In the morning when he arrives, Denny refills the processing machine – topping off the developer, adding dye and carefully pouring bleach and fixer until all the levels are full. In the old days, his hands would reek of chemicals at the end of the day, even when he wore thick, black rubber gloves from the hardware store. The smell burned his nostrils when he touched his face, and tainted every bite of food he brought to his mouth. Now, the machine does almost everything; he hadn’t had to bathe a print in years.
When the machine is primed, Denny flips on the sign in the window and “Open” begins to flash, one neon letter at a time. He stocks the register with small bills from the safe under the counter and unlocks the drive-up window. A rubber hose runs across the pavement in the lane outside the shop, sounding a bell above the register when a customer pulls up; it hardly ever rings on weekdays, except at lunchtime and the last hour of the day.
He carries a bin of envelopes to the table by the processing machine; it’s divided into tabs alphabetically, and seems to get lighter every day. Some tabs only have one or two envelopes behind them, while some – like “Z” and “Q” – have none. He scans through them looking for familiar names, thumbing past M. Baker, R. Castilla, and K. Dorn before reaching T. Goodwin.
Teresa Goodwin has climbed the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. She has stood in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa with her palms outstretched, holding the monument like Atlas. Two years ago, she traveled to Alaska with her father, fishing for salmon and smiling as he unwrapped presents for his seventy-fifth and final birthday. While his candles burned, she wrapped her arms around him from behind and kissed his cheek. That was Denny’s favorite picture of her; he printed an extra copy of it and taped it to the counter by the register.
The front of her envelope is filled out neatly in cursive blue pen. Her orders are meticulously consistent – matte finish, doubles, next-day service. In the space where some customers filled in their address, Teresa drew a thick dash from one end of the blank to the other. There was only one roll inside this order.
He dumps the Kodachrome into a light-proof bag where he strings it on a spool and feeds it into the machine. The film slowly unwinds as the processor eats the spool; he closes his eyes and feels her memories as they slide through his fingers.
Denny imagines smiling with her in Paris while she pretends to dangle the Eiffel Tower between her thumb and index finger.
The processor hums as chemicals compartments fill around the film and then drain away into separate tanks.
In the summer, when it is hot, they would go to carnivals and stick their head through plywood cutouts of strong men and women in bikinis and laugh with each other when they switched places.
On the far side of the machine, negatives of a baby shower begin to string out into a bin lined with plastic.
He feels the pressure of her arm through his as they watch the sunset over the Grand Canyon, neither of them in the photo, but the memory of her by his side still captured when he snapped the picture of the reds and purples of a dying day.
The bell above the window rings, startling him as the last of the film leaves its spool. At the window, an older woman in a rusty Cadillac is waiting with a Tupperware container filled with film of assorted brands. He fills out her envelope and wishes E. Gehrig a good day as she creeps out of the drive-up and into the street. Others come and go while he processes negatives and trims print after print, stopping only for a bologna sandwich after the lunchtime rush. He forgot to pack a drink.
At six o’clock, he clicks off the neon sign – the “e” is the last to blink. He drains the machine and begins tallying the register when the bell rings again. Outside, a blue pickup has its window down, and a man is looking pleadingly in at Denny. He considers waving the man off, but the register was still open and he hadn’t locked the window yet.
“Thank God, you’re a lifesaver,” says the man as Denny slides open the glass, “My wife would strangle me if I came home without her pictures.”
“Of course, sir,” Denny says quietly, “What’s the last name, please?”