We stop to look. We stop looking to live. Can we live and look at the same time?
A story inspired by the photographs of Paul Graham
A story inspired by the photographs of Paul Graham
‘Watch out,’ I say.
‘What?’ Karl says, oblivious.
‘You almost hit that guy. Do you want me to drive?’
‘I’m okay, just turn the radio off. I can’t drive with the radio on, it’s like brushing your hair and scratching your balls at the same time.’
‘What is in the distance, what is blurry and what is utterly clear.’
‘Is that like a statement or a question?’ Karl asks.
Karl is blurry; even at the wheel he stands back, stands apart, keeps to himself. ‘Can one see without looking?’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Karl says. ‘The world,’ I say.
‘It’s a sea, a sea of humanity, of late-model cars, the sound is deafening.’ ‘I hear nothing,’ Karl says.
‘Possibility,’ I say. ‘The reflection is blinding,’ Karl says.
‘Have you noticed, the light bounces, it hits the hood, it hits the other guy’s mirror, it’s just bouncing everywhere.’
I pass Karl my sunglasses.
‘Better,’ he says. ‘Polarized.’
‘Shimmer,’ I say. ‘A kind of jewel shine, American green.’
‘Is that a color?’
‘It’s a currency, a way of life, the way we live now. These are our cities, our towns.’
I pick up verbal speed. ‘We live on top of the land, not possessing it like the natives, but dominating it like fools.’
‘How much coffee did you have this morning?’
‘Either too much or not enough,’ I say.
‘I’m with you,’ Karl says, and glances up. ‘Isn’t it surprising that the sky is still blue? The high white clouds are like puffs of inspiration, hope still fills the sky every day it is renewed?’
‘Yeah, but please keep your eyes on the road.’
He goes on. ‘Isn’t it wonderful that there is still something random, something unplanned about everything?’
‘We are close to the heart.’
‘In America we are always close to home or a McDonald’s,’ Karl says.
‘Speaking of which.’ He trails off and I pick up the thread.
‘We push nature back and then we go deep into the woods to find it again and we wonder why it looks at us strangely, as though it knew us from before.’
‘Some distant memory,’ Karl adds, ‘strangely familiar.’
‘And then we run, afraid of nature. This place where we live is a strange place, a coastal town with an Indian reservation, tax-free tobacco, farms, ocean beaches, old-time fishermen and freshly minted immigrants who come here thinking it’s better than the big city, thinking maybe they can grow a tomato or something just like they did back home. It is a place that has some people richer than God and others picking up groceries from the food pantry in the church basement.’
‘Speaking of groceries, I’m starving,’ Karl says. ‘I’m craving some of those 7-11, Gas and Got, Pit Stop, hot home-baked cookies.’
‘We have gone a long way,’ I say, ‘but we haven’t come very far.’
‘Lets take a break,’ Karl says, pulling into the parking lot of the Stop and Shop.
‘I’ll wait for you here.’
He goes in, it takes longer than it should and finally he comes out, carrying a bag, a carton of milk and looking perplexed.
‘What?’ I ask.
‘Hard to say,’ he says.
‘Like what, they only had white chocolate chip or those weird flavored coffees, like blueberry coffee?’
He shakes his head like he’s got water in his ears. He starts the car and puts it in reverse. The question is this – why do people always walk behind moving cars?
We both get out. ‘You okay?’ I ask the guy, as he’s picking himself up off the ground.
‘Get back in your car before I fucking kill you,’ the guy says, and I see the gun on the ground by his shoe. ‘I’m fucking about to rob this place and there you go running me down, what’s the point of that?’
‘I had the feeling that something was off,’ Karl says, not seeing the gun.
‘I just couldn’t put my finger on it.’
‘Yeah, something’s off, either I shoot you or I just don’t bother robbing this joint because you know we shared this moment and you could pick me out of a phone book.’
‘Phone book?’ I ask.
‘What the fuck? Are you arguing with me?’
Meanwhile, smoke starts seeping out the front door of the mini-mart.
‘Like I tried to say,’ Karl says. ‘Something weird was going on in there.’
‘Like you said, what the fuck?’ the guy says.
‘When I was in there, there was this guy in the back by the coffee maker and I could have sworn he was trying to set the place on fire.’
‘Miles – you fucking stole it from me,’ the gunman says.
I look at the guy – I have no idea what he’s talking about.
‘My fucking brother, I told him I was gonna rob this store today and now he beat me to it.’
‘Is he also a thief?’ I ask.
‘Not so much, he likes to set fires and then clean the place out.’
‘Can we go now?’ Karl says.
‘I think now would be the moment to get back to our own plan which was quieter, more mellow, no guns, no dramatics, all kind of simple – cookies and milk.’
As we’re moving back to the car more smoke is coming out, customers are exiting coughing.
‘I’m going in,’ the gunman says. If Miles is fucking in there I’m gonna kill him, I’m gonna kill him and then I’m gonna make him split with me whatever he got with me.’
