Before the Shot

by Valerie Vogrin

—Sing Sing, 1928

I didn't want him to take the assignment. His bosses are using him and he knows it. He's the bland Midwesterner who won't be recognized by the local cops and prison brass. My husband is not one to violate the rules, but he has a certain hunger to make a bigger name for himself. And I'm guessing he hopes that a good clear picture of a woman in Old Sparky will be disturbing enough to change some people's minds. The night before he left for New York he nursed a glass of Rhine wine as he sat on a neat rectangle of newspaper wearing just his union suit, polishing his shoes. He swiped polish on his cordovan wingtips with neat daubs. The rest of him is put together like a longshoreman, but Will's wrists are on the dainty side. His watch strap had slipped around so the face rested against his pulse. He wouldn't let me help him pack. "I don't want you to have any part of this," he said. He picked out his freshest shirts, the least worn pairs of black hose. He won't strap the camera onto his ankle until he is ready to enter the prison building.

I didn't want him to do it. God knows he's taken some grisly shots, lots of young-middle-aged-old tough guys limp-crumpled-knocked off their feet, the camera's bulb illuminating their comb-furrowed, brilliantined hair although their necks/trunks/abdomens have been pierced by gunfire. Mobsters, thugs, pros, bystanders. Bodies in alleys, gullies, underpasses, basements, and automobile trunks. Last year there was a family. At first, it looked as though the inhabitants of the house simply had been overtaken by fatigue. A young mother slumped in an easy chair, legs straight out, feet slightly splayed. A baby crawling, rump-up, halfway across a dark rug. A man sitting with his young daughter on their sofa listening to the radio, his arm slung tenderly over her shoulder. A second glance and then you saw the small caliber bullet holes where their left eyes should have been. That one took something out of him. The next morning I watched him willing himself to swallow each bite of breakfast and keep it down.

This job's a twist since more than nine times out of ten it's the victims he shoots. The corpses suggest a sequence of events but they cannot confirm or deny. They are buried with their secrets. Today's subject is alive, the infamous adulteress, an American murderess, a woman last photographed in a jaunty feather-topped hat and fur coat and smirk (but I don't guess she's worn those in some time). What I'm afraid of is that he'll see her before they fasten the straps of the leather mask over her face. Although they might blindfold her before they bring her in, my bet is that the powers that be will want her to get a good long look at the chair before she's seated in it.

I didn't want him to do it because he wanted to join his father in the florist shop but the old man refused, said no son of his was going to take the kind of guff he'd endured for a career spent in flowers, but his father doesn't have one kind bone in his body and that's why he never had a day's peace among the enamored and grieving. How Will got from bouquets and funeral wreaths to crime photographer I do not know. Most nights he grinds his teeth, ruining his molars. He's told me more than once that I look like an angel while I sleep. I don't remind him that all of the actual angels were male. I've always looked young for my age. I was 25 when we met, but he believed me when I said I was 18. That I was an orphan. That I'd lost my job as a seamstress because of my eye condition. I know I'm not being clear. And I'm not saying my crimes are anything like hers. What I'm saying is that I am certain that given the opportunity he will look her straight in the face, believing it's the honorable thing to do, seeing as how he will be taking something from her—1/50 of one of her last living seconds. And say he fastens his gaze on her features. Say something in the firm set of her lips or the steel in her pale eyes reminds him of me. What happens after that, I wonder. When he comes home and sees me for what I am.

BIO: Valerie Vogrin is the author of the novel Shebang. Her short stories have appeared in print in journals such as Ploughshares, AGNI, and The Los Angeles Review, as well as online at Wigleaf and Prick of the Spindle. In 2010 she was awarded a Pushcart Prize. She is prose editor for Sou'wester and teaches at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.