Issue 4, Winter 1953
“For eighteen years, Jack Wilson,” she was saying for the third time, “your father took pictures for my family, and we were never dissatisfied. I’m sure if he were back here now—if be weren’t in the hospital—”
“No, Mrs. Porter,” said Jack inappropriately. Oh my god, no, Mrs. Porter. My father will never be back: haven’t you heard about death, about winding sheets and embalming? Haven’t you heard the grey legend that when one is sick one either gets better or worse? One cannot remain diseased to the same extent for seven months.
“I mean, just look at these,” she complained, shuffling the photographs before his face. “Do I look anything like them?”
Nodding, he stared past Mrs. Porter, past the pictures shaking in her hand, past the smoky-grey waiting room with worn modern furniture and potted floor plants, through the single soot-measled window, through the rain. It was a straight stiff meaningless autumn rain: rain that brings depression without reason, nostalgia without memory, as though appealing to a long forgotten hatred of dismal weather. When all the lights have been switched off in the studio, Jack recalled, and the door to the waiting room has been closed, a silver strangeness glows from the red velvet posing benches lined against the walls. Often, when he was much younger and had some problem to think out by himself, he would steal the key to the shop from his father’s overcoat while the family sat at dinner, and later, when they had gone to bed, he would leave the house (ignoring his mother’s calls from behind her bedroom door) and hurry down the nightdim streets to the studio where he would lock himself in to stare peacefully at the silver glow along the walls. He thought of doing this now as he watched Mrs. Porter’s hands jerking before the dead face of her fox collar.
“You can’t really expect me to take these, Jack, can you? I mean, you know, your father would—”
“No,” he said thinly. “I guess not. We’ll try taking them again.” Walking to the back wall, Jack slid the pictures through the darkroom slot, pausing a moment to stare into the mirror above the slot. He avoided the reflection of his eyes for fear he might not find them open, and instead gazed at the curve of his jaw and then at his straight thin hair, now a deep brown because of the damp weather. Behind him he could see Mrs. Porter adjusting her hat.
“I’ve got some marvelous ideas,” she said, the hatpin stabbed between her teeth. “And I’ve absolutely got to send some to Bobby. He’s in California now and he doesn’t have a single—”
“But I’m afraid we won’t be able to take them today, Mrs. Porter. I’ll have to be leaving soon. Will Saturday be all right for you? At eleven?”
“Oh, sure, that’s fine, Jack. I suppose you’re seeing your dad this afternoon? Don’t forget to tell him we hope he’ll be back soon. I’ve been meaning to send him something, but you know how those things are. You keep putting them off...”
“Yes, I know,” said Jack, although in fact he did not know, for in spite of his distasteful avoidance of major issues, he was always aware of superficial obligations: small boxes of expensive sweets for house visits to friends; quilted, perfumed, maudlin greeting cards for every occasion; and even, although they had been married ten years, ridiculous little trinkets for Janice on half-, and sometimes quarter-year anniversaries. Superstitiously he felt that rigid observance of small duties destroyed, or at least postponed, the coming of great occasions when he might be forced into an experience larger than chocolates or bric-a-brac and never described in the four rhyming lines of a greeting card.
Swinging her black coat together Mrs. Porter hooked the fox’s tail into its lip, then lit a cigarette and dropped the match upon the pot of one of the floor plants as she walked through the waiting room. When she was gone, Jack sank to a posing bench, closed his eyes and listened—his ear against the wall—to the faint, distant splash of rain upon the building. Tell him, she had said, we hope he’ll be back soon. Tell him we hope he will unsay a word, uneat a meal, undo what’s done and irrevocable; tell him to undie his death and come back to live under the lightproof curtain behind the camera. When will he die? Why doesn’t he die? How many more months would his face continue to shrink like a rusted reluctant carnation, yielding gradually, clinging to its original form to the limits of possibility? How many more months would his body continue to vanish in that huge chartreuse room with private toilet and private nurses where he waited impatiently not to die. Everyone else in the family—Martha, Conrad, Paul, the uncles and aunts—all of them wanted him to die. Death would be merciful, they said, and recommended it like cough syrup.
