“How much is this?”
The guy behind the counter came to life. He had been sitting on a stool, feet up, ear buds inserted firmly into the ear canal, promptly ignoring anyone who walked through the door of Ed’s Pawn Shop. But then I asked about the camera, his eyes lit up, and he was all excited and attentive like someone who gave a shit about his job.
“This is the 1972 Nikon F2 Photomic.”
He said this like it was supposed to mean something to me, and he waited for me to respond accordingly.
When I didn’t he said, “Did you hear me? It’s a Nikon F2—”
“Yeah, I heard you, it’s an F2 Photobomb, but you still haven’t told me the price.”
He was dumbfounded that I wasn’t more impressed, and I’m sure if he had the ability to use laser vision to make my head explode, he would’ve done so right then and there. Instead, he said through clenched teeth, “It’s a hundred and fifty bucks.”
“I bought it on a whim.”
“On a what?”
“It was an impulse buy.”
“Oh,” Autumn said. I still wasn’t sure she understood. “I didn’t know you were into photography.”
“I’m not, I just bought it on a whim.”
And we were right back where we started. This was how most of my conversations with Autumn went, around and around in circles until I wanted to blow my brains out, or hers.
Let me introduce you to Autumn. She’s my neighbor, not too bright, and I don’t care for her very much. But she’s a night owl like me and always seems to be around when I can’t sleep and I’m wandering the courtyard of our apartment complex. I think we’ve become friends in spite of me doing everything to push her away.
“What’re you gonna do with it?” she asked, lighting up a cigarette.
I lifted the camera and snapped a couple of pictures of my neighbor across the way, the one who dressed like Rudolph Valentino and walked the grounds like he was indeed the silent screen icon.
“I don’t know yet. I just liked the way it looked, so I bought it. It was like …”
I didn’t quite know how to describe what it was like. Then Autumn said, “It was like you had to buy it. As if it was something you couldn’t control.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said and began taking more pictures, not wanting to let Autumn know just how accurate her assessment was.
The F-Stop Photo Lab was a good cheap place to get film developed, even though the customer service left something to be desired.
Autumn was with me, of course, she was like my shadow, and as I flipped through the pictures, I quickly noticed something was wrong.
“Hey,” I said to the clerk, “Are you sure these are mine?”
He looked at the envelope. “Your name Jane Woodrow?”
“Then these are yours,” he said, tossing them on the counter, then leaving me to assist another customer.
At that moment, I wished I had laser vision.
I took the photos home and looked through them again. They were taken from the same angle I sat with Autumn on the bench in the courtyard, facing Old Mrs. Finnegan’s place—but they weren’t the same pictures. There was a man in each one, going in and out of Finnegan’s apartment. I didn’t recognize him, and I know this is going to sound weird, but the pictures looked as if they were taken a long time ago. The photos were faded, and the courtyard, although similar, didn’t have the concrete slab and bench that are now a permanent fixture.
‘Makes no sense,’ I said, as I sat on that very bench, staring at Mrs. Finnegan’s place.
“You should go talk to her,” Autumn said. She came out of nowhere; that girl was as silent as a ninja.
“I don’t get involved with the neighbors, Autumn. You know that.”
“Well, you should,” she said, more insistent than I had ever heard her. “Besides, Mrs. Finnegan may have some answers.”
Couldn’t argue with that logic. “When you’re right you’re right, Autumn,” I said, and a huge smile spread across the girl’s face.
Mrs. Finnegan’s apartment was trapped in time, the 70s to be exact. Pea soup colored carpets, kitchen cabinets the same exact color, and a similar colored flowered wallpaper all made me feel as if I was transported back in time. I had no idea why she was so nice to me; I barely said hello to her. But she invited me in, served me tea, and talked as if we were old friends.
I had to admit I liked her. Maybe Autumn was right; maybe I did need to get to know my neighbors after all.
While we sipped our tea, Mrs. Finnegan gave me a long look then said, “Now what really brings you to an old lady’s apartment?”
She was smart, so instead of trying to bullshit her, I just handed her the pictures. “Do you know this man?” I asked.
She put on her old lady glasses, you know, the ones attached to a chain you wear around your neck. “My god,” she said.
Well, that can’t be good.
“Where did you get these photos?” she asked
I couldn’t tell her I got them from a camera that appeared to take pictures of the past, so I said, “I found them in an old box in one of the landlord’s storage rooms.”
She was silent for so long that it began to worry me.
Finally, she said, “He used to live here, in this apartment. This is Cian Finnegan, my husband … well, now my ex-husband.”
I never knew she was ever married. Which made me think of what Autumn said about getting to know the neighbors.
Mrs. Finnegan continued, “He left after the investigation.”
“The police thought he killed that girl in the park. She was like you, a loner. Lived in your same apartment in fact. Kept to herself, none of us really knew her at all. I felt terrible that I didn’t try harder.”
“When was this?” I asked.
“’71 or ’72.” Mrs. Finnegan said, then she took my hand. “I hope you visit me again,” She paused, “Just to say hello.”
I promised I would, then I went home and looked up the case online.
The Falls Press, 1972:
A young girl was killed early Sunday morning. She was
found stabbed to death in Balboa Park. Police have no
motive or weapon. One man was questioned, but he isn’t
considered a suspect. The deceased girl was 20-year-old
Autumn McNally of River Falls. She was last seen…”
I couldn’t read anything after that, the words got all blurry and my brain was fuzzy as if I were waking from a dream. It can’t be the same Autumn, I thought. But then I saw the girl’s picture, and it was Autumn—the same one who had been a constant presence in my life for months.
Now it all made sense. Why I only saw her nights, why she would appear out of nowhere, why no one else talked to her but me. I just thought it was because she was weird.
She wanted me to help her, I knew that now. And as if summoned, she was there standing beside me.
“Oh Autumn, I’m so sorry.”
“I watched people move in and out of here for years,” Autumn said. “No one ever saw me until you. I figured it was because we were a lot alike; loners who had no use for anyone else, at least that’s what we told ourselves. Maybe if I had gotten to know my neighbors, maybe they would’ve seen something, maybe they could’ve helped.”
“How can I help you now?”
“Talk to her, she knows, she’s always known.”
I went back to visit Mrs. Finnegan, the old woman seemed to be expecting me.
“I knew you’d be back,” she said. “But you’re not here just to say hello, are you?”
“No, Mrs. Finnegan.”
She stood up and walked toward the window, stopping and peering out into the courtyard. “I did see him with her that night, but I couldn’t tell the police. I loved him, still do.”
“Do you know where he hid the weapon?”
She ignored my question.
“I avoided you as much as you avoided me, you know. Because you reminded me too much of her.”
“Where is it?”
“Cian used to do odd jobs around here for the old landlord. He was the one who put down the concrete slab. They never looked there.”
“There hasn’t been this much excitement since ’72,” fake Valentino said.
Several tenants were out watching police, some of us meeting for the first time. And as morbid as the event was that brought us together, there was a festive feeling to the night as well. We sat outside until late into the evening, getting to know each other.
I saw Autumn that night for the last time, by our bench, smiling and finally at peace.