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J. T. Townley

J. T. Townley

J. T. Townley has published in Collier's, Harvard Review, The Threepenny Review and other places. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia.

Freddy Bought A Polaroid

Freddy bought a Polaroid. He found it in a pawn shop. He wanted to take snapshots of his friends while they were having a good time at the beach. They lived nowhere near the beach. The clerk told him they didn't make film for it anymore, but he didn't believe her.

He showed the camera to his friend Marie. "Check out my new Polaroid," he said.

"There's a relic," she said.

"It's a 1972 model."


Freddy examined his Polaroid, pondering.

"Hope you didn't pay good money for that," said Marie.

He counted on his fingers. His hand was in his pocket so Marie couldn't see.

"What do you want with one of those clunkers anyway? Don't you have a camera phone?"

He pointed the Polaroid at her. "Say cheese," he said.

"What's that thing around your neck?" asked Mike.

They were at the foundry, where he and Freddy and all their friends rode the clock most weekdays, when they didn't feel like going to the beach, where they'd never been.

Freddy checked the lighting, which was all molten metals and gloomy shadows, peered through the viewfinder, and said: "Just act natural."

Mike took off his protective glove and gave Freddy the finger.

"Perfect," said Freddy.

Mike waited. Freddy puzzled.

"Well?" asked Mike.

"Well, what?"

"Well, where's my picture?"

Freddy looked down at his Polaroid, which hung around his neck by its nylon strap. Mike spat and shook his head.

"It's an old camera," Freddy said. "It takes time."

Freddy took his Polaroid out on Saturday night. They all met at Eric's dump to pre-party before hitting the bars. Everyone knew they'd wind up at The Club Foot, where they'd double-fist until long past last call, then stumble out into the greasy night.

"Nice necklace," said Eric.

"Smile," said Freddy.

Eric unbuckled and bent over.

"Lucky that thing doesn't work," Marie said.

Freddy grinned. "Sure, it works." He pointed the camera and pressed the button. It clicked and whirred, then spat out a square picture. Freddy pinched it from the Polaroid's mouth and waved it gently in the air. He wasn't sure where the film came from. Aluminum cans rattled and shook on the kitchen table. "See," he said a minute or two later.

"It's so big and hairy," said Marie.

"Give me that," Eric said.

"It looks so real," said Danielle.

"It is real," Freddy said.

Eric's face flushed. "Goddamnit."

Mike grabbed the photo from Marie. "Think I'll hang that beauty in my locker at the foundry."

Laughter all around.

Vera, Marie's identical twin sister, left the room and returned with a Polaroid of her own. She aimed the camera at them but didn't shoot. "Is his better than mine?" she asked.

Marie sighed and lit another Marlboro.

After a few more Bud Lights and a fifth of Jim Beam, Mike whipped a 35mm point-and-shoot out of his back pocket and caught their debauchery on film. If the thing even had film in it.

"What is with you people?" Marie said, wielding her camera phone. "Haven't you ever heard of the goddamn twenty-first century?"

"Don't you know?" said Freddy. "We're artistes."

Mike snorted. "Yeah, Marie, digital won't do."

"They're artistes?" Danielle asked.

"My ass," said Marie.


Freddy tried his damnedest not to remember another so-called artiste. That's how his younger brother Jeremiah fancied himself all those years ago; probably now, too. How their parents doted on and fawned over him! He got everything he ever asked for: charcoals for drawing, oboes for noodling, batons for twirling. And what had their loving parents ever done for Freddy? Set him in the dirt lot and said, "Knock yourself out, kid." He was lucky if he found a worm or bunny carcass to torture; or maybe it would rain and he could play in the mud.

Jeremiah went through his modern dance phase and classical banjo phase and performance art phase, which mostly involved lime Jello and a lot of screaming. Freddy killed his time slogging it out on the gridiron in the hot sun and wet rain and cold snow with other dirt-loving knuckle-draggers. His team was deep into the Twin Cities Regional when Jeremiah went through his photography phase. Their parents bought the twerp a Leica M7. A Leica, for godsakes! Cost more than the family station wagon! And their father a brakeman on the Minnesota Southern!

