This is something I started working on a while ago, when I was thinking about just exactly how Diggs and Solomon’s paths crossed back in those early days in Littlehope. I imagine her seeking Diggs out — covertly watching him for a while, drawn by both his intelligence and his darkness (and the fact that he’s mighty pretty to look at, of course), before she finally works up the courage to approach him. This is the result, told from Diggs’ POV.
** THE INTERVIEW **
“You can interview me if you want,” the redhead across the way says to me.
I’m at the bar — the one in the back of Bennett’s Lobster Shanty, lit by a string of plastic jalapeno pepper lights and a neon Milwaukee sign with a crack through the center. Even with the crappy lighting and the four whiskey shooters under my belt, I can tell the source of those words isn’t someone I should be talking to. Probably not ever — but certainly not here.
She’s got red hair cut spiky and short, big green eyes, and a nose ring. Trench coat, combat boots, and what look like genuine paratrooper pants, about three sizes too big. If she’s a day over sixteen, I’ll renounce my man Bill and hit the campaign trail with George Herbert Bush next year.
“Why would I want to interview you?” I ask. I should get up and walk away — or at least ignore her. For whatever reason, I don’t. Maybe it’s the luminous green eyes; maybe the streetwise smile that I expect is anything but… Or maybe it’s the fact that she’s at this bar more often than I am — and that’s saying something.
“You don’t know who I am?” she asks. She gets up and moves closer, not actually taking the stool beside me, but the next one over.
I know exactly who she is, but I keep that to myself. “Should I?”
“You’re not much of a reporter, then. Have you heard of the Payson Church, at least?”
Everyone’s heard of the Payson Church — they torched themselves on an island about ten miles from the godforsaken fishing village I’m currently stuck in. I nod. Cal — the resident bartender — has one eye on me and one on the kid beside me. It’s clear he’s not crazy about the fact that I’m talking to her. I’m just a shade over twenty-three, but you’d think I was Humbert Humbert himself the way Cal’s eying me.
The kid signals to him, and Cal comes over with a fresh root beer that he sets in front of her.
“Put it on my tab,” she says. Cal smiles — something I’ve never actually seen him do before. The kid takes a long pull from her soda and sets it down. She’s all false bravado, but she’s got half a dozen tells that betray her, most notably shaking hands and an unconscious habit of biting her lip when she’s nervous.
“I’m Erin Solomon,” she says. “I used to live out there,” she adds when I don’t say anything. She nods vaguely in the direction of the ocean. “With my dad — we were members of the Church.”
I continue to play it cool, not talking to her. I sip at a fresh beer and give her a sideways glance. The second she sees that, I can tell she knows I’m interested in her story.
“Everyone wants to talk to me when they find that out,” she says. “I usually turn down interviews…” She pauses, blushing — or maybe it’s just the lighting. It’s hard to tell with her. “But I’d talk to you. If you want, I mean.”
She peels the label off her root beer, carefully avoiding my eye, and I know I should tell her to get lost. I’m getting ready to do just that when Kat Everett comes in — raven black hair and a body to die for, three sheets to the wind, with her doctor bag in one hand and one of the local fishermen attached to her hip.
“You ready?” she asks the kid, whose cheeks are now flaming with embarrassment. “Casey’s gonna give us a ride home.”
She hops down from the stool. She’s smaller than I thought, younger than I thought, and I know with everything in me that I should just shut the hell up and let her walk out. But I don’t.
“Hey, Solomon,” I call after her.
She looks back at me in surprise. “Yeah?” All the bravado is gone now that her mother is there, breathing down her neck. She looks like a refugee just back from the war.
“Give me a call at the paper. We’ll set something up.”
Two days later, Solomon shows up at the Trib. She has a backpack slung over her shoulder and the same trench coat and combat boots she’s always wearing. I’m in the bullpen with the rest of the reporters, in a haze of cigarette smoke and thinly veiled machismo that’s a hollow imitation of the paper I used to work for in New York. Everyone goes quiet the second she sets foot in the room.
I hop up from my desk. Every damn reporter in the place is watching me. “I thought I told you to give me a call,” I say.
“This is on my way home. I figured stopping by was just as easy. Besides, I wanted to see the place.” She takes a step closer. She’s blushing again, but she keeps her eyes fixed on mine. “Give me a tour?” It would seem like a come on from anyone else, but I’m pretty sure Solomon doesn’t have a coy bone in her body.
And so I give her a tour. I include the spiel about freedom of the press, and I show her the printing room. I even take her down to archives. She loves it the way I used to love it when I first came here at just about her age, and it leaves me sad and nostalgic and feeling a hell of a lot older than my twenty-three years.
