& Restoration Services
The painted letters on the windows strained the light like a colander strains water — something Marley had never noticed until after she’d let her last assistant go, and had started working, open to close, alone in the studio.
Marley ran, or rather had inherited, a small business that restored personal film. Her father had opened the studio in 1952, named it Canto Film Colorization & Restoration Services. A name bigger than the window he could afford. At the time, he thought he was opening a hand colorization studio. The war was over, color film was hot, and Hollywood would need someone to paint color onto their black and white film. They’d give the reels to Henry Canto, and he’d give those old movies the Canto Colorization treatment. Hand ’em back gorgeous. Henry had banked on being able to remove “& Restoration Services” from the name by 1955.
He hadn’t been able to.
Instead, in 2003, he paid to have “fifty years in business,” painted in matching silver and gold under the studio’s name. The slopes and curves of the lettering brought the light in in waves. The chips let it in in bolts.
“I’ll have to get that repainted in June,” Marley muttered, mentally adding it to her to-do list. “Sixty years in business.”
Marley flipped open the ledger that she, and her father before her, used to track the studio’s accounts. Henry had never switched to a computer, and if he hadn’t, Marley didn’t know why she would either. She ran her finger down the page to the last entry. Her literal bottom line, handwritten in red. The number was shrinking fast. She traced her finger up. The last entries were all in red. The page was bleeding.
She kept her finger moving until she found the most recent black entry. There weren’t many of them. In 1952, Canto Film’s first job had been the colorization of a silent film, made in France, in the 1920s. Silent and stark, her father had taken tiny paintbrushes to the monochrome reel and made it bloom with color. Made it soft and appealing, beautiful and wicked. Made it vibrant and alive. In exchange, the French production company had given Henry two-thousand dollars, and enough pretension to last him to the millennium.
Whole decades had passed since Canto Film had seen a true colorization job, and when Marley took over the business six years ago, she’d removed it from their menu of services. All she could do was computer stuff — convert reels and tapes to digital files, add music or slideshow titles, clean up blank spots, filter out noise. Maybe tweak the color here and there, make the people less orange, the grass more green.
The sun shifted, and a bolt of light hit the sunken hollow of her cheek. Maybe she didn’t need to repaint the window after all. Maybe she wouldn’t have to. Marley squinted and looked back at the ledger. When she was a child and the studio accounts got tight, her father would move money from their family’s savings into the business’ coffers. It was never clear to Marley if that was legal or not, but maybe she could do the same thing. Slip a small portion of her alimony payments back into Canto Film? She could live on a little less.
Marley checked her watch. She had a meeting with her husband and their divorce attorneys this evening to work out these exact issues: alimony and division of assets. They were going to take the life they’d built as one and split it back into two. Marley’s stomach turned over, and she repressed a shudder. Thinking about using some of the money that Dave may be required to pay to her made her nauseous.
She slammed the ledger shut, her daily exercise in humility over, and fished her cell phone out of the desk drawer. The number she was looking for should have been at the top of her contact list, but Marley scrolled past it twice before she finally found it.
The phone rang four times, before Ava, Marley’s sister, came across the line, her voice garbled by street noise. “Marley?” Ava didn’t trust her caller ID.
“Ava,” Marley pulled on a smile that Ava couldn’t see. “How are you?”
“I’m trying to get to a union meeting across town.”
Not my question, Marley thought. She could picture her sister, fat upper lip starting to collect beads of sweat as she hoofed it, in sensible white sneakers, to the union hall. Marley actually hadn’t seen Ava in three years and had only talked to her over the phone on birthdays and national holidays.
“How is the dog?” Marley’s own beads of sweat were starting to form.
“What do you want, Marles?”
“Dave and I are getting a divorce,” Marley’s voice curled up at the edge like a question. That wasn’t what she’d called to talk about. Marley put her head in her hands.
“Do you need money for the studio?” The rush of traffic from Ava’s end had died down, and Marley guessed that she had stopped walking.
“What? Ava. I have a meeting with lawy — ”
“Oh ok, so you did call to talk about your divorce?” Even over the phone, Marley could feel Ava’s dark eyes narrowing themselves over her humped nose.
