She’s six with a coin slot smile, strawberry blonde going sepia in the picture still hanging on sepia paneling. She’s me on a birthday bike, all pink and mint and pedaling away. She’s me imagining she’s picking up enough speed to pull a bedraggled kite behind her. By god does she work at it. Pepaw loved her enough, just like this, to frame her picture and hang it in this trailer nobody can live in no more because Daddy ruined it cooking meth.
She’s so far in the past that she’s more like a relative than an identity. I do remember her, the way cool air dragged in over her gums. She looks like she forgot, but even three decades on I remember taking a dry rag and twisting them rotting teeth out, in a single sitting, on the morning of her sixth birthday. She’s pedaling straight on toward the frame, toward Daddy and his disposable camera, giving it all she’s got with that censor bar grimace. I want her facedown kite to lift out of the downdraft but I know it don’t, won’t. Can’t.
Pepaw picked the bike from the roadside sellers for five dollars even and fancied it up with spoke beads and plastic tassels. He leans behind the birthday girl the way he always does in pictures – dressed all in brown and secondhand pride, soft focus and half in frame. The trailer, secondhand, too, is still so new to him that the yard’s rutted. Mud dapples the whitewall bike tires and the lace trim of her pink bobby socks. I want her to veer off and pedal right through the picture. But six is too young to make complicated maneuvers, and them ruts are deep.
The gloss crackles under my thumbs when I pull the photo out of the frame. She’s me, I think. She’s me and them cracks are on my own face. Her smile predicts the mouth Daddy had when he died on the scorched carpet of this trailer – my ruined inheritance. I came back just this once to see what’s left for me after putting Daddy in the ground. All I see is the reasons why I left.
She’s unlucky to end up like this, photo paper buckled, glass shattered on the floor. Her life’s busting apart like a plastic kite when it hits the hillside. One wrong dip and it goes down in the brambles while she stands there tugging the string. That’s how it always goes, and she’s always surprised, smiling like she never has no expectations. Just busted and stuck. I crunch glass under my feet, try not to breathe too much in here.
Even us unlucky girls have some good times in their strawberry blonde years, I think, at least while our pepaws are alive. I’ll be damned if daddies don’t make sure to document them all. Daddies are always snapping pictures, trying to prove to the future that there’s more to life than death.
That slot in her mouth accepts token kindness. Kites and jelly sandals and bike spoke beads picked from bargain bins by shaking hands on a fixed income – all them trinkets lasting less than a muddy birthday afternoon. How did that ever feel like enough? They gleam, clean pink and mint in my memory. They somehow still stir something in me, still feel like enough, still tug that string. Busted and stuck like I couldn’t predict the ending.
She’s coming with me out of the trailer, my sepia girl, fading more blush-brown in the sunlight. I spent years wishing I could tell her about the way things was to go when all the while she was waiting here to tell me. We look down the yard to the hillside together and breathe hard through our mouths.