Fire and Smoke

 

            The weather was perfect, the leaves were magnificent, and this would be the perfect day to get the shots he needed.  The sky was slightly gray, but Shannon felt it just made the contrast particularly striking.  Shannon was glad there weren’t many people in the park.  The chance of rain must have kept them home.  The less people out and about meant the less people he had to avoid.  He may not have been an attractive man, but unlike most of this town, he didn’t insist on being photographed despite his physical lack of aesthetic.  His eyes were narrow and small, his freckles were large and unsightly, his nose was unnaturally rounded and too small for his face, and his red curls had mostly turned to gray.  He had a nice smile though, everyone had always told him his charisma turned on the moment he smiled.  Shannon reached into his messenger bag, took out his flask, took a drink, and returned it.  He was always careful to cap it tightly so it wouldn’t spill onto his camera.  He had needed to quit carrying his camera case with him, because it was too heavy and too large, making it impossible for him to pretend he didn’t have his camera.  Wrapping it in a medium sized piece of fabric seemed to work just as well, so he had turned it into a habit, and with the exception of one small mishap, it had been working very well. 

There was one deep red tree that hadn’t lost any leaves yet.  As much as he wanted to take a picture of it, he was still in the main area of the park, with too many people to see him.  First Shannon looked left, and then he looked right, then behind him.  No one.  Maybe it would be ok to take a quick picture.  It would make a nice cover and he could sell it to a publishing company, because his last attempt at selling a book cover did very well.  He made almost as much with the royalties as he did with his own calendar, because after one year a calendar is gone, but they keep buying the book.  Plus in its own way, it was free advertising space, not that he needed it anymore, but it was still a bonus.  Carefully Shannon twisted his messenger bag in front of him, pulled out, and unwrapped his camera. 

            “Shannon, Shannon Durkin?  Well I’m glad to see you with your camera again.  We had all been talking about how we were afraid you had given up photography.  It has been so long anyone has seen you take any pictures.”  It was Mrs. Bowen.  She had six children, and each was as unattractive as she was, but she still thought they should be in every picture Shannon took. 

            “Good morning Mrs. Bowen.  I’m still taking pictures, just not quite as many.  Trying to live in front of the lens if you know what I mean.”  All Shannon could think was how a woman so large could hide so well.

            “Of course, I’m here today too, trying to get my mind off work.  My kids are around here too, playing, you know how kids are.”  She stuck her hands into her pockets.  She looked cold, even though her coat was much thicker than his was and he was fine.  He thought of his flask and thought maybe that made a difference.

            “Of course,” Shannon knew what was coming next.

            “You should go see if you can find them, they are so cute.  They would be perfect for you.  They look like all American children. You could put them in your next collection.”

            “I’ll see what I can do.”  Shannon turned and walked away.  She didn’t say anything so he assumed she thought he was going after her litter of trolls.  Maybe a litter of trolls was better than nothing.  In fact, he would gladly take a litter of trolls.

            The tree that was superbly red and beautiful went unphotographed.  He pulled out his cell phone, no one had called, and he knew that.  He had to keep checking it, just in case.  After checking to make sure it was turned up all the way, he also checked his voice mail.  Mail box empty.  When no one was supposed to call, it was always full.  Just looking at his phone tied his stomach into knots.  His telling Mrs. Bowen he was trying to live on the other side of his camera wasn’t a lie, in the last two months he had began trying to change things.  He was known as the Normal Rockwell of photography, and with a title like that, comes a certain amount of notoriety. That used to be enough, because it had always been a goal, but something so small changed him.  There was one little boy that made a major impression on him that summer.  He had been on the beach while out at his city house.  This little boy, who was as pale as any child he had ever seen, was making a very bad sand castle.  Shannon hoped he had been doused in sunscreen, because Shannon himself was already beginning to burn.  The little boy, who’s name he later found out was Howe, was singing one line of a song over and over again.  Shannon didn’t know why, but that line made him know, decide, and be set on adopting a child, one with red hair, like his own.  “And the skies are not cloudy all day.” Shannon often found himself muttering it to himself, especially when he was sitting in the terrible adoption agency.  He had no partner, which despite his fame, made it very hard for him to adopt.  They had told him if he could be with someone for X amount of time in a stable household, he could reapply if it doesn’t go through.  Sometimes he wished he had taken a picture of Howe, but he knew just remembering was better.  The adoption agency was supposed to call him, but when he didn’t know.  That wasn’t the only call he was waiting for, he wondered if it was the more important of the two.

            There was a huge pile of dead leaves in front of him.  He was in the middle of the woods now, and he wondered why someone would have taken the time to rake them.  In a small dirt pile was a lit cigarette.  Someone was here, and nearby.  He stomped out the cigarette, afraid it would set the leaves on fire.  No sooner had he put his foot on top of the cigarette did a small someone come bounding out of the pile.

            “Noooo, you just put out my camp fire! Now they won’t find me!”

