“It’s pretty hot in here, don’tchu think?”
I avoid meeting the driver’s eyes in the mirror and lean into the cab’s side, pressing myself closer to the window and away from the blast of air that suddenly spews from the front. The driver barely slows down to go over the train tracks before speeding ahead past brick houses with wooden porches reminiscent of an older America. Soon, a large parking lot sprawls beside the road, a reminder of our times. ‘ODAC Women’s Basketball...February 24...Winter Jam 2005...February 27.’ Yellow words scroll across a neon sign on a large lawn.
“That’s the Civic Center, there. You gonna go see some shows an’ what not?”
I raise my eyebrows and shake my head no.
“Eh, well. Just as good, the Roanoke one’s better.”
“Been there, yet? Well, you just got off the plane, how could’ju?”
I let the driver talk to himself and turn my attention back to the scene whizzing by. The speed limit is 25 as a school passes by my left. Two boys wearing light jackets drag skateboards along the sidewalk. I finger the buttons on my heavy coat and adjust the scarf around my neck. The air conditioning makes the temperature inside the cab cooler, closer to the New York February to which I am accustomed. Outside, there are the usual signs of suburban civilization, the fast-food stores and tiny shopping malls. The cars that pass to our left bear various bumper stickers displaying Confederate flags and Republican propaganda amidst ‘Jesus Loves You’ and ‘One Nation Under God’.
At the red light, the cab screeches to a halt. “Which park did’ju say you was goin’ to?”
I look down at the sheet in my gloved hands. “Longwood.”
My stomach lurches as the driver takes a right.
“There something big going on up there? How come you ain’t got someplace to be on Valentine’s? Are you meeting your man up there?”
He gives an exaggerated sigh and thankfully stops jabbering.
It seems we’re on Main Street, though I am uncertain, as the driver has ceased his commentary. The stores on either side are quaint; their front facades turn into dull brick walls that I only notice as we reach the beginning of each block. It has been a while since I have seen tree-lined pavements like the ones here. Soon, though, we zip past the main part of the city and take a speedy turn into a large park. The driver stops at the top of a hill and rattles off my bill. I dig around in my purse and exit the vehicle as quickly as possible.
I peel off my scarf and hold it in my hand as I survey the scene. From my vantage point, I can see a dozen or so children playing in the equipment at the base of the hill. The trees, now stripped of their leaves, offer no shade from the sun. The children run and rest underneath the wooden towers, instead, after almost violent bursts of energy. A few mothers sit in the shade of the picnic area, though sunlight filters into every nook and cranny of the painted wood shelter. As the heat begins to bear down on me, I shrug off my coat, but realize I have nowhere to put it. I put it back on and begin my descent down the hill, staying on the paved road as I awkwardly drag my suitcase behind me.
I know the children are looking at me, as children will, but pay them little attention and decide to approach the one of mothers instead. She smiles at me behind dark sunglasses.
“How can I help you?”
“Is this Longwood Park?”
“There’s a cemetery here?”
“Yep, just right up that hill, there.” She turns and points to the stairs leading up the very hill I had just descended.
“Thank you.” I head back towards the paved road.
The cemetery has no gate and few grave markers. A sign designates it as a historic area. I doubt I’ll find their graves here, but I suppose I ought to search. The gravestones are relatively well maintained. A few graves are overwrought with long grass and ivy. The ivy creeps over and around the gravestones, obscuring the names. I do not wish to disturb the plants. I think I see some red stems and three-leaved clusters and warily step around them. I can see the usual names carved into stone: Jones, Smith, Brown, Jefferson. Some stones are rectangular-shaped, a few have guardian angels and a few others bear a cross. I look at every name and do not find theirs. I drag my suitcase back down the hill.
I must look ludicrous to the rush hour traffic, scarf in hand, heavy jacket draped across the suitcase beside me. I still have on a turtleneck and sweater. The weather was supposed to be cold; I had checked weather.com this morning before I flew out. Instead, I find dry heat and dying grass that crackles underneath my faux-fur lined boots. While I wait at the curb to cross the street, I consider the brick building to my left. ‘Salem Museum,’ the sign tells me. I feel a tug in my gut that urges me to turn around, go through the wrought-iron gate, and up its white porch steps. I ignore it and check left, right, then left, and cross the street.
