A Picture’s Worth
A man doesn’t remember part of his life, and he doesn’t know why
“Alex, I can’t do this anymore.” Rita runs her fingers through her hair, pulling it away from her eyes.
We’ve been arguing for the past 15 minutes. “You’re right let’s take a breather. I’ll be back in a few.” I grab my coat off the chair and walk towards the door.
“No, Alex. I don’t mean the fighting.” Leaning against the kitchen counter, her shoulders are slumped as she rubs her forehead.
I stop with my hand on the doorknob. “Then what do you mean?”
“I mean I can’t do any of this. I can’t do us anymore.”
I walk into the kitchen closer to her, so I don’t have to raise my voice. “So that’s it? You know the deal Rita, you said you understood.” I toss my coat on the chair. “I’m sorry, it gets a little depressing sometimes not being able to remember half my life.”
Crossing her arms. “Sometimes? You’ve been more than a little depressed, and it’s way more often than ‘sometimes.’ And I have been dealing with it for the past two years. You need to go see someone, talk to someone.”
“Talk to someone? Why? A shrink wouldn’t have the answers I’m looking for.” Now I’m raising my voice. “The people with the real answers are all dead now, and when they were alive, they didn’t feel the need to tell me the truth. So why bother?”
“And the conversation ends up here like always.” She lets out a breath and picks up a dishcloth and dries a plate. “It’s like you don’t want to get help, Alex. If you don’t want to find the answers or get help, then I need you to leave. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t!” I rub my forehead. “I don’t need your ‘sorry’. I’ll be back tomorrow when you’re not here to move out my things.”
I pick up my jacket again and walk towards the door. “Have a nice life.” I slam the door behind me.
It’s not until I’m in my car that I take a deep breath. I pound my fist on the steering wheel. “Shit.” I pound it again harder. “Shit!”
I put the car in drive and pull off. The only place I can go is to my cousin Joseph’s house. As I pull up in the driveway, I see he’s working on his VW van. He’s going to have that thing forever. It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. Why he picked an orange and white one, I’ll never know, but he loves it. I laugh to myself as I get out of the car.
When he sees me, he pulls a rag from his back pocket and wipes off his hands. “Hey, Alex! I wasn’t expecting you. Perfect timing though, I could use a break.”
The radio is tuned in to the Yankees game. “What’s the score?” I walk towards the garage.
“Bottom of the 8th, Yankees up by four.” Grabbing a couple of beers from the Styrofoam cooler, he hands one to me. “I know you didn’t stop by to listen to the game, what gives?” He downs half his beer.
I take a long, slow pull of my bottle. “Yeah, uh, I had a fight with Rita. She kicked me out.”
“Sorry, man. You need to crash here for a while?”
“Yeah, I actually do. Thanks.” Leaning my elbows on my knees I stare into my beer bottle.
“Hey, not a problem.” He finishes his beer and sets the empty bottle on the ground.
We listen to the game without talking. He doesn’t ask me why I got kicked out. He knows I’ll talk when I’m ready.
When the game ends, I take a deep breath and turn to him, “You got any plans for tomorrow?”
I rub the back of my neck, “I need to get my stuff from the apartment. Rita won’t be there; she spends Sundays with her family.”
“Yeah, sure, I’ll help.” He takes his hat off, pushes his hair back, and puts the hat back on.
“Thanks, man. For everything.”
“Hey, I know you’d do the same for me. We’re family, it’s what we do.” He picks up his empty bottle and walks over to the trash. “Speaking of help. I can use an extra hand here, so I can finish up.”
I stand up and stretch my back. “Sure, but you do realize I know nothing about cars, right?”
“Yup. All I need you to do is turn the key when I tell you to.” Joseph pulls the keys from his pocket and drops them in my hand.
“That I can do.” I climb in on the driver’s side and wait for his signal.
* * *
Sunday morning, I walk into the apartment carrying empty boxes as Joseph parks his van. There’s not much I have to get, mostly my clothes, and some stuff I have in storage in the basement. Rita has stacked up books and vinyl records on the kitchen table that are mine. I flip through the albums. At least I got Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Next to those are the framed photographs that hung on the walls throughout the apartment. I guess technically they are mine, I did shoot those pictures.
I let out a breath. “Man, this sucks.” Things we once shared and enjoyed together are now separated by what’s mine and what’s hers.
