I had only been back a few weeks. She was spend­ing most of the nights with me. When I held her close I didn’t think about my fa­ther. Think about the tubes and the breath­ing and the falling num­bers. She kept her boyfriend, but when it was just us, it was just us. Some­times we’d just stay to­gether. Not sleep­ing until the garbage trucks started their rounds and we lis­tened to their en­gines and the crush­ing ma­chines in­side.

After, she’d go back down­stairs to her apart­ment. It had been like this. Often, I would pass her boyfriend on the stoop. A nice enough guy. In those mo­ments, I felt bad about it.

I was work­ing in the city. Tak­ing the path in. Work­ing at this video store in Chelsea. Every­body said how sorry they were. I jumped back into it like noth­ing had hap­pened.

It was around that time I started talk­ing to Don.

I was stand­ing out­side the store and he was just leav­ing. He was gath­er­ing him­self up, walk­ing with this cane he al­ways had. I thought he was just a bum that used to hog our copy ma­chine. Mak­ing miles of copies of non­sense. A local crazy. He was stand­ing there on the side­walk shov­ing his stack of copies into his stained back­pack.

He looked up at me.

“You spare one of those cig­gies?”

“Yeah, sure.”

He took one and put it in his teeth. He was miss­ing a few. I handed him my lighter. His fin­ger­nails were yel­low and he had more than a few warts on his hands.

He just stood there.

“What are all the copies for?” I said.

“A pro­ject.”

“What kind of pro­ject?”

“About the war.”



He just stood there and I didn’t know what to say.

“You know you look like some­one?”

“I don’t know.”

“You got a look about you, any­way.”

“Do I?”

“Hey, you mind if I take your pic­ture? That al­right?”

I started laugh­ing.

“You’re not tak­ing any­body’s pic­ture.”

“I’m a pho­tog­ra­pher.”

“So what.”

He just stood there.

“I was a teacher,” he said.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a dis­pos­able cam­era.

“It’s noth­ing weird,” he said.

“I take pho­tographs. It’s my art, you know.”

“You’re not tak­ing mine.”

“It’s no big deal.”

He put the cam­era away, back in his pocket.

Maybe be­cause he was old, or maybe be­cause I just needed to say it, I don’t know, but I told him that my fa­ther had just died.

“Yeah, that’s a real bitch.”

That’s all he said of it.

His whole body was hunched a lit­tle. His hair was slicked back and a grey that be­came yel­low at the ends.

“Look, I’m gonna go. Thanks for the cig­a­rette.”

I nod­ded to him and he started his walk to wher­ever he was going. Lean­ing his old body into this cane that had been painted dif­fer­ent col­ors and duct-taped at the han­dle. This light was shin­ing, and for a sec­ond it was re­ally hit­ting him. He didn’t look too bad. He looked like an old man that just wanted to talk.

Over the next few weeks he’d stop at the store to make his copies. Some days he’d re­ally smell, but I didn’t care. We’d have small con­ver­sa­tions. These grew into larger con­ver­sa­tions. I didn’t think he was a per­vert or any­thing. We started talk­ing about cam­eras and I was in­ter­ested. He’d be mak­ing his copies, mak­ing these let­ters larger and these pic­tures larger, and he’d be ex­plain­ing things to me.

“You have to think of film as a sponge for light.”

Later that night she was with me. I was upset be­cause she was tak­ing too long to fin­ish. I stopped. We ar­gued. I didn’t want her around, but she stayed any­way. The light from all the other lights from the com­plex next-door was shin­ing on her and I got lost look­ing at her for a while. Watch­ing to see how it changed. It was this blue light, and it was even on her skin.           Even­tu­ally she left and I stayed up with my eyes open. I flipped on my light and grabbed a paper and pen, hold­ing it there. I thought I had some­thing to write down. But it didn’t come out. When I was half-awake and half-asleep, just hold­ing onto the pen, I wrote:

Film is a sponge for light.

