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The Face of the River: Prologue

Atlanta 1996

            There are nights that burn themselves into your mind, nights where the sights and scents and sensations are so vibrant that you know you’ll never forget a moment of them. You go back in your memories and taste the tastes, inhale the smells of those nights, and for a moment there is no past, no present, no outside world, only what you carry within yourself. But there are also nights after which nothing in your life is ever the same again.

            Tonight would be both. Amanda Sevier and I walked along the streets in downtown Atlanta which were given over to the crowds; she held my arm, and I reveled in the simple coolness of her hands. All around us, the Olympics were at full cry. Glassy-eyed tourists staggered from the games’ venues, tickets and flags in hand. Vendors hawked countless Olympic gewgaws, from conventional t-shirts and caps to condoms and multinational naked-lady playing cards. The heat of a late summer wrapped the city in a smothering embrace, and we’d spent twenty dollars already on drinks alone.

            Amanda and I weren’t immune to the Olympic spirit. She’d caught pin fever—the need to collect tiny cloisonne pins commemorating every conceivable aspect of the Games—and wore her collection on a still-new Atlanta ‘96 baseball cap. I was supposed to be working tonight, taking photographs for my local community newspaper, but after snapping off a few perfunctory “Atlanta welcomes the world” shots, I’d bagged up my camera. It now dangled on my shoulder, dead weight.

            In the skies above us, fireworks blossomed every ten minutes. Music of a dozen genres filtered down the glass-and-steel canyons from Centennial Park, where commemoration and commercialism met in a garish Ground Zero of celebration. The air was filled with celebration on a grand scale, but also a recognition that this was a once-in-a-lifetime affair. Much of the world would not pass this way again, and Atlanta hoped to give the out-of-towners an unforgettable evening.

            “So what do you think of your overachieving little city now, Matt?” Amanda teased.

            “Quite impressed,” I said. Amanda and I had both grown up around Atlanta, though we hadn’t met until we attended the University of Georgia. Since Atlanta’s miraculous rise from sleepy Southern town to major international player coincided with our own coming of age, we had a unique view of the city’s growth. Amanda loved it, thought it was a magnificent metamorphosis that the city and its people deserved. I thought it was a costly boondoggle, a way of paying for some municipal insecurity by mortgaging off the future. Great cities aren’t planned, they just are, but here was Atlanta trying to remake itself as some sort of cosmopolitan metropolis. You can’t disguise what you are for very long, though, and I feared that before long, someone would expose the fraud.

            For tonight, though, all was well. Amanda’s bright eyes glowed in the night, and her long auburn hair flowed like a tide from beneath her cap. Her tanned legs always turned heads, and tonight I noted with pride that not even the foreigners could resist eyeing her uniquely Southern charms.

            She poked me in the stomach with one finger. “You hungry?”

            “I could eat.”

            Amanda walked to a small hot dog stand and ordered two dogs slathered in chili, onions and cheddar cheese, and two bags of french fries. She handed me a dog and a greasy fry bag. “Food of the gods,” she said. “Eat up—it turns to cement if it gets cold.”

            “What happened to that famous diet?”

            “It’s the Olympics. Calories don’t count.” She motioned ahead at Centennial Park. “Let’s go sit on the grass and eat.”

            We wove our way through the crowds, dipping and weaving like waiters to keep from dripping chili on those around us. We crossed Techwood Drive and edged single-file into the crowded park. Bodies were everywhere, sweating and stinking of beer and exultation. Near a lightpost, we sat down and stretched out our legs. The week-old grass was already trampled and thick with cigarette butts and plastic soda cups.

            Amanda dug into her chili dog. “Well, it doesn’t get much more American than this, does it?” I didn’t need to ask what she was referring to. Centennial Park was ringed by mammoth, five-story-high tents sponsored by beer, auto and phone companies. Inside each one, visitors experienced two-hour commercials craftily disguised as “tours” of the company’s products. I suppose I should have been disgusted, but in truth it wasn’t anything I didn’t expect. Only the scale of the entire operation surprised me—that, and the corporate tents’ popularity. They were the most popular destinations of the entire Games, competitions included.

