“I wanted to let you know that Dean is all right,” the voice message from Connie’s sister Kathy began. “I hope you are too. You’re usually home by now, I think. It’s terrible. I can’t believe this happened. Really, it’s…unbelievable. If you’re sleeping, call me when you get up. I know we aren’t talking right now, but just let me know you’re alright. It’s such a tragedy. Call me, okay? Connie? Call me.”
Connie Falstaff stared at her cell phone then played the message back. Maybe she missed something the first time the message played, her mind still groggy with sleep. There was no mention from Kathy to exactly what tragedy she was referring. They weren’t speaking right now and Connie didn’t want to make any unnecessary phone calls that would lead to an even more unnecessary conversation about the way Connie was living her life which she had no interest in holding with anyone right now, especially her older sister. It might be a trick.
Connie got off work this morning at 6:00AM, and the only thing tragic about the previous night was that the freight elevator in the building she worked in was on the fritz, which meant the event on the top floor was forced to use a smaller passenger elevator to load out and only barely beat Connie to her car on their way out of the building. There was no mention of any tragedy or anything else that would have her remarkably concerned over the fate of her brother-in-law, who worked at a law firm downtown and took the bus to show everyone he was concerned about the environment, but it had more to do with the fact that Dean was cheap and willing to put up with a lot because of it. He likened his daily bus trips to going on safari. The slog was slow, hot and irritating; the flies were unbearable, and it smelled like hell if you were sitting near the ass end.
Connie picked her phone up off the kitchen counter and browsed the websites she normally browses. These were the sites where people show off unrealistic lives that no one ever really lives but they put it all out there on social media so that everyone they went to high school with will think they’re hip and happening even though Connie knew that they were just old and avoiding the inevitable. You couldn’t fool her.
There was no mention of any tragedy on any of her favorite websites, so Connie began to doubt that the tragedy actually happened, especially since Becky Cobb hadn’t chimed in. Becky loves to be the first one to report a tragedy. Any time something bad happens, any time someone gets hurt, goes missing, has a disease diagnosed or if they lose an extended family member, Becky is the first to tell everyone about it on social media, often times before the actual family members check in. She stakes her claims of being the most heartbroken, the sorriest, and the first with warm thoughts and prayers as if everyone to follow is only copying her inspiring humanitarianism. If you hear nothing about a tragedy from Becky, then there is no tragedy.
“What is she talking about?” Connie wondered, thinking about Kathy. “She’s trying to stir me up, that’s what she’s trying to do.” It seemed the more plausible explanation since she knew her sister was always trying to get into her hair about something. All the Dirty Ernie’s downtown now, that’s the real tragedy if you asked Connie. City tells everyone they’re doing everything they can to improve the area, but the only thing Connie saw was more Dirty Ernies living on exit off-ramps once the developers moved in downtown and took away all their hiding places. They talk on television about how the problem is getting worse, but Connie knows better. The problem was always bad. There are just more people that see it now.
Kathy’s phone went straight to voicemail, so Connie didn’t bother to leave a message. Kathy would see that she called, which hopefully would be enough to set her big sister’s mind at ease so that they wouldn’t have to pretend to care about how each other was doing. Connie knew Kathy didn’t want anything to do with her and the feeling was mutual. She didn’t even know why Kathy bothered. Their parents weren’t around anymore so there was no one to lay a guilt trip. Kathy wouldn’t need to borrow money. Connie hoped that wasn’t the case, especially since she needed to ask Kathy for a loan. She’d hear about that, too.
Connie heard the commotion outside in the common area of her apartment building, which was different than the commotion that normally went on: the off-key singing from the downstairs neighbor, the bong-induced giggling and occasional wall-thumping from the hippie couple next door, the yelling the neighbor across the way did at her boyfriend over the phone who she always argued with but no one ever actually saw. This was a different commotion. People were rushing around. Things were breaking from being moved too quickly and too carelessly. Maybe there was a fire? Connie leaned her head out the front door and saw Larry, the male half of next-door’s bong-ripping duo, dragging suitcases past her door.
“Don’t stick around too long Connie, you’ll never get out of here,” Larry warned.
Connie shook her head, doubtful. Larry was the last person anyone would take advice from, with his half-open eyelids and drooping mouth Larry looked like someone came up to him every fifteen seconds and smashed him in the face with a 2×4. “I don’t work until tonight,” Connie said. “Traffic will be going the other direction by then.”
“What are you talking about? Don’t you watch the news?” Stunned by Connie’s ignorance, Larry wasn’t sticking around to get her up-to-date on the current state of the world. Connie didn’t know where Larry’s partner Fiona or Dionne or Keona or whatever her name was but Connie hoped she was ahead of Larry because he wasn’t waiting around for her. He’s a strange one, Connie decided, reaffirming her long-held decision to never get hooked on the marijuana. Larry had the words “No Regrets” tattooed on his upper arm, but Connie couldn’t help thinking that Larry’s life was nothing but regrets.
