643 times he said that. 643 kid butts sitting on the neon green stool with the hot pink cushion. 643 different smiles – braces, no braces, crooked teeth, straight teeth, missing teeth. 643.
Cal motioned the next kid to stand in front of the backdrop. Laser beams, so beautiful, he thought. He scratched the clump of his ear, something he did when bored. The clump was a swimming pool accident. The kids always looked at the ear. The stupid ear.
For whatever reason, he asked this kid his name.
“Alright, Scrandel.” Messed up name for a kid or even a parrot, but whatever.
“No. Shannon,” the kid said and wrinkled his fat nose.
“Ok, Shanlon, smile. Wait, turn your head a little to the left. Now, smile.”
Always gymnasiums on picture day. Ball sack smell from the locker rooms. Teachers standing in rows, watching him, whispering, laughing.
One teacher, a man with perfect ears and no smile waved at him. Feeling unworthy, Cal finger-combed a dark patch of hair over his ear stump. Sethel was getting impatient.
“What way do you want me?” The kid said.
“Huh, what, there, Sethel?”
“It’s Shannon, and I asked how I need to pose.”
Cal held his breath as the bacon-faced lad sat waiting for an answer.
Blink. Breathe. Repeat. Keep it together, Cal.
“Knock that fetus off your ear and listen to me, grandpa! Tell me how to pose for this!!” Samanda’s lips didn’t move at all, but Cal heard every word he said.
“Put your elbow on your knee. Good. Now, make a fist. Rest your chin on that fist. Good. Okay, now extend your elbow out straight in front of you while keeping it connected to your chin. Great. Now look up and to the right.”
It might have just been the glee club improvising a little in the corner, but to Cal it was a choir of seraphim singing him on.
Punch your own face, Sandwich. That’s right. Now we’re working. Sing for me, sing for us all. Sing for my stupid fetus ear which I will now name Evan as he is ushered in by the angels of forgiveness and beauty. Now we are working.
“Hold it! You’re moving!” Cal looked to his right. “He’s moving, Evan.”
“Scratch everything! Go limp and let’s start over.”
The kid let his arms fall to his sides. He was breathing hard and looking around the gym. Cal thought the laser beams brought out the confusion in his eyes. Salamander slowly lifted his rump off the screaming fuschia cushion in an escape attempt.
“Just where does the mighty Lizard Lord think he’s going?? Sit!”
Salamander looked at Mrs. White, hoping for permission to leave. All he got was a stern look and a pointer finger directing him to sit down and play along with this maniac. Terror made him want to run. Terror made him stay.
“Mmm, yeah, uh-huh. That’s a good idea, Evan. Hey, Salamander, we’ve got an idea.”
The boy sat. The boy shook, then stilled himself, awaiting instruction, destruction.
“Put your hands out in front of you,” Cal said.
Shannon held his arms out. His hands dangled.
“Palms out! Spread the fingers!” Cal demanded, then smiled. “Now bring them to your bacon face. Hold your face in your hands.”
Cal felt the heavens calling, requesting this bacon nub of a person to lift himself to a place of true laser beams that split clouds and wrapped around the planet Venus to whip back and singe the very tips of the blessed feathers of, ohhh, the angels.
“Hear them singing, Nub?” His voice quivered, and soon so did his lips and his eyelids. “Raise your face to them!”
The whispers were gone. Shannon braved a quick glance around the gym and saw only two students bent in the corner watching closely. And one teacher, a flat expression on his face, arms crossed.
“He has wonderful ears, doesn’t he?” Cal said to the kid, who turned back then. “Up! Raise your face up until your neck hurts. It must hurt to be the right shot. We will get this right, Francis.”
But it wasn’t right. Cal stepped from behind the camera. “Make it hurt, Francis!!”
“It hurts!” the lard-nosed porker squealed like the pig he was. “It hurts really really bad!!”
“You’re not crying, Francis! The angels need your tears. Cry, Jimmy, cry!!”
Shannon cried silently as he heard the echo of Cal’s footsteps in the empty gym.
“We must get this right, Liam. I’ll help you!” Cal grabbed Shannon’s head between his hands, and Cal’s angels saw that it was good.
But not everyone agreed.
The rubber bottoms of his penny loafers screeched across the gym floor as Mr. Ken Doll headed toward the pair. His gait as expressionless as his face, his fists swung like steel balls hanging at the ends of chains as he calmly approached Cal.
“Kindly pack your stuff and leave, sir,” his knuckles white and his face still empty.
“Hold it right there, Shirley. Perfect!!” Cal stepped toward the camera to capture the shot he had worked so hard to get.
“Out, now!” Mr. Blank Stare clamped his hand around Cal’s arm and jerked him away from the camera.
“But I have to push that button!” Cal leaned toward the camera, a child held back by his mother, his toy just out of reach. “Look at Satchel. He’s perfect! I must capture it!”
Shannon remained motionless on the stool. Sweat, tears, or maybe both were trickling down the sides of his meaty face, then down his fingertips and onto his wrists.
“Go to the principal’s office and call your mom, Shannon.” The boy jumped from the stool so hard it flipped over behind him as he ran out of the gym to safety.
“It’s time for you to leave!” the gym teacher stood, chest out, like a superhero protecting some make believe city from its make believe villain.
“I think you may have misunderstood, sir. I was merely trying to help the boy. I thought he was having an episode. Then I realized, he was posing for me and I wanted to do him a kindness and snap the shot.”
Suspicious, but relieved, Adonis looked down at his feet. “Okay, bud. That kid was the only one to give you problems today, so I’m inclined to believe you. He was the last one, though, so you still gotta leave.”
“But, sir, I have one last picture to take. You haven’t been photographed yet.”
Hercules sat on the stool, and shook his shoulders up and down a couple of times, preparing himself for the shoot. He stretched his neck back and forth until his fleshy pink lobes nearly touched their respective shoulders.
“Is this good?” he asked Cal.
“Well, let’s try something. Put your hands out in front of you.”
Eddie Speck lives in Ohio. He has worked as a factory foreman, a carpenter, and, most recently, at an auction house.