Windy World, Used, $100
by Chris Wilkensen
I studied photography at an art school in the city. The school wasn’t respected academically. As my friend Liam said, “My dog could’ve been accepted there.”
Liam was my smartest yet weirdest friend. I asked him why an art school would have such low standards. The answer the school and faculty gave: “Because these students have difficulties at other subjects and it levels the playing field.”
The answer Liam gave: “Hitler was a failed artist. They’re trying to make everyone succeed, or feel like it, so they can prevent future Hitlers.”
“So if Hitler would’ve sucked a few dicks to make it in the art world, millions of people wouldn’t have died?” I asked.
“The ‘what ifs’ of history,” Liam said.
Liam operated a hostel for stoners in the suburbs. Stuff at his place came and went arbitrarily, like a library. One day, there’d be video games and DVDs. The next day someone would borrow them.
Not really a reader, I usually steered clear of his book section. Except once. I pretended to look at the books to avoid talking with a hungover guy from the South who wore a Confederate flag T-shirt. He walked away after I asked if he ever read any of them. Then I saw an intriguing book with the name of a local photographer on the binding.
There was an inscription on the first page of the book.
I hope you had a nice trip to Chicago. I hope you cherish your memories of your time with me here. Best of luck to you.
That was the inscription on the first page of the book. Collection, rather. This was just a portfolio of photos.
An Amazon search revealed little. Out of print. A rarity. My innate greed forced me to put up the used copy for sale, without asking Liam. I charged $100. I thought that was fair. Besides, I’d split it with Liam, if it even sold. It probably wouldn’t.
The collection, Windy World, intrigued me because I’d studied photography in college for three semesters, two semesters too long.
People asked me, “What do you plan to do with that degree?”
“Go to the moon,” I said. “I want to go to the moon and take pictures of it.”
That was usually enough for them to leave me alone. Then I grew up.
Into my second semester, I learned that the degree wasted my time and money. My moon anti-pickup line wasn’t too far from my dream. I wanted my pictures to take me somewhere. I wanted to leave the city. Liam’s hostel, which he advertised online, swarmed with country bumpkins wanting a small taste of a big city. Me, I’d seen and experienced all Chicago had to offer. I wanted to see the rest of the world. I wanted to follow a rock band and shoot press pictures. I wanted to snap pics in different continents for National Geographic. I was tired of snapping shots of Chicago’s skyline, despite its beauty.
About a month after the item listed on Amazon, I received a purchase notification from the author himself.
I e-mailed him: “Are you Jordan Stratford?”
“Yeah, I just want that copy to see whom I wrote the inscription to.”
I e-mailed back: “I’m a big fan of your work. Your work speaks to me. I consider you to be one of my utmost influences. As a student of photography, I could benefit immensely by sitting down and speaking with you for just a short time. How I got the book alone deserves some time to explain.”
Most of the e-mail was lies.
His response an hour later: “OK. Come @ 3 tmrw.”
Gr8! I thought to myself.
Jordan the photographer and I made an appointment for the next afternoon. The night before our proposed meeting , I sat Liam down outside. He smoked a cigarette.
“I have to admit something. I went behind your back and took a book from you,” I said.
“What’s the problem? Books are meant to be shared. I think all authors want their work to be read by as many people as possible. Mi casa es su casa. Steal my books more often, you bum.” He laughed.
“It’s not a reading book, per se,” I said.
“Yeah. You read a book? What was I thinking? I didn’t know I had any coloring books. Ha-ha. Color away.”
I took it out and showed it to him.
“Who’s Amanda?” I opened to the inscription.
“A girl I barely knew. A sixteen-year-old.”
“I’m confused. What does that mean?”
“It means my friend was banging her. He was eighteen at the time. When I found out she was sixteen, I kicked her out. I never had to check IDs before. That was the start of it all.”
“I see. That means she was a sixteen-year-old hanging around one of Chi-town’s most famous photographers?”
“What are you saying? You’re thinking he took pictures of her?”
“No shit. Maybe videos too.”
“That’s fucked up. Why do you always gotta overanalyze? That thought never occurred to me before. Now I have another screwed-up thought in my head. Most of my screwed-up thoughts come from you.”
“I do it out of love, bro. I do it to corrupt you.”
The next day, I waited outside to meet Jordan the photographer at his Lincoln Park apartment.
It was 3:30. I called him.
“Yeah,” he answered.
“It’s 3:30,” I said.
“We’re meeting at three tomorrow. Or was that today? Oh, shit. I forgot.”
“Well, I’m already at your place.”
“Sorry, really sorry. I’ll see you tomorrow, though. I gotta go now.”
My curiosity increased. On the ride home from the forgotten appointment, I called Liam for information about Amanda.
“I have no way of getting in touch with her,” he said. “I don’t know her full name. I’m not friends with her ex-boyfriend anymore.”
