“All of us are dying.”
“Well, yes, I guess I can’t argue with that, Betty,” I said to the slight, white-haired woman seated behind my desk in the newsroom. I had come barreling in to pick up a new notebook, late for my next assignment.
“Oops, sorry, if I could just get into that center desk drawer there.” I gently rolled her away from the desk, edged my drawer out a couple of inches, and stuck my arm into the depths until I felt cardboard. I tweezered out the spiral-bound notebook between two fingers.
“All of us. Dying. It’s not right.”
I slipped the notebook into my purse and moved to scoot Betty back into position, mentally cursing our receptionist Courtnee for sending her back to the newsroom. Again. Betty Meier was a retired nurse in her 80s. Years ago, during my first stint at the Himmel Times Weekly, she often stopped by to drop off an ad for a garage sale, or a press release for the Sunshine Girls bazaar, or to put in a notice for one of the many other groups to which she belonged. But now she suffered from Alzheimer’s, and when she came to the office it was because she’d wandered away from home. This was the third time in the past two months that she’d ended up here. As I reached round her to slide the chair, she grabbed my arm, clamping on with almost desperate strength.
Startled, I looked down into her upturned face. The spark of life in her faded blue eyes caught me by surprise. I swallowed the placating answer I’d been about to give.
“No, Betty, it’s not right. It doesn’t matter how old we are. No one wants to go into that good night.” I pulled up the visitor’s chair and sat down so we were eye level.
“No, no, no! It’s us. Everyone is dying. Where’s Max? I want to talk to Max.” The bright light had gone out as quickly as it had come, and her eyes took on a cloudy cast again. Her fingers released their grip, and her voice became querulous.
“Max isn’t here any more, Betty.” Max, the former owner of the Himmel Times Weekly wasn’t just gone, he was dead. How and why he died was something I didn’t like to talk about, but never really stopped thinking about.
Just then a harried-looking woman in her early 40s burst through the door.
“Mom! I’ve been looking all over for you. Sweetheart, what are you doing here?” She knelt down and patted her mother’s arm. In an aside she said to me, “I’m sorry, Leah. The caregiver didn’t show up. Mom’s next door neighbor went over, but then her dog got hit by a car and she had to leave. I rushed out of work. It was only 10 minutes, but when I got there Mom was gone.”
“Don’t worry about it, Deborah. It’s OK.”
“Sometimes she seems fine, you know? The other day, out of nowhere, she said ‘How was work, Debbie?’ It almost broke my heart. She hadn’t initiated a conversation in weeks, and then for a second, there she was. My mom. And just as quickly she was gone, and there was a confused old lady who doesn’t know who I am.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, awkwardly and inadequately. Two things I specialize in, awkward and inadequate. “She keeps saying all her friends are dying.”
She nodded. “I took her to a funeral a month or so ago. I knew she’d want to be there, but I shouldn’t have. She’s been upset ever since.” She turned to her mother again. “Mom, let’s go home. Tandy’s coming over tonight, and we’ll have dinner and watch some family movies. That’ll be nice, won’t it?” She slid her arm under her mother’s and helped her up. As they left she turned to me. “Leah, again, I’m so sorry. I know we can’t go on like this. It isn’t safe for her.”
“It’s not easy,” I said, though in truth, and thank God, I knew nothing about the pain of the parent–to-child reversal Deborah was experiencing. My mother–maddening, bossy, loving, funny woman that she is–still has full control of all her faculties, and would happily take charge of mine if I’d let her.
I followed Deborah out the door on a run, but I was already 15 minutes late for an interview with the incoming principal at Himmel High School.
“Really, Courtnee? Betty Meier sitting in the newsroom? At my desk? Why did you take her back there?”
It was nearly five when I got back to the office, and I was a little on the pissy side. Make that a lot. My interview with the principal didn’t go well. He was unhappy because I was late and even madder when I left early. I had to, or I’d have missed shooting a ribbon cutting ceremony at the new McDonald’s franchise. That’s the kind of cutting edge journalism we do here at the Himmel Times. On the way back to the office, the iced tea I’d bought at the drive-through tipped over, and half of it ran into my purse. In fairness I couldn’t blame Courtnee for that, but I think that fairness is far overrated.
Looking up from her Facebook account, Courtnee gave a shrug.
“I’m a receptionist, Leah. It’s my job to receive. So I received her into the newsroom. You were gone, and Miguel is out, and Rebecca wasn’t here, and like always, I had to take care of things myself. She likes sitting at your desk.”
Miguel Santos is the other full-time reporter, and Rebecca Hartfield is the publisher and micromanager at the Times.
“The next time she comes in, if there is a next time, ‘receive’ her in reception. Sit her down—out here—and call her daughter. OK?”
