The 2013 Central PA Writing Contest announced its winners in April at a York College event. Two award winners were selected from 164 qualifying entries consisting of original, unpublished work.
First place went to Mike Silverstri of Camp Hill for his work titled “Mourning Portraits.” The runner-up prize went to Anton Runkles of Conestoga for his work titled “In the Dark.”
Each piece was reviewed by preliminary judges — York College professors Travis Kurowski and Vito Grippi and alumna Jaleasha Ruth, and by final judges — Ted Sickler, editor of Central PA Magazine; Benjamin Percy, published author; Travis Kurowski of York College; and witf President Kathleen Pavelko.
“So, you photograph dead people?”
The question belongs to Aaron Connor, a 20-something kid with broad shoulders. He sits across from me in my study, his face lit by evening sunlight that trickles through the pin oak out back. Cicadas chatter over the rush-hour traffic. Aaron pokes a button on a skinny tablet computer and waits for signs of life. Back in my day, all you had to do was open a steno pad, and click a pen to do an interview. Heck, a napkin would do, and there was always one under your beer.
I have to ask. “A little new to reporting?”
His cheeks flush. “I do the FedEx thing during the day, and freelance at night.”
“Started out like that myself. Packed groceries for years.”
His eyes lock on the Nikon camera resting on one of the stacks of spiral-bound notebooks lined up neatly on the coffee table. The piles make a wall between us. “You still use film?” Aaron’s words are part surprise, part accusation.
I pick up the camera, running my hands over its exterior until each finger falls into place where the brass shows through the black lacquer. “You can’t delete film.”
Aaron smiles, reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a digital camera that’s smaller than a pack of cigs. “I keep every picture I take.”
“That’s good.” I set the camera down.
“To set the record straight, I don’t photograph dead people. In the old days, that practice was called ‘mourning portraits.’ God knows I’m old, but I’m not a Civil War vet. I take pictures of people who are very much alive. I call them the ‘nearly departed.’”
He looks like a scolded puppy. “Sorry. I guess I got the wrong impression from the editor.”
“Editors never give the right impression. Let me clarify. I take pictures of people who know they’re going to die.”
His eyebrows rise.
“No, no premonitions or any of that hokey crap. Most of them have a disease — cancer or something. They know they don’t have much time.”
Aaron looks for a place to set his gadget. I push some of the notebooks aside and make a little cleft. He nods, his fingers tap-dancing on the glass surface. God, how I miss the thwack of an Olivetti key hitting paper.
His fingers pause. “They just drop in?” I look at the stacks of notebooks, their pages crowded with thousands of pictures, thousands of conversations, thousands of lives. “They come. I listen. Oddest damn thing, really.”
Aaron’s fingers resume their waltz. “What do you mean?”
“God gives us all talents. Apparently, mine is listening. I would have rather been a world-class knitter or something.”
“How do they find out about you? You’re not on the web.”
“Word of mouth is better than any Internet. Somebody says something to somebody else. Presto, they’re at my door.”
His hands hover over the glass. “It’s that simple?”
“Yep. It sounds crazy, but that’s how it happens.”
I flip open a notebook and page to the back. Turning it toward him, I show him a photo taped next to my chicken scratches. “This is Lori Danforth, a music teacher with a terminal blood disorder.”
“She just told you all about herself? Why?”
“Used to be you were lucky if you got a headstone with your six feet of earth. Then cameras came along, and people believed mourning portraits could capture the soul of the deceased. It didn’t work. But, that didn’t stop people from wanting to be remembered.”
Aaron’s eyes traverse the notebooks. “This is where you get the material for your weekly memorial column.”
“Yeah. Once somebody passes away, I go through my notes. The most memorable ones make it to the paper where you read all about them.”
“Man, those stories are awesome.” He limbers up his fingers, getting ready to type again. “How’d you get started?”
At the bottom of a pile farthest from me lies a tattered notebook, pages yellowed and frayed. I remember buying it in eighth grade, back when the Rolling Stones seemed a lot older than I was. It takes a moment to yank it out. I can feel Aaron’s gaze following me, hear his fingers skim the glass. “This is Butch Capricci.” I spin the notebook around and point to Butch, all of nineteen, wearing a T-shirt and cutoff jeans. “Man, I wanted to be this guy. See his car? Boss 302 Mustang. Seemed to always have a different girl with him. His parents had money, too. Butch had it all.”
