Short story that was written for a WdC contest about two years ago.
| Our Effulgent Little Family
From her seat on the couch, Carol leaned over the coffee table and leafed through the volumes in front of her one by one. When she came to a book that she knew already, she would decide whether it was one that she wanted to keep or not and put it in the appropriate stack on the floor. The interesting ones were perused somewhat more thoroughly than the others before she made her decision. Her university professor father had acquired many books in his lifetime, and she was the only one of his children that wanted to take possession of any of them. Her newly widowed step-mother, Sally, had told her that she was welcome to any that she wanted. It was the day after her Dad's funeral, and she found herself pausing and staring into space from time to time, her mind blank, her energy momentarily drained. A few feet away in the kitchen, her elder sister, Beth, Sally, and Beth's partner, Kit chatted while they did dishes. "The boys," her brother John, and Sally's son, Rick, were on the porch beyond the apartment's open front door swapping stories. She caught bits and pieces of each conversation, but paid little attention to either. Every so often an agreeable Golden Retriever named Pallie would come put his nose on her lap and wait to be petted. If she did not respond, he would nudge her a couple of times before he gave up and walked away.
It was a very sad time for Carol even though her father's death had not come as a surprise to anyone. He had terminal cancer, and he had hung on for longer than expected. Now his passing was generally considered a blessing because his suffering was finally at an end. But for Carol, the thought that her mother did not feel comfortable attending the funeral of the man to whom she had been married for twenty-five years - the man with whom she had four children - made the business almost unbearable. Her mom had sent flowers and a card, that's all. And Rhonda, who at thirty-two was the youngest child, did not make the trip from Hong Kong, where she lived with her British husband and their two-year old fraternal twins. Carol and her attending siblings had stayed in town an extra day or so to go through their father's personal effects and claim the ones that they wanted, pending Sally's approval. The will had left everything to Sally to dispose of as she saw fit, but why would she want his college yearbook or most of the books in his massive library? After all, he was a Philosophy professor, and she didn't know Kant from Aquinas.
Carol was a professional librarian and a self-published poet who was active in writer's groups in the Midwestern city that she resided in. Quiet and very courteous, she was not unattractive; but she was plain by choice: dark-rimmed glasses, little make-up and modest, conservative apparel. At thirty-five her light brown hair was slowly turning white and marriage and a family of her own were beginning to look like a long shot. Most of the members of the writer's groups were female; and she had tried online dating a time or two; but it had not worked out so well. She had quit going to church when her parents had stopped twenty years earlier; and when they had divorced five years after that in the wake of her father's affair with his secretary, Sally, she had lost interest in dating for a few years at just the time when she would have had her best chance of finding a good match. Now she cherished the memory of her childhood family, and she longed to finally meet her distant niece and nephew for the first time. In one of her poems she had used the phrase, effulgent little family, in reference to a litter of doomed creatures in the wild; but when she had written those words, she had in part been thinking about her own.
Outside the front door, she heard John brag about seeing an event at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City a decade or so earlier only to be one-upped by Rick who had fairly recently returned from London where he had scored tickets to the Men's Steeplechase Final and a day's worth of Greco-Roman Wrestling elimination bouts in the 2012 Olympics. Carol's curiosity was piqued for a time, and before long the boys were talking about a certain Hollywood actor that John had seen at "McGuilicutty's there on Colfax in Denver on St. Patrick's Day."
"You should have seen him," John said. "He's a midget - couldn't be more than five-four."
"Yeah, I know he's small," Rick replied. "Did you talk to him?"
"Oh, hell no; you should have seen all of the women fawning over him. I couldn't get close."
Carol thought that if anybody on planet earth had been to as many important "cultural" events as John, it could only have been Rick. John was a prospering real estate agent who had acquired quite a few choice rentals, and was two years her senior. He was single and seemed quite averse to the idea of marriage. Rick was in his lower forties and an officer in the Air Force. He was divorced from his Korean wife and had two energetic, all-American teenage daughters who had driven a few hundred miles for the funeral out of a sense of duty to their grandmother. They had returned home the previous evening.
Carol put the book that she had been examining in the rejection pile, and picked up the ancient family Bible. It of course was a keeper, but she felt the desire to open it anyway. When she did, it fell naturally to Ecclesiastes, chapter 3. There was a picture between the pages. It was Mom and Dad, and they were standing on a sidewalk in front of a somewhat familiar brick fence. They were embracing. Both were grey so it could not have been too many years before. But they had been divorced for fifteen years now. Where could it have been? Momentarily she was confused and then she remembered. Of course, it was at Rhonda's wedding, just five years ago. Now she remembered the fence in front of the hall where the wedding had taken place. So Mom and Dad had some private time away from Sally and everyone else that weekend. But who had taken the picture?
