You are reading Fiddleblack #15
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?”
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.
“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.”
“Hey, you mind if I take your picture? That alright?”
I started laughing.
“You’re not taking anybody’s picture.”
“I’m a photographer.”
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.”
“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.
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.
Dane Elcar was raised in Santa Paula California and has a background in theater. His recent work includes a completed collection of short stories as well as a manuscript of his first novel. He currently lives and writes in Los Angeles.