Storyglossia Issue 39, September 2010.

Vintage Negatives

by Tom Noe


That high-wading human teenager halfway across the creek back there, mostly hidden behind those ratty Chinese elms, is my oldest boy, Sean. Of course I gave in to him, like I usually do. I told him he could use the chain saw to clear out all that dead scrub over on the far bank. He's got his one hand stretching up for limbs to stay balanced, and in the other hand he dangles the saw, purring like the moped he smashed up last summer. Marnie's keeping an eye on him from the back porch. She's been waiting around all afternoon to witness this, an untimely accident about to happen to a beloved child of her womb. She leans over the rail to let out a yell, but I wave my hand at her to hush up. There are plenty worse things on earth than a kid dropping a damn chain saw in a creek.

Well, actually—and I know this—she's not worried so much about the chain saw dropping in the creek as about the neighbors' reactions to the newspaper stories that describe her son's tragic dismemberment in his own back yard while his criminally inattentive mother stood by casually on the porch and watched it happen. Dismemberment would be sad, no doubt about it, but the way I see it, Sean is moving slow and steady on those slimy rocks, so at least he's thinking about safety, even if he might not be practicing it all that well. Would've been better to break off a branch for a walking stick and start up the chain saw over on the other side, but hell, good enough for a kid only a couple months past 15. Not worth raising a fuss. Besides, it's one of those midget machines made just for branches.

Marnie squinches up her face into her "Now you owe me one" look and retreats back into the kitchen, leaving some very important womanly points unspoken. I can live with that. Always do.

Since she's back inside again, I pick up the envelope, check the return address, then lay it face down on the glass-top patio table, next to the packet of black and white photos I brought outside. "The Cypress Tree Collection." Very discreet, which I was hoping for, just in case. First time I ever had to scout the mailbox to intercept one of those plain brown wrappers before Marnie had a chance to see it. I open up my pocket knife and slit through the edge on one end. Inside is a thin packet of cardboard, wrapped crisscross with a couple rubber bands, and a business card taped to one side: "The Cypress Tree Collection, New Orleans, Vintage Male Nude Photos Bought and Sold."

I turn to check on whether Marnie's still busy inside, and I locate her in the window, or at least I see her hand, which is drooping over the raised lid of the chest freezer. I did feel a little guilty a couple weeks ago when I sent the negatives off for this weirdo to print them, but there's no sense in feeling bad now. Done is done. Damn things belong to me; I'll do whatever I see fit.

I look for the originals first, and they're all here inside the cardboard, four to a strip, still wrapped in those 1940s waxy paper envelopes, real brittle, chipped at the edges like old-time cellophane. I set them off to one side. At least the guy was decent enough to send them back like he promised. He wanted to buy them off me in the worst way, even called me on the phone one night to say they were historical or some such crap, nothing else in his collection like it. But our bargain was he could keep copies for himself if he printed them out for me. The originals weren't part of the deal. I had to hold him to that, obviously.

Couldn't get those negatives printed here in town. Took them over to Frank's Camera but that was like driving into a telephone pole just to enjoy a free windshield sandwich. Hell, I never took time to look real careful at all my dad's pictures, but most were the usual kind of family camera shots, the holiday picnics, the squinting relatives lined up like a firing squad against the sunny wall of a house, except in the negatives the sunny walls were black and everybody had X-ray faces with ghouly-white eyes.

Typical scenes. The first day driving somebody's new DeSoto. Five shots of that. About 15 shots showing a surprise sunny day after a heavy snow. Drifts black as charcoal smothering some limp white cedar trees, like snowmen with big beards leaning back for a shave. No dates, no way to know when exactly anything happened. The snowstorm probably surprised everybody by coming in April, so some guy was photographing his own astonishment, not the weather. I've seen those kinds of shots at estate auctions.

