September 09
Nothing exceeds my passion for the Tiny Perfect Redhead


Boanerges1's Links

NOVEMBER 20, 2009 10:25AM

Last Call

Rate: 33 Flag


"And everything looks worse in black and white...."

                                                                                                                            -- Paul Simon

    Nearly last call on a cold November night.

    Carol, the barkeep, one eye on the clock, has already dimmed some of the lights and is wiping down tables while a couple of hangers-on hunch over the bar. One, his eyes goggling, sucks down the last dregs, carefully puts down his empty OV bottle and wanders unsteadily toward the exit. Carol follows, locking the door: No more customers tonight.

    I should leave now, but it doesn't feel right. Not quite yet.

    "Beer and a shot, please, Carol," I say, forearms on the bar. "Beer and a shot before I go."

    Carol looks at me, looks again at the clock, shrugs, draws a draft and fills a shotglass with Canadian Club.

    I toss the rye back, and begin to sip the beer. Suddenly: "Hey -- aren't you that military history guy?"
    I tell the man -- Tim, as it turns out -- I probably am who he means, and we start talking about his family back home in Newfoundland -- The Rock. Some of his relatives had been with the Newfoundland Regiment when it was torn to pieces during the First World War, and he wants to tell me their story.

    While he's rattling on, in the way that semi-drunk strangers in a bar are sometimes wont to do, his greeting echoes around in my head, taking me back to another time, another bar near closing time, another life....

* * *

    "Hey -- aren't you that photographer guy?" He was not quite belligerant, but edging up on it, the way semi-drunk strangers in a bar are sometimes wont to do.

    The barkeep, another Carol, with long curly black hair, a lively face and four kids to bring up on her own, raised an eyebrow, getting a whiff of maybe trouble. It wasn't a biker hangout or bucket of blood, but it could have been without much effort, and she had sensitive, finely tuned antennae.

    "That'd probably be me," I said. "Beer and a shot, please, Carol. I'm cold."

    I was dog-tired, drained and about as miserable as I'd ever been in my life. I'd lost twenty or more pounds, almost down to my high school wrestling weight but without the fitness. Grey-faced haggard all the time, I felt like I hadn't slept for months, not since a third of the town's business district was obliterated by a natural gas explosion. It'd been almost a year since that frigid February, a year of accidents, murders and mayhem. And fires. The fires that always seemed to happen in the middle of the night. Flames, smoke, flashing lights. Body bags.

    It was wearing me down. I had no family any more, no personal life at all. Weeks of twelve to sixteen hour days didn't leave much time for a wife or kids, not when my body and soul craved the rush that action always brought ... although it was probably killing me one crisis at a time.

    The semi-drunk, considerably larger than my nondescript five feet, six inches, self, loomed down the bar. I didn't know what to expect, but ... a tiny surge of adrenaline.

    "You were at that fire last night, weren't you," he said. Not exactly a question, something hovering around the edges.


    "You were there when they brought the bodies out, right?"


    "Those little kids," he said, "that was pretty bad, huh?"


    "I had kids...."

    And he rattled on, the way semi-drunk strangers in a bar are wont to do sometimes, about losing his own kids, not to a fire but a messy divorce, how mothers are always the ones who get custody no matter what. Fathers only got screwed, he said, angrily and sadly at the same time.

    I looked across the bar, caught Carol's expression: She knew exactly what it was like for the women in those situations. I did too. I sank the shot, felt the glow start to seep out. I was hoping he'd keep blathering on about his kids, but he returned once again to the fire, pressing for details, wouldn't leave it alone, until I started shivering, and the beer slopped a little out of the glass, over my hand and onto the bar.

    "You okay?" the semi-drunk stranger asked, surprised. Even Carol, with her seen-it-all eyes, looked concerned.

    "Sure," I said, taking a deep swallow of the beer. "Must've been a cold draft."

    I chuckled stupidly at the lame pun, let them know everything was fine. Truth is, I was cold, and wasn't certain when I'd be warm again. Not since standing just after midnight in melting ice and snow, catching overspray as firefighters tried to get on top of the flames gouting from the isolated two-storey farmhouse. Pumpers from three different volunteer departments ran relays to the nearest hydrant, a half-mile away.

