts, and cigarettes to the floor with a satisfying crash. Victoria clenched the cigarette between her teeth and smiled.
In my apartment later, I had drifted off, the phone on my stomach.
The ringing startled me. I answered quickly, “I know.”
A night of cigarettes only allowed Victoria a whisper. “Who said this was going to be easy?”
“But he always helps you.”
“Tommy. It’s not that. The photographer wants a woman. It’s women’s fashion. Even if you were gay it wouldn’t matter. Girls know what looks good on other girls. I’m sorry. We just have to get you a place in the city, and it will work from there.”
“The photographer can’t wait to fuck Johnson Crown’s daughter.”
“No fooling you, Tom. I just want to help,” she sighed.
“And I’m your favorite charity.”
Mary moved into the sunlight and jaywalked in my direction. Her black shoulder- length hair tucked behind each ear, I caught her eye as she surveyed the sidewalk. Chin, cheeks bones and thin black eyebrows were tightly drawn, like a doll behind glass.
“Hey you,” she said.
She wore stonewashed jeans and a thick men’s belt, silver buckle. The sweeping neckline of her V-neck shirt gave anyone looking a free peek. I could see the edge of her bra. The sterling silver camera necklace around her neck hung dangerously over her cleavage, almost getting wedged in.
“Hey there,” I said.
She led with a smile, mostly sexy, save the hazy brown front tooth that had been poorly replaced. The hands were lean; muscular, long fingers, and veins like strands of spaghetti. She hugged me softly, and I breathed her in, Lancôme Treasure and cigarettes.
“I haven’t seen you in, what, two years?” she asked.
I stepped away from her.
“So what are you working on here?”
“Just some street portraits.” My camera rested on a tripod, white foam core facing the wall between a deli and a luggage store. She smiled. “Can you take my picture?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. She stepped around the tripod and leaned against the wall. “So far about twenty people have told me to fuck off.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“I come out here for a couple of hours once a day. I get about ten good shots.”
“When can I see them?”
“I’m a long way from showing them.”
“You just ask random people?”
The sunlight bounced off the foam core and gave her face a cool glow. I stepped toward her and with both hands tucked her hair back behind her ears. She blushed. Mary drifted toward me and let out small a sigh, her breath warm.
Back at the viewfinder I could still see her red cheeks, and I yelled, “HEAH!” She looked scared, I pushed the shutter release, and she broke into a smile.
Stepping off the X, she asked, “Did I ever tell you who I worked for?”
I shook my head.
“I’m his studio manager.”
“You’re in the Smithson building?” I said.
“How do you know that?”
“Victoria works there.”
“For who?” she said.
“The guy that does the women’s catalogs for Bloomingdales.”
She crossed her arms. “I think she needs to see me.”
“What? No. Forget I said anything. Really.”
“Maybe I’ll just surprise her.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Or maybe I’ll drop something heavy on her.” She smiled. “Just kidding…”
“What are you doing later?”
“I’m going down to play pool at First and Tenthtonight.”
Mary chuckled. “Maybe I’ll swing by.” She squeezed my arm and whispered, “Bye.”
Standing above me, the bartender poured a shot of Wild Turkey down my throat. Her long brown hair covered her tits. She smiled, and moved down the bar and poured booze into the next open mouth.
I left Mary sitting alone, walked outside and threw up. An anonymous voice said, “Start early, finish early.” At my feet was a pile of cheese fries in a puddle of booze. I marched back inside, the noise of First Avenue behind me.
“All good?” Mary nodded to the outside.
I said, “Much better,” and took a pull off my can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Mary watched the bartender shoot fire from her mouth, spitting whiskey into a lighter’s flame.
I leaned over and kissed Mary. She was surprised, but defensively kissed me back.
“Wanna go play some pool?” I said.
We walked down a long hall single file, passed another small bar and a set of bathrooms. There was nowhere to stand in the back room. I stopped and put a hand back to stop Mary from walking into the room.
“Oh, look. It’s your sister,” Mary said. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
Victoria leaned down over the table, pool stick in hand, balls racked and waiting. Her body shifted forward, and she shot the cue down the table. The balls scattered. She took one shot after another. Most everyone watched, smoking, drinking, mildly impressed.
