I actually needed to be back at my photo shop retouching, but I wasn't. It was the first week of September, and the wedding season had passed. The senior sittings of August were now a thing of the past, and I knew I had at least a month to do all of the zit removal to the latest pack of teenagers before the fall sitting crunch for Christmas portraits began. I'd been doing the job professionally for five years: I had the pattern down pat.
What I was doing probably met the legal definition of stalking, but I didn't care. I was willing to embezzle my time and nibble at the edges of a perfectly serviceable law because I was in love. I was in love and I had no idea what to do about it or how to move it off dead center.
I'd been waiting about ten minutes when the object of my affections came out the front door of the row house I'd been watching from the corner. I scrunched a bit further down in the front seat of my low-end Lexus and put the 35mm SLR camera to my eye, the telephoto lens bringing him up as close as if I'd been just across the street. I began to make exposures.
I still use film sometimes because it gives me greater latitude at the 'taking' end. In this case, it was late afternoon, and through the long lens I knew I was losing a great deal of that fading light. I would push the film a stop when I processed it, producing far better colors than the print-end enhancement my digital printing system could supply. I wanted every detail.
He was tall, perhaps six or six-one, with blond hair and light blue eyes. His nose on a girl would have been referred to as 'pert' and his mouth sported full, sensuous lips. The seashell ears were perfectly shaped and remarkably evenly spaced. (I'll bet most people don't know that one of their ears is typically about 1/4 inch lower than the other!) He had a swimmer's build, and the cutest ass I'd ever seen. His tight jeans showed it off to a 'T.'
The shocker for me, the first time I saw him, was his right arm, or should I say, his lack of one. When I had first glimpsed him on the drive home some three months before I had thought him to be a shoulder disarticulate, as his tee shirt sleeve appeared to be empty. I'd followed at a distance, just watching, and finally saw him flex his shoulder, the tapered tip of a nub finally peeking out the open end. It was there and gone in a flash, like the flirtatious winks of potential beaus at the clubs and bars that I find myself drawn to these days.
As I clicked off the last three frames before he turned the corner at the end of the block, once again my mind began to reel off scenarios. How had the young man lost the arm? How old had he been? From the size of the remnant, I suspected he had been quite young. How had it affected him growing up? Was he gay or straight? Did he have someone? Did I have a chance?
I put my car into gear and pulled away, knowing the quick shop where he was doubtless heading. It was his habit to walk there each afternoon around this time. I knew that after a stay in the building of perhaps thirty minutes he would purchase a package of peanuts and a Coke at his destination and consume both on the way back, tucking the Coke can against his side with his stump as he needed to turn the cellophane package up to take a mouthful of the salty nuts. I parked a block in the direction opposite from whence he would come and waited, my camera at the ready.
He turned the corner and came toward me. The expression on his face was as angelic as it always seemed. I took a series of shots as he came to the small store and put the equipment aside as he entered.
I made up my mind. The time had come to try and meet him. I put the car in gear and pulled forward to the gas pumps. I killed the engine and started a fill, leaving the device on auto-cutoff. I went in.
There were only four people in the place, not counting myself or the attendant. My love was one of the four gathered around the video arcade machine at the rear of the dingy store. I pretended to shop, walking up and down the rows of over-priced merchandise, stealing as many glimpses of the young men at the rear as I could.
Just as I was about to give it up an excited exchange erupted from the group. There was a great deal of congratulating and teasing. The young man at the console had obviously achieved some sort of goal there. He finally turned to the one-armed boy and said: "Okay, Tank... your turn. Try and beat that!"
"Tank." Interesting name. Nickname for first or last? He reached into his jeans pocket and withdrew a quarter. Feeding the machine, he picked up the handgun controller and pointed it at the screen, the heel of his hand resting over the two buttons that controlled direction of view.
The game began.
I wished for my camera, although I knew I couldn't take any photos without tipping my hand. The play was fascinating! Tank would rock his hand back and forth against the two buttons to scan an area, firing a barrage of shots as he did so. He was remarkably accurate! The digital foes were falling by the droves!
"You gonna pay for that gas and move?" the clerk finally came up and asked. "I got another customer wantin' t' use th' pump."
"Sure," I told him. "Sorry. I was a big fan of those arcade games when I was a kid."
The attendant gave a 'whatever' shrug and I followed him back to the counter.
