If Winterset were to be buried Pompeii-style, every life stopped mid-moment and preserved for scientists to uncover and assess, future archeologists might expect the sheer bulk of the materials affixed to the Lawson’s family fridge to form an accurate snapshot of daily life in 21st century Iowa. They would attempt to piece together the ephemera as if it was a puzzle that could be solved, looking for a narrative thread that connected all the pieces, unaware that the layers of paper had grown like moss on the appliance for years, even decades. They will be frustrated at their inability to decipher all, oblivious to the fact that contemporaneous residents also struggled to make sense of most of the clutter.

Pete Lawson would have let the moss keep growing if he’d been able to find a single spot where a magnet could successfully support last Sunday’s church bulletin. Even the rare-earth magnets he’d bought for this exact scenario refused to help. Pete took it as a sign from God that the innocent appliance needed to be exorcised of its many ghosts, so he poured his coffee, slid the recycling bin up to the fridge door, and began dismantling the paper monster, piece-by-piece.

The excavation unearthed countless items he’d looked at for years without really seeing: a flyer for a yoga place a dozen miles away; an incomplete punch-card from the Taco Bueno that closed more than a year ago; the scribbled number of a parent, no name, with whom he’d failed to set up a play date two summers ago; post-it notes with cryptic or illegible messages; a failed attempt at a common family calendar; three abandoned grocery lists; postcards from Lexington and Baltimore from Jeff’s nomad uncle; expired fast-food coupons; handwritten directions to unknown destinations; take-out menus that no longer offered accurate prices; the business cards of four apparent strangers. All this, and he still couldn’t see any of the appliance’s lacquered steel door.

While the bin was filling up, the pile of items for Amy and Jeff to review remained small: a handful of recipes written on yellowed index cards; two middle school report cards belonging to Jeff, now a sophomore; several class pictures of nieces and nephews, and enough photos of his son to make a plausible time-lapse of the kid’s entire life. He was taking down a favorite photo of Jeff, probably four years old and perched atop the big-kid’s slide at the park, when he revealed the photo of the World Trade Center hidden beneath it.

Pete stared at the photo. The building had since ascended from architectural icon to cultural supernova, so quickly ushered into the pantheon of American places that now, any photo that even incidentally includes the Twin Towers is deemed a photo of the Twin Towers. He imagined there were probably ten thousand nearly identical photos of Manhattan, stuck with magnets to ten thousand fridges. Ten thousand stories about ten thousand strangers taking the same picture. He thought about the day he took his, and how he never meant for the Twin Towers to be in the photo.

Back then, Pete thought the black monoliths were impressively tall but architecturally dull, especially in a city with the likes of the Chrysler or Empire State buildings. He didn’t care about the twin towers – he was taking a picture of the Empire State Building. He would have cropped out the towers if he could have zoomed in, but the zoom on his disposable camera was his feet, and there’s not much room for that when you’re leaning against the railing of a boat. He clicked the shutter, then overheard two women on the ferry arguing, then agreeing, that the building in the middle was the Manhattan Trust Building, as the Empire State Building wasn’t quite visible from that vantage point.

It seemed strange to him that the photo he took that day seems like a different photo now. If he left it on the fridge, some dinner guest might compliment him on the great photo of the Twin Towers, maybe use it to segue into their own New York story. Another might think it was proof of his commitment to remembering what a nation pledged to never forget, one of ten thousand tiny memorials on ten thousand refrigerators. He was disappointed to realize that no one would look at it and say, “Wow, that’s the worst picture of the Empire State Building I’ve ever seen!” He was the only one who knew that.

He placed the photo in the pile for Amy and Jeff to review.


© 2016 WPReagan. This is one story in the 2016 series, Everyday Stories: 30 Tales in 30 Days Inspired by 30 Stranger’s Photographs.

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