Nine Stories About Kathy Marshall
Chris Guthrie is Editor-in-Chief for Open Book Editors and a fiction writer. His short fiction has appeared in Washington Square Review, Litro Magazine, Crazyhorse, and once before in Amarillo Bay. His novel, The Shack Cartel,will be released in early 2015. He lives in Newport News, Virginia with his wife, Beth, and children, Ava and Dylan.
1. Sweeps Week
The guys in the viewing room behind the storage closet at the far end of the newsroom said Kathy was a force of nature. Broken cameras were stacked next to battery packs and boxes of show tapes, with old tapes scattered everywhere, like a dorm room for photogs. An old linear tape deck sat beneath a monitor. The photogs would close the door and use it to show porn.
A.J. sat scrolling through video and shook his head. A freeze frame of her stand-up hovered over him. Her popularity throughout the market was instantly massive and built mostly on rumor. Some said she was a Rhodes Scholar and others said she once flew the Space Shuttle. She had only been a reporter for nine months after spending the first six in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the locals had never seen anyone like her. She had her choice of medium-sized local news markets and chose Norfolk, where she could make mistakes without anyone noticing and put together kicker packages at the beach three days a week. Kevin Connors recruited her relentlessly after seeing her air checks, and they sat in his window-walled office every day, ironing out the world's problems.
Her beauty made her universally unapproachable. This was already clear. Nobody would talk to her. Women resented her and men assumed she wouldn't talk to them. Others thought she was a snob, but I knew the truth. She was a freak of nature—majestic and self-deprecating. Her father was a bald eagle and her mother was an '80s sitcom, plaid afghans on the couch. She label-whored Versace blouses but snorted if you drew crude pictures on her desk calendar mat. She voiced stand-ups for her packages with perfect sorority posture, elbow angled slightly and torso turned, the upraised chin of the self-esteemed. But I knew her for who she was—endangered and retro chic, august and campy, a dyed-in-the-wool ice fisher and a genuine snow queen.
I knew because I watched her and Kevin Connors in his office, their legs crossed with professional concern, and me across the newsroom peering over the monitor from a random newsroom desk. A pile of show tapes awaited me in my edit bay. The 5:00 show was less than an hour away and it would need video. I was alternating stares at them and glances down to the monitor, carefully crafted, interested in an apathetic way, when I glanced up to see her staring at me and smiling. I looked down and looked up again in time to see her walking across the newsroom to me. I forced a smile and stiffened, natural as hell.
"Look, I need your help."
We walked back to my edit bay and I turned on the light. Nobody ever came back there unless they needed a tape. I know what it looked like, an abandoned lair, with stacks of tapes everywhere, but she sat down in my seat and smiled and straightened her skirt. February sweeps were coming. She and Kevin Connors wanted to do something about single people in their native habitat. It would air the week of Valentine's Day, with a Cupid graphic and Kathy on set tossing to a package. Who were these single people and how did they survive? Local news watchers were over fifty and understood the language at a 5th grade level. They needed to know, but in a kitschy remedial way.
She needed a single guy to scour the area and try to pick up women on camera. It had to be someone who wasn't on-air talent and it had to be someone she knew. It was for a series piece, with four two-minute packages, so they needed plenty of video. A.J. was her photog and he had it all planned out. Like Kathy, he was massively overqualified for this market. Unlike Kathy, this was based largely on technical skill and artistic vision. He would hide his camera in his denim jacket and tilt the viewfinder. I had to wear a remote lavalier clipped to the inside of a button-down and remember to enunciate.
It was a perfect plan except for the part where I was painfully shy. There was a reason I was a videotape editor beyond the fact that I took journalism classes in college, which was only because I took A/V in high school, which was only because it let me get out of class for a half hour to wheel the TV down the hall. I was horribly timid around women, but there was no saying no to Kathy Marshall. She was a force of nature.
2. The Five Curses
She and A.J. were on their way to a double homicide in the sat truck when they got stuck in traffic. They routinely hit traffic on the way to live shots for the 6:00 show and A.J. said he was cursed. This was when Kathy said she knew what a real curse was—she suffered from five curses over the course of her life. She shook her head and stared out the window. A.J. looked at her.
The first happened at her home in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis, where blizzards were routine and she followed her brother into the woods and out the other side on snowmobiles, canvassing the streets in search of people to help while the snow pinpricked her cheeks. At first she couldn't keep up—she was too young and he gave her the slow sled—and then she could, pulling up alongside disabled vehicles with him and offering to help.
