Matt pushes open the rear door to the office and creeps across the floor in torn jeans and a flannel shirt. He wipes his nose on his sleeve and peers through the square hole separating the front office from editorial. He clenches his teeth against the bitter air, but can’t discern any sounds except the light tapping of a keyboard and the radiator clicking. Then a woman’s voice and then another buzzes like a radio going in and out of tune. Leaning closer, he attempts to translate the sounds into language, but can only make out hard k’s and soft s’s. One of them is Jean, his editor, and the other is Mary Ellen, the 25-year old receptionist. His girlfriend. Maybe they’re talking about the weather or the details for an important delivery, but Mary Ellen’s face, when he saw her a moment earlier through the front glass window, had the look of someone sharing important secrets. A chair scrapes against wood and Matt abruptly steps backwards, careens over Jean’s desk, and crashes into her chair, spilling it on its side. He rushes to his own desk and turns on his computer. It’s just coming to life when he feels a tap on his shoulder.
“When’d you get in?” Jean comes around to the front of his desk.
“A few minutes ago.”
“You came in the back?” He shrugs and presses his palms into his desk to stand up, trying to think of an excuse. Jean says, “It’s okay, I’m just checking in.”
“Everything’s a-okay with me,” he says. “How are you?”
“Tony snored again last night so I’m pretty tired, but otherwise I’m fine and dandy.”
“Good, good.” He smiles—it feels fake—and clamps one eye shut as he tries to sound nonchalant. “Where were you a second ago?”
“Chatting with Mary Ellen?”
“You know. Getting the day started.”
“How’s she doing?”
Jean smiles. She’s always been able to read his mind. It’s one of many qualities that makes her an ideal editor for him. “Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
“I will in a sec,” he says. He points to his smart phone. “Gotta prep for the Lawson interview first.”
“You saw the crime scene photos?” She points to a folder on his desk.
“And you’re still up for doing the story? It’s pretty grim.” Matt shuffles through the pictures then presses them down face-down on his desk. Jean puts a hand on his shoulder and says, “I can always give it to Jake if you want.”
Matt has worked at the weekly five years, which is longer than any reporter has lasted by nearly eighteen months, and the Lawson murder trial is a chance to write a front-page story that could catch the attention of a bigger paper; it’s a juicy bit of news that for once isn’t coverage of the latest school committee meeting or a profile of the new pizza joint on Marlboro Street. “No. I want this one.”
“Good boy. Then get me the story by tomorrow.” Ellen taps the top of his computer monitor.
“I’m calling her now.”
An unused moment passes, but they’re never uncomfortable with each other. She says, “Speaking of Jake. You seen him?”
“Not yet.” He’s the only other reporter at the paper, a 23-year old Bowdoin grad.
“Well, that’s par for the course.” He’s been coming in later every day for about two weeks. “I’ll just finish up a few things and wait to have a little chat with him.”
“You do that,” he says and watches Jean stroll back to her desk. She pauses a moment to examine her overturned chair and looks back at Matt—hers are the only eyes he’s ever seen twinkle.
Matt rests his fingers on his cell phone, steels himself, and punches the numbers.
“Hello. My name is Matt Foster from the Benfield News. I have an appointment to speak with Mrs. Lawson this morning.”
There’s a puff of air on the other side as if someone is about to speak, but then the line goes dead. He stares at the smart phone as if this will revive it and then calls again. This time it goes directly to voice mail. This is bad.
Jean is on a call herself and hasn’t noticed. He takes a cleansing breath and makes a decision. He walks casually around the sports and proofreading desks and past his editor.
Mary Ellen is the only one in the front office. Her blonde hair tumbles over her white wool sweater.
Casual. Be casual. “Hi hon.”
“I’m off for the Lawson interview.”
She flicks her eyes up at him. “Are you sure you can handle this, Matty?”
She hesitates for a brief but palpable moment, and then smiles just a bit too enthusiastically. “Well, great!” Another smile. “If that’s true, then I’m excited for you.”