His father’s illness had meant little to Jack until the old man was forced to leave the store permanently and the entire business fell to him. He knew the routine, of course: the conventional poses, the put-your-head-this-way-not-that-way, the prices to ask, and the words to say. But before this his father had been in complete charge, and his departure seemed to seal Jack’s final exit, an exit he knew he would never have used but whose existence was his single impossible hope, at once thrilling and frightening. For Jack had never intended to be a photographer; it had all happened so gradually like birth or war or puberty that he felt he had been steadily and powerlessly pushed into it. At sixteen he had gone to the store on Saturdays; at seventeen he worked Tuesday and Thursday afternoons; and when he had graduated from high school he had begun to work full time. There was no process of consideration behind it; it was merely the most natural, the most obvious, step to take: the step that most resembled the step before. Changes must be made gradually, he knew, in order to gather the courage to accept them: a woman’s belly swells for half-a-year before a child is born; the breath of war warms us long before the tongues of flame lash out; and there are the imperceptible hairs, the phlegmatic juices, that arrive before maturity. Actually Jack had meant to go on to college but there had been so many things: his mother’s death, marriages in the family, and then, just before the war, Janice had come along, and then, well then... He had become so imbedded in the business that it was impossible to withdraw, like a fish-hook speared deeply into the flesh so that there is less discomfort in leaving it in than in trying to remove it.
Once, however, he had attempted to tear the fishhook out. He had tried to take a step which was neither the most natural nor the most obvious. It happened when he had begun working with his father and had become bored with days so similar that one was any other and all of them the same one. Although he did not talk about his boredom, it was obvious, having settled into the structure of his face. His sister Martha, a plain fat girl who was much older than Jack, had suggested painting as a hobby; she mentioned it at dinner every evening for two weeks, sometimes assisted by other members of the family, so that at last their father went to a department store and bought the large size Artist’s Kit plus two books on landscape painting. Surrounded by equipment, Jack began to paint—indifferently at first, but after a while with strange enthusiasm. It was as though a magic lens had been placed over his eyes: everything took on new forms, new dimensions, new colors faraway from the flat grey-white-black of the camera. If a model moved, if a tree shook suddenly in the wind, if a head trembled with unseen emotion, it did not mean a ruined plate or a blurred image: it meant something deep and inward. He attended art courses regularly and, after a year, he realized how seriously he was taking his hobby, and he knew that he wanted to hurry away from his father’s photography shop to paint. He had saved a thousand dollars which, in 1938, seemed endless, and so he planned to take a room somewhere in the city where he could spend each day painting and build a life round this work. It was now several months since his family had come to take pleasure in Jack’s pictures only when company came; the rest of the time their interest was limited to wondering if the paints were not making the boy a little nervous.
When Jack told them of his plans to leave, they rumbled with surprise, then subsided into two-days’ silence. It was Martha who began to talk. “Bohemianism,” she said irrelevantly, “ended in the twenties, Jack. You can’t walk out on a responsible life today. You just can’t.” The rest agreed, presenting sound and rational arguments—and looking to their father whose worried muteness was obviously a sign of his displeasure with Jack. Nevertheless the boy found a room in the East Seventies and gave the landlord a deposit. On the night before he was to have left, the sedentary fear of sudden change turned to panic and he ran to the telephone in the empty living room, closing the door securely behind him, to call his friend Harvey.
“Harvey,” he had said. “Tell me I’m doing the right thing. Tell me I’m right.”
Now Harvey was a solemn boy who had admired Jack’s paintings and had always encouraged him, but that evening he said: “I don’t know. These kind of things are always up to the person who does them. No one can tell you if you’re right.”
“I’m scared, Harvey. I don’t know.”
And then Harvey said the most terrible thing of all: “I guess it’s because it’s changing things. Everything will be different.”
“For Christ’s sake, nothing will be different,” Jack shouted defensively. “I’m not moving that far. It’s only twenty minutes from home. Everything will be just the same.”
“All right, boy. Maybe you’re right, but it just seems to me like everything will be changed.”