(Chapter in Novel Sad Man Grinning)
By the time he was fifteen, Joel had been abandoned and betrayed four times over. First by his birth mother, then by his father, then his step-father, and finally by his adopted mother. He was eleven before he even knew that his mother, the only mother he had ever known, was not his birth mother.
This he discovered by accident. Sitting on the open porch of their 2-story house, Joel overheard a conversation between his mother, Catherine Harris and his new step-father, Rick Tanner. When he heard his name, he had peered through the screen to look. They were having coffee at the kitchen table. His mother was explaining the circumstances of Joel’s adoption. She and her husband, Doug Harris, were not able to have children, so they were looking to adopt, she told him. They had gone to an adoption agency in Wheeling, West Virginia, as they were living there at that time. Both of their families were from there, she explained. Joel’s mother was a wreck and had committed suicide, she said, and she and her husband, Doug Harris were able to take Joel, or ‘Baby Q’, under their care when he was only a few weeks old. Does he know? Rick had asked. We never saw any reason to tell him, he being so small at the time, Catherine explained. What good would it do now, his father being gone and all? It would just be upsetting. Besides, he has a new father now, Catherine chimed, smiling and caressing Rick’s forearms. He couldn’t see Rick’s expression.
Joel pretended he didn’t hear his mother’s words. He had backed away from the screen and swallowed the words and stuffed them so far down in his belly that he could only now vaguely recall putting them there in the first place. But from that day forward he knew that the world was deceitful, unreliable, and unforgiving. The information struck him hard and heavy, like the way a baby turtle discovers its own shell is its house and knows it will carry it on its back his whole life. Joel lived in that house. It was the beginning of the hole, and he hadn’t yet found a way try to fill it.
Less that two years earlier his father had died. He had cancer of the bone marrow, but at the time Joel only knew that he lost his father because he was very sick. Joel had attempted to cope by carrying on as many nine year-olds would. He was put immediately back in school. Catherine also made sure that the church was a regular part of his life.
But he increasingly became aware of his loss, more despondent, more alone. The pre-teen Joel had died.
By the time he discovered he was adopted, he knew that no man could replace his father. Somehow, the more estranged he and his mother became, the easier he could envision her being his adopted mother. She became a stranger to him. But his father was his father. Even though he was present only in memories, and Joel knew him superficially, the way a young child knows only certain aspects of his father, no one could replace him.
Then his mom began to ‘date’ other men. Joel didn’t hate those other men, but he came to resent his mother more and more for it. Now his mother, Mrs. Catherine Harris was no floozy. Far from it. She knew the Lord had his reasons for taking Doug. This is a fallen world, she knew. Without Jesus, without her friends from Gale Ave. Pentecostal-Holiness Church, without the Word, Catherine would have collapsed long before she did. She also suspected that the Lord hadn’t meant her to stay widowed and single forever to take care of a young child. Marriage is a holy union.
Joel scarcely remembers the first two suitors of his mother. Their names are unimportant. For Catherine, they were not right and they were not devout, even though they were long-standing church members. A few dates were sufficient to prove that to Catherine. Rick was the third and final suitor. Rick was tall and thin, with matching thin auburn hair and a well-kept mustache. He spoke softly but sincerely. His tame speaking voice masked a powerful tenor singing voice, which was what brought Catherine’s attention to him in the first place. One Sunday, he had graced the front of the church, singing “God’s not Dead, He’s still alive.” He just seemed so filled with the Holy Spirit and right then and there Catherine sought to befriend him.
She learned from church gossip that Rick too was single. He had just gotten divorced the previous year and was in the process of church shopping. His church evidently was good but too liberal, too compromising. Catherine’s church frowned on divorce, but Rick’s case was warranted. Rick’s ex-wife had gone down the wrong path, reading new age and other unbiblical material. She had stopped going to church with him, despite Rick’s persistent witnessing to her. When he had found a Tarot Deck hidden in her dresser, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She had protested that there was nothing wrong with those cards. “Then why did you have to hide it?” he’d asked. “You are so narrow-minded,” she had responded. “If I am, then God is,” he answered. She simply refused to be guided or counseled, so realizing they were on very different paths, they agreed to divorce after ten years of marriage.
Catherine had invited him over to fix the front porch door. When he refused to be paid, but instead asked for one of those ‘wonderful home-cooked dinners’, Catherine was smitten. After several repetitions of such amorous behavior, it was clear that they were more than mere church associates who occasionally exchanged favors. Rick began to be a permanent fixture in their lives.
It turned out that Rick was not the outstanding guy Catherine had believed him to be. From that moment, Joel began to abandon the seemingly ubiquitous illusion that most are prey to: that they are in control of their lives, perhaps in the way one owns and drives a car. With purpose, with ease, with control. He never recalled having any of those things. There were patterns, and people were beholden to them.
Joel’s reaction to all this was increased despondency. His mother had made sure he ate dinner with him, but he ate in silence unless she or Rick asked a question. In time he warmed up a bit, especially when Rick began to show him how to use his camera. Rick had been a long-time amateur photographer. Even before Rick moved in with Catherine and Joel out of his small apartment, he had set up a make-shift black room in the basement, until then the basement was used mostly for storage and laundry. Now it became a virtual photo lab. Rick took great group photos of the congregation and even began to be asked to do weddings of fellow church-goers, friends, and family.
Joel’s father had a camera he had gotten in Asia somewhere when he served in the Korean War. He doesn’t remember him using it, but when he was younger, he would occasionally open the dusty black carrying case and once he took it out and began to pretend to take pictures, until his father sternly told him to put it away.
