March 16, 1:30 p.m.
Dan: SHE’S NOT SOPHIE
“She’s certainly not Sophie.” One glance at Rex’s big black and tan face and I can tell he doesn’t care. He looks up from the rug at the front door with his world-weary gaze. He’s probably still trying to figure out why I’m here, why I’m sitting on “his” couch, squinting at my laptop. I shouldn’t be here. I should be gone for most of the daylight hours, leaving the couch to him. Rex knows he’s not supposed to sleep on the furniture but he does anyway—as long as I’m not at home. He doesn’t fool me at all.
If it weren’t for this stupid stay-at-home order, I’d be at my desk, staring at a pair of large screen monitors, surrounded by a busy battalion of reporters asking questions and telling stories. I like the newsroom. I like what I do. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I volunteered to work on the student newspaper in college.
I shouldn’t be thinking of Sophia. Or her generous laugh and her quick, biting retorts. But I can’t help it. I liked her the minute she showed up at the paper. She didn’t mind taking the awful stories no one else wanted. She wrote obits, interviewed people after their houses burned down, called the victims of tragedies.
She always disagreed when others said she should leave those poor people alone. People want to talk, she said. She listened to their stories, cried with them, found a way to make them laugh, and made sure their names were spelled correctly. I was supposed to be mentoring her but she taught me a few things. And she made me fall in love with her.
I miss her, ridiculous man that I am, even though I should have noticed she wasn’t going to be interested in me.
This new girl—excuse me, woman—isn’t going to be the same at all. On the phone, Jessica sounded a little too guarded, like she was afraid of me or maybe didn’t trust me. At the meeting, she didn’t say anything at all after introducing herself and getting shot down by the boss. That had to hurt.
I text my friend Frank. “I miss Sophia.”
Frank and I both worked on the same college paper. But while I’m writing stories, he’s the guy who makes the money that pays my salary. He’ll tell you subscriptions don’t pay the bills, ads do. So I appreciate all those car ads and grocery store circulars he gets every day.
Frank sends me one of those stink-eye emojis. Words are perfectly good but he has to send everything in little pictures or icons. I never knew there were so many different kinds until I met Frank.
Then to my surprise, he sends an actual text. “What’d you expect? Not everybody is going to fall for your excessive charm.”
I send him that stink-eye emoji back. Then I sign off. We do have work to do—even if we’re stuck at home. Claire wants my story in an hour. Then I have to get together with Jessica about our first assignment together.
The trouble is I find myself thinking about her instead of my story on the mayor’s crime statistics report. Getting her school wrong twice isn’t like me. I don’t get facts wrong. But, lately, it’s become an issue. Never a good thing for a reporter. We’re paid to get things right.
As I stare at the pot of flowers Jessica never got, it occurs to me that Claire might not have hired her to take Sophia’s place. Sticking the newbie with me could be a sign Claire is thinking I may be replaceable.
It’s a thought that never occurred to me before. Everybody likes me. I get the good stories. They win awards—have since my college paper was named newspaper of the year. I never doubted myself once in my whole life.
Until I misquoted the mayor last week. It wasn’t on purpose. I didn’t hear his answer correctly. My notes matched what I keyed in but then he added a qualifying statement which I didn’t hear that changed the meaning of what he said. So my whole story was wrong.
His press secretary called me five minutes after the story was posted online. Then the president of the city council called. And finally, the mayor called Claire. He played for her a recording of the press conference that easily proved my mistake.
After that Claire started doubting my stories—asking a slew of questions about each one, checking my quotes even. Then, I stopped trusting myself and got a digital recorder.
I’m listening to this morning’s press conference for the third time, checking the mayor’s quotes again but I can’t help thinking about Jessica.
I mean, she’s nobody special. This is her first job as a reporter. So my curiosity gets the best of me. I save my story and check Jessica out on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Her LinkedIn page mentions only her education and her time as an editorial assistant. Big deal. That means she opened mail and moved all the copy for the calendar page or the community notices. Her Facebook page, though, reveals a slightly more interesting person. Her picture looks nothing like the woman in big glasses with her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail I saw on Zoom earlier today. This Jessica has long brown hair with a bit of curl and big brown eyes under long curving eyebrows that seem to be questioning why I’m looking at her page.
I close the laptop, ashamed at myself for stalking a coworker. The story will have to wait, too.
“Come on, Rex.” When I grab the leash, my overgrown mutt jumps up from his base of operations and races over to me.
I have a feeling the only good thing about working from home is going to be the mid-day dog walks. Might as well enjoy them while I can.
Thirty minutes later, after Rex and I have finished our quick walk around the block, the mutt slurps up half a bowlful of water and then settles down on the rug for a nap.
The fresh air, the sunshine and Rex’s eternal good nature have erased the blue mood I had earlier. I was already putting the key in the front door lock when I realized I didn’t need to worry about Jessica. All I had to do was up my game, be meticulous, double check my own stuff so I wouldn’t even have to think about her.
I race through the second draft of my story, confident it’s the usual Johnson style, accurate and easy to read. Once I send it to Claire, I close the laptop and even shut down the Slack chat so Claire can’t pummel me with nonstop questions.
