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Shutterbug

Brown didn’t open the letter right away. He went upstairs, tossed the letter on his desk, and started looking through boxes. He sifted through old poems and unfinished stories, contact sheets from which he’d always intended to print, and student papers he’d never returned. He finally found a manila envelope labeled Nova Scotia. It had a date from the previous summer. He slipped out the negatives. There, reversed, was the woman he was looking for.

He pulled out paper, trays, chemicals, and timing charts in his dark room closet.  The safety light checked out.  With the overhead off, the room was flooded with red light. Brown started, the deja-vu fading before it had quite arrived.

He checked over the first contact sheet in the wash tray. The landscapes were uninteresting–mere recordings of the rocky coasts and impossibly green salt marshes, but there were other photos:

Patricia, spread like butter over the motorcycle seat, with her helmet at a rakish angle, and some cows in the background.

Patricia, bent over a picnic table, looking through her knapsack.

Patricia, in her sunglasses, in her wrap-around bathing suit, dangling one toe in the water that was always too cold for her.

Brown, with helmet in hand, standing aviator-like in front of the bike. He looked irritated, probably from waiting too long for Patricia to snap the picture.

A close-up of picnic refuse: smoked salmon remains, squeezed out lemons, crumpled paper, an empty vodka bottle. Brown recalled Patricia had spent 20 minutes arranging this still life.

Brown returned the dripping contact sheet to the wash tray and called up her thin, angular body; her smell of burnt leaves and coffee; the feel of riding for hours on the motorcycle with her pressed against his back; the sea; the air that was always damp and chilly; the fields where they lay after a full day of riding.

 

Patricia had appeared one bright summer day in Cambridge. With her southern drawl, her light sweater slung over her shoulders, her sunglasses, her walk, Brown couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

She had come to visit her old friend Sandra, the one who owned the house where Brown was renting a room. Sandra had told Brown to watch out for Patricia.

“And why?” asked Brown.

“She’ll break your heart,” said Sandra.

Sandra was a strange bird, and Brown seldom listened to her.

Just a few days after their meeting, to Brown’s surprise, Patricia agreed to take a motorcycle trip to Nova Scotia with him.  Just for a couple of weeks.  Before she returned to New Orleans. Soon after, Brown and Patricia set off on Brown’s blue 500cc Yamaha for the two-hour drive to Portland to catch the overnight ferry to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

“Why do they call you Brown, Brown?” Patricia had yelled into his helmet from the rear seat of the motorcycle.

“Because it’s my name,” yelled Brown. Of course he couldn’t stand his full name, and he wasn’t ready to reveal it to Patricia, either.

They arrived at the Portland ferry dock just in time. The bearded crew waved and whistled the last row of cars onto the ferry. The motorcycles boarded last. Brown wedged his motorcycle into a space beside the cars, pulling the heavily laden bike back onto its kickstand.  Then the two of them climbed the stairs to the economy deck. It had rows of forward-facing seats, like a cinema, the windows a screen to the sea and sky. They found a blanket to hide under as the ship engines throbbed. The water and then the sky turned black as the ship headed east across the Gulf of Maine.  Brown remembered talking to Patricia about the sea mounts and canyons hundreds of feet below.  They took a walk on deck after midnight. Behind the ship was a trail of light, the marine phytoplankton signaling the passing disturbance.

At daybreak the ferry docked, and the motorcycles were the first to drive off. Brown and Patricia headed onto the southeast Marine Route, stopping only for gas, supplies, and the occasional photograph. As the day wore on, they tired of seeing the sea only from a distance. They left the main road and ventured out onto a peninsula, toward the shoreline. They passed a few deserted fishing shacks, and then the road looped around to a lagoon that was just inside a sandy barrier island. They could just see the spray the brisk offshore wind was skimming off the waves, but not the waves, and a pear-shaped lighthouse that blinked from an offshore island. The day had grown warmer.  Brown clutched the camera, keeping it from bumping at his chest, as they waded through the waist-high grass at the marsh’s edge. At a patch of dry seaweed he knelt and fiddled with the focus. Patricia stood close to him and offered to take off her clothes.

A speckled stone was in the corner of the frame, and her body looked pale in the direct light against the dark seaweed. He had asked her to throw her head back, and then he took more pictures of her in the heather, of her wading, of her squatting on a stone examining a shell.

