Larry Gorton’s feet were in their usual position atop his desk.
“Knock, knock,” I said, pushing his door open.
“Mr. Millward!” His voice was low and authoritative. “You, my former star pupil, have been delinquent. Please enter and tell me why you haven’t come to visit me in such a long time that this old man can barely match your name to your face.”
“You’re not an old man–”
“You were done!”
“My office, my classroom, my rules.”
I put an index finger to both sides of my head and pulled the trigger.
“Don’t do that, Mr. Millward. I haven’t got my camera out.”
I laughed–easy to do in Larry’s world. “It’s good to see you, too. But it hasn’t been that long, sir.”
“Long enough. Long enough, young man, long enough.”
“How have you been? Am I keeping you from something?”
“Yes, you’re keeping me from my work, and for that I’m indebted to you, Mr. Millward.”
“You don’t have to call me ‘Mister’ anymore; I’m out of school.” I’d said that every single time I’d seen my old professor since graduation from NYU. It never mattered.
“Are you still a Mr. Millward, Luke?”
“Of course, but we’re not in class. I’m not a student. We’re peers now.” I’d said that before, too.
“Your last name, Mr. Millward, defines you.” He put his hands on the back of his head, interlocked his fingers, and stretched back in his chair.
“Your last name tells society who you are and where you came from, both in the short term and in the greater sense of where your ancestors’ ship originated.”
I smiled and repeated each and every one of those familiar words in my mind as he spoke them.
“You’re right, as usual, Mr. Gorton.” Those words were equally familiar.
“Then we agree to play by proper societal conventions.” He put his feet on the floor and dramatically swiveled around to a mini-refrigerator on the floor. “Let’s drink.” He pulled out two small bottles of water.
“Thanks,” I said, as he tossed me one.
He opened his and guzzled half the water. “How’s work?”
“Work is great. I’m getting a lot of freelance projects. Even saying no to some now. I just can’t take every job anymore.”
“Listen, you do that as infrequently as you can. You never know which picture could change–”
“The world. I know.”
Larry returned his feet to their home on his desk. Noticing the Oreo-sized holes in the heels of his socks only reminded me how much I had missed the man. Confident, kind, and maybe more comfortable with his place in life than anyone I’d ever known.
I suppose he reminded me a bit of Jordan. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed being around them both.
I’d been a fence-sitter on photography until I entered his classroom for the first time. The art had always interested me, but like so many other passions it seemed impractical to turn art into industry and a hobby into a living. Hauling a camera around the world shooting pictures sounded glamorous and rewarding. But I knew few achieved the highest levels of success. Most never won awards or saw their work on newsstands or on Drudge. Sadly, few of the dreamers could make the leap from child shutterbug taking pictures on a disposable 35-millimeter to standing in the back of the White House Rose Garden shooting images of the president and leader of the free world.
I wanted that back then, but my heart and head didn’t believe I had the eye.
Thank goodness Larry Gorton thought I did.
“Mr. Millward, what can I do for you? You bring me pictures to gush over?”
“No, sir, not this time. Just visiting. Checking in.”
He chugged the rest of his water and shot the bottle hard across his office, using the wall as a backboard, watching it bounce around the rim and settle in the trash can. His raised both arms above his head. “That’s a three.”
I grinned and fidgeted with Larry’s plastic Rudy Giuliani bobblehead doll.
“What’s on your mind, kid?”
He lowered his eyes and folded his arms across his sweater-vest.
“I don’t know, I guess I just wanted to say hi. I’ll let you get back to work.” I returned Rudy to his spot on Larry’s desk and stood.
“You’re a horrible poker player, Luke Millward.”
You have no idea.
“How’s your father?”
It was my turn to chug the rest of my water bottle. I tossed it toward the trash can. Missed. “Figures.”
“You heard from him lately?”
“Not exactly.” As my academic mentor, Larry had known bits and pieces of my personal history. He knew Mom was dead from prescription drug abuse, and he had met Dad once during my freshman year at NYU. But sitting there I couldn’t recall how much I’d told him about Dad.
