Submitted into Contest #244 in response to: Write a story about a character who risks their life to take a photo.... view prompt


Adventure Creative Nonfiction American

           I was with Lewis when he gave his remarkable and unexpected demonstration. It was late summer when unrelenting desert heat was spent, giving way to more amicable conditions. That clear, sparkling California morning came with early brightness and the promise of many adventures.

         Monday morning, Lewis chose to confound the evil slave system that inhibits true expression from a free-spirited artist—he called in sick. He used a telephone to call the telephone company, telling them that he was unable to work and maintain the telephone system—an irony that Lewis never appreciated.  So, with freedom ensured for a day, he was determined to take some photographs. Not mere photographs, though—images, memorable records of life in a small California town. Lewis was my friend, and I accompanied him on this artistic voyage. I work on Saturday. I take Monday off, which is a simple and convenient arrangement.

           Lewis had a dog. A fine old fellow, delighted to break routine for a few hours and participate in our photographic odyssey. So it was then—Lewis, myself, various cameras, all necessary photographic equipment, and our good companion, Old Red the Pit Bull Terrier. Off we sailed on that fine morning to meet whatever challenges lay ahead.

      It must have taken about half an hour driving along quiet country roads before we reached the little turnout where the mighty Chevrolet Impala would anchor safely, waiting for our return.

The old, somewhat battered car was a monument in Lewis's life. Dark blue paint was faded in places, but beneath a shabby overcoat beat the heart of an eight-cylinder champion.

 In the driver's door, a small hole was covered with a band-aid—a permanent reminder that Lewis's expertise with a thirty-eight caliber pistol left room for much improvement.

         We fussed with the equipment for a few minutes and released Red. Before his temporary freedom could begin, Lewis needed to deliver a stern lecture on social responsibility.

           Red grinned amiably, having received directives similar to those in the daily routine for many years. Lewis shaded his eyes, gazed at a distant hill, and considered the prevailing light. Red lifted his leg and pissed happily upon a small sage bush.

         Into the hills we went. Lewis was searching for an unforgettable panorama. With no interest in any grand vision, Red scampered ahead, delighting in his unexpected freedom.

I believe it was an hour or so before we stopped for a break. We broke crusty French rolls and topped them with thick, roughly cut slices of sharp cheddar cheese. A bottle or two of cool dark beer enhanced our simple snack. There is a quality of stillness in these high desert hills and canyons—perhaps echoes from far-distant times when Indians lived in these lands. We sat for a while in peace, each of us absorbed in our thoughts.

         It was time now to move on. Remembrances of years past now gave way to keen regard for narrow, sandy trails waiting ahead. We reached the crest of a rounded hill. Simultaneously, we stopped, each for our own purpose.

           To my left, the rough sloping ground dropped away steeply to reveal a clearing several hundred yards below. A small truck was parked there with its tailgate down. Somewhere in the distance came rippling sounds of music, chattering voices, and laughter.

         Lewis glanced below, then held his left hand in front of his face, fingers spread in a gesture reminiscent of a traffic cop at a busy intersection.

His interest was not in the clearing below but the scene before him. About fifteen yards ahead was a natural gully, perhaps twenty feet deep and several yards wide.

Beyond that, the terrain continued smoothly with short, dried grasses and a few blackened tree stumps, uneasy reminders of a great fire that swept through these hills a few years ago. A jagged outcropping of blackened sandstone rock rose in the middle of this somber field. It was this stony monument that excited Lewis's interest.

               Our soon-to-be award-winning photographer shrugged the pack from his shoulder. With an unflinching gaze upon the rocky vision ahead, he brought the old Nikon to his eye. He quickly assumed many positions—dropping to one knee, switching to the other, lying flat on his stomach, and then rising on his haunches.

           I had no doubt that a perfect photograph would eventually be recorded if, on this occasion, he had remembered to load a roll of film.

           I looked away from his athletic demonstrations to the truck below. A red shirt and a brown shirt could be seen; little else was revealed at that distance. The redshirt waved several times. I waved back to acknowledge the greeting. It seemed that both shirts were now moving steadily upward in our direction.

           Old Red saw that distant movement heard their music perhaps and decided to investigate the source of the disturbance. I grabbed him by his shoulders, calling Lewis to pass me his lead.

Red is an amiable fellow who wishes harm upon no living creature except possibly the neighbor's cat across the street. However, given previous encounters with nervous people and enthusiastic Pit Bulls, constraining Red until our two visitors arrived was a favorable course of action.

           Lewis came, lead in hand, then, with a flourish, passed one end through the hand loop and attached the spring snap to Red's collar.

           I stared at the lead that Lewis held. His hand passed through the slipknot that he had just formed. To what purpose, though? There was already a hand loop to hold.

            "Let me have him," I said, "I'll hold him until you finish shooting."

Lewis grinned. "No problem, watch this. I trained him." Red and Lewis walked purposefully to the edge of the gully. Lewis bent down, pulled the loop wide, and slipped his left foot through the noose, pulling the lead tight about his ankle. Red was now secured to Lewis's leg, and sure enough, the dog lay quietly beside his master.

