April 7, 2020, 4:30 p.m.
Rex has learned to sense when I am turning in a story. I guess it’s the way I shut my laptop and push it away.
“C’mon, boy.” He’s already on his feet, his tongue hanging out and his wagging tail swiping all the cups, plastic, from the coffee table as he races to the door. If it weren’t for this big ole mutt I’d have no one to talk to once I finish work for the day.
Today, as on every walk, I let Rex choose the route. It’s all the same to me but Rex lets his nose do the deciding. I’ll never understand what it is that smells so fascinating but it’s still amusing to let him lead.
I think of Billy Orman’s dog whenever we start on a walk. My family didn’t have dogs growing up but I always envied my friends who did. In the sixth grade, Billy whined about having to walk his dog, also named Rex, so I offered to tag along. It quickly became part of my afternoon routine. There was nothing about walking that overweight Labrador retriever that seemed so terrible to me, not cold weather, not hot, not even scooping the poop. I took the leash, leaving Billy to have time to play his Game Boy. It was a small price to pay for the friendship of a dog.
I vowed at the age of twelve I was going to get a dog the minute I graduated from college.
I vowed at the age of twelve I was going to get a dog the minute I graduated from college. And I before I even found an apartment, I went to a dog rescue event and fell in love with the black and brown mutt that everybody else passed by. His eyes glistened when he looked up at me and he wagged that whip of a tail with such enthusiasm, I filled out the paperwork, paid the adoption fee and took him home that day. I liked Billy’s dog so much, I had to name my dog Rex too.
Rex is king of our house. I’m lucky he lets me live there. Since the stay-at-home order started, he’s organized our day. Early morning walk followed by breakfast. Mid-morning walk followed by a nap. Lunchtime walk which also includes a game of fetch in the nearby park. Then there’s the post-work walk followed by dinner. It is only then that I am allowed to sit on the floor with Rex’s head and front paws in my lap to play video games or watch Netflix.
This afternoon’s walk is particularly aimless. We’ve wandered around corners we rarely see while he follows, and then loses, whatever scent has captured his attention. Only a few people are on the street. A couple of elderly people swathed in scarves, acting as masks since the real thing is still in short supply, quickly cross the street when they see us. I usually think people who do that are scared of Rex but today I get the feeling they’re scared of me. Or rather, they’re scared I might infect them with the dreaded virus.
Another guy with a dog passes by with one of those nods that’s gotten more common the past week or so. The dogs both pause, hoping they’ll have a chance to get to know each other in that butt-sniffing way of dogs. But the guy and I both tug our pets away.
Finally, we reach the park, always Rex’s ultimate destination. He noses my jacket pocket, expecting to find a tennis ball there.
I’m about to throw it when a childish giggle makes me stop and look. Rex isn’t scary but he can easily frighten a kid when he’s running at full gallop toward them.
The little girl is running after a grown woman, probably her mother. It’s a cute sight and I ignore Rex’s prodding while I look on. There’s something about the mother that sparks a memory but I can’t quite grasp.
“You got me,” the mother calls out when the child tags her.
“You’re it, Mommy!” the child answers with obvious glee.
But the smile on her face fades when the other shakes her head. “That’s enough for today, Lori. I’ve got to get my story in. We don’t want mean ole Claire mad at me again, do we?”
It hits me like a freight train. That’s not just some cute mother and daughter. That’s Jessica. Mommy?
I realize I’m standing there with my mouth gaping. “C’mon, Rex.” I pull on Rex’s leash. He whines but obeys. I’d rather not spoil their family moment.
“Mommy. Did you hear that, Rex?” I mutter as turn the corner. Yes, I talk to my dog. He’s the only company I’ve got.
Jessica has never mentioned a daughter. I suddenly have new respect for my coworker. She’s balancing two jobs at once. As often as we’ve talked about how families are coping with the quarantine order, she’s never mentioned how it affects her personally.
The image of Jessica with her little girl stays with me until we get to an empty pocket park a few blocks away. I’m tossing the ball to Rex when I hear another girlish giggle.
I turn to find myself within six feet of Jessica and her daughter. Rex, who always craves attention, rushes up to the little girl, who doesn’t even recoil when he nuzzles her with his slobbery face.
