by Michael Trobich
Kate Gibbons likes to take pictures. She doesn’t know how it started, closing shutters and toggling flash, but she loves the way that each photo has every pixel in place and captures moments in amber. She sees the way her friends quietly fear age, the gym memberships and expensive cars and spa weekends, and she takes her comfort in the small army of family photos around her home. They’re her way of remembering who she is, her mind fighting back against the body’s inevitable betrayal.
Her family, for the most part, either appreciates or indulges this habit. Her husband Scott is a salesman, and so always has a winning smile on demand. Molly is just getting to be seven, and likes dressing up and having fashion shows for Mommy. Ty is one year old, and still getting used to the peculiar experience that is having toes, so he’s registered no serious objections. Even her mom lets her take the pictures when they visit. Kate has always had a talent to pose people just so, and with a bright “Smile!” She takes photos in which people look, if not the best they ever have, certainly the best they can today.
Her dad is the one exception. When Arthur was young, he had been a bit of a hell-raiser, shooting out the stoplight in his one stoplight town, and though he’s mellowed with age, rules remain his favorite thing to break. Whenever Kate’s taking pictures, he’s sure to be close, and he’ll jump in at the last second, laughing. There’s never a quiet moment when Arthur is around the rest of his family. He has never quite known how to relate to his daughter, his only child. Nowadays, he often acts like a schoolboy with her, doing small things just to get a rise or a smile.
Today, though, he has a new idea. It is Ty’s first birthday party tonight, and Arthur and his wife Rose are lucky enough to be in town. So, while Molly goes shopping with her grandma and Scott and Kate decorate furiously, he pops into town for an hour or so. The nice young man at the electronics store helps him pick out a camera that’s nice and practical, quick enough to catch a hummingbird at the feeder, sturdy enough to take a few falls when his hands swell in the mornings.
During the party, he takes it out of the intricate packaging and walks over to his daughter.
“Katie,” he asks, “can you show me how to use this thing?”
She sees the camera and laughs.
“Dad, why’d you buy a camera? I’m taking plenty of pictures already.”
“I know, but you seem to enjoy it so much I thought I’d give it a shot.”
So she shows him the settings she thinks he’ll want to use and asks him to take some pictures of the kids, thinking he wants to feel useful. Arthur, though, knows what he wants to do.
For the rest of the night, he is furtive, lurking around corners or across the room. Somehow, his daughter’s talent has been passed up to him, but instead of delicately posed photos, he takes candid shots. He captures the moments that people look the most like themselves. Ty laughs as his hand extends leftward, sending his plate of cake flipping away. Molly hugs the family dog close, burying her face in his shoulder fur. Scott watches his wife snap a picture of their son as he leans on the doorframe, simple contentment in his eyes and on his lips.
These are what greet Kate when she wakes up in the morning. Her work means she gets up before anyone else in the house, and they are there in the soft light of the early morning. There is one on the inside of her door, one in the hallway, one on the kitchen table. He must’ve gone out last night to get them printed, after everyone had gone to bed. Kate has never known how to think of her dad as a person and not her father or a grandfather, and so every photo to her is like a little miracle, preserving moments she didn’t even know she missed.
When Arthur comes down that morning, he sees that all the photos have been collected. He smiles. His daughter is not someone who lets things get lost, and he is sure the photos have been put away somewhere, stowed for a rainy day.
Time passes, as it does, and more pictures are taken. Kate and her father grow closer, the way you do to people with whom you share a passion, and they talk about the way the light is best in the early morning, how one of the best parts of pictures are the things you see in them that you never saw the first time.
At some point or another, she asks Arthur why he started taking photos.
“Well, why did you start?” he replies.
“I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it,” she says.
There is a moment of comfortable silence between them.
“I don’t know why I started, but I think I take pictures now to remember things,” she says.
“That’s funny,” he says. “I was going to say the same thing.”
Kate had a different reason when she began to take photos. She has always been this way, the way where the world feels always a little out of place around her. Scott calls it “nervous”. To Kate, it feels the way she feels whenever she breaks open a Pop-Tart.
When Kate was younger, she had the same nightmare on the second Saturday of every month. She would be holding a Pop-Tart in her mother’s kitchen, brown sugar cinnamon, her favorite. She would sna it in half, the way that children who eat Pop-Tarts do to make them feel like they last longer. She would break it, and out would come a colony of ants, a steady stream of tiny black marching insects, rows and columns and regiments and battalions and she couldn’t drop the Pop-Tarts, all she could do was let the ants crawl over her body, cover her skin, and scream silently.
Kate does not call the way she is “nervous”. Kate does not call it anything. She takes photos of the best that people can be because people, she has decided, are like Pop-Tarts. Sometimes, they are horrible and terrifying. But most of the time, they’re pretty okay, and they deserve to see that.
