The newspaper reporter’s wife first found the smears of newsprint on his white Oxford shirts during his second year on the job. The blots were in odd places: on his lower back, on the inside of his collar, on the part of his torso hidden by his arm. They weren’t the full black spots a pen might have left; rather, they looked like the newsman had taken a small portion of a newspaper – say, a three-deck headline, or a sidebar – and rubbed it into his shirt.
When asked what he had done to produce the blots, he would shrug and make some joke about Rorschach tests: Doesn’t the one inside the breast pocket look like a humpback whale? Or he’d shrug, just like he did when she wanted to know why he hadn’t come home from work on time for dinner like he’d promised to.
Other times, he’d say, “I guess that’s just the nature of news.”
It was around this time that they stopped talking about anything but news, and even then he carried most of the conversation.
“Did you hear what Giuliani said today about putting the Confederate flag above the South Carolina State House?” he’d say while they were in a cab to a restaurant in Brooklyn or to the movie theater, the kind of things they eventually stopped doing altogether.
“No, I didn’t,” she’d respond. “My boss asked if I could work Saturday this week, is that OK with you?”
He’d just grunt and keep reading from his BlackBerry, where he could access all the major news sites. Then a few minutes later he would say something like, “You hear about the bus plunge that killed three American tourists and about 33 others in Naipul yesterday?”
Soon the blots spread from his shirts to his pants. They also got bigger and darker, 6-inch explosions of stark black newsprint behind the knee or just above the ankle. Some of the stains he could not get out in the laundry, and because he refused to go to work in clothes with even the faint remainders of stains on them (“What will my sources think?” he’d say. “I gotta get them to trust me, and no one trusts a man with stained pants”), they found themselves at J.C. Penny’s almost monthly, buying the cheapest khaki slacks they could find.
After one particularly late night in the newsroom, she woke up when he came into the bedroom. He took off his shirt before climbing into bed, and in the glow of city light through the fifth-floor window she saw that there were splotches of newsprint on his chest. She closed her eyes and waited until he fell asleep before she examined the blot. She pulled up his undershirt. It was not a blot of ink this time but a few smeared words: rveillance tech ology nd th. That was it.
“Why is there newsprint on your chest?” she asked him after she’d finished buttering her toast at the breakfast table the next morning.
He didn’t even lower the metro section he was hiding behind. “Nature of news, honey,” he said. “Did you hear about the mayor’s son DUI?”
Increasingly often, snippets of sentences appeared on his body: AP photo via the Roanoke Times in incredibly small print or For U.S-Nigeria go-between, ties yield in larger type. Sometimes there were even parts of pictures, but these were still too blurry and small for her to make out the subject. Everything came off in the shower.
One unseasonably warm day in March, she planned a romantic dinner for him, complete with champagne and fondue and candles and strawberries. He didn’t get home until 11 p.m., an hour past deadline, but when he did he appeared grateful, maybe even happy.
“This is wonderful. It seems like we never eat together anymore,” he said. “Did you have a good day at work?”
“We’re training a new associate, but other than that, nothing exciting,” she said. “You? Any big stories?”
“The usual,” he said.
The windows were open, and a warm urban wind flapped the curtains. Romantic classical music played on the radio. The reporter sat down at the table, and she brought him a plate of steamed vegetables.
“First course,” she said.
He smiled and picked up his fork. Before he brought even a carrot to his mouth, he spotted the radio. He frowned and leaned over and changed the dial on the radio to the 24-hour news station.
“You don’t mind, do you?” he said.
Food obviously wasn’t going to do it. Without a word, she pulled him out of his chair, pushed him against the counter and began to unbutton his shirt. He responded in kind, and soon they were entangled in each other.
Finally, she thought, she had his attention.
Then came the BEEP BEEP BEEP of a breaking news alert on News Radio 790 AM, All News All The Time. He slowed the pace immediately, and she thought she could feel his ears perk.
“Can you turn that thing off,” she said.
He ignored her.
“Two school-age children were shot in the streets of the Bronx tonight,” the announcer said. “They have been taken to a nearby hospital and are listed in critical condition.”
He stopped and drew himself away from her.
“Did you hear that?” he said, in complete control of his breathing.
She pulled him back. “Try to forget about it.”
He did for a moment. They continued. The deep voice listed off some unimportant details about the shooting.
“That feels wonderful,” she said.
Then BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.
“For me too,” he said.
“Update on the double shooting in the Bronx tonight,” the newscaster said. “Witnesses are saying that the alleged perpetrator, who is not in custody, screamed several racial epithets at the children before shooting them, and then said ‘Their kind should be wiped off the face of the Earth.’ “
Before she knew what was happening, he was struggling back into his clothes. Right before he put on his shirt, she noticed a few small words just above his belt that she didn’t think had been there when he had taken it off.
“Where are you going?” she said.
“I’ve got to get on this. This could be a monumental story,” he said, and the worst part was that he looked happier now than he had when he’d gotten home.
“You really have to go?” she said.
“You know how it is,” he said as he stepped outside of the apartment. “The news never stops.”
It got worse after that. He had to take daily 45-minute showers to wash all of the newsprint off of his skin. Perhaps the worst part was that the newsprint was appearing at odd times. They would be in a restaurant when a byline would appear on his forearm as he forked a pea. Once, at dinner with their friends, a portion of a headline appeared on his neck. It said Beirut bomb stri before it disappeared into his hair. She spent the rest of the meal worrying that someone else would notice it. No one did.
Sometimes she found whole paragraphs on him. Once, near his belly button, there was a full picture of what looked like a soldier holding a child in some faraway country.
Soon she hardly recognized him. Full parts of his body were obscured by newsprint. One night his thumb would simply not be there. Another night it would be a toe or his chin or an eye. Once even a whole arm.
They hardly talked anymore. They never left the small apartment together. He would come home and sit down in front of CNN. She would sit with him and read some cases for work and worry. Why had she gotten married, she would wonder, and as if to answer, he would turn toward her, showing that his right ear was missing, blackened by newsprint like a cloud obscures the sun. He refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong.
“Aren’t you worried,” she’d ask him.
“It’s news,” he’d say as he shook his head in remorse. “What can you do?” A pause. “Did you hear about the dive the Dow took this afternoon?”
Then on a Tuesday evening late she couldn’t see him anymore at all. One moment they were watching the news together, he in his armchair, the business section draped over his stomach, she on the couch, doing the crossword puzzle. The next moment the newsprint had covered his whole body, and he was gone.
“The U.S. Army has intercepted large-scale arms made by Iran and bound for Taliban forces in Afghanistan,” the TV news anchor said. “It is not yet clear whether Iran authorized the shipment, U.S intelligence officers say.”
She changed the channel.