I have better luck at this cemetery. I don’t find their graves immediately, and have to suffer more marble gravestones. The vines have not yet made their mark here. I wish the graves were arranged alphabetically, like the few cemeteries in Venice, but I wander through the family plots until I arrive at ‘Harvey.’ I never know where to stand when around graves. If I stand before the marker, I stand above the body. Yet to appreciate the marker’s design, I must face it head on. I stand to the side and unzip my suitcase.
The camera I pull out is a one-use only Kodak that every Wal-Mart in the nation carries. I place it gently on the grave beside the lavender flowers. I run my fingers along the camera’s edge before zipping up my suitcase and turning around. The camera had only four images left; the last picture it had taken was seven years old. It still has their name on the back, in black permanent marker. ‘Jonathan Harvey and Jessica Reston.’ I look back at the camera, its yellow and black a stark contrast to the green leaves, pastel petals and grey stone behind it. I feel my stomach coil and uncoil, twist and turn like my path through the graveyard. I walk back to the grave and pick it up. I think I should leave flowers as well.
Never having been in Salem before, I have no idea where to find a flower shop. I suppose the cemetery’s caretakers sell flowers to the families who want to put them on graves, but I am not family, and the fewer questions I have to answer, the better. Main Street seems to have several smaller shops, and though I can’t remember seeing a flower shop during my cab trip to the park, there might be one on the other side of town. I consider finding a place to stay first, so I don’t have to drag my suitcase through town, but realize that to find a hotel room I’d have to wander around town anyway.
The weight of my suitcase starts to take its toll on my arm, and I have to switch hands. I walk against the traffic, and am surprised not to hear curses spewing from drivers’ windows. I receive some wary looks, but they don’t compare to the foul mouths of New York cabbies. There is no sidewalk until I cross a large intersection. The pavement is clear of the brown slush I left behind in The City. Three girls in tiny shorts and sports bras jog on the other side of the road, laughing and listening to their iPods. A red truck passes by, the men inside wolf whistling. The girls glance over, wave, and continue jogging. I am starting to sweat. I stop at a dark green bench and take off my sweater, stuffing it into my suitcase.
When I resume walking, I feel as though I am being watched. I out of the corner of my eye and see a police car trailing me. I turn left at the next block and the car follows. I stop and sit on a set of concrete stairs beside a jeweler’s store. The cop pulls over and steps out of his car. “Miss? I’m afraid I can’t have you wandering the streets, ma’am.”
I look down and see my coat covered suitcase, scarf and turtleneck. I suppose I look suspiciously like a hobo. Although what hobo in his right mind would be wearing a turtleneck in this weather, I’m not sure. I look back up. I raise my eyebrow. “Why’s that?”
“We can’t have you on the streets. Is there some place you are staying?”
“I was going to find a hotel somewhere.”
“I can give you a ride, if you’d like.”
“To the station?”
The cop smiles. “No, to the hotel.”
I consider the offer. I’m not sure of the closest hotel. It could be several miles away, and I know my arms would give out before I reach my destination. I nod gratefully and step into his car.
“Which hotel do you want?”
“The closest one.”
The cop is not talkative. The only noise is the intermittent buzzing from the police radio. I look outside. The scenery becomes more commercial the further we go. The smaller privately owned stores give way to larger corporate malls (though none compare to the size of shopping malls in some cities I have visited). We pass a Wal-Mart, the parking lot almost filled to the brim. The ‘1 Hour Photo’ sign reminds me of the camera in my suitcase. I take it out and run my finger around its lens. I tentatively bring it up to my eye.
Through its plastic window, I can pick out flashes of green amidst the blue and grey of the buildings we pass. Faces become focused; I can see the crinkles in an old man’s smile as he takes a girl’s hand. Her other hand clutches a yellow balloon. The balloon would flutter if there were a breeze, but now it stands straight, stark against the darkening blue sky. The trees that were few and far between while we were in town become more frequent and start to clutter the sky. I notice my finger has gone to the shutter button. I put down the camera as we pull into a Super 8 Motel parking lot.
