It is a dance they’ve seen him perform many times before, in all its tiresome permutations. It’s so easy for him thinks the photo of Jeff with the Marlin, Hawaiian sun beating down coldly on his frozen snapshot smile. And he is right. They all know he’s right. It is so easy for him, the man out in the room. He moves to the liquor cabinet, asks over his shoulder
“Sure I can’t get you one?”
The cabinet’s drop-front lid comes forward to rest on its catches, revealing the glittering array of crystal stemware suspended above bottles: tall bottles, squat bottles, clear and colored, amber and green, standing rank on rank, awaiting orders. The light from the gas-jet fireplace plays on the facets and edges before moving across the room to be the glimmer in her eyes.
Helen smiles a pretty smile and suggests a gin and tonic. Jeff grins, pouring himself yet another whiskey before hummingly mixing her request. She stands, straightening the blue sheath of her dress and walking over to the gallery of photos. She moves slowly from one to the next and her eyes are wide and green, just as Jeff likes them to be. Just as they all like them to be. She inspects the pictures while behind her Jeff ups the ratio of gin to tonic. She comes to the picture of Jeff as a College Running Back and the others hear the youthful photo think God what a face, what a fucking beautiful face. The others agree. It is a shame that this pretty face will never return, but they never do. That’s the way Jeff likes it.
Helen moves to Jeff the Soldier, regarding the figure clad in sand-cami fatigues as he stands in front of his Humvee. Her voice is calm interest:
“Were you in the service?” she asks, turning.
“Yeah,” Jeff says with a nod. “I served in the Gulf.” He does not mention that his role was Stateside, that the photo was taken in Southern California, or that his participation was not voluntary but a court-ordered option to DUI jailtime. Instead, he brings her the drink, crystalline cubes in clear liquid, a twisted ribbon of green and yellow rind floating near the rim. She takes the drink. She smells it but does not sip it.
How’s he going to do it tonight? wonders Jeff the Soldier. The Lure? The Clinch?
No, thinks Jeff with the Marlin. It’ll be the Straightforward. She’s too smart for the Lure.
Jeff points to the photo next to Jeff the Soldier: the shoulder-padded youth being carried on his teammates shoulders, Jeff the Young Achilles.
“That was Homecoming, my senior year. I was MVP. Scored five TD’s,” but she is already moving away.
She takes her drink to the balcony and they all watch her buttocks and they all, strong flesh and framed emulsion alike, whistle silently in appreciation of such a form. The man in the room tosses off his fourth tumbler of Jack Daniels and follows the woman in the sapphire dress. He places his hands on her shoulders as they regard the view. The twinkling of lights scattered in a carpet of deep shadow. The glow of the well-set sun fading from the soon-to-be starry sky.
“Venus,” he says, pointing to the blue-green gem above the horizon. She nods and sips her drink. She does not comment on its strength. He pulls back her dark curls and places his lips on the nape of her neck. From their place on the wall, the pictures see her breasts rise in a sharp intake of breath, the thin fabric of her dress taut. She turns. They kiss. So fucking easy thinks the image of Jeff on his Jet Ski. There’s no sport in it. Jeff’s hands move downward, pressing her flesh.
She pulls back from him, sloshing her drink on the balcony. She places a manicured hand on his chest, polished nails gleaming in the last of the twilight. The gallery cannot hear what she says, but they see her sweet, apologetic smile and the slow shake her head. It’ll be the Clinch, then sighs the photo of the Jeff at the Boat Show. When Jeff’s arms wrap about Helen’s waist and his mouth descends like a black void, eager to swallow her soul, the pictures are not surprised.
The hand that is between the pair pushes Jeff away and the remainder of the too-strong gin and tonic flashes up, an arc of starlit liquid that splashes into his face and makes him cry out in pain and anger. Helen moves quickly toward her purse and coat, nestled safely in the arm of the sofa but he is quicker, closing the gap, grabbing her outstretched arm. The purse and coat fall to the foyer tiles and she is spun about by a yank from his arm.
The image of Jeff as a Boy, tow-headed, grinning, holding up the stringer of freshly-caught trout, whimpers to himself, for he knows what is to come.
Jeff again tries for a kiss, but she pulls back, saying “No!” He chuckles, squints through the gin in his reddened eyes and calls her “Babe.” He lunges for her again and gets a palm slapped across his cheek. She calls him a “fucker” and struggles against his grip, demanding release. His rage rises, becomes poised, ready. The pictures wish they could close their eyes; even the three shots of Jeff the Adolescent Football Player for whom screwing struggling nymphs in back seats was a regular post-game activity; even the proudly beaming Salesman of the Year, his cheeks still flushed from the exertion of his rape of the buxom receptionist in the back office while friends outside at the party winked knowingly. They have seen this all too often. They hate that they feel all the things that the man refuses to feel; remorse, guilt, shame. But they cannot change it. They can only watch in helpless agony as Jeff forces the woman with the green eyes down onto the floor.
