Of the thirty-four summers of my life, that one was the most revealing and the one that comes back to me most often, because it was then that I realized that the subject is more important than the picture.
I am a photographer. My job is to capture moments worth remembering. The older I get, the more I think about this Diane Arbus quote, "Lately, I've been struck with how I really love what you can't see in a photograph."
I have the pictures I took of Mr. Gorey that summer hidden in a folder within a folder within a folder on my desktop. I'm ashamed that I took them, embarrassed that they exist, but I can't throw them away.
I was given my first camera, a Nikon D7100 DSLR, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. My dad found it when he was cleaning the garage to make room for his makeshift home office. My sister and I were on the couch watching TV, and he shouted, "Emmett, Sally. Come here!"
I was fifteen, and she was twelve. We leaped from our lying position and raced to the garage like we were running away from lava. She would have won if I hadn't jammed my right elbow into her rib cage when we got to the hallway. My reward for playing dirty was that I got to hold the camera first. I often wonder what my life would be like if I hadn't cheated - would I have been so mesmerized by the instrument?
The only camera I'd held up until then was part of another device, and I remember having to flex my shoulders to hold the 2lb magnesium alloy Nikon to my eye. When I looked through the viewfinder, I changed as a person. It was the first time I understood what it was to focus.
When it was Sally's turn to hold the camera, I gave it to her, and she dropped it on the grey epoxy floor. I expected it to shatter like an iPhone screen, but it just made a loud slap, a little shake, and then remained still, refusing to break. Sally and I looked at my dad, fearful of how mad he might be, but he quickly turned his back to us and fished out a camera strap from this huge clear plastic tub. The strap had an all-black design and yellow accents. He still hadn't said a word to us.
Sally made this pouty face she always made and then started crying.
My dad looked at her and said, "It's okay, Sal-pal, the thing's a tank. It won't break that easy."
He picked up the camera and gave it back to her. She held it from the bottom like a wet paper bag full of weights.
"I used to take pictures of you guys with that camera," He said, "But I haven't used it in years. Why don't you see if you can make some use of it?"
He gave me the camera's gadget bag and the strap too.
"What are we supposed to take pictures of?" I asked.
"Anything you want," He said, "Things around the house; things outside: trees, plants, bugs. Hell, some people take pictures of people."
"People," I thought to myself. Then I said to him, "Okay."
I'd spent a decade and a half living in a neighborhood without seeing or caring who my next-door neighbors were. Then quarantine happened, I got the Nikon, and I started to pay more attention. I was fascinated with this question: how much do you really know your neighbors?
I used photography as an excuse to leave the house. Sally would tag along, asking to use the camera or participate in some other way. At first, I was annoyed by this, but I soon realized that my parents were more willing to let me leave if I agreed to bring her along. Living our lives virtually was burning us out, and they needed the alone time just as much as we did.
At first, I'd take pictures of Sally doing dangerous things. Like I'd get up on the roof of the school, then tell her to climb up too. Inevitably, she'd become paralyzed from her fear of heights, and I'd take pictures of her clinging onto the top part of the fence, crying.
Or I'd have her put on her rollerblades and convince her to jump down stairs or off ledges. She'd often fall, which was the point, and I'd get candid pictures of her crying, screaming, and sometimes yelling at me. I was drawn to capturing raw emotion.
Eventually, Sally grew tired of being my subject, and we tried to take pictures of other things. She acted as a sort of scout and found objects she thought were interesting that I should take photos of, like a leaf on a sidewalk grate, a mailbox that was about to fall over, a butterfly on a white forsythia, etc.
But taking pictures of objects didn't keep me interested. I was much more absorbed with finding people to put in my photographs.
When I had my camera hanging from my neck, I possessed an eagerness to understand what other people's lives were like. I first noticed Mr. Gorey at Pleasant Hill Park. At the time, I didn't know his name; I'd never seen the man that was standing under the oak trees watching the children play.
He was in his early thirties and covered in tiny flash tattoos (a black widow, a scorpion, a skull, an anvil, an hourglass) that were scattered around his arms like a collage on his olive skin. I wanted to see who his kid was, so I tried to follow his eyes, but as I watched him, it became apparent that there was no one on the playground that he knew; no kids ran up to him for a sip of water, nor did he move from the tree and circle the park like the other parents. He just stayed under the oaks, which was odd to me.
When he left, I told Sally that we were going to follow him. He crossed Gregory St, walked down Moiso Ln, and over the footbridge to enter the Middle School. It was a shortcut that only locals knew. Along the way, his head was tilted down towards the ground as if looking for something. I snapped multiple pictures from behind him, and in all of them, he appeared to be in a dream.
Of course, I thought this all meant something. I asked Sally, "Don't you think it's weird that he was at the park watching kids, but he doesn't have any?"
"What do you mean?" She asked.
"I don't know," I told her, "I think he's up to no good."
She grabbed onto my hand, and from a distance, we continued to follow Mr. Gorey all the way back to the street we lived on.
It turned out Mr. Gorey lived across from us and two doors down in a newer-looking two-story house that was white with a blue door. He was my neighbor, and I became fixated on getting a better picture of him.
Once I'd spotted Mr. Gorey, everything I did during the pandemic revolved around trying to catch him doing something wrong. For example, I rearranged my room so that the desk I spent hours at for virtual schooling was facing the street. If I leaned close enough to the window, I could see the edge of his driveway and one of the windows on the second floor of his home.
In the first few months of watching his house, I noticed something strange that added fuel to the idea that Mr. Gorey was a bad man. Mr. Gorey was always coming back home with youth-sized baseball bats. I'd seen him unload these bats from the back seat of his Honda CRV just before his garage door closed, but Mr. Gorey didn't have any children, so why did he have kid's baseball bats?
