by Ace Boggess
I walk through the valley of the death of shadows. I know what I want. Always. Give me a little mayhem: a street brawl turned bloody, a jumper, a knifing in the park at 4 a.m. Let the city burn just a bit. I don’t need much chaos, and it has to be local. What use have I for goings-on in the Great Elsewhere when Mary Sue Busconi just beat up a cop with her son’s Louisville Slugger? Another bombing in Afghanistan? Sorry, I can’t report on that, only pass it along. But, hey! Councilman Toolig put a guy through a plate glass window as if the two of them were in a scene in some old movie! Now, that’s news. It’s what I want to hear and write about and, though most won’t admit it, it’s the second thing readers look for when they pick up The Domestic-Chronicle in the morning. Right after the obituaries, of course. The obits always come first.
I’m sitting at my desk in the newsroom, ensconced in my cubicle, fingers plugging away on the keyboard like some wigged-out Elton John playing songs for the Police Blotter. I’ve almost finished my piece on the three-car pile-up on I-79 this afternoon. It was one hell of a mess: metal and glass, fire trucks and squad cars blocking the road. I broke a few traffic laws, drove on a shoulder or two and made it to the scene right before the second car was towed away. The whole area smelled like sulfur and sawdust. I got to see a little blood, a little fuel being hosed down and a whole lot of debris. No fatalities, though. Sorry about that. Good for the drivers, bad for readers—all those jittery Pittsburgh vampires ready to sink their teeth into a body when they pick up tomorrow’s edition. Well, I try not to disappoint them, and I’m sure something will come up … or go down, as the case may be.
“Heron!” It’s Mitch Adams, the city editor, shouting my name although I can tell he’s only six feet behind me. “We need you. Got a dead one.”
What do you know?
I swivel in my seat like a kid playing in a barber’s chair. There’s Mitch, a tall man, squared off and robot-like all over. I try to stare him in the eyes, but I end up sneaking a glance at the cold sore swelling on his lower lip. I can’t help it. Like I said, I love a good disaster. This one’s red as his hair and wide as a pinky nail. “Can’t be, Mitch,” I tell him. “Haven’t heard anything on the scanner.” Behind me on the desk, the police scanner whizzes and whirs like a half-clogged vacuum cleaner. “Not a peep from the P.D.”
“Well, maybe they’re keeping it hush-hush. Could be big.” He self-consciously adjusts the knot on his red power tie. “We got a call, Chuck. That’s all I know. Need you there pronto.”
“I’m on it. Where am I going?”
“Market Alley,” he says.
“I should’ve known.” It’s always Market Alley.
I didn’t start out with that inky blood lust, burying all those bodies in the newspaper’s morgue. When I first signed on with The Domestic-Chronicle straight out of college, the rituals of the police beat—cold-calling every station or detachment in the circulation area or heading down to the PD headquarters to rifle through pages and pages of insignificant misdemeanors scrawled sloppily in reports along with the crazy ramblings of crazy people—mostly just annoyed me. I didn’t feel the excitement of seeing a jumper on the Fort Pitt Bridge. I didn’t share the grotesque appetites of my readers.
One of my journalism professors put it this way: “A photo without people isn’t news, and prose without a body isn’t interesting.” I earned a ‘C’ in that class. Maybe I should’ve paid more attention.
I know when I began to change. I was working overtime on a Friday night around eleven o’clock. The city desk transferred a call. I answered and was told by a concerned citizen that some sort of toxic waste was spewing from a drain into the Monongahela.
Sucking it up, I headed for the location the guy gave me. It was a boat ramp surrounded by a parking lot with concrete paths heading off in both directions along the river. I wasn’t sure which way to go until I saw the beam of a flashlight floating like a comet in the distance. So, making sure I had a pen and my usual long, thin reporter’s notebook, I went to join the party.
“Chuck Heron with The Domestic-Chronicle,” I said to the guy who greeted me with a light shining in my eyes. “Got a story for me?”
“Right,” the guy said. “The Dee-Cee. I didn’t think you’d come.” It was overcast, and the only visibility came from his flashlight beam, so I didn’t get a good look at him. I saw he was white and taller than me, with a lot of hair on his head, though I couldn’t make out the color. He wore a soiled white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. It radiated like a mini-moon in the darkness. There were six or seven other people with him, crowded behind, all shadows on a kid’s window blind from where I stood.
“Are you the one that called us?”
“Sure, sure,” he said. “Jack Donner. I’m the one.”
“Why didn’t you think I’d come?”
