right here, write now
2011Writer’s Competition Nonfiction Winner
2011 First Place Nonfiction
by Lisa Leitz, Othello
Black and White and Blue All Over
Not everyone learns about their legendary mistakes while standing in line at the grocery store, but if a piano is going to land on a community newspaper publisher, that’s exactly where it will happen.
“Can you believe they put that photo in there?”
The guy in front of me slapped a copy of my newspaper against the checkstand. It was fairly early in the morning; after delivering all my newsstand, I’d just dropped the kids off at school—and I’d come back to the grocery store to pick up a couple of gallons of milk.
“Oh, I know,” the checker said, her hands busy swiping the guy’s beef jerky over her scanner. “Nobody can believe it.”
I didn’t recognize the guy. The checker fussed over bagging his half-case of Bud Light and potato chips. Probably a hunter, I thought.
“What’s wrong with the photo?” I asked the guy, quickly, before the checker noticed me and could tell him who I was. I tried not to wince as he angrily jammed the copy of my newspaper back onto the checkstand. He left the paper hanging, cockeyed, over the edge of the counter.
“I mean, there’s just common decency, isn’t there?” he muttered. “Who else but a newspaper would put a picture of a dismembered hand on the friggin front page?”
* * *
Who else but a newspaper, indeed? By the time the infamous hand photo was printed, I was the newspaper. Equal parts honest and nosy, I sported such an abysmal level of self-esteem that I was convinced that working eighty hours a week—every week—was exactly what I deserved. I was also just stupid enough to believe that I had a shot at redemption every week, too—which shackled me so firmly to my black-and-white mistress that the two of us became indistinguishable.
The schizophrenic ability of a good journalist to remain invisible in public but fearless in print might have served me well on an anonymous big-city beat, but in a small town…well, people cannot be blamed for thinking that I was completely crazy.
Those people showed up to holler at me on my front porch, since the newspaper office was in our house. I knew all of them. I knew the tearful ones who showed up clutching notebook-paper obituaries. I knew the city councilmember who sent me drunken emails every Saturday night—he’d cruelly point out all the mistakes I’d made in the paper that week before hinting that he wanted to sleep with me.
“I’ve never seen anyone with such an easily-triggered sense of justice, Goldilocks,” he sneered in one email.
* * *
Since the business was continually strapped for cash, I had to take accident pictures. (A front-page wreck photo in a small town is a guaranteed sellout.) I became a wizard at finding access to blocked scenes—plowing my old Taurus through the weeds on canal roads if necessary. It wasn’t uncommon for me to beat the ambulance.
But the hand photo was taken at a double fatality that featured easy parking. The victims had ended up in the parking lot of an ag chemical company just east of Royal City, and I felt like I was cheating when I pulled up—it was almost too easy, like going to the mall.
I remember shooting a little mangled red and white Coleman cooler that was lying next to the car as the blanket-covered bodies of the two women were loaded.
The women’s lunch—tinfoil-wrapped tamales—had spilled out of the cooler and onto the gravel of the parking lot. Everything was splattered with blood. I couldn’t stop thinking about how they’d probably grabbed a few things from the fridge right before they’d left for work—in a hurry, laughing maybe—never knowing it would be one of the last things they ever did.
Although I was used to cops making inappropriate jokes at fatalities, when a trooper rolled his eyes about the “whole famdamily” (while nodding toward the silent relatives of the dead women), I barely managed a polite smile.
Over a dozen people stood and watched the bloody sedan—not wailing, not crying, just staring. They rimmed the edge of the WSP-required 50’ fatality buffer like a guardrail. The EMTs had half-heartedly flung disposable blue sheeting over the back door of the mangled sedan for privacy as they had worked to remove the bodies of the two women. I noticed they’d even left their discarded nitrile gloves lying around: a sign of frustration they’d lost both the victims.
I came home, still thinking about the tamales on the bloodstained gravel, and threw up in the utility sink in my laundry room. Then I Photoshopped the pictures of the crushed car, sharpening the focus, and—as advised by our press—I changed the photos into black and white so they would “dot up” better.
And that was how a bright blue nitrile glove thrown on the shattered back window of a Honda became a dismembered hand.
* * *
The newspaper went under last year, after the Recession choked off the last of our dying ad revenue. All I have is a stack of silent morgue books now, big, awkward library-bound things stacked in my downstairs pantry along with cans of kidney beans and extra paper towels. I used to pay the bindery in Walla Walla every year to make us a tidy book of our back issues, and I always wondered what the binders thought as they lined up a whole year of our news to sew together. Not that it matters now.
It doesn’t seem like those silent morgue books should be able to contain my raucous eight years of being a newspaper. But isn’t the past always muffled by the ash of history as it sifts down on all of us? Sifting and sifting, until even someone who had to know everything can forget, until even the most high-contrast black and white memories start to gray and blur, until even a rubber glove in the back of a wrecked car can look like it’s waving goodbye.