Russell Cambron is an Atlanta-based creative working in visual and written storytelling. He received his M.F.A. in photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Atlanta, where he is currently pursuing his M.F.A. in writing. His visual narrative Boy, Owl, and Raven showed at Whitespec gallery in Atlanta in 2017.
I haven’t seen you in so long, I almost don’t know who will be coming into the car when your brother Daniel and I pull up to your parents’ house. I wait in the car while Daniel goes in to get you. I stare at my phone. I watch cars pass by on the highway and then look up through the sunroof at the towering pines that stand guard in a circle around your parents’ house. The moon is just a night or two away from being full. It is late February, and spring is gaining on winter.
I am lost in my phone again when I hear your footsteps alongside Daniel’s. You cross the headlights and hop into the car. Ten years old, you wear a white polo shirt, freshly ironed, with white Lacoste loafers on your feet to match. All of this is paired perfectly with royal blue Michael Kors pants. Your mop-top of jet-black hair is perfectly tousled. Around your neck, you wear a twenty-four-karat gold chain.
Daniel and I are taking you to Burger King tonight. This is our thing, taking you to the fast food restaurants you love. Your favorites are Burger King, Zaxby’s, and McDonald’s. They are all places your mother won’t let you go. It’s her job to keep you healthy. It’s our job to give you a break from being healthy every now and then.
But tonight we are taking you to Burger King because we want to talk to you about what’s happening at school. You have a bully. Your mom is worried. You won’t talk to her, and you won’t talk to your older sisters. But your mother and sisters know you’ll talk to us. So here we are, late Sunday night, driving to Burger King. Daniel and I have been shopping all day and are exhausted. We both work tomorrow. You have school tomorrow. But you are Daniel’s little brother. You are my younger brother-in-law. And you have bully.
I saw the texts earlier. The ones between you and your bully. Your sister sent us a screenshot of a group chat between you and some of your friends and this boy who has been bullying all of you. There is nothing surprising in the texts. Just the usual male posturing:
Are you scared of me?
No, I’m not scared.
Some people say this posturing is in our blood. If it is, it’s not there naturally.
We get to Burger King and you hop out of the car. You get out all by yourself now. I am relieved to see through plate-glass windows that Burger King is not very busy. Even from outside there is the smell sizzling beef and grease. Inside, French fries and Coke syrup and tile cleaner. You look at the menu and start to bounce up and down when you see that they’ve brought back Cheesy Tots. You order them along with a side of chicken nuggets and a Coke. Daniel and I both order Whoppers with cheese and sides of fries. I worry if I should have said “No mayo.”
We wait on our order. Daniel cleans off a high-top table where the customers before us have left strands of lettuce and crumbs of bread and French fries. There are regular-sized booths all around us that are clean, but Daniel has picked this one. “You missed a spot!” you tell him before he is finished. I laugh and join in pointing out his oversight, and Daniel pretends to be annoyed with us both. He is probably not pretending very much. He brings us ketchup in tiny white paper cups. I get us handful of napkins and wonder if they will be enough.
We sit down to eat, and for a while we talk about random things. You accidentally take a sip of Daniel’s Mr. Pibb instead of your Coke and jerk back and make a face like you’ve just sucked a lemon. You ask me if I want to try a Cheesy Tot, and I do. I seriously consider buying myself an order but decide against it. When you offer me another, I politely say no and then mull over whether you’re supposed to say no to a kid offering you food.
It is you who brings us to the point at hand. “Okay,” you say, “Should we talk about what we came to talk about?” For a moment, you almost look down your nose at us. You are the principal, the teacher, calling the meeting to order.
The bully cornered you in the bathroom, you tell us. You kicked him. Other times, he hits you and your friends in front of everybody. He wants to be seen. He won’t attack you unless he can be seen.
“My mom is worried about you,” Daniel tells you, “and we need to tell your teacher so she can help.” Daniel never says “our mom” to you, even though he’s your blood brother. I always find this odd. I’ve never really known what it’s like to grow up with a brother or sister. I don’t know how brothers and sisters talk about their parents.
“But you can’t tell the teacher,” you protest. “She’ll just give him another chance. Then things’ll get worse.”
You pick up a fry and stick it in your mouth. You swing your legs under the table. I want to speak, but there is nothing to say. The teacher would only give your bully a second chance. Then he’d know someone said something, and he’d take it out on you.
I wonder how I could have forgotten this. That adults won’t help. The year I came out comes back to me. Teachers in floral prints and pinned-up hair. The principal in her black sweaters. Police in dress blues and black-and-white cars. They sided with the bullies. They gave them a second chance.
I pick up a French fry. I can think of nothing to say. Nothing, except You’re right. You have to fight for yourself. I’m glad you did already. Or,Let me know if you need me. As if all six feet and thirty-something years of me are going to go to your school and take on a ten-year-old boy.Daniel asks you again to tell your teacher. I am glad he says it.
