16 March, 2009
ENDPIECE: OUT OF THE STORY INTO THE SNAPSHOT
Somewhere in a house in some suburban inland city a snapshot is stuffed away in a drawer full of other things, of broken pencils, torn ticket stubs, dead or dying flashlight batteries, tarnished copper pennies, empty prescription bottles. It’s creased randomly in two places, probably from someone stuffing something else into the drawer, and its edges are frayed and dog-eared.
It’s a picture of Wilbo Hoegarden, at his usual spot, between the tilt-a-whirl and the bumper cars with the wooden bench and the breakwaters behind him. At the lower right hand corner of the picture is a smudged and faded date: August 23rd. The year itself is torn off and lost in the repository of forgotten years. This is one of countless forgotten snapshots, stuffed away in countless cluttered drawers in a million inland suburban homes. This one might even be considered the Jungian archetype of the forgotten snapshot, the perfect Platonic form to which all forgotten snapshots aspire.
But nonetheless, there’s a story there.
It’s a fine midsummer day, August 23rd. The air is bright and balmy and the sun is beating down with the confidence of a celestial body that has overcome all its previous springtime reticence. Hordes of happy people are moving along the boardwalk. They’re dressed in shorts and short sleeves and tanks, and even a few brazen young girls are wearing bikini tops. The tilt-a-whirl is whirling, the bumper cars are bumping; in the distance the Big Dipper rounds the hairpin with a creaking rumble and a chorus of screams.
Wilbo stands by the ticket booth reeling out The Flowers of Edinburgh, wagging his head to the rhythm. He looks about the same as he looked when the story started out. Maybe his joints seem a litter stiffer, his hair a little thinner, but his eyes are clear, his face is calm and peaceful. He clicks his heels like Bojangles, executes a funny little chicken-like movement with his elbows, and segues gracefully into The Boys of Bluehill.
Up the street a gaggle of children approach, maybe twenty of them; they’re all wearing odd little carnival hats; some of them have flowers painted on their faces. Two skinny, short-haired women appear to be in charge. One holds a long sparkly plastic wand with a spout of green tassels on the end. With this she seems to be directing the children, but her attention is focused entirely on the other woman. Both the women are talking at the same time but the other woman, with two hands free, is engaged in a series of expansive gestures, arcs and barrel rolls and back-row summons, like Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.
Wilbo thinks to himself, she’d be a kick to mime. But then something happens. One of the children, a little girl, breaks loose from the others and comes to a standstill before him, her eyes transfixed on the movement of the bellows. She’s holding hands with another girl so the other girl has no choice but to stop as well, and then a trio of boys, looking elsewhere, collides with the girls, and a major pile up ensues. At first the two women don’t notice; they just keep walking, approaching the tilt-a-whirl, the woman with the wand waving it causally. When they finally reach the cotton candy stand and turn around the scene has changed entirely.
All the children have stopped and all the children are staring at Wilbo, who seems delighted with the attention. He has modulated, most appropriately, into The King of the Fairies in E minor, and he puts a little shuffle into his feet to accompany the wagging of his head.
One little boy breaks away from the others and begins to mimic him, drawing his arms back and forth like bellows and duplicating Wilbo’s shuffle with his feet. Wilbo zeroes in on him and copies him back, making his movements a little smaller, a little more boy-like, capturing the boys distinctive sideways wobble. The boy gets the joke. He raises his right arm and wiggles his fingers, and Wilbo does the same, employing an old trick he’s perfected over time, allowing the weight of the concertina to pulls the bellows open so he can play with one hand, at least for a few notes.
This draws great laughter from the other children which in turn emboldens the boy to try other things, knee bobs and shoulder rolls, all of which Wilbo reproduces, nearly simultaneously. It isn’t long before the boy has met his match and he tumbles backwards and rolls into a little boy-sized cannonball. Wilbo does the same. Of course to do so he has to stop playing and toss the concertina aside. In the cessation of music there comes a chorus of children’s voices.
This is where the picture is snapped, perhaps by the instamatic camera of one of the two skinny chaperones. Let’s just look at the picture for a moment, before it goes back in the drawer, and both the story and the drawer come to a close.
Wilbo is in the foreground and slightly to the left, standing on the boardwalk by the railing, next to the coin-operated telescope, his concertina lying open-bellowed at his side. He’s scratching his head like one who has to make a difficult decision, but there’s an expression of vast amusement on his face. A crowd of children is gathered around him. One little boy is sitting on the planks at his feet, looking smug and self-satisfied, while all the rest of the children are raising their hands and waving them about. In the background, on the right-hand side of the picture a man in a straw hat is leaning out of the concession stand to hand a cone of cotton candy to a toddler no bigger than the cotton candy itself. In the center background a few pink clouds hang in a brilliant blue sky. Below the sky, and just faintly visible in the photo’s faded grain, the horizontal line of the ocean beckons like an invitation out of the known into the unknown, out of the commonplace, into the mystery.