Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Country road view of green hills off Interstate 5 in central California. United States California, 2012.

Photo Booth

A Fresno man spends a hot day in a dark bar.

The July heat extracted the smell of hot fertilizer and bred with the thick smell of fresh slick tar coating Manning Avenue. The gray-brown cloud of exhaust from the manufacturing district, Trace’s destination, sat just beyond ¼ mile grid-squares of almond orchards on the outskirts of Fresno, California. He used the handle at the door’s edge of his truck to pull his large frame out of the contoured seat, he stepped down onto the running board and looked down at the shredded tire below him. The white delivery truck was painted in the smell of hot melted rubber. Tar from the road left small black blemishes along the side of the vehicle, like constellations of moles stretching out from behind the wheel wells. 

“You gotta be kidding me.” He yelled out over the farm road, slapping the metal roof of the cab. A tinted Silverado sped past, swerving to avoid broken plastic and bits of tread from Trace’s blowout scattered across the road. He slumped back into the seat and grabbed his work phone, he stopped, there was more pressing business to attend to. Having the blowout on this route bought an hour or two of idle time before his boss would check the tracking system installed in the truck. Two hours without the old man ghost riding as a passenger was a gift. Additionally, he was fortunate enough to have a blow out within limping distance to a bar tucked back into an old equipment yard. There was a long line of gravel parking spots, vacant, waiting on the farmhands and truckers to get off work and fill this lot with dust before bellying up to the bar, parted out combines and orchard tractors surrounded the lot rusting, an audience to greet the men coming to drink. Trace shot a quick text out to Estephanie on his phone. 

Trace: WYD?

She was always lazy with her reply and slow to move in a general sense, maybe his attention had turned her to a sloth. Trace felt like any passion left between them was on his side, like a full delivery truck sitting on a flat. The thrill lagged with her, sure he was the only one running around but still, she could at least put a little pep in it. She was hot but that was fading, she was getting to about that age where she would either stay tight, firm, and a seemingly young woman or pull the ripcord and float out of contention. Trace didn’t think he’d be around to find out, but in the meantime he was going to try and enjoy the fruits of his labor. 

To his wife, Kayleigh, he sent a different text. 

Trace: Tire blew out. Stuck outside of Caruthers. 

Kayleigh: Want me to come pick you up? 

Trace: No.

Waiting on tow truck. Be home late.

Kayleigh: Again? What about Bible Study? We’re hosting. 

Trace: Mortgage, Car Loan, clothes, food…

Kayleigh: Ur right, sorry

thank you for working so hard

Love u 

B safe  

Trace ignored the messages and walked himself into the bar. The light illuminated a rich red interior. The heat and sunlight clashed with the ACcooled darkness in the dive. The glassware hanging upside down above the bar flickered like a shoreline town over the retreating tide, each glass catching the flash of cars passing on the two lane road outside. Trace kicked his boots lazily against the boot scrape just to the edge of the door, holding it open as he did. 

“In or out,” shouted the bartender, perched on a barstool tucked into the corner below the hanging glasses. He was an older man with a high-n-tight haircut and lean muscles dappled in sunspots and faded tattoos. His apron was soiled and hung folded over itself at his waist, the vertical pinstripes ending at his stretched and stained white t-shirt. His eyebrows were two unbelievable streaks of black. They looked as if they had been applied to his face only after it had formed, applied to his face for a sense of depth, something the rest of his forgettable visage could anchor to. They seemed to freeze his disposition in unending concern, as if each foaming ale dragged across his bar was a complete solution beyond quenching some drunk’s thirst, the way he looked back at the patrons had a way of transforming this dive bar into a low rent temple. This same look made him someone to be talked at, he could sit immersed in his paper, taking in the snow pack levels of the Sierra Nevada, running a greasy nail along commodity prices out of Tulare, and the body at the bar would be split open crying about how their old lady left them, they can’t get a hard-on anymore, or how the goddamn president is drinking baby blood. The bartender flicked the edge of the paper and the edge fell. 

“What are you drinking?” 

Trace sat down at the center of the bar. Each vinyl padded cushion sat on a base of welded oil pipe made to look like a cactus. Trace spun into position as his beer slid to greet him. He drank down half before speaking with foam dripping onto his denim work shirt. He emptied the pockets of his tight denim Wranglers, the sweat from the heat outside shrinking the cotton and making the contents of his pockets pull at the hair on his legs. Wet receipts and papers littered his place on the vacant bartop. The bartender moved quickly to sweep the collection of paper into the trash can beside the well.

“Before you sit, I’ll take a second one, it’s hot as hell out there.” 

The second beer glided on the lacquered surface and crossed Trace passing back the empty pint glass from the first. He clutched the glass in his dirty hands and turned to look around the low-light room. He lost interest and shot off another text to Estephanie. 

