It snowed on Friday morning, a heavy, wet snow with fat flakes that stuck only to the grass, but it was enough to throw the morning commute into complete chaos, as cars spun out in anticipation of spinning out and the local schools announced they would start one hour late, two hours late, then not at all. Tess had tried to take the bus to the Beacon-Light, thinking it might be marginally faster, but the bus had been sideswiped, which was seen as a kind of open lottery in most city neighborhoods, and pedestrians began climbing on until it was standing-room only. Finally, a young security guard got on and held the doors shut, as thwarted plaintiffs surrounded the bus and pounded on its sides. Tess squeezed out the back door, letting a few more potential plaintiffs on in the process, and hailed a taxi. In fact, her neck and shoulders were sore, but she had a hunch it was the Blight, not the transit system, that was at fault.
Although she was twenty minutes late, the meeting in the publisher's conference room had yet to start. Five-Four and Lionel Mabry, who lived far out in the suburbs, were still en route, and Sterling was sequestered with Rosita. Colleen Reganhart sat glumly at the table with Guy Whitman, whose face brightened when Tess walked in.
"Snow, and this weekend is Palm Sunday. It's certainly been a strange winter," Whitman said, making conversation. "Now, is Friday the good day for firing, or the bad day? Or is it neither? I always get confused. What do you think, Tess?"
Tess, who had been laid off on a Wednesday, thought every day was a bad day to lose one's job. How unexpected it had been, how ill prepared they all had been, when the Star's publisher had asked the staff to gather in the newsroom soon after their afternoon paper had gone to bed. As a coup de gr^ace, the Star's corporate owners had not even allowed its workers the catharsis of putting out a final edition about their paper's demise. Tess's last piece of journalism had been a four-paragraph story about a water main break downtown.
Whitman answered his own question. "Actually, there are several schools of thought about terminating employees. If you worry that an employee is prone to, uh, severe emotional responses, a Friday might be ill advised, as the employee could harm himself over the weekend. Others hold that Monday is the best day for firing from the management point of view; otherwise, the task would hang over the manager's head throughout the week, providing an unwarranted distraction. Violence cannot be discounted as a possibility. When the Los Angeles Times had to down-size by reducing its staff by more than a hundred people in a single afternoon, the company issued a directive stating-"
"Oh, shut the fuck up, Guy," snapped Colleen, who had gotten up and started pacing the room with a lighted cigarette.
"You know, you're not suppose to smoke in here," he countered.
"For now, I outrank everyone in here."
It all began here, Tess thought, and now it's going to end here. Sterling had promised her the Blight would buy out the rest of her contract, as long as she agreed to appear here today, and, if necessary, present her notes about Rosita's reporting methods. Although they couldn't prove Rosita had slipped her story into the paper, Lionel and Five-Four were convinced she was the culprit. But she would go down for paying Bertie. It seemed highly unorthodox, perhaps even illegal, but Tess was so anxious to be free of the Beacon-Light at this point, she would have agreed to almost anything.
Five-Four's secretary opened the door and announced: "They're on their way." Colleen sucked down every drop of nicotine she could extract from the butt-end of her cigarette, then opened the window and tossed it to the street below. She had just slammed the window shut when Five-Four arrived, trailed by a chipper Lionel Mabry, absentmindedly whistling a pretty tune. It took Tess a few bars to identify it: "There Is a Rose in Spanish Harlem." Now, that seemed in dubious taste. He seemed to realize this, too, and the song stopped abruptly as Sterling and Rosita entered.
"Have a seat, Rosita." Sterling's voice was disarmingly gentle, but Tess suspected he was probably the angriest of all those assembled. Rosita took the chair at the far end of the table, opposite from Five-Four. The big chair seemed to swallow her and Tess was moved to something almost like pity-until she saw Rosita's hard, defiant face. The little reporter had waived her right to bring a union representative to the meeting. She had, in fact, forbidden the shop steward from accompanying her. She was so sure she didn't need anyone. She didn't think she needed Feeney to get the story, she didn't think she needed the union to keep her job.
