by J.D. Hosemann
The two men standing at the counter appeared drunk to Mr. Pickett. Or high. Or maybe they’d been crying. It was hard to tell. But both were wearing suits that hung ragged from their bodies. Ties had been loosened and top buttons undone. One of the men had a red ring around his neck from his starched collar. The other had a purple scar on his cheek. One wore cowboy boots covered in mud and the other wore loafers covered in grass. Both had boutonnieres pinned to their lapels—a red rose surrounded by baby’s breath. But one man’s rose was missing, leaving behind only a smattering of baby’s breath. Mr. Pickett thought they looked different, but the same. Like brothers.
‘Can I help you?’ asked Mr. Pickett timidly. It was only him at the shop. For years, now, it had been only him.
The man in the boots looked at the man in the loafers. ‘Can you tell us if there’s anything in here?’ He reached into his coat and, like magic, produced an Olympus OM-1, which Mr. Pickett immediately recognized as the 1981 model.
‘You mean film?’ Mr. Pickett took the camera and checked the counter window. ‘Yeah, it’s loaded. Looks like you got one shot left too.’
‘Can you make them for us?’ the loafers asked.
‘Develop it? You want me to develop the film?’
‘Yeah. Develop the film. You do that, right?’
Mr. Pickett had managed to keep the shop open all these years by doing large-scale, professional work, mostly portraits of other people’s children, toddlers in little sailor outfits, pictures to be framed and hung on walls out in Turning Leaf. Sometimes he got more interesting work, like when the coffee shop needed artsy black and whites. But it had been years, no, decades since anyone had walked in with a roll of film.
‘It’ll take me two hours.’
‘Two hours?’ asked the loafers. Mr. Pickett thought he smelled fumes from his breath.
‘Yes. Just two hours. Go run your errands if you like. Come back by five.’ Mr. Pickett used to say this to all his customers, usually mothers who stopped in on the way to the grocery store. He’d developed miles and miles of thirty-five millimeter for them, the ones who documented everything—birthdays, first holy communions, beach vacations. Mr. Pickett missed this part of the job, peering into the lives of ordinary people.
The boots and loafers made their way to the door, but Mr. Pickett stopped them. ‘Wait! Don’t you want to take the last shot?’
The two men looked at the camera like it was a grenade. ‘Can you take one of us?’ asked the boots.
Mr. Pickett advanced the film, raised the camera to his eye, and brought the men into focus. He centered them and snapped the shutter.
In the dark room, Mr. Pickett checked expiration dates on his chemicals. The hydroquinone had expired years ago. For whatever reason, he opened the bottle and sniffed, as if it were a jug of milk. The smell overwhelmed him, not just because of its potency, but because it ripped a tear in the fabric of time. Through the tear, Mr. Pickett could see an entire bygone universe full of strange and familiar people doing what they’d always done and will always be doing. This universe had its own Mr. Pickett too, one who was young, full of life, who’d never develop cirrhosis of the liver, who’d never leave his wife, who’d never spend nights staring at a screen, clicking through images of people he barely knew, tapping out misspelled messages to them. For a small instant, this bygone universe was palpable to Mr. Pickett, who stood still, dazed by it. But the smell faded, or Mr. Pickett’s olfactory receptors adjusted, and the universe began to fade away, returning him to the dark room.
The prints were not his best work. Perhaps due to the expired hydroquinone. Or maybe it was the age of the film. But the images came through enough to see most details. Mr. Pickett recognized these photos—family snapshots. A birthday party, a baseball game, images trained on young children, most likely taken by a mother, just like the ones he used to develop.
As he flipped through the pictures, Mr. Pickett wondered where these two men found the camera. Maybe it was their mother’s, he thought. Maybe she’d died. Maybe they’d just buried her, cleaned her house, found the camera. He wanted to see the last picture, the one he’d snapped of the two men at the counter. He wanted to look at them again, to study them, try and solve the mystery. He flipped through the photographs until the end and saw the last shot was over-exposed and looked like nothing but white light.
Mr. Pickett stayed at the shop past five, but the two men didn’t return. He placed the envelop of pictures in a draw for pickups, which had been completely empty. Then Mr. Pickett began closing up the shop. He flipped the sign on the door to ‘CLOSED’ and shut the door behind himself as he walked out. He turned the key until the latch snapped into place. He waddled to his car, unlocked the driver side door, and lowered himself into the seat. The taillights flickered just before he pulled out of the parking lot and his car disappeared down the frontage road. Back in the shop, no one was there to see the rays from the lowering sun pour in through the glass panes and fill the store with golden light.
J.D. Hosemann lives in Jackson, Mississippi and teaches English at Tougaloo College. His stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, New World Writing, hex, Gone Lawn, The Hong Kong Review, and Night Picnic Press.