Marley bit her lip, gulped down choking pride. “Here’s the deal, Ava. We’re sixteen hundred dollars from empty, and that’ll just cover next month’s rent.” Marley spoke sharp and fast, the way her mother used to talk to banks back when Jeanetta Canto ran the studio accounts. “We’re working hard over here on some great prospects. My last job brought in almost a thousand dollars and — ”
“Use that money then.”
“Ava,” Marley stopped. “I’m just trying to keep us alive here.”
“Goddamn it, Marley. When are you going to give that place up for dead?”
Marley wanted to tell her sister about the last job she’d taken in: A woman just past middle age wanted her home videos converted to digital files. “Junky old things,” she’d said, referring to the VHS tapes. “They take up too much space.” Marley took in the woman’s film, and in four days she ran through all of it. In between adding transitions and editing out dark spots, Marley watched this stranger bring home her babies and push toddlers on the swings. Saw her dance with a man in the kitchen, and watched a blurry, elementary school graduation. The children morphed into adults as the camera caught them opening gifts and receiving blue ribbon awards, playing football and waving goodbye. When the woman returned four days later, Marley saw the young bride and the new mother nestled into the folds of the woman’s drooping face.
“This stuff we’re doing.” Marley fumbled with her words. “I think it’s important.”
Ava huffed, a sigh so angry it had legs. “That stupid business has been failing for the last twenty years. I don’t know how he managed to keep it open — I suspect shady bookkeeping — but when you chose to take it over, it became yours to deal with.”
Marley let out a small, strangled sound. Ava’s anger was compounding upon itself, and, in turn, Marley could feel her own responsibility grow heavier. Keeper of the family business, of the family name, of the family affection. Her father used to tell her that it was a good thing she had thick shoulders, because he had a lot to put on them.
“That man took from everyone…I have done my duty to him.”
Marley tried to pull together a response, but her thoughts wouldn’t form. The bottom had fallen away, and she was sinking into catatonic apathy. In her ear was the muffled rush of traffic and feet and a beeping intersection warning. She wondered what Ava could hear — Dust settling? Clocks stopping? The whirl of phantom film spinning in back?
“I am sorry about the divorce, but I just got here.” There was an extended pause, then staticky silence.
Marley kept the phone to her ear after Ava hung up. The exhaustion felt like a cancer, and she was ready to lie down on the studio floor. Let it take her.
“Marley? Are you even listening?”
Marley shifted in her slump. She was supporting her head with one arm and studying a lock of hair, pulled down over her forehead.
“Yeah. Alimony. I’m listening.” She flicked her eyes towards her husband — ex-husband.
“Not alimony. We’re talking about the studio.”
Dave got the word off his tongue quickly, like it was food that had sat out too long and gone rotten. After an entire marriage of dancing over the fault line that was his father-in-law, Dave was ready to be done with the man he’d always called “sad, little Henry Canto.” Marley could hear the derision in her ex-husband’s voice
“What about the studio?”
“It’s an asset. We need to decide how to divide it.”
“Divide it?” Marley rolled her head to the left, then right, trying to bring energy back into her limbs. “It’s not an asset. It’s the family business. My family. My dad — my father’s business. It’s not yours.”
Dave sighed and tapped his pen. When he was promoted to distribution management at the supermarket chain he worked for he’d started tapping that pen. Like he always had something to do. Marley wanted to grab it and snap it across his forehead.
Dave’s lawyer thumbed through a stack of papers.
“Ms. Canto, my records show that you and Mr. Bernard are co-owners, as per a transfer of ownership that took place — ” he jabbed at one of the papers, “six years ago.”
“No, no, that’s not right. We only did it that way because we were married then. It’s my family’s business. It’s always been mine.” Panic was rising up in her chest, making her stutter, stumble over her words. She looked to her lawyer. He could explain it better.
“It’s because you were married that we have to talk about this,” her attorney whispered, leaning in to her.
