'Black and White Photograph'

The second-place story

In the bottom of a drawer filled with nylons, white socks, fountain pens, and yellowed bank drafts, there is a black-and-white photo of her in an old, air mail envelope with a red, white and blue border. On the outside is her name with the address of a rural route in the town where she was born 78 years ago.

The return address is just a post office box number from Sweetwater, Texas. The air mail stamp, though, is post marked "London NW 08 1943."

In the photo, I recognize her, sitting in her mother's front yard of chicken-scratched, doodlebug dirt.

She is under a tree. I remember that tree, a sweet gum that my uncle told me produced Juicy Fruit gum when it bloomed.

Sweet gum trees never bloom.

In the background, you can see her mother's clapboard, tin-roofed house, with its screened back porch that rested on sawed-off tree stumps.

She is wearing wire-framed glasses, a pullover sweater, short dress and white and black shoes with white bobby socks. Her hair is pulled up, away from her young face in a style popular then.

She is wearing lipstick. She is fond of bright, red lipstick. I remember she pulled a tube of "Crimson Rose" from her purse before my brother's big role in the third grade school play. He was just about to go on the stage to join the cast and she pulled him back and stooped down in front of his frightened face, framed by a full feathered headband.

"A brave Indian Chief has to have war paint" she had said in a soft voice that only he and I could hear. Then, to our astonishment, she painted his face with her lipstick, with red lines, crosses and red dots across his forehead, just like Cochise in the comics.

Whoever took the photo – I don't think it was Dad, because he would have been in the Philippines in 1943 – shot her low to the ground, which emphasized her long bare legs. You can see her left upper thigh.

She is squinting at the photographer, the sun is in her face, so the photo was taken mid-morning, probably in the spring or early fall. Maybe she is about to go to church.

She is holding my brother and me on her lap. I am about a year old and intently looking at a baby bottle held in both hands. My brother is three and looks bored, about to fall asleep. There is a small toddler's trike on his left. We both are dressed up: He is wearing long pants and a shirt with a little bow tie. I am wearing shorts and what looks like a sailor's top.

Her left hand is on my brother's knee, her right hand is holding an unlit cigarette. She looks like a college girl, babysitting two kids. She is almost smiling.

Her mother's farm is still 60 miles from the nearest movie theater, and probably 30 miles from a Dairy Queen.

The photo is ripped along the top edge and has begun to curl, but the image is sharp, saved from fading in the dark recess of her abandoned stocking drawer.

Photographs are odd in that they capture the surface of things so much better than human memory: the light, the dust, the position of the sun in relation to the earth and moon. Who remembers these things from 20, 30 years ago? Or even, last week?

But the living can remember the surprise of a breeze on a hot summer morning. Or the sound of a car radio in the evening shadows ... the smell of soap on fresh-scrubbed boys.

I take the photo to her hospital room. She is resting, asleep, I think. As I walk up to her bed she looks at me, puzzled for a moment.

"Jack?" she says, searching my face. Jack, her husband, died three years ago.

"No, Mom, it's me. Jimmy."

"Oh, yes. I know you. Have you been here long? Is your father coming?"

"Not today. He'll come when he can. But I brought you something. A photograph. Can you see it? Do you remember when it was taken?"

She holds the photo in both hands, which I steady against her thin legs, which are propped up on pillows.

Her pale blue eyes scan the photo, left to right, bottom to top. She smooths the curl.

She looks at me, puzzled, waiting for an explanation. I look at her. Her mouth trembles. She sighs and closes her eyes as she lets the photo slide out of her hands.

I bend down to pick it up. I see her lips are moving. She is trying to say something before she once again slips into her evening sleep.

I hear her whisper. "Tell that girl. She should run away."

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