Dressed in matching white linen shirts, khaki shorts, and open-toed sandals, Harold and Hannah strolled from their car to Square Pines Park, the epicenter of summer community activity in the idyllic town of Alexandria, Minnesota. Hannah enjoyed craft fairs while Harold enjoyed the many food vendors peddling their greasy wears at the very end. So did Hannah—a fact she kept to herself. But he knew. So very well.
“Slow down.” Hannah blocked his belly-bump with her cane. “You know I like to stop and see people’s work.” She sighed. “Why do I always have to remind you?”
She was right—she did always have to remind him—not that she needed any reminding. “I wish you wouldn’t block me like that,” he said.
“I’m not blocking you. I’m simply directing us.”
Hundreds of white tents, lining both sides of Knife River, were filled with artisans selling pottery bowls, decorative silverware, hand-blown glass vases, chunky wool-knit scarves, and other artsy-fartsy whatnot. Hannah pulled Harold into the first tent. Colorful metal flowers attached to thin metal poles were lined like soldiers in the grass. “Oh, honey, look at this,” she said, thumbing a large tulip. “Wouldn’t this look great in the rock garden?”
“Get it if you want it.”
“Hmm,” she said, her typical “no-thanks” reply, spending money only on items seventy percent off the original price and then only if she had an additional twenty percent off coupon. When they were young and planning to wed, Harold valued Hannah’s thriftiness—quite dissimilar from the other women he’d dated. During their wedding ceremony at Square Pines Park, huddled inside the smallest shelter with a green-shingle roof and eight picnic tables, Hannah had held a wild flower bouquet, wore a gently-used veil, and served the twenty-three guests fudge brownies on paper plates and lemonade in plastic cups. Frugality at its finest. A budding savings account was the best wedding gift they could give each other. After Holly, their only child was born, who clung to Hannah the way a runny nose clings to sinus allergies, Harold and Hannah were still able to save more money than they spent. Before he retired on June 15, 2014, working for twenty-seven years at Ridgewater College as a professor of economics, Harold, by the end, brought home a modest yet comfortable salary of 75K per year. Hannah, who chose not to work, didn’t have to work. He’d been a wonderful provider for his family, not that he needed any reminding. A fact he kept to himself. But she knew. So very well.
“Oh, honey look at this,” she said, thumbing a pottery bowl.
“Get it if you want it.”
“Oh, honey look at this,” she said, thumbing a lace tablecloth.
“Get it if you want it.”
“Oh, honey look at this,” she said, thumbing a twenty by forty photograph of a lighthouse bound to a copper-colored frame. “Well, aren’t you gonna tell me to get it?”
“Hmm.” Harold slid rimless bifocals to the end of his nose. He stepped closer to the photograph, scanning the obvious panoramic intention and architectural interest captured by the photographer, Robert McClintock. Harold outlined with an index finger the dark-blue sky and inhaled the sea-salt danger crashing into the stone-edge cliff. “I’m gonna stay here for a while.”
“It’s a stupid lighthouse.” She yanked the back of his shirt collar. “What’s there to see?”
“I wish you wouldn’t yank me like that.”
From her fanny pack, she brought out a yellow coupon. “Pronto pups are buy one get one free between two and four.” Irritation amplified her voice. “I know that’s the only reason you come.”
Harold glanced at his wristwatch, a black Timex, a Christmas gift from Holly in 2004. “It’s not even one-thirty. All I want is a minute or two.”
“These craft people are built to talk you into buying stuff you don’t need.”
“I’m simply observing.” He blew on the lighthouse door. “You can leave or stay but I’m not moving.”
“I guess I can go look at those silly, overpriced Adirondack chairs.”
“Get it if you want it.”
“Don’t be coy, Harold. It doesn’t suit you.” She huffed and walked away.
Harold didn’t care if people thought he was making out with an old lighthouse. He was, in fact, infatuated.
“Took that one with a Canon D-20,” a low voice whispered from behind. “They even let me go down by the rocks to take it and there ain’t one bit of Photoshop on it either. That’s the way God intended the day to look.”
“Is it the Split Rock lighthouse?”
“Indeed it is.”
“How much you’ve missed.”
“You must be Robert McClintock.”
