This is the fourth chapter of my month-long fiction, album, made of word pictures.

perm. noun. A hairstyle produced with the aid of heat and chemicals that holds a wavy shape for a long time. From permanent wave; permanent from Latin per ‘through, thoroughly’ plus manere ‘last, remain, endure’ and wave from Old English wafian (verb), from an old Germanic root.


Yup, there she is, in all her studio-lit made-up glory. She’s wearing a purple dress and she has a professional makeup job and her hair is done in a kind of eighties perm, tighter on the top, then wavy down the sides. A couple of years behind the times. But this is the sort of perfect studio photo that people actually paid money for, and still do. The backdrop is a marbled grey; the lighting is studio strobes, of course, but also a theatre light with a “surprise pink” gel on it, that kind of magenta that makes anyone’s complexion perfect. So perfectly trite. There’s a reason this photo is in an album he doesn’t show to other people.

It’s also the only photo of Pam in the whole album, and one of very few in all his personal albums.

It’s not that he didn’t take photos of her. If you look at the bookshelf behind him, next to the camera cabinet, out of all the books he’s published there are several volumes that are almost exclusively Pam. That one, there, with the grey spine: if you were to pull it out, you would see, on the cover, overlaid by the title SCULPTURE, one of Pam’s breasts in close-up, bare, perfectly textured, isolated, as marmoreal as a Bernini and almost as soft looking. Open the book and you would see nearly every part of her body in intense close-up, the same sculptural presentation.

But before that was this. This studio portrait of her, her whole head and shoulders, actually taken in an open corner of the camera shop. She has a look on her face as though she’s the goddess Athena about to tell you something salaciously important, but only if you deserve it, and honi soit qui mal y pense.

She didn’t know for years that he had made an extra copy of this photo and kept it for himself. That was an improper thing to do, because at the time that he took the picture and made the prints, she was a customer he had just met.

She came in with her boyfriend, Paul, a tall guy with hair that always seemed like the cap of an acorn. Paul didn’t want a photo of himself but she wanted photos for her family and he was there to make sure it was done right. He had opinions about photography. He owned a camera, you know, and it was a good one. It had autofocus and a motor drive and a big zoom lens and it cost a bunch of money. So he had to guide her through this. He was almost parental in his attitude towards her. He was sure they were a permanent item, on the way to marriage. But he was not going to outlast her latest hairdo.

Jacob was a camera sales associate, working behind the counter as many an aspiring young photographer has, watching as guys with undeserved money came in and bought thousands of dollars of equipment so they could take pictures of their dogs, their daughters, their Dodges, and random unfortunates on the street. He knew they looked down on him when he took the cheesy cheesecake photos in front of the backdrop, and for that matter he looked down on what he was doing too, but at least he knew how to produce photos that people would pay for. He knew how to light properly, and he knew how to talk to the subjects.

That was what Pam noticed right away. From the moment she sat down, he never stopped asking her questions. He wasn’t telling her what to do, he wasn’t showing off, he wasn’t directing her, he was just asking her, and she was saying and doing. Where did she get her hair done? Did it take a long time? What did the hairdresser talk about? That sounds kind of funny – does she usually talk about those things? Do you think your hairdresser has secrets? What would be the best secret she could have? Who’s getting copies of this photo? What would they think if they knew that the person who did your hair had a secret like that? And so on. He seemed genuinely interested. He was, in fact, genuinely interested. Why buy books when you can have people tell you about the interesting parts of their lives? And as they answered questions they were giving him a verbal photograph, or even an album. They were filling in light and shadow for the photos he was taking, details only he and they could see in the images. And somehow they thought he was the interesting one, the good conversationalist, when he never really said anything other than questions.

Of course Pam came back to get the photos, and then again to get some enlargements, and then again because she was just passing by. Of course she accepted Jacob’s request to have dinner with him and to pose for him. And Jacob, finding in her a willing, interesting, thoroughly photogenic person, could not get enough of her.

Funny thing, though. He always seemed only half there over dinner, distracted, a closed book. Conversations without a camera were mostly functional and impatient. But as soon as she was in front of the camera and he was behind it she was all his and he was all hers. He found out all about her day, all about her thoughts, all about her desires, as he photographed her face, her shoulder, her arm, her breast, her leg, her foot, every wavy and turning part of her that curved light into shadow. At every age for a quarter of a century he traced her permanently on paper with light and chemicals; she changed but there were always the photos. Every hairstyle she had was recorded, and he knew about every stylist. Every skin wrinkle’s course was mapped. And every year his style developed a little more, but without erasing what came before. The photos are all there, fixed in time, and yet no more permanent than the changing fashions, because we see them differently as we change our minds and our worlds.

Until at length Pam changed her mind. Decided that she didn’t want to be the one person whose coccyx and clavicle had been seen in close detail by every friend and most strangers she met. Decided she didn’t like how her body had changed and didn’t like that it was all just a means of catching light for him. Did not want her sags immortalized in platinum and palladium. Wanted someone whose answers were not more questions.

At last the photos were all that there was to show for their marriage. The photos and the money they made. The only chemistry left was in the lab.

Jacob leans forward and picks up his glass, this wedding-gift crystal, and has another swallow of Bourbon. He wiggles his toes and shift his legs a bit; everything below his knee is half asleep. But he’s in no hurry to stand up. Dead man sitting, though he doesn’t know it yet: he’s said his last words to anyone ever (“OK, have fun”); he’s been seen for the last time alive by another human; he’s checked in on social media for the last time (he retweeted a cartoon this morning); all that he is doing now is in a locked box, its only observer one whose death will be completed before any of this can be related to another. These lasts will last forever.

He puts down the glass again, runs his hand through his hair, looks at Pam’s picture, wonders how he could have known her better over time, and turns the page.

2 responses to “perm

  1. David Milne-Ives

    Puts me in mind of ‘The Underpainter’ by Jane Urquhart, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading – is the present piece (up)scalable?

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