Prompts this week:
Discovers a relative everyone thought was dead
in a City
Photographs and Memories Pt. 1- A Time Academy Story
I had been out on the street for only fifteen minutes and my arms were already starting to ache. People passing me on the sidewalk would nod and smile; one or two made a comment about my having my hands full. Sure, most of the eight dogs I walked were apartment-sized designer dogs – Dorgis, cockapoos, and teacup Yorkies – but I also had Gus the Bernie-doodle and Theodore the German Shepard. Of course, the bigger the dog, the less pull on the leash. I was thankful for small miracles. We had one more friend to pick up, and then we would head out toward the park and let everyone see some green space. Harvey, a plump beagle, was pulling at his human’s leash as we approached. Mr. Ramirez bent down and fixed Harvey’s ear, which tended to fold back on him on breezy days.
“Good Morning!” He said, standing up and handing me Harvey’s leash. “I was wondering if you could do me a small favor on your journey today.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a tarnished round object. “It’s a pocket watch, from a long time ago. Could you take it to the watch repair shop on Main Street?”
“There’s a watch repair shop in town? On Main Street?” I took a quick glance at my Apple watch. Did people still wear non-smart watches?
“Yes, it’s right next to Harold’s Cafe. There aren’t many neon signs, so it can be hard to miss.”
I took the watch and dropped it in my coat pocket. It was heavy for its size and my coat shifted a bit to the right, but with all the leashes, I really couldn’t fix it. “Sure.” Mr. Ramirez was one of my first dog walking customers, and I knew there would be compensation for this little task.
But first back to work. My posse of four-footed friends and I would walk about three miles this morning. After dropping them off this morning, I had seven housebound pets to visit and play with while their families went to offices, went to court, went to the bank – jobs that were too important to walk their own dogs, clean their own apartments, or cook their own food. I would pick up the original nine – The Fellowship of the Thing, as I called them – up again this afternoon for round two. I made enough from these families to spend the rest of my day taking photographs and trying to jump-start a photography business. Mr. Ramirez’s tip for this side trip would go straight to my new camera fund. Since I didn’t have money for art school, I would splurge on the best equipment I could buy and a few. hundred more dollars and I could begin shopping for my Sony Mirrorless A660.
Once all of my charges had finished their business at the park and I had disposed of all evidence and used half a bottle of hand sanitizer, it was time to find the watch repair shop. I still didn’t really believe there was one there. Surely someone like me, who walked that street twice a day, would have noticed it.
But there it was, nestled between Henry’s Cafe ( $3.99 breakfast special ~ including the never-empty coffee cup!) and Stella’s Formal Wear (Order NOW for Prom!!!).
The window had only the words “Watches Repaired While You Wait.” There were no specials, no advertising of any kind. There were no store hours posed either. Was it even open right now, at 8:40 in the morning or did I need to come back at 10? The display window had a couple of dusty tables with a watch or two, and a couple of old clocks, the kind you’d see on mantels back in the days before Chip and Joanna mounted four-foot diameter clocks in the bricks over the fireplace instead. There was a narrow glass door. I pushed on it and it opened a crack, I wasn’t sure what damage the Fellowship would cause, but there didn’t seem to be much inside. Just a long work counter and a couple of chairs, I guessed for the While You Wait part of the process.
I opened the door a bit further and the little dogs rushed in like water. The bigger dogs stayed at my side, as if not sure they should really go inside. But we all got inside and I got a few of them to lie down. There was no one behind the counter. There seemed to be a doorway in the back, so I looked around for a bell to ring for service. Funny, there wasn’t a bell on the door either, now that I thought about it. I guess traffic in this shop was so sparse, they didn’t care if people wandered in. To the left of the counter, there was a display shelf with a few watches and boxes. Dusty, of course, to match the decor of the display window. Harvey, the beagle, started pulling hard on his leash. He probably smelled something dead and needed to go roll in. Oh, wait, what if the store owner was dead and Harvey was going to discover him, and I would be stuck here all day telling the police that I knew nothing about what happened, that I didn’t even know the place existed before Mr. Ramirez gave me this old watch to drop off this morning. Mr. Ramirez would vouch for me. Last Christmas, I gave all my clients 8 x 10’s of their pets. Mr. Ramirez would surely tell the police I only shot things with my camera.
