"But that's what she said!" Every once in a while, Brad tried arguing with his editor.
Shirley was nodding, frowning a little with what might have looked like concern from across the room. She'd pointed her eyes at his face, but they were unfocused, dull like well-fingered marbles. Brad knew if he demanded his way with enough bite in his voice, he might win, and the paragraph would stay. Or he might get jerked from the story. You never quite knew where the line was with Shirley.
"Word for word, I swear." The paragraph in question quoted a young woman who lived in the projects, who'd had to identify the body of her ten-year-old son at the Medical Examiner's office. The boy had died in a freak accident at a neighbor's home while his mother was at work. "Looks like him," she'd said. "But he ain't in there." The article itself was supposed to be on day care for working mothers, and it was due today. In fact, a copy boy was already jittering beside Brad's desk.
"Brad, love, we can't print that."
"It doesn't sound real. It sounds as if you made it up."
"But that's what she said!"
"I believe you, sweetheart, it doesn't surprise me at all. Everybody says something like that. Ask the coroner."
"So why can't we print it?"
"I told you why. It sounds as if you're making fun of her."
"But I'm not!"
"I know that, but think of how it sounds. 'He ain't in there.'"
"But if everybody says something like that — "
Shirley's phone rang and she snatched it up with one hand, pulled off an earring with the other. "Yes?" She looked across the news room. Brad followed her eyes. Rankin was looking at her through the window of his closed door, also on the phone. Brad looked back at her. She was playing it discreet now, head down, rifling a drawer. "Uh-huh. Yes. All right." She tried to sneak a glance at Brad, caught him staring at her, resumed her search more vigorously. "Of course. Five minutes. Please. I will, I promise." She hung up, stirred the drawer once more, then slid it closed.
"Rankin wants the story, right?"
As if distracted, she blinked at him. "Mm?"
"That was him on the phone. He wants the story, or he wants my butt."
Shirley looked pained. "He wants the story. He also wants an explanation for why it's taking so long."
"The man has a stopwatch for a heart."
Shirley's eyes turned on like headlights. She looked at him hard for about ten seconds. Brad tried to return her glare, but he knew he couldn't manage it for long. He was beginning to think that just maybe this one precious paragraph wasn't exactly the keystone of the piece. He shifted his weight.
"Type it up please," she said. "And leave the paragraph out."
Even as Brad began to think, out of habit, about bucking it this time, he knew that he would lose. And he just wasn't up to the energy output. "Next time, Shirley."
"And when you're done I want you to take me out to dinner." This stopped him on the way to his desk. "I want you to explain something to me," she said to his back.
Brad turned around. "You want a date?"
Shirley didn't smile. "Later." She pointed at the copy boy, who was still jittering. Brad shrugged and turned back, making a face. The copy boy guffawed. As Brad threw a leg over the back of his chair to sit down, he saw Rankin in the same place, still on the phone, still looking out. Brad swivelled. Shirley was just taking off her earring again.
They sat in the corner booth. Shirley shoved the netted candle out of the way, then lit a cigarette, sighing out smoke. Her hair flopped on her forehead. She started trying to smooth away the circular dent the candle had made in the white tablecloth. Brad noticed how old her hands looked.
"I'm sorry about before, Shirley. You were right. More I thought about it — "
"No! I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"What are you sorry for?"
"Oh, I don't know."
"You're working too hard, Shirley."
"Oh, I know."
"So why don't you quit?" It was a stupid question, everybody knew the answer. Shirley was a widow with a teenage kid. Her husband had been a drunk who'd swilled them into the poorhouse before mercifully wrapping himself around a tree at ninety miles an hour. According to Brad's sources, the only thing left of him for Shirley to identify at the morgue had been his wallet. But that was a long time ago. While Shirley was beginning the long climb from receptionist to features editor, Brad was still in college, scrambling his brains with drugs. The only thing she ever said about it was, "Just another squalid little domestic tragedy. A bagatelle." So what if she was working too hard? Big deal. A bagatelle. Brad was ashamed he'd brought it up. All he was trying to do was make small talk. Since she didn't answer right away, but kept rubbing thoughtfully at the table cloth, Brad began to hope that she was thinking of something else.
