by LaRue Cook
While Charley adjusted the tripod and set the timer on the new Nikon, Viola wandered the room and scanned the walls, running her fingers along the curled edges of the cream paper and cracking plaster. She stopped at a full-length mirror, shards missing from its upper-right and lower-left corners, a relic that must have belonged to the family that lived in this Victorian in its better days. She slowly outlined her reflection with her fingers, and then fluffed her curls and pressed her ruby lips together, releasing them with a slight pop. She traced the creases around her mouth, wondering how she’d let life get out ahead of her.
Viola looked down and realized she was still holding the bottle of pills. She’d popped two when Charley started all this nonsense about having their picture taken. She turned the burnt-orange plastic over in her palm, scanning the white label: THREE TIMES DAILY … CAUSES DROWSINESS … DO NOT TAKE IF YOU BECOME PREGNANT.
Charley had specifically requested she wear the white dress with tiny blue polka dots that hit her mid thigh, the one that had won him over all those years ago. He told Viola he wanted her at her best, the house at its worst, as proof later to their family and friends how far it had come. The dress was sheer, see-through in spots, in the right light. Viola always liked the way it separated her in two, showing off her high waistline and slender thighs. But her stomach was sick now, at the thought of how vain she was, how worried she’d been that she wouldn’t lose the weight and might not ever fit into the dress again.
“Wait until you see this place,” Charley said. “How beautiful it’s going to be.”
She looked up to the corner of the mirror, watching Charley spread his arms wide, lifting the coat of his brown linen suit to reveal the slightly protruding belly he’d developed on the other side of thirty. He told her that the walls were covered in potential, that he’d make the plaster as smooth as her porcelain skin. His optimism depressed her. She thought about all that could go wrong, all the money that would go into this dilapidated Victorian, money that was going into making her forget. Viola wanted to scream that he should’ve just bought them a plane ticket. But she couldn’t think of anywhere she wanted to fly. She wanted to scream that he should’ve kept the money in the bank. But she didn’t know what was worth saving for anymore. Viola wanted to scream that Charley just ought to admit that the old Victorian, the new Mercedes, this life in a strange city above the Mason-Dixon—up here where they always found her name ‘so unique’ and always wanted to hear the way she elongated the long ‘I’—was just his way of asking her to forget that toilet full of crimson.
The Victorian had its charms: a wrap-around porch and white columns that gave it the appearance of being sturdy despite its battered state. Inside was a spacious kitchen that Charley told Viola would keep her from feeling so cramped like their old galley. “You can bake all day, not even know where the time’s gone,” he’d told her, “and we’ve got two extra bedrooms, just begging for a family.” Viola’s voice cracked every time she told her girlfriends back home about that, how she hadn’t had the heart to tell him it wasn’t the first one she’d lost, how the doctor had told her she might consider other options.
“Viola, don’t you worry, hon,” they’d say. “You two will have one. It takes time. All in the Lord’s time.”
Her fingers flowed over the wall, rough, then smooth, then rough again. She knew she couldn’t muster a smile for Charley’s camera, exhausted with the fake ones. But Viola tried. She thought about the way her daddy used to say “Kentucky” in the middle of his sneeze, so it’d come out “Ken-tuck-yyyyy.” She thought about family reunions, how her daddy would wrap his arms around her mother’s stomach from behind and kiss her neck, so pleased with the family they’d made—Viola’s brother, their three grandchildren, and Viola. Poor Viola.
Charley hadn’t given up, had even suggested adoption. But she couldn’t fathom having to admit to her son or her daughter that he or she was not in fact hers. The Nikon had been intended for Viola, as a hobby, in the hopes that she’d find her passion again, for her degree in photography, one that had become unnecessary in her mind, what with Charley’s family fortune, his farm of thoroughbreds down in Louisville. She couldn’t see any truth in the pictures anymore, couldn’t reconcile her own image.
Viola asked Charley once if he’d thought about leaving her for another woman, a woman who could bear his child. Charley told her not to be ridiculous, that he loved her and not the idea of a portrait on a mantle. Maybe Viola could take solace in that, although she wasn’t sure if she could stay, wondered if perhaps she didn’t have another life to live, seeing as how she’d never dreamed of not having the one on the mantle.
“All right, honey,” Charley said. “Timer’s set.”
As his reflection inched closer, distorted by the cracks in the mirror, Viola imagined how the photo would turn out: Charley’s eyes wide and blue and full of hope, hers as empty as drains.
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LaRue Cook was a researcher, writer, and editor at ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com for seven years before returning to his home state of Tennessee, where his new title is Existential Mess. During his limited free time, he is driving for Uber and putting an MFA from Fairfield University to use on a collection of short stories. You can follow his “Uber Nights” at My2ndFirstStep.com, as well as on Instagram (@cook.larue), Twitter (@larue_cook), and Facebook.