He took a picture every day, even after he died.
His camera, an old Brownie Hawkeye, served him well for his long years. He was never what you’d call a professional, nor was he particularly talented in its use, but it had been always at his side, as though it were a rare sort of fraternal twin. In truth, it had been an abandoned purchase by his father, a man for whom money was rare but alcohol was plentiful, and it had been purchased from a pawn shop in a drunken stupor one soused payday evening. His father, deeply stubborn even after the glow of the booze had burned away, refused to admit that spending nearly an entire paycheck on it was a poor idea, but had made a token effort to use it only once, before shoving it onto a shelf in the newborn’s room in frustration where it overlooked an old, wooden crib that held a new, tiny occupant.
The unplanned decoration caught the eye of the baby, and remained in that special section of a child’s mind where the mysteries of the adult world settle and grow. As he grew older, learned to talk, learned to walk, learned to learn, the boy begged after his mother to divulge the secrets of the black box on the shelf. For more years than he could remember, she would simply look sad and say it was nothing, later that it wasn’t a toy, and later still, that it was a memory of his father.
By the time of the latter, the boy was old enough to be trusted to not break it (in so much as a boy of any age can be entrusted to handle fragility), but its mystery afforded the device an uncommon grace in his hands. He learned it, inside and out, from its smooth metal accents to its nubbly black leatherette to the lens, painstakingly maintained with precision and care. He learned the magic behind it, magic conjured from decades of science and technology and ingenuity. He could tell you without hesitation or forethought how to spool the film or the best way to develop the images to which the camera gave birth. But most of all, he used it, used it as though it were an extension of his own body. To him, it was as though his weathered, brown satchel held his mind itself, or at least the part of it that contained memory. He didn’t consider anything fully real until the click of the button baptized the scene and it emerged from the waters of the darkroom, cleansed of imperfect recollection.
As the boy grew to a man and the man grew old, it was the camera that served as his constant companion. It would get sick, and he would fix it himself, no matter how many books it took to diagnose it. Sending it away, even for repair, was simply unthinkable. You’d not be willing to part with an arm, or your leg, even temporarily, would you? And so it was with the camera. As his own body deteriorated, he insisted on at least snapping a single shot each day. “Just need to open my eye for a second,” he’d say to anyone who protested his condition. Every day of his life, from the first time he held the camera in his hands, he captured at least a single image with the camera. At the first, many, many more than one, but time diminishes all things. His development would sometimes have to be postponed until his aching bones felt up to it, but every day, without fail, the shutter fired, with its muffled and slurred snap.
Though he was not the finest repairman, his knowledge of the device became encyclopedic. Like a husband whose spouse is diagnosed with cancer, he poured over every available resource to find what was missing, what was wrong, what needed to be fixed so that like magic, it would be time to return home. As time passed, friends routinely suggested alternatives to the ancient black box: new cameras or telephones (which somehow had cameras in them now, imagine that) mostly, though the man had no interest in such silliness. It wasn’t *a* camera he was looking for. It was *his* camera.
When he died, he did so peacefully, in his bed. The bed was a in different room, in a different house, in a different city. But regardless, the camera had its proper resting place too, and that was on a shelf overlooking the bed of its companion. When the time came, what little and distant family the man had began the tedium of dividing his meager earthly possessions amongst themselves, an act that was less of greed and more of duty. The man had always been considered a bit of a nutter within the family; it just wasn’t right to obsess over a single object, and for so many years. But the vaunted camera came to pass into the hands of a niece who had always been on cordial if not overly familiar terms with the old man, and who knew its importance to the newly deceased.
She had no plans to use it, so she wasn’t quite sure why she felt compelled to open the little black box and see if there was any film inside. She was even less sure why she felt the urge to develop it. But still she found herself dropping off her uncle’s last roll of film, the one containing the last photographs he’d ever taken.
A few days later, she unwrapped the envelope containing a single developed picture. There was a slight surreality to the photograph, subtle ripples, like looking through window glass covered in rain. Staring back at her through the haze was her uncle, younger than she’d ever remembered seeing him before. He seemed to be looking at the camera lens, wreathed in the golden rays of waning sunlight and smiling, eyes twinkling with delight.
When the time came, she and her husband began decorating. Toy after toy, tchotchke after tchotchke began to fill up the soon-to-be room of their soon-to-be child. She was never quite sure why, but from a dusty, half-forgotten box at the back of her closet, she pulled the old Brownie Hawkeye. And so, on a shelf amid dozens of stuffed animals, she wedged the ancient camera, where it overlooked an old, wooden crib that held a new, tiny occupant.
© 2015 Matthew Golden. All Rights Reserved.