Monday, December 12, 2011

"Winter Crows"

Bill sits at the rickety metal table whose legs wobble on the brick sidewalk just enough to slosh his coffee onto the already stain-encrusted metal extruded surface. It is a cold, December day, a low overcast threatening snow for later. What had been a balmy autumn had suddenly turned cold like the return to some harsh reality.

Winter for him has always been like waking from a long slumber, casting off the dreamy comfort of the warmer months for the cold season that functions like a brace of cold water to one's face, just the opposite of what a winter's hibernation might insinuate. The pigeons are now gone, roosting who-knows-where, replaced by intermittent flocks of black winter crows that soar overhead in some mysterious reconnaissance known only to them, then alight into the trees of someone's property, cawing and eyeing the surroundings like some bored avian gang, dark-hearted and subtly menacing. Bill, he doesn't like the winter crows but remains equally fascinated by them.

It had been a few weeks since he'd met Barney the cigarette guy and loaned him his old Soviet-era rangefinder camera, preloaded with film, and hadn't thought much about it until he walked into Loser's Blend -- what, a week ago? -- and found waiting for him a small package behind the counter, a roll of exposed black-and-white film rolled up in an old, wrinkled brown paper lunch bag, secured by a piece of twine, that instantly brought to Bill's mind a memory from long ago, when he was but a small boy, and his grandpa would bring Christmas gifts wrapped in brown butcher's paper, secured in twine, that hairy kind of twine that required a sharp pocket knife to sever.

Bill had sat there that day, drinking his coffee and wondering what, if any, images might lurk unseen on the film, then had purposefully set the thought aside to make room for the day's work; only later that night, back in his flat, had he been overcome with an intense curiosity and broke out the beakers, tank, reel and chemicals and processed the film in his tiny bathroom, then collapsed into a deep sleep soon thereafter without even examining the results hanging from the curtain rod, drying in the bathroom's warm air, other than an initial impression that the exposures seemed, for the most part, pretty good, considering Barney hadn't the benefit of a light meter, only Bill's sketchy suggestions about "sunny side up," as Barney had called it.

Now, seated on a cold, metal chair, a smattering of students and bohemians chatting and smoking at the adjoining tables, he isn't at all certain that Barney will show up, only that the new guy behind the counter had recognized Barney from Bill's description and suggested that, yes, he usually shows up on Mondays.

Earlier the previous week, the day after having processed Barney's film, he returned home in the afternoon and decided to take a closer look at the negatives. Hands gloved in clean, lint-free cotton liners, he carefully snipped the film strip into sections and sleeved them into plastic, then dug out the old light box and sat down at the kitchen table to take a closer look.

His earlier impression about the exposures had been correct, the daylight frames were pretty evenly exposed, with a few indoor images noticeably thinner in density but still printable.

Printable. Yes, that's what he would have to do. He could tell, even from a cursory examination of the negatives, that there were some good images here, worth the trouble of printing, but that he could not rely on any local lab to do a good job of wet-printing black-and-white negatives these days, that he'd have to do the job himself. He had spent the rest of that afternoon unpacking junk from the recesses of the hall closet until he found all the requisite components and set about the task of reassembling his old enlarger.

Bill had cleared off the top of his dresser and moved in the old T.V. cart that now served merely as storage for old magazines, and applied blackout cloth to the window above the headboard, then set about aligning the enlarger's condensor head to its baseboard. Finally the makeshift darkroom was ready, trays of chemical waiting alongside, which he had carefully walked, one by one, in from the bathroom sink with but a few sloshes.

He spent the rest of that evening and late into the night printing Barney's images uncropped onto 5 by 8 inch rectangles of old, outdated fiber paper, cut down from their original 8 by 10 size. They were, for the most part, straight prints with little or no dodging or burning, devoid of his own personal interpretation. Finally, near midnight, they were done, left to soak in a slow drizzle of bathtub water overnight while Bill, breathless and overcome, collapsed on the couch, the mess in his bedroom left to cleanup for later.

The next morning, Bill awoke with the dim, gray light of dawn already sifting in through the grungy kitchen window, and wondered what day it was, then arose to make morning tea and ready his day. Still sleepy, he wandered into the bathroom to relieve himself when he stopped, standing there by the tub, staring down into the still wet prints floating in their tray, the early morning light providing some magical illumination that seemed to make them glow. He immediately set about the task of drying each one with a squeegee against a plastic cutting board placed over the lavatory sink, only reminded of his tea pot when its whistle had begun loudly blaring.

Bill couldn't concentrate all the rest of that day, his thoughts instead drawn back to those prints, now sandwiched to dry between a stack of metal screens to prevent their curling. That evening, as the radio played, he sat at the kitchen table and silently sorted through the stack, pausing to study each image in silent contemplation, minutes merging into hours.

Bill could recall a photography course he'd taken at the local community college, years earlier, and could easily remember the primitive attempts at composition and focus by most of the students involved, his own included. But sitting here, lit by the bare bulb over the kitchen sink, these images didn't appear to be the aimless, random snapshots of the fledgling. Despite the imperfections in his printing technique (which had come back to him soon after he'd begun the marathon printing session of the previous night) there was a sophistication of intent evident in these images that startled him.

There were images of street people stark and direct, staring straight back into the lens as if into one's soul; juxtapositions of pedestrians and traffic every bit as enticing as any of the best street photography he'd seen; and a lonely emptiness, a hidden language of mystery revealed through the empty spaces framed by eroding facades and dirt-strewn, worn sidewalks and littered streets equally devoid of life, as if these hidden moments of utter abandon could somehow simultaneously coexist in the brief moments between the cacophony and hum of city life, a parallel dimension of sorts, captured as brief, one-hundred-twenty-fifths-of-a-second intervals of truth revealed.

It became evident that Barney could see these hidden moments of despair, had in fact lived them, and was so able to capture them on film, like the shimmer of some apparition out the corner of one's eye, that Barney was a true visionary with a camera, had a real gift, that needed to be nurtured and encouraged.

Now it is but Monday morning and the minutes pass and people come and go, cigarette smoke wafting on the cold air outside Loser's Blend, and Bill grows uneasy. Finally deciding to act, he leaves his cold cup abandoned at its table, arises from his seat and heads down the street and around the corner, heading to Barney's Smoke Shop, to give him the good news. A cup of coffee together will have to wait for another day.

Ten minutes later, Bill is standing alone on a dingy sidewalk, traffic passing unnoticed behind him, staring at the "Out of Business" sign now displayed haphazardly over the boarded up windows of the storefront. There are no pigeons nearby to peck at the crumbs and specks at his feet, only winter crows, black and ominous, cawing and perched atop the building's parapet overhead, as it silently begins to snow.

Past stories in The Bill Series, in chronological order:
Barney the Cigarette Guy
Healthy Respect


Blogger Rob Bowker said...

Mystery and a cliff-hanger - I'm hooked.

5:13 AM  
Blogger Art said...

Breathtaking, Joe.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Cameron said...

Excellent writing -- great characters.

10:58 AM  

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