The applause proved neither hesitant nor restrained in the wake of Mr. Potter’s announcement: First Prize in the 1982 Northeastern school-district photo contest was going to none other than twelve-year-old Rodric Floyd of Valleyport for his composition ‘Lobster Pots’. The gymnasium resounded with maternal clapping to rival that heard in chapel during holiday observances. Surprisingly enough, the handful of fathers who had bothered to attend appeared even more enthusiastic, emitting the occasional whoo! and at least one wolf whistle. The head of the PTA, Mr. Lewis, sprung from his seat onstage to deliver the sort of handclaps usually reserved for elderly veterans and heads of state. The twelve other student photographers present at the meeting displayed no signs of envy or animosity, smiling supportively at young Rodric as he rose clumsily from his chair beside his glowing mother.
Only one person in attendance did not share in the enthusiasm for the prizewinning young photographer. Seated somewhat insignificantly towards the back of the stage, the principal of Coastal High, Mr. Pritchard B. Belcher, appeared rather taken aback and slightly disoriented upon hearing the announcement from the podium. Mr. Potter, the head of the school’s photography club, had simply caught him off guard. The sight of the grinning overweight seventh-grader climbing the steps onto the stage to shake hands with Potter and receive his one-hundred-dollar cheque only served to drive the strange message further home. Mr. Belcher was gradually starting to clap his hands in reluctant and unsure applause, when it suddenly occurred to him that he had not even been made aware of the unusual winner’s identity up until now. This was the first he had heard of it.
Why hadn’t anyone told him? Did they think such matters were not his concern? Hell, he was the school principal. He was supposed to be in charge around here. Why did he always seem to be the last to know? Were they trying to hide something from him? The damn photos had been hanging across from his office upstairs since Monday. Hadn’t Potter told him the winner sometime over the past 48 hours? What day was this anyway?
Belcher sat sternly in his chair, his hands folded firmly in his lap, as the Floyd boy returned to his seat amidst a second round of applause.
Something didn’t seem quite right. Rodric Floyd? The district winner? The only talent that Belcher had ever known the Floyd boy to possess was for being a pain in the arse. He decided he would have to see this masterpiece photo for himself, and he was not waiting for the boring PTA meeting to let out. He figured he knew as much about art and photography as those self-righteous pinkos that had served as judges.
The principal rose and quietly started from the stage without a word of explanation. Mr. Lewis was approaching the podium to deliver his closing statement and thank those in attendance as Belcher slipped out of the gym and into the main corridor. Belcher’s lower back was killing him as usual, but the middle-aged father of two managed to move along at a considerably brisk pace towards the nearest stairs.
As he painfully climbed the steps to the top floor, Belcher slowly recalled some of the past exploits of Rodric Floyd. It seemed there were quite a few to choose from. There was the time he had stolen the fire extinguisher from the bottom-floor cafeteria. Or the time he and the Walters boy had made moonshine with the distillery equipment in the chemistry lab. And, of course, there was the little matter of Mr. Powell’s trousers…. Since when had this burgeoning delinquent become the favoured successor to Yousuf Karsh?
Belcher finally reached the section of the corridor where the photographs were hanging, and quickly discovered the prizewinning snapshot amongst the thirteen entries that had represented Coastal High in the competition. Belcher studied Rodric Floyd’s photo. The black and white 8” × 10” print featured a close-up of three newly built wooden lobster pots against a limited backdrop of snowy field ascending into high hills—the latter severely truncated by the photo’s top border. This was definitely not one’s typical landscape, still life or portrait. Still, the judges’ decision had been unanimous.
Belcher was more than a little stunned. Why the hell would they pick this bland, pointless monstrosity? Could Floyd’s delinquent older cousins—the ones who sold hot stereos for a living—have gotten to them somehow? Offhand, he couldn’t recall hearing about any slashed tires or threatening phone calls in recent weeks. Did Floyd have any relatives on the—
The principal’s train of thought was suddenly derailed by a number of the other meeting attendees joining him in the corridor, wanting to catch a (second?) glimpse of the renowned lobster pots before heading home. He listened dumbfounded as Mrs. Jacob C. Walton, the British-born wife of a prominent local doctor, spoke of the photo’s “earthy elements” and “majestic qualities”. “If only our Gertrude possessed a modicum of young Rodric’s natural talent…” she speculated longingly. Belcher decided he would wait in his nearby office until the crowd had all gone. He suddenly felt like a drink.
