The collage was on the wall in the kitchen of the yellow house, right over the sofa. It started innocently enough, with just a couple of snapshots tacked up; at first glance, I’d assumed they were of the guys’ friends. But upon closer inspection, I’d realized that the pictures, like the ones Dexter had given me weeks earlier, were of customers of Flash Camera.
Dexter and Lucas had both been hired there to run the photo machine, which basically consisted of sitting on a stool and peering through a little hole at the images, marking them and adjusting them, if possible, for optimum color and brightness. This wasn’t rocket science, but it did involve a bit of skill, a good eye, and most of all an attention span that could focus on one, sometimes monotonous activity for an hour or two at a time. This meant, pretty much, that Dexter was out. After Dexter had ruined an entire set of once-in-a-lifetime Hawaiian vacation pictures and twenty disposable wedding cameras, the owner of Flash Camera gently suggested that he might be happier using his strong customer service skills by taking a counter position. And because he was so charming, she’d kept him on at a technician’s salary, which Lucas was always quick to bitch about when given the chance.
“My job involves so much more responsibility,” he’d sniff every payday, snatching up his check. “All you have to do is basic math and be able to alphabetize.”
“Ah,” Dexter always said, smartly adjusting his name tag in a model employee fashion, “but I alphabetize very, very well.”
Actually, he didn’t. He was constantly losing people’s pictures, mostly because he’d get distracted and stick the R s in with the B s, or sometimes glance at the labels wrong and put them under people’s first names. If he worked for me, I wouldn’t have trusted him with anything more complicated than sharpening pencils, and even that only when supervised.
So while Ted, working at Mayor’s Market, could score some bruised but edible produce, and John Miller was jacked up on coffee constantly from his job at Jump Java, Dexter and Lucas were left with little to contribute. That is, until they started making doubles of the pictures that intrigued them.
They were boys, so of course it started with a set of dirty pictures. Not X-rated, exactly: the first one on the wall that I saw was of a woman in her bra and panties, posing in front of a fireplace. She wasn’t exactly pretty, however, and it didn’t help that right in the back of the shot, clearly visible, was a huge bag of cat litter with the words KITTY KLEAN! splashed across the front of it, which took away from that exotic, Playboy -esque quality that I assumed she and whoever took the picture had been going for.
As the weeks passed, more and more pictures were added to the collage. There were vacation snapshots, a family posing en masse in front of the Washington Monument, everyone smiling except for one daughter who was scowling darkly, her middle finger clearly displayed. A few more nudie shots, including one of a very fat man spread out in black underwear across a leopard-skin bedspread. All of these people had no idea that in a little yellow house off Merchant Drive their personal memories were being slapped up on the wall and showcased as art for strangers.
The day I washed Monkey, Chloe and I brought him back about six, and Dexter was already home, sitting in the living room watching PBS and eating tangerines. Apparently they were on special at Mayor’s Market, and Ted was getting a discount. They came about twenty-five to a case and, like Don’s Ensures at home, were everywhere.
“Okay,” I said, pushing open the screen door and holding Monkey back by the collar. “Behold.”
I let him go, and he skittered across the floor, tail wagging madly, to leap on the couch, knocking a stack of magazines to the floor. “Oh, man, look at you,” Dexter said, scratching Monkey behind his ears. “He smells different,” he said. “Like you washed him in Orange Crush.”
“That’s the shampoo,” Chloe said, flopping into the plastic lawn chair next to the coffee table. “It’ll stop stinking in, oh, about a week.”
Dexter glanced at me and I shook my head to show him she was kidding. Monkey hopped off the couch and went into the kitchen, where we heard him gulping down what sounded like about a gallon of water without stopping.
“Well,” Dexter said, pulling me into his lap, “those makeovers sure make a man thirsty.”
The screen door opened and John Miller walked in, tossing the van keys onto a speaker by the door. Then he walked to the middle of the room, held up his hands to stop all conversation, and said, very simply, “I have news.”
We all looked at him. Then the door opened again, and Ted came in, still wearing his Mayor’s Market green smock, and carrying two boxes of tangerines.
“Oh, God,” Dexter said, “ please no more tangerines.”
“I have news,” Ted announced, ignoring this. “Big news. Where’s Lucas?”
“Work,” Dexter said.
“I have news too,” John Miller said to Ted. “And I was here first, so-”
“This is important news,” Ted replied, waving him off. “Okay, so-”
“Wait just a second!” John Miller shook his head, his face incredulous. He had been born indignant, always convinced that he was somehow being wronged. “Why do you always do that? You know, my news could be important too.”
It was quiet as Ted and Dexter exchanged a skeptical look, not unnoticed by John Miller, who sighed loudly, shaking his head.
“Maybe,” Dexter said finally, holding up his hands, “we should just take a moment to really think about the fact that we’ve gone a long time with no big news at all, and now here, simultaneously, we have two big newses all at once.”
“Newses?” Chloe said.
“The point is,” Dexter went on smoothly, “it’s really impressive.”
“The point is,” Ted said loudly, “I met this A and R chick today from Rubber Records and she’s coming to hear us tonight.”
Silence. Except for Monkey walking in, dripping water from his mouth, his newly clipped nails tippy-tapping very quietly on the floor.
“Does anyone smell oranges?” Ted asked, sniffing.
“That,” John Miller said darkly, glaring at him, “was totally unfair.”
“A and R?” Chloe said. “What’s that?”
“Artists and Repertoire,” Ted explained, taking off his smock and balling it up in one hand, then stuffing it into his back pocket. “It means if she likes us she might offer us a deal.”