"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