“Bull. This is the age of technology. We can find anything on anyone.”
“If you dig up the past, all you get is dirty.”
$100 was still $100 to an on-break college student.
The next day, he came through on his promise. We sat on his sofas in his luxurious loft. Still, it wasn’t as big as other rich kids’ apartments I’ve been to. Some kind of banker could probably afford the same place. But Jordan was an artist. He certainly wasn’t starving.
“Amanda.” He looked at his inscription. “I haven’t thought of her in years. I practically forgot about her. One-hundred dollars for that?” He laughed.
“Well, coming from a famous photographer like you, it would’ve meant a lot to her,” I said.
“Even though I’m famous, I’m still normal,” he said.
“You’re still just a name in the online white pages. Right. But a lot of people dream of what you have and what you’ve done,” I said.
Perhaps I was flattering him too much.
“That girl,” I said slowly. “Amanda. How old was she?”
He said nothing. He put down his phone, looked at me hard, pointed at the door.
“My friend says she was sixteen when he found your collection. So that means she could’ve been even younger when you hung out with her. You didn’t write a date. And…”
I stopped, unsure what to say next.
“Enough. What does a little shit like you think you could possibly do? Blackmail me?”
My phone was recording the conversation.
“Well, do you expect to get away with it?” I asked.
“There’s nothing to get away with.”
“In the state of Illinois, that’s statutory rape.”
“If she complains.”
“Not quite.” I had what the court needed, sliding the phone into my pocket. I turned the recorder off.
“I don’t have time for this. Kid, whatever you want, you can have it.”
“Justice,” I said.
“OK, I think I got some extra justice lying around here somewhere. I’ll call you about it later. But now, now I’m calling the cops. Unless you leave now.”
He stood up, waving his hands for me to get out.
“The pre-Hitlers are saved from starting genocide. They opt for teenage girls instead,” I said.
“You’re weird. You’re scaring me. Get out of my house now. Out. Out. Out!”
The next morning, he texted me to meet him at Millennium Park at noon. Answering “why?”, he texted back that we had to talk about it in-person.
I saw him walking toward me and turned on my phone’s voice recorder.
“It took a while yesterday, but I found Amanda’s profile after searching my Facebook messages. Everyone was commenting R.I.P. and ‘I miss you.’ She’s gone. Been gone for years,” he said.
“That doesn’t change how old she was,” I said.
“Kid, I’ve gotten laid more times in the last six months than you’ll get your entire life.”
“I get it. You’ll hit anything. Have you been checking IDs for the past six months?”
“I’m not bragging, kid. You’ve got it all wrong. Women throw themselves at me. I don’t even want to sometimes. At first, it was cool, but then the novelty wore off and it just became a burden. This girl, Amanda, came up to me that day and asked to be photographed at The Bean. She wouldn’t leave after that, and I liked her company. She took a book from my room, and I signed it for her. That was it. We only met once. How did you know her?”
“I didn’t know her,” I said.
“Wow, then none of this really matters to you. Get a life of your own, kid.” He started to walk, toward Lake Shore Drive.
The camera around his neck swung as he stepped away. I ran behind him, pulled it off him and broke it. He screamed. He bent down and investigated the damage, and then he cried. I ran. I looked back, but he wasn’t chasing me. Not that he could keep up anyway.
I immediately changed my phone number, deleted my e-mail address and deactivated my Facebook account.
Jordan never contacted me and vice versa. I deleted my conversations with him. Washing my hands of him, I confessed my camera destruction to Liam.
“She died?” Liam said. “It makes sense that she was a drug addict. Her boyfriend was into some stuff I didn’t want to know about. I wish you could tell me something happy or nice. Just once.”
Instead of going back to school for a pointless, simple skill like taking pictures, I decided on a more useful major: tourism and hospitality. That allowed me to go to O’Hare often and travel to beautiful cities. Paris, Bangkok, London, Tokyo, Dubai. Not to forget the domestic cities.
Before my trips, I looked at tons of pictures on Google to prepare. Then I’d arrive and the real-life views would be inordinately better than any image could convey. Instead of taking pictures, I would just gaze at the scenery photographers drooled over.
Anytime I wanted to remember what a city looked like, I closed my eyes and it was there, imprinted to my imperfect memory. Clearer, sharper, realer than any image on any screen or paper.
While looking at postcards on a stand in Philadelphia, I noticed Jordan’s name on one, in almost microscopic text. I purchased two immediately. In my hotel room, I scribbled a message to him. Something I couldn’t remember, but Hitler was mentioned for some reason.
Years later, I found his address in my old e-mail account from the Amazon order when he sent me the payment. The next day, I stood in front of the blue mailbox, but then I tore Jordan’s postcard into four pieces. On the second one, still blank, I wrote Liam’s hostel’s address and a short message: “I haven’t felt this vindicated in a long, long time. How’s that for happy?”