And the last thing I thought of that night were the last pic­tures I took of my fa­ther, which were the last pic­tures any­body took of him.

Don asked if I wanted to come by his apart­ment.

The apart­ment was just down the street from the store. It was on the fourth floor and I couldn’t imag­ine this wheez­ing, hunched over, old man trekking up and down these stairs each day. In­side was a mess. I didn’t ex­pect it to be any­thing but a mess. The old wood floors were cov­ered in cig­a­rette ash, caked down over the years, like black clay in places. There was the smell of old books and cook­ing grease and cat lit­ter.

There was no place in his apart­ment that didn’t func­tion as stor­age for his pho­tos. Thou­sands of binders full of neg­a­tives that he had never printed. He couldn’t af­ford it. Port­fo­lio cases stacked up, their leather rot­ting.

“I’m gonna have some rum. Do you want some rum?”


I fol­lowed him into the kitchen.

“You want an ice cube in it?”

There was no place that seemed clean, but there was a feel­ing that this was as dirty as it had ever been and was never going to get any dirt­ier.

He poured the rum into small glasses and dropped an ice cube in each. I was walk­ing around look­ing at his pho­tos.

“You take these?”

There were a few framed pho­tographs of a naked woman.

“That’s an old girl­friend,” he said. “She died a few years ago. Got all into heroin. It was very sad.”

It was black and white and she was hold­ing onto a pea­cock feather. It was dark in places and you couldn’t see her pubic hair.

“Isn’t it strange look­ing at a per­son?” I said. “It isn’t some paint­ing. That’s a mo­ment of them.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Wild.”

He put his cig­a­rette into this lit­tle holder and smoked it that way, a long line of cig­a­rette stick­ing through his grey beard.

“It’s an extra fil­ter. For my em­phy­sema.”

I came across this leather port­fo­lio. Writ­ten on some mask­ing tape, in marker, was Coney Is­land In­ferno.

“I grew up there,” he said.

It was full of old pho­tographs from what looked like the fifties. Black and whites of peo­ple on the beach or on the board­walk. Hav­ing a good time. Faces smil­ing. Some of them look­ing at the cam­era. Look­ing at me with the fer­ris wheel in the back­ground and the roller­coaster.

He blew out smoke.

“When I was kid we’d stand on the beach and wait for hours. Wait­ing to see if we could spot any Ger­man u-boats. That’s the truth. I got this cheap cam­era and started tak­ing pic­tures of the ocean. Think­ing I could spot them. Some­thing I couldn’t see with my own eye. You know. I never saw any u-boats. I kept tak­ing pic­tures of the peo­ple, though. That stuck.”

I closed the port­fo­lio and sat down on the couch. His cat, Bon­sai, was rub­bing up against me.

“He likes you. That’s good. He can be a real ass­hole.”

There was this gi­gan­tic win­dow that was re­ally some­thing. It looked out onto 23rd Street and was just hum­ming with this white light shoot­ing in through the drapes. It made that part of the apart­ment re­ally some­thing to look at. It looked like a pic­ture. But other than that, the rest of the place was in the dark and you could feel the dark. Like a the­ater and the win­dow was the screen to the rest of it.

We just sat and talked.

Over the next few months I’d swing by every now and then. My co-work­ers at the video store didn’t like him. They thought he was dirty, and he was, and he smelled, and was al­ways hog­ging the copy ma­chine. Once the owner yelled at him for both­er­ing a cus­tomer. I was there and I al­most lost it. I wanted to scream. To them, Don was noth­ing but a local crazy. For me to de­fend him would have just made me look crazy. Even­tu­ally Don’s daugh­ter, whom I never met, got him a small printer and copy ma­chine that fit right on his dusty cof­fee table. Don didn’t need to go to the store any­more.

We would stay up drink­ing rum and smok­ing cig­a­rettes and talk­ing. He even paid me a few times to help or­ga­nize his apart­ment. Even­tu­ally we be­came close enough that he gave me a key. For a short time I even thought about clean­ing up his small sec­ond bed­room and liv­ing there. But I ended up mov­ing in with some friends in Williams­burg.