Her mother, however, has turned a charming shade of red. I’m not sure she knows who I am but I definitely know who she is. Those skeptical eyes sparkle under those curving eyebrows and she’s got her hair in that severe ponytail she always wears. I didn’t realize how how petite she is. I don’t think she’s even five feet tall.
She addresses her daughter before she even speaks to me.
“Be careful with that dog, Lori. He might not like children.”
“Oh, yes, he loves children.” I have to defend my mutt. “His name is Rex, Lori.” I’m talking to the child but my gaze is fixed on the mother. “And I’m Dan.”
I might as well have given her a hot foot the way she jumps.
“Dan. Dan Johnson? From the paper?”
I can see I haven’t haunted her thoughts the way she has haunted mine.
I put out an elbow, the current gesture of greeting. “Happy to finally meet you, Jessica.”
She smiles when I say her name. I guess she’s just being polite but saying her name sounds so good.
When she doesn’t answer, I go on. “I didn’t realize you live around here.”
It startles her in a way I recognize. I ask a contact a question he or she doesn’t want to answer and they give this funny little shake. Happens all the time. It makes me wonder why Jessica is keeping so many secrets.
She finally answers but only vaguely. “Oh, yes, I do.”
“I live on—”
“Randall Street,” she interrupts. “Yes, you told me.”
“But you never told me we’re neighbors.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t tell anybody where I live. I grew up in this neighborhood though I moved uptown when I was in college. I came back a few years ago.”
That’s a little more information. But she’s prompted more questions in the process. I suddenly realize I’m going to have to hone my reporter skills to tease out a few more answers.
Before I can ask anything else, she takes her daughter’s hand.
“Thanks for letting me pat your dog, Mr. Dan. Did you know my birthday is on Thursday?”
I smile at her. “And how old are you going to be?”
“I’m going to be seven.” She holds up the correct number of fingers. “Tia Hanna says I’ll be nearly grown up then.”
“I can see that, Lori. I better let your mother take you home. Bye.” I look at her mother. I’m sorry to have to let her go. I want to know all her secrets and I want to tell her mine—or I would if I had any. I even want to take her hand in mine and see how that feels. But, of course, I don’t. “See you at tomorrow’s meeting, Jessica.”
“Yes, see you then.” She nods and hurries off as Lori skips beside her.
“Have a happy birthday, Lori.”
The child turns and waves but her mother doesn’t.
April 7, 5:30 p.m.
I’m in trouble. I’ve come face to face with those gorgeous blue eyes and I’m never going to be the same again.
“Do we have to stop for ice cream, Mommy?”
I hoped she’d forget about the ice cream I promised. It will spoil her supper. But it was the only way I could get back to my laptop in time to file the story that’s due, well, overdue now.
I needed one more email and it came during our game of tag. So I promised a scoop of Cherry Garcia.
Why couldn’t I have taken another route home?
“No, babe. We have plenty at home.”
“Oh, good. Do we have enough for my birthday party?”
“I told you, babe. We can’t have a birthday party until school starts over again.”
“When is that? I miss my friends.”
Poor child, she hasn’t seen the girls at school, or at ballet, for more than three weeks. Even in the summer, we’ve been able to arrange play dates with my mother or father handling the chauffeuring duties while I worked. Now, it’s just the two of us. No grandparents to visit, no friends to play with. No parties either.
“I miss them too.”
“You got to see Tia Hanna though.”
It’s been a week since my dear friend stopped in, a week since I took a tumble that twisted my ankle. I’ve wrapped it up and kept it iced and today it finally felt good enough to limp through our short walk. A walk that ended with the meet-up I’m regretting.
“That was fun, wasn’t it?”
I let Lori chatter on about her birthday present from Hanna. It gives me time to think.
I haven’t told anybody at work about Lori. Not that I’m ashamed of her, nothing like that. But I heard others make assumptions during our Zoom meetings about parents who can’t get their work done because they’re so busy being parents.
I get that. We spend a lot of time on schoolwork, mealtime, playtime but Lori knows how to entertain herself too. She’s been such an angel when I’m on the phone. Usually, anyway.
I don’t want anyone making assumptions about me and my ability to get my work done. Now, the secret’s out.
And who knows? The guy Claire called “a big mouth.” If he tells everybody about Lori, what are they going to think? I can’t even imagine. But it can’t be good.