I’m tempted to say that if you kill him first you can have ALL of what’s in the register – but you know, it’s really none of my business. Karl is just standing next to the car, looking blank, entirely checked out. I go around to the driver’s side.
‘You’re bumped,’ I tell Karl. ‘My turn at the wheel. Get in the car. We came here to get milk and cookies, we got milk and cookies now lets get the fuck out of here.’
‘Am I making you nervous?’ the guy asks, playing with his gun, spinning it around on his finger. Clearly it’s heavier than he thinks, it falls to the ground and thankfully doesn’t go off.
‘Not exactly nervous,’ I say.
‘I could come with you,’ he says. ‘I could join you guys and do whatever it is your doing.’
‘I think you’re needed in the store,’ I say. Through the smoke, I make out a guy in a black sweatshirt, with the hood up and what looks like a hefty bag over his face.
‘Fine,’ the gunman says. ‘Be that way.’
I start the car, the gunman steps aside and we pull out very carefully. I’m worried that at the last minute the gunman is going to pop us.
‘I bet the cookies aren’t hot anymore,’ Karl says, as I’m backing up. In the distance I hear sirens and heavy trucks and imagine getting caught in the crossfire.
‘Genius isn’t it, they put some raw dough in a microwave and nuke it for you – instant hot cookie fix.’
‘How many cookies did you get?’ I ask.
‘Six,’ Karl says, like it’s a silly question.
‘Six to share or six for each of us?’
‘Six for myself,’ he says.
‘That’s so not fair,’ I say.
‘I risked my fucking life just now.’
‘I’m kidding,’ he says.
‘No you’re not.’
‘I am. I can’t eat six cookies, you can have one.’
‘One.’ ‘Fine, two,’ he says, ‘but don’t push.’
‘We were almost just killed getting these cookies – we shared a very major moment, imagine if we died, buying fucking fresh hot cookies.’
Karl looks in the bag. ‘Oh man, that sucks.’
‘To go through all that and for what?’
‘WHAT?’ I say.
‘You’ll never believe.’
‘What, just tell me the fuck what, what is going on in that bag, I’m driving the car, do you want me to pull over, do you want me to stop the fucking car?’
‘I just fucking don’t believe it,’ Karl says.
‘We were almost killed, we put our lives on the line on the line and for what?’
‘For hot cookies that’s what,’ I say.
‘No,’ he says, shaking his head, all too calm. ‘No, not for cookies.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘The fucking idiot in the store never put the cookies in the bag. He never took them the fuck out of the oven because I guess he was too distracted by the guy trying to burn the place down.’
‘The bag is empty?’
He doesn’t answer.
‘What’s that smell?’ I ask.
It’s the smell of a skunk or something like a skunk, musky and animal. I am suddenly smelling it everywhere, I can’t tell if it’s Karl or me, or something we’re driving through.
‘Fear,’ Karl says. ‘That’s the scent of fear.’
I breathe deeply. He’s right. It’s meaty and kind of appealing until you get it too far into your lungs and then it’s overwhelming, pathetic and makes your stomach turn.
‘I have to use the bathroom,’ Karl says.
‘Who do we know around here who has a bathroom?’ I drive to this woman’s house, a friend of a friend, Jojo. She’s a great girl, kind of eccentric, from Texas originally and kind of like no one else.
We ring the bell.
‘Door’s open,’ a voice calls out.
We ring again, it’s not like I know her so well that I can just walk in.
‘Who is it?’ she says.
‘Friend of a friend,’ I call back still ringing the bell.
‘Who the fuck is it?’ she says, now aggravated.
‘Are you going to make me have to get up and come there?’ We say nothing.
She hobbles to the door on crutches. ‘Who are you?’ she asks.
‘We’re Pablo’s friends,’ I say. ‘Who’s Pablo?’ she says and then catches herself. ‘Oh wait, I think I know. Well, what can I do for you boys, are you selling chocolate bars for charity? I always do my part for charity. Men never sell Girl Scout cookies do they – there’s not like an after-market for Girl Scout cookies. Too bad,’ she says. ‘I love those thin mints.’
‘We were going to be selling hot cookies,’ Karl says, ‘but the bag was empty – that’s when the trouble started.’
‘I don’t follow,’ she says, her hand on her hip, the screen door still between us.
‘I don’t mean to be rude,’ Karl says, ‘but could I use your bathroom?’
‘Sure,’ she says. ‘Of course.’
With one crutch she pushes the door open. I notice that in the other hand, along with the crutch, she’s holding a giant knife. Karl goes in.
‘First door on the right,’ she says to him.
‘You’re not going to use that are you?’ I ask, still outside the door.
‘Depends,’ she says. ‘You just never know whose going to come visiting. How’d you know where I live?’
‘Pablo brought me here once, we all had dinner, you grilled steaks, Omaha steaks – it was the first time I ever had one.’
‘Steaks from my birthday box?’
‘Still it’s not often one gets impromptu visitors.’
‘What did you do to your leg?’
‘Yoga accident. Someone was doing an inverted pose and fell on me.’