More time passes and even more pictures are taken and Rose, her mother, dies. Arthur speaks at the funeral, but begins crying halfway through the eulogy, and struggles through the rest of it. Years weigh down his shoulders like sandbags. The picture beside the coffin, the one beside the priest who performs the service, is one Kate took a few years ago, of her mother in her Sunday best. At the reception afterwards, there are pictures Arthur took: Rose gardening, or tasting soup, or reading in her armchair with her glasses on, the dusty lamp beside her spilling a soft light over the page. Neither one of them have any photos of her in her hospital bed, when the cancer took hold. It seemed cruel then, to capture a moment they had all hoped so long would never come.
Soon, Arthur finds himself in a similar situation. He has always had arthritis and now gout begins to creep into him through his toes. They give him a wheelchair, but osteoporosis soon makes it difficult for him to push himself around. Kate and Scott do an admirable job of ignoring the ways in which his body is failing, but he can feel it, and he asks them to help him look into assisted living. At first, they protest, thinking that he wants them to tell him why he doesn’t need it. He doesn’t. They come around, Kate more slowly than Scott.
The assisted living home is very nice and the nurses are very nice and everything there is very nice and smells like cleaning supplies. Arthur tires quickly of the preplanned activities, and begins to stay in bed more and more often. Soon, he spends entire days there, writing in a journal or doing crossword puzzles. He doesn’t bother anyone, and his condition doesn’t seem to worsen. He convinces the nurses one by one to let him take just two walks a day. Whenever Kate visits, they take a walk in the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, when the light from the sun filters best through a camera. They find squirrels gathering supplies for the winter, hummingbirds flitting through flowers, and once, the shadow of an old wolf stretching like a tree trunk through the twilight. They take a lot of pictures.
She visits often, sometimes with Scott, sometimes with the kids. Molly is in college now, and Ty is starting high school. They are too preoccupied discovering young adulthood to think too much about their grandfather.
On one visit, he asks her to bring him some of his old photographs.
“I’m getting old,” he says. “Can you bring me some pictures? I’d love to see if I can rustle up a few fond memories.”
So she brings him the pictures, all put together in a nice album. He flips through every page, growing gradually frustrated as he begins to encounter photographs he doesn’t remember taking. Eventually, he gives the album back to Kate and turns away. The sun is setting outside.
“I remember this one,” she says. “Ty’s first birthday party. It was when you first went out and bought that camera.”
He turns back to her. “Which camera?”
And so she tells him about the camera that was both nice and sturdy and the way that she thought he had just wanted to be useful. She shows him the picture of Molly and the picture of her and Scott and she tells him about coming down in the morning to the photos scattered throughout the house. And he remembers the nice young man in the electronics store, the one who had helped him print out those photos that night, and the way that Ty’s cake had spattered the nice white tablecloth with specks of blue icing that never quite came out.
He makes his way through his memories like this, some slower than others. If he doesn’t have pictures for something he wants to know about, she shows him hers, and he relives his life one event at a time. Kate learns some of the things about a person you don’t learn when they’re your father if they can help it, like how infuriating he’s always found Scott’s habit of drumming his fingers on the table, or how he had drunkenly lost several thousand dollars to a man in poker a few days after Rose’s funeral. He finds the times in his life when everything seemed like it was going wrong, and he makes his way to now, to spending sunsets and sunrises with his daughter.
Scott and the kids begin to visit less frequently. Arthur’s place in assisted living has become a regularity now, and this decline in activity is understood and quietly accepted by everyone involved.
Before a particular visit, the doctor who is in charge of Arthur’s case takes Kate aside in the lobby.
“Kate, I hate to tell you this, but your father’s getting worse,” he says. Kate wonders how many times a day he has to say that.
“What do you mean?”
“His physical condition is fine, nothing new there. But his mental state is slowly deteriorating. He’s getting plenty of mental exercise, but he’s reached the age where some decline is inevitable.”
“What exactly does that mean, Doctor?”
“He may begin to forget things. Things he shouldn’t forget, I mean.”
“Significant events in his life. People. The other day, he asked how his daughter’s baby boy was doing.”
“Is there anything you can do?”
“We can give him medication,” he says. “But eventually, this is just what his mind is going to do. We see it every day here. People are like everything else. They break slowly over time.”
Kate comes away from the conversation thoroughly unimpressed with the doctor’s bedside manner. When she goes in to see her dad, she can see in his face that it takes a second for him to recognize her. They talk about the way that the bird feeders are set up so that he can’t take good pictures. They take a walk in the hour before sunset. Kate is still getting used to pushing her father around in the wheelchair. He is still getting used to not being able to jump into pictures.
When they get back, she takes out the album she brings to every visit, but before she can get it out of her bag, she hears him start talking.
“Scott, what are you doing here? I thought you had a business trip?”
