March 24, 12:05 p.m.
Jessica: THE TROUBLE WITH ZOOM
The trouble with Zoom calls is how visible you are to everybody else—and to yourself. As Claire goes through the news budget with the rest of the staff, I find my attention wandering to Rashima who’s got the baby on her lap.
She’s my hero during this crisis. Smart and funny, besides being a damn good writer, she’s handling story assignments and deadlines while running after three children. And she’s so creative. A food critic without restaurants to visit, she’s gone back to the restaurants looking for stories about cooks and servers, restaurant owners and chefs trying to keep their dreams alive even though their dining rooms are mostly closed.
Her stories have prompted me to thank the people at the little bistro around the corner from my house every time I get carry-out. I used to feel guilty buying restaurant food on my budget but now it feels like a civic duty.
And the restaurant owners have done such a good job of finding ways to keep their employees working. They’re organizing lunches for first responders and health care staff, feeding poor children who would normally be eating in their school cafeterias.
Rashima knows everybody. And if she doesn’t, her friendly charm and her easy laugh convince people she’s one of the good guys. What they don’t know is she’s making all her calls with a baby on her lap.
“What about you, Jessica?” I hear my name and realize I haven’t been paying any attention at all to the conversation. I glance at my own picture to see the look of shock before focusing on Claire. No way out of this. I’m busted.
“Sorry, I got distracted thinking about my story.” Why did I say that? I don’t have a story yet. I sit a little taller, struggling to appear professional.
“Is that so?” Claire purses her lips. To her left, Dan leans his cheek on his hand and tries not to smirk. Why does he like to see me get in trouble
OK. I can get out of this.
“I was thinking about all the great stories Rashima is doing.” I see her look up in surprise.
“Go on,” Claire says, boredom in her voice.
“I was thinking about all the homeless people around the city. They don’t have a place to stay at home, do they? What are they doing?”
“We’ve got Dan on it.”
He nods in the square next to her. I can see the look of triumph on his face as he squares his shoulders and nods.
“Yeah, that’s right, Claire. I have calls in to a couple of the homeless shelters, the mayor’s office and some of the church organizations that help. I’m planning to go over to that big shelter where they had to close down the lunch service. See what’s going on.”
In my current situation, leaving the house isn’t really feasible. I have no one to look after Lori so I’ve been glad to reach all my contacts by phone, video conference or email. Score one for Mr. Johnson.
“Great.” I smile grudgingly. It looks so fake on the laptop screen.
“What else you got?” Claire asks.
Nothing, Nada. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Wordlessly, I scramble for my notebook, leafing through the pages as though I’m searching for a story I wanted to present.
“Never mind. When you get yourself together, we’ll come back to you.”
Claire’s clipped words prompt the color to rise to my cheeks. The only saving grace of video conferencing tools is their poor resolution. No one can see the heat I feel. I only wish they couldn’t see the lost look on my face.
“Don’t worry,” Rashima texts. “She doesn’t mean anything by it. Thanks for mentioning my stories.”
I send a thumbs up emoji.
As I put my phone down it pings with another text. From Dan.
“Sorry, Ms. Sands. I didn’t mean to step on your toes.”
The heat in my face isn’t from embarrassment anymore. He’s repeating my line from when I got my first story. He’s still furious that I reached the health department chief who confirmed the city’s first death from covid-19. Instead of congratulating me, he accused me of stealing his story.
I can’t figure out why he hates me but he does. Fine then. I’ll hate him back and write the better story. I fume through the rest of the meeting, trying to figure out what to write next. I glance at an obit. A very old woman has died of the virus. She was a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother. She was a longtime college professor, a member of a local garden club, a former Girl Scout leader, a church elder. And then at the very end of the story, there’s an odd note: “A funeral will be scheduled after the stay-at-home orders have ended.”
All these people dying from this virus and their loved ones can’t even hold a service to honor them. I remember how comforting it was when my grandmother died.
“Jessica.” I hear my name and look back at the screen.
“What is the story you propose to write? If you don’t have one, there’s a story Dan suggested for you.”
What is it with that smirk of his? I don’t want one of his cast-offs.
“That won’t be necessary, though, thank you, Dan.” I cock an eyebrow in his direction.
“Genevieve Henderson, an English professor with three children, eight grandchildren and sixteen great grandchildren, died over the weekend. She won’t have a funeral. With all those people who loved her and will miss her, she won’t have a funeral.”
“Yes?” Claire sounds impatient so I rush to get to my point.
“I’d like to contact the funeral homes and a couple of churches and synagogues and other places of worship to see how they are accommodating mourners. Are there Zoom funerals? Or online wakes? Do you realize how many people might be affected by the lockdown orders that mean we can’t go to a funeral?”
