External Photo Clues:
Handwritten on the back : “1924”
Pass me my magnifier Merle. My eyes have taken up with the cataracts and I don’t see so well.
Oh, my stars!
I’ll tell you what this is: it’s a photograph of my baby brother, William Wheaton Smith Jr., who we all called “Wheat.” Well, it’s not just a photograph of Wheat; it’s the photograph of him, is what I think. But you know, until now I was sure Mama burned it a couple of months after my brother came home. Didn’t she? Threw it on the fire that fall when the sycamore leaves were brown and fallen on the street and we all had to start getting used to not knowing what had happened to Wheat while he was gone. Because Wheat? Egads and little catfish! He wasn’t telling, that’s for sure, no matter how Mama and Pa pumped him and wheedled him with promises of Baby Ruth bars or that red fire truck he’d smudged up Kearney’s window glass about more times than I could count. No matter how I threatened to make him kiss the cat’s behind if he didn’t talk, Wheat wasn’t telling.
It still gives me a bad case of the creeps to look at this photograph. It’s those shadows. Even now, the shadow of the man taking the photograph makes my skin crawl, reaching out for Wheat like it does.
Wheat went missing in 1925, in the middle of the July 4th parade. A goosebumps day, more like spring starting up than summer in full swing. Marching Minutemen, baton-twirling and Dwight Higgins dressed up as George Washington. Pa thought Wheat’d gone off to ogle the aforementioned red fire truck in Kearney’s window but Pa had it wrong. Wheat wasn’t there and after that he wasn’t anywhere for four weeks almost to the exact hour and minute. Well, beg your pardon, he was somewhere, that’s a certainty, but where he was remains a mystery, so he might as well have been nowhere as far as I’m concerned. Pa rounded up a posse of his fishing buddies. Then the local police came in. Pa needed a drink and cursed Prohibition. Bills offering a reward were pasted to walls and light poles around town and even way over in Norman. “Now don’t break down in front of Alice,” Mama said to Pa every time I was around. At first she baked, but at the start of the third week with Wheat gone, Mama moved a chair into the hall and sat there day in, day out with her eyes fixed mostly on the front door. “Life’s a river,” was all she would admit to when asked what she was doing. The neighbor ladies brought in casseroles and fried chicken to keep us going. Pa went back to his job at the slaughterhouse and I started up sleeping in Wheat’s bed just so as I could catch the smell of him. The smell of him.
Keep your aloe vera Kleenex to yourself Merle. I’m not about to come over all lachrymose about something that happened 86 years ago.
Where was I?
It was the town street sweeper brought Wheat home early on the morning of August 1. While he was doing the gutters, Duvalier Brown had come upon my baby brother on Main Street. According to Duvalier, Wheat was standing there watching the sun rise above the trees. He picked Wheat up and brought him straight over to us. Mama was dozing on her chair in the hall when Duvalier rang the doorbell. She didn’t make any fuss. Didn’t scream or do a jig or even wake Pa and me up. She just took Wheat, thanked Duvalier kindly and shut the door in his face. She ran the bath hot and stripped Wheat naked and scrubbed him red from head to toe, though she later allowed he was perfectly clean when Duvalier handed him over. Not only was Wheat clean and kempt, he was well-fed too, but not so well-fed he didn’t start right in eating the oatmeal and soft boiled egg Mama made him and that’s how Pa and I found him when we came down into the kitchen. All natural, like any other summer morning.
But Mama. Mama sat next to Wheat with this photograph I now have here through my magnifier. “It was in his pocket,” she said. “What does it mean? Who owns those shadows?” She stabbed at the picture with her index finger. “Why is Wheat smiling at the shadow there, to his right? He looks so happy.” Mama held the picture up to Wheat. “Is this the man who took you, baby?” she asked. “Who is that you’re smiling at baby?” Wheat kept on eating. Pa went down to get the police. Therefore, a whole mess of questions. They had no luck identifying the house behind Wheat. He told them nothing. Dr. Grant came. Another passel of questions. “No evidence of, ahem, you know,” he told Pa. “Doesn’t he tell you anything?” Dr. Grant asked, “You, his mother?” Mama shook her head. “He’s just a little boy,” she said, yet for weeks she badgered Wheat about the shadows in the photograph and what had happened. We all did. Our questions began to seem more important than having Wheat back home. His smile in the picture drove us a tad crazy because, I ask you, what child could be kidnapped and like it?
But Wheat was not telling. He seemed happy enough, no nightmares or somnambulism and after a couple of months our questions petered out. On occasion, “when you were gone” would come up and when it did, Wheat acted like he didn’t know what was meant by it. I got to thinking he’d talk about what happened and the meaning of his smile and the shadows in this photograph when he was a full-grown man with a family of his own to worry about. And maybe he would have if a Jap grenade hadn’t gotten him on Iwo Jima.
So, we learned to live with not knowing. And if you ask me, that’s a mighty precious human skill.
Merle! Take it away now. I don’t care to look at it anymore.
About The Author:
Vivian Blaxell likes airplanes because the only thing she can remember about her father who died when she was three is that he was an airline pilot. She flies a lot in case she might run into him up there in the cirrus clouds or in the business class cabin of a 747. Vivian’s mother converted to Seventh-Day Adventism after Dad died, not because she expected solace or salvation but because she liked the hymns, but “Rock of Ages” did nothing for Vivian who just wanted her father to come home. He did not, so Vivian abandoned the church and went looking for him in the sky. At the time of writing, her search has not been successful.
Authoring For The Imaginary Family Project:
We are not taking new author request at the moment, but will open it back up later this year. Thanks!
About The Imaginary Family Project:
The 2011 Imaginary Family Project is a year-long collective art endeavor coordinated by occasional amateur artist Quentin Bomgardner and co-sponsored by The Red Dirt Chronicles. This project is based around “lost” vintage photographs, which have been acquired at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, and eBay – heirloom collections, with no heir. Every week a different author will “find” one photograph by creating an imagined history around one of its subjects. At the end of the year, the collection will be compiled and presented as a group.