Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read “Development,” a short story by Matthew Pitt, selected by Fiction Editor Rosie Parker.
Nothing lacked at my family-owned pharmacy—staffed by a solicitous crew who hadn’t asked in years to see picture I.D. proof I am who I say, the place doesn’t bother with circulars: Once they know what you need, they discount it. Their familiarity is palpable. On this Saturday, though, a drifting day I’d made no plans for, and found myself inserting errands in spaces where friends and reflection might go, I transferred my Rx records to a box pharmacy. A franchise found on almost any block—except those in my secluded neighborhood. Getting there meant, for me, a long and awkward drive.
Still, I made the switch.
In the parking lot, an LED message announced that the photo lab developed 35mm film. The per-photo price seemed like a pittance, though I really can’t remember how much it used to cost.
What I did know was I had a film camera stowed in my home, taking up space, black and blocky like a man’s dress shoe. The last camera we bought before the advance of pixels and USB cables. Before digital photography swept over us, converting us into unblinking believers in instant gratification.
Breaking out old photo albums used to be an event: done after drinks, or in the course of airy dinner parties floating past midnight. Studying images on a computer screen? It feels, by comparison, as slight as thumbing flipbooks. Motion is revealed, but not mission. The cheaper it got to reprint what we shot, the less attention I paid to the images I took. The less careful I got weighing gestures, backdrops, types of lighting. Why bother, when I can just store any shot in the limitless attic of a hard drive?
And now that we’re armed with featherweight models, thinner than the manuals they’re bundled with, we seem to either post what we shoot widely, on some public server, or hoard it privately on a desktop. Sharing with everyone, or no one.
Anyway, the next day, today, I returned to the box store after retrieving Tom’s and my 35mm Olympus. For years its husk sat in a sideboard drawer, surrounded by remote controls, and cables that no longer connect to anything. I rummaged for the camera. Turned it over. Four clicks from a finished roll of 24 begun almost a decade ago. When I manually slid the door covering the lens, a thumb-shaped flash blinked up. I played with the zoom, and then spilled flour across my counter, finishing the roll with photos of the pile, wondering if I could trick my young nephew into believing it snowed in southern California. Tonight I’ll roll the flour into phyllo dough for dinner.
At the box drugstore I removed the canister, winding the last slack inch of raw film taut. Handed it to the lab tech. directly—they no longer stock those paper sleeves, backed with sticky resin, that I was used to slipping the film into. The tech. and I went over my choices. Color over B&W, 4 × 6 images, yes to doubles, no to matte: glossy is the only finish offered now.
An hour later, I came back to claim my pictures from a plastic bin. The pharmacy only charged me for twenty: four overexposed shots couldn’t be salvaged, though not the four I snapped last, and glanced at first—which did pass for credible snow drifts.
The others I pored over in the parking lot, engine running.
Every face is identifiable. We’re thinner in the photos, both our bodies and experience. And knowledge. And family.
In the first photo, the least recent, I’m in a floor-length. Tom is in a tux. Arms clasped across my chest, his face is only half-visible. He insisted on standing behind me, believing himself taller than he was. I’m pretty sure we’re attending that Healthy Heart silent auction gala his family always invited us to. Though since we’re posed beside generic ferns and furniture, it looks more like some forgettable prom we crashed.
The next photo is the pair of us, lounging on hotel pool deck chairs. I’m trying to look coquettish, beach towels draping my shoulders like a sari. Menacing charcoal clouds boil in the intermediate distance: Rain will soon drive us back inside.
Some more: a hideous macrobiotic dish, sparkling like silverfish, that Mamie and Ron served at their wedding. The group artfully pretending to enjoy it, as we pretended to enjoy Mamie. Tom, during that same wedding, scrambling in a bag for his pricier, personal-use Canon, in a game of Who shoots whom first? that I won. A street musician serenading us with a snarl. An art installation in Vienna of the words Ha He Hi and Ho, strung up on a mobile. I can’t fathom what about it I found fascinating. Two shots later: a Halloween party. Tom is dressed as Tainted Turkey. I’m a CDC official standing over him with a butcher’s knife. This was the year of the turkey flu, when health officials dispatched to panicky poultry farms, overseeing acts of wholesale slaughter and mercy.
Studying these photos, thumbs thrumming and smearing their edges, I wonder if we weren’t more intent subjects then. We knew we had to hold the lens’s gaze. We were negotiating for posterity, with only the steady hand of the shooters to rely on. And we paid for not paying attention. If we weren’t active in shaping the photo, it would show in the poor results. Results we went to the trouble to drop-off, pay and wait for, and then pick up.
We used to have to wait a day for film to develop. Before that, up to a week. Now it hardly matters how tossed-off we look when the flash goes off. You can monitor and correct errors instantly. Pick out whose eyes were shut or who was caught off-guard. A bit of memory can always be deleted and replaced.
Before reaching the stack’s end, my lips smack together dryly. I realize what’s about to come next. This doesn’t keep me from searching for it. Even anticipating.
