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The Paragrapher

by

Cara Hoffman

 

 

 
     
   

 

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FLYNN IS TRYING TO HOLD IT TOGETHER WITH THE DETAILS. The names, the dates, and times. The locations and the descriptions of these locations will impose a sense of reality on what has otherwise become a barrage of random, terrifying and unverifiable images. Right now, for Flynn, the center does not hold, and the eight hundred words and a by-line will not bring things together in a neat package.

From a distance she can see that the crew has already gathered. Yellow tape is strung from tree to tree and there are men with radios at the periphery. The snowflakes are large and coming down fast. They settle thickly on the black branches of trees surrounding the site, drawing all sound nearer, up into itself. Her boots do not crack through the surface rigor mortis of yesterday's snowfall; one hundred pounds, she is held aloft on it, even at her hasty gait. Today's snow packs itself into the black treads of her soles. The hollows of her shallow footprints fill in behind her.

Lights have been set up. The pile of dirt beside the dig is already covered in white. White everywhere. They are about to strike something that will give in a wholly different way, the men with shovels and men with radios, the ambulance driver, channels seven and fifteen, suited and lipsticked, and in the dimming light, silent and slight, among the depredators and fingersmiths, Flynn.

*

Flynn taps the replay on the transcriber, and the voice of White's best friend slides through the headphones and into her ears. This has been going on for close to a year. Her foot hits the transcriber, and then voices push into her head. Her fingers strike the lettered keys concordant with the sounds, and her eyes stare at the screen, reflecting each word as it forms, on a glassy sheen covering a web of broken blood vessels.

In this way she closes a circuit around Wendy White's life. The who, what, when, where of it. The accumulation of details. The testimonies and vacuities that lead where they always do. Flynn has listened to the sentences so many times she can account for every pause, every raised intonation, every “uh” or cough that the tape repeats.

 

“the cops. And then we filed all the paperwork, like, on that Tuesday and it was fuckin'-can I say-”

“filed all the paperwork, like, on that Tuesday and it was fuckin'- can I say-”

“ke, on that Tuesday and it was fuckin'-can I say fu-”

“and it was fuckin'- can I say fuck? Ah, you won't put that in right? Anyway, just a sec...okay, so by Friday we were like-”
            Friday we were like, man! Something fucked up has happened, y'know? And we were like, aren't they gonna look for her? 'Cause-”

“ked up has happened, y'know? And we were like, aren't they gonna look for her? Cause-”
“onna look for her? 'Cause sh-”

           
*

Flynn is in the back seat looking out. She can see the girl's breath dissipating as it rises towards the street light to the right of the driveway on Lisbon Avenue. She watches the white vapor for a while before she realizes what it is, she realizes that it's coming out of Sarah's mouth, rising from her lungs, up through her body, and then ascending to mingle with the light and the factory blowover. Sarah is standing beside the '87 Chevy, peering into the glass that has gone reflective in the dark.

Sarah's trying to see inside but has to get closer before she can. Her breath steams up the back seat window and she rubs it clear with a thinsulate mitten. She presses her face close to the glass again and curves her hands over her forehead and at the sides of her temples to block out the glare. Seeing Flynn, she raises her eyebrows and smiles involuntarily, but getting a closer look makes her turn and crunch back up the driveway.

Flynn hears the faint stridulation of the storm door and then Sarah's bundled shoulder hitting the wood of the interior door to press it open. Then the hollow stamping of boots on the carpet of the landing. And the clear audio from the TV, a chorus of sylphadine voices singing about razor blades and the smoothness of a man's face. The voices sound happy and Flynn knows that kind of resonation is achieved either by smiling while singing, or holding the skin on the side of your face back to widen your lips and create a flatter, upwardly arced, resonating cavity within your skull.

“She's still crying, Dad,” the girl calls out from the doorway where she stands in her socks. One of them is inside out and she pulls at the ridged end of its seam, leaning against the door frame, back from her brief trek down the driveway.

“Okay now. Leave. Her. Alone. Sarah, I told you.....”

Then the snug seal of the door, a muffled squeak and quiet.