She missed and I walked over to her. “Where’s your girlfriend?”
The music was loud, I had to shout. “She’s not my girlfriend.”
“You guys have sex yet?” She took another shot. The guy she was playing stood somewhere out of sight.
“I wish,” I said.
“Well?” she took another shot.
“Should I just point to my dick and then to her crotch and say, ‘I want to put this in there, I hear it feels really good’?”
Laughing she said, “You want something, you have to ask.” She waved her hand toward the door of the bathroom.
“Says you.” Victoria worked her way to the other end of the table, taking shots, and shot on the eight ball. Except the other guys’ balls, the table was clean. “She likes guys Dad’s age. He’d probably take her from you if he was here,” she said.
Victoria ignored me and took a cigarette from the guy she had just dispatched from the game.
I walked to the bathroom and stood at the women’s room door. Mary came out after a minute and looked around.
Outside, the noise on the street rolled in like waves. Car horns like lost dogs.
“It’s good to be here with you. It’s been, like, forever!”
“I know, totally random that I ran into you on the street.” She smiled and we held hands.
“But random-good right?”
“Of course.” She squeezed my hand slightly.
The future ran through my mind; us falling in love, moving in together, and maybe getting a dog. It seemed like a possibility.
“Tom, I think we’re different people now.”
At the next street we looked both ways for cars, and went for almost a block without talking.
“What are you thinking?” she said.
“We should hang out more. I don’t know, date?”
She let go of my hand. “I don’t see us doing more than this, going out once in a while.”
“I spend an awful lot of time at work, I’m barely home, and I travel most of the time anyway. I’d never be around.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “This is what I can give you, once in a while.”
“You never think about us being together, like a couple?”
“It would only end horribly, and we would never speak again.”
“You don’t know that.”
She stopped walking. “I do. So. We have sex a few times, get all gushy and then feelings get confused. Lets stay friends, then we’re safe from all that.”
I closed my eyes and let out a heavy sigh, and felt like if I kept talking I would lose her. When I opened them I could see Mary had started to walk away.
In the months after graduation, most nights we carried Victoria back to her room and dropped her face-down on her bed. We were wasting time and hung around campus for so long that the next class of freshman arrived, a new year had started. We weren’t getting any closer to New York City, and that’s where we should’ve been.
After a particularly late night Mary and I stood in the kitchen. She had her back to the sink, hands on the metal edge. Earlier, I had brought over flowers. Mary looked at the vase and added in a few pennies from her pocket. Some nights after Victoria went to bed, I slept with Mary.
I pulled a camera necklace from my pocket. “I want you to have this.”
“Wow,” Mary said.
Holding the chain of the necklace she examined it closely. “Thank you, Tom.”
I undid the clasp and reached around her neck to secure it.
She pulled on my shirt. “Oh my.” She kissed me and then whispered. “You’re so cute.”
Victoria spent the night vomiting, and with each retch I woke up and slid my arm tighter around Mary. Under the covers, I was naked, and she refused to take off her bra or panties. It was just another night where she would jerk me off, and nothing else. The white bedspread matched her underwear, and everything smelled of smoke. The room was lined with framed photographs, black and whites; models posed, mostly naked men and some women.
On the far wall, the radiator hissed as cold air pushed through the loose window.
That morning I heard screaming, and then, “Where did you get that necklace?” Victoria shouted. There was a loud crash, like a bottle of milk breaking.
I was pulling my shirt on when I got to the kitchen. Mary sat at the table holding a towel to her face. Victoria stood at the sink with her arms crossed.
“She slipped,” Victoria said.
Mary lifted the towel away from her face and tried to speak. Her lip had started to swell and the blood was a deep burgundy. “She knocked me down,” she said.
“The sink broke your fall.”
“Victoria. She needs ice. Why aren’t you helping her?”
“You gave her mom’s necklace?”
“I wanted to give her something nice,” I said.
“Okay.” Victoria grabbed a tray of ice from the refrigerator. “Here you go.” She turned the tray upside down, twisted it with both hands and showered the table with cubes. She smiled and walked away.
Four years earlier our first date was at the school bar, on the top floor of an old church that had been turned into a painting studio. Mary and I danced to every song. Victoria often sulked around the bar, alone, until she’d had enough to drink, then she would try to infect everyone with her charm.