**********The pictures were glorious. I'd gotten three of him waist up, and I could see the nubbin of his arm just below the hem of the shirtsleeve. I zoomed in on the negative, and told the system to rescan. It did so, and I hit the enhance button. I studied the result. Could I see the faintest signs of a scar, or was it simply a trick of the detail-seeking algorithm in the computer? I made my prints and added them to my scrapbook, now lovingly hand-lettered in gold leaf with the single word: "Tank"
**********Work kept me busy. It was a week before I stole the time to go worship from afar again. This time, I was late getting into position. Tank was already most of the way down his street by the time I got there. I just drove on into the quick shop parking lot and went into the store to wait.
"Hi Lloyd," he said to the clerk as he entered.
"Back again, huh?" the middle-aged man returned. "Don't look like that 'chene'd be much fun without yer buddies."
"It's not, but what do ya do?" he shrugged back. "They're all gone to college."
"You gonna be able to go this year?"
"Yeah. After Christmas. Mom ought to be back on her feet by then."
"That's good. Well, have a good play."
Lloyd turned back to his work. I watched as Tank went back to the arcade game and fed in a quarter.
I let him get what I judged to be about 2/3 of the way through before I came and stood a few feet away. He saw me out of the corner of his eye and turned to nod without taking his eyes off the action before him.
"You wantin' to play, mister?" he asked.
"Whenever you're through," I told him.
He didn't say anything else. I watched fascinated as he continued through three more levels of the run-and-gun arcade game.
Tank finally ran out of ammunition and the game was over. I was impressed. He was entering his name on the hall of fame screen from this round. It was already there three other times!
"You're pretty good," I told him.
"I guess I do okay for a one-armed guy," he quipped back with a grin.
"You do okay period," I answered. "Tell you what... let me play a round. High score buys Cokes."
"Think you can beat me?" he asked. The teenaged cockiness was a delight.
"I'm going to try!"
Of course, it was a rout. It had been years since I had played anything like 'Mean Streets' and I was never all that good in my heyday. As I paid for the fountain drinks, I gestured to one of the three booths reserved for patrons who wanted to eat on premises. Tank nodded and slid in.
"You live around here?" I asked.
"Yeah," he answered, "a couple of blocks from here. You?"
"No. This is just on the way to and from my studio. I'm George Toland, photographer."
"Robert Tankersly," he returned, reaching his left hand across the table to shake, "but everybody calls me 'Tank.'"
"Good to meet you."
"Same here." He nodded. "Yeah. Toland Studios. I remember. I got the note last year to come in for a sitting for my senior picture. Never managed to make the time." He smiled. "Sorry."
"Not a problem with me," I told him. "I just assumed you'd had them done somewhere else."
"Naw, I just never got around to it. I'm kinda busy. My mother's had cancer a couple of times in the last two years, and I spend a lot of time taking care of her. She's doing better now though. I'm planning on going to college this spring."
"State?" I asked, referring to the large institution just 40 miles up the road.
"Yeah. That way I can look in on her weekends."
"What are you going to study?" I asked.
I smiled. "Are you a whiz?"
"Not yet. I spent a lot of time learning to program on the machines at school, but I don't have a box of my own."
"Well, you knocked fire from the ass of that one over there!" I marveled.
"Aw, that. That's just hand-eye coordination. You don't need to know anything about a computer to do that."
An idea occurred to me. "You know, hand-eye coordination is just what I'm looking for in a job I need filled," I lied. "I need a retoucher at my studio. I don't suppose you've ever done anything like that?"
"Not really, no."
"Well, it's all done on a computer. It's just a glorified paint program. You sample skin tone and then use that to paint out pimples and the like. Think you might be able to pick that up? Or would you be interested? I can only pay about $7.50 an hour."
Tank's eyes lit up. "For $7.50 an hour I'll learn to do it Mr. Toland!" He paused. "Uh, what hours would you need me?"
"You pick your own," I told him. "At the end of the week, I just need the work done."
"Sure, I'd love to try it," he told me. He looked down at his missing arm. "You sure a guy like me can do it?"
"It only takes on hand to hold the wand," I told him. "The rest is just having the ability to see what needs to be done." I reached out my left hand to shake his. "Why don't you come down to my studio in the morning?"
"Um, that's another issue," he said, obviously embarrassed. "I don't have wheels."
