Fiction

The Photograph

By: Robert Spielman

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Very seldom does a man of any age, especially a man who has reached the age of deep-rooted regret, have only one item on the end table at the right hand of his rocking chair. Usually, a couple of empty cans of beer are teetering dangerously close to the edge, perhaps one has fallen and backwash is tunneling its way through the faded fibers of an already soiled shag carpet. There might be at least a crumpled wrapper of some fatty substance, peppered with an assortment of ants, chemically bonding over a pile of handyman magazines.

It wasn’t so for Grandpa’s table. The only observable object on his end table was a photograph. The photograph just lay in the middle of the table without the protection of a frame, only the protection of the ever-increasing dust walls of Jericho forming around the thumb prints on all four corners. The four-year-old girl in the photo blazed with the golden hue of time and exposure. The photo captured the little girl’s image as she attempted to twirl a hula-hoop around her knees. Her chubby hands failed at an attempt to keep the hoop at the waist level of her flower-patterned dress. The graveyard stillness of her troubled eyes pierced the photographer’s lens—shocking that the disappointment did not overexpose the film.

To the right of the end table and the photograph, Jack sat quietly; studying the stats on the back of a few baseball cards—Roger Clemens, Gaylord Perry, and a rookie Cal Ripken Jr. to name a few. The Cal Ripken card was hermetically sealed in a forever home of hard plastic, never to be touched by Jack’s careless, chocolate-stained fingers again. ‘It’ll be worth it when you get older,’ Grandpa had once told Jack; ‘just wait till that card’s worth a hundred dollars!’

It made Jack sad when Grandpa tried to get out of his chair. He could see the wincing of Grandpa’s eyes and the wobbling of his knees as he stood from the comfortable and worn chair. A silent swear word always puffed out of Grandpa’s lips when he stood, like what a mime would do if he ever stubbed his toe.

“It’s getting kinda hot in here, hey J?” Grandpa asked.

Jack almost tripped over grandpa’s oxygen tank as he opened the window a bit. The early fall breeze caused the photo to dance a little on the end table; the wind’s marionette strings pushed the little girl’s legs to a stand for a split second. Grandpa instinctively moved his wrist to save the photo. In his younger years, he might have been fast enough to catch the picture, but now he was seconds behind the softly fluttering piece of cardstock as it floated gently to the plush carpet.

“I got it, Grandpa,” Jack said as he mildly picked up the picture by the white edges, like his mom picking up the tail of a dead mouse. “Hey, this is getting pretty beat up; you want me to scan this to the computer so you can make copies?”

Grandpa gently parted his thinning hair as he sat back down and took a stuttered breath. He adjusted the tubes that had become a permanent part of his face. “Say what now?”

“We got a scanner at home and photo paper. I can scan your picture of Aunt Missy and make more copies of it, so the picture don’t completely go away,” Jack said.

Grandpa scratched his rough beard and thought. It seemed like he was trying to come to grips with the loss again. Jack had seen the same sad and confused look in Grandpa’s eyes every time someone had brought up Missy’s name.

“Ain’t no love like a parent to a child, Jack. When you lose one, well you don’t know, but it’s bad. She’d sit right here on this arm,” Grandpa said as he patted a worn section of his chair, “and she’d look at me with those big brown eyes and say ‘Daddy’ just to get me to smile.”

The story again. Jack didn’t really want to hear it.

“It was slow, J. That disease, what was it? Nah, wasn’t a disease…that guy, Jeb Collins, had hair down to his waist, always flying off the handle. Damn, I can’t remember—it was a disease, one of those new ones…no.”

Jack kept quiet and stoic, flipping through his baseball cards, hoping Grandpa would lose interest in trying to remember the story. Dad had told Jack never to bring up Missy; it was a hard thing to do though when Missy was always on Grandpa’s mind and on his end table.

“You coming with fishing today?” Jack asked as he wiped a bit of sweat off his cheek. Grandpa had taught Jack how to fish back when Jack was five. Jack had caught a catfish the size of Grandpa’s work boots that day at the creek and Grandpa had held it up with one hand—back when Grandpa could walk better, and breathe better.

