Wednesday, December 1, 2010

the things we keep

Despite the importance he placed on objects, the artifacts of his own past, Dr. Thomas Barker kept very few photographs, only seven in all.

The first was of him in a dark suit, starched white shirt -- black bow tie. Next to him is his younger sister, Joanne, in a light colored cotton dress. The photograph is in black and white and he can't remember the color of the dress. The honeysuckle bushes behind he and his sister are in full bloom. It was the day of their older sister, Marianne's, wedding.

Next to it is a photograph of his mother and father on their wedding day. His future parents were both too young to look as defeated as they do in the photo. If Thomas stared at their faces too long, thought about their afflictions and righteous anger, it reminded him of how blind he was to it during their lifetime. And every time he reaches back into the vault, he finds that night forty-one years ago when his mother, for the first and only time in her life, threatened to kill his father. His parents always fought in code, he never understood what his father did to warrant the death threat that night. The reason, the truth, was something his parents would both take to their grave.

On the table next the crystal ashtray he used when he still smoked, and won't part with, is a picture of himself and his wife, Kate posing with their daughter, Carmen in the nursery on the day they brought her home. Their faces wore tight intense smiles, a blend of joy and terror. Two kids running on hopes and adrenalin.

The photo next to it on the same table is of he and Kate with Carmen and their newest addition, Kyle, on his first day home from the hospital. Kate is sitting in the comfortable recliner with newborn in her lap. She is still visibly weary from a difficult birth. His daughter is standing next to her mother, while Dr. Barker stands proudly behind them. Their smiles are all soft and happy, unaware of the alternate reality that was twelve years down the road. The family in this photo would never believe what fortune had waiting for them.

On the book shelf that is to the left of the door, Barker kept a photograph from the year he had his first breakdown. It was Christmas. The last one anyone remembers enjoying all together. For the next eight years the family consciously alternated the suffering. It began with Dr. Barker's Christmas Eve meltdown eight years ago and has continued year after year, with the last being his daughter's cheating boyfriend discovery on Christmas morning. Half way between those incidents was a breast cancer scare. Mrs. Barker found a lump on the 23rd but wouldn't be able to see her doctor until January 4th. The notion of this being the Barker's last Christmas together lived and breathed in the room with the family until it got so tense that everyone went their separate ways after dinner.

The sixth picture in his collection rests in the back corner of a table by the window. When Dr Barker was in an overall better mindset, he would open the blinds of the window and appear to stare out the window. Truth is, he was gazing upon a photo of Bonnie Beachum, a beautiful blond haired teenage girl. Just as Thomas is no longer the boy she fell in love with, Bonnie is no longer the girl he fell in love with, either. He was naïve and seventeen, she was twenty-one, sexual and mysterious. She knew about magic charms and was on the pill. As much as Barker loved that year of his life, the blinds on the window have at least two years worth of dust.

The seventh photo is on his desk, behind and to the left of the phone. It's a self portrait. Every year since he was sixteen years old, he's snapped a self portrait of himself, keeping it only until his next birthday, when he takes a new one. In the early years he'd hold a ceremony, that began with him picking up the photos from the developer, then driving home without opening them. Once he was alone in his office, he'd remove the photo from the envelope. Then he'd remove the framed photo and for a few moments he's compare the two, and make a mental checklist of the facial differences, before discarding last years model.


  1. Hahaha I love this short story! So detailed in its peculiarness, yet still so relatable (especially the closing scene).