Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #4, Winter 1999-2000]

For Harold Brodkey

By Marcus Gray
[Here's a story I wrote a few years ago for The New Yorker, after Brodkey died -- so this would have been about Autumn '96. No, of course they didn't publish it. I faxed it to a friend a couple of weeks ago, along with a note saying how tired I was of talking. She read it as a suicide note and all manner of panic ensued. Whatever. -- Marcus]

There are a couple of things I ought to mention right here at the outset, before I begin to tell this proper, a couple of provisos if that's the right word. (I just checked, and it is.) First off, I'm doing this for the money. I am a writer, yes, and a photographer too, and I've been working on a book for the past few years, rejection letters for which I've received from this very periodical you hold in your hands, but that's something else entirely. Right now, though, I'm in a desperate financial situation; my rent's long overdue, as are the bills, and my debt threatens to move outside of a scale I have any hope of controlling. This year I haven't just been buying presents on credit, I've been getting my food with the plastic too. (Last month, for the first time, I even had to withdraw cash on my credit card to make the minimum payment back!) In short, things are dire enough for me to lay aside whatever rules I thought I played by and finally get this told out on paper, this time not just for the telling, but for the money too.

The second thing you should know, and I guess if you're still reading, then you're already aware of it, is that this is not a story. If you're in the mood for a couple of pages of plot, a happy-ever-after, and all the contrived shit that goes along with that, then I suggest you turn the page, because this is not for you. Go look at some of those advertisements again. And finally, before I get started, let me just tell you that I'm drinking as I write; there's a dwindling half left in the Jack Daniel's bottle before me on the desk. What can I tell you? It's cold out, I'm trying to keep my fuel bills down, and it's very very late. (Originally I'd planned to take a day off from work, get up real early and spend the day leisurely drafting this whole thing out, polishing up the vocabulary and grammar and whatnot, but not it's gone midnight and I'm still just beginning, and I know that when I get done with this tonight that will be that. This will have to stand or fall on what gets told tonight.)

The central fixture, the pivot of what I want to write about here is a picture I took when I was studying photography at college. Our first assignment when we returned for the second year: three transparencies on the theme of "colour." Somehow, even with such a vague brief, most of the images were pretty similar, except for one guy who I remember had switched off all the lights in his room and held the shutter open to record the glowing power-on LED of his stereo, the delayed exposure leaving a trail of red light across the slide. I found my own efforts embarrassing to look at, so I'm glad that now, almost eleven years later, try as I might I cannot recall a single one of the shots. What I do remember though is that I'd taken one particular photograph for the brief, and at the last minute decided not to submit it for the class crit.

Then, towards the end of my final year, I was printing up some cibachromes and I decided I would make myself a copy of this particular image. Describing my work has never been a strong point, and I suppose that's why I take the damn photographs in the first place, to sidestep that process of verbally presenting things, but whatever: it's an upright 35mm shot of a rose in a cemetary, and in the background and slightly out-of-focus is the statue of a woman with her head bowed. It was shot on a winter's day pretty much like today was, grey and overcast, and the stonework is all grey too, so at first it looks just like a black and white print, except for the red rose in the foreground. Hopefully they'll print a copy of it alongside this and you'll see what I mean for yourself.

