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Today's Story by Salvatore Zoida

I didn’t know what my father did for a living other than that it involved the use of a large number of pens.

Photographed in Drag

That I was six years old and in the company of my father, whose inapproachability was increased by certain spatial proximities such as that which our weekly drive to the old-age home involved, with me seated next to him, silently counting the telephone poles flitting by my hand-cranked window, from whose glass I was all crew cut, forehead, and conveyant eyes which, due to a congenital neuromuscular defect, bulged unnaturally, making me appear as if I were in a continuous state of shock about what- or whomever I was looking at, which expression my father described as endemic to a category of individuals linked by a mutuality of affliction whom he referred to as social misfits, saying it in a way that caused the tendons in his neck to become pronounced, that I was six years old and in the company of my father, whose inapproachability was increased by certain spatial proximities, made it easier for me to participate in the fraudulence which our weekly visits to the old-age home became. Visiting hours were rigidly circumscribed in accordance with a schedule that appeared to accommodate the old-age home’s personnel more than its residents, and, by extension, its residents’ families, by which I mean to invoke my father and myself. My father worked in an office building whose tinted glass windows I imagined lent its interior a corresponding darkness which necessitated the use of flashlights, headlamps, glow sticks, and other illuminatory devices; the sound of him in our utility closet each morning as he opened and closed the drawers of a plastic storage cabinet filled with Duracell-brand batteries I supposed he used to power his illuminatory device only reinforced that image. That my father was in a foul mood when he picked me up after school each Wednesday on the way to the old-age home accordingly surprised me since the mid-afternoon visits allowed him a respite from the darkness I believed enveloped his workday, a darkness that had a corollary in the inclement state of his health, of which his foul mood, neck’s pronounced tendons, and inapproachability were evidence. I didn’t know what my father did for a living other than that it involved the use of a large number of pens, which he always spent a quiet few seconds emptying his trouser, shirt, and suit jacket pockets of upon returning home from work each evening; his was an undeviating choreography I often found myself miming in front of the bathroom mirror when I was not otherwise occupied with such time-consumptive things as homework, chores, and TV. They were the kind of pen, popularized by Bic, whose clear plastic construction allowed you to see how much ink was left in the ink reservoir tube, which I always regarded as a sly move on the part of the pen manufacturer considering that, by revealing the ink level, the person using the pen would theoretically be more inclined to replace the pen before it ran out of ink than if the ink level were unknown, and, in so doing, would wind up using, and buying, more pens than he or she otherwise would. I admit that I’m basing my theory on a number of assumptions about human nature for which I haven’t provided any proof; still, I think it’s a good one. My father would put the pens in the junk drawer by our telephone, which was also where we kept our pencils, rubber erasers, letter openers, rulers, scissors, and writing pads, so that each time someone called for him when he wasn’t home, I would use one to take a message; that my pulse quickened whenever the telephone rang was a function less of the telephone’s ringing than of my anticipatory use of something connected with the person of my father. Given that my accompanying my father to the old-age home appeared not to please him, or, more accurately, that my presence failed to temper his mood, I suspected, in his inclusion of me in his weekly visits, an ulteriority which I believed would reveal itself during the course of our trips to and from the facility, despite my father’s parsimony of conversation, and my disinclination to test the limits of his reservedness. My father was a thin man of medium height whose slightness of build and fine hair suggested a subtraction, or deprivation, which his economy of movement, both gestural and transportive, helped convey; impulsivity, in its broadest, most far-flung application, had no associations with his person. My mother, insofar as I could tell in the photographs I found in a shoebox emblazoned with the trademark and name of a sports company whose connection with my discovery prompted my ambivalence towards its brand of athletic product, and towards sports in general, was a pretty woman whose attractiveness was enhanced by her occupying the narrative center of each photograph; her running away with my father’s accountant, whose industriousness my father regarded as an asset in the context of his finances without ever suspecting that the compulsivity which fueled the industriousness he so valued, and willingly paid a premium for, would be incapable of resisting the allure of an altogether different kind of challenge, precipitated my lifelong distrust of brunettes, to which my own dye job attests. They were a couple, my father and mother, whose tensive gesturology, in those photographs, bespoke fracture. My father’s statement one Wednesday as I opened the car door and crinkled