tagRomancePhotographs and Memories

Photographs and Memories


Photographs and memories
All the love you gave to me
Somehow it just can’t be true
That’s all I’ve left of you

- Jim Croce, Photographs and Memories

I stood at the top of Mrs. McBride’s staircase, zipping and snapping my pants. Her son Kenny, at the foot of the stairway, hadn’t seen me coming from the bathroom. I watched for a minute as he tossed coats aside and rummaged through the women’s purses. I saw him pick up a brown purse. It was my purse. He opened the wallet and hesitated. He looked carefully at a picture, caressed it with the tip of his index finger. He saw himself, and he saw me. He saw what we looked like at age seventeen: he with dark brown hair, nearly black, cut in the popular bowl cut of the seventies, light blue eyes, sparkling at the photographer in mock annoyance, slightly crooked teeth set in an unembarrassed grin and I with long, golden brown hair, green eyes, and a playful smile. He was frozen in time, just like I was every time I looked at that picture.

His name was Kenny McBride. He had lived two streets over from me when we were teens, and we had been very close. Kenny would drive past my house in his midnight blue Chevy Nova and turn around at the end of the street. I’d race down from my bedroom and out to the street and we’d sit in his car and talk or we’d ride around our small town and talk. Kenny always told me I was easy to talk to. I always thought he was easy to listen to. The shame of it all was that we had drifted apart as adults.

He closed my wallet without removing any money from it – a courtesy for old time’s sake, I suppose. He busily snatched up another purse and, without wavering, plucked out the cash.

I couldn’t bear to watch him any longer. I went down the steps slowly, but without making any special effort to be quiet. When he noticed motion on the stairs he jerked with fear of being caught. He looked up at me with those cadet blue eyes, filled with panic, and I watched them soften with recognition. His serious face gave way to a happy grin. Then it disappeared. He looked down at the open purse and his big hand buried inside of it. As if it had suddenly burned his fingertips, he dropped the purse on the couch with all the others. Then he looked at me and shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s not what you think, Fannie.” His arms stretched out, with palms up in a plea, asking me for something. Was he trying to make me understand?

“I think you’re stealing the cash from these ladies’ purses.”

I stood on the stairs, looking down at him. The implication of being on a higher plane than he was not lost on me, but I didn’t like it. I stepped down into the room and walked over to him. Now he towered over me.

“It’s not what you think, Fannie.”

“So, you’re taking the cash, but you’re just counting it, and you’re going to put it all back when you’re done?”

“It’s not what you think ... it’s not what you think ... think ... think, Fannie.”

Kenny’s face began to smudge. His words echoed and lost their volume. I tried to look at him, tried to see his eyes, his smile, his hair tossed casually over his forehead. I tried to hear what his lips were saying. It all blurred together. I blinked, trying to keep the erased edges from disappearing. He was gone.

“Fannie? Fannie? Can you hear me?”

“Kenny?” I said. No, it wasn’t Kenny. It was a feminine voice I heard.

“Fannie darlin’, what’s wrong!”

“Where’s Kenny?”

I blinked and looked around. The room was hazy. The coats and purses lay undisturbed on the couch.

“Where’s Kenny?” I repeated.

“Fannie, please, you’re being mean.”

“He was just here. I saw him.”

“Stop this Fannie, you know Kenny is dead.”

Her words blared through the fog that was dulling my brain. Oh my god, yes, Kenny was dead. He had been dead for three years. He had died of a heart attack, alone in his semi at a truck stop. Someone had found him the next morning. He was dead. He wasn’t in this room, stealing purses. He wasn’t caressing the picture of him and me that was still in my purse after all these years. He wasn’t standing in front of me with those smiling eyes, asking me for something. I shook my head to clear it.

“I must have dozed off, Mrs. McBride. I don’t remember falling asleep but I must have, he was here. It had to be a dream. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Daisy McBride smiled at me in her wide-toothed, friendly grin. She patted my shoulder and spoke to me in her familiar country twang.

“It’s OK Fannie, honey. You haven’t been in this house for a long time. You’re bound to have memories. I do.” Her smile was replaced with anguish, the anguish of losing her son.

Silence seemed the best response. An easy quiet slipped between us and, without thinking, I hugged her. I let her grief and mine snuggle between us. She sniffled and then turned away from me.