Sterling looked down at a blank legal pad as he spoke. "I briefed you earlier on the evidence Tess Monaghan has gathered about your, uh, methods. We also have a signed statement from Bertie Athol that she was paid for information on the Wynkowski story, information that turned out to be exaggerated and false. And we can get photocopies of the papers Tess saw yesterday, the ones that establish Wink Wynkowski was the victim in his marriage, not the aggressor. We believe the cumulative result of these findings warrants your immediate dismissal. However, we are prepared to give you six months' severance-you'd only be entitled to two, normally-and assistance in finding another job. Some of us feel-I feel-we failed you here. Perhaps at a smaller paper, where the pressures to perform would not be so great, you could concentrate on some of the basics you appear to have skipped over in your career to date."
Rosita wasn't mollified by this offer of help, nor cowed by Sterling's talk of a generous severance package. "Those papers, assuming they're not forged, may prove Wink suffered injuries, but you can't prove he never hit Linda," she said coolly. "For all we know, there are other hospital records, and she chose not to show them to Tess. I stand by my story."
"Can the shit, Rosita." Colleen shook a cigarette from her pack, began to light it, then crumpled it in her shaking fingers, as if she hoped to absorb the nicotine through her sweaty palms. Tess couldn't figure out why she was so upset. Because she had been Rosita's champion, because Rosita was a woman? Or was it because Colleen would have to take the fall for Rosita's failings?
"This isn't some fucking high school debating society, you're not going to win any points here with this goddamn nitpicking. You made shit up. For your own glory, yet, because the story was good enough as it was. You just wanted a piece of it. Were you scared we wouldn't put your name on it if you came up dry? Or did you need a sexy clip for your next job?"
"I made an honest mistake," Rosita insisted.
Tess couldn't help being impressed at her self-assurance. Then again, if Rosita really was a pathological liar, she had been doing this all her life.
"Yes, I gave Bertie Athol fifty dollars-she's on a fixed income, she could use a little money. But I did it after the fact, to pay her for her time, not to encourage her to exaggerate. How is that any different from taking a source to Tio Pepe's or the Maryland Inn? We do that all the time and no one squawks. What I didn't do is tell Mrs. Athol to lie, to pretend to know more than she did. She told me the Wynkowskis fought tooth and nail, that Linda had been taken away in an ambulance on several occasions. Okay, I made a mistake, but not a huge one. This is a lynching party. You're using this to get rid of me because I'm close to my biggest break yet on the story, something much bigger than anything that's happened so far, and you want to hand it off to another reporter. Well, if I go, I'm taking my story and my sources with me."
Sterling's curiosity got the better of him. "What are you talking about, Rosita? Do you know something you haven't told us? There's nothing on the budget line about a new development."
"I don't tell you everything," Rosita taunted him. "But yes, I have it on good authority that Wink didn't commit suicide. He was murdered, probably by someone who had even more to lose than Wink did if the basketball deal didn't go through."
"Who's your source?" Whitman broke in impatiently. "The autopsy isn't official yet, and no one at the cops or the M.E. have indicated they think it was anything but suicide."
"She's still making shit up." Colleen's voice was shrill, almost hysterical in its fury. "Wink's death hurt the prospects of landing a basketball team, so why would someone kill him over it? I wouldn't believe anything she said now unless it was on fucking videotape. Even then I'm not sure I'd believe it."
Rosita just shook her head back and forth, like a head-strong two-year-old. "I'm not saying anything else unless you guarantee my job. That's the deal. Let me stay-I'll take probation, I'll even go home for a few days without pay-and you get the story. I go, and the story goes with me."
Everyone, even Five-Four, turned to Lionel then. The decision would be his to make. He looked at Rosita with large, sorrowful eyes, then stood, unfolding slowly. It was if someone new had entered the room, replacing the shambling Lionel Tess knew, the Lionel who seemed so stooped and blurry, his bones a collection of bent wire hangers holding up his clothes. Now he stood straight and tall, head thrown back. So this was the Lion King.