    Six people, they said, six people inside. Three of them kids under five. One look at the blazing disaster as I drove up had told me all I needed to know: If they hadn't made a door in the first few seconds, they wouldn't be coming out at all. Not alive. No smoke alarms, a century-old building and an over-heated wood stove are a deadly combination.

    I was, as usual, by myself, wearing my foul weather gear -- army combat boots and a now-soaked pea jacket, jeans and watch cap. I had my Nikon Fs with a Honeywell strobe, wrapped in the ever-present green garbage bag I carried as an emergency poncho, and all kinds of Kodak Tri-X black and white film. I already had the stock shots of firefighters with icicles hanging off their turnout coats and helmets, of flames shooting through the roof and out windows. Stock shots: Nothing very exciting, just scene-setters. I needed something more ... dramatic.

    Suddenly a shout came from around the back, and I hustled over in time to see a booted figure starting down a ladder from a second storey window, holding something in his arms. Something small. One of the kids. He paused when he saw me.

    I raised my camera and zoomed onto his face, lit with flames, black with smoke and tear-streaked. I zoomed out a little more to frame what he was holding. He stared down at me; I stared up at him from behind the viewfinder, right index finger on the shutter release, 60th of a second at f8, and ...

    ... and I didn't take the picture.

    Instead, I pulled the camera down and took a couple of involuntary steps back. He nodded down at me and began descending again. When he got to the bottom, before he headed for the coroner and the unnecessary ambulance with his small burden, he paused once more.

    "Thanks," he said. "Thanks."

     It wasn't until I tried to nod in response that I realized I was shivering hard.

* * *

    I'll never know why I didn't take the picture. Compassion? Didn't have much. Fear? Not much of that, either. Good taste? Not really -- the focus of attention would have been on the anonymous firefighter's shocked face, not the sad bundle he was carrying. An award-winner for certain, given his expression, except I didn't work for awards. Burn-out? Partly. Maybe. I don't know.

    The moment never happened to me again. A few months later in early spring, I'd capture a scene at another fire, daylight for once, a small, blanketed bundle in a firefighter's arms, paramedic checking for a pulse, cop agitatedly directing people away. That's the shot, I said to myself as I hit the shutter release. That's the one I'll tell them to print out of the 36. And I was right.

    But that winter night haunts me, awake and asleep.

* * *

    ..."Last call," Carol says, as Tim at last lurches toward the exit. "Last call."

    "Beer and a shot, please, Carol. One more for the road. I'm cold...."

Closing time, one last call for alcohol, so finish your whiskey or beer.
Closing time, you don't have to go home but you can't stay here....

Closing time, every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.

                                                                                   -- Closing Time, by Semisonic


Author tags:

open call, fiction friday

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Very good! Now I'll always wonder why you didn't take the shot!
Those last calls are haunting. I'm so happy to read some more of your other life. Your compassion and sense of right and wrong despite the artist eye is what gives you the heart and soul which is is the last call of I hope will be heeded.

Great story, so well told. R
Quite nice. It stirrs the imagination and leaves us lingering in wonder.
very noir ... reminded me of Weegee
This is so evocative I could swear I already knew the story and your reactions and your, well, humanity. It's always the shots you don't take that haunt you, their images burned into your mind. Will you show us the one you did take?
Lee, this smells like "faction" to me. Maybe mostly fiction. But I'd bet you anything there's more than a hint of fact in there as well.

Excellent writing. Now I have to go do something about that chill you've imparted.....

I've "last call" many times in my life. I understand why you didn't take the picture; your words describing the shot is the picture. ~R~
I've heard... he meant to write.
When I worked for WCVB in Boston, Stanley Forman, the great Boston Herald photographer, was at the station making the transition from still photography to videography. He won a Pulitzer in 1976 for a sequence of photographs showing a young woman and a two-year-old girl falling from a collapsed balcony during a fire. I never had the guts to ask him how he managed his nerves.

Great story. Rated.
Scanner, I don't know.

Buffy, I dunno about the compassion, back then especially. That other life can be somewhat ... ahhhhh ... compromising. Or compromised. I'll get my mind around it someday.

Spot on, Cat. The imagery is seldom very far away. Interestingly, it usually is in black and white. I was somewhat forcefully reminded of it not long ago, hence the post.

65, I'm gratified.

Noah Tall, if you mean Usher Fellig, I was a simpleton compared.

