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He had taken all kinds of pictures. Pictures of plants, birds, beasts, you name it, Tom Grilligan had caught it.
Tom Grilligan was a man with nothing particularly interesting about him. He had brown hair, brown eyes, stood at an even 5 feet 6 inches, and never caused problems. He understood how to take a picture, but the mysterious process of then making those images in the box become something was completely unknown to him.
He saw the strange men in their gloves and lab coats working in their little red rooms and never thought to question them. They were a mystery to him, these strange red men, and he liked to keep it that way.
Needless to say, Tom Grilligan was a photographer; he took no notice of what happened to his pictures when they left his hands. He liked his job, as any man does, but something bothered him about it.
He was coming up on the inglorious age of fifty at the comfortable age of forty-eight. He was reaching the point in his life when his hair was beginning to go, where his life was coming to the bend in the road that led only to reflection of what had been and no longer on what would be.
And, although he had never married, this was not what bothered him. He had thought little of women and they had thought little of him. After all, his face was nothing spectacular. With his small, rather puffy, squinty eyes, thick brown eyebrows, and slightly oversized nose, he looked more like a cartoon character than a man, certainly not a man who would warrant a woman’s attentions or affections.
This isn’t to say that he had never experienced women or talked to them outside of work. A woman had asked him once if hewould buy hera drink. She received a blank stare in return with confusion written all over it. After all why would hebuy hera drink? Why should he buy a complete stranger a drink when he could spend the exact same amount of money on a drink for himself? These were the thoughts that leapt to the front of his brain as he continued to stare at her until she eventually left.
No, a woman’s gentle smile was not what Tom Grilligan sought in his life. Nor was it adventure. He had heard plenty of men doing great things: killing great beasts, taming great beasts, running with great beasts. But this, too, never seemed important to him.
The one thing that disturbed him so much was his photographs. When he looked back on his work he saw nothing special, nothing that would make his name mean anything when it came his turn to die (which would certainly be soon because even his hair was abandoning ship).
He saw a mediocre life of mediocre pictures sold to mediocre magazines. Nothing special of his had ever leapt at him from his vast portfolio. He had never taken anything to make someone feel sympathy, passion, heartbreak.
This is why Tom Grilligan started taking pictures of people. Not because he could sell them, because he couldn’t. But because he had noticed that these were the pictures that won awards, that made people feel.
So he set out with his camera every night. Night was the time to do it, he thought, because no one would expect him. No one would see him coming till his bright flash had already swept across their not-yet-startled faces.
He started in the bad parts of town—among the misery and squalor of the truly desperate. This was risky and Tom Grilligan knew it, but he didn’t care. He didn’t want to be injured or even killed, of course, but what was the point of living without ever having made his mark?
These people, he thought, are truly interesting. He would walk down the dirty, slovenly-kept sidewalks with the gum and trash spread far and wide, and associate with the gritty, trashy people that so much resembled the sidewalk.
They would sniff around him and follow him like a pack of stray dogs. Occasionally they would steal money from him. These are the costs of doing business in this part of town, he thought, the tax of the unworthy.
When he took pictures of these people they would not smile at him. They would not ask good-naturedly what he was about; they would demand it. “Hey asshole what the hell do you think you’re doin’?” they’d shout at him. He’d respond in the only way that he knew how, with the truth. “Taking photographs,” he’d quietly respond. As a result they would either laugh and walk away, or they would stare at him until he calmly walked on. There were of course the angry few, but they soon passed as well.
He never returned to the same place twice, mainly because he didn’t want to be mugged by the same people more than once, but also because he wanted variety and spontaneity. He once caught a picture of an old man, even older than himself, huddled in the recesses of a dark alley just beginning to light his crack pipe.
On another occasion and in another part of town he caught a picture of a young man standing, eyes blazing, under a street light for his next great hurrah. He was waiting for his pals but received his enemies instead. This young man was gunned down at that very spot later that night. Tom Grilligan heard about it on the news.
All this he caught on his midnight excursions, but he still felt nothing, and these photographs buried themselves in his portfolio, one after the other.
Tom Grilligan’s time to die came sooner than he had expected. It was cancer the doctor told him, feigning sympathy which had died out long ago. He told Tom Grilligan that they could fight it. That they might win but that it would be hard. He told it to him using the pronoun “they” as though it was a team effort. As though he too, indeed they, had cancer and were going to fight it together. It was a very attractive way of putting it. Tom Grilligan didn’t like it.
Tom Grilligan decided not to fight it. To let it have its way. He had become morose and sullen lately and had decided that his moment would never come. That he had not the skill or the luck to make a mark. So why go on trying, why go on living?
He had given up the fight and he died shortly after. His pictures did live on after him though. They were mainly used for de-motivational posters giving small quips about why life actually isn’t worth living. Under his picture of the old crack addict was placed affectionately “old age leads to experience.”
Tom Grilligan did succeed in his work, however, but not in the way that he had planned. He had planned for something brilliant, something astonishing, fresh, and poetic. What he got was a picture of an old woman and her daughter. They were standing, surrounded by empty wedding dishes, hugging each other before the daughter left for her new life.
Tom Grilligan would not have understood this picture. He would not understand why, out of all that he did, this would be the one to be placed in a book and given the most recognition. He would not have understood.