"Well, perhaps you could ride in with me. Could you be ready to go in, say by 8:30? I could bring you home when I break for lunch if you needed to come back and help your mother."
"Well, sure! That's be great! I live at 344 Locust. That's just a block over and a block down," he said, gesturing with his stump.
"I'll see you then," I said, then a thought hit me. "Or better yet, why don't I drop you home now so I'll be sure I can find it."
Tank navigated and I listened just as though I had no idea where we were going. When he got out, I watched him lope into the house, doubtless to tell his mother about his new job. He appeared to be completely happy. So was I. I was about to have an amputee boyfriend!
**********Tank took to the Magic Touch software like the proverbial duck to water. It took him exactly ten minutes to get the idea of what I wanted done to the portraits and another fifteen to find the controls on the computer that gave him the means of doing what he wanted. I continued to come look over his shoulder, not only to monitor what he was doing, but to admire the turned-up knit shit sleeve that allowed him to use his stump to hold the wand when he had the have his fingers free to hit function keys to configure the program.
A lot of my curiosities about his amputated arm were satisfied in short order. Yes, his stump was somewhat short and very conical. I was sure he had lost the limb as a child. It did not appear to have shrunk to its current size and configuration, rather, to have never developed in the way his sound arm had. There was a faint, flat, light scar across the end of the cone. He had not been a congenital amputee; the limb had been removed surgically.
On the third day Tank called me to the back room. There was a particularly terrible case of acne he was trying to clean up. The young man in the photo was badly scarred, some of the pits in his face being fully a quarter of an inch deep.
"I don't know what to do with this one, George," he told me. "Look here." He put the wand under his nub and clicked a couple of keys with his left hand. The fully retouched version of the picture appeared beside the original. "It doesn't even look like him," the young man observed.
"No, it doesn't," I agreed.
"Taking all his scars off would be just the same as if I came in here and you retouched an arm on me. I might like it, but nobody'd think it looked like me. They all know how I really am!"
I smiled. I knew what I would do, but just for fun asked Tank: "So, what's your plan?"
"Well, if you think it would be okay, let's do this..." He brought up a fresh copy of the head and shoulders shot and began to apply the softening tool over each scar. When he was done, one could still recognize the young man, but the red scars and dark pits were not the first thing that caught the eye.
"Exactly my solution," I announced when he was done.
He saved the finished picture and sent it to the printer.
"You do great work, Tank," I told him.
"Yeah, not bad for a one-armed boy," he said with a smile.
"I notice you say that whenever someone pays you a compliment," I observed. "It leads me to the obvious question." I gestured toward his abbreviated shoulder.
"Oh, that. I was in a car wreck when I was about five years old. I don't even remember it happening. I just woke up in the hospital. They had me all doped up with medicines so I didn't feel anything. It was a couple of days before they told me they'd cut it off." He grinned. "I still feel the hand there even now."
"Was your dad okay?"
"Well, sort of. He took to drink about that time and died in a drunk driving accident a couple of years later. I guess he was guilty about me," he added, a little darkly.
"And you never wear an artificial arm?"
"Never tried one. They cost a lot of money, and besides, I figure I get along just fine. Who needs a pair of pliers tacked on the end of a stick?" He smiled again. "Besides, George, everyone knows me this way. I've been 'the kid with one arm' all the way through school. Didn't stop me from playing soccer and all that on the team. It's just me."
If I wasn't in love before, I was now. God! What a guy!
**********I was in heaven! The object of my affections was underfoot half the day every day! It was all I could do not to burst with joy having him around. Still, I knew to be careful. I had no idea if this guy was gay or not, plus I was nearly ten years his senior. How would he feel about that? How would he feel when he found out that I was a devotee? Would that part of it disgust him?
But I had a plan. It was the first Monday in October when I placed a new folder of poses in the retouch bin. They were a test, of sorts. Tank didn't know it, but I had done the session a year or so before. A young woman had wanted a homemade cheesecake calendar for her boyfriend. I had spent four days doing the setups, but the results had been worthy of Playboy! The girl was quite beautiful to begin with, and if one were into that sort of thing, rather large busted. I had pondered for a week how to test the orientation of this striking young man, and this was the best experiment I could come up with.
I got my answer soon enough.
"Holy shit!" came the cry from the back room.
Just "Shit!" was my mental response. I walked back to the retouching station.
"What's wrong?" I asked innocently.
