The Photo Shop


It was the bitter sweet time of my youth when I had just gotten my driver’s license but wasn't allowed to take the car anywhere without a very good reason.  It was only a couple of more months until summer and I was desperately looking for a summer job so I might earn enough money for leverage in the discussion with my parents about buying a car.  I was still in that transitional period where the bicycle was my main form of transportation and I was anxious to pass beyond that stage.  I was also anxious to find a better paying job then mowing lawns around the neighborhood.


And just when I didn't think anything would develop for the summer, fate smiled on me.  One of the lawns which I'd cared for over the past several years belong to Mr. and Mrs. Dorset.  They owned the local photo shop in town since before I was born.  I'd always tried real hard to do a nice job on their lawn even doing little extra things so they'd notice.  And they had noticed.  I could always expect a little extra for a tip with them and several times the old man would comment on the nice job that I had done on their place.


That's why I was so shocked when Mr. Dorset had passed away.  I hadn't had many people die that I actually had known and never anyone that directly impacted me.  I had gone to the funeral with my parents and then after the funeral had gone with them back to Mrs. Dorset's house.  I had never been in her house before since we'd always conducted the lawn affairs on the front porch.  There were a lot of people there that day and I sat on the couch with my parents for a short time before my dad said we had to go.  Before we left Mrs. Dorset asked to speak with my dad and then she spoke with me, "Your dad says your employment plans for the summer are undecided, Lee.  How would you like to come help me out at the photo shop?"  I couldn't believe my ears and immediately looked toward my parents for their reaction.  Dad was nodding in agreement and as I turned back I caught myself in that moment of feeling good when I knew I was supposed to be feeling bad about Mr. Dorset.


Finally after several seconds and with a glimmer of a smile I replied, "I'd like to Mrs. Dorset, if ah, it's OK with my folks."


"I've spoken to them already and I do believe we're all in agreement.  The shop will be closed for the rest of the week but you come by after school next Monday and we'll figure out your tasks."


I was walking on air the rest of that week as I prepared for my job at Dorset's Photo Shop.  I never said anything to my friends because I've always felt that if you talk about anything too much it won't come true.  This was an opportunity that I surely didn't want to talk to death.


I felt like Monday would never come.  This would be my first real job.  Oh I'd had jobs mowing lawns and stacking wood but this was different.  I couldn't get away to school in the morning without a short word of caution from my dad.  "Now when you go over there this afternoon make sure you do what she says.  She's going to need a lot of help with the old man gone and stuff.  And mind your manners if she has you waiting on customers too," he admonished.


When school was out I hustled downtown and couldn't get there soon enough until I got almost to the front door.  That's when I started to get butterflies.  The closer I got to the front door the slower my pace until I found myself almost standing still out on the sidewalk.  Thank goodness I finally found my senses as I quietly opened the door to the little place.


There was a little brass bell above the door that announced my arrival as I stepped inside.  I'd known Mrs. Dorset since as far back as I could remember but now I didn't feel like we were acquainted at all.  It was different now because she was going to be my boss. 


As I walked up to the counter I heard Mrs. Dorset call out from the back room, "I'll be with you in a moment."


"It's just me Mrs. Dorset.  Remember today was the day I was supposed to come in and start?"  I answered with doubt creeping into my mind that I was really going to have a job.


"Oh good.  Come on into the back room and I'll be out of the dark room in a few moments."


I looked all around the shop as I waited for her to finish in the dark room.  I was amazed at everything crowd into the back of the place.  There were containers of chemicals and boxes of paper sitting on shelves everywhere.  Tables and desks were stacked with old cameras and other pieces of photography equipment.  And a fine layer of dust covered everything.  In the high ceiling the slow turning of an old fan caught my eye.  That's where I was looking when Mrs. Dorset stepped out of the darkroom with a handful of envelopes and said, "This place used to be a bar years ago and that fan has worked for probably over fifty years.  God only knows when it was first installed.  I'm glad you're here since I've been dreadfully busy.  Being closed all those days and all.  First thing I want you to do is deliver these pictures to people listed on the envelope.  Should take you about half an hour and then come right back and we'll get going.  Did you ride your bike?  No matter just get back as soon as you can.  Now be on your way.  Those people might be waiting on their prints."


