“Old Time Photo,” by Dan Toulouse

Nov 3rd, 2010 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Above my grandfather’s bed hangs a picture of his parents taken in Italy just before they came to America. My great-grandfather is wearing his cavalry uniform and my great-grandmother stands beside him. She’s a large woman. Not round—square. No, cubed. Four feet by four feet by four feet. On Christmas Eve, my grandfather and his eight siblings would wrestle for her stockings because they figured Santa had an obligation to just keep filling until the thing was topped off, no matter how deep.

Well, maybe when she took the picture, she’d just gotten back from trying on pants or whatever, but she does not look pleased. He’s no county fair, either. 

But what if, when they came to the States, where my great-grandfather worked as a landscaper for about a nickel a week, only to see his son promoted to foreman because he spoke better English—what if, during moments of regret, he poured through his empty pasta box full of memories he’d brought from the motherland, and in that portrait, he saw himself smiling beside his effervescent wife? Fortunately, my great-grandfather probably looked at that picture and said to himself, in Italian of course, which would provoke way more drama (go ahead and make him Don Corleone minus the money): I lead a hard and desperate life. Every day, I suffer the ultimate humiliation of being bossed around by my own son, but at least I’m not as miserable as the sorry bastard in that picture (He smacks the photo with the back of his hand.)

Except, we can’t repeat the past. So I don’t like all the cheating that’s going on with these new cameras. Not only can you take pictures in black and white, but some of them now have Western settings, which give the picture that grainy brown look you see in all those Ken Burns documentaries. (Can you imagine the sense of history we would have lost if all those amputees from the Civil War were throwing their peg arms around each other like they were celebrating a drunken weekend in Cancun?) Point is, Old Time Photos need to be updated to the twenty-first century. So take your picture in all its million megapixels. But when you’re doing it, hate the camera. Show me miserable, baby.  

For a while, I stopped smiling in front of cameras, until I started receiving undo pity, like when I showed my mother the photo album of when my wife, Andrea, and I drove cross-country.

“Oh, wow,” she said. “Is that the Grand Canyon in the background?”

“It’s even more amazing in person,” I said. 

“Andrea looks so happy. You can tell she’s having such a good time.”

“It really was a great trip,” I said. 

Then my mother leaned in toward the picture like she needed her vision checked. “But you—you just look so…” and she shook her head and looked up at me and said, “You just look so sad.”

Come to think of it, pity wasn’t in my mother’s voice, or even concern. She actually sounded a little afraid of me.

So I stopped doing that, until it resurfaced recently—except this time, it had a title. I was on an afternoon brewery tour with Andrea and some friends. (I really like drinking during the day. If only Nighttime didn’t have to show up afterwards with his no-good, hooligan buddies Hangover and Regret.) We (I) had been furiously helping ourselves(s) to samples from those four ounce cups they give you during the half-hour tasting session.

When I looked over and saw Tim fiddling with his camera, I started getting nervous, because we were on the clock, and not only do I hate smiling for pictures, but I hate it even worse when I could be doing something totally unproductive, like seeing how many dinky beers I can drink in thirty minutes, all the while thinking, I only paid five bucks for this. Suckers. I started to slink away toward the opposite side of the tasting bar, choosing a spot behind a big biker dude as a solid hiding place.

“Everybody get together,” Tim said. 

I slink, look back, hoping by some miracle that the they collectively suffer a miraculous bout of amnesia during which they come to the conclusion that “everybody,” in fact means nothing more than their unbroken party of three.  

And then he said it. “Old time photo.”  

Old. Time. Photo.

Epiphanies aren’t limited to fiction. I didn’t have to ask Tim to explain Old Time Photo. There was sense in those three words, necessity and style. Our ancestors understood the gravitas of the phrase without ever hearing it. Could you imagine how ridiculous our species would look if people wore big dumb grins during the most important moments in our shared past? Like the Great Depression, or The World Wars? Turn over a five dollar bill, you won’t see Abe Lincoln cracking a smile. Know why? Because he was honest.

Back to the brewery. I’ve lost count of how many of those four-ounce cups I’ve sucked down, but it all adds up to at least a beer and a half. I’m allowing gravity to take hold on my face: mouth frowning, eyes drooping, shoulders sloping, showing hostility toward life. Our arms are tucked down by our sides and the whole moment seems so lifeless and awful and still, the more I think about the finished product, the worst possible thing starts to happen. I feel the corners of my mouth start to turn up. If I can’t get my emotions under control, I’m going to ruin everything. Think quick. Think gloomy. Go big. Think tragedy. And there’s my French Poodle, Petey, and the afternoon when we put him down. I was twenty-two. I kept his collar in my desk drawer for years. Occasionally, I would take it out and shake it and close my eyes and imagine him still hobbling around the house on his bum leg that the neighbor ran over with his Bigwheel. And there we go. Dead Petey wipes the smile clean off my face, and finally, I’m ready for the picture.    


Although she writes under the pen name “J. K. Rowling”, Dan Toulouse’s publisher feared that the target audience of young boys might be reluctant to buy books written by a female author, and requested that she use two initials, rather than reveal her first name.

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