One Lifetime With a Stranger

by Matthew Caldwell


Katie died a month ago in three feet of water when her car flipped off the I-95 cloverleaf and landed forty feet below, upside-down in a little pool of June storm water.  She was knocked out on impact, and it was dark, and by the time anyone knew she was down there she was dead.  It’s not fair that someone should die alone and upside-down, but here we are. 


Her phone survived the crash when her purse caught on the rearview mirror and hung above the water.  The code is 2428.  Our birthdays.


“You sure you want all of them?” a girl says from behind the photo counter.  “It will take a while.” 


I’m sure.


“Okay, but there’s like five thousand pictures on here.”


I have time.


She pulls out a cord and plugs the phone into a computer, turning the screen slightly so I can see what’s happening.  One-by-one, two or three per second, the device spills all its secrets, pausing at random intervals to give us a longer glimpse.  There are some people, some places.  Some amusing marquees or other types of signs.  Occasionally, we would see plates of food from meals both important and routine.


“I don’t know why people always do that,” she says.  “Take pictures of their meals.”  Her nametag says “Parker” and she can’t be more than seventeen, stuck working the print machine at a Walgreen’s, seeing the worst of what humanity has to offer, four inches by six inches at a time.


They want to prolong the moment, I say.  When people are happy, they try to stay there as long as they can.


The pictures brighten when we hit a run of snaps from our first vacation together the summer of our second year, to the beach, where the sun and the sand and the cerulean water wrap around our bodies like blankets. 


“Was that Cancun?”


No.  Puerto Rico. 


She nods her head.  “She’s pretty.  Is that your wife?”


I don’t know how to answer that.  Also, it’s the first time I realize that Parker thinks this is my phone.  I wasn’t trying to hide it from her. 


Yes, I’m sorry.  That’s Katie, I say.  And just like that Katie pops up in her wedding dress, chin in her hands, staring out the window at the rain.


The images continue to fly by.  We spent our first Christmas as a married couple sick with stomach flu in our apartment.  Katie took a picture of us sharing a cup of chicken broth as our holiday dinner.  The images flip quickly into springtime, then summer, and the autumn when we bought our house. 


“Looks like we’re almost done,” Parker announces.  The computer lingers on a shot of us in Halloween costumes.  Katie’s wearing a cardboard box covered in foil that says “Shinola.”  I’m the poop emoji, and I’m wearing a shirt that reads “You Don’t Know Me.”  It was a concept that was too clever by half.  This elicits a snort from Parker.  “Shit and Shinlola.  Nice.  My dad used to say I didn’t know the two apart.”


While the machine finishes chewing on that data I wince when I remember what is going to come next, so I turn away, knowing it won’t make it disappear.


“Oh, hey.  She’s pregnant?”


On November first, we went to our first obstetrics appointment.


We’re running out of months, now.  Another Christmas, this one full of baby toys, followed by a New Year’s toast with sparkling water.  I can’t bring myself to do a play-by-play.


I can tell when we hit April, because a little sigh escapes Parker’s lips.  “A baby…” This picture is the wallpaper on my own phone.  Katie holds the baby in a hospital bed while I lean in stupidly in the background.  We both have these ignorant, exhausted smiles on our faces.  The baby’s head pokes out of her swaddle, all bald and rosy like a red potato.  It’s where the kid got her nickname.


“Oh my gosh.  What’s her name?”


I don’t say anything this time.  I’m trying to just wait out the last painful frames of our lives as a family.  The trip home from the hospital.  Her first night in her crib.  A subdued one-month birthday.  Dozens and dozens of her sleeping, or smiling.  I had no idea the moments they shared while I wasn’t with them. 


Until the last one, the morning Katie went back to work and left us forever.

Maybe then Parker notices the pink jewels on the back of Katie’s phone case, or that I’m holding my own phone in my hand, or that the pictures just stopped in the middle of the story, but she suddenly realizes why I’m here.  Why I’m paying a thousand dollars to print out all these mundane memories. 


Because me, and Katie, and tater, can’t make anymore. 


Parker taps a button on her screen as the cheerful smile leaves her face. “They will be ready on Tuesday,” she says, handing me the receipt, trying to recapture the joyful ignorance she had a moment earlier.


Can I have the phone? I ask.  Sheepishly, she hands it to me, still tethered to the computer.  When the cord resists, she quickly pulls it out and lowers her head in absolution. 


“I’m sorry,” she says, though the absurdity of the situation is not her fault.  We used to write entire books about our lives, spending years anguishing over each word and sentence, carefully choosing which events were important enough to tell each other.  Now we just snap away, recording everything we see without forethought or context.  It’s not fair to Parker.  It’s not fair to Katie.  She was so much more than three gigabytes on a phone’s memory.


But we don’t write books anymore, and I don’t know what else to do.


I nod at her, and as the phone slides into my pocket I can feel the pink jewels on the case scrape across my fingertips. 

Matthew Caldwell has appeared in Arkana and Frontier Tales. Caldwell has an MFA from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.

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September 2018

© 2020 by The Esthetic Apostle