The One in White

"Captain," I say, "you've got about two hundred Mexican soldiers waiting for you in the plaza"

Bunky Millerman caught me from behind on the third day of Woody Wilson's little escapade in Vera Cruz. Bunky and his cameras and I had gone down south of the border a couple of weeks earlier for the Tribune. I'd been promised an interview with the tin-pot General Huerta, who was running the country. He had his hands full with Zapata and Villa and Carranza, and by the time I got there El Presidente was no longer in a mood to see the American press. I was ready to beat it back north, but then the muse of reporters shucked off her diaphanous gown for me and made the local commandant in Tampico, on the Gulf coast, go a little mad. He grabbed a squad of our Navy bluejackets, ashore for gasoline and showers, and marched them through the street as Mexican prisoners. That first madness passed quickly, and our boys were let go right away, but old Woodrow had worked himself up. He demanded certain kinds of apologies and protocols, which the stiff-necked Huerta wouldn't give. Everybody started talking about war. Then I got wind of a German munitions ship heading for Vera Cruz, and while the other papers were still picking at bones in Tampico, I hopped a train over the mountains and into the tierra caliente. I arrived in Vera Cruz, which was the hot country all right, a godforsaken port town in a desolate sandy plain with a fierce, hot northern wind. But I figured I'd be Johnny-on-the-spot.

Anyways. That Bunky Millerman photo of me. Almost three years later I was in Clyde Fetter's office at the Tribune. His steam heat was running behind a gale off Lake Michigan, and we were hunching down into our collars and blowing on our fingertips and hashing out the details of me heading to Europe to get ahead of things again. I'd be on the docks of Le Havre when our first boys arrived. Wilson would have to pull the trigger soon.

Then I see the postcard up on the cork wall behind his desk. It's surrounded by clippings and Brownie shots and news copy, but it sort of jumps off the wall at me. Clyde's paused anyway, trying to relight his cigar with frozen fingers, and I circle around him and look close.

It's me, all right. Bunky snapped me from behind and I'm walking along one of the streets just off the Plaza de Armas and there's been a gun battle. Bunky had the photo printed up on a postcard back for me, and I sent it off to Clyde. I've inked an arrow pointing at a tiny, unrecognizable figure way up the street, standing with a bunch of other locals. In the foreground I'm striding past a leather-goods shop. The pavement's wide and glaring from the sun. Even from behind I've got the look of a war correspondent. There but not there. Unafraid of the battle and floating along just a little above it all. Not in the manner of Richard Harding Davis, who came down for a syndicate after the action got started and who wore evening clothes every night at his table in the portales. Not like Jack London, either, who was in Vera Cruz looking as if he'd hopped a freight from the Klondike. I've got a razor press in my dark trousers, and my white shirt is fresh. We boys of the Fourth Estate love our image and our woodchopper's feel for words. It's an image you like your editors to have of you, so I sent this card—even though by the time I did I'd learned a thing or two I couldn't put in a story for the Tribune or anybody else.

I pull the card off the wall now and turn it over. I've scrawled in pencil, "After the battle notice the pretty Senorita's in this photo. The one in white does my laundry." I draw my thumb over the words, compulsively noticing the dangle of the first phrase, which was meant like a headline. I should have put a full stop. After the battle. And I've made "Senorita's" singular possessive, capitalizing it like a proper name. Maybe this was more than sloppiness in a hasty, self-serving scrawl on a postcard. It was in fact true that I had no interest in the other girls. Just in whatever it was that this particular señorita had inside her. Luisa Morales.

Clyde takes a guess at where my mind has gone. "Good thing we've got a copy desk," he says, a puff of his relit cigar floating past me.

"If I were you, I wouldn't trust a reporter who bothered to figure out apostrophes," I say. But I'm not looking at him.

I've turned the card over once more, and I'm looking at Luisa, dressed in white, far away. And I'm falling into it again, the lesson I was about to learn seemingly lost on me. Because what I'm not looking at in the picture—or even while standing there in Clyde's office, really—is the two dead bodies I've just walked past, still pretty much merely arm's length away. A couple of snipers, also in white, dead on the sidewalk. That's what they pay us for, Davis and London and me and all the rest of the boys. To take that in and keep focused. I get the head count and work out the politics of it, and I can write the smear of their blood, their sprawled limbs, their peasant sandals, without a second glance. I can fill cable blanks one after another with that kind of stuff while parked in a wisp of sea breeze in the portales over a glass of blue agave. If I get stuck finding the right phrase for the folks on Lake Shore Drive or Division Street or Michigan Avenue, I just tap a spoon on my saucer and along comes a refill and inspiration, delivered by an hombre who might end up on the sidewalk tomorrow showing the bottoms of his sandals.

Presented by

Robert Olen Butler is the author of thirteen books, including A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This story will appear in his forthcoming book Had a Good Time, which is based on his collection of antique postcards.

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