“No. I’m not talking about it. It’s mine. It’s my dad’s. He can’t have it. Dave can’t have it.” Marley sounded like her teenage daughter. “He didn’t even want to do the transfer then; he only agreed to it because I begged him.”
Marley could hear the hysteria mounting in her voice.
Dave’s lawyer pursed his lips, frustrated. “Ms. Canto, Dave is aware of your family ties to the business, and would like to discuss transferring full ownership to you. We think that giving you the house, which we’ve previously discussed, the business, and one lump sum would alleviate Mr. Bernard of his financial responsibility towards you — though, of course, not towards the children.”
Dave was staring hard at his blank legal pad like it had something written on it. He couldn’t look straight at her. Shame, Marley recognized it in the lines on his forehead, and it softened her.
“Actually, I think we should raise that offer.” Dave cleared his throat. “I know the studio isn’t profitable. Marley’s only working there because her father loved it. I really don’t see a need to penalize her for that.”
He reached for her hand, but she yanked it away. He was using the same tone he used to talk about “sad, little Henry Canto.” The same tone her sister used. Whatever tenderness she had felt evaporated. She wanted to flip the table over. Scream until a window shattered. She wanted to be more than just pathetic; she wanted someone to pay for making her feel pathetic all the way down into her bones, and her cells, and her dry, ragged hair. She was carrying on her family’s name, her family’s legacy, the tradition of film in the Canto bloodline. This was her birthright — her sister’s birthright too, for that matter. It was the birthright her children should inherit. How could they not see that?
Canto Film Colorization & Restoration Services was an institution, if to no one else but to them. That alone was enough to let it stand while the street around it crumbled. Marley wanted the reels of film that her father painted to play slow and silent, straight on into time immemorial, because that’s what film was about — pushing memory forward into time.
The enveloping fury made blood pump through Marley’s veins and ring in her ear like the pistons of a steam engine.
“And this is why I am divorcing you, you son of a bitch,” she hissed at Dave, strains of her father’s grandiosity playing in her head. “Because you never respected me or my father or what we are doing. We’re talking about legacy here, about our children’s legacy. We’re talking about a man who tried to build something beautiful. And you’re willing to let that just crumble away? You goddamn son of a bitch.”
Her voice was low and deadly, and she imagined the men straining to hear her. She was white hot like she’d never been before. Wrath like she’d never felt towards Dave. Towards anyone. Neither of them were fighters, never had been, but for a brief moment, Marley could feel herself, in a flurry of fist and flesh, pummeling every inch of Dave with her big knuckles.
“I’m not going to be ‘sad, little Marley Canto’ to the next wife.”
Dave stared at her with his eyes wide. His abandoned pen hung limp from his fingertips.
“What are you doing, Marley? You are not doing anything — you’re not even doing business. Maybe for a second back in the fifties, you were doing ‘something,’ but that wasn’t even you. That was your goddamn dad. You are dead in the water. You’re obsolete, and you have been since color film.” Dave was pushing against the table with the palms of his hand. “Goddamn it if you rope our kids into your dad’s twisted little web. I’m sure as shit going to make sure that that isn’t their legacy.”
He spit that last word, knocking the wind out of her.
“Should we finish this conversation another time, Jim?” Dave’s lawyer said to Marley’s, like their divorce was a round of golf.
“I don’t know, Roy. This stuff should be pretty cut and dry.” Marley’s lawyer lowered his voice. “Dave’s right about that studio; it’s about to go belly up.”
Marley slammed her fist against the table, then yanked her bag out from underneath her chair. The balloon of rage was deflating, and she needed desperately to be away from these men.
“Are the kids with you tonight, or with me?” she yelled.
“Me!” Dave raised his hands in bewilderment. “You should know this!”
Marley spun around, pushed her way through the door. Let it slam. She got to her car and slammed that door too.
The parking lot was empty, and she opened her mouth to scream, but before it could materialize, she dissolved into hot, dry sobs. The numbers in her ledger had been marching themselves to the grave for months, but hearing the words from someone else’s mouth brought her hot, searing pain. Her script about legacies and timelessness and myth came back to her now. An empty echo, calling back on itself from a million tiny hollows. They were the same things her father used to scream at her mother when Jeanetta would push Henry to close down the shop.
