Family photos always lie.
That’s what occurred to me when I left my house that final afternoon, and so I took only two.
The first was of my earliest family, when I was a son, rather than a father. In the picture, I am standing with my mother and father, along with my older brother, Warren, and my younger sister, Jenny. I am smiling, happy because I’ve just been accepted to a prestigious private day school. But the other smiles now strike me as false, because even then there must have been fissures in the unruffled happiness they convey, beasts lurking just beyond the firelight.
By the end of that summer, for example, my father must have known that years of bad investments and extravagant spending had surely caught up with him, that bankruptcy and its accompanying humiliations were only a few short months away. I doubt, however, that he could have envisioned the full bleakness of his final years, the retirement home where he would sit hour upon hour, peering through the lace curtains, thinking of the grand house in which we’d all once lived, another asset lost.
Despite all this, or maybe because of it, my father meets the camera with a broad and oddly blustering grin, as if the old man felt his smile could protect him from the horde of angry creditors that was already gathering for a final assault. My mother’s smile is more tentative— weak, hesitant, like a translucent mask beneath which her true face, though blurred, is yet still visible. It is an effortful smile, the corners of her mouth lifted like heavy weights, and had I been less self-absorbed, I might have noticed its tentativeness earlier, perhaps in time to have asked the question that later repeated so insistently in my mind,
What is going on in you?
But I never asked, and so the day her car went flying off Van Cortland Bridge, it never occurred to me that anything might have been on her mind other than what she planned to cook for dinner or the laundry she’d left neatly folded on all our beds that afternoon.
My brother, Warren, stands sloppily to my left. He is only fifteen, but his hair is already thinning and his belly is wide and round and droops over his belt. Even at that age, he looks curiously past his prime. He is smiling, of course, and there is no hint of any reason why he shouldn’t be, though I later had to wonder what fears might even then have begun to surface, the sense that certain already-planted seeds would bear grim fruit.
Finally, there is Jenny, so beautiful that even at seven she turned heads when she came into a room. Adorable, Warren always called her. He’d stroke her hair or sometimes simply look at her admiringly. Adorable, he’d say. And she was. But she was also quick and knowing, a little girl who came home from her first day at school and asked me why it was necessary for the teacher to repeat things. I told her it was because some people couldn’t get it the first time. She took this in for a moment, thinking quietly, as if trying to incorporate nature’s inequality within the scheme of things, calculate its human toll. “How sad,” she said finally, lifting those sea blue eyes toward me, “because it’s not their fault.”
In this particular photograph Jenny’s smile is wide and unencumbered, though in all the photographs after this one the cloud is clearly visible, the knowledge that it has already taken root in that fantastic brain of hers, microscopic at first, then no larger than a pinpoint, but growing steadily, taking things from her as it grew, her balance, her ringing speech, everything but her beauty, before it took her life.
She was the one I most often thought about after leaving my house that last afternoon. I don’t know why, save that I suspected she might be able to understand things better than I could, and so I wanted to go over it all with her, trace the burning fuse, its series of explosions, seek her celestial wisdom, ask her, Do you think it had to end this way, Jenny, or might the damage have been avoided, the dead ones saved?
The evening of that final death, he said, “I’ll be back before the news.” Meaning, I suppose, the network news, which meant that he would be home before six-thirty. There was no hint of the ominous in what he said, or of anything sinister, no sense at all that the center had collapsed.
When I recall that day, I think of my second family, the one in which I am husband to Meredith and father to Keith, and I wonder what I might have said or done to stop the red tide that overwhelmed us. That’s when I see another picture, this one of a little girl from another family, a school photograph used in a hastily distributed flyer, the little girl smiling happily below the cold black words: MISSING.
She was the only daughter of Vince and Karen Giordano. Vince owned a modest produce market just outside the town limits. It was called Vincent’s Fresh Food, and Vince dressed himself as a walking advertisement for the place. He wore green flannel pants, a green vest, and a green cap, the latter two articles festooned with the name of the store. He was a short muscular man with the look of a high school wrestler who’d let himself go, and the last time I saw him— before the night Keith left for his house— he was carrying a brown paper bag with six rolls of film. “My brother’s family came for a week,” he explained as he handed me the bag, “and his wife, she’s a camera nut.”
I owned a small camera and photo shop in the town’s only strip mall, and the pictures Vincent Giordano left that afternoon showed two families, one large, with at least four children ranging in age from approximately four to twelve, and which had to have belonged to the visiting brother and his “camera nut” wife. The other family was small, a circle of three— Vince, his wife, Karen, and Amy, their only daughter.
In the pictures, the two families present themselves in poses that anyone who develops family photos taken at the end of summer in a small coastal town would expect. They are lounging in lawn chairs or huddled around outdoor tables, eating burgers and hotdogs. Sometimes they sprawl on brightly colored beach towels or stand on the gangway of chartered fishing boats. They smile and seem happy and give every indication that they
have nothing to hide.
I have since calculated that Vincent dropped off his six rolls of film during the last week of August, less than a month before that fateful Friday evening when he and Karen went out to dinner. Just the two of them, as he later told police. Just the two of them . . . without Amy.
Copyright © 2005 by Thomas H. Cook
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