Sophie leaned over the bed, “Ready to go home, Pete?”
The elderly man slowly raised his steady gaze, meeting Sophie’s deep blue eyes head on.
“Couldn’t be more ready,” he said without a trace of emotion.
“Well, let’s get you out of here then.” Sophie retrieved her stethoscope and listened to Pete’s rhythmic breathing.
“Wiggle your toes,” she commanded.
“You mean my once purple toes?” Pete asked as he vigorously followed Sophie’s instructions.
“Good. Now stick out your tongue.”
“You’re an awfully demanding nurse, ya know,” he said in the same dry tone.
“I’ve brought your favorite shirt.” Appearing suddenly in the open doorframe, a snowy white-haired full-figured woman held up a Chicago Bears long-sleeved t-shirt.
“Clara, are you prepared to deal with this cantankerous man?” Sophie said as she wrote on the clipboard.
“No. But I have no choice now do I?” Clara smiled as she walked to the bedside and smoothed back Pete’s thick gray hair. “Besides, I can’t leave him here. You nurses would kill me!”
“Okay, that’s enough. And ironically, you are quite wrong. They tried to kill ME!” A slow smile crept across Pete’s face.
“I think it’s the other way around, dear. They did everything in their power to save you. And, thank God, it worked.” Clara said as she smiled down at Pete.
“Well, Pete, are you ready to go home?” A tall, gangly man strode in, his white coat fluttering in time with the briskness of his walk.
“Dr. Regada, please tell these women to get off my back.”
“I promise to do just that, after I examine you.”
Dr. Regada pulled the curtain around the bed as Clara and Sophie left the room and stood outside the door.
“I’d better make my rounds.” Sophie said to Clara. “Pete will be fine now.”
She patted the older woman’s hand. “He’s a real stinker, but I am going to miss him.”
As she started to leave, Clara took her arm, “Sophie, wait.”
“I wanted to thank you—“
“I’m just doing my—“
“No. You are doing more than your job, and under such difficult circumstances. I’m so glad for you and the other medical staff that Pete is the last one.”
Clara gave Sophie a tight-lipped smile. “When Pete was so bad, well, you know how it was, all I could do was wait. And for some reason this one thought kept running through my mind.”
Sophie’s interest was piqued. “What was it Clara?”
“I kept thinking I wasn’t going to have that spumoni date ever again.”
Sophie gave her a puzzled look, “Spumoni date?”
Clara laughed, “We had a recurring date, first Friday of the month. We went to our favorite Italian restaurant and had spumoni. Oh, sometimes we had dinner, too, though not always. But we never missed our spumoni nights and most of the time we sat in the same little booth in the corner.”
“Anyway, I realize it’s just a stupid little thing, but I couldn’t keep the image out of my mind, the two of us sitting in our booth eating that wonderful dessert! I think that image was subconsciously planted in my head to keep me from thinking about all the other moments I might not get a chance to share with the old coot. Spumoni, huh? Crazy!”
Sophie tilted her head, smiled, and grasped Clara’s arm with a firm hold, “No, Clara, it’s not crazy. Crazy would be if you didn’t have more spumoni moments with him. Now, go back in there and get that man ready to go home before he starts bellowing loud enough that the noise echoes down the hallway again.”
“Okay, you take care, ya hear?”
Sophie walked to the nurse’s station. Her coworker and friend, Marnie, looked up from the computer screen as Sophie approached.
“Did you know that Pete and Clara have a spumoni date every first Friday of the month?” Sophie asked as she laid down her clipboard and stretched her neck.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. Pete told me. Why?”
“Clara just told me.”
“What’s up, you two?” Another nurse, Beth, walked briskly up to the desk.
“Pete. He and his wife have a spumoni date every— “
“Yeah, Pete told me.”
“Why didn’t I know that?” Sophie asked with a slightly annoyed tone.
“I’m sure he told you. Or, he’s quite a jabberer, maybe he jabbered on about other things to you.” Beth replied.