“Go into sales like your brother,” she would say, dusting her hands on her apron. “You’ve got such good experience.”
“This is my life’s work, Jeany! Man does not sacrifice his legacy.”
After the meeting, Marley drove aimlessly for an hour. She pulled into parking lots, then pulled back out of them. Every time she stopped her car, the same blinding weariness rolled itself back onto her. She could feel it clawing at her skin, hanging heavy on her body. Marley feared that if she slipped into that exhaustion, she’d never come out of it.
Just as the sun was slipping past the skyline, Marley found herself parked outside her father’s studio, staring into its dark windows. In the half-light between night and day, the street’s desertion was alienating, made her feel as if shouldn’t be there. Marley closed her eyes, the better to see it.
It would be 1952 again, and everything on the street would be young. The store would smell like new paint, and that ledger would be crisp and bright. Filling up with new names. A mother, barely pregnant with her second child, would push the baby, Ava, down the street in a stroller, smoking a filtered cigarette with one gloved hand and waving to passersby with the other. It would be years before Henry Canto’s obsession turned ugly. Decades before little Marlene Canto was crushed by the sandcastle her father called inheritance.
She opened her eyes, but the street was still gray and quiet, lost between the sun’s set and the moon’s rise. The stoplight turned from yellow to red to green as Marley unlocked the studio doors. She closed her eyes before walking through and tried to smell whatever it was that had smelled like magic when she was a little girl: fresh paint, oil, her father’s cologne, and the projector, whirling.
Instead, all she could smell was her leftover chicken cacciatore, spoiling in the trash.
The front of the studio was cold and dark, but Marley didn’t turn any lights on. In the dark, the now-vintage movie posters her father had hung looked like they were glaring at her. The projector reel and clapper, hung from the ceiling, threw long, thin shadows on the bare floor. The whole room felt foreign to her. She liked that, feeling like she’d never been here before, like she wasn’t part of it. She felt her way toward the backroom, where Henry Canto had worked, and where he’d stored his own film. As children, she and Ava were rarely allowed into this part of the studio.
It was a windowless room, and against the back wall was a metal shelving unit, empty except for a cache of reels that no one but Henry Canto was allowed to touch. On holidays and special occasions, he’d put away his paints, and Henry would let his girls in to watch what was on those reels. They’d have to leave their coats and shoes outside, so as not to let any extra moisture into the atmosphere. To Marley, this was a privilege, an invitation into the sanctuary, but Ava soured on the whole production early. As young as eight years old, Ava had already begun to sigh and roll her eyes, just like their mother, whenever the reels came out.
Marley pulled one of them off the shelves and tried to read its faded label.
King Lear, 1939. Shaky clips of her father on a high school stage, wordlessly destroying Shakespeare with a Brooklyn accent. She took down another: Shipping Out, 1943. Hundreds of young men crowded around a ship’s deck rails, waving and smiling and jumping for those watching on land. A Hero’s Welcome, 1946. The parade that New York City threw for their returning soldiers after V-Day. J + H, 1950. Henry and Jeanetta’s wedding video. Opening Day!, June 16, 1952.
Marley had done it so often that she didn’t need lights to see the machine. She wound the stiff film around the projector, fed it to the tracks, and flipped the machine’s gray switch. A light and a fan purred to life, like another body walking into the room. A square of grainy gray lit the blank wall, and Marley sat on the ground, just like she used to when she was a little girl.
The camera panned down their street and Henry Canto walked into the frame, smiling and waving and shielding his eyes from the sun. The camera pulled back slowly to show an “Opening Day” banner behind him. He still looked like a soldier with his straight-cut jaw and right-angled shoulders. His slacks hung off the top of his hipbones, and Marley thought that he must still have a flat, muscled stomach. The drooping paunch that would later make him look stooped and weary hadn’t formed yet. Henry was still handsome, strong and commanding in front of the freshly painted window.
