Our pumpkin patch had consumed most of our backyard that autumn, because that’s what pumpkins planted under the auspices of crop-dusters do. The row of aspens along our property line had followed suit, launching their tops uncharacteristically high. Their leaves grew so big that when I had taken one to school for show-and-tell and told the class it was an aspen, Populus tremuloides, the teacher called me a liar. When I retold the tale to my mother, I could tell she was tempted to side with my teacher despite the preponderance of evidence within her own sight.
That morning, I stood under the canopy of lies, under the flickering silver of all those leaves that should never have grown so large. I stood in front of the doghouse my father had painstakingly hand-painted with primer and roofed with leftover shingles from the shed. I stood in the periphery of my brother’s vision as he tried to side-shuffle his way from the yard. I stood wondering where it was my mother and her sweet-and-sour breath went in these moments as the wind snapped against my purple jacket, the most popular color in all of fourth grade.
I stood in the angle of my father’s lens while he adjusted the focus on his camera.
Seven days earlier, my father had quit smoking and I had paid for my first real haircut with my secret cache of allowance quarters. Even my fast growing limbs could not keep up with the length of my virgin hair.
“George, sit!” My father’s voice rode on the edges of the crisp air tinged with the portent of burning leaves. “Don’t let him do that,” my father commanded me.
I tugged at the overgrown Labrador puppy beside me, another of my father’s ideas seeded and grown awry. The puppy’s legs were too long for him alone to control, but I had no idea how to organize them either. I had no advice for this slightly wild creature who failed to understand it was once again portrait time. Who had no idea he would fall under the critical eye laid upon each newest photograph to grace our un-played piano, each representation of us.
My hair, so freshly shorn, would not stop blowing in my eyes. The woman at the J.C. Penney’s had been the last to wrangle it.
“Do you want to save it?” she had asked, shears poised at the base of my ponytail.
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” said my father.
The now blunt ends of my bobbed hair bit at my lips and stung my cheeks.
“Get your hair out of your face,” my father barked. He patted at his shirt pockets for his absent cigarettes.
I wanted to run to the house, to find his secret cache of cigarettes that must exist outside my mother’s view. The puppy eyeballed my brother, now at the corner of the house, and envied his escape. He barked and pulled at his leash, looking to me as if we might be co-conspirators in flight.
“Look at the camera,” my father said. “Hold him still.” His voice the far-off rumble of a thunderstorm that threatened to cloud his pastoral vision.
I shortened the leash and told the puppy to sit.
“Make him sit,” my father yelled from behind his camera as he jiggled the lens hood. “We’re running out of light.” Years later, at the ascendance of my own child, I would remember the frown he wore that day, in more detail even than I’d originally seen.
“Sit, George,” I said loudly, standing tall and from my chest, as I’d been taught.
“Don’t ask him,” my father responded, lifting his head from his camera to assess me with his own eyes. “Do I have to come over there?”
I summoned the air not from my chest, from my lungs, or even my belly, but from somewhere deeper I had never traveled. “Sit, George!” I yelled and the words left my midsection raw. I yanked on the leash until the puppy’s feet lifted from the ground. He yelped and coughed. I hissed at him and held his skull in my hand.
“Stop now,” I said.
The puppy slumped to the ground. His ears hanging, his eyes dim.
“Please,” I whispered to the top of his head. Just this once.
The puppy whimpered and would not look up at me. He stared into my father’s camera. The smell of urine mingled with the must of leaves.
“Smile, goddammit! It’s a beautiful day!”
The flash of the camera froze us in place, searing the image to the back of my mind. Forever tingeing the monochrome image with the stain of struggle, partitioning it from perfection. In the bathroom-turned-darkroom my father would make print after print, trying to get the contrast right to expose the details of our faces. But he would never be satisfied with our expressions, with the wisps of my hair, with the whims of the puppy’s long legs, with the bend of the aspens, with the black and white reproduction of our multi-color lives.