Lit/South Awards 2022 Fiction Competition – First Place
Dustin M. Hoffman
This Picture of Your House
I snap pictures from the sky out the side window of Tommy’s twenty-year-old Cessna 150. The plane’s a rickety old bird, but she flies even cheaper than our van can drive ever since Bush decided to invade Iraq and shot gas prices up to four bucks per gallon. My Nikon does most of the work. All I do is aim away from the wing struts and spin the lens until your house turns crisp and then click, click, click. I’ve gotten pretty good at framing your property line from those rose bushes to that row of pines. All so easy that me and Tommy can get toasted up there on a pint of gin. The part requiring real skill, the selling, comes when I touch ground.
Sage always drives the van, and I sit shotgun when we’re on the sell. Keeps my hands free for the frames, so I can change out the pictures between driveways. What’s on the pictures is what everybody wants: an aerial photograph of your house, of course. Your whole beautiful house and every last square foot of property. A picturesque home is what everyone wants, and your vanity has almost bought Sage and me a new old trailer home.
The last sale of the day, before we close on the trailer, is stashed way out in the boonies on Luce Road, high number territory, 6995. Nice long paved driveway tells me we’re not dealing with some hillbilly cheapskate. Big elms and maples all around, lawn mowed in straight stripes, yellow and blue irises blooming near the red brick walls. Sage calls it idyllic while she’s turning down the driveway.
I tell Sage to park close to the two-car garage. Probably got a sports car inside waxed up fine for summer driving after another brutal Michigan winter. As I hurry this house’s photograph into the frame, I dog-ear one corner, but the frame mostly covers the flaw, and I hope the Mr. or Mrs. won’t notice.
We idle with the windows down, A/C full blast. Just when I light a fresh Winston, the homeowner presses his face to the screen door. He’s wearing a bright yellow T-shirt, and, sure enough, a silver mustang is galloping across this fella’s gut, “Ford” emblazoned on his chest. Trick with these old rich guys is in the waiting. Me and Sage loiter in the van, me smoking, her smiling big with those gorgeous teeth of hers. Just waiting and waiting. Make them come to you. And they always do, when you’re staking out their own driveway.
Finally, he struts out in a huff, round belly heaving under all that yellow cotton, and I return his grimace with my grin. Have I got a treat for you, my chompers say. It’s not just Sage with the gorgeous teeth. We’ve both been bleaching. Got a little competition going: we measure every Thursday with these off-white paint swatches from Lowe’s, and the winner gets a back massage or fellatio/cunnilingus.
“There a problem?” this guy says, doing a cop script. But he’s no cop. I can always tell.
“All you got is blessings,” I say, “judging by the majesty of your kingdom here.”
“We just love your place,” Sage says. “All those tulips, be still my heart.”
“She loves it. We love it. Who wouldn’t?” I say.
“They’re irises,” he says.
“You love your house right down to knowing each species. Blessed with beauty and wisdom too,” I say, oozing syrupy charm, because I can tell this guy wants to scare us off. I got a sixth sense for assholes, and I never scare. Never. Not even that time I did sell to a cop and he kept touching his gun the whole time. That cop ended up buying, of course. “For a man who clearly takes pride in every flower on his acreage, I’ve got a treat for you,” I say.
And he says, “What’s that?”
And I tell him, “Closer, closer. I can’t show you from way over there.” I’m still holding my cigarette, and I tuck it by the door, so the smoke rises in wisps toward his nose. Fact that I’m smoking probably just makes him want to get rid of me quicker, and that can work for me.
Once he’s close, I lift the photograph of his house. It’s squared up just right, the green lawn and flashy flowers popping, and just under the frame is a view of Sage’s upper thighs poking out the mini-denim skirt she picked out for today.
“Bet you recognize this place,” I say, and when he just keeps staring at the photo, or maybe at Sage’s thighs, I finish for him: “It’s your lovely home, like you’ve never seen it before. You’re admiring the best aerial photography in the county. Like God snapped the shot.”
“We just love your place,” Sage repeats.
“Begging to be framed,” I say. “And lucky for you, I’ve already done it.” I push the frame into his hands. “That’s Amish made, hand crafted, real oak. Can’t get a frame like that at Walmart.”