Brown took off his clothes, too. As they were lying deep in the grass, a red pickup drove by. When it passed a second time Brown was packing the bike, but Patricia was still pulling on her clothes. Brown yelled for her to duck down, but she ignored him. The truck slowed only a few feet from Brown. He froze. Four male faces peered out and back from the sides of the cab as the truck kept inching around the bend. It drove off the road into a ditch and out again before disappearing. Brown was shaking. Patricia just shrugged, pranced over to the bike, and hopped on.

They quickly found a rhythm to their days. Every morning Brown was the first to emerge from the dew-drenched tent.  First came one boot-clad foot, then the other, and a quick heave to avoid the tumbling drops.  When he returned with the freshly-filled canteen, Patricia would have the packs of coffee, sugar, and sweetened condensed milk arranged and ready by the camp stove. Brown always lit the camp stove. While the water boiled, he’d roll the sleeping bags and shake the rainfly free of dew, and then he’d watch Patricia’s morning coffee making. First, she’d line the drip-coffee cone with toilet paper and fill it to the brim with rich coffee and chicory. Next, Patricia poured boiling water gently around the rim until the bowl was full while Brown held the cone over the tin mess-kit bowl.  Then she’d place the bowl on the stove and fold in sweetened condensed milk with a teaspoon of brown sugar, stirring it real slow and easy. She coaxed the coffee to be just perfect, just for her. Brown was happy when at last they’d sit on the picnic table or on the ground on the blue poncho smoking Canadian cigarettes and sipping from the same bowl as the coffee grew cold and the morning sun warmed the grass by the inlet or the beach or the stream bed choked with wildflowers.

After Brown had checked the oil and the chain tension and kicked the bike over, he’d load their gear.  Patricia would eventually waddle over bundled in turtleneck, tights, wool sweater, overalls, and hooded jacket.  Then they’d ride. Patricia would rest her chin on his shoulder or lean back against the pack.  She egged him on with her drawl, begging him to do a character. “Oh please, Brown, you’re so gooood!” He’d eventually play along.  She’d clap and laugh, and developed counter roles to his Boston blueblood, his New York Puerto Rican, or his aw-shucks Texan.  The more of a Don Juan he was, the lewder his language, the more Patricia would laugh and pound his back.

While they were on the motorcycle, she’d frame the passing landscape with thumbs and forefingers. Patricia would yell and bounce on the seat when she wanted to stop to take a picture.  She liked the grand vistas, preferred color, and would set up each shot very slowly and carefully, often getting back on the bike without shooting anything.  When she did find something, she would plead with Brown to come look through the viewfinder before she would take the picture. If Brown grunted approval, she would take just one shot.

When Brown had the camera, he would wander off alone and shoot until his vision got blurry.  He was always taking close, disorienting pictures. He would press the shutter-release button till his finger ached, immersed in colors, patterns, sounds. The camera itself could be erotic—the touch of a button would set off a whirl of intricate, mysterious motions. Once he and Patricia had, heads together, peered into the lens to watch the action of the shutter release. The photograph was here among the contact sheets.

Brown had learned that chance would sooner produce a good photograph than anything. All of his best photographs had been accidents, shots that Brown often didn’t remember taking. In the darkroom he would look for the odd shaft of light, the perspective that was slightly awry, or the juxtaposition of foreground/background that would cause the mind’s eye to flip.  He lived for the moments when, confused, he finally placed the image as the sky reflected in glass or a sawdust pile seen through the window of a collapsed saw mill or a leaf at the bottom of a stream bed.

Brown looked up from the wash tray. This woman.  How he had wanted some part of her he could never quite capture.  He took many photos of her, from every angle, at every time of day.  She always looked good, but that didn’t make the photographs good. Like the landscapes, his shots of her were little more than travel slides—worse, since they were pretending to be something else.  Except perhaps for one photo when she was asleep, fully clothed.  Patricia had fallen asleep on the blanket in her coat one afternoon as the sun came out.  Her face was smooth and calm. The light was full. Brown felt something different looking at this photo.  Was it guilt? Guilt for taking this picture of Patricia even though she was fully clothed and peaceful? But she hadn’t allowed it.  That was the key. It was the only genuine picture of the bunch.

At Cape Bretton one afternoon Brown had peered over the edge of a cliff through the camera lens and had watched waves crash into a rock shelf a hundred feet below.  Then he’d turned away onto his side and watched some small flowers blur and become clear again as he toyed with the focus.  A bee appeared, fighting the wind, trying to get to one particular flower. Brown had tried to photograph the bee, but either he couldn’t find the focus, or the light reading was off, or the bee had disappeared. Then Patricia appeared in the viewfinder.  Brown had yelled for her to back up, then he focused in tight on the tiny flower, opened the lens, and positioned the spot of blue at the center of an indistinct human shape.  He’d been sure this would be one of his best shots.

