The Photograph, story by Christopher Johnson at
Benjamin Suter

The Photograph

The Photograph

written by: Christopher Johnson



Ulee looked out the window as the train crawled past dilapidated apartments with women fanning themselves on porches and holding pussycats in their laps and smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and ignoring the train, which continued on its steady progress through the South Side of Chicago. To the east, gray, angry clouds belched forth from the U.S. Steel South Works. To the west, the Chicago Skyway transported thousands of cars and trucks on their manic journeys to the distant East. The train turned east and rolled into Indiana, picking up momentum and steaming past more steel mills, and he peered with disgust at the billows of thick red smoke that hung like poison gas over Gary.
The train would pull to stops in South Bend and Fort Wayne and Toledo, continuing on its way to the Terminal Tower in Cleveland, Ohio, where his grandmother—Grandma Newman–would retrieve him for his four-day stay with her. He was twelve years old and was thrilled to be traveling by himself for the first time. The year was 1959.
He looked forward to staying with his grandmother, who was a widow. She was a living link to a past that felt exotic and romantic to him. She accepted him for who he was, perhaps because she had been on this earth long enough to know that things have a way of working out without undue stress and strictness and reprimand. She, like his other grandparents—his mother’s parents–had been born in the Victorian era, in the 1890s, an era before the explosion of automobiles and telephones and electricity.
Grandma Newman was originally from Switzerland, adding to the exoticism that he associated with her. Fischer was her last name, a common name in Switzerland. Her first name was Hilda—an ancient name. She had had three sisters and one brother, and they had all been orphans in Switzerland. Their parents had both died of influenza in the early twentieth century, and an aunt and uncle had arranged to ship the three sisters and the brother to America—and specifically to Cleveland—during the 1910s. The destination was Cleveland because a great-uncle, also named Fischer, had previously migrated to America and had established a successful sign painting company in that bustling industrial city on Lake Erie.
As the train traveled smoothly through Indiana, the landscape gradually changed to fields of corn and soybeans—fields straining toward the distant horizon, fields monotonous and implacable and empty of human life except for the occasional small figure of a farmer plowing a field. At one point, Ulee could see himself reflected in the coach window and saw himself dressed in a gray corduroy sport jacket and a tie, which his parents had insisted that he wear. It’s just a train ride, he had protested. But to no avail.
From his backpack, he retrieved the copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe that he was reading. Not for school. This was a reading choice he had made. How can you read that boring old stuff, his friends had blurted out in accusatory tones. But he didn’t care. He opened the book to the page where he had left off and almost immediately was seduced into the world of the past—the Middle Ages woven so wondrously by Scott—the world of castles and knights and maidens and jousts and swordfights. He entered that world fully and willingly and soon forgot all about the endless fields of corn and soybeans that blurred by outside the train window.
The train entered the bowels of the Terminal Tower and came to a halt, and he grabbed his backpack and suitcase, descended to the platform of the terminal, and walked to the greeting area. And there Grandma Newman was, glowing with excitement as she hugged him. She was resplendent in her flowered hat and black and pink polka-dotted dress and sturdy black shoes. She wore a mound-round face, gray hair that she tied in a bun, and stark blue eyes, which his father had inherited. Her posture was slightly stooped. She gave Ulee her hand to help her down the stairs and toward the parking lot adjoining the terminal, and her skin felt tough and leathery, worn by the years.
She had been a widow since 1932, when her husband—Ulee’s father’s father–had died. Before the Great War, she had been trained as a nurse, and she continued to work as a nurse after Grandfather Newman died. That vocation, combined with the grandfather’s life insurance, had allowed her and Ulee’s father to have a fairly comfortable and secure existence even during the bleak depths of the Great Depression.
Grandma was brisk and authoritative, like all nurses. When Ulee was sick, his mother would call her for advice. Without fail, Grandma Newman was slow to suggest a doctor. “Give him aspirin or cough medicine.” That was her advice. She was certain that he would recover from his illness. And, of course, he did recover.
She was a staunch Methodist, and her entire life was centered on the Methodist Church. She attended church every Sunday, and all of her lady friends were from the church. She was the antipode to his other grandparents, who were staunch atheists. At the age of twelve, Ulee was unsure what he believed, but he felt that he had choices presented to him by his grandparents.
From the train terminal, Grandma Newman and he walked to her car and climbed in, and began to wend their way toward Cleveland Heights, where she had lived since the 1920s. She drove with both hands firmly on the steering wheel and sat on a cushion and could barely see over the driver’s wheel, and she stared unblinkingly at the road ahead. If someone cut her off, she did not curse. Instead, she shook her head severely and tightened her lips, and emitted a brisk “tsk-tsk” at their stupidity. At the wheel, she was indomitable, fearless.
