Each year with the coming of autumn, on the third Friday of October, the Journalist’s Guild announces the winner of the George W. Hitchcock Prize for Investigative Journalism at its annual ceremonial dinner. For the last 30 years it has been held in the Clarkson Ballroom of the Vanderbilt Hotel in Boston, the last place you might expect from a profession for whom rudeness often does the job of a calling card. The Clarkson was, and still is, an integral part of old Boston. Its continuing elegance serves as a reminder of the privileged people who once called this room their own. The silk curtains, now slightly thread bare in places, have grown more beautiful with age, as have the Persian rugs at the entrance. The parquet floor, polished for well over a century, has acquired a fine patina. Fierce pride created the Clarkson. Devoted care, some say, religiously inspired, has maintained it.
Until the 1970’s reporters were welcomed at the Clarkson with the same degree of enthusiasm as cockroaches or mice. They were interlopers, to be kept at a safe distance from the guests. That changed when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein publicly assassinated the President of the United States, and were hailed as heroes by a grateful public. Those were the best of times in journalism, an era when irreverence was worshipped and limits disappeared. Time Magazine took the attack to the highest level of authority with its 1966 cover. Posted in fiery red letters it asked “Is God Dead?” There was no reply but when Nixon was sent packing that seemed almost as definitive.
Watergate stirred the idealism of a generation of dragon slaying youths who imagined that the practice of journalism would be heroic. Only later, after Princess Diana was hounded to her death by crazed news gatherers, did the downside become clear. Too many Bambis in suburbia spread Lyme disease and left shrubbery devastated. Spawned by Watergate glory, too many brash young journalists, eventually multiplied into paparazzi.
Not that journalists’ influence diminished as their image became tarnished. On the contrary, the opposite-- it has grown and grown. Like the nation’s daily supply of oil, milk, corn, and meat, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, hundreds of TV channels and thousands of newspapers must be certain their output is maintained. Not just news. The market for talk is enormous. Great singers, dancers, actors possess gifts that make them celebrities. Same with those who have a gift for friendly gab. Oprah, O’Reilly, Dr. Phil, Depak Chopra, countless gurus, experts, and nuts fill a conversation void. If religion was once the opium of the masses, today’s masses prefer media massages. Newscasters, analysts, magazine articles, interviewers set the table for the marketplace of ideas. They police political correctness. They outline and debate the good, firing away at anyone and everyone. It is their job, they now say, a free press, guardians of the truth, revealers of the lie. Since Viet Nam, a parade of former presidents, every last one, Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and the two Bushes, have been grievously wounded by adversarial reporting. The media’s ability to choose what is shown determines the public’s consensus on most issues, which leads to charges of bias. Sometimes the charges are true, but if every one of our leaders has become a target, is it bias or has there been a more fundamental change? .
It no longer takes an army to usurp power. In modern democracies the index finger has replaced the sword. The ancient Chinese kept their emperors hidden in the Forbidden City. The Hebrews were not allowed to make an image of their god, the holy of the holiest. It was a sin to pronounce his name. Can leaders rule for long when they can be dismissed at will from their subjects’ bedroom televisions with a click of the remote control? Can authority be maintained when blogs can set reputations on fire? History will eventually decide if it was good for our society to have our leaders so consistently made ineffectual. For now, however, reality, not reason, is all that matters. Power is power. The ability to bring down presidents has earned journalists a place at the table, earned them better entry into the Clarkson, through the front door, instead of the back.
Entrance yes, but no one can completely control information. Nor passions. “Off with their heads” cried the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland. Satisfied once, Madame LaFarge’s appetite for justice could not be sated. The apotheosis of people power may be authority blowing in the wind, which is to say, once aroused the public functions like a mob. Members of the media itself, can become the target. That is why presenting the Hitchcock Prize in a stately, dignified location such as the Clarkson has become more important than ever. The hope is that it will create an atmosphere where journalists seem above the fray. The Chairman of the Awards Committee, Lester Symington made it clear in his opening remarks to the Committee. “The celebration of the Hitchcock Prize deserves an environment befitting the accomplishment.” He would have preferred the Royal Palace in Stockholm (although the Nobel Prize actually is awarded in a rented concert hall). But, be that as it may, the perfect pedigree of the Clarkson Ballroom, its opulent touches and unerring good taste evokes a suitable hallowed aura
Only there are wrinkles in that fabric of virtue. From the very beginning, the Clarkson aura, so beloved by traditionalists, pissed off an important contingent of journalists, those who believed the ballroom in the Vanderbilt Hotel is the last place journalists belong. According to them, being a guest at the Clarkson was the same as consorting with the enemy. Generally this group entered the profession in the 60’s and 70’s and were part of the counter culture, They claimed journalism’s enhanced status as their own. If it weren’t for them, they argued, American presidents would menace the world worse than they already do.