We snag the dark side office I’ve been hiding out in at night even though I know it’s a terrible idea to shut myself up in a room alone with a teenage girl. I do it anyway. I sit on the edge of the desk and the kid sits on the couch with her hands in her lap, gnawing the hell out of her lower lip. I start up my tape recorder. For just a second, I see a flash of anxiety.
“Nobody but me will ever hear this,” I tell her — the same line I use for every interview. “I just use it to refer back so I can make sure I’m getting your story right.”
She nods and wets her lips. “Yeah — Okay. Whatever.”
“You’re sure you want to do this? And your mother’s okay with it?”
“I said she is, didn’t I?” she says. “Just get on with it already.”
Despite everything, I’m eager to dive in. The fire out on Payson Isle was the biggest story Maine had seen in years. This exclusive, regardless of the source, stands to put me on the map in the world of investigative journalism.
“Can you tell me what your relationship to the Payson Church of Tomorrow was?”
“I lived out there,” she says. She fidgets, then pulls herself back together and looks me in the eye. “I lived with my dad until I was nine. He was part of the Payson Church.”
I lean back in my chair and get comfortable, hoping she’ll take the cue and relax, too. “Tell me what you remember about living out there.”
She looks surprised. “You mean, like… Before the fire?”
“Yeah. Just give me a day in the life. What did you do?” I have visions of goat sacrifices and pedophiliac orgies. Solomon shrugs her thin shoulders.
“I don’t know — we’d get up early and go to morning services in the chapel. Then classes for us kids, or gardening with my dad. Other chores, like cooking or cleaning. Or… You know, whatever.” Her eyes get distant in a way that unnerves me. I expected derision, maybe a little horror. I didn’t expect her to wax nostalgic about the place.
“It was, you know… Normal,” she finally finishes.
“Why did you leave, then?”
Her face clouds. “Kat took me — my mother. She didn’t want me to live out there anymore. Because obviously living here is so much better.”
I don’t point out that if her mother hadn’t taken her away, she’d be charcoal by now. I re-situate myself in my chair, giving her a second to prepare for the shift I’m about to make.
“What about the day of the fire?” I ask. “What do you remember about that day?”
She doesn’t say anything for a while, staring at her hands. Finally, she looks at me.
“Kat says you came back because your mother’s dying,” she says. There’s something so open about her eyes that it unnerves me. I stare at her for a second before I recover my cool.
“She has cancer,” I say.
“I know about you, too, you know.”
I’ve heard that this happens sometimes in emotional interviews: a subject feeling especially vulnerable turns the table to regain a little power. I try to roll with it.
“Oh yeah? What do you know about me?”
“I’ve read stories you wrote back in New York — a few of them, anyway.” She pauses. Chews her lip a little more. “I heard about your brother, too.”
No one talks to me about my brother; it’s an unwritten rule in this town. Everyone knows about him, of course, and I know they’re always whispering about it when they think I’m not listening… But no one just drops the subject in my lap like this. I don’t even flinch, staring her dead in the eye.
“You’d have to be deaf and dumb not to have heard about my brother.”
“Did you really have him on your handlebars when he died?”
My heart speeds up. I get that old breathless feeling that chased me into my dreams for years — and still does, every so often. She wins this round; I look down, blinking fast. When I look up again, she’s still watching me. Evaluating me, like she’s not sure what to make of whatever it is she thinks I’ve revealed.
“It’s weird, seeing people you knew once they’re dead,” she says.
I want to turn the conversation back to her, but I have the feeling it won’t work that way. We’re alone in the room and there’s something about Solomon that suggests she understands things no one else around here would. And I do, after all, really want this goddamn interview. I look her in the eye again.
“Yeah,” I say. “It is. He was already dead when he was on my handlebars. I tried to get him to the nearest place for help, but it was too late.”
She doesn’t look shocked. Or even surprised. She just thinks about it for a few seconds before she nods. “Everybody was dead by the time we got to the island that day. It was pretty obvious there was no saving them, though… No reason to put anyone on my bike and try to find help.” She looks down, tugging on a skull thumb ring on her left hand. “It would’ve been nice to know I tried, though.”
From there, the interview goes smoothly. She asks questions every so often and I realize quickly that things go a lot faster if I just answer honestly. Solomon has a bullshit detector any veteran would admire. I’m about two questions from the end when there’s a knock on the door. I look at Solomon, who just shrugs.
“Yeah,” I call in response. “It’s open.”
Gretchen Taylor opens the door. Gretchen’s almost six feet tall, with fair skin and blonde hair and legs that go on for years. She smiles when she sees Solomon.
“I didn’t know you were busy,” Gretchen says to me.
“Just doing an interview. Erin, this is Gretchen Taylor. She’s an intern here. Gretchen, Erin Solomon.”