‘Looks bad,’ I say, and then pause. A horrible smell begins to seep out of the house – an explosion of fear.
‘Karl needed to use the bathroom,’ I say. ‘We’ve had a strange afternoon.’
‘There’s a can of spray behind the john, use it,’ she yells to Karl.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ I ask.
‘Well that depends now doesn’t it?’ she says.
‘Depends on what?’
‘On who’s asking and why,’ she says.
‘Is that your car?’ She uses her crutch to point to the car.
‘It’s a car I have the use of,’ I say.
‘Great,’ she says. ‘In exchange for your visit here, you can drive me to the repair shop. My car is ready.’
‘The thing is,’ I say, ‘I’m kind of hungry. We went to get hot cookies and then it all got crazy. Have you got anything we could snack on in the car?’
She holds the screen door open with her crutch, puts the knife on the counter and opens the fridge. There’s a big bottle of vodka, a small container of orange juice and a couple of bottles of water. ‘I don’t cook,’ she says.
I notice a lemon on the counter. ‘Could I have the lemon?’
‘Sure,’ she says and whacks it in half with her knife just as Karl comes out of the bathroom.
We take off. Karl gives her the front seat. The car keeps making a horrible beeping seat-belt sound, but we say nothing, not wanting to offend her. She’s built like a queen, everything about her is high and beautiful and full.
Five minutes into it she finally asks, ‘Is that me? Am I causing that alarm?’
‘It’s your seat-belt,’ Karl says.
‘Well why didn’t you say so?’ she says, fastening the belt. ‘I never use seat-belts. I had my breasts done a few years ago, and somehow I think of them as my own personal airbag.’
We pass the Stop and Shop which is now a two-alarm fire. There are fire trucks and hoses everywhere, water in the streets and cars rubbernecking.
‘Isn’t that odd?’ she says.
‘Isn’t it,’ Karl says.
‘What a day,’ I say, throwing the sucked lemon out the car window. It hits another car and the driver shoots us a look. ‘What are you, blind?’ the guy yells.
‘Better not to say anything,’ Jojo says, ‘Just let it go. Getting along well with difficult people is something we all would do well to practice. Do you have a dog?’ she asks, sniffing the air.
‘No,’ Karl says. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘There’s a very distinct smell kind of like wet dog or old sneakers.’
She takes a bottle of perfume out of her purse and sprays not just herself but all around the car.
‘So, where’s the repair shop?’ I ask.
‘We’re close,’ she says. ‘There’s a big tire on the roof.’
‘A tire or a donut?’ I ask. ‘I assumed it was a tire, but you might be right, it might be a big white powdered donut.’
‘Don’t get me all excited, I’m starving.’
‘That’s it’ she says, suddenly pointing.
HOT DONUTS/FRESH COFFEE.
Karl almost cries. ‘This is the happiest day of my life,’ he says.
‘My treat,’ she says. ‘As a thank you. How strange is it that you just showed up at my house, right when I needed to get the car.’
The sugar glaze is like a fragile crust. My teeth sink in, sugar seeps into cavities I didn’t know I had. The discomfort is practically a delight, my stomach leaps to meet the donut as the first one slips down and quickly I am into a second, a cake donut this time, which I dip in the hot milky coffee. I am transported to a kind of divine plateau, stress, anxiety, fear, all evaporate, losing to sugar, carbohydrates, cake and caffeine.
‘Are you feeling better now?’ Jojo asks. ‘More like yourself?’
‘I feel great,’ I say. ‘I feel truly American, full of possibility, or promise, like I’m electrified. This may well be the best day of my life.’ I take a deep breath.
‘Frankly,’ Karl says. ‘I am just glad to be alive.’
‘You’re both so easy to please,’ Jojo says, helping herself to a donut hole.
‘Have you ever noticed that women eat donut holes while men eat donuts with holes?’ Karl observes.
‘I grew up on Krispy Kremes,’ Jojo says. ‘It was a glazed orange cruller that defined my life. It was 1968 and I was with my mother, working at the voting poles. There was a box of Krispy Kreme donuts – I ate the orange cruller and I felt my life forever changed. I never forgot that donut, the little bits of orange rind embedded in the glaze, the outrageous sweetness, the tartness of the citrus. It was the definition of sublime, it was the American Dream turned into foodstuff. It was glorious.’
‘It was fear,’ Karl says. ‘The smell in the car was the scent of fear.’
Jojo takes one of Karl’s hands and one of mine and pulls them to her heart, pressing us against her air bags, against her chest. ‘It’s over now boys, it’s all over. You’re safe. Aunt Jojo has you now.’ She lets go, dropping our hands, and pops another donut hole into her mouth and starts blowing circles of powdered sugar like smoke rings.
Paul Graham is a British artist. In 2009 he has had solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA; Greenberg Van Doren and Salon 94 Freemans, New York, USA; and Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London, UK. His mid-career survey at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, will travel to Deichtorhallen, Hamburg, Germany and Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK. Graham is the winner of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2009, at The Photographers' Gallery, London, UK. He has also published numerous books.