           This unorthodox method of restraint had presumably worked to secure Red on previous occasions, so my vague misgivings were probably unfounded.

               Two figures came slowly into view—a woman in a red shirt and a boy in a brown shirt. The woman was attractive, perhaps in her early forties; the boy was about eleven or twelve. I smiled. She smiled back.

           "Hope we're not disturbing you."

           Her voice was husky, slightly out of breath. Red turned and smiled. In fact, everyone smiled except Lewis, who was immobile with the camera to his eye.

So, all pieces are now in play, and the end game is revealed.

         Two hikers, two strangers, and one Pit Bull Terrier. There is one more player to meet in this great drama. I started to reply that my friend would only be a moment or two. As I spoke, the last piece on the board was revealed.

           There was a moment of silence, and then suddenly, a short cry of surprise from the woman as a sizeable gray-white jackrabbit bounded across our path, seemingly to materialize from beneath her feet.

           Red took off like a flame of vengeance after the disappearing rabbit. Lewis's left leg became momentarily horizontal—parallel to the ground like a martial arts expert.

           His shoe flew into the air. Instead of tightening around his leg as intended, the lead was wrenched instantly over his ankle.

           There was shouting, cursing, and flailing limbs.

Lewis disappeared from our sight in a small cloud of dust.

           If only a flash of light or peal of thunder dignified his departure, but the only reminder that he ever set foot in this quiet place was a cheap tennis shoe and a small backpack.

I stared at the woman for many seconds. Although her mouth was moving, no sound escaped her lips.

    The boy, transfixed with joy and admiration, grinned like an idiot. He was the first to speak. "Oh, cool, way cool. Did you see that, Mom? Did you see the way he did that? Did you see the dog? I just knew they were stuntmen. That dog was trained, wasn't he?" I nodded in reply.

               "Oh yes," I said slowly, "My friend trained him personally. Please excuse me for a moment, though—my pal may need a hand."    I peered over the edge of the gully. About fifteen feet or so below, partially obscured by dry, stunted desert vegetation, I could see the wreckage of a once-proud, potentially award-winning photographer. I scrambled down to the thorny bushes where Lewis was detained. The boy followed close behind me.

         My friend, now attempting to stand, appeared like an evil, enraged troll covered in dirt and leaves as he coughed and grunted. The kid babbled excitedly, unaffected by that horrifying vision. He extolled many heroic virtues of Lewis's daring leap.

           "Oh, that was so cool, mister. Will you be doing it again today?"

           Lewis turned slowly and stared at our enthusiastic visitor for several long seconds. He wiped away the blood from his nose with the back of his hand. He meant to say,

           "Go get the hell away, kid," but, trying to clear his mouth from dirt and grass, it sounded as if he mumbled, "g' day, Kidde."

           The boy grinned hugely.

           "You're Scottish? Oh, that's too much—my mom was born in Scotland.

           Yeah," he continued, "I gotta go tell her you're a Scottish stuntman."

           Up the side of the gully, he scrambled to relay the news to his mother. I thought Lewis was going to cry.

           He took the canteen, rinsed his mouth, and splashed water on his face. He glared at me with fury in his eyes.

"You sonofabitch," he said, "you push me over the side, then tell that moron kid I'm a Scottish stuntman? What the fuck is wrong with you?"

It took me a while to explain. It was necessary to repeat various details of the event several times before he could accept that Old Red had committed such an unthinkable act of betrayal.

I sympathized and told him how glad I was that he was not badly hurt.

My innocent remark uncorked a further tirade of indignation.

         "Hurt! Oh, no, please. Everything's just fuckin' fine," he said with heavy sarcasm. "Hell, my ribs are broken, my nose is busted, my hip is dislocated, my mouth is jammed with sand and shit, and a god damned cactus is sticking out my arse. Oh, fuck, no, everything is just great with me.

           "How about the camera, then?"

           He glanced down at his faithful Nikon, swinging from the shoulder strap.

           "Looks okay, I suppose," he said. I handed him the canteen and went to retrieve his shoe. I noticed that the lens mount on his camera was bent, probably beyond salvation.

           The shoe was just a few feet from where Lewis performed his magical disappearing act. He was not alone in his ability to disappear, though.

 There was no sign of our visiting mother and son. Suddenly came the worrying memory of Red, the vanishing Pit Bull. I walked behind as Lewis made his way with some difficulty to the top of the trench. There we stood for a minute or so before he pointed to the brow of the hill.

           Mother red shirt appeared with two boys in tow. There were now two red shirts, for she held the lead that secured our highly trained stunt dog.

Lewis was temporarily distracted by a grand vision of revenge.

In his mind's eye, Red and the rabbit were secured with a chain around their testicles suspended above a boiling cauldron of tar. Reality soon replaced his fantasy.

           The merry trio was upon us, contributing much laughing and chatter. After introductions, Mary told us that she had come with her son Larry to finish a school nature observance project. They intended to grill a burger or two when Mary realized neither of them had any means of lighting the coals.

