by Louis Gallo
We’re gazing at a shot in the album of pictures I took on our Virginia Beach trip, my favorite a somber, ominous sky full of black spidery whorls. At any moment rain will gush down, yet Wendy and Chloe glance back smiling as they tiptoe into the edges of the Atlantic. A lone seagull swoops over their heads. Why would I want anything to change? Our pictures, which I feast upon, make it painfully clear that what I am missing now I wasn’t missing when I took them, though in a way I guess I missed it then too, fool that I am to always step out of the picture, the fun in progress so to speak, in order to freeze it onto a strip of celluloid.
I know no one else so considerate of the future, so willing to sacrifice momentary pleasure for posterity’s stern sake, so self-effacing in the name of tribal memory, so saintly, er—well, you get the Toby drift. So the one face you’ll rarely find gracing most of our thousands of prints and slides is my own—although you’re welcome to smears of my thumb here and there. It is as if the past I so admire has abandoned me, its faithful chronicler and staunchest defender, its fucking disciple.
The ill luck of missing what is happening in this flimsy speck of NOW has cursed me all my life, and I no longer make any pretense or effort to pamper the fleeting present, a tense more mysterious (and more tense) than the conditional pluperfect (does such a tense exist?) If at one time I had quite a secure handle on them all, the only ones that matter now are the past, swelling like a ripe bloody pomegranate, and the ever-encroaching future, which has lost so much distance I may outpace it any day now. Simplify, simplify, I always advise, except when it complicates.
I love photographs because the people in them smile—even in maelstroms, they smile–; because they verify a past I sometimes suspect does not, however juicily swollen, exist (where is it?); and because we’re all still alive.
Wendy says I am obsessed, but if it were up to her she would toss our pictures into shoe boxes in no order whatever, then pile the boxes in a closet. I once made the mistake of asking her to insert the latest batch into an album, and her disregard for symmetry both saddened and disappointed me. Horizontal prints should go on one page, verticals on another, right? Worse, she makes no effort to flatten out bubbles in the plastic sheets that protect each gummy page. But perhaps the most trying and exasperating exercise is looking through albums with Wendy. Scanning the past should entail painstaking and humble deliberation, should it not? I would almost venture to add reverence. Yet Wendy will open an album anywhere—they should be begun on the first page—not flipped through in the most slipshod manner one can imagine.
I do not exaggerate when I claim that her attitude toward our albums defiles the past, my very church! I begrudgingly grant she has got better at it lately though and will now bear with me when I embark upon one of my nostalgic pilgrimages; in exchange I pretend to ignore her histrionic, weary sighs, her roving eyes and flippant tongue. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to steal away into some lone corner of the house so I could freely indulge my sentimentality in the high Italian mode of weeping and beseeching the Savior.
My favorite picture was taken on the somewhat unsightly, littered shore of Virginia Beach during the last stretch of our trip, that final gray morning when we had to vacate our room at the Thunderbird by noon. Wendy, then my new wife, and I didn’t want to get wet, especially with sticky salt water, so we’d agreed to watch Chloe wade in the suds, knowing full well that gentle wavelets cascading across her ankles would not satisfy her for long. Her mood was already frayed because the three sandcastles she tried to build had crumbled. Some serious pouting clogged the agenda. It was my ‘parental rights’ time, the little allotted to me by the previous wife, now shacked up with her custody lawyer. Don’t even think about talking to me about justice. As Wendy says, think about injustice and you won’t sleep at night.
Despite her bravado, Chloe is a very shy little girl who cannot run up to other kids on the beach and cry, ‘Hey, wanna play?’ How disheartened I would be if she could. Enthusiastic extroverts have always baffled and alarmed me. Yet I too was like her as a child and can sympathize. Those who barge in and demand attention get all the breaks, perhaps because the rest of us are too abashed and stunned to demand that they get lost instead. If only, like dogs, we could trot up to strangers, sniff, sprint merrily beside the surf and prosper as we fetch newspapers or retrieve sticks without sacrificing the modicum of dignity we so prize. But we’re not dogs (or ostriches), are we?
Chloe wants us in the water so badly we finally weaken, and soon waves that have surely arrived straight from the Arctic smack all three of us practically off our feet. My gonads shrivel into tiny peas. Some force in this world is determined to make me a eunuch. Submersion in a pit of ice cubes couldn’t be worse.
‘See what you would have missed?’ a vivacious, gleeful Chloe taunts as I stand shivering in the water, distraught beyond measure. She knows she’s got me wrapped around her little finger. I like knowing she knows; I only hope her little finger does not inherit my rancid sinovial fluid.
‘Yeah, little girl, I see. Next wave comes along I’m going to dunk you in headfirst.’
‘Oh yeah,’ she says, ‘maybe I’ll dunk you.’ A wet strand of hair curls into her mouth. She spits it out. The only photo of that precise moment lies preserved flat in the album of my mind.
‘A squirt like you? Ha!’
‘Let’s throw him in, Wendy,’ she cries. ‘Maybe a jellyfish will sting him—’
Chloe likes to ally herself with Wendy so they can gang up on me as happened during one of the times we played basketball in my mother’s back yard (I on my team of one, the Incurables, Wendy and Chloe on the other, the Unicorns). When I stole the ball from Chloe, Wendy leaped onto my back and clung like a monkey. She even serviced me with a disgusting wet willie as she clung! Imagine the deterioration of my dribble. With a heavy monkey on your back you can slouch and lurch but not much more, especially when you’re madly bobbing your head to dodge wet willies.
If Wendy jumped on my back now she’d soon be pushing my wheelchair to St. Jude’s International Shrine on Rampart Street, where I could tack a tiny golden replica of my spine onto the bulletin board. I might tack up replicas of my myopic eyeballs as well, my sinus cavities and thinning pate, my heart. There is nothing wrong with my heart yet, I hope, but I’d tack it up anyway for good measure. St. Jude would understand. Might as well add the spleen and big toes while at it.
‘Maybe a shark will bite his head off, maybe—’
Before she finishes a giant killer wave knocks Chloe off her feet, the pip-squeak. She has inhaled a hefty lungful of ocean, and I lope through the water to rescue to her. She coughs and rubs her bloodshot eyes and looks so defeated and vulnerable I want to shake my fist at Poseidon. I’m surprised I haven’t had my teeth smashed down my throat I’ve shaken so many fists during my passage through this life. I’ll donate them too to St. Jude too when it happens.
Louis Gallo’s work has appeared in Wide Awake in the Pelican State (LSU anthology), Southern Literary Review, Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth, Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review, and many others. Chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Abomination of Fascination, Status Updates and The Ten Most Important Questions. He is the founding editor of the now defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. He was awarded an NEA fellowship for fiction. He teaches at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.