But then he says, “There’s a crease in the corner.”
“Oh, that’s barely anything. That’ll flatten right out pressed into such a well-made frame, in a day or two tops.”
He turns it over, inspects the back, as if he’s looking under the hood. Back of a picture, what the hell does that prove?
“Lucky for you, the frame’s on sale this week. Makes the whole package an unbeatable deal.”
“We just love the work those Amish do,” Sage says. “You tried their pies?”
“Sure. I’ve tried their pies,” he says, because we’ve all tried their pies. They bully them into every local shop and set up lean-tos all over the highways. Every time we drive to scope out the trailer home we’re buying, they’re waiting to pick us off in their ugly dresses and bonnets, and Sage always stops. Probably could’ve bought the trailer a month sooner if not for all the pies, and I have to admire their sales techniques.
“Special deal for my friend with the lovely home is only four hundred dollars.”
The tight-ass scrunches his nose like Sage just farted. “I can’t get anywhere near that.”
“What kind of price would please you, sugar?” Sage says. “We want this lovely photo going where it belongs, above your mantle.”
“But we can’t lose money again, baby,” I say to Sage, because that’s the pity routine, one I don’t love playing. But Sage thinks it’s our best move. She can’t understand why everyone’s heart isn’t bursting with pity, like hers. “We gotta eat. Can’t just give them away.”
“It’s not that I can’t afford it.” He pushes the framed photo back through my window, and the corner digs into my chest. “Obviously, I can afford it. Just on principle, that’s a crazy price to pay for a photo.”
“A customized aerial portrait set in a hand-crafted frame?” I raise the cigarette, which is mostly all ash now, and I take a nice long puff. He scoots to the side like the smoke might bite him. “Heck, just yesterday, your neighbor a few houses down said I was crazy to only be charging four hundred.”
“Oh yeah? Which neighbor?”
“I sell way too many of these to remember every name.”
“Describe the house for me. Did a dog bark at you? Vinyl siding or painted? What color was the front door?” he says, and I feel like shoving the cigarette’s cherry right through his house’s picture, right through the chimney, and then flicking it in his face.
That’s when Sage says, “Now what’s that?” She’s holding the photo close to her nose. She points a tangerine-painted fingernail at a bright glob in the backyard. Truth is no one looks at the pictures too closely between snapping the shot out the Cessna’s window and slipping it into the frame.
“That’s a sunbather, babe,” I say. “Looks like.”
“Don’t look like they got no clothes on,” Sage says.
“Tell me, friend,” I say, propping the photo in my van’s window frame, “you think that might be you?”
He doesn’t say anything, because we’ve snagged him. Sure, even if you squint, you can’t see anything worth seeing, pecker or titties or any good bits. It’s the idea that matters. Since photography was invented, it’s always been about the impression of being caught in a second, seemingly so real that every painter in the world had to start going abstract. Suddenly, any Joe Schmo could capture any portrait, easy as looking. Lucky me trapped the perfect second.
When he runs inside in a yellow flash of torso, I’m surprised. I grip the door handle, but Sage puts a hand on my knee. “What, you gonna chase after him in his own house?”
That’s my lovely Sage, always soothing my impulsive instincts. Indeed, chase him inside and what? Face the barrel of a gun. He wouldn’t own some dusty rifle or sensible Glock. He’d have dumped a bunch of dough into a shiny Colt revolver, something that made him feel like a cowboy. He’d probably wear it on a holster while he drove his Mustang around town.
“He’ll be back,” Sage says, patting my thigh. She lights me a fresh cigarette, presses it between my lips. “You know, I think it probably is him. Gut looks familiar, no? But maybe they got a matching pair.” Her tangerine fingernail swirls around the pale blob of someone’s body. It gets me wondering how a person ever feels comfortable enough in their backyard to get naked and show God what he made. Sage and I have rented an apartment for three years, a crummy one-bedroom, and the pot-dealing neighbors keep the hallways reeking of skunk. The trailer we’ve been scouting has red siding and a bay window. But even at The Stars Aligning Estates, where each street is named after a Zodiac sign, the lots are slivers of an acre. Give your wang some sun on Sagittarius Drive, and the whole place would be snapping pictures.