The image of my grandmother in her coffin, her hair carefully curled, her cheeks smooth as if she was a child, a mother-of-pearl rosary wound into her folded hands. The sight didn’t compare to the lively woman with the dancing eyes and the pride in her home and family. But it was my last memory of her. Professor Henderson’s family won’t have that last moment. I can’t help the lump in my throat so I pause briefly.
“I’d like to write about it.”
“Sold. Good idea. But I don’t want a business story, I want human interest. How to mourn during the lockdown.”
“Yes, of course. I’ll get the facts and figures but yeah, I want to hear from families facing this.”
I’m feeling a little exhilarated by my idea. Not the subject exactly, it’s going to be difficult to find voices for everything I want to write about. But hearing those words, “good idea,” makes me think I am back in Claire’s good graces.
For one hot minute.
“And, Jess,” she drones, leaning toward her camera. “Tomorrow, come to the meeting prepared.”
Dan, in the box next to her, smiles.
I hate him. I really do.
March 24, 12:15 p.m.
Dan: BUT I’M THE GOOD GUY
As the video call comes to an end, I gesture to Jessica, hoping to get a word in with her after the meeting. All she does is frown. I hope it’s not because of my teasing. I didn’t mean to upset her. It’s probably in response to Claire’s comment. No one has escaped the boss’s wrath today.
Jessica looks so troubled by the way the meeting has gone I wish I could stop by her office later to reassure her. She’s only been on the staff for a week, so she’s not aware of Claire’s ways. Or her moods. I feel sorry for her, to be honest.
But all I can do is stare like the rest of the staff, here on Zoom. I try to smile, hoping it will help but then think it’ll look like I’m laughing at her. So I quick put my hand to my face. I’ll have to call later.
The minute Claire signs off, I click the “Leave meeting” button and send a text. “Let’s talk about the meeting.” Too bossy, I decide, so I add another. “Please.”
Jessica responds immediately. “Not now. Too much to do.”
Here I am trying to be the nice guy, the friendly colleague, and she just doesn’t see that. It’s like I’m the bad guy. I can’t figure out how I could have done anything to make her think that.
I’ve helped with her stories, tossed a few her way. Including at this meeting when it looked like she’d come empty-handed. I’m trying to be helpful—though I certainly didn’t want her getting my homeless story. I’ve already finished half a dozen interviews and have an appointment later this afternoon.
I stare at the blue Zoom square until the pot of drooping flowers catches my eye. I just watered them. I scoop up the little pot and rush it into the kitchen to give the soil a good soaking under the faucet. When I’m satisfied the pot is wet enough, I leave it on a sunny patch on my kitchen table. Maybe it will help. “Don’t die, plant. Jessica will think I killed you on purpose.”
I gotta get out. I’m talking to plants now.
I pick up Rex’s leash which immediately rouses him from his late-morning nap. “Ready for your lunch time walk, boy?”
He dances at the front door, his toenails—which really need a trim—clicking on the hardwood floor. No sooner have I clipped his leash onto his collar when my phone rings.
“Dan Johnson.” I greet the caller—the head of the city’s Office of Homeless Services—as I remove the leash.
“Sorry, boy, I gotta take this,” I whisper to my dog who looks at me with his big sad eyes, and then sighs and returns to his napping spot by the living room window.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. Thanks for getting back to me.”
The call takes a good hour. It’s not like pre-covid days when a bureaucrat was so busy I might get fifteen minutes if I was lucky. Everybody is working from home and their duties have been stripped to only the most essential. Lucky for me, talking to reporters is considered essential.
Once I hang up from the call, I barely have time to put on my jacket and find my keys. This is my first in person interview since the lock down last week and I’m surprisingly excited. Like it’s my first interview.
I check for my phone, my notebook and—damn, forgot the pen—and head out. Rex jumps up the minute I put my hand on the front door knob.
“Sorry, fella. I’ve got an appointment. We’ll take a walk later, OK?” He nods, and lowers himself to the floor. I know he doesn’t understand but I can’t help feeling guilty for leaving him.
My dog has done his best to keep me from feeling really lonely the last week. I’ve talked to Frank and my parents but I don’t remember ever spending this much time alone. And I’m really alone. No stops at the tavern down the street to watch the game with a beer. No meet-ups with anybody in the last ten days.
Rex has adapted better than I have. He’s accepted the fact that I’m home every day all day. He’s happily headed out the door for a walk every time I ask him to. Not once has he laid his head back down on those big paws of his and said in his doggie way, “Not now, buddy.”
I find myself worrying about Jessica and her frown. If she’s like me, she’s tired of being alone. It’s tough being a single person whose only company is virtual. I wonder if she has a dog as great as Rex. That would help. I’ll ask her later.
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?
I’d love to hear how you and your dog or other pet bonded during the coronavirus stay-at-home orders.
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