“You hear from him much anymore?”
“It’s been a while, sir.”
“A couple years, I guess, maybe a little less.” I picked up the bobblehead doll again.
“He still drinking?”
Larry did, too. “That’s a shame. . . . Tough life you’ve lived, young man. I bet your mom would be proud.”
I nodded once more.
“Then tell me, Mr. Millward, what else is going on in your exciting, jet-setting life? Is there a woman?”
“Not really. Dates here and there. I’m hanging out a lot with a girl I met in school–Jordan Knapp.”
“Sure is. We’re just friends though. No time for a relationship right now.”
“Does she know that?” he asked.
“That we’re just friends?”
“Sure she does.”
Wait for it.
“Good. And let’s not forget the most important relationship, the one with our lens, you remember?”
I laughed despite myself. “Of course.” I mocked his deep voice. “‘The eternally intimate relationship between life and lens.’ How could I forget?”
Larry smiled and probably congratulated himself on another job well done. Few professors took as much pride in the finished product than Larry Gorton did.
The two of us sat and enjoyed the rare silence that comes when two people trust one another. Eventually the chatter resumed. Politics, Iraq, the rash of paparazzi incidents in LA, Katrina, Rudy’s rumored run for the White House in 2008, the Yankees. He showed me photos he’d taken earlier that summer on a trip to China. The pictures were captivating enough to take my mind off Jerome Harris. Almost.
“Can I ask you for some advice?” I finally said.
“Of course, that’s why you came.” He checked his clock. “I’ve still got time. Class starts in twenty-five.”
“I got a call the other day from a man in New Orleans.”
“This man, Jerome–a native I’m guessing–he called to tell me he knew my father. He’d been living in New Orleans.”
Larry put his feet back on the floor and leaned onto his desk. There was never a better listener.
“He said he played with my father in a band. They both live in the Lower Ninth Ward.”
Larry’s eyes asked for more.
“My father is missing. No one has seen him since last Sunday.”
“Yes, sir. And now they’re all worried. Worried he’s dead somewhere, or worse–injured, in trouble, something . . .”
“And this Jerome, you’ve never met him?”
“Any reason to doubt him? To mistrust?”
“Don’t see why.”
Larry studied my face. His eyes processed the scene. “You think your father is dead.”
I stood and walked to the trash can, picking up the bottle that had landed on the floor and dropping it in.
“Hmm.” Larry leaned back in his chair again, rubbing his face before lacing his hands behind his head.
“Would you go?” I asked.
“I don’t do hypotheticals, you ought to remember that. Trust your eyes and the lens, nothing else.”
That was precisely what I knew he’d say from the second I pushed open his office door. I examined a line of photos in matching black frames on his back wall.
“You could always take your camera,” Larry said.
“Take your camera to New Orleans. Make the drive. The airport is probably still closed anyway.”
“Drive from New York to New Orleans.”
“That’s a long way, an awfully long way.”
“They do make maps, Mr. Millward. There is even this crazy new thing called the interweb–all the kids on campus are talking about it. Some of these interweb places even give turn-by-turn directions. Imagine that.”
I looked for something to throw.
“I’m serious about this, young man. Make the trip. Take your camera. Blog it. Stop at other cities along the way. New Orleans isn’t the only area cleaning up.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. I ran my fingers through my hair. My stomach flittered. I looked at my watch and put on my jacket.
“Mr. Millward, you’ve seen a lot of suffering in your life; you’ve seen parts of the world most of my students will only see in the fantastic pictures you’ve taken. But you’ve never seen what’s happening in the Gulf.
You’ve never seen this kind of human event. Go. Capture it. Educate us. Honor them.”
I knew you’d be good, I thought. I didn’t think you’d be that good.
“OK, then, I’ll let you get to class. Thank you.” We shook hands.
“We’ll see.” I said good-bye and put my hand on the doorknob.
I turned to face him.
“Go recover your father.”
(Excerpt from Recovering Charles and reprinted with the permission of the author, Jason F. Wright)
(Originally published at GoArticles and reprinted with permission of the author, Jason F. Wright).