Friday, February 15, 2019

Once a Dreamer by Terry D. Williams

A weary newspaper reporter meets an old flame who claims to have a story for him; by Terry D. Williams.

On Monday evening, June thirtieth, there was an accident on I-95 and I arrived a few minutes late for my first reporting assignment at Warren Town Hall in Fairfield County, Connecticut. I parked my Subaru alongside a new 2003 Range Rover and toe-walked (due to having one leg shorter than the other) toward an empty chair in the front of the meeting room. A handful of well-tanned and perfume-scented townspeople pattered at their seats. At the head table roosted the town clerk, Deputy Mayor DeVito, and several councillors. Behind the mayor's nameplate sat an empty chair.

As if he had waited for me to arrive, the deputy mayor said, "The meeting of the Town Council of Warren is called to order," as I settled into a seat in the front row. Compared with the outcries about drug addiction and crime that took place in towns adjacent to Bridgeport and Hartford, I expected to hear citizens of Warren discuss dreary things such as the fire department's pasta dinner or the concessions for the fall Farmers' Market. And it pretty much went that way. That is, until an attractive woman, wearing a silk blouse and plum skirt stood at the lectern and addressed the council.

I recognized Becky Schneider. Her slender body suggested she'd taken good care of herself since we were together, some thirty years earlier. A surge of nerves coursed through me. Not only had I never stopped loving her but seeing her triggered soul-shredding regret about the shameful path my life had taken since she broke up with me.

Becky's face was flushed and her forehead dappled with beads of perspiration. She began to pound her palm against the lectern when she spoke. "I've petitioned the council twice about the matter of organized crime infiltrating our trash collection business." That voice. Just throaty enough to sound alluring. "As I stated before, my contact, someone who works for the town, told me in confidence that despite lower bidders, Brothers' Refuse had gotten this town's trash collection contract five years straight. The companies submitting lower bids - fine businesses that had worked in other towns - were ignored." Becky glanced at the citizens whose eyes were trained on her. "How long will we let this kind of thing go on under our noses?"

"Yes, Mrs. Schneider, we're aware of your concerns," said Mr. DeVito. "I assure you we'll take this up in the next Executive Session."

Becky sighed and folded her arms against her chest. "That's what you said the last time."

The deputy mayor averted his gaze. "Thank you, Mrs. Schneider. And now -"

Becky glanced again at the group around her. "Does it make you a little suspicious that the mayor, a school teacher by day, just purchased a vacation home in Palm Springs?"

"We'll be sure to look into that," echoed from the front of the room. "Thanks for coming everyone."

"Sure, I bet you will," Becky said as she stepped from the lectern.

The meeting ended and town residents filed out, jabbering away. I headed for the exit, hoping to avoid Becky.

"Mitchell?"

I whirled around and pasted a puzzled look on my face. "Do I know you?"

"It's Becky. I'd recognize that walk anywhere! My God, how are you?"

I tried my best to look happy to see her. "Great. I see you're as passionate as ever."

Her brow creased with worry. "Sometimes I think I'll give myself a heart attack."

I gestured to the head table with a frown. "Just your typical bureaucrat."

Becky rolled her eyes. "Don't get me started." She pointed to my press badge. "You're a reporter?"

"For the Bridgeport Observer."

I've worked for the Observer for thirty-three years. Despite my perhaps well-deserved reputation as a curmudgeon, my coworkers and editors had always respected me for my concise prose and aggressive fact-finding. Hell, I'd been a finalist for a Pulitzer in 1974. In my early years with the paper, my keen eye had uncovered sleazy politicians and crooked money managers - front page headlines. But after being on the job five years, I punctuated an interview with a convicted mobster by saying, "You're getting what you deserve, asshole." The paper put me on probation - an overreaction for sure - and assigned me the town government beat, my reports chronicled as afterthoughts, somewhere in the bowels of the paper. Rumor had it that someone from the mob had leaned on Observer management to shaft me. Since my demotion, management has shuffled me from town to town filling in for other beat reporters.

