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The Photo

A poignant undercurrent sweeps away any scraps of nostalgic joy a photograph may have contained, with that distant moment frozen by a shutter click contrasting with the realities of the present, and Caleb, looking at the black and white photo on the inside lid of the gold pocket watch attached to a gold chain he was holding, was overcome with a similar sadness he experienced whenever he looked at the photograph of him as a toddler atop his father’s shoulder.

Caleb was a fat, asthmatic ten-year old boy whose laboured breathing and wheezing announced his approaching presence wherever he went. He should have been an easy target for bullies in his neighbourhood, but his bulk and rare bursts of fury ensured he was left alone. Before becoming his best friend, Blackie, a slightly older boy from a neighbouring building, tested Caleb’s mettle both verbally and physically before being subdued by the hulking boy; after this altercation, the two had become inseparable, roaming the public housing complex, composed of ugly, identical tenement buildings that resembled concrete lego blocks, in which they lived.

Caleb was looking at a photograph of a young Mr. Williams and his family. Caleb thought Mr. Williams was wearing the same clothes in the photograph that his old neighbour always seemed to wear, and he struggled to reconcile these two images. Mr. Williams always wore the same dark grey suit with matching vest, white shirt, grey and black striped tie, and black shoes. While his clothes were clean and neat, they were a bit wrinkled and frayed in places, and Caleb could see that his suit was patched up in several places; his shoes were always polished, but the soles were worn wafer thin, and there were spots where no amount of shoe polish could conceal scuff marks. Mr. Williams’ clothing, moreover, seemed to get larger and larger every year, like he was withering away inside them, and he wore his belt cinched up so tight, his pants seemed to be all pleats. And he always wore a hat. In the photo, Mr. Williams looks sharp, his suit new and well fitting, and his pocket watch tucked into his vest from a dangling chain; he is standing beside his wife with their daughter between them in front of a lake on a cloudless day, and they are beaming with joy. Where were his wife and daughter now? How had their lives diverged so completely from one another? How had life after the shutter click resumed in such a terrifying deluge that flung Mr. Williams onto the shores of the present? While consumed with such thoughts, how he had come into possession of Mr. Williams’ pocket watch weighed most heavily on Caleb, however.

The plan had been hatched just a few hours ago, but events and factors had been conspiring for some time before leading to its culmination. It was the second week of summer break, and the initial euphoria of freedom gave way to an inescapable oppression; the heat was stifling and respite unforthcoming. All the windows in the tenement buildings were flung open, emitting a cacophony of discord and dissatisfaction that was juxtaposed to the noise of children’s uninhibited glee and the cicadas’ insistence in the courtyards. Caleb and Blackie were sitting in the shade on the edge of one of the complex’s basketball courts when they heard the blaring chimes of the ice cream truck. They did not budge; the first time they heard it, on the first day of summer break, however, they were drawn to it like a siren call, running towards it with all the other children seeking the source of the music. Once the ice cream truck was located, all the children milled around it, and for the fortunate few who had money to buy a cool treat, the crowd parted like the Red Sea to let them through to the front, the cash held aloft in their hands tickets to the promised land. The desolate watched in envy as the consumers peeled their purchases and began consuming their ice cream bars with ostentatious enjoyment; by this time, most of the spectators had dispersed, but a few lingered to suffer the indignity of vicarious sadism a bit longer. Caleb was glued to the spot watching with something akin to awe the glee with which the others ravished their ice cream bars. “Let’s go,” Blackie barked indignantly and Caleb lurched after him resignedly.

The two of them stewed in silence sitting on a basketball court emptied by the heat.

“You got any money?” Caleb said.

“Fool. If I did Id’ve got me an ice cream. My momma’s so poor she bounces food stamps.”

Caleb burst out in laughter and began wheezing. Blackie glanced at him, and they sat there until the cool of the evening.

“I’ll catch you tomorrow,” Blackie said, standing and shaking Caleb’s extended hand.


The next day and every day after, the ice cream truck came blaring music that had become a grating taunt. The next day and every day after, Caleb and Blackie sat on the basketball court motionless, wincing at the sound of the music that proclaimed their lack. Then, on the fateful day of the current events, Caleb broke the silence in which they had been stewing for the past two weeks.

“Mr. Williams gets home at two o’clock, and because our building’s elevator is broken, it takes forever to climb the stairs to his floor,” Caleb said.

“They haven’t fixed it yet?”

“This the projects, man. It’s been broken forever. Anyways, he’s deaf and nearly blind. We snatch his wallet, and he always wears a pocket watch on a gold chain.”

“Pocket watch?”

“Yeah, some fancy thing that goes into the vest.”

“Mr. Williams? That old dinosaur? You want to rob him?”

“Yeah. You want some ice cream or what?”

Blackie thought about it for a while. “Let’s do it.”


It was eleven in the morning, so Mr. Williams would be at the Salvation Army soup kitchen where Caleb’s mother was a volunteer. The two had become sort-of friends when she recognized Mr. Williams when she first started there. At first, she said, he was a bit bashful, probably a bit ashamed of his need being known by a neighbour, but over time, he began opening up. After his soup and bread, Mr. Williams would go to the park where the picnic tables doubled as chess boards, joining the crowd of old men as a spectator, aficionado, or player. At one-thirty sharp, he would make his way home, according to Caleb’s mother, to await a phone call; when the elevators were working, he could dawdle at the park until two. Caleb’s mother never asked from whom he was expecting a call, but he never seemed to get it, which never discouraged him: “No worries. Tomorrow she’ll surely call.” On days when the Salvation Army had leftovers, Caleb’s mother would bring them home and give some to Mr. Williams; when she was busy, Caleb had to deliver the packages to Mr. Williams. Mr. Williams was always polite and friendly, but Caleb could tell there was a weight and sadness in the old man’s eyes, which is why the pang of regret would not abate in Caleb as soon as he mentioned the plan. Knowing so much about Mr. Williams sure complicated things, but Caleb’s desire was deafening and it drowned out his conscience.

The plan went like clockwork, abetted by Mr. Williams’ punctuality. From the wallet that Blackie snatched, the five dollars paid for the two ice cream bars that failed to live up to the promises they dangled, and the two boys parted without words, just nods.

Caleb clutched the watch in his pocket and took it out to look at the photo again. He closed the watch and grasped it tightly in his hand. Almost everyone who lived in his complex seemed to be in his building, drawn by curiosity, glad for the distraction. The firemen were walking out of Mr. Williams’ apartment with their equipment and the few policemen in attendance were trying to control the crowd. After a few moments, the paramedics emerged with a body zippered up in a black back on a gurney. Mr. Williams had been dying for months from stage four lung cancer, and he had managed to live more than half a year beyond his prognosis. Caleb knew, however, it was he who had killed Mr. Williams.


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