For a long time, this was the only image Mia had of Mr. Wilkinson, a mysterious cross between Marco Polo and Santa Claus who filled his home with treasures. But one afternoon, just after her thirteenth birthday, Mr. Wilkinson had called to her sternly from his front porch.
“I’ve been seeing you traipsing around for a year now,” he’d said. “I want to see what you’ve been up to.”
Mis, terrified, collected a stack of her photographs and brought them to the Wilkinsons’ the next morning. She had never shown her photos to anyone but Warren before, and Warren, of course, had oohed and aahed. But Mr. Wilkinson was an adult, a man, a man she barely knew. He would have no incentive to be kind.
When she rang the Wilkinsons’ doorbell, Mrs. Wilkinson led her into the den, where Mr. Wilkinson sat at a large desk typing something on a cream-colored typewriter. But when Mia entered, he swiveled around in his chair and swung the typewriter shelf down and under, where it folded into a cabinet in the desk as neatly as if it had been swallowed.
“Now then,” he said. He unfolded a pair of halfmoon glasses that hung around his neck and placed them on his nose, and Mia’s knees trembled. “Let’s have a look.”
Mr. Wilkinson, it turned out, was a photographer himself—though he preferred landscapes. “Don’t like shots with people in them,” he told her. “I’ll take a tree over a person any day.” When he went on a trip, he took his camera with him and always scheduled himself half a day to go exploring. From a file he pulled a stack of photographs: a redwood forest at dawn, a river snaking through a field shot with dew, a lake reflecting the sun in a glittering triangle that pointed to the woods beyond. The photographs all over the hallway, Mia realized, were his as well.
“You’ve got a good eye,” Mr. Wilkinson said at last. “Good eye and good instincts. See this one here?” He tapped the top picture, a photo of Warren perched in the low branches of a sycamore, back to the camera, silhouetted against the sky. “That’s a fine shot. How’d you know how to frame that?”
“I don’t know,” Mia admitted. “It just looked right.”
Mr. Wilkinson squinted at another. “Hold onto that. Trust your eyes. They see well.” He plucked out another photo. “But see this? You wanted that squirrel, didn’t you?” Mia nodded. It had been running along the ridge of the fence and she’d been mesmerized by the undulating arc its body and tail had traced as it ran. Like watching a ball bounce, she’d thought as she clicked the shutter. But the photo had come out blurry, focused on the fence instead of the squirrel, the squirrel itself simply a smudge. She wondered how Mr. Wilkinson knew.
“Thought so. You need a better camera. That one’s fine for a starter, or for birthday parties and Christmas. Not for you.” He went to the closet and rummaged in the back, the old overcoats and bagged dresses inside muffling his voice. “You—you want to take real pictures.” In a moment he returned and held out a compact box. “You need a real camera, not a toy.”
It was a Nikon F, a little silver-and-black thing, heavy and solid in her hands. Mia ran her fingers over the pebbled casing. “But I can’t take this.”
“I’m not giving it, I’m lending it. You want it or not?” Without waiting for her to answer, Mr. Wilkinson opened a drawer in his desk. “I’m not using that one anymore. Someone might as well.” He removed a black canister of film and tossed it to Mia. “Besides,” He said, “I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with it.”