Once again, Jay has work to do.
He sits at his desk amidst the half-empty Banner newsroom in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, looking around nervously, absentmindedly, at his collection of politically-incorrect desk adornments: The metal mudflap girl he brought home from a story on long-distance truckers. There's Wicked Willy, the pop-up rubber penis Betty Jean gave him as gag birthday gift. And the Far Side cartoon, supposedly written by Gary Larson the child, showing stick figures playing volleyball, with one reaching up for his head that isn't there and another, across the net, holding something round, screaming ``Ewwwwwwww! That's not the ball!''
Then there is Jay's favorite. The cover from a 1987 Texas Monthly magazine. It shows a character with slicked-back hair and a black short-sleeved T-shirt. The man's big arms are wrapped a woman, a Texas-style vixen with come-fuck-me eyes and pouting ruby-red lips. The couple's embrace is sexy but playful, under a headline that reads: ``Too Cool To Be Married.''
But Jay Gleeson is married. And his wife is home in bed, with her best friend, Darlene, there to watch over her. The firefighters at the gas station had revived her and a paramedic on the scene had administered a sedative. Jay took Betty Jean right home and, after walking her, groggy and disoriented, into their bed, telephoned Darlene. Then he called the Banner newsroom and talked to weekend city editor James Henderson, a hard-bitten editor who came to work at the paper as a young reporter in the 1950s. When Henderson heard about the grisly scene Jay had witnessed, his instincts for an exclusive story kicked in. He told the reporter to come in that afternoon to write a first-person account of the suicide, a Sunday morning eye-opener that would run on the next morning's front page along with the news account of the tragedy.
Moments after he hung with Henderson, Jay received a call from Banner editor Robert Brickwell, who didn't even take the time to introduce himself, just started in talking, motor-mouthed, assuming Jay would know who he was, encouraging him to ``write the hell'' out of the story.
``Make it sing, Gleeson,'' he said forcefully. ``And if you don't know the words, make it hum.''
Jay rolled his eyes at this cheerleading mantra Brickwell used to pump up reporters in his newsroom to cover, report and write the big stories.
``Put our readers right there at that gas station, watching that woman burn,'' Brickwell continued. ``I want them to see it, smell it, to hear what it's like to witness a human body engulfed in flames. I want letters to the editor, Gleeson. Lots of 'em. This is your chance. Now, get in that newsroom and get to work.''
Brickwell said he planned to show up at 4:30 that afternoon to edit the story personally. Jay glances up nervously at the clock: 2:48 p.m. He has less than 90 minutes to make sense of what he has seen, as he stood there, mouth open in silent horror, the gas pump held tightly with both hands, Al bumped rudely from his mindset.
Two desks away, police reporter Gustaf Warren is on the telephone, talking it up with his sources in the homicide unit of the San Diego Police Department, trying to flesh out the details of the dead woman's past. Bespectacled, pot-bellied, 40ish, Warren's movements are herky-jerky. He twirls a pencil into the air as he talks, catching it with one hand, then suddenly thrusts it skyward, looking up to watch it stick in the ceiling with a half-dozen other pens and pencils, like some mismatched steno-pool dart board. Taped to the ceiling, the target for the shots, is a frowning picture of Warren's ex-wife, Terry, who, two years ago, ran off to Berkeley with her lesbian lover, but not before writing a scathing expose of their marriage in the city's alternative weekly, a piece headlined ``Woof!'' in which she claimed her husband regularly had peanut-butter-induced oral sex with the couple's orange Labrador Retriever, named Wrecks.
The story devastated Warren's professional life at the Banner. While feigning sympathy, the editors moved him from the political beat to night cops, a graveyard shift that amounted to baby-sitting the telephone between midnight and 8 a.m., making endless calls to bored and snotty dispatchers in a dozen different police departments covered by the Banner. And behind his back, they laughed — his editors, his co-workers, the people he dealt with professionally.
Often, Warren would hear the howling of police department pranksters in the background, as though the dispatcher on the line were pointing to the receiver and guffawing to the group at Warren's expense.
In the newsroom, a number of spineless comedians had taped pictures of different dogs on his desk, doggie foldouts scrawled with insulting subtitles like ``Homewrecker!'' and ``Boner!'' and ``Penis butter'' which Warren would calmly take down and store in a bottom drawer at his desk. Worse yet, reporters, heartless creatures at best when it came to making light of other people's misfortunes, started calling Warren ``Woof'' behind his back. Even the top editors joined in the back-stabbing.
