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The Crook of a Tree

Gwen sat in the tree, in the cradle created by the split in its trunk. “Does this look good?” she said. “Can you see our house?”

Jake adjusted his thin-legged tripod then peered through the camera viewer. “I can get the door and part of the front window.” Their rental house, new to them but with shredded yellow paint and crooked windows, peeked in the top-left corner of the display.

“Will you be able to fit beside me?”

“Sure. But you look great right now. I could stay out of it. How about I take a picture of just you?”

Gwen sighed. “No, you need to be in it. My mom wants to see everything. You. The new house.” She looked down. “I don’t know about this dress.”

“The blue works.”

“I bought a green dress yesterday. That would match better.”

“You look perfect. I keep telling you, you can’t take a bad picture. Besides, the leaves are all different colors.”

She looked up to the orange and brown and yellow leaves hanging over her. “Can you get them in the picture?”

Jake tensed his eyes, as if his squint might squeeze one of the multicolored branches into the frame. “No. Too high.”

“So their color doesn’t matter, does it?”

“I guess not.”

Gwen grinned. “It’s funny I am correcting you about pictures. I used to never sit for pictures. Hated it. I knew they would look bad, but you had to get them developed to find out. You remember that, the photo centers? They were networks of perverts. By the time you got your pictures back and could burn them, they’d been passed to hundreds of people. Cops should arrest anyone who’s ever worked at a photo lab.”

“I can’t remember my last film camera,” Jake said.

“Best thing about digital, you can delete a picture before anyone sees it. Like it never existed.”

“Yeah, but once you put a picture on the Internet, it’s totally out of your control.”

“You wouldn’t do that,” Gwen said. Her tone could have turned the leaves black.

“No. No. I- I’m not saying I would do that. Only that’s a new problem. You can do anything you want to photos. I could put someone else’s head on your body.”

“What?”

“Uh-,” Jake returned to the camera viewer. “Move your head to the left.”

“You mean, with a computer?”

“No, move your head to the left a little. Your face will catch the light.”

Gwen moved as requested. “Have you done that before? Replaced a head?”

“No. Not really.”

“You could change the dress to green, couldn’t you? If I wanted to.”

“Sure.” Jake continued to stare through the camera at Gwen.

“That’s good to know. That will … it will help me relax.”

“Hold still.”

“I used to be sensitive about my picture. Once, in college, there was a boy who stalked me. He looked like a big baby. He had a pouty bottom lip. His dorm was next to mine, and he kept trying to take my picture. He said I had good bone structure. If I walked outside, he was there, with his camera. A big camera, with a big lens.”

“Could you lean back, like you did a second ago?”

“We were in a couple of classes together, and he always sat in front. He would talk to the professor. Like they were buddies, like they would hang out for a beer or something. Then one day he passed me a note. It was cute at first. I still remember the first lines. Uhmm… ‘I apologize if my star-struck stare has caused you any discomfort. But I suspect you are accustomed to such attention.’”

“Did he stare at you?”

“I don’t know. I never noticed. He went on about how I was beautiful and he couldn’t help but look and so on. He poured it on thick. That’s one thing you guys should learn. You need to know when to dial it back.”

“Could you move to your right, so I’ll have room to sit?”

“I want you on my right.”

“Then you need to tilt your head back a little.”

“He used the word ‘court.’ Who says that?”

“Court? Like a basketball court.”

“No. Geez. This is why my mom doesn’t like you.”

“You mom doesn’t like me?”

Gwen shook her head. “She’s old fashioned, even if she won’t admit it. She hates this arrangement.” She pointed back at their house.

“Maybe I shouldn’t be in the picture.”

“No, she insisted you be in it. It’s her way. She wants to make it an issue even when she pretends like it doesn’t bother her.”

Jake stared through the camera viewer. “It would look better with just you.”

“No. It has to be a picture of me and you and the house. I don’t want to explain why you’re not in it.”

Jake sighed. “Move to your left.”

“So this creepy guy asks if he can court me. I don’t respond. I figure, that speaks for itself. Then he shows up in the same places as me, with his camera.”

“Too far. Could you go back?”

“That’s the problem with college. Patterns. You are going to be in front of the Murray Cotgrove Building every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for your English class. It’s a stalker’s paradise.”

“I’m getting a shadow from a branch.”

“So this goes on for a few days, but I’m able to avoid him. Get my hand up, my books, anything to block my face. Then he shows up at the cafeteria, takes a seat right across from me. While I’m eating. And he holds up his camera like he’s going to take a picture. Just as I’m chewing on a meatball. So I stab him.”

“You what?”

“With my fork. I had just pulled it out of my mouth, I saw him lift the camera, and I jerked. It was a reflex, really. Got him on the forearm.” She pinched the fleshy bulb of meat under her right arm, near the elbow.

“You moved your head. Maybe we should do this another day?”

“He was not bleeding. Or it was just a little. Most of it was spaghetti sauce. But the rent-a-cops came over. And they called the real cops.” Gwen leaned back, stared up again.

“You’re out of frame now,” Jake said.

“The police, when they asked why I stabbed him, I said I didn’t want my picture taken. I figured they would understand, since cops are all about control. But they wanted to charge me with assault. Bottom-lip boy had taken a picture as I stabbed him. Hah. I just made up that name. The cops took his camera, said they would use the picture as evidence. I had to wait a whole day, worst day of my life. I imagined this terrible picture, with a gawd-awful grimace and sauce on my face and meat in my teeth. The cops would have this, the worst picture in the world, and they would make reprints and send them to all the precincts and their buddies and I would be tacked to bulletin boards and break rooms all over the world. Cops are nothing but perverts. Why else would they need to carry a gun?”

Gwen stopped as if expecting an answer. Jake twiddled with a dial on the camera. Finally he said, “I think we just lost half the light. Maybe morning would be better.”

“When the picture came through,” Gwen said, “it was the ceiling, with a bit of my hair showing in one corner. Cops said I was lucky. I know they were disappointed. They couldn’t do anything because bottom-lip boy didn’t press charges. He probably had a molestation charge he wanted to keep quiet.”

“Do you have to work tomorrow?”

“I bet he has four little scars to remind him of me,” Gwen said, pinching her arm again. “I saw him one more time, on campus. I was on an elevator, and he was about to get on. When he saw me, he backed off, his head down so far he might have tripped on his bottom lip.” Gwen chuckled. Then she looked up to speckled canopy above her. “Stalkers are different these days. If the same thing happened today, bottom-lip boy would’ve come back with guns and killed people, including me. Like Columbine. I guess it’s lucky I went to college when I did.”

“Maybe,” Jake said. The tension in his eyes betrayed his struggle to find the appropriate response. “But we are digital now. So maybe you wouldn’t be so worried about your picture in the first place.”

Gwen wagged her head, noncommittal. “Possibly. It is good to have control. Can we take the picture now?”

“The light’s gone. It’ll have to be tomorrow.”

“Take the picture and then use your computer to make it day time.” She sighed again, looked up at the darkening leaves.

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“You need to get a better computer. I thought you were an uber-geek. Jesus, it’s amazing the stuff you find out about people after you’ve moved in together.”

“Yep,” Jake said. He started the timer on his camera.

 
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