Their opponents pointed out that a stately chapel gives dignity and authority to the Hitchcock Prize. When sitting in judgment our wisest of the wise, our Supreme Court justices, do not indulge in a casual dress day. They wear black robes, not Levis, when they impart their carefully reasoned decrees. This, and the fine chamber where their decisions are rendered, help establish reverence for the law.
Bullshit countered the counter culture. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was given outdoors on a hill, to unbathed fishermen and carpenters, to the tattered and the lowly. These critics accurately predicted what was to come. With or without robes, the public image of Supreme Court justices, has been trashed as much as American presidents. Senators, college presidents, clergyman, CEO’s, practically anyone once revered, fears that, in a flash, inquiring cameras could be turned in their direction.
Not that journalists are incapable of making peace with each other. Following the third year at the Clarkson, in 1978, the committee’s arguments about whether or not to return there reached a boiling point. Voices were raised. Some friendships were lost. But no longer; time has leaped over the battle lines, muted passions to a point where it is hard to remember what all of the excitement was about. The invitation to tonight’s dinner, for instance, prominently indicates that the evening is black tie. The existence of a dress code stimulates not protests, but pranks.
Some of the younger men here tonight view a tuxedo little differently than a Halloween costume. Blue, purple, even pink ties are not that unusual. One year Grace Overton of the Miami Tribune trumped Madonna’s lead and wore her bra and undies on the outside, two weeks after Madonna introduced the style. She also wore a black tie. Today her gesture is fondly recalled, not the reaction she originally received. At this point, when it comes to clothes, it is impossible to shock anyone. In keeping with Grace Overton’s tradition, tonight, Jerry Spreewell, of the Harmon On Hudson Herald, is wearing a Farmer Brown getup, complete with black bow tie. He’s told everyone that he is tired of playing Top Hat in a game of Monopoly. That got a laugh when he first arrived but the joke quickly went stale. Hee-haw doesn’t quite strike the right note of protest.
Despite the jokesters, maintaining an accurate yet flattering image is taken as seriously by journalists as any profession. A good guess might be that the majority of men here tonight think of themselves as regular kind of guys, salt of the earth, but with a little extra pop, hardened realists, if anything, kind of film noir-ish. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Henry Fonda--better, Edward R. Murrow, played by Humphrey Bogart, or Edward R. Murrow playing himself, a cigarette dangling from his lips, ashes falling where they may, would easily win a contest for most beloved persona. Especially in this era of smoke free environments- some version of reckless cool floats in the back of many young reporters’ minds. How else could they keep their chin up? It helps that Bogart looked great in a tuxedo.
But most of the reporters bear no resemblance to Bogart, nor, for that matter, Murrow. Regardless of politics, critics of the Clarkson are not wrong about it in terms of style. A significant proportion of the people in the ballroom tonight, gussied up in their finest, do not look like they belong here. The Clarkson is everything they are not. Many reporters eat where they work and have messy desks. It’s what you might expect given the news department’s line of work. They specialize in the underside of existence. Murders, floods, volcanoes, shipwrecks, war atrocities; day in and day out the job consists of harvesting bad news, collecting and distilling awful events. It is the ocean reporters swim in. The stormiest sea makes the best story.
Scandal is always entertaining. Crime especially fascinates readers, from armed robbery, to sly, clever fraud. Name the vice and it will be in today’s paper. The purpose of their livelihood, their product, so to speak, is the unmasking of evil, and the presentation of horrible events proportionately distributed, and neatly arranged in columns, so that they may accompany their readers’ breakfast cereal in the morning. Or sound bites, edited with a rhythm, events reduced to palatable proportions, the terrible brought to the screen so that it may excite, but never overwhelm. Reality captured, but not too much of it, terror viewed from the outside. Going inside would be a violation of good taste. The tsunami was the story of the decade, but from a safe distance. Most people viewed it without indigestion. They ate their Wheaties ready for another day. Videos of the beheadings of unlucky visitors to Iraq was a different matter
Let us not underestimate the strain placed on those who do the work. They often must confront the actual. Perhaps for this reason genteel behavior seems irrelevant to many journalists. Sipping fine wine from crystal goblets in the Clarkson is just not their idea of unwinding. A shot or two of whiskey, with colleagues who have had an equally trying day, is a different story.
There are, of course, journalists who are fond of being in the Clarkson surrounded by the ballroom’s trappings. Larry Kingsley, for instance, far from a gentleman in any respect that can be measured, loves the Guild dinner, loves the Clarkson precisely because it is a refreshing contrast to his ketchup stained notes, and the little pieces of whatever else he had for lunch, which are stuck to the side of his desk chair. Not just Larry Kingsley, most young reporters are oblivious to the identity clashes fought by previous generations. They like the good eats at the Clarkson, like them a lot, the white asparagus, the sorbet, the sushi, duck and truffles. But it would never occur to them to take on the stuffy demeanor of bankers and publishers. Walter Cronkite is admired, but no longer imitated. Besides, his voice has grown thin. Nervous anticipation, laughter, squeaky excitement far overshadows baritone pronouncements.
