YOU LOOKED FOR THE artifacts of their ambition. That was what a sociology professor had said one day in a freshman seminar, and Eric Shaw had liked something about the phrase, wrote it and only it in a notebook that would soon be forgotten and then discarded. Artifacts of their ambition. Only through study of those things could you truly understand people long departed. General artifacts could be overanalyzed, layered with undue importance. It was critical to find things that indicated ambitions and aspirations, that tired bit about hopes and dreams. The reality of someone’s heart lay in the objects of their desires. Whether those things were achieved did not matter nearly so much as what they had been.
The phrase returned to Eric almost two decades later as he prepared a video montage for a dead woman’s memorial service. Video life portraits, that’s what he called them, an attempt to lend some credibility to what was essentially a glorified slide show. There’d been a time when neither Eric nor anyone who knew him would have been able to believe this sort of career lay ahead for him. He still had trouble believing it, in fact. You could live a life and never comprehend exactly how you found yourself in it. Hell of a thing.
If he were fresh out of film school, he might have been able to convince himself that this was merely part of the artist’s struggle, a way to pay the bills before that first big break. Truth was, it had been twelve years since Eric claimed his film school’s highest honor, twelve years. Two years since he’d moved to Chicago to escape the train wreck of his time in L.A.
During his peak, thirty years old and landing bigger jobs with regularity, his cinematography had been publicly praised by one of the most successful movie directors in the world. Now Eric made videos for graduations and weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. And funerals. Lots of funerals. That had somehow become his niche. Word of mouth sustained a business like his, and the word of mouth about Eric seemed to focus on funerals. His clients were generally pleased by his videos, but the funeral parties were elated. Maybe on some subconscious level he was more motivated when his work concerned the dead. There was a greater burden of responsibility there. Truth be told, he operated more instinctively when he prepared a memorial video than when he did anything else. There seemed to be a muse working then, some innate guiding sense that was almost always right.
Today, standing outside a suburban funeral parlor with a service about to commence, he felt an unusual sense of anticipation. He’d spent all of the previous day—fifteen hours straight—preparing this piece, a rush job for the family of a forty-four-year-old woman who’d been killed in a car accident on the Dan Ryan Expressway. They’d turned over photo albums and scrapbooks and select keepsakes, and he’d gotten to work arranging images and creating a sound track. He took pictures of pictures and blended those with home video clips and then rolled it all together and put it to music and tried to give some sense of a life. Generally the crowd would weep and occasionally they would laugh and always they would murmur and shake their heads at forgotten moments and treasured memories. Then they’d take Eric’s hand and thank him and marvel at how he’d gotten it just right.
Eric didn’t always attend the services, but Eve Harrelson’s family had asked him to do so today and he was glad to say yes. He wanted to see the audience reaction to this one.
It had started the previous day in his apartment on Dearborn as he was sitting on the floor, his back against the couch and the collection of Eve Harrelson’s personal effects surrounding him, sorting and studying and selecting. At some point in that process, the old phrase came back to him, the artifacts of their ambition, and he’d thought again that it had a nice sound. Then, with the phrase as a tepid motivator, he’d gone back through an already reviewed stack of photographs, thinking that he had to find some hint of Eve Harrelson’s dreams.
The photographs were the monotonous sort, really—everybody posed and smiling too big or trying too hard to look carefree and indifferent. In fact, the entire Harrelson collection was bland. They’d been a photo family, not a video family, and that was a bad start. Video cameras gave you motion and voice and spirit. You could create the same sense with still photographs, but it was harder, certainly, and the Harrelson albums weren’t promising.
He’d been planning to focus the presentation around Eve’s children—a counterintuitive move but one he thought would work well. The children were her legacy, after all, guaranteed to strike a chord with family and friends. But as he sorted through the stack of loose photographs, he stopped abruptly on a picture of a red cottage. There was no person in the shot, just an A-frame cottage painted a deep burgundy. The windows were bathed in shadow, nothing of the interior visible. Pine trees bordered it on both sides, but the framing was so tight there was no clear indication of what else was nearby. As he stared at the picture, Eric became convinced that the cottage faced a lake. There was nothing to suggest that, but he was sure of it. It was on a lake, and if you could expand the frame, you’d see there were autumn leaves bursting into color beyond the pines, their shades reflecting on the surface of choppy, wind-blown water.