Only when he was sure that the last of the parents, teachers and student photographers were making their way out the school’s two main front exits, and the vehicles were growling to life out in the parking lot, did Mr. Belcher return to the display of photos in the hallway. Adjusting his heavy brown-plastic glasses on his large pink nose, he stared again at the prizewinning image.
The colourless photo appeared flat and a little undersized, given the prominence of the titular lobster pots in the foreground, he observed. Also, the three pots lay randomly in a triangular fashion, one atop the other two, and faced the viewer on a bizarre angle for no obvious aesthetic reason—clearly not the work of a gifted youth. Above all, figured Belcher, the whole picture seemed rather frigid and devoid of purpose, an emotional dead end. There was no way any self-respecting judge could award this First Prize under regular circumstances, he quickly concluded. There must be some kind of trick!
Belcher detached the photo’s card-stock frame from its tack and took it through the secretary’s ‘anteroom’ and into his own small office, locking the door behind him. He propped the photo upright against some books on his desk and poured a generous drink of straight whiskey from the bottle he kept in his filing cabinet. Sitting back in his chair with the liquor, he let his eyes drift over the snow-skimmed field and fence in the photo, from the lobster pots in the foreground to the hills in the distance….
It had been a bright Saturday afternoon in March, the sun glistening off the snow-laced trees upon the hills, when classmate Richard Walters called on Rodric at the Floyd home in Valleyport. The family had just finished lunch, and Walters found Rodric dressing in his winter garb in the porch, almost ready to leave the house.
“Wanna shoot a few games of 8-ball at Jerry’s?” Walters asked hopefully as Rodric shut the door behind them. “We can check out that new Gottlieb machine he’s got installed, too, while we’re there.”
“Can’t—at least not until I’ve finished shootin’ the rest of this roll of film.” He drew a 35mm Bell & Howell from his parka pocket. “The camera’s on loan from the school’s photography club, and it’s only a few days before the district competition closes.” He looked skyward, squinting his eyes. “It’s nice ’n’ sunny out today. Might be my last opportunity to get some decent shots before the deadline.”
Walters shook his head in slight disgust as the two boys exited the Floyds’ front yard, their heavy boots staining the light blanket of overnight snow that had put a damper on two weeks of premature spring weather. “Christ, Rod, how do you get involved in these things anyway?”
“Well, like you and the chess club, I guess. You’re a member of that.”
“I was,” Walters responded. “Then I got into pinball big-time.”
Rodric took another jab: “Ha! That’s an intellectual step up, now, ain’t it!”
“Well, it certainly beats bloody volleyball. Can ya see y’rself spending the weekends playing that crap in the name of ‘school spirit’? It’s the sport of fake jocks who want the popularity and the slutty cheerleaders that come with it, but don’t have the balls to take a hip check or break a tackle.”
Rodric chuckled in agreement, nodding his head in some exaggerated refined manner. “True, true.” He unzipped his parka and tugged at the collar of his sweater. “By the way, do you prefer a Williams machine or a Bally machine?”
Walters thought for a second. “Well, Williams’s machines are generally cooler… more interesting. But Bally’s machines are usually faster—though not as fast as Stern’s. Check out the bumpers on Stargazer—Jeez.”
The two boys turned left at the fork where Richelieu’s grocery store stood, and walked rather briskly in the direction of the fish-processing plant and adjoining wharf.
“So, any thoughts on what I should shoot?” asked Rodric, as he raised the camera to his eye and snapped a quick shot of the harbour’s mouth beyond the houses, docks and chapel steeples.
“Well, I wouldn’t go wastin’ my film on silly sceneries. If the judges are worth a damn, they’ll be lookin’ for art, not tourist crap. If they wanted that, they would’ve just told ya to pick up some corny postcard from a gift shop or B ’n’ B.”
Rodric said nothing, and tucked the camera back into his parka. The two boys walked on until they came upon three stray lobster pots in a field off the left side of the road. Newly built, the wooden traps were lying just inside the partially fallen fence that outlined the sloping pasture beyond a ditch.
“What about those?” Walters asked, nodding in the direction of the pots.