“You’re right, he did. He told me stories from his days working at the post office and said he still attends retiree breakfasts. He relayed a story he heard there about a fellow mail lady and a cat.”
“And he mentioned that his granddaughter works in some newsroom. Oh, and his other daughter is working from home and slowly going crazy, what with family always under her thumb.”
Beth laughed. “That’s Pete. He was here a long time. I’m going to miss him. But I’m glad he is going home.”
After a few laughs about their last critical patient in C-Ward, the nurses quieted down as they worked separately, reviewing new patient information, and gathering more supplies. As a welcome change, these new patients arrived with familiar issues of old routine illnesses and injuries such as flu, bronchitis issues, or mending of bones.
The silence allowed the sound of the waiting room TV news. Newscasters announcing the latest catastrophes, crime, and a few random acts of kindness.
“Too bad we don’t know each other’s spumoni stories.”
“Well… if we did, maybe we’d realize we’re all a part of the same story and maybe this world wouldn’t seem so cold.”
Marnie laughed. “Like spumoni?”
Sophie’s name came over the loudspeaker with instructions to visit Room 221.
“That’s Emily Bellows. She’s in with some kind of blockage that no one can figure out. Better get going. As my mom would say, making hay while the sun shines or something along that line.”
Marnie laughed, “Ellie would have said that and more. The doctor in her, ya know.”
As Sophie walked to Room 221 she met Clara and Pete coming down the hallway.
“Goodbye, you two. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m glad to see our last C -Ward patient leave.” “You and me, both, Sophie!” Pete hollered. “You and me both!” As he passed, he threw his arm up in a salute. She heard his laughter until the elevator doors shut.
Dana glanced over at Chad, her usual shrug and sigh followed.
“Hey, girlfriend, don’t be too hard on old Roger. This stuff is getting to be a bit too much for the old chap to handle.” Chad said from his desk, the appropriate length of space away.
“I know. I really try to remember that. It’s just a tad difficult at times.”
Dana opened her desk drawer pulling out a dark chocolate covered nougat candy bar.
“I see you’re stress eating again.” Chad smiled as he tilted his head to one side.
“Yes, asshole, I’m stress eating again.” Dana cocked her head as she smirked. “I ate a whole pint of Chunky Monkey last night.”
“That’s all.” Chad shrugged.
“With half a sleeve of peanut butter moose tracks cookies.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” he said.
“Dana! Where is the quote from that infectious disease specialist? You know, the doctor that…”
It wasn’t hard for Dana to tune out the news producer’s question. She knew where this was going. Certain requests followed an algorithm all their own. For instance:
Where are the—that would be the new cases stats, CDC current guidelines, hospitalization rates, in that order.
Bring the report on—would be ‘the-most-affected- at- the-present-time’ state data on testing sites, various countries’ safety guidelines, or air flow analysis.
Have you seen—that phrase ended with Roger. As the network evening news anchor, Roger is legendary. Chad will say that Roger is about 900 years old with over 800 years of television reporting experience. And that back in the day his reports were directly from God.
Roger’s reporting style was like no other. He had ‘presence’ as the news magazines described his aura. Tall, husky, and built like a freight train, Roger gave off an air of authority with any news story he reported. The action could be across the world, but it was as though Roger swooped down into the nation’s living rooms to speak personally from the center of shag carpets everywhere–microphone in hand, eyes cast directly on the Mr. & Mrs. as they sat spellbound, glued to their spots, senses heightened.
During his career, Roger had reported on countless wars, unforgotten presidential elections, million strong marches and protests, historical earthquakes and hurricanes. But the recent turn of events had taken a toll on him. His swagger diminished, his sharp tone now hazy, made everyone in the newsroom ache with the desire to turn their heads away. They didn’t want to watch. It was like watching a great massive bull slowly succumb to the arrows thrown his way.
Before, when the world wasn’t in hiding, Roger was everywhere. He could be found in his office preparing a broadcast, out among the staff cubicles-standing arms crossed listening to a news story, or in the production control room leaning over the panels like a kid in a pastry shop eyeing the donuts along the opposite wall.
