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a confidential source


I PUT MY glass of wine down beside the empty cereal bowl on the bar and turned the radio up a notch. Leonard of Late Night hated much of what was going on in Rhode Island, but nothing got him going like the referendum to legalize gambling.

“Bookmakers. We’re turning into a state of bookmakers.” His fury filled my apartment, intimate, even in outrage. I sat back on the bar stool and took a sip of wine. Leonard wasn’t one of those radio jocks who argued just for the sake of it. You could feel his honesty, his indignation.

Dori from Warwick called in to say that if people wanted to gamble, they were going to gamble. She had a staccato inflection and added extra syllables. “Why shoul-d-n’t the state getta cut?”

“Well, maybe the state should get in on prostitution and crack then,” replied Leonard, without the slightest trace of any accent.

Dori must have been a first-time caller. She hesitated, perplexed. “Can we do that?” she asked.

Leonard played the “Tammy’s in Love” theme song, which officially designated a caller as a bimbo, and cut to a commercial.

I began to hunt for my cordless phone. You’d think it would be impossible to misplace a cordless in a one-bedroom apartment that doesn’t even have a real kitchen, just a Formica bar that carves a galley-type kitchenette out of the main living area. But I’m not a particularly good sorter of life’s materials. The mail, newspapers, and files from work all end up in stacks on the floor that I have to navigate around and search under. Finally, I found the cordless in the corner by the closet, on top of a carton of books I still hadn’t unpacked.

As I returned to the bar stool, I wavered. I had called Leonard just last night. Thursday was Cinema Talk, and Leonard and I were both eagerly awaiting news about whether there would be another Terminator movie.

I call myself Mary from Massachusetts, even though I’m Hallie, now of Rhode Island. Working in such a small state, I feel I have to conceal my identity. Reporters, unless they have their own columns, are not supposed to have such loud opinions.

I put the wineglass down and dropped the phone back in its wall recharger. Tonight, I’d listen. I took my cereal bowl and spoon over to the sink, which still held my dirty cereal bowl and spoon from breakfast. I began washing the bowl, but got distracted when Leonard accepted a call from Andre of Cranston. Andre called even more than I did.

“Gambling destroys more people than drinking,” he said for about the hundredth time.

I’d heard Andre talk about the violent fights his parents had had over gambling, about his father going bankrupt, even about loan sharks who threatened the family. The stories were so extreme I had to wonder if Andre was for real or some sort of plant in the calling audience.

Tonight, though, Andre was sticking to politics. “Obviously, if the city can’t develop the Pier Project without legalizing gambling and opening a casino, it shouldn’t develop it.” Everything was always obvious to Andre.

I dropped the bowl and sponge back into the sink. Despite all the hype about the Providence renaissance, Rhode Island was in a financial mess, with a massive budget deficit. Couldn’t Andre see how desperately the state needed some new form of revenue? The male listeners might have written off Dori of Warwick as a bimbo, but not me. There were casinos little more than an hour away in Connecticut and electronically available at home via the Internet. If people were going to gamble, they were going to gamble.

Suddenly, I was furious on Dori’s behalf. The fuel of argument flowed through my veins, pulling me directly to the wall recharger. I grabbed the cordless, the station phone number programmed into my fingertips.


I put the phone down on the bar and made myself take a deep breath. It’s not as if there were any official rules about print journalists calling talk-radio shows, but reporters, in general, were expected to be objective, impartial, detached. The world was not supposed to know how they stood on the issues, unless, of course, they were experts. Then, the reporter was supposed to be the featured guest on the talk show. Not the caller.

If I just waited a couple of minutes, someone else would call and defend Dori of Warwick. To distract myself, I reached for my canvas knapsack, sitting underneath the bar. Hoisting the knapsack onto the bar, I pulled out a lottery scratch ticket from the inner pocket. A silly long shot, but it afforded a few moments of complete fantasy. I liked the $5 tickets, with the million-dollar cash prizes, so I could dream about paying off my debts and really transforming my life. Even in the dull light of the fifties-looking fixture that hung over the bar, anyone could see my life needed transforming.

The only furniture in the living area was a futon in an alcove that was clearly designed for a dining table, a twenty-year-old Haitian cotton couch, and an oak coffee table and bookshelf that I’d bought unfinished and never stained. I found a quarter in a cup of change on the windowsill to scratch off the ticket. If I won a million dollars, I promised myself I’d buy new furniture.

I tried to make myself think about exactly what kind of furniture I’d buy, but some new caller, another man whose name I didn’t get, was now attacking the mayor of Providence. “What’s he trying to do? Prostitute the city? Pimp for the entire state of Rhode Island?”

