I found the camera among Grandpa’s things in the attic before we sold the house.
When Grandma died he never remarried, content to live alone until the ravages of age told him he no longer could, and we eventually took him to hospice to finish out his days.
Sometimes in his sleep he’d mutter Check the camera, but as we’d never known him to have any particular love of photography outside of the usual family gatherings we no longer held, we chalked it up to the ramblings of an old man in decline.
But they were also his last words, uttered on the rainy day he died, and we stood around his bed to bid him farewell. When he said Check the camera for the last time, it was as if in that moment a spider’s silky web thread attached itself to my mind, and no matter how I mentally swatted at it, it wouldn’t go away and leave me alone.
When I finally saw the old camera on a dusty shelf in a shadowed corner, it was like I found a gold coin. Expecting to see boxes of pictures and the like, it was just the camera itself; there was nothing fancy, expensive, or high tech about it.
It was off-brand, unremarkable, and inexpensive. What else would he have? He wasn’t a photographer, right? Though I couldn’t hide my disappointment at night finding a picture stash, I was still curious enough to test the camera out and see if it still worked. There was a magnifying glass next to it, and on impulse I took that too, (an unwelcome acknowledgment of my own decline), if there was anything that needed closer inspection.
I went outside and sat at the picnic table we’d used when the cookouts were a frequent thing and Grandpa would command the grill.
Placing everything on the table, I dusted the camera off and looked through the viewfinder.
I was in a speakeasy, the air tinged with smoke, laced with a slow jazz tune that couples swayed to amid the clink of glasses and the low chatter and laughter of the late night crowd.
The dapper gent in the black suit and shiny shoes who sat two stools down from me at the bar was chatting up the cigarette girl, who looked like she didn’t want to be anywhere else until she got a dirty look from the floor manager.
The guy winked at her, and she winked back and gave him a cigarette with another slip of paper around it.
And without knowing how I knew it, I’d just seen how my grandparents met.
There were romantic walks, where they held hands, moonlight kisses, silent movies, hayrides, hot kitchens, cold bedrooms, fireplaces, snatches of arguments followed by slamming doors, crying babies, running children, laughter, scolding, quiet moments with books, dancing by candlelight to music long forgotten.
The love between them was strong, almost palpable, almost sentient, and feeding on itself to grow even stronger as more years passed.
Graduations, ballgames, weddings, and then…
Inconsolable, he stayed at her grave long after everyone left, on his knees crying out his soul, his suit muddy from the downpour as the thunder rolled above him, and he wished nothing more than to be struck by lightning to end the pain…
I put the camera down, came back to the present amazed, drained, and breathless.
The sun was going down.
I rubbed my eyes and collected myself, taking one last look around.
And I saw the dapper gent and cigarette girl, as he waited for her at the bottom of the backstairs. She came out, all smiles and dimples, and he swept her into his arms and spun her around, both of them laughing as they faded from view.
The camera’s shutter flickered with a bright light as it clicked.
Not knowing what to think or how I felt, I took it back to its shadowy shelf, and removed the “For Sale” sign in the front, putting it in the trunk before I left.
There’d be time enough to settle things, when I checked the camera again to make sure they were gone.