Smoke by Paul Auster
Remember how you once asked me how I started taking
pictures? Well, this is the story of how I got my first camera. As a matter
of fact, it's the only camera I have ever had. Are you following me so
Auggie: So, this is the story of how it happened. Okay. It was
the summer of '76, back when I first started working for Vinnie. The
summer of the bicentennial. A kid came in one morning and started stealing
things from the store. He's standing by the rack of paperbacks on the
far wall and he's stuffing skin magazines under his shirt. I didn't
see him at first, 'cause it was crowded around the counter. But once
I noticed what he was up to, I started to shout. He took off like a
jackrabbit -- zzzshh -- by the time I got out from behind the counter
he was already tearing ass down 7th Avenue.
I chased him about half a block; then I gave up. He dropped something
along the way and since I didn't feel like running anymore, I bent down
to see what it was. It turned out to be his wallet. There wasn't any
money inside, but his driver's license was there, along with three or
four snapshots. I suppose I could have called the cops and had him arrested
-- I had his name and address and license -- but I felt kind of sorry
for him. He was just a measly little punk, and once I looked at those
pictures in his wallet, I couldn't bring myself to feel very angry at
Roger Goodwin. That was his name. In one of the pictures, I remember,
he was standing next to his mother. In another one, he was holding a
trophy he got at school and smiling like he'd just won the Irish Sweepstakes.
I just didn't have the heart. A poor kid from Brooklyn without much
going for him. Who cared about a couple of dirty magazines anyway? So
I held on to the wallet. Ummm...every once in a while I'd get a little
urge to send it back to him, but I kept delaying; I never did anything
Then Christmas rolls around. I'm stuck with nothing to do. Vinnie was
gonna invite me over, but his mother got sick and he and his wife had
to go down to Miami at the last minute. So I'm sitting in my apartment
that morning, feeling a little sorry for myself. And then I see Roger
Goodwin's wallet lying on a shelf. I figure, what the hell, why not
do something nice for once? I put on my coat and I go out to return
The address is somewhere in Boerum Hill, somewheres in the projects.
It was freezing out that day, I remember, and I kept getting lost trying
to find the right building. Everything looks the same in the place and
you keep going over the same ground, thinking you're somewhere else.
Anyway, I finally got to the building I was looking for, the apartment
I was looking for, and I ring the bell. Nothing happens. I assume no
one's there. I ring the bell again, just to make sure. And just when
I'm about to give up, I wait a little longer, and I hear someone shuffling
to the door. An old woman's voice asks, "Who's there?" and I say, "I'm
looking for Roger Goodwin." "Is that you, Roger?" she says. And then
she undoes about fifteen locks and opens the door.
She's gotta be at least eighty, maybe ninety years old, and the first
thing I notice about her is she's blind. "I knew you'd come, Roger,"
she says, "I knew you wouldn't forget your Granny Ethel on Christmas."
And then she opens her arms as if she's about to hug me.
I don't have much time to think, you understand. I had to say something
real fast. And before I knew what was happening, I could hear the words
coming out of my mouth. "That's right, Granny Ethel," I said, "I came
back to see you on Christmas."
Don't ask me why I said it. I don't have any idea. It just came out
that way. Suddenly this old lady's hugging me there in front of the
door and I'm hugging her back. It was as if we'd both decided to play
this game without having to discuss the rules. I mean, she knew I wasn't
her grandson. She was old and dotty, but she wasn't so far gone that
she couldn't tell a complete stranger from her own flesh and blood.
But it made her happy to pretend. And since I had nothing better to
do, I was happy to go along with it.
So we both go into the apartment -- we spend the day together. Every
time she asked me how I was doing, I would lie to her. I told her I
had found a good job in a cigar store. I told her I was about to get
married. I told her a hundred pretty stories and she made like she believed
every one of them. "That's fine, Roger," she would say, nodding her
head and smiling. "I always knew things would turn out for you."
After a while, I started getting hungry. Since there was no food in
the house, I went out to a store in the neighbourhood and I picked up
a whole bunch of stuff. A precooked chicken, vegetable soup, a bucket
of potato salad -- a whole bunch of stuff. Granny Ethel had a coupla
bottles of wine stashed in her bedroom and so both of us together managed
to put together a pretty decent Christmas dinner. We both got a little
tipsy from the wine, I remember. And after the meal was over, we went
out to sit in the living room, where the chairs were more comfortable.
I had to take a pee, so I excused myself and I went to the bathroom
down the hallway...and that's where things took another turn. It was
ditzy enough doing my thing as Granny Ethel's grandson, but what I did
then was particularly crazy and I've never forgiven myself since.
I go into the bathroom and stacked up against the wall, next to the
shower, I see a pile of six or seven cameras, brand new, 35mm cameras,
still in their boxes. I've never taken a picture in my life, much less
ever stolen anything, but once I see those cameras sitting there in
the bathroom, I decide I want one of them for myself. Just like that.
And without even thinking about it, I pick up one of the cameras, tuck
it under my arm, and go out to the living room.
I wasn't gone more than three minutes, but in that time Granny Ethel
had fallen asleep. Too much Chianti, I suppose. I went out to the kitchen
and washed the dishes. She slept through the whole racket, snoring away
like a baby. There was no point in disturbing her, so I decided to leave.
I couldn't even write her a letter to say goodbye, seeing that she was
blind and all. So I just left. I put her grandson's wallet on the table,
picked up the camera again, and walked out of the apartment.
And that's the end of the story.