Ambrotypes

My skin is sepia now. I crawl into bed next to my pilot husband that didn’t come back from his sky mission. 

***

When I was a kid, I was scared a black hole might appear like a L’Engle portal. I wanted to go to Space Camp but only with Lea Thompson and impossibly beautiful teenagers who impossibly took off in a rocket. It was too expensive so I imagined the blue flight suits were uncomfortable like gym uniforms. 

I read recently when you step into a black hole, you don’t disappear completely. Instead, you sink in and return later in scattered spots of yourself. 

***

“What’s the point of black holes?” I ask Tim that last morning.

“There are no black holes on our flight path, just Toledo.” 

He stands on the porch a little longer, staring into the baby’s brown eyes. I hand him coffee with a lid that isn’t quite tight enough, hoping he spills it down his white pilot’s uniform. Instead, he tightens the lid and kisses me with his tan Selleck mustache.

***

I didn’t study space in college. To my parent’s horror, I study antique ways of taking photographs, Brownie cameras, Leicas, history, death images. 

I’m fascinated by a documentary authenticating a newly-discovered Abraham Lincoln deathbed photograph, an ambrotype. I watch to see if 19th century Lincoln comes back to life on television. I’ve studied the president and the photography form; it has the same blurred hue as my face, my dress, my hands, my baby, our house’s paint. A tan still alive ambrotype. 

***

It’s windy on the sun that morning. The newscasters report like they know science but they’ve only been to Space Camp and not the Lea Thompson movie version, the boring one where you share a cabin with Angela Adams. 

I imagine Tim as Lea Thompson but without a helping adult to guide him in Toledo’s troubled airspace. The sun is confused. His plane is confused.

***

I find Tim’s face hair bits on my black crepe dress that I haven’t worn since his dad died. When the pastor finds me, I brush them, brush Tim into my hands.

“You look a little pale,” he says. “Want some coffee?” 

I slap the Styrofoam cup with my balled up full-of-hair fist. A tan stain spreads down his white shirt.

“Would you like to see him for a few minutes alone?” He asks. 

I follow him to the viewing room. Tim looks like Lincoln, too tall for his coffin bed. I pull out my camera and snap one image and another and then twelve. Pastor Greg pulls me away.

“I bet you stole from Lincoln’s wife too.” I say clutching my camera.

***

Abraham Lincoln gives the funeral service. He says four score and twenty years ago and young mother and brave and sees the face of God.

Holding hands with Mary Todd, I wait for Tim to polka dot the pews from the Toledo black hole. I’ll develop the film tomorrow.

11 Comments

  1. Bud Smith

    Wow, this blew my mind. I have nothing to say really other than I am so impressed and left speechless. I loved how evocative the piece is and how it moves us towards assembling the husband beyond death through a series of black holes, how we gain understanding of who he was and how he perishes bit by bit just like how he finally assembles for his own funeral. “Holding hands with Mary Todd, I wait for Tim to polka dot the pews from the Toledo black hole. I’ll develop the film tomorrow.” that is so powerful and so poignant. My suggestion for this piece is to team up with an illustrator and make this into a series of slides that can run that way, I think it will KILL people at the heart level and the mind level. You are a very efficient poet and dreamer. Thanks for sharing this. It makes me want to go and reread all the Dr. Manhattan parts in Watchman.

  2. Janelle Greco

    This blew my mind too, Amy. I don’t have much to offer in terms of things to shift or potentially alter because I’m afraid if one piece is moved of this, the puzzle won’t fit together right like the way you’ve so delicately fit it here. I love this part: “I find Tim’s face hair bits on my black crepe dress that I haven’t worn since his dad died. When the pastor finds me, I brush them, brush Tim into my hands.” It just reminds me of the pieces we find of people once they’re gone–hair in a hair brush, nail clippings, dirty dishes. This really stuck with me. Also the last line is gorgeous: “Holding hands with Mary Todd, I wait for Tim to polka dot the pews from the Toledo black hole. I’ll develop the film tomorrow.” Something about the use of the words “polka dot” here just works so perfectly. And the great image of the narrator holding hands with Mary Todd. It just brings to mind to me the idea that death happens over and over again, whether you’re a famous president or an airplane pilot or just anyone on the street. There’s a history there. And there’s so much going on with space and black holes. I love the way everything comes together in this awesome collision of time and space and photograph. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  3. Samantha Mitchell

    Amy,
    This is great. I love the way you pull together disparate images so that by the end they feel like part of the same whole. It’s like you’re doing a reverse black hole effect. That’s extremely cool, and hard to pull off.