“Fannie honey, I’m awful glad you decided to join us old folk. These Harvest parties get to be a little dull sometimes.”

Mrs. McBride rubbed her arms. Her eyes were still moist with tears.

“Thank you for inviting me.” I meant the thank you. I hadn’t spoken to her since Kenny’s funeral. Life had found a way to move on, and our paths were no longer connected. Her invitation had truly surprised and delighted me.

“Honey, it’s been so good to see you. I hope you won’t make yourself a stranger.”

Her words allowed me to take my leave, as she had intended. I had always liked Kenny’s mother. I still did.

Later, while driving to work, I thought about seeing Kenny stealing through the purses. It hadn’t seemed like a dream at the time. I don’t know when reality had faded into dreaming. I remembered going to the bathroom. That was real, but I don’t remember closing my eyes in sleep. This wasn’t the first time I had dreamed of Kenny since his death, but this was the first time it seemed so real. I could smell his English Leather. I could hear the little twang in his voice, like his mother’s. I could see the scar on his eyebrow from an old baseball injury. I expected memories to haunt me while I was in the house he grew up in. I didn’t expect the more sensory ones like the sound of his voice and the smell of his favorite cologne. But I was willing to chalk it up to the surroundings.

Except when I walked into work, Marge, our secretary, asked me, “Did you talk to him today?”

Marge was an older woman from Jamaica. No one knew exactly how old she was because she refused to tell us. She had an uncanny way of knowing things. She could explain your dreams or the weird things that happened to you. Of course her explanations were vague and said in a way to make you think about the possible meaning yourself. But she was very good at prodding your thoughts in the right direction.

“Talk to who, Marge?”

“You know.”

Marge talked in a singsong way so that when she said “you know” it came out in four long, drawn-out syllables and ended with a little giggle.

“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about Marge.” The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and my palms suddenly felt moist.

She smiled but never looked up from her work when she said, “He’s waiting for you.”

I tried to press Marge for more information, but she just repeated what she had already said. Marge and I had discussed my dreams of Kenny, especially right after his death. She comforted me with her idea of their meaning. She told me when I dreamed of him it was because he had something to tell me. But that was all she would say. That was Marge’s way – she always left you with the impression she knew more, but she refused to tell. Maybe she was afraid of changing an outcome.

I went about my nightly work in the ICU, and by the time morning rolled around and my shift was over, I was too exhausted to think about my conversation with Marge.

I started driving home in the murk of consciousness that night shift workers are famous for, making turns you don’t remember and finding yourself home, wondering how you got there. It was through that mental fog that I noticed, on the left side, set way off the road, an old, large barn. I had been driving down these same roads for five years – I didn’t think it was possible to see anything that I hadn’t seen before. On the side panel was an advertisement for Swallow’s Root Beer. I could barely make out the frosty mug. Years of weather had muted the colors. I shook my head in disbelief. The company had gone out of business years ago. It was produced locally, and Kenny’s father had driven a truck for them. Truck driving was a family tradition. Kenny always drank a Swallow’s. I remember him holding up a bottle once and asking me, “Do you Swallow?”

Tiny shivers quaked through me. The wood was worn, but the slats remained intact. Obviously, the barn had stood there for years. How could I have missed it before? I heard Kenny’s words, “Think Fannie.” But I couldn’t think, I was too tired to think, I was too tired to wonder about the coincidence, I was even too tired to let the trembling in my body concern me.

I zombie-walked my way into my house and dragged off my scrubs. I fell into bed and sleepily burrowed my way beneath the covers.

His warm breath washed over my lips, tickling them. His tongue followed, tracing along the outer edge and then parted my lips to make his way between them. I moaned in pleasure. His mouth was humid. His lips were soft. His tongue wrestled with mine for space. A hand held my head in place with fingers wrapped in my hair. Another hand found its way to my thigh, warming my leg with the contact. The kiss succeeded in clearing my mind of everything, everything except that illicit hand inching its way up my thigh.

It was hard to breathe. My pounding heart battled my lungs for freedom to expand. His kiss lengthened, leaving me completely breathless and unable to say a thing about his searching hand. That smooth hand inching its way to the top while his fingers toddled their way to the inside of my leg caused my muscles to tense. And still he continued, never slowing his kissing and never hurrying his hand.