Jeanetta Canto moved into the shot, smiling wide as she circled her arms around her husband’s waist and leaned into his chest like he was a pillar that would hold her up. She was beautiful, vibrant even in black and white. Marley filled in Jeanetta’s color by memory: blonde hair curled and pinned back, plump red lips stretching over white teeth. Green eyes that opened wide.
Henry wrapped his arms around his bride, and she drunk in his pride. It was no wonder he believed in himself so much. A look like that, from a girl like that, gave lesser men than Henry Canto courage enough to charge into battle. Her lips were moving, and Henry was laughing, but on film, they were silenced.
Henry released his wife and unfurled his arms like a flag. Reaching towards everything. There was magnitude in those arms. He was trying to wrap them around the world. Marley saw the words “film business” form on his lips, as he stood, triumphant before the camera.
“You know, ya father always wanted to be in the films,” Jeanetta had once told Marley over dirty dishes, her accent so heavy she sounded like a caricature. “He saw a nice boy like Jimmy Stewart do it, and he thought, ‘well I can, too.’ But then there was the war, and after that, he met me. Of course, you know that Ava came just six months after the wedding — surprised us all to no end, ya father thought we still had three months left!…But after that, he couldn’t be in the films, so he did this instead. It let him be ah-tistic.”
Jeanetta’s looks had begun to fade by the time she told this to Marley, and Marley didn’t like the way her father’s hopes and dreams sounded with all the ‘r’s missing, trapped by all her mother’s wispy hand motions. She preferred the story her father told. All his pride and persuasion made it sound like the Cantos weren’t just playing at something weighty.
The camera panned out farther to show the whole storefront, her parents reduced to little figures in front of big windows. They were idyllic, her mother leaning against her father. Their joy was palpable, encompassing and visible like it had a physical presence between them. An older woman rocked the stroller in the background. Ava.
A year after the opening, Henry had bought this newsreel from the local station — Channel Seven’s evening news segment on the opening of a new “colorization studio” in town. For a brief moment, it had caused a whole fleet of growing suburbs to take notice of Henry Canto and “his French film.” Their town even screened the film at the new shopping mall, the community room lit up brilliant with Henry’s hand-coloring. This newsreel, silent because the anchor had recorded sound over the picture in the studio, showed a man with the world opening up to him, electrified by the promise that it would only get better. He couldn’t have known that that first black and white film would be the only thing like it. Henry Canto’s career would be a slide down into the depths of homemade cartoons, wedding and graduation footage, and grandmothers who wanted to see their grandbabies in real color one more time.
Whenever Marley watched this reel as a child, her parents brilliant with hope and ignorance, she saw it with the same eyes as her father. She thought she was watching the birth of a dynasty, two pioneers, putting their hand onto something big and better than what had come before. Marley had watched that reel like she was watching Henry Canto’s name being carved into history.
The film went dark, and Marley sat breathing in the dust.
Marley waited in the office of her children’s high school with a fabricated reason why she needed them out of class an hour early. It was Wednesday, and she’d had them back for three days after a week with their father. Being away from them was shocking and painful, in a way that Marley hadn’t expected, and it made her feel entitled to their time, made her jealous of what took them away from her.
Her daughter came down first, released from art class. She had a swipe of gray clay dust on her forehead and her backpack was slung over her shoulder.
“Tomorrow’s the last day of pottery, Mom. I won’t be able to finish my thumb pot now,” she complained, throwing herself down in one of the boxy office chairs. Marley smiled — indulgent. Her daughter sulked the same way she had when she was three. Her son came in from gym class, tall and sweaty in his shorts.
“What is it, Ma?” he asked, concerned.
Marley nodded politely to the receptionists who hadn’t trusted the reason she’d given for their absences, and didn’t answer her son. On their way out, the kids bickered about who would sit in the front seat, and why their mom was picking them up.
Marley listened without responding. Let them fill in her silence. She felt airy and peaceful, hovering near quiet, weepy tears. Driving, she lifted her face toward the sun, the breeze coming in soft through the open window. Her son, with his spider-long legs, sat in front. He turned the radio to a hip-hop station, then, after a few seconds of a crass refrain, he changed it again, to the Carole King CD that Marley kept in the player. He looked over at her, and Marley smiled, keeping her eyes ahead.