Jay always felt sorry for the guy, the unlucky son-of-a-bitch, and told Betty Jean that the locked-up personal closets of most reporters and editors at the Banner were undoubtedly filled with such juicy embarrassing tidbits, and worse. Secretly, he was glad Betty Jean wasn't a writer.
For now, he thought, his secrets were safe.
Jay leans back in his chair and calls over to Warren.
``Yo, dudely, we got an identity on the woman yet?''
Warren raises his right index finger, motioning that he's on the line. Then, wrinkling his face, he shakes his right hand back and forth furiously at waist level, the jerk-off gesture that in the Banner newsroom signifies that someone — usually a city official or politician or industry flak — is going on ad nauseam over the line and that he can't get a word into the conversation.
``Reaaaally,'' Warren finally says into the line. ``No shit!''
Jay watches him move his chair over to his computer and begin to type furiously, his head cocked to the left, cradling the receiver. Finally, Warren covers the mouthpiece.
``Name's Julie Weathers,'' he says. ``Common spelling on both the first and last names. Lives up in Escondido. Her dad's a cop who reported her missing a week ago.''
Warren switches the receiver to the other hand and, keeping it covered, leans closer to Jay, lowering his voice.
``Apparently, the guy blew a fucking fuse when he found out how she died. He stormed the police station. It took three of his cop buddies to hold him down.''
Warren laughs. ``Kicked one of them in the nuts. Sent the poor fucker to the hospital. Seems like he blames the daughter's boyfriend for what happened. Swears he's going to kill him.''
Jay writes the name into his reporter's notebook.
``They have a motive yet?''
``Uh-uh,'' Warren shakes his head. ``But they searched her apartment near downtown San Diego. Apparently, they found some kind of suicide note. Right now they're not saying squat about what's in it. Word is, the old man is throwing his weight around the department, trying to keep the thing sealed. He's meeting with the chief right now.''
Jay looks up at the clock. He's got little more than an hour now to write his story.
``Thanks, Woof,'' he says, unable to catch himself. Silently cursing his loose tongue, he sneaks a look back at Warren, who has twirled around to again face the computer, apparently unaware of the slip, carrying on one of those snickering, truth and gossip, let's-revel-in-the-misery-of-the-other-guy conversations reporters have with their sources on a big story.
Jay slouches back to his desk. For a moment he can feel the cool ocean breezes along the scenic La Jolla coastline, where he and Betty Jean should have been pedaling right about now. Then the slide projector in his brain switches to the fiery image of Julie Weathers, writhing, contorting on the pavement in front of him. He pauses, recalling how his initial instinct was not to try and save her but one of rescuing Betty Jean, running to Betty Jean to somehow save her from the ferocity of this fatal vision. And then, seeing her face, seeing her cringe on the ground, realizing that it was too late.
Jay and Betty Jean and Albino Barney had all been interviewed by police at the scene that morning. Unknowingly, Jay had become part of the story, had witnessed something he now wishes he could close his eyes to, but must now write graphically about, recalling and retelling the gruesome images just to satisfy the abject curiosity of people like Robert Brickwell and the rest of the ambulance chasers. It was the part of journalism he detested.
But if has to do it, he thinks, then he's going to do his best. He looks into his blank computer screen, takes a habitual glance up at the ticking clock, but he can't get his mind off Betty Jean: He knows this morning has rudely upset the little-girl in her, the woman-child who gushes at puppies and little old men on park benches, the fresh innocent who's still afraid of monsters in the closet and scary movies, a woman who holds his hand tightly when they take walks after dark.
He wants to go home, wants to log off his computer and run from the building, driving high speed back to their bedroom and tell her that everything is going to be all right, that he won't let the visions come for her, come back looking for her at night, that he'll be there beside her to help her figure it all out.
But first, there's a story to write. At deadline minus forty-five minutes, Jay manages to squeeze forth the first words on a story that will change his life:
``For Julie Weathers, death came painfully, senselessly Saturday morning in a self-lit burst of flames whose ferocity and purpose rivaled the fires of hell itself.''
Write "Ellavon" at email@example.com.
Released: January 31, 1998