Journalists’ styles change, but they remain constant in one regard. They often don’t react to events that disturb other people. . They’ve seen it all. It’s an occupational hazard. Like a farmer with callused hands, they even take pride in their thick skin. Yet, if we strip down the award ceremony to its bare essentials, the announcement of the winner of the Hitchcock can turn even the most devoutly cynical reporter to mush. For those completely into it, and there are many who are, the awarding of the Hitchcock returns a mind set that is precious to them precisely because it has been so thoroughly buried, the faith of a child. It is not easy for any adult, let alone a reporter, to let down their guard and revisit this state of mind. First Santa Claus is proven a fraud, then one by one, over the years, every fond illusion is decimated, as reality pounds it out of you. Among journalists, it is pounded out a thousand fold. So the sentimental feelings that accompany the award this year, and every year, might come as a surprise until you think about it. At heart, they are like everyone else. On this night, their night, they do not view the Hitchcock through the prism of a reporter. For a few hours, innocence is re-imagined, fresh beginnings made possible. Once we lived where all is fair, not in love or warfare, but in a fair and square fight, everyone playing by the rules and the best man wins.
For eager young hotshots the George W. Hitchcock Prize is the Big Kahuna, an announcement of their arrival at the door, possibly their busting through the door. It isn’t just hotshots. Sometimes, a diligent working stiff wins the Hitchcock, a seemingly average guy who quietly but persistently asked the right questions of the right people. If he is older, this kind of winner gives an enormous lift to everyone. For deep inside there is a part of the soul waiting to be liberated. When all is said and done, most reporters, most people working in the media, would like to be decent, like to experience the purpose that pulled them towards journalism in the first place. When the right person wins the Hitchcock it returns their faith that the world truly is part of a rational universe, that the good and fair can be victorious, and that flashy fades. It reminds them to try harder to do things the right way. Persistence, hard work, and courage are all that matters. Or, should matter. It takes a day or two before they regain their work armor, their more familiar squashed expectations, and their sometimes ferocious response.
Michael and Deborah Russell stand near their table in the Clarkson, with Michael’s Boston Sentinel colleagues and their spouses. A huge striking oil portrait of Ariana Van Doren, manager of the Vanderbilt hotel until 1934, hangs on a wall directly above them. To the left of her portrait is what looks like a Rembrandt. People assume that Rembrandts are only to be seen in museums or private collections, not in a hotel, but there it is, or seems to be. Then again this is Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Clarkson. Its priceless tapestries alone, often featured on architectural magazine covers, are more valuable than some of the buildings in downtown Boston.
Michael is having particular difficulty tonight paying attention to the small talk surrounding him. He has never liked standing around during the cocktail hour preceding affairs. Chit chat does not come easily. He doesn’t enjoy gossip, and the quips aren’t funny to him. He hardly listens. He is elsewhere. He is worried about Deborah.
So far, she is fine. Esther Pollard, fashion editor at the Boston Sentinel, is by her side. They usually pair up at these functions, invariably enjoying each other’s escalating snipes at everyone else at the meeting. They are in good form tonight, as if the last time they were at it was a couple of weeks ago. Only it’s been years, and the truth is, neither of them is in to it completely. Not like they once were, when what they thought really mattered to them. Now they are merely going through the motions, staying amused. This suits Deborah perfectly. Routine is comforting. Routine is boring. Boring is good.
Michael and Deborah have not made an appearance at the annual Guild dinner for years. They have also stopped going to the Sentinel’s Christmas party. The movies, here and there a concert, eating out, and an occasional dinner with friends has been about it for their social life. They would have been a no show tonight, but rumor has it Michael has a good shot at taking the Hitchcock, so Deborah felt she had no more excuses. It has been five years since she put on a gown, had her nails manicured, and faced the night. Esther is running interference for her and Michael keeps an eye on her as well, just in case.
Michael had forgotten how pretty Deborah can be when the occasion calls for it. He delights in her little touches. Tonight a cluster of silk cobalt blue forget-me-nots winds through her hair, setting off her wintergreen gown. They make her blue eyes sparkle. Where does she find these things? He knows where she got her earrings; he spent long hours looking for them ten years ago. They had to be perfect for her 35th birthday. He still recalls her expression as she opened the box , and especially afterwards, sitting at her dressing table putting them on, the calm look on her face as she studied herself in the mirror. In those days they were on a roll. Everything was effortless.
“You look nice,” Michael tells her.
It’s not what he says. It’s what’s in his eyes.
She extends her lips forward imitating a sexy kiss, one of her never fail mannerisms. She usually follows with a raised eyebrow and a sly grin delivered in perfect rhythm. Not tonight. Her timing is off. She is edgy.
“Did I ever tell you that my mother’s great grandmother used to come to the Clarkson?” she asks
“She did. She was the niece of the woman in that portrait, Ariana Van Doren.”
He can barely hear Deborah’s soft voice over the din. He had noticed Ariana earlier. He knew about her from his never finished book about Cornelius Vanderbilt. He gives the painting another quick glance. She looks very self contained, a quality he admires but has never possessed.
