It was a few months after the funeral when Elena, my stepmother invited me to lunch at Sal’s Italian on Riverside. Sal’s is secluded, a little more expensive than I could afford at the time, one of my father’s old haunts. A trattoria where you can sit in a booth, sign vital contracts over truffles and mama-made rigatoni. The waiters pretend to know you and know what not to ask.
I’m not sure why I arrived thirty minutes early. I never am. There she was sitting in “our family booth” by the kitchen door, behind big sunglasses in a lowcut black dress, flipping through her bible, Vogue. You wouldn’t need to be a Hollywood costume designer to know Elena was recently widowed. “How ya keeping?” I asked. “Okay I guess, surviving, barely, thinking of going to Greece for awhile.” She said. “You should. We ordered white wine, pasta, fish. We would eat well even if we cried. After the Soave was poured, she took off her sunglasses and inhaled. “I invited you to give you this…. I know you are the only one who will know…do the right thing…I have tried…” She plopped an old leather doctor’s bag on the table. It was full of brick silicon hard-drives.
“About 5000 gigabits…”
“What do you think…”
“Yes. Photographs, your father’s.”
My father was one of the world’s greatest jazz photographers. His obituary had made all the international papers. He had published more than a dozen glossy coffee table books. All he ever cared about was shooting jazz. “Copies?” I asked. “No.” she quivered, “Originals. No one has ever seen any of these. Except me. I’ve been trying to organize or …since… It is just too much…I can’t… I don’t know what is what anymore… I can’t go on…”
“They must be worth a mint”. I smiled.
“You know…I don’t give a horse’s testicle about money…You know I have always had plenty. Long before I met your father.”
“Why me? Why not Jack?” I asked.
“Jack’s a worm…”
Jack Birbaum had been my father’s manager, agent, publisher and protector for the last forty years. He was also my godfather. This was the first time I had ever heard a word against him. Jack had kept my father out of the poorhouse and always made sure he had enough equipment, light and food to keep working. I assumed he had been a loyal friend and business partner. “Jack has no morals…He’ll do the wrong thing. When you see them, you’ll see… they are not jazz.” Elena did not smile. I put the bag under the table and slid a foot through a strap. Our food was delicious as usual. She consciously kept off topic. We discussed, Greece, her friends, my kids. After she paid, when we were parting on the sidewalk, she took my elbow and pulled me close. “Don’t judge him…He never judged you…He loved and trusted you. I love and trust you…He shot with love.”
I hugged Elena tight, told her to enjoy Greece and call when she had arrived safely. She smelt and looked good. She would get over it, eventually.
Pedaling home, with the awkward heavy gigs, I was filled with intrigue and panic. I went straight into my office, plugged in the hard-drives, picked up the phone and cancelled the day’s appointments. As the photos appeared on my screen, my father emerged a different man. A side of him I had never seen before rose clear and true. Undoubtedly they were his work. I knew his framing, composition, lines, light—everything, my father. Although the subject changed, his objectivity was rock solid. Someone, I assume Elena, had put them in chronological order. Starting with some scanned black-and-whites of seriously buxom Betty Boop pin-ups in large bikinis, all the way up to anorexic nymphs wrapped in latex, bound like pre-pubescent sacrifices, shot in state of the art digital, and photo-shopped into Hustler-like quality. As my father grew older, the equipment and models grew younger. Once every few images, a famous much-younger-than-now face would pop up, usually a well-known jazz face sans-trumpet-sin-piano. I won’t name names, but the .jpegs were entitled: Chet’s Ass, Nina’s Nipple, Miles Shooting Up and stuff like that. There was even one of a current governor, youth abloom, bound and gagged, ready to be flailed, muscles rippling, in a police cap and nothing else. Although teetering on pornographic, it was not the content that disturbed me so much as the cool distant technique of my father’s experienced lens. It sped my heart. I spent the afternoon scrolling through: thighs, breasts, nipples, bound cocks, gagged mouths, intimate tattoos, bizarre piercing and perfect images of flesh that could compete with the greatest thoughts of Weegee, Mapplethorpe, Salgado. My wife came home with the kids just before dinner time. “What are you doing here? I thought you had meetings in town.?” She asked. My wife knew something odd was adrift. As beautiful and practical as ever, she set the kids up in the living room in front of a video and a bowl of carrots, then came into our office and closed the door. “Look at these.” I said. “Holy Freak. Oh my god. Who took these? Jesus, is that the governor? Freak, yer Dad? Good Lord!” I explained what I knew.