As the prints I was making were sliding out of the processing machine, people began to ask about the picture. Where had I taken it? How had I taken it? (and to be honest I've always favoured this type of question over that other "Why did you take it?", because at least those two have ready answers) and invariably they would ask if I could run them off a copy. I had some paper to spare to I pushed off a few copies for friends and classmates and even a couple of the lecturers who'd expressed an interest. But when I ran out of paper and I was still being asked for copies, I found myself in a difficult position. I've always maintained that it's really impossible to evaluate a piece of art, or rather, to assign art a pricetag. Whenever I'm posting work out and I have to fill in one of those post office customs labels, I always record the value of the piece as "priceless" and "worthless," (if I had time I'd tell you a story about a friend of mine who submitted some of his work to a photography auction, and about how even though his work was, to me at least, better than many of the more collectable images available, the bidding had to come down and down from the original bid, until another of our classmates bought it out of sympathy. I still pray that he'll become a hugely successful and collectable photographer, just to piss off those people who let his work get away from them that day.) so with that in mind, I didn't want to actually charge anyone for a copy. I went out and bought myself another box of cibachrome paper (not cheap), deciding I'd charge only for the cost of each sheet, and then I had this other idea; I told the people who were still after this print that I would only give them a copy if they would give me one of their photographs in return. An eye for an eye, in other words. (The guy who gave me a picture of a bible with the image of his daughter projected onto it was in Rome a few years ago, and while there he came across a statue that also had a rose growing in front of it, of which he sent me a Polaroid. This is what I mean about that inability to describe the visual, because it wasn't until he got back from Italy and asked how I'd liked his homage, that I understood the gag.)

Whatever, sometime after we'd all split up after college, I received a letter from one of the girls who'd returned to her home in Israel. (She had "bought" her copy of my print with a very dark and textured black and white photograph of coiled rope.) I have that letter right here, and I quote: "Many of my visitors have been asking me about the beautiful photograph of yours which I have framed and hung upon the wall. I don't know whether to give them your address and have them writing you or not, or what they could possibly offer you in place of money." I wrote her back, asking her to say that I wouldn't be making any more copies of the picture, because for a long while I was sick to death of it. Really. For the last couple of weeks at college I'd been churning out copies of this print like a factory, and with each successive one that fell out of the machine I grew to dislike it more and more. I thought that with this kind of repetition it would lose its appeal entirely, in the same way that so many great paintings have been reduced to the level of visual cliches by their reproduction in books and as postcards and posters and God knows what. And I'd gotten tired of the way it overshadowed the rest of my work, work which I personally felt was far better.

This was the real crux of it, I think, that I didn't want to be tied to this one shot. For a long time I never even gave my folks a copy of it, even though I knew my mother really loved it, because I could not bear the idea of them telling their visitors "Marcus took that," and having that one image bear the weight of all the work I'd done up to that point. That terrible notion that maybe anyone who saw that photo would think they knew what I was about, when in reality it had a much relevance to the work I was doing then as this piece of writing does to what I'm doing now. I'm sure I'm repeating myself here but, you know, I told you already I was drinking, and those advertisements aren't going anywhere if you're bored. So that was that. Occasionally one of my old classmates would mention on the phone or in a letter that someone else had admired the photo, but the word spread that I wasn't interested anymore, and soon enough the requests for further prints for friends and relatives began to dry up.

Until three years ago, just before Christmas, when I got a card from a young woman I'd studied with, now living in Belfast and working in television. What had happened was her grandfather had recently died, and this being her first real experience of bereavement, she'd found it difficult to assimilate the whole notion of mortality, of death and its obvious inevitability. You know, if you come into contact with death in some form when you're young, it gives you a chance to get involved in some way with it, and even if you can't comprehend it, you at least... blah blah blah. I'm sure you know what I'm getting at with this. I think that's reason enough to let your kid have a pet, even just something tiny like a mouse or a gerbil, because when it passes on, they find they have to confront that sense of life's finity, and it's good if they can get used to that with something a little more transient, a little less substantial than another human being, and it also brings it into the realm of your own family dialogue in that you get to discuss the subject with them.