In a matter of moments I was away with my head still buzzing from all of the directions.  I looked over the envelopes and realized that I knew every name and where they lived.  It wasn't long before I had finished the first task and had returned for additional instructions.  There was lots of work.  It was one task right after another with, "Clean this up; put those away; sort those supplies; and hundreds of other things that needed to be done."


At first I started to have second thoughts about the job.  I wondered whether I really wanted a car this bad.  But then after a few days of working at the shop I realized a few things.  The woman never gave me more tasks to finish then I could do.  When I worked there the time seemed to dissolve from beginning to end.  I was always surprised to realize that it was time to quit.  And finally she always made sure I learned something about photography.  I learned how to compose a shot, how to use an f-stop based upon light and depth of field, and a myriad of other facts important to a photographer.


But I also learned the reason she wanted me to help her was to clean up years of trash her late husband had accumulated.  I couldn't tell you the number of boxes and paper bags that I went through and threw in the trash bin.  And somewhere along the line I realized that things weren't what they seemed.  Perhaps the first time that happened was when I stumbled upon an old paper bag of photos shoved in the back of a drawer.  I started to look through them and realized that these pictures weren't like any I'd ever seen before.  At the time I thought they were pornography but over the years I've come to realize that most people would simply call them nudes.  There were hundreds and hundreds of shots of men and women and then I looked on the back and realized that names of people were written on them.  It wasn't the old woman's writing so I assumed it to be her late husband's.  I thought twice about showing them to her and decided to stuff them back in the drawer until I could figure out what to do with them.


More than once over the next few days I wondered about who I could share this "find" with.  I seriously considered my parents, my friends, and even the police but finally decided that anything that involved others would risk my job.  I kept my secret to myself.  For the next few days I had a chance to study the pictures more closely and as I looked at the names on the back I saw several prominent family names in the community.  That's when I decided that I had to get the pictures out of the shop.  And I did.  Over several days I took handfuls of pictures home and hid them under my bed.  Finally I had them all at home and for several weeks things went along fine until my mother complained about the condition of my room.  The day she said, "Lee if you don't clean that room I'm going to go in there and throw everything in the trash," I knew I had to act.


The next afternoon I took the paper bag of smut and took it out behind the house into the woods.  There had always been a hollow stump out there that my friends and I had found when we had been playing cowboys years before.  I stuffed the pictures into the hollow stump for safe keeping.


Meanwhile I continued to work at cleaning up the photo shop.  I figured there would never be as strange a find as the paper bag but I was wrong.  One day I found an old yellowed ledger book that someone had turned into a diary.  I waited until the old woman was working in the dark room before I sat down to read the entries. 


The ledger book definitely contained some of the most secret thoughts of the old man.  Once again I had to decide whether to give this to Mrs. Dorset or keep it to myself.  And once again I decided to take it home.  I won't say that I didn't have pangs of guilt for taking this stuff but I rationalized it away by believing that it all could have been thrown out in the trash if I hadn't found it.


When I got the diary home I had more time to study the writing.  It was hard to read but finally after spending some time reading it the hand became understandable.  It spanned many years with long periods of inactivity.  As I leafed through it I was startled to find a page bordered in black.  In the middle of the page were the words: 




It only took a moment to realize that I had seen that name before and I recalled where.  Often as we would ride around town on our bicycles we'd go down to the park by the river.  There near the old bandstand was a stone column.  One way side was a comment recognizing those that had died in the Korean War and on the other was a list of names.  One of those names was Dorset.