But now, it was as if he decided to make a last stage career switch. He became a magician specializing in disappearing acts. No longer was he in the control room, his office, or even the restroom. He didn’t even patronize The Town Crier, the bar he and everyone else in the media business frequented.
On most days, staff could predict with uncanny accuracy, the exact time the producer would begin his search for Roger. This could go on forever. At which point staff began predicting when the producer would start stretching his tie away from his neck as he looked for Roger. Betting would become involved, dollars flying, Chad running the betting table. It all ended as the exasperated producer in desperation began yelling “Roger!” traipsing through cubicle rows or opening and shutting hallway doors.
Miraculously, Roger would come out of whatever shadows he found to gamely sit behind the anchor desk and report the evening’s news. His coverage wasn’t always bad. Sometimes his old swagger would reappear, his mouth would move in tangent with the teleprompter, and his eyes would focus on his viewers as he reported the numbers once again.
But for the most part, Roger’s voice would shake; his hands would tremble as he held them together on the anchor desk. The producer would stand in the control room, either shaking his head or burrowing it in his hands.
As Dana scanned her virtual files for the report her phone vibrated. A photo of a man with stubby gray hair and deep blue eyes resembling Dana’s appeared on her screen.
“Dad? How’s Mom?” Dana asked as she stopped scanning.
“Well, I had to call an ambulance. She couldn’t catch her breath and her pulse was racing.”
Elbow resting on her desk, Dana planted her forehead into her palm. For a moment her words were clogged in the middle of her throat, unable to reach the surface.
“Dana? It’ll be all right, honey.” Her dad was saying into the phone.
“I’m coming over. You can’t be alone right now.”
“No. That is the last thing you are going to do. And it’s the last thing your mom would want you to do. She would want you to keep doing your job. You know how proud she is of that job of yours.”
“I don’t care about that right now. There’s nothing here that’s more important than you two.”
“No. You’re right; there is nothing more important than family and being together. But for now that can’t happen. I have to stay here. Alone. That’s the rules. I might be… toxic.”
“If anyone isn’t toxic, it’s you Dad. But okay. You will let me know if anything happens… one way or the other?”
“Of course, I will.”
She stared at her phone as the two sharp beeps sounded signaling the end of the call. After a few minutes she hit the text button:
-Dad just called. Mom’s in the hospital.-
After a few moments as Dana waited, clenching her phone and staring at the screen, the three small dots appeared. Then:
-Babe, I’m so sorry. I want to be there so bad. Just to hold you.-
At the end of the text the red heart symbol displayed.
-I know. I will let you know if I hear any news.-
She plopped her phone down on her desk and sighed as her eyes became moist. She wiped away at them and sat still, taking deep breaths, and focusing her eyes on the always hectic scene before her.
Dana didn’t leave the newsroom. If she couldn’t be with her family she wanted to be there. This room was the one place that knew. Moment after moment a newsroom knows. Being there was right next to being constantly aware. She started looking for the virtual report again.
At nine p.m. Dana gathered her metro card and purse to head out the door. Earlier, Chad had tried to convince her to go with him to meet his husband for a late downtown restaurant dinner. After she told him she wasn’t really up to dinner, he tried without luck to get her to go home with him. He said that he would call Sam and explain. They could sit on the couch and watch a housewives’ reality show or something. Although his invitation was kind, Dana didn’t want to disrupt their evening. She said she would be fine. Besides, she told Chad, her dad had called telling her that her mom was stable, no change.
So, Dana donned her face mask and headed toward the station floor’s elevator. As she walked down the hall, a shadow moved across the corridor. Startled, she drew in her breath and clutched her bag.
“I’m sorry about your mom, Dana. Have you heard anything?” A voice said. As Dana recovered, she crept toward the voice. Roger stood in front of the newsroom door, arms folded, his sports jacket thrown over his shoulder, a black and silver mask across his mouth and nose.
