What fresh hell is this? The porch motion detector flash of white light blinded me. As my eyes adjusted, I tore off the yellow post office slip fluttering against the screen door.
What now? I had signed all the documents for the sale of the house. Did the realtor forget something? Again? The post office slip said “Signature Required” In bold letters along the bottom.
Struggling to balance my purse and keys, I miss the lock, after several tries the key catches and my front door unlocks. I dig in my purse till I find my half-bent pen and hastily scribble Jessica Culbertson onto the bottom of the slip and then press the sticky side back onto the front door.
Kicking off my shoes I toss my purse onto the low wooden coffee table. Sinking into the couch I look around the living room, freshly painted in soft gold. In only six days everything has been unpacked and nestled into its proper place. Three wooden framed pictures of fathers chubby, perpetually smiling face gaze at me from the living room wall. Home.
Three days later I trip over a small brown package on my porch. Its dark, and I wonder why my motion detectors are still dark. Behind me, my friend Dahlia expertly balances the pizza box in one hand and picks up the package in the other.
“ What did you order?”
“Nothing, I have no idea what it is”.
We look down at the package. In bold letters:
312 Polo Lane,
Dahlia turns in over.
“No return address.”
I open the front door, flick on the light. Dahlia places the package on the kitchen table next to the pizza. I walk over to turn on the oven. The knob breaks in two into my hand. I pull a pair of pliers from the gadget drawer and twist the naked spike to turn on the oven. I toss the pieces of knob into the gadget drawer to deal with tomorrow.
“Wine?” I ask
“Please” says Dahlia.
In the kitchen light I noticed the dark circles under her green eyes.
“You look tired. Do you want to spend the night?”
She hesitates “You just moved in, I don’t want to impose.”
“The guestroom is ready and you won’t have to drive back to the springs tonight”.
“No problem, I like saying, oh just stay in the guestroom in my best fake British accent”.
“Yes, please have the maid draw me a warm bath and then have the butler bring the carriage around”
Our laughter fills the kitchen.
“How are you sleeping, sometimes it takes a while to sleep in a new house, different sounds and noises” Dahlia asks.
“ I sleep better that I ever have. I feel like this house has been waiting for me” “It’s a strange thing to say but it’s how I feel.”
I pull a bottle of Pinot Grigo out of the cupboard and while roaming around in the gadget drawer, I nick myself on a ragged edge of the broken knob. I pull my hand away bleeding. I point to Dahlia, corkscrew is in there, watch out for the broken knob.
“I’m going upstairs I will be right back.”
Opening the medicine cabinet, I pull out a box of band aids. I wash my hand. My index finger has a two-inch gash, long but not deep. I wrap two band aids tightly around and the pressure stops the bleeding. I rinse the blood from the sink and head downstairs.
“You really love this house.” Dahlia says handing me a glass of wine.
“Some days I come in, look around think this is mine.”
“You should be proud of yourself bought a house by yourself and only 32. You worked damn hard.”
“We moved around a lot as a kid, so it’s comforting to know that I have something permanent”
A flashback of boxes with broken lids stacked haphazardly in a filthy apartment, cracked windows, gaping holes in linoleum so old it is colorless. I quickly blink the memory away.
Dahlia kicks off her pink ballet flats sat down on the couch and tucks her long legs beneath her.
We click glasses “To you, Jessica Culbertson, Happy Home”
I smile and took a sip dry and crisp.
“So go get the box and let’s see what’s in it”.
“What kind of person ties perfect knots exactly four inches apart?”
“My guess an autistic nuclear physicist?”
“I think that’s redundant” Dahlia replies
“I have been getting tons of junk mail and e-mail since I bought the house, ads for this, discounts for that. Some company even tried to sell me a mechanical dog barking machine, to scare away burglars. The slogan was “all bark and no crap”
I clip the taut string it slip off easily. I throw it at Dahlia. “Watch out for spiders” the string lands on her thigh.
EWWWW!!!!She picks it up with two fingers and plopst on the coffee table, leaving a tangled mess. I rip off the brown paper and cut through the packing tape. Handwriting in blue fountain pen on a white envelope. Jessica Who handwrites? Who owns a fountain pen and actually uses it?
“Read it out loud” she says.
Dear Ms. Culbertson;
We have never meet. My father Matt Brierly, was a photographer in Los Angeles in the late 50s. He recently passed away. Cleaning out his office, I found this photograph with the name and date on the back. You are the only person I could locate who is about the correct age named Culbertson. I hope you are the right Culbertson It could be one of your relatives. No one ever picked up the photograph. I thought you might like to have it.
P.S. My father took pride in capturing special moments, he was especially proud of this photo. A framed copy sits on my desk. My father was a good man and I miss him.