Why does she have to doubt him? “Yeah, well, I have to learn to deal with this kind of story if I’m gonna move up the ladder.” A week ago he had asked her if she ever thought of marriage. It was a roundabout way of proposing, but the direct approach never worked with Mary Ellen. Ideas had to work their way into her mind slowly, like seeds that grow into sturdy oaks. Now, he searches her face for evidence that the prospect of him succeeding had inched her closer to saying yes.
“Good for you,” she says. “I’m sure it’ll be an amazing interview.”
“I don’t think ’amazing’ is exactly the right word, but—“
“Of course not ‘amazing.’ Christ. You know what I mean.”
Mrs. Lawson’s son had been arrested for breaking into the home of an elderly couple and then, after piling every piece of electronics he could carry into a duffel bag, murdering them in their sleep. But Mary Ellen is sensitive to criticism and he shouldn’t have corrected her. “Sorry,” he says. “I gotta learn to keep the editor brain in my back pocket.” He drops his eyes to avoid her glare and notices the framed photo of the two of them over Christmas. They’re grinning in front of the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
“Anyway, I should get back to work,” he says.
“Yeah. I should too.”
He sighs as he walks across the street to his Toyota Camry.
He thinks about the New York trip as he winds the car through narrow roads. They’d been dating a year at that point and Matt had researched all the best places to eat and drink and all the sites worth seeing. On the bus trip back Mary Ellen leaned over to him and said, “You really know a lot about New York.” She idealized the city and had vivid dreams of the successes she would have on Broadway, often talking to Matt about her favorite musicals. But in reality, Mary Ellen wasn’t sure she could risk her life on such a tenuous career. Her mother wanted her to pursue marketing, which she’d majored in at Stonehill College. Matt resisted the urge to reply with a self-deprecating comment about how it didn’t take a genius to Google “New York City.” Instead, he tried to shift his focus to the flowery smell of her hair as she rested her head on his shoulder. They looked like the perfect couple. Mary Ellen took Matt’s hand. “We could move there together,” she’d whispered. “You’re the only one who really believes in me.”
Mrs. Lawson lives alone in a black and white painted ranch-style house on North Street. He parks on Stub Toe Road, just down the way because there’s an old Dodge Journey occupying her driveway. An April breeze kicks up and the barren branches shiver. The lawn and shrubs, even the white pine trees, are well maintained. It could be anyone’s house in normal suburbia. How had a murderer grown up inside these walls? Just as he reaches out for the doorbell a rustling sound coming from the bushes to his right startles him. A thin raccoon limps out and makes eye contact with Matt.
“Get away from here! Scoot.”
The animal scampers as best as it can manage across the lawn towards the road. Matt holds his breath, but the raccoon makes it across safely and then hobbles into the woods. Matt is annoyed by the interruption. He’d already psyched himself up for the confrontation with Mrs. Lawson, imagining her at the door, angry. He feels off balance now when the door swings open and she stands there, hands on her hips, wearing a white terry cloth bathrobe. In the photos Matt had seen of Mrs. Lawson, she had looked pale and tired. The dark circles under her eyes and her slumped posture had left Matt expecting someone in her fifties, so he’s thrown when he’s greeted by an olive-skinned woman who couldn’t be a day over forty. He can’t help noticing the shape of her body under the snug-fitting robe.
“You’re that reporter from the Benfield News, right?” She looks him up and down. “You’re cute.”
“I’m Matt Foster.” Cute?
“I’m sorry about this morning. My phone died and, well, I disconnected my land line.”
“No problem. I figured it was something like that.”
“Do you want to come in?”
“Thank you.” He notices her slender arm as she motions him forward. She scratches her throat and leads him into the kitchen.
He sits on a stool as she crosses to the sink to fill a glass with water for him. He expected to find chaos, but everything is in its place: the island in the center with wooden placemats and silver salt and pepper shakers, the fireplace in the adjacent living room, the large LCD TV attached to the wall next to a shelf of books. Even the ceramic tile countertops shimmer.
He pulls out his digital tape recorder. “You don’t mind if I get this on the record, do you?”
“How old are you?” She hands him the glass.
“What does that have to do with anything?” The water tastes rusty.
“I’m curious, kiddo. No need to get defensive.”
“I’m not defensive.” He knows he is defensive about this subject, however. “I’m twenty-nine.”
“You’re kind of old to be working for the local paper, aren’t you?”
