External Photo Clues:
Handwritten on the back: “July 27, 1958”
He’d worked in the mill most his life. Bought one of those little mill boxes they called a house, just across the road from the mill and did his time till retirement. It was easy work, borin’ most days. He tried his hand at marriage but the Vietnam had changed him or maybe he just wasn’t cut out for marriage – he didn’t know, didn’t care anymore. He liked his life but he sometimes wondered what life might’ve been like if Donnie was still around.
He didn’t normally take the picture far from his bedroom, but he hadn’t slept in there since he got sick. He’d been sleepin’ in his chair in the front room and that day it was sittin’ on the table beside his chair when that nurse showed up. Useless woman, even for a nurse – one of those women his old friend Arnie would call a “too much” woman. Talked too much. Wore too much perfume, too much makeup. Knew too much, or thought she did. Let you know too much about her kids, husband, family, like he cared. He didn’t ever want to meet the man who put up with this woman long enough to marry her and give her kids. That man probably drank too much just to put up with her and that couldn’t be a man he’d like.
She came in fast, bustlin’ all ’round the room, pullin’ gloves and needles outta her satchel, talkin’ the minute she hit the door. “How are you doing today, Mr. Memory?!?”
Damn, why’d she have to talk so loud? Loud was bad, but she combined it with shrill, makin’ it ten times worse. He was sure every dog in a four county radius could hear her.
“I said ‘How are you doing?’ Hmmmm?” She repeated herself and, before he knew what had happened, she picked up the picture. He wanted to grab it back, take it right out of her hands, but he knew what would happen if he did that, more questions, more sideways looks, maybe even another psych eval.
“Aw,” she said in that high-pitched squeal that made him grit his teeth every time she opened her trap, “how cuuute! Is that you in your little baseball jammies? They’re adorable!”
“Naw,” he stared out the window, lookin’ at nothin’, seein’ even less, “that was my brother, Donnie.”
“Oh, then this one’s you? you’re the older boy? Isn’t that funny! I’m the oldest in my family, too. Lolene came after me, then there was Polly, my daddy wanted a boy so mama just kept those babies coming until he got his wish cause after Polly little Billy was finally born, and then there was…”
He’d stopped listenin’. Crawled back into himself. He was thinkin’ about givin’ her a good smack and he was tryin’ real hard not to. He’d never hit a woman, but was chewin’ on it for the first time in his life. He wished she’d stop talkin’, wished she’d put that picture down…he wished…wished for Donnie. Jerry and Donnie. ’58 never seemed that long ago, what with that particular August burned into his brain….
It was hot, which is a stupid thing to remember because in August it’s always gonna be hot. Gran had been complainin’ about postage goin’ up, sayin’ if they kept on raisin’ the price, pretty soon nobody was gonna to be able to afford to send no one no letters. Elvis Presley’s mama died and Jerry wondered if they was gonna let Elvis outta the army cause his mama was dead. He thought Elvis should have a little brother who could cheer him up, a good one like Donnie. As far as little brothers went, Donnie wasn’t bad. Jerry knew some guys who had holy terrors for brothers, always cryin’ and whinin’ and breakin’ stuff, but Donnie was okay.
Donnie always saw the world a little bit different from everybody else. He wasn’t dumb, but he just didn’t pay attention to the stuff you’re supposed to, like when he was crossin’ the street. He’d be more likely to look at the birds or watch the clouds than pay any mind to the cars rushin’ by. Jerry was the practical one. His mom recognized that feature in him and insisted that he, the oldest, should simply know better than Donnie, what with their dad bein’ dead and all. He took it at face value and tried his best, showin’ Donnie how to tie his shoes, oil a baseball glove, or even how to pee without gettin’ it all over the toilet. And he always watched for both of ’em when they crossed the street. These things felt right, the leadership just came natural to him, but without any of the competition that drove most of the other boys he knew. He didn’t care about bein’ first or bein’ right, he just wanted to help. He was the young mind with the old soul, that’s what his Pap used to tell him.