With perfect timing, his fingers reached the soft outer satin of my panties just as his mouth drew me in deeper. He sweetly sucked on my tongue. My face heated. He had never touched me there before.

“We shouldn’t.” I moaned, but I didn’t mean it. I didn’t want him to stop. I wanted to feel his fingers inside my panties. I wanted to feel his fingers inside of me. I wanted to feel his whole hand on my cunt.

But it wasn’t to be. The porch light flipped on. My parents were signaling for me to come in.

I turned over in bed, shifting and sighing. It definitely wasn’t a dream this time – it was a coveted memory. Kenny McBride had been the first boy to affect me so powerfully that I would have given myself to him, right there in his Chevy Nova, parking in front of my parents’ house. But I never did. We got close several times but I always stopped it. As an adult, after we’d drifted apart, I regretted it. And when he died I mourned the missed chance even more. Regret gnawed at my gut now.

Sleep finally won out over the memories. When I woke, the bed was a disheveled mess. Usually after a long night at work I would climb into bed and sleep so motionlessly that the covers would look un-slept in. I must have been restless, but I didn’t remember a thing.

The sun was dropping past the open window. The house was quiet with the exception of a soft breeze rustling through the curtains. It was a perfect autumn evening. I stretched in front of the window and marveled at the glorious orange and yellows of the huge tree in the side yard. Tears suddenly welled up in my eyes. I was reminded of a picnic. Through the blur of moisture I could see families gathered, children chasing one another, tables laden with potluck offerings. And Kenny and I huddled under a tree, side by side with our backs to the great oak. We sat with our knees up, allowing them to graze each other. Our shoulders touched, and our heads bent together, whispering. Mrs. McBride had hailed our attention and snapped a picture.

I grabbed my purse and pulled out my wallet. The picture was still there. The edges were frayed with age. The colors were fading, but our faces remained, smiling, innocent and slightly annoyed at being disturbed. I had my hair pulled back at the sides and wore a favorite blue peasant blouse. Kenny was in jeans and a flannel shirt. And clasped in his hand that rested on his knee was a bottle of Swallow’s Root Beer.

I felt unnatural, haunted by memories of a young love that had never been consummated, almost obsessed with my past with Kenny. A tear dropped on the worn picture. I hurriedly wiped it off. “Oh Fannie, look what you’re doing. You’re going to ruin this picture with your blubbering.” I slid the picture back in my wallet, reminding myself that the past was the past and there was nothing I could do to change it.

Nighttime rushed over the sky, driving the sun to set. Clouds moved in, swirling in hazy shapes, blanketing the stars. The moon tried to peek through, but the clouds refused to allow it. As usual, because I had slept all day, I was wide awake. And I didn’t have to work that night. The house was quiet. It made me feel antsy. I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what. I wanted to go somewhere but I didn’t know where. I fiddled around the house, making up chores. I finally decided to get out.

I hopped in my car and drove without a destination in mind. I found myself driving past Mrs. McBride’s house. I half expected to see Kenny’s Nova parked in the driveway. I thought about stopping but the house was dark. What could I say anyway? I couldn’t tell Daisy that I was obsessing over her dead son. I couldn’t tell her that I still remembered the way his lips would go soft and hungry when he kissed me. Nor could I tell her that I wanted to feel his hand on my thigh, or his body pressed against me, or more of him inside of me.

This was silly, and I knew it was silly. I turned to go home. The night remained black. The country roads were unlit. The oncoming headlights felt like eyes boring through me, seeing inside of me and exposing my obsession. I wanted the memories of Kenny to go away, and yet I held on to them, nursing them, replaying them over and over in my head. We were in a house, in a car, under a tree, touching, laughing, kissing, exploring. And stopping.

A faint glittering in the distance caught my eye. It wasn’t a car. It was further off to the left. It came from the barn I had noticed that morning. Tiny flickers of light shot through the cracks of the wood. I thought maybe it was on fire, and my heart raced. Then I realized there was no smoke, only those brilliant flickers of light.

I pulled off the side of the road and sat there, staring at the barn. There were no houses around it. No cars near it. It was just a solitary building in the middle of a field. I was curious about the flickering. I gulped down the fear that climbed up the back of my throat. I had a cell phone in my purse. I could call for help if I needed it.