It was while helping an old lady and her grandchildren in a vacant church parking lot on a Sunday that she received her first curse. The lady wore three types of denim and a red ascot blooming out of her neck, like there was no chance she would get stuck in a snowstorm today. She had dark eyes and the face of perpetual fatigue. Kathy avoided eye contact. Everything was whitened out around them, the sound muffled. She and her brother got under the car and slid tire chains on, with the snow sliding down her neck in frozen stabs. The woman never thanked them. Her car wouldn't start when she and the kids got back in.
She stepped out of the dead car and her grandkids stayed inside, putting both hands on the foggy windows. She said it was a natural consequence of her life, a stranded car in a snowstorm. She was cursed. Always had been. Now they were stuck and the snow was piling up around them.
"I was once beautiful like you," she said. "It was a curse. The curse of the beautiful. Now it is yours."
"We'll go get help, ma'am. You'll be all right."
"No, we are saved now. I have been absolved."
"Ma'am, we need to get moving," said her brother. "Your kids and all, we need to get them somewhere."
They looked up and down the abandoned street for help. No one was coming. The snow had gotten too deep and the roads were nearly impassible save for emergency vehicles.
"In my time of sadness comes salvation," the woman said. "I have passed my curse on to you."
3. Her Apartment
"There's no reward for getting phone numbers and no penalty for not getting them," she said. "Whatever happens happens."
I knew that wasn't true and wasn't surprised to get shot down when the time came. The punishment was their laughter, Kathy and A.J. standing in the corner, hearing everything and masking their chuckles so I wouldn't hear them. We staked out female-centric destinations like the white wine aisle at the fresh market and the unmentionables counter at Macy's, me standing awkwardly and talking to a woman I didn't know for the first time in forever, like trying out a new language. Kathy laughed in muffled squeals, the dimples bracketing her mouth, and I stood next to a woman till it got weird.
I asked, "So do you know anything about sauvignon blanc?"
The woman smiled sideways. "I just get what my boyfriend likes."
It got worse. A woman pulled her phone out of her purse at the check-out counter and a man appeared behind the counter at Macy's, smiling in a strange, stiff way till I got the hint. There were zero reasonable things to say.
"No, it's good," Kathy told me. "You're doing fine. Just be yourself."
But it wasn't fine. I needed to show Kathy and the greater metropolitan area that I could talk to a woman. We were about to give up when A.J. said we should try random places where nobody would expect an undercover camera or a random interloper standing uncomfortably close to women. We tried a cellphone kiosk at the mall and the lobby of a movie theater, but we only came up with extensive and handheld B-roll of me striking out. I was becoming the Reggie Jackson of February sweeps when we stopped at the laundromat across from the college.
No part of it made sense. I didn't have dirty clothes or a laundry basket. I stood awkwardly near an unused machine watching a woman fold her laundry the way women do, careful creases and neat stacks. I mentioned the weather and she stared at me. I asked her if she came here a lot and she said just when she had dirty clothes. That was it. It was over and I failed. It was so stupid to have tried, or to even have thought otherwise for a moment.
I walked back to the sat truck and looked up to the front seat, where she sat laughing and staring into her phone. She looked up at me with the face of sympathy: pursed lips, wide eyes. She pulled her hair behind her ears.
We went to her apartment for the post-failure interview and she said to just look at her and act natural. The camera was tripodded and she sat next to it off camera, an iPad resting on her crossed legs. She smiled and prompted me and I stared into the camera, unflinching and zombied.
"Just be natural. You're doing great."
"I guess . . . I don't know. I just asked her for the girl's phone number, so—"
"I know, right?"
"I'm pretty sure she was baffled. She must've known right away there was something fishy."
"I saw that, ha ha."
I told her about the fresh market and the guy at the Macy's, and who knew Macy's even had bouncers, and it was funny all of a sudden, a kid trying to pick up women for ratings. It was ridiculous, but she said it wasn't.
"That was awesome," she said, settling from laughing. "That's exactly what we needed. Thanks so much."
A.J. pulled the camera off the tripod and she asked me if I needed a ride, which I did. I scanned the terrain of her apartment. It was brick walls and hardwood floors, the open living space of a grown-up, a person with a career and furnishings. Her dining room table was Lysoled mahogany and it reflected the syrupy sun. I stood next to it, inhaling and gawking.