            “You up for a two-hour wait to get into the Budweiser tent?” Amanda grinned. She had no use for the corporate shilling of the Games—despised it, in fact—but she was also a realist. She’d spent the last two years working on Atlanta’s Olympic organizing committee, and she knew that money was the grease that kept the great wheels of the Games moving smoothly. She’d worked in the tourist end of the committee, preparing hundreds of different pamphlets and guides to Atlanta’s more historic and less commercialized regions.

            “I’m happy where I am, thanks,” I replied. “You’ve got chili on your cheek.” She smirked at me, and then stuck her entire face in her chili dog. Tonight was the first free time she’d had in nearly a month, and she acted like it.

            Still smiling, she wiped her face with napkins. “Have you gotten pictures of all this yet?” Amanda said, waving her hand behind her. “You’ve got a lot to work with here.”

            “Please,” I said. “I can do better than a bunch of corporate logos.”

            She laughed and looked around. “Are you kidding? This is a gold mine of irony. This park says enough about Atlanta to fill a coffee table book.”

            I followed her gaze, then shook her head. “It’s cheap irony. Americans line up to view corporate imagery. Gosh, that’s groundbreaking. Nobody’s thought of that before.”

            She frowned at me then. “It doesn’t matter who’s thought of it before. It matters how you see it. See, look over there.” She pointed to a corner of the Budweiser Pavilion, where a blonde-haired woman in cutoffs and a bulging, cutoff Budweiser t-shirt painted “Bud,” “Wei,” and “Ser” on the bare chests of three college-aged guys. “That’s a hell of a picture. Sex, beer and marketing, all wrapped up in one.”

            I had to admit, it was a fine shot. But my camera stayed in its bag. “Not interested,” I said.

            Amanda set down the last bites of her dog and put her hands in her lap. “Matt, what’s the matter with you? You’ve got the opportunity to take some landmark shots here. This is your chance to make art, not journalism. Why aren’t you doing it?”

            I knew she wasn’t just referring to tonight. “There’ll be time for that,” I said. “Sometimes I just want to relax and not worry about making art, okay?”

            She was about to reply when a fat man and his equally heavy child approached her. “Uh, sorry to interrupt, but...” He pointed to her hat. “Would you be interested in trading any of those? My son is trying to complete a collection.” The son looked even more uncomfortable than his sweating father.

            Amanda shook her head pleasantly. “Sorry, not tonight,” she said. “Your son has a heck of a collection going, though.” Father and son glowed, but neither could stammer out much beyond “thanks” as they walked off. Amanda’s smile then melted as she turned back to me.

            “You just don’t seem interested in expanding any more,” she said.

            “Many more of these chili dogs, and I’ll be expanding all over the place.”

            She ignored that. “I mean, look at Charlie Merriwether.”

            I rolled my eyes. “Screw Charlie Merriwether,” I said. Charlie Merriwether was a college classmate of ours, a fellow photographer on the school paper, who had also followed a career in photojournalism. “What is it with you and Charlie Merriwether?”

            “There’s nothing with me and Charlie Merriwether,” she shot back. “But he’s already gotten on the cover of Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, and Julie heard he’s having a gallery show in Charleston this fall.”

            “Whoop-de-shit.” I started tossing ice across the grass.

            “Charlie Merriwether doesn’t have a quarter of your talent,” Amanda said, putting her hand on mine. “But he knew when to stop taking pictures of Little League games and Garden Club meetings. He knew when to stop hiding behind the camera.”

            My eyes widened at that. I was about to reply—got the first word out, in fact—when a deafening boom rolled over us. It came from the direction of the Park’s stage, and my first thought was that some of the fireworks hadn’t gone off properly.

            “What the hell was that?” I said. Heads were turning toward the stage. Off in the distance, I could hear someone bellowing out a full-throated rebel yell.

            “Sounded like a bomb,” Amanda said, and her face was lined with concern.

            “It wasn’t a bomb,” I laughed, but stopped when I saw the looks on faces around me. Something was very definitely wrong. The band had stopped playing, and on one of the large monitors I could see them moving quickly, almost running off the stage. Then the crowd began to move, and it was like watching a single tidal wave pushing toward the beach. I got to my feet and lifted Amanda by her elbow. She didn’t protest, and moments later the crowd surged around us, stomping on the remains of our chili dogs and Cokes.