“Mom and her genealogy,” Deborah continues “When she heard I was coming here tonight she asked me to look for the portrait. And here it is, right over our table.”
Michael gives it another glance. He likes it when the past and the present come together. Years ago, in an essay, he wrote that one of the worst things that happens to people who have moved to the big city is that generations stop intersecting. Free of family entanglements people invent themselves from scratch. It is true of him and true of a lot of the people he knows, people who have spent a lifetime improving themselves.
Michael’s editor, Joe Dyer, returns from the bar. He hands Deborah her club soda and Michael his white wine. Deborah smiles a thank you to him and flaps a wave to Michael as she turns back to Esther. For an extra moment, out of the corner of his eye, Michael watches her for indications that she is faltering. She’s okay. He raises his drink to meet Joe’s, tapping glasses lightly, the bottom of Michael’s glass striking the top of Joe’s. Joe offers a toast.
“Here’s to getting ‘em good.”
Michael is serious. Seeking justice can destroy a man, but ordinarily, not fantasies. They keep our mental equilibrium in working order. He used to joke that what he wanted most for Christmas was a hit man, but, as of late, his emotions are becoming bolder, his fantasies increasingly graphic. They may be getting out of hand. But he can’t stop himself. Nor does he want to.
The master of ceremonies taps his knife against a glass. The chatter in the room has blended into an unmistakable timbre. Seven hundred guests, gathered together to pay tribute, begin their tribute. They hit a different, quieter, note. The Russells, along with everyone else at their table, take their seat. Harry Wallace, celebrity gadfly, stands at the microphone. He waves to a buddy in the audience, flashes his always ready smile, now improved by professionally bleached teeth.
Wallace has chosen the right time. Only a few people are still involved in private conversations. He clears his throat. The last standing groups become quieter. They too find their places at their tables. A hush travels through the room like a vapor, moving from table to table, sucking sounds into silence. Those still talking feel the pressure. Cease and desist from all further conversation.
But then Ricky Meyer from The El Paso Tribune lets out a cat whistle. Laughter. Chatter returns. Wallace waits. He again clears his throat, subtly, patiently, like he has all night before he begins. He learned long ago that a too commanding gesture can backfire. The quiet looks like it will hold. He waits, watches the waiters who have started to bring the salad.
Deborah is completely and nervously attuned to Wallace. The big moment is approaching. The event is being broadcast on C Span. There will be close-ups. In her mind’s eye she pictures the gracious smile she will need if Michael loses. But, that is as far as she will take it. Ten years ago she would have practiced that smile, nailed it and would most likely have come across as cool and collected as anyone else in the room. No longer. Her reactions to her surroundings have been simplified. There is less choice, less resistance; she is more at the mercy of the elements. She hopes for sunshine, but rain, snow, ice, other people, can easily intrude on her plans. Michael to the rescue; he gives her a “Come play with me” look. She feels his warmth-she married him for that. He is like her father, trying, trying, trying.
When the kids were young he could break into a routine, not exactly vaudevillian, but a routine nonetheless, and it made them laugh. And when they fell and were crying he’d hold them and scold the ground that scraped their knee:
“Oh what did you do to my Lisa?
My Lisa did nothing to you.
The next time you hurt my Lisa
I’ll call the policeman on you.
He would hit the ground twice as he called out bum-bum. That was the part that worked, the bum-bum. Fair is fair. Getting even, hitting back soothed Lisa’s excoriated flesh, slowed her crying to a whimper. And when Ritchie was little and he got hurt, he also loved that part of the ditty. He would smile as he wiped his eyes with his mittens. Sometimes he slapped at the ground saying Bum-bum along with his daddy.
So if Michael needs to play Deborah will play along, grateful to be filling in her empty spaces. He still hasn’t stopped looking at her with his bedroom eyes, kidding but not kidding.
”Stop it.” she teases back
He uses that word a lot. Truth. Michael is addicted to the truth. It’s his best quality and also his most obnoxious characteristic. He’s the kid likely to shout out “the emperor’s wearing no clothes” and be proud of it, not noticing and not caring that others think he is an idiot socially. It’s what makes him a good reporter and a lousy guest.
He continues to look her over. Her eyes narrow. She raises her voice in a stagy emphatic manner. “Enough!”
It is enough. Wallace is very close to having his silence. Everyone in the room is now waiting. The moment of truth is fast approaching.
Like any good performer Wallace’s read of his audience is pitch perfect. He can sway with their ever changing moods, yet when the time comes, take control. Wallace didn’t write the music. He won’t produce the sound, but like a conductor of a great orchestra, he can heighten the flavor, modulate the intensity, give it any shape that strikes his fancy. He hesitates one, two, and extending the tension, a split second beyond that. He has the goods. He owns the moment. Everyone waits for him to share his secret, the name of the winner of the Hitchcock. He loves it. Fifty-five years ago, before going into journalism, he thought about acting, but his mother wanted him to do something meaningful with his life. He listened to her because he didn’t think he was good looking enough.