4. Curses Two and Three
Her second curse was that she hated being a reporter but had to be one. Her father owned three small-market television stations in the upper Midwest. He was the last of a dying breed, an independent owner, a man who knew his employees by name. She grew up in newsrooms and knew local news well enough to know there were better options. But her father's stations could be hers one day. They should be. He needed an heir and she needed his approval. She was boastful about nothing but the man's accomplishments, a tendency she learned at his side.
She carried this need for approval everywhere she went. It was deeply ingrained and hidden by her quick wit and beauty. It was the reason for her distance from her colleagues in the newsroom and her attachment to Kevin Connors, a man who hung around her desk like a varsity letterman hanging around her locker. He was newsroom nerdy, blue cardigans over a tie and dark-rimmed glasses, a man unaccustomed to being outdoors. She watched the 6:00 show from his office, talking occasionally and smiling at his jokes. Others were invited but nobody came, and the nature of their relationship quickly became newsroom gossip.
What they talked about was the subject of much debate. Some said they talked about world domination. Others said they talked about where they were going for drinks after work. She laughed at his jokes in a way nobody else did, which made her seem calculating. The veteran military reporter called Kathy "her highness" with added emphasis, as though he just coined the phrase.
When I asked her much later what they were talking about in Kevin Connors' office, she told me he did all the talking. She just listened and smiled. It was all men of authority wanted, to talk alone with girls. It was what drove men to become bosses. This was her third curse, having to listen to his jokes, the jokes of men in positions of authority.
5. Space Camp
Kathy visited Space Camp in Alabama when she was eleven years old. It was the last time there was any expectation of her having a job other than on-air talent. The week was a blur of flight simulators and astronaut lectures about G-forces and zero gravity, but the highlights were the group and individual photos, for which she chose to curl her bangs and cinch her blue flight suit with a red Michael Kors belt with a giant red buckle. Nobody else did this, or had in the history of Space Camp, and the picture somehow made the rounds and eventually was posted online, where it took on a life of its own and haunted her at every stop.
She was young and her mother told her nothing about fashion or personal style. Like most eleven-year-olds, she only wanted to fit in, and she saw a woman cinching a jumpsuit once in a magazine. Eleven-year-olds made mistakes, and how could one at Space Camp be so bad, except the picture followed her everywhere. Word spread and morphed until people thought she was a former child star or a child astronaut. Space Camp put her on brochures and a website and the picture appeared out of nowhere on social media once she started in local news. This became yet another curse, her fourth. People she didn't know asked her about it with the familiarity that comes with strangers watching you on TV all the time, no inhibitions, not even a regular hello, like you and they are old friends, like you're picking up from a conversation you just left off.
"So you were an astronaut?" a woman asked her. We were at dinner, sitting at a booth and not touching our cheeseburgers. The woman approached our booth and Kathy smiled at her. Two children stood behind her, avoiding eye contact. Kathy told her no. We were hungry after work but talked the whole time. She told me how she wrote poetry while studying in England and about the morning zoo deejays who devoted a daily segment to her 6:00 show packages from the night before, dissecting them Ebert and Roeper style, which I had assumed was a rumor. I told her I always wanted to be a writer, but I never had anything to write about. I wrote a few stories in college but that was it.
I found A.J. first thing the next day in the viewing room when I walked into the newsroom. He sat scrolling through video and turned around to see me fake winded and grabbing my pants at the knees to fake catching my breath after fake sprinting with urgent breaking news.
"Dude, you're not going to believe this." I fake gasped for air.
"What is it?"
I exhaled and wiped my brow.
"What's your problem?"
"No seriously. You're not going to—"
"Shut the fuck up. What is it?"
"I went out with Kathy Marshall last night. We had cheeseburgers but we didn't eat them."
"Get out of here."
"She was an astronaut. It's true."
A.J. was too focused to ever laugh or be happy or care. He was devoted to local news video in a preposterous way, always mixing great scene-setters with insane close-ups, always getting great natural sound and never not using his tripod. I messed around with cameras sometimes, shooting video at basketball games on weekends and lingering on the net too long after made baskets. A.J. called me Johnny Handheld and I called him a douche bag. I didn't really care about cameras anyway. I thought maybe about being on-air, but I looked too young and couldn't see wearing foundation every day.
I was hunkered down in my edit bay that night, punching away a stack of scripts for the 10:00 show when I heard her clacking heels round the corner. She wheezed and bent over to grab her skirt at the knees, fake panting and fake wiping her brow. I stared at her and she fake waved off the medical attention.
"It's okay. I'm okay." More panting.
