"Dying to Know" by J.D. Kotzman
People die every day. That’s what I kept telling myself anyway—anything to explain why we put Lisa in the ground this morning, why a girl like her didn’t live to see her twenty-fourth birthday. I can still recall, with perfect clarity, the day we met. Before I even took my first hit of Joe, she waltzed into my office, decked out in a killer navy-blue blazer and pencil skirt, and demanded a job. We needed a copy-editor at HHQ—Hospitals and Hospices Quarterly, to the uninitiated—so I hired her, on the spot. Ambitious, bright, and, in truth, more than a little adorable—why the fuck not? Soon enough, the answer would become apparent.
I fell for Lisa, harder than I once would have considered possible. For weeks, I got a daily high from witnessing one of her infectious grins, hearing her singsong voice, or snatching a whiff of her vanilla perfume. And when we chatted on occasion, over coffee in the break room or the odd lunch, I spun right off into the stratosphere. For the first time in years, I looked forward to trekking to work each morning. She made everything seem rosier, like that third shot of whiskey after a grueling day—only better and without the inevitable hangover. But as with any drug, a tolerance began to form, and I needed bigger and bigger doses of her to stay euphoric. I wanted more. I wanted her in my life, all parts of it.
I desired to confess that to Lisa, so much it hurt sometimes, but the moment never came. I was more than ten years her senior, not to mention a section chief and her boss, all of which complicated things. And then there was Craig ... goddamned Craig.
If I’d managed to tell Lisa how I felt, maybe her life wouldn’t have ended against the hood of a skidding Range Rover. Maybe I wouldn’t have had to see her pallid, lifeless body lying in a casket, or had to listen to her mother sobbing over an open grave. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have brought Lisa on board in the first place. Too many maybes. So I just kept telling myself people die every day. And maybe they do, but not people like her.
My hands tightened on the cool porcelain, and I took another hard look in the mirror. Puffy, bloodshot eyes, I noticed, and the drab fluorescent lighting didn’t do any favors for the dark bags underneath. You look like shit, old chum. I snorted and shut my eyes, letting the soothing blackness engulf me. The faint odor of piss and Lysol hung in the air, and through the paper-thin walls, a cacophony of muffled sounds intruded on the quiet. I tried to make out each of them—rollicking voices, thumping bass, clinking of glasses against one another—until the dissonance condensed into a series of short raps against the door. Time to bugger off. A few last adjustments to my disheveled mop, then I slipped outside. My listless body ached for a drink, but I got waylaid before I could escape to the bar.
“Doug,” my captor said, patting me on the shoulder. “Thanks for meeting me. How are you holding up, buddy?”
I’d known Eric a long time, ever since our days slaving as green reporters at the Post. We hung out a lot back then, bonding, almost right away, over our mutual appreciation for single-malt Scotch and all things Tarantino. And though it never came out as anything more than a joke, we shared a closet fantasy of becoming the next Woodward or Bernstein, maybe even winning a Pulitzer. None of that happened, sad to say. Sick of snoozing through school board meetings and zoning hearings, I quit the paper within a year. Not long afterward, Eric got the sack for fabricating a source in a story he broke about a certain public official who’d allegedly pocketed kickbacks from one of the city’s contractors.
After a few months of mucking about in a pool of self-pity and Glenfiddich, I got back my footing at the magazine. As for Eric, when it came out that he’d nailed the facts in his infamous article—dirty as a Kwik Stop restroom, our building inspector—the Examiner decided to overlook the faux Deep Throat incident and offer him a new gig, plus a raise. His bylines still caught my eye from time to time, but I hadn’t seen him much of late. If memory served, we’d last breathed the same air about three years ago, on the day of his wedding, just before he and his new bride rode off into the exurban sunset.
“As well as can be expected,” I said, eying the whiskey in his hand, “under the circumstances.”
“Yes, I can imagine,” he said. “I’m sorry about ...”
“A sweet kid, by all accounts, and cute too,” he said. “Would you believe we interviewed her last week for a Valentine’s Day fluff piece?”
“I heard about it.”
“So did you two ever ... you know?”
