March 24, 2020, 7:30 a.m.
Dan: WHY’D SHE HAVE TO BE SO GOOD?
I toss down the newspaper with an exasperated sigh, making enough noise to wake up Rex who stares at me. He’s probably wondering if I’m ready for another walk.
“Relax, boy. We can’t go out again. We just got back.”
Good dog that he is, he pads over and pushes his nose into my hand. I scratch behind his ear until he shifts so the I can reach his butt. My dog has the itchiest butt I’ve ever seen. When I stop, he turns around and leans his head on my knee. He knows something’s bugging me.
“It’s Claire. Ever since Sophia left, she’s been on my ass.” I pat Rex’s sturdy head, glad someone approves of the job I’m doing.
A text pops up on my phone. “You up? Baby’s been up since five. Need to talk to an adult.”
I have to laugh at Frank’s message. The baby, Leo, has been keeping him and Bella busy since his arrival a few weeks before the pandemic locked us all in. I feel sorry for the guy, really I do.
“Hey, Frank. Leo’s already causing trouble?”
“I didn’t mean that.” I can hear little baby noises in the background. “He’s learned how to smile.” His voice suddenly gets high and sweet. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you?”
I have to tease the new dad. “Oh stop, you’ll turn my head.”
“Funny, Johnson. How’s the news biz? The ad biz sucks at the moment.”
“I miss Sophie.”
“Dan, you always miss Sophie. But Sophie is perfectly happen in where—?”
“In Oklahoma. She’s found true love and it isn’t you, my friend. Besides, you have another new reporter to torment. How’s she doing?”
“I guess she means well, but she’s not Sophie. She doesn’t look up to me and ask me questions and need me to look over her stories. I tell her what to do, she does it and she turns it in. She acts like she doesn’t need my help. It’s not the same at all.”
“Oh, you mean, she’s not interested in you.” Frank repeats this comment to the baby, in his singsong voice. “I don’t mean you, little Leo, she’s just not interested in Frank.”
“Well, she’s older than Sophie, right? Don’t you think she’s experienced enough to do her own stories?”
“Claire asked me to team up with her but it’s not working out the way I expected. Mostly, I’ve been handing over the fluffy stories to the newbie so I can keep up with the serious news: the mayor’s daily press conferences, the number of sick and dead, the concerns about people who aren’t being counted, the issues with supplies like masks and tests and will we ever have a vaccine. The hard-hitting, front page news stories.”
“I’ve read it all. All on the front page. Good stuff.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Somehow Jessica’s stories manage to get the bigger headlines, the showier layouts and the only photos. Mine only get that little one-column bar graph showing the rising number of cases. The numbers should be—they are—the big news.”
“You sound jealous, pal.”
“No, I’m not. It’s just that Jessica keeps getting the really good stories. She may be new but she knows her way around town and she knows her way around a good sentence. If only she weren’t so difficult.”
“She writes good stories, too. I don’t know what you’re complaining about. Hey, bud, don’t cry.” That last comment is to Leo.
“She gets lucky. And then Claire ends up praising her work when she’s discussing mine. It doesn’t hurt that she has such good contacts—she knows the mayor and her father is CFO of a major company. She needs a source and he can hand her the cell numbers of people he knows at banks, hospitals, law firms and City Council. He knows them all. He and his wife are always in the Sunday society photos of the latest gala, fundraiser or political gathering. Or, they were, before this pandemic shut everything down.”
“Well, you and I are both newbies here.”
“We’ve lived here since college.”
“This isn’t New York. The people here know each other from high school. Or the neighborhood. Jessica is one of them, right? I’m not surprised she knows people from all over.”
“You’re not helping. You’re right, of course. It’s a nice enough place though I didn’t plan to stay here. I figured I’d go to New York, Boston or Chicago, real cities with great newspapers. But this little town sucked me in until I decided to buy a house.”
What I won’t say to Frank is that the last couple of weeks have made me second-guess my decision. It’s freshman year soccer all over again. After a summer of soccer camp, complete with a trophy for most improved, I thought I was ready for soccer tryouts.
Me, the kid who couldn’t hit a baseball off a tee, or get a tennis ball over the net, or figure out how to cradle a lacrosse ball. Soccer, I had decided, was my sport. Yeah, right.
