P E N N Y P E N N E L L
P L U M C A K E A N D V E R T I G O
We were sorting through photographs. The funeral was over: dishes cleaned, tablecloths put away, mementos divvied among the cousins, the grandchildren. The house had been cleaned. Clothes sent away. Still there remained a box of photographs; corners tattered, sepia-tones darkening. There were photos of first loves and distant relatives and forgotten neighborhood friends. We talked over wine and Irish coffee about who those strangers were, how they haunted the family and the generations to come. But memory fades, creates new connections, red herrings to give names to those no one remembers.
At the bottom of the box was a photograph of a child, lost somewhere between seasons. Sleeves pulled down, flower stem held too tightly between not-quite-dexterous fingers. Plywood under foot. The field had been plowed, brittle shards left from a bumper crop of sweet corn. We thought it might have been taken during the renovations on the farm. The child couldn’t have been much more than four. Maybe he belonged to someone’s former girlfriend. Could have been a second cousin, X times removed. A builder’s child. The window dressing tattered. A bleach white day.
He looked happy like he was playing with a friend. Someone familiar. Someone he liked. Someone insisted that his name was on the tip of her tongue. We kept passing around the photos, laughing at foregone fashion. The conversation churned through a mourner’s milieu. And then someone swore they’d seen the photograph before. In someone else’s house? On a greeting card? And we remembered recipes and songs, the lingering pungency of lilacs and dust. How the scent of earth emanated from the big thaw.
Someone went upstairs and we could hear creaks catch and moan, the banister screech, a pause before the next step assumed. A wobble of vertigo. A caught breath. Shuffling up, up, the creaks continued and faded into steps along the hall. We commented on the draft, the sudden exhale of the house. Grumbled about the lukewarm coffee and stale plum cake. His name was… and then the conversation drifted again.
We wondered who took the photo and why he wasn’t looking at them. Those moments when we’re unaware of the camera. Did the shutter startle him? Did he run toward them giggling? Did he stumble and scrape the fleshy parts of his hands, flattening the blossom?
We heard the door shut at the end of the upstairs hall. Then someone said they remembered him, how long they looked for him, where they found him. They don’t always come back to you with a smile, he said.
Penny Pennell received a master’s degree in English from the University of Illinois. Publishing highlights include: Eureka Literary Magazine, The Illinois Times, Foliate Oak, and Underground Voices.
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