“Okaayy.” She gave a flip of her silky blonde hair and turned to read the text that had just pinged on her phone. At the same time a loud static-filled squawk came from the scanner in the newsroom. I couldn’t make out the words, but I didn’t need to, because Rebecca was already out of her office to translate. She’s a cool blonde—calm, measured, methodical. And oddly, not that crazy about me.
“Good, you’re still here. There’s a working fire at 529 Halston. A residence. I need you to cover it.”
“But I’ve got a Parks Committee meeting. Miguel is—”
“He’s still in Milwaukee. You can do a phone follow-up on the meeting. Is there a problem?”
“No. Nothing,” I muttered. I grabbed the camera and headed out.
My name is Leah Nash, and in the exciting, competitive, high-adrenalin carnival that is journalism, I operate the merry-go-round. I’m a reporter for a small-town weekly in Himmel, Wisconsin. It’s where I started 11 years ago, and it’s where I landed 18 months ago, after a series of bad career decisions. I had an exit strategy, but it hadn’t come together quite yet.
The fire assignment was no big deal. Except it was. Though I wasn’t about to confide my darkest fears to Rebecca, who as far as I can tell has the empathy and emotional range of a Popsicle. The truth is, I’m afraid of fires—to the point of hyperventilating and quaking in my shoes. Have been since I was 10 years old. I never willingly cover one. But sometimes I have no choice.
My hands were sweaty on the wheel, and I was repeating “breathe in, breathe out” in a frenzied mantra as I pulled up. Smoke billowed from the back of a small two-story house. Here and there yellow flames shot red-tipped tongues out the windows. Gray ash snowflakes floated through the air as firefighters wrangled hoses, flooding the fire into submission. Still I sat in my car, unable to open the door and move closer to the burning house. Hard as I tried not to let it, my mind hurtled back to another fire, a long time ago. I squeezed my eyes tight to shut out the images. A second later they popped back open in surprise at the sharp rapping near my ears. I rolled down the window so that David Cooper could lean in.
“Hey. What are you doing here? Where’s Miguel?”
“Rebecca sent him out of town. So it’s me.” I struggled to put on an air of professionalism as I opened the door and hauled out my camera bag. Coop is my oldest friend and a lieutenant with the Himmel Police Department.
“So what’s the story? Anyone hurt? What are the damages? Do they know how it started?” I fired off questions, determined not to let him know how hard it was to force myself to walk closer toward the heat of the fire, to hear the snap and pop as it ate through dry wood, the crash as a section of roof gave way.
I didn’t fool him. Coop doesn’t say much. But he sees a lot. Which I find quite irritating when it’s me he’s looking at.
“Al Porter’s over by the ladder truck. He thinks it’s just about under control. I’ll point him in your direction when he gets off the phone. No sense you going over there and getting in the way.”
I try not to let my weaknesses show. If anyone sees what hurts or scares you, it makes you vulnerable. And in my experience, that’s not a good thing.
I shook my head. “I’m going over to talk to him.”
He looked at me, but didn’t say anything.
“Look, I’m fine.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Don’t patronize me. I hate it when you patronize me.”
“I’m not. Just saying it’s wet and slippery and crowded over there. Call Al over here, and you’d be out of the way. Suit yourself.”
“Oh, I know.”
We could have gone on like 10-year-olds forever—at least I could have—but the fire chief walked up just then.
“Leah.” He nodded and paused to wipe a rivulet of sweat running down the side of his face, smearing ash across his cheek. He had pulled off his yellow helmet and I could see that his gray hair was wet and curling in wisps. Pushing 60, and about 30 pounds over fighting weight, Al isn’t going to be September in anyone’s Fire Fighters Calendar. But he knows how to run a crew, keep them safe, and put out the fire, and no one is in any hurry to tell him to hang up his turnout gear.
“You’re a little late to the party. But Matt McGreevy got some good shots and video too.”
I could’ve kissed Al and Matt both, but I played it casual. “Oh? Sure, that’d be great. Whose house is it?”
“Old gal by the name of Betty Meier.”
Al picked up on the shock I felt right away.
“It’s OK, Leah. You know her? She wasn’t home. Nobody was. Well, except for one pretty mad cat, but we got her out all right. The old lady was at her daughter’s, the neighbor said. I guess she’s got some dementia issues. Might have left on the gas burner on the stove. But don’t print that,” he hastened to add. “We’re gonna have the state fire marshal in.”
A loud whoosh of water hit the house just then, spraying the charred remains. No flames were visible, but I knew that didn’t mean the fire was out. Some of the crew would be on the scene for a couple of hours to make sure the blaze didn’t start up again.