As legalized gambling’s most powerful supporter, Mayor Billy Lopresti was Leonard’s archenemy. A man of incredible charm, the mayor’s personal popularity and hold on voters were not in the least altered by the fact that his top aide was under investigation for taking kickbacks. “Anybody planning to vote for this idiotic referendum has to turn the dial,” Leonard was shouting now. “You are no longer welcome to listen to my show!”

I loved it when Leonard did that, ordering people not to listen to him. As if he didn’t care about ratings as long as he made his point. Supposedly, it infuriated his talk-show competitors at WPRO and WHJJ.

I dropped the scratch ticket on the counter and reached for the phone. This time, I got through, and was put on hold.

Last month, when I had to cover a charity event, a bike-a-thon to raise money for the Veterans’ Homeless Shelter, I met Leonard in person. I’d expected a burly man, but he was an ardent bicyclist and had that kind of lean-muscled body. He was younger than I had thought, midforties, and quiet, as if maybe he didn’t want to strain his voice. He’d told me all about his bike training, thirty miles every day. You have to be religious about the mileage, he’d said. I got the feeling Leonard was religious about everything.

Midway through the interview, I noticed him staring at my press badge. I tried to speak in a throaty timbre just in case he recognized my voice. I don’t know if he thought I was trying to seduce him with my best Brenda Vaccaro or what, but when he lifted his eyes, he gave me a strange smile.

Another deep breath and a sip of wine. I’d learned from experience that I needed fortification when I was about to call and disagree with Leonard. That way, my voice wouldn’t shake in those first few minutes when I realized I was actually on the air.

“I’m not switching the dial, Leonard,” I said when I was put through. “You can’t order me away!”

“Oh, Mary,” he said, through the telephone line. “You’re not going to give me that old argument about the innocent fun your mother and aunt have at Foxwoods, are you?”

“People need a little excitement,” I said. “A little hope.”

“False hope,” he said swiftly.

I glanced at the scratch ticket, abandoned on the bar. “A little gambling doesn’t hurt anyone. If it’s in moderation.”

“Oh, please,” Leonard returned.

“There’s no reason all that money—billions of dollars—should go to the Native Americans in Connecticut when God knows we need it right here in Rhode Island.”

“You’re right. The mob can always use more revenue,” he replied.

“Oh, come on. This’ll be run by the Narragansett Indians, not the Mafia. And there’s gonna be a special state commission—all sorts of safeguards—”

“You really, truly believe that any safeguard will keep things on the up-and-up in Rhode Island?

I hesitated. Leonard’s emphasis on truly combined with the probing resonance of his baritone made me stop and question myself. What did I really know about Rhode Island? I’d lived here only four months. “Why not?” I tried to make this sound like an answer instead of a question.

Through the radio, I heard the first few bars of “Tammy’s in Love,” the bimbo theme song. This was followed by Leonard’s voice booming over the airwaves. “Oh, Hallie,” he said, using my real name. “You are so naive.”

I stood at the picture window of my third-floor apartment, looking down on my neighborhood, at the closed shops and wide sidewalks of Wayland Square. I listened to a distant siren downtown and the steady hum of the traffic on I-95, and wondered: How freaking small was this state, anyway?

Outside, it was an especially crisp autumn night. The bright moon somehow made me feel even more exposed, as if nature had conspired to put me under a spotlight. I went over the many things I’d said to Leonard and his listening audience in the belief that I was an anonymous voice—an informed and, I liked to think, intelligent opinion. I’d called about legalized gambling, Patrick Kennedy, and the pedophile-priest controversy. I’d called about bad movies, good restaurants, and the Pawsox. I covered my face with my hands. The truth was: I’d called about everything.

But how the hell did Leonard know who I was? From that one interview at the bike-a-thon fund-raiser? Was my voice, a bit raspy, that distinct? Or had I given myself away by quoting the newspaper too often?

I’d hung up as soon as he said my name. But it didn’t matter; he’d cut to a commercial. Oh, why on earth did I always give in to my impulses? Why did I have to call every frigging night?

A thousand square miles of land is just too small for a state. Rhode Island should be annexed to Massachusetts. The cultures merged. Everyone in Providence could listen to Boston radio shows instead.

Finally, after several dozen vows to never call talk radio again, I decided there was nothing left to do but go to sleep. I flipped off the light switch and headed toward the bedroom, but moonlight still illuminated the apartment. And as I crossed the living room, my glance caught a little rectangle pushed to the edge of the kitchen bar: the evening’s forgotten scratch ticket.

What the hell, I thought, maybe I’d win a million dollars and not have to worry anymore about being an idiot. I picked up the ticket and took it back with me to the moonlit window. The Green Poker game, a lime-green card with a leprechaun holding a hand of cards. Scratching off the latex was tough, as if the ticket had been hanging around on the store shelf for too long, but I stuck with it. The leprechaun, as it turned out, was holding a pair of queens.

I began scratching the hand dealt me. The first square revealed the number 3 with a clubs symbol under it.

