He sat at the far back corner of the room, though there was space closer to the kitchen, closer to other people. He sat, head down, fork to his rice, a posture of leave-me-alone. I walked to the corner beside him, looking for an angle that wouldn’t include him in the shot, because I can read don’t-take-my-picture posture.
I can read I-wish-I-were-invisible from across a crowded room.
But as I stood nearby, shifting my weight, waiting for the moment I wanted to capture, he spoke. You know, I once owned two houses? He told me, blinking up at the sunlight coming in from the window over my shoulder. His eyes finally focused on mine. He once owned two houses. He had two children. He worked, with his hands, thirty-five years. He did well.
Until his family crumbled, alcohol took hold and he lost everything to crippling child support and debilitating alcoholism.
So, here I am, he said, looking down at a forkful of brown chicken and rice. I don’t like that I have to come here. But I do. I come here. I do AA. He brought the bite to his lips and paused. I’m trying.
He was staring off into the space between the tables, into a cluster of bodies moving to and from their seats, into the sunlight catching dust motes. When his eyes finally came back to me, kneeling beside him, he asked, how about you? You’re a beautiful woman, you must make someone very happy.
In the center of the room, he was the only one smiling. A big, a huge, gap-toothed smile. The table he was sitting at eventually all broke into smaller smiles and nods. They stood, lifting their empty trays, and the man with the smile turned to me. Take my picture! And so I did.
You see this? He asked and pointed to the cavernous space between his incisors, while walking up beside me. I nodded, laughed. Who couldn’t see that?
I got twenty bucks for that space right there. He said it with a strong accent, where the r’s all came out ahhhh, like they were falling through the gap.
Twenty bucks, can you believe it? He said it as a point of pride. Dentist would charge a hundred at least. But my friend, he paid cash.
He told me how he did it. How his friend had paid him twenty dollars for the pleasure of watching him extract his own tooth with nothing but a tequila chaser.
There’s a video on Youtube, he told me. You’ll see it!
And before he turned to walk away, I’m Dave, by the way. And you are?
We shook hands.
Really nice to meet you.
He opened the kitchen door for me, and between carrying trays out to tables, he patted his stomach and asked if I’m making him look fat with my lens. Make sure you’re getting my good angle. He told me with a teasing smile.
You know, I took pictures once. You know, modeled?
Turns out, decades ago, he was the third shift manager in the Portsmouth factory of the company he worked for. And somehow, they found him, said they liked his look and then paid him to ride a horse, shirtless on the beach.
He was the cover of their company’s catalog.
Oh, I remember how it goes, he told me. And as he talked, I could nearly see him, twenty years earlier. His skin, less weathered, his eyes less clouded, his smile, the same boyish one he still had, standing there, telling me the story. They had me looking up, looking down, look at your shoulder. Smile. Don’t smile. Look here, look there.
It was fun. It was a lot of fun. His eyes still smiling, he turned back to the kitchen. And they paid me too. That’s the important part.
He raised his finger up and pointed to the ceiling, as though to punctuate the air with his worth.
I was only there, in and out of the room with my camera, maybe forty-five minutes, maybe an hour.
We were all just bodies in a room, some sitting and eating, some walking and serving. Me, lingering around, camera up, camera down.
But we were there. Together.
And the truth is, we are all always together. Mostly, we just choose to not see.
We choose to walk past, to cast eyes down, to look across the street, up in the air, to the lights ahead. We hold our children’s hands tighter, we step quicker. We live as though the world we are moving toward is ours, and the world we are walking past is theirs.
Don’t linger too long. Wouldn’t want to get lost.
But really, we are all people, living out our choices, not often stopping to consider how close we are, how thin the line is, between our choices and other’s. How close we are to one another, always. How we all have stories to tell of a life still in progress.
Because we are, all of us, still in progress.
A hundred different paths that all led to that room, that day.
A hundred different stories, different pasts, all leading to pink trays with brown chicken in a bright, sunny room on a February afternoon with snow on the ground.
A hundred different stories, all waiting, longing, for the bright sun of spring to come and remind us again, that the pages are still turning, the grass is still growing, the earth has not forgotten us yet.