He will push the edge tonight. He is in that kind of mood. Wallace remains quiet for yet another moment. It rarely fails him, his patented ability to bring very serious focus to the importance of now, this very second. Slowly and clearly he speaks as if what he is about to say will be a great moment in history. He often feels like that, ever since, in a 6th grade school play, he read the Declaration of Independence to the colonists for the first time. For a moment, in his mind, they actually became the colonists. It was life shaping. He begins,
“ For two years he hammered away. For two years we ignored him… Until he got our attention… Something had to be done and he did it. Our winner joins Katherine Graham...” The applause begins. “H. L. Mencken , Samuel Clemens, Walter Winchell, Ernie Pyle, Bernstein and Woodward, and yes, Anne Quindlen, in sending a clear message, cutting through the noise which forever threatens to engulf us. The pen is mightier than the sword.” Wild applause. “The George W. Hitchcock Award for investigative journalism goes to Michael Russell of The Boston Sentinel.”
Deborah freezes. Her heart is racing wildly. She lightly pushes the knuckles of her clenched fist into her lips. She stares in front of her, seeing only a blur. Her mother’s fierce efforts, years and years of battles with her and too many tears from her, all to teach Deborah how to put on a mask, the right hair, the right make-up, how to feel nothing, or appear to feel nothing you don’t want others to know about. Everything she thought she hated most about her mother, she now treasures Her insides are on fire, yet she looks radiant, even beautiful. The applause swells and grows and grows until it surrounds Deborah and Michael, and like a wave, lifts them from their chairs into a congratulatory embrace. Esther Pollard is delirious. She is crying. So are others. Deborah leans into him, molds into his surrounding arms, finds her spot in his neck. Victory tears run down her cheeks. Then, too soon, fear repossesses her.
It is not a surprise. In recent years fear has been more of a companion than composure. Deborah has always been strong and energetic, but for a while it took everything and more for her to merely stay afloat. That was not a small accomplishment. Not everyone could have survived the misfortunes that were thrown the Russells’ way. She’s better now. Yet she still can’t be certain the spells won’t return uninvited. During the last two weeks she’s been an instant away from tears. The tears come out of the blue. Sad thought or happy thought or no thought, her eyes simply began to water. Most of the time her tears have occurred while she was alone. That wasn’t too bad. But sometimes it doesn’t matter. Last night she was crying lightly, satisfyingly. She needed a cry. Only it built into deep wrenching sobs, which took hold of her before she could stop them. She hadn’t had that happen for a very long time. She holds Michael more tightly as the applause continues.
Michael hit a nerve with his articles so right now he is a sentimental favorite. However, Deborah is not enjoying the attention. She is not wrong. People with the scoop have pointed the Russells out to their partners and whispered their story. Yes many clap and smile in support of the good cause, or with a warm place in their hearts for the Russells, but others watch them with morbid curiosity. She is beginning to question her decision to be here tonight.
Michael whispers a nothing, and pulls away. Deborah watches him as he makes his way towards the stage, relieved that he seems okay, that he seems happy with his victory. She dabs at her eyes.
The clapping gains a new burst of enthusiasm when Michael stands before them on the dais. Ever so slightly he rocks, the hint of an ancient doven still in his limbs. Not knowing what to do next he imitates something he has seen on TV. He quietly studies the inscription on his statue. And still the applause continues. His eyes meet Deborah’s. Her sadness threatens to overwhelm him. He looks away, looks around the room. He didn’t know he had so many friends. Faces that have always ignored him, or scorned him, even scared him, are beaming “good job, good job.” Sally Field accepting her Oscar flashes into his mind, “They really love me. They really love me.” He tries to laugh at that. Thinking it will be funny, he parodies something else he has seen on TV. He waves the statue in the air like an athlete securing victory at the Olympics. Only it isn’t really funny. He is into it. He never became the Boston Red Sox’s shortstop. He gave up in high school. But here it is, the major leagues, a home run in the bottom of the ninth, long after he thought he learned how to stop wanting it. And he likes it. He points the statue at Deborah. He holds it tightly, savors the feeling of his hand gripping the metal. It is his. No one can take it back.
She doesn’t register where he is, what he is doing. At this point she is on automatic pilot, keeping to carefully chosen, well-rehearsed behavior, doing her version of a gallant New England lady. She looks back at him with a strong resilient smile, the best she can manage. It doesn’t matter. He is in his own orbit.
Handshakes on his return to the table, hugs, salutes, winks, a kiss on the cheek from Esther Pollard, thumbs up from Joe Dyer, a glance Deborah’s way.
She’s gone. Esther points Michael in Deborah’s direction. She’s hurrying to an exit from the ballroom leading to the outside. She turns around. They look at each other. Mascara has run down under her eyes. She mouths the words to him, “I’ll be back”. She looks as if she is angry with him. He isn’t sure why.