“Thousand words or not, some pictures exist beyond language.”
“How much you asking?”
Robert pointed to a clearly visible sign taped to the bottom of the photograph: $350.00. No refunds. Checks accepted with proper ID. Preference to cash.
“Any without a frame?”
“Sorry. Archival integrity still matters to me.”
Harold turned and searched the grounds for Hannah, who was nowhere close to the Adirondack chairs. Nor was she among the small crowd gathered around a group of ponytail pan flute players playing pan flutes.
“Hold onto it for me, okay. I will be back.”
“It’s the last one, just so you know.”
Harold found Hannah seven tents down on the left, haggling with a young Native American woman who was selling colorful yarn, three for five dollars. “Five for five and we have a deal,” Hannah said.
Harold pulled a five dollar bill from his wallet and set it on the card table. “We’ll take three and be on our way.”
Hannah grabbed the five dollar bill and scoffed. “Mind your own business.”
“I want you to come back and look at that lighthouse. I think it needs a new home and I think it outta be ours.”
“We have tons of nicer pictures already.” She exited the tent. Without any yarn.
“None of a lighthouse.” Harold offered his right hand. “And I need the checkbook.”
“Absolutely not.” Hannah squeezed the fanny pack, walking in the opposite direction of the lighthouse. Harold walked directly toward the lighthouse. Hannah sighed, turned around, and stood defiant. Harold kept walking. “I’m not following you,” she said. Harold sighed, turned around, and stood defiant. “Get over here. Now.”
“We don’t need a lighthouse.”
“Please.” Harold turned around and stared at the lighthouse, a sly smirk upturning his lips.
“Glad to see you came back,” Robert said. “Had a guy earlier willing to pay cash for it, but I told him it already belonged to its rightful owner.”
“Rightful owner?” Hannah said, standing beside Harold. “I can’t leave you alone for five minutes.”
“I wish you wouldn’t mock me like that.” He glared at the fanny pack. “Give it to me.”
Hannah, as if slicing from her gut a most prized possession, unzipped the fanny pack and brought out the checkbook and blue pen. “A kindergartner could take a better picture.”
“Now turn around.”
“I need a rigid surface to write on.”
“Not on me you don’t.”
“Ninety degrees please.” Similar to the merry-go-round on which Harold pushed Holly on in childhood, Hannah creaked and groaned as she turned. Harold’s smirk expanded into an outright smile, happy to remind the muscles in Hannah’s body that he still had a say in things, too.
“Get it if you want it,” she whispered. “Never again.”
Robert carefully wrapped the photograph in cellophane and slid it into a large, blue bag. “Hope you enjoy it and thanks again.”.
Hannah snatched the checkbook and tossed the yellow coupon on the ground. “I’m leaving in ten minutes, so if you’re not at the car by then you can find another way home.” Quite nimbly—cane-free—she power-walked toward the parking lot.
Harold, however, wandered with ease, strolling in and out of tents, carrying the photograph above his head, at each side, and then finally in front of his chest.
“Someone’s having a good day,” a middle-aged woman walking a puppy said.
“What do you mean?” He set the photograph on his toes.
“You seem happy is all.” She picked up and tickled the puppy’s head. “Like Mister Hurricane here.”
“His name’s Mister Hurricane?”
“Oh, he’s got a wild side. Don’t let his calm facade fool you.”
“I suppose we do call things exactly as we see them, don’t we?”
“It’s very American.” She laughed. “Very Midwestern.”
Harold scratched Mister Hurricane’s head. “I’d have named him little-bit or tiny-tim or something diminutive because of his size but you’re a lot more than that, aren’t you, Mister Hurricane?”
The puppy growled, showing teeth.
“See what I mean?” She stroked the puppy’s head, bringing calm to its quivering lips. “So what’s in the blue bag?”
“I guess you could call it my wild side.”
“Now I have to know what it is.” She laughed.
“It’s a photograph of the Split Rock Lighthouse.”
“A lighthouse is your wild side?”
“Don’t let the calm facade fool you.”
“Ah.” She set the puppy on the ground. “Maybe we aren’t what we seem.”
Harold jogged to the car, smiling and laughing. Is this what happiness feels like? Damn it, it had been a long time.
