What You Save on the Way Out of a Burning House
By Joseph Kerschbaum
October 15, 2022
October 15, 2022
Memories of family gatherings are a blur
but I remember disposable cameras,
pauses to pose & say cheese
with awkward, teeth-filled smiles.
Reunions at my grandparents’ farmhouse
where I wandered underfoot, listened to aunts
& uncles talk about a spiking gas crisis,
layoffs at Bethlehem Steel,
or the Chicago Bears’ losing season,
somewhere I recall camera flashes
& standing next to relatives
holding sweating cans of Miller Lite.
There were rushed weddings
smoldering in the humid oven of June
at the little clapboard chapel
across from the VFW
where I was a reluctant ring bearer.
I know photos of those events exist
but I could never produce the evidence.
ii. Before I was Born
Inside a towering oak curio cabinet
in the dining room of the old farmhouse,
there were stacks of photo albums.
As if they were ancient artifacts,
heavy pages had to be turned with care
because pictures would fall out
of their precarious placements
& expose handwritten notes
on the back. Always written in pencil
were names I didn’t recognize
& dates before I was born.
After my last grandparent passed,
a civil war erupted over antique lamps,
every knick-knack was another crack
in the dam as a family divided
& conquered each other.
Like looting a city after a regime has fallen,
rusted pickup trucks hauled away
disputed property in the dark.
Somewhere in this panicked evacuation
all the photos & albums
iv. Tossed in a Dumpster
Where everyone scattered is unanswered.
My conjured narrative stitches the years together
like fixing a porcelain vase with only half
the shattered pieces. I can almost see
where those photos sat quietly
in a dank crawlspace, captive in a molded box.
Divided in divorces over the decades.
Loose photos were swept up
in the debris of various tornadoes.
They were left behind like breadcrumbs
as family members skipped leases
& shuffled between apartments
until the last eviction
when an abandoned crumbling box
was left with the other garbage
& tossed in a dumpster.
v. I Tell Myself it’s Me
There is a banana box
in my guest room closet
with a small stack
of black & white pictures.
They are a curiosity. I don’t recall
how they came into my possession.
Given their age & the years
written on the back,
these distant relatives
are no longer living.
Only one photo is in dim color
with the hazy, faded fog
of the seventies. A smiling lady,
a beehive hairdo rising out of frame,
holds a cigarette in one hand
& a baby cradled in the other arm.
This could be me.
I tell myself it’s me.
Joseph Kerschbaum’s most recent publications include Mirror Box (Main St Rag Press, 2020) and Distant Shores of a Split Second (Louisiana Literature Press, 2018). His recent work has appeared in Reunion: The Dallas Review, Hamilton Stone Review, The Inflectionist Review, Main Street Rag, In Parentheses, and Umbrella Factory. Joseph lives in Bloomington, Indiana with his family.