“I ain’t feeling too good today, J. It’s been twenty-five years yesterday, you know, since she passed. Yea, I can still hear her voice, J. I know, I know, I’m crazy, but that ain’t crazy. I do hear her call for me sometimes… at night, outside by the creek, when I’m just rocking in this chair.”

A lone tear hopped from the wrinkle on the edge of Grandpa’s eye, onto the collar of his shirt. “I’ll go next time, just need a little time today,” Grandpa finished, the last syllable muted by the sucking intake of his oxygen machine.

Suddenly, Grandpa’s eyebrows bristled upward. The muscles of his eyelids stretched all the way open, probably for the first time in twenty years. He flung his elbow off the arm of his chair and stared at the empty spot of rubbed fabric. “There,” he said, “I heard it again…Daddy…I heard it, did you hear it?”

“It was just the wind on that old screen, Grandpa,” Jack sadly said. “But Grandpa, today’s the last day of summer. I got to go to school tomorrow. You got to come with.”

The grandfather clock in the corner of the living room struck. The little cuckoo bird came out of its hiding place in the old mahogany and chirped one time. The breeze blew in from the window a little harder. The rush of air knocked Jack out of his disappointment. Grandpa had gone fishing with him every day of the summer. He loved helping Grandpa down to the creek and hearing all of his old stories of Dad even though he had repeated them a thousand times.

Grandpa recovered from his distress and motioned for the photograph. Jack obliged. Grandpa stared at it again; the liver spots on his fingers stuttered with every arthritic motion.

“She’s in here, ya know,” Grandpa said, “somewhere…what if I ever lost it…I think I’d die.”

“I’ll save it for you, Grandpa. I’ll bring it back after school tomorrow with so many copies you can have one in every room. Don’t worry,” Jack said.

Grandpa’s thumb and finger shook the photo. He released his grip on the edge enough to let Jack take it out of his hands, but he didn’t let go. “Ok, yea, just be careful with it, J.”

The crisp leaves enveloped Jack’s sneakers and popped like firecrackers as he walked away from the flowing creek with a string of carp in one hand and the picture of Missy in the other. For the first time, he really studied the photograph with an eye specifically trained on finding the source of Grandpa’s obsession. He recognized the backyard of Grandpa’s house. The trees were all much smaller, some did not even exist anymore, but the turtle sandbox and the gentle downward slope towards the creek were pretty much the same.

Jack’s house came up on him, knocking him out of his hypnotic, photographic trance. The stray cats that lived under the porch bucked up like a parade of grasshoppers as Jack threw the string of fish at them. They pounced and tore, ballistic scales shooting up in the air as the little wood chippers did their work.

He kicked some of the leaves and mud off his shoes and went in the front door. The hydraulic arm on the screen door squealed at and pincered the quiet fall day. The kitchen smelled like pumpkin bread. His new backpack lay in the entryway between the kitchen and the dining room. He had thrown away his Spiderman backpack from last year; it still lay in the tin garbage can out back, gathering moths and fungus. This would be the first year of junior high school, no more kid stuff.

“Yo, bud, how was Grandpa?” Dad asked as he came in through the kitchen from the living room. The flickering television lights from the living room spotlighted his entrance. His khakis made that swooshing sound that new pants make. At least he had untucked his polo shirt and taken off his glasses since coming home from work.

“Not that good. He looked like he lost more weight and he didn’t want to go fishing,” Jack said.

Dad took the pumpkin bread from the counter and cut off two slices. He wiped his eyes and stared out the window for a few seconds. Jack had first realized that his dad was getting older a few weeks ago when he noticed the bags under his dad’s eyes and the little patch of skin that became apparent on the back of his head.

“I worry about him,” Dad said. “I don’t think he has much time left… the last doctor told him he had a few months and that was a few months ago…” Dad sighed. “Sorry, bud, I shouldn’t have said that.”

Jack knew Grandpa was dying. It made him sad for more reasons than the obvious.

“I think someone should try to get Aunt Missy to talk to him, at least let her know he’s dying. He still thinks she’s dead. How can something that happened back then be bigger than that?” Jack asked.

Dad’s eyes lowered in their sockets. “Missy was trouble, always was since I can remember. She took Grandpa to the mat many times…all the drugs and the bad guys…when she finally ran away, he started getting sick, started to lose track of things. Now, well—”

“Yea, I know, Dad.”