She talked to him as she drove, keeping one eye on the traffic and one eye on him. “How are you, Ulee?” she exclaimed. “It’s so wonderful to see you! You’re growing so handsome, just like your father! Yes, just like your father.”
He said, “I’m okay, Grandma. I’m all right.”
“What do you mean you’re okay. You should be great! You’re twelve years old! You’re on the cusp of the rest of your life. I’m seventy years old, and I’m on the downside of life. But you–you’re on the upside of life. Enjoy it! Take advantage of it!” She paused. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No,” he murmured. “I’m not very popular with girls.”
“Oh, nonsense!” she said. He laughed. “You’ve got to speak up to the girls. You’ve got to make them like you. You are charming and handsome, but you’ve got to make them see your qualities. You’re too shy. I can see that. Why are you shy?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Well, don’t be shy! For goodness sake, you’ve got a very charming self hidden in there, and it isn’t deep. It’s right below the surface! Don’t be afraid to show your charm!” His parents never talked to him this way. The way she talked made him laugh. He continued laughing, and she laughed with him. “Be charming, for goodness sake! You’ve got it inside you! You can practice on me while you’re staying with me this week!”
They arrived at her house in Cleveland Heights—an inner suburb that was dotted with stately Victorian houses built in the late nineteenth century and bungalows built after World War II. He was excited about staying at Grandma Newman’s house. The rooms were dark and mysterious and romantic and populated with strange and exotic furniture from an earlier era. The coffee tables were mahogany, and they bookended an uncomfortable yet intriguing sofa stuffed with horsehair. At the other end of the living room lurked a loveseat, also stuffed with the old-fashioned horsehair. Next to the uncomfortable loveseat sat a fabulous old phonograph, encased in shining cherry wood.
By the time they reached the house, the grandmother was tired. He helped her climb the steps to the back door, and she felt frail to him—more frail than he had ever felt her before. Her skin was barely hanging onto her bones. She looked at him with eyes that drooped and murmured, “Ulee, I’m going to take a nap.”
While she slept, he studied the ancient family photographs that blanketed her living room walls–photographs showing sepia-colored ancestors, including Grandma Newman’s own parents and grandparents. There was one of his father, aged about two, in which he had blond hair cut in a bowl and was wearing a dress. The photographs transported him to another time, another place. The subjects all stared stiffly and unsmilingly and wore severe, uncompromising looks.
A photograph of his Grandfather Newman sat on one of the mahogany coffee tables. His hair was severely parted on the right, and he championed a mustache that was trimmed punctiliously. He wore wire-rim glasses. A kerchief, neatly folded, nestled in the pocket of his suit coat. He stared forthrightly, even strictly, at Ulee. His lips were thin, uncompromising. He had passed away more than a quarter-century before, yet the photograph was strangely alive.
In fact, the entire house had something preternaturally alive about it to Ulee. It lived and breathed, as if it embodied the breathing soul of the past. The more he studied the photograph of his grandfather, the more piercing his eyes seemed. His face had a palpable presence; his spirit resided in the photograph. The picture was particularly sharp, even though it had been taken many decades before. When Ulee walked around the room, his grandfather’s eyes followed him.
His grandmother awoke, and soon it was time for dinner. She asked him to set the dining room table and cut flowers and arrange them in a vase in the middle of the table. She had cooked a classic dinner just for him—succulent roast beef, exquisite mashed potatoes, gravy-like volcanic lava, lavishly buttered green beans. The table was long and built of deep, rich mahogany that shone with an ancient gleam. Grandma sat at one end and Ulee to her left.
In addition, Grandma asked him to set silverware, a plate, and a wine glass at the far end of the table, facing her setting. He wondered whether someone else was coming to dinner. Would there be another guest? She asked him to pour wine into the empty glass at the far end of the table. He kept expecting another guest. She brought out the food. He served himself. Then his grandmother heaped roast beef, potatoes, and green beans on the plate at the distant end of the table.
Still no other guest. Slowly, the realization crept over him, like a cloud. The extra place setting–it was for Grandfather Newman–his dead grandfather. He stared in sudden astonishment at the empty place setting and then at his grandmother. She raised her glass of wine, and she asked him to raise his glass of milk in a toast. She raised her glass toward the empty place setting and said in a wistful tone, “After all these years, I love you, honey.” She turned to Ulee and smiled—warmly–strangely.
He stared at her, and his heart started to beat more rapidly.
