In July, 2057, My Great-Granddaughter Considers an Old Photograph
Short Fiction Contest • Third Place
In the main hallway, her brothers have left a trail that leads to their bedroom: flip-flops, a big orange water gun, three or four tiny green-plastic army men, a wet towel. She passes their room without entering and comes to her parents’ room, just across from her aunt and uncle’s. This, she realizes now, has been her destination all along. Her father’s suitcase lies open on a low stool. Her mother has laid out a green sundress on the white comforter. On the bedside table, there’s a tottery stack of thick paperback books; next to it, she finds what she’s looking for, a fat, tattered, brown file folder bound by a string. “Full of treasures,” her mother had said at dinner last night. “I forgot I even had it until Mom asked about it. I thought it would be fun for us all to go through it together.” “Oh, no,” her oldest brother said. “She’s going to torture us with history.” “You’ll love it,” her mother said, smiling. “But not tonight. We’ll wait for a night when you really don’t want to do it.” One of the boy cousins pretended to strangle himself.
Now, in her parents’ room, she picks up the file folder—it’s lighter than she expected—and, without looking at it, walks quickly out the door and down the hallway to the end, where she climbs the back stairs to the second floor and then ascends, via a rickety ladder and small trapdoor, to the attic. She’s been here once before—the only one who has, as far as she knows—so she’s ready for the heat, which is thick and sudden, and the gritty sand that covers the wood-plank floor. Two stacks of boxes lean crookedly in a corner. Elsewhere, a birdcage; a bicycle with one tire; a wooden cradle, painted blue with red hearts; a card table; a battered rocking chair. From a peg on the wall hang a pair of old water skis and a single aluminum crutch. A bare bulb dangles from the ceiling, but the pull chain is gone, so the only light comes from a round window in the far wall.
She walks over to the window, which she thinks of as porthole, and looks out into the brilliant day. The beach is a thin white beard on a face of deep and endless blue. She thinks she can make out her family among the sunbathers: green umbrella, boys tossing a football, black dog chasing a furious circle. The sun pours down, shatters the sea like glass, but she cannot hear a sound in this close, secret room. It’s so bright that, when she turns back to set the file folder on the card table beside the window, her vision frays around the edges and all the color leaks out, leaving her for a moment in a ghostly dusk of shadows and outlines.
She unties the string, lifts the flap of the brown folder, and empties the contents onto the table. She’s hoping for stories, letters, report cards maybe, but instead she finds legal papers and architects’ plans and brochures and old newspapers. There are some poems, but they use big words and don’t rhyme. There are some drawings, but they’re not very interesting. She recognizes only a few of the names. There’s nothing by her mother or father. This stuff is really old. Near the bottom of the pile, she comes across a single photograph stuck to the pages of a catalog. When she tugs the photo free, its yellowed edges curl inward, and she flattens it out on the table in front of her, holding the sides down with her index fingers.
In the foreground, a girl and a boy roughly her age—10, maybe 11—pose in costumes. It must be Halloween: There are three stone steps behind them, and on each step is a carved pumpkin, each lit from within, each bigger and more sinister than the last. The boy, a wizard with a pointed purple cap and purple cape, has thrown back his head in a wide, crinkly laugh; the girl, who seems to be a gypsy, has a purple head scarf and is draped in bright, multicolored robes and dangling pearls. Her hands cover her cheeks and form a “V,” at the center of which is her mouth, opened wide in mock surprise. She is an inch or two taller than the boy, who has his arms locked around her in a firm embrace. In the background, above the steps on what seems to be a porch, a man and a woman stand in the shadows in a similar embrace.
There is no writing on the back of the photograph, no story. She stares hard at the children in the picture, but especially at the beautiful gypsy girl, to whom she’s drawn. Then it comes to her: This is Grandma Rose, as a girl! It’s in the eyes, the nose, the shape of the mouth. It must be her. The boy must be her brother, and his name was—what was it? was it Henry? And the people in the background are the parents, though she can’t really make them out and doesn’t know their names. It’s Rose, Rose, Rose!
Even in the faded photograph, the children are vibrant and colorful. Around them there’s a halo of light, probably an effect of the flash. (The shot seems to have been taken at twilight.) Light shines from the boy’s eyes, flares near the girl’s open mouth. Rose’s parents stand on the front porch, quite literally in the shadows. The man has on a gray sweatshirt—you can’t read the name on the front—and a baseball cap. The woman wears sweatpants and a dark windbreaker. In the wash of light from the children, the parents are blurry and indistinct. There’s some damage around the edge of the photograph. A water spot, or something like it, has formed a gray, raised blotch on the man’s throat. The parents are insubstantial, already fading, shadow and outline, air.
In that hot, close room, on that blazing day in July, she hears no sound but her own breathing, no song, no cry, no voice that says to her, The children are laughing because they are imitating our pose, because they turned and saw us kissing on the porch, and then turned back at the moment of the shot and acted out what they saw. Listen. There’s a black dog behind that screen door (do you see the screen door?), and she’s barking like that because she can’t stand to be alone. I helped Henry and Rose carve two of those pumpkins (if you look carefully, you can see the tools on the porch), and I carved the big scary one myself. Just out of the frame is a wind chime that my wife and I will hear later that night as we lay silent, listening, in bed. Still later, Rose will come to our door—another nightmare—and climb crying under the covers between us.
The girl stares at the photo, at her Grandma Rose—a young girl! no lines on her face!—and makes up a rhyme, as is her habit:
Grandma Rose struck a pose.
She was wearing funny clothes.
Do you know what Rosie knows?
The moon shines, the wind blows.
She looks at the photo and laughs. The children are beautiful. She does not know the story of the parents. She will not ask. She will not know.
The moon shines. The wind blows.
Rosie, Rosie, Rosie, Rose.
She puts all of the documents back in the brown file folder, one by one by one. The photograph is last. She holds it in her hands for a moment, and then sticks it in the middle of the catalog where she found it. She closes the catalog, puts it away. Out of the attic, down through the hall, back to the bedroom, where she replaces the folder on the bedside table. She hears no word, no whisper (that was me, that was her), but runs through the house and bursts, as she should, out the front door and into the light—I’m coming! I’m coming!—where the only sound is the sound of the wind and the sea.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201