Jack took a bite of the bread and sat down on a stool at the kitchen counter. The doctors and the family had given up on Grandpa and Jack thought Grandpa knew it. It made Jack angry. Still, he couldn’t understand how someone’s mind could forget or misremember such an important thing. Shoot, Jack still remembered when he farted in Mrs. Richards’s class in first grade, and the general teasing that came from that.

“I’ve emailed her a few times over the years, but that’s it. Last I heard she was getting a divorce from some ex-con in California. I honestly don’t know what it would do to him to see her again,” Dad said.

“What’s the worst that could happen, Dad?”

“Me and Mom have talked about that, bud. We kind of decided it would be worse for him—his mind,” Dad said as he tapped his pointer finger on his skull, “to know that she was still alive and just didn’t want to see him. A broken heart isn’t just for men and women in love.”

“I don’t think so. They both need closure,” Jack said. Jack had learned the word closure from his best friend Peter. Peter’s parents had gotten a divorce recently and his therapist had told him that his mom needed this thing called ‘closure’. Peter had described it as a way for grown-ups to stop being sad.

Dad scrunched up the edges of his lips in that checkmate look. He tapped his fingers on the counter and then left the kitchen.

Jack assumed the conversation was over and finished his bread. A few minutes later, Dad returned with a shifting and creased box under his arm.

“We took all this stuff out of his house after Grandma moved out. The doctors and counselors didn’t think it would be good for him to see too much of it. The only thing we left in the house was an old picture of Missy.”

Jack touched the back pocket of his jeans. He felt the firm photo paper and exhaled. He grabbed the box and started to shuffle through the contents. The box and its contents smelled like the mustiness of a farm-house attic that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. He picked a tattered teddy bear out of the cobwebs and fraying duct-taped cardboard. The bear’s eyes still held on by a couple of loose threads, but its homemade dress held together nicely through the years.

Jack picked up a pile of photographs. He twisted the worn rubber band that held them together. The first few pictures depicted Missy crawling and eating and playing with a basketball. Her eyes were bright and she was smiling in most of the pictures. Jack flipped his thumb over the last picture in the stack. It looked as if Missy was a little older than Jack in the last picture. She had blue and pink hair and she was really thin; she wasn’t smiling anymore.

“Why didn’t she ever come see him, Dad?”

“Shame is a powerful thing sometimes, buddy. It’ll make people lie and worse,” Dad said as if Jack understood. Jack didn’t understand. He supposed he didn’t understand much about being a grown-up. It seemed to him as if grown-ups acted more like kids than most kids he knew.

Dad took a rusted kaleidoscope out of the box with one hand and pulled a thin piece of paper out of his front pocket with the other hand. “You’re right, bud. I know she won’t respond to me, but maybe she would to you… if you want to, you don’t have to.”

Missy’s email address was scribbled between the lines of a wide-ruled chunk of paper. Jack took the scrap.

Dad thought Jack was a grown-up, at least that’s how Jack felt. He felt that sometimes his dad put too much responsibility on his shoulders. But, he guessed someone had to be the grown-up.

Jack took the teddy bear and the email address and sprinted up to his bedroom. The teddy bear found a new home to the right of Jack’s pillow. It nestled nicely between some baseball cards and a candy bar wrapper.

The window in his bedroom was open a crack, letting in just enough wind to make it chilly. Gently, Jack removed the photograph from his back pocket. Its face seemed to have dulled, maybe the absence of Grandpa’s love and desperation had somehow stolen some light from the photo paper.

Jack rested the photograph in his palm and sat down in his desk chair. The weathered pine desk had seen everything, from coloring books to Star Wars Lego sets, but this would be the first time the splinter-getting table would hold a real Kodak created photograph.

The warped window frame rubbed against the plastic casing as the wind blew in a little harder, causing Jack’s Superman curtains to whip.

Daddy.

With a heaving breath like when he would wake from a night terror, Jack bolted up from his chair. A drinking glass next to the computer speakers fell over, luckily, the only contents left in the glass was some solid milk and black mold. Jack heard that wayward whisper. He rattled his brain around a few times with the pulsating muscles of his neck. He couldn’t shake it.