There was a snap, and Harvey was suddenly free. I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to get loose occasionally, but he usually came right back for one of the treats I kept in my bag with the roll of poop bags and hand sanitizer.
Harvey pushed on the display shelf with his nose and it started opening up. Once it was beagle-width ajar, he rushed through. Damn. How was I going to get him, while still holding on to all the others? I looked around one more time. Still, no employees or way to get anyone’s attention. The Bernie-doodle, who usually did not leave my side, pulled toward the opening. He pushed it with his head and opened it the rest of the way. The rest of the dogs started to follow, so it was all I could do to hang on and go with them.
Behind the shelf was a secret passageway. Was this leading to the cafe? That would, only must and mildew. There was light at the end of the passage, so I kept on, rehearsing my apologies for Harvey and the Fellowship as we went.
The room at the of the passage was as opposite the shop as possible. Bright lights, white tiled walls and floor. A man and a woman were studying something on a large stainless steel table and another man had bent down to greet Harvey, who was wiggling with joy.
“Harvey, good boy. Did Manny send the watch with you?” the man said as he pet the beagle.
I stared at the man. It couldn’t be.
“Tessa! Look at you! All grown up!” He stood up.
“Uh, Uncle Bill?” No, it really couldn’t be. My mother’s brother had died in Iran, years ago. I hadn’t seen him in twenty years. He should be in his 50’s if he was alive, but he looked exactly as he did the last time I saw him. His dark, slicked-back hair did not have a single strand of silver. His face was smooth, except for a slight stubble around his chin.
“Yes! Wasn’t sure you’d remember me.” He held the dog, who was licking his ear.
I gulped. “Um, did I die and come through some kind of passage?”
Uncle Bill laughed. “I guess this is kind of surprise.”
A surprise? Not the word I would use. “I don’t understand. You died in the war. I was six when I went to the funeral. I never heard Grandma and Grandpa cry like that before.” At six, I really had no idea what dying meant, but the practicalities soon hit. We no longer had Sunday Skype calls where Grandma would spend ten minutes saying how amazing it was that they could see Uncle Bill’s face on the other side of the world. This face, the face he had right now. Like he didn’t age but just came from the Iran War to the watch shop, without the pesky time in between.
He turned to the table. “Clara, can you get the watch?”
“Wait, how did you know why I was here?” I reached into my pocket and held the watch a moment. Should I give them the cold, heavy disk? Did Mr. Ramirez know what this was all about, or was he just a guy who needed a watch fixed?
Uncle Bill took a step back. “It’s a watch repair shop, Tessa. Why else would you be here?”
Clara walked up and held out her hand. “Manny called and said you would be bringing it by today.”
I kept my hand wrapped around it. “Mr. Ramirez just asked me to drop it off at the watch repair shop…there was no one in the shop…I don’t think…”
Clara laughed. “This is the repair shop. It’s way too dusty to open up delicate timepieces in the storefront. But it has a certain old-timey feel that people who still wear watches feel comfortable with.” She was wearing an Apple watch herself, the latest generation. I took a deep breath and handed her the watch.
Uncle Bill let out a diabolical laugh, “Yes, now our plan to rule the world can be put into action!!”
Everyone else broke into laughter.
“Bill, you’re going to give the poor child a heart attack,” the man at the table said. He was a short Black man with gray hair. “It’s okay, we are not some international conspiracy to take over the world, no matter what your uncle says.”
My uncle. But, how? “I don’t understand. How can you be my uncle? You died in Iran! You’re not even old?”
He laughed some more. “It’s a long story, but the good ones always are, right Clara?”
Clara was already tinkering with the watch, her head bent down and red hair hanging over her face. She looked up. “All your stories are long, Bill, you just like to hear yourself talk.”
“Aw, Clara, you make that sound like a problem. I consider it a strength.” He rubbed his hands together. “So, Tessa, how have you been since I’ve seen you last? It’s been, what, two years?”
I counted in my head. Uncle Bill, whoever he was, was a seriously deluded soul. “Twenty years.”
He nodded. “Really, that long? “ He turned a bit. The Black man was rummaging around in a box off in the corner. “I thought we talked about this Hal. We can’t just show up willy nilly in people’s lives like this.”
Hal, the Black man, came up to us. He was holding what seemed to be an ancient camera, the kind you put film in instead of memory cards. “We have to wait until people are ready, Bill. You cannot just dump complicated equipment on children and expect them to keep them in working order.” Hal nodded toward Clara. “That damn watch has needed repairs for 40 years. We gave it to Ramirez too early. I didn’t want another repeat.”
“What do you mean, Mr. Ramirez’s watch needed repairs for forty years?” I just now realized that Harvey, the Ramirez beagle, was sitting at Clara’s feet and not taking his attention away from the watch. The rest of the Fellowship, after checking the room for scents, had all found a corner to lie down in a dog pile.
Uncle Bill looked at Hal, who shook his head no. “Not yet, Tessa, we don’t have time for the long stories yet, my colleagues tell me.” He winked. “But all in due time, I promise.”
Hal held out the camera to me. “It’s not the latest and greatest, but you will find it will help you immensely.”
I took it. It was heavier than the new cameras that I had been testing in the camera shops the past few months. “I, I don’t understand…”
“It was my father’s camera,” Uncle Bill said, “Your grandfather’s. These things like to skip a generation, so now it’s yours. Grandpa would come to give to you himself, but he is in Hawaii at the moment.”
“Grandpa died, a few months after you did.” I took a deep breath. “Are you sure I am not dead too? This is very weird.” I folded my arms across my chest and gave myself a pinch on the inside of my upper arm. Ouch. So according to folk wisdom, I wasn’t dreaming.
Clara snapped the old watch shut so loud that Harvey jumped with a yowl. “Really, can you guys do anything without drama?” She walked around the table and handed me the watch. “Tell Manny it is fixed. Don’t mind these two, they like to mess with people.”
As if Clara was any more transparent. I took the watch and put it in my pocket. “He didn’t give me anything to pay you.”
“It’s not that kind of shop. We repair timepieces here, not watches. That one looks like a watch, but it is really a timepiece, and so is the camera you are holding. Go ahead, take a photo of Harvey here.” She pointed at the young beagle sitting at her feet.
I looked at the camera. “Does it need a card, or maybe film or something?”
“We modified it so it takes SD cards. Unless you want to learn to develop film and even then, it’s so hard to get around here.”
I put the viewfinder to my eye and turned the lens to focus. I put Harvey’s brown nose in the middle of the picture and snapped a couple shots. Then I looked at Clara.
“Open the back. We put the vid screen inside, to protect the integrity of the box.”
Uncle Bill had walked over to see the photo. “Clara is our gadget girl. She can fix anything, or modify it.”
I could barely hear him. I was staring at the photo of Harvey. His nose in the center of the shot was no longer brown, but covered in gray hair and his bright amber eyes were clouded over in a blue haze. Uncle Bill looked over my shoulder.
“Aw, poor pup looks like cataracts are coming your way.” He bent down to scratch Harvey behind the ears. Seeing that one of his companions was getting affections, Gus the Doodle came over to get some himself.
“Wait, what?” I stared at the old dog on the preview screen, then looked at Clara. “Does this predict what people will look like when they are old? Did you put software in to do that? A filter?”
Clara smiled. “No, it’s not a prediction. It tells the truth. You might one day find it useful to know what someone is going to look like in ten or twenty years.”
What possible use would I have for a camera like this? All I could think of was to get all my dogs and escape this place. Maybe I really did sleep on the soft grass in the park while the dogs were playing. Yeah, this was not real.
“Keep the camera in a safe place,” Hal said. “You are welcome to play around with it, and get to know it’s features. We will be in touch.” He had gathered all the other dog leashes while I was talking to Clara, and now he handed them to me. I looked at Uncle Bill as I arranged them in my hand. “Can I tell Mom that you are alive?”
“You can. You might freak her out a bit, but not in the way you think.” Uncle Bill smiled. “We used to have lunch once a week when you left for college. She wasn’t good at the empty nest thing.”
