Vincent Barry is a retired professor of philosophy living in Santa Barbara. For some other stories by Barry, see: Writing Tomorrow Magazine (“Dear Fellow Californian,” June 2014), The Write Room (“When It First Came Out,” Fall 2014), Blue Lake Review (“The Girl with the Sunflower Yellow Hot Rod Limo,” December 2014), Crack the Spine (“A Lot Like Limbo,” Spring 2015 print anthology), Pure Slush (“Blind Suspicion,” January-February 2016), The Vignette Review (“Nodding on the A Train,” Winter 2016),The Tower Journal (“The Joiner’s Tale,” January 18, 2016), Friday Flash Fiction (“Eliot’s Flea Market,” March 2, 2016), Fewer Than500 (“A Late Walk,” March 15, 2016), Apocrypha and Abstractions (“Seduction or Something Else,” March 21, 2016), Midway Journal (“Earslips,” April 2016,) Literally Stories (“Borrowed Fragments,” June 24, 2016), The Saint Ann’s Review (“Internal Damage,” Summer2016), Corvus Review (“Biker Girl,” Fall 2016).

A Short Story

By Vincent Barry

 

“. . . . Now,  if you’ll move in closer, please. . . .  That’s it—so you can hear….

 

“This building was once the anchor of Pershing Square. Notice in the corner the inscription: ‘Dedicated to the intelligence of the great masses of plain people.’ You may recognize these as the words of the famous American journalist H. L.Mencken, who once said—Yes?—Oh no, not Mencken. A man named J.C. Pruett originally owned the building.

“Pruett was a photographer by trade, with a taste for potholing and spruce, unvarying attire: cape, narrow-brimmed hat, flouncy tie—all raven black. ‘Black Jack,’ some called him.

“Pruett subscribed to what many of the day’s cognoscenti considered a peculiar, if not heretical, belief. He held that photography wasn’t merely a record of reality but a fine art. In other words, the photograph of, say, a railroad station or a city street was as much a work of art as La Gare de Saint-Lazare or The Boulevard of Montmartre on a Winter Morning. . . . By this measure, Pruett considered himself every inch an artist as were the painters Monet or Pissarro.

“Alfred Stieglitz—you’ve probably heard of him—the famous photographer of the last century who was married to Georgia O’Keefe? —Stieglitz was a great apostle of this belief, termed pictorialism.

“Pruett and Stieglitz, in fact, remained great friends since their boyhood days in Hoboken, and Pruett often visited the photographer’s famous New York Studio 291 and filled his own studio’s front window with prominent Stieglitz photographs. You’ve seen them, I’m sure: The Steerage, Winter, pictures like that. Pruett displayed them right here in this now boarded-up window. . . .

“Seems that Pruett got into trouble in . . . well, in a most improbable way, which ultimately affected the building’s history and genealogy. He wanted to start a photography club—the Snapshot Club he called it—mainly to help shutter bugs create pictorial effects in their photographs. The problem was that nobody was interested in joining. So, Pruett resorted to gimmickry. He advertised that members would learn how to turn a double exposure into a good ghost photo.

“As an example of what they could expect, Pruett placed in this very window a haunting photo of Lincoln’s ghost hovering over Mary Todd Lincoln. Well, he could have had the ghost reciting the Gettysburg Address for all the good it did. Other than netting a couple of fifteen-year-olds, the gambit invited only riotous consternation. Why, before Pruett could even cast another photo-lure—this one a picture of two children cavorting with fairies—passers-by began to gather—right here where we’re standing—and then surged into Pruett’s studio demanding to learn how to reach the dead. That’s right—reach the dead!

“Pruett, of course, was no Charon—he had no idea how to touch the shades of Achilles or Patroclus or some Millie’s Aunt Tillie— and he frankly told the unruly crowd as much. But, alas, his protestations were to the rabble’s remonstrances so much gasoline to a fire. ‘Fraud!,’ ‘Faker!,’ ‘Flimflam man!’ the mob shouted and stamped. Then one of the canaille quipped, to whoops and hollers, ‘What the hell’s the point of a perfect picture if it don’t include communin’ with the dead?’ Even Msgr. Beamish of Saint Cyprian’s — the same Saint Cyprian’s we visited earlier that, remember, was named after a pagan magician who converted to Catholicism after a foiled attempt to rape a Christian virgin— well, even the church’s esteemed pastor got into the act. The good monsignor wrote a letter to the editor addressing the controversy. ‘Dabbling,’ he said, ‘in the world of the dead is no harmless diversion. It can only lead to darkness, confusion and despair,’ adding, ‘The Bible stands firmly against necromancy.’

“Well, that was the start of bad—no,  brutal times for J.C. Pruett.