For a moment, he envisioned that little girl from the picture tromping around that ancient version of Grandpa’s yard with a hula-hoop in hand, driving it down like a wheel towards the creek. The colors lived and danced in his vision, much like the kaleidoscope Dad had shown him downstairs.

Jack flipped the photograph out of his hand like a burned flapjack. He wondered while staring at the stamped dates on the back of the photo—about ghosts and memories, and Grandpa, and then the wind died down, but Jack’s heartbeat did not.

The photo paper was loaded and the scanner door opened. Jack flicked the lifeless photograph in his scanner and pressed the power button.

Junior high would start tomorrow. Jack figured he should be excited and nervous about the new world that would be opening up to him, but he wasn’t. He was nervous about Grandpa.

Jack opened the laptop and logged into his email account. He started typing. He didn’t write very much; only the basics, but he attached the scanned image of the photograph and he wrote about how hard it was to get Grandpa to let go of the photograph and he wrote about the whispered ‘Daddy’ that seemed to float in through the breeze—that ‘Daddy’ still waited for her in the same rocking recliner. Then, he sent the email.

The next afternoon, Jack could feel the rubber bands holding his heart inside his chest expand as he came closer to that timeworn oak tree near Grandpa’s house. The first day of junior high had been a whirlwind of anxiety. He couldn’t remember any of it; he had spent most of the day looking for a reply to his email on the library computer, but it never came. He only knew that he had Missy’s old teddy bear and the copies of the photograph in his backpack. He didn’t know how Grandpa was going to react to any of it and it made his palms sweat.

During lunch, he had asked Peter whether his vision and hallucination while holding the photograph meant that he was as crazy as Grandpa. A bit of chewed up meatloaf had spurted from Peter’s mouth as he had answered with a laugh and a ‘Yes’. Jack hadn’t minded; he figured that being like Grandpa wasn’t such a bad thing.

A leaf slowly fluttered down and rested itself on the top of Jack’s hair. He hadn’t had a haircut in a few months, so he didn’t notice the extra weight. He did notice the taxi cab that pulled up Grandpa’s driveway. The weeds that grew from the many cracks and crevices in the driveway parted in front of the cab’s tires. The power steering pump squealed with piggish trauma.

Jack stayed behind the tree. He had never seen a taxi before in real life. The car rolled up close to the front step and stopped with a shudder and pop.

The wind was still enough to cause the creek to stop flowing. Jack opened his backpack and took out the original photograph. The colors were gone. All that remained was a shielded and grainy exposure of a time and person that no longer existed. Dad would have said that it had dulled because of the sunlight disrupting the chemicals in the photopaper or some other hogwash, but Jack knew better. He knew it had been a mistake to take the photograph out of Grandpa’s hand.

The front door of Grandpa’s bent down on its rusty hinges. Jack had never seen Grandpa’s front door open in the afternoon. Grandpa had always kept the front door open and the screen door closed when he woke up in the morning and would close his front door after lunch. He loved to hear the rambling chirping of the cardinals in the morning, but preferred quiet for his afternoon naps.

The taxi door opened and a woman stepped out. Jack’s gum dropped out of his mouth and stuck to his jeans. She looked like Grandma had looked like in the pictures Jack had seen in the photo albums that Grandma kept under the tons of old Reader Digest magazines in her hutch. The woman’s hair curled tightly around her sharp and thin cheekbones. A serrated and punishing life encapsulated her aura, from her over-pierced ears to her Wal-Mart shoes. The much too baggy Grateful Dead tour t-shirt that she wore tussled with every movement.

Jack wanted to yell out, ‘Aunt Missy’, but he thought better of it. He didn’t know what he would say after that. He didn’t know her and he didn’t know if he had done the right thing. For some reason, he wanted to warn her and hug her at the same time. There was still a hint of the four-year-old girl in her face that he had seen in the photograph a million times, but it wasn’t her—nothing was quite the same at Grandpa’s anymore.

Missy paid the driver and walked with a slight limp up the two stone steps to the screen door. Tears flowed down her eyes as she put her hand on the screen door handle and pulled it open. Jack couldn’t see Missy anymore, but he heard a soft and gentle word float through the slightly open window where Grandpa’s rocking chair sat motionless. A whisper of despair in completely still air.

“Daddy?”

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Categories: Fiction

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