Chapter 8—Jessica: In Case of Emergency

Chapter 8Chapter 8
March 31, 2020, 5:45 p.m.
Jessica: ICE

“Come on, please answer the phone.”

I’m lying on the floor, the pain in my foot so bad I want to cry. I don’t cry. I never cry. Not anymore. Not over stuff like this.

A minute ago I was standing on a kitchen chair—something you have to do when you’re only five-foot nothing and the glass you want is on the shelf above your reach.

Before this, it has already been one helluva day. And it started early. Claire called me before Lori was even awake to tear apart the story I turned in yesterday. She criticized the story’s structure—which she didn’t change, some of my sources—which she didn’t question yesterday, and even my grammar. Like I don’t know where to use a comma. To make matters worse, she compared my story to the one Dan turned in. Dan. He can’t even figure out what an Oxford comma is or how to make nouns and verbs agree. When we write together, I have to be the grammar police or we’ll end up sounding uneducated.

I was still nursing my hurt pride, at our eleven-thirty meeting when Claire criticized my writing in front of the whole team. I mean, why did she need to do that? 

“I want to make it clear that I won’t stand for sloppy sentences or unclear thoughts,” she said. 

Much as I wished I could hit the “leave button” before she launched into a criticism of my work, I stopped when she commented on the story I copy-edited for Dan.

“Kudos, Dan, on your trash collection article. Now that’s how to make a pedestrian story sexy. Good clean structure, good quotes, perfect punctuation.”

Now I really did want to run screaming from my house — with gloves and a face mask, of course. 

At first, he looks like a puffed up rooster, like he’s going to accept the glowing reviews without comment. But then he surprises me. 

“Thanks, Claire. I mean it, but I need to tell you that it was Jessica who cleaned up my prose.”

What? Did I hear him right?

Claire was silent, her face stony, as she took in what he said. I know better than to criticize someone when they are in the midst of criticizing someone else. Claire was on her high horse, showing what a great editor she was. And Dan was tilting at her like some Don Quixote. I guess he thought I was his Dulcinea, and like the Spanish lady fair, I didn’t want any part of this battle. 

She let him speak and then turned to the news budget without a comment. I felt awful and I imagine so did Dan. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, and it was, the day went from awful to worse. 

I woke up feeling like a little like Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day.” I know that’s not an original thought but it’s totally appropriate. Today looks pretty much like yesterday. I look at my calendar and every tomorrow looks like today: Get up at seven. Get breakfast and read the newspaper. Put on a load of laundry. Wake Lori. Get her breakfast. Get ready for the eleven-thirty meeting and get a story done by four. Go over Lori’s homework and play until dinner time. Virtual happy hours with friends from my old job, I haven’t really made friends at my new one yet, or Hanna are the highlight of the day. 

I woke up remembering the governor said the stay-at-home order would probably be over by March 30. Nope, instead of opening up, the lockdown has only got stricter. Everything is closed. People are beginning to wear masks. Every event all the way until mid-May has been canceled.

My work day wasn’t any better. I couldn’t reach a single contact so the story due at four p.m. didn’t get filed. Coward that I am, I sent a quick email to Claire explaining my dilemma right before joining in a tedious training session at four-thirty. That way I couldn’t answer her calls or emails. The session, an ethics review that didn’t teach me anything new, was a terrible bore. I finally reached the point where my eyes felt like they were held open by the sharpest of toothpicks and there was no way to get them to blink. 

The only saving grace was watching Lori entertain herself with a tea party with three of her dolls and an old black and white stuffed dog from my own childhood. I don’t know how she found old Doggie-Woggie but they’ve become constant companions.

When the meeting finally came to a close, it was 5:27 p.m. It was happy hour.

It’s hot dog night, Lori’s choice, so I quickly tossed macaroni in a pot of boiling water, and arranged four hot dogs under the broiler.

Lori has already scarfed down her second dog, and to my surprise turned down the third to run up to her room.

It’s my cue to retrieve the bottle of gin from the dining room cabinet. Only one bottle of tonic left, I jot it down on the running list of necessities. Aside from that, I have also run out of Lori’s cereal, peanut butter, coffee and we’re on our last roll of TP. After happy hour, I’m going to have to order groceries.

Hanna said she would be calling me at six p.m. I’m supposed to have the gin and tonics ready, well, mine anyway. These virtual happy hours leave something to be desired.