           "Yeah," said Larry, "we hoped you would have matches or something." He continued,

"As soon as I saw Mister Lewis with his dog, I thought you guys were from the movies, but when I saw him dive into the bushes, I knew you must be stuntmen."

Lewis placed a fatherly hand on the boy's shoulder.

"I used to do a lot of training like that, son. But now I just like to keep my hand in. Not stunts for movies, though; my training was for the real thing."

               I stared at the re-invented Lewis. I listened as he told tales of bravery and devotion to duty. No longer was he a featureless installation engineer pathetically enslaved to the phone company but Agent Lewis, a fearless operative for a secret branch of the U.S. government.

           Young Larry was lost in admiration, riveted to every word. Mary, with her head tilted slightly in confusion and disbelief, was probably not convinced.

"It was a wonderful demonstration," she said slowly.

    We chatted for a while, then walked together in pleasant camaraderie down the slope to Mary's pickup. Relaxing for a little time to savor burgers and hot dogs while enjoying the pleasing company was a welcome respite.

         I wanted to provide some exercise for the two cameras that I carried. Of course, Lewis really could not continue, though he protested otherwise. Mary devised a simple solution. She elected to drive the battered Lewis to his house. Vehicles would be exchanged later, and an opportunity perhaps to down a beer or two and commiserate with my old abused friend. Their truck soon found a path leading to the road.

           A cloud of gray dust eventually obscured the vehicle as it prepared to confront civilization again. I was not alone, though.

           Red was to be my companion for the remainder of the day. We were free, no longer squeezed between the thumb and finger of other people's schedules.

           It must have been at least five hours before we returned to Lewis's house. By the doorbell was a piece of paper folded several times and taped to the door—a note telling me that Mary and Larry had gone to dinner with Lewis. There were also instructions to replace the front door key and to please leave Red in the house.

           The small manufacturing company for whom I worked accepted a tendered bid from a government agency.

           This situation required me to work many overtime hours for the first six months of the contract. I saw little of Lewis during that time.

 As the weeks faded into months, Summer's pleasures were soon forgotten as winter suddenly approached. Lewis approached even more suddenly one Monday morning at about six am as I made ready to leave for work. He uncharacteristically refused offers of coffee and toast. No idle insults or chatter told me something was not right. Suddenly, I was overcome by a great foreboding. He was grinning like an idiot, humming a mindless tune. A feeling of sadness and despair threatened to overwhelm me. Obviously, the stress of telephone installation and maintenance had taken its inevitable toll. He was pushed to the edge of a mental breakdown. I put my arm around his shoulder.

         "I truly am so very sorry, man," I said.    

"Perhaps a week or so, do nothing but rest. The company will manage without you for a while." Lewis stared at me for some time.

 "I truly am so very sorry as well," he replied. "I truly am so very god damned sorry that you are such a deluded asshole."

           All was instantly well with the world again. The righteous, obnoxious, indignant, and surly Lewis of old had returned. He paused for a few moments.

           "Can't seem to reach you anymore, jerk, so I decided to drop by to see you. Tell you that I'm getting married."

"You can't. I mean, you don't know any women."

           I stared in disbelief for several seconds before a coherent conversation could resume. I grabbed his hand and shook it vigorously.

           "That's fantastic. Congratulations! When's the date? Who's the girl?"

 Lewis grinned, moving from one foot to the other, giving an impression of embarrassment or guilt. Many seconds elapsed before he continued. "As a matter of fact, old buddy Mary and I decided to get married."

           Mary? I ran through a mental list of Mary's that we had known. No Mary of any marrying potential registered with me.

           He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, shaking his head.

           "When was the last time we got together, last time I saw you?" he asked.

               Unable to recall, I shrugged my shoulders.   

"Remember that desert hike months ago? Remember when I fell down the embankment? Do you remember Mary?" Suddenly, the images were recalled.

           "Oh, yeah, of course I remember. Old Red kicked you into a ditch. That woman and her kid took you home." Lewis nodded and sat down.

 "We've been seeing each other, dating for three or four months now. We both decided to get married. Thought that maybe you would be the best man. Not going to be a big formal thing—just a few friends."

           I realized that at least an hour had evaporated in pleasant reminiscing. My friend pushed himself up from the chair and walked towards the door.

"Gotta go, buddy." Turning back suddenly, he stopped for a few seconds and then said,

"How about next Wednesday? You and me both call in sick. We'll go into the desert, take a few photographs."

           I nodded. "Sounds good to me, pal. Meet at your place in the morning, pick up old Red, and head out?" Lewis smiled slowly.

           "Give you a call this evening then, bout eight."

April 01, 2024 23:24

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Shahzad Ahmad
00:24 Apr 09, 2024

Michael,the story takes the reader by surprise and the climax is slowly built through interesting dialogue exchange. Linguistic virtuosity blended with creative construction. Great story.


21:59 Apr 12, 2024

Many thanks for the insightful comments Shahzad. Much appreciated. Very best wishes...Mike - J


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Trudy Jas
23:34 Apr 06, 2024

Good Dog.


22:00 Apr 12, 2024

Yes indeed. Thanks, Trudy. Very best wishes...Mike - J


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