You nod but say nothing. You take another fry in your hand and dip it in ketchup. I start to worry about your starched, white shirt. In a moment or two, your chest boasts a ketchup stain the size of your thumb. It’s fallen on your left side, just below your twenty-four-karat gold chain. Daniel wipes off the ketchup as best he can, but it only makes the stain larger and wetter and slightly less red.
You tell us you’re going to the restroom. Daniel tells you to be careful. “You never know who’s in a restroom,” he says. I watch you as you walk away, but a divider of wood and frosted glass running the length of our table obscures my view. I can see only the top of the bathroom door open and close as you go in. Fluorescent bulbs light up empty tables and chairs. Vacant reflections and neon signs stare back from pitch-dark windows.
When you come back, one of your Lacoste loafers has come off. You hop around the floor by our table in little circles, trying to wedge your shoe back onto your foot over your grey, Calvin Klein socks. Daniel finally has to help you put your shoe back on. Even he has trouble with it. A few days later, he and I will see a shoe horn in Marshall’s or TJ Maxx and joke that we should buy it for you. But in this moment, I think only of how you’ve already outgrowing those shoes.
This one, unignorable fact lies now in full view. You are ten years old. Soon, life will be throwing everything it has at you. It won’t be a question of how you handle the bullies, though they’ll still be there. It’ll be a question of how you handle everything.
Just over a year ago, you and Daniel and I made a photography project that dealt with these very things—a boy growing up and coming of age. You played the part of the boy. As we sit in Burger King tonight with your ketchup-stained shirt and your freshly-too-small shoe that just won’t go all the way back on, I wonder how much of that boy is you.
Toward the end of that series of photographs, there is a set of pictures where the boy finds a sword in the woods, King-Arthur-style. The sword is not set in a stone. It is hidden behind a tree in the woods. Taking it, the boy comes to be the king of his own kingdom, king of himself. Those last three pictures were your idea. I hadn’t even included the sword originally. But you saw it at my house while we were shooting and wanted to use it in the pictures. You put the sword by the tree. You came up with the poses, the action. You directed me: “Take a picture of me like this. Now like this. Okay, now like this.” Those three, final pictures are what we ended up with.
In the last picture, you walk off, stage right, sword in hand. You are not holding your head high. You are not holding the sword in the air, triumphantly. Your head is down. You drag the sword behind you. There is no sense of “happily ever after” in that last picture. Nor is there a sense of defeat. There is just a kind of moving on, a moving forward.
The day we did our first photo shoot together, Daniel and I took you to Target for some small toy or another. You decided on Pokémon cards. Then you went home and told your mother that you wanted to quit school to become a model. I wish I’d been there to see your mother’s face. I’m sure she told you that wouldn’t be the best decision.
You also wanted to be a photographer. You fell in love with my cameras. I wasn’t too surprised when you liked my digital Nikon D800 with all its buttons and dials and its flashy LCD screen. I wasn’t surprised when you loved my light meter because it, too, has all kinds of buttons and dials and lights. What I didn’t expect was how much you were drawn to my old-school Calumet 4×5 camera. With this camera—an antique, really—you have to open the lens and then focus it and close then lens and load the back with film before you ever snap even one picture. Yet you loved it. I ended up photographing that entire series of you with my digital Nikon. But after every photo shoot, you’d always ask if we could bring out “the big camera.”
I know I’m biased, but I hope you still want to be a photographer when you grow up. Or if you still want to be a model, I will support that, too. The truth is, though, that by the time you’re old enough to read this, you may well have forgotten all about modeling, my 4×5 camera, my Nikon, and my light meter. But one day soon you’ll be able to follow that same voice that said “I want to be model” and “I want to be a photographer,” even if by then it says something completely different. Whatever it says, you will be free to go for it.
Before long, late nights like this one at Burger King will teach you as much or more than school. Daniel and I will be replaced by friends, classmates, co-workers, boyfriends or girlfriends or both. Sometimes, new bullies will come to replace to the old ones. When they do, the people who love you will help you deal with them, just like tonight. Don’t forget that Daniel and I will still be here, too.
Tonight, it’s getting late. We start to clean our table, picking up the empty hamburger boxes and wrappers and putting them on top of our trays. You put together a box of leftover chicken nuggets and fries. First you say it is for your mom and your sisters. Then you say it is for your lunch tomorrow. Daniel gathers our trash and our trays and puts it all away.
We walk outside together. The smell of sizzling beef and grease gives way to nighttime air and car fumes.
“Look at the moon!” you say, pointing upward.
We can see the moon even over the city lights. Craters and all. It is nearly full. It is warm for late February.
You and Daniel walk ahead of me on our way to the car, and I look down from the moon to watch. You stumble a little on one foot as you go. That one, white shoe still won’t go all the way back on.