“Hell, son, nobody else did. We called everybody. The EPA, the cops, the park service, even the Coast Guard. It’s like nobody wanted to know.”
“Not even the EPA?”
“Especially not the EPA. Apparently they were having a seminar. Something like that. All their folks were busy. Foreign lady on the phone said to call back Monday and make a report.”
I shook my head. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be gone come Monday.”
“I told her that. Didn’t care. Man, it really ticks me off.”
I took all that in, thinking this might make an interesting story after all. “Okay, you got me curious,” I said. “Show me.”
He waved three times with the flashlight like a traffic cop directing me toward the river. “Careful. Don’t trip.” The riverbank had been braced with a concrete wall that rose two feet above the ground and fell another six down to the water. I leaned over the edge with Donner next to me shining his light. “There. See? Disgusting.” Through a vent in the wall just above the water line, some sort of purple sludge oozed steadily into the river, not dissipating all that well because of a patch of rocks and dead trees forming a semicircle to the left. When Donner’s beam found the slime, that substance glowed in the water like a tee shirt under black lights. “Really ticks me off,” he said again.
About that time, a young woman joined us at the wall. She was close enough that I could see her blond hair blazing like a second flashlight, and she smelled of grapes. “Here, Jack. I knew we had some.” She handed Donner what I barely made out in the darkness to be a mason jar and a ball of twine.
“Shelly, I’m not about to ask why you got stuff like this in your car.”
“No big deal, Jack. It’s a rummage sale back there.”
“Uh huh.” He turned to me. “I want a sample. You know, for the EPA. When I see them on Monday, I mean to have some proof.”
I didn’t say anything. Instead, I wrote down his words and wrote down what I saw and kept writing as he acted out his plan. While Shelly held the flashlight, Donner tied twine around the mason jar. Then he leaned over the wall, dangling the line and trying to stretch the jar into the river.
“Careful,” one of the shadows behind me said.
Donner leaned farther and farther. His toes barely touched ground, and his knees braced against the wall.
That’s when I felt it, something I’d never experienced before: a twinge of fear mixed with delight and a little unexpected hope for disaster. It’s what Houdini’s fans must have felt as they held their own breath waiting for him to drown or emerge from the tank. I understood my old professor’s logic then. This was already a good story, but if Jack Donner fell, if he lay there half-submerged in river and mud and purple ooze, if he had to be rescued, if he drowned—then, the story would be interesting. That would make it great.
I park a block away and walk toward the officer guarding the perimeter, his blue uniform looking stern and black in the night and the second night of the alley. I’m already reaching for my press card, but he doesn’t ask for it, doesn’t even speak to me or look me in the eyes. He lifts the crime-scene tape like a bouncer at a club, and I slide under his velvet rope to slip inside and see the show. It’s another twenty yards to where the rest of the cops have huddled. Already I smell garbage and a burning scent, reminding me of a tire fire I covered once at a landfill across the border in Wheeling. I shake the image off and head over to the officer with the three chevrons on his lapel. “I’m with The Domestic-Chronicle,” I tell him by way of introduction.
He stands up straight, but never lifts his eyes. He has a crew cut and a hawk’s beak, but he’s younger than I’d expect for a man with his rank. I doubt he’s much older than I am. “We wondered when a reporter’d show up,” he grunts. “Sergeant Self with the Allegheny Detachment. So, I guess you heard.”
“That you got a body? Absolutely.”
“More than that,” he says, almost whispering.
“What’s the scoop?”
“You better brace yourself.”
“You kidding? Talk to me.”
“He’s one of yours,” the Sergeant tells me.
“One of my what?”
“A reporter,” he says. “A reporter from the Dee-Cee.”
I’m speechless at first. But I’m a pro. I suck it up, though all I can manage to say is, “Are you sure?”
The Sergeant nods. “Found his funny little notebook, and then there’s this.” He takes a baggie from one of the other cops, holding it up for me to see. Inside is a small lilac press card with The Domestic-Chronicle written in bold letters. There’s also a name and a headshot, but it’s too dark in the alley for me to make them out.
How odd, I think, staring at this evidence of human frailty. Nobody ever expects a reporter to die. Sure, there was that fellow that lost his head in Afghanistan, a martyr to journalists everywhere, but considering how stupidly many reporters walk into a warzone or spotlight themselves in the middle of a hurricane, for the most part they keep coming back for more. “This’ll be rough, won’t it?” I say.
“I imagine so.”
“Fine. Give it to me straight.”