I didn't tell anyone that I was constantly watching Mr. Gorey's house. I might have told my friends, but we never saw each other because of the lockdown ordinance, and I had a fear that if I texted them about it, I might somehow get caught by Mr. Gorey, who occasionally haunted my dreams. The only one who knew what I was up to was Sally. She was always around. One time I as I lied on my stomach in our driveway with my elbows on the pavement trying to sturdy my camera, which was pointed at Mr. Gorey's house, she asked, "Why do you keep taking pictures of that man? You're obsessed."
"He's up to something," I said, "And I'm going to find out what it is."
The more I watched the house, the more I saw hints at inappropriate behavior. One night, I couldn't sleep, and so I went to my window and peered out at his house and its second-story window. His blinds were down, but I could see flashes of colorful lights from the window's borders like a party was happening in the room. I had to see what he was doing.
I opened my bedroom door to begin my adventure, but Sally was in the hallway with a glass of water staring at me.
"What are you doing?" She whispered.
"Nothing, go back to bed," I told her.
"Why do you have your camera."
"I always have my camera."
"You're going to take pictures of that man, aren't you?"
"Go back to bed," I said.
"I'm coming with you."
"Sally," I pleaded, "Go back to bed."
"Take me with you, or I'm telling mom and dad."
And so, together, still in our pajamas, we snuck out of the house and crossed the street to get to Mr. Gorey's place. The rest of the house was dark, but when we reached his driveway, I got a better look at the lights shining through the borders of the window. There were was an image of something familiar.
"What is that?" I said, putting the camera to my face and zooming in to take a few pictures.
I pulled the camera back and navigated the LCD screen to look at the images I'd just taken. What I saw in one of them was unmistakable: a neon blue outline of a T-Rex head. I showed it to Sally, who said, "But there are no kids that live there."
"Exactly," I said.
I thought that Mr. Gorey was doing something terrible. I'd read a story about David and Louise Turpin, who imprisoned and tortured their thirteen kids for decades. The kids lived in total squalor and weren't allowed to leave the house. I wondered if Mr. Gorey was doing that or if he was just some type of pedophile. In my mind, there were no other possibilities.
I projected these things onto him and imagined myself capturing a photo of his misdeeds. I thought that if I could get a photo of him doing something bad, I'd be a hero, and my picture would be used in a newspaper, or a magazine, or on the news. No one would have a better answer to the question, "What did you do during quarantine?"
We'd been in lockdown for fifteen months, and then Joe Biden's "Summer of Freedom" came. Even though we didn't hit the administration's goal of seventy percent of adults vaccinated, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Over dinners, my parents lamented about "the idiots" who weren't getting vaccinated but also expressed hope that the country was opening back up. The truth was, by June, things had already felt completely different. School was out, and I was able to see my friends again. I began taking pictures of the dangerous things they did and started my own blog, the same one I still have today.
But in the evenings, when I was alone in my room, I was still plagued by the thought that there was something to uncover about Mr. Gorey.
It was the weekend before the Fourth of July, and I was in the driveway washing my parent's cars when I heard Kidz Bop radio playing from Mr. Gorey's house. It gave me the chills because there was no reason why an adult would listen to a kid's remix of pop songs. I knew, without a doubt, that this was my chance to catch him.
When I finished washing the cars, I told my parents I was going to see my friends. I took my camera and went to Mr. Gorey's house. The music was coming from the backyard, visible through the slats in the wooden fence that wrapped around it. I held my camera in my hand and walked towards the music; the closer I got, the louder it was. People could see me on his front lawn if they wanted to, but I didn't give a damn; I needed the shot.
The fence's gaps were large enough to peer through so you could see a portion of what was going on in the backyard. I put my eye up to the fence and saw a green hose with a yellow sprinkler attachment flinging water into the air. I shuffled a couple steps over and saw an inflatable kiddie pool with dinosaurs and baseball bat images on it. It was clear that the backyard was set up for children, but I didn't see any. Then I heard a sliding door open and knew it was my moment.
I raised my camera to the fence and squinted through the viewfinder. I saw Mr. Gorey, with his head tilted down, walking to the pool. He was wearing women's clothing and carrying a children-sized water bottle, but the strangest thing of all was that he was weeping. I hit the shutter button, and the camera made its sound.
Mr. Gorey shouted, "Hello?"
And I ran away.
On the Fourth of July, my neighborhood had a cookout, and I saw my mom talking to Mr. Gorey for the first time. That night, as Sally and I sat in the backyard twirling sparklers, my mom asked my father if he'd ever talked to the man in the newer two-story house across the street that had the blue door. My dad said that he hadn't and that he'd only seen him a couple of times, then he asked, "Did you learn something about him?"
My heart skipped a beat. I was eager to hear what she'd found out. I wanted to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Why was this man doing all of the things I'd see him do? Why was he weeping and wearing women's clothing? What was he up to? I wanted to share the photographs that I took.
My mom told us that Mr. Gorey had lost his wife and his five-year-old son to a car accident at the beginning of 2020.
"They were on the way back from his son's baseball practice," She said, "He's been grieving ever since."
"That's terrible." My dad said.
Sally looked at me with pity. She could sense I'd made a huge mistake. My face went flush, and then my sparkler went out.
I've never told anyone what I saw through Mr. Gorey's fence, and I've never shown anyone those pictures either. What I captured that day was a man mourning the loss of his family. I keep the pictures as a reminder that I can never truly understand the world from my subject's eyes.