"God," he breathed. "Look at her!"
"Yes, she's quite attractive," I said noncommittally.
Tank shifted his legs uncomfortably a couple of times. So much for him being gay. "Uh, what do you need done to these, George?" he asked. "She looks just about perfect to me!"
"Oh, just check for blemishes, and check all over her skin," I added, trying to hide my disappointment.
"Yeah..." the young man breathed.
"You act like you've never seen a naked girl before," I added.
Tank blushed. "I... uh... haven't." He wiggled his nub. "Never found anyone who I thought was interested."
"I suspect there are girls out there," I told him. "Some women like men with scars." Hell, I could hook him up with any one of a dozen women from the internet group I frequent who'd kill to be with him!
"Well, I haven't found any," he added softly. The sad undertone was unmistakable.
"May I ask you something?"
"Sure, George, what?"
"Do you know about devotees?"
"Oh, yeah. The guys who like one-legged girls. What about them?"
"Did you know there are female devotees too?"
"I never thought about it." He moved his conical stump forward and rubbed it with his left hand. He looked back at me. "I've never run into any."
"How would you feel if you did?"
"I dunno. It would be a little freaky. Um... would she want to touch me there or what?"
"I'm rather sure she would," I told him. "And a lot more."
He smiled. "I'll let you know when I meet one." He turned back to the desk. "I better get to work if my hard-on will let me!"
Tank worked two days on those photos. He didn't know it, but I reviewed what he'd done to the poses the second afternoon. There had been just a bit of whistling while we worked going on. He'd taken one pose and actually retouched it to give her already ample mammaries a little extra mass and heft! I never knew for sure, but I think he printed a set of her pictures for himself. Oh well, if that's what lights his fire.
I was crushed.
This left me with the unanswered question of "What next?" When someone spurns you, your first temptation is to get as far away from them as you can. And yes, I felt that way for a day or so. Then I got to thinking about how empty the shop would be if I let Tank go. Besides that, he was good at what he did! I was actually able to book more sittings with him in the back doing the tedious end of things. I would make more money this Christmas season than ever before!
**********It was about a week before Christmas. I was just winding up a posing session with a rather muscular man about my age when Tank came out of the back room, ready to go home. The man had taken his shirt off for the final series of shots, and I had done some low key side lighting to emphasize his musculature. After he left, I noticed Tank grinning at me, a bit mischievously.
"I didn't know you did boudoir shots for men, too," he giggled.
"Only if they ask for it. That gentleman wanted one for his lover."
"I bet she enjoys it," he agreed. Then he became a bit more serious. "George, I was wondering."
"You know that I'm gonna be quitting here in a few days so I can get ready to go to college. So, before I go, could you do a sitting of me? Like I said, I didn't have a senior picture made... we couldn't afford it then. My mother would really like one, and I've been saving up my paychecks. Could you do one for me?"
I smiled. "You bet I can. And you get the employee discount."
"Hey, man... I couldn't do that. This is your living!"
"Hey... you're going to do the retouching and printing! How long does it take me to hit the shutter release a couple of times? Bring the clothes you want me to shoot you in tomorrow, and we'll get it done! I've got 11:00 open, and I'll enter you in there right now!"
"Hey, I really appreciate this," he began.
"My pleasure," I told him. He'll never know just how big a one it was going to be!
**********"Okay," I told him, "now lean your elbow on the posing table. Turn your hand around so the back of it faces me... yeah... like that. Now, rest your chin in the opening between your thumb and fingers. Yes! Smile..."
I hit the exposure button. A glance at the screen showed the image had registered perfectly. "That's one you'll want," I told him. "I like the sport shirt stuff better than the suit shots."
Tank looked at the screen. "That's amazing George! You make me look great, and the way you have me posed, no one would ever suspect about my arm!"
"It's rather like the young man with the acne," I told him. "I'm not doing anything unreal, just not calling attention to what I want to minimize." I checked the image bank. There were about 20 images there for Tank to choose from. "I think that's about it," I told him, "unless there's something else you want."
Tank bit his lip, obviously trying to make up his mind about something.
"What is it?" I prompted.
"Uh, this is gonna sound real nuts, George, but could we do a couple bare-chested?"
"Sure," I said trying to sound casual. My heart was about to jump out of my chest.
