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The Sneeze

Sarah spent that whole day sneezing. She was being paid for it. It was a job, after all, even though it was just for the day. Some crazy photographer wanted to capture what a sneeze looked like, so he had put up fliers around town. Actresses came but he shooed them away. He didn’t want a forced sneeze, or a pretend one. He wanted the real thing. Only an authentic sneeze would do. This was for science after all. At least, that’s what he told himself.

He almost didn’t hire Sarah – she seemed too fancy. He suspected she was an actress by her clothes. She assured him that she dressed up for every interview. She believed it was best to dress better than expected. But she had no idea what to expect for an audition to sneeze, so she wore her best party dress, just to be sure. She needed the money. She couldn’t afford to act like it was a done deal, that she’d get the job without any effort.

The photographer liked her spirit, so he decided they needed to try to capture her sneeze. It wasn’t allergy season, so they had to resort to various methods to induce one. A feather was used, then a pinch of pepper, then some snuff. Sarah stood before the camera and tried each item, and the photographer pressed the shutter release. He rigged up a new system to take 10 photographs in quick succession. It wouldn’t do to miss one, and he never knew exactly when it would happen. They tried all three things and got three different sneezes – small, medium, and large. Sarah was a little embarrassed how much she sneezed after the snuff, but it was exactly what the photographer was looking for.

But he wasn’t just photographing her sneeze. He had her stand barefoot on a metal pad during the experiment. Wires ran from it to a small metal box with dials and scopes and a paper readout that looked a bit like an EKG. He was testing to see if there was a difference in her when she sneezed.

The Church taught that it was dangerous to sneeze because it was the breath of God you were casting out. So while it looked like he was photographing a sneeze, he was really measuring what God’s breath was. Did it have weight? Was there an electrical charge? Did the person lose anything during the sneeze – and if so, did it come back, and when, and how? Was there a difference if you said “God bless you” or not? What if the person wasn’t a believer – was there any change then?

He was a curious man, barely over 5 feet tall. He had a small voice it always seemed to be apologizing for something or other. His nails were clean, now, but sometimes they bore traces of nail polish in improbable colors. Nobody knew if he had a significant other, and if so, what gender they might be. He didn’t even have any pets. He kept to himself, except for the once a week he went to the local American Legion Hall for the music. He went there for the same reason he got a flu shot. He thought it did him some good, or ought to. He wasn’t certain enough to miss either one of them, just in case. He wasn’t sure what he’d catch if he wasn’t a little social. Maybe depression? Delusions of grandeur? Right now he barely had delusions of adequacy, but he knew that was part of the territory of being an artist.

And an artist he most certainly was. When he stepped behind the camera he became someone else, someone confident and sure. He was no longer short, or strange, or socially awkward. He could talk with people instead of just at them. It was a lifesaver that he had discovered photography as a form of self-expression.

Most artists had to build up their clientele, schlepping around their portfolios like second-rate prostitutes. He’d had the good fortune to start his career doing school photographs. He could learn the trade and get paid for it. No marketing – all he had to do was show up. Somebody else made all the contacts and did the hustle for him. It was ideal. He thought all artists should have it this good. Being an artist and marketing your work were two entirely different skill sets, after all.

It was while he was photographing Mrs. Murphy’s first grade class that he got the idea about documenting a sneeze. It was on an unusually cold day when school picture day came around, after a month of warmer temperatures. The children, unused to the sudden change, were sneezing in the makeshift studio that was set up in the gym.

Several retakes had to be made to make sure he’d gotten a good portrait. All the mistakes got tossed into his seconds box. He wasn’t going to do anything with them – they were for an acquaintance he knew at the American Legion. She was a songwriter who was almost as eccentric as him. They were an unusual sort of pair – both united in their oddness. They didn’t fit with people, but because of that they sort of fit with each other. They weren’t a couple, mind you, just friends in an offhand sort of way.

She fancied herself a visual artist as well, cutting up pictures from magazines and gluing them in her handmade journals. Sometimes she’d slap paint or stickers on the pages with the pictures and write stories about the people. He figured she’d like some actual photographs to use so he brought them to her.

Little did he realize but she was also a bit of a psychic. When she saw the first image of six-year-old Brian Thornton having a sneeze into the crook of his arm, she threw the photo down in shock, exclaiming “He’s not right!”  After she recovered, the photographer asked her what she meant. She simply stated “He has no soul!” and left it at that.

Now maybe that was true for little Brian. He was an odd child according to the teacher. But he was also sneezing at the time, so maybe that was it. So the photographer was now on a quest for the human soul, by way of photographs.

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