The snow swirls in the light of the lamp and four or five boys pass, walking in the middle of the road where it's plowed. Flynn watches them as if she's at the drive-in, as if their forms are projected on the rain-damaged rippling fabric one hundred yards away.

She doesn't know how many hours she's been sitting in the car, because it's been dark all the while. The light pollution has done little to obscure the stars, and she has watched them slip up beyond the tops of the windows. She lies now, comfortable in the Chevy's massive back seat, weeping. The space is bigger than the couch in her apartment. Her face is sticky, is alternately warm and freezing. Her red hair is plastered to her cheeks. It is wet inside her ears. She is still holding her pencil.

She is happy that no one has shown up for a while now to look at her, that no one has asked if she'd like to go somewhere or come in and warm up. It's actually not bad with the blanket and her body heat in the confined space. She breathes easily and continues to sob, resigned to it. It's second nature now. She can laugh while doing it, carry on a conversation... anything. Yesterday this wouldn't have seemed possible. Yesterday, before she got her big break.

 

*

 

“Flynn. Turns out it is that site by the reservation. Good work, girl!”

Flynn is standing before she realizes it, her chair rolling back towards the curved industrial glass of the water cooler.

“C'mon,” Joe claps his hands. “If it bleeds, it leads.” She can smell his breath from the doorframe where he leans. It smells like coffee that's been left in the pot all night and reheated. “C'mon,” he says again, but he doesn't have to, because she already has her boots back on. “C'mon. Lets move it.”

Flynn is leaving the office with her coat in her hand, her narrow reporter's notebook, she looks for her pen for a moment and then realizes she is already holding one in her mouth, and another one in her left hand. There's a pencil impaling a knot of her hair at the base of her neck.

“And if you get a chance, pick up a carton of Marlboros, 'cause they're tax free on the res. You people are driving me fucking loony, nickel and diming me to pay for smokes. This is the last time.” He hands her a twenty. “Cigarettes are not office supplies.”

He looks at her full in the face for a moment. Then nods with the weight of where she's headed, claps his hands. “Alright kiddo. Take the stairs, if you wait for the elevator you'll get caught in rush hour, and it'll be dark when you get there.”

He says “when you get there” to a closed door, because she's down one flight and swinging herself around at the end of the banister. The fear of getting there at all makes her sprint nervously. When she reaches the sidewalk, she runs through the hard little flecks of snow that blow across Franklin Street, down from the buildings and up from the gray plowed roads. They hit her face with the weight of iron filings and she is certain that more than two are alike, that they are somehow all the same, these cold white ghosts of fingerprints raining down on her cheeks.

“r her? 'Cause she's been gone for a week and all her stuff is-”

“for a week and all her stuff is at the apartment and her b-”

“artment and her boyfriend is freaking out, like ready to fu-”

 

*

Now Flynn is turning to dust in the back of an '87 Chevy on Lisbon Avenue. Flynn is traveling back in time, back eight months, and then another eight, and then another, back beyond the missing Wendy White. Back beyond Wendy White's famous disappearance and her still only-imagined murder. Back before Flynn had consciously built her career on the hair and sperm in the couch and the blood in the car. Flynn is sinking beneath the rim of the world of Wendy White. She drifts down through the snow, and curls mutely on the frozen asphalt, so that she may bloom when things have melted, so that she may re-emerge when it's warm, younger still, and in another driveway, as little Flynn, fifteen years old.

There in the car now she can feel the vibration and roll of the skateboard beneath her feet. She tilts her body as she heads up the half pipe, shoots off the lip and twists to face the other way. She places her hand on the rim of the curve, willing all the strength of her arm to keep her up, her hair hangs down, her bent knees support the board, the wheels coast on their ball bearings. Her feet are anxious to make that connection, and come sliding down the pipe in the opposite direction. And then do it again, and again, and again. This was the only thing besides reporting that Flynn had ever felt her body and mind were made for.

While she skated, that song would come streaming out of the upstairs window at the back of the house, that serious question that she always thought was a joke... “Why can't I get just one kiss? Why can't I get just one kiss? Maybe some things I wouldn't miss but I've waited me whole life for just one....”

