by M. Guendelsberger
My brother Pete was the one to find it once that dry tape finally gave way and the photo drifted down to the black and white tile of my dead grandmother’s basement floor. We had been stacking the chairs on that table, flipping them upside down so their legs stuck in the air like dead bugs. Pete wasn’t so much setting them on the table as he was dropping them. It was August and our grandmother was months in her grave; the basement held the heat despite the open vents in the glass block windows and we were eager to be done with it. Shortly after our grandmother died, we had gone through the house like looters, taking mementos and memories, hoping to get whatever we wanted before our cousins came out from New Jersey. Now that they had come and gone, it was our job to clean out the rest of the place, drag the leftovers to the heavy blue tarps in the backyard and decide what went to the garbage and what went to the Goodwill down the street. Our father had stayed upstairs to sort through the smaller knick-knacks collected on the kitchen table; Pete and I had gone to the basement in the hopes that it would be cooler. Grandma hadn’t bothered with air conditioning. “God intended us to feel His seasons,” she told us when we complained about it as boys. “You kids don’t shape up, you’ll find out what heat really is.” We complained enough to our parents that we either made the three-hour drive back home in the same day or stayed in a hotel where we could crank the window units down to a sixty and freeze if we wanted to.
Pete saw photo on the tile and sighed. A deep Vof sweat had darkened the back of his gray t-shirt. He put one hand on the thin metal leg of the chair he had just lifted to the table.
“What?” I said.
He pointed to the picture lying on the floor. It lay face down, with a strip of brittle yellow tape on two parallel edges. I lifted it—the whole thing fragile and stiff in my hand—and handed it to my older brother. The woman staring back at us from the black and white photo was young and not someone we recognized. Our own mother—happy to wrap her mother-in-law’s china set in the dining room—did not have the long dark hair or wide, severe eyes seen in the picture. She also bore no resemblance to any of our father’s four sisters. “Ask Dad,” Pete said and set it on the underside of the most recent chair. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go up. I need a beer. We’re about done anyway.” He gave one more look at the basement, with its low ceiling and small bathroom. My grandfather had come down to it every morning to shave and shower, preferring to leave the upstairs “nicer” facilities for the women of the house. On the back of the bathroom door, one of my uncles had once hung a fuzzy dartboard in the shape of a frog. The fuzzy green balls one threw at it (not darts—never darts) had disappeared in my childhood but no one had bothered taking down the board. Over in the darkest corner of the basement, under the dim light of two glass block windows, you could make out the hulking shapes of the wash machine and dryer. No one had claimed them during the sorting process. Pete and I would have to haul them out at some point but it wasn’t the time to mention it. Through the windows, I could make out the shapes of my grandmother’s lavender bushes, their scents having filled this basement for years. Even with no real breeze on that late afternoon with Pete and the picture, their presence had seeped into the walls. The smell of the basement evoked more powerful memories than anything I had found in the house.
Pete and I took the stairs up to the open door leading into the kitchen. My father sat at the long, white Formica table. He looked like a man at an exotic bazaar, surrounded by pots, vases, candlesticks, ceramic bird statues, cups, glasses, and plates. Some of these items had already been wrapped in brown paper by my mother. Their banishment from the dining room to the kitchen could not be explained by glance alone. “Got something for you,” Pete said as we stepped into the room. If we thought it had been warm in the basement, the kitchen proved us wrong. It was at least fifteen degrees warmer. Sweat blackened my father’s gray hair and when he looked up at us, the movement caused his glasses to slip down his nose.
“More stuff,” he said. “Can you guys believe it? I’m going through all my shit when I get home. You guys shouldn’t have to do this.” He removed the glasses and wiped a forearm across his face. He had switched on the long, overhead fluorescent light to combat the onset of the late afternoon outside. The round analog clock above the refrigerator, whose hands had spun around that face longer than I had been alive, said it was just after five. “We’ll get something to eat soon,” my dad said from the table. I turned to him and he nodded at the clock. “I’m not ordering pizzas tonight either. We’ll go out and get something.”