“I thought you said you were just curious.”
“I am curious.” She takes a hard swallow from a drink that is definitely not water, pursing her lips together to force it down. “Sure, you can record this. But tell me what you want exactly. How can I help you?”
He clicks the recorder on. “I was hoping you could tell your side of the story.”
“That’s a funny way to put it.”
“What do you mean?”
“That my son killing Pete and Tara in their sleep is a story. Like it’s entertaining, like a TV show.”
“So you think he’s guilty?”
“Of course he’s guilty. He shot them with that pistol his father bought him last year.”
This isn’t an interview. It’s a damned headline. Lawson Mom: He Did It! “Did Billy tell you all this?”
“He sure did.”
He can’t believe what she’s saying. “Gosh, that’s terrible. I’m really sorry, Mrs. Lawson.” He downs the rest of his rusty water.
She takes another sip of her drink then turns to him. Her eyes are bloodshot and slightly unfocused. “You mean you feel bad for me?”
“I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“It’s okay. Really.” She rises and then Matt, unsure of her motives, thinks she’s about to slide onto his lap, but she only leans over to take his glass. Her bathrobe opens and he catches a flash of appealing thigh and the curve of her calf. “Do you want something stronger to drink?”
“It would be kinda unprofessional,” he says.
She hands him a glass of some brown liquid. It burns going down. “Now you’re a real reporter,” she says.
He takes another sip and coughs. “Why do you think he did it, Mrs. Lawson?”
“I don’t know.”
“He didn’t say?”
“But why do you think?”
She considers him. “You might be the last innocent man on planet earth.” Before he can explain that she’s wrong about him she says, “Why do people do anything?” She leans closer, only an inch, but the room feels hotter suddenly.
“I should get some background information from you if that’s okay.”
“Sure, like what?” Another inch closer.
He buries his gaze in his notebook. “Where were you born?”
“Lansing. That’s in Michigan.”
“How’d you end up in Massachusetts?”
“Billy’s father. We got married and he got a job in Boston. Marketing pharmaceuticals. Then he left with my hair stylist and moved to Tennessee.”
“It is what it is. I was born to be a statistic.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“You apologize a lot for a reporter. Are you supposed to do that?”
“No, you’re right.” He stops the phrase before it passes his lips, but the thought rings in his head. “How do you feel, Mrs. Lawson, about what’s happened?”
“How do I feel?” She sighs languorously. “I feel like shit. What do you think?” She puts her drink down and wipes a damp stain from under her eye.
Matt isn’t sure how to respond. He pulls a tissue from the box on the shimmering island countertop and hands it to her. “The world is crazy,” he says.
She dabs her eyes. “It sure is.”
He looks around the room, notices the bland green and yellow wallpaper, the pictures of Billy wearing his Little League uniform. “I should leave you alone.”
“No, wait.” She takes a soft step toward him. “Don’t go.”
“I don’t want to be any more trouble.”
She touches his arm. Her fingers are long and thin, but her fingernails are bitten down to the nub. “Just stay a while,” she says. “Stay with me.”
Her perfume is not as sweet as Mary Ellen’s; it’s almost bitter. In fact, everything about Mrs. Lawson seems different from his girlfriend: straight dark hair; brown, intense eyes; sharp lines that zag across her forehead. He wants to put his lips over her small mouth. But he’s a reporter. He shouldn’t. The story. “Mrs. Lawson—“
“I like talking to you,” she says. “You’re sweet.”
He pulls away.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “But I really should get going.”
Her eyes narrow, but otherwise her expression doesn’t change. “Fine. Whatever.”
As he steps outside he notices a pile of wadded up wrappers and scraps of food behind the shrubs.
“You shouldn’t throw food away like that. You’re creating a real pest problem.”
From behind the screen door she replies, “That thing would starve to death without me.”
“The raccoon? You’re throwing that stuff there on purpose?”
“I’m not a monster.” She cinches her bathrobe closed at the top. “I care about things.”
“I know.” There’s nothing wrong with saying it when he really feels it. “I’m very sorry. Thanks for your time.”
As he turns she says, “You can’t print anything I’ve told you today, Matt Foster of the Benfield News.”
“What are you talking about? We agreed this was on the record. This interview will be part of a larger story that’s going to appear in this week’s—“
“I was drunk and didn’t mean to suggest that my son—” She tilts her head so they make eye contact and something inside him rips in half. “Please,” she begs him. “Please don’t print any of this.”
Mary Ellen hops up when he returns to the office. “How’d the interview go?”
“It went well.”
“Really?” She tugs anxiously at a strand of hair.
“It couldn’t have gone better.”
“Great!” She seems to relax. “We should celebrate tonight!”
“Definitely,” he says. “We definitely should.”
He rushes past her before she can lean in for a kiss. He turns his computer on at his desk, taps a few stray keys and then rests his head on the keyboard. Heavy footsteps approach but he doesn’t budge.
“Tough interview?” Jean is tapping a pencil against his head. “You doing all right?”
He’s bursting to tell her that he has a scoop, but part of him wishes Mrs. Lawson hadn’t admitted she believed her son was guilty. He pictures the desperation in the woman’s eyes. Why does his job come down to these difficult ethical problems? He surprises himself when he says, “She didn’t have anything new to say, I’m afraid.” He jams his fist into his thigh and lifts his head. “But I’m fine, trust me.”
“Okay.” Jean uses the pencil to search for what must be a ferocious itch somewhere on her back. “It’s a little disappointing, but it was always a Hail Mary she’d give you more than she’s been saying to the other papers. Just write what you have; it’s still page one.”
Matt rotates himself in his chair to look up at his boss. “Do you think I’m naïve?”
“You can tell me if I’m an idiot or whatever.”
“I’m not sure what you want me to say here, Matt.”
“How else am I going to know if I’m cut out to be a reporter?”
“You’re a good person, Matt. That’s all I’ll say about it.” She lets out an orgasmic sigh and shows him the pencil as if whatever was tickling her back is visible on the eraser head.
He goes home early, takes a nap, and dreams he’s a train engineer. He wakes and thinks about the Freudian implications—all that plunging into train tunnels—and an image of Mrs. Lawson’s thigh and calf flickers over and over again in his mind. He gets up and begins preparing hamburgers and mashed potatoes for dinner. He wants to cry, but won’t let himself.
Mary Ellen comes over at 7 and they sit across the table from each other. She’s wearing a green sweater with a knitted bouquet of flowers over her heart.
She considers the hamburger. “There’s no pepper in here, right?”
“Because my acid reflux—“
“There’s no pepper, Mary Ellen.”
The sound of their chewing fills the room for several minutes.
Matt is the first to speak. “I’ve been thinking a lot this week.” He pushes the potatoes around his plate. “Is it okay if we talk?”
“If this is about getting married, then please don’t. I’m still thinking about it.”
If she keeps putting him off like this she’ll eventually decide she doesn’t want him. “But are you really thinking about it? Because—”
She’s holding her fork inches above her plate as if she’s trying to bend it with her mind. “What do you mean? Of course I’m really thinking about it. I think about it constantly. It’s eating my guts away.”
You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It’s the first time he’s ever really understood that expression. “Maybe that’s true, but I’m afraid you’re going to end up moving to New York to pursue acting and that will be that. You’ll date a hundred guys and end up marrying some edgy hipster with a beard and leather jacket and we won’t talk anymore.”
“A beard? What does that have to do with anything? What’s wrong with you?”
“Ever since I popped the question, you seem miles away.”
She hesitates. “I’m just not sure what I want with my life. New York maybe. I don’t know.” She’s still staring at the fork. He wouldn’t be surprised if it begins to melt.
“Why,” he starts and stops. “Why are you even with me?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“We used to have fun, right?
“Of course.” He waits as a painful minute passes without a word. Finally she says, “I felt like we were going somewhere together. It was exciting. Now, I don’t know. You’re kinda stuck and maybe I’m stuck too.”
“I’m not stuck. I just don’t want to jump at the wrong opportunity.”
She stares at the utensil, her cheeks turning crimson. “Something happened with that interview, didn’t it? You couldn’t deal with Mrs. Lawson. She scared you or something.”