"Never seen you here before," she said.

"Don't get to the Gold Coast too often."

Becky twisted her mouth into a wry smile. "Welcome to our town, I think."

"I won't be around long. Just filling in. I usually cover towns around Bridgeport and Hartford."

"Maybe someone up there is watching over me. Not only do I meet my old friend, but someone who can alert the public to the sleaze in our little world of white picket fences and Porsches. Let's go have a drink."

Becky's referring to me as a "friend" smarted. Was that all that I ever meant to her? "Well, um, I'm not really sure..."

She grabbed my wrist. "Just one drink?"

We walked to a sports bar, A Little Slice of Heaven, several blocks from the town hall. Patrons watching widescreen TVs filled the space around the tavern. We wended our way toward the rear and sat opposite each other in a booth.

I pulled a Marlboro out of the pack in my breast pocket. "Mind if I smoke?"

"I'd prefer you didn't. I'll go into a coughing fit. Sometimes they go on for hours."

"No problem." I put the cigarette back and ordered a Bud and Becky a chardonnay.

Several seconds passed before Becky spoke. "So, I take it you live in Connecticut."

"Bridgeport. Ten minutes away from my office."

Becky laughed. "You still whisper when you talk. I remember having to constantly ask you to repeat yourself."

I swigged my beer. "I guess some things never change."

Becky leaned forward. "Are you married? kids?"

My neck tightened. "I'm married, and have a daughter Amy, who lives on her own." What I didn't tell her was that my wife Mary had run off with the high school football coach several years earlier. "You?"

Becky looked down at her drink and then at me. "Barry and I have been married for twenty-six years. We have two children... no not children - you know, adults. Jacob lives in Oregon, and Sarah lives a couple blocks from us."

Becky went on to explain that her husband produced reality shows. His work required him to be on-location for long periods. She said she'd never worked outside of the house and considered herself blessed to be home when her kids had arrived from school. Recently she began to volunteer for United Way.

Nothing like a privileged life, I thought. I ordered another beer. "Why are you taking on this cause?"

Becky sipped her wine and then said, "You heard me. My friend, who works for the town clerk, told me all about the graft in Warren. I'll be damned if I do nothing while corrupt politicians get away with this."

She needed a cause I figured, something to occupy her time. With her husband making big bucks, and the kids out of the house, she needed a crusade. Something to relieve the boredom. My reporter's mind wondered, however, if there was something more to Becky's obsession with dirty politicians.

"Are you the only person concerned about this situation?"

Becky sipped her wine. A vein in her forehead protruded, as I recalled it doing as a college student when she was about to say something in a heartfelt way. "Six months ago, there were five of us, but other things became the cause du jour. It didn't help matters that they never completely bought the idea that the mob would penetrate a town like Warren. Like we live in some kind of freaking bubble."

The fringes of Becky's auburn hair glistened under the pendant lighting. I fought the urge to caress her face. I wondered if she could sense my longing and even felt the same way. "Your friends should know that no town - no matter how rich - is immune from this kind of thing. It's just that -"

"I'm wasting my time?"

"I wouldn't say that..."

"What would you say?"

"You could be right about the corruption. It's just not worth the hassle. Nothing ever comes of it."

Becky's eyes had a confident, knowing look. "You mean like uncovering Watergate?"

"Okay, you got me on that one. But that's not my experience. It's more like the corrupt politician gets a slap on the wrist from an unscrupulous judge, or if he gets convicted, there's another one, perhaps even dirtier, waiting to take his place."

Becky cleared her throat in mock fashion. "Hey, if I didn't know you better I'd be offended by that. Not to mention it sounded nothing like the Mitchell I once knew."

I met Becky in March 1968 when we were both juniors at Columbia University's journalism program. After learning about a link between the college and a weapons think tank, I spoke to a group of fifty students from a campus hillock, stressing the need for peaceful protest in keeping the Vietnam war out of the university. I had the habit of ending my talks with "Never forget, apathy kills." People always told me, in my blue work shirt, wire-rimmed glasses, longish hair and beard, I came across as hip and articulate. When I finished speaking, Becky approached me and remarked that my dreams of a better world reminded her of Martin Luther King Jr (who was assassinated the following month). On the spot, I fell for her. The passion in her voice, her confidence and comely features.

