The Photographer

from Imagine a Death
Janice Lee

The figures oozed and fell out of the wall and though he tried to look away, he couldn’t. The photographer had been walking around the city for hours now, retracing its wounds, running his hands along the scar lines and attempting to depict the shattered equations and heartbreaks of the streets and power lines and knotted trees in the only language he had access to, but every time he raised his camera and pointed it at anything—a fruit stand, a brick wall, a defendable viewpoint—he felt a bitter solitude well up inside him and eventually his eyelids would droop and his hands would join back together, as if in prayer, and he would walk solemnly and apologetically to the next landmark.

There was a visible burden on his back, that sunk-in posture like a word that likes to repeat itself until it loses its meaning, an ominous regret that continues to manifest in sores or in urges to smoke just one more cigarette, just one last and utterly glorious drag. He was trying to quit. Of course, he was always trying to quit something. He was incapable of resolving himself to finishing anything or to simply accomplishing a task. He had made lists for all sorts of things in an attempt to get organized and bring order into his life, though of course it wasn’t order that his life was lacking (once during a job interview, he was asked about his stance on teamwork and collaboration, and for his answer had spoken about the importance of establishing order in a group of people, the need for dominance and hierarchy and structure, as in a dictatorship or controlled government arrangement, had repeated the word order several times like a mantra, and as he watched their expressions mute and then shift away, he saw the exact moment they had decided that he would not be getting the job in the research lab yet sought to fulfill the obligation of letting him speak and finish out the interview, formality, after all, an important part of systemized structure and gratitude), and yet he clung to that word like a slightly-too-old child clings to her yellowing blanky and the comfort of sucking her thumb in private as she knows she ought to have grown out of the habit by now, but both idea and action still bring her comfort and she has yet to find a suitable replacement for the relief of having something soft and loyal to hold on to and having a part of her own body tethered to her mouth in a way that feels like she is doing something while knowing this is a bit perverse, the security of a thumb inside one’s mouth, the noisy and fairly disgusting suck-suck-suck as she lightly chews the thick skin around her thumb, and in the predilection of wrongness and unreached maturity, she manages to realize a complete sense of peace. He too was stuck in his present state, thumb stuck inside of his mouth like a child, wanting a good deep breath and the taste of a cigarette, not because he lacked organizational skills or patience or even a good work ethic, though the motivation to do anything more than slowly cry while watching trains and other slow things on television was indeed waning, and neither the detailed account of his grandmother’s death or the ruthless takeover of her estate on the morning after her death was announced, which he was unable to prevent, both in desire and capability, did little to push him into stepping into any actual spot of light. The sunlight that was all around him seemed to separate at the seams around his body, like a heavy shadow insisting on following him around and creating a membrane around his being that reflected away the sunlight and so that even on a very hot day like today, he felt cold and embittered and as he cast his eyes at the walls and signs and faces around him, he only felt himself resenting his position in the melancholy womb of the city that had birthed him, that had raised him, and where, ultimately, he knew, he would die.

He found himself near the old diner and tried to remember when he had last eaten. He wasn’t any closer to having the photographs ready for his first solo show next week, for which he had pulled a series of odd favors including making late-night deliveries of various objects and substances in brown packages to addresses jotted down hastily on notecards, but he had been wandering around all day in the heat and was realizing that he could use his hunger as an excuse to sit down for a moment and ease the strain on his muscles and perhaps wipe some of the sweat off his brow and behind his ears. Secretly too, though he wouldn’t know to admit it to himself yet, he was trying to find the most efficient way to convince himself of his own ability and tactility to work, to get things done, and to undergo the process, put in the hours, so to speak, while also preventing himself from actually getting anything done, the fear of failure more terrifying than tardiness, and an inability to understand the priorities or consequences of certain self-inflictions on his future career.

