It was cold outside, intolerable, so after dinner we resigned ourselves to looking through old photographs and drinking hot cider. The dinner itself had been lovely — roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, stuffing. After eating, we could hardly move.
“I’m so full,” we complained.
“My stomach is going to pop,” we whined.
We loaded the fireplace with oak, popped popcorn (one of us insisted on this despite the state of our stomachs), and put music on the stereo — something classical and raucous, a joyous outburst of strings, woodwinds, and percussion. We were all feeling quite fine.
We hadn’t seen each other in some time — not since before the last election — and it was good to be together again. There had been some ugliness back then, an ugliness that far exceeded the requisite amount around elections. Our anxiety had been high through the mudslinging, the debating, the protesting, but we simply let the wave break over us.
There had always been waves. And we had always survived.
Now it had been awhile — years perhaps — and we were sitting here in this warm house with our snacks and our music looking at old photos, as had been the custom every time we gathered. The photos were so familiar to us that we could recall each and every detail of them with sharp clarity.
“Look at how little you were here!” we said.
“Remember the fun we had playing in the mud that day?” we said.
“Grandma looks beautiful in this one, doesn’t she?” we said.
We continued through the pages. We laughed. We refilled our mugs with cider, grinning as we snuck in nips of bourbon. The fire burned slow and hot. Outside seemed very far away.
But then as we turned over another familiar page, our fingers congregated on an unfamiliar face in the background.
“Who is that?” we asked each other.
“We must know him. He has to be someone we know,” we said, staring at the face.
The man in the background was dressed smartly in an expensive suit, one none us could have afforded. It was the classic suit of a businessman or a politician — dark in color, handsomely breasted, and made of a fabric so fine our fingers could only imagine it. A small American flag pin adorned its left lapel. The shirt underneath was well-tailored, hiding the man’s paunch. It was the cleanest, brightest white we had ever seen. His tie was deep red, sanguine and beguiling. On it sat a bright gold clip, so bright that the glint off it cut our eyes.
“Turn down the light a little,” one of us said.
In the lowered light, we studied his face. His hair was like a feathery yellow crown atop his head. Dark blue eyes narrowed and gathered into lines at his temples. He wore a broad, closed-tooth smirk, and flesh sagged beneath his chin. His skin was clayish and yellow, moldable, we thought, like he could be anything to anyone at any time.
“Hmmm,” one of us ventured.
“Best not to dwell on it,” one of us said.
“Yes, best not to dwell,” one of us agreed.
“Turn the page,” one of us said.
“Yes, turn the page,” one of us agreed.
So we turned the page and saw another photograph, one from a gathering much like this one, a gathering where we stood in front of the very same fireplace we were sitting in front of right now. We were dressed in our winter clothes, standing with our arms crossed in front of us. One of us was making a silly face, as he always did.
“You and your faces!” we said.
“Those faces!” we echoed.
We laughed for a moment, leaning away from the picture. But when we stopped laughing, we leaned back in and noticed the man there again. It was definitely him — he had the same jaundiced skin, the same thumbprint eyes. He stood way at the end of the back row, nearly out of the frame altogether.
“There he is again!” we said.
“Do we know him? We must know him. He looks awfully familiar,” we said.
“Wait a minute — haven’t we seen him on TV before? Maybe on the news?” we said.
We studied each others’ faces, but no one answered.
In mutual perplexity, we fell silent. No one drank their cider. No one ate their popcorn. We simply stared off and forward and out into the night sky. We could see the sky better now that all the trees had gone. Stars burned and fell, which had been happening with more frequency, as the music on the stereo flowed into another movement, this time slower and with more strings. Something about the whole matter unsettled us, and though we truly believed there had to be a concrete explanation, we could not imagine what it was. We could not fathom how this presence had come to occupy the intimate space of our photographs.
Finally, we turned the page. We had to, of course. We had to do something, and we felt hope while our fingertips braced the corner, hope while our hands lifted the thick cellophane-covered sheet, hope while light began to crawl across the new page. We held our breath. We waited. We wanted everything to be normal.
But there he was again: the same jowls, the same closed-tooth smile. This time he wore a blue tie. He was standing behind us, his lower half obscured by one of our classic poses: arms stretched around each other’s waists, bodies in line, heads straight and proud. We were all smiling. From the middle of us, he appeared, his head wedged between ours.
“How could this happen?” we asked.
“I don’t understand,” we said.
“How did we let this happen?” we asked.
It was then that we began to feel sick. We looked at each other. We stared at the interloper. Our cider cooled. Our popcorn grew stale. The record spun and spun, the needle digging into its innermost groove. We turned page after page. We brought out album after album. But on each and every page, in each and every album, he materialized. Blue tie, red tie, arrogant smirk.
By the final page, it seemed we had grown smaller, disappearing into the background of our own photos. Now it was he who stood at the forefront, his arm raised high and forward, his fingers pointed straight at a rapidly diminishing horizon.