She put the photograph back in The Holy Bible in the same place that she had found it, and placed the book on the top of the stack of books that she intended to keep. She was a little concerned that Sally might come into the living room and see her looking at the picture. She thought that maybe Dad had placed it in The Bible because there was little chance that Sally would ever find it there. There was something else that was strange about it, however. The couple was at the center of the photo, and everything other than the fence, everything in the distance - the trees, the street, etc. - was blurred. Carol wondered how the photographer had achieved that effect. Was it intentional? She suddenly wanted to look at more photographs to see if this effect was common. Strange she had never really noticed that kind of thing before.
That evening Carol met Beth and Kit at a local Indian restaurant for dinner. The three siblings had taken all of the memorabilia of their Dad's that they wanted and Sally had objected to none of it. At dinner, Carol and Beth talked about the painful divorce, about their evolving attitudes toward Sally, about the devastation to Dad's career that the affair had engendered - he had left a tenured position at a major university and ended up at a community college hundreds of miles away from the nearest members of his family. They then reminisced about their early childhood before Dad had gone to graduate school and gotten his PhD, while he still worked as a high school teacher, as Mom did as well back then. They were happier back then, Carol suggested.
"Well I have a picture of just us kids at the old house," Beth responded. She reached into her purse and pulled out a photo from thirty years before. They were all mugging except for Rhonda, who was just two. Beth, at ten, looked as though she was clearly up to no good. Carol and John were dripping wet, but laughing. They were on the front lawn and somebody, probably Beth, had just squirted them with the garden hose. Mom and Dad were in the background about thirty feet away sitting on the front porch. There was no blur with the distance.
"Who took this picture?" Carol asked.
"You remember Bobby Thornton; he lived down the street."
"Oh, that jerk, how could I forget him!"
"It was him, believe it or not. Dad had a camera with him and I asked him to take one, but he said: 'Get Bobby to do it, I'm tired.' So Bobby took the picture, and surprisingly enough, did not botch it."
"There is another picture that I found in the old family Bible while I was going through Dad's books this afternoon. It was Mom and Dad embracing, and it was not too long ago. I decided that it must have been at Rhonda's wedding. You remember that pretty brick fence in front of the reception hall? They were standing right in front of that. I can't imagine who took that one," Carol pondered.
Beth paused for a few seconds and looked down at her rice and curry. "I did," Beth said. "I was down the street, probably about thirty yards away. I was kind of hiding behind a tree. They did not see me."
"Wow! That's amazing. How did Dad get it?"
"I sent both of them copies anonymously and claimed to be a photographer that had just happened to be strolling by when they embraced. I wrote that I had inquired about their names and that some of the people in the neighborhood had known who they were and told me. I'm not sure whether they believed me or not, but they both got copies. I like the picture. I blew it up and put it on my bedroom wall."
"Yes, she did," Kit stated with an air of mock perturbation.
"That's crazy," Carol exclaimed. She felt like crying, but she did not let it show. She wanted to be alone.
She thought about the critters that had inspired her poem. They were wolf pups, she remembered. She had seen them in a National Geographic article about endangered species. She wondered what had become of that little canine family.
"I have a question for you, Beth," Carol said.
"I noticed that the picture that you took of Mom and Dad had kind of a blurry background, but this one does not. I don't know much about photography, but I'm wondering. Is that effect intentional?"
indent}"Of course it is. Like I said, I had to zoom in on them from a distance. That makes them the center of the portrait, and everything in the background kind of fades," Beth stated with some authority.
"Well, I am sure that is right. I probably should have thought of it myself."
You learn new things all the time.
"I'm so glad Dad's suffering is over," Carol offered towards the end of the meal, after a long period of silence.
"So am I," Beth replied.
"But I wish Mom could have been here," Carol said sadly.
"Not a good idea with Sally," Beth asserted, and then looked earnestly at Kit.
"Well, I think it is about time for us to be going," Kit said on cue. "We have a drive in front of us, and it's already starting to get dark."
Carol silently assented and looked down at the table as the other two women picked up the bill and turned to leave. You don't have to do that, she thought; but she could not bring herself to say anything.