canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


by Andrew Steinmetz

Emil, my four-year-old son, was to have his own dark blue Canadian passport. I brought him to a studio up the boulevard. Inside the vestibule I held him aloft and within reach of the number panel. He dabbed 1,0, and 8.

It took time for the response. Abruptly, the lock seized. I pulled the door open, unsticking the buzzing teeth which grabbed in the lock, before sending my son forward, past a turn up the staircase, where the walls had parted years ago for changes made to the original building plan.

'Go on,' I said. The way ahead lay in semi-darkness. We improvised, and felt the walls on either sides with our hands, until we arrived at the studio door. It contained a frosted window, and the name Rimsky was etched there.

'Hello?' I craned my neck. The door was ajar. It listed, catching trade winds, having run aground on the shag rug.

The office—I glimpsed the inside — contained no movement. No one there. A sea of expired, grey office matter. Then — Rimsky? waved a hand. I killed the instinct to point with my finger. Over there, I might have whispered to Emil. There he is beside the dull aluminium filing cabinet and the king-sized bureau. Don't you see him?

The photographer was getting on in age. At least seventy years old. Seated so low, in a soft chair, the desk's surface intersected him high on his torso. He looked a creature, like a senile toddler strapped into a high chair. Laid out on the horizontal — for his amusement? — were a block of notes, an empty pencil cup, and a barge-shaped pink eraser. A square pad with brown leather panels, and a green infield, occupied the middle space. Off to the left, a solid black rotary telephone slept like a raven. And opposite the telephone, inches from where Rimsky's right hand reposed, was the plastic blow dryer laying side-down like a revolver in its own surface reflection.

Rimsky smiled, without breaking his general attitude.

'Do you take passport photos?' I inquired. Emil pulled at my belt, urging our retreat, back toward the street entrance.

Rimsky rose from his chair — 'Why do you hurry?' — to address my son. His eyes were happy eyes, nonetheless.

There was no answer to that. Emil ignored this adult figure. He tugged once more at my belt strap, and then, since I had not given one bit, the tension dropped altogether and I knew then his tactics had changed. Sure enough, from a safe distance behind me, he continued to press his subliminal argument by tagging the backs of my legs, lightly, now and again. There was a pitter-patter rhythm, as he plotted vengeance.

The photographer's orangish hair was greased, and swiped back across his scalp, running trenches and red irrigation lines to a point behind his ears. I thought of some animal landing with claws extended, then slipping. Rimsky had on a dark blue vest, his shirt sleeves were rolled. His fat red tie hung like a trophy fish from the bloated knot at his collar. The brown suit jacket which shouldered his chair like a set of non-operational wings was from former times.

'The clients,' he announced, to no one in particular. Then raising his voice another register, 'So you are welcome here.'

It was ambiguous, this place, and this Rimsky, who seemed capable of holding both my son and myself in his loose gaze at once. Was this a trick of focus? An unsettling, masterly manoeuvre? One thing was certain: Rimsky was a phrophet of sorts in this, his own land. On the wall behind the desk hung a triptych of conventionality. From left to right, my eyes migrated over a grade-school aged girl in a pony-tail seated on a hideous blanket, with a snowy mountain top as the background. Next to her, on the same wall, was the portrait of a young married couple, in wedding costumes, fondling each other and, as if, the future itself, within a lush meadow setting. And lastly: the distinguished looking retiree. Stern, somewhat atrophied and forlorn, the retired gentleman peered out from a blurred pastel backdrop.

Suddenly there came sounds emanating from the adjoining room; equipment being moved around by the assistant, I supposed.

'Just this moment.' The photographer's best English was hallucinogenic. Pointing to a set of chairs my son and I were asked to sit — 'Please, comfortably' — while Rimsky himself disappeared into the studio.

It was then I noticed the poster of the Hungarian State Orchestra. It was hanging on the opposite wall. Forty odd musicians, pressed to the hard shells of their instruments, and dressed in formal black and white, captivated by an unmusical perspective. On the right hand bottom corner of the poster I made out that name again, Rimsky.

Eventually Emil and I were invited — 'If you would be so kind, please' — to step into the studio proper. One entered this way, a submarine — via a metal hatch, stepping through the oval into an airless chamber. Emil pinched his nose. It was certainly musty. At one time it may have served as a bank vault, or a butcher's freezer. But things had changed. There was an Alpine theme in one corner of the space, and a deep woods, Dejeuner sur l'herbe backdrop in another. Mannequins were scattered throughout. Carpets rolls were stacked by one wall. Boxes overstuffed with costumes and pieces of equipment made one think of children's television, long ago. There was a dampness to it all, qualified by loads of stored materials and half-lives overtaken by a general aging process.

Though many were dismembered at the wrist, neck, or hip, the plastic mannequins had fared best the test of time. A cluster of these were set-up together and left to loiter among the metal infrastructure of spots and tripods which sprouted from the gaudy stage set.

In the clearing, on a low platform, amidst a Christ in the manger-like setting of fawning standing lights and dummies, stood the photographer, who graciously appealed for Emil's hand.

'Why do you hurry?' Inexplicably, Rimsky repeated this line from earlier on, admonishing while simultaneously entreating my son to let go of me and take the empty stool.