And then the short, steep ramp and upward curve of the half pipe again, a baby rocking to sleep in a cradle of concrete construction refuse. If only she could balance now on one arm and guide the resupine board back on its course.

If only she could get out and write something simple on the service workers' strike, on the curfew or on toxic factory blowover, a piece on some nonspecific egalitarian brutality. Flynn loves those assignments. Flynn would kill for some five o'clock shadow but instead she wears her long red hair in a knot haphazardly impaled with a blue proofing pencil. She wears gold wire-rimmed glasses, faded jeans, and a frayed white oxford shirt with a man's black cardigan over top.

She would do this job for nothing. She would pay somebody else to be able to look and act as she does. She gathers information like the latch-key girl she was, tasting the apple core forgotten beneath the couch, reading every book, riffling through the desks and underwear drawers. She was in her element there, as she had been in the half pipe. Alone and moving through it, in love with the idea and the motion, and each properly executed turn.

She loves that politicians lie. She loves her press pass with the city seal and signatures on the back. She loves that cops really do leave blood and glass in the street and that other cops let her her get right up close to it. She loves that her profession is largely based in fact checking, and forcing others to be accountable. She loves that the paper's archive is called a “morgue,” and that the evening of deadline is called “putting the paper to bed.” She loves turning the phrase that will lay everything bare, make all the connections. She gets paid to watch for subtleties, gets paid to be untrusted. To be ethical. To have hope. To see things, and let them feed upon her, and somehow turn it around. Because somewhere, she knows, there's a collective good. If people understand, if they get information, they will do the right thing.

And in some way, even a murder could be rectified, if people just knew more. Or if the prose were good enough, or if Flynn herself became harder, and colder, became a tomb around her own heart. A walking tomb that could drag everything to light, that could, with language, with verification, slip meaning into the public discourse. Like slipping a pill into a dog's mouth by hiding it in a piece of meat. This is why Flynn works like she does. This is how she earned her nickname. This is why she's running in the vespertine, in midwinter, to get to a gravesite at a location she had predicted, before all the good light is gone.

But it turns out that this uncovering speaks for itself. There's nothing more to be said. The makeover in language and narrative that she would apply to brutality it itself more grotesque than the actual events. And the point at which Flynn balances, the arc where she hangs, tucked upside down and supported on one thin arm, this combination of hope, skill, time and luck, no longer adds up. No longer exists. This combination, she realizes sitting in the car on Lisbon Avenue, is extinct.

 

*

All four of the boys are looking into the car now, hands cupped around faces and sealed tight to the window. The older boy's eyes peer in and then shift to the sides to look at one another. Sarah is chewing a wad of gum, and she absently blows a bubble that touches the glass. Her brother turns, tries to pop it, but it's frozen, and his finger cracks it like it's ice. They laugh and she pulls it out of her mouth to look at it. She puts it back in and chews harder, seeming to use all the muscles in her jaw, neck and shoulders to soften it up. They all look at Flynn, hopefully, to see if she thinks it's funny. This starts her sobbing again.

“Flynn,” Gabe says, rapping one knuckle on the glass before her face. His voice is muffled. “It's eleven o'clock.”

“Yeah,” she says wiping her face. “I figured it was late.”

“Why don't you get out of the fucking car then?” Jesse asks her.

“Ah, I'm planning on staying in the car.” She is crying openly now. The conversation is no problem. Weeping has become like breathing.

She hears the storm door swing shut and more crunching down the driveway.

She can see the outline of Joe approaching in his Carhartt and fake-fur hat.

They turn their pale rosy faces to him, and she watches their breath rise white about their father.

“Would you guys get the hell away from the car like I asked you?” He opens the back door and tosses in another rolled-up wool blanket and a bag of tortilla chips.

“Thanks,” Flynn tells him, still weeping.

“I mean it,” he says to his kids. They range in height from four feet to five foot eight, steadily gaining on him every day. They all have dark brown eyes and the same round pale faces. It's as if he created the same child over and over of different ages. And they all, even the girl, resemble him, but for his blue eyes.

They turn and trudge defiantly back up the drive way, hunching their shoulders as if they are actually disobeying him.

