Wind brushed against chimes in the garden outside to send the polished rods jangling and clattering against each other before settling. Each bell-like tone seemed to start a song anew, and yet faded as quickly as it started, turning to another melody likewise cut short. Some found it raucous. Others, endearing. To the man sitting inside, nodding off in the plush divan couch that always seemed to smell faintly of moth balls and cleaning chemicals, they were the only shield he had against dozing off.
Laying in his hands with the pages splayed, a photo album slipped a few bare inches before he blinked fully awake and caught it. Though he sent a chagrined look to the elderly woman sitting right next to him, her smile didn’t falter. Perhaps she didn’t notice the stumble.
“Do be careful, Ivan,” she said, neatly shattering that delusion. “Some of these are older than I am!”
Though Ivan couldn’t find anything particularly hilarious about that, she did, and it set her off in a wheezing laugh, her eyes closing and lips parting to reveal age-yellowed teeth and pale gums. Her voice gurgled up out of her throat with each chortle in a remarkable impression of someone drowning or being strangled. Sometimes he worried that she’d just keel over like that… though it would mean no more evenings poring over the same albums over and over again.
“Sorry, Gamma,” he said, though he wasn’t quite sure if she could hear him through her wheezing and hacks as the laughter turned into coughing. She pitched forward as swiftly as she had pitched back, bending double and reaching a thin liver-spotted hand for the handkerchief in her pocket.
When she had recovered, dabbing at watering eyes, she peered down her thick round glasses to the album once again. “Now, where were we?”
“Gamma,” Ivan said, pitching his voice with just the right amount of reluctance. “It’s getting dark; I really should be going home.”
She smacked her lips together, jabbing a bony finger at one of the photos, a faded landscape with a brown smudge that could have been a house or pond, or even a large woodpile. Ivan could never tell, nor was he particularly interested in trying.
“Oh, this is a good one!” She waved her hand at him. “Go on, take it out.”
With a silent sigh, Ivan carefully reached for the corner of the photo. It hesitated at his touch, as they always did, held back by the plastic’s friction for a heartbeat before he could finally pull it free of the album. Gamma snatched it from his grip so quickly, that he had to cut back a startled hiss as it left a fine papercut on the web of skin between his thumb and pointer finger.
“Your father,” she started, shaking the photo, “had only been here once, but me-oh-my, was it a time to remember!”
“Speaking of Father,” Ivan dared to attempt, “He’s expecting me home at-”
She cheerfully bulldozed his words into dust. “Did he ever tell you about the Huckleberry Hoedown?”
Ivan sighed. Just one more picture and he’d try again. “No, Gamma.”
“Oh, that rascal, your father. It was his second Hoedown, and the first he’d be allowed to dance in! Him and all the cousins, you see, they had to sit and watch the first time, so they’d know how it went and how all the dances were.”
“I can imagine. Now I really-”
“That was where he met your mother, you know!” Gamma’s other hand raised to tap one claw of a finger on the photo. “And weren’t she a pretty little sight, with that… oh, I can almost picture it. That green dress with the-”
The old woman snapped her fingers as if trying to summon up the memory before her withered lips parted in another smile.
“-Huckleberries! With all the huckleberries on it. All the ladies wore something of huckleberries, and your mother had the prettiest little dress.”
Ivan settled back into the couch, keeping his sigh suppressed. Might as well let her run her course fully, then.
“Your father saw her immediately, of course. And now, you know him as well as I do; to catch a pretty girl’s eye, he had to do something of a ruckus. So he took his brother, your Uncle Albert, and they found an old fishing rod and went up to the balcony overlooking the dance floor.”
She wasn’t wrong. Ivan knew his father perfectly well, and he could imagine the two teenagers giggling to themselves as they snuck around with some plan.
“You see, in that hall, the rafters actually connected to the balcony. So they took that fishing rod and shimmied out onto the rafters; they were big strong beams that could hold a cow. Two boys with mischief on their minds weren’t nothing to scoff at.”
Ivan blinked and sat up straighter. “Then what?”
The old woman smiled again, handing him back the photo. “Well, they lowered the fishhook and went fishing. The first one to come close enough to the hook got her skirts all snagged – and that so happened to be your Aunt Christina. So they reeled her in and her dress went all inside out! She screamed, her mother screamed, the other ladies screamed – except for the ones who were laughing themselves silly. Then when someone had the sense to look up to the rafters, all they could see were the tail ends of your father and uncle scampering back down the stairs and out the door.”
“How did Aunt Christina marry Uncle Albert after that?” Ivan couldn’t hold back his own smile. He hadn’t slipped the photo back in the album yet, looking it over. It was blurry, but he could see the imagined forms of two boys fleeing the house.
Gamma chuckled. “You’d have to ask them that. But all I knew was that a week later, they were going steady, and your mother and father were going steady. Made quite the first impression!”
“Yeah,” Ivan let out a single huff of a half-laugh before he carefully slid the photo back in between the plastic sheets.
“Now!” Gamma reached for her cane and made as if to stand. “You were saying about needing to go?”
“Well-” Ivan started. “Actually, ah… It’s not that late yet.” He pointed to another photo, that of a woman in a crisp military uniform. “Could you tell me about this one?”
The old woman settled back down into the couch. “Ah! My Aunt Roselia…”