It is a dance they've seen him perform many times before, in all
its tiresome permutations. It's so easy for him thinks
the photo of Jeff with the Marlin, Hawaiian sun beating down coldly
on his frozen snapshot smile. And he is right. They all know he's
right. It is so easy for him, the man out in the room. He moves
to the liquor cabinet, asks over his shoulder
"Sure I can't get you one?"
The cabinet's drop-front lid comes forward to rest on its catches,
revealing the glittering array of crystal stemware suspended above
bottles: tall bottles, squat bottles, clear and colored, amber and
green, standing rank on rank, awaiting orders. The light from the
gas-jet fireplace plays on the facets and edges before moving across
the room to be the glimmer in her eyes.
Helen smiles a pretty smile and suggests a gin and tonic. Jeff grins, pouring
himself yet another whiskey before hummingly mixing her request.
She stands, straightening the blue sheath of her dress and walking
over to the gallery of photos. She moves slowly from one to the
next and her eyes are wide and green, just as Jeff likes them to
be. Just as they all like them to be. She inspects the pictures
while behind her Jeff ups the ratio of gin to tonic. She comes to
the picture of Jeff as a College Running Back and the others hear
the youthful photo think God what a face, what a fucking beautiful
face. The others agree. It is a shame that this pretty face
will never return, but they never do. That's the way Jeff likes
Helen moves to Jeff the Soldier, regarding the figure clad in sand-cami
fatigues as he stands in front of his Humvee. Her voice is calm
"Were you in the service?" she asks, turning.
"Yeah," Jeff says with a nod. "I served in the Gulf."
He does not mention that his role was Stateside, that the photo
was taken in Southern California, or that his participation was
not voluntary but a court-ordered option to DUI jailtime. Instead,
he brings her the drink, crystalline cubes in clear liquid, a twisted
ribbon of green and yellow rind floating near the rim. She takes
the drink. She smells it but does not sip it.
How's he going to do it tonight? wonders Jeff the Soldier.
The Lure? The Clinch?
No, thinks Jeff with the Marlin. It'll be the Straightforward.
She's too smart for the Lure.
Jeff points to the photo next to Jeff the Soldier: the shoulder-padded
youth being carried on his teammates shoulders, Jeff the Young Achilles.
"That was Homecoming, my senior year. I was MVP. Scored five
TD's," but she is already moving away.
She takes her drink to the balcony and they all watch her buttocks
and they all, strong flesh and framed emulsion alike, whistle silently
in appreciation of such a form. The man in the room tosses off his
fourth tumbler of Jack Daniels and follows the woman in the sapphire
dress. He places his hands on her shoulders as they regard the view.
The twinkling of lights scattered in a carpet of deep shadow. The
glow of the well-set sun fading from the soon-to-be starry sky.
"Venus," he says, pointing to the blue-green gem above
the horizon. She nods and sips her drink. She does not comment on
its strength. He pulls back her dark curls and places his lips on
the nape of her neck. From their place on the wall, the pictures
see her breasts rise in a sharp intake of breath, the thin fabric
of her dress taut. She turns. They kiss. So fucking easy
thinks the image of Jeff on his Jet Ski. There's no sport in
it. Jeff's hands move downward, pressing her flesh.
She pulls back from him, sloshing her drink on the balcony. She places a manicured
hand on his chest, polished nails gleaming in the last of the twilight.
The gallery cannot hear what she says, but they see her sweet, apologetic
smile and the slow shake her head. It'll be the Clinch, then
sighs the photo of the Jeff at the Boat Show. When Jeff's arms wrap
about Helen's waist and his mouth descends like a black void, eager
to swallow her soul, the pictures are not surprised.
The hand that is between the pair pushes Jeff away and the remainder
of the too-strong gin and tonic flashes up, an arc of starlit liquid
that splashes into his face and makes him cry out in pain and anger.
Helen moves quickly toward her purse and coat, nestled safely in
the arm of the sofa but he is quicker, closing the gap, grabbing
her outstretched arm. The purse and coat fall to the foyer tiles
and she is spun about by a yank from his arm.
The image of Jeff as a Boy, tow-headed, grinning, holding up the
stringer of freshly-caught trout, whimpers to himself, for he knows
what is to come.
Jeff again tries for a kiss, but she pulls back, saying "No!"