 

*

 

After the bars close, loud college boys, and quiet, slow walking home boys make their way back through the neighborhood in groups or solitary, coming either from Anacones or Micky Rat's. They cross back into their own neighborhoods without a word to one another. A similar ritual was being carried out now on the Westside too, she thought. Only the parties crossing were slightly different. Drunken criminology majors, and art therapy majors with lower SAT scores and less family income, were passing by bandanna-wearing esses who wore less leather, and, statistically, carried more firearms. It was that demographic she had watched pass by, on the evening she took her tape recorder down to the scene. The evening she had a walk-through with Officer Tallon.
           

*

 

“All I can tell you right now is that they are being held for questioning because of-”

“I can tell you right now is that they are being held for questioning because of a report from neighbors that a loud-”

“ing because of a report from neighbors that a loud and disturbing noise was emanating from the apart-”

“Noise was emanating from the apartment. This turned out to be an electric sander. Officers arrived at apr-”

 

*

 

In the summer she used to take Joe's kids to a beach on Lake Erie across the Peace Bridge. It was a crowded strip of public waterfront at the end of a narrow winding road near the remains of an abandoned amusement park. The great skeleton of a rollercoaster jutted up, black and ridged against the gray waterfront sky. And it was against this backdrop that she swam with her editor's dark-haired children, in water that she knew was contaminated with PCBs and heavy metals. But was warm and got deep gradually, and the Kullman kids ran the waves and built things in the sand. Once a week in summer, to play by the great old remains of the park, to absorb the detritus that is your city's legacy, to see the seraphic order of its industrial skyline, while coming home over the Peace Ridge, is better than watching TV or trying to dig a moat around your house on the Northside.

On the way home in the car, the whole ungrateful brood of them would sing Smells Like Teen Spirit, This Land is Your Land, Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal, and always, Dirty Old Town. It was something to hear, especially Dirty Old Town. When she pulled her noisy Volkswagen into the drive, they would pile out and there would be sand and dirt all over the floor and the seats would be wet with their cheek marks.

 

*

“Officers arrived at approximately three ten in the morning to check on th”

“ten in the morning to check on the disturbance report and found...here you can see where it... yeah... Ro”

“bance report and found...here you can see where it...yeah... Roberts and Bectel sanding Bectel's living room floor.”

 

*

 

It's still dark when Joe's wife, Marie, wakes her up. She opens the door and sits in the back next to her. Flynn has been crying in her sleep and it has created a constant, almost comforting state. It has erased the transition from sleeping to waking with its regularity.

“Boy. It's cold in here,” Marie tells her. She reaches into the bag of chips and eats one, talking with her mouth full. “I guess you had a bad day, huh? We were worried about you.”

Flynn's eyes are nearly swollen shut. Marie eats another chip. “Well, I just wanted to see if you were warm enough. You know it's about three now?”

“Oh, is it?”     

“Yeah,” Marie says gently. “You know, if you wanted to, you could come in the house. It's a lot warmer in the house.”

“Oh, no thanks.”

“I know how you feel about Wendy White,” Marie says. But she doesn't Flynn hates Wendy White. Flynn despises Wendy White. Flynn wishes Wendy White had never been found.

“Okay. Well, the laundry room door is open, so...” Marie pats her on the leg and gets out of the car.

*

 

“We're working closely with the cops, but it's kinda funny you know cause a”

“Cause a lot of us were like, this is gonna change our”

“gonna change our life style having them around. Y-”

“around. Y'know it's like, man! They're here again we gotta put the b-”

“here again we gotta put the bong away, but they're like- it's cool, we've got something m-”

“s'cool, we've got something more important to-”

*

Sometime around morning White actually shows up. White as a ghost. She is wearing a brown miniskirt, an orange turtleneck sweater and a cheap Timex watch with a faux-leather band. It has a broken second hand that lopes its way between the numbers, moving only when it wants.

White sits in the front passenger side seat and turns to look at Flynn. She looks as she did in her 'missing' photograph and not as she did at four p.m the previous afternoon.