Grandma proceeded to eat as if everything were normal. She asked more things about himself. How was school? He told her he was doing fine in school. “Do you like school?”
“It’s okay,” he said.
“That’s what Sonny used to say.” Sonny was her nickname for his father. “Sonny did well in school,” she said. “I can tell that you’re intelligent, just like Sonny was when he was young and in school.” She looked at the empty place setting at the distant end of the table. “Did you hear that, George? Your grandson is intelligent, just the way Sonny was!” She smiled dreamily at the empty place setting.
He stared at his grandmother, alarm narrowing his eyes.
She asked him, “Are your parents getting along?”
He had no idea what to say. It was such a strange question for his grandmother to ask. “Why, yes, Grandma,” he finally murmured. “They get along just fine.”
She nodded her head. “Why, that’s good, that’s good,” she said, as if she didn’t quite believe him. He wanted to ask her why she had asked him such a question, but he did not have the nerve.
Dinner continued. At one point, his grandmother asked him, “Ulee, is the dinner good?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“Is it as good as your mother makes?”
He didn’t know what to say. He continued looking at her, trying to figure out what was going on behind the Arctic blue eyes that so closely matched his father’s. “Well, I guess so, ma’am,” he said. “My mom cooks roast beef just fine.”
“Well, that’s good, because I gave her the recipe,” she said.
Both of them continued eating, but occasionally he stole glances at his grandmother. He noticed now that her skin was sallow, even yellow, and her eyes were surrounded by wrinkles of sadness. She bent over close to the plate as she ate, as if her shoulders weighed her down. She slowly raised her fork to her mouth and inserted the food—tiny bits of food—and chewed slowly. When she looked up, her eyes were distant. It was then, he realized, how lonely his grandmother was. The realization brought him up short, made him acutely aware of the silence in the dining room, of the ancient furniture in the house, of the empty place setting at the distant end of the table that had a plate piled with food that would go uneaten. He stared at the empty place setting, and it seemed so forlorn. He quickly turned his attention back to his own plate and continued eating.
After another short silence, his grandmother asked, “Ulee, do you happen to have a girlfriend?” He opened his mouth to remind her that they had already talked about this. But he thought better of it. He answered simply, “No, ma’am. I don’t think much about girls, to be honest with you.”
“Well, that’s fine, Ulee. That’s probably for the better. But you will have girlfriends as you get older, I’m sure, because you are very handsome. Did you know that—how handsome you are? You inherited your looks from your father.” She paused and looked at the empty place setting at the other end of the table. She tapped her fingers on the ancient mahogany table. She sighed.
Ulee could tell that she was disappearing down the rabbit hole of the past. Her voice became more distant as she reminisced. “Do you know how I met your grandfather?” she asked. “I met him during the Great War. He was a soldier serving in the war. He had been injured in France, and he was in the hospital there. Then the Army sent him back to America to recuperate in the hospital right here in Cleveland.”
She took a drink of wine, and a look of beatitude gradually transformed her face. “I was a nurse at the hospital,” she said. “I was his nurse. And do you know what happened while I was his nurse? Why, we fell in love! That’s what happened! I’ll bet you didn’t know that, did you? It was love at first sight, I tell you! It really was! It really was!”
She smiled and lifted her half-filled wine glass toward the empty place setting at the other end of the table, and she smiled forlornly at the empty setting. “It’s hard to explain, Ulee,” she sighed. “But we just found it so easy to talk to each other. Your grandfather was so intelligent and so handsome. We fell in love with each other very quickly, as if our love were preordained. Do you know what that means, Ulee?”
He shook his head.
“It means that God intended for our love to happen. He in His all-seeing power intended for your grandfather and me to fall in love. And we did fall in love! We did, almost right away!” She paused. “We were so very happy in the hospital in Cleveland where we fell in love! And when I would come in at night to change your grandfather’s dressing—do you know what we would do?”
He slowly shook his head.
“Why, we would kiss. We would exchange the sweetest, most delicate kisses.”
As he stared at his grandmother, he could see that she was both there and absent. He wanted to reach out and jerk her dress and yank her back to today. But he thought better of it, as if he would harm her by breaking the spell of the past. As she spoke, something in her eyes moved him profoundly. He stopped eating and stared at her. “Yes,” she said, “your grandfather and I shared the most wonderful kisses as he recovered from his injuries–his serious injuries. We swore that we would love each other for all time. And we did. We did!” She paused and nodded toward the far end of the table. “We have loved each other ever since.”
They finished dinner. Ulee helped his grandmother clear the table and put away the food. She carefully cleared away the empty place setting at the far end of the table, and she lifted the glass of wine that she had poured and drank the wine in one gulp and smiled at the empty place setting.
