This story is not about my aunt-in-law who passed away a few days ago. The images below are not of her, but this post is dedicated to her. In every photograph I’ve ever seen of Sissy, she was the smiling, laughing, radiant one. It was not because the photographer said to smile, but because it was what she did. It seemed to be her built-in response to life, and when she did, it became your natural response. You couldn’t help it. If any funeral could be considered a laugh-filled party and not be disrespectful, it will be hers.
RIP Sissy (yes, the P stands for Party as well as Peace)
. – . – . – .
Dr. Dollenwek examined the thing from every angle. It was a thin (less than half an inch in thickness) and two-sided, about three and one half inches square. Thin strips of rusted copper were sandwiched within tight enclosure. The exterior of both sides appeared to be covered in what appeared to be, in design and texture, alligator skin.
Dr. Dollenwek rubbed a thumb back and forth along the surface. “Fake skin. Thin wanna-be leather pressed with an alligator pattern.” He noticed that one edge of the sandwiched metal strip was hinged. On the sides opposite the hinge, he pressed the tips of his thumbs between the sides and pulled. Nothing. He pulled again, harder. Still, nothing.
Mr. Watt, the Watt in Watt and Sons Antiques, sat slumped in his squeaky chair. He watched the man struggle but offered no assistance. Finally, Dr. Dollenwek stopped trying.
“Okay, I give. What’s the magic word?”
“Not magic,” Mr. Watt said. “Simple intuition is sufficient to solve the riddle, which is to say it’s no riddle at all.”
Dr. Dollenwek raised an eyebrow, just like he did on those rare times a cocky university student was stupid enough to challenge him in his history class. “How does a frustrated customer open the thing?”
“Press on the tab.”
He spun the thing around several times. “What tab? There is no tab.”
“There’s a tab.”
“Knowing that a tab exists doesn’t help me. Where is the infernal thing?”
Mr. Watt pointed at the thing in a generic way. “The infernal thing is right where I’m pointing, on the side opposite the hinge, where any right-minded tab would be located.”
Dr. Dollenwek brought the thing cup close, like a jeweler assessing the value of a precious stone.”Oh. It’s rusted. It blends in with the coppery-brown metal around it, and the brownish-copper, and the coppery-brownie, cover around that. No wonder I didn’t see it before.”
“Doesn’t mean that the infernal thing isn’t there.”
Dr. Dollenwek stared at Mr. Watt until Mr. Watt blinked. Then he pressed the tip of a finger on the nearly invisible tab and the thing opened. It was upside down, so he spun it around. The thing’s contents consisted of two small faded black and white photographs, one on each side.
Each was mounted behind thick plastic warped by heat and discolored by exposure. It had been propped open for years, maybe decades, on someone’s desk or dresser.
“Ah, old pictures. I should have guessed,” Dr. Dollenwek said. “Somebody’s throwaway family. Almost sad.”
“But she is pretty. Nice smile.”
“Yes. She looks happy.”
“Radiant smile. She’s happy at a time when nobody was happy,” Mr. Watt said, “at least not in photographs. Especially not women, and especially not back then.”
“Maybe, but almost nobody smiled in old photographs.”
“They were afraid.”
“Of the Soul Catcher.”
“Soul catcher?” Dr. Dollenwek adjusted his glasses.
“Soul Catcher. The camera. It captured so much detail that it made photographic subjects uncomfortable, even fearful. They frowned in order to hide the true reflections of their souls. They did it for self-protection, so the soul wouldn’t be presented, and captured by the Soul Catcher.”
“But not most women. They still smiled. The bold ones,” Mr. Watts pointed, “like that one you’re holding, stayed defiantly radiant.”
Dr. Dollenwek looked at the woman in the photographs. “The bold rebellious ones, you mean? The ones who cared nothing about their souls? They are always the smilers?”
“No, I mean the best of the good ones. They were the ones who had intact souls, untouched and untouchable by things. They are the wide, big, toothy smilers.”
“The good ones?”
“The good ones. They were the ones who were all-in with life.”
“All-in with life?”
“They lived fearless lives by choice, fun free lives. They are the ones always caught in wide smiles in old photographs. Always.”
“But some did more than just smile. Some radiated happy with full-face laughter. Captured joy. That’s the ultimate photograph of the human condition.” Mr. Watt sat up with a loud squeal of chair springs and placed his forearms on the edge of his main display case. “You’re holding one of my finest examples of an obelisk, if I do say so.”
Dr. Dollenwek laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
Dr. Dollenwek shook his head. “If you don’t know, then it’s not worth my time to educate you – if I do say so.” He chuckled at his own wit.
Mr. Watt pressed. “Really, what’s so funny?”
“Since you must know, Mr. —”
“Watt. Like light bulb.”
Dr. Dollenwek laughed harder than he’d laughed all week. “How ironic,” he said. “Then let me illuminate you, Mr. Watt, maybe increase your wattage, as it were. You refer to this thing as an obelisk, correct?”