Mitchell shrugged.

Becky frowned. "I don't believe what you're saying. Your warning about how apathy kills is just as relevant today as it was back then."

"Maybe so. But I'm a realist too."

With a playful mien she said, "Toss a little burnout into that stew?"

I laughed trying to recall the last time someone sparred with me in such an enticing fashion. "What can I tell you?"

"You can tell me you'll look into this mess."

"Definitely. It's my job."

"But you think that I'm a privileged woman with nothing better to do. Right?"

"Well... you said it. I didn't."

Becky scoffed. "If I didn't need you so much I'd toss this drink in your face."

My pulse spiked upon hearing her say she needed me. "Sorry if I spoke out of turn."

After some awkward moments of silence followed by equally awkward conversation, I glanced at my watch. "I have to get home to feed my cats."

Much to the chagrin of my neighbors, I housed stray cats. How could anyone blame me? I was the only person standing between my furry friends and a veterinary Dr. Kevorkian.

"Cat lover?"

"Guess you could say that."

"Me too, but my husband is allergic. We have fish instead," she said with a snicker.

I fidgeted, eager to leave. Becky must have noticed.

"How about five more minutes? Until we finish our drinks?"

"I guess..."

With a somber expression Becky said, "Before you go... I want to apologize for the way I mishandled the whole thing. Sorry for hurting you."

"That's okay. We were only kids. I guess we had to move on."

If it were only that easy, I thought.

Shortly after graduation, Becky and I had moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. She'd secured a job as a grant writer - not exactly what she aimed for, but it helped pay the rent. I'd interviewed for positions such as Press-Sub-editor and Proofreader, but either didn't like the politics of the employer or felt the work didn't meet my criteria for reporting on "hard news." I quickly became disillusioned and spent my days on the threadbare couch in what served as our living/dining room. Becky understood my point of view, but after six months, she'd had enough of supporting us both. Despite my pleadings that I'd change, Becky dumped me and moved to her parents' Park Avenue co-op. Brokenhearted, I repaired to my parents' home in Astoria, Queens.

"Yes, we've had to," Becky said. "But I savor my memories of our time together. I can still hear us talking about how we'd change the world."

"Well, age alters your perspective."

"Doesn't have to."

I stood. "Nice seeing you Beck..." Heat rushed to my face. "Did I just call you that?"

"That's okay, it's kind of sweet." Becky took out her cell phone. "Hey, do you text?"

"If I have to."

"Okay, I'll be in touch. Can't wait to read your story."

I chained-smoked several cigarettes on my drive home. It occurred to me that perhaps getting involved in Becky's silly crusade wasn't such a bad idea. Not that I bought into her suggestion that meeting up with me was part of some cosmic plan but at least playing along would keep us involved with each other. Perhaps we'd rekindle things. And if by some chance Becky's allegations about the town government were correct, I'd show how I still had the juice to do some serious reporting. A chance for redemption.

But my breath seized in a moment of dread at the thought of investigating the mob's connection to the town of Warren. Eighteen months earlier, after writing a story about corruption in another town's police department, I'd received an envelope with a white powdery substance in the mail at work. Anthrax inhalation had already killed five people in the US - including a woman in Connecticut. I'd collapsed in a paroxysm of chest-ripping pain. The doctor at the hospital called it a "panic attack" and prescribed Prozac, which I continued to use to the present. After that, I resolved to put in my time with the paper and "coast" until my retirement next year.



Tuesday morning, July first, I got up at seven-thirty and had my cigarette and coffee breakfast at my modest ranch on the outskirts of Bridgeport. Before I'd file my report on the town hall meeting, I wanted to get comments from the mayor and Brothers' Refuse about Becky's accusations. Ominous gunmetal clouds patrolled the sky and the weatherman predicted severe thunderstorms later in the morning. Since I was skittish about driving on a wet surface, I wanted to complete the thirty-minute trip to Warren before I hydroplaned down I-95.