Sean I-forget-his-last-name showed me in ten minutes I was wrong. He dribbled past me, shot for the goal right in front of me, and later laughed in my face when I fell over the ball. I kept it going for two more days, determined to show him and the rest of the guys that I could do it. It took that long for me to realize my name would never be on a jersey. Not even for the freshman team.
“This town sucked us both in.” That’s the truth. Frank not only bought a house, but got married and now has a baby. “Gotta go. My precious little bundle of joy just upchucked his breakfast. I need to change.”
As I click off my phone, I scrub my face with my hands and realize I have to shave before the day’s press conference. Oh yeah, and water Jessica’s flowers. I did promise to keep them alive until I gave them to her.
March 24, 10:30 a.m.
Jessica: TRUTH HURTS
“Thanks, Mom. I love having you as my greatest fan. But I’m not doing what I expected. I want to write hard news and somehow I keep getting the ‘human interest’ stories. I thought I was going to cover City Hall. That’s what Claire said I would do when she hired me.”
“But dear,” My mother is always the voice of reason. “They probably need you to be doing what you’re doing. This is a strange time.”
I’ll say it is. My own mother is too scared to leave her own house. She’s even got Dad working from home—something I never thought he’d do. Though they live only a couple of blocks away, she has asked me not to visit, not even to bring Lori. Much as my daughter and I miss her, I don’t blame her. She’s only now beginning to regain her strength after her grueling cancer treatments.
And she’s probably right. The virus was just beginning to be a story in China when I had my first interview. No one was talking about what it would mean if it came here.
But every time I read Dan’s stories, I wonder why I’m covering the human interest angle and he’s getting the facts and figures that are showing how serious this pandemic is. He’s writing the stories I want to write. I mean I’d rather be covering the governor but who wouldn’t? That’s who’s really making all the decisions about who can work, who has to stay at home, and dealing with all the shortages.
“You’re right. It’s just that when I started last Monday, this felt more like a ‘stay-cation’ than a way to solve a serious problem. Now, all of a sudden, there are people fighting for their lives at University Hospital and doctors and nurses facing a shortage of equipment that they need to stay safe. The stories are just awful. Here and everywhere else.”
“You’re right. I’m so glad my hospital visits ended before this all began. I don’t know what I’d do if I needed my chemo during this. As it is, my doctor has been scheduling meetings over the internet. He doesn’t want me to go out at all.”
“Who ya talking to?” Lori skips by and leans on my arm so she can see who’s face that is on my phone.
Her face brightens up. “Mom-Mom! Are you coming to see me?” Then she looks at me, “Can we go over? I want to show Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop the picture I drew.”
“Hi, Lori-beth,” my mother warbles as she waves at her granddaughter.
“Go get your picture and show it to your grandmother now, please.”
“But I want to go over. Mom-Mom doesn’t look like she’s busy now.”
Mom-Mom has been very busy the last six months as she underwent treatmentf. She didn’t want Lori to see her when she lost all the weight and her skin looked so bad and she lost her hair. They talked on the phone almost every day. It made both of them feel better but Lori still misses seeing her the way she did before my mother got sick.
“Lori-beth, go get the picture, please. I’m afraid you can’t come over today, dear.”
“Oh, all right.” Lori drags herself to the living room coffee table to retrieve the picture.
When she brings it back, my mother, good grandmother that she is, coos and claps her hands.
“Tell me about it, dear.”
I love the way my mother says that. It means, what is it? But Lori doesn’t know that. She’s happy to tell a story.
I cede my chair and my phone to my daughter so they can talk.
With the daily meeting less than an hour away, I need to get my story ideas lined up. Who am I kidding? Claire will look down her nose at whatever I propose. I want to write about what the city is doing for homeless people but chances are, she and Dan have already discussed yet another human interest story for me to do.
No matter. I have to remember I’m the new girl, and even my red jacket can’t make me more powerful. I’ll sit quietly in the meeting, take whatever they throw at me and hope for the best.
Lori can’t go to school or ballet. Mom can’t go out at all. I have no reason to feel sorry for myself. The truth is, I have got it pretty good.
I’m feeling a bit better, and a lot less cranky, when Lori hands me my phone a little while later. “Mommy, your phone is ringing.”
I almost ignore the call until I see who’s calling. My friend is so stressed about her wedding, as the maid of honor and a good friend, I won’t dare brush her off.