“She’s wandered away a few times and come to the paper, asking for Max. I talked to her daughter today. I think she’s probably going to move her to a nursing home.” Poor Betty. Losing all her friends, her memories, and tonight it could have been her life. It’s true. Old age isn’t for sissies.
“Yeah. I’d say it’s past time for that. Fire can move so damn fast. People don’t realize how—” He stopped. Looked at me. Looked embarrassed. I helped him roll on past a subject I didn’t want to delve into either.
“For sure. So, who called it in? What’s the damage estimate?” I went through the standard reporter’s litany of who, what, when, where, why questions, and when I had all the information Al could give me at the moment, I asked Matt to email me his photos and video.
Then I packed it in and went to back to the office to post a few pictures and a news brief on the Times website. I stopped by the front desk and checked the spike on the corner of Courtnee’s desk for messages. At 6:30 p.m. she was long gone.
I pulled off the notes for me and gave them a quick glance. Nothing looked urgent, so I stuffed them in my purse to read later. In the newsroom, I didn’t bother to flip on the light, just turned on my desk lamp and used the blue glow of the computer screen. It was kind of nice there in the semi-dark. There was no jangle of Courtnee’s unanswered phones in reception, no tap-tap-tap of other keyboards, no repeated clunking of cans of soda coming out of the Coke machine.
Before I started writing, I texted Coop and Miguel to see if they wanted to meet up for a beer and a burger at McClain’s, then I filed a quick story. I uploaded two of the photos Matt had sent to my iPhone and a short video clip. When I finished, I leaned back for a long, satisfying yawn and stretch, my chair tilted and my arms reaching as far back as possible. I was right at that almost orgasmic point of satisfaction, when every muscle was extended and just on the edge of relaxing, when the light clicked on.
I all but tumbled out of my chair.
“Rebecca! Geez, how about some warning when you creep in on little cat feet?”
“Did you get the story?” Her eyes, the color of a blue-tinged icicle, blinked behind her black-framed glasses.
“Already written. Nobody hurt. Betty, the woman who owns the house, wasn’t there. Property’s totaled though.”
“All right, good. Pull the commission story from the front page and run with the fire above the fold—if the pictures are any good. Are they?”
“Matt McGreevy took them. They’re great. It was really nice of him to share them, especially since you fired him last month.”
“I did not fire him. Stringers aren’t employees. They’re independent contractors. Why didn’t you take the photos?”
I flashed back to my near panic attack at the fire, my dithering around the edge trying to get my nerves under control. The shaming fear that had gripped me. “I got there too late. Matt rolled out with the fire department—he does their videography. And he’s a good guy, so he shared them, even though you ‘not’ fired him.”
“I don’t cut costs for fun. It has to be done. That’s my job.” She spoke slowly, as though explaining something to a small child.
I gave in to the urge to get a rise out of her. “I thought you went to journalism school. Not bean counting academy.”
“I was hired to get the Times in better financial shape, and that requires the counting of some beans. It might be easier if you didn’t take every decision as a personal affront.”
Something in her voice made me look up from putting away my stuff. She had taken off her glasses and was rubbing the bridge of her nose. Her shoulders had sagged a little, and for a minute I saw her as a woman with a tough job, who didn’t have the luxury of casual banter with her staff or after-work drinks at McClain’s. Her role was to be the bad guy, the nay-sayer, the buzz-killer. That had to be pretty lonely. She was only 36, just a few years older than me.
“Rebecca, would you like to—”
She cut me off before I could invite her to stop by McClain’s with me. “Don’t forget to turn your mileage in tomorrow. It’s the cutoff, and you won’t get paid this month if you don’t get it in. I’ve already told Courtnee that.”
As part of the general cutbacks and reassignments in Rebecca’s lean and mean vision for the Times, Courtnee had been assigned the task of processing mileage and expense reports. It had proven to be one of the more effective cost-saving measures, because half the time Courtnee didn’t finish the reports in time for us to get paid for the month, which she always insisted was our fault. The other half of the time, she screwed them up, and they didn’t get processed correctly until the following month. I suspected there was some method to Rebecca’s madness in giving the job to Courtnee, in that to some degree, expenses were always deferred.
“Right.” I gathered my things and left before saying something I’d regret. Working at the Times wasn’t exactly a step up the career ladder, but when Max was here it was fun. I missed the camaraderie, the kidding around, the messy, lively, frustrating, fulfilling business of putting out a paper. When Rebecca first started, I thought we might be friends. She’s near my age, she’s from Wisconsin like me, and she’d even worked at the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan, like I had, though at a different time. It just seemed like we’d have a lot in common. Instead, Rebecca sucked the happy right out of the air. If it weren’t for Miguel, I might have done something stupid like I did at the Miami Star Register. Namely leaving one job without having another waiting. I wanted to play it smart this time. But she was making it awfully hard.