She had to get away. She has gone outside to a veranda, and from there into the welcoming darkness, down a path through a garden at the back of the hotel and then further away, down into the night. As far as she can go, to a gazebo by a pond, Deborah sits inside the gazebo on a bench far, far away. She takes her shoes off, brings her knees close to her. She leans against the wall almost in a fetal position. Still struggling to keep in control, she wills herself to breathe very slowly. After a while a hint of calm returns and then it grows. She drifts wherever the currents of her mind take her. In the distance the ceremonies can be heard… A bullfrog croaks. She closes her eyes. Memories from 12 years earlier occupy her.
Deborah and Michael have pitched two tents at a clearing high in the Berkshires overlooking fields and farmland below. It is a day to worship the fall foliage-a symphony of color, bright sunshine, the air has a bite to it, crisp, clear, newly cold.
Michael is eight feet up in a tree. He’s taped his brand new Nikon on a limb above him from which he can look through the eyepiece while remaining seated on a lower limb. He screws a cable in to the camera, which he specially purchased for this very picture. The cable will run to the spot he has designated for himself in his soon to be family portrait so he can snap it from there. This shot has been in Michael’s plans for a year. He told Deborah about it before they arrived. It was hatched while they were making their first visit to this spot and Michael sat on this exact tree trunk, saw this great view as he looked down at Ritchie, and wished he had a camera. This time he is prepared. She watches him play with the shutter speed.
Twelve years younger Michael is a devil with light green, deep set eyes. Deborah’s striking blonde, almost hippie curls are the first thing that catch people’s attention. She is petite. She moves like a cat. The children are adorable; six-year-old Ritchie is quiet and observant, seven-year-old Lisa feisty to the full measure children are blessed. Each of the Russells have great hair, great eyes, great teeth, great skin, and a grace of movement that makes effort silent.
Lisa has done enough posing,
“Dad, how long do we have to stand here?”
Lisa is getting more exasperated, “Daddy take the picture already.”
They are very close to perfection. Lisa’s arms are thrown around Harry, their mutt. They are just about there. Ritchie could be up a little higher. But Deborah’s look of frustration has finally registered. Michael will have to settle for the picture he has now or get nothing at all. He hurriedly fiddles with the cable one last time, then swings down and hangs by the branch.
“Careful,” Deborah shouts.
It is the signal the kids have been waiting for. They are outta there.
“Wait!” he yells
Happy noise: laughter, barking, Ritchie emits a wssssss, the airplane sound he makes when he flies his model plane. Chin level he wsssses past Lisa. She drops her coat to the ground, spreads her arms wide so that they resemble air plane wings, and takes off. She shouts to Ritchie.
He reverses course and runs with his airplane after her as she circles the campfire. Then Lisa turns around and with arms still held wide, she makes Ritchie’s wsssss sound and chases Ritchie. As soon as Harry comes into the picture they join forces. Now it is two wssssers united chasing Harry. He gallops far away. Lisa shouts for him to return. He barks at her from a distance. She once again runs around the fire. Harry returns to chase her. Ritchie simply stands and watches them with a big fat grin
In the gazebo Deborah continues to comfort herself with privacy. The microphoned sound of the award ceremonies can be heard in the distance. She drifts with her memories…
The campfire is dying down, the sun is low in the sky. The children are still going, but exhaustion will follow soon … Deborah yells for them to come to her which they do without a protest. Putting a dab of toothpaste on each toothbrush, she hands the yellow tipped one to Lisa and the green tipped to Ritchie. Lisa inspects hers to be sure she’s been given the right toothbrush. She holds it up. From a canteen Deborah pours water on her brush then does the same for Ritchie. They get to work. Ritchie hums as he goes. Lisa is a more competent brusher.
“Okay enough.” Deborah orders them.
It’s Ritchie’s turn. He gargles and spits not nearly as far as Lisa. As compensation Ritchie sticks his toe on Lisa’s wet spot for good measure.
Deborah’s voice breaks through their procrastination. They know perfectly well what comes after brushing their teeth. They deliver their toothbrushes to Deborah. They love the absoluteness of the rules in this routine. Like a game of Monopoly, “Go to Jail, Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.” The excitement is only possible if you don’t ask why, why do I have to go to jail. Why can’t I collect $200 dollars. Why? No why’s are allowed. No why’s are needed. The fun comes from totally living within Monopoly.
“Okay. March to the tent.”
No protest. They like sleeping in a tent. Off they go.
Deborah washes their toothbrushes, listens to the crackling timbers in the fire.
She shouts to Michael. He waves from the distance. She inches her skirt little by little up her long legs.
“You still got it,” he calls out.
He loves her legs. He’s told her many times that he married her for them. She swims miles at the YMCA pool every other day to keep them exactly that way.
She enters the children’s tent, picks their clothes up and folds them. They are excited. This is a treat. Normally they sleep alone in their rooms at home.
They sit side by side, their legs in their sleeping bags.