“Well, it’s definite.” No greeting means trouble. The tone in her voice tells me tragedy has befallen the bride.
“Desmond called this morning. The wedding is definitely off.”
“But you’re marrying Matt, not Desmond.” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them.
A second passes before Hanna replies with disdain in her voice. I wish I had stopped my little quip. “This is no time to make jokes, chica.”
“I’m sorry. Tell me what happened.”
“Desmond said he has to cancel all events for the month of April. The inn has to close because of the pandemic. We have to call everybody today and tell them we aren’t getting married on April 18. We knew we would have to anyway. Without a marriage license…” Her voice trails off and can tell by the rustle of a tissue she’s dabbing at her eyes or nose. I wish I had something comforting to say.
Then she continues, a hoarseness in her voice from her distress. “We thought maybe just a small group but even our wedding party is more than the ten the governor is allowing to gather.”
“All that money…” Someday I’ll learn control over my tongue, but it isn’t going to be today.
“No, Desmond has been really good about that. He said we could reschedule anytime with all the same arrangements and costs. We told him to book April 18, 2021.”
“You’re going to wait a year to get married?”
“I guess so, It’s what I always dreamed of, chica.”
I know it is. A passionate hiker, Hanna loves the mountains so when she found this completely out-of-the-way inn at the top of a mountain, she knew it was exactly what she wanted. The wedding will take place, whenever that is, by a mountain stream, on a mountainside with views to the sunset and valley below. The reception will move the party inside a big old barn decorated with flowers and fairy lights and candles. It’s so Hanna. Even if now she’ll have to wait another year.
“There has to be another way. You and Matt…”
“We’ve talked about it all morning. We’re together and that’s what matters. Maybe it’s for the best.”
“If you say so.” I can’t imagine watching my wedding day go by and not be totally destroyed that a wedding didn’t happen. I remember the day I married Colin from the moment I woke up and ate my cereal—I was even too excited to finish a bowl of shredded wheat. I can still smell the cologne he wore, fresh and clean, and that I carried through the day on the hand that held his as we took our vows. I can still hear his voice crack when he recited his vows. I don’t remember the words of our officiant, Father Jim, or the music. But I remember Colin and our love and our excitement that day.
“Well, there’s other news, too.”
I take a quick glance at the clock. I’m going to be late to the meeting. But this is an emergency and I won’t hang up on my upset friend.
“My grandfather in that retirement village? One of the employees has been sent home with covid-19. Now they’re trying to figure out who he or she came into contact with during the past few weeks.”
“Are they sure about that?”
“Well, Mama says he’s is a little fuzzy on the details. He only knows the employee was sent home with a fever. He’s been by himself, except for meal deliveries for the past two weeks. He was looking forward to coming to the wedding and now he has to self-quarantine for the next fourteen days.”
“But the wedding…”
“Yes, if we could figure out how to have it, he’d be able to come.”
“I know you and Matt will work something out. You’re good at this.” I mean it, too. I offer my backyard again so they can at least say their vows in the sight of God and their friends over Zoom or Facebook live.
“I might take you up on that.” I can hear the sigh that means Hanna is either sad or resigned. “I’m glad I called. You made me feel a little bit better.”
“That’s what friends are for.”
“I’ll let you go. I’m sure you’ve got some late-breaking news to report on.”
“In fact, I do. Talk to you after work?”
“Looking forward to it.”
As I hang up I realize how much the phone has become my lifeline to the world. Hearing the voices of the people I love isn’t the same as seeing them in person but it’s enough to keep remembering we are all waiting out the same pandemic, hoping the virus won’t affect us or our loved ones. I feel better with every call, more connected by the link of love between us. Except for work calls with Dan. Those I could do without.
As I click into the Zoom meeting, he’s already talking about the stories he and I are working on.
I wish that doorbell sound wouldn’t ring so loudly. Perpetually late to everything, I’m the girl who slips into the last seat at meetings, the back pew at church, or hangs out in the back of the theatre since I’ve arrived after the curtain goes up. This Zoom thing feels like I’ve walked onto the stage as the conductor raises his baton or Father Jim begins his sermon.
Dan stops what he’s saying to smirk. “Thanks so much for gracing us with your presence.”
I really hate him.
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?
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