That night she approached us on the dance floor. “You make me sick,” Victoria said, and motioned sticking her finger down her throat.
“You’re just jealous,” Mary said.
“Jealous of you and my brother? Makes me sound like I’m in love with him,” Victoria said, looking at Mary.
Mary laughed, and hugged and kissed me. “He can make his own choices.”
When Mary drank, she wore her heart on her sleeve. We slow danced and she held me close, pushed against me, our bodies sealed tight. This was the only time she showed me any affection publicly.
“You two are a mistake. You just don’t see it.” Victoria walked out of the bar.
Henry and I rode for Chick-Chack bicycle messenger service. We ran into each other while riding downtown, coasted in traffic, lights in our favor.
Henry asked, “What’s it like having the same name as a character in a movie?”
“It never comes up…much,” I smiled.
I pedaled harder and pulled ahead. It started to sprinkle rain. We got off our bikes in front of the library, on the corner of Fortieth and Fifth Avenue. A bank of pay phones surrounded by bike messengers. We waited to make our calls.
“Tell me about your sister.”
“She’s single on purpose.”
“That’s not good,” Henry said. His jean jacket was strafed with raindrops, and his black curly hair sprung free when he took off his cap.
“You also get to date her career, if you date her at all.”
“When’s the last time she put out?”
“I don’t read her diary.”
“Can’t you set it up?”
“Give me a quarter.”
I dialed the phone. She answered. “I met the man of your dreams.”
“Don’t do this,” she said.
“You can’t find a guy.”
“I said, there aren’t any worthwhile guys in this city.”
“I found one.”
“Can he play pool?”
“Bathe him and bring him to the bar tonight.” She hung up.
“You have a date. Tonight.”
“I wouldn’t wish my sister on anyone, but you asked.”
Suddenly the rain had purpose. Umbrellas shot up, and I stood under the protection of the phone booth. Henry put his hat back on and crossed his arms over his chest. A city bus pulled up to the curb and Henry pointed, “Look, your Dad.”
On the side of the bus was a picture of the Time Magazine cover plastered big, with an announcement under his picture that listed the opening reception at Museum of Modern Art.
“My father was very good with his students.” Victoria stood in front of a black & white mural of kids playing soccer in front of the Pantheon in Rome. There was a crowd of people around her, each one holding a glass of champagne.
I walked up to the circle. I realized right away that something was wrong. Victoria shifted in place, like the world was moving too fast for her. She didn’t notice me.
“There were times when board members would approach him, tell him to keep it in his pants,” she tried to go on. I reached for her elbow and pulled her aside.
The crowd stared at us. I whispered, “We need your help with a few of the books, come on.” I pulled her to toward a back office. The exhibit space in the museum was filled with people. When we got to a glass door, Victoria stopped and put her hands on her knees and threw up, booze mostly.
She put her arm over my shoulder and I dragged her inside. Setting a trashcan down in front of her, Victoria crouched on the floor and dropped her head inside. Her barfs echoed like angry sneezes.
I watched her like she was someone performing a magic trick. “That it?”
“Lay down there for a while then come back out,” I said.
The night went on like nothing had happened. My father went through the room like a President of a small country. Victoria was looking through a copy of his book, Johnson Crown, Past and Future; A Life in Pictures. The skyline of uptown Manhattan twinkled over her shoulder, the window stretched like a huge mural behind her.
“Tom. Do you know why Mary never wanted to fuck when you were dating back in school?” She closed the book in her lap.
“Victoria. You need to go home.”
“You’re going to tell me either way.”
“She was fucking Dad,” she said.
She suddenly became a stranger to me. I stepped to her and slapped her face.
She smiled. “Thank you.”
Jason Rice works for Baker & Taylor as the East Coast Manger, servicing the Independent Bookstore market. His short story ‘Philip’ appears in Hint Fiction: An Anthology of stories in 25 words or less, published by W.W. Norton. Recently his story, ‘Again I Do, Redux’ appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn’s Sunday Stories. Over the last 20 years he has worked in film production on the television shows The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Can We Shop; with Joan Rivers, and the feature Flirting With Disaster. After he graduated from The Rhode Island School of Design he taught photography to American students in the South of France. He lives in the United States.