“This is why we don’t go to Branson,” Mark says, but I refuse to stop smiling like a child who has just spotted a mini-golf course with a giant dinosaur. Which, as a matter of fact, since we’re in Branson, I had, earlier today.
“I don’t know how you can say no to an opportunity like this,” I reply, pointing to the brick building and its impressive all-caps sign, “THE ULTIMATE PICTURE PALACE”.
He relents, and promises to behave if I cover his ticket.
We open the door, and are greeted by an old man standing in front of a white curtain. He doesn’t speak, merely extends one open hand to collect our money, and the other to stamp us with proof of admission. He swings the curtain open far too dramatically for someone in his position.
It’s like walking into a Google image search, like Flickr threw up. The walls are covered in every photograph imaginable, some huge, posters, others snipped from magazine covers and newspapers. The majority of them, though? Four by six, take-home prints. Some of them are clustered together in themes, pictures of birds or mountains or birthdays, but this seems to be more an accident of the order they were found rather than any sort of intentional design.
We walk around in a daze, there are cardboard cutouts, but I only recognize one or two of them. One is Darth Vader, which is probably the most familiar thing about the place, as the rest are of strangers, and most of these are poor resolution. They’ve been blown up from other photos. It’s like Madam Tussaud’s by way of Kinko’s.
The birthday party in several of the photographs on the wall nearest me reminds me of my sixth birthday party, but I suppose there’s only so many different ways birthday parties can look. As I shuffle over for a closer look, the rustling beneath my feets captures my attention.
We’re standing on more photos. Piles of them. And envelopes. Kwik-Photo, Drug-Aide, Hall-Mart Foto. I’m in a photo-graveyard. All that film that gets dropped off and lost or forgotten about? It ends up here. A number of the envelopes have a red stampmark on them: Unclaimed. Others seem to have been in a dumpster.
“Hey,” Mark waves me over. He’s looking at pictures from a family trip to Disney World, and there I am. It’s not a picture of me, it’s some little brat with a mouse-ears hat, a mouse-shaped ice cream cone and a look of panic from not knowing which ride to enjoy next, but I’m there all the same, in the background. Walking through somebody else’s photo. I remember the trip, when you’re at the age where you think the rides aren’t cool anymore, or at least, you’re too cool for them. And there I am.
I want to leave.
A flashbulb goes off, and I rub the green and purple out of my eyes, confused.
We head for the door, winding around columns of photographs glue-sticked onto poster board, and as we approach the counter near the exit, a woman approaches, bent and old. Do we want to buy a photo of us at The Ultimate Picture Palace, she wants to know. I shake my head and beeline for the door. She grabs Mark’s wrist.
“Do you have anything for us? Do you want to leave a memory of your trip?”
Mark wrests his arm away gently, and stares at it as if it’s infected.
“Any photos? Wallet-sized portraits, graduation pictures of a pretty lady, maybe?”
We head out the door, and mumble some sort of hurried apology.
I want to go back in for my picture. I feel like I’m abandoning it there, leaving a soldier behind. There’s a stamp on my hand that says the door will open for me again.