Write On!

In a Dark Room

In Uncategorized on December 1, 2011 at 2:28 pm

by Jen Gregory

One fraction of a second in one tiny dark room is long enough to ruin a whole life. Vegas isn’t just gambling it’s home to some. Mary Ann remembered telling her parents that she would like to move there. Mennonite families don’t relish their young daughters moving to sin city. There were tears, lots and lots of tears. Mennonites don’t really yell when they can help it but they do get angry and Mary Ann’s father was every bit of that.

Over the two weeks in between her telling her parents and her new job starting her mother had peeled fifty potatoes and cooked two roast, a sure sign of a troubled heart.

She had made no effort to conserve the meat or embellish the meal either. Her small, bone thin hands had rubbed and peeled, washed and seasoned with expert finesse but it was the rush, the extra slapping of the roast onto the butcher block, that squishy thud of raw meat and solid wood meeting over and over that let Mary Ann know her mom was not okay with this. She still went.

Maybe she was a rebellious Mennonite. Mary Ann just never felt at home in Oklahoma. She didn’t want anything glamorous but she wanted to feel grown up, see a big city, live somewhere with a pulse. Besides, she had majored in photo journalism so that she could see things. No way was she going to sit in her hometown and take pictures of livestock. She never had a desire to move to a coast or too far away from home, but Nevada felt close enough and far enough away at the same time.

When she had seen the ad for a photographer for a Vegas publication she thought, “BigCity=Big Publication.” It didn’t.

She took the job from the shady guy because he put out an interesting news journal. It was very local, covering the happenings of local politics, the different festivals, etc.

Sig Delaney had thick Greek lips. They smacked a little with the end of each word. He kept a cigar at the corner of his mouth and she would never say it, but he reminded her a little of Boss Hog from The Dukes of Hazard. All except, Sig was not flashy. He wore sneakers with his khaki pants and old, frumpy plaid shirts. He was the kind of flirt that was either ignorant of his effect on women or suprememly comfortable with it.

All though the flirting made her uncomfortable he seemed harmless, physically unimposing. Truth was she thought she could take him if push came to shove. She was taller at 5’8” than he was and her medium build and rustic upbringing gave her a toughness that came in handy with guys like Sig. He was smart and she could tell he was good at what he did. He also paid well much to her surprise.

She liked that her new job had odd hours. Her consistent, regimented upbringing caused her to thrill at the idea of staying up until 2 am. She had to be in all sorts of insane places at insane times but she met so many people, saw so many things she would never have seen otherwise. The biggest surprise though, was all the women Sig escorted around town. She would shake her head in disbelief as this showgirl or that showed up for a lunch date.

He would dress a little nicer on those days and pour on the charm, probably blowing a day’s wages on some fancy lunch. One day she had teased him about the difference in his behavior “with” showgirl and “without” showgirl. She had shivered a little at his response and gone back to the dark room to develop film and forget that little moment. Otherwise she and Sig had settled into a routine and mutual respect.

Her favorite part of the job was the darkroom. It was tiny and cluttered. The office it was in was not ventilated well, older, a smidge run down but she didn’t care.

Inside that room was a radio with a CD player. She would turn on some music, pull out her film canisters and go to work. Mary Anne would pop open the little plastic canister lid containing film and hear the hiss of air release from it. It gave her the same pleasure the Santa in the coke commercial got or the couple drinking Foldgers coffee. It made something inside of you say, “Ahhh.”

In the pitch black she would gently pull the film from its casing and wrap it on the twirly cylinder of cold metal. Then she would place the film safely into the steel canister. That was the most stressful part of her job. The rest was simple science. Simply put in the right amount of developer and shake for the right amount of time.

At the end of this sequence she could pull out the glossy lock of celluloid and revel at the tiny little miracles. She was a darkroom goddess, creating through the magic of chemical reaction, reveling in light and dark. Then she got to hang it to dry and work on other negatives that had dried earlier.

She would put them on the light box, grab the loop and start choosing. She would snip the film into 5 inch lengths and slide them into plastic covers. In this room she was the girl her parents raised her to be, quiet, reserved, organized and hard working.

Mary Ann would choose the best pictures and place them in the projector, do a test strip and eventually print an 8”x10” glossy black and white for her editor to consider for print. The sound of the fixer sloshing back and forth in the pan, watching the saturated paper come to life, that was her private magic. She loved the tart smell of the chemicals, the glow of the red light making everything in the little room look mysterious and powerful.