It figured.

The second square, scraped swiftly, was an improvement, a queen of diamonds. Predictably, the next two squares were major duds, a five of spades and an eight of clubs. With little hope, I scratched off the last little square.

A queen of hearts. A match. A pair, or in the Rhode Island lottery’s new Green Poker game parlance, a lucky lady two of a kind. It was only fifty bucks, but in that moment, a gigantic win.

Rhode Island could keep its statehood.

This time of year, when there wasn’t any risk of hitting beach traffic, the bureau office in South Kingstown was about twenty-five minutes from my apartment in Providence. The office was in one of those sunny little strip malls where you can park your car so close to the plate-glass window that you have the occasional urge to drive through, right to your desk.

I was the first one in and had to hunt for the key in the bottom of my canvas knapsack so I could unlock the door. The Providence Morning Chronicle’s newsroom is in a big building in the heart of the city, but the paper has these modest little local bureaus throughout the state. The idea is that the community likes to see its reporters, likes to have somewhere nearby to drop off the PTA press release and the high school sport scores. The South Kingstown office, wedged between Surfside Realty and Poppy’s Lunch, was a narrow alley of three desks and two computers in a room with bright-white walls and marbleized linoleum.

Some days, I wondered what the hell I was doing in this empty little insurance agency of an office, what I was doing in Rhode Island at all. After I’d left the Ledger in Boston, I’d told myself I’d never go back to reporting, never trust myself, my emotions, again. But after three years of drifting from public relations to insurance research to cocktail waitressing, here I was starting all over again at a small bureau, at a smaller paper, in what has turned out to be an incredibly small state.

I had a mountain of debt from this chronic employment instability, including a sizable loan from my mother I desperately needed to repay. But it could be worse, I reminded myself as I put the key in the lock and swung open the door: I could still be serving cosmopolitans.

From the pavement, I grabbed the stack of the day’s Chronicles and took them inside. I put them on the raised Formica counter that guarded the entrance. The stack could be seen through the plate-glass window, and often people walked in off the street asking if they could buy a paper. Oddly enough, because of union restrictions, we had to tell them no, directing them to Poppy’s Lunch next door or the pharmacy at the far corner of the strip mall.

I went to my desk and threw my jacket around the back of the chair and my knapsack onto the floor. In the bottom-right-hand drawer of my desk, there was a piece of marble decorated with a bronze quill and an old-fashioned inkwell. It was an award I’d won for investigative reporting on the Tejian profile, the last big story I’d done for the Ledger. Most days, I kept the drawer shut.

I sat down with the phone and a notebook, calling local dispatchers to make the daily police and fire checks. Our office covered South Kingstown, Narragansett, and North Kingstown, which were all beach communities. It was generally pretty quiet in the off-season. The best I could hope for was a brawl at a keg party at the University of Rhode Island.

The big news of the morning was a Dumpster fire in the parking lot of the Ro-Jack’s supermarket. As I was transmitting the five-inch story to Providence, the front door scraped open and Carolyn Rizzuto, my bureau manager and boss, walked in.

“Hi,” she said, distractedly sorting through a stack of envelopes in her hand. She was often distracted in the mornings. Although she was only eight years older than I was, we were lifetimes apart. At forty-three, she’d had two marriages, two divorces, and two daughters whom she was now raising alone.

She stood over me, a bag of Poppy’s bagels under her arm and a funny smile on her face.


She dropped the envelope on my desk. “This was stuck in the mail slot, didn’t you see it?”

I shook my head. Addressed to Hallie Ahern in Magic Marker, the envelope had no postal marking.

Carolyn breezed past me, taking off her coat, dyed-blue leather, which she hung up in a closet instead of tossing over her chair. Then she began slicing open two bagels on a cutting board beside the coffee machine. “You wanna peanut butter and cream cheese?” she asked, her back toward me as she began to forage inside our little ice cube of a refrigerator.

“No, just plain, please,” I replied, tearing open the envelope. Inside was a handwritten note on WKZI stationery.

Dear Hallie,

Sorry I screwed up on your name last night. Please don’t stop calling the show.


I slipped the note into my top drawer as Carolyn approached my desk.

“That’s why you look the way you do,” Carolyn said, putting the bagel down in front of me on a paper towel.

She said this almost every morning and when I forgot to pick up cookies on the afternoon tea run. Carolyn was what you would call a full-figured woman, not fat, but with a good-size chest and hips that would not slim no matter how many aerobics classes she took at lunchtime. I ran every morning at dawn, which tended to keep the weight off, but I was still in need of full-scale renovation.

“Have you seen those new bras at Victoria’s Secret? Very natural looking,” Carolyn would say with a glance at my boyish figure. “Even under a T-shirt.”

“Shoes can make a very big difference,” she’d say, showing me a Nine West catalog. “And better jewelry.” She didn’t think the small silver half-moons I wore in my ears even counted as jewelry.

