Let Me Whisper in Your Ear
By Mary Jane Clark
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Mary Jane Clark
All rights reserved.
Tuesday, December 21
"When I think of you, I think of death."
Laura Walsh, carefully balancing a stack of videotapes in her arms, turned to her boss and grinned.
"Gee, thanks, Mike. I really appreciate that."
She'd done it again. Sometimes it bothered her how much satisfaction she took from it. Professional satisfaction. She'd been prepared and had done her work well.
A human death. Usually, a sad event, leaving complicated repercussions for those left behind. But for Laura Walsh, death was a rush, at least in certain circumstances.
Today, it was an old movie star, long rumored to be failing. Laura had been ready to roll. Within minutes of the death announcement made by the actress's press agent, a two-minute video package recapping the screen legend's life was running on the KEY Television Network for millions of viewers to see.
If they thought of it at all, the TV audience probably marveled at how quickly the television newspeople got everything assembled and on the air. So much research must go into deciding what to include and what to leave out when boiling a lifetime down to two minutes. Let alone coming up with a script. Didn't that take some time to write? Just getting the old movie clips had to be a project. How did they do it all at almost a moment's notice?
The fact was, they didn't. Laura Walsh had written and produced the movie star's obituary months before she actually died.
"Ghoulish," "creepy," "gross," "morbid" were just some of the comments Laura got from people when she told them what she did for a living. But Laura loved her job. When working on her selected project — or "victim," as Mike Schultz called it — Laura did not think of herself as the "Angel of Death" her co-workers teasingly dubbed her. Rather, she saw herself in a position of responsibility. She wanted to do her subject justice, knowing that the images she chose would be seen across the United States and, eventually — through the various and complicated syndication deals that KEY News had with foreign broadcasters — her work would be seen around the world.
The obits were wrap-ups of a noteworthy person's life and career. A mini-biography. She knew others at KEY News might think her corny, but Laura felt honored to produce the videotaped obituaries.
She also knew that she was quite young to be in a position of such responsibility. At twenty-eight, she'd only graduated from college six years ago. Thanks to a lucky internship break, Laura had worked the summer before graduation as a clerical assistant in the offices of Hourglass, the network's top-rated news magazine show. To Laura's continuing good fortune, the always glamorous and sometimes acerbic Gwyneth Gilpatric, the broadcast's star correspondent, took Laura under her very impressive wing.
"Don't let any of these head cases around here scare you," Gwyneth had reassured Laura. "Most of these people are really pretty decent. It's the ego and the pressure that make them seem so driven. Just realize that if they scream, or yell, or act like you don't exist, it's because they're so involved in what they're doing and because they're terrified that they aren't going to make deadline or might make a mistake. It's no fun getting it wrong when millions of people are watching."
Laura tried to remember Gwyneth's advice whenever one of the Hourglass producers or editors snapped at her that summer. They worried constantly about keeping their jobs. Joel Malcolm, the executive producer of Hourglass, had let it be known in no uncertain terms that he intended to knock 60 Minutes off its first-place perch over at CBS. Anyone who did not do his or her part to further that goal had no place on the Hourglass staff.
That had been the general feeling throughout Laura's six years at KEY News as she worked her way up from her extremely low-paying first job after graduation as a desk assistant, then broadcast assistant, followed by assistant producer and, now, associate producer. They were taking names at KEY News. If you fouled up, you were out. There was no place for excuses or second-bests.
So far, Laura had been more than okay, a golden girl. Her bosses liked her, gradually giving her more and more responsibilities as they grew to trust the judgment and skills they thought remarkable in someone so young. They did not know that she often came to work in the morning with a knot in her stomach, worried about what the day would bring. Or that there were nights she'd wake up at three o'clock, anxiously tossing and turning until dawn, insecure thoughts about how she might mess up running through her head. They did not know about the "feelings" she sometimes got, but everybody seemed happy about the results of those feelings ... unquestioning when Laura had her obits ready even when her subject was not expected to die.
"I'm telling you, Gwyneth, it will be a fantastic segment — 'Death at the Amusement Park,'" Joel Malcolm raved, pacing his spacious office. "Your pet Laura Walsh came up with the idea. She's trying to get a job on the broadcast, you know."
"No, I didn't know," said Gwyneth icily.
Joel pressed on. "And if we don't do it soon, it will be too late. All the old-timers will be dead and there will be no one left to interview who was around at the time." Joel lit a cigarette, ignoring the KEY News no-smoking dictum.