“Yes, I call it what it is,” Mr. Watt said. “It’s one of our finest examples of an obelisk.”
Dr. Dollenwek shook his head and grinned. “Mr. Watt, an obelisk is a pillar, most often made of stone. it’s not a photograph. An obelisk has a rectangular cross-section and a pyramidal cap.” Mr. Watt stared at Dr. Dollenwek, blinking several times. He continued.
“Let me simplify things for you. I’ll even speak slowly and clearly. An Obelisk is a moderately tall four-sided stone monument. An obelisk is widest at the base, then grows narrower as it goes up.” Dr. Dollenwek gestured upward with his hands, still holding the open thing in one of them. “An obelisk is capped with a pyramid-shaped piece at the very top.”
Mr. Watt stared, blinking.
“Let me think of a few examples for you.” Dr. Dollenwek’s eyes turned upward in thought. It was difficult for him to think of examples that Mr. Watt may know from some late night movie, like Ben Hur, but came up with nothing common enough.
Mr. Watt continued to stare, and Dr. Dollenwek continued continuing. “Obelisks have their origins in ancient Greece, but are found all over, including in United States cemeteries as grave markers, especially of important historic figures, such as General Custer. Mr. Watt, how’s your knowledge of Egyptian history? Because if you knew at least some basic —“
“The Washington Monument,” Mr. Watt interrupted, then blinked. “That’s an obelisk, right?”
“Excellent example,” Dr. Dollenwek said, excited. As he had told several struggling students, on occasion, even the dullest with minimal hope of a future will stumble across the truth, just like a stopped clock is correct twice a day.
Then Dr. Dollenwek held up a not-so-fast finger. “Still, you must understand, Mr. Watt, while the Washington Monument may display the shape of an obelisk, technically, it is not an obelisk in the truest definition of the term.”
Mr. Watt rolled his eyes. Then blinked them.
“An obelisk is a true monument, and the Washington Monument is more of a museum. It has stairs and elevator and observation deck and gift shop. Historically, obelisks didn’t have gift shops embedded within them.”
“I stand corrected,” Mr. Watt said. Then he sat down. “Now I’ll sit corrected,” he added. “My back is killing me. I can’t get comfortable.”
“So, how much?” Dr. Dollenwek examined the thing in his hand once more. “How much for the two old photos trapped in fake alligator binding and held closed by a rusted metal clasp that you call a tab?”
Mr Watt blinked. He adjusted his weight to the other hip and the chair squeaked.
“You mean, how much for the obelisk?”
Dr. Dollenwek clapped the thing closed and slammed it down on the heavy glass case harder than he intended. There was a loud crack. The Dr. wanted to check for damage, but didn’t. He checked his timepiece.
“I must return to the university. Mr. Watt, thank you for the invaluable and profound lesson on why women smile in old photographs.” Dr. Dollenwek raised an eyebrow and grinned. It was the grin he saved for students who believed that they had won an argument, but had yet to receive their final grade.
He waited for the reciprocal compliment from Mr. Watt on the history of obelisks, but received only eye blinks, a blank expression, and a squeak or two from the chair. “You’re welcome,” Mr. Watt finally said. “Come back anytime and browse through our obelisks. We’ve got quite the collection.” Mr. Watt gestured to the plastic bin spilling over with old photographs.
Dr. Dollenwek slammed the door on the way out, but not as hard as he intended. Mr. Watt stood up with a squeak and a sigh. He pressed the tab, opened the clam-shell photograph holder, and examined the images.
Mr. Watt snapped it shut and placed it on the pile with the other monuments of history, the other images of mothers and fathers and grand parents and multiple-great parents and dead children and still-living ones. He walked to the door, slid the dead bolt, and flipped the sign to “Closed”.
He kissed his finger tips and tapped the bin of photographs, the one containing smiling faces of people gutted by life, chiseled, tapered and still choosing to radiate happiness, genuine happiness, not stupid on-command smiles for the camera, but smiling for history, smiling because of thick, solid foundations, no matter the number of deathly cold winters and burning-hot summer suns, or dead and unborn children, or abusive, loving, faithful, cheating spouses, or diseases without adequate treatment or cure. Still, they smile as frozen, grinning testimonies that in the end, despair loses. They smile, not because of an acceptance of fate, but because of an acceptance of the fate of happiness.
Mr. Watt turned off the light and exited out the back door. He’ll be back tomorrow, rain or shine. Inside, you’ll find piles of images for $10 per handful, or $25 for the lot, or less if you get what he’s really selling. With a little searching, you’ll find the radiant ones.
Maybe you could start the conversation with Mr. Watt with this question: “How much for these laughing ones, these monuments of history, these stone-frozen testimonies of the persistent and infectious joy of life? How much for these obelisks?”
Then just see where the conversation leads. You may get a better deal, or at least a story out of the visit.
– . – . – . –