White paper crackled as I dug through for the photo.8 x 10 bottom edges curling inward. The photo was neither black or white but varying shades of sepia tones blurring together into a soft haze. A young woman, long brown hair straight to her shoulders, wide set eyes looking up in wonder, the linen dress hides a full bosom and long legs, soft pleats in the front billow softly to trim ankles. Ankle socks edged in lace, white Mary janes, she seems to teeter on the narrow precipice between girl and woman. Full lips edged into a half smile, gazing expectantly into the path holding her future. I turn it over. The back is yellowed and cracked, written in bold handwriting in fountain pen;
5/ 11- 1958 Temple Park
I took her picture and gave her my contact info. Name: Linda Danson
She called 6/22/1959 asked for proof said her new last name was Culbertson
Proof sent 6/28/ 1958 no response.
Resent to same address 7/22/59
1/22/60 negative and proof archived.
“ Matt Brierly One Precious Moment Photography” was printed on the bottom.
“Do you recognize this woman, is she a relative?
My eyes roam slowly over every inch of the photo. Those eyes. It was the half smile that confused me. I remembered her lips always twisted into a grimace. Her eyes darting back and forth searching for the next thing that was sure to disappoint her.
“This is a picture of
I hesitate to say, afraid her name will burrow into my walls.
“This is a picture of Linda”
Dahlia sat up “Your mother, I have never heard you say anything about your mother.”
I thought she died when you were young. What a great surprise to get a photo of her you never knew existed. Tell me about her.”
My mind wanders back, last time I thought of her I was sitting outside a dressing room in H and M waiting for Dahlia. A red headed girl of about twelve all angles and doubt bravely twirled out of the dressing room in a gauze blue dress full of flattering princess seams. She rushed over and threw her arms around her mother,” thank you so much. I love it.”
I remember watching them as one would look at an animal in the zoo they had never seen before. Cocking your head and thinking I wonder what that is? The girl scurried back into the dressing room.
The mother looked at me and said “you remember being 13, all that angst , you have to just be patient and love them through it”
“ After divorcing my dad three months after I was born, she married several other men, their names and faces all blur together. I wanted to live with my dad. She did everything to prevent that. So, my dad and I went through a year of court battles, ugly scenes. I finally got to live with Dad when I was sixteen. She never spoke to me again and died a few years ago.”
Dahlia cocked her head.
“You must have one nice memory from when you were young.”
I shake my head.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you; I was just curious”.
With a fury I hadn’t known I possessed I spit out;
“Would you like to hear about the time I came home from school sick and she locked me out of the house because she was in bed with her husband’s best friend. Or would you rather hear about when I ate dried mashed potato flakes for a week because there was no food in the house, she spent all the grocery money on vodka.?”
Dahlias brown eyes widened
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t know any of this.”
I turn my back afraid to continue looking at her. “You don’t know any of this because I don’t talk about it.”
“I’m sure he sent the photo with the best of intentions.”
“Of course, he did he thought he was sending it to a daughter who could look at it and say “Look at my mom when she was young and happy.” I blurt out failing to keep the sarcasm from my voice.
“I really am sorry” Dahlia put her arms around me I lean into her warmth and rest my head on her shoulder.
“It’s okay. You couldn’t know”. I say softly.
“Come on let’s put the pizza in the oven and watch a movie.”
“My favorite chick flick.”
We spend the rest of the evening mocking Julia Roberts as she screwed up over and over trying to find love.
My eyes burst open slowly adjusting to the black of my bedroom. The red light of the bedside clock flash 3:12 a.m. I brushed sweat soaked hair out of my eyes. My skin is greasy, my eyes raw. Blankets huddle at the bottom of my bed. Stumbling into the bathroom I look in the mirror. I can’t seem to focus. Blood from my thumb nail drips into the sink. I have a picked a ragged gash while sleeping.
Take a deep breath, I tell myself, now another one and another, fill your lungs all the way up, hold it for four seconds, breathe out all your anxiety in six long slow breaths. One, two, three, four, five, six. My skin begins to cool, my heart beat slows and the pounding in my ears fades one beat at a time.
It’s her, it has to be HER. I race downstairs to the living room and pick up the photo clenching it with both hands, I want to rip the photo into a hundred pieces, drive a thousand miles away, bury it a million miles deep into the ground. Before I can rip it in two, it my eyes rest on the slogan “one precious moment in time” I place the photo on the kitchen table, walk over to the computer do some web surfing and then begin;
I found your e-mail address on linked in. I received the photograph. It was thoughtful of you to take the time to track me down and send it. I was happy to see that you are continuing your fathers business. I am returning the original photograph to you. Your father must have been an extraordinary man to capture such an exquisite moment in time.
I do not know the woman in the picture.
Finishing I cross my arms over the keyboard and lay my head down on my arms. I did not hear Dahlia creep down the stairs. She lays her open palm on my shoulder and begins gently rubbing in small smooth circles.
Breathe Jessica, just breathe. We remain that way, my friend and I, me breathing and her comforting me until the morning light breaks through the living room window casting a beautiful glow into my home.