The Woman in the Photograph

She stares with tired eyes, surrounded by tone and shirtless men who pay her no attention. Her slinky tribal print dress, designed specifically to make heads swivel, is not what stands out when I look at her. Not even her perfectly tousled blonde hair attracts my eyes. No, what I see is her eyes. They gaze as if maybe the men will see a sultry come-hither look, but to me she just looks exhausted and annoyed. Despite her beauty and societal perfection, she is ultimately unhappy.

I try not to stare, but when her gaze meets mine, I become uncomfortable and shift so I am facing the bar, my back to everything else. I knock back a shot of whiskey and then she is sitting on the stool next to me. She fumbles a cigarette out of a beat up pack, taps it on the bar, and I strike a match. She leans close to light her cigarette, her thin hand cupping mine so the fire does not go out. Her hair smells of roses.

Her cigarette lit, she turns and we both stare at the bottles neatly standing at attention against a bamboo wall. We sit like this, the ocean not too far from our backs, and she takes long, deep drags off her Virginia Slim. I signal the bartender and he brings me another whiskey. She shakes her head, she does not want a drink.

When he leaves, she finally speaks, “Are you a local?”

I nod.

“I’m looking for someone. Someone who lived her a long time ago, and may still live here. Can you help me?” She slides a faded photograph with ragged edges towards me.

I down the whiskey and pick up the photograph. There is an older woman with gentle eyes and white hair, a man near middle age with a bad toupee and yellow teeth, a younger woman with sad eyes like my new companion, and a child who has probably barely learned to walk. They are sitting on the floor in front of an old black leather couch. Everyone smiles, but nobody looks at the camera.

“I’m looking for that woman. This was taken twenty-three years ago. Her name is…”

“Agnes.” The name whispers out of my mouth before I even know it’s going to happen.

My new companion stares at me, her mouth agape. We both stare at the photograph, and then she takes it gently back into her own hands. She runs her fingers over the younger woman’s face, “So you know her?”

I turn in the bar stool and stare out towards the ocean. Most people find this place a tropical beach resort, a place to take your family on vacation. But for me, it’s just home. It’s always been home. And lately I’ve been spending all of my afternoons holed up in this one bar on the beach. The bartenders all know me, but they don’t really. They know me as the overweight, sullen man who downs at least six shots of whiskey every time I’m here. They know me as the quiet one who rarely talks to anyone, who sits in the same stool every day. What they don’t know, is that I also own the bar. I own several of the bars around this place.

“How do you know her?” The woman’s voice is soft, gentle. She has turned to face the ocean with me, but she is only watching my face. Her hand has rested on my thigh and I realize it’s the first time I’ve had physical contact with anybody in a long time. It’s uncomfortable.

“I knew her, a long time ago. Why are you looking for her?”

From the corner of my eye, I can see her shift her gaze to a group of twenty-somethings in the bar. She looks like she should be there, laughing and drinking and enjoying her youth. But instead, she is here in this beautiful place to chase someone who may only be a ghost.

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The prompt this week was: “What you know” doesn’t necessarily always mean “your comfort zone.” For this week, take what you know out of your comfort zone. Try a new genre, a new time period, a geography you’ve only dreamed of, fantasy or historical instead of contemporary fiction, try the male POV if you usually write women. Or vice versa. Switch it up. See where it takes you.

This piece was actually originally written during my last Creative Writing class. We were given random pictures out of a magazine and we had to create a story, poem, or something based on those photos. When I realized I was kind of headed towards a mystery/thrilled type of story, I realized I could use it for this prompt, as that is out of the norm in what I typically write. I also rarely use a male perspective. I feel this is very, very rough, especially in the beginning when I was focused on using the magazine pictures (even the description of her dress came from one of the pictures I’d been given). Right before the point where the narrator says the woman’s name is where I stopped in class. Then I went home and wrote some more so I could submit it to the link up. 

I would love some suggestions on how to clean up what I have. I’m hoping to write more on this story later, perhaps with other prompts from TRDC. Thanks!

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