my nose in response to the smell emitted by a new air freshener from his favorite car wash, whose service he valued not for its prettification of his car but for what he believed his paying someone to wash it said about him, that the old-age home’s personnel were troubled by my unnaturally bulging eyes struck me as odd; given all the sensorially assaultive things I envisioned the personnel being subjected to on a daily basis, the effect my eyes had on them had to have been negligible at most. I mean, in the brevity of each of our visits, at least one resident would do something whose shock quotient would redouble my resolve to halt my maturation into adulthood. On the other hand, it explained the staff’s reticence to engage us in conversation, or even make eye contact. The old-age home was located about ten minutes by car from Pomelo Drive Elementary by way of a minimally exertive route sequentially composed of Highlander Road, Platt Avenue, and Vanowen Street, with most of the driving taking place on Vanowen, a sweeping arterial road whose compact single-story homes harked back to a more modest, and practical-minded, period in the San Fernando Valley’s evolution. I highlight the logistical simplicity of our route so as to convey an absence of what would have otherwise usurped my father’s attention, as our driver, and deprived us of an opportunity for conversation; that our drive required but a minimal degree of mechanical, and cognitive, application and yet was shrouded in a dense silence said things which required roads longer than those which took us to and from the old-age home to sort through. That said, I viewed our silence as appropriate, and even natural, in the context of the solemnity of our weekly visits. By my saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that our visiting the old-age home was disagreeable. While it wasn’t the most joyous of places, there were worse ones, like my school’s study hall and detention room, as well as the principal’s office. Also, I saw our visits through a prism that did not allow for the hypothecation of my not going; that scenario simply did not occur to me. Getting back to the silence part, my point is that I didn’t think it had anything to do with me. I was an unself-reflective six-year-old with a simplicity of outlook whose motivating influence was a hallowed trinity composed of a TV tray, a bowl of Fruity Pebbles, and a homework-free afternoon of The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Tom and Jerry. Right after my father told me that my eyes troubled the old-age home’s personnel, he reached under his seat and produced a small lidded box which he then handed to me, nodding in a way that was his invitation for me to open it. My excitement was tempered only by my attempt to control, and thus prolong, my joy over my father’s thoughtful whimsy. As I removed the lid and looked inside, my initial reaction was not to associate the goggles with what my father told me about the old-age home’s personnel, but to view them within the parameters established by the physical componentry of the goggles themselves. Their unorthodox design consisted of a strap which ran, longitudinally, from between the goggles’ lenses to the main strap, to which it attached, at the back of the wearer’s head, and another one that ran under the wearer’s jaw. The goggles’ architecture was such that it kept them uncompromisingly in place, over the wearer’s eyes, while disallowing their speedy removal. As for the lenses, their opaqueness reduced the wearer’s vision to a negligibility approximating blindness; the goggles’ utility as a safety device was evidently secondary to their functionality as a blindfold. My father explained that the decision was mine as to whether to wear them inside the old-age home, but he added that my not doing so would upset him considering all the trouble he went to in acquiring them, and also given the ameliorative effect he was convinced my wearing them would have on our relations with the old-age home’s personnel. But I needed no coaxing and, in fact, had them on by the time he stopped talking and turned towards me. The distortion to which my vision was subject prevented me from discerning my father’s expression, though I suspected it was a softened one given the calm attentiveness with which he applied himself to securing the jaw strap. I wore the goggles during each of our successive visits, obligingly, cognizant of the effect they had on my father’s mood. And, also, of their role in enabling the fraudulence which our visits became after grandmother passed, the woman assigned to her room greeting us, each week, with little-girl giggles, her skin smelling of chamomile and milk, and my father addressing her as Mother, his face, from the distortive perspective of my goggles, evincing something I could not definitively say was sincerity, as I endured our visits, uncomplainingly, determined to resolve still greater mysteries.


Salvatore Zoida’s fiction has appeared in Rutgers University’sWriters’ Bloc, Ravenna Press’s The Anemone Sidecar, The Catalonian Review, Foundling Review, Wigleaf, and Prick of the Spindle. In 2011, the San Francisco Litquake Literary Festival named him as an up-and-coming Bay Area author. He recently finished writing my first novel, Bucolic Apologia. Tonight’s story, “Photographed in Drag” was published in Writers’ Bloc.


This piece was read as part of a production of “Action Fiction!”, sponsored by Fiction365 and Omnibucket.   

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