In several negatives, I could make out the pale insides of box-shaped cars. In others, the upside-down lightning of winter trees. But those tiny houses and neighborhoods struck me as far-off, not just in time but in atmosphere, with their narrow-clapboard walls and old-time rows of bushes. Young people were lounging outside cars leaning on the hoods, or lounging inside cars leaning on one another. Boys wore wide gray trousers—you could see sharp creases down the legs. Girls had fixed their snowy hair up into wide square frames, which sort of aligned with their padded shoulders. I remembered all that costume stuff from the movies.

Plus your not-so-usual shots of naked people. That was the problem.

When Frank's called me that the prints were ready, I drove on over. The perky-eyed high-schooler with trellis braids speared me with a funny look when I gave her my last name, and right away she dropped her friendly-squirrel enthusiasm. She used the speaker to call the manager over, a tall, narrow, expressionless fellow in a short-sleeved white shirt and thin tie. Maybe last year he was a Mormon for Halloween. Anyhow, he kept his eyes on me as he walked across the store. They'd been waiting for this.

He took a deep breath. "Sir, some of those negatives you brought in we couldn't print." His cheeks were getting red; he took another deep breath and wobbled to steady his stance, his hands stuffed behind his back.

Well, if he was fixing to get riled up at me, I could damn well keep him pretty close company. I'm a lot more feisty than your typical American cow-slobber consumer when I come up against typical American corporate bullshit, and I was fixing to match him thunder for thunder, but then I noticed that his face had kind of wound itself up into a sad clench. And he wasn't red from being mad, he was blushing, so I cooled down.

"I figured those shots were pretty old. Did they just disintegrate?"

"No, Sir. It's against the law. We are not allowed to print that kind of adult material." He literally gulped after that bit of verbal bravery, and finally made eye contact with me, awarding himself an invisible Congressional Medal of Honor just for keeping company with the bastard in front of him. "We made prints of all the ones that were legal." He held his breath again, trying out for a future career as a statue.

Evidently he was done saying what he wanted to say and it was my move. At that point I didn't even know if he wanted to get paid for the prints he did make. Was he going to keep me standing there till the electric chair in the back room was free for a new customer, or till I hung my head long enough and asked his permission to slink out through the alley? Sure, I knew there were nudie scenes in there, but it never struck me they'd be considered porn. Shots from the 1940s! In black and white!

I can stay polite and casual when I need to. "How much do I owe you then, for the ones that passed inspection?" He didn't like touching my credit card and didn't say another word while he finished up the processing. The bulging envelope lay on the counter and he wouldn't touch that again either, just put down the curled receipt that's always too small to sign and motioned for me to sign it. He laid it down right next to a ceramic figurine of a wide-eyed angel tyke in pastel robes with his arms spread, with a caption, "My God loves you this much."

I wondered at the time if he set that up, and I guess I still do.

So at home in my office I studied all those prints from Frank's one by one, matched them up with the negatives. Some of the shots that had puzzled me turned out to show a fraternity initiation, I guess, with guys wearing diapers and posing for their picture in front of brick buildings on a college quad. You can imagine what that looked like in the negatives. I figured those would be my dad's buddies at Baylor. One guy was squatting in his diaper, pretending to crap on the sidewalk. Girls around him were laughing. I matched up all the shots of the snowstorm. Then the young people in cars. Then the flooded neighborhood with a tavern and a gas station half under water, and a line of telephone poles stitching the surface where the road ran. They printed all those no problem. But there were eight unprinted negatives left over, eight shots out of 84.

God dammit almighty, the government rules nowadays! I have to e-mail some pervert lawyer in New Orleans with a porno web site just to get eight pictures developed so I can look at my own damn property.

All right, I'm not going to keep spouting off on that. People just doing their job and so forth. Hell, it's over with now and things turned out OK.

I glance up at the house again. The guilt of the married man. I can almost feel Marnie looking out at me, making sure it's still her loving husband and not that screaming Hulk who hitchhikes around in my body for the better part of a day sometimes. She's been a good wife, a little better than I thought it would turn out. She knows how to behave herself.

So I kind of settle in, because I figure to see certain people in the new prints. I could never decide for sure from the negatives.