“What?” He rests his fist on the table. “Jesus, Mary Ellen. I just want a teammate. Someone who’ll be on my side no matter what. ”
“No matter what?” Her eyes meet his.
“That’s not fair,” she says.
“It’s fair,” he replies. “It’s very fucking fair.”
She puts the fork down and clamps both hands around the edge of the table. “Maybe this isn’t working anymore. I don’t want to be sad all the time.” She swivels, shoulders back, and walks out of his apartment.
Matt can’t sleep that night. He gets out of bed at 5:30 and drives around town, finally stopping at a Dunkin’ Donuts for a coffee and bagel. He naps in the back seat of his Camry and then drives to North Street. He parks on the side of the road, gets out and looks up at Mrs. Lawson’s house. It’s dark except for a dim night light illuminating the front foyer. He sits on the hood of the car, takes out a chocolate candy bar, and begins slowly pecking away at it.
He is glad to see Mary Ellen’s chair empty when he skulks into the office at 10 a.m., late for the first time since he started working at the paper. Jake isn’t in either—the fucker—but before Matt can pass by Jean’s desk, she stops him.
“I have something to discuss with you.”
“Jake is leaving the paper.”
“He got another gig. Somewhere in Rhode Island.”
He bites down on his upper lip. “Jesus. That didn’t take long.”
“The kid is hungry. What can you say?”
“Right.” He unzips his windbreaker “What can you say?”
He spends the day polishing the Lawson murder trial story, but he’s restless and the words on the screen seem impotent to his ear: murder investigators… crept into the house… motives unknown. At 4 o’clock he goes across the street to Dan’s Bar and Grill. The TV is showing highlights from the Red Sox game the prior night. After two beers he drives with the window down to Mrs. Lawson’s. The cool air whips through the car and bites at his ears.
Standing on her front stoop, he notices for the first time the paint peeling from the shutters, the greasy stains on the window. He looks into the shrubs, but either the raccoon is hiding or its rummaging somewhere else. He pictures Mrs. Lawson sitting out in the morning eating breakfast burritos and tossing away tomatoes and peppers and wrappers.
She answers the door before he knocks. “Hi there, Matt. You look nice.”
“Do I?” He looks himself over and can’t see anything appealing.
She exhales, which he takes to mean she’s exasperated with him. “Come inside.”
They stand in her kitchen. She’s wearing jeans and a white blouse this time.
“How are you doing, Mrs. Lawson?”
“Will you call me Peggy?”
“Okay.” On the drive over he knew what he was going to say, but now feels unsure. He wanders into the living room. “You have a lot of records.” He picks one up. It’s Falling Into You by Celine Dion.
“I guess I do.”
“Not many people have records anymore.”
“Do you like them?”
“I’ve heard the quality is better.”
“Oh, it is.” She puts the record on and it sounds as if there’s a live band playing somewhere inside the room.
“New technology doesn’t always mean progress.”
“I see what you mean.”
They stand side by side listening.
“Can I get you a glass of water or something?”
“Sure,” he says.
“That’d be great.”
She pours. “Cheers,” she says and they drink.
He sits at the kitchen island running his hand along the edge of his glass. “Do you ever think about moving some place exotic? New York, for example.”
“I used to. Not so much anymore. Now I just try to get through the fucking day.”
“Are you happy you stayed all these years in one place?”
“What do you think?”
“Right.” He puts his drink down. “I apologize for running out of here last time.”
She circles over to him. “Are you going to publish any of my interview, Matt? I really didn’t mean to go on the way I did.”
He inhales. “I told them you didn’t have anything to say.”
“Oh, thank god.”
Without a word he touches her hand. “You have a wonderful sadness, Mrs. Lawson. Do you know that?”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“There’s something about you. I can’t describe it.”
“Thank you, Matt.”
“You have amazing skin, too. You could pass for 30.” It’s true.
“I get that a lot. I think it’s from working out.”
“What kind of working out?”
“Lots of Spin classes. And free weights. Keeps me toned.”
“You do seem toned.”
She leans away from him, but then stands. “Do you want to come upstairs?”
“It would be unprofessional of me,” he says.
She moves her fingers to the back of his head and caresses the small hairs there. “Yes, it would be very unprofessional.”
