Michael J. Vaughn
Doris died this morning.
I was cycling home from Saratoga. They had one of those flashing signs next to the onramp.
DID YOU WITNESS ACCIDENT
11 AM TODAY THIS INTERSECTION?
CALL SAN JOSE PD
It was Doris. She had an appointment in Saratoga at 11:30. She would have been right there. I crunched over the broken glass and hurried home.
Nobody knew Doris as well as I did. That’s why, until this business was straightened out, it was my job to take over her life. I checked her desk, found a story that was past deadline, and called the number at the top of the page.
“Hi. Is this Ellen Puscati?”
“Hi. This is Doris Bowls. From the Courier? I’m writing a story on your honors assembly.”
“Oh, yes. I remember.”
“I needed to find out if the math winner, Jeremy Wong, is in sixth grade or seventh.”
“He’s in sixth.”
“Great! Thanks so much.”
Well! That was painless. I pulled up the story on Doris’s computer, changed Jeremy’s grade, then sent it off to the editor in Cupertino. It was odd that Mrs. Puscati hadn’t questioned my identity, but perhaps Doris had done the rest of the interview by email.
I studied her calendar and found a school board meeting for the afternoon. I had no idea what the issues were, but I arrived to find a group of parents protesting the impending closure of a charter school. After the board finished its opening discussion, I jumped in with a question.
“Mr. Hiram, how much of the final decision will depend on the physical facilities offered by each of the campuses?”
“That’s a good question, Doris. I would say it certainly…”
The rest of the answer swept right past me. Why had he called me Doris? People occasionally mistook us for sisters, but still…
Thankfully, the protesting parents delegated their statements to a select trio of speakers. I went to one of them afterward, asked a couple follow-up questions, then headed home to try out a first draft.
I was thankful that Doris was a freelancer. That way, I didn’t have to go to the office and end up breaking the bad news. Let them read about Doris’s death in the police reports.
It’s so sad about Doris. She always had such promise! At J-school, she was clearly the leader of our class, and it was no surprise, senior year, when we elected her editor. Nor when she led us to more statewide honors than any other staff in school history.
She was a classic newshound: hard-nosed, fearless. She would always lead with the question the rest of use were afraid to ask. She was good on the back-end, too – would always check her facts three different ways before they saw print. We figured it would be no time at all before she was at some big-city daily, doing intricate investigative pieces.
But we didn’t bet on newsroom politics. Doris’s drive, her adherence to principles, made her editors uncomfortable. They pulled her from the big-ticket items and stuck her with florist openings, art festivals. She plugged away nonetheless, certain that hard work would eventually pay off.
Then came the turn in the economy, and they laid her off. The paper’s new formula was overworked editors, spinning the scratchings of college interns into gold. Doris hung on by freelancing the schools beat, at fifty dollars a story. Compared to her dreams, it was a mean, piddling existence. I have no idea how she handled it.
I was always the mellow one, less ambitious, less comfortable with the rough edges of hard news. But I did have luck. I latched on to a new genre, the lifestyle feature, just as it was gaining cachet in the newsrooms of America. What kind of effect did the move of women into the workplace have on the raising of children? What did the retro-swing craze say about the eternal ability of teens to confound their parents? How did VW and Apple manage to turn cuteness into a marketing principle? Interesting questions, but not the reason the post-Woodward and Bernstein generation became journalists. We were supposed to change the world, one stunning expose at a time.
The final jackpot was a fluke. A friend took me to a rave, and I became fascinated by the video jockeys. Originally intended as a sideshow to the techno music, their high-speed imagery had become the star of the show, the golden calf in a semi-religious community trance. I dove deep, interviewing dozens of VJs, the club owners who hired them, the curators who brought the new art form into their galleries.
I sold the story to a local rock mag called Creep. Strictly small potatoes, but with an unexpected bonus. Creep’s online edition was a favorite late-night destination for John McLaren, features editor for the Village Voice. When he called to ask for reprint rights, I thought it was a friend playing a cruel joke. Then they called me with assignments. Then a job as a contributing editor. Then John moved on to Random House, and I became features editor for the most revered alternative weekly in the country. I live in the East Village, and I roam the lifestyle trends of the world, soaking it up like a well-paid sponge.
But I’ll never be as good as Doris.
I was sitting at her table, sipping tea, when I spotted a note next to the phone: Dinner w/Paul, 8 p.m. Wed. Holy shit! That was in a half-hour. I had no idea how I was going to break the news to him – but I figured I should at least be presentable, so I showered and dressed.
When I answered the door, Paul kissed me! I decided I’d better play my part. Perhaps he knew about the accident, and was in some kind of shock.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Let me get a coat.” I picked out one of Doris’s, the Russian blue with the embroidered collar, hoping that the familiarity would provide some comfort.
We went to a little Mexican place around the corner. Not the ritziest, but the kind of good, inexpensive restaurant that a struggling young couple depends upon. I ordered Doris’s favorite, chiles rellenos, and listened as Paul told stories from work. He was a park ranger – solid job, healthy environment, but I always thought Doris could have done better. Someone with more of an income could have offered her some options in life: go back to school, get a master’s; write a book.
He was good in bed, though. Doris had said as much. In musical terms, you could say he had a good dynamic range. He started with the smallest of touches, in all the right places, but by the end he was drilling me silly, holding a fistful of my hair for leverage. After a half-hour, we traded orgasms and collapsed. I lay on the bed like a ragdoll, limbs hanging on by stitches. I guess it was ecstasy overload that made me slip up.
“Doris is a lucky girl.”
Paul leaned up on an elbow. “You know, you gotta stop that third-person shit. It’s beginning to creep me out.”
I wasn’t sure how much I should tell him, whether he was ready for this.
“I’m just leading Doris’s life for her.”
“There!” he said. “That, too. Why do you keep saying that? What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Why are you so upset, Paul?” Jesus! I had taken this ruse all the way to bed to spare his feelings, and now he was giving me grief for it!
Paul stood up and pulled on his jeans. “You know goddamn well why I’m upset.”
“So… you know about the accident?” I asked.
The accident with Doris. This morning, next to the offramp. She was… killed.”
“This is about Christine, isn’t it? ‘Oh, Christine’s at the Village Voice and I’m not.’ ‘Christine’s in the big city and I’m stuck here with my underachieving boyfriend.’ It gets old, Doris. It gets really old. Your life may not be so fucking grand as Christine’s, but if you ever paid attention, you’d see you’ve got some pretty good things going on. I thought… I thought I was one of them.”
I looked at him with as much sympathy as I could and said, “But Paul, I am Christine.”
Paul grabbed his shirt and shoes in a bundle and shook it at me.
“You are sick. I really suggest you get some help. Meanwhile, I’ve got a wide circle of friends who’ve been telling me to stop taking this shitty treatment, and I guess they’re right. You can take the underachieving boyfriend off your list of life’s disappointments. Goodbye!
He slammed the door. I sat in the dark, listening to the purple hum of my sadness, then lit up a sandalwood candle and gave myself a good cry. My mistake was clear: I shouldn’t have told him so soon, I should have played along a little longer. For the sake of everyone else, I would have to remain Doris for a few more days.