March 23, 4:30 p.m.
Jessica: CRITICISM FROM ALL SIDES
When I hang up from my unpleasant call with Claire, I just sit there. I worked twelve-hour days all last week—with time set aside to help Lori with her schoolwork—and it already looks like I’ll be doing it again this week.
Though I’m working harder than I ever worked in my life, no one knows. Who saw me checking email at 7:30 this morning before Lori woke up? Who knows I was toiling at my desk, handling phone calls until my ears hurt? Claire, who is working fifty miles away in some tree-lined suburb, has no idea. When she calls, I can’t see her face or gestures to help me figure her out. And she and the rest of the staff are nearly as hard to gauge at online meetings with their jerky movements and sometimes pixillated images.
After that first story, I thought I’d be set. Claire praised my enterprise, even though I did step on Dan’s toes. That was, however, the only time last week she said something complimentary to me. Ever since, she’s been critical of my reporting and my writing.
What? You’d like to read earlier chapters? You’ll find both written and audio versions right here.
Today’s call was more of the same. I turned in exactly what she asked for, with plenty of good quotes and clever turns of a phrase. So I wasn’t ready for the complaints when she called.
“Hi, Claire,” I answer the phone, anticipating at least a little praise for my good story.
Even her “hello” sounds miffed, as if she said it while gritting her teeth. My own good mood plummets with one word. I sit up a little straighter and wipe that smug smile off my face. I’m already ashamed of myself for my poor work. It feels like middle school English when I failed to turn in an essay on time.
I have to hand it to Claire. She’s blunt. “Your story wasn’t up to the paper’s standards but because we saved the space for it, I reworked it so it read much better.”
What does she mean by this? I want to ask but can’t before she plows ahead.
“You’ll have to do better tomorrow. Did you let Dan read your story before you submitted it?”
Did I do what? Why would I do that? He was writing one story and I wrote another. Am I an editorial assistant all over again?
But before I can ask what she’s talking about, she goes on. “Dan’s not happy with the way you’re approaching your stories. He said you are having trouble getting to your contacts and when you do you’re not asking the right questions.”
“But Claire,” I finally squeeze in a teeny little protest. “You liked my interview with Dr. Marino. And Friday, I got hold of a couple who had to self-quarantine after a cruise? Dan told me it was just the kind of story you like.”
“Dan said he handed that story to you and that you bungled it.”
So now they’re discussing my performance behind my back? I didn’t expect that. That two-faced SOB. He’s saying one thing to me and something else altogether to our supervisor. What the hell? She lets it go at that, hanging up and leaving me with no clear answers.
Discouraged and feeling betrayed, I shut down my laptop. Damn if I’m going to keep working after a dressing down like that. I won’t read even one more email. Tomorrow’s story can wait.
Maybe I need a soothing beverage. Or maybe dinner. As I consider what would make me feel better, I overhear Lori’s chatter in the dining room.
She has taken over the table as her office, complete with an in box beside which she has stacked her school folders, her pencil case and an old datebook of mine. Her finished assignments go, of course, in the out box on the sideboard. She even has a toy phone at the ready. Dressed in her stay-at-home uniform of pink leotard and tutu, she’s reading aloud to her dolls.
I’m so glad, and relieved, Lori is keeping herself occupied. I’ve enjoyed listening to her chatter during lunch and while I get dinner on the table. She’s been so diligent about her homework and didn’t complain too much when I said her ballet lessons on Saturday had been canceled. She’s still got that feeling she’s on summer vacation.
I’m staring in the refrigerator when Lori taps me on the shoulder and hands me her math paper. “Mommy, I finished this while you were on the phone. Can I go outside?”
It’s enough to shake me out of my bad mood.
“Done already?” I pull out a chair so she can sit beside me at the table. “Let’s look and see how you did.”
It’s all number lines. I hated number lines when I was her age. “Okay, Lori, show me how these work.”
Smart little girl, she goes through each one as if she’s the teacher and I’m the student. Whenever I think the four walls are going to close in on me, even though we’re only three days into this stay-at-home order, I am grateful for Lori. I don’t know how we’ll feel about all this when the novelty wears off—or when she realizes she can’t do all the things she likes to do.
But for now, I’m happy to have these moments.
“It looks like you got them all right,” I cheer and pat her on the back.
“This was easy, Mommy. I don’t know why we had to do this again.”
“I guess Miss Gambino wants to make sure you don’t forget everything you learned.”
“Since I’m done, can I go outside? I promise to stay in the alley.”
Outside has become a dangerous place, though I don’t want to tell my daughter that. “Tell you what. Mommy needs to get a few more things done. Why don’t you go play your video game for a little while and then we’ll go out together.”
Remember how nice it was a minute ago to be sitting side by side with my little girl?
That fast, I’ve got a child in tears, stiffening up and crossing her arms and telling me she wants to go out now.
“Look, sweetheart, it’ll only be a few minutes. You may be done your work, but I’m not done mine.”
