Stepping onto his mother’s covered porch, I stiff-armed the purgatorial ghosts of pointless memories. Vague reflections looked up from a murky pond of rippling time, and even the ghosts that resembled me laughed with blame. Especially the ones that looked like me. Those familiars mocked attentively, the rest in spurts and fits.
They came up from the ground like watery smoke and wafted through the rails. Sitting, standing, running, lying—they fought, they laughed, they hoped. They also huffed, sniffed, and puffed—rolling their bright potential right tightly to light.
“Can I help you?”
This was no ghost. It was Conrad’s mom. She was behind me. To the left. Other way! Past her. Back. There! Stop.
I hadn’t made it to the door yet, but she was there now, standing in the doorway.
“I guess,” I said, “you don’t recognize me. I mean, it’s been, what, twenty, thirty—?”
“I didn’t say I didn’t recognize you. I just said I don’t know what you want. Can I help you?”
“I just wanted to, you know, bring these.”
I held out the flowers I’d been holding behind my back. Held them out to her. Right there in front of her, where she could take them. She could just take them from me because I brought them to her or to him or to the house.
They were in a vase.
“I was, um,” I said, “going to knock.” I also said, “On the door.”
“Yeah, well, we keep it over here,” she said, “attached to the house.” Then she said, “As you recall. It’s the way you used to come in the house during the day.”
“Yeah, I brought y’all these but I…,” I said, “I spilled the water. Out. In the car.”
“Well, even if these were flowers like what you’d take to a funeral, there’s not going to be a funeral.” You could tell [couldn’t you?] that she was accustomed to people asking Why? at this point. She became quite pip-pip about the whole thing. “We ask that donations—”
“I brought them as a…as a trade. I want to trade them. These flowers. But I spilled the water. That’s important, so I need to go get the water.”
“Trade them for what? We’re back to the original question. How…can…I…help…you…?”
“I want to trade for…for the camera. I want to trade these flowers—”
“Conrad’s camera. The Kodak.”
“The old one-ten? What are you going to do with that?”
“I’m going to…. I’m going to, I guess, trade it.”
She didn’t, as would be hospitable custom, ask me if I wanted to trade for my soul. Instead, she asked, “What? It’s an antique now? You came all the way down here….”
I laughed a little. She didn’t laugh, not by any stretch, but she realized that she’d just told me that she knew where I lived now.
“I…,” she said. “I talked to your mom. Not too long ago. In the grocery store. Recently. Anyway—”
“Mom’s dead,” I said. “She’s been dead for three years.”
“Your mom’s dead? She died? How did she die?”
“I don’t know if she’s dead or not, to be frank, but if you aren’t sure she’s not dead, then you haven’t talked to her recently.”
It was a crummy thing to do, I know, but…
“What do you want?”
…I could imagine her getting frustrated and throwing the shoe box with the camera at me. Then, I would just have to pick up the camera and whatever spent rolls he may have left. She threw things when she got frustrated. And I knew how this would all end. Like an oracle, I just knew. She’d be glad later. Maybe I would sit on the hill just above the house. Sit there, out of sight, you know, and watch Paradise as if from Pisgah. She would, I’m sure, smile, just as soon as she got the idea.
“He’s been staying here, right?”
“In his closet, probably, there is a blue Reebok shoe box with that one-ten camera and possibly several rolls of film.”
“The film will have photos on it,” she said.
“Ostensibly,” I said.
She slung the door open and then slammed the big door shut. She slammed some things around the house. She threw some things. The power of her “You know” got somewhat lost in the interval, but she did return in order to say, “I’ll give you the whole box if you promise not to ever come back.”
I thought for a minute. I couldn’t make that promise—not exactly. “Never come back?” I asked.
“Never in this or any other lifetime come back here to this house.”
“Never come back?” I asked again. “Do you mean…?”
“I mean,” she yelled, “I don’t ever want to see you again, you worthless….”
She went on and on like that. The box she’d brought me not only had the camera but six…no, seven additional spent rolls. Probably ten other rolls were, ironically, useless as they rolled around in the box unspoiled.
“I solemnly promise that if you give me that box with the camera and the other stuff, you will never see me again.”
She handed me the box, and as I walked off, she hurled the flowers and their vace from the porch into the side yard. But that’s OK. I had the 110 Kodak and a box of spent film. Besides, I had promised that she would never see me again. I never promised that I wouldn’t be back.
Crazy to think about it now, but the only photo on the roll with the two of us in it was of us sitting on that porch the day he told me about the camera itself. He had his brother take the photo.