            Amanda took me by the hand and started to move directly into the crowd. The look on her face was grave, and I saw her push aside more than one person who looked prepared to run her over. We were still perhaps a hundred yards from the stage, close enough to hear screams and shouts but far enough that we still had no idea what really happened.

            “What’s going on?” Amanda shouted to those who passed us.

            “Bomb!” some shouted, or “gunman,” or “terrorists.” Most said nothing, just pushed on ahead, looking only to get away from here, to be gone from this place. Something was not right, and like animals sensing the change in weather, these people followed their most primal instincts, and ran.

            Amanda stood her ground. I knew what she was thinking—this was her city, her Games, and she was damned if anyone was going to screw it up with some sort of prank. The idea that she was rushing into the middle of something more serious than a gag probably never entered into her mind.

            “Amanda, hold up,” I called, yanking back on her hand. She nearly toppled backwards.

            “What?” she snarled. “I want to find out what’s going on. There might be people we need to help. Come on.” She pulled at my hand, but the gesture was clearly a courtesy. She was going, whether I followed or not.

            Then the last of the panicked crowds pushed past us, and suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of a hellish war zone. The bright primary colors of the corporate theme parks still burned merrily in the night, but red and blue sirens now flashed crazily on every surface and face. Already, police were everywhere, on horseback and motorcycle and helicopter and foot. Disembodied voices barked unintelligible orders through megaphones. Searchlights from the copters shot down at crazy angles, throwing everything into pure white light for an instant before flitting in another direction.

            “Jesus,” Amanda whispered.

            Not far from us, the television cameras were whirring away. I listened in as a minor local reporter, suddenly thrust in the national spotlight, fumbled her way through a mess of half-truths and rumors. All I could gather was that this was no power overload or accident; this was a deliberate attempt to harm, and it had worked.

            Then we heard wailing, whether in pain or desperation I couldn’t tell. A tanned, athletic man shouted at an equally exquisite woman, “Can you hear me at all?” and she shrugged and pointed to her ear, the tears in her eyes reflecting bright neon.

            Amanda pushed closer to the stage, and soon we saw the blood. A man staunched a wound on his wife’s head with a Dream Team t-shirt. College-aged guys, perhaps the same ones I’d seen before, held one another up, smears of red across their chests. All around, I could hear familiar Southern accents in the screaming.

            A police officer, blood dried in crusts on the side of his head, sat on a curb and stared at crumpled beer cups between his feet. The fear and terror hung like a stale odor in the air. The noise from the helicopters and sirens was so deafening it seemed to be coming from within my own head. As I looked around, I saw a new light glowing in the eyes of those not injured—the growing suspicion that whoever had done this might still be around, might still be captured.

            Within minutes, the opportunists were there. Commentators wielded their microphones like broadswords. I saw one man holding an icepack on one side of his head take a direct shot to the other from a cameraman backing up to corral a police lieutenant. Eyewitnesses recited the same lines they’d heard others say before them. When one camera’s light clicked off, I heard one say, “So when do I get paid for that?” A man held aloft a cross with a  scrolling electronic message on the crossbar that read, Feel like listening to me NOW, folks? Slowly, almost unconsciously, I unshouldered my camera bag and reached inside.

            Tears ran down Amanda’s cheeks, and she bounced around from person to person like a preschool teacher, checking faces and cuts and bruises. From what we could pick up, the bomb seemed to have been centered on a light tower that was still about fifty yards from us. We hadn’t seen many serious wounds yet. The injuries were mostly superficial this far away, but Amanda kept pushing onward.

            “God, Matt, why? Why did this happen?” Her words were of desperation, but her voice was still calm. She was strong in the face of all this, and I reached to pull her to me. “No, no.” She pushed away. “Not now. What do we do? We’ve got to help somebody here.”

            I’d seen the work of my colleagues who’d photographed death close-up. I’d seen unprinted pictures of five Norcross children shot to death by their own mother while they ate ice cream after school. I was grimly fascinated by the shots of an accident scene on Interstate 75 where a woman my age was decapitated; her body was under a sheet and her head, twenty feet away, was under a towel. I once pulled from the darkroom trashcan photographs of the unearthing of ten victims from a LaGrange serial killer’s backyard.