Though one of the recent storms had knocked down the large green neon sign outside and though the darkened windows seemed to indicate an establishment that had seen better days like so many of the other local businesses that had given up and moved out of the city in disconcerting attempts to escape the radiation and economic dishevelment (the corner store just down the street from his building had already been occupied by a group of young and deliriously hopeful musicians who felt like rehearsing their political anthems late at night was a stronger statement both in response to the establishment and better evidence of their talent then rehearsing during the day when most of the citizens were gone at work, or in the mimicked routine of going to work—“work” had become an increasingly malleable word, and many had gotten into the habit leaving their homes at the same time every morning, only to wander the streets like vagrants, that same stare of oblivion in their eyes as they attempted to keep up the semblance of life and order, as they barely held on to the scraps of life, a sort of zealous persistence of zombies that might have been admirable under different circumstances, but here, had managed to create a new species of itinerants—or when the neighbors were more tolerant and open-minded to the detonation of enthusiastic yet boisterous lamentation), or at the very least an establishment that was not yet open for business though the watch on the photographer’s wrist indicated that it was nearly three in the afternoon, so the photographer nudged open the boarded-up door to enter a depressingly bright eatery with hideously yellowing walls that seemed to be peeling away at the edges, exposing the seams of the drywall and because the windows didn’t let in any light and were now almost completely opaque either from the radiation affecting the chemistry of the glass and plastic, or, more likely, they had never been cleaned and the layers of grease and oil and syrup had constructed a rather thick layer of defense, and the fluorescent lights above made up for any lack of brightness and as the lights flickered and a discomforting but steady din and drone emanated either from the lights or from the belly of Hell, the photographer lost his footing for just a second before he realized no one had seen the embarrassing spectacle, quickly composed himself, and, now overcompensating for the apparent uncertainty of sure footing, continued walking towards the counter. The shifting lights made him feel even more exposed, though like the sunlight, the brightness seemed to stop where the edges of his body began so the light skin of his hands and cheeks constantly looked as if in shadow, and for a moment he could forget the pain eating away at his ligaments, that hungry emptiness that propped up his body like a dog’s chew toy, but then he saw the tailor sitting at the stool at the end of the bar, on his lunch break no doubt, and sent over a nod in recognition. Without saying anything, he sat down at the opposite end, a slight release of pressure as the weight of his body sank down onto the weathered stool. He wasn’t quite ready for one of the tailor’s monologues today and so, after ordering his usual of two hard-boiled eggs and a tuna sandwich, set his camera down onto the counter and busied himself with looking busy, pulling out a small, blue square cloth with frayed edges on one side and proceeded to clean the lens, though he was well aware of the fact that he had scarcely even removed the lens cap more than a couple times today, and save for the residue of light dust and street grime, the ritualistic cleaning was obviously and very much for the sole purpose of helping him to deny to himself that he had accomplished absolutely nothing today and that he had hardly earned his lunch, and as the guilt and shame welled up in the corners of his eyes, he busied his fingers with checking and double-checking the various settings on the camera, this camera, which had belonged to his grandmother’s third husband who had left her, like the others, was the last evidence left that his grandmother had even existed—she had picked out the camera as a gift for his fourteenth birthday—and though he had gone on to study photograph at the local and fairly prestigious university, hadn’t thought to pull out this camera until just a few weeks ago, possibly a sentimental gesture in reaction to the official news of her death, but also possibly a completely unrelated response to the strange series of thunderstorms, as he suddenly recalled that the lens on this model did slightly better in the patterns of light that he was noticing now in the city. His birthday was next week and he would be turning twenty-seven. The intensity with which he felt the tailor’s eyes staring at his forehead was felt in the form of heat, an uncanny laser pointed at the space between his eyes, and so he felt compelled to look up and make a certain quota of eye contact to release some of the tension that had built up inside his skull.

On a strict deadline today, barely any time to eat. You know how it is, he muttered, nodding vaguely in the direction of the tailor to add another layer of acknowledgement, but not looking too directly into his eyes so as to not accidentally initiate any conversation or mislead the other into thinking that he might be amicable to social conduct today. He couldn’t commit to the monologue and neither could he commit to the dialogue. His upper body seemed to be in revolt and he felt his left eye twitch, and in the periphery of his view, he saw a paper bag being pushed in his direction and he immediately grabbed it, counted out a few bills from his back pocket, and stumbled back out onto the street. The comfort of concrete had him breathing more steadily and stealthily, and he thought he might just sit for a moment on one of the benches in the park, watch the humdrum of people, these enviable common folk who were unsuspecting of this being the last day, or the second to last day, or one of many days, or a day like any other.