This place had mattered to Eve Harrelson. Mattered deeply. The longer he held the photograph, the stronger that conviction grew. He felt a prickle along his arms and at the base of his neck and thought, She made love here. And not to her husband.
It was a crazy idea. He pushed the picture back into the stack and moved on and later, after going through several hundred photographs, confirmed that there was only one of the cottage. Clearly, the place hadn’t been that special; you didn’t take just one picture of a place that you loved.
Nine hours of frustration later, nothing about the project coming together the way he wanted, Eric found the photo back in his hand, the same deep certainty in his brain. The cottage was special. The cottage was sacred. And so he included it, this lone shot of an empty building, worked it into the mix and felt the whole presentation come together as if the photograph were the keystone.
Now it was time to play the video, the first time anyone from the family would see it, and while Eric told himself his curiosity was general—you always wanted to know what your clients thought of your work—in the back of his mind it came down to just one photograph.
He entered the room ten minutes before the service was to begin, took his place in the back beside the DVD player and projector. Thanks to a Xanax and an Inderal, he felt mellow and detached. He’d assured his new doctor that he needed the prescriptions only because of a general sense of stress since Claire left, but the truth was he took the pills anytime he had to show his work. Professional nerves, he liked to think. Too bad he hadn’t had such nerves back when he’d made real films. It was the ever-present sense of failure that made the pills necessary, the cold touch of shame.
Eve Harrelson’s husband, Blake, a stern-faced man with thick dark hair and bifocals, took the podium first. The couple’s children sat in the front row. Eric tried not to focus on them. He was never comfortable putting together a piece like this when there were children to watch it.
Blake Harrelson said a few words of thanks to those in attendance, and then announced that they would begin with a short tribute film. He did not name Eric or even indicate him, just nodded at a man by the light switch when he stepped aside.
Showtime, Eric thought as the lights went off, and he pressed play. The projector had already been focused and adjusted, and the screen filled with a close-up of Eve and her children. He’d opened with some lighthearted shots—that was always the way to go at a heavy event like this—and the accompanying music immediately got a few titters of appreciative laughter. Amidst the handful of favorite CDs her family had provided, Eric had found a recording of Eve playing the piano while her daughter sang for some music recital, the timing off from the beginning and getting worse, and in the middle you could hear them both fighting laughter.
It went on like that for a few minutes, scattered laughter and some tears and a few shoulder squeezes with whispered words of comfort. Eric stood and watched and silently thanked whatever chemist had come up with the calming drugs in his bloodstream. If there was a more intense sort of pressure than watching a grieving group like this take in your film, he couldn’t imagine what it was. Oh, wait, yes he could—making a real film. That had been pressure, too. And he’d folded under it.
The cottage shot was six minutes and ten seconds into the nine-minute piece. He’d kept most pictures in the frame for no more than five seconds, but he’d given the cottage twice that. That’s how curious he was for the reaction.
The song changed a few seconds before the cottage appeared, cut from an upbeat Queen number—Eve Harrelson’s favorite band—to Ryan Adams covering the Oasis song “Wonderwall.” The family had given Eric the Oasis album, another of Eve’s favorites, but he’d replaced their version with the Adams cover during his final edit. It was slower, sadder, more haunting. It was right.
For the first few seconds he could detect no reaction. He stood scanning the crowd and saw no real interest in their faces, only patience or, in a few cases, confusion. Then, just before the picture changed, his eyes fell on a blond woman in a black dress at the end of the third row. She’d turned completely around and was staring back into the harsh light of the projector, searching for him. Something in her gaze made him shift to the side, behind the light. The frame changed and the music went with it and still she stared. Then the man beside her said something and touched her arm and she turned back to the screen, turned reluctantly. Eric let out his breath, felt that tightness in his neck again. He wasn’t crazy. There was something about that picture.
He was hardly aware of the rest of the film. When it ended, he disconnected the equipment and packed up to leave. He’d never done that before—he always waited respectfully for the conclusion of the service and then spoke to the family—but today he just wanted out, wanted back into the sunlight and fresh air and away from that woman with the black dress and the intense stare.