She’s still bawling when the phone rings. “Hush, Lori. I’ve got to take this.”
“You’re never done!” She stalks to the door and grabs the handlebars of her bike. “I want to go out.”
“Lori, please. Not now.”
She cries louder, her face getting bright red and the veins in her forehead bulging. She knows how to put on a show.
Much as I want to witness a six-year-old’s meltdown, answering the phone seems like an easier choice. I grab a notebook and race upstairs for some quiet when I see who’s calling. After slamming the door—I know how juvenile that is—I click on the phone.
“Yes,” I say more stridently than I mean to.
“Well, good afternoon to you, too.” Dan’s flippant tone does nothing to relieve my foul mood. First Claire. Then Lori. Now Dan. Can my day get any better?
“I’ve had it up to here,” my mouth says before I can stop it. “I’m sorry. I just had an argument. I don’t wish to talk about it.” I pause, take a deep breath and try to remember how to be polite, even to the bastard who’s been talking about me behind my back. We’ll get to that later. “Hi, Dan. I guess you’re calling about the story.”
“Yeah. Well, this should make you feel better. I was just talking to Claire and she was pretty complimentary about your work.”
What? Are he and I talking to the same editor? The same person who just told me my work wasn’t cutting it? I stare at the wall ahead of me, trying to understand. I can still hear my daughter sobbing downstairs. “You don’t care about me. Mommy! You won’t even get me a cat.”
Oh no, did he hear that tirade?
“Yes, that’s, well, surprising.”
“Really? Well, anyway, she said you were doing a fine job and was glad to see you turning in such clean copy.”
“That’s good. That’s not what she said to me but that’s good.” I’m so confused I can’t help babbling.
“No? What did she say?”
Oh no, I’m not going there. Or wait, yes, I am. I’m fueled by impatience brought on by a little girl whose sobbing has turned into whining about a cat and how I’m so mean.
“She told me you weren’t happy with the way I was working out.” I hope that sums it up. I exhale.
“She said that? I only mentioned you having trouble getting that in touch with a source or two. I didn’t mean any more than that.”
“Yeah? I’d appreciate it if you didn’t comment on my work at all. It’s none of your business.”
“Yes it is. I’m your mentor. Since you are a new hire, I’m supposed to see that you’re covering all sides of an issue, getting confirmations of facts. She’s just making sure I’m doing my job.”
I don’t like his tone. “So you’re checking my work? Like I’m in high school journalism class?”
“It’s not like that.”
“Yes it is. If you want to comment on the quality of my work, do it to my face, Dan.”
I keep my attention split between Dan and Lori. Downstairs, her whining has gotten louder. She’s waiting for me to come down and give in. I’m not giving in to her or Dan.
“Your work is fine, Jessica.” He didn’t say that with sweetness and light. More like, through pursed lips, the way I’m planning to talk to Lori when I get through with this call.
“Fine. You’re calling about the Zoom story, right?”
“Right. Yet another story about how we are surviving this pandemic by staying home and behaving ourselves.”
“Yeah, well, it’s what we have to do.”
“What I really want to do is write about all the sexting and porn videos that people are making when they are supposed to be WFH.”
“What! You can’t be serious.”
“Why not? If no one is getting any because we’re stuck at home, this at least…”
When he doesn’t finish the sentence, I am relieved. “Ours is a family newspaper.”
“Oh, stuff it, Miss Times-Herald.”
“Excuse me?” I pause for a second. Have I ticked him off for speaking my mind. This can’t be real. This has to be some kind of a prank. Should I play along or stay on my high horse? I like the view from my noble steed.
“I’m just kidding, Jessica.”
“I’m not laughing, Dan.” I’m not getting into a discussion about appropriate topics for employee conversations but this comes very close to uncomfortable. He has no idea whether I have my phone on speaker or if Lori is near enough to hear it. Thank god she’s out of earshot.
“I’m sorry. I’ve just had it. I like my house but I’m tired of these four walls. I never realized how uncomfortable my desk chair is, or how long it takes my electric stove to boil water. My internet connection is way slower than I expected, too. And I need a draft beer from a real bartender. You know?”
Do I know?
The truth is—though I’m not telling Dan—that this lockdown is starting to take a toll. For one thing, I can’t sleep. I haven’t since the governor started talking about bracing for the pandemic. When I heard about the possibility of turning the convention center into a hospital for overflow cases, I think that’s when I first got worried. I wondered what it would mean for Lori and me. I can’t imagine what we would do if either of us got sick. My brother lives too far away. My sister has her own family. My mother’s underlying health conditions mean she and Dad can’t help.
Not knowing how to cope, before the stay-at-home order went into effect, I took off for the grocery store for hand sanitizer and toilet paper—there was none of either—and a couple of pints of Lori’s favorite Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.
I didn’t realize the grocery store would be the last place I’d gather with a crowd. I stood in line for well over an hour and forty-five minutes, hoping my ice cream wouldn’t melt as I bonded with the Boomer behind me and the couple with a cart full of wine ahead of me.