Reaching up for the glass was a mistake. I wanted one of the special glasses Colin and I bought in New Orleans on our honeymoon. He turned out to be a bum but I love these delicate etched antiques. I wanted one for tonight’s happy hour. 

ItwassupposedBut instead of putting on fresh mascara and eye liner and sitting on my couch with the gin and tonic to wait for Hanna, I’m stuck on my back, unable to reach anyone I know on the phone. Not even my friend. Where the hell is she?  

She is my ICE. Whenever I fill out that form, either for me or Lori, I put down Hanna’s name and cell number. I have since high school. She puts down my number—or did until she had a real, true ICE of her own, her fiancé Matt.

Thank God no one has ever had to use that number. I struggle to get up but between the shards of glass reflecting the bug-speckled fluorescent kitchen light and the awful way my ankle and foot feel, I can’t do it. 

I try to keep quiet so I don’t alarm Lori, who’s up in her room doing god knows what. All I can hear is singing so I suspect she’s dancing. There’s nothing she can do anyway. I haven’t even taught her how to make phone calls yet. 

So far, I’ve called Hanna three times. I also called my mother twice—she’s going to go out of her mind when she finds out what I’ve done so I’m glad she didn’t answer. I left a vague message: “Hi Mom, Just checking in…Love you. Will call again tonight.” If she knew where I was, she’d be over here with a doctor, Dad and a shitload of medical supplies—not a good idea when she’s supposed to be self-quarantining with all the other elderly 60-year-olds with underlying health conditions. 

Bill, my brother, he’s too far away to help me and my little sister Kate gets excited over every little thing. With three kids, she’s always in a panic. And that leads her to doing what I want to do right now. Cry. She cries over everything. I’m not going to do that. And, still, I’m not going to alarm my daughter.

So I call Hanna one last time. If she doesn’t answer this time, I’ll text her and tell her what’s going on and would she please get over here as quickly as she can. 

Or I think that’s who I call.

A manly voice, deep but soft, answers. Oh shit, Matt must be answering. I have to stay cool.

“Hi, this is Jessica. Is Hanna around?” I try my hardest not to sounds as flustered as I am. I’m terrible at this. My voice cracks.

“Jessica? This is Dan. Who’s Hanna?”

Oh, no. Not Dan.

I hope I’m hallucinating. The pain is affecting my brain and my worst nightmare is getting worse. But when I hold up my phone and realize that is exactly who I called I close my eyes and try to regroup. 

“Dan?” What am I supposed to say? I have no idea. All I want is someone to help me onto a chair and find me some ice and a few pain-killers. And I don’t want it to be Dan.

“Jessica? Are you OK?” 

It sounds like real concern in his voice but he’s fooled me before. He has a way of acting so nice I’m sure he’s already planning how he could use this embarrassing moment against me. I may not have met the guy yet but I learned on Day One not to trust Dan. Claire warned me and, even if he hasn’t been quite the big mouth she said he was, I am not ready to trust him. Not even when I’m lying in a pile of broken glass with my foot blowing up like a big black and blue balloon. 

“Sure, I’m just…peachy keen.” Peachy keen, who says that besides my mother? Well, now me, apparently.

“Yeah? You don’t sound quite right.”

“No, I mean, yeah, I’m fine. I don’t know how I called you. I was trying to get in touch with a friend of mine. Wanted to, you know, catch up.” I don’t lie any better than I did in middle school when I snuck out the back door to go to my first girl-boy party—kissing was assured—and bumped into my mother taking out the trash. I got grounded for a month that Saturday night.

“Oh, well, then, I’ll let you go. You just had me worried there for a minute.”

He really does sound nice, so nice, in fact, that I really have to fight the urge to ask him to come over and help me up. I mean, how bad could it be? He’s closer than Hanna is, anyway. Still, I can’t forget my rule. I can’t tell him where Lori and I live, even if I am watching my ankle turn shades I’ve never seen on a human being. 

“Thanks. I appreciate that.” I force a smile, hoping it will go all the way to my voice. 

***

March 31, 5:45 p.m. 

DAN: ICY

I know a brush-off when I hear one. We haven’t even met and for some reason Jessica acts like I’m an axe murderer. I mean I really don’t know anything about her. Except she went to Johnzzz Hopkins and she doesn’t have a dog. She doesn’t even want one.

