I ran across some old black and white photos stored in a shoe box recently - twelve of them, all with white, scalloped edges. Some were crinkled, with brown creases running through them; others had small black specs - bite marks of time’s insatiable appetite to eat away our past.
They had been taken on a single day, a Saturday. Some of the photos had been staged by my dad, orchestrating five neighbored friends, ages six and seven, to say cheese and stare into a tiny red light atop his camera box.
Others were candid; frozen animations suspended on glossy paper - blurred, silent moments of youngsters putting on a circus at a tennis court for the Garden Drive neighborhood. Looking at the pictures, their silence and deaf ears haunts me the most.
In one of the photos, my best friend, Stevie, is shown standing next to me; our arms around one another’s shoulders as pals are apt to do at age seven. We’re both grinning to beat the band.
As I am the ringmaster, I’m wearing a black cardboard top hat made by my mother. Stevie is wearing a cape fashioned out of a bath towel and fastened with a safety pin. I think the towel was blue – powder blue; I helped him pick it out. Stevie wanted to be a flying trapeze artist and I wanted that for him, too.
Stevie had straight, black hair with a cow-lick that could never be tamed. Even now, looking at the picture, I’m a bit startled that back then I had never really noticed how oddly his face was shaped. So much in fact, that even his over-sized glasses couldn’t hide the apparent strangeness.
I do remember, however, his glasses were cinched at the back by a nylon strap because his head would jerk unexpectedly from time to time. I remember because more than once he asked me to tighten the clasp.
It is hot that day and Stevie is wearing shorts showing bare legs encased in metal braces with dropping white socks underneath. Both feet are slightly turned inward. One hand is slightly curved into a shaking palm as if gripping something – holding onto something no one else could see.
I understand what that was now; and if he could hear me I'd shout out, “Hold on, Stevie. Hold on!”
Odd, how at the age of seven, you don’t see so many things grown ups do. Stevie was different; I was blind to that back then. Stevie, too; but possibly less so - each sharing God’s grace of youthful innocence.
That summer, I measured time by the shadow cast by a fir tree in our yard. I could tell you almost to the exact hour what time it was during the day by where the tree’s shadow fell on the ground.
And, when I didn’t want the day to end, I would pound small stakes into the ground to try to hold the shadows from moving forward. But time would not be stayed. Like a river, the shadows would flow over my stakes.
Time in its own way taught me her first lesson that summer. She was larger and far stronger than I. But on the Saturday of our circus, I was to discover something far more troubling: time contained an unalterable weakness. Good and bad swam indifferently in her fathoms and she seemed powerless in controlling either.
Even now, looking at the picture of my friend, I want to stop time so that the next few hours would never have happened. But, even as the stakes in my yard could not stall her; nor could I - the ringmaster. Time’s muddied waters would soon wash over my friend.
That day of our circus, the little boy with the beaming smile who shuffled around the tennis court with arms outstretched and a blue cape flying behind him was to learn a new word; and it would change him forever. Much like the photo’s image, Stevie faded from life that day.
It had been a careless jeer by a bystander. A single word that Stevie’s heart could not hush, pulling from his grasp the slender thread of hope so tentatively held in the curve of his shaking palm. And he let go.
Time carried him in her wake, drowning the years of his youth and innocence. If only I, the ringmaster, could have stayed that day. Protecting my friend to never learn what other years and taunts were yet to do.
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