“I hope it’s her,” I say. “Not him.”
“That’s mean,” Sage says.
“I’m just saying, if it were you, I’d pay a bunch more. I’d pay anything to keep you safe.”
“Nice try, buster.” She prods me with a tangerine nail. “I’m plenty safe.”
The yellow-shirted belly bursts through the door, carrying not guns but bottled waters. He passes them through my cigarette smoke. Sage cracks hers and guzzles, beams at the man with a thirst-quenched smile. My water just sits in my lap.
“Suppose I bite,” he says. “You got the negatives with you?”
“I don’t,” I say.
“But you have his word he won’t show no one else.” Sage takes another grateful guzzle. “And my word, too. Two words for the price of one. How about that deal?”
The guy scratches one of his legs with his sneaker heel, balancing his pot belly like a flamingo as he mulls. He digs into his pockets, produces a folded stack of bills. “Unless you’d prefer a check,” he says. “But I figured you type of people wouldn’t appreciate a check.”
Extortionists, he means. Crooks making a lucky break. If making him feel like he’s getting robbed opens this tight ass’s wallet, so be it. I count the money in front of him, and there’s only ninety dollars, plus a sad, crinkled pair of Washingtons. “You’re short,” I say.
“That’s what I’m giving you,” he says. “No more.”
“If I was a dishonest man, I could upcharge you for capturing such sensitive subject matter.” Truth is, sometimes I get full asking price, though that’s rare. The goal is turning the photo into any amount of green. But this guy has pissed me off, and I want to squeeze him for more. I know I can.
“I’m giving you what you get,” he says. Just when I’m about to throw the money in his face, Sage pushes the frame over me and through the window. She’s saying thank you, saying once again how much she loves the place, backing the van down the driveway. This guy and me stare at each other through the windshield the whole way, the framed photo tucked under his arm, the wad of cash crinkling in mine.
I stretch the resentment out over days. Hate like that is an endless cigarette, a satisfying burn that just ends up killing you. But, damn, sometimes satisfaction is worth the trade. I’d rather live a shorter life burning hot, I guess.
Over the next few days, we sell eight more aerial estate photos, finishing off big-belly-yellow’s neighborhood. I keep using him as bait in my pitch.
“Your neighbor down at number 6995 bought one. He snatched it right up. Thought it was a dandy deal.” Every time I say it, Sage pinches me with her tangerine nails. Sure, I gave him my word about the photo, but that doesn’t mean he can’t serve me as a sales prop. I’ll inhale that sucker and blow him cold onto his neighbors.
Eventually, 1002, near the end of the block, sets me straight. This lady buys a picture plus frame for $499.99, no questions. She’s clutching it with both hands, bobbing her permed, magenta-dyed head, when she says, “I’m surprised Mr. Platt could afford one of these.”
“Who’s that now?” I say.
“The gentleman with the lovely irises,” Sage says.
“The what?” I say.
“You know, the yellow shirt.” She makes a big round gesture over her belly.
“Sure, Mr. Platt. He loved his photo,” I say.
“His wife just died,” the magenta-headed lady from 1002 says. “I’m surprised he could pay, because he’s losing the house. Couldn’t afford it without her. Life insurance left him hanging out to dry.”
“Oh,” I say.
“It’s a whole thing. The entire neighborhood talks about what a shame it was, her death, the heart attack. But you don’t see me gossiping on about it.” The lady won’t stop ogling the photo of her house to bother looking up at us.
“Oh,” I say.
“That’s horrible,” Sage says from behind me, sounding like she’s choking on one of her long nails. “Just horrible.”
Finally, Mrs. Bobblehead breaks staring at her photo to flash us her serious face. “Yes. That’s what I say too. Horrible.”
After we move into the trailer, we become instant homeowners. Maybe we don’t own a few fancy acres that frame up nice in a photograph, and maybe if me and Tommy snapped a shot of our place, it would just be a clump of white boxes zigzagging through the trailer lot like broken teeth. Maybe not a house, but sure as hell a home.