One set of three shots shows some kind of birthday party in this nudist camp. Or a celebration of some sort. My parents are there sure enough. I can see them in the crowd around this table, candles on a cake getting blown out by some fat guy wearing a crown. Everybody naked as jaybirds. Could be as many as 30 people. The baby that mom is holding in her arms must be me. Of course I'm naked too. Not that that means a whole lot. From what I can see of her, she looks great, but dad seems thin, undernourished. All three shots have the same scene. Big smiles on everybody, but other than that it could be some kind of concentration camp.

The guy in the first skinny-dipping shot looks to be about 20. He purses a cigarette between his lips on one side, seems downright proud that he's smoking it. Blonde hair, with a straggly rat's nest squelched up into several peaks, so he's been in the water already and tried to push the wet hair away from his face. He's getting ready to smile, stands there hesitant, boyish, more on one foot than the other, shoulders scrunched up as if the lakeshore is rocky on his feet, but it looks sandy, smooth.

The second lake shot has a beanpole man or boy in the distance falling toward the water, his hands stretched straight above his head. Dropping from a limb? He's too far away to identify. A fingerprint impression on the negative made furrows across the surface of the water. Whose finger is that, I wonder.

Next, a boy monkeying along on top of a tree trunk that's leaning out over the water—well, it's the first guy again, who had the cigarette. Several guys standing around in the background, looking cold. Must be late fall or early spring, because there's not a leaf on any tree.

No leaves. I guess you could make a joke on that if you had a mind to.

Next is the one I figured I'd find. The guy standing there is my dad, age 20 at the outside, facing the camera full-front with his arms wide, hands spread open and a big smile. Jaybird naked and happy to show it.

And he has my sister Emily's face. The likeness is so clear it hits me like a thud, unexpected. My hand even jumps, like I'm protecting myself from it. Sort of knocks the wind out of me. Dad was always on the short side, but here he looks thin, or maybe dirt poor. Hip bones jut out. Has he been sick? His face seems full, though. His hair is combed neatly, parted on the left just like I do it, so he hasn't been in the water yet, or maybe he never went in. I don't ever remember seeing him swim, but he made us kids take lessons. He's closer to the camera than the people are in the other shots, and has a "What the hell are you doing?" grin on his face, so I guess he was the one taking the other pictures and his buddy just grabbed the camera away to use it on him. Probably means the camera was his. Maybe Granddaddy got it for him when he left for Baylor.

But the appearance of Emily's young face on his body, her face as a teenage girl, is such a push against my mind that I can't help but stare back at his face again and again, when I'm not looking at what I obviously have to look at too, his dick, because, after all, that is my father's dick, not unusual or peculiar as far as dicks go, but still my own father's dick. Forty-eight years ago, I came squirting out of that thing. Or more accurately, he squirted me out. Not the polite way to talk, but how the hell do you talk politely about your naked father?

The eighth shot comes from a damaged negative, with stains and a couple of small holes in the background, and it's the blonde guy again, standing naked next to a black car with one foot on the running board. He has a neck-hold on a third guy—or is it a fourth by now?—trying to tip him backwards off balance. This time the other guy has the cigarette, almost falling out of his mouth. They laugh, both trying to peek secretly at the camera while they pause to have their tussle immortalized.

They were all loving this. Posing. They knew the camera was there and they wanted to get photographed. My first rational thought, the one that follows all the Neanderthal mumblings that are starting in my belly and guts, where alien muscles have now started munching, is that this would have been a hell of a lot of fun, and I'm sorry I missed it. I never had any fraternity brothers, any cigarettes, any running bare-ass naked in the woods after skinny-dipping in some sandy lake surrounded by reverse-lightning trees.