I sat there on my bed for a long time starring at that page.  I wondered how difficult it must have been for Mr. and Mrs. Dorset when their 18 year old son was killed in that war.  It also made me wonder what went through her mind sometimes as we stood and talked with each other. 


Over the next several days I read more and more from the diary.  I still felt guilt about not giving it to Mrs. Dorset until I ran across several comments that he had written which were derogatory toward her.  It made me realize that just because someone dies does not change the fact that together they had good days and bad days.  After reading those comments I felt there would be little served in giving the diary to Mrs. Dorset. 


I had almost finished it I came upon an entry which seemed especially interesting.  He talked about long term memory enhancement through pictures.  He said that the technique had helped him to recall several events that happened to him when he was a youngster.  He explained how one took the photo and tried to enter almost a hypnotic state to develop the moment beyond the periphery of the picture.  He even told what pictures he had used and referred to where they were located. 


The next day at the shop was especially busy and I didn't have a chance to think about the pictures until late in the work day.  Finally Mrs. Dorset was doing some dark room work and I decided to see if they were still around.  We had almost finished cleaning up all of the rat's nests of trash and I really didn't expect to find much but I was truly surprised.  There it was.  They were in an old cigar box in the bottom of a larger cardboard box in the back storeroom.  I didn't know what to expect when I slowly opened the box but probably could have guessed what would be on top if I had thought about it.  There was a picture of Mr. Dorset with a little boy sitting on a bicycle next to him.  It didn't take a moment to realize that this was Benjamin.  I could only assume that the old man had tried to go back and recall every possible thing about his late son.


There were several other photos of what must have been members of Mr. Dorset's parents but nothing that I recognized.  As I shuffled through them however I came upon a picture of an old stone church.  I studied it for a long time and finally realized that it was one of the abandoned buildings still standing in the community.  It had remained that way for several years after a fire gutted the interior.  An older friend of mine that had watched it burn said that the stained glass windows had melted into huge blobs.  I never understood how a rock building could get that hot but he had said that the inside was wood and the place almost exploded from the heat.


Realizing that I needed to get back to work I put the cigar box back in the store room.  That evening I read some more in the diary.  He talked about a faint memory of being with his father when something was hidden in the foundation of a building.  He hadn't been able to recall what building or where in the foundation.  He had found some old photos of buildings in the town and tried to study them in order to remember where the hiding place was located.  He said that he thought it was the church but admitted that when he walked all around the foundation he saw nothing that looked familiar.  Now I knew why the picture of the church was in the cigar box.


Over the next few days I made several trips to that old church walking around with a screwdriver pushing and probing rocks in the foundation.  It was pretty much a mess from the old fire.  The church had a basement and there was a tiny opening where a window was once located.  When I looked into the basement I saw water about half way up the inside of the wall.  It was a nasty mess that needed to be demolished.


I could get to most of the foundation all the way around the building except where a tiny wooden shed was affixed to the back.  The shed's paint had been scorched black from the fire and was badly peeled in several areas.  The shed's door was locked with an old rusty lock so I left it alone.


I spent several days trying to figure out where that hole in the foundation was located.  Was it another building that had been torn down years before or was it the church? 


Work at the shop continued at a fast pace into the spring.  All of the high school seniors made appointments to come in for their pictures.  One day after the last senior had left the shop Mrs. Dorset said that she had a doctor's appointment and that I was to lock up that evening.  I'd done it a few times before but this time she told me to take the money out of the register and bring it to her at her house.  She said she'd be home from the doctor by then and would be expecting me.


There wasn't much more business that afternoon so I spent time in the back looking over the photos in the cigar box.  I tried old man Dorset's technique of starring at a picture to try to bring out anything that wasn't already there.  After trying that for a while I felt kind of silly when I realized that I hadn't even been born when the picture was taken.