    The image of the narrator waiting for Tim to polka-dot the pews is especially striking. And I’m extremely satisfied as a reader that you end with the narrator delaying an act of agency. She’ll pull the polka-dots of Tim together again when she’s ready to. If that’s not a great metaphor for grief, I don’t know what is.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Lisa Moore

    This is just stunning. There’s a unity here between theme and tone. Every line contributes to the whole. The only part that bumped for me at all is the phrase ‘Tim’s face hair bits’, which I had to read a couple of times before moving on. Tim’s whiskers? Regardless, this is amazing.

  5. Kevin Sterne

    Holy fuck. This is so good. yeah, nothing to critique at all. Wow, this is so polished. What a frickin ending.

    “I read recently when you step into a black hole, you don’t disappear completely. Instead, you sink in and return later in scattered spots of yourself.” This line is incredible.

    Yeah, send this out to a journal today right now

  6. Neil Clark

    Hey, Amy, I don’t know if you know this about me, but I’m quite into space and black holes and stuff.

    I love how the fragments just build and build it a really subtle and delicate way – then that last line – perfection.

    This piece is absolutely amazing and I wouldn’t change anything about it.

  7. Cheryl Pappas

    Amy! You’ve created a masterpiece here. I love how the disparate elements play off each other until they finally coalesce in the end (in our minds!). This is magic. I don’t really have much in the way of critique. Get this out in the world now!

  8. David O'Connor

    This is excellent, and after looking up the title, which I love, a whole new layer of structure and meaning came through. I love the idea and execution. I could read a whole collection of these. Superb!!

  9. Taylor Grieshober

    Amy,

    This is such a beautiful collage! I love the piecing it all together effect which seems to mimic the lines: “I read recently when you step into a black hole, you don’t disappear completely. Instead, you sink in and return later in scattered spots of yourself.” This is definitely a story where the form mirrors content and it works beautifully.
    You also have some telling dialogue–I especially love the line about Toledo. Very funny and understated!

    Suggestion: instead of starting with the lines “My skin is sepia now. I crawl into bed next to my pilot husband that didn’t come back from his sky mission.” what if you started with the next paragraph? I get that you wanted to show the connection to photography immediately, but I don’t know if the story needs it. I also felt more compelled and pulled in by the mystery of the mention of the black holes–why is this narrator so interested in black holes?–and actually less compelled by the sort of statement about the husband dying.

    I was also a bit confused by Lincoln and Mary Todd being at the funeral. Is it that the narrator is imagining them there? The callback didn’t really work for me–there’s already so much Lincoln in this that really sings like Tim looking like Lincoln in the casket and “I bet you stole from Lincoln’s wife too!” and the photographs of dead Lincoln. I guess in the end I really just want to sit with the narrator’s loss more and focus on this: I wait for Tim to polka dot the pews from the Toledo black hole. I’ll develop the film tomorrow.

    Super dreamy, inventive piece, Amy. Loved it! Thanks for sharing!

  10. K Chiucarello

    Wow, Amy. I don’t even know where to begin. This was just so beautiful. First, I’m such a sucker for this type of formatting — I think you move between scenes incredibly well here and the movement and momentum behind each one doesn’t let the reader down for a second. It’s a quiet movement though, never too heavy-handed or ego-heavy.

    Here are some lines I was particularly drawn to: “I crawl into bed next to my pilot husband that didn’t come back from his sky mission.” “I hand him coffee with a lid that isn’t quite tight enough, hoping he spills it down his white pilot’s uniform. ” “It’s windy on the sun -that morning.”

    I love the fact that you don’t give too much away anywhere here either. When you signal with the ‘that’ italicized it’s a perfect nod of what’s to come. The brushing off of the pieces on the dress, the small but very specific details (yet again done perfectly) of Lea Thompson and Abraham Lincoln. I’m not sure that the last paragraph is needed, but then again would hate to see it go. It leaves the reader feeling almost as puzzled as the narrator and I find a lot of joy in that. It also made me want to re-read the piece again and I found more trinkets of curiosity that I missed the first time around.

    Am hoping to see this out published very very soon.

  11. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Amy, Just Wow! Each little bit, a short short of its own. Each building one on the other. Richness of detail, science and quasi-science, Tim’s mustache, and heart-breaking, and the suggestion of anger with the hope that the coffee spilled on his white uniform as he leaves for Toledo, and the coffee’s return as if from the black hole, onto the pastor’s white shirt. You have woven a brilliant pastiche. Kudos, and I can’t think of a single suggestion.

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