Out of the Picture
The tones were sepia, but Sylvia would have bet all of last year’s investment returns that the man’s eyes were a turquoise blue. Beneath the edges of his army side cap, she could see his coarse hair, cut short. Thin lips stretched around a toothy smile. He also bore the familiar sliver of a white scar across his chin.
Sitting on uncut grass with his hands resting on his knees, he didn’t seem concerned about dirtying his olive-green service coat or matching slacks. Crow’s feet made the man look old, but something about that face reminded Sylvia the lines had more to do with the hard quality of his years than their number.
“Ms. Hawthorne, are you okay?”
“Oh,” Sylvia said, barely able to peel her eyes away from the photograph. “I’m fine, Clara.” She managed a gracious smile, but based on her assistant’s reaction, Sylvia didn’t have a doubt in her mind that she came across as anything other than needing help. She must have been staring slack-jawed at the same spot for minutes.
She’d begun to doubt it would ever happen, to the point that she’d mostly forgotten. What sort of cosmic fate allowed this picture to wind up at an antique shop that Sylvia had passed many times but had only entered today on a whim? How long had it been here, waiting for her?
Clara started to turn away.
Her assistant paused while Sylvia opened the door of the glass curio cabinet and reached past the Hummel figurines and marble ashtrays. Her wrinkled hands shook slightly as she took hold of the dusty, twelve-by-fifteen picture frame leaning against the back of the cabinet. As she held it close to her face, she felt herself getting lost in the image once again.
“Do you like that frame?” Clara asked.
“Yes,” Sylvia replied without hesitation. “I want to purchase this.” The price tag made mention of 1918, Tiffany & Co. sterling silver, and $1,495.
Clara grabbed the frame and Sylvia reluctantly let go.
“It has a lovely finish,” Clara said. “Anything else before we go?” She looked at her thin, white wristwatch. “You have a shareholders meeting in twenty minutes.”
“No, just that,” Sylvia replied.
“Okay, I’ll have the clerk remove the photo and put–”
“No!” The panic in Sylvia’s voice startled a couple who were shuffling through a box of rusted steel signs. “No, please, I like the picture. Make sure you keep it.”
Clara narrowed her eyebrows and nodded. “Yes, of course. No problem.” She stepped away with the frame. Relieved, Sylvia closed her eyes and put a hand on the corner of the cabinet to maintain her balance. She pictured the man in the photo, trying to count the years in which she had last thought of him. Trying to remember every moment together before he left for France.
She let her plate of sliced turkey and asparagus grow cold on the china and her hot tea had since turned room temperature. It was late and the chef had left a note stating his apologies as he had to run home early because his daughter was sick, but he’d left simple instructions on reheating the meal.
It was no matter. Sylvia wasn’t hungry. All she cared about was the photo propped up on the mahogany dining room table in front of her. Except for the low sounds of Bing Crosby’s rendition of Let Me Call You Sweetheart playing on a modern record player at the other end of the room, the house was void of life. Sylvia hadn’t listened to this song for a long time, and given her decades-old distaste for it, was surprised to find she had the 12-inch in her collection.
Sylvia reached for the frame and began to remove the copper backing. Once the photo was out, she tossed the frame onto the floor where it cracked in half.
Her mauve fingernail ran over the man’s face and body.
“Hello, Samuel,” she said. “I always knew that if it was meant to be, this day would come.”
She turned the photograph over and her breath caught in her throat. The print was wider than the frame and it had been folded over at its rightmost edge to make it fit. She unfolded the edge so that the complete picture was before her.
Her expectations were met.
There was a young woman standing just to the right of Samuel with bobbed hair and a hobble skirt with its narrow hem. The woman smiled, but only with her mouth. Her eyes betrayed an infinite sadness.
“And hello to you too, young Sylvia.”
The photographer was putting away his equipment while a thin breeze brought the scent of purple-flowered plum trees into Sylvia’s presence.
“I told my parents that we would meet them at seven for dinner,” Samuel said.
Sylvia said nothing, thinking only of their snapshot in time, wondering if she was able to hide her melancholy from the camera’s eye. If Samuel noticed, he didn’t let on. He took her hands in his and kissed her cheek. Sylvia gazed past the trees and at the calm lake spread wide behind them.
“Don’t,” Samuel said.
She turned. “What?”
“Don’t think about tomorrow.”
She was a fool to think he hadn’t seen her. “How can I not?”
The needle had fallen off the record, leaving a quiet, rhythmic click in the background, no different than her life after the first war. When Samuel didn’t come back, Sylvia had fallen into her own quiet, rhythmic click. She married three times, none of the marriages happy, none of them lasting long enough to produce any children, but they were all productive in their own way.