A photo from my birthday party, nine years back: Mexican food and drinks blended with ice on a long table, the group of us sitting or circulating; greeting cards, a gag gift, finished off with free plates of fried ice cream, because we’d been so loose with our wallets when it came to racking up endless pitchers of sangria and margaritas. It’s late in the party: bellies of ice cream have already shifted to sauce, soaking the sopapilla puffs. Slices of coconut cake have been carved. Flocks of guests are about to lob kisses, goodbyes, and excuses to float back home.
Jerome, my former ex, is in the shot; barely. His gaze looks askance. He’s trying to jostle out. But my attention is wholly on him, urging him back into the frame, so that I’m looking his way when the flash pulses, and not the lens.
No pity, there. I’ve always liked myself better in profile.
Since marrying Tom, years before this party, I had cast occasional invites off to Jerome, and he to me. I accepted a few; he, none. His avoidance of my life was so willful and pronounced, I figured I’d chafed him by moving on too fast. So it startled me when he showed that night, not happily, not drinking, not flaunting a new love.
If he hadn’t tried to flounce away while others were hushing, arranging hair, stooping, and standing in tiers for the picture, trying to create and then not disrupt a playful tableau, I’d never have sought Jerome out later. Fact is Tom and I were mulling making a move at that time, accepting an overseas post he’d been offered, selling my store, shelving our birth control. If not for this one photo, I might never have spoken to, or even seen, Jerome again.
Someone did orchestrate the picture, though, and Jerome did try to flee it, so after the flash popped, I tracked him to the bar. He was asking for a matchbook. I pointed at the pack he tapped. “Taken up the craving again?”
He shook his head. “I just quit quitting.”
I told him there was a Zen-like pivot about that remark.
“Zen-like,” he said, striking a match. “Isn’t that what we call a line we’d like to write off?” A tight soccer match played on the bar TV, late in half two. Jerome and I heard someone from the party room call my name. “Don’t drift too far,” Jerome warned. “Birthday girl is duty-bound to attend to her guests.”
An honorable discharge if I’d ever heard one. Still, I felt I owed Jerome a minute of cheer to commend his coming. No. That only exposes one portion of the moment. His dour face, just before we shot the photo, troubled me. I had to remind him I was worth the effort of showing for.
“They’re occupied. Sorting whose black wet umbrella is whose. Things ought to carry luggage tags. You’re my guest too. Speaking of, thanks for coming.”
“I lost my favorite umbrella on my last vacation. Bummed me. Its frame was mangled, but still…”
He fooled with his jacket zipper then, losing himself in its motion or retreating from the awkward remark. “Solid turnout,” he added, peering into the party like it was an opening reception for an art show. “I’d been meaning to check this place. Carnival atmosphere. Decent fare. Even if they do serve certifiably limp ropa viejo.”
“You had no qualms downing dessert.”
“It’s ice cream. Have you ever known me to turn down a dish of scream? I’d risk hypothermia in December for rum raisin.”
Laughter bubbled from the party room, bursting through its carmine threshold: that roaring laughter that makes stragglers outside its reach wince, wondering what wit or absurdity they’ve missed. How they can possibly top it.
“How’s your pooch?” I asked. “Still chasing anything with a pulse?”
“Launch pretty much confines himself to one corner of my house. The one by the former fireplace? Just sits there like a vegetable, eyeing it. Like he expects it to start radiating heat again. Or is waiting for me to rip out the concrete and re-open the flue…”
“Launch became a lapdog? What is he, depressed?”
“Retired,” Jerome yapped, as if this should’ve been obvious. “Dogs retire, too. He had his years of glorious service, spiking strangers’ heartbeats, sending FedEx guys into panics. But he’s shutting down.”
I grinned at Jerome. Wishing another wave of laughs would catch me, bear me back to the party. Ten minutes with an old lover, our conversation was in free fall. We were lurching at topics like weather, old jokes, Hollywood gossip. Running rapidly low of remaining ripcords to slow us.
We stood through a pause like a pinch, until I spoke again. “Sorry we couldn’t score more moments to ourselves. To find, you know. How we are?”
“How we are,” he repeated. He waved his finger at something and added: “Easy update for me to give. I’m becoming that.”
“You’re becoming a…barstool? Pico de Gallo? Stale tortilla chips?”
He lifted the slate-colored ashtray, full of grooves and teeth. Pointing to its gray mound, he elaborated: “This.”
Another roar rose: this one at the bar, and angered. The soccer squad from Trinidad had salted a victory over Mexico with an ugly, late goal. The winning team took a theatrical victory lap. Then the camera shot switched over to the vanquished goalie, wiping black stringy hair from his face and grinning. At least, his smile reported, he now knew for sure the match was finished.
Each TV set in the bar switched off in disgusted clicks. The room broke down into two simultaneous but separate vacuums: the sullen crowd’s, and our own. Jerome filled our vacuum first, by revealing he was sick. Not I love you, not I want you back, not any of the nots that would’ve merely made me bristle, and sent us back to our separate homes, but: I am thirty-eight, and nearly gone.
