The Christmas Portrait

13 Dec
Illustrated by Ray Ferrer

Illustrated by Ray Ferrer

The Christmas Portrait

By L. Stewart Marsden

The Cortwright family flowed onto the beach to their own music. Moneyed, socially privileged, and oh-so-much-better than the average beach goer, they claimed a section of the ocean horizon for the annual family Christmas portrait photo session.

As with the years before, the Cortwright girls, Kendra and Kiley, were dressed in white cotton linen dresses, their blonde hair curled and coiffed carefully, even though the whipping sea breezes pulled and teased their hair apart. Kester, the lone Cortwright male offspring, wore khaki Bermuda’s and a navy button-down collared shirt. He was also blessed with thick, blonde hair.

The only difference in these portraits from year to year was the age and height of the children, and the age and wrinkles of the adults. Everyone was tastefully tanned — from a regimen of slow burn at the club spa over a period beginning after the Christmas school break until the beach trip. No session more than five minutes. You avoid skin cancer that way.

Behind closed doors, Granpa Cortwright referred to his progeny as the “Aryan no-necks,” in honor of his favorite play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Granpa and Granna Cortwright wore matching outfits of light in fabric and color. Granpa sported a Panama hat with a black headband. It kept catching in the wind and tipping forward on his tanned gray-haired face. His white open-necked button down shirt billowed with the breeze, and his dark green aviator sunglasses tipped slightly at the end of his nose. He was the tallest of the group, even though his back stooped from age.

Granna was as elegant-looking as the Queen of England, with soft white hair and deep blue eyes. Her blue and green floral moo-moo flowed regally about her ankles and calves. Around her neck hung hammered silver water lilies, with perfect rose-tinted pearls placed at the center of each bloom. The necklass cost Granpa a small fortune — the spoils of a near-divorce when Granna accurately guessed he was dallying with one of his office staffers.

The lone legal heir of the Cortwright empire, Kyle Adams Cortwright, was sufficiently bored of the annual photography event, and struggled down to the beach in order to hold up his end of the line. Dutifully, he sported khaki Bermudas he bought at the Augusta National pro shop at The Masters in the spring a year ago. He paid $500 for them. The Masters logo was stitched onto two of the wide belt loops that were positioned prominently on either side of the fly, and he always tucked his shirts in to get the most for his money. “Don’t want to hide those boys with a ninety-dollar shirt tail,” he grinned.

His navy button-down collar shirt matched his wife Kassie’s, and was starched so that even the strongest wind would not move the material.

Kassie Cortwright was the “photog wrangler” for the event, bedecked with two digital cameras — an inexpensive Kodak point-and-shoot, and a pricey Canon, which she allowed no one to touch. While not a bloodline Cortwright, Kassie was clearly the matriarch-in-waiting, and directed all in order to get those “precious candid” shots so carefully choreographed for the best lighting and background. Kassie would later retouch each photo with her computer software in her studio.

She was “arm candy” for Kyle, who could have had his pick of fillies from the finest Southern stables in a five-state area. He married her as much for her name as her pedigree. “Kyle & Kassie are Kute & In Love!” was printed on a banner that hung over the club swimming pool at their wedding reception, which was when they decided to name every child with a “K” name. The banner eventually ended up over the back wall of their basement rec room. The “v” had peeled off due to moisture in the basement long before the birth of Kester.

Kyle had made a feeble attempt at pre-law at Chapel Hill before discovering the competition was too stiff for his liking. After his freshman year, where he nearly flunked out of school due to his attention to pledging and his inattention to academics, Kyle transferred into the School of Business. There he averaged his way through the rest of his college career, aware he had a sure thing with his dad’s company when he graduated.

Kassie’s accomplishments at Carolina amounted to a degree in Social Philosophy, and President of the Tri-Delts for two years. She was the most photographed coed in the Yakety Yak for three years running. She knew because she and her sorority pledges counted the pictures every fall after Rush Week. Most thought there were so many pictures of her because she had fallen hard for one of the yearbook photographers and had plied her good looks and other “qualities” in trade. She never denied it to close friends. It added to her mystique.

Her outfit matched Kyle’s. Her navy button-down collared shirt was starched stiff, and she also wore khaki shorts from Augusta National, although she didn’t have to make the trip to the tournament to get them. Like her mother-in-law’s neckless of silver and pearls, Kassie Cortwright had learned of the spoils system. Kyle was a chip off the old man’s philandering shoulder. He brought back something of value for her from every “company trip.”