            Unable to speak Shannon just took a step back and stared at this little girl.  She had red frizzy curly hair, which must be why he couldn’t see her in the pile of leaves.  Her eyes were big, green, and angry.  All he could do was stammer and step back, but someone came running up from behind him.

            “Jackie? Jackie, are you ok?  Why are you yelling?”  The woman stopped yelling and stopped short beside Shannon. “What are you doing?” She said to Shannon.

            “I just stamped out the cigarette I had no idea she was…”

            “You’re Shannon Durkin aren’t you?” The woman’s face wasn’t angry or frightened anymore.  She seemed unable to control her smile, and she stuck her hand out, still smiling. “I’m Lynne Anne, both with an e.”

            “Hi Lynne Anne, spelled with an e.  Have we met?”

            “Obviously not or I wouldn’t be introducing myself.”

            The little girl in the leaves picked up the stamped out cigarette and carried it to Lynne Anne, “Mommy he stamped out my camp fire.”

            “It’s ok Jackie. This is the photographer I told you about.  This is Mr. Shannon Durkin.”

            “I don’t care, relight my fire.”

            Lynne Anne took a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket.  It wasn’t a brand Shannon had ever heard of before. His last boy friend smoked constantly and was always searching for the perfect brand, so Shannon knew his cigarettes.  He assumed they must be foreign.  She lit the cigarette and handed it to Jackie, and then Jackie put it back carefully in the small pile of dirt before diving back into the leaves and covering herself back up. 

            “Do you mind if I took some pictures of her?”  Shannon was always careful to ask, although he hadn’t needed to for quite some time. 

            “Of course, I’d be honored actually.”

            So Shannon took pictures of Jackie.  She posed and didn’t even mean to.  She stuck her head out just enough to see her little nose to the top of her head, and if her hair wasn’t enough, her freckles made her blend in even more.  “I’ll call her an autumn chameleon.”  Shannon told Lynne Anne.

            “Do you think you’ll get these published?”

            “I’m sure I will.” He didn’t usually feel pride when he told people he could get anything published, even sunsets in the most post card fashion, if he wanted to, but somehow this strange woman’s adoration made him.  Maybe she reminded him of Nicolas, but he wasn’t sure why.  “So how do you know who I am, and what brings you out to Gilford?”  He was still snapping picture after picture of Jackie as he spoke to Lynne Anne who had also began to snap pictures, but hers included Shannon.  This made him uneasy.

            “I quit my job and have decided to become a photographer.”

            Shannon lowered his camera for a moment, and smiled at her, amused.  She took a picture of him like that, and he raised his camera again and started snapping photos of Lynne Anne.  “Just like that? One day boom, I want to be a photographer?”

            “Just like that, Boom.  You’re my idol.  Forgive my bluntness.  Me and Jackie have been driving around seeing what there is to see. I think that’s how the expression goes.  I knew you frequented these woods.  I was hoping I might see you here, just not expecting.” 

            Her constant clicking made him nervous, and he knew he had enough pictures of Jackie. “Do you want some coffee?” He could hardly believe he was asking her, but he wanted to talk to her for some reason, and he didn’t want her to take any more pictures of him. 

            Her smile was pleasant, warming even, and the wrinkles in the corners of her eyes, inviting.  “Coffee is good.”  She put down her camera, wrapped it in a piece of orange cloth, and Shannon couldn’t help but be amused.  He did the same with his, but his cloth wasn’t orange.  “Come on Jax, get a wiggle on.”  The little girl was pouting, and indignant about her premature removal, but still put out the cigarette and obediently followed her mother.

            “So your husband didn’t have any objections to your, well your boom.”  Shannon didn’t know if it sounded like a come on, but he hoped it didn’t.

            “My husband is in no position to do anything, except paint the Sistine chapel I suppose. He passed away a long time ago.”

            “I’m sorry to hear that.”  Shannon and Lynne Anne found a bench. “I know a great coffee shop not far away.  Do you want to walk with me, or is she intent on staying.”  He pointed over at Jackie who had run to the swings in their short pause.

            “I think I’ll wait for you if that’s not a problem.”

            “I wouldn’t have asked you if it wasn’t ok.”  He found himself smiling again, and hoping she would make note of his charisma.

            He hurried towards the coffee shop and he was overwhelmed with ideas.  In the past, he had many fans come up to him, but none were quite so interesting.  His head was full of things he knew he shouldn’t be thinking.  She was interested in him, he could tell.  It would be so easy, she would love him and he would be able to adopt.  He could even have children if he could make himself. Hell, she already had one and she was just like he wanted.  She would be pleased just to be married to him, he could tell, and he’d have what he wanted, a family.   What a horrible thing to think, but it was a chance. She was a lovely woman, and she seemed to be interesting.  She would make a good friend, and he could tell the similarities didn’t end with the camera wrapping.  They both had interesting vice.  He had his constant flask companion, and her foreign cigarettes.  Shannon was never a fan of cigarette smoke but he found himself in the last few years, in fact, missing it. 