Mary Ellen has lately seemed distracted during sex, like she’s constantly remembering she’s late for an appointment, but Mrs. Lawson makes him aware of the air swirling around them from the open window, of the creaky mattress, of her intermittent, guttural, quiet moans.
Later, when they’re lying together she rests her arm across his bare stomach. “You’re such a nice kid,” she says.
Nice. What a terrible word, used to describe people without ambition. Losers. She doesn’t know him at all, he thinks. “Do you know Jake Becker, Mrs. Lawson? He’s the other reporter at the paper.”
“I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.”
“It’s not really that much of a pleasure.”
“Ha. Tell me what you really think.” She brushes his hair with the tips of her fingers.
He ducks his head away from her. “He got a better job. I just found out today. After only six months at the paper.”
“Good for him.” She brushes his hair again.
He rolls over to look at her. “He’s an asshole, Mrs. Lawson. A real dick.”
“Well, it takes a certain charm to do what you guys do.”
“I’ve got charm,” he says. “Don’t you think?”
She rests her arm over his side. “You’ve got something better than charm.”
He pushes her arm off his stomach to the bed and then stands up. “I should go.”
“Why? Stay a while.”
“Why do you want me to stay?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because I’m a good person?”
“I don’t know, Matt. What’s the difference?”
“Do you think I’m a good reporter?”
She sits up, looking scared. “Of course.”
“Then why do you want me to stay? I mean, that doesn’t make any sense. If I were a good reporter I would—“ He stops himself from finishing the sentence, but his chest feels heavy. He wants to explode.
She covers her face with her hands. “I’m lonely, Matt. Fuck. That’s the only reason I want you to stay. Don’t read anything into it, okay?”
Matt walks to the window, still naked, and gazes out at the back yard. Tangled trees lean over a short chain-link fence and tall weeds choke the narrow slice of grass. There’s a rectangular sandbox , a rusting swing-set with only one white seat still suspended from the top, and a ping pong table bubbling up and warped from wear and weather.
“Why don’t we get a bite to eat?” she says. “Have dinner like regular people and talk about your future.”
Maybe this is what he wants. Someone to listen to old records with. Someone sad who understands life.
He tugs on his pants and shirt and finally his shoes. Mrs. Lawson sits on her knees waiting for him to speak. Her skin looks pale and vulnerable in the dying light.
“I’m going to sell the interview,” he says. “You said he’s guilty.”
“What?” Her hands drop to the bed like anchors.
“To the Boston Herald, I think.”
“You can’t do that. I’ll say it’s a lie.”
“I have the recording, Mrs. Lawson. Or did you forget?”
She shakes her head. “Matt, please. You just said you wouldn’t.” She expels air like she’s been punched in the gut. “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s my job. Gathering news.”
“Oh.” She flops back onto the bed. “It’s your job. Well, then, of course. Sell your damned story.”
He stands. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Lawson.”
“You really should stop saying that.” She tucks her chin into her chest. “Real reporters don’t fucking apologize.”
He walks down the stairs and through the front door. It’s dusk. The wind rustles the trees. In the distance a Corvette speeds down the street, the roar of its engine growing louder as it gets closer. Matt digs in his pocket for his car keys. The gimpy raccoon emerges suddenly from the shrubs clutching a bag of chips with both paws. The creature scurries in the direction of the house, then stops short when it sees Matt. Its eyes are wide and dark. The young reporter takes a step. The raccoon drops the chips, rises on its hind legs, and darts toward the road. Matt closes his eyes as the tires from the oncoming car screech.
Jonathan Kravetz is the founder and former editor-in-chief of the literary webzine, Ducts.org. His short story, “Conch,” was named the fiction category winner for the Fall 2017 issue of Cardinal Sins. “The Garbage Man,” appeared in Narrative Northeast in 2019. His work has appeared in journals such as The Opiate Magazine, All The Sins, Rappahannock Review, and Drunk Monkeys. His short story, “The David,” was turned into a podcast by Welltoldtales.com. Jonathan’s plays have been produced in New York, Dallas, and the UK, and he has twice been a Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference semi-finalist. He teaches creative writing in New York City and online; for contact information visit JonathanKravetz.com.