Rodric shrugged his shoulders, unconvinced. “What about ’em?” he replied nonchalantly, awaiting Walters’s supporting argument. “They belong to the Jenkins brothers, I believe. That’s where Gwendolyn used to graze that pet sheep of hers, anyway.”
“I dunno… They have a certain Warhol look about ’em. You know what I mean—the ‘repeating image’ and all that.”
“Yeah. Sort of like his Mona Lisas or Liz Taylors. The same image repeated, but not arranged in neat rows like the Marilyns or what-have-ya. You know—more random or ‘nonlinear’ or somethin’.”
Rodric considered the lobster pots for a moment, then raised his eyebrows and shrugged again, tipping his head slightly to the left and curling his lip in half-hearted concession. “Why not… Worth a try….” he muttered with a flicker of hope.
He buttoned the camera securely in the chest pocket of his parka, made a run of a few short steps, and proceeded to leap clumsily across the wide, mucky ditch to the slick snow-glazed grass on the other side, slipping and falling to his knees in the process.
“Looks like someone could knock off a few pounds,” teased Walters as he jumped quite deftly after Rodric, who was wiping the wet snow from the knees of his trousers. “Maybe there’s a place for you on the volleyball team after all!”
The larger boy muttered something under his breath and began to pick his way towards the lobster pots, Walters behind him. The two boys trudged carefully up the slope a few yards to the dilapidated wire fence, where Rodric leaned against a wooden post and focussed the camera on the pots. A subtle smirk of satisfaction soon crossed his face.
“Come and take a look!” he implored Walters enthusiastically, not a trace of resentment left in his voice.
Walters took the camera from Rodric and positioned himself at the post. “Not bad… not bad,” he assessed hopefully. “I thought this was a contender. If I were you, I’d snap a few shots from slightly different angles—just to make sure.”
Walters was about to hand the camera back to Rodric when the former noticed something in the snow beyond the lobster pots. He raised the camera back to his left eye and observed it through the lens.
“Those tracks over there….” Walters pointed to a stretch of field within a few yards and to the right of the pots. “Where the hell did they come from? Think they’ll screw up your shot?”
Rodric scanned the field. A trail of fresh footprints passed over the fallen fence at a point further down the road; they extended up the slope through the middle of the field, then passed over the stretch of fence on the opposite side, disappearing into the evergreen hills overlooking the harbour from the east.
“Probably Vaughn and Yvette,” replied Rodric, starting to chuckle. “Visiting their new make-out spot.”
“Vaughn Humphreys and Yvette Richmond?” Walters’s tone was one of considerable disbelief.
“Yep. Been seeing each other for a while now. Love to hear what ol’ lady Humphreys would have to say if she knew about it! Heh-heh!”
“God! She’d probably force Vaughn back to the baptismal font!”
Rodric chuckled a little louder. “What I’ve been wond’ring is what’s Yvette doin’ with someone like Vaughn in the first place. After all, he’s not exactly her type!”
Walters shrugged as he handed the camera back to Rodric. “I guess springtime is comin’ early this year. And besides, I’ve seen fellers who look a lot worse. I mean, he is pretty good looking….”
Rodric glanced out into the road where two scruffy local tomcats were strutting proudly toward Richilieu’s store; he then turned his attention back to the task at hand. “So… should I try and avoid the footprints?” he asked.
Walters pondered for just a second or two and then shook his head. “Nah. Leave ’em in. They’ll be our own private joke.” He pondered again for a moment. “Maybe you can send Mrs. Humphreys a print.”
Grinning mischievously, Rodric raised the camera to his eye. He stepped back into position at the post, and the shutter began to open and close.
“And you’re saying that neither one of you made any threats or pulled any strings whatsoever in getting that weird photo selected the winner?!!”
It was Thursday morning, and Mr. Belcher was interrogating Rodric Floyd and Richard Walters in his office. Things were not going as smoothly as he had hoped.
“We didn’t do a thing outta the ordinary, sir,” Rodric insisted, shaking his head slowly, emphatically. “I just photographed the lobster pots and Mr. Potter entered my best shot in the competition. That’s it.”
“It’s true, sir,” Walters further asserted. “I helped Rod set up the shot that Saturday, an’ then he just took it an’ developed it in Mr. P.’s darkroom!”
