Whether it had been the Scotch, the weirdness of The Liar’s Club, or meeting Andrea, I spent that long four-block walk back to the newsroom in a mental spiral. Thoughts wild and frightening and erotic whirled through my brain like jackstraws trapped in a hurricane. The mnemonic trance ended abruptly when I reached the newspaper building’s front entrance. I pulled my electronic passkey out of my pocket and swiped it, opened the heavy glass door and stepped into the 1950s space-age lobby. The security guard swiveled in his chair to greet me. Remember the old guy in all those ‘50s sci-fi movies? The night watchman that always got eaten by the giant spider or ripped to pieces by the werewolf? That was Gus, straight out of central casting, 1950s security for a 1950s building.
“Hey, Mr. Bruschi, what are you doing here?”
“Hey, Gus. Just stopping by. Nothing better to do.”
“You want a piece of pizza, Mr. Bruschi?” He held a glistening, pepperoni-laden slice up toward me. “Got extra.”
“No thanks, Gus. I think I’ll go upstairs to the newsroom and see what’s going on.”
I studied the sandwich sitting on wax paper on the counter. He was obviously eating the concoction with his pizza, but I couldn’t figure out what the hell it was.
“Peanut butter and pickles, Mr. Bruschi.” He winked at me. “Nothing like it.”
“I bet you’re right about that, Gus,” I said. “Hope that combo doesn’t give you nightmares.”
He chuckled and said, “I don’t sleep much anyway, Mr. Bruschi, so no problem there.”
“You a Star Trek fan?”
Gus looked at me like he had no idea what Star Trek might even be.
I tapped the counter and said, “See you in a bit, Gus. Don’t think I’ll be too long.”
“Take all the time you need, Mr. Bruschi,” he said, “I got all night.”
After I trudged up the marble and stainless steel curved staircase to the second floor, I opened the door to the newsroom. The joint was still medium-full with staff trying to complete assignments and then run away in time to salvage what might be left of their weekends.
Filling in for Bob Randall, Chief Photo Editor, while he enjoyed two weeks of sunshine in the Caribbean had left no shortage of work for me, either. I had plenty to do to get my mind off my tragic love life.
An annoying voice called to me, “Hey, Bruschi, what’s the matter, your Friday night go bust?”
It was Peter Walker, still pissed that I had been given the privilege of subbing for our vacationing boss. I strolled over to his desk and noticed the telltale sheen of magazine stock sticking out from under a sheaf of papers. I snatched them up and uncovered the Pet of the Month.
“I might ask you the same thing, Wanker. The peep shows on Canal Street closed for fumigating?”
Peter shut the magazine, grabbed the papers from my hand and laid them on the back cover.
“Drop Dead, Bruschi,” he said through his teeth.
“Sweet dreams, Petey boy. Don’t wank yourself into a pretzel.”
Over at our so-called Hot Beverage Center, I grabbed a Styrofoam cup and poured the dregs of the newsroom coffeepot into it. The scorched brew smelled like cinders and tasted like mulch.
“Back to the hell from which you came.” Into the trash it went.
I paused just outside Bob Randall’s door, flicked on the light switch and got hit in the face by the big mess left behind when I cut out earlier for my frolic at The Liar’s Club. Proofs and prints lay scattered over the desk, mingled with manila folders, flash drives, data discs and other junk. More piles of the same dotted the office landscape: on file cabinets, side tables and anywhere else I had found a flat space. Don’t know how he did it, but Bob’s office never looked like this when he was on the clock.
I tossed my jacket on a chair and dove right in. I gathered and sorted, returning pictures to the folders or envelopes where—according to my best recollection—I remembered they came from. I’d decided taking pictures at crime and accident scenes was less disturbing than sorting and choosing which ones to publish. Out in the field, you don’t stop to think about the morality or consequences of what you’re photographing. But on a desktop, the whole thing takes on a different slant.
And on location, totally absorbed in what I was doing, I never really noticed the particulars of the rubbernecking crowds. As I looked at the pictures in my hand and the others arrayed around the room, that’s what struck me, the faces of the bystanders. I guess people’s fascination with other’s misfortune is timeless. Ever study a picture of the Crucifixion? Nearly every version I’ve ever seen has a lot more people than the next of kin hanging around, waiting to see what’ll happen next. Same thing today, people in general don’t go out of their way to prevent something tragic from occurring, but they sure show up to gawk at the results. After dealing with this troubling new perspective for just a few days, I didn’t covet the Chief Photo Editor position. I knew Bob Randall deserved his vacation.
I sat down behind the desk and that sea of faces became a storm surge. I picked over the photos, spread the ones with the best crowd scenes over the top of the desk and scanned the humanity. A particular face jumped out from one picture and stopped my roving eyes. Behind the police line stood a woman whose Sophia Loren sunglasses couldn’t hide her resemblance to Andrea. I twisted the picture this way and that. I grabbed Bob’s magnifier and pressed the flared end to the photo. That hair, those lips. If I could only see her eyes I’d know for sure. With the photo pressed against the magnifier and the magnifier stuck to my face, I tilted my head up to the overhead florescent lights…and realized how pathetic I was; so lonely, that I imagined seeing the face of a woman I met in a bar an hour ago in a crime scene photo.
I laid the picture down on the desk and buried my face in my hands. Jill floated up out of the darkness behind my eyes, with that look of scorn she wore the day she walked out the door; followed by my Mother’s expression of pity when I walked back into her house; then Andrea’s upturned face as she sat on the barstool at The Liar’s Club. At that moment, for whatever convoluted Freudian reasons, they all floated around in a looping sequence in my mind’s eye.
I dropped my hands and looked again at the photo with the woman that I fancied to be Andrea. Just another face in the crowd. I bet I could find someone who looked like, say, Bernie, in one of these pictures, too.
“Yeah, Tommy,” I heard him say, “don’t be a dipshit.”
I scanned the photo-covered desktop.
All those faces.
All those places.
Where could he be hiding?
Bernie, Bernie, come out, come out, wherever you are.
One of my photos at the upper right corner of the desktop, the gruesome results of a five-story jumper, stopped me cold. I checked the notes on the back then flipped the photo over and took another look. There she was again, wearing the same sunglasses and standing just beyond the police line. I picked up the other photo and compared the two. If this isn’t the same woman, then I’m RuPaul.
Jolted by some fear-tinged impulse, I tossed both pictures down on the desk, stood up and decided to get the hell out of there. Maybe go back to The Liar’s Club for a drink and invent a new life while I was at it.
Promising the absent Bob Randall to finish this work tomorrow, I shuffled all the photos on the desk into a loose stack. One slipped out and hit the floor. I bent down and picked it up. I remembered this incident vividly, a fatality car crash in midtown. A drunk jumped the curb in his Ford Bronco and smashed through the front door of a shotgun pizza parlor. It had been a frickin’ mess and a mob scene. I had to push my way through a wall of people just to get a decent shot. And there, in the left side of my frame, was a woman’s face in profile, turning away from the carnage. Man, I must have been standing right next to her.
I rummaged through the stack of photos, found the other two suspects and laid them out in a row.
One, two, three.
God, it was the same woman.
It had to be.
It was Andrea.
Or was it?
I saw my ghostly, dumbfounded reflection in the office windows as I looked out onto the now-empty newsroom and decided it was way past time to call it a day.
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