A FAMILY PORTRAIT

 

It was Christmas morning and the floor of the study was littered with scraps of brightly colored paper and ribbon. The exchange of gifts, which was never lavish at their house, was almost over.

"Is that everything?" Catherine asked.

Vicky poked under the splendid, if somewhat eclectically trimmed tree. "Looks like it," she said.

"No."

Heads turned as Evan, fourteen, pulled two flat packages from behind a chair. He'd saved them 'til last because he was proud of them and wanted to watch his parents' faces as they opened these gifts. Suddenly shy, he handed out the presents and sat back.

"You already gave me a present, Evan," his mother said, questioning.

"I know. This is extra. It's special."

His parents exchanged quick glances.

"You first," Vincent suggested.

Evan groaned. He was impatient by nature and the way his mother opened a gift drove him crazy.

Catherine refused to be rushed, taking her time as she always did. Evan thought he'd die by the time she finally finished removing the tape and folding back the paper.

Turning the object over, she caught her breath. "Oh, Evan."Evan grinned and Vicky poked him. She knew what the gifts were because she'd helped.

"Show us," Jacob demanded, and Catherine lifted the framed photograph and displayed it.

Evan was proud of the picture partly because he'd finally gotten a shot of his father without Vincent glaring at the camera lens, and partly because it was a demonstration of his technical skill. He had taken the image of his father, lost in thought, and imposed it on a background that included a carved jack o'lantern and sheaf of wheat. What he'd ended up with looked like a casual picture taken at a Halloween party.

"He made it so you can put it on your desk," Vicky volunteered.

"I can, can't I?" Catherine smiled down at the photograph. "Thank you, Evan."

"You're welcome."

"Dad's turn," Jacob said. "Bet it's a picture, too."

It was a safe gamble; one of Evan's abiding passions was photography. While he was pleased with the picture he'd given his mother, he thought the one for his father was the finest photograph he'd ever taken.

After six months and countless rolls of film, he'd finally captured the expression he wanted, in the right light, with the right focus. He could still remember the day he'd succeeded.

He'd been standing behind the study door, camera, complete with zoom lens, in hand. His family was so accustomed to his camera that they ignored him, and his mother, on this afternoon, was no exception. He'd already taken a dozen candid shots of her as she worked, but none of them were precisely what he wanted. He'd been focusing for another shot when his father came in the door; he snapped the picture just as his mother looked up. Until he developed the film, he didn't know what he had and he'd made Vicky get up out of bed to come look at it.

Despite her crankiness at being awakened at what she considered the middle of the night, she'd been impressed. "Neat. Daddy will love it."

Dad did love it, Evan could tell. The look on his face was a mirror of the expression Catherine wore in the picture... a mixture of wonder and love, and the faint beginnings of a smile.Vincent stared at the picture for so long that Catherine finally got up and looked over his shoulder.

"Do I look like that?" she asked softly.

"You do when you look at Daddy," Vicky answered.

Vincent finally found his voice. "It's a very beautiful gift, Evan. Thank you."

Evan didn't deal well with praise, and was glad when Jacob turned the focus of attention by asking, "Remember when Evan got his first camera?"

 

* * * * *

 

His ninth birthday. Nine seemed a magical age, when babyhood was finally and irrevocably left behind, but there was something even more special about this particular birthday because something rare and wonderful had occurred. Uncle Devin had come.

Uncle Devin's visits were infrequent and Evan could easily count the number of birthdays at which he'd been present. Two years ago he came to Vicky's, and Jacob's a couple of years before that... and that was all. Evan couldn't remember Uncle Devin being there for any of Charles's birthdays, or his mother's, or for his father's name day.

Presents were different. Uncle Devin always sent presents, though not always on time. When Evan turned six, Uncle Devin's present hadn't arrived until February - four months later. It didn't matter, though; getting a package from Uncle Devin was exciting.

Evan had a small birthday celebration in the tunnels earlier that day, so this gathering was strictly family. It was important to his father that things Below and things Above be kept separate, and all the children recognized the importance of not flaunting their comparative wealth in front of their tunnel friends; any gifts from Uncle Devin, or their mother, or their mother's friends were kept Above.