“I don’t want to see you sleeping on the streets.”
“I’ll have to take you in then.”
He pulls out of the parking lot and I push through the door into the main lobby. The lights are jarring, their harsh artificiality a contrast to the fading light outside. The woman at the front desk has an orange tan. The creases in her face rival those of the elderly gentleman I had seen a few moments before.
“I need a room for tonight.”
“Is there anyone else with you?”
“Would you like to pay cash, credit or check?”
“Credit.” I look down to pull out my card and freeze. I look under my coat, unzip my suitcase, unravel my scarf. “Damn.” I try to put on a winning smile. “Listen, I seem to have misplaced my purse. Can I use your phone?”
“I’ll have to charge you for that.”
“Please,” I look at the tag on her sagging breast that reveals her name, “Bethany, I need to use this phone to get my purse back. Could you make an exception just this once?”
She looks doubtful for a moment, before handing me the phone.
I must have left the purse on the cab, but I can’t remember the license plate or the taxi service’s number. I consider calling my credit card companies to cancel the cards, but one look at Bethany’s wary face lets me know I’m permitted only one call. I call the police.
The cop finds the situation amusing. At the station, he asks me to fill out a stack of papers.
“Do you know anybody in Salem?”
I shake my head.
“A tourist? Why didn’t you book a place ahead of time?”
“I wasn’t going to spend the night.”
“How’d you get here?”
He asks for my plane ticket back home. It was in my purse.
After half an hour, he agrees to put me up for the night. I am aware that neither of us is wary about spending the night in the same house as a stranger.
His house is a small white wooden building beside a river. White geese block our path when we try to walk from the car to his porch. He ushers them to the side and opens the door; he has to open seven locks to enter. The inside of the house is neater than what I would have expected. There are a few pictures scattered on the living room table. Underneath, a newspaper lies open to the comics section and a coffee mug sits on a side table. A plant dies in a corner while a small bamboo yellows in a water-filled bowl beside the television.
“I can make up the couch for you,” he says, pushing the living room table aside.
The couch unfolds into a bed. He steps out into a hallway. I sit lightly on the newly made bed until he comes back in with pillows and blankets.
“It’s supposed to get pretty cold tonight.” He notices my skeptical expression and grins. “Yeah, that’s what the weatherman said. Then again, it was supposed to snow today, too.”
I smile and pick up the photographs while he adjusts the sheets. They depict the changing colors of the mountains that surround this town. The colors fade from bright orange to pale lavender to a dark blue; the pictures are a chronicle of the changing day. Among these is a black and white portrait of a young woman in front of a waterfall. I clear my throat. “Did you take these?”
He looks up from the pillow he was fluffing. “Yeah. I’m an amateur photographer, I guess.”
I can’t stop looking at the girl.
He comes up behind me and looks over my shoulder. “That’s my sister.” His voice is softer.
I trace the outlines of her face. My eyes wander to the waterfall behind her.
“She loved waterfalls.”
I know. We eat TV dinners and I dream of falling water and valentines.
When I wake up the cop is gone. He has left a note on the table under a mug of lukewarm coffee.
‘We’ll have your purse at the station by 10 o’clock this morning. Come on by once you wake up. ~ David’
The VCR under the television tells me it is 8:45. I decide to leave my suitcase. I’ll come back for it later.
I step outside the house wearing only a t-shirt and jeans. I start to shiver so I grab my sweater before picking up the newspaper on the porch. I sit on the steps to read. Beyond the paper’s top edge, I can see the white geese crossing the road to meet the Canada geese and brown ducks at the river’s edge. The wind ruffles the paper’s corners and I have to hold them down so that I can read. As a car makes its way up the road, the birds’ honking distracts me from the words on the page. The driver leans out of the window and looks at me curiously. I look back down at the paper.
I sigh and set the paper down.
“You the girl David was talking about?”
“Get into the car. I’m taking you to the station.”
I look at the clear sky and shake my head. I give into the urge to remain outdoors. “No thanks, I’ll just walk if you tell me where it is.”