Mary Ann was good at developing and printing her film. So good that her editor put her down just enough to keep her humble, lest she get a big head and look for a more respectable gig. Sig Delaney knew a good thing when he found it and if that good thing happened to be young and wear heavy mid-drift baring sweaters, all the better.

Sig had no pretenses about his character. He was a Vegas man. He got off work and went to one joint or the other. He loved being in the print industry and was smart enough to be truly good at it. He was also smarmy. He liked a low end publication that danced in legitimate news but made its real cash in tiny illicit classified ads. He loved those ads best.

Sig didn’t just do the night life to enjoy himself. He studied up where he should go days in advance. He frequented places and got to know showgirls and the like to keep up with the news around town. He had his ear to the ground and a drink to his purple lips at all times after hours. It was always ginger-ale but he made like he drank just to fit in.

He had shrewd, squinty blue eyes that never stopped roving. If women thought it was to look at them, all the better and why not while he was at it? In reality he was looking for faces of people to write about. Sig was a pop culture junkie and a political fanatic. He knew who was in town and when. He kept a camera on him at all times disguised in a leather satchel that looked like a brief case. In it was a recorder, a notepad and a Cannon camera, top of the line.

Sig was a true journalist he just didn’t like others to know it. He made more money faxing off reports and sending anonymous photos to different publications on each of the coast in three months than he did on his own little publication in a year. No one needed to know that though. He loved the idea that he was an undercover photo journalist known for being a journalist. It was brilliant and sometimes he would chuckle to himself at just how brilliant he was. It’s what gave him that odd, cocky confidence the showgirls where willing to dabble with.

This particular night promised to be his best yet. In a culture of political correctness politicians tended to avoid Vegas. Sig had the singular knack for knowing who was up and coming; he watched and read and knew what was what and who was going to be who. He figured it paid off to follow these guys pre-hay day and get the dirt before their guards were up.

If they were unheard of in Vegas they tended to behave like a typical Vegas tourist. These guys would make their public appearance, fulfill their obligations, then party like rock stars on their host’s tab.

Tonight Sig was planted at a black jack table near the entrance of Caesar’s palace. He had been to the brief press conference held by the young and charismatic state senator named Thomas Ledbetter. Ledbetter had all the call signs of success. A wealthy political family, an educated, fertile young wife and a head full of thick glossy brown hair, neatly coifed to frame an immaculate bone structure all combined with the faintest dimples on either side of a fabulous white toothed smile.

One of Sig’s favorite showgirls from Caesar’s had informed him that her gay friend who happened to be a concierge had a friend that knew the senator was slated to be at a private party during one of the shows and then tour the floor where his host would front some gambling money and teach him the basics of black jack.

His host was a local real estate developer. Much like Sig, the developer dabbled in some very legitimate and worthwhile causes, but he made his money elsewhere. Ronnie Jones was all flash and all about Ronnie Jones. Sig admired him and had met him several times. He was a fabulous host who liked to show his guests a good time. He also liked to tempt them with every known vice. Shamed guests made good business partners.

Sig hung tight at the table and made small safe bets. Eventually after an hour’s wait he was rewarded with a loud hello from Ronnie Jones himself who was escorted by an entourage of people. Two dancers who posed as his assistants and a young man who seemed amoral and handy when it came to doing Mr. Jones’ bidding and of course, Thomas Ledbetter.

They played black jack for an hour or so, Sig made small talk with the blonde “assistant” and made safe bets. He watched the young senator and was amazed at his self control and discretion. He played dumb about the gambling, he rarely spoke to the two young women and pulled the young man into his confidence as if her were the older brother he never had.

He was an actor on his stage. He was Shakesperean in the midst of a Bill and Ted culture. He was brilliant! Sig decided then and there that this guy would indeed be President some day. Sig also decided that if he ran, Thomas Ledbetter would have his vote.

He introduced himself and befriended the young man. He played the dirty older man well, upped his bets and did what Sig did best, ingratiated himself through his shameless, lascivious behavior. He whispered and snickered things under the pretext of being a slightly successful and likable scumbag.

Thomas Ledbetter remained ever the gentleman. Sig gave up. The guy wasn’t so much undercover as he was a professional politician. He was smooth and patient. He wasn’t desperate and he was not hungry for power.

He was hungry for friendship and praise. He wasn’t even that sexually driven. Ledbetter was a huge disappointment to a tabloid journalist but all together impressive as a political candidate.

Delaney bid Ronnie and Thomas good night and went home. He felt confident Senator Ledbetter would be a national leader some day and he liked the idea of it. He slept well that night.