"You are not in a position to make demands, Miss Ruiz," Mabry said, his voice stern yet regretful, as if she were a daughter who had disappointed him. "At every turn, you have demonstrated a complete absence of ethics, judgment, and professionalism. It is one thing to risk your credibility, but you risked my paper's credibility as well. Don't you understand that Rosita Ruiz, by herself, is insignificant? It is Rosita Ruiz, Beacon-Light reporter, who gets officials on the phone, who convinces private citizens to share their confidences. You care nothing for this institution, you care only for yourself, but you are nothing without the institution. You used your computer skills to slide your story into the paper because you knew it could never withstand the scrutiny that Jack Sterling and I had brought to the process. In your conceit and your egotism, you embody everything wrong with journalism today."
"I'm what's wrong with journalism?" Rosita jumped to her feet, and although it wasn't quite as dramatic as Mabry's performance, she did manage a stumpy kind of dignity. "What about you, you relic, you dinosaur? What was the last story you ever reported, the influenza epidemic of 1908? All you do is sit in your corner office and tell your war stories and hope the paper lurches into a Pulitzer by sheer luck. Well, when I walk out this door, I'm not only going to take my prize-winning story with me, I'm going to take some other stories as well. Stories about this godforsaken place, with its sexual harassment, rampant mismanagement, blatant conflicts of interest, editors who sleep with reporters-"
"Whitman, you crotch-sniffing dog!" Colleen turned on him and he shrank back as if he thought she might strike him. "Couldn't you keep it fucking zipped for once in your life?"
"I swear, I don't know what she's talking about," he whimpered unconvincingly. "Haven't a clue."
Lionel did not allow this ancillary drama to distract him. "Tell me, Miss Ruiz, where will this story of yours appear? What responsible news organization will listen to a dismissed employee without calling to check your allegations? It's my fervent hope there aren't too many reporters whose morals and standards are as lax as your own."
Before Rosita could retort, two security guards entered the room, one carrying a cardboard box filled with notebooks, files, dictionary, AP style book, and one not-quite-clean coffee mug. The detritus of a reporter's desk, Tess realized. But did they really need two beefy men to escort one small woman from the premises, even one as angry as Rosita?
"We've taken the liberty of cleaning out your work space while you were in here, Miss Ruiz," Mabry said. "We have decided to let you keep all your notes and files, although we could claim them as the paper's property. I hope your big story is in one of those notebooks. Alas, I suspect it's mainly in your imagination."
Tess had to admire Rosita for not bursting into tears, begging for one more chance, or groveling to regain Sterling's offer of help in finding another job. Instead, she grabbed the box from one of the security guards and left the room so quickly the guards had to break into a trot to keep up with her.
No, it was Colleen who had tears in her eyes, while Whitman continued to stammer general denials. Sterling stared at the long table, his face ashen, and even Five-Four seemed discomfited. Only Lionel was flush with victory, his piss-yellow locks flying around his head, his yellowish teeth bright in his face.
"Back to work," he said. "We still have a paper to put out. Jack, please find Feeney and tell him about Miss Ruiz's babblings, on the remote chance there's even a grain of truth in them. Whitman, call human resources and tell them to prepare a final check for Miss Ruiz. And Colleen, I'd like to see you in my office now, to discuss your taste in prot'eg'es."
Whitman almost bowed as he ran from the room, grateful for the chance to live another day in abject fear. Colleen was composed but deathly pale as she stalked out behind him, while Five-Four tried to give Mabry a manly pat on the shoulder which ended up closer to the small of his back. Only Sterling was left behind, still staring at the blank legal pad in front of him.
"I wonder what she'll do," he said.
"Find a new job, start over. What else can she do?"
"She could still fight it, if she was smart. File an EEOC complaint, say she was railroaded out because she's a minority and a woman."
"I don't think the facts of Rosita's firing make her an ideal candidate for any kind of job action."
"But it was so ugly, so vicious," Sterling said. "I've never seen anything like it, not in all my years in the business. I tried to prepare her for it, but I don't think she understood the severity of her circumstances. She thought I could save her, but I couldn't, I really couldn't."
