“Is that you?” a bearded patron inquired after Grice served him a beer.
Without bothering to turn around to look at the framed photograph hanging on the wall, he shook his head.
“That’s not you in the picture?”
“If it were, I wouldn’t be here,” he cracked, as he often did when someone asked if he was the tense young man holding the hand of an even tenser young woman as they leaped off the edge of a sandy cliff. “I can’t swim.”
“So they’re jumping into water, are they?”
“I don’t know what else they’d be jumping into.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
Not replying, he picked up a coffee mug and slowly wiped a water spot from the handle.
“Don’t you know those people?”
“So why do you have their picture hanging on the wall?”
“It was there when I bought this place six months ago and I never saw any reason to take it down.”
“Huh,” the patron grunted, not entirely satisfied with his explanation, and leaned back from the photograph. “I’m reminded when I was their age … when I didn’t have a care in the world and believed I could do whatever I pleased, leap off a cliff if I liked, and nothing bad would happen to me. It’s nice to feel that way again even if it’s all nonsense.”
Again, he did not reply, having heard other patrons voice similar sentiments about the photograph. Indeed, they were close to the ones he had when he first saw it but not anymore. It seemed as alien to him now as some ancient drawing on the wall of a cave.
Grice was as curious about the identity of the couple in the photograph as any of his patrons and right away asked Henry, the person he purchased the roadside bar from, who they were but he said he had no idea. Seeming a little embarrassed, he said he hung it up because it quickened his pulse whenever he looked at it.
“Put a little hop back in my step,” he claimed.
A few weeks after he took over the bar, he met a patron who thought she recognized the woman in the photograph. She wasn’t absolutely sure but believed the woman had a table at the outdoor market held weekends at Riverfront Park.
“You know her name?”
“Sorry, I don’t.”
“What does she sell?”
“Sweaters and scarves she’s knitted.”
Not that weekend, but the following one, he paid a visit to the market at Riverfront Park with the framed photograph inside his backpack. There were many more tables and stalls set up at the east end of the park than he expected so it took him a while before he found someone selling her own knitting. At first, he wasn’t sure the woman at the cardtable was the one in the photograph. Her face was much fuller, her hair shorter, and there were some creases around her eyes. He had to look at her for a couple of minutes before he was persuaded she might be the young woman in the photograph.
“Good morning,” she said as he approached her table.
Promptly, she found a green and red scarf among the pile of scarves on her table and held it up to him. “You’d look even more handsome with this around your neck.”
Smiling, he took the scarf and pressed it against his left cheek. “It’s very warm.”
“It better be, for all the work I put into it.”
He took out his wallet and handed her a ten dollar bill.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, handing him back four dollars. “I hope you enjoy it.”
“Oh, I’m sure I will,” he replied, folding the scarf into his backpack. “I’d like to ask you a question, though, if I might?”
“A few months ago, I bought this bar out on McNary Road and hanging on a wall was this photograph.” He then pulled it out of his backpack and set it on the table. “And I’m wondering if that’s you holding hands with the young man?”
“Lord,” she gasped. “I haven’t seen this in years.”
“So it is you?”
She snickered. “Oh, yeah, it’s me all right. I don’t know if I ever did anything so foolish.”
“You say this is hanging in your bar?”
“Yes. It was there when I bought the place and I didn’t really have any reason to take it down until today when I brought it here.”
“You know, for a few days this picture seemed to be everywhere in town. Someone at Diamond Lake that day my boyfriend and I did this took our picture and sold it to the paper and a couple of days later it appeared on the front page under the headline ‘Summer Is Here.’”
“Were you pretty high up when you jumped?”
She nodded, still looking at the photograph. “I’m not sure why but Jason thought it would be a good idea. It wasn’t, though. I hit the water so hard I thought I was going to faint.”
She paused, seemingly absorbed in her memory of the jump. And the longer she looked at the photograph the deeper the creases around her eyes became and the older she grew.
“You familiar with Ricketts Bridge?”
He thought a moment. “It crosses Wildcat River, right?”
She nodded. “It’s one of the oldest bridges around here.”
“Maybe the oldest.”
“Anyway, a couple of weeks after Jason and I jumped into the lake, he wanted to jump off Ricketts Bridge. Thank God, I had enough sense to refuse, even though he really wanted me to do it with him. I tried to talk him out of it but once he made up his mind to do something there was no changing it. So I rode out with him to the bridge and watched him jump.” Again she paused, tightening her grip on the photograph. “He hit a rock and snapped his spine, and I had to pull him to shore because he couldn’t move his legs.”
A kid on stilts then staggered past the table, twanging a jew’s-harp.
“I couldn’t believe it and neither could he,” she stammered, her eyes edging with tears. “He was in a wheelchair almost two years then one night, whether deliberately or not, he fell out of it and cracked his head on an end table and bled to death.”
“My God,” he muttered. “That’s terrible.”
“Jason was a very troubled kid and sometimes I wonder if he jumped because he wanted to escape his demons in some daring way.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t jump with him.”
“I know. Believe me, I know.”
“I promise you I won’t hang the photograph back on my wall.”
“Oh, no, sir, do hang it if you wish,” she said quickly. “This is the way I always want to remember Jason, all crazy and alive. As I said, he was a pretty mixed-up young man who wanted to live every day as if it were his last. And I’m sure he would’ve enjoyed seeing this picture of us on your wall.”
Nodding, he slipped the photograph back into his backpack and stepped away, feeling almost obliged to hang it up again.
-T R Healy-