She didn’t want me to move. I could tell. But I was tired of liv­ing there. She was still with her boyfriend any­way. We de­cided not to talk to each other.

One night on the L train I kept look­ing at my re­flec­tion in the dark glass, watch­ing the flashes of light go by with the noise of the ma­chine, and the hum that comes up through your legs. My face would change and then dis­ap­pear in the glass, and be there again, just for me to look at it. I felt like I could feel it chang­ing in the glass. I felt like I was turn­ing into some­thing hor­ri­ble.

I was hold­ing on to what­ever I could. Don was al­ways cut­ting out news­pa­per clip­pings that he wanted me to read and talk about with him. And when we re­ally got into it, it was great. Both shar­ing our opin­ions, lean­ing in, and he’d some­times for­get him­self once or twice. Like old peo­ple do.

One night we fin­ished a bot­tle and he wanted more. I went to a liquor store down the street. By the time I got back he was sleep­ing. His head was back on the chair and he was snor­ing. Real loud snores. It re­minded me of my fa­ther.

I sat there for a while and just lis­tened.

Every­thing else was be­com­ing a panic. I’d stand still and my skin would turn. I walked out on the video store job. I didn’t want to work any­more. I’d let the small checks from the es­tate take care of me. I was sup­posed to save it. It was like this for months.

I didn’t go out with friends much. They thought my re­la­tion­ship with Don was weird.

“Stick around here and have an­other beer. Don’t go hang out with that old perv.”

I’d stay. I’d have an­other beer. And the old perv would just be alone for that night. And I’d feel guilty about it.

It was the guilt that made me angry. Don was al­ways old. But he was start­ing to look real old to me. To old. The wheez­ing, the short pauses when he walked. The hand held out to re­gain some sort of inner bal­ance. Or how many times he’d for­get some­thing that he thought was im­por­tant. All these things were be­com­ing in­creas­ingly no­tice­able. Not that they hadn’t been there. His age was be­com­ing more real. And it seemed dirty to me. All of it.

I called her some­time in early March and she told me that she had left him and she came over. I was al­ready think­ing about mov­ing back to Cal­i­for­nia at that time. I didn’t tell her. That night we drank wine and I took pho­tographs of her and we made love. It was in such a way that we didn’t need to move, but just held our bod­ies close. The more we just held it close and tight, the more we didn’t need to move.

On Saint Patrick’s Day I in­vited her over to Don’s. They re­ally got on to­gether, even though she hated all the smok­ing. She never drank too much, but that night she drank. Don and I where work­ing our way through a bot­tle of vodka. It was a real warm feel­ing, like a cel­e­bra­tion with fam­ily.

Don took me aside.

“She’s a great girl,” he said.

There was this loud knock­ing at the door. Don’s ex-wife, whom I had met a few times be­fore, walked in and she was hold­ing two bot­tles of wine. She was a real New York left­over. She was one of Don’s mod­els back in the day. And you could tell she’d been real pretty once.

We talked for a while.

“You two look so great to­gether,” she said.

Her voice was raspy from all the cig­a­rettes over the years. She was al­ready drunk.

We opened her wine and after a few glasses Don’s ex-wife looked over at us, the young cou­ple in the room, and she de­cided that we should get mar­ried, and that it should hap­pen right then and there. She ex­plained that she was an or­dained min­is­ter of the Neo-Amer­i­can Church. What­ever that was.

“Maybe not,” I said.

“Oh, come on,” she said.

She was laugh­ing. It was like a bunch of kids play­ing.

Don was in on it.

“You got to come up with your own vows.”

She and I looked at each other. We didn’t think any­thing of this. We were just going along with it. It was fun.

We stood up in this dirty apart­ment filled with smoke, filled with years of neg­a­tives, of pho­tographs, of mo­ments. My head was al­ready half spin­ning, and we said our vows. We said how much we loved each other. It was the first time we said that. And we said that we would spend the rest of our lives to­gether, for bet­ter or worse.