He had one roll of film from the night before of Mr. Ledbetter standing next to Ronnie Jones and he supposed it was respectable news. They were, after all, working on a project that would aid poverty stricken citizens in the area. It was all legit and well planned. It would be his cover for that week.

He walked into the office and looked at the stack of mail Mary Ann had placed on his desk. There was a padded envelope with large messy letters.

Johnny Adams wrote like that and he always had something interesting. He was one of Sig’s favorite sources. Sig paid him handsomely for useful tips. He opened it up and felt the unfamiliar feeling of shock. He understood undercover journalists, undercover cops, undercover politicians but undercover housewives?

Johnny had befriended the secretary at the small law firm titled, Ledbetter Hunsinger. Thomas Ledbetter’s law firm, to be exact.

The secretary had not been an easy make. She was nice looking and educated, not Johnny’s type at all, but Johnny was nothing if not determined.

It took him three months, a fraudulent gym membership, plus some body building, to get a date. It took him three more months to get her talking. She wasn’t a drinker and that made it difficult and time consuming work.

Johnny had threatened to quit three times. Sig had assured him it was worth it and Johnny knew Sig was right usually so he tolerated the self improvement and actually began to enjoy the woman’s company.

The envelope, Johnny swore, held pictures of Thomas Ledbetter’s wife at a strip club. The secretary had noticed the charges and assumed they were her bosses until she looked at the dates and realized all of the charges to local strip clubs had been made while Mr. Ledbetter was out of town.

Johnny did what Johnny did best and got the evidence. Sig was floored. This behavior, an ensuing public divorce, all of it could lead to the poor guy’s political ruin. Here Sig had thought that all politicians were the deceivers but he had failed to realize how someone might deceive the politician.

He got up from his large metal desk and walked into the back towards the darkroom. He tapped on the door and said, “Mary Ann, need you come out when you can.”

Mary Ann took a minute to make sure all light sensitive materials were put away, flicked on the light and opened the door. She wore no make up, had long hair in a ponytail but she almost always exposed some skin somewhere. Sig found it cute and naïve.

“How is my favorite photographer today?” he said as he looked her up and down.

Mary Ann rolled her eyes and said, “What is it Sig?”

“Need you to develop this stat, it’s important.” And then he turned away. Mary Ann took the packet and pulled the film into the room. She flicked off all of the lights and went to work. She gently pulled open the canister. hiss. Carefully extracted the stiff curved roll of film and rolled it up. She placed it in the steel developer and finished the processing. She hung it up and went to lunch. She had a date.

Sig went into the darkroom and grabbed the film while Mary Ann was out. He snipped it, put it into sleeves and went to work.

He printed out five glossy 8”x10” pictures and headed to Caesar’s palace. He figured even a low life Vegas publisher needed to do one good deed in his life and he liked the idea that he might somehow influence the nation’s political future.

Mary Ann returned to work and noticed the film strip was gone. It wasn’t unusual. She went about her work developing the pictures of Thomas Ledbetter for the cover, noting how attractive he was.

Mary Ann wound up marrying the lunch date. She moved back closer to home and took a photography position in Tulsa at the paper there.

In Tulsa she had four children and her parents were very happy. Her mother only cooked roast once a week and remembered the carrots and celery. It was her children’s favorite meal that Nana cooked.

Her father was doting and internally so grateful his daughter had not been ruined by her stint in Vegas. He supposed even Vegas held blessings if one prayed enough.

Sig continued to print. As technology changed so did his profits. Classifieds took a dive as Craigslist took over but digital photography took away all the cost of a darkroom. Sig could produce the whole publication himself for half the cost from his home. He did well and lived happily, if not a tad too sinfully.

Quietly and quickly Thomas Ledbetter divorced. He was just a State Senator, no one but a couple of local publications caught hold of it.

His three children remained in his custody. He eventually remarried an attractive attorney from another local political family. They made a fabulous couple. He ran for Congress and easily won. It helped that even his ex-wife endorsed him.

Fall of 2008 he ran for President. Sig did everything he could to stump for the guy behind the scenes. He didn’t want anyone to know he was biased. He mostly donated money in a variety of discreet ways.

Mary Ann and her husband watched the news that election night. They watched Thomas Ledbetter easily sweep up a 65% majority. Mary Ann and her husband Rick commented on the win and as she went to turn the TV off she said, “You know it’s kind of neat, I developed pictures of the President of the United States! Who would have thought?”

She chuckled to herself as Rick put his arm around her and walked with her up the stairs to their bedroom where they read their Bible together and went to sleep.

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