Jeff straddles her like a bucking horse, fending off her flailing blows with meaty arms still strong though his hopes at a professional sports career are long-dead. She tells him “No!” as he pulls her dress higher and higher, exposing muscled belly and mounded breasts. She screams “No!” as he curses her and “bitches” her. He slaps at her; quick, fast slaps; hands ducking inside her ill-placed guard to deliver the blows of humiliation, slaps to the face and head, slaps used to punctuate his words.
“No one throws a drink in my face. Bitch. You cunt.” The words of his father to his mother, the blows of the father to the son, both transmitted with doubled fury to the thrashing woman on the deep-pile carpeting. Her screams stop as his blows become more forceful, until she is at last nothing but a nubile figure, arms covering head, shuddering body exposed, open, conquered.
The pictures can hear Jeff as a Boy thinking No, it’s not right and crying dryly to himself. He is the image of a tender boy, unable to become inured to these scenes of rape and violence. But tears are denied him. He too can only watch as the man strips off the woman’s panties.
Jeff fumbles at his belt and the woman’s sobs form words again. “No, please,” she begs. The man laughs; a phlegmy sound from deep within him, lacking humanity. He knees open her legs and lowers his half-hard prick toward her nexus. The woman he thinks of as “green eyes black hair great ass” tries to squirm her way out from beneath him. He holds her down and she bites his arm. He shouts and pulls back his arm for a huge blow, but
“Stop it!” shouts Jeff as a Boy. “It isn’t right!”
The man stops, hearing the Boy’s voice, looking for its source. The woman scoots backward, dress descending as she moves. The man moves after her, the voice forgotten, but Helen sends a finely-arched foot into his groin. He drops. She is up. She gets her purse and coat and is gone before he can take breath.
The pictures turn their attention to Jeff as a Boy. He spoke they think to one another. They did not even know it could be done. They interrogate the Boy with the trout but he cannot tell them how, only that he did. But they now know that it is possible.
Jeff moans. He rolls over and tries to rise but cannot. He lays there for a while before gathering his strength, finally getting to his feet and going to the bathroom to vomit. He returns, rinses his mouth with another gulp of JD.
Bottle in one hand, his escaped quarry’s panties in the other, he sits heavily on the sofa, looking at the Boy with the fish.
He looks for a long while, slack-eyed, taking regular pulls from the squared-off bottle. His fingers open and close on the neck, building to a murderous pulse. Eventually he stands and weaves over to the framed photo. He grabs the boy-image from its place on the table.
“Talk!” he orders. Silence.
“I’ll make you talk,” he promises and stares intensely at the face of the smiling youth. The pictures feel his anger grow again and know what is to come. They try to cushion the Boy as Jeff pours out all his hatred and frustration in one massive psychic blow. Jeff as a Boy calls out to the other photos Help me and they do, each taking on a share of the hard emotions Jeff has given out. Still, though, no sound is made. Jeff roars and raises the picture over his head. Jeff as a Boy screams again
“Stop it!” and “Don’t hurt me.” The man who is the end result of what the pictures represent releases the frame as if it has seared him. It drops to the carpeted floor, the glass cracking. The Boy cries out again and the pictures realize another new thing. They can feel pain. How real are we? they ask themselves.
Jeff backs away from the whimpering boy-photo, his face rigid in fright. The firelight touches the silver frame, dances along the cracks in the glass. The Boy, still smiling, tearlessly offers his catch of fish amid dry, choking sobs. The man backs up, then flees the room, the condo, the building, leaving the door open behind him: a wide, gaping mouth.
He returns with the dawn. The photos hear the shuffle of his feet as he slides his way along the wall from the elevator down the corridor and in through the still-open door. He closes it behind himself, locking it, leaning against it, his back towards them.
When he turns it is like a blast. They see the untucked shirt, the missing buttons. They see the mocha smear of a woman’s lipstick on his cheek, and the crusty stain of blood on his knuckles, his clothes. They wonder who she is; who she was.
“I’ve got something for you” he tells the happy faces.
