You would not believe the shock I felt when I passed by the gallery that winter during my lunch hour. I recognized his name right off. I pushed the door open and took it all in, wondering if it was true.
When we first met Sully was camping next to us, his tent sagging in the middle, his kerosene lamp throwing off a weak light. He was rooting around for something, I couldn’t tell what since he was half-in and half-out of his tent. Maybe that’s why it was about to cave in.
I walked over, licking my fingers clean after enjoying BBQ chicken legs I’d made for me and my two boys. He stuck his head out and looked at me, then the tent collapsed. I stood with hands on hips and watched it fall in on him, nothing more to do but see if he could put it back up right. I found it funny, I admit. He fixed it okay and held out his right hand while his left grasped a camera. The suit coat he had on was as out-of-place as a peacock feathered hat would be for me. There were dirt, bugs and trees out here, not an office complex.
“Sullivan Chambers, Sully for short,” he said with a cheerful smile and nod of his well-shaped head. “I guess you see I’m new at this. Just pulled in a few hours ago. You?”
I wiped my hands on my apron. I hadn’t changed since leaving the city that morning and was a mess. I must have looked strange to him, too. “No, we’re used to it. This is how Tim and Jude and I spend our summers when we can get away. Oh, right, name’s Evie Windham.” I glanced back at the boys who were eyeing this stranger who was chatting me up. “Want to join in a cup of coffee? And a chicken leg?”
Sully did, so we sat on the camp stools while Tim and Jude introduced themselves. After fifteen minutes of chitchat, they were satisfied the man wasn’t a creeper or crook so took off for the river. I waved them off. I had lots of witnesses around. The boys were meeting other teen-aged kids for a big bonfire. I could see the riverbank from where we sat and knew they’d be watching us off and on, too.
Sully and I gabbed easily. A shock. I wasn’t fond of suits and slicked back hair. My ex had a closet full of suits and he was bad business. But this guy was a photographer, said it had become more than a hobby, but not quite a full-time profession. He was here to photograph nature all week-end. He’d left from work and driven straight out, a long drive.
“A happy pastime,” I smiled. “We need those, I guess. I like making crafts.”
“We need our hobbies for relaxation but I have a passion for photography. It’s magic, how you can capture or shape a split second of something and —voila–it’s immortal.”
“Never thought of it that way. I always felt pictures were sort of fake. Camera finding the best thing or making them a lot better, then freezing them in time so that nothing more happens. Kinda weird if you think about it.”
Sully frowned a little, swished coffee around once in his mouth before swallowing it. “I see what you mean. But there’s something nice about that, too, sometimes, right? Makes things more important than we usually think they are.”
We had a deep thinker here, for whatever that was worth. He looked good, but then, I was at the point where any clean and courteous man was a treat. Not that I was seriously looking. I was past that point after surviving a divorce. Not many girls could say that in 1958 but I liked being on my own, in a way.
“Maybe so. Yes, sometimes. Like a memory you want to keep perfect. Special.”
“Right. And it’s art.” He looked around at the campground. “So, what are you three doing out here?”
It was more than a small question. It was mini-investigation, like why was I out here without the boys’ father unless he was fishing and oddly okay with me being unaccompanied in the wilds? Except this was a family campground, tents and trailers and lots of nice Airstreams. Electricity. Running water. Who was this guy?
“Easy answer. We spend most of our time here in summer. It’s a nice vacation from my mother’s place. The boys have a dad; he lives in L.A. He prefers palm trees and glamour and such. I manage.”
Sully laughed big and rumbly. “I see, well, you’re one brave lady, Evie. Two teen-aged boys and setting up house in the forest. This is quite a good tent, big. Me, I work at the water works office in Portland. No wife so I travel on my time off. You from there?”
“Have been, will be when summer is over again. Welcome to the camping life.” I felt fidgety and got up, took a stick to the small fire I’d started before he came over, strained to see the boys. They were getting a little rowdy already. There was a frostiness to the air since the sun started hovering closer to the horizon. I let the damp, piney sweetness fill my nose.
Sully settled his camera on its metal legs, tripod he said, and fiddled with the lens.
“Mind me snapping a few?”
I shrugged, smoothed my unruly waves and half-turned to set more kindling. I placed bigger pieces of wood around the heart of the fire. It took off and our faces glowed a healthy amber. Sully snapped away before I could stop him. It was embarrassing, me in my rumpled old house dress–the one pair of pants I’d packed were no better. After that, we sat and chatted about camping and the seasons, how his summer had slipped by with a few weddings he was hired to do, a few portraits and nature trips like this one. For me it was all about my mother, how she had a house we shared the last couple years but she was fussy and drank cocktails, one too many, every day. The boys and I were between places until I got a better job than selling housewares at a department store. I knew how to type. He nodded either understanding or approval.
We could hear the kids whooping it up, people splashing in the river. The fires all around us felt so friendly and Sully said as much. He snapped many more pictures but I was tired and yawned a big one despite wanting to be polite. I needed a long shower and my book. Sully stood and stretched, wiped the dust from his shoes.
He smiled as though we had become friends. “I’d better get back to my tent. Got an early day tomorrow, out to the mountain and then around the lakes.” He picked up his camera equipment. “I’m real glad we got to meet and talk. Maybe you could stop by my office on Fifth and Renton sometime. Coffee is good in town, too.”
In the morning he was gone by the time I got up at six. That was it, I thought. Strangers came and went out there. And I knew little about him. Later I thought about Sully sometimes, but more like trying to figure out a puzzle. I didn’t know what to make of the whole night and wondered if he had just made his life up.
So of course I wasn’t ready for what I saw that day at the gallery. The windows were full of his name and his pictures, the mountains, woods and lakes, people playing and working and camping. Then I stopped.
It was me, that’s right, me, standing before the crackling fire, my back to him so I was a graceful outline, then my face smiling at him in dusk, then my narrow hands warmed by a flickering fire. I saw my shoes cast off, dirty and worn at the heels. But the last one was this: me sitting forward, intense, staring off at the river, still as a creature watching and watched, eyes lit by something unknown. I didn’t realize I had such a lonely, serious look. Yet gentleness was there, too. I’d never guess I could be even a little beautiful, resting in the peaceful dusk and twilight. I left the gallery. I’m not looking for him. What he can see scares me, a good scared, but still. It was so much more real than I imagined.
(Photograph courtesy of Patricia Ann McNair’s blog/photo writing prompts.)