The Picture: A Valentine’s Day Short Story

The Fondue Writer’s Club is again presenting some free fiction for your holiday enjoyment. Of course, Valentine’s Day isn’t a real holiday, but that doesn’t stop us. Nothing can stop us from giving you free entertainment.

Yesterday Kathy Kexel started us off with a witch story (click here to read The Spinster Squad VS Cupid: A Valentine’s Day Massacre) and today I bring you The Picture. More stories are to come between now and the day of chocolates and roses.

Enjoy!

The Picture

Jamie D. Greening

            Her finger outlined him, and then her, and then him and her together, and then the wedding cake between them. It was her favorite photograph, and the only one she had from her wedding day: February 14, 1970. It was a frozen Saturday; her mother was angry at her for not choosing a summer month to wed. A cold front had come through the previous Thursday and there was a foot of snow on the ground. Her father kept teasing, ‘That was your plan all along, to guarantee a white wedding.’ 

            The wedding was her husband’s idea. He’d just gotten home from the Vietnam and didn’t want to wait any longer. Even though he was young, life had already told him that waiting for joy was a mistake. There are no guarantees the future you dream of will be waiting for you when you get there. They had met at church, dated a couple of times, and on the third date he proposed. She said yes. They have been together ever since.  

            Her mom made the wedding cake. She wore her Aunt Vivian’s wedding dress. Her mother’s wedding dress was too tall for her petite frame, but Vivian’s was perfect after a couple of minor adjustment she made herself. About twenty people were there, mostly neighbors and close friends. Their pastor performed the ceremony in about twenty minutes in the living room of the home they’d put a down payment on. She couldn’t remember a word the old man had said, but she knew her line: I do. She remembered how handsome her husband looked and how proud she was to be his wife. They honeymooned in their own house on a mattress with no frame because they didn’t have money for furniture.  

            She smiled at how times had changed. Things are different now from back then. Plainer. Simpler. Nicer. What mattered to them then was the urgency of being together. In all these years, the urgency hadn’t waned. She loved him more today, on their fifty-second wedding anniversary than on that icy day way back when. 

            His face in the photograph was so happy. The strong jawline which he inherited from his own father gave him rugged good looks. His hair was curly and thick, brushed but unruly. The United States Army took his hair away for so long, that he always let it grow out and long. She giggled remembering his Einstein hair of the late 1990s. Those were good years. The children had left home for college and work and their own life journeys. The two of them were on their own, but never alone as long as they had each other. They traveled throughout Europe, Egypt, and Canada. A memory of fishing in the summer on some isolated lake in Canada filled her mind and she remembered skinny dipping that night. She could still feel the coldness of the water on her skin. She heard his playful voice calling to her, ‘Swim out a little further with me.’ He took her by the hand and they danced in the water to music only the two of them could hear.  

            Those were good years.

            But not all of them were good. Those two young people so in love in that photograph couldn’t know of the troubles that would come at them, and so fast. Within a year, the foundry where he’d been hired after Vietnam closed. They were forced to move three states over for work. She’d never lived anywhere else but her hometown. Depression took her deep. Of course, then they didn’t talk about depression. But looking back, she could see just how dark things were.

            And they got darker. Their first child died three days after being born in the summer of 1973. She felt isolated, disconnected, grieving, and they were so poor. But he held her close at night and stroked her hair. He never promised quick fixes, he was far too smart for that. But he always was there. 

            By 1982, their financial situation had improved dramatically. It was short lived, though. The economic recession of the early Reagan years hit his company hard. Again, he was out of work, but this time there was nowhere else to go. For eighteen months he looked and looked, but there was nothing of substance. In those months, he roofed houses, poured concrete, and took whatever manual labor he could find to keep food on the table and the lights on. She, likewise, began working as a waitress at a diner. She’d never worked outside the home in her life. She hated it. 

            She clutched the picture to her chest. Those were tough times, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. In 1985, they borrowed a little money and opened their own business, a little dry-cleaner. He ran the machines, which he loved to tinker with, and she made alterations. By contrast to working for someone else, she loved this work. All three of their children did their time working in the business. The business grew to seven locations around the city. They eventually handed day-to-day operations over to their daughter, the middle child, who thrived at management. 

            Those two young lovers in the picture could not in any way have known the joy of raising a family and creating something together. She imagined what she would tell them if she could go back in time and whisper in their ear? What would she say? She thought for a long time and decided the only thing she would say to her younger version was, ‘Take more pictures.’

            Through the years her eyesight had dimmed, but her hearing was still strong so she heard him leave the bedroom. She carried the picture down the stairs with her and met him in the kitchen. 

            ‘Did you sleep well?’

            ‘Yes, but I can’t find my wife. Do you know where she is?’

            ‘Honey, I’m right here.’ She took him by the arm and led him to the table and sat him down. ‘Let me get you a cup of coffee. Do you want cereal this morning? Would you like me to scramble you an egg?’

            ‘Cereal is fine,’ He said. ‘But you know what would be good? An omelet like they served in Paris.’

            ‘Oh, I remember those. With the croissant and the delicious coffee in those little tiny cups.’

            Her mood lifted as she remembered how when they came back from their trip to Paris in 1993 they ate omelets almost every day for a year. She decided to keep it simple this morning with ham and cheese. He hadn’t asked for one of those in a long time. She wondered if he knew what today was, somewhere down deep.

            Within ten minutes she sat the two plates down at the table and they began to eat in silence. She reached over to him and said, ‘Happy Anniversary. I love you.’

            He stared at her with the all-too-common look he gave now. The look that said he didn’t understand or couldn’t put the pieces together. She knew he was the same man, but this dreaded disease had robbed him of his mind, like a bandit that steals away treasure from a safe place, but not all at once; the robber comes and takes a little bit at a time, piece by piece until all that is left is an empty room where memories used to be.

            She drank her coffee and observed that his jawline was still strong. His hair gray but still thick and unruly. His eyes bright with kindness. In all their years he’d never raised his voice at her or the children. He was incapable of meanness. 

            She turned on the radio and they listened to music while she cleaned the dishes. She’d pulled out the china her father and mother had given them as a wedding present. She knows he didn’t notice, but it felt right to her to use it today.  

            When she returned to the table with him, she realized she’d left their wedding picture there on the table. He’d picked it up and was looking at it.

            ‘This is us, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘It was cold. It snowed. We got married.’

            ‘Yes, we did. Today is our anniversary—Valentine’s Day.’

            He looked at her and said, ‘I love you.’ 

            She tried to hold back the tears, but she couldn’t. They flowed from her eyes like Niagara Falls. He reached over and stroked her hand, ‘Don’t cry. It has been such a wonderful ride.’ 

            ‘It certainly has.’ She stood up, hugged him from behind and kissed his forehead. Then she went to the bathroom to splash some water on her face and wipe away the tears. When she returned, he was standing at the window looking out.

            ‘Do you want to get dressed,’ she asked him. ‘Maybe we can go outside for a little walk. The doctor says that is good for you, and I know I’d like the fresh air.’

            He stared at her. ‘Not just yet. I am waiting for my wife to get back. I don’t know where she is, but I know she’ll be back soon.’  

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