Let me quote to you from her card, which I also dug out for this: "After about a week of harbouring these really intense and awful fears about dying and what it all means and hating myself for not coming up with any answers, I decided last night to just go for it, which has been in real short supply of late, as you can imagine, I'm sure. I thought it was either that or knock myself out with a hammer. So I bought myself a bottle of vodka and bottle of Coke and drank myself unconscious. I wasn't sick or anything, I just eventually passed out. The weird thing about this, and why I'm writing to you this afternoon, is that somewhere inside of that I had either a dream or a vision or a hallucination. I didn't remember this at all until just now, because I've spent all morning feeling like shit and I hadn't thought about it at all, but in my dream my body was on fire. I wasn't in flames or anything, just on fire inside, and my skin was this bright red colour. And then this woman came to me and she laid her palm flat upon my forehead, and her hand was cold, not uncomfortable or anything, but it was cold enough so that its coldness spread throughout my body, and my temperature got back to where it should have been. And that was it. She didn't say anything, and all she did was touch me, and I was sitting at the table and I looked up and saw your photograph, and I thought 'That's her!' The woman in my dream was the statue in that photograph of yours." I called her up right after I read this and we talked about it some more and also caught up on our news and stuff, and she told me that since sending me the card she'd been sleeping better and she wasn't so worried. I felt kind of flattered that in a strange and indirect way I was somehow responsible for helping her out, but I wasn't too disturbed by the incident because dreams have a habit of making use of characters from a recently seen movie, or from that evening's news bulletins or whatever, and she would have been familiar with the woman in the photo from seeing her every day. Maybe she was even looking at the picture as she was sitting getting more and more drunk. So it was weird, but it wasn't that weird.

About two or three months after that, I had a phone call from that guy I mentioned earlier, the one who'd been to Rome, who told me a similar thing had happened to his wife's sister. She'd seen the photograph when she'd been over here with her husband and daughter on vacation from Toronto. (It wasn't just a holiday; she had recently suffered a miscarriage so her husband decided to take the family away in an attempt to put something into that emptiness where the baby should have been.)

Anyway, shortly after they got back to Canada, she had a dream where she was visited by a woman who simply laid her hand upon her belly. When she woke up, she said she felt restored. My friend said that's the very word she used: "restored." He and his wife found out about all of this when she called them up, asking them to fax her a copy of that picture of the statue because she as sure it was the same woman, and of course, it was. Even in a poorly reproduced fax of a photocopy, there was enough in the statue's demeanour and poise that echoes back across the memory of her visit and what she could recall of her dream to allow her that recognition.

This time I did feel a bit more concerned. I was amazed. I was confused and to be honest, I was even a little afraid. But then, when I thought about it, I knew the story of the first dream had been widely discussed, and my friend had told his sister-in-law about it when she'd said how much she liked the photograph, so maybe her dream was less a passive thing than we all assumed. Maybe she herself had willed that statue to come to her for her own comfort, but there was no real way of telling.

And then after that things got seriously strange. More and more of the people who had a copy of the print began contacting me with the same story of how either they, or someone they knew who'd seen it, had dreamed about the statue, and suddenly the requests for copies of the print started arriving with every other mail. I didn't want to get involved. I found myself torn between a real curiosity about what these people thought they were getting from the photograph, and just wanting nothing more to do with it. For a long time I just shut myself off from all of it; I had the telephone disconnected and I stopped even reading the letters I got, let alone answering them. I reached a point where I was terrified of the whole bizarre situation. When I was afforded a rational look at what was happening, I wrote it off as plain hysteria; people were simply seeing what they wanted to see, that anyone in an emotionally precarious state who saw this photograph and heard of these other cases, began looking to the photo for something to help them, looking so intensely that more often than not they found what they were after. But all I could see was the photograph itself, an image registered through the chemistry of recorded light. I couldn't see this, this grace or whatever, and I think that's what really upset me, that I was fading into the background. I'd taken a photograph, but now it had assumed its own mission I felt redundant, I felt I was no longer needed, and the more mail I received the more I felt this to be true. Eventually I did what I always do when a total breakdown seems imminent; I went home to my folks. That was just over a year ago. I went home and I tried to forget it all; I read, I played some golf, I watched tv, anything to keep my mind from cracking up over this other business. And then, a couple of days before Christmas, that would be exactly a year ago tomorrow (or rather today now), my parents were out carol-singing with a group from the church, and the telephone rang. I thought I'd just let it ring out, but then as a sort of test or whatever, just to see if I really could cope, I went and picked it up. It was an old friend of the family, and at first he thought I was my dad, but it was actually me he wanted to talk to. I didn't panic when he told me he'd just had a curious dream. There was something reassuring in his voice that put me completely at ease, even across the phone-line. I had an enormous amount of, it wasn't just respect or admiration, it's one of those inexplicable things, but I really felt for this man. My parents had often spoken of him, how his wife had gone blind and then been taken into hospital as her condition deteriorated, and how this man would walk the three miles there and back to visit her every single afternoon. He wasn't a martyr or anything, and he'd gladly accept a lift if it was offered, but often there just was no offer, and he'd have to walk it. He'd been an old man even when I was young, and I remembered him as always having a smile for me, always radiant in a white arran sweater that always smelled of lavender. And here he was on the phone telling me of how he'd come in from walking back from the hospital that evening, tired and cold, so he'd turned up the fire and lain down on the sofa for a rest.