“Easy, partner,” I said, my face a giant stop sign.
“You were there, though, right?” he asked, shifting gears, smooth as 25-year-old Macallan. “The night that SUV rammed her, I mean. You were on the scene when it went down.”
“You know I was.”
“Feel like telling me about it?” he asked, ever the reporter. The story had grabbed a lot of attention—not an everyday event, the tragic death of a local congressman’s youngest daughter. And besides, everyone loved a pretty corpse.
“Sure,” I said, “but first I need a Scotch, preferably one old enough to drive me home later. You paying?”
The night Lisa died started like many Friday evenings did. After I’d proofed my last article for the day, I shoved off early in search of some much-needed lubrication, flanked by my usual compatriots—Mark, the features editor, Beth, the Web guru, and Patti, the newest member of our not-so-merry crew. I’d worked with Mark and Beth for years, and we often got together after an onerous week to share a few laughs, trade gossip, and express our general distaste for life at HHQ. Even so, outside of the basic facts and their usual drink orders—Mark had a penchant for dirty martinis, and Beth tended to stick to red wine—I didn’t know them, not really. They had a tight-knit relationship, a marriage of sorts, and I’d never quite rated a pass to the inner sanctum.
As for Patti? Trouble, in a word, but she didn’t let that slow her down. She feared almost nothing, it seemed, always ready for the next adventure. And she liked to gab, had this way of drawing people out, getting even complete strangers to open up to her. She also had a wit about her, one sharp enough to shred almost anyone to ribbons, I suspected. Still, a lot of old wounds festered behind her free-spirited facade. Though I didn’t know the whole dysfunctional tale, she’d shared enough snippets for me to assemble a Cliff’s Notes version—abusive mother, alcoholic father, unruly older sister, and never enough money in the house. In spite of it all, she managed to claw her through school and emerge with a post at the magazine, followed by a rapid promotion. I had to admire her for that. More, I couldn’t help but love her.
“Where to, captain?” she asked as the four of us scudded along the sidewalk, in the vague direction of downtown.
“Grasshopper,” I said.
Inside its chic exterior, Grasshopper gave off a rustic vibe—lots of reclaimed wood and wrought iron, with a wall of birch logs that stood opposite the backlit amber glass bar. And in the middle of it all, an artificial tree draped with glowing copper lanterns towered from floor to ceiling. We navigated past the arboreal behemoth, procured some drinks, and searched for a suitable spot to plant ourselves. In half an hour or so, the yuppies would descend like locusts, consuming every vacant seat and swarming two-deep around the bar, but until then we had our pick. We opted for the large, arching banquette in the lounge area.
After we’d made ourselves comfortable on the cushy upholstery, Patti lit a cigarette and filled us in on her boyfriend’s scheme to move with her to Sin City. He wanted to try his luck as a professional poker player, she told us.
“You’re insane,” Beth said.
“Clinically,” Mark added, nodding.
“What’re you going to do in Vegas, while he’s out chasing inside straights or whatever?” Beth asked.
“High-class hooker, I’m betting,” Mark said.
“High-class?” Beth asked.
“Oh my God,” Patti squealed, feigning indignation. “I didn’t say I’m definitely moving there. He’ll probably forget about it in a week.”
“Jesus, your life is such an Afterschool Special,” I said, only half-kidding.
“Yes,” Beth said, “except without any intervention.”
“Exactly,” I said.
“I see my life as a movie anyway, dah-lings,” Patti said, running a hand through her bottle-blonde mane and smiling for imaginary cameras.
“Only if that movie is directed by one David Lynch,” Mark said, chuckling a bit. “All that’s missing is the dream sequence with a dwarf.”
“Which one had a dwarf?” Patti asked.
“They all had a dwarf,” I said, polishing off my whiskey, “and Kyle MacLachlan.”
“I see my life as a movie too,” Beth said, a rueful smile creasing her face, “a long, boring Gus Van Sant flick with about five minutes of action and a hundred shots of the desert.”
“Dating pool a little dry, dear?” Mark asked.
“Bone ... or lack of bone, I should say.”