The celebration had finally gotten to the best part, for Evan, anyway. Presents! The gifts from his siblings were the kind he usually got from them; a new soccer ball, a model plane, a Yankees cap. He really liked the Yankees.

Before he got the package open, he knew his father had given him a book, but the title made him grin. The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. He didn't think his father knew anything about baseball.

Uncle Devin's comment surprised him. "Remember when we read that to each other, Vincent? By flashlight, after we were supposed to be sleeping?"

"I remember," his father answered with a smile.

For Evan, learning that Vincent had once been guilty of avoiding bedtime was no less interesting than that he had once read a book about baseball. Parents could surprise you, sometimes.

"Thanks, Dad," he said. "This is neat."

He chose to open his mother's gift next, half afraid it was going to be something boring and practical, like clothes. He'd been surprised by his father's gift, but his mother's astounded him.

"Oh, wow, Mom," he said reverently, lifting out a brand-new baseball glove. "Oh, wow." He slipped it on his hand; it seemed made for him, the leather smooth and supple. A new ball was in the box, too, and he tossed it gently a couple of times, getting the feel.

He'd wanted a new glove for months, but hadn't quite gotten up his nerve to ask for one. He'd been playing ball for years, starting with T-ball. The worn, third- or fourth-hand glove he'd been playing with was okay, but next year he'd be in Little League, and he needed something better.

This was perfect. He'd spent enough time in sporting goods stores staring longingly at the gloves to know that one this good would have cost him a year's allowance.

"Thanks, Mom," he said, still awed.

"Uncle Joe helped me choose it," she explained, smiling. "He says you really need it."

"Oh, I do, I do," Evan said. Uncle Joe coached Evan's team last year, and wanted to coach Little League next season if he could find the time. Uncle Joe had taught Evan a lot about baseball.

Opening Uncle Devin's gift was almost an afterthought. Inside the small, neatly wrapped box was a camera and several rolls of film. He thanked Uncle Devin, of course, and took a few pictures, but it was the new glove that fascinated.

The camera sat for several weeks, until finally, on a November Saturday too cold and windy to play ball, he picked it up, started experimenting and found that taking pictures was fun!

The camera, simple as it was, had an elementary zoom function, and he liked playing around, framing things different ways. Everything was all right until he started taking pictures of people, specifically, his father.

He snapped three or four before the insistent clicking made his parents, busy at their respective desks, look up. His father's expression was one of astonishment, his mother's, one of regret.

"Give me the camera, Evan," she said.

He wasn't sure why she wanted it. Putting it behind him, he backed away. "No."

She stood up, her face grim, and he fled. Foolishly, he ran to his bedroom, where she found him a moment later. "Give me the camera, Evan," she repeated.

"It's mine," he said, appalled. His mother never looked like this, never acted like this. It scared him.

"I'm not going to keep it. I just want the film."

"Why?" The question burst forth angrily. "It's mine!"

"Oh, Evan." To his utter and complete astonishment, her voice began to tremble. "I hate having to do this."

Shocked, he held out the camera. "Here." She sank down on his bed and he pressed the small black box into her hands.Stunned, he watched as she opened the back of the camera, extracted the film, and deliberately exposed it to light.

"You ruined it!" he said. It was more an expression of grief than protest.

"I know. I'm sorry."

Evan was not a particularly perceptive child, but even he could tell she was upset. Still, he couldn't help wailing, "Why did you have to ruin it?"

"Because you took pictures of your father."

Evan still didn't understand. "I wouldn't show them to anyone!"

"Oh, honey, I know you wouldn't. That isn't the problem."

"Then what?"

"What happens to the pictures you take, Evan?" she asked softly.

He looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. "You take them to the camera shop, and they develop... Oh." Her actions finally made sense. "Whoever did the developing would see them, and might wonder."

"That's right. We can't take the chance." She reached to put her arms around him. "You don't know how sorry I am to have exposed your film, Evan. How sorry I am that your life has to be so different from the lives of your friends."

