Photo by Aaron Lee Fineman


By Jill McCorkle
Sunday, February 11, 2007

THE EX-WIFE'S PICTURE HANGS AMONG OTHERS near the radiator in Roger's office. Theresa has trouble not looking at the photo, even though she has studied and memorized every detail with a kind of tormented curiosity. The other photos are linked to Roger's commercial real estate business -- picture after picture of Roger shaking hands with local celebrities: the mayor; the anchor for the local news; Tripp Trout, owner of a seafood franchise who is never seen without his fish mask.

There are probably 20 such photos.

Beside the ex-wife is a younger, leaner Roger with dark hair and no lines around his eyes. He's smiling, and there is not a trace of worry or discontent; his hand cups the bare shoulder of the woman sitting beside him: his wife, his mate. Her blond hair is shoulder-length and feathered back from her face; her jeans are worn and flared, feet bare as she rests one leg over his. She leans in so their heads are touching. His other hand, wedding ring visible, is on her thigh as he hugs her close.

He's wearing an old flannel shirt he still owns, one Theresa used to toss on in the middle of the night or after showering. She has not worn it since recognizing its connection to the past.

Roger's daughter, just a toddler then, is in a little pink jacket off to the side. Her hair is yanked into high pigtails, something Theresa has heard Roger laugh and tease her about when they talk on the phone -- Those tight pigtails did something to your brain, honey, he always says. Now the daughter is in college on the West Coast. Theresa has not met her, though they have chatted on the phone in a friendly but awkward fashion until he is able to pick up -- about Roger's work or the weather or Elsa, the old golden retriever who was just a puppy at the time of the divorce. The ex-wife, though several relationships and houses and career attempts beyond the marriage, continues to call and check in.

In the photo, they are a family of three on vacation in the mountains, dark shapes looming behind them in the late afternoon light. There is a history behind them and several years still ahead. Theresa looks once more at their entwined limbs, their child, the place Roger has said they should visit some time. It was where he had spent his childhood vacations. It was his place first. Theresa makes eye contact with the ex-wife and thinks: I am here and you are way back there.

But Roger is in both places.

"OH, YOU WOULDN'T HAVE LIKED ME THEN," Roger said when he caught her studying the photo. She wanted to ask him why he kept it hanging, but before she could figure out how to ask, he was already telling the story of that day, his daughter covered in poison ivy by the end of it, the oatmeal bath and calamine lotion he bought and brought back to the motel room where his wife was studying for either the LSAT or to go to graduate school in library science -- he couldn't remember which. She never pursued either one. What he could remember is that she didn't want him to watch the ballgame on television, or touch or talk to her. He described a perfectly awful time, and yet the photo remained, like a door left wide open. Theresa wanted to ask, Would you go back and fix it all if you could?

BEFORE ROGER, MOST OF HER RELATIONSHIPS were built on convenience, the result of sporadic and fleeting moments of boredom or lust. She had resisted an early conventional union that might have led -- with good health and luck -- to a golden wedding anniversary; and, by not having children of her own, she had resisted repeating her unhappy childhood. Instead, she had thrown all her time and energy into her work, assuring herself that someday she would find what was right for her, comforted by the idea of comfort.

"No one has everything," she was reminded countless times by friends who were getting married and having children. They were trying to emphasize her successful landscaping business, which is how she met Roger. She went from small window-box and herb-garden designs sold at the farmers market to landscaping bank buildings and city plazas. Her brief engagement and a couple of meaningless relationships were all mixed up in her mind with abelia and dwarf gardenias, and the Bradford pear trees all over town whose varying sizes documented her career.

WHEN SHE SEES ROGER IN THE PHOTOGRAPH, she feels oddly homesick. It's the same feeling she had as a kid staring into her View-Master at images of places so real she wanted to claim them as her own. As a 10-year-old, her favorite reel was the one of Yellowstone Park -- hot springs and sunsets, red rock ledges so steep and close she was afraid to take a step while viewing. In the one picture of Old Faithful, there was a man in plaid Bermuda shorts and a white dress shirt with his whole family in tow, which dated the photo and invaded her space. They did not belong in her life. She loved the moose in the snow, the almost navy sky, but, most of all, she loved the black bears, so real she wanted to reach out and stroke their fur, shocked when she did and touched nothing but air.

THERE IS ANOTHER PHOTO OF A MUCH YOUNGER ROGER in front of the old E&R Drive-In, before it was torn down and replaced by a Food Lion. The drive-in was a fixture in the area, catering to the Saturday night dates of a three-county region. Roger was one of the many supporters trying to save it. And so was she. Somewhere in the huge gathering of people spilling beyond the frame, she knows, she is there. So is Tripp Trout, Roger has said, but very few people know what he looked like before the mask. "So we could have met 20 years ago," Roger said. "Been together so long we'd be sick of each other, or maybe in counseling by now."

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