It had been a rough night for the principal. He had fallen asleep in his office around 9:45—the photo and the bottle still on his desk—only to be awakened around 11:20 by a phone call from Mrs. Belcher, wondering what the hell he had gotten up to. On top of this, he had discovered some bizarre key in the left pocket of his overcoat as he dressed to walk home to his nearby house. Try as he might, he could not for the life of him remember where it came from or what it opened. All things considered, his headache seemed a little worse than usual this morning.
The two seventh graders hadn’t even made it to their first class when the secretary’s voice had come twittering over the intercom, ‘requesting’ their presence in the principal’s office. They now sat side by side on two green-vinyl chairs facing Belcher, their initial bewilderment at his line of inquiry gradually transforming into indignation. Rodric’s t-shirt featured a cartoon image of four frogs leaving a restaurant kitchen in wheelchairs, a sign above them reading, “Today’s Special: Frog Legs”. Walters’s t-shirt sported the front-cover artwork from Lou Reed’s latest album, The Blue Mask.
Belcher left his desk and began to walk slowly and painfully towards the one large window that the minister of education had afforded his modest office.
“I still think there’s more to this than meets the eye…” he said in a low, suspicious voice with just a hint of sarcasm.
With his back to the two boys and his hands folded behind him, he stood peering out the window at the budding maples atop a rock cut at the back of the school. The room fell silent for several seconds.
“Rodric, you can go back to your regular class now,” he suddenly said. “Richard, I’d like a few more words with you. Alone.”
Rodric and a slightly anxious Richard exchanged glances; then the large boy shrugged and trudged indignantly out of the room with a burgeoning sense of pride and empowerment.
When the door had shut and Belcher knew for certain that Rodric had exited the main office, he finally turned and faced the Walters boy.
“You like to read, don’t you, Richard,” he began quite innocuously. “You like to read a lot of big, tough books beyond your years—isn’t that right?”
Walters nodded his head in agreement, now totally baffled as to where this bizarre interrogation was headed.
“Yes, indeed,” Belcher continued, his voice taking on a subtle mocking tone as he inched slowly towards the boy. “Going right back into early elementary school, according to the file that came with you. A lot of big, tough books full of complex concepts. The sort of stuff that even some of us teachers might have difficulty in comprehending. Isn’t that right?”
Unsure of how he should reply, Walters merely shrugged and flashed a modest smile as he stared into the principal’s looming face—a face which now bore a discernible smirk.
“It’s useless trying to play dumb with me,” Belcher sneered. “We both know you’re brilliant.”
The principal straightened up his aching back and folded his hands behind him. Turning his attention away from Walters, he moved slowly to the window. Once again, he stood staring out with his back to the boy.
“Mr. Cropper was telling me something interesting in the staffroom this morning.” Belcher paused for a few seconds, seemingly for effect. “It seems someone’s made off with several of the books he kept in the shelves at the back of his classroom.” The principal turned his head to the right without moving his body, then spoke in a more ominous voice: “You have an English class with Mr. Cropper, don’t you?”
“Yeah….” Walters responded hesitantly, realising he was stepping into a trap. “On Days 2, 4 and 6, sir.”
Belcher turned his head to stare straight out the window again, and continued. “Anyway, Mr. Cropper informs me that several of his books have vanished. Nonfiction books—by people like McLuhan… Huxley… Vance Packard… and that Mr. Key fellow. Books on media and advertising techniques… mind control—stuff like that. He’s not sure how long they’ve been missing—possibly a few months.” Belcher paused for a few seconds again. “I thought they sounded like the sort of books you like to read….”
Walters was growing a little annoyed and impatient with Belcher’s toying. “Meaning…?”
Mr. Belcher turned around and faced the boy again.
“Meaning, I thought they sounded like the sort of books you like to read.”
Walters wasn’t letting his guard down. “I’ve never read any of those—other than Aldous Huxley’s. I’ve read a couple of Huxley’s novels. Never read any of his nonfiction—the essays and stuff.”
“But you’ve heard of these other authors, I take it?”
“Oh, sure. I’ve just never gotten around to reading any of them.”
The idea of someone just barely thirteen years of age having a canon of intended reads struck the middle-aged principal as slightly arrogant at worst and intimidating in the least. Belcher decided he’d try questioning him from another angle.