 

* * * * *

 

Evan could smile now at the memory. Uncle Devin's gift had opened a part of himself that he hadn't dreamed existed. His mother's friend Nancy Tucker had taught him how to frame a picture, choosing what to keep and what to leave out; about using light and shadows, lenses and filters, film speeds and shutter speeds. Last year, for his birthday, he'd received a much-coveted Nikon; last Christmas, a zoom lens. For his fourteenth birthday, just two months ago, his entire family, including friends Below, had joined together to make and supply his very own basement darkroom.

"We've come a long way," his mother said, interrupting his thoughts. She smiled at him. "Your camera's become a window, Evan."

He knew what she meant. It hadn't been long after the "exposed film" incident that he realized he'd much rather take photographs of life Above; these pictures provided a means for his father to share things previously closed to him.

Evan's Winterfest gift to his father this year had been a photo album, full of the scenes he knew his mother wished she could share with him: Jacob singing with his school's madrigal group; Charles at his high school graduation; Vicky and Catherine riding horses down a hill against a colorful backdrop of autumn leaves. There was even an out-of-focus shot, taken by Vicky, of Evan playing soccer.

Evan had made a trip to the roof of a building he'd heard his father describe once, fast-talking his way past a security guard and edging, carefully, out onto a treacherous ledge to take a sunlit photograph of a view he knew his father had only seen by night.

He'd tried to open other windows for his father, too, spending an afternoon (and three rolls of film) at his mother's office, ending up with half-a-dozen good shots: Mom arguing with Uncle Joe; running exasperated fingers through her hair as she spoke on the phone; bent over her cluttered desk with an air of concentration; frowning as she discussed something with Rita Escobar; laughing at a story told by one of the trial attorneys.

"All right, Evan," Charles said, breaking his new train of thought. "Tell us. What's the picture you'd most like to take?"

"Aw, come on," he protested. "That's like asking Jacob what story he'd most like to write, or Mom what case she'd most like to win."

"For Jacob, it's the great American novel, and for Mother, it's the case that would effectively end all crime everywhere, forever," Charles answered swiftly. "Come on. There's got to be something."

Evan had been lounging on the floor; now he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. "You mean besides the really obvious stuff like getting a terrific shot of a UFO, or something."

"That wouldn't be so bad," Vicky said, grinning. "You could sell it to a tabloid and be rich!"

Evan grinned too. "I guess. But while I'm waiting for the UFO, what I'd really like... promise you won't laugh?"

Reassured by their spontaneous promises, he continued. "A family portrait." He paused, feeling he'd revealed a deep, dark secret.

"What's so special about that?" Jacob asked after a moment. "We get one of those every two or three years, anyway."

"No, I mean a real family portrait. The whole family." He turned his head to meet his father's calm gaze. "Dad, too."

There was another pause, broken by his mother. "Why, Evan?"

He sighed. "Because you have all those old pictures of your parents, and your grandparents. Of your family."

"They're your family, too," she reminded gently.

"I know, but I never knew those people," he explained. "Besides, a family is two sides, and you're just one. Dad is half of who I am, who we all are."

Coming from Evan, those were profound words indeed, and everyone stopped to consider them.

"He's right, you know," Jacob said at last. "We don't have any record anywhere of our entire family."

"What of Father's register?" Vincent said quietly, reminding them of the big old ledger where Father had kept a meticulous record of the births and deaths, arrivals and departures of all the tunnel folk. "I'm there, and your mother, and all of you."

"Okay," Jacob conceded. "But a family portrait would be something we could keep, something we could show our grandchildren, so they'd know where they came from."

"I think it's a good idea," Charles said, adding his vote.

"Me, too," Vicky chimed.

Vincent exchanged wary glances with Catherine.

"We could keep the negative and all the prints in the tunnels," Evan argued, sensing victory. His mother smiled, and he knew he'd won her over.

"I'm not accustomed to having my picture taken," his father said slowly. "But if it's so important to all of you..."

 

* * * * *

 

"A little to your left, Jacob," Evan said. "Vicky, sit up just a little and edge to your right... Dad, try not to look so serious."

Vicky giggled and Evan glared at her. When she subsided, he checked the focus and aperture settings one last time, hit the self-timer button and moved unhurriedly to take his place in the family group. A red light on the face of the camera blinked a warning.

"Here we go," Evan said. "Everybody smile."

The shutter snapped.

 

THE END