He gets out of the car and comes to the porch. Taking a strip from the newspaper, he draws a small map, consisting of vague arrows, while he explains his directions. The geese have hopped onto his car’s hood and are making a racket. I try to hide my smirk. He turns around and starts yelling, chasing after the birds. I pick up the paper with his markings and try to make sense of them while he tries to scare the geese away. I set down my coffee on the porch railing and start walking.
Today is cooler than yesterday and I’m glad I took my sweater. The wind swirls the river water, creating gentle waves that cause the birds to bob up and down with the current. Bare tree branches sway, scratching each other’s barks. The smaller homes on this street are akin to those I saw on my way into Salem, beside the Civic Center. These, though, are covered in wooden siding, rather than red brick. Ivy creeps along some sidewalls, and a few porches are missing rails. A birdhouse forms someone’s mailbox; its red paint matches the house’s red shutters. I pause. I reach into my pocket and pull out the camera.
Through the lens, I can make out the wooden grain beneath the layers of red paint. I can see the glue that holds the birdhouse together. I see the spaces between the miniature shingles and the small dent in the nail that holds the flag to the mailbox’s side, created by an enthusiastic crafter. If I open the box, the lens will amplify the creak until it grates my ears. I put the camera back in my pocket. As I cross the bridge, I clutch it, my fingernails digging into my thigh.
At the station desk, I ask for David. The secretary leans into the mouthpiece. “Officer Reston, there’s a woman at the station for you.”
“I’ll be there in five.”
I sit in a plastic chair and wait.
He squints at my license as he hands me my purse. “Olivia Lennox?”
I reach for my wallet.
“Your name sounds familiar. Are you on TV or something?”
I shake my head. “No.”
“Did you sleep ok?”
“Yeah, like a baby.”
“Until the geese got you up, right?” He smiles easily.
“Something like that.”
“Are you going to stay the night? At the hotel, that is,” he catches himself.
“I think I’m going to leave tonight.”
“I left my bag in your living room.”
The secretary pretends to be uninterested in our conversation. She twirls a pen in her right hand while staring intently at a security screen.
“I’ll get it,” I say.
“No, don’t worry. I’ll drop it off at the Super 8.”
“I’m leaving today,” I protest.
“Bethany’ll hold it.”
I get up with my purse. He reaches out and touches my shoulder.
“Take care, yeah?”
I wonder if he really does recognize me and is only waiting for me to admit my guilt. I wave to the secretary who waves back, undermining her attempts at indifference. I pause at the door.
“Do you know where I can develop some film?”
“Yeah, Wal-Mart has a photo place.”
“No, I mean, where I can develop it.”
The camera has only four images left. Moving shadows splatter the corner of the jail where the grass meets brick as the wind rustles the grass. The grass there is greener than its companions closer to the pavement. I look up and realize that this is because of the cloud that has floated over part of the lawn. I turn towards the approaching clouds. They have covered the cemetery I had visited yesterday evening. There are no children playing outside; they must be at that school I had seen earlier.
I stop at “Coach B’s,” one of the smaller restaurants on Main Street. I wonder who decided to paint the exterior a rich royal purple and turquoise. I peer inside the window. It is dark, though the sign on the door says ‘OPEN.’ I think I see someone shuffling around behind a bar, when a blonde head appears above the counter, pale arms plunking down two beers. A man sits at a stool and the woman comes out from behind the bar. Her hair is in a tousled ponytail. She takes a drink of the beer, squeezes the man’s shoulders, adjusts her skirt, and comes towards the door. I start walking.
The library across the street is large, for at town of this size. A low brick wall surrounds what appears to be a small garden in front of the building. The doors are a darkened glass. A man sits on a bench beneath a tree in the library’s front lawn. The brick path that leads to his feet is uneven; thin weeds surface between the pavers. The man reads a book while his dog, tied to the bench’s armrest, pants. The dog’s eyes meet mine and it smiles. It glances at its owner and wags its tail; I keep walking. The clouds grow ominous.
