My favorite teacher Sheila Schwartz died in November. Today I listened to her husband, Dan Chaon talk about her, and her book Lies Will Take You Somewhere, which will be launched this weekend at the Lit. Listen to the Around Noon program, read Dan’s tribute to Sheila, read some of Sheila’s thoughts around illness. They all made me cry, but sort of in a better way than I have before.
Here’s a short story, a fragment really, that I wrote in the first class I took with Sheila Schwartz. Reading it now, four years later, I’m not even sure it makes sense, but I thought I’d share it anyway.
Marcus tried not to sigh as the ragged group of undergrads trickled into his darkroom. Glancing at the developer tray he remembered that he had forgotten to change the fluid. Something had gone strange in the chemistry, and for the last few days it had been ruining everything he put in it, though it ought to have had another week left before it needed to be replaced. Marcus shrugged inwardly, guessing the students wouldn’t notice the difference. Pushing overlong black hair from his eyes, he tried to judge which students matched the names on his roll list. The freshmen were easy to pick out; breathing out cluelessness. They were the loudest group, obnoxiously assured and nervous all at once. A plump, plain girl with drab hair barely reflecting the orange half-light might be Sarah Matthews, or Margret Greer. She looked like a Margret, but Greer was a bit too interesting. The chatty blonds were Tiffany, Brittany and Dawn, though he couldn’t guess which was which and probably never would. William Alexander was the fat dark haired boy, Jeffery Kennedy the tall scrawny nervous one. They were the only boys, aside from a senior, Nathan Brown, who wasn’t there at all and would most likely drop the class within a week. In all five seniors appeared on his list, and they were easy, none of them had shown. Marcus didn’t expect them to sneak in late, seniors never came on the first day and he would have to repeat his rehearsed orientation. A couple of sophomores, Jill Chaffey and another Sara McDougal must be the girls lounging in back with Heather Moore, a punky freshman ahead of her time. He coughed to catch the attention of the twenty-three students who’d managed to find the photo lab by 3:25; ten minutes after the class was meant to start. His cough was ignored, or possibly just lost amid the high pitched freshman conversation so he was forced to speak. “Ok, uhm quiet down please,” said Marcus, belatedly realizing he sounded like a kindergarten teacher. Forty-six scornful eyes turned to him. He took attendance and was surprised to find that the punky freshman was Margret, the bland girl Dawn, and one of the chatty blonds was a junior.
It’s not that he minded teaching photography. The technical step-by-step and painfully obvious safety rules might be boring to most, but Marcus found the routine comforting. More satisfying was imparting his wisdom to eager young artists, driven to learn how to express themselves in film. Not the piranha faced morons who snickered at his jokes rather than laughing. The only pleasure in teaching an intro class was drinking their dismay when they realized how time consuming and difficult photography really was. Inevitably a third of the class dropped. “Alright,” said Marcus, “today I’m uh going to run through how to process your film and develop your photo paper.” A girl with a frizzy pony-tale, oddly yellow in the orange light of his dark room, put her hand in the air. Tiffany or Sarah maybe, Marcus ignored her. Freshman. “Since we’re meeting in the dark room today,” he continued, “we’ll start with the photo paper.”
The yellow girl, her frizzy hair making her appear unfocused, interrupted him. “Excuse me, will you show us how to use our cameras?” Someone giggled. Marcus blinked at the girl trying to see her more clearly.
“Yes-uh, we’ll go over that on uhm Wednesday, but its important first that you learn the technical aspects of uhm photography.” Marcus rubbed his nose and the someone giggled again. “As I was-uh saying. Yeah. Well I have this uhm negative right?” The blurry yellow girl’s hand rose into the air again. Marcus tried to glare at her, but looking at her made his eyes water. He rubbed them and said, “yes, what?”
“What’s a negative?” the girl asked sweetly. Someone snickered and Marcus realized that he had been wrong, the girl was not a freshman. Either she was making fun of him or she was exceptionally stupid. He reminded himself not to rule out stupidity. “I was getting to that please don’t uh interrupt,” he told her. Marcus pulled a pre-cut negative from the manila folder he’d left on the counter and slid it into the enlarger. “OK, uhm gather around please.” Boys and girls, Marcus mentally added. They closed silently around him the orange light glinting sharply off their hair. Teeth and scales flash! Marcus’s took a clumsy hop back from the counter to give himself room to breathe. The air was thick. “Uhm.” Marcus put his hand shakily on the counter and started again. “I uh, don’t have any paper in here,” Marcus gestured to the enlarger, “but I want to show you how to uhfocus it first.” Marcus put his hand on the enlarger’s focusing knob but then, sensing that they were closing again, spun around to catch them before they could bite. Twenty-three students stared blankly. “the light I mean,” he added lamely. The blurry hand raised again, he closed his eyes and turned warily back to the enlarger. “Well I’ve uh put the negative- this is the negative- into this slot up here so now I,” Marcus trailed off. He swallowed and managed to keep himself from looking over his shoulder. Turning on the enlarger he toyed with the knob, trying to bring the image that appeared below into focus. He thought he’d preset it- one of the students must have messed with it. He’d picked a simple crowd scene taken unobserved at a mall, but now he couldn’t seem to get the light image to resolve. “Well, heh, it doesn’t want to focus right now, but you get the idea.”
