I have been haunted by something these past few days; maybe weeks, or even months- so I decided to deal with it the best way I knew how; write it out. The result is this alternative [intlink id="190" type="category"]memoir[/intlink].
Thanks for playing along.
My flashlight caught something in the enveloping darkness. When I got close to the object, I could see it was a photograph- an eight by ten capture of three children on a pony. There was Becky, I believe she was five at the time, with her chubby legs and wrinkled knees. Six year old Greg was in front of her, and four year old Will completed the sibling sandwich on a very decorated and stoic looking horse.
I ran my finger across the glossy surface and immediately felt the colors of the scene as they bled through the black and white image. The palomino pattern of the horse was barely visible behind the saddle accessories and dangling legs of my brothers and sister. The red glass ball, sitting on an ornate cement pedestal, was just behind and to the left of the pony, reflected the bright blue skies, the gray stucco duplex my family rented one half of, old and chipping white paint of the wood framed windows, the photographer, thick green grass, and mom.
The children were all squinting, more like grimacing, and I’ll be damned if I couldn’t hear them squirming as they posed- children never want to be dressed up like monkeys on the Today Show. They fight it with scrunched faces; tugged collars, grass stained dress pants, wrinkled dresses, stretched argyle sweater vests, and tossed around clip-on ties.
The picture began to fall- tumbling downward like an autumn leaf. My free hand flailed in the darkness as the beam from the flashlight in the other waved like a panicked light saber. After several blind stabs, I caught the photo in mid-flutter. Reigning in the rebellious flashlight and aiming it at the recaptured photo, I was stunned.
The picture in my hand was not the one I was looking at when it fell away- the new photograph was a black and white of an eight year old me; on the same horse, later that day, in an alley a half a block away. Me- in my dress clothes because I had been to Catechism when the others had posed on the same pony. Me- because mom had chased down the photographer and haggled with him to take my picture. Me- squinting and squirming because I hated being a dressed up monkey.
“Allewicious.” Coming from above and behind, the familiar, impish voice stunned me; so much so I dropped the light onto the…what?…floor? Not really- the surface wasn’t solid enough to call a floor; it was thick, like gelled muck, but supportive. Whatever I was standing on, or in, felt black, although I couldn’t see it—even the light beam couldn’t animate it— I felt safe standing there.
Turning to look where the voice came from, I saw a smile; just a Cheshire grin that could only belong to one person. As I reached to touch the smile, it began to meld with the darkness; and the fading smile opened a flood gate of sorrow. I felt remorse because of what I was missing, and of the opportunities I missed. I missed so many chances to tell her the things I should have; to let her know my fears, my pains, my joys, and my love.
With an anchor firmly attached to my heart, I turned back around to find the flashlight. It had rolled some distance and the beam exposed the corner of something laying flat in the muck. When I bent to retrieve the light I found two glass plate negatives- products of the wet process photography that was long ago replaced by more convenient technological advancements. One plate was intact, the other broken cleanly in half.
Those plates were the ones that Greg and I found in the third story attic of that gray stucco duplex. During one of our great exploratory expeditions, that would one day surely uncover great mysteries of the human race, we pried back thick cardboard, that had been nailed tight against a small opening of a yet undiscovered cubby-hole in the hot and musty attic. The cubby-hole was Aladdin’s cave.
Bottle caps that read Blatz, Bulldog razor blades, newspapers of the Ancients, 1950’s stag magazines, and those two glass plates adorned the piles of treasure we found in that cramped space. We fought heat, dust, a spider or two, and the strict orders not to be in that attic- and the result proved to far outweigh any repercussions that we could comprehend- spankings? Get real; we were boys of nine and seven years- and already conditioned against THAT form of punishment.
Greg and I were the models for Indiana Jones some fifteen years before that name was uttered on the big screens of the world.
We decided to clean the negatives so we could proudly show our father, a graphic artist, our monumental discovery when he got home from work, so we rushed downstairs and to the bathroom. It was in the sink that one of the plates broke. Our hearts sank a little, but we quickly recovered to complete the cleaning.
When dad got home, Greg and I pulled him into the small kitchen at the back of the rental. It was there that we had the glass pieces laid out on the small table- a metal framed table with a white top adorned by a random pattern of small golden squares that were faded by the never-ending flow of silverware, plates, elbows, and pots that is brought on by a family of six.
This was the very same kitchen that mom set up her Decorative Soap enterprise a year later. She enlisted her legions of employees (my siblings and myself) to dress up fancy soap with frilly ribbons, colorful pins, and baroque faux flowers so that she could sell each bar for fifty cents. An undertaking that certainly increased the instant cash flow of our struggling family, but at the close of the day had to be stopped because the bottom line showed red.
In that same kitchen, with its scuffed linoleum floor- the family gathered around the table to ‘oh and ah’ over the treasure that Greg and I put our lives on the line for. Hours of pointing, touching, holding the plates into the light, chin rubbing, and head scratching seemed to pass before we collectively came to the conclusion that the photographs were taken in 1901; the scene was the backyard of the gray stucco house we lived in- the very same wrought iron fence that divided the properties of the duplex and the neighboring property that day we examined the glass negatives was clearly visible in those plates.
Looking at those plates, in that place of darkness, I was reminded of dad’s excitement, and mom patting Greg and I on the head. “You boys did good,” she smiled.
Not a word about being somewhere we shouldn’t have been.
The beam from the flashlight quivered, a tear rolled down my cheek, and all fear of the dark place I mysteriously journeyed to washed away. I stood and shined the light around to see what else I could stumble upon in that murky vault.
I was staring into a blank Word document while I held coffee cup in my hand- raised nearly to my lips. My breathing was stuttered as I immediately wondered where the hell I had just been.
Did I waste half a day? Half an hour? Half a minute? Was the trip a waste? Why did I go there? What was I going to do about it?
“Damn you,” I cursed to myself (because there was no one else around to hear it), “You know exactly what you need to do with it.”
And I did know. So, I sat the cold coffee down and began to write:
I ran across some old photographs today- pictures that reminded of…well…
I miss you, and love you so much.