Slouched in the driver’s seat, Hannah gripped the steering wheel as if to never let go. The air conditioner teased her fine, vanilla-colored hair. Her skin, once tightened effervescence, had attenuated into the look of a crusty, flaking bread roll. The trunk lid popped open. Harold laid the photograph face up and took a deep breath as he slid into the passenger seat. “Thanks for waiting.”
“You had forty-one seconds left.”
“Would you have actually left me behind?”
“Don’t blame me if we run over a pothole and that stupid thing shatters into a million pieces.”
“I need to make a quick stop on the way home.”
“An accessory or two for the accomplice.”
“Who was that lady back there with the dog?” She readjusted the rearview mirror.
“Just some woman who asked about the lighthouse.”
“Why were you touching her dog? You hate dogs.”
“I don’t hate dogs.”
“Then why did you never let Holly have one?”
“Because I knew she’d tire of it in a week and ignore it forever.”
“You never gave her the chance to prove you wrong.”
“I told myself, if she ever asked three times in a row, I’d get her one. But she never did, so I never did.”
“Children shouldn’t have to ask three times for anything. Once is more than enough.”
“I want to drive home,” he said. “You ever done a Chinese fire drill?”
“What’s gotten into you today?” Hannah huffed, opened the door, and limped around the front of the car while Harold skipped—sorta—behind. He re-positioned his seat, his mirrors, his wheels, his turn signal, his speed, driving faster than usual, taking a different (and more scenic) route home. Hannah occasionally mumbled, “waste,” “simply observing,” and “three-hundred and fifty dollars,” which Harold ignored, preoccupied with where to hang the lighthouse. He pulled into Ace Hardware, put the car in park, and left the engine running. “In and out,” he said, offering the palm of his hand. “Now you can give it to me nice and easy or I can go in there and dig it out myself. That’s one choice you do get to make.”
“What are you gonna buy?” She stared out the passenger window, squeezing the fanny pack.
He touched her arm, relieved when she didn’t pull away. “Not once have I ever told you what you could or couldn’t buy. All I’m asking is for the same courtesy.”
“Courtesy.” She tossed the checkbook onto the dashboard. “I think our definitions of that word are quite dissimilar.”
“Be back before you can count to three hundred and fifty.”
After eight minutes and nineteen seconds, Harold emerged from the store carrying two gallons of paint, two paint rollers, two paint trays, and two wooden paint stirrers. He set the items on the back seat and tossed the receipt on the dashboard. Hannah didn’t look at it. Or touch it. Or grab it when it slid off the dashboard and fell into her lap. Instead, she blew at it, until it fell to the floor mat. Harold turned on the radio and hummed a pop song he didn’t know. “Can’t wait to get home and get started.”
“Rightful owner,” she whispered. “What a clever, clever man.”
At home, Harold assisted Hannah up the twelve steps to their bedroom, her favorite late-afternoon spot to take a nap and do crossword puzzles. He could feel in her tight grip and body odor a substantial tantrum brewing. Maybe a storm. He offered a kiss, which she refused, covering her lips with both hands. “I do not kiss irrationality.”
Harold undressed, including his underwear, placing each article of clothing atop the bed—pushing boundaries— as nakedness, like sexual intercourse, was something that happened only underneath the quilt after the lights were turned off. Another one of Hannah’s many rules.
“Harold James Krippayne,” she snapped. “No, no, no. This will not do.”
“If you don’t like what you see, then don’t look.” He grabbed from the bottom dresser drawer blue jeans and a sleeveless white t-shirt—he couldn’t believe they still fit—clothes he hadn’t worn since he’d painted Holly’s room three months before she was born: twenty-eight years ago next month.
“You look ridiculous.”
“Should I close the door or leave it open so you can slam it after I leave?”
“Whatever you’re planning on doing, you better not be making a mess.”
“I will be making a mess and I can assure you that I will be cleaning it up.” He shut the door, opened it, and shut it again.
“You look ridiculous.”
As if walking a plank, he made his way down the hallway to Holly’s room, a place he hadn’t visited in years, mostly because he hadn’t been welcome inside for years, but also because he hadn’t wanted to go inside for years. But he knew it was time. To walk. And jump in. And change. Things. Today.
