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The Photographer's Table
By Joe Trocino
Jim had left her about midnight, and the rest of Katherine's night had been mostly sleepless. So first thing that morning, knowing what must be done, Katherine went straight outside, a gnarled steak knife from the kitchen in hand, and began scratching at her table.
Others might find themselves at this particular table during the day. In good weather, kids might eat their lunches here, and in the evening friends often share wine with Katherine at this table. Once, (she learned about it days later) two of her friends made love on top of this table, in the dark, quickly and passionately, unknown to the rest of the party-goers inside her house. Still, no matter to what other use the table was put, it remained strictly Katherine's table - part inanimate object and part extension of her person. It is uniquely Katherine's personal possession, it's uniqueness lying in the fact that this table is Katherine's chronicle, her record, the indelible journal of her life.
You see, she's scratched it up with her markings. A circle here, in remembrance of her mother's death. A star there, recalling a daughter's kindergarten graduation a decade ago. Carved along one edge is the name "Peter," linked with the name "Amanda," the dull recording of the time when her former husband found more "electricity" (as he had said) with someone named Amanda than with herself.
Some of the markings have been weathered smoothed over the years, barely distinct now. Yet none of them, however indistinct on the table, are unreadable to Katherine. This table, with all of scratches and dents, has been for many years now her special history book, scored with the carved markings of her many passions, the glyphs of a secret written record, known only to Katherine.
"Rather like those old tombstones in the graveyard, the ones that are from the 1700's," Katherine often thought, "scarcely readable, but still filled with meaning."
Not that Katherine was in any way a vandal, a defacer of property. But here, at this old wooden table, gouged up by Katherine's knifes, fork tines, scissors or whatever she had handy, Katherine took license to scar the tabletop with the autobiographical graffiti of her life.
"How strange," Katherine often thought, "how strange that no one has ever understood the purpose of my markings. Not my daughters, not my mother, not any of my men."
"Except for Dumas, my neighbor, that is," she mused. "he's got it right."
Dumas was the neighbor from a few houses down the street. Eighty-one years old, he was the heir of the some of the original Quaker settlers who had founded the village Katherine now lived in.
Early on, Dumas had spotted Katherine's table, and it's markings. Confronting her softly over iced tea one afternoon her second summer in the village, Dumas divined the true purpose of the table.
"We Quakers have a way of saying just what your table does for you," he told her. "Your table, 'speaks to your condition,' doesn't it, Kate?"
Katherine knew this gentle old man had it exactly right. "It speaks exactly to my condition," she thought.
"Here is the story of my life, and not in much of a code, either, and yet nobody, except Dumas, has ever said a word about it."
The table had traveled with her over time. It was her mother's old kitchen table to begin with, a gift (more like a cast-off) to Katherine when she rented her first undergraduate apartment. The stylized apple in the corner of the table was Katherine's first mark, a reminder of all the times she and her mother had canned fruit and jams on this utilitarian table. That funny thing next to the apple? It's meant to be an airplane, a remembrance of her brother's model building efforts.
The little cut marks that look something like three tear drops near the center of the table? She carved them the day she returned home from her father's funeral.
It was Katherine's table, all right.
Shaded now by the limbs of an ancient oak on the edge of her garden, and weathered gray from years of exposure to rain and snow, the table, along with it's rusty metal chairs, remained, understandably, Katherine's favorite "quiet-private" place. Here, under the tree in warm weather, the table became her retreat, the place where thinking thoughts came more easily than anywhere else.
And so on this summer's morning, with the grass still wet with the night's dew, and her mind likewise damp with the fog of the previous night, Katherine considered both the day ahead, and her life in front of her as well.
"I guess I should scratch Jim's name into the table now," she brooded, "he won't be back."
It all had started a few weeks before, when Jim had walked into her studio, bent on a portrait of himself. Katherine's eye knew right away that this shoot would be unique. Perhaps it was his angular jaw, the sinewy muscles, or his nose, flattened long ago in a boxing match.
Soon, Katherine had Jim before her camera, seated on a simple bar stool, muted white drapery behind him, and clouds of umbrella reflectors surrounding him.
"I don't want to look like those Civil War soldiers in Brady's portraits, no way! And don't make me look like those immigrants just off the boat either -- make it crazy, make it me, Kate!" Jim had finally blurted out.
Katherine knew just what could be done, too. More than her photographer's eye was at work inside her.
"Take your shirt off, mister, your pants and shoes, too. White shorts, huh? Good. This will be you!"
The shoot was creative, successful, and beautifully executed: Jim: posed on the stool, arms crossed, grim faced and threatening. Jim: no stool, hands up with fists, crouched boxer style; Jim: back to camera, head turned and moody.
Eventually, she asked him to find a place out of the shoot for his shorts.
At first, until the roll of film was completely shot, Katherine could keep her eye completely on her work. Then, with a pause, the rest of her crossed the line and became part of the living portrait.
Toward the end, three weeks later, when it became plain that she would have his pictures, but his wife would keep Jim, she knew the table in the garden would have another symbol carved in it. It was then that she took her self portraits.
If an observer might find his way inside Katherine's mind (as if anyone could ever have a reach that long) this observer would find that Katherine considered these portraits of herself her best work ever, her great oeuvre.