When I arrived at the mayor's office, the secretary informed me that her boss had just returned from vacation and that I'd need to make an appointment. "It'll only take a minute," I said and proceeded to the mayor's partially opened door.

"What is it?" the mayor rasped when I knocked. I identified myself and the mayor said, "You have five minutes."

"Thanks for your time. Looks like you're pretty busy," I said as I spied the pile of rose-colored phone messages and files on his desk.

The mayor, broad with chubby cheeks, in his late forties, sat at a burnished cherry desk. He gestured for me to sit in one of the two chairs in front of him. "Just got back from vacation. So much to do, you have to wonder if it's even worth it to leave."

"I appreciate your time."

The mayor's laugh morphed into a cough. "Always have a few minutes for the press."

"Thank you."

"What can I do for you, Mr. Richards?"

"I don't know if you heard, but one of the residents of your town -"

"Becky Schneider, you mean?"

"You heard about it. She accused the town of hiring Brothers' Refuse for five years straight despite there being lower bidders."

The mayor frowned. "What of it?"

"Any comment?"

The mayor thrust his chest forward and exhaled. "Look, I'm aware of Mrs. Schneider and her accusations. The deputy mayor said we'd discuss it at the next Executive Session, right?"

"Yes, he did. But is Mrs. Schneider correct?"

The mayor stood and paced around the room, circling me. Sweat riddled his brow and half-moons of perspiration peeked from his armpits. The mayor, now that he wasn't seated, resembled a middle-aged linebacker. I realized, if sufficiently pissed off, it wouldn't take much effort for the town boss to snap my spindly body in half. "Of course not. We hire the most qualified. End of story."

"One last question?"

The mayor, now more red-faced said, "Shoot."

"She suggested that a kickback funded your new house in Palm Springs. Any comment?"

"I do have a comment. This meeting's over. Now get out of my office."

My temples pulsated to the beat of my heart as I hauled ass out of there. The mayor's secretary shot me a nasty look when I passed her desk.

I took a couple of deep breaths and then headed to Brothers' Refuse in Hartford. Halfway up the interstate it began to pour. Rain, sounding like hail, pelted the roof of my car as I parked a few blocks from my destination. I slogged through several blocks of puddles before reaching the unremarkable storefront - bookended between a movie theatre and insurance company - whose glass facade bore the gilded letters Brothers' Enterprises. The door emitted an electronic beep when I entered. An American flag hung on one wall and photos of JFK, Frank Sinatra and Pope John on the other. My sodden shoes squeaked on the glossy hardwood floor. I approached a silver-haired woman who sat at a computer in the vestibule. The nameplate in front of her read, "Mrs. P."

"I'm Mitchell Richards from the Observer, may I speak with the person in charge?"

Mrs. P, with crinkled forehead, stared at me for a few awkward seconds. "Could you speak up, I didn't quite hear what you said?"

This time speaking louder, I repeated what I'd said to her, fighting to avoid stammering. But before she responded, the door of one of the dimly-lit offices in the rear creaked open. A diminutive figure emerged from the shadows. Someone with the stature of a child. Perhaps a midget. He advanced toward the vestibule. The man wore a black suit, white shirt and black bow tie. Several strands of silver hair ran from east to west on his balding head. The man held out his hand as he neared me. The scent of a fruity but tasteful cologne accompanied him. In a high-pitched, squeaky voice he said, "Pleasure to make your acquaintance. I'm Felix Brothers. I overheard you're from the Observer."

The fact that Mr. Brothers looked more like a maƮtre d' than a Goodfella didn't assuage my nervousness. It made the man more of a puzzle, more unpredictable. Someone you couldn't turn your back on. "Yes, one of the residents of Warren has accused the town of engaging in bid-rigging with and receiving kickbacks from Brothers' Refuse. Do you have a comment?"

