Photograph In The Closet
A short story by John R. Greenwood
It was nagging him like a barking dog on a moonlit night. Something was trying to get Kent’s attention. It was getting stronger since his father died. Having these ongoing thoughts that something was coming around the corner was weighing heavy on him. It was proof of how much damage a pile of unanswered questions can do to you. Thoughts of his own mortality seemed to be at the root of it all. His parents, now both gone, had left him an orphan at fifty-nine.
“My mother was way too young to die.” he said. “My father was way too old.”
The subliminal arm tugging began fifty years ago when he was nine. It was at that time Kent found a beat up old trunk full of family papers. He stumbled upon it by accident. He was sure it was meant to stay hidden away by the way it was buried deep in the back of an upstairs closet. It had been a rainy weekday in July and his mother and father were both at work. He was an only child, alone and bored to death. His curiosity had gotten the best of him. He pulled the trunk out into his parents bedroom. The latch on it was broken. Kent lifted the lid slowly. He leaned it carefully against the foot of the bed and began to spread the papers out across the floor. There he sat Indian style sorting through the mysterious trove of unknown items. He didn’t know it at the time but this little discovery would impact his entire life.
He started with the the old photos. There were black and white photographs of people standing in front of tattered homes in tattered clothes. They were people he didn’t know in places he had never been. There were few names on the backs of the pictures. Most weren’t familiar, although he had a sense they should be. As he picked up each one he felt drawn to look deep into the eyes of each person in the picture. It was as if they were looking back at him. He could almost feel them trying to speak. He opened a large stamp covered manilla envelope and a more recent photo fell out. It wasn’t a new photo but it wasn’t as old as the others. There was a man standing behind a woman with his arms wrapped around her waist and his chin nestled in the crook of her neck. The woman was smiling and holding a baby. The man was definitely his father. The woman was definitely not his mother. There was nothing else familiar in the photo, but there was something written in cursive on the back. It was the name, ‘Rudy’.
Kent remembered holding the photo of Rudy for the longest time. It was as if he were trying to peel back the years to decipher it. Was his father the godfather to a relative or friends baby? The women wasn’t aunt Jane and it couldn’t be his father’s younger sister Kate, she died in a car accident when she was a sophomore in high school. The photo gave him a chill, like a piece of forbidden fruit.
His father looked so happy, the woman did too. Even the baby seemed content.
As Kent started to dig deeper into the papers he heard a car pull in the driveway. The time had gotten away from him. His mother must have finished her shift at the diner early. She had been getting fewer and fewer hours ever since the plant across the street shut down. Kent scooped up the papers, shoved them back in the trunk, slammed the lid and slid the mystery collection back to the shadows of the closet. Whew, that was close!
It wasn’t until summer had disappeared into fall and Halloween was approaching did the trunk come back into focus. Kent was going to dress up as a lumberjack. He asked his mother if he could use one of his father’s old flannel shirts. She said sure and even suggested he might find one of his fathers old red and black wool hats on the top shelf of their closet. The best part was she was on her way to visit a friend for the day and his father was off on business. It looked like Halloween and an old mystery trunk were about to mix it up a bit.
Kent waved goodbye to his mother. For a nine year-old a kiss on the cheek is no longer acceptable. The second she hit the end of the block Kent had that trunk open and was digging away.
He found the picture of his father and the mystery women and baby. It was like a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing. Then it happened. Kent opened an envelope with a handwritten letter in it. It was a woman’s writing. The envelope had a return address but no name. The address was 176 Clement St., Hollister Mass. He sat back against the bed post and began to read the letter.
Dearest Frank, Oct 2, 1952
I wanted you to know I am okay and the baby is too. I know you will never forgive me but it had to be this way. You have a life ahead and all I have is Rudy. I know things will be better this way. It’s the only way. I will not contact you again. Please don’t come here. There is no reason for you to worry. My parents gave me plenty of money when I left. I am with relatives who can help. I already have a job lined up. Trust me, I will, we will, be okay.
When you’re fifty-nine you don’t flinch at asking personal questions. You’ve passed the age of being embarrassed. When you’re nine you don’t ask anyone anything, especially in the 1960’s, and most especially when it involves strange women and unidentified babies. Kent would bury this letter back into a dark corner of the trunk. Although the bits and pieces he had uncovered didn’t have an immediate impact on his life it seemed like every person he met in the next fifty years might have a story to share. Kent would find himself listening in on private conversations in the doctor’s office or at the movies. He would sit in the food court at the mall and watch every passing face as if it might sit down and tell him their life’s story. Every new acquaintance was secretly analyzed. Kent turned into an FBI profiler and he didn’t even know it.