Around the time he had entered high school, puberty had buried the boy under a deluge of hormones, the sweet little boy Marley thought she was raising replaced by an insensitive, inattentive teenager. Now that the acne had receded, Marley was starting to see that earlier part of him re-emerge, a perceptive compassion blooming alongside his maturity. Her nearly grown son was starting to look at the world again like he had something to learn from it. Marley let tender, aching sweetness flood her. The same feeling she got watching her dad’s opening day footage, but this time, it was inside her, and all around her. Part of her blood and her bones and the air she was breathing.
“I wanted to take you out for ice cream,” she said slowly, her voice raspy with tears, “because I am so — ” she paused to breathe, “so goddamn crazy, in-love, proud of you two.”
The boy looked away from her, out the window, squinting through an uncomfortable watering of his eyes. Her daughter smiled and squirmed, looking, again, like the little girl she’d once been.
Ice cream actually hadn’t been her plan. She’d taken them out of school to bring them to the studio. She couldn’t remember ever showing her own kids her father’s reels from the backroom, and she wanted to let them hear that soft whirring that sounded like childhood to her. She wanted them to see their grandparents when they were still young and shiny.
Instead, she parked in front of the ice cream shop, a block away from the studio.
“Do either of you mind if I run down to the studio? I’ll be right back.” The kids shrugged, and she handed them a few bills. “Order a scoop of pecan for me.”
There was a line forming, a preview of the summer crowd. She could be there and back before her cone started to melt.
The studio was cool when she walked in, fresh. There was no dust in the air; it was new again.
Everything was gone. The tacky slate board hung up from the ceiling, and the posters of recolored black and white films. The wingback chairs for customers to sit in when they came to discuss their projects. The plastic plants that Marley always forgot to dust.
Last week, when the kids had been with their dad, Marley had loaded all that stuff into her sedan and driven it to the Salvation Army. She brought the newer equipment, her digital machinery, to a pawn shop, and put her father’s equipment, the colorizing stuff that she couldn’t work with, on an online sales forum, where it went for good money to a collector. He’d called the equipment “vintage” when he wrote his seller’s review. She withdrew the remaining money from the studio’s bank account and went to her leasing manager’s office. The income from selling off the equipment and the small amount in the bank was enough to pay the remaining utilities and cover the fee for breaking her lease early. He gave her back the eighty-five dollar security deposit that Henry Canto had given when he’d signed the original lease in 1952.
Marley kept the personal photographs that hung by the door — the one of her mother and father on opening day, the silhouette of her father in front of the colored title page of his French film, and the Halloween photo of her and Ava, dressed as starlets. Marley, as Marlene Dietrich, with thin, drawn on eyebrows and long gloves, and Ava, Ava Gardener, with a dark, coifed wig and pearls, her shoulders held in an imitation of haughtiness.
She also kept the ledger. It had every single job that Canto Film had ever taken in. That, if anything, held Henry Canto’s legacy.
Marley paused in the doorway for a second, feeling the cool air on her bare arms as it radiated up from the cement floor. She didn’t want to linger. She went to the back room, the old studio, where the projector and reel were set up for her and her children, and she unwound the film. Placing it back in its protective casing, Marley gathered up the projector and reel in her arms and looked around one last time, with the lights on. It really was a drab, little room. That was the cruelty of adulthood — those things that enchant children almost always lose their magic.
She left the stool that the projector sat on, turned off the light, and left the door open. Just like the leasing agent had asked. She put three keys on the counter, and when she opened the door, the studio remained quiet. She’d taken the bell down two nights before.
A “closed” sign hung inside of the window. Marley had found it at a party shop, of all places. She’d hung it just that morning, positioning it in the center of the silver and gold script. The bright, block letters drowned out the studio name. “Canto Film Colorization & Restoration Services, open for fifty years” faded. Marley smiled through closed lips and shut her eyes for one last moment. She wasn’t going to linger.
