Wednesday, November 29, 2023

'But There Must Have Been More'

One of the unexpected gifts of being young and working as a newspaper reporter was the giddy sensation of being thrown into life and finally mistaken for an adult. Some of the one-time abstractions – murder, suicide, cancer – become real. Once you’ve interviewed the parents of a six-year-old butchered by a teenage pedophile, or seen the body of a farmer who committed suicide by drinking a can of red paint, the world is a different place, radically contingent, and you know people are capable of any foolishness or depravity. I can’t think of a more well-rounded education, besides combat. 

Robert B. Shaw’s poem “Happenstance” begins with an anecdote that sounds like an urban (in this case, rural) legend. Two sisters live forty miles apart somewhere in the Midwest. Each decides to visit the other without calling ahead. Midway, they crash head-on and both are killed. Shaw’s speaker tells us he learned the news from a “country newspaper” read on his uncle’s farm:


“If the two ill-starred victims weren’t just dreamed up

to fill a few provincial column inches,

something beyond their grotesque final meeting

deserved to be recorded.”


That’s the feeling that often nagged me as a reporter and why to this day I find writing obituaries, or at least noting the deaths of notables, a moral obligation, inevitably followed by speculation: Why? How did this happen? That’s what some of us have in common with storytellers. In our thoughts we craft a narrative and fill in the details:


“What sticks with me

is purely climax, but there must have been more:

tight-lipped statements from the police at the scene;

well-meaning musings from a local pastor;

relatives and friends, if not speechless with shock,

saying how the pair took turns with visiting,

wondering how the schedule could go so wrong.

Back then, none of that settled into a niche

in memory along with the freakish wreck;

now, feeling slightly guilty, I find myself

fabricating stereotypic details:

a cat left behind in one of the houses

with a full supper dish; in one of the cars,

wedged on the floor between front and back seats,

a home-baked cake, packed for the trip in its tin.”


Shaw tells us he has never hit a deer with his car. I have, more than forty years ago. The heavy creature crashed through my windshield splashing blood, kicked her way out and leaped into a field of corn stalks. I walked to a farmhouse and called the sheriff. The deputy saw me leaning against my car and asked if I was injured. His second question: “You want the meat?” He disappeared into the corn field and a moment later I heard a gunshot. Shaw writes, “There is no firm answer to any of this,” then closes his poem: “Driving, I keep my eyes on the road.”

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