“Rumor soon spread that he was a chiseler and a grifter—and, of course, an atheist . . . or at least an agnostic dabbler in the black arts. Oh, they shook a mean lip about him— even about his name. Since no one knew exactly what the ‘J. C.’ stood for, it was surmised that Pruett’s very name was a kind of stealthy blasphemy. Of course, being friends with a German Jew who had left his wife for a Bohemian didn’t help matters any. And, judging  from what we can piece together, things only got worse for Pruett thereafter.

“When the nation’s Attorney General declared a ‘Red Menace,’ suspicions aplenty arose that Pruett was part of it. Then— in 1920 it was— the U.S. Postal Service seized and burned five-hundred copies of Joyce’s Ulysses. Well, word spread like a contagion that multiple copies had been destined for Pruett—the dark suspicion being that, as an unmarried man, ole Black Jack naturally would have found the book’s obscenities titillating. Why he would need multiple copies to satisfy his unnatural lust, well that was anyone’s guess. . . .

“So, you could say, I suppose, the founding of the Snapshot Club sealed Pruett’s fate. But it also sealed the fate of the club’s two sole members, that being Grace Worthington and Otto Kroun. For, three years after joining Pruett’s Snapshot Club, the youngsters produced a child, likely the result of using a popular disinfectant used as a birth control agent, and—ahem— still on the market.

“Otto Kroun never saw his son, who was born on the day Otto died, in France, as a member of the American Expeditionary Force. Killed he was, young Otto, during the third phase of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, sometime after the eleventh hour, of the eleventh month, of the eleventh day. Imagine! The telegram his young bride received merely said that he’d met his death on November 11, 1918. It didn’t mention—I prefer to think—that but that for the report of a single eight-millimeter bullet fired from a Mauser action rifle, piercing the chest wall and entering the heart, all was quiet when the youth fell. . . .

“At any rate, when the public turned on Pruett—mean and ugly—Grace stood by him — as loyal as a pigeon to its partner. . . . I guess she figured she owed him that. After all, Pruett had brought together her and her true love, and she wasn’t about to abandon him— not even if it meant donning a mourning dress in the place of her preferred flapper look of the garconne—y’know, Louise Brooks bobbed hair, bound breast, short skirt sans corset. So lugubriously bedizened, Grace took immense delight in performing one daily ritual as a kind of living memorial to her fallen warrior, as well a living rebuke to the stupendous asininity that had him one. Every morning, promptly at eleven AM, she would purposefully march down to Pruett’s studio, toting in hand her fatherless child all decked out like a little soldier boy, snubbing as she did, like a jilted lover, the shiny brass statue of the American Doughboy—that one right over there—no matter the lad’s begging like a cripple at a cross to touch its spike or stock. . . .

“Now, you may be wondering: Why the doleful dress, the lowering countenance?

“Oh, who knows why people do what they do? . . . I imagine—and ’s only a guess on my part—I imagine she wanted to stir in  the hoi polloi a little pity, albeit sodden and pawing

—and perhaps, guilt. . . . . Yes, that’s what it was, ’s my guess,— pity ’n guilt enough to shelter poor Pruett from the herd of boiled mutton heads, as if beneath the baldachin of her war widowhood.

“Grace’s procession down the main stem apparently knocked Pruett’s black socks off. Hired her on the spot, he did, though he hardly did trade enough to pay himself. He even crafted for her a business card, which brazenly read, I imagine at Grace’s insistence: ‘Miss Grace Worthing & Son.’ Pruett even fashioned for it a card holder from an old Lizars quarter plate camera, and a silver metal wire with coil for easy insertion, and placed it on the studio’s counter top . . . . (Available, by the way, for those interested, at our souvenir shop, is the absolutely stunning Virgil engraved mobius bracelet I’m wearing, which features—look— on one side Grace’s calling card, and on the other Rome’s greatest poet’s undying words: ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time.’) — Pruett?

“Well, Pruett hung on for a while, but his unearned reputation as an irreligious mountebank hardened like cement, and eventually he moved on—to the hamlet of Lily Dale, New York, the psychic community located about fifty miles south of Buffalo.

“Perhaps you’ve heard of it—a charming community, I understand, that proclaims itself ‘The City of Light.’ There ole Black Jack practiced spirit photography and conducted talks with the dead, his specialty being fretful spirits with tragic stories to tell—.

“What became of Pruett? Well, as the Irish say, the road rose up to meet him. The man was never for want of business in his new venture, especially during the Second Great War. And, the business of war being profitable, Pruett made enough to acquire the building he’d once abandoned, and which, when he himself passed over,—drowned, they say, in a cave just outside Albany—, he bequeathed to Grace Worthington . . . for ‘her fierce loyalty,’ as he put it. That and a tidy sum, a portion of which Grace spent to commission that aforementioned statue of the American Doughboy. On it—if you’ll now follow me—on it you’ll see the words, the poet’s immortal words, that Grace had inscribed:

‘To Honor the Memory of the All the Boys Unsung Who Did Not Choose

To Shame the Land from Which They Sprung.’

“Yes, question?—Lysol. . . . This way, please . . . .”