On the night Gran had snapped that picture, Donnie was supposed to be in bed but it was their last night at Gran and Pap’s place and he wanted to stay up as long as he could, especially since Mom had arrived and everybody was laughin’ and talkin’, sometimes singin’ too. It was a good night, one of those times you look back on and realize how rare it was. A perfect moment in time when everything is right with the world. He’d heard somebody say that once and he didn’t know exactly what it meant, but it stuck in his head ’cause he knew what the feelin’ was, he’d felt it that night.
They’d been stayin’ with Gran and Pap all summer and were headed back home the next day. Everybody was in a good mood. Jerry didn’t even mind that Gran was playin’ her Mills Brothers records, even though it was pretty much girl music. “Paper Doll” had finished playin’ but Gran was too busy with the new camera to notice. She was tryin’ to take a photo of him with his newest space ship, all paper and glue, which he’d worked on all that afternoon. Pap said it looked suspiciously like a Lincoln two-door with a fin stuck outta the trunk lid, but he was just kiddin’. Donnie had wandered out of the side bedroom, wantin’ to see what all the noise was about. Nobody minded ’cause he wasn’t a pain, he was a good kid and even though he was the baby, he never acted like a baby. Whatever was goin’ on, he wanted to be in the middle of it. He’d even strike up conversations with complete strangers in the five and dime…
Jerry’s memory grumbled at him. That kid was too trustin’. For the millionth time Jerry thought that if he had been hard on him, then Donnie could’ve been tougher, more wary. Maybe he’d still be around. Everybody told him it wasn’t his fault about Donnie, but he knew better, he was the oldest, he was supposed to be lookin’ out. He never understood how life could change so fast. He never understood…
“Where’s he live now? Is he close? Mr. Memory?”
“What?” Was she still talkin’? What’d she ask? He felt like a man trapped in a fogbank. He clawed his way up and out, shook his head as if to clear it. “What? No. Naw, naw…Donnie’s gone. One of them kid snatchers got him.”
He hadn’t meant to tell her that, hadn’t meant to tell her anything, but it popped out. He’d just been thinkin’ so hard ’bout it and the words had just fell outta his mouth before he could realize he was talkin’ and not just thinkin’. Damn.
Her hands flew up to her chest and she leaned down to him, like he was gonna tell her a secret or somethin’, “Oh my goodness! What happened? Did you find out who did it?”
He shifted around in his chair, tryin’ not to look at her. His butt had gone to sleep again and his blanket was all bunched up. He wanted to get up but that woman was standin’ right in front of him. Useless woman, why wouldn’t she move?
“Naw. He just disappeared one day downtown while we was out doin’ the shoppin’,” he pushed the blanket out of the way, balled it up, threw it on the floor beside the chair, “somebody got him, took him.”
He answered her just to shut her up, all this was – too much. This whole conversation had snuck up, ambushed him. He wanted to holler at her “Go away! lemme get up outta my chair!” He shifted again, restless, annoyed.
She was goin’ on and on about the sin of it all, the sadness, all the same crap polite people are supposed to say. He’d heard it all before, but at least she’d moved away from him, back to her bag across the room. He was finally makin’ his`way up outta his chair when she said somethin’ that stopped him mid-rise, somethin’ he hadn’t heard before.
“You know, the same thing happened to me.”
He just stared at her. He didn’t know whether to get up or sit back, and so was literally stuck on the edge of his seat.
“It’s a horrible feeling, not knowing, I mean, at least when somebody dies you know what happened to them and that’s that, but disappearing…well, that just keeps you thinking about them forever and ever, wondering everyday what happened.”
She knew. She understood. The too much woman knew.
“Did you,” he stopped, got ahold of his voice, “did you lose your brother too?”
“Oh no,” she said, “it was my cat, but I always wondered what happened to him…still do. Isn’t it sad? Doesn’t that drive you crazy? The not knowing? Mr. Memory? Are you okay?”
Yeah, he was definitely gonna punch her.
About The Author:
Having settled down in the rural rolling hills of the NC Piedmont after many an adventure, BethMc has a petulant desire to pack her suitcase once again. Barring that, she writes, lying vicariously through others. She claims, among other things, to have discovered the meaning of life. In her spare time she likes cooking, reading, and strolling through cemeteries.
Authoring For The Imaginary Family Project:
Are you interested in “finding” one of our lost vintage photos by authoring a story?
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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.