He’d slipped out of the double doors with the projector in his arms and was headed through the foyer and toward the exit when a voice from behind him said, “Why did you use that picture?”
It was her. The blond woman in black. He turned to face her, caught a blast of that stare again, able now to see that it came from intense blue eyes.
“Yes. Why did you use it?”
He wet his lips, shifted the weight of the projector. “I’m not really sure.”
“Please don’t lie to me. Who told you to use it?”
“I want to know who told you to use it!” Her voice a hiss.
“Nobody said a word to me about that picture. I assumed people would think I was crazy for putting it up there. It’s just a house.”
“If it’s just a house,” she said, “then why did you want to include it?”
This was Eve Harrelson’s younger sister, he realized. Her name was Alyssa Bradford now, and she was in several of the photographs he’d used. Back in the main room someone was speaking, offering tribute to Eve, but this woman did not seem to care in the least. All of her attention was on him.
“It felt special,” he said. “I can’t explain it any better than that. Sometimes I just get a sense. It was the only picture of the place, and there were no people in it. I thought that was unusual. The longer I looked at it… I don’t know, I just thought it belonged. I’m sorry if it offended you.”
“No. It’s not that.”
It was quiet for a moment, both of them standing outside while the service continued inside.
“What was that place?” he said. “And why are you the only one who reacted?”
She looked over her shoulder then, as if making sure the doors were closed.
“My sister had an affair,” she said softly, and Eric felt something cold and spidery work through his chest. “I’m the only person who knows. At least that’s what she told me. It was with a man she dated in college and during a rough time she had with Blake…. He’s a bastard, I’ll never forgive him for some of the things he did, and I think she should have left him. Our parents were divorced, though, and it was an ugly divorce, and she didn’t want to do that to her kids.”
This sort of disclosure wasn’t all that uncommon. Eric had grown used to family members sharing more than seemed prudent. Grief sent secrets spilling past the old restraints, and it was easier to do with a stranger sometimes. Maybe every time.
“That cottage is in Michigan,” she said. “Some little lake in the Upper Peninsula. She spent a week there with this man, and then she came back, and she never saw him again. It was the children, you know, they were all that kept her. She was in love with him, though. I know that.”
What could he say to that? Eric shifted the projector again, didn’t speak.
“She didn’t keep any pictures of him,” Alyssa Bradford said, and there were tears in her eyes now. “Tore apart the photo albums she had from college, too, and burned every picture he was in. Not out of anger, but because she had to if she was going to stay. I was with her when she burned them, and she kept that one, that single shot, because there was nobody in it. That’s all she kept to remember him.”
“It just seemed to belong,” Eric said again.
“And that song,” she said, her eyes piercing again after she’d blinked the tears back. “How on earth did you select that song?”
They made love to it, he thought, probably for the first time, or if not that, then certainly for the best time, the one that she remembered longest, the one that she remembered not long before she died. They made love to that song and he pulled her hair and she leaned her head back and moaned in his ear and afterward they lay together and listened to the wind howl around that cottage with the deep red paint. It was warm and windy and they thought that it would rain soon. They were sure of it.
The woman was staring at him, this woman who was the only person alive who knew of her dead sister’s affair, of the week she’d spent in that cottage. The only person alive other than the lover, at least. And now Eric. He looked back into her eyes, and he shrugged.
“It just felt right, that’s all. I try to match the music to the mood.”
And he did, on every project. That much was true. Everything else, that strange but absolute sense of the importance of the song, couldn’t possibly be more than trickery of the mind. Any other notion was absurd. So very absurd.
Eve Harrelson’s sister gave him a hundred-dollar bill before she left to return to the service, a fresh wave of tears cresting in her eyes. Eric wasn’t sure if it was a tip or a bribe for silence, and he didn’t ask. Once his equipment was packed up and he was sitting in the driver’s seat of the Acura MDX that Claire had paid for, he transferred the bill from his pocket to his wallet. He tried not to notice that his hands were shaking.
Excerpted from So Cold the River by Koryta, Michael Copyright © 2010 by Koryta, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
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