I’m going to have to call him the minute I get home, when Lori is out of earshot.
By the time I unlock the front door, I have my speech prepared. I’m just going to tell him there are family matters I prefer to keep private. I don’t know a thing about him, after all. Not even the fact he had a dog. Lori has asked me countless times for a dog but with work and my schedule, I’ve never really considered it.
I shake the thoughts of canines from my head. I have to add this last quote to my story, send it off and call Dan before word gets around about my daughter.
“Aren’t you having any?” Lori asks as I set a bowl of pink ice cream in front of her.
“I told you I have to finish my story. I’ll have mine after dinner.”
Her eyes light up. “Me too?”
I have to laugh. She likes ice cream the way her father liked it. I think both of them would skip every meal if ice cream was an option.
“Yes, if you’re quiet while I finish my work and you eat your dinner.”
She turns her attention to her dish and a YouTube cartoon while I tap out the rest of my story and send it off to Claire.
Before I can punch in Dan’s number, my phone’s screen lights up. It’s Dan, beating me to the punch.
“Your daughter is a sweetie,” he says in lieu of a greeting.
I stroll into the kitchen and wait for the door to swing shut before launching into my speech.
“Now Dan.” I begin after taking a deep breath.
He isn’t listening.
“She’s as pretty as you are.”
What? Did he really say that?
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” I can hear him sigh. “I only meant she’s a cute kid. It’s just that, well, we’ve been working together all this time and it’s the first time I’ve seen you.”
He’s blown up my defenses. I have to close my eyes to remember what I need to say. The trouble is, the picture from the photo directory pops into my head. And then the real live face with the crinkles around those beautiful eyes when he smiles.
I can’t be attracted to him. Not now, not ever. We work together, for god’s sake.
“Yes, well.” It’s a lame thing to begin my speech with but it puts a halt to his blathering on with his apology and whatever else he might say.
“Look, Dan. I know I haven’t mentioned my daughter before but you have to understand that I need to keep my family life private. It will have no effect on my performance at the paper—it hasn’t yet has it?” I don’t wait for an answer. “I would appreciate it if you don’t mention my daughter to anyone else. I don’t know anything about your private life or the lives of our colleagues. That’s why they are called ‘private’ lives.”
“Sure thing, Jessica. I totally understand. It’s just that I hoped we were starting to become friends.”
What? Friends? I never thought about being his friend.
“Oh. Right.” I don’t want to agree with him so I use the answer that guy from the health department always says when I call. He won’t answer my questions so he says, “Oh. Right.” Just before he tells me why he can’t provide the information I need.
“I’ll respect your privacy. You don’t have to worry about me. OK?”
“Thanks, Dan. I appreciate that.” My tension level drops a little.
“She does seem like a very nice little girl. Gonna be seven, huh? That’s a good age. You’re a lucky mom.”
What? I’m struck speechless. Dan doesn’t offer compliments. Well, he never has before. Not even a “nice story, Jess.”
“Thanks.” I finally say. “She’s the best.”
“You and your husband must be so proud of her.”
“She doesn’t have a father.” I can’t believe I said that. Here I am demanding privacy at the same time I’m blurting out information I don’t want to share. What’s wrong with me?
I’m relieved when my phone dings. “I’ve got a text from Claire, probably wanting to beat me up about my story.”
I cringe as I say that.
“Don’t let her. Your stories have been really solid.”
I almost look around to see who’s speaking.
“Thanks, Dan. Nobody has told me that.”
“Don’t expect compliments from Claire. She’s tough but I think Mr. Okun likes your work.”
“Really? How do you know that?”
“If he didn’t, you’d know. You know?”
“Oh. I see. He hasn’t said a thing to me.”
“A good sign. I’ll let you go. See you tomorrow.”
I almost hate hanging up. I lean against the kitchen counter for a second to let my feelings settle. A smile has appeared on my face that I didn’t expect.
It disappears when the phone rings.
“Hi, Claire. I was just getting ready to call.”
Next Monday: CHAPTER 11—Dan: BIRTHDAY WISHES
Coming this Wednesday, the next audio chapter, Chapter 9— Dan: SECRETS, Jessica: REVELATIONS
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Ⓒ2020 MARY K. TILGHMAN