And then, just last week, as if she’d been giving this an enormous amount of thought, she’d said, “A little azure shadow at the crease and under the arch and you’d be amazed by how blue your eyes can be.” She peered at me a little closer. “After you tweeze those brows, of course.”

She was such a true believer in beauty, so committed to my transformation, that I couldn’t get mad about it. And she was right about the eyebrows.

The phone rang and Carolyn picked it up. By the sound of the conversation, it had something to do with her older daughter’s habit of forgetting her homework. I took a bite of my bagel and tried to chew. Leonard must have hand-delivered the note last night on his way home from the station. Why had he gone to such trouble?

“Okay, I’ll drive it over at lunchtime,” Carolyn said. “But this is the last, the absolute last time.” She slammed the phone into the cradle and seethed in silence. Then she turned to me. “You are so lucky you don’t have kids.”

I nodded, noncommittally. There were only the two of us permanently assigned to this bureau, and sometimes, when I had to cover for her because the kids were sick or had to be driven somewhere, my child-free status worked in my favor. Other times, Carolyn seemed to resent me for it.

“That friend of yours coming to stay tonight?” she asked.

She meant Walter. He was my sponsor, a friend I’d met at substance-abuse meetings who’d helped me kick the sleeping pills my doctor had prescribed after my brother, Sean, died. Walter drove a cab in Boston but slept on my futon now and then when he had a late-night gig playing guitar in Providence.

“Yes.” I felt it necessary to add, “He’s engaged to a good friend of mine.”

Carolyn shrugged in a manner that suggested that was no barrier. From what she’d told me about her personal life, I’d gathered that she hadn’t hesitated to break up a marriage or two. Once, she’d fixed me up with one of her ex-husband’s coworkers, who, it turned out, wasn’t yet divorced. “Oh, please, it’s just a matter of time. They’re in couples counseling,” she’d said afterward. “And you know how that goes.”

There was really no use explaining again that Walter was a surrogate brother. Carolyn didn’t seem to understand the parameters of a platonic relationship.

She dropped into her chair and booted up her computer. Even though she professed to despise all office politics, first thing every morning she dialed Providence and called up the newspaper’s in-house gossip file.

The Chronicle used its bureaus much like major-league baseball used its farm teams. The occasional “star reporter” might get hired away from a smaller paper right into the downtown newsroom, but most new recruits were assigned to these little bureaus across the state, where they were expected to prove themselves before getting promoted into the city. Bureau managers like Carolyn were former reporters who had developed “management potential” and thus had to cut their teeth as bosses in a bureau before being taken seriously as candidates for a news-editor or department-editor job downtown. Just like in the minor leagues, some would never make it to the pros. And many bureau managers, like Carolyn, claimed an outright preference for the more autonomous hinterlands.

But whether it was involuntary or by choice, working in the relative isolation of a bureau helped whet an inordinate appetite for in-house gossip. Even the new reporters who hadn’t met each other wanted to know who was getting married or having a baby. But more important, we wanted to know who was getting praise from the editors, who was getting the choice assignments, and who had the inside track into the city.

Today, though, I had more pressing interests. Opening my drawer to peek at the note, I could make out the big L, the hard slant of Leonard’s signature on the bottom of the paper. I shut the drawer when Carolyn abruptly turned around.

“Susannah Rodman is leaving the paper for the New York Times,” she said, looking fierce and sad and angry. Even though Carolyn swore she had no interest in a promotion to an editorial job downtown, let alone in leaving the state of Rhode Island, I instantly recognized what she was feeling.

“Big deal,” I said.

“Big fucking deal,” Carolyn amended.

We were silent, internally reeling from how big a deal it really was. From the Providence Morning Chronicle to the New York Times—not too many reporters made that kind of leap.

“It was her investigative work on the superior court judges a few years back,” Carolyn said at last. “She was on that team that won the Pulitzer.”

I had never met Susannah Rodman, couldn’t tell you if she was tall or short, or maybe the nicest person in the entire world. But for a single moment, I hated her.

“You know,” Carolyn said, giving me a sly, sideways look. “They’ll need someone to replace her downtown on the investigative team.”

When I took this job, I’d promised myself that I’d devote myself exclusively to small-town community reporting, that I’d stay in a quiet little bureau, away from the kind of high-profile investigative stories that could chew up your life and force you into no-win decisions. But the truth was, I was bored out of my mind with school committees and garden clubs. And even though this wasn’t the Boston Ledger, Rhode Island was a petri dish of bizarre stories. The investigative reporters who dug them up were awarded Pulitzers and sent off to the New York Times.

I choked back the ambition in my throat and tried to make it sound as if it were hypothetical. “You think they’d even consider me?”

Copyright © 2008 by Jan Brogan

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