He scoffed. "That's preposterous."

"Were you aware that your company got the trash-hauling contract five years in a row, despite the fact several other companies submitted lower bids?"

Mr. Brothers massaged his forehead. "Maybe you should ask somebody from the town why they did such a thing. Perhaps they had a good reason."

"It does seem a little suspicious, no?"

Mr. Brothers glanced at his watch. "Sorry, Mr. Richards. I have a wake to attend. Good luck in getting your story."

I backed in the direction of the door. "Would you mind if I, um... I took a quick look at your financial records sometime?"

Mr. Brothers bit down on his lip and approached me. "We've run a reputable business for over twenty years. We don't want any trouble. Go back to where you came from and everybody stays safe and happy."

I turned and moved toward the door, praying I didn't slip on my way out.



Later that evening when I arrived home, I lit a smoke and went down to the basement and unlocked the darkroom - a room in which the previous occupants of the house used to develop pictures. Under butterscotch lighting I rifled through a large plastic bin of moldy textbooks; yellowed newspaper clippings of an aerial view of a November 15, 1969 Washington DC antiwar demonstration with the caption: "March Against Death"; and a New York Times article of April 1975 depicting the fall of Saigon. By the time I found the shoebox of photos, a nimbus of dust surrounded me. After sneezing several times, I flipped through a dozen or so until I rooted out what I searched for.

A friend had taken a photo of Becky and me in May 1968 under a Red Maple tree on the quadrangle of Columbia University. We'd just finished smoking a joint. It had been a warm day and I wore a blue T-shirt, jeans and my signature work boots. Becky sported a tie-dyed T-shirt and jean shorts. In the photo, she fondled my shaggy beard. I remembered peering into her greenish brown eyes, intoxicated by the musky scent of her perfume. We parted nineteen months later.

Standing amid the darkroom's relics, a wave of self-loathing enshrouded me for never getting my life together after screwing things up with Becky. "What a fucking loser," I shouted as I ripped up the photo and threw the shards back into the bin.

I locked the darkroom and headed toward the stairs. A cobweb-infested suitcase full of my ex-wife's belongings in the corner of the room caught my attention. Across the side of it, Mary had scrawled in marker, "Too much weight for the plane, I'll send for it." I married the wrong woman and I knew it, and eventually Mary knew it too. It didn't really surprise, or for that matter, hurt me when Mary left. But it stung - after being the kind of father who never missed a soccer game or school recital - when Amy followed her mother to Arizona. I had always considered my relationship with Amy a close one. So much for my keen eye.



The following morning, I entered the five-story gray brick building in downtown Bridgeport and settled into my ten by ten cubicle. My street-level office contrasted with the third-floor suite's view of Long Island Sound I once had shared with senior reporters before my demotion to the town government beat. My editor called as I slurped my second cup of coffee:

"All set to make deadline?"

"All set but not sure about Warren."

I told him about Becky's accusations and my futile interviews with the mayor and Felix Brothers. Equating the end of my investigation with closing the door on my chances with Becky, I said, "I think there's a lot more below the surface. This could be a big one."

"Okay. Just report on the town meeting for now. But dig deeper and, who knows, we may have ourselves a hell of a front-page story. You have three weeks."

I was thrilled.



A couple of days later Becky texted me.

"Happy Fourth of July."

"Same to you."

"Just checking... how are things with the story?"

"Nothing much yet. Fruitless meetings with mayor and Felix Brothers."

"Really appreciate your help."

"Just doing my job." I recalled Becky's warm, but firm grip when she'd grabbed my wrist after the meeting. I smiled at the thought of Becky's texting me at home on a holiday.

"You're not going to give up, are you?" she asked.

"No way. Just getting started."