It was all laughs. Don wrote out a con­tract in his cal­lig­ra­phy, some­thing he had a real skill for when his hand wasn’t shak­ing. He even made a paw print of his cat Bon­sai, as a wit­ness. No­body took any pho­tographs. I guess we for­got. It was a real good night.

I didn’t stop by Don’s as much after that. Maybe just a drink and I’d tell him I was meet­ing her some­where. After a cou­ple of weeks I just stopped show­ing up when I said I would. He’d call and I wouldn’t pick up. A month or so went by and I was book­ing my flight.

I went by his apart­ment and I could tell he was real happy to see me. He had this big ridicu­lous smile through his beard, show­ing me those rot­ten teeth of his. I told him I was leav­ing.

We drank some. I could tell he was upset.

“It’s re­ally hard for me here,” I said.

“Well, maybe I’d come out and visit.”


“I got a buddy out there I’ve been mean­ing to see.”

“That’s good.”

“I could stay with you maybe a few nights.”

“Of course you could.”

“Good, then its no big deal.”

He put his cig­a­rette in his mouth and started smil­ing again.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I stayed in Cal­i­for­nia and I was look­ing up at this cloud? I got up. I stepped out­side and I was look­ing at this cloud, just watch­ing to see if it changed. So I took a pic­ture. Next day I get up and I see this cloud. Looks the same. So I keep watch­ing it. I take a pic­ture. Later, when I look at the neg­a­tives, I swear, man, that it was the same damn cloud.”

He started laugh­ing. It was just a huge laugh.

“That’s Cal­i­for­nia.”

She stayed with me the night be­fore I left and we made love and it was real close. Again, we didn’t move much. She said that she loved me. And I wanted to leave her then. I wanted her not to exist. I wanted Don not to exist.

I moved to a giant loft in Down­town Los An­ge­les. It was just above skid row. Above all the death there. I shared the place with five other peo­ple. We got along. But the panic got worse. It got so bad I wouldn’t go out­side for weeks at a time. The whole world would spin. No mat­ter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stand not talk­ing to her. She calmed me down. We talked on the phone for hours, plan­ning. Even­tu­ally she came out to live with me. We got an apart­ment in a good neigh­bor­hood and I got a de­cent job at a li­brary.

Al­most a year later I was walk­ing out­side in the back of my apart­ment com­plex. I di­aled his num­ber. I was so ner­vous for some rea­son I couldn’t stop pac­ing, duck­ing under the clothes­lines.

“How are the clouds?” he said.


“You got to watch close.”

We talked for an hour. His breath­ing was bad. But he was the same.

“I’m gonna come out and visit,” he said. “I’ve got a friend out there.”


“Or you get your ass out here and you visit me.”

“I will. Very soon. I promise.”

I never made it back there. I would think of him every now and then. Tell my­self that I re­ally need to give him a call. That I re­ally need to talk to him. Just to say hi. See how he was. But I wouldn’t. I guess I was afraid of how he would sound.

I got a fat let­ter from Don’s ex-wife. Her hand­writ­ing was hard to read. He had died in his apart­ment. I could see his body there on the floor, all his cut up pic­tures and neg­a­tives around him. She men­tioned that they had found this pile of stuff that had been set aside and had my name on it. It was news­pa­per clip­pings, notes, and pho­to­copies of art, things like that.

I was stand­ing under the live oaks, thumb­ing through the pa­pers. She was in­side lis­ten­ing to music. The Santa Ana’s were blow­ing that hot air, rat­tling all the leaves. The light was shin­ing down through them, mak­ing these shad­ows that were danc­ing on the grass. One of the clip­pings was dated just a few weeks be­fore he had died. He was still wait­ing for me to show up and talk.

There was also a pho­to­graph. It was a real old one. Black and white. The edges of it were turn­ing brown.

It was of the ocean. Noth­ing more.