Finally it was quitting time and I took the money out of the cash register and put it in a bank bag.  When I got to the house the front door was ajar and as I knocked it eased open even more.  I could hear the sound of a piano coming from inside and as I yelled, "Hello, Mrs. Dorset.  It's Lee," the sound stopped and a few moments later she came to the door.


"I was just playing my harpsichord that Henry built me many years ago,"  she said, "he made it from a kit he got in Chicago and I get to play it so seldom.  Would you like to hear a short number?"


"I ah...can't stay long.  The folks will be expecting me for dinner soon," I replied as I handed her the banker's bag of money from the shop.


"Well let me pick part of a short one then.  Do sit down."


As I sat on the couch in the living room Mrs. Dorset played music on her harpsichord.  I'd never heard it played before and it sounded like a piano that had something wrong with it.  After a few minutes I decided that was what it was supposed to sound like and smiled when she looked at me.


As she continued I had an opportunity to look around the room.  After a few moments my gaze fell on a picture on the end table next to the couch.  It was a family coming out of a church and as I studied the picture I noticed that it was the same stone church but something was different.  They were walking down steps that came off the side of the church.  The picture in the cigar box had the steps coming off the end or front of the church.  Finally Mrs. Dorset stopped and I smiled.


There was a long moment of silence so I just had to ask, "Ah...this looks like an old picture Mrs. Dorset.  Is this your family?"


"Oh heavens no.  That's Henry when he was a small child with his parents coming out of that old church that burned over on sixth street."


"It looks different somehow.  It's like the door has been moved or something," I continued.


"Well you're very observant young man.  When it was built the steps came off the side facing Maple Street but several years later they had a minister that found in the old city records that Maple was originally known as Diablo.  Everyone tried to ignore the problem but it kept nagging at the minister until he got the congregation to agree to move the entrance and change the address.  For the last twenty years or more it faced sixth.  That was until it burned..."


"Well ma'am that's nice to know.  I was just by the place the other day and something seemed different from the picture.  But I must be going or my folks will be calling around looking for me," I said as I stood up and eased toward the door.


As I walked home I went over and over in my mind this simple problem.  I knew now that it was complicated.  That night as I lie in bed I visualized that hollow spot in the church foundation filled with money.  I convinced myself that it was behind the new steps and resolved to go by the following day and study them.


The next morning I left for school a few minutes early and went by the old church.  I started getting worried that someone would ask me what I was doing so I tried to be casual about my interest.  When I got there I went right for the front steps and was amazed to find a crawl space under the steps.  It wasn't very big but I was sure that I could work my way into it to inspect the foundation.  I knew it would require a trip when I didn't mind getting dirty because even as I looked around I saw cobwebs everywhere.  I'd learned that where there's cobwebs there's spiders and I don't care for spiders.  I also knew that if anyone saw me going under the steps I'd have a hard time explaining the situation.


As I walked to school I made up my mind to go back to the church at night.  I went over in my mind all of the tools I'd need to inspect the foundation -- flashlight, screwdriver, hammer, and grungy clothes.


I waited until a Friday night so my parents wouldn't be so concerned about me going out after dark.  I told them several of us were going to a movie as I quietly went out the back door.  I thought about riding my bicycle over to the church but wondered if I could get all of the treasure home if I had my bicycle with me.


It felt a little strange as I walked up to that huge stone hulk that had once been a church.  The moon was out and the light sparkled off of the broken glass all around the outside.  I went directly to the front steps and crouched down to look under them.  As I peered into the blackness of the opening the thought crossed that perhaps daylight would be more appropriate.  It quickly passed as I considered the possibility of what might be located just a few feet away.  I found a stick and waved around in the opening to pull down some of the many cobwebs.  Pushing the tools ahead I slowly crawled forward until I was against the foundation.  With one hand on the flashlight and the other feeling around each stone I wondered if one would move even if I did come upon it.


