Thursday, June 28, 2012

The latest in blood and guts

I. Life.

The static cleared.
"In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide."
Rock 'n' roll.
Her attempt was a success. The station switched to a public service announcement then played a movie.


For a while she tried to take sad and make it funny, make it cool.
While a student at high school in Shaker Heights, Ohio, she started a group called the Dateless Wonder Club. She thought about making T-shirts.

On a morning in the 1970s, the chronically depressed girl with dark shiny hair entered the newsroom with a heavy sigh and set down her things. She was always talking, to whoever would listen, about how soon she'd be 30 and was still a virgin. She had never been in a relationship that lasted more than two dates.

"Jesus, Christine. It's 8 a.m. Our coffee hasn't kicked in yet. Overnight there were two homicides on the south side, possibly related, and a fire in a warehouse. We've promised viewers a full report on each at noon. And you're talking about this?"

She hoped her co-worker George would hear about her untenable state of affairs and offer to correct it. After all, the clock was ticking. The year before she'd had a faulty ovary removed. The doctor said if she didn't get pregnant within the year it was unlikely she would ever be able to conceive. Tick tock tick tock.


She had moved into her family's old summer cottage on Siesta Key, Florida. For a while she lived there alone with a poodle.

Her bedroom was like a young girl's room. Pink paint, canopy bed. She would brush her long hair 100 strokes then turn off the light and go to sleep beside the poodle.

The moon would rise over a tree she and her brothers used to climb.

She knew the creaks of the wooden stairs by heart
a spot in the worn center of the top step made the loudest noise. If you moved to the side and skipped the spot, going up or down along the edge, you could go in silence. 

II. Work.

She had come to sunny Florida for work, first as a traffic reporter before she got the program on Channel 40. She was nominated for an award but not for journalism it was a forestry and conservation recognition award given by the Bradenton district office of the Florida Division of Forestry. "She was a strong contender," said a forester who had once been scheduled to appear on her program but had to cancel due to the birth of his son. He had never met her.

Christine used puppets. She volunteered at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, entertaining mentally handicapped children with the hijinks of a cast of colorful felt characters. She sometimes brought the puppets out on her program.

Her first major back in Ohio had been theater arts, before she transferred to a college in Boston and got into TV. She would look into the live black eye of the camera and feel untold numbers of people watching her, although her viewership rates were modest. She felt most vital in their imagined eyes.

III. Love.

She'd had this image of how it would be.
She'd be standing there in her kitchen, loveable as anything, reading the back of the cake-mix box, cute flour smears on her face and apron, frosting on her fingers. More Lucille Ball than Betty Crocker.
But the directions were straightforward, she wasn't an idiot, she didn't make a mess, and she forgot to wear an apron.
The cake was for George's birthday. She knew he liked chocolate so she got him "double chocolate." She wanted only to make him happy.
She wanted to live in a world where you could give someone a present and not expect anything in return.
She hummed Roberta Flack in the empty house. "Telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly."


"A little out of gear with other people" was how her mother put it. "She would walk into a room and every head would turn, yet nobody ever came over and asked for her phone number." 

News anchor Bob Keehn said: "What seemed to concern her was her involvement with the human condition. She would express a negative reaction to people and the way they treated each other."

Sports reporter Andrea Kirby recounted that Christine had once said, sounding like a Judy Blume book or a soft-rock song: "I would like to have, for just one week, someone I loved, who really loved me."


Christine arrived early and set the cake in the office fridge. The cake had chilled overnight in its Tupperware dome. She waited until an hour before lunchtime when the kitchen was empty. She led him back and told him to have a seat, and she unveiled the cake. She was proud of the way the frosting had retained its scalloped sea-wave landscape. It looked just like the cake on the cake-mix box. It was perfect.

"Oh Chris, this really is too much." He ate a piece to be polite.


Life is a soap opera. 

Andrea was the one she was closest to a sports reporter, the most tolerable girl in the newsroom. They were almost friends.

Andrea and George. Christine's two favorite people there, so it made a grim sort of sense.
"We've been keeping quiet about it because, you know, we're co-workers. But also, we know how hard you can take things. We both really care about you..."
Camerawoman Jean Reed said in later interviews that Christine never responded well to technical glitches, when things didn't go as planned on the air. She grew nervous and frustrated. 

One day her editor aired a story about a shooting instead of her friendly local program that sometimes had puppets on it. He cited a public hunger for "blood and guts."

She got the point.

IV. Death.

Co-workers later said she had talked about planning to kill herself, like it was normal, the way someone might talk about an upcoming trip out of town. No one believed it because she seemed so together
"a tough cookie" was how one person put it. Someone else said she had "a great sense of the absurd; almost a macabre sense of humor." When it happened, some who had watched thought it was a tasteless prank, or maybe performance art.

She did her homework, the dutiful reporter. She interviewed police for what she said was a story about suicide prevention. She asked what was the most successful method, and an officer said that something called a "wadcutter slug" that explodes upon entry was the way to go. Back of the head, not the temple. "Foolproof."

She drove to a gun store. She bought a gun.

At first having the gun scared her, then it thrilled her. This was an object with heft, a magic portal.

She would take it out of its box under her bed and feel the weight of it, the gravitas, in her hand. She would spin the cylinder.

Tick tock tick tock.

She told a co-worker that she had bought a gun and planned to shoot herself on camera. He chastised her for thinking of such a dark joke.

"Oh Chris, that really is too much."


That morning there was an apparent technical glitch. A tape meant to accompany a news story wouldn't roll while Christine was on the air, but she had seemed to take it in stride. She remained serene.

The static had cleared.

She had prepared two scripts: one for herself, and one for whoever would report what happened after the last of her script was read.

Wadcutter slug. Back of the head. Foolproof.

I expect nothing in return.


All three major networks reported her death. A Presbyterian minister delivered a eulogy. They played three songs by Roberta Flack. They scattered her ashes in the Gulf of Mexico.

The station switched to a public service announcement then played a movie. For weeks afterward, in place of her program, the station aired re-runs of "Gentle Ben," a TV show about the friendship between a young boy and a 650-pound black bear.

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