"Can I help you?"
"No, it's just. Yes—"
"Are you done? Cause I've got some more tapes to knock out."
"I went out with Johnny Handheld last night. We had cheeseburgers."
"Whatever" is what I said, but I felt warm all over. I smiled and picked up a script for a follow-up on a double homicide at the oceanfront and she walked away.
6. Ice Queen
Kathy was slightly less than strong enough to make her own decisions. She was completely prepared to go through life letting people make decisions for her. She could make minor decisions, and this capacity offered the disguise of someone empowered to make major choices, and even stand out from the crowd every now and then. But she longed for the independence of people around her, people she worked with and read about.
When Kathy was twelve her father signed her up for the Winter Ice Pageant, a contest championing prepubescent awkwardness and ice sculpture—a glorious blend of Minnesotan traditions. The winner got to stand and wave from atop a neon-lit ice castle, carved by people with chainsaws and lots of time to kill, while others walked through the maze of ice walls. Kathy's talent was a poem she wrote about a real ice queen, who destroyed legions of townsfolk in order to keep the town freezing. She wrote it while fishing on the frozen lake behind their house with her brother, sitting next to a pole in a bucket and catching nothing. Her father told her it wasn't a suitable talent for an ice pageant and signed her up for piano lessons. So she had to soldier through the theme song from Peanuts, the one Schroeder always played at his tiny piano.
7. Singles Week
The first installment of the Singles series aired the next day with Kathy on set. A.J. edited it with video of me striking out in three locations, interspersed among the findings of academic studies and animated pie charts revealing single people percentages over the years, which looked great but actually made no sense. They came out of the package chuckling about my hapless questions, and Kathy suggested things might get better for our guinea pig before tossing it back to the anchor. The anchor lady walked back to my edit bay after the show and touched my shoulder with a cackle.
I was regionally non-famous the next day. People knew me without knowing me. A lady at the drive-thru window at the bank asked if I was that guy from the TV, but everyone else just gave me squinty glances like they had seen me somewhere before. Kathy walked straight to Kevin Connors' office after her on-set live shot the next day, and I stink-eyed him through the windows.
The fact was that A.J.'s shooting and editing were the stars of the series. Kathy did one stand-up in the whole series and I had faded to the background by the series capper on Friday. A.J. had cutaways of my pacing feet at the fresh market and me wringing my hands during our interviews. He caught me nervously turning to the lady and asking, "So do you know anything about sauvignon blanc?" A close-up of the obvious fear in my eyes. I smiled at my first appearance in the first package, at my intrepid stabs at talking to real women captured on TV. But the whole thing was the snappy graphics and artsy cutaways. It was A.J.'s resumé tape.
I had nothing to show for it but an invite to her soccer practice the next day, leaning against my Sentra on a Saturday afternoon because girls' soccer practice is boring. I stared into my phone and listened to the distant girl shouts for the ball. I wore corduroy pants and a suede jacket, both of which accounted for her laughter when she walked up carrying her duffel bag. She had cleats and knee-high socks, and the sweat glazed her forehead beneath pulled-back hair.
"I'm taking you shopping," she said.
The whole thing was her idea, all of it—running errands after practice, stopping by her apartment for a shower, going shopping at the mall, and hanging out with A.J. at the oceanfront that night. We walked elbow to elbow through the mall and she asked me why I never became a writer.
"I don't know. I mean, I wouldn't know where to start."
"I think just write about what you know. Like what you see or who you're hanging out with. You just write the stories of your life or the lives of people you know."
"Okay, well. What about you?"
"I don't know. I guess I'm like you. I wouldn't know how."
She pointed out a vest and a fedora and I bought them immediately. We went to another store and I bought two more vests, like a man completely unaccustomed to shopping. The vests went with nothing I owned and billowed out carnival barker-style. I didn't know what a fedora was till I tried one on and realized they were brilliant. How could anyone not take me seriously? I could grow a goatee and tip the fedora forward slightly, maybe tucking my thumbs into my khaki pockets and leaning smartly against a wall. I tried it out and she winced. I thanked her for saying we should go shopping and she shook her head.