But the photograph looked posed, artificial, like a love poster, Brown thought. Even then he’d been trying to box in Patricia under the guise of understanding her. But she was maddening, always flitting from one thing to another, from one man to another. Just before they’d left on the trip, she’d given him a bit of prose about a tropical bird with a fiery tail that could never come to roost because every tree it landed in would burst into flames.  She had warned him.  But as the trip wore on, as they made love in the grass and built campfires, as they nosed through the heavy salt air inhaling the vapors of marshes, spruce, and fern, it was easy to forget.

They had left Cape Bretton in the morning and were on the road out of Truro trying to reach the Bay of Fundy before dark.

“Brown, the ice is gone.”

Brown turned around. The ice was gone, which was surprising, since he considered himself a good packer. He pulled to the side of the road, downshifting. Nothing else was missing. The bag with the lemons and the vodka was still there. He didn’t think they would find another store, but among the dirty little houses that resumed to flit by, Brown did see something. “Should we stop?” he asked Patricia. “It looks closed.”

“It looks closed,” she said, but Brown made a U-turn.

He drove into the dirt patch in front of the house that had a handwritten grocery sign in the window.  Brown walked up and peered in. No one was around.  The door was locked. He walked back to the bike shrugging his shoulders.

“I’ll try,” said Patricia. She banged on the window, then Brown saw her flash her devastating smile and, sure enough, the door opened. Five or ten minutes passed, and Brown grew impatient. He beeped the horn. Finally, Patricia emerged followed by a huge Indian in a lumberjack shirt who was carrying a small bag of cubes.  “It’s the best I could do,” she said.  Brown thanked the Indian.

Before they resumed the ride late in the afternoon, Brown studied the map looking for a shortcut to their evening campsite so they could get there before dark. He noted a small road with a bridge over a river. If they couldn’t take this bridge, they would have to drive another 15 miles to get to the next one. As the shadows lengthened, they left the highway, turning onto a dirt road. Red dust floated up from the roadbed and began to cling to the bike and their clothes. Patricia was enthralled with the countryside. She would squeeze Brown’s waist or shoulder whenever they reached the crest of a hill and a vista of fields and farmhouses opened up. Brown would nod, but he was concerned with the slippery dirt road and the oncoming darkness.

Eventually they found themselves traveling along a tidal river, and they had glimpses of a wide, pink basin with pines and oaks high on the other side. Brown pulled over and tapped Patricia’s leg, a sign for her to pass him the map, which she held, along with the camera, at the ready. He checked their route and saw that the bridge, signified by two parallel lines, was coming up. A railroad bridge appeared around the next bend. This was it. When they reached the crossing Brown stopped and looked along the tracks.

“What are you thinking, Brown?”

“This is the only bridge.” Brown stood to balance the bike.

“I’m not ready to die yet. That’s a rather foolish idea.”

“These ties have only a few inches between them, Patricia, and it wouldn’t be any more foolish than driving on these slippery dirt roads for another 15 miles.”

“And what if a train decides to come?” Patricia glanced sideways down the tracks.

“No train is going to come. These tracks are hardly ever used. Look. They’re rusting.” Brown was not really convinced himself.

“Then the wood is probably rotten, and we’ll fall through.”

“The wood looks fine,” said Brown.

“I’m not going.”

Brown dug in his heels. “All right!  I’ll ride the bike across. You walk. If anyone falls through it’ll be me and you can run back and be saved by that big Indian.”

“Very cute, Brown.  You’re so clever, and awfully jealous, too. I’m getting off.” And she did.

Brown jammed the bike into first gear and drove onto the rail bed. He stood up on the foot pegs and began jostling towards the bridge. But all the luggage made the bike top-heavy, and it began to veer out of control. Brown knew enough to accelerate, but it skidded again and began to gyrate from side to side until it flipped completely around and threw Brown somersaulting into the underbrush. He jumped up, furious.

“God damn you, Patricia!”

Patricia smiled, and took a picture.  It was here, in the contact sheet.

Brown studied himself, humiliated, then checked over the rest of the contact sheet. This was the only time Patricia had questioned his judgment, even offered an opinion, on navigation or on any of the other thousands of decisions needed on a road trip. Of course she was right.  At the edge of the contact sheet was a picture of Patricia urinating.  “Don’t you dare take that picture, Brown!” Brown chuckled.