This was the turning point of our afternoon, for at that moment a second man walked out from behind the snowy mountains. He was middle aged, like myself. But a giant. Six feet four, six feet six? He wore a coarse wool sweater with a seaman's collar. The weave was good to rig a lobster trap. His prized possession was a big red alarm clock which he held onto awkwardly with two hands, tucked into his stomach.

'All right. That's fine.' The photographer, brusquely, acknowledged his assistant; evidently they were master and apprentice.

I helped Emil climb up on the stool. I reminded him about 'our little deal', a reward which was forthcoming, and therefore 'to be good'. Then I stepped back and left him in place, shielding his eyes from the bright lights.

But there was in fact something both dark and dazzling about the quality of the light that shone on him, an austerity. And these walls, really, how thick were they? No sound could possibly escape. Was there perhaps a route over the snowy mountains to Switzerland?

'That one is the broken one.'

I nodded, as if to commiserate with Rimsky over this last fact. I had picked up one of the tripods from the set. Impressed by its heft, I was now pretending interest in its mechanical release device.

The photographer turned his attention to Emil. 'Nice boy, now, nice Canadian boy.' He spoke into his camera.

Emil could not see beyond the glare to where I was standing, but I could read him, he was a little too exposed — his smile, kitsch, too compliant, everlastingly bland. Attention and affection. Did I not know then that celebrity in all its sordid apparitions was born within squalid zones of the imagination, of moments like this?

The photo was done.

Emil wanted down. But the master was of a different mind. He instructed the boy to remain. Emil hesitated, one leg slipping, then he almost fell from his perch causing the master to check any residual potential by flashing a raised, straight-arm. Halt, right there. It did the trick. 

Rimsky beckoned me to his side. 'I have taken it.' He informed me of this in a whisper, signalling to his camera. Favouring an obtuse angle, he added: 'For sure, we have the good one.'

Emil, tasting amnesty, jumped off the stool and waded across the shag rug. I picked him up in my arms. Then the apprentice, taking the lead, guided us out of the studio and back inside the office. Rimsky came last and walked straight as the crow flies, bumping the side of the desk before he seated himself. He popped back up from his chair at once, hitched his pants, and resettled. He then assigned us the two chairs facing him, and the apprentice took up his position to the right side of Rimsky.

Rimsky went to work. He ripped the photographic paper from the camera, and then tucked the entire series under the leather panel of the desk mat. That was it for now.

'The minutes.' The apprentice was adamant as a ventriloquist in training. When he spoke, he raised the clock and held it higher on his chest. 

The master was calm, so very calm. Hands folded before him, no more to be done, he rescinded from consciousness. Apparently this was due process and we were all to keep to ourselves, and observe these next several minutes of silence with the Hungarian State Orchestra.

But within seconds Emil began fidgeting. I apprehended just as quickly why. The apprentice, at first stationed between the filing cabinet and the bureau, was now creeping towards us. He was holding his prized possession and not actually in motion; off balance he corrected his footing by increments to maintain himself upright. Awkward stuff. One felt watched over by a live statue. The suspense was killing Emil. Finally, my attention pulled from state orchestra poster to master, from master to apprentice — the apprentice held up four fingers.

Ah, I understood. 'They need to dry,' I said to Emil. 'Four more minutes. When the paper is all dry, he'll cut out your picture.'

'But not my eyes,' Emil, sitting on my knee, turned to check. And then, in a voice assuming confidence, he added: 'And not my nose.'

'Of course not!' the master interpolated. 'We are not the savages here.'

I met Emil's questioning look with a shrug.

'Minutes. Minutes.' The apprentice tapped the clock's dome. The master retrieved the photographs. He tore the protective cover off each and manipulated them with a set of tweezers, finally securing all five in the series under a cork-bottom ruler.

Then commenced the blow-drying. Rimsky picked up the electric hand dryer and squeezed the trigger. Only centimetres from the eye of the nozzle, the photographs flapped madly against the desk-top vinyl. In the process, one square flew off, swerving through the air and falling at the apprentice's feet.

The next step in the process was reserved for cropping. The master's tongue followed a worn pathway around the insides of his mouth as he cut along the edges, peeling the white border, with a pair of blackened metal scissors.

Thirty seconds more and he was done. The work was complete. 'He is the cute boy to photograph with'. The master then slipped three of the five photos inside a paper sleeve, a tiny envelope that he then held upright, taping the air between us with it.

'Now for the good money,' I said, bending forward and reaching into my back pocket, exaggerating the burden.

Both men ably guffawed. The apprentice stumbled forward, a little recklessly, and I met Emil's upturned face with a smile. But it had been minutes earlier, when the giant had recovered the lost photo — swooping it off the carpet and returning it, cradled in the alms-bowl of his hands, to his master — that it occurred to me that the apprentice was capable of any number of things, and therefore even the spectre of my deepest, most ghastly fears, was well-founded.

Concerning my son, there was no way to save him. His passport would be ready in weeks, if not days. Another world was outside.

We left the same way we had come in.

Andrew Steinmetz is the author of a memoir, Wardlife: The Apprenticeship of a Young Writer as a Hospital Clerk (Vehicule Press, 1999) and two collections of poetry, Histories (Signal Editions, Vehicule Press, 2001), and Hurt Thyself (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005). He is the editor of Esplanade Books, the fiction imprint at Vehicule Press.







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