“What happened to him?”
“Got sent to Vietnam. I remember the last time I saw him, July 24, 1967. He was driving around the neighborhood in the middle of the night and woke me up. When I looked out the window, he saw me and stopped. Butch gives me this nod and the next thing you know, we’re tearing around the back roads. Man, was he drunk, too. You could get away with that then. I didn’t care. I was with Butch in that Mustang.”
The keying stops while he squints at my fading scrawl. “How’d he die?”
“Caught a bullet near Khe Sanh six months later.” I look out the window. The pin oak is nothing but a silhouette against the twilight. Crickets have taken over for the cicadas. None of the cars outside sound anywhere as good as that Mustang. “Later that night, we stopped in the middle of some field. We laid on the hood of his car, and he just started talking about family, his girlfriends and such. He was so proud of that car. Bought it with his own money.” I pick up my trusty camera. “When we got back to the house, he made me take his picture with his brand new Nikon.” My fingers run along the cracked leather. “I posed him next to his car. God, the flashbulbs for this thing used to be as big as a plum. Look at that smile. Damn.”
“But, how did you know he was going to die?”
Aaron brings my focus back. He’s a natural. “I didn’t. Butch did. He wrote a kind of will the night before he got killed. Left me his Nikon — this Nikon. Heck, it even had film in it. I got it developed and there he was. I wanted to remember what happened, so I bought this notebook and started writing.”
He fans the pages following Butch’s story. “There’s gotta be thirty more people in here.”
“Took every pic with Butch’s camera.”
Aaron’s face softens. “How many notebooks do you have?”
“I’ve lost count.”
He shakes his head. “Does everybody you take a picture of die?”
“We all got to go sometime. But to answer your question, no. My motherin- law is alive and kicking. God knows I have enough pictures of her.”
Aaron laughs then turns serious. “Doesn’t this get to you? I mean, people dying all the time?”
“At first it did. I used to get roaring drunk every time it happened. Then one day it hit me, I had it all wrong. I wasn’t doing mourning portraits. It was an honor to listen to them, and take their picture.” I spread my arms out over the piles. “These are the stories of the living, and why I started writing my column about them.”
Aaron readies his fingers again, a glint in his eye. “Which I read every week. Do you have any favorites?”
We talk into the night, cracking open a few beers while we delve through page after page. The pin oak is shadows upon shadows. The streets are quiet. Even the crickets have called it a night. All the while, he listens and types. By the time the clock chimes two, we’ve both gone as far as we can go.
Aaron presses a button and turns off his gadget. “I have one more question — off the record.”
“Why didn’t you get one of the paper’s regular reporters to write this up? This is great human interest stuff. Why me? I’m just a part-time nobody.”
“Five years ago, I took notice of a Scholastic Award winner for portrait photography — Aaron Connor. Nice stuff. Now imagine my surprise last week when my editor starts talking about this stringer he’s hired named ‘Aaron Connor.’ It was fate.”
He sits up a little straighter.
“I know talent when I see it.” I glance down at the notebooks. The one with Butch’s picture sits open and I can see his proud smile. I smile back. My eyes move to the Nikon. I pick up the camera and cradle it in my hands.
“Thanks,” Aaron says, standing up to leave.
“No, thank you. Hey, could you do me a favor before you head out?” I hand the camera to him.
His fingers run over the unfamiliar terrain then fall into place.
“Would you take my picture?”
Born outside of New Cumberland, Mike Si lverstri honed his writing skills at an early age when he used lipstick to comment on his sister’s extensive early 1960s record collection. His later satire of the school library’s Book Return Policy earned student acclaim and several hours of detention during the third grade. Both episodes taught him that not everyone appreciates good literature.
A few years ago, Silverstri joined a local Pennwriters’ critique group, and with writing instructor Ann Stewart as his mentor, his work began to appear in local and national publications. He is the author of the “Lazy Dog Mystery Series” and of the science fiction thriller “The Gospel of Matthias Kent.”
Read "In the Dark" by runner up Anton Runkles of Conestoga.
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