The photograph is of a young man, shirtless, with two other young men beside him, all are smiling in the yellowed photograph, and even the description of a photograph as “yellowed” says very much about everything. He was in The War, and he came home to work in a sawmill in Pensacola, and in the background is blurry machinery and a mule. There is a cigarette dangling from the mouths of the three young men, each one hanging to the right side of the mouth, and all three young men are dead now, very dead, and so are their children for the most part.
But the yellowed photograph’s memory was invoked by a new photograph. This is one sharp and clear, but it was taken at a funeral for the grandson of someone who had fought in The War. The dead man was a smoker, too, and the cigarettes he burned set inside of his lungs a fire that consumed him. We were kids when we started smoking our fathers’ cigarettes, but back then it was cool to smoke and we would live forever, and not die like the old people our grandparents were and the old people our parents were becoming.
The photograph shows her mother, my mind tells me, and it’s a few seconds before I realize that she has become her mother, that she looks a lot more like her mother than she even looked like anyone else, even herself, and there is a moment of lucidity and of horror. There’s no escaping that thought and that moment of clarity, and there’s no escaping that we are who they were and we will become one with all of these people in a very short time which was not supposed to come forever.
We defined who we were at one point in time by how we were guided or controlled by our parents or grandparents and even in grade school grandparents died or even sooner than that. Parents did not die even though they were not quite alive in the sense we thought people could be. We would be, could be, should be, were going to be, alive all the time and forever, never giving in and never surrendering to time, and there would be no yellow photographs, certainly none with mules, that would be looked at one day with no one knowing who the other two guys were or what that was behind them in the background.
How did her mother get into the photograph? There’s a passage of time even when we are cognizant of it, even when we deny it, even when, especially when we are not paying attention to it and suddenly, like the people killed in the war, the causality figures begin to mount. Car accident, car accident, car accident, suicide, suicide by car accident, and so it goes with our friends and we pay homage by drinking and driving fast because that was how they would want it, and suddenly it’s heart attack, heart attack, suicide by heart attack and we keep smoking and keep eating the wrong food because that was how they did it. How did we ever get so old that we would know someone who died of a stroke? How did we get so old that we watched everyone die quickly or die slowly, but everyone seems to be dying the older we get.
Then there’s the realization that of the people who were once friends and maybe even family, that no one gets out alive. The young feed voraciously upon life and life feeds even faster on the old. Those charging the machine guns are mowed down in The War but in life there are no safe positions, no rear areas, no Green Zones, and even the slowest and the fastest, the more careful and careless, the drinkers and the sober, are killed.
I look at the photo of her mother staring back at me through her eyes and it’s a form of possession. There was the beach trip we remember when we met at the funeral and no one mentioned of the seven people there that night three are dead, one is insane, and the rest are tired of living. It’s all we have, really, left of that trip, a sense that we were once very much alive and could take a lot of punishment as if it did not exist and if the future would never come, and in the end, that memory gets edited every time we speak of it. It’s a much larger than life movie we’ve accidently created through decades of speaking about it and thinking about it, and suddenly, one day there will be only one of us left who was there and it will be as if the last native of an invaded land is telling the story of the ancestors.
I’ve never gone to a High School reunion and I never will. But I have to wonder at what point there are more dead left than there are alive? What year will bring us to the point the majority of the people we spent four years of high school with are not voting due to death? Just to wonder these things is death. Just to sit and contemplate these things is death. To sit and idle and wonder how soon, how soon, how, is death. To look at the yellowed photograph and to realize that everyone there, even the mule, is long gone, very long gone, is death.
Delay it, if you can, for that is all you can do, but you should. You should hang on, biting, clawing, running, climbing, exploring, creating, but don’t’ sit there and watch it coming while wondering what happened to the mule. There is another beach trip left with the living so do not go back to relive in photos one with the dead. There is another sunrise tomorrow but if you hurry, there is another one this very day.
The mule is dead. It doesn’t matter how or why or when, no more than it matters about any death.