He chuckles, squints through the gin in his reddened eyes and calls
her "Babe." He lunges for her again and gets a palm slapped
across his cheek. She calls him a "fucker" and struggles
against his grip, demanding release. His rage rises, becomes poised,
ready. The pictures wish they could close their eyes; even the three
shots of Jeff the Adolescent Football Player for whom screwing struggling
nymphs in back seats was a regular post-game activity; even the
proudly beaming Salesman of the Year, his cheeks still flushed from
the exertion of his rape of the buxom receptionist in the back office
while friends outside at the party winked knowingly. They have seen
this all too often. They hate that they feel all the things that
the man refuses to feel; remorse, guilt, shame. But they cannot
change it. They can only watch in helpless agony as Jeff forces
the woman with the green eyes down onto the floor.
Jeff straddles her like a bucking horse, fending off her flailing
blows with meaty arms still strong though his hopes at a professional
sports career are long-dead. She tells him "No!" as he
pulls her dress higher and higher, exposing muscled belly and mounded
breasts. She screams "No!" as he curses her and "bitches"
her. He slaps at her; quick, fast slaps; hands ducking inside her
ill-placed guard to deliver the blows of humiliation, slaps to the
face and head, slaps used to punctuate his words.
"No one throws a drink in my face. Bitch.
You cunt." The words of his father to his mother,
the blows of the father to the son, both transmitted with doubled
fury to the thrashing woman on the deep-pile carpeting. Her screams
stop as his blows become more forceful, until she is at last nothing
but a nubile figure, arms covering head, shuddering body exposed,
The pictures can hear Jeff as a Boy thinking No, it's not right and
crying dryly to himself. He is the image of a tender boy, unable
to become inured to these scenes of rape and violence. But tears
are denied him. He too can only watch as the man strips off the
Jeff fumbles at his belt and the woman's sobs form words again.
"No, please," she begs. The man laughs; a phlegmy sound
from deep within him, lacking humanity. He knees open her legs and
lowers his half-hard prick toward her nexus. The woman he thinks
of as "green eyes black hair great ass" tries to squirm
her way out from beneath him. He holds her down and she bites his
arm. He shouts and pulls back his arm for a huge blow, but
"Stop it!" shouts Jeff as a Boy. "It isn't right!"
The man stops, hearing the Boy's voice, looking for its source.
The woman scoots backward, dress descending as she moves. The man
moves after her, the voice forgotten, but Helen sends a finely-arched
foot into his groin. He drops. She is up. She gets her purse and
coat and is gone before he can take breath.
The pictures turn their attention to Jeff as a Boy. He spoke they
think to one another. They did not even know it could be done. They
interrogate the Boy with the trout but he cannot tell them how,
only that he did. But they now know that it is possible.
Jeff moans. He rolls over and tries to rise but cannot. He lays
there for a while before gathering his strength, finally getting
to his feet and going to the bathroom to vomit. He returns, rinses
his mouth with another gulp of JD.
Bottle in one hand, his escaped quarry's panties in the other, he
sits heavily on the sofa, looking at the Boy with the fish.
He looks for a long while, slack-eyed, taking regular pulls from
the squared-off bottle. His fingers open and close on the neck,
building to a murderous pulse. Eventually he stands and weaves over
to the framed photo. He grabs the boy-image from its place on the
"Talk!" he orders. Silence.
"I'll make you talk," he promises and stares intensely at the face
of the smiling youth. The pictures feel his anger grow again and
know what is to come. They try to cushion the Boy as Jeff pours
out all his hatred and frustration in one massive psychic blow.
Jeff as a Boy calls out to the other photos Help me and
they do, each taking on a share of the hard emotions Jeff has given
out. Still, though, no sound is made. Jeff roars and raises the
picture over his head. Jeff as a Boy screams again
"Stop it!" and "Don't hurt me." The man who is the end
result of what the pictures represent releases the frame as if it
has seared him. It drops to the carpeted floor, the glass cracking.
The Boy cries out again and the pictures realize another new thing.
They can feel pain. How real are we? they ask themselves.
Jeff backs away from the whimpering boy-photo, his face rigid in
fright. The firelight touches the silver frame, dances along the
cracks in the glass. The Boy, still smiling, tearlessly offers his
catch of fish amid dry, choking sobs. The man backs up, then flees
the room, the condo, the building, leaving the door open behind
him: a wide, gaping mouth.
He returns with the dawn. The photos hear the shuffle of his feet
as he slides his way along the wall from the elevator down the corridor
and in through the still-open door. He closes it behind himself,
locking it, leaning against it, his back towards them.
When he turns it is like a blast. They see the untucked shirt, the
missing buttons. They see the mocha smear of a woman's lipstick
on his cheek, and the crusty stain of blood on his knuckles, his
clothes. They wonder who she is; who she was.
"I've got something for you" he tells the happy faces.
A wave of emotions overruns them, flowing out from Jeff to the photos
like a bursting dam. Shame, self-hatred. Visions of rape and violence
sweep out and crash against their fragile shores, saturating them.