At first, the photographer's eye posed the photographer on a chaise lounge, playfully stretched out in her slinky black gown. This gown, this pose, "my Matahari pose!" she would later tell her friends, was Katherine's mask. It said to the world: "see! I'm the secure, mysterious and unobtainable -- I need no man."
Then, the photographer's heart overturned the photographer's eye, and for the first time, she posed herself nude before the camera. Timers, a tripod, and a needy heart made this possible.
She shot herself in black and white, on gelatin prints, designed to last a lifetime. Altogether, she kept a dozen prints. Some were of her back, her heard turned toward the camera, eyes cast downward, sadly. The viewer sees defeat, and vulnerability in these prints. Some prints were from the waist up, Katherine's right arm raised in a defiant fist, directing the viewer's attention away from her smallish, now monochromatic breasts and toward her clenched fist. These prints telegraph anger, and frustration.
But it is in the final three prints, Katherine posed on the very same bar stool that she had four weeks earlier posed Jim on, that the inner strength and determination of Katherine can be seen. She has posed herself only partly seated on the stool, her long, trim legs extending slightly forward, her callused feet toeing the ground. Her arms are folded across her stomach, her face is set in a determined, purposeful half-grin. This is the Katherine who is determined to survive, to find success, or whatever. These three photographs are her greatest work.
Loving Jim, and seeing him melt away in a less than a month's time was a crushing, personalized blow for Katherine. It was as if one of the playful Greek gods had toyed with her for a summer's amusement. She was convinced of it, indeed.
"It was Eros, no doubt, or maybe Mars himself, bored with combat but still making war on my heart. It was one of them, this was all a set up!" she thought. "They play with me, they always do!"
It was the first few days with Jim that had seared her judgment, that had disarmed her wariness. Judgment and caution would have done Katherine no good in any case. It was an unbounded heart and not a practiced eye that had lead Katherine into Jim's orbit.
One night, late, restless and sweaty from wanting Jim, Katherine convinced herself that she no longer lived in the quaint Quaker village in northern Virginia that had been her home now for fifteen years, but that she was the beloved daughter of a Mondawe tribesman, in sub-Saharan Africa.
Years ago, in college, she had read about the tribal ways of the Mondawe, and had sorted that information into some dead file in the back of her head.
This night, heart pounding, skin glistening, Katherine found that file.
Katherine's mind saw it this way: She had gleaming jet black skin now, oiled with the musk of a sweet smelling jungle plant. Bare breasted, with loins covered in the multi-colored wrapped common to Mondawe women, her neck, wrists and ankles were hung with gold ringlets, a gift of her father.
All of this, because in an hour, the yearly "Great Meeting" would commence, and the special custom of the Mondawe would begin in earnest, complete with dancing, feasting and drink.
The Great Meeting marked a particular time for the Mondawe. Here, with all of the high chiefs assembled, the tribal laws were passed, and complaints arbitrated in the special way of the Mondawe, wherein each complainant won at least something.
But more than law making and adjudication took place at the Great Meeting. Here, families were formed, in the Mondawe way.
In the custom of their ancestors, each Mondawe male could marry up to four wives. The first marriage, to a woman arranged by the families, established a "Principal" wife. For some Mondawe men, this was all the family they needed, or would be able to afford. The Principal wife was chief of the household, never divorceable, and in charge of the upbringing of the family's children. It was a high honor to be Principal wife.
But for many men, the second, third and even fourth wives were plain and simple love matches.
Mondawe men could only court additional wives during the Great Meeting. Everyone knew this, and great efforts were made by both men and women to attract each other. After two or three days of courting and wooing, the structured tribal method of additional marriage took place.
Always with the absolute agreement of the prospective bride, the suitor stole into her family's camp site, and with a small goat in tow, kidnapped the prospective bride into the bush. If the prospective bide and groom could slaughter the goat, roast it, and eat at least one bite of it each before the bride's pursuing family could intercept them, then the marriage was considered consummated. Often, the pursuing family, accompanied by the abductor's Principal wife, would join in the roasted goat wedding feast.
And that was just how Katherine saw herself with Jim. His wife was, to Katherine, the Principal wife, the one who raised the kids and bought the groceries. For Katherine, she herself was the love match, the abducted mate, the subject of a love-match consummated with goat meat.
The sad part was, of course, that her quiet Quaker village in Virginia was not the African tropics, and she was never (except in her own mind) the Mondawe bride of love, for whom a goat had been slaughtered.
Jim had been no more than a momentary passion, she knew that. He was a wave that stormed upon her shore, briefly, during a hurricane, all foamy and curly, with a very deep undertow, it turned out. The rip tide of their love affair had dragged Katherine along the shoreline for a few weeks, totally overtaken by Jim, her eyes having been blinded for awhile by the salty sting of his spray. That's why she could see herself as a Mondawe bride, ringed in gold, stolen away for love, and not a photographer living in Virginia.
The tea helped to clear Katherine's mind that morning. "I'm not the love-possession of some African tribesman. I'm a photographer, here and now," she thought. "This time, I'll call him and say 'goodbye,' I'll save a little of myself that way."
And with that thought, the hurricane that was Jim passed on to another shore.
Gripping the small kitchen knife, Katherine pushed her tea cup aside. Hearing tribal drums beating in her inner ear, she began carving the figure of a goat into the table's worn top.
© Copyright 2000, J.R. Trocino
© Copyright 1997, 2020, The Fairfield Review Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Document last modified on: 11/06/2004