“What are you going to do with them?” She asked. I married her for her eyebrows which danced an arch. Beauty with hard-working intelligence, my wife said, “Do you have any idea what these will be worth?” The kids stormed the computer. Soon they will be in college. Soon I will be old. Soon I will be dead. They were babbling away about something and we began a kind of wrestle dance that only young parents can understand. The kind that evaporates worry. The kind that leaves no room for anything else. I put the computer to sleep, shut the office door and soon the family was around the table eating.
The next morning I called Jack Birbaum and invited him to Sal’s. Jack sounded overjoyed and agreed without hesitation. When I arrived early again, Jack was sitting in “our family booth”. I knew he knew this would be an important chat. Neither of us ever arrived early for anything in our lives. Yet we were early. Jack had fortified himself with two martinis and had just ordered his third as I sat down. I wondered if he had spoken to Elena. I wondered how his wife, my Godmother, Maria was recovering from her breast removal but was too self-absorbed to ask. I wondered if I could trust Jack, did my father? The waiter came over. We ordered by heart. Strong red wine, pasta, steak. As the waiter was pouring the Amarone, I plopped a hard-drive on the table. “What, may I inquire, is that?”
“This is serious shit, Jack. This is a hard-drive full of some of the best photos my father ever took. Not jazz.” I said.
“Of salacious women? Splendiferous Sex? Pure kink? Exploits?
“Jack, did you know?”
“I have always known the intimate impulses of your father. We were open about it. I booked the models. I controlled the stock. I rented the studios. Your father never even purchased a flash bulb without, shall I risk, parental consent? He wasn’t a hoarder of secrets. He couldn’t tie his shoes alone.”
“Have you seen them?”
“No. Never. A few negatived but not the collection.” Jack pulled out a tiny notebook and plugged in the hard-drive. He began to scroll. Our food arrived Jack tried to hide his slacking jaw, furrowing brow, widening eyes, but I knew him too well. Memories of Jack teaching me to play poker in a summer cabin on a Vermont lake many years ago came flooding back. Fireflies crash-landing onto the picnic table. Ants were devouring leftover campfire chilly. Jack shuffled the deck. I could hear the river. It was our third consecutive night of Poker lessons. Jack folded his hand over the cards and sighed. “The cards and my hands are on the table. What does that tell you?”
“You can’t cheat?” I ventured.
“Not exactly, my young ludologist, but close enough.”
“Tonight, now that you have grasped the finer regulations of the game, I am going to instruct you on the intimate rules of reading people, not cards. Rule one: Maintain eye contact with your opponent at all costs. Rule two: Never speak unless spoken to, it saps your energy. Rule three: Do you know what a bluff is?”
“ Like a lie. When someone pretends they have something they don’t?” I said.
“Close enough,” Jack smiled. “You’re a clever youngster. Rule three …”
Just as Jack was exhaling to enlighten me, my father staggered out of the bush laughing. He was drunk, disheveled, sweating and smoking. He leaned on the picnic table and slurred close to Jack’s blinking eyes. “Never trust anyone. People lie. People mess around. People are not what they seem, that’s rule number three to six, ain’t it Jackie?” My father pinched his cheek too long and hard. Jack stood up and went silently into the cabin. My father plopped down at the table. “I fucking hate cards. They remind me of the army or prison. Fuck all three.” My father glared into me expecting an answer. I had never seen him so drunk. He began to swear under his breath. Maria, Jack’s wife appeared out of the bush. She was wearing a long thin nightdress, bikini underneath. She put one hand into my father’s hair and another around his chest. “Go down to the lake.”
My father ordered and I obeyed, happy to be gone.
I guzzled a large glass of powerful Amarone. “Astounding. Is that the Gubernator?”
“All tied up huh?” I laughed.
“He does look a tad occupied. Uncanny. Wow. I never knew about this. Billie and Ella naked together?” Jack was sweating. Jack folded his laptop. He downed a glass. Our empty steaks plates dissappeared. We ordered another bottle. “There are 5000 gigabits or more.” I said.