Gretchen beams at Solomon, who crosses her arms over her scrawny chest and slouches in her chair. “Well, I won’t keep you then,” Gretchen says. “We’re headed to Portland for the show tonight, though — I just wanted to make sure you’re still in?”
I make an effort not to grimace. “Yeah — definitely. I’ll be there. Just give me a few minutes to finish up here.”
After Gretchen leaves, I can feel Solomon appraising me.
“What are you going to in Portland?”
“Hootie and the Blowfish.”
She just stares at me.
“It wasn’t my idea.”
“You don’t like that shit, do you?” She looks relieved when I roll my eyes, then smirks knowingly. “I don’t care how hot she is, she’s not worth a whole night of Hootie.”
“So what do you listen to, hot shot?” I’m expecting a litany of teenage depressives like The Cure. Not for the first time, she surprises me.
“Neil Young’s pretty good. The Pretenders. U2. The Dandy Warhols — have you heard of them?”
“The Ramones. Jane’s Addiction. Jesus and Mary Chain. The Clash.”
And completely against my will, I’m drawn in. “You ever hear of Tom Waits?”
“The guy who sounds like he swallowed a bullfrog?”
I laugh. She’s pleased with herself, though she tries like hell to hide it.
I get up and go to a closet in the back of the room, where I dig around for a few minutes while Solomon cranes her neck, trying to figure out what I’m up to. I come out with a beat-up record player and a stack of vinyls I keep stashed here for late nights when I don’t want to go home, where my mother is dying and my father’s despised me for more than a decade for killing his favorite son.
I set the turntable on the desk. “Come on — You’re not that much younger than me. It’s a record player.”
“I know it’s a record player, genius. Why the fuck are you getting it out now? I thought you had to go hang out with Suzie Sunshine and the Blow Monkeys.”
“Nice language, Blackbeard. Just hang on a second.”
I sort through my records, taking my time, until I come up with Rain Dogs. On vinyl. It’s six-thirty, which means my ride to Portland and a whole evening with Suzie Sunshine are about to pass me by. I put the record on, but I don’t start it yet. Instead, I tell Solomon I’ll be right back. She nods from her spot on the couch, and I jog into the nearly-deserted newsroom. Gretchen’s waiting for me. She flashes me a megawatt smile.
“Actually, I think I’m gonna have to take a raincheck,” I tell her. I’m already thinking I must be nuts, because — contrary to what the kid might say — a night of Hootie and the Blowfish is a small price to pay for getting a shot at Gretchen Taylor. But I keep going, for reasons I can’t begin to name. “This interview… It could be big, and I don’t think I’ll get another chance.”
Gretchen’s not happy about it — If I had any doubt about that, her pout clears it up right away. I bridge the distance between us, flashing my own megawatt smile.
“I’ll make it up to you,” I say. She bats her eyelashes at me.
Hell yeah. “Promise.”
I watch her leave, admiring the sexy little switch to her walk that she knows full well I’m back there admiring. Despite everything, I find myself undeniably relieved when she’s gone. Headed back down the now-empty halls of the Downeast Daily Tribune, there’s a spring in my step I choose not to question. When I return to my little hideaway, Solomon is perched on the corner of the desk going through my records. She looks over her shoulder at me with a shy smile that already feels strangely familiar, like I’ve been seeing it for years now.
“You blew off the blonde?” she asks.
“I’ve still got a couple questions. You okay sticking around a while longer?”
She nods with a cavalier shrug that doesn’t fool me for a second. “Yeah. I guess I could do that.”
I shoo her back to the couch, settle myself on the desk, and put Rain Dogs on. Solomon stays quiet all the way through Tango Till They’re Sore, but I can tell by the look in her eye that this is anything but passive listening.
“So, what do you think?” I ask.
She leans back on the couch, tucking her legs beneath her, and looks at me with a wiseass smile. “He’s no Hootie and the Blowfish.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right about that.”
“I like it, though,” she adds. “It’s like… I don’t know. There’s so much going on. Like you could listen to it nine times and still hear a different record the tenth time out.”
We sit there listening for another few minutes before I start to dig into the next interview question. I’ve barely gotten two words out when Time starts up — the last track on the A-side. Solomon holds up her hand.
I start to argue, but I have a feeling nobody actually wins an argument with Solomon. Besides, she’s got the look of a girl who’s just found religion in the most unexpected of places, so I shut up and adjust the volume. We both sit there, quiet, while Tom gravels on about Matilda and her pigeons, and the building grows still and I wonder what it says about me that a scrawny fifteen-year-old with demons that outweigh my own can make me feel more at home than I’ve felt in the nine months since I returned to this one-saloon town. Solomon catches my eye. She smiles.
I smile back.
Time runs out.
I flip the record. We listen on.