"No one could. Besides, it was Lionel's decision in the end, not yours."
"I was part of it, though. We were all part of it. If Rosita is a monster, we're Dr. Frankenstein."
Tess wanted desperately to comfort him, to remind him he was a good person, albeit one in a rotten business. She tried to put her arm around his shoulders, but it was awkward, reaching around the padded leather chair, and she ended up pressing her cheek next to his. She couldn't believe how hot his face was, how hard the pulse beat in his temple.
Sterling was the one who pulled away. "So you're free of us now."
"I guess I am. Won't take a security guard, or even a box to clean out my desk. I never settled in."
"It will probably be weeks and weeks before you get paid. We're not very timely in sending checks out to our independent contractors."
So that's what she was to him. An independent contractor.
"No problem." She grabbed the straps of her knapsack, ready to flee. She didn't have a reason to see him anymore, she realized. That also was part of the bargain she had struck.
Sterling's voice stopped her before she reached the door. "Tess-what's Tess short for, anyway?"
"Whitney refers to you as Tesser, sometimes."
"Do you and Whitney talk about me?" She didn't know whether to be flattered or troubled.
"Before you were hired, she briefed me on you. Remember my little instant thumbnail description of you? Whitney fed me most of my information."
"She was a double-agent, then. She did the same for me. Anyway, Tesser is the way I said my full name, Theresa Esther, when I was a kid."
He had seemed to be cheering up, but his low spirits suddenly overtook him again. "Everybody was a kid once, pure and hopeful. You. Rosita. Wink. No one plans to fuck up, do they?"
"I don't plan on it, but I do count on it."
Good, she had made him laugh, and his bad mood lifted for good this time. Strange, his ambivalence over Rosita only made him more attractive to her. He was the only person here today-Rosita included-who seemed to understand that there would probably be no second chances for Rosita, no hope of starting over. She was damaged goods at twenty-four. Well, she could go to law school, or find some other profession where a situational approach to the truth was less of a detriment. But she'd probably never work as a reporter again.
Sterling stood up to leave. "Good-bye, Tess. Good luck. Everything I've seen suggests you're going to be a hell of an investigator. I bet you were a pretty good reporter, too."
"Thanks. I'd say it's been fun, but-"
"I know. It hasn't." He jingled the change in his pocket, suddenly self-conscious. "Look, I don't want you to think I'm another Whitman-for one thing, I don't have a wife and five kids at home-but would you like to have dinner sometime?"
"Sure." She waited to see if he was going to make the invitation concrete, or if he was merely being polite.
And having said that, she had to make it true.
Tess found a lot of reasons not to go home that afternoon. She puttered around Tyner's office, then went to Durban's, where she set out to run five miles on the treadmill, then found herself doing seven. Finally, there was no place else to go.
When she arrived at the apartment, Crow was puttering on the terrace, almost ridiculous in his perfection: the postmodern boyfriend, potting pansies and singing softly to man's best friend. Esskay was under his elbow, nosing through the mulch and topsoil and demanding attention even as he worked. It was staying light longer now and the purple dusk picked up the new violet strands in his hair. He looks like a little boy playing with mud pies, Tess thought, or Martha Stewart as a punk rocker. I'm surprised you can't order him from the Smith amp; Hawken catalog. The truth was, he looked like what he was, what he had always been-a kind, considerate man-child. The kind of guy she had longed for when she was in college. He was only seven years too late.
"It's too early, even for pansies," she said, a little too harshly. "It snowed this morning, remember? We'll probably have two or three more freezes into April."
"I'm going to bring them in and keep them next to the French doors. They'll get good light there. I was thinking, this would be a great spot to grow tomatoes this summer, with all the sun. I also want to put in a little herb garden. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme." He sang the last. "And basil, so we can have linguine alla cecca all summer long. That's pasta with chopped tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil, and cayenne pepper. It's the best thing you'll ever eat."
