The Photograph, 2018 Honorable Mention Winners’ Circle

By Les Tanner

It was something that Phil had lost sleep over—lots of sleep—since John had flown back home two weeks ago.  He had gone over his comings and goings dozens of times, checked his reminder book, even asked the others in the bridge club, all to no avail.  There just didn’t seem to be a reasonable explanation.

It had all started the previous February when John was here in Nampa on one of his visits.  John was a good son, always keeping in touch with Phil and Helen, not only by phone and email, but also by coming out when he had a chance to get away from his extremely busy life as a computer analyst for a large firm back in Pennsylvania, whose name Phil could never remember.

John had usually made the trip twice a year, but had been coming out to Idaho more frequently since..

It was still hard for Phil to believe that Helen was no longer here.  She’s been his life and love for over forty-seven years.  Then two years ago she was suddenly gone.  But Helen was gone only physically, as far as he was concerned.  Her presence was everywhere, in the way pictures had been hung in just the right places, in the plants Phil had managed to keep alive, in the family photos that resided on the mantle above the fireplace and in the beautiful cherry-wood cabinet that had belonged to her mother.

And in him, too.  Now he said “You’re welcome” rather than “Sure” or “No problem” when someone said “Thanks.”  Now he made the bed every morning.  Now he never left a kitchen knife lying with the blade up.  Now he always buckled up before he started the car.  Now he never “left the seat up”.

Often when he was sitting at his computer surfing the Web or working on his novel, Phil would get the feeling that Helen was just about to call from the kitchen to have him get a dish down from an upper shelf, or to suggest that he run down to the taco shop to get some takeout for supper, or to tap him on the shoulder to ask whether this or that set of earrings went best with the outfit she’d so carefully selected to wear to the monthly Ladies’ Night Out with her friends from church.

John had called at least once a week during the past two years, and had made it a point to fly out three or four times a year.  During those trips John would take care of the many things that should have been taken care of, but which had been let slide.  Loose shingles on the roof, a leaky bathroom faucet, an electric drill that needed a new power cord.  In actuality, those things had been ignored when Helen was still here.  It was just Phil’s way to take care of more important things first.  Like making sure his golf clubs were in tip-top shape.

It was during his visit six months ago that John had made the suggestion.

“Dad,” he said one evening as they were doing the supper dishes, “What you need is some company.”

“Company?  You mean like a date?”  He shuddered at the thought.  Nowhere in the world was there anyone who could come close to what Helen had been to him.

“No,” said John. “You’ve made it abundantly clear in the past that we were never to try to set you up.  What I was going to suggest is that you get a pet.”

Phil was surprised that it had never occurred to him.  Oh, he’d had dogs when he was a kid, but Helen had been extremely allergic to both dogs and cats.  The closest they’d ever come to having animals in the house was a tank full of guppies and a couple of parakeets.  And the never-to-be-forgotten Hannibal the hamster.  Hannibal had been a good pet, for the most part.  Easy to take care of, didn’t take up much room, didn’t eat much.  But he had managed to get into Helen’s dresser drawer one day and make himself a snug little nest, using fibers from her favorite sweater.  Hannibal sealed his doom when he came scurrying into the living room one evening when Helen was entertaining the ladies from her church circle.

“There’s a place over on Orchard called Pet Haven,” continued John.  “It’s a no-kill shelter just for cats.  I know that they’d be delighted to have you adopt one.”

“Let me think about that for a while,” Phil replied, when he really didn’t plan to do so at all.   He didn’t need to have something else to worry about.

As luck would have it, however, when he was in the bicycle shop a couple of weeks later where he had taken a wheel to be balanced, he was accosted by two of the friendliest creatures he had ever been around.  As soon as he sat down to wait, two nearly identical cats came running over to him, and before he knew it, one was on his lap purring loudly, and the other was draped over his shoulders.

“You must be a cat person,” remarked Mike, the shop owner.  “Those guys are usually afraid of folks who come in.”

“Never had a cat in my life,” replied Phil.

The experience got him to thinking more about John’s suggestion, though, and the following day he located the pet shelter John had suggested.

And as had happened in the bike shop, he was barely inside the door when all three of the resident “office cats” rushed over to him, rubbing up against him and letting him know that at the very least they expected him to lavish them with affection.