I left the shop and walked out onto Main Street. Maybe the cool air would wake me up because this had to be a dream. Looking around, I could smell breakfast from Harold’s Cafe, bacon with a hint of coffee. I glanced at my Apple watch, and it still said 8:40. Impossible! Surely we had been in there at least 15 minutes, even if it felt like an entire day. Gus started pulling a bit on his least, so I got everyone moving in the same direction and we headed for the park. Maybe some fresh air and greenery would help me clear my mind of this dream. But it couldn’t be a dream, since I now had a heavy camera hanging on a strap around my neck. Plan B. We would quickly walk around the park, then I would take the Fellowship to their respective homes and play with this camera.
There was something familiar about it. Uncle Bill had said it was my grandfather’s before – maybe I had seen it with him? I was at their house all the time until I was six and Uncle Bill, then grandpa died. Grandpa did take photos, maybe that was why I liked photography. I had started taking photos right after he died, using old phones and then getting a Canon Elph and filling up SD card after SD card. They were so small then, but so was I. Grandpa had taken photos with film and I could almost smell the developer in his laundry room/darkroom. Mom would get mad, saying that I did not need to be in there breathing all the chemicals. But it was magic, watching the image appear on the blank white paper in the glow of the red light. The odors, the sounds of the paper sloshing in the fluid, the smoothness of the wooded tongs, all of it was our ritual, Grandpa and me.
What did he do with all those photos? Was there a book of them somewhere? A phone call to mom confirmed this and I headed over there as soon as I fed and played with my afternoon dogs.
As I followed Mom up into the attic of the house she inherited from Grandma, I stepped into her footprints in the dust; making my own footprints felt wrong, like I was asserting myself before my time. Weird, I know, but that is what popped in my head.
“Here,” Mom said, opening an old Kellogg’s Rice Krispies carton. I could remember going with her to grocery store after grocery store after Grandma died, getting the free cartons that all the cereal boxes came in. The attic resembled a Kroger’s storeroom, only much, much dustier. Mom pulled out a couple of old photo albums. “I think he took some of you and Bill in this one.”
“You don’t have it downstairs? To remember Bill?” I hadn’t yet told Mom about my morning, only that I had thought about Grandpa’s photos.
“Um, I never got into my father’s photography. He was a bit avant-garde for me. He did filters before we had any idea what Instagram and TikTok would be.”
Filters? I didn’t remember anything like that in the darkroom.
“Anyway,” Mom said, closing up the box. “There are a few more in there, mostly from before you were born. You are welcome to take those with you.” I picked up on the unsaid – get them out of my house, now! Mom could have been a diplomat.
That night, I sat down with the albums and a glass of wine. I opened one of the albums, which surprisingly wasn’t full of dust. Grandpa arranged the photos in neat matrixes on each page, with his messy handwriting labeling each with names and dates. The dates! As I turned the pages, I saw family members, some who had long passed from this world, looking alive and well. There was a photo of Uncle Bill and my mother, laughing and swinging kitchen towels. The date, though, didn’t make sense. 2011 was long after he had passed. Grandpa too, for that matter. Grandpa obviously got the date wrong, it was probably 2001. But as I looked at more photos, I found more and more with date issues. I stopped turning pages – there was a photo of Uncle Bill and me, and the date was today. I picked up my phone and turned on the front camera. There I was, looking just like the photo, navy sweater and all. And Uncle Bill was dressed just like he had been in the watch shop. I looked at my wine glass – it was still nearly full, so I couldn’t blame that. I felt a chill run through my body. I wanted to slam the book shut and throw it out, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the photo.
The camera sat innocently on my kitchen table. I could just dump it in a dumpster with the albums and never see it again. That would be the easy solution. But if there was something, what – powerful? Magical? – about the camera, putting it in the dumpster would mean anyone could have it. But somehow, this cameral could predict the future, and I needed to know why and how. My phone buzzed with a text, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was only Mr. Ramirez, letting me know that he would be home tomorrow and I wouldn’t need to walk Harvey.
He had started all this, him and his watch. What did he know about my uncle, that strange shop, and this even stranger camera? I had been saving for a camera, but this is not what I was planning.