He hesitates, hands the baggie back to the other cop, then tells me, “Here’s what we know so far. One Charles Vincent Heron, age twenty-nine, shot once in the chest. No money, rings, other jewelry. Looks like a robbery. Guy got mugged same as anybody else.”
I’ve stopped writing before he mentions the robbery. “What was that name again?”
“Charles Heron. Charles Vincent Heron.”
Again, I ask, “Are you sure?”
“That’s the name on the press card and his driver’s license. Maybe you can help us out with a quick I.D. If it’s not too upsetting, that is.”
How odd, I think again. What I say is this: “I hope there’s some mistake.”
“Doesn’t everyone?” he says.
“Okay, show me.”
The Sergeant speaks to his buddies, then motions for me to follow him. The body’s already in the ambulance, so we have to climb up in back. It’s bagged and zipped, but still on a gurney as though lightning or some deus ex machina soon will bring it back to life. The Sergeant unzips the bag down to the neck, not far enough for me to see the wound.
I lean over, studying the face. I recognize the wide nose and thin lips, the blond eyebrows like great golden dolphins diving into seas of blue in the eyes below. “I never noticed that scar on the chin before,” I say.
“Never mind. Nothing.”
“Right. So, you’ve seen him before?”
“Every day. Yeah, that’s Chuck Heron. I’d know that shifty face anywhere.” How odd, I think again. Then, Damn. “If there’s nothing else, I need to phone this in.”
Once I got roped into covering the hundredth-birthday bash for this blues singer. His name was Sigmund White, but everybody knew him as Shameless. Living out a century like that was a civics lesson in irony. The same sorts of politicos celebrating his big day and naming a street after him, had they been around at the time of his birth, would’ve been more likely to call the dogs.
A great-granddaughter wheeled Shameless into the ballroom at the Hilton. Her skin was as dark as potting soil, but Shameless’s had turned to ash, his hair milky and clumped at random like a field of wild shrubs. He couldn’t stand or raise his arms, could barely lift his head, and he didn’t have years enough left to force his lips to fake a smile.
All around this ritzy ballroom, cameras flashed and bodies flailed. Pop music blared. The mayor danced like a hamster squeezing through a tiny hole in the roof of his cage. Once the formalities ended, nobody glanced at old Shameless anymore.
I did. From across the room, I stared at those eyes of his, dark and mean and full of spit and spite built up over decades. Here was a man who knew every subtle shade of the blues. He’d seen heartbreak and horror, prison and poverty. He could spot the sorrow point of every sunset. This man was the blues and dealt with that by singing. Now, he couldn’t hum a note or strum a hopeless D-minor on some beat-up old guitar. I read it in his eyes: the worst misery he had suffered, the one he couldn’t share. Day by day, the blues built up inside him like pressure in an over-inflated tire. He wanted to rage, to wail, to cuss and give the world back its hell in the only way he knew how. Yet all he could do was sit, half-nodding, while nobody so much as offered him a shot of bourbon for the road.
I felt lousy trying to write the feel-good angle for this celebration. To me, the real story was violent and bloody as a double murder in a church.
There really are things worse than death.
I stumble into work, not feeling like myself today. There’s a crick in my neck as if I slept on my head last night. I’m numb with morning blindness from a sun seeming much too bright. I guess I shouldn’t stare, but that’s my job: to observe the unobservable, to witness what my readers can’t see for themselves.
The newsroom smells like dust this morning—wave upon wave of shelf dust, window ledge dust, the dust of sweaters too long in closets and the dust of the grave. I pick up the day’s edition from the Help Desk. This, too, is a dust rag filled with words. And there’s my story on the front page, its bold, banner headline stripped across the top: “Reporter Killed in Apparent Robbery.” It’s a good story. I’m proud of it, but my byline’s missing, replaced by a phrase: “compiled from staff and wire reports.”
“Hey, Linda,” I say to the Help Desk clerk, a blue-haired older lady who always smiles and never has a bad word to say for anybody.
She doesn’t look at me. “Isn’t it awful?” she says. “I can’t believe it. He was just in here yesterday.”
“Oh,” I say. This isn’t going anywhere. I tell her I’m sorry and head off to my cubicle. It’s early. Most staffers haven’t arrived yet. As bad as I feel, I don’t know if I can handle all the inevitable weeping.
When I reach my desk, for the first time I’m happy it’s nowhere near a window. Slipping into my private bit of dimness with its bleak desk and drab swivel chair, I mutter to myself, “I’m home.” I plop down on the seat and lean back, spreading the paper across the air in front of me. I open it first to the editorial page. Today’s column rambles and grumbles, abhorring crime and violence and the drugs that no doubt cause them both, followed by a few words about a reporter murdered in his prime and how missed he will be. “Not bad, not bad.”