Kassie’s plan was to take various sets of photos: the kids; the women; Granna and Granpa Cortwright; Granna and Granpa with the girls; Granna and Granpa and Kyle – every conceivable combination, which were many. And, finally, the group shot. Then there would be the inevitable “candid shots” of everyone.

As long as Granna and Granpa survived, Cortwright and Milliken (Kassie’s maiden name) family members would receive the group shot, embedded in a pre-cut, pre-printed Season’s Greetings from the Cortwrights card. Whenever Granna and Granpa both died, a photo of the two would go out, embedded in a pre-cut, pre-printed We Will Miss Them This Season card, that would include the obituaries of each as an insert. That card stock was carefully stored in the attic in a moisture-proof container. The obits were saved on the hard drive of Kassie’s computer, awaiting only the final date for each.

Socially, politically and otherwise strategically important friends of Kyle and Kassie Cortwright would receive the main Cortwright group shot, sans grandparents, embedded in a pre-cut, pre-printed Happy Holidays! Another Fabulous Year to Celebrate!, along with a two-page printed update on the highlights of the past year for Kendra, Kiley and Kester, as well as herself and Kyle.

All cards were assembled, stamped with Kyle and Kassie’s signatures, addressed and stamped to reach destinations no later than two weeks prior to December 25.

And it all began here, with the photography shoot. On the beach.

Of the various compositions, Kassie was able to test shoot with the Kodak for position and light and background for all shots; and she could shoot the final takes with the Canon on shots she was not in. She used her tripod and the automatic shutter for shots she was in. Granpa offered to take the shots which she was in and he was not, but Kassie wouldn’t allow it. Despite his success in business, she didn’t think Granpa Cortwright would be able to meet her high standards. But he always offered, and she always politely declined the offer.

Today the lighting was perfect! It was overcast enough to mask out the shadows created on a sunny day. That meant no flash. Kassie’s digital cameras would do the rest, automatically adjusting for focus and existing light.

She corralled the family members into a group and began to explain who and what the shots would be. Kyle grinned and shook his head, aware no one was listening.

“I can help with the shots,” offered Granpa.

“Just everyone listen. LISTEN!” The wind off the ocean blew her words in the opposite direction.

“Kendra, Kylie and Kester – you’re first. Everyone else, wait over there,” Kassie directed. She drew an X in the sand. “Kids, stand here!” And, as kids are want to do, they assembled about a yard from the X.

“No! ON the X! Stand ON IT!” Her words whipped westward by the east ocean wind.

All of the other beach-goers stood back in awe and mused over the spectacle. They watched from their sun-sheltered umbrellas; from their adjustable beach chairs with a variety of bottled water, sodas, and other drinks in hand.

Tall, skinny surf skimmers daringly slipped on micro-thin wave water, stopping and pulling up within the imagined line of limits on either side of the photography shoot. Everyone honored the invisible barrier. Joggers and walkers circumvented the area. Swimmers stayed to either side of the fifty yards of “reserved” background, the same way they did whenever someone was surf fishing.

Except for one person.

At first he was walking up the beach at a rapid clip. When he neared the area of activity, he made no effort to skirt back up the beach to avoid being a bother. In fact he walked into the forbidden zone and slowed down. You might even say he came to a crawl, bending over as if to sift through shells in the shallow water.

Kassie was amok focusing her Kodak point-and-shoot on the cotton clad kids — directing them to stand closer, to smile, but not smile like that, and quit elbowing each other, and Kester, put your hand down, and a hundred other orders, and finally pressing the shutter button and looking at the shot only to discover a man walking through the background!

“What the h—!” she exploded, and the man, who had not yet completed the distance behind the kids, stopped, and turned to look at Kassie. He cocked his head to one side, scratched his protuberant and hairy belly, and proceeded to walk back to the surf water directly behind the children.

Kassie was aghast with the clear violation of polite protocol whenever someone was about to take a picture — that of stopping and waiting until the camera clicked before walking into the camera’s shot frame! If someone happened to walk into a picture unawares, the next protocol would be an embarrassed apology — given profusely — and then quickly walk away.

This man — this hairy ape — covered from head to toe with thickly matted fur — neither stopped nor apologized! Instead, he lingered at the water’s edge — still well within the camera’s range!

Kassie shot a glance to Kyle and ordered him with her eyes to take care of the situation. Kyle shrugged, and while the Cortwright family looked on in mixed horror and amusement, he shuffled down to the hairy ape, whose feet were now sinking in sand.

“Good morning, Sir!” Kyle offered in his best and most friendly voice. He prided himself in his ability to strike up a conversation with even the most menial of people.

“Hey.” The reply was short and gruff.