Sally, I ditched almost all the mementoes, including (especially) photos, from that era. Every new beginning....

Dunno about perfect, KK and Walk Away, but thank you for saying so.

Bill, I called it fiction because it doesn't tell the truth. Or at least, not all of it.
Wow, the master shows us how it's done. Outstanding piece but it's a little more than your standard 500 words, I think.
Chuck, I suspect we have much in common (besides Chapin, I mean).

Jeff, you'd be amazed what can be blocked by looking through a camera lens.
Simply incredible. Great writing.
Cappy, thanks -- and of course you're right. Fingertip dysentery, I'm afraid.
Well done, friend. Well done. The image that haunts me almost as much as the image of the fireman and child is the one you paint of the photog. I know something of that burned out, washed out feeling of throwing yourself at some work as if that is the salvation you need, yet never quite finding it as your insides waste away and you wonder what the hell it is all about anyway.

Philip, thank you.

Monte, I know you do. The photog's fine, though, and I suspect you probably know why.
If this was indeed fiction, it was very nicely done. I suspect though there was a bit of fact in this as well.

Thanks, Torman. As I rather inelegantly said to Bill S, I called it fiction because while it's true, it's not the truth.
I can't imagine how one can see something like that and ever close their eyes again...
I have no good answer, but others on OS have seen far worse than I ever did.
I'm starting to love fiction Friday.
I wrote a post about my uncle in WWII and I have now met the man I wish would have written it. I was there... I saw the fireman's face, felt the heat, saw the reflection of the flames off his tears.

Un... frickin'... believable.

Thanks to WSFTC for bringing your wonderful talent to my attention. I have a lot of catching up to do.
Evocotive and haunting. Thriller and killer.
brings on much.
Goog, just bloody good.
More please. give us more... I want more....
Just plain excellent writing. Powerful.
(Yikes. Thanks for the mention, Cat.)

NoFrills, thank you.

Scanner, me too.

Chris, I read (and rated) the piece you wrote about your uncle after you referenced it. I don't think you need someone else to write anything for you.

Mission, I can only say I'll try.

Owl, oh my. Thank you.

Barking, your friend is pretty much right. There is a distance through the viewfinder that allows the mind to objectify. Most of the time. Does he miss the darkroom magic? I do....
Cat send me over. Loved the story. Loved your writing.
Those lines from 'Closing Time' were running through my head as I read, before I saw you'd included it. Great snapshot, and your prose provided such vivid images.
Trilogy, thanks. I'm glad you liked it.

NN, I love that song. It has a certain resonance for me. I'm pleased it came through in the story.
Thanks, Emma. (And when are you going to be writing some more?)
beautifully sadly evocative.

I know why you didn't push the button, and it wasn't a gift to the fireman.

I have a big book of Weegee here; I know whereof Noah speaks.


Your opening line reminded me of John Prine's Lake Mah-ree:

"You know what blood looks like in a black and white video? / Shadows, Shadows...."

You ev
oopsie, delete last five characters in last bit writ
Connie, Prine's quite right: Shadows, black as ink. No blood that night, though: That was a night for other things.
Good prose B1, good prose. You are indeed a writer.
It wasn't a biker hangout or bucket of blood, but it could have been without much effort, and she had sensitive, finely tuned antennae.

I'll be back. Sooner or later, likely sooner. We need to talk. This is good.
Any time, old son. I'd be glad to talk to you. And thanks for the compliment.
Captivating and raw. The only way this kind of story deserves to be told. I think I know why you didn't take the picture ... your gut told you not to.

My daughter's best little school chum died at 7 years old with her baby brother in a house fire just around the corner from ours. The fire station was close (only a couple blocks over) but a freak snowstorm with high winds had blown up unexpectedly that night and there were drifts everywhere. The house was a bungalow and the kids were sleeping on the first floor. Never shoulda happened but it did. Fuck! The father who was home with the children got out alive ...

I used to sell wine to the Captain of the fire department and asked him about it, after the fact. He said something to the effect, "The public will never know (or the papers will never print) how that fire started." I never knew what he meant and I kinda don't think I want to but it crosses my mind ...
Thanks, Scarlett.

I can't imagine what fire department would sit on the actual cause of a fire or what newspaper wouldn't print it. Very intriguing. But how sad for your daughter and her chum.