“Did you ever notice any of the books in question before they went missing? You must have taken a look through the shelves on some occasion or another, an avid reader like yourself.”
“No, can’t say that I did. If I had, no doubt I would have asked Mr. Cropper to lend me one or two. In fact, sir, I don’t remember ever looking through those shelves of his at any time. It’s always been just in ’n’ out of class for me, sir, and I don’t sit in the back near the shelves.”
Mr. Belcher turned and walked towards his desk. “I see….”
Belcher sat and adjusted his chair behind the desk. It was times like this when he wished that the throat-cancer surgery of three years earlier hadn’t robbed him of the privilege of his pipe.
“So you were not familiar at all with Mr. Cropper’s nonfiction titles?”
Walters shook his head. “No, sir.”
Exasperated, Belcher took a deep breath. “Very well, then. I guess that will be all. For now….”
Relieved, Walters got up from his chair and walked briskly towards the office door. He was just about to turn the knob when Belcher’s voice stopped him in his tracks.
“Oh! One more thing, Richard. Tell Mrs. White to find me a decent magnifying glass. A powerful one.”
By the time the secretary had scoured the main office and two science classes and located an appropriate instrument, some twenty-five minutes had passed, and Mr. Belcher had already consumed his fourth large drink of straight Seagram’s for that morning. The second Mrs. White shut the door behind her, he reached for the bottle beneath his desk to pour himself No. 5.
Belcher took a swig of his whiskey and picked up the large magnifying glass. He hunched over his desk and began to re-examine Rodric’s prizewinning photo. As before, he let his eyes drift over the snow-skimmed field and along the faint trail of footprints, from the trio of lobster pots in the foreground to the far stretch of fence beneath the hills in the background. Even after several minutes of intense scrutiny, however, and despite the benefit of magnification, the determined principal could still not find anything that one might deem irregular or inexplicable. Somewhat exasperated, he paused to top up his whiskey glass and partake of a generous mouthful. Savouring the booze, he considered for a second that he might be mistaken, that the photo was legitimate, and the boys completely in the clear. But no, that would be illogical; a premature recantation. He lifted the magnifying glass again and returned to the photo. There must be something here, he told himself, refocussing on the far stretch of fence. He shifted his enhanced gaze towards the hills at the top of the snapshot, forcing himself to focus as the bell rang for second class and the corridors erupted with the rumble of feet and teenaged voices, permeating his office.
And then he saw it: barely visible, camouflaged by evergreens and light snow, but most definitely something out of the ordinary; an unexpected yet rather pleasant anomaly. He turned away from the photograph long enough to take a slow sip of his drink, then peered at it again just to make sure. Yes, there was no mistake about it. It could be nothing else. Suddenly he felt warm all over.
Belcher placed the magnifying glass upon his desk and sat back in his chair, smiling dreamily. He understood now. He loved young Rodric’s snapshot. It was a wonderful photograph. In fact, it was the greatest photograph he had ever seen.
Still beaming, he bent forward to take a long, hard slug from his whiskey, and then settled back into the chair.
“Thighs,” Mr. Belcher mumbled to himself as he drifted off into a drunken slumber. “Thighs….”
Outside in the corridor, inching gradually toward biology class, Vaughn Humphreys and Yvette Richmond grinned mischievously as they discreetly plotted their next Saturday assignation in the hills beyond the field.
R. W. Watkins created and published Contemporary Ghazals, the world’s first English-language journal dedicated to the ghazal form. He is the only Canadian included in Agha Shahid Ali’s Ravishing DisUnities, the world’s first anthology of English-language ghazals. In the 1990s and 2000s, Watkins’s haiku and related verse appeared most prominently in Lynx, RAW NerVZ Haiku and Haiku Canada publications. He also published three chapbooks of said poetry. Online, he edits The Comics Decoder journal, and has served as an assistant poetry editor at Red Fez. His major works include Trinity, which collects his aforementioned chapbooks with bonus material; Direct Lines To Hell, a collection of his early free verse; and The Rites of Summer, an experimental novella set amidst the youthful decadence of Eastern Canada in 1980. Waka-Cola: A Tanka Guide to Pop Art and small flowers crack concrete: eyeku and conceptual minimalism are his latest chapbooks. He also recently edited Wholly Trinities: The Nocturnal Iris Anthology of Sijo in English.