I started this day in a dangerously good mood, wearing the minidisc walkman that’s become aural heroin to me these days and singing along to Astrud Gilberto, whose every utterance can only make my leaden heart lighter. It lasted a few hours, this good mood, beaten out of me by one SunRise ProScan IV microfilm scanner, a dark presence in my work area that brings me frustration, tension headaches, and, ultimately, despair. I rubbed my temples, sighed, snatched my camera and player, and set out into the blinding sun in search of four beautiful things.
I headed west, out on the new and apparently unused pedestrian pathway through the industrial park, considered taking a photo of the dead beaver on the grass with its tail looking like a tire, decided otherwise, pined for a good angle on the drowned forest just beyond the FedEx depot (now locked away behind an eleven-foot black chain link fence with coils of barbed wire at the top), and decided to just try to get a nice clean shot of the new government industrial building of unknown provenance with its giant external ductwork gleaming in the sunshine. I passed it, walked down to the school at the end of the sidewalk, crossed the busy road, and headed back on the same side as the giant factory-like thing.
I was just framing my second shot when a police car pulled up and bleeped its siren at me. My legs felt suddenly shaky, and I stepped over to the car, clicking my camera’s lens cover closed and noticing that my mouth had instantly dried out.
“Sir, do you mind telling me what you’re doing?” asked the lone cop, putting the black and white Malibu in park. My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth, but I managed to get a few words out.
“I was just taking a picture of that building,” I mumbled.
“Why would you be doing that?” the cop asked, leading me to believe that I’d come up with the wrong an- swer.
“It’s pretty,” I said, almost instantly regretting phrasing my response as if I were a little girl. It was, however, appropriate that I did phrase it thusly, because I was starting to feel a little hitch in my throat, the kind of little hitch you start to feel almost immediately before you start crying like, say, a little girl. The cop rolled his eyes, reached for a pad with a black leather cover, and nearly succeeded in pushing me over the brink.
“What was that, sir?”
“I just thought it looked nice in the sunshine,” I said, stumbling over my words and gesturing with the camera in my hand. “Those ducts are all new and shiny and the sun is catching them just right and it’s a really pretty spring day out here and I was going crazy being locked inside my office and just wanted to get out and take some pictures,” I continued, rambling. Again with the “pretty.” Aaaugh. My special ed days were coming back to me, and not in a particularly fun way.
“Are you aware that that is a government facility?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, articulating my words oddly with my tongue rapidly becoming an analogue of the Sahara.
“There’s signs on the fence and all.”
“Don’t you think that this might not be the best time to be taking pictures like that?” asked the cop in a tone that chilled me to the bone. “You don’t want to get yourself into trouble over something ’pretty,’ do you?” he asked rhetorically, emphasizing the word “pretty” with a certain harshness in his tone. I was at a loss for how to respond, because I was almost 100 % freaked out and, at the same time, angry that I was even having this conversation. Isn’t this the land of the free and the home of the brave? I paused, speechless.
In retrospect, I should have paused a little longer than I did, because when I actually did say something, I said something so bizarre and inexplicable that”non sequitur” gets nowhere near explaining it.
“Last night I dreamed I was you,” I said, almost under my breath.
Ohmyfreakin’gaawd, I thought, my eyebrows shooting up into scared quotation marks in an instantaneous, involuntary motion–why in the planet of hell did I say that!? Nerves, I suppose.
I felt bile rise in my throat.
The cop looked confused. I made matters worse, starting to ramble about making a mental note or something like that. Why can’t I shut up? I asked myself in internal monology, chattering on about photography and art and this performance I have coming up this weekend and more and more and I could feel myself getting dizzy like I was going to keel over dead in the grass by the curb and it was more or less at that point that some kind of radio transmission came in and the cop decided he needed to go, and quickly.
“Just a friendly word,” he said as he put the car in gear, “You might want to be aware how people see photographers these days–there’s a lot of paranoid people around.” I took it as a curious implication that he was not among those people, tucked the camera in my pocket, and walked back towards my office feeling a bit shaky. I paused before crossing the street and took an unflattering self-portrait, then headed back in, back into monotony, and sat down to download my pictures and write a journal entry.
© 2003 Joe Belknap Wall