Trace: Don’t ghost me chica

Estephanie: wut i’m working

Trace: Go on lunch, im in Caruthers

Estephanie: why lolz


Trace looked around for a name but gave up and turned to the man with the eyebrows. He shouted despite it being the two of them “What’s the name of this place?” 


“Are you Manny?” Trace asked without looking up from his phone. His fat fingers plugged away at the message. 

Trace: Manny’s 

“I’m not Manny.” He responded without looking up from his paper. 

The message was delivered and Trace waited staring into his phone, after half a minute he tossed the phone onto the bar top, “this bitch.” The bartender grunted and flipped a page. 

“It’s this girl over in Kerman,” Trace played with the bubbles that popped along the upper edge of his beer. “Trying to get her over here to have a drink. You got any chips?”  

The bartender pulled back the empty glass. “Same?” 

Trace hit his sternum with the side of his closed fist and burped over his shoulder. “Ya, and a shot of Beam.” 

The eyebrows raised towards the bartender’s hairline and then he shrugged and turned around clumsily pulling the draft. The foam pushed through the tension at the rim and spilled over the side. Quick work had the brown liquor shot standing beside it, ready and willing. 

Trace laughed to himself, slugged back the shot, and then pivoted on the stool to face out into the bar. “Pretty dead in here, what did you say your name was?” 

“I didn’t.” The bartender called out from the back kitchen and emerged with a small stone bowl of salsa and a basket of chips lined with red and white checkered paper. A quarter cut of lime and a salt shaker came second on a small porcelain dish. “Rogelio.” Then he sat back down on his stool and picked up the paper, raising it up to cover his face. 

“Well, Roger, you got any girl problems?” 

“Nope, my wife is old, fat, and happy, never been better.” He chuckled to himself from behind the sports section, laughing not at the comment but at the day’s Peanuts cartoons. 

Trace belted a drunken laugh out into the empty room. “My wife’s fat too, but my girlfriend ain’t, and I guess that’s the problem.” Again he shook with guttural laughter, shoving himself off the stool, clutching the beer and draining it. He held it into the air and shook it above his head. He did this for a minute before the lack of small talk caused Rogelio to look up and move to pour another beer. While he waited he pulled a shining can of dip out of his pocket, smacked a loose finger against the outside of the can and packed his lip tight. 

“Thanks Roger, got to get them in before I call the tow truck.” A bit of brown spit collected at the edge of his mouth before he swallowed it. He moved back over to his phone and checked, no messages from Estephanie, but one from his wife. He wiped the screen clear and went back to wandering around, kicking his boot heels into the linoleum floor, scuffing it as he went along. He walked to the jukebox and scanned through the titles. “Roger, there ain’t nothing in here but fucking Mariachi.” 

“What’s wrong with Mariachi?” 

Trace threw his hands up in the air in play surrender, spilling beer onto the floor and moving along. 

“Nothing wrong with Mariachi,” he attempted to back out from the comment, stumbling through his explanation. 

“Estephanie, loves that stuff, I like it, I mean I don’t get it but I like it.” He looked back over his shoulder hoping to see Rogelio smiling back, Trace wasn’t of a mind to rub the barkeep the wrong way, but Rogelio was buried in the paper, chewing on a plastic stir straw nodding along to nothing. Trace shook his head and turned around. “Roger, why do I get the feeling that no matter what I say, you’ll just nod along to keep things moving.” 

“Yep, good to keep things movin’.” 

“Do you hate guys like me, Roger?”

“I don’t hate a bar tab.” Rogelio’s eyes shot quickly back and forth over a headline spanning one eighth the width of the world section of the paper describing a massacre in Myanmar. He looked up at Trace.“Lots of guys like to come in and chat, just talk and talk. I don’t mind, but don’t expect me to care.” 

Trace was smiling back at him.“A confidante, well I might just have to be coming to Manny’s more often. My wife’s been bitching about therapy for like five years.” Rogelio read on through the headlines, wondering how the Amazon was able to just keep burning. 

Trace continued to wander aimlessly around the small room but gravitated towards the far corner opposite the bar where a photo booth sat, light peeking out from behind a drawn canvas curtain. Trace fumbled some dollars out of his wallet and stood outside the opening. “Roger, does this photo booth work?” Trace pushed his gut against his thighs getting into the opening but with some effort was finally able to sit on the wooden bench inside. He smoothed the dollar bills over his blue jeans and let the machine delicately suck the green paper out from between his swollen fingers. 