Connie went back inside and turned on the television to drown out the racket. She had presumed the rest of her day would be spent lounging on the couch, trying to keep the cat from kneading her paws on her chest while she drifted in and out of sleep, and watching television even though with all these channels there was still nothing on in the daytime. It made her angry. She paid over two hundred dollars a month for satellite which seemed right because they told her she was getting the best deal every month when they sent her the bill. Then Connie found out they were giving new people the same channels for fifty dollars a month when she had been with them for almost twenty years, so she canceled satellite and tried those cord-cutting internet television deals, even though now she has seven different accounts from seven different services showing seven different things and paying nearly the same amount she was before. They were all full of shit. There was no best deal, Connie believed, unless you’re a satellite company, which she was not. She was only the sucker paying all this money every month who still couldn’t find something to watch during the day.
“Is this on every channel?” Connie groused, barely paying attention to the television, with that red “Special Bulletin” alert scrolling across the screen. Who even pays attention to Special Bulletins anymore, she wondered? Everything they tell you on the news these days is a special bulletin. If the President blows his nose, there’s a special bulletin. How is everything an emergency? How is every single piece of news earth-shattering information that you can’t keep from your viewers for one-second longer? Connie didn’t understand the thinking. She knew the goal of broadcasting was to get people to watch, which is what she was trying to do, so she couldn’t understand why they would let their viewers tune out by continuing to show this stuff. It looks like the same thing that was on yesterday. The day before. Last week. Last year.
“Where are my programs?” Connie wondered, flipping through every channel to see for herself. People running. Chaos. Destruction. Looting. Traffic backed up for miles. Families standing in rubble. People with looks on their faces like someone told them the secret to life and it wasn’t anything they thought it would be. A shirtless man headbangs in the middle of the street on a windy day, waving an American flag over his head. A news reporter started to talk.
“You…I can’t begin to understand…I mean, explain, what we’re seeing here. We’ve got video coming up, taken several minutes ago, and you’re going to see it…”
Connie pointed her remote control and switched off the television. “You’ll see it this afternoon at the four, five and six o’clock hours. This news might save your life, but it’s not that important to share with you before prime time!” Connie has watched these local news shows for a long time now and knew how they did things, those little tricks they used like stretching out a simple weather forecast over four news breaks to tell Connie something she probably could have guessed if she stuck her head outside the front door. Connie knew how these sneaks operated. They weren’t fooling her.
Her cell phone rang and it was Kwame, her boss, which she knew couldn’t be good news. He wasn’t calling to offer her overtime since overtime was always gobbled up by everyone else before she even had the chance to sign up for it herself and there had even been rumors that hours were going to be cut back or possibly even eliminated in another one of those ongoing efforts to cut costs. Connie wasn’t buying it. Kwame liked the new girl Vanessa and wanted to give her all the hours. She saw the way Kwame looked at her. He didn’t look at Connie that way, that’s how she knew the difference.
“Yeah, Connie, wow, with what’s going on down here today, don’t even bother coming in. Buses are running right now, but I think they’re planning on bringing them all in. They’re telling people to stay out of downtown, so hang tight. We’ll be able to handle things down here. No one here anyway. Stay safe, okay?”
Connie didn’t say anything, at least out loud, wondering how that same conversation went when Kwame told it to Vanessa. She bet it ended with Vanessa getting all the hours and her left out. “Yeah, okay. What about tomorrow? I mean, I don’t get paid if I don’t come in.”
“I don’t know, Connie. I’m sure the company will work something out. Special circumstances. I know their first concern is that everyone stays safe,” Kwame said.
Connie had her doubts. “Oh, yeah. I’m sure. I’ll call back tomorrow then,” she said, ending the call, then Connie stared at her phone for several minutes, saying all the things she should have said to Kwame when she had him on the phone.
You’re giving my hours to that girl, aren’t you? You think you can treat someone this way? I know guys like you, Kwame, I been leaving them behind me in the dust my entire life. You think you can pile on all this fake news about some tragedy they’re showing stock news footage to tell us about? The news station showed live footage of people wandering around in rags, covered in dirt. See? Look, those are all old fashions. Rags. How can they do this? How can they get away with this?
Connie decided they weren’t going to get away with it, at least Kwame wouldn’t. She’d listened to enough bullshit in her day to know when someone was bullshitting her, and Kwame was bullshitting her. Connie hated bullshit. She would go down there and see for herself. She didn’t care that they were telling people to stay out of downtown. Make me leave. She looked out her window when she heard a city bus pass by. The buses were still running. She wasn’t taking Kwame’s word. He got that one wrong.
When Connie arrived at the bus stop, the buses weren’t running. “I’ll bet Kwame had something to do with this,” Connie determined, even if she wasn’t sure how Kwame could influence the buses as Security Director of a downtown high-rise, but she knew Kwame was crafty like that. If anyone could do it, Kwame could do it. Connie handled the complication with ease and resolve. If the buses weren’t running, she would walk. Traffic didn’t seem to be moving very fast today anyway. Walking would get her to work so she could see for herself if Kwame was bringing Vanessa in to take her hours like she suspected. Connie reminded herself to keep her eyes open around people like this. They would knife her in the back, sure as she was standing here. That is, they would until Connie filed her discrimination lawsuit. Then they’d see who was holding the knife.