Lisa is wearing a ring that Deborah had found in her mother’s attic and sized to fit Lisa. She was told that it belonged to her grandmother’s great aunt who had never married. The ring had been given to her by a young man who died before he could marry her and she remained true. Deborah repeated the story to Lisa when she gave it to her. After that she wouldn’t take it off even when she took her bath. She loved that story.
Lisa hands her ring to Ritchie, “Put it on tonight. It means we are married.”
Their arms disappear inside their bags. Deborah zips them in and gives each a kiss. As soon as she turns away they give each other a look of complicity.
As she leaves they giggle excitedly. From outside Deborah warns them.
They giggle again. She smiles, walks away. She listens carefully. Every once in a while she thinks she hears an animal stepping on a twig. Momentarily a bear jumps out of the darkness until she reassures herself that it is her imagination. She feels a chill. She puts on a sweatshirt and gets closer to the fire. She sits on the ground, lights a joint, unwinds, stares into space, calming herself with the quiet. After 10 minutes she reenters the children’s tent. They are asleep. Her eyes embrace them. She listens to their gentle breathing. Lisa coughs. Deborah continues to listen. Lisa’s breathing is clear. As she parts the door flap of their tent she can make out Michael in the distance.
He is literally seated on the edge of a cliff, up thousands of feet. The ledge is tilted slightly downward. Deborah approaches carefully, gripping the rock with her strong fingernails for extra traction as she slides next to him. She almost slips a bit but recovers.
“Wo. That was close,” he says with concern.
“ You don’t know anything about him.”
They stop. Time out. They have learned to be quiet when tension arises. She bites her lip a bit. He looks straight ahead seeing nothing. But within a minute both of them regain their connection. Silently, they look out straight ahead at the sunset, which has just begun, to the clouds now painted with color, to the distant line where the sky touches the ground. They are soothed by the soft whistling wind, occasionally punctuated by ospreys calling out their dominance of the valley beneath them. The minutes pass intensely. They feel every moment. In their fingers, in the air going in and out of their lungs, in the sky becoming saturated with color, which fills their vision.
”Remind me. How did you find this place?” Deborah asks him
They both know it is true. Neither understands it. He forever reaches for the ultimate, the ultimate truth, the ultimate lie, the ultimate orgasm, the ultimate rose, the ultimate truffle flavored anything, the ultimate barbecued beef, cranberry soda, the ultimate view. Whatever it is that he likes, he wants to bring it to the next level. And when he gets there he wants something better.“
And as she could have predicted, the sunset is a perfect one, the sun huge, the sky now vividly red and yellow. Below, at the corner of one of the fields, orange pumpkins are piled high. Very, very far away workers can be discerned, tiny dots, purposefully doing the necessary. Behind them the autumn leaves catch the fading yellow light as it slowly relents to a reddish hue. A sliver of red sun shimmers at the edge of the horizon. Then it disappears. They both exhale in appreciation. He hands her a plastic cup of wine. He is excited.
“I can see why they used to worship the sun.”
She whispers to it, “To the god who owns the night with a whisper.”
Seated at the table in the ballroom Michael keeps glancing at the exit waiting for Deborah‘s return. The award ceremony continues. He fingers his napkin under the table. It is rough which he likes. He can’t get rid of that last look from Deborah. Was she angry? Like Deborah, the excitement of the award has stirred up his emotions, bombarded him with memories. He also drifts in and out of the past. His thoughts go to seven years earlier.
Two hands slap at an overturned card, a jack. Lisa and Ritchie try to out shout each other.
Ritchie, now eleven, is sitting on twelve-year-old Lisa’s hospital bed. Both want to win badly. Happy rock n’ roll plays in the background. Lisa has mastered her bubble gum, cracking it emphatically, rhythmically, repeatedly blowing small bubbles then sucking them in. With one hand behind her back, she draws the next card.
Ritchie fakes slapping the pack. Lisa, just in time, freezes her hand. He points at it.
“You moved your hand.”
They prepare for the next draw. Lisa sneaks a look at the covered card. Another jack! Keeping a poker face she uncovers it. She beats Ritchie’s slap, smiles triumphantly. Ritchie is not happy.
“You cheated. You snuck a look.”
She brings the back of her hand to her chest, swallows hard with a little too much theatre. Ritchie watches this and suspects she is playing it up but he isn’t sure. The discomfort, real or feigned, passes as quickly as it came. Mischievously she smiles as she prepares to turn over the next card.
She imitates the sound of a drum roll. Ritchie is not amused.
Deborah and Michael noisily enter the room. Lisa doesn’t look up. For a crucial moment she tries to stay with her game. Finally she gives in.
As Deborah’s mother once did to her, Deborah moves the back of her hand across Lisa’s forehead checking her temperature. “How’s the patient?” she asks cheerfully.
“Is the food any better in the cafeteria? What they bring me here sucks.”
Deborah glares at Lisa. She doesn’t like that kind of talk. Lisa’s eyes drop. Michael tosses a bag of potato chips to her. Deborah tries to intercept it.
