Below is a piece of flash fiction I wrote a few years ago. I consider myself a creative nonfiction/memoir/poetry writer, but back in 2011 and 2012, I participated in a flash fiction writing prompt a few times. We were given a photo as a prompt and then charged with the task of writing a very short story about the photo. I pulled one out, dusted it off, and wanted to see how to improve it. I ended up adding some details that were not in the original. Maybe one day in the future I will try writing more fiction, but for now, I truly enjoy what I am writing and what I feel called to write. Here it is.
An Old Photograph
He kept her photograph hidden in a worn, brown bureau drawer, underneath a layer of plaid flannel shirts. Although he lived alone, had few visitors, and no one would be sifting through his clothes, he didn’t want her picture found through some sort of accident. He wanted to keep the photo visible in his room, resting on top of the chest of drawers, but it was too risky. He was afraid her face might be seen in the reflection of his glasses when people looked at his eyes, as if her picture were stamped there, and then they’d know.
He saved that picture for forty years. Forty years. Had it really been that long? He grew old, but she didn’t. His hair was streaked with gray, thinning, and he kept a half-smile underneath his frosty, wispy mustache. His eyes shone as if they were on the brink of laughter under slim, gold-trimmed wire spectacles. His work as a teacher kept him young and kept him going, and gave him a certain spark of life. He was always ready with a joke for his students.
His gait was slower now. Over the years he developed a paunch, evidence of too many nights spent at the bowling alley with his buddies and a few rounds of beer. But that wasn’t too unusual for someone his age, was it? At home, on weeknights, he didn’t drink but consoled himself with nightly bowls of vanilla ice cream topped with a sliced banana and a drizzle of Hershey’s chocolate sauce.
He kept the picture so he wouldn’t forget how her soft brown eyes spoke words. Seeing her face helped him remember the sound of her laughter, too, but after time, he struggled to remember the exact sweetness of her voice. At least he didn’t want to forget her face.
He’d pull out the bronze framed photo when he felt especially lonely and dream the “what-if” dreams. What if she had been his bride, and they were together now, in this drafty old house, shuffling across the faded gray wool carpet together? What if she sat next to him on the blue threadbare couch, watching the TV buzz with noise at night? What if he had someone to converse with at the table, over dinners of warm pasta and wine instead of thawed out meals of chewy hamburger steak and watery mashed potatoes?
This was his recurring daydream. His longing was only that—an unfulfilled story that found him alone on the worn out sofa again, singing his dreams to sleep and waking up to the sad realization he was alone.
She married someone else. She moved away, and then his heart bled. Or maybe, that was really when his heart dried up.
Because he had not asked.
He went to a bar on her wedding day to try to forget. Yet, he could not forget; he found her still there the next morning– and the next, and the next. He decided not to throw her photo away. In keeping it, he kept a little flame of hope alive, which kept a small piece of himself alive, a part of him that dared to believe some dreams could still come true. It was the dream, the photo, and that flame of hope that on some days forced his heart to pump and his lungs to exhale. He’d pull out the photo and sometimes he’d chastise himself. He’d reminisce, remembering his life, from beginning to end, trying to make sense of his silence. Decades of loneliness forced him to bury his fears and inhibitions of daring to love another. Perhaps that was the purpose of it all. Perhaps the photo saved his life.
When he died, his belongings were sold, along with the picture. Maybe he thought he loved her well, better than anyone could, from inside the four walls of his little home… and just maybe, he did. But, he never told her, and now someone else scribbled numbers on a scratched frame with the picture of a pretty face, offering his own price on a silent love.