The roll of film is eleven years old. 10-20-89 is scrawled on the label in Mom’s neat scribbles. We found it yesterday, when we moved Dad into his new apartment on Dewey Street.
“I bet it’s pictures of orchids,” I say as Jenny hands the roll of film to a graying man on the other side of the CVS counter. Mom loved her orchids, but ever since the funeral they’ve just been wilting on my windowsill. Dad is starting to wilt, too. He looks eighty, not sixty-three. He aged seventeen years in the last six months.
“October twenty…” Jenny says. “That’s one week after we got back from France.”
“It’ll be about an hour,” says the film guy. “Can I have a name?”
Jenny looks at me and shrugs apologetically. “Mark,” she says to the film guy, and he scratches my name on a form. I guess that means I’m the one picking them up. Typical.
“It can’t be France, we developed all our pictures from France,” I say as we walk across the blustery winter street for coffee.
“Yeah, you’re right,” says Jenny. “That was a fun trip, though. Remember the crazy street artist who chased you down because he liked your hat?”
“Remember when Mom freaked out halfway up the Eiffel Tower?” We laugh, and for a moment I think I feel that old connection. The one we lost years ago, replaced with judgmental silence and stale grudges.
When we enter the café we’re greeted by a line that stretches halfway to the door. Hip youngsters with tattoos and older gentlemen in suits order lattes and cappuccinos and fancy, fluffy drinks I’ve never heard of.
Jenny and I stand in silence as the line inches forward. Whatever connection I felt earlier is gone; an illusion brought about by laughter and fond memories. These days, with families and kids of our own, we don’t talk much. She thinks I should have stayed with Helen, that I’ve done nothing with my life and failed my daughter. I think she spoils her sons in an overprotective attempt to keep them innocent. And her husband is a prick. Mom and Dad used to be the only subject that wasn’t tainted by battle. Now, we argue over them as well. What to do with Mom’s stuff. Where to ‘put’ Dad. Whether or not to sell the family home.
As soon as we get our drinks, Jenny finds a lame excuse to leave; something about giving a friend a lift. “I doubt there’s anything good,” she says as she collects her change, “The pictures are probably overexposed or something.”
“Five bucks says there’s an orchid in there,” I tease. Back in grade school, we used to gamble on everything from the weather to the ads on TV. But we haven’t bet a dime since I put ten dollars down on her first baby. She still owes me for having a boy.
“You’re on,” she says. She leaves, but not before giving me her best little-sister grin, all mischief and teeth. I haven’t seen that smile since before I got divorced and ‘ruined the family’s reputation.’
Too confused to be pleased by the unexpected smile, I drink coffee until my fingers shake. I ponder the loss of the women in my life. First my wife, then my sister, now my mother. My daughter’s already been sabotaged, I’m sure, but she’s still a push-up bra away from truly hating me. At 11:59, I meander back across the street.
Mr. CVS greets me with a toothy smile, his shiny white dentures on full display.
“Don’t bother paying,” he tells me with a wink. I take the envelope from his wrinkled hands and stride out of the store, wishing the rest of the world was as friendly as him.
Outside, feeling hopeful, I remove the stack of photos before thinking to worry about the wind. A picture gets blown down the street, then three more before I tighten my grip.
And there, newly exposed on the glossy paper in my hand, are my mother’s bare, sagging breasts.
I shove the stack back in the envelope and rush into the street, manically chasing after the photographs that were stolen by the wind. I’m not sure which is more horrifying — that I just developed a racy role of film starring my own deceased mother, or that her naked pictures are about to be scattered across the city.
A car screeches around me, but I manage to secure two of the photos. I don’t mean to look at them before I shove them in my pocket, but still I see it; neatly trimmed pubic hair in a perfect V, red and curly. Delicate hands circled around a glistening cock.
The third picture scampers down the street and I rush after it. I catch it outside a fruit stand; a blurry image of a hairy ass. By the time I get to the fourth picture, I’m breathing hard and people on the street are staring. I step on it before it can blow any further, and lean down to pick it off the ground.
I’m not shocked when I see that the man in the picture is naked. I’m shocked when I realize he’s not my father. I cram the final picture into my pocket and call my sister. This will change everything – for better or worse I’m not sure. Maybe it’s the wake-up call my family needs.
The answering machine picks up after three rings and my sister’s fake cheery voice tells me to leave a message. Kids in the background are yelling about whose toy is whose while her husband berates them. Every time I hear it, I think, can’t they just re-record?
Then it beeps. It’s the moment of truth. At least I don’t have to tell her to her face.
“They were overexposed,” I tell the answering machine, changing my mind at the last second. “I guess I owe you five bucks.”
Amy R. Biddle is a sailor and writer who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Her debut novel, The Atheist’s Prayer, is a dark comedy about a fairy-worshiping suicide cult. Amy has also written a smattering of poetry and articles both online and in local newsletters, and one of her poems was selected for the 2013 Poetic Republic collection. In addition to writing, she co-runs Underground Book Reviews, a review site for quality independent literature.