Kyle sized up his opponent quickly. He was older, probably late fifties — maybe sixties. He was shorter than Kyle by several inches, but outweighed him by probably more than a hundred pounds.

He was endowed with what Kyle called “man breasts” because of his weight, and his great belly protruded out around his midriff. With the exception of the top of his head, his body was covered with hair, a mixture of silver, white and some black strands. Tufts arose from his shoulders like military epaulets. His eyebrows were thick bushes, and his beard, though mostly shaven, was dark on his face. A thick bush of hair poured from the middle of his lower lip and down the middle of his chin, lopped off at the first of three folds of fat girding his neck. His nose was bulbous and red, pigmented by an obviously non-abstinent lifestyle. His deep-set eyes were dark in color, and peered from beneath the thick brows like an angry beast.

Along his left arm, from the shoulder to his wrist, were the words “Luck be a Lady tonight,” and was festooned with poker chips and poker card hands from straights to flushes. Once his arms had been muscular, Kyle could tell. Probably a military career man, he thought. Noncom no doubt.

The most unusual visual aspect of the man was from just beneath his neck and straight down the middle of his ribs and belly, the right half of the front of his torso was completely devoid of hair. Half of his torso was thick with hair, the other, tanned, leathery skin. And tattooed on that bare canvass of his torso was the naked profile of a very well-endowed raven-haired woman, whose bared breast was tipped with his actual nipple — hairless, at that. “I have had the time of my life” ran along her profile from breast to groin.

“I was just wondering if I could persuade you to move away from the background of the photos my wife is taking of our family, and –”

“Fuck you,” the man interrupted, his tone low and even. No anger evident.

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s French. It means I don’t gotta move away from the background of your friggin’ photos.”

“Well, of course! I mean, you don’t have to — uh, gotta — move away. It’s just that it would be the polite thing to do.”

“Well, shit on that! Maybe the polite thing to do would have been your family goes to a studio for your Gee-Dee photos.”

The Cortwrights began to take note of the discourse between Kyle and the man they were describing to each other as gorilla and monkey in whispered voices.

“See,” the man continued, “if I ain’t mistaken, this here’s a public beach. It is open to all. And not just to the socially elite! Am I right?”

“In that it’s a public beach, you are. In that you are inferring my family is socially elite, you are not.”

The man lit a cigar he pulled from behind his ear and puffed quickly. Then he turned to wave at the Cortwrights with his cigar-stubbed hand.

“I’m not inferring it  — you think you are.”

“How’s that?”

“By coming down here year after year and parading your little blonde-haired family, dressed up in white cotton and khakis and such. You take over this particular section of the beach for your own private photography session! Only it ain’t so private — and you parade for all to see. This expectation you have of the rest of us? Why, it’s no more’n the expectation of the aristocracy that us plebeians bow and scrape to your every need — no matter how asinine or inconvenient it is!”

The Cortwrights were somewhat stupefied by the ape’s vocabulary.

“How do you know we do this every year?” Kyle asked, somewhat paranoid that this man might have been stalking them over the years.

“That your cottage for the week?” the man asked, pointing to a huge three-story coral-colored cottage.

“Yes,” Kyle responded, suddenly sorry he had done so.

“See the one next to it?” The man pointed to a small, one-story cottage with a flat roof. “The brown one? I rent that one. During this same week every year. I’ve done that for thirty-two years.”

“Thirty-two years. That’s, that’s a long time.”

“And, for the last five years, you and your fucking-perfect family parade themselves on this public beach and take over! You take over with your white cotton dresses and with your khakis shorts and with your blonde hair and with your poses and your photos. You take over with your attitude. With your expectations.”

“I don’t know what to say?”

“Not much you can say. Long as you keep coming out here, I’m going to be here, too. In the background. Near the edges of your photos. Staring out at whoever gets these photos.”

Suddenly, a very angry Kallie stormed up, cameras swinging against her body.

“I don’t know who you think you are, or why you are doing what you are doing, but I’m going to ask you once — nicely — to move on until we’re through here!”

“Okay.” The hairy ape remained standing in the water, puffing on his cigar.

“Okay, what?”

“Okay, ask. Nicely.”

“Will you pleeeeease move away from behind my family so I can take these photos?”


Kallie grabbed Kyle by the arm and jerked him a few steps away.

“Get that man out of here, Kyle Adams Cortwright! Make him go away!”



“Public beach. He’s got just as much a right here as we do. That much I know from my intro to law course.”

“You’re not going to do anything, are you?”


By this time the girls and Kester were getting bored, and Grana and Granpa were approaching the time for their morning digestive constitutional. Also, more and more spectators were gathering around the dramatic confrontation. A few were using their cell phones to video.

