Friday’s assignment was a grim enough trip, the kind where the snapshot camera stays in the car. But since it’s the sort of story I’ve shot a thousand times, I felt I’d best tell ya about it. We were running late anyway, a side trip ferrying news cars had put us behind. Still, it was only five past ten when we passed Fantasia’s Grandma’s house. Two blocks later we were there, a faded yellow one story on a rundown street. As I pulled in behind an idling Monte Carlo, Jeff hopped out and walked up the modest yard, toward the two tall black men hovering on the porch. Behind the back of Unit four I popped the lid and pulled my gear together: camera, run-bag, tripod. Glancing up, I saw Jeff and the men had disappeared inside the house. I looked at the house and tried to guess the home’s age. Not able to, I played it safe and searched for the doohickey that allowed me to plug three prong lights into an old school, two prong outlet. When I found it, I closed the lid, triggered the lock in my pocket and waddled up the gray, flaking porch.
Inside, the front room glowed an unnatural shade of orange. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I couldn’t help but stare at the walls, helter-skelter brushstrokes frozen in time, with pumpkin-colored paint that looked like dried roofing tar. I could hear Jeff half-whispering in the next room, but I hardly listened as I set up shop. Dragging a chair to the center of the room, I stashed my light and pulled back on the thin brown curtain that was struggling to cover the window. Going slow as not to bring the flimsy curtain rod crashing down, I had the whole room bathed in sunlight by the time Jeff and The Widow entered the room. A few months shy of thirty and a mother of three, she had a warmth that eclipsed even the garish orange walls of her south-side rental. Seconds after staring into her deep dark eyes, I found myself liking her - taking special care to pick just the right filter so her brown skin and orange walls glowed in the mid-morning sun. Sliding the cameras and sticks to the left, I framed the shot so that the plastic green plant in the corner sat just out of focus over her left shoulder. Happy with the look, I nodded to Jeff, who turned to the lady of the house and engaged her in small talk. Slowly, her story unfurled.
“We met at the place we both worked, and it just started from there.” The Widow’s eyes lit up as she described the beginning of her marriage. On Halloween night, that union ended abruptly when her husband, walking along the I-85 at midnight, was felled by a speeding SUV. The father of three died there in the breakdown in the inaugural hours of November 2005, as a river of metal cloaked his killer in southbound traffic. Two weeks later, few clues had emerged, leading the police to suggest the family appeal to the public. Which is why Jeff and I found ourselves sitting quietly in the stricken family’s home as the young matriarch recounted her still-fresh crushing loss. Throughout the fifteen minute interview, The Widow never broke down, much to my relief. Had she, I would have been obligated to quietly reach up and slowly zoom in, in hopes the sunlight would glint off her falling tears. Instead I stared passively at the viewfinder, taking in this strong woman in matter-of-fact black and white. The times when her voice did crack, Jeff backed off in his easy-going, distinctively Southern way. This too pleased me, as I’ve wanted to bash in the skulls of less mannered interviewers during similar sit-downs in the past.
When The Widow ran out of words, we interviewed the dead man’s brother, one of the tall men from the porch. We quickly realized he was a doppelganger of the deceased’s, an identical twin who felt nothing mysterious the moment his lifelong look-alike was cut down by the callous traveler. As he shifted from foot to foot in his sister-in-law’s den, I could feel his rage from across the room. Behind him, I could see his mirror image in the picture of his slain sibling sitting on the battered TV hutch. After he spoke of justice denied, I set my camera directly over the coffee table and shot footage of the victim from far happier times. The photo albums were filled with photos of smiling children, beautiful kids who came out from the back bedroom to meet the visiting news crew before they left. I recognized the youngest girl’s shirt as being just like on my own daughter wears. That simple coincidence finally pierced through my crusty photog‘s shell, reminding me for just an instance, that this sad passion play was all too real, all too unfair and all too common. Who knows for what reason? Fifteen years of hunting calamity through a tube has left me no less confused as to why things happen the way they do, but it damn sure has made me hug my own kids more.
Luckily, that’s an occupational hazard I can live with.