Still, I’ve tried to be nice.

I’m watering her plant and have kept it alive. Most of the flowers have died off but I kind of like watching the new little spouts of green. 

Just this morning,  when Claire lit into her story and then praised mine, I had Jessica’s back. Jessica really knows her grammar. I never knew how to spell “grammar” or that commas had names until she told me.

I turn back to the article I’m reading, looking for something new and fresh. We’ve been shut up for two weeks but the rest of the world has been battling coronavirus for months. Carryn has done a great job of choosing stories designed to show us how the pandemic has progressed through China and Europe. I thought it would be contained to China in the beginning—who didn’t? After all, that SARS virus was terrible in Asia but we never had to worry about it. I thought this would be the same.

Until the news got dire, first all over China. Then in Korea. Then in Italy. People were getting so sick, the hospitals were full and the nurses and doctors collapsed in exhaustion. 

The article I’m reading now is full of bad news and good news. There are pictures of graves and morgues filling up faster than the bodies can be buried. And there are pictures of dolphins swimming in Venice’s usually smelly canals and clear air over Beijing and New Delhi. 

We’re only beginning to see what is going to happen here. In three weeks, we’ve seen so many stories of illness and death it’s heartbreaking. I don’t get choked up reading the news but today a story about a theatre usher in Washington, D.C., who died makes me swallow hard.

I disagreed with Mr. Okun when he announced the offices would close March 16. How could we be a newsroom without reporters working together? We feed off each other as we vie to get the best assignment and win a spot on the front page.

I didn’t know then what I know now. I admit with a red face that I was one of the foolish people who went out for a beer on March 17. But, thanks to Frank, it was only one, not a whole night of partying. 

And both of us agreed to self-quarantine for two weeks, just in case. Frank’s a good guy to know when you need a conscience. 

When the two-week waiting period was up on March 31, I breathed a sigh of relief. But I still can’t go anywhere.

When the two-week waiting period was up on March 31, I breathed a sigh of relief. But I still can’t go anywhere.

It’s even worse than when this all started. The bars and restaurants are closed. Major League Baseball canceled Opening Day and who knows how much of the season. The streets are empty, even quiet most of the time. I take Rex for a walk on Federal Hill and talk to no one the whole time we’re there. Usually Rex attracts the ladies who have to talk to me if they’re going to get all gooey over my dog. I don’t know if Rex misses the friendly banter but I sure do.

So when Jessica called a few minutes ago, I thought, however briefly, that she was calling to be friendly. Or maybe to thank me for speaking up on her behalf.

I was wrong. Her tone was icy. Even worse, she couldn’t wait to get off the phone when she heard my voice.

There was something in her tone that had me concerned. I felt my heart speed up the way it does when I know I’m about to get bad news over the phone. I never expected her to tell me she was “peachy keen.” Not with the strain I heard in her voice. Something happened. But she’s always so guarded so I’ll probably never know what that was all about.

I stare at the news story a few more minutes—distracted by worry over a colleague I really don’t know—and then I give up. There’s always tomorrow. 

I shut down the laptop and climb out of my chair. 

Rex has already learned that means we’re going for a walk. He’s by my chair before I can even call him. 

“How about some dinner first, pal?” We head into the kitchen, his toenails clicking on the wooden floors and my sock-covered feet padding right behind. 

While he gulps down his food, I run upstairs to put on my going-out clothes. Sweatpants are fine for the “office” but I prefer jeans in public. I switch my work polo—the top part of me has to look nice for FaceTime and Zoom—for a long sleeved tee and a hoodie. 

By the time I get downstairs, Rex is poised for action by the door. It doesn’t matter that this is his fourth walk of the day. He loves every one of them. On days as balmy as this one, so do I.

 

Next Monday: CHAPTER 9: ESSENTIAL TRIPS
Coming this Wednesday, the next audio chapter, Chapter 7— JESSICA: THE TROUBLE WITH ZOOM

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?

It seems like everybody has had a Zoom/Facebook Live/FaceTime happy hour? What has been your experience? I hope it wasn’t as disastrous as Jessica’s!

If you have a suggestion for what happens next, send it along with your name and hometown to whathappensnext.19@gmail.com. (Copy and paste the address, please.) Together we can write a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.

Ⓒ 2020 Mary K. Tilghman

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