“Have you backed them up?”
“What!” Jack open palm slammed the table, “Why in the hell, may I ask, are you here, you should be home observing flying files right now, NOW, in fact I am sending you directly home right now youngman away from this perfect libation and sustenance to do that back-up RIGHT NOW. I SAID BACK IT UP.” Jack was making a scene.
“Jack, simmer. What should I do with these?”
“Commence back-up post haste. Hearing impaired?”
“I mean after they are backed-up, with the images?
“Let me. May I think?” Jack asked.
“Jack, think out loud.”
“Okay, my first thought is: you are sitting on a fountain of gold, a tax-free oil rig, image rights for centuries. We’re talking a designer house in the hills, offspring’s college covered, a yacht, cushy retirement, if you want. My second, what would he want? I feel like Kafka’s best friend, what was his name, Maximus Brod? The guy who published everything, after Kafka requested incineration of his life’s scribbles from his death bed. Third, we could use a pseudonym, but that wouldn’t fetch the same levels of liquidity and some over-educated and under-employed academic would eventually uncover the truth. We need to find or falsify the release forms, I’m not talking blackmail, but your father was a professional who knew what he was doing. Of course, we will give the gubernator first purchase option, especially if we wait until pre-election time. The pot of gold at the commencement of the rainbow has appeared and the Leprecahun has lost the map.”
The coffee and grappa arrived, digestion took a serious turn. “What are the ethics of this Jack? What would he want? Where do we stand legally?” O asked.
“They have printed the obituaries.”
“They would re-write them.”
“Listen, your father knew what he was doing. He took them and saved them for a reason. He was a decent man. Perhaps, a touch deviant but smart and good. What does your spleen advise?”
“ I don’t know but I think he would want my kids to have the money, goto a good college, not to have to worry about healthcare. If not, he would have destroyed them. They are too good to be destroyed. And if we don’t put them on the market some one else will.”
“Have you, may I ask, contemplated destruction?”
“What does Elena think?”
“She has washed her hands. She gave them to me. They were driving her nuts. She’s gone to Greece to forget.”
“Smart woman. Let me get this straight kiddo, I don’t want to muddle your intentions. You invited me here to sell them, correct? Auction them off. Highest bidder takes all come hell or high water, correct?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way, but yes. In a nutshell, yes Jack. Sell them. We need the money.” I said. As Jack paid, we discussed the terms, the backing-up, the permission forms, the details of how and when to sell. Outside Sal’s rush-hour was kicking off on Riverside Drive. As I unlocked my bicycle, Jack lit a cigar. The valet pulled up with Jack’s jag. Jack slipped him ten bucks. “You okay to drive?” I asked.
“Rarely do law-inforcers work at this hour. I’m fine. I’ll expect you tomorrow with the back-ups, around this time.”
“How’s Maria?” I asked.
“She has been better, surviving I guess, is the correct term. Cancer, if you will pardon my argot, is a fucking bastard.”
“Send her my love.”
“We’ll bring the kids over one day.”
“She’d love that, seriously, please do, please, it would mean the world to her, you are always welcome. Maria would love to see your children.” Jack waved his cigar and pulled into traffic. I pedaled uptown, crossed the bridge and the residential streets became the newly built homes which all had FOR SALE signs, I mean all of them. My mind drifted back to that Vermont summer at the cabin. Jack and I were paddling one canoe. Maria and Elena were in another. My father was alone in a kayak. No one had a camera and we were all so damned happy.
As I locked my bike to the fence near our door, my mind, hazy and uncontrollable, remembered my father pulling into our lane after the long drive south from the cabin. He turned off the ignition. Elena went into the house. My father grabbed my elbow and whispered into my ear. “I was wrong the other night, son. Rule number three is: 90% of all accidents happen close to home.”
I entered our home and began the back-up process.
David Morgan O'Connor is from a small village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he is based in Albuquerque, where a short story collection progresses. He contributors monthly to; The Review Review and New Pages. His writing has appeared in; Barcelona Metropolitan, Collective Exiles, Headland, Cecile's Writers, Bohemia, Beechwood, Fiction Magazine After the Pause, The Great American Lit Mag, The New Quarterly and The Guardian.