“What? Its clear,” sneered one of the fish. Marcus ignored him. He turned the light off and took a piece of paper photo-paper from his folder. “Now, I already know that this particular negative needs a twelve second exposure, but you’ll have to uhmplay with it to see what time each negative needs.” He could feel the eyes of blurry ponytail pressing into his neck, but he pretended not to notice and gave the paper its 12 second exposure. He blinked his eyes rapidly. In the back of his mind he heard bubbles and imagined a frenzied lather of gleaming scales that blurred in even the fastest shutter speeds. He reminded himself that the bubbles were only the sound of the wash bath. Marcus turned to the crowd and shook his head, hair closing his vision like a shutter. The image it left was a clear frightened face amid the sea of blank faces. Then he blinked and the face returned to the blurry exasperation of the pony-tailed girl, whose hand still waved in the air.
Marcus looked away, taking the paper and dropping into the developer tray. He kept his eyes on the fluid as he said, “You need to leave the picture for about thirty seconds, no more than forty.” Marcus watched the uninteresting crowd scene take form and continued, “Now these chemicals aren’t especially harmful, but they aren’t really very good for you either so, uhm, make sure when you pull the paper out you always use the tongs.” He took the tongs from their hook and carefully pulled the paper from the liquid. “You don’t really want this stuff on your skin.” He let the paper drop into the stop tray and turned back to the students without looking at any of them. “Leave it in the stop bath for at least fifteen seconds, that keeps the developer from uhm over developing your picture.” Marcus continued to speak but he looked over their heads and was uncertain of what he was saying. After a minute or so, he turned back to move the paper from the stop bath to the fixer, and froze staring at the image.
The stop bath had no effect at all. The picture had continued to develop, blackening around the edges in a stain that continued to grow as he watched. It slowly obscured the mall crowd, dulling them and finally blotting them out completely. In the upper left corner was a bright spot the developer hadn’t ruined, it left an unnoticed face. The same face he’d seen screaming in the student crowd. Unlike the other people rushing through the mall unaware of Marcus’s presence, this woman stared right into his eyes. Her face was wide and stupid in a moment of shock- the face of someone who hasn’t yet had the time to react to some terror. Marcus felt the students at his back closing around him. He spun around, scattering drops of the stop fluid on the startled students. Someone cried out in surprise. Marcus balled up the paper and glared at the group around him. They weren’t moving but he could feel them closing just the same. He took a big step forward with more confidence than he felt. “You’re dismissed early today, go away.” He said hoarsely. The students had orange alien faces. Slowly, confused but willing, they streamed out of the dark room.
Marcus breathed deeply in relief. He turned back to the paper and smoothed it on the counter. It had finally stopped developing, leaving only the frightened woman. He examined her, and the black space around her, for a clue to what had happened. But it was clear. This woman, her white terror, was the only importance of the boring mall crowd. The developer had left her in focus and blacked out the rest. Marcus shook his head in amazement. His hair again shuttered his sight, and he noticed his folder sitting under the crumpled picture. Thoughtfully he opened it, fingering through various negatives until he finally came to a self-portrait he’d taken a month ago. Marcus wondered.
He put the negative into the enlarger, and recalled that the exposure for this negative had been fairly short. He gave it five seconds. Marcus dropped the white paper into the developer.
Ten seconds. An image was beginning to appear, as ghostly as a forgotten nightmare. The hollow eyed woman stared at Marcus from the black and wrinkled photograph clutched in his hand. “What do you see?” he asked her in a whisper which nonetheless echoed in the empty darkroom. He was nearly surprised when the woman didn’t answer, but continued in her moment of blank-faced fear. Twenty seconds. He tore his eyes from hers and looked into the developer tray. The image was there, barely seen, as his face began to blacken in the mix of chemicals. Suddenly, realizing what he was starting to look at, Marcus couldn’t bear to see what it would reveal. Ignoring the tongs, he plunged his hand into the developer and peeled the still changing picture from the bath. Hands shaking, he tore it into pieces and dropped the sopping confetti into the bin. He leaned back against the table, black drops falling thickly from his fingers while he compulsively closed his other hand around the guilty photo. The room was silent but for his ragged breathing and Marcus began to relax, realizing that he’d just escaped the unspeakable. There are some things, he reflected, which should never be seen. He glanced down again to the frightened woman clutched in his hand, and for a moment his expression mirrored hers as his eyes caught instead the black lather hugging his other hand. It had spread and his arm was black, half his flesh painlessly eaten away up to the elbow. The crumpled photograph dropped from nerveless fingers and the black fluid continued up to his shoulder cold and efficient as a school of piranhas. “Now we’ll see,” he mumbled, vision blurred and darkening at the edges. “We’ll see what it leaves.”
*Story by Meagan B. Call. All rights reserved.