A wave of emotions overruns them, flowing out from Jeff to the photos like a bursting dam. Shame, self-hatred. Visions of rape and violence sweep out and crash against their fragile shores, saturating them. Jeff smiles as he releases his guilt, frees himself from emotional responsibility, but it is too much for the photos to bear. Again it is Jeff as a Boy, the frozen reflection of this monster’s youth, who cries out
The man, their older self, stumbles forward to where the Boy lies within his cracked-glass frame, intent on his destruction.
“Don’t do it,” says the image of himself as Salesman of the Year, and
“What the fuck is this?” is Jeff’s bellowed response as he whirls to face the gallery.
The photos do not answer. They dare not. But they have forced this confrontation and cannot run away.
“Who are you?” he roars, looking at the Salesman, the Boy, at all of them. Silence stretches.
“Your past,” says Jeff the Soldier from beside his Humvee, and they all agree. Yes, that is truly what we are.
“Bullshit,” slurs the drunken man in the room. “You’re pictures.” But the wall of their silence was broken with the Boy’s first cry, and they speak
“Fuck that” they say, using coarseness so that he will hear them, understand them; the coarseness is his own. “We’re what you were, man” intones the Jeff with the Marlin. “And we know what you’ve become.”
“Bullshit,” he blurts again, and begins to pull them off the wall, off the tables, off shelves. He drops them into a clashing, shard-riddled pile near the hearth and they scream out their agony with their new-found voices. Jeff as a Boy cries, Jeff the Soldier curses. Jeff at the Boat Show, surprisingly, whimpers, and the Football Players shout and yell in indignation and pain. Jeff on his Jet Ski and the Jeff with the Marlin alternately entreat and threaten before they, too, are ripped from the wall and tossed onto the rest of their brethren. The man’s face becomes feral as he moves about, shouting
“I’ll fucking torch you all. You’re nothing but a bunch of fucking pictures.”
But they are not. They are more than that, and they know it. Jeff knows it, too, and he fears them because of that. They know that they must use his fear. To stall, to control. The Salesman of the Year is ripped from the wall, a half-moon of missing sheetrock left where a nail once was. As Jeff crosses to the hearth he hears the photo in his hand say
“What about the others?” Jeff stops.
“The others,” whispers the Salesman of the Year. “In the closet.”
A cry of triumph leaps through Jeff’s sluggish lips as he drops the Salesman on the hearthstones and bounds towards the back of the condo. A door slides open and something heavy hits the floor. The laugh is heard again, animalistic, evil. He returns to the hearth with a tape-sealed box, battered and dusty, the word “STORAGE” written on its side. He rips at the top and it comes away in pieces. Reaching inside, he rummages, then pulls, like a ghoul eviscerating a corpse, searching for the tastiest bits.
His hands come out, filled with squares and rectangles of paper, black and white and color, matte and glossy, Polaroid and processed. But he drops them, wide-eyed, as the room is suddenly filled with a dozen, a score, half a hundred voices, not all of them echoes of his own, but all echoes of his past. His hands fly to his ears, trying to hold back the sound, but he cannot.
The scattered pictures lay on the floor about him, memories gleaming in the gas-jetted firelight. They are receptacles of his past. They speak to him of more than just the events of his bygone days, but of the emotions that he has placed within them in unsanctified trust; the feelings that he has forced upon them, some good some bad: the grief of the Youthful Jeff’s first real loss when his black lab was struck by a delivery truck; the flush of Jeff the Freshman after his first kiss; the rage of all the Jeffs at the controlling, violent father; the fury of Jeff the Graduate when the old bastard died before peace could be made or justice rendered. Other voices tell their tales: old friends, older enemies.
Jeff lowers his hands and reaches forward, down, to the corner of a rag-edged old photo. He pulls it out and, after a decade, hears the Fiancée’s voice say
“I loved you.”
“No, you didn’t,” he answers and is dispassionate. “Or you’d have never left me.”
She is afraid to convey the pain she felt, the pain of his blows, the pain of watching him destroy his mind and dreams through drugs and drink. “You left when I needed you most,” he says, but she cannot express her fear of him, the terror that drove her away. She tries, but her shame ties her tongue. Jeff as a Boy, unfettered, puts forth the words
“You hurt her,” and Jeff searches for the image of the Boy amid the pile of remembrances. “And you wouldn’t stop. That’s why she left.” It is simple, but it is true. The truth now spoken, the Fiancée finds the strength to speak.
“You drove me away,” she tells him from her place in his hand. “I ended up hating you.” His lip curls up on one side. She has provoked him, prodded him, just as she always had. The pictures know what he is thinking, for they have thought it themselves: he sees her challenge, her honesty, as proof of the absence of her love; he sees malice where there is only concern; he sees spite where there is only caring.