Since I can’t go out, all I’m doing is working from the moment I get up until I collapse into bed. Lori and I make time to eat, although I’m not too sure about how nutritious our meals are. The ice cream is long gone but I’ve got plenty of cheese, granola bars, salad stuff if I bother to make it, soda and rum. I’ll need more liquor if the virtual happy hours continue. I definitely need more Ben and Jerry’s.
I haven’t read anything that wasn’t work-related since then either. Except for the surprisingly-soothing book on tidying by Marie Kondo, the one everybody has been talking about. It was far different from my adopted motto, “A clean desk is a sign of a sick mind,” which I saw on a sign while I was interning at the Washington Post. I figure the same saying goes double for a whole house. I scrub my bathrooms regularly and do the laundry but don’t have the time for the serious kind of housekeeping Marie Kondo—or my mother, for that matter—espouse.
But after reading Marie’s book, I spent a rainy Sunday re-organizing Lori’s drawers and deciding which of my thirty-seven shirts and sweaters “sparked joy.” I decided on twenty-four but the rest won’t go to Goodwill until this pandemic is history.
I planned to straighten the bookshelves, too, but finally decided Lori and I needed to watch “Frozen II” for the sixtieth time while we waited for our pizza delivery.
Saturday was just as busy. I cleaned the oven after I spend the morning emptying my “junk drawer” and ordering curtains that will really fit the front window. I even considered signing up for online cooking classes because I’m tired of pasta, hot dogs, baked chicken and cold cereal. If going to the supermarket wasn’t such a trial, I might have gone and registered.
Lori hasn’t complained—not until fifteen minutes ago. She hasn’t been able to go outside and play or see her grandparents and she’s missed two ballet lessons.
I want to tell Dan all that because I’ve decided he’s the biggest—to use Lori’s expression—whiney hiney I’ve ever met. But I don’t. I won’t discuss my daughter with strangers and I refuse to pay attention to his complaining.
“No, I’m afraid I don’t know. I’ve been so busy with work and a few little projects around the house.”
“You mean, you don’t wish you could spend happy hour at a bar this evening? We usually go to that place across from the newspaper offices for a beer after we file our stories. Have you been there?”
The only place I can picture is a tiny hole in the wall with a brown door and a fly-specked window. I tried to look inside when I was on my way to my first interview. When I found myself eyeball to eyeball with a stinkbug, my stomach turned and I hurried away.
“Um, no. Something to look forward to, I guess. So, Dan, can we return to the reason you called?”
Finally, he gets down to business. As we brainstorm places to call, my mood mellows. This story might actually be fun. I could use a little fun and maybe I’ll find out some places I could “take” Lori to see.
All I wanted was to write the hard news but in the past week, I’ve seen how serious this pandemic is. I wrote about the first death. We covered the shortage of masks, hand sanitizer and even ventilators. I talked to doctors and nurses who are already exhausted as they brace for a spike in illness and death.
“Look,” he says, “I want you to call that fiddle teacher whose running his lessons on line. And the art museum and the aquarium. Now, listen.”
“Yes, sir.” I hate getting orders.
“I am doing the telemedicine angle. So don’t call any doctors, not even your friend Dr. Marino.”
I can hear the sarcasm in his voice. I may hate him but I have to work with him so I hope we can reach a truce.
“Look, Dan. I got the story. I didn’t mean to step on your toes. It was a real story and we got it before anybody else. Can’t you let it rest?”
“All right. As long as you learned your lesson.”
“As long as, what—?”
“Don’t mess with my stories. That one should have been mine. As long as you play by the rules I set, this partnership will work just fine. That’s how it worked when Sophia was here.”
“Not Sophia again. I haven’t even met her and I hate her.” Every time we talk about a story, her name comes up. You’d think she was the patron saint of journalists, not some kid who decided she wanted to go to the midwest and make her fortune or whatever.
“She knew how to work as part of a team, Jessica.” He says it so flatly I know he means it as a criticism of me.
“Fine.” I don’t hear any more whining downstairs and that’s got me worried. “I’ll play by your rules. Can I call you back? My, ah, I have another call coming in.”
I hang up and race downstairs. I didn’t have to worry after all. Lori’s sound asleep on the sofa.
At least one of us is content. I’m certainly not. Nor am I happy at the moment. And for sure, I hate Dan Johnson.
Dan and Jessica’s story needs 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?
Anger in the Streets. Since I started writing this, the news has changed. Even a pandemic can’t keep people from rushing into the streets to protest the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many other African Americans at the hands of the police. My time line hasn’t reached that far yet. And yet I wonder if my story should reflect these protests. I welcome your thoughts.
If you have a suggestion for what happens next, send it along with your name and hometown to email@example.com. (Copy and paste the address, please.) Together we can write a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.
Ⓒ 2020 Mary K. Tilghman