Conrad and I were three years out of high school. His brother…one or two. I don’t remember. The Soviet Union had fallen like a badly drawn red angel, making everything we’d learned in high school social studies obsolete. They’d told us that history was the one thing that couldn’t be taken away. Thirty years later, like little Cassandras and Laocoöns, we saw it all come back around. The blind leads the blind by three runs.
The 110 was an old camera even then. If there were digital cameras, we didn’t know about them, but even the disposable cameras of the day took better pictures than this.
“It doesn’t matter,” Conrad said. “I don’t develop the film. I just snap the pictures and keep the rolls,” he said. Then, he laughed. For such a little guy, Conrad had an explosive laughter, truly explosive. It seemed—the laughter—to shoot out from unseen gills in his own neck while his face froze in a medieval morality play with a Hell’s mouth and a mask of horror. He didn’t so much share joy but, more, challenged you to tell him that something wasn’t funny.
He stopped laughing abruptly, as was his want, and leaned in toward me, as if to tell a secret. “These photos I take….” None of our friends listened to us when we got to this point, anyway. “These pictures, you know, on the camera….” They thought we were annoying, what with our stories and our philosophies and our verbal hula-hoops. “I take them so I’ll have something, too. You have, like, your art and shit. That modernist-post-modernist-post-toasties shit.”
“Everyone’s a critic.”
“You got that shit. And people don’t know what the…you’re doing, but you got that, you know. Do you remember what you told me that one time? Do you remember?”
Then, he laughed, both to allow me time to remember and to threaten me to say I didn’t.
“You said,” he said, “it doesn't matter what happens at this point. I get arrested, I die, the repo man comes and takes everything…. It doesn’t matter, you said, because my art is eternal. And it’s in people’s homes. The Man can take dining room sets away from us, but He can’t take accomplishments. You said that.”
“I said that.”
He tried to pass it, but it was run down, and I didn’t want it to burn my fingers.
“You put all that effort into the little symbols and whatnot that people don’t get, and then, they buy it because it matches their carpet.” He almost laughed, but instead, he said, “They have the art, but they don’t really see it, see? That’s like my pictures, man. They’re memories I’ll never really have, but they exist—invisible and useless like our souls.”
I laughed, and he laughed until he went mad.
“The things you say,” he said, “haunt me, man! Do you remember…?” He leaned in even closer like he was about to Tyson my ear off. “Do you remember when we were shooting pool and talking about predestination? You said the only way predestination works is if some people are destined for Heaven—the Chosen—and some for Hell. You remember?”
“Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure. Yeah.” I really remembered, as I recall.
“Right. Then, I asked what purpose God had for people who are predestined for Hell. Like fruit flies, right? Why would God create those people if they were predestined for Hell? And you said they were on earth just to test the ones going to Heaven. They were here to make the chosen stronger. Do you remember that?”
“Hey Michael,” he said to his biological brother, “take our picture.” Then, he handed his brother the 110 and we moved in and smiled. “I love you, brother,” he said to me while his brother took the picture. “You my bro!”
He took the camera back from his brother.
“Anyway,” he continued, “that’s what you…said. And I asked which one were we—predestined for Heaven or Hell? And what did you say?”
“I don’t know.”
“No, you said, ‘Conrad, for God’s…sake, we ain’t even good influences on each other. What do YOU think our purpose is?’ And then you said, ‘Chosen? Would you choose us?’ That put me in a dark place, man. Those images…those images you make…. My heart hurt, and I’ve wanted to die at several points.”
“Don’t sorry me, man, because…,” he said as he jumped up, knocking the magic tray over, “…I ain’t going to Hell, man. I ain’t going to Hell, you hear me? I believe in…. Damn it! I believe!” He jumped on the railing and crouched there like a chimp before pointing his finger at me and yelling in front of his cousins and friends, “I ain’t going to Hell, no matter what you say! I…am…bound…for…Glory, you stupid ape.”
And he went on like that, flinging verbal poo that would have been embarrassing except that no one could understand him but me. And vice versa.
“I’m bound for Glory, and you….”
We were, in those days and in the ones before, M.C. Escher’s hands drawing each other. We were the fiery wheel of karma. We had, from fear and insanity, made each other gods in our own images.
“…you’re going to Hell!”
And he laughed like mad while everyone tried to calm him down. But then, I laughed. And then, they laughed. And Conrad snapped a photo of us all laughing. It was a house—or at least a front porch—of great mirth.