 “Hey Wendy,” Flynn says, resigned now to her own collapse. She starts to laugh and so does Wendy White, though she doesn't look like she gets it. She looks like she is imitating Flynn, trying to copy her mannerisms because she's forgotten how the living act. Flynn stops laughing abruptly and so does White. The hair on the back of Flynn's neck turn to ice. There should be nothing mysterious about Wendy. Flynn's been researching her for months, but still the girl is horrifying. She lacks the enculturation of the living, as if she's from some strange affectless, yet familiar tribe. She stares at Flynn intensely and self-consciously runs her hands over her own face and clothes. She carries with her the faint smell of her decomposition, the odor of her death. She smiles and her teeth are gray.

“Hey Flynn,” says Wendy, seeming to remember a phrase from her life. “Wanna get a beer up at Anacones?”

“Nah,” says Flynn, “I'm planning on staying in this car. Anacones is great though, it's nothing against the place.” They sit there quietly for a while and then Flynn says, “Y'know, Anacones patronage is emblematic of the demographic shift in the Northeast.”

Wendy shrugs. “Oh, yeah?” she responds politely.

“Yeah, it is,” Flynn tells her, relieved to be in command of the conversation. “Fucking Bailey Avenue is moving two blocks this way every year.” It seemed like an appropriate thing to tell someone in White's improbable state. “You go cross there and it's suddenly World Health Organization territory, man. It's welcome to Beirut, El Mozote, South Central. You know what the rate of gunshot fatality is over there?”

“No.”

“In the African American and Slavic population it increases by thirty percent every year. And it's what? November now? There've been ninety-four firearms-related deaths so far this year and twelve deaths related to arson.”

She hopes discussing the murder rate will make White less self-conscious, and less terrifying. But White doesn't seem to care, so she just stops talking and goes back to sitting uncomfortably, looking at her breath.

“Well,” says Wendy, “lets go over to Essex Street then.”

“Oh yeah, great. That's a good one. And what'd you do the day they dug you up? Oh, I went out to the Essex Street Pub. Fucking brilliant.”

White shrugs again, “I just think you should leave the car is all.” Her flat drawl is beginning to grate on Flynn and she wonders if there's an implicit threat somewhere in the sentence. She starts weeping again- out of irritation this time, frustration at not being left alone. She doesn't want to ask White any questions. They've all been answered by that dismembered mummy, in a summer print dress, which stared up from a cut in the earth swallowing the whole world. Wendy's even more inconsequential now that she's been found. No mystery there- a crack, a hole and everything's exposed. Inside is out and neither had a hold on the other, as it turns out.

Finally, because Wendy won't leave and because Flynn's curious she asks, “Was it just Roberts and Mike Bectel?”

“Yeah,” says Wendy dully. “Some of us from Buff State were sitting out front of the Essex partying.”

Flynn detests the word “partying” and she winces when Wendy White says it. Flynn hates most euphemisms and sees them as a sign of mental and psychological weakness. Flynn wants White to say, “we were sitting out front snorting lines of cocaine,” or “At one a.m we were sitting out front drinking beer and talking.” There was no “party” anywhere, despite the recent graduation. They were simply three people with associate degrees getting fucked up, and, she knows from interviews, talking about television, strip clubs over the bridge in Fort Erie, Canada, and the new Pearl Jam album. The word “partying” replaces her fear with a genuine sense of relief that White is dead. If Wendy White's death means Roberts and Bectel spend twenty years in prison getting ass fucked, that's okay with Flynn. If Wendy White is gone, if there are fewer women like White and fewer men like Roberts and Bectel every year, that's okay with Flynn. Fewer “partiers,” fewer Canisius High School boys in their polo shirts with their baseball caps on backwards.

“Afterwards, we went to the Elmwood Steakout and then back to Mike's. He had this little boxer puppy and it had shit all over the place and it really stunk and we were kinda laughing about that and then BAM! My face started bleeding, from like, nowhere, and then BAM, y'know, again. And I was like, oh fuck. Oh no. This was really a mistake. And as I was falling down I remember thinking, I'm going to die and the last thing I'm gonna smell is dog shit.”

Flynn sighs and nods impatiently.

“But it wasn't,” Wendy says brightly. “It was pine and mud, like camping smells. 'Cause I was almost still alive when they buried me. Or maybe I smelled those smells today, when I first saw you. Man, you were sick, Flynn. I've never seen anyone get that sick.”

