Frame – an excerpt from American Dead

Is that it?” Molly peered over my shoulder. She laughed breathlessly, pressing her fingertips to her lips.

I held the picture by the sharp corners, like it was a heated shard of metal. “I guess that’s it.” I was thirteen years old.

My father in the picture didn’t yet look like himself:

His hair was thicker and darker in the picture than it is now, his face more narrow. His chest and arms and legs were covered in fine black hair. His cheeks were unshaven, and between his legs there were thick pubic curls glistening with sweat. His chest narrow, his skin pale, his arms hanging limp at his sides as though he was unsure what to do with them. I recognized the room in which he stood. It looked new in that picture, just as my father did – nude as birth.

Molly reached out to touch the picture with the tip of one painted fingernail, and she laughed again, her brassy deep-in-the-throat laugh.

I looked at it, hanging between my father’s legs, and I felt queasy inside. I didn’t want to look, but I could not look away. I had seen them before, of course, hidden away in school encyclopedias, scarcely more than outlines, just an innocuous nub like a misplaced finger, just black ink on white paper. This was real. I could see the color of the skin, could see the way the shadow formed around it, could see how it looked as though it was in the process of uncoiling, like a lazy reptile lifting its long neck from sun-scorched dust to gaze up at you.

We stared at the picture. We hadn’t set out to find it. I don’t remember what we were looking for in my mother’s dresser drawer, but it wasn’t that. We found the smell of old wood and old perfume, and we found the picture stuck in the far back corner of the faux-ceder drawer.

Molly and I were alone in the trailer, listening to its empty body creaking around us like the straining ribcage of a digesting beast, listening to the maddening silence like a tick inside the brain. We strained our ears for the crunching sound of a car in the drive, for the snick of a key into the lock, for the moan of the door hinges. My fingers tightened like a vice-grip.

I turned the photo over. There was a date written in smeared pen-ink, beneath that an illegible caption in scrawled cursive. That date, 1985, it was the year that I was born.

Molly sat beside me. The bed springs creaked like a dirge and I turned the picture back over. I blushed, dropped it to the pale green carpet. I couldn’t bear to look at it again, not at that, not him.

Molly picked it up. “This is really him?” she asked, and pushed it back into my hands.

There was a boy in school, a grade below me, who used to sit away from the rest of us at lunch and, in some dark corner of the cafeteria, he would spread across the table his collection of the glossy pictures he’d cut from his father’s magazines. The other boys gathered around him and leaned over the table, lips curled and limbs taut. Whenever one of us girls walked by the boy would snatch back his jagged-edged photos and hold them secreted against his narrow chest, corners bent or folded out to show a creased shoulder or a torn leg or a curl of retouched hair. The boy’s voice cracked angrily, ordering us away, a child’s voice breaking into adolescent baritone. And he watched us walk from him, unbearably slow while the women in his hands burned. The others watched us go also, and their eyes were so hungry that I wondered if they actually saw us or if they saw only the women from the magazines.

I looked at my cousin. I couldn’t bear to see my father’s body again. “Let’s get rid of it.” I said, my tongue dry, my cousin’s body pressed against mine.

Molly grabbed my arm. Her fingers were cold. “We should put it back, Gena. We should at least just put it back.”

I shook my head. It couldn’t go back, not ever. The picture didn’t tear easily. It felt plastic, invulnerably malleable. My father’s image warped in my hands, tormented and, finally, ruined.

*  *  *

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