Sylvia focused her energies on other things. She was a pretty girl and had no problems attracting men of means. Men she had used more than they had used her. Where other wives had taken their positions and situations for granted, Sylvia built herself a quiet empire. She’d purchased the right stocks, made the right connections, and pissed off the right people to leave her one of the richest women in New Jersey.
Would she be willing to give it up for him? All of it?
After sixty years, the question was as simple to answer as it had always been.
She picked up the telephone and rang her good friend, Dr. Alou.
He came quickly with his dark brown briefcase.
“Thank you for coming in the middle of the night, Doctor.”
“For you, Ms. Hawthorne…for this opportunity,” he said, “I would come at any hour.”
He was a grateful man. Where others had insisted on immediate results, Sylvia had bid her time and bet on the long-term. She’d heard Dr. Alou speak at a futurist conference over thirty years ago and immediately took him under her employ. Academia had scorned and ridiculed him. He hadn’t been allowed to publish in any legitimate scientific journal after revealing his theories, but Sylvia cared not about that. The man had a fierce faith that was much like her own.
“It’s time to put all of your years to use,” Sylvia said.
Dr. Alou’s eyes lit up behind his horn-rimmed glasses.
Together, they walked into the spacious sitting room and sat next to each other on a flowery Victorian sofa. She blended in well, but with the wild gray hair horseshoed around his balding head and Levis tucked into a pair of cowboy boots, Dr. Alou seemed as out of place as Sylvia suddenly felt.
His bony fingers rested on the top of the briefcase which sat on his lap.
“You should know that we’ve been unable to test,” he said. “The risks, and all, as we’ve discussed…”
“Understood. Carry on.” Her heart was racing, but she’d long since developed the ability to exude an air of control.
Dr. Alou popped open the brass latches, gently removed a sheer black box with a numeric keypad on top, and placed it on the mahogany coffee table before them. He then pulled out a pair of thin green wires, each connected to a white electrode. He plugged the other ends into a receptacle on the side of the box.
“May I?” he asked, nodding at her face.
Sylvia nodded. She wanted him to just get it over with.
Dr. Alou reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of alcohol swabs. He ripped their packages open and, leaning over, rubbed Sylvia’s temples. The chemical smell seemed to awaken her thoughts, seemed to bring home the fact that all of her years had been riding on this. Did she want to go through with it? Would she be able to live with the disappointment if it didn’t work?
She knew she wouldn’t be able to live with the disappointment if she didn’t try.
“How long will it take?” she asked.
“You won’t even know its happened.”
His lack of hesitation reassured her. He placed the electrodes on her and she held the photo of young Samuel in her hands. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw the doctor carefully punch the keypad. There was a subtle hum rising from the box and into her brain.
“Think of him,” Dr. Alou said.
Her thumbnail caressed the side Samuel’s cheek, stopping only when the room spun beyond her ability to perceive it.
“I told my parents that we would meet them at seven for dinner,” Samuel said.
Sylvia’s jaw was slightly sore from holding the smile. She watched the photographer carefully dismantle his tripod and box camera contraption. It took great effort to focus on something as the sudden bout of vertigo overcame her.
“You’re not still worried about the expense, are you?” Samuel asked. “Dear, when are we ever going to get married again? We have only one honeymoon.”
There was a moment where Sylvia’s brain seemed to freeze up. She’d lost a sudden sense of place, but the world began to stabilize again.
“Pumpkin, are you okay?”
She felt a reassuring hand on her back and the other on her arm. The warm sun pressed its rays into her face and the light ammonia-like smell of Samuel’s lye soap entered her nostrils.
“Yes,” she said and turned to look at his face, starting at the scar running up his chin, past his azure eyes, and to his slightly kinky hair. She stepped back and took in his pinstripe vest and collared stark-white shirt.
“Do you need to sit down?” he asked.
She grabbed onto Samuel and pulled him into her, feeling his slightly-whiskered cheeks against hers.
“No,” she whispered. “Please, no.”
“Well, I don’t know what’s brought on this sudden bout of amorousness, but perhaps we should visit all the parks in France if its to be a new habit.”
He chuckled and so did she. A small tear ran down her cheek and onto his shoulder.
“I don’t….I don’t know what’s come over me,” she said, “but I just feel this sudden need to hold on to you, Samuel. I can’t describe it, other than to say that for the briefest of moments, you seemed so far away from me that I feared I’d never be able to touch you again.”
He gently pushed her away and took her hands in his. His eyes sparkled with life.
“I’m not going anywhere without you,” he said. “Besides, what fun is visiting France without someone to share it with? Though I suppose then I could tell you some fabulous story of how I had tea with the visiting Kaiser and convinced him that his recent celebration of one hundred years of peace with France did not have nearly enough fireworks.”