The photography phase didn't last long. Freddy caught Jeremiah snapping pictures of his teammates in the locker room, brawny, sweaty guys in towels or jockstraps or nothing at all. After losing the North Star State Semi-Final in the last thirty seconds of the fourth quarter, Freddy was in no mood for Jeremiah's pansy pretentions. He blindsided his baby brother, who was hiding behind a dirty hamper aiming his camera into the shower. All Jeremiah managed was "But—" before Freddy started whaling on him. It took three defensive linemen and a tight end to keep Freddy from crushing his brother's head like a cantaloupe against the mildewed shower tiles. Freddy twirled the Leica by the strap like a stripper spinning her stocking, then smashed the camera against the locker room wall.


Freddy took his Polaroid to The Club Foot. He wanted to take snapshots of his friends while they were having a good time at the beach. At one time, Tony, owner of The Club Foot, had actually had a beach installed onstage for Oiled Lady Wrestlers, then again the following winter for Topless Beach Volleyball. Not a grain of sand was left (Tony hired a crime-scene clean-up company), and not another beach for a thousand miles.

Marie had a camera phone, as well as an expensive digital 35mm single-lens reflex. Where does she get the money? wondered Freddy. Mike carried his point-and shoot in his back pocket. Vera produced an identical camera from her purse, showed it off to everyone, and said, "Is his better than mine?"

Danielle returned from the bathroom with an old mechanical Olympus OM-1. She aimed, checked the lighting, focused, checked the lighting again, set the shutter speed, focused again, set the f-stop, checked the lighting again, and pressed the shutter button. No one paid her any mind.

Tony puffed out his barrel chest and strutted to their table. He surveyed the beer bottles and shot glasses and grinned, then whistled at a big-breasted cocktail waitress to bring more beer bottles and shot glasses, full ones. "What's with all the cameras?" he asked.

"We're taking snapshots," said Freddy, lifting his Polaroid, "while our friends are having fun at the beach."

Freddy aimed and fired. The Polaroid clicked and whirred. Freddy flapped the photo like a broken wing for a few seconds, then passed it to Tony.

The big man accepted the picture but didn't look at it. "No photography during the show, okay?"

"What's on tonight?" said Mike.

"Ever seen the movie Strippers?" Tony waited. "It's just like that."

They all knocked back the whiskeys the big-breasted waitress placed in front of them and chased them with ice-cold beer that was lukewarm. Tony joined them. After they all wiped their mouths, Tony said, "Remember, no pictures."

"Sure, Tony," they said. "Of course, Tony." "It's your place, Tony."

The crowd swelled and roared. So did the music. As they drank, Eric told them a story.

"So I'm at this art museum the other day," he said.

"What in hell for?" asked Mike.

"Yeah, Eric," said Marie. "You're not turning pansy on us, I hope?"

"They had this photography exhibit I wanted to see."

"Naked in Nashville?" Mike said.

"But you don't even have a camera, Eric," said Danielle, producing a three-by-two wooden box on a tripod from beneath the table. It had a lens at one end, a view panel at the other, and an accordion center. Freddy recognized it as a daguerreotype machine.

"I don't want to take them—unlike everyone else." They all stared at him. "But that's not even the point. I like to look at photos, so I'm at the museum and I'm looking at them. They've got pictures from all over, Mexico, Sweden, Iowa, you name it. Then I notice these two, a man and woman in their late-twenties early-thirties, a couple, you might say."

"In a Swedish photo?" asked Freddy.

"No, in person."

"But they were Swedish?" Marie said.

"I don't know." Eric was stumped. "French or Russian, maybe."

"They better get naked," said Mike, "or this story's a bust."

"Maybe you took a photo of the naked Swedish man?" Marie suggested. "And you'd like to show it to me?"

Eric scratched his dirty mop. "Do you want to hear this story or not?"

The big-breasted waitress brought them more drinks. They drank.