Jeff smiles as he releases his guilt, frees himself from emotional
responsibility, but it is too much for the photos to bear. Again
it is Jeff as a Boy, the frozen reflection of this monster's youth,
who cries out
The man, their older self, stumbles forward to where the Boy lies
within his cracked-glass frame, intent on his destruction.
"Don't do it," says the image of himself as Salesman of
the Year, and
"What the fuck is this?" is Jeff's bellowed response as
he whirls to face the gallery.
The photos do not answer. They dare not. But they have forced this
confrontation and cannot run away.
"Who are you?" he roars, looking at the Salesman, the
Boy, at all of them. Silence stretches.
"Your past," says Jeff the Soldier from beside his Humvee, and they
all agree. Yes, that is truly what we are.
"Bullshit," slurs the drunken man in the room. "You're
pictures." But the wall of their silence was broken with the
Boy's first cry, and they speak
"Fuck that" they say, using coarseness so that he will
hear them, understand them; the coarseness is his own. "We're
what you were, man" intones the Jeff with the Marlin. "And
we know what you've become."
"Bullshit," he blurts again, and begins to pull them off
the wall, off the tables, off shelves. He drops them into a clashing,
shard-riddled pile near the hearth and they scream out their agony
with their new-found voices. Jeff as a Boy cries, Jeff the Soldier
curses. Jeff at the Boat Show, surprisingly, whimpers, and the Football
Players shout and yell in indignation and pain. Jeff on his Jet
Ski and the Jeff with the Marlin alternately entreat and threaten
before they, too, are ripped from the wall and tossed onto the rest
of their brethren. The man's face becomes feral as he moves about,
"I'll fucking torch you all. You're nothing but a bunch of
But they are not. They are more than that, and they know it. Jeff
knows it, too, and he fears them because of that. They know that
they must use his fear. To stall, to control. The Salesman of the
Year is ripped from the wall, a half-moon of missing sheetrock left
where a nail once was. As Jeff crosses to the hearth he hears the
photo in his hand say
"What about the others?" Jeff stops.
"The others," whispers the Salesman of the Year. "In
A cry of triumph leaps through Jeff's sluggish lips as he drops
the Salesman on the hearthstones and bounds towards the back of
the condo. A door slides open and something heavy hits the floor.
The laugh is heard again, animalistic, evil. He returns to the hearth
with a tape-sealed box, battered and dusty, the word "STORAGE"
written on its side. He rips at the top and it comes away in pieces.
Reaching inside, he rummages, then pulls, like a ghoul eviscerating
a corpse, searching for the tastiest bits.
His hands come out, filled with squares and rectangles of paper,
black and white and color, matte and glossy, Polaroid and processed.
But he drops them, wide-eyed, as the room is suddenly filled with
a dozen, a score, half a hundred voices, not all of them echoes
of his own, but all echoes of his past. His hands fly to his ears,
trying to hold back the sound, but he cannot.
The scattered pictures lay on the floor about him, memories gleaming
in the gas-jetted firelight. They are receptacles of his past. They
speak to him of more than just the events of his bygone days, but
of the emotions that he has placed within them in unsanctified trust;
the feelings that he has forced upon them, some good some bad: the
grief of the Youthful Jeff's first real loss when his black lab
was struck by a delivery truck; the flush of Jeff the Freshman after
his first kiss; the rage of all the Jeffs at the controlling, violent
father; the fury of Jeff the Graduate when the old bastard died
before peace could be made or justice rendered. Other voices tell
their tales: old friends, older enemies.
Jeff lowers his hands and reaches forward, down, to the corner of
a rag-edged old photo. He pulls it out and, after a decade, hears
the Fiancée's voice say
"I loved you."
"No, you didn't," he answers and is dispassionate. "Or
you'd have never left me."
She is afraid to convey the pain she felt, the pain of his blows,
the pain of watching him destroy his mind and dreams through drugs
and drink. "You left when I needed you most," he says,
but she cannot express her fear of him, the terror that drove her
away. She tries, but her shame ties her tongue. Jeff as a Boy, unfettered,
puts forth the words
"You hurt her," and Jeff searches for the image of the
Boy amid the pile of remembrances. "And you wouldn't stop.
That's why she left." It is simple, but it is true. The truth
now spoken, the Fiancée finds the strength to speak.
"You drove me away," she tells him from her place in his
hand. "I ended up hating you." His lip curls up on one
side. She has provoked him, prodded him, just as she always had.
The pictures know what he is thinking, for they have thought it
themselves: he sees her challenge, her honesty, as proof of the
absence of her love; he sees malice where there is only concern;
he sees spite where there is only caring.