She walked a bit unsteadily into the kitchen to clean the dishes, but Ulee stayed behind in the dining room. He sat at the dining room table. He suddenly wished that his mother and father were there. He had never seen his grandmother so naked in her loneliness, and the sight frightened him. Somehow, his parents would know what to do, how to help his grandmother. His father would know how to cheer her up, how to retrieve her from the past.
Once his grandmother finished the dishes, she said it was time to listen to music. She said that she listened to music every evening before going to bed. She walked to the phonograph and opened the console and took out a record. On the way, she turned to him and said, “You’ll notice, Ulee, that I do not own a television. I owned a television once, but it made me so uncomfortable to know that little people were running around in the television box, and they were strangers to me, and I just didn’t want to have peculiar little strangers running around in my house! So I sold the television.”
Once again, he stared at Grandma. Was she joking?
She took out a recording of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony–her very favorite symphony. She told him that in the old days, she would listen to music with Sonny and Grandfather every night, and they all loved the power and majesty of Beethoven’s Seventh. He sat on the floor next to his grandmother’s easy chair, which was also stuffed with horsehair, and she put on the record, and she placed her hand delicately on his shoulder as they listened together.
He looked up, and Grandma’s eyes glistened as she listened, and she waved her hand in time with the music and tapped her feet to the sublime rhythms. She said, “I feel as if I’m there with Beethoven as he writes this gorgeous music.” A look of beatitude once again endowed her face with a metaphysical glow.
They said their good nights, Grandma and he. That night, he slept on the second floor, next to Grandma’s bedroom. The room in which he slept had been his father’s bedroom. A Cleveland Indians pennant hung on the wall, and the curtains were decorated with cowboys riding horses. The bookshelf brimmed with books that his father had read as a boy—Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. His father’s old first baseman’s mitt sat on the dresser, as did a baseball signed by Mel Harder, a star pitcher for the Indians in the 1930s. On the dresser was also a football signed by several players from Ohio State. The room was exactly, precisely as it had been when his father had been a boy.
Ulee’s sleep that night was strange—disturbed—troubled. The house itself seemed to move and settle perpetually, to be alive with groans and sighs, even hisses. He felt as if the bed were moving, as if this ancient Victorian house were restless and impatient. The sounds were soft, subtle, insistent, and they traveled to him from the far corners of the house—from the attic, from the cellar.
The sounds nudged him awake. Cracks in the foundation of the house seemed to be widening, though he knew this was impossible. He felt his bed move slightly, subtly. He dashed out of bed and ran to the window and jerked open the curtain. The full moon shone with unnatural brightness, casting a light on Grandma’s backyard and on the entire neighborhood. He returned to bed and curled up into a ball. His heart increased its rhythm. He wasn’t frightened exactly, but he was disturbed by this sense—this illusion—that the house was alive, that the house was attempting to speak to him. He heard the faint sound of footsteps. Perhaps Grandma had gotten up to go to the bathroom.
He drifted back to sleep. After some time, he was awakened once again—this time by sounds emanating from Grandma’s bedroom—sad, soft sounds of her whispered voice that penetrated the wall between them. Her voice. Whispering. Whispering in a lonely, desperate tone. Something was wrong with her.
He arose from bed, opened the door to his bedroom slowly and quietly, and tiptoed down the hall. He knew that what he was about to do was a transgression, but he was also alarmed that something might be wrong with Grandma. He came to her bedroom door. Through the door, he could hear her whispering—anguished whispers. He was driven mad by curiosity. He grasped the bedroom door handle and slowly turned it until the door was unlatched. Very, very quietly, he opened the door half an inch, then an inch, and peered into Grandma’s bedroom. Her light was off, but moonlight flooded the room.
He stared in astonishment. Grandma was sitting up in bed, in her nightdress. She was grasping the photograph of Grandfather that had been sitting on the mahogany coffee table downstairs in the living room. She grasped the photograph as if her life depended on it. She was whispering to the photograph. She whispered words that Ulee could not make out at first—and she then clasped the photograph to her thin, emaciated breast.
Tears carved paths down the surface of her pale skin. He started to understand what she was saying. “He’s a good boy!” she cried. “He reminds me so much of Sonny—of our boy!” She was talking about him–Ulee. A charge of nerves rode down his spine. “He’s intelligent, just like Sonny,” she went on, speaking to and desperately grasping the photograph. “And handsome, too!”
She paused and looked around, and he quickly and quietly shut the door so that she would not see him. His heart careened in his chest. He cracked the door open again. Grandma whispered hoarsely to the photograph, “I miss you so much! I am so tired of living without you. Why did you leave me the way you did? Why?”