Teetering between flabbergast, vertigo, and anger, Harold stood shaking his head at the swollen hoard suffocating Holly’s room. He could barely see the dark purple wainscoting or the cream-colored carpet past the stacks of totes brimming with quilting materials, romance novels, naked dolls without eyes, turtleneck sweaters, khakis (some with original tags), scrapbooking albums, and lidless shoe boxes overflowing with four by six and five by seven pictures of Holly and Hannah making funny faces (often painted) in funny costumes (often matching) at funny places (the Red River Zoo, Zanzabar Water Park, Easter Egg Baskets, Shrine Circus, DMV, Dog Shows, Horse Shows, Bicycling, Beach, Softball, Church Choir, New Kids on The Block Concert, Tiffany Concert, Prom 1990). He sat on the edge of the mattress and shuffled through the pictures. He was in none of the pictures, nor had he taken them. So who had? He’d have gladly gone to a water park or a horse show and wore a funny costume with a painted face. If only he’d been invited to participate.
Armfuls at a time, he removed the contents of Holly’s room to the garage, leaving for tomorrow the full-size mattress and six, large wall posters of Jodie Foster, whoever she was, her strong jawline and face framed and outlined with red-marker hearts. Sweat beads dropped from his chin as he crawled beneath the bed and pulled out a sewing machine, decompressed silk flowers, stuffed animals, and two additional lidless shoeboxes filled with more pictures of Holly and Hannah. But not of him.
“What are you doing under there?” Hannah asked.
He hadn’t heard her enter the room. “Spring cleaning.” He popped out his head. “Looks good, huh?”
“This room belongs to Holly and me.”
“It’s wrong to treat a room like this.” He stood.
“I’m glad you have sense enough to leave her Jodie Foster posters alone.”
“Did Holly draw those hearts around her face?”
“She’s a movie star, Harold. That’s what kids do to movie stars they love.”
Harold shrugged. “But she’s a girl movie star. You don’t find that a little strange?”
“What’s strange is your intrusion into this room.”
“Everything’s in the garage for you and Holly to go though.” He paused, debating whether or not to laugh. He didn’t. “At your leisure.”
Hannah groaned and sat on the edge of the bed. The mattress springs squeaked from the supplementary weight. “Does this have something to do with that stupid photograph?” Her eyes and lips tightened.
“Where is that silly thing anyway?”
“I want to hang it on the best wall with the best light.” Harold scanned the room. “Or do I? I mean, it’s already a lighthouse so I guess it doesn’t need any more light. But still, I want it to feel at home and well taken care of.”
“This room has never looked more un-at-home.”
“This room has never looked better.”
“Why would you want to remove my and Holly’s memories from the house?”
“I’m not removing you. I’m simply liberating the carpet and setting free the air vents.”
“She’s gonna be really hurt the next time she visits.”
“When’s the last time she visited?”
“We talk on the phone every week.”
He picked one of the lidless shoeboxes and sat beside Hannah. “Why am I in none of the pictures?”
“They were of me and Holly. They weren’t about you.”
“Did you omit me on purpose?”
“You can’t omit something that wasn’t available.”
“Who took them?”
She stood. The mattress springs exhaled. “Do not remove the Jodie Foster posters. I’ll deal with it by myself. Like I always have.”
“I was too available.”
“Are you taking out the mattress?”
“Believe or not, that’s one decision I’m okay with.”
“What about Holly are you not telling me?”
“I can tell you this. She never once put a heart around your face.”
For the rest of the day, while Hannah kept to the master bedroom and Harold painted the walls light brown and the wainscoting dark brown, he thought a lot about Holly—who she is, isn’t, was, and wasn’t. Families grow apart and separate. Children move out, on, and up. Holly was no exception. Evolution evolves. He knew this. A triangle can never know the fluidity of a circle. Nor should it. It goes against its nature. But a lighthouse knows its fluidity, even with all of its edges and sharp points. It knows how to keep things safe and on course, even during times of storm and drought. Everyone knows this. Hannah and Holly knew this, too. So very well.
“You need anything before I turn off the lights and crawl into bed?” Harold asked Hannah, toweling off after a quick shower. His skin smelled of lilacs and daisies, similar to the ones blooming around the lighthouse. “I used some of your body wash tonight. Hope that’s okay.”
