An Unclaimed Likeness is a blog series meant to give voice to forgotten photographs. These stories are a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
“How do you see him?”
I froze, coffee pot in hand, at her question. She was a young, little thing; dark eyes like the chocolate chips she preferred in her daily muffin and the hands of a writer. I’d seen her many a wee hour, pen gripped tight and jaw knotted in concentration at the back table beneath the window.
“Excuse me?” I smiled while filling her cup, proud my hand didn’t shake.
She wore a denim jacket atop a floral dress, all pinks and lilacs and gentle curves, looking up at me with an intense sort of curiosity.
“You mentioned to that man that you were married for sixty-two years,” she rambled, flicking her pen toward the exiting customer with the assertiveness of a conductor’s baton. “I hear people ask you all the time for marriage advice. And I don’t really need any of that…”
Her pale cheeks, haloed in freckles, lit with a blush as she trailed off.
“Sorry, it was silly,” she finished, turning her eyes back to her notebook after thanking me quietly for the refill.
The bakery had settled down into a nested hush and I found myself sitting across from her with aching hips. The sun was soft against our faces and, not for the first time, I caught the girl’s gaze drift to the photograph hanging beside her.
“That’s my favorite picture of him,” I sighed. Reaching up, I removed the gold frame from the nail and wiped the glass. She grinned when I passed it over, a small flame in her eyes like warm coals. “He was only twenty-two there. We had been going through what you young people call a ‘rough patch’ but it felt more like a wood chipper had gotten ahold of my heart. God never did see fit for Willie and I to have children and those first few years I blamed him for the sadness eating me alive.”
Confusion warred with softness across her cheekbones as she re-hung the photograph: “But he’s smiling?”
“Ah. Yes, but the narrow hand of Photography has a way of penning whatever story she chooses, doesn’t she? The walls of this bakery alone tell a million stories – lives all tossed in a BINGO basket and jostled about.” We both glanced around at the dozens of framed pictures tacked and hung like frozen black and white movies across the pale yellow walls of the bakery. “You’re right though. That was even his real smile. We’d taken a few days to ourselves, road tripped to stay with some friends along the river. I took it when I was feeling a spark of reconnection with him – the way you discover a new layer of someone you’re in love with when you’re in a different place. And he was ever-patient; two kids forgiving each other but still feeling the sting of it all. Made for an interesting evening of making up.”
A snort erupted from her tiny frame, the abashed kind when an old lady makes a joke people aren’t sure they’re allowed to laugh at.
“You asked how I see him,” I murmured, while in her cooling-embarrassment she ripped off chunks of muffin. “God bless you, I know exactly what you’re asking, you know.”
To my chagrin, she patted my hand with hers and shook her head, already distancing herself from our conversation: “Forget I said that. Sometimes my mouth just says things without my permission.”
Spring light caught the dance of her lashes, her ivory hand resting across my arthritic knuckles.
“I ‘spect you’d think I’d talk about the first time I saw him or how he looked on our wedding day,” I stubbornly continued. There was the quickest flash of endearing dimples before she settled herself back into her chair. “Both of those times, I tell you, I was a bucket of nerves and hormones.
These days, time folds him in and out of view, kind of like an accordion being pressed and released. Young then old, old then young, the low notes fading in my dreams.
He was work-hardened and stout, you know. Had one of those voices he didn’t use all that much but when he did, you damn sure listened. There were times, I swear I looked at him and all I saw was muscle and grit.
But if I were to close my eyes now, I’d see him on a summer night, eyes full of worship and fire. We were poor as beggars then, God fearin’ folk trying to make it honest. I’d spent all day feeding the men after a day in the hayfield and he’d spent all day under an unforgiving sun. He’d washed…and he smelled of soap and skin and man. There’s no smell like that in the world – the smell of your man.
I’d looked up at him, across our empty kitchen and he’d whispered: ‘I love you.‘
And I felt it. Deep in the core of my existence, this knowledge that the man standing barefoot across our kitchen, looking at me like I was Aphrodite herself – would burn cities down to get to me. No matter how I’d failed him or hurt him, because God knows I did a lot of that back then, would still have given his life for mine.”
Her hand tightened on mine, a single squeeze, before she flicked away a trailing tear like the conductor ending a final string note.
“I have plenty of happy memories, child,” I assured her, looking back up at my husband’s youthful face on the wall, “which wouldn’t make you cry. I just remember thinking, for the first time in my life, that I truly was meant to be on this earth. That’s how I see him. He made me feel I belonged.”
I rose, topping off her coffee, and shuffled back to the glass case-counter; I wanted to allow her time to muse and gather her thoughts, the kind of thoughts I knew she must ache to write down in the moment. Writers are built that way, with the incessant need to pour it all out before it evaporates.
The lunch-shift employee arrived and I greeted him, removing the ancient flour-sack apron I refused to relinquish.
“I’ll be upstairs, Michael,” I smiled, heading for the back staircase, knees already protesting the climb.
The girl’s eyes caught mine, as if she worried the moment between us would vanish, pen pausing for her to stand – and I hugged my last customer of the day.
(To read Episode 1, click here.)