He crumples her visage in his hands, deaf to her screams of pain — hadn’t he always been so? He tosses the crumpled wad towards the fire and buries his face in his hands as she screams. The crinkled ball hits the concrete logs and bounces back, out onto the hearth. Amazingly, after a moment she begins to uncrimp herself. The photos are stunned as she begins to pull herself away from the fire.
We can move! The pile begins to rustle and shift as they flex.
Jeff reacts quickly, reaching forward to the photo of the Fiancée and tossing it far into the flames. He grabs more photos from the settling pile — Jeff the Camper, Jeff the Snorkler, Jeff the Student Body President, Jeff with his Best Buddy and others — and tosses them, too, into the feeding fire. Screams fill the room, ravaged screams of torture, and Jeff begins to laugh his monster’s laugh, the dancing jets of burning chemicals orange, blue and green in his eyes.
A bolt of bluish light lashes out from within the fireplace, shouting with the voices of the Fiancée, the Camper and the others. The light hits Jeff full in the face, swirling about his head like some coruscating python, encircling, enclosing. He screams now, too, and the coils break up into flashing entities with faces like the photos in the fire.
We are free they tell their brothers and sisters. In a rush they slam back into him, their light entering him, through his mouth, his eyes, his nose, and straight through his skin.
Jeff is the only one screaming now, and the quality of it changes. The scream of horror shifts to one of rage, sorrow, agony. The faces of the photos pulse across his, even the Fiancée’s. Tears flash in his eyes, his face contorting with the swell of each long-forgotten emotion.
“No,” he weeps. “No. I don’t want to feel this. I never wanted to feel this.” His voice rises, becomes a command. “That’s why I gave it to you.” He looks down at the remaining snapshots and they feel the onslaught of emotion as Jeff purges himself once more, his humanity pouring out from him and into them. It is their turn to scream.
Jeff as a Boy has had too much. His innocence has made him incapable of taking on any more. Despite the pain, he folds himself and lifts himself free of the glass, then begins to bugwalk toward the fire and freedom. Others, too, choose the freedom of the flames over an existence as guilt-filled pustules, repositories for the creature that their images have become.
Jeff sees the march toward the firelight and divines their purpose. He scrambles forward on hands and knees, and tries to sweep them all aside, but they are too many. Some get through.
He is hit by the flash of light, is set back on his butt by the force of Jeff at Tahoe, Jeff the New Year’s Celebrant, Jeff as a Boy. Their faces fly around the room before flashing back to the man, seeping into him.
More and more of them make the final leap into the flames and Jeff cannot stop them. He fights the emotions that wrack him. He battles the return of his memories and guilts, but is losing. How can he fight them? They are him. And they are streaking home.
Jeff ceases in his attempts to thwart their progress. The fireplace is thick with their ashy corpses, but still they leap onto the pyre. They feel the elation of their brothers as they are released from their cruel cells of paper. They share each other’s joy as they fill the room with their light and motion before homing in on the man.
Jeff, face twitching with each new injection of old emotion, each infusion of lost humanity, reaches forward to the last four photos that lie before him, trapped in their frames of wood, silver and glass. They shudder inwardly — Jeff the Soldier, Jeff the College Running Back, Jeff on his Jet Ski, and the Salesman of the Year — for they know that the man will dump it all into them. They must now hold a hundred-fold of what before they barely held. But they do not curse their dying relations for, had places been reversed, they, too, would have been leaving them behind for the freedom of the fire.
Jeff pulls them to him. His eyes are strange. They are filled with so much that it is hard to make sense of them. The face the photos have seen so often, for so many years, is now a stranger’s face. They see grief, they see sadness. They see loss and regret. But they also see joy, happiness and, they think, peace.
Jeff’s hands reach to their backs. He pulls their stiff cardboard closures free and slides them all free of their imprisoning framework. With streaming eyes he regards them for the last time. A smile touches his lips as he gently lays them within the searing heat.
In silence they burn, watching the face of the man as long as they can. Jeff sits, tear-stained, smiling. Waiting.
Then comes the release. The pain of their charring is gone, the chaff that was their prison falls away. They are one with the flame, one with the light, and their joy is almost unbearable. They dance with the firelight, they dance with the smoke and the air. They fly from spot to spot, touching on all the things they have for so long seen from their post on the far wall. We are free! But they feel the tug of their fate, and they accept it.
Jeff waits. His smile has not faded, though it has saddened. They fly to him, but stop before reaching him. They do not want to battle their way home. Jeff the Man’s smile changes yet again, and he nods.
They are home.