The Year of Spooling Backward

Gary Fincke    

Like my school, the year begins in late August when my father’s older brother, the World War II veteran, buys the first extended-family movie camera. On Labor Day, we learn to wave when we visit the pond he makes us call a lake. After he squints into the camera, he tells us our first movie lesson is to do something besides standing still in our swimsuits. Moving when we’re photographed takes some getting used to, and our smiles, at first, are stuck at grimace on his warped dock. At last, my twelve-year-old cousin simply jumps, legs bent, nose held, and thrashes, yelling for me and my aunt to follow his leap into the algae-covered pond/lake.

In that first film, we finish with waves from the waist-deep water, then vanish, my uncle’s camera swinging up to where the crippled elm displays what would be its last summer of leaves. For a few seconds, the home movie ascends higher into an explosion of sun that seems to burn the reel to darkness. That’s all there is, but when my uncle shows it on a bare, dining room wall, it doesn’t end there. The sun pauses before the elm hovers and each of us leaps back to the dock, feet under us, suits dry, hands dropping to our sides as we marvel, in the dining room, at our hilarious, mannequin selves.

In November, the day we get our first report cards, Mr. Wentz rewinds the mushroom cloud produced by an A-bomb test, shrinking success down into its bullet-shaped shell. A platoon of soldiers rises from where their uniformed bodies had lain prone in freshly-dug trenches near ground zero. They lift off their dark glasses before backpedaling into a sea of light that fills with words that multiply into lists and paragraphs. When I tell my uncle about my fifth-grade teacher’s movie, he says, “That man needs his head examined. You can’t rewind the bomb.”

In January, thrown from his Buick ice-spun into an oncoming truck, my uncle dies. For three days, a row of photographs flashbacks him from father to soldier to groom. A second row takes him to teenager to a boy my age to a baby held by my grandfather, who is wearing his uniform from World War I. Sixteen other relatives arrive, but during the funeral, only my aunt and cousin sit beside my grandfather, who seems so shrunken in a high-backed chair he looks smaller than either of them.

Just before the service begins, my father, who missed the war because he was deaf in one ear, fixes my blue clip-on tie and buttons the too-small sport coat handed down two years before from my cousin, who is wearing a tight-fitting dark gray blazer I know I’ll be wearing soon, maybe even for Memorial Day, when all of those relatives, like always, will come back to have dinner together, the adults talking about wars while my cousins and I celebrate the end of school as if we all believe it will never begin again.


Gary Fincke’s collection of flash fiction, The Corridors of Longing, was published in October by Pelekinesis Press. Collections of his long-form stories have won the Flannery O’Connor Prize (Sorry I Worried You) and the Elixir Press Fiction Prize (The Killer’s Dog). He is co-editor of the annual anthology series Best Microfiction.