Her entire body shuddered with sobs. Her shoulders shook with the violence of her sobs. She was ghostly pale in the moonlight that cascaded into her bedroom. Never had he witnessed such sadness, such despair. He felt as if he were going to start crying. He wanted to run into the bedroom and throw his arms around her. But he was afraid to.
Still, he peered through the small opening of the door. Then . . . then, as his grandmother sobbed so despairingly, a form started to appear. It grew and formulated out of the photograph of Grandfather that Grandma clasped so desperately and tightly to her breast. The figure started to appear, very vague.
He rubbed his eyes. The vague figure slowly started to take shape. The form was translucent. He could see through it—could see the moonlight filter through the figure. The figure gradually gained form—the form of his grandfather. In the moonlight, he could see that the form looked exactly as his grandfather did in the photograph—the same mustache, the same eyes, the same upright chin, the same steel-rimmed glasses.
But his grandfather’s eyes—they were softened. The shadowy figure was on the bed with his grandmother. Ulee stared in utter amazement. Slowly, the figure of his grandfather embraced his grandmother. He embraced her softly, tenderly. She returned his embrace, and gradually her sobbing stopped. They clasped one another tightly, desperately, and the figure of his grandfather spoke softly to her, and her sobbing gradually ceased. He rubbed his eyes again, certain that this was an illusion that had somehow been created by the eerie light of the moon streaming into his grandmother’s bedroom.
With trembling hands, he shut the door to her bedroom and ran back to his bedroom—his father’s bedroom—and curled up in bed. He was frightened, shivering beneath the covers in the bed. He was utterly and completely astonished. He kept rubbing his eyes. Had he seen what he had just seen? He pinched himself to see if he was awake. He could not stop shivering. He wanted to get up and run out of the house and into the street. He wished desperately that his parents were there.
He stared at the luminescent face of the clock on the dresser. 2:30. His trembling continued. He crept out of bed, tiptoed down the stairs, crept into the kitchen, warmed some milk on the stove, grabbed an oatmeal raisin cookie out of Grandma’s cookie jar. The milk soothed him. Gradually his shivering subsided. His rational brain started to work. It had all been a dream—a very bad dream. He had seen an illusion, he told himself—a trick of the moonlight—a magic trick of his imagination. It was an illusion created by the odd light of the moon that night. He stopped shivering, and the warm milk made him sleepy. He crept back upstairs and crawled once again into bed.
He slept. Fitfully. Restlessly. He dreamt. He dreamt that his grandfather floated into his bedroom and leaned over him and tapped him on the shoulder. His grandfather whispered, “Do not be troubled. Do not be afraid. It will be all right.” His grandfather smiled warmly—the opposite of the severe look he wore in the photograph on the mahogany coffee table downstairs in the living room. In his dream, Ulee could feel his grandfather’s warm hand on his shoulder.
In the morning, Ulee felt calmer. He was certain that everything that had happened the night before had been an extraordinary dream—his grandmother’s sobbing, the visitation of the figure of his grandfather, his grandfather’s subsequent appearance in the dream, his words of reassurance. It . . . had . . . been . . . a . . . dream. Ulee was certain. He felt exhausted from the night. He climbed downstairs and went to the kitchen. Grandma was not yet up, which was unusual for her. He poured himself some cereal and made toast and waited for Grandma to appear. He would have watched television, but there was no television. He read some of Ivanhoe and disappeared into the past of the Middle Ages.
Nine o’clock came. Still no grandmother. This was highly unusual for her not to be up. He tiptoed upstairs and knocked lightly on Grandma’s door. There was no answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. He slowly opened the door. There Grandma was, still asleep, lying on her back.
He walked into the bedroom, approached the side of her bed. “Grandma,” he whispered. She did not wake up. “Grandma!” he said more loudly. He touched her arm, which lay outside the confines of the blanket. Her skin was cold. He shook her hard with both of his hands. She did not move. She was cold, yet she wore a beatific look–a look as if angels had visited her. He stared at her, and tears slowly formed like tiny crows in the corners of his eyes.
He took a deep breath and reached once again to touch her. Her arm, her skin—they were so very cold, cold like ice, cold like the Arctic. The tears gathered and soon flowed down his cheeks. He grasped one of Grandma’s cold hands. He held her hand to his chest. Still, he stared at her. His tears would not cease. He knew then. He knew what he had to do. He bent down and kissed his grandmother lightly on the cheek—her cheek that felt so cold and so lifeless and yet was still so meaningful to him. She did not move.

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