Nicolas smoked.  Nicolas would go through at least a pack and a half a day, normally different brands, and the way he went about smoking used to bother Shannon.  Nicolas could never manage to put his cigarettes out.  He would just leave them burning on the back stairs, so often that the stairs that were once a light gray stone had turned a dark charcoal.  It was how he could tell if Nicolas was home or not.  If he was, there would always be a cigarette burning, still red, but now he couldn’t count how many times he had wished to see a burning cigarette in the past three years.  He couldn’t think about this anymore. It was just too much.  His cell phone still hadn’t rung, and Nicolas hadn’t responded to his message. Shannon just tried to hurry his pace.  The faster the pace, the faster the coffee, and the faster it would be done.  No more crazy thoughts, because what would he do with a woman anyhow, and why hadn’t Nicolas called?

“Hi.” Shannon plopped down on the bench beside her.  She must not have seen him coming, because she jumped.

“Hi. Welcome back.”

“Sorry I took so long.”

“Oh you weren’t long at all.”

Shannon and Lynne Anne sat drinking their coffee, and Lynne Anne was smoking.  Jackie was nowhere Shannon could see.

“Where did Jackie go?”

“Back to her leaf pile I think.”

“You aren’t sure.”

Lynne Anne shook her head no.

“Should we go find her?  It can’t be safe to let her run alone.”

“She’ll be fine, she’ll come back soon.”

“How do you know, what if something happens?”

“Me worrying about it won’t stop it, and I can’t hover above her.”

“How can you be so calm and indifferent towards your own child?”

Lynne Anne was remarkably calm for the sort of question he had asked.  The expectation of her to shout, be offended and go was not realized. She just slowly took another drag on her cigarette, and shrugged. “I know her, I trust her, and she’s loud.”

Shannon laughed. He hadn’t thought about it like that, but now he was glad he did.  The topic needed changed because Shannon was beginning to feel old in his concern. “So why am I your idol?” Shannon smiled big at his own arrogance.

“You’ll laugh if I tell you.”

“No, I’ll be pleased and my already large head will grow.” He messed his curly hair a bit, and waited.

“This one picture, in black and white, well, mostly black and white.  It wasn’t one of the ones in your calendars, or even a better-known one.  It was in a collection of previously unpublished photo’s one of your agents had compiled I think.”

Shannon leaned in.  It was rare anyone ever mentioned any of those, because it was normally just talk about his knack for capturing children and small towns.  Those were nice, but some of his unpublished, especially the black and white were especially important, and meaningful to him. 

“It was a man,” she continued. “His hair was completely gray, you could tell even though he was in black and white, but he was young.  That in it self was striking but there was more to it.” She seemed to be talking to herself now, but the fact she internalized it made it even more interesting to him. “He was in bed, and wrapped waste down in a sheet, he was smoking, and the cigarettes end was in color.  Then, the background was red, bright red, and it looked like an autumn leaf, the veins and all.  I don’t know how you imposed that on so perfectly, but I just loved it.  I just felt like it was me there.  I can’t explain it.” She seemed to come back to Shannon, “Do you know which one I’m talking about.  I know there are so many, but do you know which one I’m talking about?”

“Yea, I know.”  That was the only picture that Nicolas had ever allowed Shannon to take of him.  He was always so self-conscious about his gray hair, and it was the first time Shannon had ever tried to mix black and white and color.  He hadn’t published it because Nicolas was upset you could still tell his hair was gray.  It was Shannon’s favorite and it was also the only photo he had up in his bedroom.  “I know that one.” Shannon didn’t want to talk to anyone anymore, he was too fixed on the thought of Nicolas, and why he hadn’t called him back yet.  “Hey, I’m going to have to cut this short.  Umm, I really enjoyed meeting you.  Here.”  In his bag, he dug out a business card and wrote his cell phone number on the back. “Feel free to call me, I mean it, not out of kindness, or being polite, but genuinely, call me anytime.”

“Thank you, thank you very much.” She held out the card beaming, but a moment later, she stuffed it into her pocket.  “I’m going to really call you, you know.”

“I hope you will.” Shannon stood up and readjusted his bag, as he was doing so she stood up and hugged him.  He laughed and patted her back.  “Tell Jackie goodbye for me.”

Lynne Anne watched him, but he didn’t need to look back. He knew she was watching him.  He didn’t know why but he had to get home, and he didn’t even stop to chat with most of the people he saw along the way.  After what seemed like the longest walk home, he finally made it.  He looked at his cell phone again as he opened the front gate.  Still no calls.  The mess of his bag would offer him no keys, and he couldn’t remember if he had even taken them with him.  Left with no other options other than climbing through a window he started into his back yard to his hidden key.  After he made it over the woodpile, and through his overgrown trellis, he was faced with his back stoop.  Shannon ran to his unlocked backdoor, because on his gray back step was a burning red cigarette.