Flynn wants White out of the car now but doesn't know how to say it. She's pissed at the girl for traumatizing her with her corpse, making her sit there in the car for eighteen hours, and also for making her hate her own nickname: 'Mighty Flynn.' Now when people say 'Mighty Flynn' it'll be sarcasm because Mighty Flynn did  throw up uncontrollably at the site. 'Mighty Flynn' couldn't even breath. She had Vicks on her upper lip and a handkerchief that the cop had given her to put over her mouth and she could barely breathe, so constricted was her chest. She coudn't write a word.

At twenty-three Flynn is no Joan Didion. She will never become a correspondent. Flynn is no Dorothy Day, no Amelia Earhart. Flynn will never ever be a war reporter. She couldn't even drive home afterwards because, thankfully, her car was frozen shut, and she had to call Joe for a ride. He took her back to the office to write the piece, and then drove her home. But she wouldn't get out of the car. So he took her back to his place. When it became obvious she wouldn't leave the car, he got her a few blankets and went inside.

Flynn has turned to dust in the back of an '87 Chevy parked in her editor's driveway on Lisbon avenue, round the corner from Northside Co-op. Around the corner from Anacones and it's fucking cold in that car. Colder now that White's ghost showed up. She's no Joan Didion. She threw up in front of the policemen.

“It's okay,” White told her, but the ghost was wearing Flynn's disgust and distress on her face as she said it. She was even trying to mess her hair up so it looked like Flynn's

“Just...can you, just...cut it out, for now, Wendy?”

“You're a woman,” the ghost told her, like she was trying to remember vocabulary, trying to break things down before she went on her way. “You're a woman. Like I was. Like me. Like I was.” She looks glassy-eyed at Flynn's breath pouring from her lips in the cold car and opens her dark mouth, but nothing comes out.

 

*

Flynn's body makes the fourth or fifth twist down into the concrete manger of the half pipe. The point of upside-down waiting is the period at the end of the sentence. And she skates, sentence after sentence, rolling back down and up, down and up, waiting weightless again- the top of her head facing the cement. She wears cut-off levis and a man's ribbed undershirt, no bra, combat boots with no socks. And she's shaved one side of her head with dog clippers. One of her knees is badly brush burned. When she sees pictures of this time period she recognizes only her eyes, and she's amazed that she would walk around essentially bare breasted without giving a thought to it. Underwear was uncomfortable, who really cared? Not Flynn, she wanted to be a skater, she wanted to read books and drink beer, and play in the driveway all summer, coasting and sweating, and still at fifteen, climbing the trees and up on to the roof. Still at fifteen, building forts, stealing peoples lawn ornaments, eating candy. She developed an articulate, yet filthy vocabulary. She had sex with her boyfriend in the attic when her parents were gone, and read Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot out loud afterwards, surrounded by boxes of mildewed books, saved schoolwork and broken furniture.

Sometimes she'd swim alone in the river, which was muddy and swollen and had silt stones at the bottom. She wished White could have that summer. Could not wear the miniskirt and broken watch. But then the idea of White sitting at a table with two preppie boys as they talked about the best place to see money stick to naked human skin, makes her hate the dead girl all over again. Why did White sit there with them, at the edge of her grave? Why the fuck had she been there at all?

 

*

“living room floor. Further investigation showed that they were trying to r-”

“gation showed that they were trying to remove a dark stain with the approximate surface area of four by four and a half feet. At this point officer Maitland and myself-”

“a dark stain with the approximate surface area of four by four and a half feet. At this point officer Maitland and myself informed Mr. Bectel and Mr. Roberts of their Miranda rights and proceeded to-”

 

*

Flynn knows now that she has caught a chill. The sky is pale pink in the East and the windows of the car are covered with frost on the outside and little beads of ice caused by condensation on the inside. She sits up and catches the reflection in the rearview mirror. The Kullman's salt-and-pepper cattle dog is sitting staring into it. He's looking at her reflection as she looks at his in the Chevy's square and frosty mirror.

“I've always hated you,” the dog says when he realizes she is looking at him.