Gwyneth Gilpatric, dressed in a cornflower-colored cashmere blazer designed to make her keen blue eyes bluer still, sat stone-faced on the sofa. She stared out the picture window, one of the few at KEY News, and studied the snow- covered banks of the New Jersey cliffs on the other side of the Hudson River.
"Palisades Amusement Park isn't there anymore, Joel." Gwyneth sighed, her hand going gracefully to her throat, stroking her neck absentmindedly. "They tore it down to build a high-rise condominium complex, remember?"
Undaunted by the lack of enthusiasm from his star, Malcolm pressed on persistently.
"Yeah, but we have great old newsreel stuff. We can paint a picture of the legendary old Palisades Park with its simple Funhouse, Tunnel of Love, and the ancient wooden roller coaster, and tie it in with the death of a boy — a death that's taken thirty years to come to the surface."
Gwyneth carefully picked an expensively tinted ash-blond hair off her jacket shoulder.
Joel continued his pitch. "People were thrilled with simple things then," he reminisced. "Hell, I can remember as a kid, my parents would take me to Palisades every summer. I looked forward to it all year."
"Slumming, Joel?" Gwyneth knew that Malcolm lived in the Fifth Avenue duplex he had grown up in and inherited from his parents. The last time he had the apartment appraised, it was valued at twelve million dollars.
"Tell me you never went to Palisades, Gwyneth. You, who grew up in one of those big houses next door in Fort Lee. You never went to the park?"
"Of course I did, Joel." Gwyneth sighed with exasperation.
"Wasn't it the best?"
"It was okay." Gwyneth was conceding nothing.
"Fine. Sneer if you must. But it's the truth: I loved that old place. Loved riding the Cyclone, loved not getting sick on the Round Up when everyone else did, loved gawking at the two-headed calf in the freak show, and the cow with six legs."
Joel looked momentarily hurt, but he shrugged it off. "I suppose I was a showman even then. There is nothing I like better than a good show, and I'm telling you, Gwyneth, this will be a great show for Hourglass. We can get it done in time for the February 'book.'"
The "book" was the bible of commercial television. The ratings of the programs broadcast during each of the four sweeps periods determined what advertisers would pay for commercial time in the months to follow. The networks aired what they thought would be their most sensational programming for sweeps in February, May, July and November.
"So there's nothing you like better than a good show, huh?" Gwyneth decided to try distracting him, uncrossing her legs and leaning back slightly against the buttery smooth leather cushions.
His eyes lit up and he stomped out his cigarette. Joel crossed the room and took a seat close to Gwyneth on the sofa.
"We'll make a decision about it in the new year. How's that, kiddo?" he whispered as he began to kiss Gwyneth's long, graceful neck.
No, we won't, thought Gwyneth. The decision is made. You just don't know it yet.
Felipe Cruz's hand trembled as he hung up the white receiver onto the telephone mounted on the kitchen wall. Without seeing, he stared at the red tomatoes and orange carrots printed on the wallpaper they'd hung in an effort to cheer up the old kitchen.
How was he going to tell Marta?
The test results were back. The DNA testing, which he'd only first heard of during the O. J. Simpson trial, now solved, at least partially, the agonizing mystery that had plagued their lives for the past thirty years. Three decades spent in despair and depression, worrying and wondering. Half of their lifetimes. Lives that they marked as "before" and "after" Tommy disappeared.
The DNA tests were done on samples taken from a pile of bones found by construction workers in early December as they dug the foundation out of the cold ground for yet another high-rise apartment complex scheduled to perch atop the prime real estate of the Palisades. The Cliffside Park police called the Cruzes to alert them that the examination had shown that the bones were those of an adolescent. Felipe and Marta had not slept through the night in the two weeks since they'd given their own genetic samples to authorities for comparison.
Now they knew. After thirty years of living in a state of heartbroken anticipation, clinging to what became an increasingly desperate and faint hope, they finally knew. DNA, a human being's genetic road map, ultimately marked the location of their only child. The bones were Tommy's.
God, forgive me. It's a relief.
Now, at least this Christmas, they knew that Tommy was not still out there somewhere. The years had just crept along. Tommy's birthdays rolled by. The first without him had been the worst. Then his fourteenth, his fifteenth ... his fortieth, forty-first, forty-second. Somehow, they had survived, always praying and wondering if their son would turn up one day. And, if he did come back into their lives, what horrors would he have lived through? Many nights, year after year, Felipe had rocked a sobbing Marta in his arms in the dark as they speculated on what could have happened to their son. And then they stopped speculating. Out loud, at least. They could not talk about it anymore. Not if they wanted to go on living.