I slept on her couch that night. It was a sectional and I sank into the cushions. She lay next to me on the couch and drew the lines on my face before she went to bed. I fell asleep, still feeling the tingle of her fingertips, and woke up to her cat standing on my chest and staring at me funny. The cat jumped off me and rambled through the apartment, sliding on the hardwood floor. My head pounded and I hated that cat. It never stopped scrambling everywhere and I eventually sat up. Her door was shut and the sun was poking through the living room curtains. The cat never ran near her door. It was clearly accustomed to showing respect for her sleep patterns. There was no way I could knock on her door, so I got up and went through her cabinets till I found a bowl, a spoon, and some Cheerios. The cat climbed up on the coffee table and stared at me while I ate till I shooed him away. She emerged an hour later in a white tank top, her hair bird's nested and rubbing sleep from her eye. I smiled and she waved and said hi in a raspy voice. She grabbed a bowl of cereal and sat down next to me. Her elbow touched my elbow and I knew we had plans for the rest of the day.
"You heard about Kevin, right?"
It was true. She showed me the text. It was still true the next day, though I wouldn't have known from my edit bay. He was going to Charlotte. She said she was going to miss him. She said he was responsible for bringing her here to begin with. He turned her into a reporter. He made her come up with one story idea a day to offer in morning meetings in his window-walled office. She had to work at it. She subscribed to the newspaper and watched CNN. She went to Reddit and Huffington Post, but it was hard to come up with a different idea everyday. She got assigned to kicker stories mostly. It was clear she was bad at news, but he gave her room to make her own mistakes, which nobody else had done.
8. Curse Five
Her fifth curse was that she hated being alone. Not the loneliness of solitude, the loneliness of not having a mentor/protector in her life, watching over her from afar. She hated the curse of empowerment, which carried the obligation of achievement. It was much easier for her to be led along and follow someone else's path. This is what Kevin Connors meant to her.
I told her she wouldn't be alone at Kevin's going away party if she didn't want to be. It was the boldest thing I ever said to her, a sign of what she did to me, of how she made me into a different person. The fact was we were both different people by then, her looking at home and sophisticated in the trendy downtown bar, with the shiny hardwood floors and warehouse ceilings; me in the vest and fedora, increasingly questioning whether or not they were a good idea. We walked in and she ordered a vodka tonic and an hour flew by before she sidled up next to Kevin Connors at the bar, where she leaned into him and whispered.
She wasn't much of a drinker or flirter, and wasn't really much of a reporter. The producers knew it. Maybe Kevin Connors knew it. She definitely knew he was a newsroom nerd. But he protected her from them, the bloodsucking warhounds who carved a nightly rundown out of people's misery and turned it into a shitty local news show, and I could see it happening before it did—her tipsy and leaning into him for minutes that stretched out, prattling the way tipsy girls do with ghostly consonants and drawn out vowels. I wasn't supposed to be there and I definitely wasn't supposed to be there with her, but there she was beginning to get teary and shaking her head slowly, the slumped posture of a little girl apologizing to her dad. I was supposed to go up to them. I was supposed to save her as she leaned into him and whispered.
I approached them too late. She had her hands on his shoulders, and he had his hands on her waist. People were staring. He glanced at me like he didn't know what to do, the glare from the bartop pendant lights reflecting off his glasses and zombie-ing his eyes.
"Hey, man," he said. "Nice hat."
I ignored him and she smiled and exhaled with relief. I put my hand on her shoulder and she nodded, and we walked to the front door together.
9. Manila Folder
Kathy took three days off the week after Kevin Connors' going away party, during which she didn't leave her apartment. She wasn't depressed or sad, and she wasn't looking for attention. She loved blending in and feeling anonymous, and she drove to the mall and walked around. She bought a few books and took them home to read, and it was by the third day that she was thinking about writing something, perhaps a short story. But she didn't know how.
She felt a void in her life now, and being unable to start a simple short story seemed like part of it. She told me this over the phone when I asked what she had been up to. It was a throwaway line, just a thought about how she felt, but somehow it seemed like the most important thing anyone ever said to me. I didn't know why.
I realized she had curses I didn't have, curses that might prevent her from ever becoming the person she wanted to be. We got off the phone and I sat down and started writing at my computer. I wrote all that night and most of the next day and the following night, and I knocked on her door just before midnight with a manila folder in my hands. I was wondering if it would be too late to knock and I realized I should have called, and maybe I was an idiot. She answered the door and smiled and I handed her the manila folder, and said that I had written these stories for her.
"There are nine of them," I said. "I wrote these nine stories for you."
"Wow, what are they about?" she asked, pulling the pages out of the folder and stacking them in her lap.
"They're about you." I wanted to ask her who else they would be about, but I didn't.
She looked at me with a spasm of hopefulness and started reading the first page.