First thing we do is gut the place, from cabinets to the orange shag carpet to the chicken-print wallpaper in the kitchen. We strip it to studs. Out front sits a junk mound big enough that Tommy could spot it from the Cessna. Soon enough, Sage and I make the place beautiful: blond cedar paneling, vintage turquoise oven, thick cream curtains hung on reclaimed conduit. We’re shabby chic. We’re living it up.
But just after we replace all the vent covers with these beautiful black iron pieces from Harold’s Antiques Trove, Sage says we’re missing something. I feel it too. That sense of missing lingers over the place, as if there’s no frame to our photograph.
That night we cruise out to Luce Road again, way out by the six thousands. We drive by the mailboxes and porch-lit home fronts that purchased a picture to fund our new trailer. We roll up to 6995, and the house is dark. Maybe no one lives there yet. Maybe they’re sleeping. We park at the road and tiptoe.
Sage works the shovel while I watch. We hope they’ll live, but I’m unsure about those delicate spidery roots. She tugs them out of the earth like a pro, and I fumble them into the Hefty bag. I bet her nails are trashed; she just painted them lime green yesterday and will have to start over before we head back out on the road to sell more pictures. The bag full of flowers grows heavier, and I set it aside to reach into my pocket. I brought the negative of yellow-shirt guy’s photograph, and I plant it in one of the holes where his irises used to live. He probably wanted the negative to make copies, I realize now, so he could blow up that blink of sunbathing body, but I have no idea where he moved to. Plus, he swindled me down to bones on the price. Leaving the negative here seems like kindness enough. I kick dirt over the hole.
That night, me and Sage screw with dirt on our hands, the scent of it all over our bodies. It’s great sex, and it’s always great with Sage. After, she struts outside in just a T-shirt, me following in just shorts, and neither of us mind if any of our new neighbors are watching. She lights a cigarette for me, passes it from her lips to mine. She doesn’t want me smoking in the new trailer, and that was an easy sacrifice. I’d never tell her, but I’d give up the whole smoking thing for her. I’d give up anything.
She leans into my legs and tips her head up to the stars, and we can see a few more out here than we could in that apartment squeezed into the middle of the city. I blow some smoke up where she’s probably looking. Then she says to the sky, “Think those irises will be okay in the bag overnight?”
“Sure,” I say. “Of course.” But I don’t know shit about flowers.
“What about him?”
“Who’s that?” I say, but I know.
“Yellow belly at 6995. You think he’s managing?”
“Baby, that son of a bitch is just fine. How could anyone hurt a grumpy old asshole like that?”
“He’s not that much older,” Sage says.
“Enough older,” I say, and we go to bed in the home we own as much as anyone owns any place. Mortgages and leases and liens and loans—who owns anything? Tommy, even, could lose his plane in a snap if he missed a payment, if we didn’t sell enough photographs. But Sage, it seems, can’t let it go.
Next morning, we’re planting the irises, and she says, “You think he only gave us ninety-two because those were his last dollars?”
“I think he was a cheapskate.”
“Sometimes I think about how much he might’ve needed that money if his wife just died and we pressured him into that photo. Puts my tummy in knots, you know?”
What I don’t know is how to plant irises, how deep the hole should be, whether this bag of dirt we bought on clearance has the right nutrients or alkaline balance or whatever. I don’t even know if it’s the right time of year. I don’t know anything. For now, most of them we’ve planted are standing tall and pretty—this army of color fencing our pretty red trailer home.
“He had a Mustang. He had a nice house. How bad could things be?”
“I bet you’re right, Vance. I should leave it alone.”
“Bury it right here in our dirt, baby,” I say and pass her a blue iris, the prettiest one I can pull from the black trash bag. She lowers it gently and brushes the earth over top.
I study her hand, the lime nails smeared in clearance dirt. If Sage died first, and some joker showed up with a picture of her sunbathing, her whole body blaring in the sun, even if it was only the size of a petal from way up in the heavens, there’s no price I wouldn’t pay. Not for that kind of miracle.
Fiction judge Ron Rash writes: This story is superb in so many ways: dialogue, voice, tone, pacing; but most of all its unexpected turns, all of which deepen the impact. I am reminded of Raymond Carver, not as an act of imitation, but this story’s sense of a border that, once crossed, can never be recrossed.