I strapped my purse across my shoulder and started the hike across the field. The ground was soft from a recent rain, and my feet stuck in the mud, causing sucking sounds with every step. The brush was higher than it appeared from the road. It tore at my shirt and scratched my skin. I swatted an errant bug that had somehow survived the chilly autumn nights.

I walked on. The barn was further away than I’d thought. My legs hurt from the constant pulling in the mud. My armpits itched with beads of perspiration forming. My skin stung from the open scratches. What was I doing? This was ridiculous. But I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to see the Swallow’s sign up close. I wanted to touch it. I needed to more than anything I could imagine, though I didn’t know why.

The flickering seemed less brilliant as I got nearer. It dulled until it gave just enough light to outline the barn. The ground cleared and turned to soft, mowed grass. I walked to the panel with the aged Swallow’s sign on it. Up close it was difficult to make out the picture. I raised my hand to touch the bottom of the painted mug. I could barely reach it. As my palm stretched out on the dilapidated wood, a tiny sputter of light shot through a crack and hit my hand.

A shockwave rippled through me, and my mouth watered with the sweet syrupy taste of root beer brewed with hops, an unmistakable Swallow’s taste. I pulled away and swallowed like I had taken a drink. I imagined the carbonation burning my throat and tickling my nose. I closed my eyes and savored the memory.

I walked around looking for a way to get inside. A doublewide door with broken hinges slumped against the large front opening. There was just enough space to step under it. I wanted to go in, but I hesitated. A faint glow of light danced against the worn door in broken images. I watched it. It was warm and inviting.

I ducked under the door to squeeze my way inside. My hair caught on a broken hinge, like a finger holding me back to give me a chance to reconsider. But I easily disentangled from it and stepped through.

The interior was washed with luminous light, but there were no bulbs. The space was empty. Solid beams supported the structure and were the only things disturbing the cleanly swept floor.

But the walls were covered. Covered with photographs. Thousands upon thousands of photographs, lined side by side. They formed an enormous mural of images.

There were portraits and snapshots, black and white stills, daguerreotypes and miniatures. There were wedding pictures and pictures of casual affairs. There were women and men, children and babies, and couples and families. Every emotion was characterized. A mother, with an infant on her lap, beamed with pride. A couple stared at each other dreamily. A soldier stood stiffly with a stolid expression. A bride smiled with hope filling her eyes. A family hugged with the joy of togetherness. There were so many I was overwhelmed.

I reverently walked around, trying to see as many as I could. A child with a toothy grin sat waist high in scattered wrapping paper, holding up a toy train. A woman in black, with tear-stained eyes, cradled a flag. I could feel tears burning the back of my eyes. I didn’t know any of these people, and yet I felt I knew them all. All these lives, connected and remembered through photographs.

On the far right side, close to the front, I noticed an empty space. It was just big enough to hold a two-by-three picture. The picture of Kenny and me was just that size. I opened my purse and found it. The edges appeared even more worn. The colors more faded, and there was a graininess to it that I hadn’t remembered. It was just a picture, like all the others surrounding me. I wondered if my picture belonged there next to a sepia-colored print of a stoic gentleman with a handlebar moustache. Somehow I knew that it did. My picture symbolized a moment of living, just as all the others did.

My eyes blurred with tears as I fit the picture in the empty space. The lights dimmed. I could hear children laughing. And smell barbecue.

“Fannie! Fannie! C’mon, what are you doing?”


“C’mon Fannie, geez, it’s hotter than hell in this barn. What are you doing in here?”

“I came in here to ... to ...” I looked around, a bit flustered. “I don’t know why I came in here.”

“Well let’s get out of here.”

Kenny grabbed my hand and pulled me along with him. He had the biggest hands. Mine were lost in his grip. I liked it when he held my hand like this. I could always smell his cologne on my hand later, after he let go.

I squinted at the bright sun when we left the barn. The church picnic was in full swing. The older men sat in lawn chairs while the younger men discussed sports. Everyone was surrounded by clouds of smoke from the open barbecue pit. The women were preparing the tables and ooh-ing and ahh-ing over favorite recipes.

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