She stepped out of the studio. The sun was hot, and Marley wished she hadn’t left the car at the ice cream shop. She was only a block away, but the projector was heavy and uncomfortable in her arms. She hitched the load up a little higher on her hip and thought about how good the ice cream was going to taste.
Just as she shut the trunk of her car, her kids walked out of the parlor, her daughter holding two cones. They smoked a tiny bit as they touched the hot air.
“You guys don’t want to eat inside?” she asked, taking her cone and leaning up against the brick wall.
“Well, actually, Mom,” her daughter began, looking up at her with one eye closed against the sun. “There’s this big picnic tonight, in the park. It’s for the end of school and everything, and all our friends are going.”
This is what kids do when they don’t want to disappoint their mom, Marley thought, taking a lick of her cone. They tell you what they want to ask for, without asking for it, because they’re afraid that asking is going to hurt. It was actually sweet, how they thought they’d found a way to grow up without hurting her.
Marley rolled her eyes and hoped it looked exaggerated. “Fine. If you’re going to abandon your mother for your friends, I’m not going to stop you.” It was the same game she’d played with them when they were young and hadn’t wanted to go to school: she’d grow more and more dramatic, until they finally giggled, and she’d attack their sides with little jabbing pokes. Both kids smiled into their ice cream, recognizing what she was doing. It shocked Marley how much they still resembled their small selves.
“Get in. I’ll drive you over there.”
The park was well within walking distance, but Marley was feeling indulgent, and the kids, realizing this, sang along with her to Carole King.
The park was already filling up with Lion’s Club volunteers and kids walking over from school. Marley could smell popcorn and hot dogs and saw what looked like a dunk tank. Maybe they’d have one of those teacher dunks — that was always fun.
“I’ll pick you back up here at six.” She kissed the air between each of her kids.
Her daughter jumped out of the car, barely waiting for it to stop, but her son paused, one long leg already on the pavement. “What are you going to do, Mom?” Neither of the kids had asked why Marley wasn’t at the studio, like she was every night, but she could see it dawning on her son that maybe today something had changed.
She leaned her head against the headrest and thought for a second. “Maybe go visit your grandpa.”
He smiled, half-sympathy, half-understanding, and reached across the gear shaft to kiss her cheek.
“Say hi to him for me,” he said, following his sister out of the car. Marley watched them walk away. She wanted to let herself feel pity, tell herself that everything was moving away from her while she stood still, but she knew that wasn’t true. She was moving forward, too.
The nursing home common room was warm, but it was still too early in the season to turn on the air-conditioning. Most of the men and women in the room were either sitting near fans, or sitting in the shadows, avoiding the long swaths of sunlight coming in through tall windows. Her father, however, was sitting in one of these paths, bathing in its hot light. Henry was wearing his uniform of all black, a black conductor’s hat capping his knee. Marley watched him from the doorway. He had a newspaper laid open on his lap, but he was staring out onto the lawn.
Marley had been visiting her father in the memory care home for six full years, but guilt attached itself to her every time she came back. She still felt her betrayal of him keenly. Despite three years of worsening Alzheimer’s, Henry had been lucid the day they moved him into the home. He didn’t understand why Jeanetta wasn’t with him, but he knew who Marley and Dave and their children were, knew who Ava was. And he knew that the room they were calling home wasn’t that.
That first night, Marley waited with Henry until he sundowned, staying long after everyone else left. She couldn’t leave him as long as he knew who she was, who he was, as long as he was scared. She watched him in silence as his lucidity became blurry around the edges, and the anxiety that she herself was causing him eased. When he could no longer recognize her face, Marley let go of his hand and drove to their studio, awash in her own bitter tears.
“He’s in a good mood today!” one of Henry’s nurses yelled to Marley. Her father’s favorite. He recognized her more readily than he recognized anyone else.
Marley nodded and swallowed back her tears, glad to be bringing him his films. At the last minute, she’d kept the Opening Day reel in her car. It was selfish, but that one felt like hers. She assumed a false brightness and dragged a chair over to her sunning father.
“Hi Daddy.” He was more likely to respond to her when she was more like a child to him. “Hi Daddy, it’s Marley. How are you?”