There was about 20 feet of foundation to cover and I took my time as I looked for any cracks or crevasses that might provide a clue.  I'd been under the steps for almost an hour when my heart skipped a beat.  A rock about the size of a loaf of bread came into the beam of the flashlight and as I scraped around the mortar that held it in place I found a crack.  I had found a several other cracks before.  Each time I had taken the hammer and tapped the screwdriver into the crack and tried to pry anything lose.  This had been much easier to do in daylight because now I had to try to position the flashlight to provide some illumination while I had one hand on the screwdriver and the other on the hammer.


When I stopped tapping the screwdriver I tapped the rock.  It sounded hollow.  I tapped the rock next to it and it sounded solid.  I tapped the first rock again and it sounded hollow.  I tried to push on the screwdriver to pry the rock out and it came out of the crack.  I put it back into the crack on the opposite end and tried again.  As if by magic the stone eased out of the opening.  I kept up the task until it came free of the hole.  My heart was racing as I examined the rock and discovered it was only about an inch thick.  I placed it on the ground and picked up the flashlight for a better look into the opening.


I'd finally struck it rich.  I'd probably not have to work all summer and I'd still have spending money after I bought my new car.  People were going to treat me different in school when they saw how rich I was.  As I looked inside something shinny caught my eye.  I felt it must just be the top of the pile of treasure.  That's when reality came crashing down around my head.  There was a dime in the opening.  One dime was all that was there.  I took it out and examined it closely.  I'd seen dimes like this before but only occasionally.  It was a mercury head dime but was so worn that the date had all but disappeared.  What a disappointment.  Now I'd have to keep working at the photo shop for the summer if I hoped to have money for a car.


After I put the dime in my pocket I put my hand back into the opening and felt all around.  The hole was big enough for treasure but somehow it had been misplaced.  Definitely nothing else was there.  I put the rock back into the opening before I continued looking at the foundation.  Because my heart wasn't in it my examination was very superficial.  Within five minutes I had finished and was once again standing next to the steps in the moonlight.


I walked home but every step seemed a struggle.  My mind wandered as I visualized Mr. Dorset as a small boy when he saw someone put something valuable in the hole.  Was it gold or silver or paper money?  And then I thought about whoever found it.  Did the person who put it there take it back later or was it a treasure hunter like myself?  As I got closer to the house I tried to put the disappointment behind me.  I hoped that my folks would be in bed so I wouldn't have to explain anything like why I was home early or why I was so dirty.  They were in bed and Dad called out my name when I walked in.  I answered and he said, "Good night.  Now I can go to sleep."


When I got to my room I looked through the diary again.  I had read it several times and nothing new developed.  I went to sleep wondering how close I had come to finding the treasure.


It's funny the way you've never heard of a word or about something and then when you do it keeps happening.  That's the way it was with my treasure hunt.  At first I had planned to tell my friends what had occurred but then it became too embarrassing.  I knew I'd never hear the end about me only finding a dime so I kept the story to myself.


Then a few days later one of my history teacher was talking about pirates and treasure.  He said there was an old superstition among treasure hunters about always leaving something of value behind after they found the treasure.  They believed if you did it would bring you good luck next time and if you didn't you might never be lucky again.


As for the bag of pictures I left in the stump, after a few days I couldn't stand it anymore and told my friends.  They didn't believe me so I agreed to show them where they were.  You can't believe my surprise when I took them out to the stump and the pictures were gone.  I never did learn what happened to them but I figure either someone saw me go up there with the bag or some of the other kids that used to play up there found them.


I worked the summer at the photo shop and part of the following school year.  I earned enough money for my car and some extra spending money too.  During the next school year Mrs. Dorset decided to sell the store.  The man that bought the place said he didn't need any punk helping him with the business.  I never went back.


I've still got the dime.  Over the years I've wondered about my luck.  After all I took the dime and never put anything back in its place.  For years I felt like I was destined to have poor luck but now I know differently.  I have a wonderful family and terrific friends.  That's the best treasure of all.