I knelt on the ground outside the ER, retching blood miserably into the sodden concrete, already wet with the early morning dew. There was little in the way of conscious thought, just memory, wrecked by time and space and hurt and disease and loneliness. A single bit of mica winked in the streetlight as bright blood spattered. A life worth living. A life not worth living. A simple thing, really, a veil that parts on occasion and lets us see into our own souls, sometimes in the worst of moments. I wonder why I have drug myself this far, and then I feel the corners of the folded photographs in my pocket.
The nurse held the two pictures and looked at me curiously. I have carried the one for twelve years, not the original, mind you. It has worn through many times, creased and broken and worn, but never lost. I carry the file, the true original, in a zip drive. This rendition is dutifully worn, dusted from sunlight, creased from use, covered in memory and longing. A white hat. A flowered bikini. Big sunglasses. A surfboard rests in the sand nearby. You can’t see it, but I know it’s there.
I want to see more, see what else is there, what the picture doesn’t show. I try and tell the nurse. I desperately reach for the picture as consciousness ebbs, bends. Light distorts and I feel the gravity of the blood I have lost. I see the fine sand stuck to the girl’s legs, I smell the odor of sunscreen and Carolina air and peach shaving gel. I see the worn white slightly platform flip-flops, thinking who wears those? I see them in the top of our closet, twelve years later.
I smell the smoke of distant beach fires, the spray of hurricane winds. I see the worn toenail polish. I struggle to ask the nurse why the girl painted her toes but not her fingernails? I smell sweat and feel the chill of morning air as we run the early morning trail, mists swirling off the mountains, bodies floating, easy. I see a wedding dress with closed loop buttons, a thousand bobby pins scattered on a bed from hair that had never been more beautiful. The steps of a distant land. The smell of fish grilling over a fire. The smell of a stone wall in the suns early glare. My love seemed huge in the space of the room.
Tears roll down my face and the picture seems to fall. There are yells. I see the creases and the years, the western sun, a big blue barn. I see a sailing vessel, a family, a patriarch. A great man. Mild and gentle, wise and melancholy, so much better than me. A man who shared his daughter, his love, his life, with me.
The other picture is of a little boy, as blonde as his mother, in gray shorts and a blue coat. His brown eyes are frowning as he pulls on a branch that is lodged in the bay. I hear the putter of diesel engines, hear the shutter clicks of his mom’s camera. I see the sand lodged between his toes, the abrasions where his shoes rub his skin. I smell the warm skin of a healthy boy and I see a green room, with a toybox and trains and a changing station where I have attended to a thousand dirty diapers. I hear a mother’s voice, the sound of music and feel the love in the home. I hear chickens clucking gently and I feel the cool sweat of an early morning run drying on my face as I make coffee.
There are towels there, too; lying on the sand, one orange, one brown, and the same girl that wore the flowered bikini so many years before, even more beautiful, with her hat and smile and impossibly worn shoes. I try to pick up the pictures, as they lie in the tangle of cords and IV’s on my chest, but they slip from my grasp. The nurse places them aside impatiently, intent on saving a life.
I try to explain it’s not worth saving. I can’t. The nurse has a job to do.
Seven days later, I sit on a park bench in a distant town, watching the sun set. I’m looking at what’s not here. I am curiously at peace, for the first time in many years. Saddened beyond belief, I am prone to quick and embarrassing tears. I think of hiking a distant trail, as I once did, but the walk across the park is tiring enough. I think of the little boy, and the girl in the hat. My days of ruin are done. I feel old and beaten. Broken. No anger, only sorrow. My tears mean little, and are embarrassing to those who witness them. My beloved mountains no longer sing their song to me. My ancestors are silent, awaiting my decision. Waves crash on some distant shore. I can hear them, but they no longer beckon.
I spread the two pictures in front of me. The girl. The little boy. My wife. My son. Oh, how I love them! I weep conscious of the stares, hoping I am not arrested for vagrancy but hardly caring. I am so far from home. I am so far from two I love most. I’m not sure how to get back. The sun is setting in the west, low now, as birds cry their way back to their nests. My truck sits nearby, the tired old engine tick-tocking as it cools. A plane wings its way overhead. My passport and the last of my cash and credit cards rest in the zipper of my old pack. I wait for a sign, silently praying, for the first time, in a long time, for guidance.
A little boy suddenly runs through the grass in front of me, intent on chasing a cat just weaseled from his grasp. He is tall for his age, and blonde. My heart suddenly lurches, as it always does whenever I catch sight of a mass of blonde curls. I know it is not my son, but that is sign enough for me. I place the pictures in my pocket and grab my keys, paying no heed to the direction of the setting sun. My way is east. Home. To those I love.
I need some new pictures.