“Doctor said only hospital food.”
Ritchie moves off to the corner of the room. He pretends to be busy shuffling his deck of cards, but he is watching everything.
Deborah touches Lisa’s brow with her chin.
Michael ignores her and plops into a chair by the bedside. He takes the TV remote and puts on the New England Patriots.
Deborah strokes Lisa forehead.
“When did they bring your medicine? Michael, check with the nurse.”
Ritchie goes forward with his task. He leaves the room and heads towards the nursing station. The once grand hospital is showing its age. The corridors have been scrubbed and scrubbed Harvard style, but the marble trim around passageways has passed the point of a pleasant ivory toned patina to simply looking brown and dingy. The high ceilings seem to amplify the cold creepy institutional feeling. Ritchie shuffles down the hall. He shoots a look in the first room he encounters. A doctor and two assistants are busy preparing for a procedure. He catches the eye of seven-year-old Billy sitting up on his bed.
Then another scream is heard all over the ward, this one for real. In her room Lisa looks at her father. She squeezes her mother’s hand.
Billy screams again,. “You said it wouldn’t hurt. You said it wouldn’t hurt. You promised.”
As soon as they return to their fifth floor Boston apartment, Michael turns on the Patriot game. Deborah goes to a window that looks out on a playground. It is late afternoon but the children’s energy has not let up. With distance their screams are soothing, like birds chirping in the country, each different. Laughter, anger, silliness, pleading, a little boy’s voice over and over in Spanish, “Mira! Mira!”, but then another and another, “Higher…” “Get away….” “Stop that Joey...” Then a mother, “Get Over here. Now!”
When she was playground age Lisa used to call Deborah over to this window. Within a few minutes their coats were on and they were on the way to the park.
She watches a mother pushing her daughter on a swing. The playground is not calming her today. She walks in front of the TV blocking Michael’s view.
“Michael. Shut it off.”
“How can you watch TV?”
Michael’s voice is cold. “Lisa’s not going to be treated with health foods.”
Deborah continues to look at the girl on the swing. She guesses four or five years old. She speaks softly but with determination.
Deborah knows it was not intentional and that he truly is sorry, but she can’t bring herself to forgive him. He waits. Her face has not softened.
It is not okay. She talks about Billy all the time. That is what they do at the hospital. The patients and their families become family to each other. They are the only ones that understand. Two weeks ago Michael just let it fly. He couldn’t stand the whimpering. He looks morosely at her.
She hesitates. He is listening. “She was a trooper… She had that little scared smile.” Deborah is half smiling, proudly.
“Remember…at her birthday party…She was three? The clown broke a balloon? She was scared but it was her “princess” party. That is what she called that party. She was dressed like a princess so she had to act like a princess. Princesses don’t look scared.”
Michael does remember. It is on video. Her hands on her hips like she is about to sing out a verse from Oklahoma. Trying not to look scared, she was very cute.
Deborah continues, “ She did whatever the neurologist told her to do. She was in control of herself. It was like Lisa had invented a game. She always did that. Pictured herself in a story. I don’t who she was playing, what story. Maybe it wasn’t a story, but whatever he told her to do she did it. No resistance…” Deborah smiles fondly, “She’s a trooper…” She whispers to herself, her eyes water “She’s sweet,”
Michael is with her. “The neurologist asked her to lie down on her stomach. She listened closely. Waited for each direction. You could see her fear but she was in control, overcoming it, winning. She knows how to win. She was trying to completely trust the doctor. Then they told her to roll on her side. But when she rolled on her side her hospital gown pulled up. She didn’t want people to see her underpants. So she tried to pull her gown down. Only suddenly they were in a hurry. Like the neurologist had had enough pussy footing around. He was on go and she was on stop. They had her pinned down and they weren’t going to let go. Her fingers kept moving, trying to catch her gown. The nurses saw that and they held her wrist tighter. I was whispering into her ear, kissing her. But I could see what was going on.”
Deborah hesitates. She is fighting her tears.
“I said nothing. Nothing…They could have waited two seconds so she could cover up her underpants…Lisa’s twelve. She’s a girl. I thought nurses are supposed to know about things like that.”
She smiles, “Lisa pushed her body against the car and slipped over near me at the back. When she was close enough she stood next to me, “Mom. Call AAA.” She knew I didn’t know what the hell to do. But that was okay because she did. She knew I was going make sure it was okay, or she was going to make sure, or someone would.”
She pours scotch into a large glass, straight. She sips a little, then downs it. She stares down Michael’s disapproval.
She downs another, then continues.
In his room Ritchie is playing an intense video game which fills the room with noise, laser gun screeches, grunts from splattered monsters as they are gunned down. Every once in a while he can hear his parents He can’t make out their words, but the “shut ups” are too many for him. He turns up the volume of his game, obliterates the sound of their fighting The action gets more furious. Deborah shouts from the foyer.
Michael goes to his computer. He checks the football score. New England
lost. He gets back to work on his Vanderbilt novel.