On January 7, 2014, I was reading the NYTimes digital edition. They were covering the polar vortex as it swept across the midwest. They had a slide-show focusing on the impact of the storm as it hit Chicago. As I was looking through the photos, I was stunned by one of the shots. This story came out of that photo:
I saw him in a slideshow photo in the New York Times online. The AP photographer, who was covering the polar vortex as it hit Chicago, caught him as he disembarked from a bus. His train from LA had become stuck in the snow and the bus came to the rescue of the stranded passengers. There he was, carefully grasping his suitcase and hoisting it above a snowdrift. My heart raced -- it was him, in the flesh. He was well dressed, wearing that familiar cap. I hadn’t seen the coat before, and the luggage was new to me, but he was a clothes horse and had a way of dressing that always made him look refined; there was the familiar sense of dashing...a vestige of dashing left to him, no matter the specifics -- just his style. He was focused on some place ahead of him; some place he could rest that heavy piece of luggage, its wheels currently rendered useless in the snow. How funny it must have been for him to be coming back to Chicago. I wonder what the conversation was prior to booking the journey; what story did he tell himself? Maybe he was driven by something as simple as: There was something that I used to do. There was no doubt -- it was him -- though truth be told, my father had been dead for three years, ten months, and twenty-eight days.
Who knows how these things work? He had been cremated. It makes it harder to consider, but there is the photo evidence -- quite specific, that. You might think: photoshop. I remind you, it was an AP photo in the New York Times, dated January 7, 2014. The paper of record would have no reason to deceive. To what end? We, his family, weren’t expecting him. At all. We didn’t know the AP photographer. Who could have predicted the polar vortex and its impact on Chicago? As the photo tag says, ‘weary passengers arrived at Union Station by bus, after their train had gotten stuck in a snow drift, while on their way from LA to Chicago.’ The photographer followed the breaking news, and in doing the job of a photographer, caught and froze a newsworthy moment in time. This elderly, well-dressed man, weary from travel, lifting a suitcase over a snow drift, got caught at a certain angle, in a certain light, on a certain day, in precisely this city -- and we, who knew him best, would add, for the sake of clarity -- that all of this occurred post death for him, for there was no doubt that the image rendered was the one particular soul whom we had always known. As if further proof would be needed, the argument could be made that if it were all just a mere story, a concoction, a figment, a wish, why would the returning soul manifest himself once again quite as old as he was when he departed? If I were writing the story, I would have made the coming back in the person of a young man. To come back old, for another short run, would accomplish what, exactly? Yet here he was, right before our eyes, surprising us in a way that nothing else could. We have proof, in the form of a proof. Argue that away.
Perhaps, a doppelganger? Yes. The world has more than seven and a half billion souls; it is within the realm of possibility to find a non-blood twin amongst them. Faces have only so many variations. So, true, doppelgangers exist. Do they exist for everyone? Do our ghosted twins beckon us to strange cities – their cities -- with the sudden urge to travel; to see the world; to see something new, a bit of business that must be attended, all done in the background of the brain without specific consent? Back to the photo. It’s one thing to look like someone, but down to the stance; the style of dress; the anxious, yet determined, look in the eye? Even down to that? With a doppelganger there is always a tell. Something a bit off. The reassurance, for the observers, that all is still right with the world. Carry on.
I knew we were coming upon the anniversary of his death. Anniversaries do strange things, we are told. After seeing him in the photo, I counted the actual days. The precision seemed to matter: years; months; days; hours; minutes; seconds; the count of the clock; the notion of time; the distance between then and now; from here to eternity at the end of a measuring tape. Meanwhile, he -- he of the photo -- was heading to Chicago from LA, the city where dreams are made to the city that still held the only true dreamers of him.
~ Therese Flanagan