“I know the feeling,” Mark said, letting out a deep sigh.
“Speaking of dating pools,” Patti said, “did you guys catch that Valentine’s Day thing in the Examiner this morning?” None of us had. “They snapped photos of a bunch of people around town and interviewed them about their Valentine’s wishes. Little miss copy-editor appeared front and center, draped all over Craig.”
Craig, our senior copy-editor. Craig, Patti’s one-time “work boyfriend.” Not so long ago, they’d bordered on inseparable, often cracking each other up with dirty jokes or sharing rumors in hushed voices, like a couple of co-conspirators. But something happened between the two of them, fractured their private cabal, even before Lisa arrived. They’d grown distant, shaken apart by some unknown seismic event, an explosion deep beneath the surface.
As for the revelation about Craig and Lisa, it didn’t surprise me. He’d trained her, and by my calculations, the hardcore flirting kicked off no later than five minutes into her first day on the job. Whether or not it upset Patti, I didn’t know, though I figured it must have. She’d made no secret of her loathing for Lisa.
“What did he wish for?” Beth asked.
“He said, and I quote, ‘I want her to get something at Victoria’s Secret for her, for me,’” Patti said, pretending to stick a finger down her throat.
“Classy,” Mark said.
“What about her wish?” I asked.
“It’s disgusting,” Patti said. “Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
“Oh, now I’m dying to know,” Mark said.
“A night with … The Craigger.”
Mark and Beth burst into a fit of laughter. I mustered a wry smile.
“So some kind of love triangle then?” Eric asked, fishing around for an angle, a hook. “Good stuff.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” I said, after I’d downed the last of my Lagavulin 16.
“What would you say?”
“I’d say there was ... tension.”
“Your word, not mine, pal.”
“Well, what happened next?”
“Buy me another,” I said, hoisting my empty tumbler.
We plowed through a few more rounds at Grasshopper before hitting the street. After I’d bade sayonara to Mark and Beth, Patti tried to cajole me into accompanying her to Half Pint, an out-of-the-way dump known for its kitschy decor and nightly live music—the kind of place that would give anyone with an ax and a dream the chance to jam for an evening, no audition required. She said I had to check out Alpha Wave, this band from Pittsburgh she knew. I told her no, some other time, I just wanted to fall into bed. By and by, though, she must have sold me, because soon afterward I found myself hurtling uptown in a cab that stank of incense and cheap cologne, fighting the urge to pass out while she entertained the driver with a filthy yarn about a dropping fly and a wet pussy.
The two of us stumbled into Half Pint around a quarter to show time. That night, like most, the place hosted an eclectic mix of friends of the band, college kids, and neighborhood regulars—anyone dedicated or crazy enough to shell out the eight-dollar cover. As we passed a ragtag stage on the left, the band’s bass player, a balding, forty-something hipster, spied Patti and motioned her over to him. She scurried to the edge of the platform, and he knelt down close and whispered something to her. I marched on, past a collage of black-and-white photos and faded Budweiser posters, to the island of a bar in the back. While I waited at the half-rotted wood counter, a prodigious moose head kept eyeballing me, wary. Charming establishment. I ordered a couple of drinks and, as fast as the shitty service would allow, ditched my creepy cervine companion for the raggedy sofa across from the stage. When Patti plunked herself down beside me, I smirked and handed her a G and T.
“What did he want?” I asked.
“Asked me to save him a dance.”
“So,” I said, “what’s the scoop on you two?”
“We started talking after a show they did here last year and kept in touch,” she said, firing up a Parliament. “I loved their groove. It’s sort of this wild combination of smoky jazz and trip-hop, this series of like, unfolding waves …”
Patti’s pale blue eyes sparkled as she went on describing the music, her naked joy swallowing me, everything, like a cosmic singularity. I wished I could stay in that heady space with her forever. And when she beamed at me, the idea of losing her filled me with sudden, manic dismay, even though she wasn’t mine to lose.
“Don’t do it,” I said, cutting her short. “Don’t move out to Vegas, I mean.”
“Hey, killer, don’t worry,” she said. “I’m a long way from liftoff.”