News spreads fast in a newsroom, Dana thought to herself smiling for the first time in hours at her little pun. She looked up at Roger and answered.
“My dad called earlier. He said she was holding her own. Thanks for asking.” She smiled at him realizing that over her five years in this job Roger barely spoke to her outside of demands for data or details on news items.
“Well, please know that your mom is in my thoughts. I’m hoping she will be out of that hospital soon.” Roger sighed as the elevator doors opened and he gestured for Dana to go in first.
As the doors slammed shut he said, “As it turns out, I had a late phone conference with L.A. I’m usually home by now, with a Manhattan in hand, anticipating a good night sleep. Since all this stuff started though, it’s been a little harder to convince myself to go home.” He looked down at the elevator floor. “My wife died a few years ago. That was hard. But, back then I could go see people if I started feeling… you know. I could enjoy a drink with friends. Now this—it’s… well…”
“I know.” Dana volunteered. “My boyfriend, Clay, he’s stuck in Germany—he’s a colonel in the Army. It would be nice to have him home.”
“So…” Roger said as the elevator doors opened to the lobby and outside. “Did you know the Town Crier installed those Plexiglas dividers? At the bar? Anyway, would… never mind…”
Dana stood silent for only a nanosecond as she observed Roger. His shirt, usually crisp and smooth as glass, sported wrinkles and ink stains. His always fastidiously groomed hair stuck out in random places. He had on reading glasses which he never wore, giving off a deer in headlights impression.
Dana shot him a half smile. “Roger, I can’t think of a better thing to do right now than to sit at a bar with a Plexiglas divider.”
“So, do you think these things will stay after all this is over? I mean, I’m sure they might come in handy in certain circumstances.” Roger said. Divided by the glass, the two sat at the bar. Dana had no trouble hearing Roger’s deep baritone anchorman’s voice.
“Like when you’re on a date and the guy you’re with is a total creep?” Dana laughed.
“Or just to get away from a rowdy bar group?” Roger offered.
“Or you are at the bar when it’s crowded and a rude drunk spills his drink. The red Jägermeister hits the Plexiglas and not your brand new white dress?” Dana countered.
They both laughed as they sipped their drinks, Roger’s a Manhattan, Dana’s a Whiskey Sour.
Roger raised his glass saying, “A toast.”
Darla picked her glass up in confused preparation.
“To twenty years as an anchor for a top network news show!” Roger said as they clanked their glasses together.
Darla lowered her glass and added, “And I’m sure there will be many more years.”
“Nope.” Roger took a swig of his drink. “I handed in my retirement paperwork a month ago. Today was my last day.”
Darla shook her head trying to justify the words Roger spoke. “Wait. You just said your last day was today?”
“Yep.” Roger’s knee hit the Plexiglas as he turned toward her. “I’m done. About time, right?”
“No.” Darla said in a sharp tone. “It’s not time. Now is the worst time. How can you do that? Why, you’re the voice of reason during this particular time in history.”
Roger chuckled. “The voice of reason,” he repeated as if to himself. He smiled at her, “It’s not that I’m headed out to pasture.”
“What?” Dana asked.
“Headed out to pasture? It means, done, dried up, old. You are a young whippersnapper.”
“Oh my god.” He turned again hitting his knee on the hard plastic. “I’ve got things to do still. But, it’s time to pass the torch.”
“I do know what that means.” Dana said as she sipped her second drink. “It’s just that I’m not sure our newsroom can withstand any changes given the immediate circumstances.”
“What newsroom can? But isn’t that what the news is? Reporting change?”
“You know what I mean. Sometimes I feel as if no one is listening.” Dana shrugged.
Roger moved closer to the glass. “Oh, but child, you’re wrong. People do listen. Sometimes they just don’t want to hear the truth. So, they spin their own version or listen to skewed voices of those behind anchor desks willing to give them what they prefer to hear. Now, more than ever, we all need the truth.”
“So, now is when you decide to give up?” Dana glared at him, shaking her head.