It was a long walk over a steep hill to get downtown. Connie couldn’t remember the name of the road but she did remember it was a road where traffic backed up both morning and night during the week, and even once in a while on the weekend when there was some special something or other going on in town. There was walking room on both sides of the road even though the entire street was packed in both directions with idle cars and honking horns since no one was moving. Connie put a wide-brimmed sun hat on to protect her and a scarf to breathe through plus she had her good walking shoes on, so she was better prepared than these other people. No one would bother her. They were too invested in their own troubles. She wouldn’t take anyone else’s word. It was better to see these things for yourself.
Many people had the same idea to travel by foot, some had even abandoned their cars in the middle of the street, which wasn’t making traffic any better. Almost everyone was going the opposite direction that Connie was heading, and some were even bold enough to try and turn her around and point her in their direction but Connie was having none of it and was ready to judo chop the next person that tried right in the throat. Still, Connie couldn’t help but hear them talking.
“Oh, why has this happened?” A young woman dragged on the arm of her boyfriend or at least some guy willing to put up with her shrill, repetitive stream of desperate questioning to which he had no answers. The boyfriend simply walked straight ahead, staring at everything and nothing all at the same time. Connie watched the young woman carrying on and thought she wasn’t pretty enough to be that annoying. People passed Connie by, with as many viewpoints as there were assholes.
“What are we going to do now?”
“Where do we go?”
“I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it myself.”
“She’s not picking up, I don’t know if her phone is off or if it’s out of battery.”
“Can we go with you? If you go, can you take us? Will you wait?”
“Who’s responsible for this? Who did this?”
“My question is, what are we doing about it?”
“It’s the politicians, they’re the ones that want this. They always want this.”
“Cops, man. They do this to justify what they do!”
“How could this happen?”
Connie knew how it could happen. She watched people parade by her and listened to the things they said and the clothes they wore. Connie didn’t believe a word out of anyone’s mouth. These people all had agendas. She read their pithy sayings and the vulgarities on their clothing. Their haircuts. The jewelry. These sorts never told the truth when they spoke, just like those magazines and newspapers they’ve been cramming down the public’s throats all these years that purported to tell you what was really going on in the world. The media talks of bygone days and the loss of journalistic integrity, but that never fooled Connie, who only found out years later all of the things that were really going on in the world that no one ever bothered reporting on at the time. They were all a bunch of bullshitters. You can’t believe anyone anymore.
Connie crested the top of the hill leading into downtown and for the first time saw from a distance what she assumed everyone was going on about, but she needed to get closer for a better look so she could make a determination on its validity. Pedestrian traffic had lessened to almost nothing. Police, fire and EMT’s were the only people headed in the direction Connie was going, and all of them were entirely too busy to stop and tell Connie what a bad idea it was to be there. She wouldn’t have believed them if they did. They do that kind of thing just to scare people.
Connie noted the devastation she saw as she walked, and tried to recall whether or not this particular stretch of road had looked like this before because as far as she could recall, it did. This wasn’t one of the better-kept areas of the city. Connie knew if you had people that didn’t take care of their property, it didn’t take long before the whole area around it went bad. Something tragic might have indeed struck the area, but here one would be hard-pressed to know the difference from what was normal, everyday life.
She could see the building she worked at poking high into the downtown skyline, so Connie walked in that direction, estimating that a brisk pace would get her there in just over an hour. The area of devastation was so large and widespread that Connie would be able to see no matter which direction she went. There were several places along the road where she could claim a good view over a large area. There were emergency vehicles cruising the streets who never stopped at red lights like they make everyone else do, or they give you a ticket. She saw more people from this vantage point and took her time to survey the scene. There was something fishy about it all. It looked too good, too perfect. Maybe it looked like someone wanted it to look this way, maybe for the cameras. That’s it, she thought. Cameras. News cameras, photographs, maybe they were even shooting a movie. Connie marveled at the attention to detail. Those Hollywood people sure can make things look realistic.
Maybe it wasn’t a movie. Which was not to say that the people Connie was seeing weren’t actors. She’d heard of “crisis actors”, those men with hair buns and women with unshaven armpits that made huge deals out of nothing situations so they can push their crazy agendas on the rest of us. They’re all in on it with the media. And those Hollywood people? They can make anything look like anything. Connie knew movies made billions of dollars, so it couldn’t have been a big deal to drop a couple of million to make everything look this bad. They’ll probably make billions more when this is all done. They did make it look realistic, though. She had to credit them for that.
Connie continued on her way, walking alone down city sidewalks toward her building. She thought about how all the money they spent could have been better spent on things that would actually help people in their lives. Why did they have to go to all this trouble? She knew that actors needed work, but there had to be some community theatre or something that was hiring. As Connie continued on, the scene impressed her less and less. She was getting used to the things she was seeing, and there was only so much marveling she could do out loud without looking like a crazy person talking to herself. Connie’s mind was made up about the things that were going on around her and what she saw for herself with her own eyes, and she was okay with her conclusions. She would stop by the building for the evidence she needed against Kwame and Vanessa, then would call her sister Kathy and tell her straight up that she was worried and concerned over nothing.
She hoped that wouldn’t be a long call.