Finally she looked up. "What's all this heart business, Brad? Are you in love or something?"
Brad tensed. He wasn't sure he could handle an earnest conversation. "I'm in love with you, but that's not news."
Shirley laughed as always, even though she must have been as tired of this routine as he was. "Don't change the subject."
"Maybe it's the spring, I don't know. Why? Am I more of a fuckup than usual?" She winced, and Brad rolled his eyes. "Really, Shirley, a hard-bitten old-hand reporter like you, still blushing at four letter words?"
"Six, unless you hyphenate it."
"And it's 'such as you,' not 'like you'". Brad gave her the eye. This embarrassed her, as it always did. "Well," she said. "I am an editor, you know." She looked positively girlish.
And I am in love with you, Brad thought. And if you don't stop being so goddam charming I'm gonna have to do something about it. Shirley was about two years younger than his own mother. But then his mother had been a teenager when he was born.
"You're evading the question, Brad."
"Sorry, I spaced out. What was it again?"
"Are you in love?"
"I'm a married man, however separated I may be."
"I got responsibilities. I can't go around falling in love."
"You're losing your cool, Brad."
"I never had much."
Shirley sighed. "All right. You don't have to tell me anything. If you're gonna make me play editor with you, fine. Whatever's bothering you is affecting your work. It began with grammar mistakes, then you started quoting Scripture, now this thing today, with that poor mother."
"That poor mother lost her child."
"So did the Virgin Mary, and that turned out all right, didn't it?"
Brad laughed, but he was shocked. "What are you saying?"
"Mothers lose children every day of the week. Children lose mothers, wives lose husbands, and on and on. It's only news, Brad, not the end of the world."
"But it's horrifying."
"So's everything else. Why did it upset you so?"
"It would upset anybody."
"Of course it would. Sooner or later everybody has to deal with the death of a loved one."
"But a child — "
" — is the worst, of course — Brad, you're not paying attention. What's bothering you ?"
He knew. He knew. But he was nursing it. Hoarding it. If he told Shirley, if he even tried to put it into words, he wouldn't be able to keep it to himself, hug it to his heart, get drunk and pass out, still weeping over it. He was staring, and his eyes began to sting. He blinked.
Shirley's eyes had narrowed. "It's your child, isn't it? Little girl, right? How old is she?"
"And your wife won't let you see her?"
"I can see her any time I want. I get to babysit all the time, while whatshername's out hustling her ass."
"I think she's hooked one this time."
"And you're jealous."
"Hardly. He's perfect. He's rich, he's divorced, he's got kids of his own. They'll be the fucking Brady Bunch. How can I compete with that?"
"They're getting married?"
"Looks like it. I'm actually holding my breath. He's a really nice guy. I even like him. Hell, I'm in awe of him. He's six-foot-six."
"And your little girl?"
"I like her too, but she's not quite so tall."
Shirley pursed her lips. "Does she like him?"
"I don't know. I don't care. I mean, I hope she does, or it'll be hell for her."
"But you'll be losing her."
"My wife? Well, yes, but like — as you said, it's only news, it's not the end of the world. This ain't even news."
"Your little girl."
There it was.
"You've already lost her."
Now it lay on the white tablecloth between their hands, twitching.
"That's what this is, grief."
Now it had a name. Brad stared at it so hard the air began to swirl around the edges of his vision. Shirley moved a hand, dropped it on one of his, grabbed on hard, hard enough to hurt.
Brad looked up at her. "I wonder why people do that."
"Take each other's hands."
Her smile was so sad his heart lurched. She said, "Doesn't help much, does it?"
"No, but it sure feels good." And he squeezed her hand back.
But the next morning it didn't feel so good. Brad woke up with that old familiar lead-in-the-guts, and he knew right off it was going to be a really bad day. Why do I let these things happen to me? he thought. He waited. Instead of getting an answer, the thought turned on him: Why do I do these things?
Shirley thrashed suddenly, slamming into his shoulder. They stared at each other in naked terror. Then she put her face on. "Morning. You hungry?"