            As I’d look at such horrid scenes, I’d try to detach myself from these scenes, to pretend that these were mannequins or chunks of meat without histories or memories. It grew easier each time, and with every atrocity I viewed, I felt a piece of myself crumbling away. The voice of protest in my head grew fainter every time. But never had I been in a position to take such photographs myself. And now, just like that, I did.

            Amanda knelt down before a young woman lying prone on the grass, but a quick glance told us that she was fine—as fine as one could be in this nightmare. All around us, there were bodies in ever more painful forms, and the blood on Olympic bricks grew thicker with each step closer to the light tower.

            Here, the din was louder than any I could remember, but I found myself listening to the silence beneath the sirens and screams. Every city breathes, has its own peculiar aural stew of radios, horns and heavy machinery. But tonight, beneath all the shouting, Atlanta was silent. The city held its breath.

            Then we saw them. A boy of maybe ten had been wounded in the face. His cheek was a tangled red mess that obscured his right eye, and his mother was cradling him in her arms, wailing into the night. Near them, an older boy was pressing a t-shirt to the bare chest of an older man, probably his father, and weeping openly. Blood ran wet and sticky between the boy’s fingers. This was a family wrenched apart by this nightmare.

            “Oh my god,” Amanda whispered, and knelt beside them.

            I lifted my camera.

            Amanda had no emergency training. She didn’t even know CPR. But she held the wounded boy’s hand with the grace and tenderness of a new mother. She reached for the boy’s still-frantic mother and put a hand on her shoulder. The mother stopped wailing for a moment.

            I snapped one picture, then another, and another. Amanda couldn’t hear the whir of the shutter in the chaos.

            “It’s okay,” Amanda said. “Hey, ma’am? Please. Please calm down. What’s your boy’s name?”

            She choked out the name “Antoine.”

            “Antoine? That’s a pretty name. How you doing, Antoine? Felt better, haven’t you?” she asked tenderly.

            His one good eye rolled toward her, and barely, just barely, he nodded his head. She took off her Olympic cap—the one with all the coveted pins on it—and placed it gently on his head. I snapped another picture.

            Amanda turned to me. “Matt, how’s the other—Matt?” I lowered the camera. “I thought you were helping the father. Were you taking pictures that whole time?”

            “He...he looks...I didn’t know what...”

            She stood up to face me. When she was angry, she seemed to grow to my eye level. “You son of a bitch,” she hissed. “People are dying here, and you’re just taking pictures?”

            “Wait a minute,” I said sharply. “You were just telling me to find art in my photographs, and now you’re saying I shouldn’t be taking pictures?”

            She looked at me strangely then, with such loss in her eyes that my throat choked. “How could you be so cold,” she said, the disbelief evident.

            “Amanda, I’m not being cold. I was just looking to preserve this.” I raised the camera to make my point.

            “Get that thing out of my face.” She pushed at my hand.

            Most days, it would have ended right there. Most days, before I uncap the lens, I put the camera strap around my neck. But tonight, I held it loosely, and when Amanda shoved my hand, the camera fell. It hit the bloodstained pavement hard. The lens snapped off and shattered, and film lolled out of the body like a tongue.

            We watched the camera fall, then faced each other. She had a defiant look on her face.

            “What in God’s name is wrong with you,” I growled.

            “Write it off,” she said glibly.

            I raised my hand quickly. I meant—at least I thought I meant—to shake my fist in the air in frustration. But Amanda flinched. In that instant, something shattered between us. Her face grew hard and taut, and she turned back to the wounded boy.

            “Amanda, wait,” I said. She heard me, she must have, but she made no motion to acknowledge.

            I turned away and glanced at the shattered camera on the ground. I kicked at the ruined lens, and it bounced as it skipped across the bricks and into a gutter. I reached into my camera bag, where my other camera—an old Nikon that I hadn’t used in months—still rested. As I walked toward the light tower, I loaded film into the camera and then began snapping off pictures.

            When my film ran out, I put a cap on my lens and left Centennial Park. So help me, I didn’t know what else I could do.

            The pictures were magnificent, award-winning, and would be the best work of my life. And so help me, I think I’d trade every single one of them to get back what they cost me.

            Sometimes I find myself wondering what would have happened if Amanda hadn’t caught me taking pictures.

 

 

 

All contents copyright © 2005 James Busbee. All Rights Reserved.