He had one roll of negatives left to contact. When he placed the paper in the eveloping tray, he first thought it was the wrong film since he couldn’t place the first photograph he saw, a turn-of-the-century portrait of a woman in a high-collared dress. Then he realized that Patricia had taken that picture with his camera in his great aunt’s salon. They had spent the last night in Nova Scotia with Aunt Elizabeth, whom Brown hadn’t seen since he was a child. Brown didn’t know why he had given in to his mother’s insistence that he visit the aunt.

A maid met them at the door. They had been expected yesterday. His aunt was resting, but the maid would show them to their rooms. Now a chance to shower and shave before encountering Aunt Elizabeth and a couple of Brown’s cousins. Brown peered down and around the ancient, grand staircase as they ascended. Later they were sitting in the sitting room when Aunt Elizabeth appeared, wrinkled, gracious, and smiling a bit too much. She extended one hand to Brown (“How are you, Reginald?”) and the other to Patricia. Patricia was transformed.

“I love your house. You have the most beautiful furniture. And that painting is wonderful. Is it of you? Would you mind if I took a photograph of it?”

Patricia did have a degree in art history, recalled Brown. He was silent through cocktails, dinner, and dessert. He felt his temperature rising, his chest tightening. He didn’t really know who this Patricia was, did he? Now she was saying she was from an old established family in New Orleans. She was describing all their properties. Was she serious? He was repulsed by her sideways grin, her batting eyelashes, her hand sweeping back her hair. But his aunt and cousins were all in, apparently. The grandfather clock in the hallway chimed.

When they were alone later, Brown avoided her eyes.

“What’s wrong?”

“You know what’s wrong.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“OK.  I guess I don’t really know you. Who are you, anyway?” Brown yanked off his sweater and threw it on the bed.

“You tight-ass. You’re a fool and I don’t know why every man I’ve ever known thinks he knows who and what I’m supposed to be.”

“You don’t know?”

“No.”

“Because you’re so goddamned eager to please when it suits your purposes. We don’t like it when we see you pull the stunt on someone else. Was this whole trip an act, too?”

“No, Brown.”

Suddenly she was quiet.

“Look,” she said.  “What do you want?” And Brown sat down. He supposed he wanted her to be honest, that’s all. Be herself, whatever that meant.

From that point on there were few other photographs of the trip. There wasn’t much talking either, as Brown recalled, but Patricia never let on that anything was wrong. She left on a plane for New Orleans the day after they got back to Boston. Since then they’d been exchanging letters, though Brown hadn’t heard from her for a month or more.

I was an idiot, thought Brown. What did he expect?  He looked over all the contact sheets again. He saw the lovely Patricia in her baggy rain pants, dancing before a leafless Godot-like tree, glancing slant-eyed at a cow, hopping on a lobster trap, balancing on a motorcycle, bending over on a beach. She was posing in every picture. She knew where the camera was. An actress.  And where was Brown in all this? He was off-camera–a bit player, an amusement.

Brown slipped the negative into the enlarger and tried to perfect a print. But either the exposure was too dark, or too light, or the contrast was too dull, or then, when he thought he’d found the right exposure and the perfect blocking technique, he saw that a piece of dust had lodged in the negative. Disgusted, he ripped out the strip of film, sprayed it clean, replaced it, and again tripped the exposure. He stopped short. He’d lined up the wrong negative, but he took a closer look. The upper half of a storm door was in the center of the frame. Next to it was a wrought-iron gas lamp protruding from a plain, cinderblock wall. The angle was such that the top edge of the door slanted down from left to right, enough to twirl the mind’s perspective as it tried to frame the stern of a classic wooden sailboat parked next to a peeling, white clapboard house seen through, or reflected in, the door’s glass. The stern read Roundabout, Portland. Brown had shot the door out of boredom in the parking lot behind Lundy’s in Portland, Maine, while waiting for Patricia to emerge from the door. He’d never seen the reflection.

On the second try he had perfected the print. He dried it, dusted it, and admired it for a while.

Then he opened the letter.

Dear Brown,

I want you to know that I have married a doctor in New Orleans and we’re living in a lovely big house in the Garden District.

Don’t judge me, sweetheart. I know you’re better than that.

And please don’t write me anymore.  I won’t be opening your letters.

Love always,

Your Patricia

 

Kent Wittenburg writes poetry and short fiction and enjoys taking photographs of water surfaces. He lives with his wife in Charlestown, Massachusetts, USA.

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