I pick up the photo laying on top of the others. It’s one of my favorites. I snapped the picture just as she was laughing at one of my silly jokes. She told me that was the day she knew she had fallen in love with me. God, she’s beautiful. The more I look at it, the more I realize she hasn’t looked that happy in a while. Why did I screw this up? I set the picture back on the pile.
Joseph walks in with more boxes. As I start to pack up the photographs, I instruct Joseph to box up the books and record albums.
Once we’re done, we go down to the basement. “Here, these are all mine.” I point to a pile of boxes stacked in the corner. “While you bring those up, I’ll get my clothes together, and that should be it.” I head back upstairs.
I come out of the bedroom as Joseph sets a couple of boxes down.
“Wow, this box looks really old, what’s in it?” He brushes the dust off the top.
I glance over. “I don’t know. I never looked, it’s from Grandfather.”
“He’s been gone for over 10 years now, why haven’t you looked at it yet?”
“It’s probably just a bunch of stuff he thought I’d want someday, I just never got around to it. Probably more stuff I don’t remember.” I straighten the packed boxes.
“Remember how he and Uncle Charlie would play cards all Sunday afternoon? They’d have a bottle of cheap vodka perched in the middle of the table they both drank from, not bothering with glasses.” Joseph shakes his head.
“Yup, and when they brought out the bottle of Wyborowa Blue Vodka, that’s when things got real interesting.”
My grandfather always told stories; he had such a vivid imagination. His stories always entertained us, we never knew if they were true or if they were the mutterings of too much vodka and a longing for home.
When the bottle of Wyborowa was empty, it was then that they would sit quietly and talk between them, speaking only in Polish, knowing we couldn’t understand them. I rarely heard the foreign language; it was just how it was. Once your feet hit the shores of America, you left your old life behind and embraced the whole American culture to fit in. Never indulging in your foreign tongue . . . unless your soul held secrets.
“I guess I should see what’s inside.” I take the box off the pile
“Yeah, maybe there’s something important. Why were you the only one who got a box of stuff?” Joseph shoves his hands in his pockets. “I didn’t get a box.”
The contents are just as I thought. Several decks of cards, some shot glasses, the pocketknife he always carried with him. That could be useful. I slip it into my pocket. At the bottom are two envelopes, one holds a journal and the other has photos and newspaper clippings. I hold up a newspaper article and show it to Joseph. “It’s in Polish, that’s just like Grandfather to give me something I can’t even read.” I shake my head.
As I flip through the photographs, they seem familiar. It’s almost like déjà vu but stronger. When I get to the last few, I can’t take my eyes off them. A surge of energy jolts through my body. It’s like a movie projector has been turned on in my brain, image after image assaults my mind. “I remember!”
The images are coming so fast I fall back into the chair dropping the photos I close my eyes. “The two men. The shouting. The punches.” I wrap my arms around my middle and rock back and forth as the memories keep coming.
“A metal pipe. Grandfather! The sound and shooting pain of my skull hitting the concrete.” I instinctively rub my head. “I see a man staring at me lifeless.”
I finally open my eyes. “He killed him.”
“Who?” Joseph’s eyes are wide.
“Grandfather. He killed a man.” I pick up the photos from the floor.
“Because of me. Because of these photographs”. I look at them again, trying to remember.
“Here. Maybe the journal has some answers.” As he hands me the envelope he murmurs. “Let’s hope it isn’t in Polish.”
I pull out the journal, there’s a loose piece of paper tucked in between the pages. I unfold it. It’s an official document from Poland. As I look closer I realize it must be a birth certificate. In large letters, it reads: Alesky Zwierzchowski, and I recognize the date, it’s my birth date. Alesky?
I skim through the pages, I recognize my grandfather’s handwriting. As I read, I share with Joseph the key facts or read directly from the journal.
“I’m the one who took these photographs. Let’s just say I was in the wrong place at the right time. I planned to sell the photographs to the newspaper. They were the missing piece to a story they uncovered.”
Joseph looks through the pictures. “Who are they?”
I rub my chin. “Two powerful men, who shouldn’t have been meeting. When they found out what I was going to do, they sent two of their henchmen to take care of me. I wouldn’t give them what they wanted no matter how hard they beat me.” I turn the page of the journal. “Grandfather showed up just as one guy hit me over the head with a metal pipe. I fell to the ground, hitting my head hard on the sidewalk. I was in and out of consciousness. Grandfather only meant to injure the guy to slow him down. But the two of them fought and in the struggle, he ended up killing him.”
I stop for a moment to think, piecing the memories together. “The sound of the gunshot must have woken me up because I remember seeing that guy lying in front of me, dead.”