His eyes were still sharp, and it always, always hurt when he turned them onto her without recognition. When he was first diagnosed, Marley had imagined all of him growing dim, like the lights were turning out, but her father’s Alzheimer’s wasn’t like that. Instead, he was going in disjointed fragments. He looked her up and down for a moment, taking note of the paper bag she carried.
“Nice day out, isn’t it?” He tipped his hat from his knee, his sign of respect to this strange woman.
“Yeah, Daddy,” she said, her voice breaking. “A really nice day.”
He smoothed the paper on his lap. It had a date from a week ago; she didn’t know if he was reading it or using it as a prop. Marley lifted one of his hands and clasped it with her own. He didn’t resist her the way he sometimes did, so Marley sat in silence next to him. She could feel little pockets of dampness gathering in the wrinkles blooming around her eyes and in the fleshy hollows of her cheeks.
“I brought something for you to look at, Dad.”
Letting go of his soft hand, she reached into the bag and pulled out three of the four reels: King Lear, the World War II tape, and a community theater production of Death of a Salesman. Henry reached out for the top reel — King Lear — handling it carefully, reverently.
“I was Edgar! From school!” he whooped, always louder than was expected from such a small man. He cradled the reel in his hands, turning it on its side to read the penciled description. “1939. Can you believe it? I hadn’t even met Jeanetta yet.” He chuckled and winked at Marley. She didn’t know who he thought she was, what ghost from his revived memories she was.
“Edgar wore lots of different disguises, right, Daddy? He was lots of different characters all rolled into one? You must have been really good to play him!” Henry ignored his daughter, sat there alone with his tapes. Was this how memory worked? People wandering away from where they belonged, whole decades fading in and out of focus. It was bitter to be one of the lost, one of the strangers.
He put King Lear down and turned to Shipping Out, pulling out the film and squinting at it in the light. Marley had never been able to find her father in the crush of young soldier faces, but maybe he could remember where’d he’d stood, as cruel an irony as that would be.
She took her dad’s free hand back and pulled it onto her lap, trying to get him to look at her.
“Dad. Daddy, I closed the studio today,” she said, her voice quiet and clear. “There was no more money to keep it open.” She waited for him to recognize, to react.
He pursed his lips and looked at her, “No money in a shop, dear? That’s not good for business.”
“Your shop, Daddy. Your studio, where you used to colorize films.”
He continued to inspect the negative film in his hands.
“It was where you painted that French film. It was what you did, Daddy. You told everyone you were in the film business. You colored and restored films.”
She so badly wanted him to remember. Even if he didn’t remember her, couldn’t he remember his work? It was his dreams that she’d swallowed. His delusions. How could he, who had created them, not see it, too?
“I’m sorry, dear,” he said. He patted her hand and withdrew it from hers. “I think you’ve confused me with someone else.”
Sobs, shaking sobs came over Marley. She leaned back in the chair and tried to slow her gasping breath. Swollen, salted tears rolled down her cheeks. For all the restoring that she’d done — that he’d done — there was nothing to do for him, no way to piece back together missing moments, or lace the gaps together into something whole.
The nurse saw Marley from across the room and came over. She put a big hand on Marley’s shoulder and squeezed. What was there to say? Henry nodded to the nurse, too, but continued reading his paper. For all he knew, he was surrounded by strangers.
The reels sat on the windowsill, forgotten. For so many years, Henry had kept them hidden away in the dark and the cool where they’d be safest. Marley wondered if film that old could disintegrate as easily as her father was. Holes and heat spots erasing what was there, dust turning images into insidious patches of blankness. It would be regressive and slow, but eventually, he would go silent like the reels. He would lose not just his memories but his speech, his movement, and finally his will.
Marley sat before her father and wept, bracing herself for the moment when there would be nothing left of Henry Canto to restore.
This short story was my first published, released in a lit + arts journal this past August. First and foremost, a writer wants their writing to be read. A piece has a written life, and it has a read life. This short story — my writing — was given its first read life this past August. Here’s its second life. If you enjoy it, might you consider sharing it?