He crumples her visage in his hands, deaf to her screams of pain
-- hadn't he always been so? He tosses the crumpled wad towards
the fire and buries his face in his hands as she screams. The crinkled
ball hits the concrete logs and bounces back, out onto the hearth.
Amazingly, after a moment she begins to uncrimp herself. The photos
are stunned as she begins to pull herself away from the fire.
We can move! The pile begins to rustle and shift as they
Jeff reacts quickly, reaching forward to the photo of the Fiancée
and tossing it far into the flames. He grabs more photos from the
settling pile -- Jeff the Camper, Jeff the Snorkler, Jeff the Student
Body President, Jeff with his Best Buddy and others -- and tosses
them, too, into the feeding fire. Screams fill the room, ravaged
screams of torture, and Jeff begins to laugh his monster's laugh,
the dancing jets of burning chemicals orange, blue and green in
A bolt of bluish light lashes out from within the fireplace, shouting
with the voices of the Fiancée, the Camper and the others.
The light hits Jeff full in the face, swirling about his head like
some coruscating python, encircling, enclosing. He screams now,
too, and the coils break up into flashing entities with faces like
the photos in the fire.
We are free they tell their brothers and sisters. In a rush they
slam back into him, their light entering him, through his mouth,
his eyes, his nose, and straight through his skin.
Jeff is the only one screaming now, and the quality of it changes.
The scream of horror shifts to one of rage, sorrow, agony. The faces
of the photos pulse across his, even the Fiancée's. Tears
flash in his eyes, his face contorting with the swell of each long-forgotten
"No," he weeps. "No. I don't want to feel this. I never wanted
to feel this." His voice rises, becomes a command.
"That's why I gave it to you." He looks down at the remaining
snapshots and they feel the onslaught of emotion as Jeff purges
himself once more, his humanity pouring out from him and into them.
It is their turn to scream.
Jeff as a Boy has had too much. His innocence has made him incapable
of taking on any more. Despite the pain, he folds himself and lifts
himself free of the glass, then begins to bugwalk toward the fire
and freedom. Others, too, choose the freedom of the flames over
an existence as guilt-filled pustules, repositories for the creature
that their images have become.
Jeff sees the march toward the firelight and divines their purpose.
He scrambles forward on hands and knees, and tries to sweep them
all aside, but they are too many. Some get through.
He is hit by the flash of light, is set back on his butt by the
force of Jeff at Tahoe, Jeff the New Year's Celebrant, Jeff as a
Boy. Their faces fly around the room before flashing back to the
man, seeping into him.
More and more of them make the final leap into the flames and Jeff
cannot stop them. He fights the emotions that wrack him. He battles
the return of his memories and guilts, but is losing. How can he
fight them? They are him. And they are streaking home.
Jeff ceases in his attempts to thwart their progress. The fireplace
is thick with their ashy corpses, but still they leap onto the pyre.
They feel the elation of their brothers as they are released from
their cruel cells of paper. They share each other's joy as they
fill the room with their light and motion before homing in on the
Jeff, face twitching with each new injection of old emotion, each
infusion of lost humanity, reaches forward to the last four photos
that lie before him, trapped in their frames of wood, silver and
glass. They shudder inwardly -- Jeff the Soldier, Jeff the College
Running Back, Jeff on his Jet Ski, and the Salesman of the Year
-- for they know that the man will dump it all into them. They must
now hold a hundred-fold of what before they barely held. But they
do not curse their dying relations for, had places been reversed,
they, too, would have been leaving them behind for the freedom of
Jeff pulls them to him. His eyes are strange. They are filled with
so much that it is hard to make sense of them. The face the photos
have seen so often, for so many years, is now a stranger's face.
They see grief, they see sadness. They see loss and regret. But
they also see joy, happiness and, they think, peace.
Jeff's hands reach to their backs. He pulls their stiff cardboard
closures free and slides them all free of their imprisoning framework.
With streaming eyes he regards them for the last time. A smile touches
his lips as he gently lays them within the searing heat.
In silence they burn, watching the face of the man as long as they
can. Jeff sits, tear-stained, smiling. Waiting.
Then comes the release. The pain of their charring is gone, the chaff that
was their prison falls away. They are one with the flame, one with
the light, and their joy is almost unbearable. They dance with the
firelight, they dance with the smoke and the air. They fly from
spot to spot, touching on all the things they have for so long seen
from their post on the far wall. We are free! But they
feel the tug of their fate, and they accept it.
Jeff waits. His smile has not faded, though it has saddened. They
fly to him, but stop before reaching him. They do not want to battle
their way home. Jeff the Man's smile changes yet again, and he nods.
They are home.