I found it in the back of a drawer. I had no idea how long it had been laying in wait.
The backs of drawers are dangerous places. There lie keys to locks I no longer wish to open and ticket stubs to movies I no longer remembering seeing or, worse, remember too well. In the far corners, worse than the mints without wrappers and the dead spiders, my fingers find souvenir matchbooks and fortunes from cookies folded like unbloomed roses. The backs of drawers are not mines; they are tombs.
And from such a tomb I pulled the disposable camera, Kodak orange, the kind I am not sure is even made anymore. The frame counter read 30. I couldn’t remember: 30 taken or 30 left to take? Did it matter? It didn’t.
Yes, the young man at Walgreens told me, the film could be developed. I would soon know what images hovered in photographic purgatory.
It is hard to remember the anticipation with which I used to drop off rolls of film, filling out the information on the thick paper envelopes: name, address, number of prints, glossy or matte. I knew where I had pointed the camera, knew what I’d hoped to capture, but had only a vague idea of what would appear on the 3-1/2-by-5 rectangles of slick photo paper. Sometimes I could wait until I got outside the store to delve into the package, most of the time not. The instant gratification of digital photography eliminates the disappointment of shuttered eyes and crooked grins, but it also extinguishes that little flame of excitement.
Which, in this particular case, was also tinged with anxiety. I’ve lived long enough now that it was possible that there could be images on that camera I’d rather not see, faces that could evoke sadness, scenes of places that no longer exist.
That my hands did not tremble when I opened the envelope is a truth. That I checked to see if they might is also a truth.
It took a moment, but only a moment, to recognize the skeleton of a building silhouetted against a summer blue sky. Sandhill, the brick already laid around the foundation, the framing done, the windows boxed, the trusses hoisted high like a teepee. Stacks of two-by-fours, a pallet of brick for the fireplace and sawhorses scattered across the yard. A faceless carpenter straddling some beams.
Twenty-four summers ago, the contractor dug up already-pegged peanuts to pour the footings of the foundation. Twenty-four summers ago, Adam and Kate posed on the stacks of lumber and tried to get Fritz and Ginny, the golden retrievers, to walk the plank before the steps were installed. Twenty-four summers ago, you still had grandparents living and you didn’t have a cell phone and so many of the people you love now you didn’t know existed. This is what the photos whisper.
One night, when the subfloor had just been laid but no walls were raised, when the whole house was one big open stage, I climbed up and walked through each room, arms raised under a silver summer moon, and blessed the house to come. Blessed all who would enter, all who would remain. Twenty-four summers ago.
The front door is a different color now and there is a deck on the back. But the bay window still catches the sunset, the front porch the breeze. The deer still rustle through the branch when the back door opens and mockingbirds still fill the trees. Twenty-four summers have passed. She is different and yet the same.
The backs of drawers are prisons and prayer rooms, caskets and cathedrals, tombs and time machines. The backs of drawers are dangerous things.