“Great,” says Flynn. “I'm the motherfucking son of Sam now.”

The dog doesn't know what she means and continues staring at her. “I could tell you didn't like me because I liked to catch coins. It's hard to catch coins and you don't appreciate it.”

“No, Gus. I don't.”

“I would bring you a quarter and you would flip it for me once or twice maybe four times but that was it. I liked to catch it and you didn't like to throw it. I like to feel it hit my teeth. I like the feel of it, when it hits my teeth. It was thin between my teeth. When it hits my teeth I like it. And when you would stop flipping the coin I wanted to bite you because I wanted you to feel my teeth too and then maybe you would understand how they feel. I wanted you to feel my teeth. I wanted to bite your arm but I didn't because Joe smelled like that shouldn't happen. But if you stop flipping the coin for me again, one day I will let you feel them. They are what makes me a dog.”

“I've got teeth too, you fucking moron. What makes you a dog is your four legs and your tail and the fact that you can't read and I could go on and on about what else makes you a dog, but I seriously doubt you'd understand it.”

“You don't know how it is,” Gus says.

“No”, Flynn says. “I don't. I don't know what it is to be a dog and I don't care. You are an annoying dog. And your mind is shot because of your coin-catching fixation.”

“I hate everyone like you,” says the dog. “I hate you. You don't understand about the teeth. Come out of the car now so I can eat you before anyone wakes up.”

Flynn rolls her eyes at the dog's reflection in the mirror.

“Do you see how you've just told me that you will eat me and then told me to get out of the car? Now. Why would I leave the car if I know you are going to eat me?”

“Oh,” says the dog.

“Yeah,” says Flynn. “Oh.” And she blows her nose on part of her shirt.

 

*

A rap on the window at eight a.m and it's Gabe, he editor's oldest son, with a steaming mug of coffee. Clouds are moving rapidly across the sky above him. The gray is being replaced with an intense clear blue, and the frozen condensation on the windshield has been illuminated, and shines in the sun, beaming hundreds of circles of light into the car's interior. He smiles at her, his cheeks are red.

“We're going sledding down to Chestnut Ridge you wanna come? It's a perfect day. Well, anyway,” he says before she can answer, “we're taking this car 'cause Mom's using the other one to go to bingo at Immaculate, so....”

Around ten the three little kids push into the back next to her and Joe and the two older boys get in the front after trying the toboggan to the roof.

The Chevy cruises along like a boat in a sea of ice and concrete. It's a forty-minute drive to Chestnut Ridge through the flat majesty of Great Lakes industrial land, through the bright sky and massive buildings and hilles hints of water that made Flynn want to settle there in the first place. The twins stare at her while they drive until Sarah whispers something to them.

The crest is long and steep. It shines, a sparkling white slope overlooking steel mills and granaries and ships on the cracked and partially frozen river. The river that Flynn knows contains eight thousand pounds of mercury and thirteen thousand pounds of sulfur dioxide dumped by Buffalo Dye and Color in less than a decade. Flynn knows one hundred million families like the one in this car will fall out of the middle class this year, and the United States lost over three thousand independent newspapers in less than five years. Prospects don't look good for the Kullmans, given these statistics. Particularly as they live in the city's Northeast where asthma rates among those under eighteen increased by twenty-eight percent this past summer and the concern over other diseases caused the city to hire forty-five new exterminators to tackle the rat problem. “Rat free in '93” was the made up slogan around the office. But then again, those kids played a lot of chess and went to a Catholic school and their parents let them try to dig a moat around the house despite problems with utility companies.

Flynn is trying to hold it together with the details. The names and dates and times. The locations and the descriptions of these locations that will bring things together in a neat package, the who what when where. The facts that will prevent White's corpse from winning. White's corpse gets the Pulitzer! Gets the last word! That discarded doll of her, zipped into a bag and hoisted onto a stretcher, and driven through the snowy city in an ambulance that can take its time. She's got it now, the envy of all humanity. Not only is she a woman, she's also dead. There goes White to accept her award! Leaving Flynn, a shrinking figure on the snow's crust, pulling at her car door, and trying, periodically to blow the smells of menthol and entropy out of her sinus cavities. I knew where they'd find you, Flynn thinks to the back of the ambulance doors. The foundation is laid in the details. Take my pen, take my laptop, take my tape recorder. I'll switch places with you! She thinks to the gray skin. I'd've known by the details, Wendy. I'd've known.