The camera was just a small hole, no more than an inch across in the wall in front of Trace’s face. Beneath was a small circular mirror. No larger than a bar coaster and in it Trace could see nothing but his face. His eyes shifted, as if embarrassed to see himself in a bar, skunked on cheap beer and whiskey at 2:00 in the afternoon. His son had a fever when he left for work this morning. The intruding thought caused him to feel in his pocket for his son’s prescription his wife had slid into his work jeans after she laid them out the night before. His vision slid out of focus, it was slapped back into reality with the bulb flash that came from a second hole immediately above the lens. Estephanie’s profile was suddenly difficult to bring into his mind’s eye though he was trying as best he could. The bulbs burned the image of his own two eyes staring back at him. He tried to shake it away, he did so long enough to catch his face again in the mirror, this time he saw the tired skin draped over bloodshot eyes. His hair was sweat-stuck to his dirty forehead, he was then aware of his uncleanliness and shifted, uncomfortable sitting on the wooden bench. Sweat from the heat before entering the bar and the drinking had begun to cool in the air conditioning. The drop in temperature pulled his mind deeper into the image of his own eyes looking back at himself. Again the light flashed, his eyes looked scared, there was a certain flex and movement frozen in the moment that had him taking deeper breaths to steady himself. His son had a fever and his wife was in charge of hosting bible study, and he was drunk in a photo booth off of Manning Avenue on a midday delivery

A series of flashes froze him to the bench and lulled him into a trance, nothing but his own face visible, over and over the image of himself staring back flashed in the booth. The flashes came in quick succession but then slowed, minutes passing between the endless clacks of the lens closing. Eventually, he shoved himself out of the enclosure, almost falling onto the ground outside, the bar had drawn a curtain around itself and fallen to darkness. The heat present earlier in the day dissipated and the bar became cavernous, the edges of the room obscured in darkness. The small windows, adorned in thin and frayed gingham curtains had shifted from filtering the afternoon light into a rosy pink. They were now sullen, lacking the afternoon electricity, a dark red barrier keeping the outside world from entering the bar. The sun had fallen over the western edge of the San Joaquin valley in a blur of time and flashing bulbs. At a standing table just outside the booth sat a glass of ice water and three aspirin. Rogelio looked out over his paper shaking his head and then checked the lotto numbers. 

Trace lunged at the bar and grabbed his phone. The work day was over and the screen from his phone was plastered with notifications of missed calls from his boss. He dialed the first number found in a frantic Google search for a tow truck. After he hung up, he drank the water, closing his eyes and tipping his head back allowing the pills to slide down his throat like leaves over a spillway. When he set the glass down, another full pint was in its place, ice cubes tapping against the edge, he drank it down like an animal escaped from a burning forest. Despite the chill shaking his body, beads of sweat fell from his brow in unison with the condensation gliding down the exterior of the clear glass.

Rogelio turned the page and coughed from his end of the bar, unmoved. Trace looked nervously around, only the messages and voicemails from his boss waiting for him. Rogelio grumbled over an op-ed. Trace eyed him cautiously turning to pace the room. He stepped up to the wall and for the first time noticed the decor, small photos, the low lighting blending them into nothing more than wallpaper. He hadn’t taken the time since arriving to look around, maybe it had been dark when he arrived? It felt as if his truck was left resting on a flat long ago with another moon. As he stepped closer he saw the wall fragment into hundreds of four frame photo strips. There was a beauty to the pattern they formed on the wall, like the scales of a Kingsnake coiled and wrapping the room in cold blood. The photos went beyond the immediate surface of the wall in front of Trace, he turned his head to either side and tracked photos covering every inch of the building’s interior. It must have taken years, the strips were meticulously taped so that there was no space for the original paint to peek through. Trace felt an almost fraternal connection to the bar at that moment, immediately falling into rank with every other person to come through this small dive.

Again though he stepped closer, he rubbed at the stubble peaking through on his face as he leaned in to look at all the smiling faces, future friends he was sure to meet when he returned to Manny’s. It took him a moment, but then there formed a continuity between the individual frames. Each one held within its four walls the same strong jaw, the same stained undershirt, the same stubble splashing white on tan skin. The same deep brown pools, eyes cold enough to kill a stray ember and above them two dark tufts of eyebrows. Trace felt a small stream of breath crawl out from the back of his throat and slither onto the floor. The jet black eyebrows drew all the air in the bar to come and rest on Trace’s tired shoulders. He felt drawn towards the photo most immediately in front of him. He was face to face with a thousand Rogelios looking back at him, the eyes looking deep into the corners of his own mind left grasping for an anchor to reality. 

The machine shook and Trace snapped his head to the side, it groaned and then birthed a fresh strip. The light from inside the booth peeked through a small gap in the drape and spilled across the liquid fixer holding the developing film back from total collapse. Trace raised it to his red face and squinted, each photo descending in the four showed the eyebrows fixed in the immediate center until they simply fell out of frame.