“So that’s how you lost your memory, by hitting your head. But how did you and Grandfather get away? Especially after Grandfather shot the guy?”
I continue to skim the page. “Yes, grandfather confirms that my head injuries did cause memory loss.”
“But wait listen to this.” I begin to read from the journal.
“My father told me to take Alesky to America, where my brother already lived. He explained that when we enter at Ellis Island, we are not to speak English, only Polish. We give them our names in Polish so when they record our names in the manifest, they will be spelled the way they sound in English. They will be very different from our Polish spelling. It will be like we are given a new identity. It is a perfect opportunity for us to start a new life and never be found. We leave tomorrow.”
I look up at Joseph staring at me. We take a minute to process all this information. I pick up the birth certificate. “Well, they were right about the recording of the names, this has to be mine. Alex Wiscoski? Close enough”
“Wow, Alex, this is crazy! You guys were like fugitives. But who were the pictures of? Who is worth killing a man over?”
“That, I don’t remember.” I look through the pictures again, trying to jog my memory. I tap the edge of the photos on the table before I put them back in the envelope. As I’m about to slide them in, I find a smaller envelope with my name on it. I set the photos aside and open it. It’s a letter from my grandfather. I read it to myself.
When I finish reading, I drop the letter on the table in front of Joseph and begin to pace back and forth. “All these years, all these years, the answers were right here.”
Joseph reads the letter. “The Polish mafia? The Prime Minister? That’s some serious shit, Alex! You and Grandfather would probably be dead, had you not left.”
“I know, that’s what I keep thinking about.” Raking my fingers through my hair, I stop pacing.
“So, what are you going to do now?” He folds the letter and returns it to the envelope.
“I don’t know, but I’m not moving out. That’s for damn sure.” I gather up the pictures and letter and put them back in the envelope.
“What will you tell Rita?”
“I have some time before she gets home, I’ll think of something.”
“So, what can I do?” Joseph stands up brushing his hands on his jeans.
I have him return the boxes to the basement as I start to hang the photos back on the walls.
He comes back into the apartment. “What next?”
“Put the records and books back on the shelf, and that should be it, I’ll finish the rest.”
Before he leaves, he shakes my hand pulling me into a bear hug. “Good luck man.”
“Thanks, Joseph. Again, thanks for everything.”
He walks towards the door to let himself out. “Eh, no worries. Alesky.” I can hear him laugh as he shuts the door behind him.
I clean the whole apartment exactly the way Rita likes it. I have some time before she gets home to read more of the journal. All this information is stirring emotions in me and creating more questions. I probably should talk to someone.
Rita walks through the door but jumps when she sees me sitting on the couch, she almost drops the grocery bag in her hand. “Alex! You scared me. Why are you still here?”
Without waiting for an answer, she takes the bag to the kitchen and puts the contents in the freezer. I wait until she walks back into the room to respond. “I’m not leaving.”
“Wait. What?” She stops, looks around the room. “Why are the pictures back on the walls? All the books and records are back on the shelves. Do you know how long that took me to sort through those?”
“I actually had them packed in a box, but then I found something in the basement, and decided I’m not moving out.”
“That’s not for you to decide!” Her voice raises an octave.
“Please, Rita, we just need to talk.” I sit on the edge of the couch.
Rita shakes her head, “We’re done talking. That’s all we’ve ever done is talk. It doesn’t work. That’s why I asked you to leave. Do you know how hard that was for me to do?” She tucks her hair behind her ears. “Then you think you can just come in here and decide not to? Because you found something? What could you have possibly found?”
“All this.” I point to the journal, letter, and photos on the coffee table. “It’s from my grandfather, I found my answers.”
Not expecting that reply she stops next to the coffee table and looks through the photographs. “Who are these people?”
“I’ll get to all that in a moment.” I take her hand and pull her on the couch next to me.
Holding both of her hands. “Rita, I am sorry. I’m sorry you had to put up with all that I was dealing with. You were right, I should have gotten help, and I plan to. If you still want me to leave I will.”
Looking down at our entwined fingers, she lets out a breath and mumbles. “No, I don’t want you to leave.”
She nods her head towards the coffee table. “So, are you going to tell me about your answers?”
“I will. Right now, it doesn’t matter.” Using my finger I brush a strand of hair from her eyes and tuck it behind her ear.
“What matters right now? Is that I realize you have been my answer all along.” I cradle her face in my hands and kiss her lips.