Kent never did muster the courage to talk to his father about the letter or the photo. Now that his mother and father were both gone it really didn’t matter anyway, did it? His life had no voids. He had been married to the same women for thirty some years. His children were now adults forging their own trail through life. But something lately seemed different. He couldn’t help feeling like the phone or the doorbell were about to ring.
Kent had been thinking about visiting his father’s sister Aunt Jane. She lived two states away in a place that was named to sound like paradise but he’d been there two years earlier and it was far from it. It was part nursing-home part purgatory. He pulled into Meadow Edge Villa not knowing if Aunt Jane would even recognize him. The lady at the desk spoke softly like she was standing in the middle of a room of sleeping newborns. She pointed to the Meadow Edge Community Room across the hall. She whispered, “Your aunt is in there. Her hearing is failing. She gets upset easily. She may not want to talk to you. Don’t take it personally.”
Kent peeked around the edge of the door not knowing what to expect. There she was parked in front of a big screen television. The Young and the Restless was blaring across the room. He knelt down beside her wheelchair. She looked him straight in the eye. “Frank, Frank I’m so glad to see you. You look so handsome. I’ve missed you so much. How’s Kent doing?” Kent picked up her warm hand and held it against his cheek. He smiled at her and with great care responded, “It’s Kent Aunt Jane. Dad passed away. I stopped to see you. How are you doing?”
Kent’s bluntness brought her back to reality. It took a minute but she gathered herself and apologized for forgetting that her brother had passed away. After a few minutes of small talk she was more herself. Her hearing seemed fine.
Something told Kent he might not see Aunt Jane again. He didn’t want to upset her but this might be his last chance to ask about Rudy. Who was he? Did she know?
Kent took a deep breath, held her hand firmly and let it fly. “Aunt Jane, I found an old photograph in dad’s things. There was a women and a baby. Can you tell me who Rudy is?”
She froze like she’d seen a ghost. She pulled her hand out of Kent’s and held her head like she was getting a migraine. She closed her eyes and just sat there for the longest time. When she pulled her hands away from her face she wasn’t crying. She was placid as could be. She looked Kent dead square in the eye and said, “You’ve gone all these years, there’s no need to tell you now. If your father wanted you to know he would have told you a long time ago. It doesn’t matter now. Go home and enjoy your life. Let Rudy be. Go, I’m tired, I want to watch my show.”
Kent hugged her, apologized and stood up. He left the room with slumped shoulders. He’d tried. Her answer confirmed there was a story. He just might have to wait until he saw his father on the other side to find out if he had a brother he’d never met.
Months passed and so did Aunt Jane. Kent resumed his life and began to prepare for retirement. He’d thought about digging into ‘Ancestorsandmore.com’ to see if he could find out anything about the mysterious Rudy. The more he dwelled on it the more it disrupted his life. Then one day he decided to simply let it go. It just wasn’t worth worrying about anymore. He thought he’d play hooky from work one day and take a hike to his father’s favorite fishing hole. It was a secret place that no one but Kent and his father knew about. Kent’s father made him swear he’d never share it’s location with anyone. He hadn’t been there in years. The path was overgrown and hard to follow but there were tracks in the mud. It looked like Kent and his father weren’t the only ones who knew about this secret spot.
As Kent rounded the bend where path met the stream he saw an older man sitting on the edge of the bank with his hiking boots beside him and his feet soaking in the cool water. Kent cleared his throat to announce his approach. The man although a bit startled did not seem the least bit upset that his quiet afternoon had been disrupted by a stranger. Both men looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Hey, how’s it going?”
Kent couldn’t help thinking he knew this guy. They were fairly close in age. Was it possible they were grade school friends who didn’t recognize each other? Kent asked the semi-stranger if he minded a little company?
The semi-stranger never batted an eye.
He said, “Sure, I was just enjoying what I thought was my dad’s secret spot. He died recently. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I shared it now that he’s gone.
What’s your name anyway?
I originally wrote this story for a contest. I decided to post it now instead. I figured if people liked it I would just write another one. If they didn't like it, I would just write another one. And so the story goes. Thanks for stopping by.