I returned to work after the holiday weekend and approached my investigation with a singular focus. First, I filed a Freedom of Information request with the Warren town attorney, and several days later received permission to examine records at the town clerk's office. Then, despite obvious attempts to redact records with a marker, I found sufficient evidence that the town, as Becky suggested, accepted bids from Brothers' Refuse despite their bids being twenty-five percent higher than those from other companies. I also found tax write-offs of nonexistent town equipment, presumably used to compensate for overpayments to Brothers. With regard to Brothers' Refuse, over the following week, I searched the CT Judicial Website for lawsuits from other towns in the state. Finally, I visited the clerk's offices in corresponding courthouses to get further information from court staff and colleagues that I'd known for many years. My efforts yielded two existing cases against Brothers - one civil and two criminal.

By week's end I was physically and mentally spent. Now that I knew that Becky's suspicions about the town were warranted, my feelings seesawed from the elation of seeing my story on the paper's front page to terror at what punishment the mob may mete out in response.

When I got home, I grabbed a Bud from the refrigerator and crashed on my recliner. The light on my answering machine flashed. It was a message from Becky.

"Mitchell, I need to talk with you about something as soon as possible. Don't want to get into specifics until we meet."

It had something to do with the investigation, I assumed. But it could also have been a pretext to spending time with me. Romantic fantasies eddied around my head. A long drive? Weekend getaway? The image of kissing under the arch at Washington Square Park flashed across my mind. She didn't sound too happy with her husband, anyway. Made tons of money, but never gave her what she needed, I thought.

I called back and we agreed to meet the next day at a Starbucks in town. I donned my favorite lime green Polo shirt and beige khakis. It was a cloudy, humid day and despite air conditioning in my car, sweat pooled on my back seconds after I began the trip to Warren. Becky was waiting for me when I arrived. She wore a cotton sundress. Her reddish-brown tinted hair, pulled back and frizzy at the sides, made her look much younger. I inhaled the scent of vanilla and nutmeg from Becky's dress when we hugged. I'd later sniff the scent on my Polo shirt. Becky ordered a cappuccino and I a lemon tart. We settled into a tiny table and something jazzy - like Herbie Hancock - played from a CD player behind the counter.

Becky got down to business: Her lips quivered. "Some guy in a black Escalade SUV keeps following me."

"Following you where?" I gulped my coffee.

"Anywhere I go, like shopping or meeting my friends at a restaurant."

"Did you let the police know?"

Becky crumbled the crust of her lemon tart with her spoon. "I went down to the station. The officer took a report and I tried to answer his questions about where, when etc. Oh yeah, he wanted to know if I had issues with anyone."

"And?"

"I told him I accused the town of corruption at the recent meeting."

"What did he say to that?"

"It wasn't what he said. It was the dirty look, like I was crazy."

I told her how my investigation of town and judicial records corroborated her concerns and wondered if the police were in on the corruption. "Sorry you had to go through that. But it seems the cancer has metastasized."

"I'm freaking out. At night, I think I'll wake up to some guy with a machete standing at the foot of my bed." She showed me a platoon of goosebumps on her arm.

"Did you tell your husband?"

Becky clicked her tongue and exhaled. "Who's that? He's on location in LA. He told me to keep in touch with the police and make sure our security system is activated."

"That's good advice."

"It's pretty clear they want to shut me up."

For a moment, I thought of telling Becky about the white powdery substance sent to me and my subsequent panic attacks - but decided against it. I was ashamed of not being able to "snap out of it," as others in my line of work had been able to do.

"Can your daughter look in on you?"

"She has her own life, and Barry will be back in town in a few days."

I touched her arm. "Maybe I can help."

"How?"

"Next weekend is my weekend off. If you can wait a couple of days I'll ride around with you. We can get his plate number."



With four days to go before deadline, I met Becky at the Warren Town Green on a Saturday morning. It was a steamy day and heat rose from the asphalt as we drove around town several times in Becky's Saab. The Escalade never materialized. On Sunday, we repeated the routine. Still nothing. Just before parting for the day, we bought coffee at a Dunkin' Donuts drive-through and parked a few blocks away on a side street.

Becky turned to me. "Can you give me a smoke?"

"What about your coughing fits?"

"I'll take my chances."