“I’m not giving up. And I’m not leaving the news.” Roger shrugs “I’m just pivoting a bit. And you? What are your aspirations? Are you planning on a career here?”
“I don’t think so. At first, the fast pace mesmerized me, the gathering of important information, the ability to reach so many people at one time for a single worthy purpose. But now, especially now, that purpose seems flat. No one seems to care anymore.”
“Ah, but you’re wrong. People care. They are just a little misbegotten. It’s our job to steer them to port. To help them sort the chaff from the wheat.”
“There ya go again. I have no idea what you are talking about.” She took another swallow of her drink and banged her glass down on the bar.
“It’s in the Bible. Actually, the verse goes, ‘In the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.’ Matthew 13:30. For me, it helps to explain separating the false from the truth.”
“I went to Sunday School,” Dana declared in a defiant tone of voice.
Roger laughed. “Just promise me you will keep that fresh view. And don’t give up on the news media. Stick with it.”
Dana considered his words then said, “I don’t know that I have the stamina needed to stick with it.”
He then did something she will remember the rest of her life. He placed his hand on the Plexiglas. Dana hesitated a moment, smiled, then placed her hand on the other side of the glass over his.
As he leaned closer he said, “I believe you do. Just never let lies fog the gathering of facts. Research and research again. Don’t get caught up in anything just because it’s easier to follow. Always search for the truth, report it, and the rest will take care of itself.”
With that Roger sighed, took out his wallet and laid cash down on the bar. “I have to go. It’s way past my bedtime. You take care of yourself. Your mom will be fine. We’re all going to be fine.”
Dana watched him amble out the door and walk out of sight. She ordered one more drink as she sat and reflected on their talk. As she sipped the last of her drink her phone vibrated.
“Tonight’s news begins with a story of breakthrough technology that will revolutionize the medical field.” Dana spoke into the camera with ease, excited to report the exhilarating news to her over five million viewers.
When the broadcast ended the producer walked up to the desk. “Good job tonight, Dana.”
“Thank you. Well, I have a date with a good looking man and his darling children. Have to go.” She got up from the desk, putting on her shoes under her seat.
The producer slapped the desk, smiling. “Tell Clay hello. And give those two little girls an enormous hug from their Uncle Chad, okay?”
“You got it.”
Dana picked up her purse. Her phone vibrated displaying a photo of an attractive elderly woman, a bright smile on her face.
“Mom, how’s it going? Are you and dad packed for your trip?”
“We are! And excited! It will be an entire day and a half of travel to get to Australia, but well worth it! Your dad is practicing his embarrassing Aussie accent, right now.”
“It’s not embarrassing! I’m getting good!” Karla could hear her father’s voice in the background.
“Well, keep me posted! I’m off to dinner.”
“Give the girls big kisses for me! We’ll be calling and texting.”
As Dana hung up the phone she walked down the hallway toward the elevator glancing in particular at one of the photos lining the wall. She patted the photo as was her habit each night upon leaving.
Roger stared down at her from his elevated spot. He died a few years back, but his image remains a huge legacy at the network. She thought of the conversation they had years before, at the Town Crier. Recalling his words, she smiled; he wasn’t giving up, and he wasn’t leaving the news. ‘I’m just pivoting a bit’, he had said.
Roger went on to write a bestseller; a scathing account of the condition of broadcasting, social media content, and a cry to humankind that if we ignore truth and justice, the world will not be able to ignore the chaos and madness manifested as a result.
His book, along with ethical leadership and monumental strides toward education and cultural cultivation resulted in a societal shift in attitude towards the credibility of news reporting. Dana reaped the benefits of the chaff separated from the wheat. She worked her way up the news ladder from investigative reporting to production, then on to a significant series investigating the criminal justice system.
For the last ten years she has occupied the news anchor spot delivering eventful stories from catastrophic weather to consequential Supreme Court decisions.
But for now, it was time to head out into the darkness. Darkness that enfolded her for only a brief while as she anticipated the glow inside the restaurant while dining with her husband and family among the many restaurant patrons. The day was over, and she reported it as good.