Kate looks up with a start. Scott isn’t here. He’s away on a business trip, and Arthur is looking at a picture of Scott on his bedside table, a picture that Kate had given him. There is a smile on his face and for a moment, Kate can’t tell if he’s joking or not, but then he starts to speak again.
“Well, I’m happy you made it, and I’m sure Katie appreciates the time you’re taking away from your job.”
And he turns to her and the smile on his face is so full and she knows in that moment that he is not joking. In this moment, Kate doesn’t know what to do, and Arthur does, so she goes along with it.
“It’s definitely not easy getting time away,” she says, doing her best Scott impression. “But it’s worth it.”
Arthur laughs. “Coming from someone who took plenty of off days in my time, you never end up regretting them.”
They have a three-person conversation. After a while, it is easier for Kate to look at the picture of Scott when she is speaking in his voice, for her to act as if Scott was really speaking. It doesn’t get easier for her to understand what is going on, and when she’s left, making sure to say goodbye to the picture of Scott as well (“I think I’ll stay a little later this time, Kate, why don’t you go ahead and get back home?”), she is too rattled by the experience and her previous conversation with him to ask the doctor what precisely just happened. When she gets back home, though, she tells Scott, and spends the rest of the night sitting with him at the kitchen table, alternately crying and exhausted.
“What do I do?” she asks him. “There has to be something I can do.”
“Just keep visiting him,” Scott says. “He’ll know it’s you. He’ll remember you.”
Kate keeps visiting her dad, and he keeps remembering her. She asks Scott and the kids not to come, hoping not to destabilize her father’s perception of reality even further. She hopes that the kids are old enough to mostly remember their grandfather when he was not dying in a nursing home. There are times when Arthur thinks that Kate has left the room, and he will have conversations with other people, all of whose voices come out of her mouth. Still, these things all begin and end with her and her father saying hello and goodbye. She asks the nurses, and they tell her that he doesn’t do this when she’s not visiting. He’s happier when you’re here, they say. He knows somewhere inside him that you’re here, they say.
They no longer go on walks after sunrise and before sunset. If her dad isn’t asleep, it’s too hard to get him out of bed.
Time passes. Kate begins, to a certain extent, to think this is normal.
Kate walks into her father’s room for the last time before he dies, although, of course, she doesn’t know that. Arthur is writing in his journal, and doesn’t look up.
“Hey Dad,” she says. Arthur still doesn’t look up. She thinks of the room as it must look to him: empty, with only the growing shadows of dusk for company. She goes over to the side of his bed, and takes out a picture from her bag which she had never hoped to talk about.
She holds it up, and a posed picture of herself on a family vacation, in a sundress at the beach, her favorite photo of herself, says with her voice, “Hi Dad.”
He looks at it and smiles. “Katie! How are you?”
Her voice breaks several times when she is talking to him, but she passes it off as recovering from a sickness. Her arm begins to get tired holding the picture up in front of her face, but she does not want to look at his eyes, so when she lowers it she looks out of the window. He asks her to tell him stories about her life, says he’s begun to forget things that he wants to know about her. So she says words and the picture tells him stories, tells him about her wedding, about the days her children were born, about how happy she was when he started taking pictures because that was something she loved and now he loved it too. How both of their reasons for taking pictures were to remember things, and the picture sniffled a little bit on that one. When he hears that, he laughs.
“Oh Katie,” he says. “I really started taking pictures to have something worth remembering. Of course, Rose meant the world to me, but at that point, I barely knew my daughter. Sure, I knew who you were, and I knew what you did, but I didn’t have any memories of you that weren’t posed, you know? I wanted to know who you were when you were doing something you really loved. So I started taking pictures because I wanted to take them of you. I wanted to see you the way you see someone when you see a photo of them they weren’t expecting. I’ve always thought that’s how you know someone best, when they’re not expecting it.”
Katie is focusing very hard on the fact that she is not crying. Focusing so hard on this, in fact, that she misses the first time her dad says, “Excuse me, miss?” He says it again and she starts. She looks around the room, but there are no other pictures, no other people. She lowers the picture slowly from her face and there is her father looking at her, blank and earnest.
“Miss, would you mind taking a picture of me and my daughter? I want something to remember this by.” He is handing her a camera, an old one, and she realizes it is the first one he bought, still nice and sturdy. He is taking the photo from her, the one of her, and holding it close to him.
“Of course,” she says mechanically. She has been taking pictures her whole life.
She stands and pulls the shutter up in front of her eye. She frames the old man in the hospital bed, cradling the photo of his daughter that she took a few years ago, on the last family vacation he was in good enough shape to go on. Kate Gibbons arranges the picture for herself in the golden light that streams in from the window.
“Smile,” she says, and takes the picture.
About the Author:
Michael J. Trobich is a North Carolinian by birth, an Ohioan by residence, and a current student at Kenyon College. His fiction has previously appeared in in Polyphony.