From a distance they looked like new lovers. Their steps didn’t match as they walked in the soft foam and back again onto the sweet wet sand. Their bodies strained toward each other with a kind of unfulfilled longing. Up close an observer could see that he was old and she middle-aged. His shrunken frame tentatively bore the weight of his too-large head. They shared the same blue eyes framed by dark lashes and brows. His were red and watery; hers set in a new Florida tan. His smile revealed teeth that had become too many for his mouth. Their conversation was intense with effort.
She began, “How has the spring gone, Dad? Have you been reading anything interesting?”
“Oh, it’s good. I watch those guys on TV . . .”
“Those guys? You mean The Magic?”
“Oh yeah, them, too, but those others. You know, the ones who talk . . . about . . .”
“About the news?”
“Sort of. You know, they argue a lot.”
“Oh, you’ve been watching C-SPAN?” She knew that television had replaced books and hobbies in his diminishing life.
As she waited for him to find his words, her mind wandered back to a time when he was robust and she a small girl. She remembered how he had retreated from the demands of his life as father, husband, publisher to his darkroom, disappearing for hours. When she missed him she would go to the basement, knock and wait.
The conversation on the beach meandered with their course. The landscape was all blue and white, the same contrasting tones he had manipulated in his photographs. Now he was oblivious to the striking colors, and his hands, almost never without a camera during her youth, were unfocused.
She tried again with a question: “Do you and Mom still go out to eat?”
“What’s your favorite place?”
“We like the one . . . you know . . . the one where they have . . . fruit.”
“You know . . . that fuzzy kind.”
“Yeah, that’s it, peaches. They put them on . . .”
“No — well, a kind of cake.”
He changed the subject abruptly. The words flowed out like water pouring through a suddenly opened faucet. “They sent me flowers.”
She waited for him to tell her more. The silence sent her mind and senses back to that earlier time. The basement was a little foreboding while she stood at the closed door, but his smile warmed it when the door opened to let out the eerie infrared light that illuminated the pungent dampness.
“Come on in, I’m ready to put the prints in the developer.”
“Can I watch?”
“Sure. Let’s see how quick you can tell what the pictures are.”
This was the part she loved, watching the picture form. She strained her eyes against the dim light to make out shapes.
“This looks like clouds.”
“Keep looking. It’s too dark for clouds.”
Her dad could tell the color of someone’s hair or eyes just by the shades of gray or black that emerged in the murky tank. She could only discern the evolving forms.
His words were few, just enough to help her learn to read the light and dark of the emerging pictures. He came here to escape the surfeit of words in his public life. Down here in the darkness he studied the light spaces in his photos with as much concentration as he gave to the spaces in his sentences as they walked on the beach. She felt closer to him in the darkroom than anywhere else, silently filling in the spaces and watching meaning emerge.
“Oh, I see now. It’s a wedding.” The bride and groom smiled up through the fog of chemicals.
The end was never as exciting as the moments preceding it. She had learned to love the magically unformed moment when the picture was just what she made it with her imagination. Her father was again giving her the gift of unformed images. She must wait and wonder, reading the silence just as she had read the light and dark when she was a child. Maybe those hours spent in the darkroom were his way of practicing for old age when spaces of silence would become more and more frequent, when phrases would outnumber complete sentences.
The silence stretched on as they walked.
She tried to help him, give him a cue, “Who sent the flowers, Dad?”
His brow furrowed with effort, but no words came out.
She concentrated on matching her steps to his in the damp sand and kept silent. Maybe her question was wrong.
Suddenly he found the words he wanted, “They sent them because Dick died.”
“Oh, flowers for Uncle Dick. That’s nice.”
She thought of her father’s older brother. He, too, had been robust in his youth. He had died this past spring a wizened old man. All of her life she had been regaled with tales of her father and uncle’s youthful adventures. They told of long summers of stick ball and camping, of fights and boyhood accidents. Dick had been the young rebel, while Ben, her father, had been the compliant son. Even with the sharp contrast between their characters, theirs had been a special friendship.
Their movement along the beach was easier now. Her body movements matched his as she listened and learned from him about light and dark, life and death, just as she had when she was a child.
“They were beautiful, red and blue with lilies and daisies. He would have liked those flowers. He liked pretty things.” His eyes filled with the poignant sorrow and joy of remembering.
Kathy Royer is an associate director of Horizon Education Alliance in Goshen, Indiana.