I lit her one and one for myself. In unison we opened the car windows.

Becky pulled on her cigarette. An orange globe appeared on its tip. "Not much luck so far, eh? You think I made this whole thing up?"

"I have no idea. But I don't think you'd invent such a thing."

"We'll just have to keep trying."

"Sorry, but I can't keep driving around. I have to go back to work tomorrow."

Becky thrust out her lower lip in mock pouting. "That sucks. We'll just have to work around your schedule."

I nodded and glanced around the street for the Escalade.

She tilted her head. Her eyes, glinting gray, bore through me. "I have to ask you something."

"What?"

"Are you happy with your life? Did it turn out the way you wanted?"

It deeply moved me that Becky cared enough to ask me this, but I was ashamed to tell her how things hadn't gone the way I would have liked. I shrugged and looked away.

Becky squished what remained of her smoke in the car's center console ashtray and sipped her coffee. "I've thought a lot about you over the years. I've wondered if you found happiness."

My heart raced. But we both started when a police car, siren blaring, careened down the street. I threw my cigarette butt out the window. "Not really. I've had my disappointments."

Becky pointed to what I did. "That's disgusting."

I tried to smile. "Sorry, I don't usually do that."

"Can you talk about them?"

"About what?"

"Your disappointments."

"Do you interrogate all your ex-lovers?"

She grasped my hand. Her skin felt clammy. "I've had my share as well. But -"

"But you didn't let them poison your life. I'd bet you're pretty happy with the way it all went down."

"Overall, I guess, you're right. I try to look at the glass as half full."

"Maybe optimism isn't such a bad -"

"Shit, it's the Escalade," Becky shouted with her eyes fixed on the rearview mirror.

The SUV pulled alongside Becky's car. The tinted passenger window opened and the driver, who wore a stocking mask, made a finger-gun gesture and shouted, "Bang." The window went up and the vehicle tore off.

Becky lay her head on the steering wheel. I struggled to catch my breath as it felt like a boulder had lodged in my windpipe. I gently touched her shoulder. "Are you okay?"

"No, I'm not okay. And you don't look too good yourself." Becky slid closer to me and put her head on my shoulder.

A cocktail of longing for her and terror about the mob completing unfinished business with me, sluiced through me. I inhaled a few times to counter my light-headedness.

"You need to help me. The world has to know about this," she demanded.

"Let's go straight to the police."

"That's fine, but I don't know if I trust them either. Did you get the license plate number?"

I shook my head. "It all happened so fast."

"That's fucking great. No way I'm listening to the cops laugh at me when I go into the station without the plate number."

I was getting pissed. "Did you get the plate number?"

"No, you're supposed to be the reporter."

"Give me a break." I grabbed my cigarettes. "Want another?"

"If you don't mind."

After several beats I leaned closer to her. "I have a question for you, now."

"What?"

"These people mean business. Why go on with this?"

Becky's chin trembled. "As you might have guessed, things aren't so rosy with Barry and me."

She proceeded to tell me that, while doing laundry six months earlier, she'd found a woman's business card in her husband's shirt pocket. Barry, when confronted, had admitted to having drinks with a woman in a bar at LAX while they awaited their flight to New York City. He told Becky the woman, after several drinks, said she was the niece of Felix Brothers. In bits and pieces, she told him about the "sweetheart deal" her uncle had with the town of Warren.

"So that's how you learned about the corruption? You didn't hear it from your friend."

"Back when she told me about the kickbacks and the rest, it bothered me, but not enough to do anything about it."

"What changed?"

Becky ran her finger along the leather fabric of her seat. "At first, Barry denied anything happening between the two of them. Then for whatever reason, probably a good dose of guilt, he confessed to sleeping with her. I kicked him out of the house."

"You asking for a divorce?" I tried to feel sympathy for her marital situation. But also hoped that the answer to my question would be an unequivocal "Yes."

"He's begging to come back home. He said the fling's over. But I haven't made up my mind."

"Your husband's affair sucks, but I still don't get why you're so intent on your crusade."