“Kyle! I demand you get this — this — MAN out of here before I lose it!”

Kyle shrugged his shoulders and walked over to the hairy ape.

“You see, my wife’s going to lose it in a minute if she can’t take her pictures.”

“That should be interesting!” the hairy ape puffed, “especially if this is her not losing it.”

“There’s nothing I can do to persuade you to move?”

“What, like money?”

“Well — sure. How much?”

“More’n you got, Bud.”

“I’ve got a lot.”

“Two million.”

“Wha —?”

“Three, then. Three million.”

“Who the hell —?”

“Already told you. I’m your neighbor, Neighbor! I’ve been coming down here a long, long time. I’ve been enjoying my walks on this beach for almost three decades longer than you and your family! It’s a public beach! And I can stand anywhere the hell I want to!”

“You don’t have to yell!”

“I’m so sorry! Don’t worry about your wife losin’ it! You worry about me losin’ it!”

“Okay! Okay! Look, Mister . . .”


“Mr. Poluski, I recognize our coming out here and, well, owning the beach for an hour so we can take our family photos bothers you! But — really — what is one hour? It’s over and done and the beach is yours again and no harm, no foul! Right?”

“See? There it is!”

“There what is?”

“That subtle thing you elite do.”

“Just what is it we do?”

“The ‘no harm, no foul’ thing. Everywhere you go, you impose your desires on the rest of us — while trying to convince everyone that your way is harmless. Even that it’s actually good for us! Like the big corporations that go to a third world to rape and plunder their resources — promising that everyone will benefit from the digging and the drilling and the cutting and the ‘developing.’ Then, the bulldozers level everything and the land is stripped to the bone; and the rains come and the floods come and the topsoil and everything good about the land is washed away and the people are left naked and starving and diseased and dying!”

“Oh. That subtle thing.”

“Then, you come out here and once again try to impose your will on us! What if every rich family in America decided to come down to this beach and parade their families out for an hour of shooting pictures? Have you thought of that?”

“No, but I’m guessing you have.”

“You’re damn straight, I have!”

“Mr. Poluski? What if we move down the beach — away from this area — and take our pictures there?”

“I’ll just move to where you are. See, it isn’t the where you do it — it is that you do it at all!”

“The principle of the thing.”

“Ex-ACT-ly!” He puffed his cigar. “If I let this continue, then I may as well give up. The elite, the bourgeoisie will have landed and won and the proletariat will have no hope at all. We will be upended and buried.”

Kyle thought a moment while staring at the hairy ape — the philosophe — the socratic short, fat man with the tattoo of a naked lady on one half of his torso. He could tell the man’s determination went well beyond a rational disposition. And, the fact the man lived in the cottage next to theirs added to the potential danger.

“Well, Mr. Poluski. As I don’t have three million to hand you to end your strike —”

“I wouldn’t take it, anyhow.”

“Yes — I assumed as much. And, you seem persistent in your quest to keep us — the elite,  the bourgeoisie — from imposing our will upon the common man –”

“To the death!”

“Right. Then, I shall cede to your demands, and my family and I will not pursue our photos today, or any other day, for that matter.”

“You will?”

“I said so, didn’t I?”

Overhearing the conversation, Kallie’s expressions reflected both horror and anger. Kyle raised his hand in peace to her, shook the hairy ape’s hand, and turned to his family.

“We’re done here,” he called to them, and reached his hands out for his girls to grab, and the family began to trudge back up the slope of the beach to their cottage, leaving Kassie behind in confusion.

She turned back to the hairy ape, who was at the very end of his cigar, hands on hips, stomach pooched out, reveling in his apparent victory. As three bikinied girls walked by, Kassie drew her Canon to her face and clicked a picture of the enemy.

Perhaps this would be the Holiday Greetings picture she would send out this year. She turned and stormed after the Cortwright family, her cameras swinging wildly from her body.

Poluski watched after her as she wriggled toward the cottage in the loose beach sand. Gradually, slowly, something dawned on him as he stood knee-deep in the surf, and he began to realize that this confrontation had ended too quickly — had been too easy a win. Then the words of Demosthenes drifted up from his memory, “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.”

Poluski threw his near-spent cigar in the water and watched as the butt bobbed in the surf like a small boat. He laughed aloud, and continued his walk on the beach. They would be back – and he knew it. He began to hum La Marseillaise in eager anticipation.


The Christmas Portrait is reproduced from Through the Glass Darkly, a collection of short stories by L. Stewart Marsden, and available on

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