“Black Spaces in the Picture”
By Alexa Curnutte
Our dark porch lingers in the camera flash. Blue painted slats, red trimming, brick steps. When I look at the picture I imagine Mom taking it. Dad probably wasn’t there. My brother, Chance, and I are grinning down at the camera through the white rise of our cheeks, flushed deep pink from the October cold. It’s Halloween. Chance is Buzz Lightyear. I’m a fairy. My small hands clutch the white plastic end of my wand, iridescent strings floating down my knuckles. Chance’s black mask is crooked. If you look closely you can see that he stands oddly on one leg, shifting his weight off center. The clubbed foot, after surgeries and casts, is still struggling to become normal. My ears stick out like broken egg shells and my calves have already begun to bow outward. Our costumes glow against the small shapes of our bodies.
Most Halloweens Dad was deployed. Christmases. Birthdays. The ‘Take 1!’ sign behind us is in Mom’s long cursive. Behind that is a pumpkin mask on the door. It’s eyes are blank, barely feasible in the worn out paper of the Kodak. Life hovered like that, in the background. As children we waited for phone calls, a knock on the door to sneak up on us. Anything that moved suddenly.
Autumns like the one in this photograph were quiet, but summers hummed with energy. Distracted us. We survived on Walmart runs, metal carts full of frozen beef and bandaids. I was an army daughter among army sons. The boys had orange tipped plastic guns. On Saturdays they played war, and I became familiar with the sting of Bbs on my legs. We ran through the thick pines, unaware of the cumbersome way our young limbs moved. Under a canopy of green needles and oak leaves we tried to imitate our fathers. We came home and chewed watermelons, spitting the smooth seeds through our lips and sucking on the rind. August storms roll down slowly in North Carolina. I could always smell them coming. Grey eyelashes of thunder and lightning curled from the clouds. The raindrops were cold, stung our burnt cheeks. Mud itched at our ankles, made us slip and met our ribs with an earthy fist. Chance and the others boys taught me how to take a hit, that if you didn’t come home for dinner bleeding, you were doing it wrong. A group of kids with needles in their lungs after impacting with the ground. Every now and again someone would disappear from the mix. When a father came home you wouldn’t see the kid for a day or two, but you’d get some of the grocery store cake they bought later on. You listen, and you wait.
Mom cut her hair short and brought us to Sunday school. We ate homemade bread and Jif peanut butter, rubbed dandelions on our wrists to see if we liked butter. When September came and school started I was lost at home without Chance, so she carried me on her hip. I’ll never know how lonely it was for her. What it was like to keep the TV on in the house just to have some noise. I hung upside down from the kitchen counter and we talked about Jesus, waiting for 3 o’clock. She kept us going with all the energy of hell and the most loving touches of two palms in prayer.
Looking back, I think those were the bravest years of our lives. Bravery in a family like ours is the holy water, the wine, as important as the flag on our porch and as simple as learning to tie shoes. I learned that being tough meant keeping up. Each October we bought costumes, filled bowls with candy, and decorated the house without Dad. We read bedtime stories about goblins and witches. Mom watched another explosion on the news after we’d fallen asleep. She was a fisherman of our father, pulling on her line ever unceasingly and always clear. Always leaving my window open so I could hear crickets, slipping something that would make Dad laugh into the cardboard boxes we sent him. The strongest thing to do was to make decisions. Leave your family to fight. Become a single mother for a while and pray every night, just please, God, for your partner to come home. Stop being afraid of the dark.
And eventually, from somewhere in the noise, a call would come. It sent our blue car racing into the night, orange streetlights glimmering mute rays onto my sleepy lap, the heat of a pizza box hot on our thighs to keep us full and warm. To give something to Dad to make him warm.
We’d get through the gates, suddenly full of heat. Bitings our lips, stretching our heads to see out the window. And there he was. I was always surprised by his face. Something about the color of midnight against his dark skin, the flatness of his nose. The reflection of the headlights in hazel colored eyes, hard. I could never remember the camouflage man getting back into the car with us. His arms fit differently around us as we grew. We were taller. He was quieter.
Getting home, we congregated in the kitchen. The lights were kept dim. After a few minutes the dogs went back to sleep. His towering shoulders fell as mountains do onto the kitchen counter, propping up all the parts of himself that he momentarily could not. Chance and I asked questions softly, our pale hair tangled from our night adventures. There, in the lamp light, hands pressed against our alphabet table mats, we learned about death. And sacrifice- the nature of our family and friends. What the solid feeling in our stomachs and the hollow straw wheedlings of our chest meant. Dad, an odd, rather large man that smelled of foreign worlds, bore bruises deeper than the Dead Sea under his eyes, that appeared from behind metal doors in the hours before the angels woke up. He taught me what it meant to be gone forever.
I don’t know why I’m talking about this. Why I can’t separate the right from the wrong- different noises in the radio static, his laughter, him telling me good night. But some of it seems kind of wrong. That we had to wait for our fathers, our mothers for their husbands. The valleys and rifts in my memory that he does not occupy. Clearly I see a hospital bed and the wrinkles near Mom’s lips, feel the hope that they were from too much sun and not pain. I see the dark mass of shrapnel lodged in his thigh, the size of my thumb nail. In my head I hear sirens and bombs from base and wet sobs leaking through bedroom doors. But I can’t see him.
Through all this, I can tell you that if I understand only one thing, it’s emptiness. The air between Mom’s cupped hands and the camera, pressing the button, a sudden fluid flash that breaks through particles of light and glues their color down The hues that, in the confusion, were lost. Every opportunity for the universe to fill something with void and peace- a letter that has only three words on the page. I wrote him ‘I miss you’, and all the words in between that went missing made my blue pen say so much more.
In the end, my father always returned from this negative space. He always came back. Sometimes, somebody wouldn’t. The older we became the more our hands felt the kiss of stained wood and copper, engravings telling us things our souls already knew. That the life we lead is a short one. The men have tattoos and the women put Atlas to shame. That my father insists that in this life there is good, and there is evil. That, that there is all there is.
Helicopters pass overhead and we know a weight. It’s familiar, fits into our shoulders, almost subtle enough that we don’t feel it anymore. Mom pushed against it, held our hands when our tonsils choked us and our legs gave out. When Dad’s absence seemed stronger than any phone line parting ways into an unknown desert. Watched as we got older and came to know the ghosts that follow soldiers who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death and come out on the other side.
The last homecoming we ever had to wait for came when I was seven. Mom watched through the lens of her camera dancing silhouettes of duffel bags being unloaded from a truck, the low hanging axel grating on asphalt, causing sparks to shoot up. Impatient wives and children jostled the focus for a moment. The whine of jet engines sung far above our heads, invisible in the black sky. We held each other’s clammy hands, groping our way through the mass of people gathered in dark blue light.
Chance and I strained to see the large tan doors they’d be coming from. Mom encircled my brother and I against her side, white knuckled from waiting. The air entering our lungs felt combustive and my eyes began to well up. Just when we felt we could take no more, throttled out in suspense, they emerged. Laughter and cries surged up over the dark in a giant, quivering wake. We ran, our bodies like missiles colliding into him, breath shooting out in a pressured gust. We sealed our arms, hot tears pooled in our mouths, forming Dad over and over again. Shaking, fists hooked around his rough uniform. We made it.
Now, all that’s left of our emptiness is innocent and blurry; my mother finding ways to put down her camera. To walk down the street with us, hand in hand, courageous.