For development, I had to find someone in 2021 with a dark room. I knew drugs, in the photos, would be present, and folks would be naked. You can’t just send that kind of stuff off. Later, after we’d stopped hangin’, I know he would take the camera with him on his occasional month-long binges. I don’t know what a drug store would have done with those binge rolls. I mean, he has a half roll of that girl from West Virginia, and she’s both naked and, let’s just say, a long way from retirement. Legal? Sure, but....
Anyway, the last few photos were of his last few hours. I knew that already, but to explain that, I’d have to tell a story I’m saving for someone else.
Last Few Photos=Last Few Hours.
In the last photo, his eyes meet yours as the spike sets in vein, vanity as the earth abides. It’s haunting, his images. He was a writer; I am an artist. My words haunt him, but…. I wish I were a writer and could tell his mom…. I wish….
Instead, I write the book.
Here’s the thing: I kept my promise. Conrad’s mom didn’t see me when I ran up to the porch. Sure, I had come back, but she didn’t see me. That’s the point.
I am lying….
I am lying in a field on a knoll where a soul could see Conrad’s house. [It just occurred to me that he may have been with me in this hour. But no. No.] Across his yard, I see Conrad’s mom pick up the photo album. I’m just glad she doesn’t throw it when she looks up the hill. Instead, she simply hollers about what she hopes I’ll eat before going straight to Hell. She reads the book and rolls her eyes painfully in her skull. I can’t see that from Pisgah, but I know, you know?
Printout of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World
Conrad’s Mom: The beginning here is rough, but please stay for the happy ending. It’s at the end. That’s where we like to keep it.
To clarify, the Odyssey is not about a man who goes out and fights a war before returning to his kingdom. It’s really only about the return. The return is all that matters.
· It doesn’t matter how you fell; it’s about how you got up.
· It’s doesn’t matter how you fell from grace; it’s….
· Nor does it matter…whose fault it is.
But it matters. I know.
Once upon a time, a once-worthy prince had fallen into troubles.
Photos show the ghosts of (t.g.o.) his heavy drug use.
He spent a lot of time in rehab, paid for by some of the people who’ll appear later in this book.
Photos show t.g.o. him recovering in rehab. Smiling! He earned little metal pins in his 40s, chips in his court-ordered 30s, and “Freedom Passes” in his 20s.
I remember when he got his first “Freedom Pass,” and you had the family picnic, and I was the only one there that was not really family, and we all played softball, and the ball hit the powerline, and I argued that such an obstruction would be a ground-rule double, and you said, “How the…is that a ground-rule anything? It hit something in the air!”
I just want you to know that, while we worked this out, Conrad went around the barn to smoke a cigarette that he didn’t get from me.
Photos show t.g.o. Conrad entering, lying in, or leaving facilities, all to[o] much fanfare.
Occasionally, the once-worthy prince fell off the wagon, and sometimes, the soulless wagon ran him the…over. It didn’t matter, for the wagon goes backwards only one way, and having ridden through death, the once-worthy prince was on his way back to safety. He was bound for Glory!
Photos show t.g.o. Conrad standing on the railing like a chimp: i.e. “preaching from his chair.” He always loved The Who, especially “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Who Are You?” No one else, not even the camera, knew that about, you know, the prince.
Then, a prophet came along. A bat-blind idiot spouted sound and fury, blowing chunks of the Styx. Fortunately, the prince was too far into his return to safety, and he paid no attention to the negative profit. “Oh, Mama!”
The photo of t.g.o. me and Conrad on the porch of mirth.
Until finally, said prince leaves the Land of Predestination and heads home.
Photos show t.g.o. the prince and his brother (biological) and his father (as it is written) walking up the driveway to get the mail. The photos showed each character carrying a lunchbox. The photo was taken in order to send to your sister in Atlanta to show how lovely life is in the country so she would stop bragging. Funny thing: You told me that.
Finally—”The Shores of Ithaca.”
A photo proudly presents Conrad’s mom holding baby Conrad, her eyes saying that this is her son, in whom she is greatly proud.
A prints I made based on the photo from page 14. If you can sell it….
Conrad’s mom looked back toward Pisgah before hugging the book and returning to paradise. Book in hand, she walked her solitary way.
Forgiveness ain’t the same as salvation, but sometimes, salvation will do.
Maybe I’ll write to her someday—Conrad’s Mom—and tell her that I was there and that I hope she’s happy. Or maybe, I’ll just write this story.