So when Rick offered to show him how to world the old Minolta, Joel agreed. Soon both Joel and Rick were developing whole roles of film together. Images of local parks, the backyard, birds, raccoons, and even once a fawn that somehow found its way into the park.
Outside of this hobby Joel and Rick rarely did anything, finding everyday communication awkward. But when taking photos and developing the film it was easy and natural, even exciting.
Until sometime the following winter, when Rick stopped taking pictures of nature and architecture and began taking photos of Joel. It began innocently. Rick said they were to try to capture the essence of human faces.
“You need to really see them,” Rick tells Joel.
He was referring to people’s faces. Rick believed that one could–given the right angle, right lighting, right perspective–capture a person’s essence with a camera.
“You can’t just go taking close-ups of strangers,” he says. So Rick and Joel begin taking close-ups of each other’s faces. They first experiment with different facial expressions. Smiling, laughing, frowning, silly faces, angry faces, surprised faces. They experiment with different lenses, filters, angles, etc. A few dozen of the results of these experiments hung via clothespins on makeshift wires strung up around the basement. They hung alongside images of natural subjects like the gazebo at the park and the Old Mill outside of town.
“This is a virtual museum of human emotion,” Rick glows proudly as they survey their masterpieces, as they showcase them Catherine.
A corner of the basement had in fact become a miniature studio, with small lights and carpet backgrounds. Rick even invested any extra cash he had in different camera equipment, developing chemicals, lighting arrangements, etc. A large storage closet on the far end became a convenient black room. Rick and Joel spent an entire weekend hauling junk out of the closet and converting it by installing a small cabinet to hold supplies and basins for developing. It was the most they had ever done together.
By October, though, the experiments had gone further.
“What a wonderful thing the body is, Joel. What a wonder God has given us,” Rick explains as he posed for Joel shirtless. Joel was to take photos of him in different positions. He remembered not wanting to, but Rick explained, “This is the only way to really see a person. In their natural state.” He talks in the third person, as if it wasn’t just he and Joel in the room.
Joel angles the camera up to his face. He looks through the lens and Rick’s too-white chest, ringed by darker, redder arms, came into view. It was a foreign object, the furthest thing from natural than he could think of. Small, ugly patches of dark hair protruded from random spots on his chest. Rick puffs his chest and flexes his arm muscles as he adopted various poses. “Did you get that one?” Rick asked and “How’s this one?”
Before long, shirtless became pant-less, and pant-less became nude. If this was natural, Joel wanted to be un-natural. He felt sick to his stomach each time he snaps the camera. Rick says that this was how Adam and Eve had come into the world and how we all come into the world. Now it was Joel’s turn.
“How can we be true photographers with all these un-natural obstacles?” he asked as he pulled at Joel’s shirt. Joel shakes his head. “You’re not ashamed of what God has given you, now, are ya?”
Joel doesn’t know what God had to do with it. He had been told that nakedness was shameful. He had also been told that the body is the temple of the soul. Which was it? He wasn’t ashamed of his body.
Rick presses, “We want to really see a person. And there’s only one way to do that.”
“Do you understand?” Joel hears Rick ask him as he stared him down intensely. He stands there in the bright studio light they had both installed, bereft of clothes. “Now you,” he motions.
He remains paralyzed internally, even though his body continued to move. Dark, random images float to the surface of his mind, like slowly developed film revealing flesh and muscle, patches of hair and un-natural hardness, intertwined unfamiliar legs, foreign, fleshy lips.
It was cold. Goosebumps.
Too-hot hands on his shoulders and back.
God’s Temple defiled.
A bulb shatters above.
Then a deep voice resounds, “Don’t worry, we don’t need the light anymore.”
The day Catherine found the photos was the day something broke inside of her. She began a descent into a dark part of herself. Being laundry day, she also descended the stairs into the basement. For her part, Catherine never ventured into the ‘studio’ part of the basement. She had considered it their hobby, something Rick and Joel could share together. And while she appreciated their photos when they had show and tell after dinner, she never took much of an interest in photography.
That day, something—she would later say the Holy Spirit—told her to go in the blackroom. Catherine saw a developed picture of the neighbor’s rose bushes and their lawn from the perspective of the roof.
She pulled the drawer open and saw its contents. Her breathe escaped her. She became dizzy and nausea pulled at her guts. She lost consciousness.
Coming to, she pulled the drawer completely out and dumped dozens of pictures into the trashcan and as if in a trance, carried it upstairs and outside, where she promptly poured lighter fluid in and struck a match. The photos were no more. Turning back in, she set about to prepare dinner, as it was nearly supper-time.
During the meal, Catherine was silent and non-responsive. Rick told them about how they think someone is stealing supplies at work. At this, Catherine stands up promptly, her face as white as the dishes set out, and screamed at the top of her lungs.
“What demon has possessed you?!!”
“What iniquities have you brought to his home?”
Rick and Joel sat motionless. Rick immediately knew the source of this wrath, but feigned otherwise. Nothing would appease her.
“Get out! Get out! Get out Satan!” She yelled this repeatedly and breathlessly until Rick was moved to heed her and slipped out the door.
Joel went to his room and stayed until morning until a stranger knocked on his door. It was a police officer. Joel was told that his mother would be in a hospital for a while and Rick was in custody and that Joel would be going to live with a distant Aunt and Uncle.
From that early age Joel had abandoned that ubiquitous illusion that most people suffer from. That they are in control of their lives, as in the manner of owning and driving a car–with purpose, with ease, with control. He never recalled having any of those things. Rather, he was wise enough at eleven years old that there were random events and there were patterns—and it was to these things which people were beholden.