Do I have to diagnose Jerome for you, now? The rest of what we said that night? Or my response after the party’s din ended? To the first, all I can say is his disease eventually made good on its bleak odds for long-term survival. As for my initial reaction, I don’t recall word one. That night I remained by Tom’s side. Who surprised me by whisking us to a midnight showing of a fun, tawdry camp film. We snuck in many mini-bottles of vodka. Summoned enough concentration to cap the night with a quarter-hour’s dizzy sex, then sacked out until mid-morning, rattling each other awake here and there with snores.
Tom never raised Jerome’s appearance, and I didn’t mention what he’d told me.
In the following weeks I doled kindness to Jerome; sympathy calls, silly e-mail forwards. I’d only swing by his home when I knew I wouldn’t be missed at mine. When I knew Jerome’s place was full of electrolyte drink bottles, half-eaten yogurt cups—their little bell-shaped shells evidence of abandoned attempts to rouse appetite. Weekends I’d bring by coffee when Tom was occupied out back, pruning, staining the storage shed.
But before long my mind was lavishing Jerome with its full awareness. From that moment in the bar, I knew it would. Still it took weeks for the latent image to develop, for silver atoms to react with chemicals. Knowing my destination, I still crow-hopped to it. Not meaning to stop myself, but imagining someone at some point might stop me.
Jerome was largely asleep during my first visits. I’d creep in—spare key still in its reliable location—with no fear of Launch. I was worth just one fretful whimper as he took stock of my scent. I’d enter the bedroom, study Jerome’s body’s contours in grainy light, quivering after an attack. An archipelago of grimy clothes lay always on his floor. Dip to one side and scoop a T-shirt; dip to the other, ladle up socks. Like I was in a canoe, oar transferring side-to-side, advancing along with minimal strokes. So I was. Trying to navigate a path in waters growing more wayward, that began to course me faster. To his life, his house, his bed, his needs. In the way channeling down a current can feel: not that I’d left one place and arrived at another, but that the first location had imperceptibly given way to the second.
I wed Jerome the same day I finalized divorce papers with Tom. The offices were in the same lackluster cluster of buildings, badly-lit and broken only by a juvenile court. A run of even-tempered days followed for Jerome and I. Even a respite of health for him, sustained enough so that the two of us flickered out the idea of having a baby. A fairy tale? Sure: but we held these talks late in bed, and fairy tales told in darkness answer to no logic other than their own.
Then Jerome’s disease ate through its remission. Assays and tests seeped into our days. Assays and tests we’d send off, then wait for labs to assemble into sobering pictures. With each week came a doctor’s visit or hospital admit, and nearly each month, a new stage, a new development in the disease.
In his will, Jerome left me this house, which I’ve put on the market. Launch’s eyes gave out last year, but he’s still by my side, in good if distant spirits. His vet expected diabetes or kidney concerns by now; eyes in dogs are often first to go. That nothing else is failing Launch qualifies him as a pet medical miracle.
This house hasn’t had a serious nibble, but I’m already packing; prepared to green light a cut-rate deal. I hope to move into a smaller place, on a wider patch of land. Closer, perhaps, to where I lived before.
This photo. I can’t say, finally, what made me wait so long to process it. Some shots require the widest apertures, the slowest shutter speeds, to secure any light at all. Most photos remind us where we were once; this one reveals where I went. Left my husband to follow an old flame when that flame was dying. Two men, two marriages, three relationships; no family, one dog, zero permanence.
Today, I call him for the first time in years.
“Well, this is a surprise.”
Tom carries me—carries, that is, our conversation—to a quieter room. I hear clinks fade, hear his voice’s pitch round and soften. A walk-in utility closet, I bet, a large dark room that goes undisturbed, where his family keeps, puts up, and boxes things they can’t categorize.
He fills me in. They have a dog too: as surly and as on the social fringe as Launch was as a puppy, it sounds like, but smaller. Last week it picked an unfortunate fight with a boxer, and they had to have the poor thing shorn beneath the neck. Tom’s oldest, a girl, just got caught cheating on a test. Cheating at six: Is it the school’s fault for doggedly pushing competition on the young, he wonders aloud, or his own, for not paying attention? Anyway. His boy, barely four, wants to play a role in The Nutcracker, and Tom says, laughing, that he knows this shouldn’t bother him, but his hand flinched when he signed the parental permission. Boys in ballet. Then I hear a light chain pulled, a door opened, sounds restored, Tom’s hush dissolved: We’re back in the main.
“What can I tell you?” Tom says next, shifting the receiver from one cheek to the other, sifting keys or utensils. Gearing up either to load the car for a family trip or set the table for dinner. Chuckling, as if eyeing everything he’s been describing at once, in one frame. Homework, and housecleaning. And the hiccups of hysteria that come with a weekend spent in close quarters with your loved ones. “There’s my life.”
Send me a picture, I say.
Matthew Pitt’s debut story collection, Attention Please Now, won the Autumn House Fiction Prize. His fiction appears in Oxford American, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, Forklift, Ohio, Southern Review, Best New American Voices, and many other magazines. It has also been cited in the Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Matt’s website remains www.matthew-pitt.com, though he himself moved this fall to Fort Worth, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at TCU. He is completing a novel, and working on an illustrated children’s book with This Guy.