valerie  brown









        A damp wind whips around the Plexiglas panels of the bus shelter where Zoë Finch stands waiting for the Number 42 to take her downtown. She is on her way to the offices of the weekly newspaper to deliver proofs of some photographs she has taken for the next issue. She carries her camera slung over her shoulder under a black aviator jacket that keeps her warm, though it doesn’t fit, being too long in the arms. The wind makes her eyes water, running the black eyeliner under her lower lashes. Clouds varying from charcoal to pale gray rush madly across the sky. Any minute large drops will begin to splat on the pavement.


        Zoë glances idly at the debris thrown around the legs of the bus shelter – the usual cigarette butts, crumpled bus transfers, Styrofoam cups. There’s something else. She pulls a wrinkled photograph out from a cluster of dead cherry laurel leaves wedged against the shelter’s steel leg. It’s a five-by-seven black-and-white print. She pushes her hair out of her face and turns toward the bus bench for a closer look. Drops of rain now hurtle out of the sky like tiny kamikaze planes.


        The photograph pleases Zoë, who likes ambiguity. Four people are walking on a beach. Three of them, of indeterminate age and gender, move indifferently away from the photographer. Wind whips at everyone’s hair and pantlegs. The fourth, a man with dark curly hair, has stopped and half-turned back. His look is filled with intensity, like a brooding author or a brilliant guitarist. I wish I knew him, Zoë thinks, tucking the snapshot into the inside pocket of her jacket.




        Zoë drops into Glisan’s Grill after delivering the proofs. Glisan’s has been around for a long time. The owners have kept the brass polished and the mahogany paneling clean. The bar is populated by a combination of lawyers and the freelancers of various kinds who rent small offices in the old buildings nearby. The lawyers and the freelancers share a fondness for Glisan’s flaming Irish coffee, prepared at table by the efficient and snobbish waiters. Zoë  knows the bartender on this shift, Denny. He will give her a free drink, for old times’ sake, and because she may someday be famous. Glisan’s prides itself on the potential of its customers.


        Zoë finds a bar stool, waves at Denny, who calls out, “Hey Zoë!” from the other end of the bar. Eventually he works his way down to her.


        “What’s cookin’?” he says.


        “Not much. Just dropped off some proofs.”


        “What can I get you? Nice jacket. It looks like it would fit me better than it fits you.”


        “Forget it, Denny,” Zoë laughs. “I’ll have a J.D. and a water back.” She reaches over the bar and lifts a cigarette from the bartender’s pack. He lights it for her. She inhales and stares out across the increasingly garrulous crowd. The booths are filling up. Suits, mostly gray, a few navy blue pinstripes. Here and there tweed jackets and jeans. Almost everyone is male. She searches vainly for someone who looks intense, reflective, or driven. Disgusted, she turns back to the bar and settles in to drink her whiskey.


        A man says, “Is this seat taken?” Zoë looks up, says “No,” looks away. He slides onto the bar stool next to her. When he catches Denny’s eye he orders a beer. Pretty soon he says to Zoë, What do they call that, distressed leather?”


        Zoë says, “Yeah. Like aviators wore in World War Two.”


        “My dad had one of those. He was a pilot.”


        Zoë takes a look at the guy. He’s about thirty, suited in blue tweed, with slightly protruding eyes and a nascent paunch. He leers at her amiably. Suits always go for this aviator stuff, she thinks. Her glass is empty. She calls, “Hey, Denny!” and slides it down the bar when he looks up.


     “Want another?” Denny answers.


     “Nah, gotta go. Thanks, sweetie.” Zoë looks at the guy next to her. “Maybe this is your dad’s jacket. Too bad for you if it is.” She laughs and leaves, hoping he feels as stupid as he looks.


        It’s still raining, the kind of rain that seems to have no beginning and no end, that darkens the air and makes people walk with their heads down. Zoë hunches her shoulders and zips up her jacket. She joins the commuters climbing up the leaf-stuck stairs of her bus, herding in the aisle like damp sheep. The bus lurches around a corner, heading for the bridge. Zoë’s camera swings heavily under her jacket.


        The bus slows down on the bridge until it is barely moving. The windows have fogged up. People’s coats exhale warm wet air. Zoë tries not to think about the bodies pressing up against hers, the possible weakness of the bridge girders, what it would feel like to fall into the cold river current. She looks around at the other passengers. In the shifting row of heads Zoë sees one with dark curly hair. It’s the man in the picture. He’s staring at a steamy window as though he can see a river undomesticated by grids of steel binding it at intervals. Zoë unzips her jacket and works the lens cap off her camera, guesses without looking at the focal length and shutter speed, prays for everyone to hold still, and clicks the shutter.


        The bus picks up speed moving off the bridge. People shuffle around preparing to debark at the neighborhood stops. Zoë grimaces when a woman apologizes for scraping her briefcase across Zoë ’s buttocks. By the time balance is restored, the aisle has cleared out a little and she looks for the man again. He’s gone.


        Zoë runs home from her bus stop. The upstairs neighbor’s cat cries on the porch, offended by the rain, anxiously slipping inside as Zoë pushes her door open. Zoë makes tea and carries a steaming cup and her camera down to the basement darkroom which she has made out of the laundry sinks and some rickety plywood walls. The safelight makes everything look sinister, like a special effect in a bad science fiction movie. She processes the film with a dexterity combined of natural affinity and long practice. When the negatives are ready she quickly scans the strip to find the frame she wants. She clips it off, rigs it into the enlarger, hurriedly estimating the focus and exposure time. For some reason she is reluctant to look at the print until she can see it in natural light. She’s pushing it through the necessary steps almost without seeing it directly, letting her hands move it from bath to bath and patting it almost dry with a paper towel.


        Holding the print carefully, Zoë grabs her cold tea and runs up the stairs, nudging the basement door open with her elbow. The cat has come to the stairs to listen and Zoë nearly trips over him. Zoë puts the print face down on the end table next to her easy chair. She fishes the snapshot out of her aviator jacket’s inside pocket and drops it over the print. Deliberately she walks into the kitchen and makes another cup of tea.


        Finally she settles into the chair, coaxing the cat onto her lap. Zoë picks up the first photograph. The man still stares intently into the camera, brooding and handsome as before. Biting her lip, Zoë looks at her print. It is a sea of heads, mostly out of focus, in the dark interior of the bus. One face stands out, looking slightly down with a hint of a smile. It is an elderly man trying to get out of someone’s way. Behind him, just a little too much out of focus, Zoë’s target appears. The blurriness of the image makes his expression vacant. She knows instantly that no amount of fiddling in the darkroom will make him emerge sharp and clear.  She has missed him by a small degree of arc.


        Throwing her head back against the chair, she exhales in a long hiss. The cat widens his eyes in alarm and tenses his haunches to leap, but Zoë calms him back into her lap. She holds her print at arm’s length and realizes that its composition is quite good. All the mundane exasperation of a typical rainy day bus ride shows on the old man’s face. She thinks, the weekly will want this for their next transportation expose. The photograph sighs softly when she drops it on the table.




copyright 1988-2013 by Valerie Brown



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