The items stacked in the antique mall’s window are appealing. A white doll with curled brown hair sits in a china teacup on a pale green table. A vase, covered with painted pastel flowers, holds faux twigs of Japanese cherry blossoms. A painting in a gilded frame depicts the facades of the stores downtown. These all rest on a braided rug of red, gold, and green. As I begin to walk away, I notice a smaller painting to the side: a waterfall surrounded by shrubbery, with children playing in the pool at its base. The tag says ‘Falling Springs’—the last waterfall I had seen.
I pull out the camera from my pocket.
The flash blinds me as it reflects off the window’s glass.
I run back to the library; the man is still reading. I preserve a moment of his time. The woman and man converse as she cradles the beer in her right hand. I record drops of condensation on film. The dark grass, chronicled, the dark clouds, saved. I sit on the pavement as the first drops of water begin to fall. The rain wets my hair and calms my breathing. I rise and start walking to Salem High School. David said I could develop my film there.
By the time I reach the school’s back gate, the wool in my sweater has started to clump, forming pitiful globules of fiber that extend from the knitted body. The rain that was at first a light drizzle is now coming down fairly heavily. I do not regret not having an umbrella; I did not have a chance to shower yesterday.
It is noon, and I can see some children running across a field towards a smaller building to my right. There are a few cars in the parking lot to my left. I follow a curve in the road behind the main building. I turn left at the corner and pause at a small concrete porch in front of a set of double doors. I cannot open them, so I knock. There is no response. To my right, children peer at me through a wall of windows, cluttered with canvases covered in drying swirls of paint. A small boy pushes one of the doors beside the windows open.
“You can go through here!” he calls.
The chaos within the room rivals the pounding rain outside. The large tube-lights cast a bright yellow light on every sculpture that runs along the rooms’ left wall; each canvas casts a shadow on the one behind it. The children stare at me as I make my way down an aisle between two rows of large white tables. I am almost at the door when a man appears at my side.
“Whatchu doin’ here?” he exclaims.
“I need to see Mr. DuBois.”
“Aw, don'tchu be lyin’ to the kids. We both know you just want to get back together. It ain’t happenin’, honey.”
“I just need to see Mr. DuBois.”
He has a wild gleam in his eye. “You know that ain’t right. What, you tryin’ to get with him, too? Oh, no you didn’t, girlfriend!” He wags his finger at me.
I bolt past him through the door. I turn left and can hear his maniacal laughter behind me amidst the students’ giggles. I pass through a set of double doors. A mustachioed man stands in front of a door to my left. I approach him warily.
“Do you know where I can find Mr. DuBois?”
He looks at me through his spectacles. “That depends. Do I owe you any money?”
I pull the camera out of my pocket and hold it out to him. “I need to develop these pictures.”
“Well then, come on in.”
The expanse I walk into is the photography room, or so Mr. DuBois tells me. I accept the towel he gives me and dry myself down. He does not ask me why I did not just go to Wal-Mart. He merely hands me a black bag, plastic reel and a tank. I put the camera inside the bag and pop it open. I begin to transfer the film. Developing film is like riding a bike: you never forget the process once you learn it. You can be out of practice, and fumble a bit. Eventually, you right yourself and proceed smoothly. As I slide the film through my fingers, I am reminded of the thousands of rolls I had once developed.
Mr. DuBois is sitting at the computer in his office playing solitaire when I walk to the sink to begin developing the film. My motions are routine as I run the tank through a stop bath before pouring in the fix; I wait before opening the tank’s lid. I rinse the film before taking it out of the tank and hanging it up to dry on the string beside the teacher’s office. I have about two hours before I can make prints.
There are no students in the room and it is eerily quiet. The only sounds are the clicking of the mouse as Mr. DuBois moves cards back and forth across his screen. I stand in front of my negatives and watch them dry. The inverted colors make the images mysterious and I attempt to make sense of the blobs of color. I recognize the white geese in front of David’s house. There are a few group portraits before another negative of David’s house appears; this time snow has buried his lawn. Snow laden trees line an empty road in another negative. Three negatives feature snow covered gravestones; a cross marks a hill in the next image. And then there are negatives of waterfalls. I do not notice the students come and go. When I glance at the clock, it is 2:15.
