I’m working in the darkroom at my parents’ house, a little space they carved out and walled off in the cold basement back when I was in high school, their way of showing support for what they hoped would grow into a real passion for their otherwise shiftless son.
Dipping the photo paper in one chemical bath after another, I’m trying to ignore the images in my mind by focusing on the pictures in my hands. The door opens and closes.
It’s Dad. He’s wearing a thin bathrobe over a pair of pajamas. Under the red safelight, it’s hard to decipher the color of these items.
“You need to knock. These are sensitive to light,” I say, vaguely gesturing to the negatives and chemical tubs. I’m not mad at him. Really, if this project got ruined, I’d probably be relieved to be free of it. Dad shrugs, frowning apologetically. I know he hates crossing my boundaries. For his sake, I change the subject. “A bathrobe?”
“Felt appropriate,” he says, running a hand over the fabric. “What’s that you’re working on?” His voice is low and warm. He’s pointing to the prints I’ve pinned on a string, stretching across the small room. Dad steps closer to inspect the pictures, close enough that I can smell his espresso, distinguish the light and dark whiskers on his long, unshaven cheeks. As usual, he looks tired.
“This is an old one.” He’s nodding his big, bald head at a picture of the two of us, running through a park. Well, I’m maybe two years old, so I’m running. Dad is awkwardly hunched, holding my hand, loping alongside me, a clean-shaved, young father smiling at his little boy. At the peak of my stride, my blond bowl-cut is flopping around my ears. I’m running with such abandon, airborne, it looks like I’m about to wipe out. “Your mother take this one?” He’s smiling as though the last thirty some years haven’t happened, as though he’s still thin and spry, wearing an old college T-shirt while frolicking with his kid.
“She must have,” I say. “Wasn’t me. Obviously.”
“Obviously.” His smile falls at the next picture. This one I clearly took from my seat at the kitchen table, capturing the moment Dad came home from work, the cold air from the garage swirling around his shoulders. He’s framed in the doorway, dark black suit, black briefcase, his hair starting to thin. You can see the workday on his face, the traces of determination and weariness in the lines around his eyes. “I look so angry.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe you didn’t like what you saw.”
“You and Mom? I always liked what I saw.”
“Yeah, I don’t know.” I fiddle with a knob on the enlarger. I don’t know why he’s in here, and I’m beginning to wish he would go. “You worked late. A lot. Mom said we couldn’t eat dinner until you came home.” He knows all this. “So.”
Unsure of what to say, Dad glumly turns back to the string of pictures. The next to capture his attention is again one of him, but this time with Mom. They are lying in the tall, dry grass of the Serengeti, looking at each other and smiling like idiots. In the background, a mother cheetah, her mouth awash in blood, stands guard while her two cubs ravage an impala. At the time, I was furious with my doofy parents for ruining my gnarly safari picture. “What were you two smiling about? Some private joke or something?”
“That’s exactly what it was.”
“Tell me.” I actually do want to hear this.
“If I told you,” he says, “wouldn’t be private, would it?”
Dad is standing beside me, looking into the holding sink at a picture I haven’t yet had a chance to hang. Through the ripples of washer fluid, Dad is looking once more at himself, but now holding my son, his grandson, up to his face in a tight embrace. My kid is laughing and squirming at the tickle of Papa’s beard.
I consider the bags beneath his eyes, the bathrobe. “Were you sleeping?”
“Mm,” he says, nodding. “Strange dream, actually.” He looks at me to see if I’m curious. I usually wouldn’t be, but under the circumstances, I humor him.
“I was in a dark place. It was cold and windy. I couldn’t see two feet in front of me, but I could hear voices.”
“Yeah?” I ask. “Who?”
He closes his eyes, straining to remember. “You. Your mother.” This makes sense, I suppose. He opens his eyes and smiles at the images I’ve printed. “Lotta great shots,” he says, before his mouth falls open at the scope of my project. “What’s all this for, anyway?”
He knows what they’re for, but he doesn’t want to say. Understandable.
“The funeral,” I say. “Mom wants these pictures for the service.” He is suddenly standing close, his large eyes staring back at me, confused. “You had a stroke, Dad.” I remind him about the heart attack, the stents they put in, the blood thinners they injected, the resulting stroke, but still he seems suspicious. I finish the story, defending his family’s decision that he wouldn’t want to live, paralyzed, impaired, a tireless man of action reduced to a burden upon those he loved. So, his breathing tube withdrawn, Mom climbed into the hospital bed beside him and whispered softly into his ear until, two hours later, he was gone.
I heft the camera off the work counter and swap out the lens. “One more, Dad?” He nods, almost tearfully. I hold the camera at arm’s length, turning it so we’re both in the shot. The shutter snaps. But I know when I develop the film, it’ll be only me standing there, my arm around no one.