Sunday, May 07, 2006

Scenes from the future past

Early morning, the sun not up. My desk calendar reminds me it’s time to send a bi-weekly invoice to my employer, so I fill it out. It’s the 52nd invoice.

Without fanfare, it marks the second anniversary of my job. More importantly, it marks the second year without a vacation.

It’s actually closer to three. I stare at the number for a few seconds and let it soak in. In the past I had five weeks of annual vacation, and every one was used hard. This is where I am today. Briefly—very briefly—I glance toward the future, but before an image can form I return to the now and hit the send button. The invoice is electronically delivered.

Taking a long sip of coffee, I start another project.


The photographs are old and faded to amber shadows. “I don’t imagine there’s anything you can do with them,” the lady says.

I’m not sure. According to a book I own, Photoshop, my image editing software, can perform miracles, but it’s deeply complex and I’ve a long way to go before being considered even adequate. It’s like walking blindfolded. I’ve never done this before. I’ve never been here. This is a new place.

For decades the woman has wondered what to do about the pictures. Several times she’s considered throwing them away. In one, her great-grandfather stares off to the right. It’s a staged pose, him dressed in a dark suit with a white bowtie and a spray of pale flowers pinned to his lapel. In the other, her great-grandmother stares at the viewer. She’s wearing a high-collar dress with billowy sleeves. She’s nearly transparent.

I make no promises. Later, the photos are scanned and saved. After making duplicates of the originals, I commence. The man looks to be in better shape so I start with him. The image is speckled with scratches and dust. Selecting a medium-sized soft brush, I begin painting the artifacts away. Then I zoom in until the left portion of his face fills the screen. Dark spots mask his eye. I begin removing them, one by one.


Doubt and uncertainty are the burdens we carry. I’ve known people whose every move seemed calculated and certain, who never expressed a wavering thought. Such cannot be said about me.

Eventually the rest of us either succumb to dubiety and walk away from whatever troubled us, or find the resolve to do something about it. Many months of fruitless questioning had passed before I back the truck into a narrow space between the shed and the clothes line and cut the engine. I am about to do what I swore I never would.

After placing three cinderblocks around the truck, I lower the camper jacks and begin cranking the legs down. Once they hit the bricks I loosen the tiedowns and remove them. The camper slowly rises above the bed of the truck. It creaks and groans and suddenly lifts free.

Last week I had to stop at city hall to pick up a packet. A dozen or so men were standing outside smoking cigarettes. I felt their eyes on the truck, and as I drove away they watched me until I was out of sight. “Nice rig,” I said, putting words to their thoughts, but the sound came out hollow.

When my mother first saw our new 4X4 Dodge three-quarter-ton with Hallmark camper she turned to me and said, “I hate you.”

The camper was an integral part of the truck. And in some ways their combination satisfied me in a way that no other vehicle ever had or probably ever will. It was our escape from the rat race. It was our pride and our joy.

I slowly drive out from under the camper. It leans sickeningly to the right. When it stabilizes, I start lowering the jacks. The truck looks naked. I can’t say how I feel. It hasn’t hit yet.


As if surfacing from beneath still waters, the man slowly appears. I add contrast to the overexposed parts of his shirt and tie, summon detail from the flowers, and smudge the background to an ivory gradient. After several hours he looks as if he’d just stepped into the photo studio.

The woman is not so easy. I begin by removing the largest scratches and defects, and move on to increasing contrast. There’s not much to work with. I use every trick and technique I know and a few new ones I learn from the book, and with a black mask I paint around her eyes and sharpen the iris. Nothing I do satisfies me. When my time runs out, I put away my tools and save the image.

A day later I return. And another day, until a frustrating week stretches out. The image becomes a metaphor for larger things than a simple monetary sideline. Her eyes stare back at me as if imploring. Rescue me, she says. Make me whole.
And I cannot.


On the count of three we toss the toilet. It arcs across through the air and disappears into the bed of the dump truck with a resounding thud. Fred and I are standing in the back of my truck, now filled with other people’s junk. We’re part of a crew that volunteered to spend the day working on a city-wide clean-up. I hate to admit that it’s nice having the extra space now that the camper is gone.

We’ve been commiserating over our work schedules. “Being an entrepreneur isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” he says.

By the time we call it quits it’s late afternoon. Fred and his wife start painting the front of their business. I go home and stare at the unfamiliar sight of the camper behind the house.

After a shower, I sit at the computer and bring up the photo of the woman. She is disappearing into the past.

How can I bring you back, I tell her.


There are clay-colored sparrows in the yard, and several white-crowned, too. Moving slowly away from the house, I snap the binoculars to my eyes at the slightest movement. In short order I add Savannah, Lincoln’s, Harris’s, and chipping sparrows. The season’s first chimney swifts chitter overhead. The land is unbelievably green, the grass wet with morning dew.

I want to open the camper and step inside. I want to remember.

Instead, I made a circuit of the field and return to my desk. Picking up my pen, I begin tracing the contours of the woman’s face. It’s like a caress, with each touch bringing her nearer. Maybe I can do this, I think. Maybe together we can bring life back to both of us.


Laurel Johnson said...

That was beautiful, Tom. I loved the way you played one metaphor off the other. They weren't really metaphors but seemed that way to me.

That's what I tried to do with the book about my grandparents -- restore all our lives, clarify the pictures.

Anonymous said...

Very pretty design! Keep up the good work. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great site loved it alot, will come back and visit again.