Tank peeled off the knit shirt he'd worn for the last set and dropped it on the floor. He placed his left hand over his ruined shoulder. I found his show of modesty quite amusing given that he had always worked bare-stumped here in the shop. Still, I understood: the camera changes one's perspective.
We did an additional ten or twelve shots that way, most of them with his stump away from the camera. Near the end, I decided to do a couple just for myself. After all, I deserved some pay for this shoot! I took a long shot straight on, Tank brightly lit against a jet black background, and another close up with him actually looking at me over his right shoulder! He didn't blink an eye as I maneuvered him into the poses. I looked at the final shot on the monitor and immediately went rock hard. The boy was actually giving a sexy pout!
As we were driving home I told Tank: "I've transferred all the shots to the retouch bin already. You can decide which ones you want and work on them tomorrow."
"I was thinking, could I just go to lunch with you today?" he asked. "Mom's doing a lot better, and I'd like to come back and work up my stuff off the clock. I mean, it's not right for you to do it for free and pay me, too!"
You have to love this kid.
"Well, you're more than welcome to come back after lunch. And don't worry about how many prints you make." I smiled. "After all, if I'm not paying, I shouldn't be counting!"
**********Tank was gone. It was Christmas eve, and he'd left. I'd promised him that he had a summer job for as long as he wanted, and he'd assured me he would take me up on it. Still, I was sad. I would miss him.
College. How many adventures waited for him there? I smiled. I was sure that there was some little college girl on that campus who would be bold enough to reach out and touch what she wanted. The boy was gorgeous. If one had the attraction, he would be considered caviar! I hoped all would go well for him.
Part of me felt guilty. I had started our relationship as a drooling, sex-crazed devotee fiend. Over the months, I had come to know a sensitive, wonderful young man far more beautiful than his all too attractive exterior. I wanted to do something special for him.
Then it hit me. A computer. He had mentioned not having one, and it was something he would surely need to college. I looked at my watch. Two-thirty. There was plenty of time to run by CompUSA.
I rang the front doorbell of the house on Locust. Mrs. Tankersly came to the door. "Hello, Mr. Toland," she said with a smile. "I'm sorry, Robert isn't here right now."
"That's all the better," I told her. "I'd just as soon he just come home and find my Christmas gift to him with me not around."
The woman raised an eyebrow. The well-known computer company logo betrayed the box's contents.
"Where can I put this?" I asked.
"Why, uh, over there... under the tree," she said, pointing across the room.
The computer and monitor boxes almost dwarfed the small tree. I noticed that Tank had placed a mounted 11x14 of the shot in the knit shirt I had liked under the tree, unwrapped. Then I noticed, none of the items under the tree were wrapped. I immediately felt even better about my gift. If things were still so tight that wrapping paper was an extravagance, then the computer would come doubly appreciated.
"You don't know how much I appreciate all that you've done for Tank," the woman began. "She nodded to the picture. "You've made him quite lovely in your picture. I've never had a big one like this taken of him. He is so handsome."
"That he is," I agreed. "And I've loved having him work for me. He has a job waiting summers, did he tell you?"
"Yes. Again, thank you."
"It's my pleasure." I looked at the time. I needed to get away before Tank came home and wanted to argue with me about the computer.
I drove back to the shop and went back to the retouching station. There was one more thing I wanted to do. I was going to give a Christmas gift to myself! I called up the shoot with Tank and looked at the thumbs. Only three were flagged as having been retouched and printed.
The first was the shot I had seen under his tree. I called it up and hit the print button.
The second had been the straight-on shot I had taken of him shirtless. The computer noted that a modified version had also been saved, so I called it up. There, before me on the screen stood Tank, but something had changed! This young man had two arms! I looked for a moment before I realized what the boy had done. He had copied his left arm into a work file, hit the mirror tool, and then pasted it over his right shoulder. Until one noticed the exact symmetry, the illusion was perfect. I smiled. Yes, were it me, I would have had that longing, that desire to see myself whole. Then I noticed something curious: no prints had been made of the image! How strange. He had gone to all of the trouble to create the effect, but had not taken a copy of it for himself.
Then it hit me. I touched the print button again, watching as the beautiful image fed out of the device. Truth had prevailed. Tank was who and what he was, and he wasn't interested in being anyone else. There, with the Muzak playing Christmas music in the background, I hugged the second print tight to my chest. I hoped the girl he wound up giving the picture to someday would love it, and him, half as much as I did.