“You know who this is?” Pete said. He stepped forward and handed the brittle photo across the table.
Dad put his glasses back on his face and took the photo with the other hand, a gesture that was familiar to him. “What you got there?”
“Found it under the table down in the basement. Think we knocked it loose when we were stacking the chairs.”
Our father took the photo and looked down on it. “Oh,” he said. “Oh my.” He looked up at us, his eyes wide behind his wireless lenses. “Where did you find this?”
“The table,” Pete repeated. “I think it was taped under there. It fell off.”
He wasn’t listening. His eyes had dropped again to the photo.
“You know her?”
Sure. Absolutely. I had forgotten this picture. I’m amazed it was still there. This is Bridget.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Pete look to the open archway that led out to the dining room. Our mom was not in view but we could hear her. Like my father, she had switched on the lights and we heard her mumbling to herself, laughing about something, and then exclaiming, “Oh!” as if she’d just been poked in the ribs. She said, “Would you look at that,” and then came the sound of something being wrapped—likely in the same brown paper that adorned so many items spread out on the kitchen table. If my mother had heard our conversation or the revelation of the subject in the picture, she gave no indication. That was for the better. She had heard my father talk of Bridget over the years but as we all got older, he mentioned her less and less. She was the woman before my mother, my father’s high school girlfriend, the one who broke up with him when he came home for his first leave from Vietnam.
“I can’t believe it was still down there,” he said, still focusing all his attention on the picture. “She was a sophomore. Back then, they gave you proofs after they took your photo. You’d go in and sit down and they’d take the picture and a couple weeks later they gave you a handful of proofs to look at to make sure you wanted to order prints.” He then looked up at us. “She gave this to me. We were standing outside her locker, talking about something stupid, and she just handed it to me—more as a joke than anything else. I thought it was sweet. My parents didn’t know we were dating—I wasn’t really allowed to do that—and so I kept that picture in my room. But then I got worried one of my brothers would find it. When summer rolled around, it was really hot one day, and I went down into the basement with that picture. She was on vacation, I think, or away for some extended period of time. The basement was the coolest place in the house so I used to go down there and read or just lie down there and nap.” He laughed for a minute and looked at the picture. When he spoke again, I wasn’t sure if it was to us. “I don’t even know where I got the idea. I got a couple pieces of tape and put it right there under the table. Then I’d lie under there and stare up at her and wait to talk to her when she got home. I dreamt of all the things I’d say, all the stuff I wanted to tell her.”
Pete and I looked at one another. Could we have guessed at the identity of the picture? If we had found it taped under our own table, maybe it would have been apparent. But this woman could have been an acquaintance of any of my dad’s siblings.
“I don’t remember why I left it down there. Doesn’t it seem strange that I forgot?” He kept looking at the photo and not us. “I guess you just move on from stuff like that. She must have come back from break. Or school started and I got to see her every day again. It’s all very strange.”
My mother continued her work in the dining room. She laughed again—louder this time—about some new find and I prayed she would not come into the kitchen. My father had spoken of Bridget like this before in her presence, usually after he’d been drinking, and had slipped into some introspective, melancholy mood. My mother never said anything. She often frowned and left the room with Pete or me following her, leaving the sole remnant to hear the ramblings of my drunk father. “Don’t go yet,” he would say and grab your arm. “Not yet. Not you. Stay here and listen a minute. Let me tell you something.” He had given up drinking years ago but now, in the outdated kitchen of his deceased parents, he seemed drunk again on the memories and face of his last girlfriend.
“Dad,” Pete started.
“It’s okay,” our father said. “It’s okay now.” He handed the picture back to Pete. “Let’s just put it back for now? Maybe just see if that old tape will hold it again. Please. Just put it back again.”
Pete took it, the tape audibly cracking in his hand, and from the dining room came my mother’s light laughter.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing