I've Got The Camera, You Bring Your Sisters
It’s always been my habit to keep a couple of square snap-shots housed in the clear plastic windows of my wallet. I like how those small faces glimpse out when I casually open the wallet, whether it’s to finger out a business card or a five dollar bill. “This is Cheryl,” I’ll say, noting my nearby companion’s curious expression. “She smokes a lot, smokes like a chimney, but as you can see it hasn’t affected her complexion one bit.” The girl I call Cheryl does have lovely skin — milky as a Wedgwood teacup — though this might be a trick of photographer’s lighting, or computerized touch-ups. Anyone can be milky at the click of a mouse. “And this is Mabel. Ah, Mabel. She just got married to a real nice farmer from Boone County. I bet she’ll be expecting before the next winter freeze.”
My stories about Mabel always changed from place to place; in the Midwest, she was the sturdy descendent of pioneers, but on either of the coasts she was transformed into a cheerfully embittered career girl. “Here’s our Mabel. She says she’d rather never shop at Nordstrom again than become some Neanderthal’s baby-factory.” Mabel had the kind of broad, unassuming face that made her an easy fit for either of these opposing incarnations. What you might ask is why I bothered to give Cheryl and Mabel a life of their own in the first place — a life which is really my life, since Cheryl and Mabel are pictures of people I never will meet, who happened to already exist inside the wallet before I even purchased it, just waiting to be hijacked onto my family tree. But the answer to their existence is simple: I may walk into any supermarket in America — any discount store in the world, for that matter — and while the faces of Cheryl and Mabel will stare out at me from the shelves of the home-decorating department, they will never, not once, physically stand at the check-out aisle next to me. And this is what I love: the promise of them not being there, not swiping at their noses with used tissues, not looting their pockets for Lean Cuisine coupons. Cheryl and Mabel are the best siblings I ever had because they’re the siblings I’ve never had to own up to.
The saddest picture I ever saw was a picture of my very own father, whose childhood was, admittedly, something akin to a scene from Tobacco Road: a house full of kids and squirrels, sixth brothers squabbling in the muddy fields, their bodies as bent and mal-nourished as scarecrows. In the backwoods of Missouri, they ran free like a pack of Peter Pans, their father working swing shifts at a meat-packing plant, and their mother’s mind already lost to farm chores and poverty. Being youngest of the six, by the time my father was born there was no space for him in his own home. He slept between the next two oldest like a delicate-boned pillow, breath coming shallow and timid.
In the picture, my father looks to have the worst-half of everything. He stands in a dirt yard, chicken feathers at his feet, a teacup-sized birthday cake clutched in his three-year old hands. His baggy tee-shirt features a picture of a cartoon dog, and he squints at the camera despite the fact that no light shines on his face.
“Why were you crying?” I asked once. “It was your birthday. You had cake.”
He came and looked over my shoulder. “I wasn’t crying,” he said. “But shit, is my face dirty or what?”
My mother had enough pictures cataloging her youth to make up for my father’s lack. She had been a pageant baby not long after the golden age of Shirley Temple and Margaret O’Brien, back when a toe-tapping, chin-dimpled, curly-haired little girl was a sure sign from God that everything would be A-Okay. She won her first pageant at age three, and the prize portrait was always posted at the end of some long, echoey hallway in the furthest recesses of our house, as if my mother both did and did not want to remember those blue-ribbon days. When I was in my earliest days of schooling, I often happened upon her portrait while racing toy cars up and down the worn floorboards of our house, and I would always stop up short when I came to that wall where she hung, her pearly baby-teeth smiling down on me, the umbra of curls suggesting talcum and baby shampoo, her pink dress all pristine and angelic. To me, she was just a pretty little girl in a picture, and I often hoped to meet her some day, to marry her and live in a house of our own.
“What’s your name?” I whispered, bowing my head like a choir-boy. She only smiled on, silent as paper, never aging, her cheeks never losing their apples. And this was what I loved her for, I think.
My last girlfriend and I parted ways because of a photograph. I know what you’re thinking: a picture of me with another woman, maybe even one of those spring break videos you see on late night television, my girlfriend flashing her breasts for a sweaty, pop-eyed camera lens. Or perhaps you envision me as the sole culprit, with my long arm hooked around the waist of a wet tee-shirt contestant.
But the truth is far less sordid. My girlfriend was a photographer herself, and her photo-developer sat in the middle of our kitchen like an ominous headstone. I often tripped over it in the middle of the night, half-dizzy with a nightmarish thirst. My girlfriend held slide-show exhibits around town, at libraries and churches, wherever she could find a space to show her work, really. Each show began and ended with a white square of light beamed on to a plain plaster wall, or sometimes a sheet hung up against faux walnut paneling. She often claimed that the images presented between those end and beginning white squares weren’t so important as the audience’s degree of silence. Shufflings of paper and handbags were a bad sign; coughing or whispers, worse. The best part was when a re-affirming click jostled the next slide to the screen, the end result a smooth train of pictures parading forth in satisfying increments, a different panorama of color bathing over each watching occupant. From her position at the back of the room my girlfriend saw the shades and tones haze up their faces with the effects of varied emotions: wavering blue for sadness, half-hearted yellow for nostalgia.
This describes the days when things were at their best, of course — there were others, many of them, when the white square of light that signified the end of the show resulted not in silence, nor smatterings of applause, but what amounted to a subliminal yawn: one bored on-looker backspringing his hands into a ridiculous shadow puppet, a doberman or malformed rabbit, life-sized and snuffling at the edges of whatever makeshift screen she’d scrounged up for that day’s display.
It didn’t matter. In such cases she packed up with new places to go, always.
The photograph in question wasn’t one of her own, but one that was taken as we strolled through the city in autumn, dodging early Christmas shoppers as we made our way to a gallery opening. My girlfriend slipped in a patch of dry leaves, twisting her ankle — or so we then thought, though x-rays would later reveal hairline fractures in her foot. We sat on the curb and watched as her foot changed colors, a bright blue that would later turn yellow. It swelled over the tight confines of her shoe until she had to loosen the laces. Vaguely, we wondered how to move from this position we seemed to be stuck in. A horse-drawn carriage coasted by, and I was struck with inspiration. I scooped up my better half, making an unwilling piggy-back passenger of her, and she moaned fretfully as I began to jog, tightening her hold around my neck. Soon, we met up with the carriage itself, and I fell in sync with the horse hooves.
The horse’s hot breath and mine came in measured, equal bursts. The carriage passengers glared at us as we trotted by, as if we were one-upping them with our own human-made form of horse-and-rider, or maybe funning the very idea of late autumn carriage rides. When I finally pulled up to the gallery, panting, a college wise guy — a photo-journalist in training, no doubt — snapped off an old-fashioned Polaroid and handed it over. As the picture slowly emerged, we saw that we looked not like two people playing piggyback, but like a man with a woman fused to his back, some mythical creature that never was, like someone’s idea of a centaur gone horribly wrong. In that one image, we knew: it was easier to be together than it was to be apart. And we certainly couldn’t walk around like that forever, right? Each time I looked down, it was hard to recognize those feet as my own.
Who decided that in order to sell picture frames, the best tactic would be to adhere a picture of an unknown someone into the confines of that gold-toned box? A college co-ed in an outdated angora sweater, maybe, or a outdoorsy looking Marlboro man type, someone a lonely secretary could gaze at from over her keyboard, imagining that his strong arms would be the ones to embrace her when she returned to her studio apartment and uneven, micro-waved meals. When I was younger, I always imagined these nameless models as the loved-ones of somebody, somewhere, and perhaps this is what the picture frame manufacturers counted on: that the model’s pleasantly bland faces (always Caucasian, never quite beautiful) would remind us of our own pleasantly bland relatives, and thus provoke our urge to display those same relatives in a newly purchased, shiny oak frame, regardless of whether we could recall their full names, or their current employment, or whether they had spawned yet or not.
It wasn’t the relatives that were important, but their pictures — their suggestion of history, of holiday gift-exchanges and firework displays. Of those uncomfortable attempts at chit-chat with cousins unseen in the last five years, and the relief of coming in from the cold after a long hay-ride on Gram and Gramp’s farm.
They know that the real story lies in the photographs we keep hidden, the school pictures shoved inside a shoebox, snuffing out that year I tried to grow a goatee, or the yellow slide that somehow slipped into the crevasse between two couch cushions. Finally: a lone, faded Polaroid that will drift out of a book when I open it a few years from now, landing like a pressed rose on top of my foot.