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He always hoped that they would turn out too dark; he liked to take them from the trash, to take them home. Sometimes when he liked one enough and he was alone he magnified it several times and even printed it in layers over and over until there were five images on one sheet.
He couldn’t understand the newer ones, glossy and finished and perfect. Where was the excitement? He never left work unless his hands were sweet with chemical smell and dyed sickly yellow. But he loved the smell and the color, because it was real and it was there and he had helped to create it. And he saw it in the faces of the heavy men and the thin girls and the blonde woman with the pencils shoved hastily into her head. He saw the joy and excitement of what they had created as they saw it for the first time.
What they never seemed to understand was that they didn’t get beautiful results due to ingenuity; it was all him. Had he not stood for hours over a sink in a black room, sweating to preserve everything he could? They never thought of him, and it stung, but all the same they would come and he would smile and wish them a good day because if he was pleasant they would come again and he could touch their newest creations.
When the boxes arrived, he should have realized. Rather, he had realized, but he refused to admit it to himself. The boxes sat in the narrow back room for weeks, tripping up his feet, bumping against his shins, and digging their corners into the backs of his knees.
It was a warning, he knew. But they were boxes and he was a person so obviously he could outsmart them. At least he knew what he was holding on the inside. He knew even better after it all came falling out.
“It’s just for efficiency.”
The words couldn’t quite register; he felt the boxes, tucked into the back room, taunting him. They knew. They knew why they were there, why they were made, whom they would hurt.
“It’s nothing personal, really. You’ve been a hard worker all these years. It’s just…”
Didn’t this man understand it was an art? No, he only understood the gold of his watch and the pull of his belt.
He felt sick when he thought about all of the chemicals in urns, preserved beyond his lifetime; the bins stacked and cleaned; the photographs overexposed and dull and perfect as they slipped from screen to paper.
He didn’t want to hear any more. All he could think about were the photos, the ones he had pulled from packages, the ones so dark that he could hardly see the contents, the ones that no one would ever miss. If he stopped and the chemicals stopped and the film stopped the pictures would be stopped and then he couldn’t leave every day with a secret pumping in the pocket against his chest.
He left before his boss finished speaking, and he heard little. Something about qualifications, something about a new age of technology. But it didn’t really matter; the people that thought they made the pictures, even with their arrogance- he wouldn’t see them anymore. And he realized then that he would miss them; the way that the teenager grabbed the prints and made a dash to her soccer practice, the way that the paunchy man would lick his lips and look at the negatives, the way that the woman with pencils wound into her hair would sit on the counter, thumb through the pictures, and tell him which ones she liked.
They all shared that love for the pictures, but he envied that they could continue. He couldn’t take pictures himself; he knew that deep down, he had to be the one that made them, that made the paper bloom with color.
He walked all the way from work to his house as the sun set and silhouetted the suburban homes. It would have made a good picture to take, yes, but it would have been more beautiful to develop than anything. He would have printed it four times, two copies for the photographer, and then one for his wallet and one for his wall.
The house was silent when he entered, and he didn’t bother to turn on the overhead lights. Instead, he walked to the living room and turned on a dim lamp. He smiled and turned to face the wall.
Collaged onto the stucco were hundreds of darkened photographs, some fading brown, others still dripping wet with yellow chemical, lines of stain running down the wall. He reached out and touched the center gently with his fingertips, then pulled his hand away. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a photograph and looked at it fondly. The house on the hill. A hill he had never been to, a home he had never seen. Too dark to even see the shingles on the roof.
He stuck it onto the wall as carefully as possible. To him, exposure was the most important part of a photograph. If you had something overexposed or underexposed, you’d never really see it at all.