The pain was so great that at times they discussed how they might kill themselves. They agreed that they would — if not for their religion. Devout Roman Catholics, they believed that they must live out their lives, no matter how painful, according to God's will.
Felipe felt a tug in his chest. How could God have wanted this? he wondered.
Marta would be home from the market soon. Felipe paced the kitchen floor, mentally rehearsing what he was going to say. But then he realized that the moment Marta saw his face, she would know. He would not have to come up with the words to tell the mother of his son that their boy was dead and had been rotting less than a mile from their house for the last thirty years.
But Felipe was going to have to come up with a way to tell his wife that the examination of what was left of Tommy's bones showed that almost every one of them had been broken and that the police held out little hope of tracking down the owner of the silver chain and marcasite cross that they had found lying among Tommy's remains.
Wednesday, December 22
Cold, gray December always brought the dreaded Yearenders.
Three days before Christmas, Laura sat at her desk, yellow highlighter in hand, poring over a computer listing of all the people whose deaths had warranted an obituary in the New York Times over the past year. The printout was as thick as Gone with the Wind.
Next year, I'm not doing this, she promised herself. While most people are making out their Christmas lists, I'm making my list and checking it twice, all right. A list of the dead.
Laura swept her blond bangs back from her forehead, instinctively rubbing the thin scar above her browline, and sighed. This was the last thing she wanted to be doing. Not because it was a ghoulish task in the otherwise cheery holiday season. In fact, she found it rather interesting, reading upon who had died over the previous twelve months. Even though she followed the news very closely, there were always some people she'd forgotten or missed — the ones who were not household names, who did not get a full television obit when they died, but who were noteworthy enough to get a write-up in the national newspaper of record.
No, it wasn't the work that bothered her. It was the timing. There was just so much to do at this time of the year. The socializing, the shopping, the rushing, the wrapping. It was stressful enough to get all that done. Who needed to be worried about choosing the top-sixty croakers?
Come on, Laura, she chided herself. Don't be cynical. You know you want it to be good. Every KEY television station will use it.
The Yearender piece would run on New Year's Eve. Two minutes and thirty seconds of flashes of the faces of those who had gone on to their rewards, set against some appropriate music. This year, Laura had selected the signature song of a legendary singer who had died a few months earlier.
She knew it would come out well. It always did. She'd done several of these Yearenders now and, each time, when they played out to the network, her newsroom co-workers watched, fascinated. They were a tough crowd, most of them not given to compliments. But even some of the most jaded could be moved by the combination of visual images, wonderful music and thoughts of people who had all made impressive marks on this world, passing on to whatever comes next.
Laura always felt satisfied after the Yearender was done. But mostly she felt relieved. Relieved that she'd made another deadline and that she could then pay a little attention to her personal life, such as it was.
Being a producer assigned to the KEY News Bulletin Center meant that Laura's life was not her own. When she accepted the position, she knew it meant that she would be constantly on call. Weekends, holidays and vacations were only fully her own as long as no major news story broke. If something big happened, the beeper, her constant companion, would sound and she was expected to call in to KEY News headquarters immediately and, most often, report in person quickly thereafter. In the year she'd worked in the Bulletin Center, she'd left dozens of dinners uneaten, and days off interrupted.
Whenever she felt a bit sorry for herself, when the rest of the world seemed to work a normal schedule, without fear of having a random act of violence or a whim of Mother Nature cut one's plans short, Laura reminded herself that there were lots of people who lived this way. Police and firefighters staffed their departments around the clock. Hospital doctors and nurses had to make sure their institutions were covered twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.
In fact, when reflecting on it, Laura thought that KEY News was a lot like a hospital. The fine surgery was performed on KEY Evening Headlines and on the magazine shows like Hourglass, where untold hours of excruciating exactitude were spent perfecting every aspect of each broadcast. The Bulletin Center was more like the hospital emergency room. The correspondents, producers and editors assigned to Bulletin duty dealt with whatever the news gods blew their way, and they dealt with it immediately. Seconds counted in being first on the air with the news and beating the competition.
Laura was so engrossed in going over her obituary list, she jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"Hey, Laura, how's it going?" Mike Schultz loomed over her desk.
"Getting there," Laura answered, capping her highlighter. "I've whittled down the list to the most important dead people — now we just have to keep our fingers crossed that no one else dies in the next nine days."
"You can bet somebody big will buy the farm before the year's out," Mike replied.
Laura nodded, knowing her boss was right. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Let Me Whisper in Your Ear by Mary Jane Clark. Copyright © 2000 Mary Jane Clark. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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