As her work at the paper became more automatic, she remembers thinking that she was like a bricklayer.

But “Nah,” Joe told her. “It's more like being a ball player- it's just that you're the ringer right now- you been hittin it outta the park a lot these days and we all like that. But even that's no big deal 'cause you always get to do it again even if you fuck up, it's just words. It's just newsprint, Flynn. People throw it away almost immediately. It ain't no fucking brick wall. People line their bird cages with your story. And there's no way I'll pay you as much as a bricklayer gets. You're a paragrapher. You'll burn out one of these years and I'll have to rotate you over to the pussy department to write about plays or something, that's a little more like having a trade. But bricklayer? Nobody writes that good. Not even the Mighty Flynn, I'm not kidding. I'm not.” He didn't say it with anything but affection, and that weird, proud uneasy look he had with her, like he was going to laugh, but didn't, out of respect.

The parking lot is enclosed by pine trees and the Kullmans pile out of the car. Their black hair and pale faces float above their scarves and coats, blowing white steam from chapped lips.

Joe pulls the hood of his Carhartt up and begins unlashing the toboggan from the roof of the car.

He and the boys carry it under their arms, walking single file towards the cabin that rests in the snow next to the toboggan run. The smaller kids get out and then after a few minutes, Flynn gets out too and walks behind the ten-year-old twins.

She's not dressed for it, she has no hat or mittens, and her hair, now greasy, is plastered against her face.

She walks up the long ladder of the toboggan run behind them, but they are waiting at the top so that she can be the first one on- crossed legs tucked up beneath the curve of the sled. From the top of the run she can see the Bethlehem Steel plant like a vast, black fenced-in city, like the castle they long to see from their feudal homes, but rarely glimpse. Smoke pours from the stack into the white-gray air. And she has no words for it, no statistics on what the stack is putting out. Just the sight of its majestic expanse in her view as they race down the run.

The bodies of the Kullmans are warm at her back and her stomach is hollow with sensation and speed. Her face stings. Sarah is in the very back and sandwiched between them are all the boys. They scream together as one voice. And the printed word is gone, gone, erased by the velocity and the snow. And it's like the half pipe, only better and faster, and no slow-motion waiting. And they sing on the sled and scream. They sing “Why can't I get just one kiss? What can't I get just one kiss? Maybe somethings I wouldn't miss but...”

In the car for a full forty minutes, damp and exhilarated from the sledding, they continue to sing. The voices of the twins, their clear vibrato-less soprano and the voices of Jesse and Gabe, a sing-song baritone and then Joe's bass. And then her own smoker's alto together with Sarah's, the lowest common denominator. The mordant report that holds it all together. That narrow range hitting those same notes again and again. Holding on in the middle, precise and clear, to that single diesis that is somehow never heard. They sing.

“Add it up! Add it up! Add it up!” 
               

 

"The Paragrapher" was originally published in Cara Hoffman's short story collection entitled: "The Wedding and Other Stories"

     

Cara Hoffman

CARA HOFFMAN is the author of So Much Pretty. Hoffman grew up in an economically depressed town in upstate New York, the home of two maximum security prisons. She dropped out of high school, bought a one-way ticket to London with her savings, and spent the next three years writing and working as an agricultural laborer and runner in Europe and the Middle East.

In the 1990s, she returned to the United States, became a mother, and began working as an investigative reporter at a daily newspaper. Hoffman covered New York State’s rural and Rust Belt communities for over a decade, reporting on environmental politics, county legislatures, and crime. In 2000 she received a New York State Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for her writing on the aesthetics of violence and its impact on children, a topic she would continue to research and explore through fiction.

Hoffman received her Masters of Fine Arts in Writing from Goddard College in 2009. She has been a guest lecturer at Cornell University, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and taught English at Lehman Alternative Community School and Tompkins Cortland Community College. She lives in Manhattan with her son and works as a writing tutor at the Lower Eastside Girls Club.

 

 

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