Next, I flip through until I find the obituary pages:
CHARLES VINCENT HERON, 29, of Pittsburgh
died Monday during an apparent robbery. He was
a reporter for The Domestic-Chronicle and a
graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. He was
preceded in death by his father, Edgar Heron.
Survivors include his mother, Annabelle Heron
of Hershey; and two sisters, Mika Heron of
Pittsburgh and Louise Heron Lieber of York.
Arrangements to be announced from Golden
Mortuary. In lieu of flowers, the family requests
donations be made to the Pittsburgh Zoo.
“That’s sweet,” I say. I love the zoo. I used to go there with my father before the heart disease got him. Oh, those were special times, innocent times, times when I had no monsters under the bed and didn’t go looking for any either.
I fold up the newspaper and set it aside. Then I push the button to turn on my computer. There’s that dust smell again—burning dust, this time. I wipe my nose with a finger to clear away the stink, but that only makes it worse. Meanwhile, the monitor flashes a request for my user name and password. I fill in the blanks, but the system rejects me. I type my name and password a second time, but I’m refused.
“This is ridiculous”
I type the codes a third time, and the computer replies, “This computer is now locked.”
“Damn.” I slap the keyboard. Pain burns in my shoulder and the pit of my back.
“What’s all the goddamned racket?” I spin in my chair to find Mitch staring down, the fever blister on his lip a glaring third eye just as angry as the other two.
“Sorry, Mitch. I can’t log on.”
“Course not. The account’s been changed. Can’t have anybody going through Chuck’s files before we get a chance to see what’s on there. Might be private material he wouldn’t want anyone to know about.”
“Yeah, well, let us be the judge.”
I nod, resigned and frustrated. “Mitch,” I say, “I think I’ll go home for the day.”
“Not feeling well?” He shakes his head like a mother disappointed with her child.
“I guess not. I’m all broken up about this.”
“I understand,” he says. “It’s rough on all of us.” Mitch solemnly bows his head and, for the first time since I’ve known him, looks like a human being.
I wasn’t even working the day I saw the flames. They rippled in the air ten feet high from my right on the Interstate off-ramp. I pulled to the shoulder, grabbed a spare pen and notebook from the glove box and trudged down the off-ramp toward the burning car. I’d never seen anything blaze so intensely. Where was the driver? Where were the passengers? Still inside? I thought the air smelled of cooked meat, but more so of paint and gasoline fumes.
The police hadn’t arrived yet. Neither had the fire department. A few cars slowed so their drivers could rubberneck and take in the morbid spectacle as they passed, but none stopped. Not a single passerby joined me at the gates of Hell. I must have stood there ten minutes, enchanted by mayhem, my eyes lost watching sultry undulations of the flames. Only then the cops came, followed by an ambulance—much too late—and, eventually, two fire engines. There was no one else.
The people in this city now were easier for me to figure out. They all wanted to know about the ugliest corners of the world, to read the stories about them and pretend to mourn for strangers or offer up pithy comments about the way things are. It was my job to feed them the gristle and bones. That way none of them had to explore those corners in person.
I didn’t write that in my notebook. I just described what I saw and what I could get the officers and EMTs to say. It wasn’t my job to comment, but to be the eyes staring into that abyss.
I call my mother. One of her cousins answers. “She really can’t come to the phone right now. She’s not handling it well.”
“She drinking?” I say.
“Maybe a little. Can you blame her?”
“Nobody should haveto go through this.”
“Sure. Tell her I called, okay?”
The cousin assures me she’ll pass along the message, but I know she won’t remember it ten minutes from now. She’s probably already pouring herself a splash of my mother’s gin.
I consider mixing a drink of my own—maybe a screwdriver—but I realize I don’t have any juice. So, I collapse in my reclining chair and flip on the TV. “Anything but news,” I say, searching until I find a cartoon where a blue-gray cat gets soundly routed by a mouse. God, I wish that cat would win. I want to see the mouse skewered on a spit, slowly turning, roasting, while the cat bastes his tiny limbs with garlic. Does that make me a bad person? Am I wrong to root for the coyotes of this world? The hapless hunters seeking rabbit stew?
Shaking my head, I glance around the room. My apartment looks so small, filled and cluttered with all the things I own but don’t really possess. My private space constricts a little more each day. Soon I’ll be another tchotchke in a box.