When he got to the park, the benches were all occupied, and so he settled for sitting under the large oak tree near the eastern entrance. He sat down with his back resting against one of the giant roots, and before he could reach into the brown paper bag, noticed a large, black ant crawling up his arm. He stared at it for a second and questioned whether he should be more respectful of life, that is, he thought about whether he ought to buy into the guilt trip that his friend, the psychic, always put him through about the sanctity of life and how he ought to be more positive with his thoughts, that the energy he put out into the world was the energy he would be receiving back, and that if he could respect the significance and role of every living creature, he could recognize the significance and role of his own life in the vastness of the universe. For a brief second he thought about how great it could be to live his life this way, to buy into the idea that a smile, as a gesture, could have such widely conducting and receiving consequences, that he could rid himself of the feeling of being overwhelmed in a world such as this and just eliminate that petulant whine at the bottom of his throat just by doing the things he was supposed to do, to not think of life as a struggle but as a gift, to not be dominated by the coldness of death but by the warmth of the sky, to be able to listen to and capture the beauty of this city in his photographs rather than be frightened by the intranslatability of what he saw in the cracks, to be able to turn the ambiguous howl that emanated from the memory of failure into a squeezing and calming whisper, if only I could give into all that positivity, he thought, and he tried to close his eyes and think of the ocean and the sand and the feeling of the sun on his skin, and then he thought of the depths between the shallows, of the monsters lurking in the alleyways, of death and despair, of the unmistakable stench of death that surrounded him, even now, and he felt the wind howling behind his ear, even in the heat the wind did not cease to croak and shout blasphemous intentions at anyone who would listen, and he opened his eyes again and saw the ant, still, and flicked it away with his finger.

He took a bite of his sandwich, which gave him some immediate relief but he could feel the pain between his shoulders return and he only knew to take another bite, and then another. Even before he had finished chewing or swallowing the soggy bread he took the next bite to keep his mouth full, to keep his worries inside his skull, to keep the light and the ants away.

In the distance he could see an old lady feeding the pigeons, or at least trying to feed the pigeons. She was scattering sunflower seeds at the crowds but the pigeons seemed to be preoccupied with something else.

The ground beneath was damp, and though on another day he might have gotten up to find another spot, he was in the mood to follow through with commitment, to find satisfaction in the dissatisfaction of life, and was motivated today to move towards the end of his life and die (dying after all, a synonym for living), not out of weakness, but out of fulfillment, and that perhaps even in the obtuseness of his habits, he could find a formation of ritual and gratitude that might finally lead him out of this city and where he might believe again, sincerely and wholeheartedly, in the power of order, and instead of the deficiency with which he believed he now lived his life, never quite living up to anyone’s expectations, or at least the expectations he believed were being set up for him, he might extinguish some tiny bit of anguish by continuing to suffer through the damp ground, now soaking through his pants and starting to soften his skin, ballooning the sensitivity of that epidermal separator between his body and the earth and realizing now that the consequence of his decision would be to walk home with the chaffing of wet pants beneath his inner thighs, but even that, he thought, might not be so bad.

He finished his sandwich and looking down at the crumbs on his lap, thought, this mistake wasn’t worse than any other mistake he had already made, that at least this wasn’t a turning point, and yet, he realized too, that turning points were often made up of many tiny events and gestures that began to piece together like a pattern of spells that, devouring the conviction of the spellcaster, begin to inspect the actions surrounding the hands of the willing party, and instead of retreating into the fog or into the deep recesses beneath the ground where magic often stays and dwells, would rise to influence further actions and gestures, and he raised his head and looked up as if posing for a photo but knew very well that he was not nor ever would be, stationed on that side of the camera.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Five.
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