Tess grunted noncommittally. She didn't want to plan her summer menus in March. She didn't want to plan anything with Crow right now. Lost in his dreams of Early Girls and Beefmasters, he sprinkled a handful of mulch across the topsoil, then patted it tenderly in place. Everything he touched, he touched with this indiscriminate love and care. For a moment, Tess tried to frame an objection to him on this basis, but not even she could be that contrary. Crow loved her, he was good to her, he was a good person. The sad fact was, none of those things obligated her to love him back.
"Do you know the significance of April?" he asked.
"Opening Day? The cruelest month? The Mary Sue Easter egg jingle on the radio twenty-four hours a day, driving one slowly insane?"
"Our six-month anniversary comes in April. April twenty-third. Know where I'd like to go to celebrate?"
He was too happily absorbed in his plans to really hear her. "The community health clinic for HIV tests. Then, when we get our results, we could make a commitment to one another." He put down his shovel and came over to hug her, smelling of dirt and mulch. "Nothing official. It would be just a way of formalizing what we're already doing."
"I want to say yes," Tess muttered into his collarbone. "I want to want to say yes."
Crow pulled away from her. "What are you saying, Tess?"
"It's what I'm not saying, Crow. I'm not saying yes. I'm not saying I'm ready for a committed relationship. Sometimes I think we jumped into this a little too quickly. So much was going on last fall. So much is going on now. And when you talk about summer and tomatoes and linguine and AIDS tests-Crow, I'm going to be thirty this summer."
"What does your age have to do with anything?"
"Everything-when you throw in your age as well."
"As time goes by, the difference in our ages will seem smaller and smaller."
"Maybe. But I have a feeling it's going to get larger before it gets smaller."
Crow gave her a long, puzzled look, then went into the apartment. She heard drawers opening, the sound of plastic CD boxes smacking together as he sorted through their commingled music. Heavy footsteps on the stairs, three trips in all, as he carried things to his car. Esskay watched anxiously from the French doors, confused as always by anything remotely out of the ordinary. Crow gave the dog a long, lingering pat as he came back out on the terrace. His expression was as troubled and perplexed as the greyhound's.
"I'll probably end up giving Kitty my notice. I was planning to, anyway, things are heating up with the band."
"That's okay. She's used to people coming and going."
"And you? Are you used to it, Tess?"
She had no answer for that.
"I loved you." Not a question, not an attempt to change her mind, just a statement of the facts. Again, Tess had no reply, other than "I know"-and that would be too cruel.
"You're a good person," she said at last. "You're one of the nicest people I've ever known."
"There are steamed vegetables for Esskay's dinner." And he was gone.
It was dark now, and getting cold on the terrace, just as Tess had prophesied. She dragged the heavy planters of pansies into the apartment, found Esskay's length of chain-Crow still hadn't gotten around to buying her a proper leash, there, that was something he had screwed up-and took her out, largely for something to do. They walked to the pier at the foot of Broadway, so Tess could watch the water and Esskay could lunge at pigeons and seagulls.
She thought she would feel exhilarated-break-ups were usually enormously liberating if one initiated them. And if the other person broke things off, well, that was usually good for taking off a quick ten pounds. Tonight, she still had her appetite, but was she happy, was she free? As Feeney's friend Auden had said, the question was absurd. She was depressed, hungry, and strangely sad.
Esskay rested her head on Tess's knee, gazing into her eyes in the soulful way that meant "Pet me," unless there was food handy, in which case it translated to "Feed me." Tess scratched beneath her chin and along her nose, picking a few flecks of mulch from the dog's long snout. The slightly acrid, tangy smell made her think longingly of the daffodils and tulips that would soon appear throughout the city. And her mother's flower beds, with their red, white, and blue flowers in perfect rectangles along the house. She smiled at the image of Uncle Spike, showing up with her mother's winter mulch, ten whole bags of it, just as spring was beginning. Judith didn't use that much mulch in a decade. What had Spike been thinking?
What had she been thinking? No, the problem was, she hadn't been thinking at all. Neither had her mother, nor her father. The reason for Spike's beating had been with them all along.