Before calling Jessica, I jot down the contacts I need to reach: the mayor, of course, the police commissioner, head of the health department—there have been so many in the past two years I can’t remember who it is today—as well as the head of the local business group, the downtown partnership and a host of other contacts I usually rely on.
I’m still writing when I get a text. “Am I supposed to call you?”
“Yeah.” I text back. I actually was planning to call her in a few minutes but if she’s ready to get going on our story, I’m fine with that.
“Hi Dan. It’s Jessica.”
No kidding, I think but don’t say. Instead, I’m polite or try to be. I want to make it perfectly clear who’s in charge of this story. “I’ve worked up a list of people to contact this afternoon. We probably have to email them. I couldn’t reach anybody by phone this morning. Office are closed.”
“What about cell phones?”
“Let’s start with email. It will give you a chance to introduce yourself. I doubt the mayor would answer a call with a caller-ID he didn’t know.”
I can’t believe she interrupts me. I do have plenty of those numbers but I’m not sharing them with my new, ahem, partner. Not until she earns the right, anyway.
“Oh…right.” Just when I think she’s understanding who’s in charge here, she goes on. “It’s just that I have the cell phone numbers for the mayor and Dr. Marino. I worked on the mayor’s first campaign when I was a teacher and I got to know him pretty well. And my father and Dr. Marino are friends. Dad texted her and she said it was fine to call.”
What? Who does this Jessica think she is? And I have to wrack my brain trying to think why we’d call Dr. Marino-whoever.
Jessica fills the silence. “Dan? Is that okay? I want to make sure I do a good job today.”
“That’s great. But you don’t get to call the mayor on your first day. That’s been my beat for the past three years. I’ll be calling the mayor. I’ll email you a list of people to contact. And that Dr. Marino fellow…”
“Is a she. Dr. Evelyn Marino, you know, the new chief of the health department.”
Burn. This is not going well. She’s acting like she’s smarter than me, Ms. Johnzzzzz Hopkins. “Marino!” I exclaim as if I didn’t hear her correctly. “Of course, we talked last week.” No, we didn’t. I should have known her name though; I did attend the press conference announcing her appointment but then Sophia followed up with the intro interview.
What’s gotten into me? That’s the second lie I’ve told in less than six hours. I gotta get my focus back.
“I’m sending you the list now.”
I can hear the clicking of keystrokes while she looks over the list. “Dan, you sure you don’t want me to call Dr. Marino?”
“No. That’s fine. I got this. You email the business people. I’ll handle City Hall.”
“All right.” She sounds so resigned. The eager tone I heard when she first called has evaporated. And I don’t care. I’m in charge of this story.
“Let’s get back in touch about four. We need to have a story ready for Claire by six.”
“Is it for tomorrow’s paper?”
I can’t believe she asks that. “Of course it is. I expect Claire will want it online before the six o’clock news goes off the air.”
“What if I can’t get anyone by then?”
Oh, she is a newbie. “We’ll go with what we’ve got.” A shop-worn expression that’s truer than ever. “Call me at four and let me know what you have.”
I start emailing my contacts while we’re still talking about the focus of our story.
So far the coronavirus pandemic is only an inconvenience. There are few cases locally and no deaths. I call everybody and then email the people who aren’t answering their phones. By three I’m starting to get a feel for my story.
Six hundred words won’t be enough but I can save some of it for tomorrow. I’ve already got a half-dozen feature stories to follow up on when I get the chance. Claire loves those news-related human interest stories.
The only person I can’t reach is the infamous Dr. Marino. Her voicemail is full and her email keeps bouncing back. Calls to her press officer have been useless. Erin Somebody has promised to connect us but so far, no good.
“I got her,” Jessica texts me at five minutes before our call. “And it’s big. Will call as soon as I get the quotes down.”
Got who, I wonder. There weren’t any women on the list I gave her. Then I get a strange feeling that she ignored what I said and called the health department chief. When someone crosses me, I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention and that’s exactly what happens now. And it pisses me off.
That cheerful, over-eager tone is back in her voice when she calls a few minutes later. “Hi Dan. I was talking to my dad and he told me Dr. Marino has reported the first death. It hasn’t even been announced yet. I thought we might want to get it into Claire so she can post it before the news conference. Dr. Marino is really nice and she gave me some good quotes. I can’t believe it. My first day and I get a scoop.”
I just sit there. I can’t believe the newbie got my story.
I’m looking for your ideas!
Every Monday I’ll post a new chapter until Dan and Jessica find love, lose it and, we hope, find their happily-ever-after. Do you have an idea, torn from your own pandemic stay-at-home saga, that might help them?
How is your dog handling your staying at home during the covid-19 pandemic? How about your cat?
Should Jessica get Lori a cat, as she has asked? I’m really on the fence. Hasn’t Jessica got enough going on without a cat? Or would it add to their already loving home?
If you have a suggestion for what happens next, send it along with your name and hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Copy and paste the address, please.) Together we can write a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.
Ⓒ 2020 Mary K. Tilghman