Not until I received the second call from the photography shop did I remember they’d called once before, back in January, but at the time I’d been out of town, far from you, Janet, and I’d erased the voicemail with annoyance, consumed at the time with the fading hope of a new job. So, when I answered the phone between classes that first week of April, seeing a local number I didn’t recognize, I assumed it was the local video store where we’re forever returning movies late, but the woman said she was calling from Columbia Photo about some pictures I hadn’t yet picked up. I was just outside the English Department building and I stopped, students swirling around me, and said, “Excuse me, what?” A broad shouldered young man with messy blond curls hanging beneath a low pulled baseball cap charged straight at me, as though he was going to run me down. And why not? He was young and strong and in a hurry whereas what he surely saw in me was weakness, age: a thirty-something man with glasses and thinning brown hair in a wrinkled blue oxford shirt and sagging jeans, a leather bag hanging reluctantly from my shoulder. In short, a fallen member of the herd that was surely on his way out.
The woman’s voice was young and I thought she was probably a student, maybe an art major, working at a photo shop (one I’d never heard of) to make some money for beer, or drugs (or maybe, just maybe, books or, in her case I suppose, film, photo-paper, even a new camera). She said I had “eight pictures” to pick up.
I thanked her and snapped my phone shut and immediately wished I hadn’t. Eight pictures? What was she talking about? I hadn’t taken photographs of the sort one picked up in a store in years, not since I bought you that tiny digital camera. I don’t even own a camera that takes real, physical film photos, haven’t, I realized as the hour mark approached and the students were swallowed up into the bellies of the classrooms, since I was in college myself (eons ago, as I liked to tell my students, who liked to hear that once, their teacher standing up there rattling on about Ralph Ellison, had at been at one time alive and maybe even one of them).
I opened my phone and checked the number, considered calling back and asking, “Are you sure they’re for me,” but not only had she known my name, but she had my number, so how could they not be? And then I remembered the first phone call back in December when I’d listened to the message in the great open hallway outside the interview pit at the MLA conference, the air vibrating with anxiety, men and women hurrying by, all about to cry it seemed to me (probably because that’s what I felt like doing), all in suits you could tell they hardly ever wore and weren’t comfortable in and I’d listened to a woman’s voice tell me I had pictures ready for pick-up and I’d thought, What the fuck is this?, and deleted it angrily, wishing it was a piece of paper, so I could rip it up and stuff it into a trash can because that’s what I’d felt like doing with my resume, my cover letters, all the bullshit I’d brought in hopes of a real job, of getting out of this instructorship I’ve been stuck in for seven years, this instructorship that pays just enough to live on, so we never go hungry, are never really absolutely short on money, but which makes it impossible to do the things we really wanted from life: like travel, or have a baby.
– This story can be read in its entirety in the 2010 volume of Witness.