“You must be a cat person,” said the young woman behind the counter. “Those cats are generally friendly but rarely have I seen them act like that.”  Deja vu all over again!

To shorten this story a bit, an hour later found Phil on his way home with not one but two cats in carriers on the back seat.  They were two of a litter of seven siblings that had been brought into the shelter the previous week, all of which were named after the “Seven Dwarfs” of Snow White fame.  He had chosen “Bashful” and “Sleepy”which, as it turned out, suited them perfectly—and made him secretly glad that he hadn’t taken “Grumpy” and “Dopey.”

It wasn’t long at all before the three of them—he and Bashful and Sleepy—were behaving as though they were a family.  He found himself talking to them all the time, making comments or asking questions, much like the kind of chatter that had constantly taking place between him and Helen.  They usually answered him in one way or another, too, by meowing loudly or coming up to him for an ear scratch and a tummy rub.

And within hours of the first time the two cats had been in the house, he had dug out the new and previously unused digital camera that his grandchildren had given him the previous Christmas and begun taking pictures of his new family.  Sleepy and Bashful were one-year-olds, or so the folks at Pet Haven had told him, and like all cats at that age—and at every age, really—they were curious and playful and could hide in places he never even knew existed.  He had photos of them in every conceivable position and on every climbable object in the house.  He used the camera so often that he always had it at hand somewhere around the house.  And every night when he went to bed, he put the camera on the night stand where he could get at it in a hurry.  One never knew when one of the “kids” would do something worth recording.

But there was a problem: Phil was “technologically-challenged”.  Things like computers were a mystery to him for the most part.  He could send emails and use a word processor, but that was about it.  And all he knew about his camera was what buttons to push to take pictures and how to look at the ones he had taken.  On John’s first visit after Phil began using the camera, he had prevailed upon John to download all of the photos onto the computer so that copies could be sent to his computer friends, whether they wanted them or not.

John even created a file which became the screen-saver on Phil’s computer.  It contained dozens of photos of the cats, as well as thirty or so of Helen that John had taken on earlier trips or had scanned in from pictures he found in a box stashed away in the hall closet.  Many were the times thereafter when Phil would just sit at his desk and watch those oh-so-special members of his family—Sleepy and Bashful and Helen—fade in and out on the monitor.  And always as he watched, he wished that Helen had been able to know the two cats, and they her.

When John had been here for his latest visit three weeks ago, there were dozens more photos in the camera.  Phil had been a bit more daring this time, trying for some “selfies”, a term his grandchildren had used but which he had to look up on the Web.  He had also had one of the people in his bridge club take a few of him with the two cats.

Being an experienced procrastinator, Phil had yet to look at this latest batch of photos, and when John had wanted to see them, Phil had asked him to go through them and add some of the better ones to the screen-saver file.

And the result was what was causing Phil to lose so much sleep—and to think maybe that’s not all he was losing.

John had created the screen-saver file and was running through it with Phil watching, frame at a time, to make sure the content and arrangement were to Phil’s liking.  And certainly they were, not only the original contents of the file but also the new additions.

“I particularly like this next one, Dad,” said John, who knew what was coming.  “It’s a real keeper.”

And it was.  The photo showed Phil lying in bed with Bashful asleep in the crook of his left arm and Sleepy napping along the top of his pillow.  His glasses were askew and a mystery novel lay open, pages down, on his chest.  The clock on the night stand showed that it was 3:23 AM.  He, too, was asleep, clearly having nodded off while reading.  What he liked most about the photo was how it showed the three of them as content and peaceful as any family could possibly be.

And therein lay the problem that was causing Phil to feel he was losing his grip on reality.  He had checked the date and time the picture was taken, as recorded by the camera.  Over and over he had run through what he had been doing around that time, and where he had been, and with whom.  He’d planned at one time to buy a tripod to go along with the camera, but had never gotten around to it.  He was sure he didn’t walk in his sleep, but even if he did, it was no help.  The strangest thing of all was that in his search for clues to answer John’s question, he looked more carefully at the photo, and what he saw—or didn’t see—was that his camera was not on the night stand where he always put it, next to the clock.

Nothing—absolutely nothing he could think of that was rational and possible, anyway—could answer the question that John had asked so nonchalantly when he was showing Phil the photo on the screen-saver.

“That’s sure a great photo, Dad,” John had said.  “A real keeper.”

And then he had added, “Who took it?”