Fiction by Michael Bettendorf
The portrait on the dusty mantle was of a family who didn’t own new cars and never would. Flannel-clad and wearing their good jeans, the family sat uncomfortably in a studio worth more than their house. They wore polyester smiles and were told if they worked hard enough, they could accomplish happiness.
Matthew had a hard time believing it. He was born last in line of four boys, all named after the gospel writers—of which, Mark didn’t make it home from the hospital. Matthew was told he was a miracle, though he didn’t believe in miracles. How could he? He was from the kind of Midwestern home where grace was said at supper, though the monotonous repetition of the words was merely a script. Any grace they received felt a bit too intangible to mean anything anymore because the grit in his dad’s knees and the gloom in his mom’s heart were felt every day.
In the portrait, Matthew sat on the ground in a clumsy position. His legs were those of an awkward, lanky eleven-year-old boy whose growth spurts were far from over and his build was still a gamble. His jeans were highwaters, at least that’s what the kids at school said, and his shoes had one too many stripes to be considered cool. But he knew they were struggling so he didn’t argue when his mom dragged him to Payless.
His middle brother Luke had vacuous eyes that stared into other worlds. They were an empathetic brown like his father’s, though they hadn’t lost their luster yet from watching his dreams fade into a warped version of himself. A man with a bad back and a pension he’d never see. Luke wasn’t unfocused like the school counselor told his parents when they were brought in from work to discuss his grades. He was just bored. Fantastic worlds with ogres and longswords were more interesting than the math he already learned two years ago. The birch trees outside the studio window caught his attention, so he conjured images of grand battles and arcane wisdom while the photographer told him to turn his head—to look forward, not understanding that to Luke, he was.
John was nearly eighteen at the time of the photo and gladly rolled the sleeves of his flannel shirt up, revealing the new tattoo he’d later be identified by. His mom hated the career killer on his wrist—a classic Ed Hardy dagger piercing a heart. Though the tattoo that made her breakdown was the daylily on his shoulder. The one she didn’t know about until after his accident. Her favorite perennial, because even if it had a bad season, it came back the next year to try again. Immortalized by the photograph, John stood cool and collected between his mother and father, not a wedge between them, but the arms that held them together, if only for a moment.