Uh-oh, Brad thought. I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't ever have been here. She was waiting to see if he'd pick up his cue. A deranged gnome was capering about in his brain, singing madly, "No way out! No way out! No way no way no way out!" to the tune of cartoon chase music. Acid squirted loudly into his stomach.
"Goodness!" Shirley said. "I guess you are." She turned away, groping over the side of the bed.
This was going to be the hardest part, Brad knew. Once they had some clothes on and could get more than arm's length away from each other . . . . Fortunately it was still dark.
Shirley turned back, a nightgown around her neck. "Don't look at me."
If she'd said it coy, Brad would have died on the spot. But she was looking at him earnestly, pleading. Oh, God, he thought as he rolled away, she's gorgeous. I'm in big trouble. He didn't know whether he'd remembered to smile.
The door opened and closed, and he sat up, casing the room. His clothes were all over the place. The little gnome began caroming off the walls inside his skull. The window, he thought. Fire escape. He got out of bed and went over to it.
Then he heard murmuring in the next room and froze. But the sound was so low and musical he realized it must have been Shirley humming to herself. Terrific, he thought. I'm having a heart attack and she sings. He stooped a little and pulled back a corner of the blind, peered into the darkness.
The door opened, light flooded the room, and Shirley's fourteen-year-old daughter charged in, curlers bouncing, braces flashing like lightning. She stopped dead when she saw Brad crouching like a naked thief by the window, then burst out laughing.
For the rest of that day, every time he looked at Shirley she would grin and roll her eyes, and Brad would do the same. By mid-afternoon people were beginning to notice, and would raise their eyebrows as soon as Brad's or Shirley's back was turned.
At quitting time they watched Brad stroll over and sit down on Shirley's desk, holding up one knee between clasped hands. One of the two must have said something, because they both started shrieking with laughter, and Brad fell sideways across Shirley's paperwork, jiggling helplessly. A hush fell over the news room, as one by one those who hadn't seen this little pantomime turned and joined the others in staring. A few gave each other the eye, as if they really knew what was going on, others started smiling and then giggling themselves, infected.
Rankin came out of his office and threaded his way through the onlookers. He stood for a moment in the silence surrounding the laughing couple, then said, "Any chance of you two sharing the joke?"
They made the mistake of looking at him. By this time they were so far gone that almost anything would have struck them as funny, and Rankin's expression of puzzled worry was so absurd and sad that both of them doubled up as if punched in the stomach, and Brad rolled off the desk onto the floor.
Rankin looked around the room for help, but all he got were shrugs and spread hands. Shirley slid off her chair and tried to wrestle Brad to his feet. After clutching at each other like a couple of drunks they managed to work up enough forward momentum to stagger across the room, the crowd opening a path for them as if they were on a royal progress. At the door Brad sang out "'Night everybody!" but Shirley jerked him around the corner out of sight.
They were sitting in the parking lot, still gusty with laughter, but sighing, winding down. It hadn't occurred to them that they could have hidden inside one of their cars — Brad had just plunked himself on the asphalt and pulled Shirley down with him. All around them were footsteps and doorslams and farewells called across car roofs. They huddled like children behind a bush in their back yard, playing a joke on Mother, who was trying to get them inside for dinner.
Gradually the parking lot emptied out except for the two cars they were hiding between. They had also stopped giggling and shushing. It wasn't exactly spring yet, and the asphalt was cold, but the air was mild, even now, at dusk.
Brad looked up at the sky, which was still bright as daylight at the zenith and to the west, but going deep and cold towards the other horizon, where streetlights were winking on and shimmering. It was growing still, too, though not silent — from beneath a blanket of distance there came a steady roar, punctuated by the monotonous kachunk of some mysterious pump or pile driver. He could feel the heat of this false spring day evaporating like the cruel illusion it was, and he knew that it was time to face the music.
Shirley must have felt the same thing; she was already looking at him when he turned his face to her. Once again she blessed him with that saddest of smiles, once again his heart tripped and fell on its face.
"You know," she said, "we can't print this either."©1993 Bill Bly
This story originally appeared in The Antigonish Review, Volume 23, Issue 89.
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