That sound was the chain saw trying to whinny up an octave before it cut out. Sean got it stuck somewhere, but he'll work it loose. He's getting some patience now, ever since he went on that church retreat last summer. No more cussing either. It sort of revamped him, except that he's not much interested in the ways of our church anymore. He decided the world could be saved without religion, just by him personally being decent and nice. I guess he figured maybe his good character would seep out into other people somehow. For months he's been basing his life on this story he heard on the retreat about some high-school kid offering to carry another student's heavy load of books, and later the student admits he was planning on committing suicide that night, but because of the other guy carrying his books he changed his mind and decided to go on living. Since then Sean has tried to be that guy, the one offering to carry the books of the world. Always been a good kid. But he's also been coming up with some strange thoughts lately, and I can't figure out from where. One day after church, he said something about Reverend Ottweiler: "He can preach but he can't pray." Didn't know what to make of that.

So I was going through all of dad's old photos a couple months ago, a few weeks after he died, and these negatives came from a folder dated before he started working. He dropped out of Baylor as a freshman so he could sign up to win the war in Europe, which he didn't, because he flunked the physical. Then he felt so good just not going to school that he asked mom to marry him right away and she said yes. These shots had to come from right around that time, say 1940 to 1943. They got married in '43.

I go back to the shot of him standing beside the lake and I slowly start to sort out his mature features in that face, pushing Emily's features into the background. That resemblance still staggers me.

Me, sure, I look a lot like him. But you see that in kids. One day they're the image of their mother, and six months later they take after their father more. The bones change shape or something. One time when I was at college I threw my brain into a fit by staring at my face in the bathroom mirror for several minutes straight. My face started changing into his face, then shifting back into my own face. Hallucinating, I guess it was. When his face was in the mirror, I could look at it like a photo on the wall. Crazy stuff.

Well, I pick up the stack of photos that Frank's printed and I work my way through them again. One shows my dad in an overstuffed Morris chair in my grandparents' house in Texarkana, wearing a vest with a chevron pattern, a bridge lamp shining behind him. He's lying back with his hands crossed over his stomach and his eyes are gazing down over his nose. Mysterious. The sphinx. I leaf through them all. He's only in about five shots, and every shot of him is posed. So the camera never caught him unawares. I look at his skinny-dipping shot again. Most of these shots were of other people, not him. That's how it would be if it was his camera to start with. Or maybe he threw away the shots of himself he didn't like? I wonder whether—

Sean is standing behind me. He's probably been there for some time, figuring that his father is some sort of pervert.


His lips are closed, grim. He chooses his words.

"Anything else you want me to cut down?"

He's giving me the benefit of the doubt, so he isn't going to ask me to explain. "Son, these are your father's photographs."

Hell's fire, what did I just say? "I mean your granddaddy's. My father's. Well, they're mine now, so I guess they are mine."

I watch to see whether this explains anything for him, but he stands motionless, inert. Doesn't figure he needs to answer.

"Skinny-dipping back in those days, 1940s, not a single thing in the world wrong with that." Hell, that remark was just dripping with guilt.

He doesn't move.

I can just hear him thinking: Well, Dad, sure, you're right, skinny-dipping is one thing, but it's not exactly the precise same thing as staring hypnotized at pictures of a bunch of naked men. That's what I'd be thinking if I was him.

"Look, Sean, it would take a long time to explain, but the short version is that these negatives were in your grandfather's things and I got them printed. It was different back then. The old swimming hole. People didn't even own swim trunks. No big deal."

Not interested.

"Okay, you can cut off some of the wisteria that's growing out past the top of the trellis. Be careful with that thing up on the ladder."

"Sean." Marnie is calling from the porch. "Phone call for you. It's Karen again."

He ambles away and sets the chain saw down on the sidewalk next to the porch on his way inside.

No harm done. I'm not raising some damned idiot.

Copyright©2010 Tom Noe

Tom Noe is an editor and writer in South Bend, Indiana. His writing credits include The Sixth Day and Into the Lions' Den, along with hundreds of articles and numerous poems. Six poems are published in the current issues of Relief (print) and Able Muse (online). Most recently, he was commissioned to write the libretto for a chamber opera based on the tale of Eros and Psyche from Ovid's Metamorphoses.