“Taking over everything.” She fluffed a pillow. “Just hurry up.”
“The bedroom’s pretty much finished.” He checked his teeth in the small oval mirror and pulled out a few gray hairs jutting from his nose and ears. “A little touch up paint and then removing the bed and that’ll be that.”
“It’s more of a bathroom print if you ask me.”
Harold laughed. They both knew the photograph was far too large to occupy any one of the three bathrooms. He kept on laughing, because he realized, at that very moment, that laughter amplifies quietness, something Hannah had misinterpreted for years as agreement. No more holding his tongue, or following along, or being omitted from the picture. He’d never considered Hannah capable of meanness, but perhaps she was mean, perhaps she’d always been mean, perhaps she was always going to be mean. He disrobed and laid naked atop the quilt.
“Put some clothes on and get under the covers already.”
“Do I ever occur to you?” he asked.
“I’ve washed your underwear for thirty years, Harold. Of course you occur to me.”
“I don’t think you and Holly have ever really seen me.”
“Oh, I see you, and I can tell you right now you are quite unappealing.”
Harold stood and walked out of the bedroom only to return a few minutes later holding the photograph. He took to his knees on Hannah’s side of the bed. “What do you see when you look at this?”
“Goddamn it, Hannah. I’m being serious. Tell me what you see.”
Her eyes widened. “Swearing now, too?” She sat and pressed her back against the headboard. “What’s gotten into you tonight?”
He set his chin on the top part of the frame. “Tell me what you see.” He spoke soft. Soft is always better than hard. Right?
“Since when did you become so self-centered?” she asked.
“Can’t you see how it sits there all alone?”
“That’s what a lighthouse does, Harold.”
“How close it lingers to the edge.” He thumbed the peak of the biggest wave. “The right storm or the wrong ship could take it down so easily. It’s a lot more vulnerable than people realize.”
“A lighthouse knows the risks and rewards involved in its job.”
“There’s no reward in being taken for granted.”
“I knew this thing was gonna be a problem. I saw it in your eyes when you were looking at it.”
“You did. What did you see?” He sat on the edge of the bed, turning the photograph so both of their reflections were staring back. “Please tell me.”
“It’s the same look you used to give me whenever I asked you to watch Holly by yourself.”
“What kind of look was it?”
“I don’t know, Harold. It was you.” She pointed at his reflection. “The silver-haired once frugal man who should be wearing his reading glasses so he doesn’t strain his eyes.”
“No, I mean how did I specifically look?”
“You only have one look.”
Harold tapped his forehead against the glass. “I’m sorry, old friend. I am trying.”
“I’m tired, Harold. I want to go to sleep.”
Harold stood and walked to his side of the bed, leaning the photograph against the wall. He sighed and once again laid naked atop the quilt. “Just once I wish you could see the bigger picture.”
“You’ve never been a bigger picture, Harold. And neither have I. That’s not who we are.”
“I hope you’ll come see the bedroom tomorrow once I’ve hung up the picture.”
They laid quiet for a very long time.
“Dim,” she whispered, turning off the bedside lamp. “That was your look.”
Harold turned onto his side and stared at the lighthouse. “I don’t want to go with you anymore to Square Pines Park.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Why did Holly draw hearts all over that movie star’s face?”
“Go to sleep, Harold.”
“What are you not telling me?”
“Everything, Harold. Now stop talking and leave me alone.”
“I’m not dim,” he whispered to the photograph, and slowly fell asleep. Overnight, he dreamed a rolling wave was plowing toward the lighthouse, carrying with it a large ship spinning like a merry-go-round. Hannah and Holly were there, too, blocking the spotlight with their bodies, until darkness fell, and every scrap, lie, exclusion, and picture toppled into the sea.
About the Author:
Samuel E. Cole lives in Woodbury, MN, where he finds work in special event/development management. He’s a poet, flash fiction geek, and political essayist enthusiast. His work has appeared in many literary journals and his first poetry collection, Bereft and the Same-Sex Heart, was published in October 2016 by Pski’s Porch Publishing. His second book, Bloodwork, a collection of short stories, will be published in May/June 2017. He is also an award-winning card maker and scrapbooker.