"That bastard left me feeling helpless and humiliated. I can't change what he's done to my marriage. But I can do something about the sleaze - as you put it, the cancer that's wormed its way into our town."

"I understand how strongly you feel about this. But I don't think you're taking into account the risks of stirring things up with these people. I think, you... no we... need to lie low for a while. Let things cool off."

"What about the story?"

"I don't know, to be honest." At that point the worst-case scenario for bowing out of the investigation - losing Becky and getting fired - was still better than being found face down in the waters of Long Island Sound.

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Just like it sounds. I don't know."

"Goddammit. When did you become such a pussy? I think I've had just about enough of you."

"The feeling's mutual." By the time the words left my mouth I regretted them.

We drove in silence and Becky dropped me off at the town green where I'd parked my car. A hollow feeling enveloped me as it did the last time Becky had walked out of my life. After the breakup in 1969, penniless and grief-stricken, I had trudged to my parents' house and spent my days sleeping and getting on the nerves of my old man, a MENSA member and unemployed advertising executive. At night, I drank his booze and bummed my mother's cigarettes. Eight months later, when I began to say I no longer wanted to live, my parents took me to a shrink who diagnosed my problem as "Complicated Grief Reaction." Under my parents' roof, I gradually stopped drinking and sleeping all day. But my disillusionment about life - the seeds of which were sowed at the time I graduated from college - germinated after my breakup with Becky. I became hard-hearted. The dreamer became a cynic.

Back in my car, I peered out of the windshield. I felt like a pawn in a bored housewife's project to escape her marital woes. At the same time, I realized I had my own agenda and, as such, had been a willing participant in Becky's project. And now that I balked about running the story, I'd lose her again. I couldn't let that happen.



I went into the office Monday morning, two days before deadline, and pulled together all the information I'd gleaned about the town's relationship with Brothers' Refuse, then filed my story. My editor made good on his promise and the story made front page headlines the following day. My boss congratulated me and served coffee and chocolate cake in my honor for the reporters. For the first time in years I felt a shift, a softening in the center of my chest. A new chapter in my life was about to begin. My thoughts turned to Amy with her spirited nature and wry sense of humor. Without the slightest hesitation, I called her and arranged a visit to Arizona. She was thrilled to hear from me.



Two days later, Becky and I met on the town green. Becky had a copy of my story in her hand.

"Whew," I said, "Glad that's done."

"One of the best pieces of writing I've seen anywhere," Becky said with a broad smile.

I felt like my body rose off the ground a few feet, but the sensation of it crashing to the ground quickly followed as I recalled the mob's penchant for reprisal. However, acknowledging my fears would only taint my special time with Becky; no way I'd come across as weak and neurotic. "Since the story came out, I haven't even thought about the mob."

"Me neither. But we shall see," Becky said.

"Now that we're done with our investigation, what about us?" I asked.

Becky arched her eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"What now?"

Becky grabbed my wrist. Her grip was relaxed, her skin cool. "Nothing I guess. Like you suggested, I'm going to lie low. Besides, Barry's home and we decided to give our marriage another try."

My body clenched up. "Oh."

I shifted my gaze to the street, where a black Escalade SUV slowed down in front of the green.

5 comments:

  1. Entertaining story. Moves along really well. Reporter becomes the fall guy who fell for the femme fatale. He had his doubts, but decided to give love one more chance. Uh oh! Kind of has the feel of the old detective stories from the Bogart and Chinatown Movie days. I like the humour, also. Reading this, I understand the effort and time that went into conceiving the plot, characters, and theme. Lots of work.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I would have been surprised if the story had turned out well.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Well, she certainly played him like a fiddle. I’d be interested in the sequel.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Nice contemporary update of an old theme.

    ReplyDelete
  5. An entertaining story. Some things never change. Perhaps, given time, he'd realise he'd had a lucky break in not having his heart broken a second time. Clever ending on an upbeat note with father and daughter re-connecting.
    Beryl.

    ReplyDelete