Eric wiped his mouth on his sleeve and picked up with his story. He told them more about the couple, such as the fact they spoke French or Russian.

But then Freddy said, "Oh, shit."

"What's your deal?" said Mike.

"Guess who just waltzed through the goddamn door."

Everyone looked, even Vera, who was preoccupied with worries that Danielle's daguerreotype machine was better than hers.

"Don't look!" said Freddy.

"You know that young, sexy, self-confident man, Freddy?" Marie wondered. Her agenda was not hidden.

Mike squinted. "That's your baby brother, ain't it?"

"What's he doing here?" asked Danielle, revealing a camera obscura almost as big as the table. Such a device, also known as a pinhole camera, can be made at home using a cylindrical oatmeal container, a sewing needle, and some film.

Flanked by a pair of men in leather jackets and dark glasses, Jeremiah combed through The Club Foot, examining the floors and walls and ceiling, pointing at the bar and saying a few words to one crony or the other. He greeted this table and that one, chatting up the patrons, shaking hands, slapping shoulders, and buying rounds of drinks. Jeremiah also took readings from a device that dangled from a cord attached to his wrist.

Vera pulled a similar contraption from the pocket of her cardigan and asked, "Is his light meter better than mine?"

Freddy's gut balled itself into a fist as Jeremiah approached their table.

"Take a picture, Freddy," said Jeremiah. "It'll last longer."

"What're you doing here?" Freddy asked.

"What's it look like?" he said. Everyone at the table was expectant. Drool dangled from the middle of Marie's lower lip. "Scouting locations."

"You're a famous director, right?" asked Danielle, pointing a Super-8 at him. She appeared to be filming. "I'd love to discuss it with you sometime."

"Are his directorial abilities better than mine?" asked Vera, producing nothing but empty, questioning hands.

Jeremiah examined Freddy's beer bottle and wrinkled his nose. "This place is amazing. Foosball and booze. Pole dancing." His cronies made mental notes. "It's so real," said Jeremiah, "it almost looks like a movie set."

"It is real," said Freddy.

"Anyway," said Jeremiah, "it will be."

"What an asshole," Mike said once the artiste and his cronies wandered over to the bar.

"Always has been," said Freddy, "always will be."

"But he's a famous director," said Danielle, eyeing them through a director's scope. "He's the director of Strippers and many other movies that have made him famous."

"And what an ass," said Marie, scanning the photos she'd taken of him. "Yow."

Vera frowned and said, "Is his ass better—"

All in unison: "Shut up, Vera!"

They stared at their empties, waiting for the show to begin.

"Can I finish my story now?" said Eric. He had to hurry, as they would soon dim the lights. The big-breasted waitress delivered more chipped beer bottles and sloppy whiskey shots. Everyone drank and gazed absently at Eric. "Okay, so this couple, Russian or French, I don't know, elbow their way into the photography exhibit. They both have these enormous cameras around their necks with, what do you call them, telephoto lenses. Bags on their hips full of other kinds of lenses."

"Wide-angle," Marie said.

"Fisheye," said Danielle, pulling one from her pocket and attaching it to Marie's digital 35mm single-lens reflex camera.

Mike knocked back another shot and winced. "Talk about fisheyed."

"So they have all this photography gear. They've got to be photographers."

"And?" said Freddy.

"Told you this story was a bust," Mike said.

"Know what they're doing?" Eric was fond of rhetorical questions. "They're taking photos of the photos."

"At a museum?" Marie said.

"Why would they do that?" Danielle asked, with nothing to show for it.

"You want pictures?" said Mike. "Get a copy of Naked in Nashville."

Freddy grinned and guzzled his lukewarm ice-cold beer. Strippers emerged from behind the curtains. Tony turned on a smoke machine and a red spotlight, but forgot to dim the house lights. Freddy aimed his Polaroid at his friends, who were having a good time at the beach. They were grilling hotdogs and throwing Frisbees and drinking ice-cold beer that was actually ice-cold. The waves lapped and licked the shore behind them. Vera cut her foot on a broken beer bottle.

"Say cheese," said Freddy.


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