I hesitate before stepping into the darkroom. Once I enter, my movement is mechanical. I reach for the chemicals. One by one, I go through the negatives. I do not think about the cost of photographic paper or the amount of money I shall owe the school. In the red glow of the room, the photographs emerge steadily and I hang them up by their corners using small clothespins on a rope stretched across the room. When there are only five pictures left, I pause.
The waterfall at Falling Springs, Virginia freezes every winter. It is not one of Alleghany County’s more famous sights; most people would rather see the covered bridge. There is an overlook for cars to pull over from the road beside the falls, and a small dirt path leads down to the pool below. The pool rarely freezes in winter but its water is ice-cold. The frozen waterfall’s icicles are macrocosmic imitations of the miniature repetitions on the branches of trees at it the river’s bank. There is little color in winter, only the dull brown barks, dark water and crisp blue sky. I am not a nature photographer, and never have been.
The photograph would be perfect if it weren’t for the silent scream on Jessica’s face and Jonathan’s surprised turn of the head. The icicles would be serene if it weren’t for Jessica’s flailing legs and her hand that clutches Jonathan’s shoulder. The snow would be soft if it weren’t for the icy rocks underneath Jessica’s feet. The photograph would have been perfect if I hadn’t been behind the camera. I am not a nature photographer, and never have been.
I pick up a small pair of scissors. The negative falls in red slivers on the darkroom floor.
I wait until I hear the tone of the bell and the sound of students shuffling to the exit before I begin to take down the photographs. When I step out of the dark room, I see it is 3:00.
Mr. DuBois is still in his office playing solitaire. He has almost won. I see the two pieces of the Kodak camera on the blue table. I place the stack of photographs beside the camera when I pick it up. I am reminded of the camera’s function. To see through the lens is to see through yourself. The zoom magnifies the flower until you can see the petal’s fibers; it magnifies your soul until you can see its very substance. The lens is a mirror; your subject is a reflection of yourself. I throw the camera’s broken pieces into the trashcan next to the sink. I slip out through the back door before Mr. DuBois notices.
It is no longer raining outside. I step through puddles as I walk around the school towards the front gate. Raindrops glitter on the metal roof of the Sheetz across the street. A few windshield wipers are still running. Student-driven cars whiz by me as I climb up the stairs of a small flower shop. Vases overstuffed with flowers suffocate the shelves. I cough as I approach the counter. A small woman looks up from her arrangement.
“How can I help yew?”
I look around at the selection available to me. “I’d like some daisies please.”
“Would you like a vase or a bouquet?”
“Would you like to add anything else to that? Some baby’s breath?”
“No thank you.”
“Just a dozen daisies, then?”
She shuffles around underneath the counter before reappearing with a dozen flowers tied with string. She wraps them in plastic and hands them to me. I pay her quickly and exit the building.
On the way back to David’s house, the wind makes my damp sweater even colder. As I approach railroad tracks, a train is just leaving; the clanging bell ceases and the barriers rise. I follow the cars over the tracks and across a bridge. There are two llamas to my right; their soaked fur creates a foul stench and I take the road going left. The wet grass soaks my boots. Three horses graze to my right in a field with overgrown grass. One approaches and I stroke her forehead holding the flowers away from her inquisitive nose. She looks at me knowingly and I am drawn in to her dark brown eyes. She blinks her long lashes before ambling away, realizing I have no food to offer. After a large hill, the ducks appear to my left, bobbing along the river. I follow their trail to the geese in front of David’s porch. The door is unlocked and I let myself in. I pick up my suitcase. I add all but the last five pictures in my hand to the stack of photographs on his living room table. I do not leave him a note.
I stand in front of the gravestones and wipe the water off. I lay the photograph on the dirt between the graves; I place the flowers beside the photograph. I drag my suitcase behind me as I walk back down Main Street. I walk past the police station as quickly as possible. Coach B’s is still open, the blonde woman still at the bar. The man and his dog have left the bench. The antique mall is closed. I walk into Wal-Mart and buy a camera.
As I walk down Wildwood Drive, I realize my plane ticket is a day old. The sun frames a yellow balloon tied to a mailbox. I pull out my camera. I shall have to wait until New York to develop this roll of film. I leave my suitcase at the Super 8 Motel. Bethany’ll hold it.