It all started with a science fair. And some kid. They held the fair in the cafeteria of P.S. 182, where I worked as an English teacher. There had been some last minute emergency and Bill, one of the judges, roped me into filling in for him. I ended up having to hang around the cafeteria all day, and I had very little interest in being at school on a Saturday, teacher or not.
Somewhere between the alcohol-fueled robot and the phoenix flipbook, I saw it: the pinhole camera. The kid was showing it off for one of the other judges. A Poindexter type. Thick glasses, thin mustache, pocket protector. He watched and wrote stuff on his clipboard. But I wasn’t interested in Poindexter. I was interested in the pinhole camera. Exactly what it sounds like. Just a box, really. With this little hole in the front. And the kid had photographic paper in there that recorded the picture. Somehow, when the light passed through the hole in the box, it created a flipped projection on the inside. Never saw anything like it.
The funny thing was this lady standing behind the kid the whole time. Blonde hair in these tight curls like she had them in rollers. Bonnet on her head, made her look right out of a western. Real Omaha trail shit. She just stood there--staring with pale eyes--like she was part of the kid’s pinhole show. But Poindexter never once looked at her. The kid either.
I should have kept moving; I had a list of projects to judge. But I couldn’t look away. And then, for some reason, I pictured Cybil and felt a bloom of warmth like I had just swallowed a shot of vodka.
The kid was saying something I didn’t really hear until he turned to me and pointed. The warmth turned to ice-water. He said, “How about him?”
The judge nodded. The kid turned the camera on me and said, “Smile.” Then, “Try not to move, it takes a while.” No problem there.
Standing frozen, looking at the black box, I felt another pair of eyes on me. I glanced away from the kid and saw that woman’s pale eyes fixed on me like the camera. She didn’t smile, or move, or blink. “Mister? All done.” The kid held out a large picture and said, “You can have it.”
The world flips upside-down and I float through it like a whiff of smoke. I’m trying to grab at anything to steady myself, but my stomach wants to pretend it’s a trapeze artist.
The world has spun off its axis and gravity is not what it used to be. I’m looking to the sky to see if planes are coming down, but I’m not really sure which way is up and it’s dark so there isn’t a sky and ground anyway. I could be in space if I didn’t know any better. I reach out again and again and shout, “Help! Help me!” until I taste my throat in my mouth and I know I shouldn’t be able to so I stop.
I could be in a nighttime ocean the way I am suspended, but I feel no cold or water. And I realize that I can hear things. People. Talking. Not screaming for help but normal talky talky like everything is okay. “
No answer. No answer.
I stay still. I smell barbecue, reminding me of the park. Reminding me of the kid. Reminding me of the camera.
That night, after the science fair, I couldn’t stop thinking about the kid’s camera. It kept me up, fixed in my mind. I shuffled around the house in my robe, picking at the belt, scraping my feet at the rug. I carried around the picture he gave me. I rubbed my eyes till they burned.
I held the picture up. It was big. The size of printer paper. Black and white. Me. I had this strange look on my face. The way people get when they drink too much and try to focus on what someone is saying, but are really only trying to keep the stuff in their stomach down where it belongs.
I must have moved when the picture was being taken because around my body there was this blurred movement. Kind of squiggly looking, smoothing the outline of my body.
I studied the picture for a while, until I was sitting at the kitchen table with five empty beer bottles at my elbow and one half-finished in my hand. I tried not to think about how easy it had been to slip. The stove light, across from where I sat, distorted and danced inside the green glass of the bottles. It cast these little ocean-like glimmers on the metal table. I let it take me. My eyes wanted to close then, staring into those bottles, watching the light swim green and metallic.
Then my eyesight did that thing. That thing when you’re really tired and you’re not focusing. The outer edges kind of blurred and darkened until it was like I was staring through a pinhole. Everything was upside-down all at once like the world had flipped and just as I was about to pass out I realized the world hadn’t flipped at all. I had fallen out of my chair and I was looking backwards from the floor. For a second I saw pale eyes.