If it had been anyone else, I would have screamed. I would have hung up. But his voice seemed to be giving me something back that I'd been missing for a long time, and I found myself almost entranced as he told me of this dream he'd just experienced, where he was lying on the couch and he felt someone take his hand. He looked up, and there was a woman kneeling beside him, holding his hand. She smiled at him, and when he looked beyond her he could see his wife holding her other hand, and she was looking at him, and she was smiling too.

He wanted to talk to me because he recognised this woman holding onto them both as the woman he'd seen in my parents' copy of the photograph, and I remember he kept saying "It's a good sign isn't it Marcus? It has to be a good sign." I didn't know what to say to him. Really, I was close to tears, and I said something like "I hope so." What could I say? Either this whole thing was true, or this gentle man had heard all these stories about the photograph from my folks, and had become the latest victim of some mass psychological delusion. I wanted to scream at him. "It's just a fucking photograph!", but hearing him talk about the comfort he'd taken from his dream, I couldn't do that. All I could do was say "I hope so" and then we wished each other a happy Christmas, and that was that.

It wasn't until the day after Christmas that we found out this man and his wife had both died on Christmas Eve. The day after we'd spoken, he'd walked out to the hospital and it was almost as if all that effort he'd expended across the months and months of getting himself there and back, that ongoing endeavor just to be with his wife for a short time each day, had finally caught up to him. When her life began to slip away right then and there, it was the most natural thing in the world for his to follow.

My parents both went to their funeral. I stayed home. I was thinking so hard about this whole situation I simply had no mental capacity to spare for anything else. I couldn't speak or eat or anything. I just sat and thought. I spent days just sitting and thinking, and you know what I came up with?


A year later I still don't have a clue about all this. I've had more calls and letters about the photograph, some are trivial, some are intense, some worry me, but none of them make me feel the way I did when I got that call last year. I don't understand it, I don't pretend to understand it, but something I have learned this past year is that what I think about all of this doesn't matter. It's out of my hands, and however long it takes to run its course is no longer any of my business. And now, finally, I'm okay with that.

If I were to go back over this I'm sure I'd see that there's lots of stuff I've missed, or things I've included that I should have left out, but I'm hoping there's someone at the magazine whose job it is to tidy up work that comes in in this state. All I know is that from now 'til I die I'll never get through a Christmas without thinking about what happened last year, and I think that's probably a good thing.

Suddenly I feel really tired. I hope they print this. I really do need the money, but it's more than that. It's more than that.

© 1999 Marcus Gray


Marcus Gray lives in the U.K. and is the author of the novel .357, which was reviewed in the Spring/Summer 1999 issue of the Cambridge Book Review.

CBR Home | Reviews | Excerpts & Features | Guidelines | CBR Press