Authors: Nina Siegal
For George Rood,
“as in discourteous”
Joseph Edward Siegal
It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.
The Simple Art of Murder
t was the high mercury end of July and no one was doing any dying. I wasn’t getting much work done, just moving faxes from one side of my desk to the other and finding homes for stray paper clips.
A few reporters had been sent out to cover the heat—chat with the fan salesmen, check on the polar bears at the zoo. Metro columnist Clint Westwood was under his desk pawing through old columns for new ideas. White-haired Rusty Markowitz was on the horn with a stringer he’d sent to stalk a Broadway ingenue. He was red-faced and barking, “Listen, give her the cell phone. Well, if she won’t take it just
it right up to her mouth!”
The other Pulitzer Prize winners were out in the Hamptons putting the final touches on their next historical opus or cultivating a new patch of skin cancer. It was slow. Slow as a drunkard’s grin.
I was about to go upstairs for a cup of coffee when the phone rang. I took my gum out of my mouth and stuck it onto the filing cabinet with the other pieces.
“Obits,” I said. “Vane.”
There was no voice on the line, but I heard a siren, the rattling of steel. Maybe the Brooklyn Bridge was calling.
“Valerie Vane, Obituary Desk,” I tried again. “May I help you?”
Now there was a voice, low and soft. “Yes,” it said. “I want to inquire about a story that ran in your pages today.” The voice was male, deep and smoky, but tentative—a controlled burn.
“Which story would that be?”
“The piece on Wallace,” he said. “Malcolm Wallace.”
I reached across my desk for the morning edition and another stick of gum. Chelsea and Hillary were on the cover riding camels, next to our three-column overnighter on the heat wave—brownouts in Inwood, track fires in Chinatown, historic concessions lines at Jones Beach. I flipped past the genocide and nuclear arsenals, past the labor unrest and roaming bison, and found the story in the measly posterior of the Metro pages, one of the shorties below the fold.
“Famous for Writing His Name,” read the headline with the subhead, “Artist Brought Street Life into Galleries.” Malcolm Wallace, forty-two, painter—a graffiti writer self-dubbed Stain 149. The piece didn’t have a byline, but I already knew who’d written it, because I happened to be chewing her gum.
“Is there a problem?” I asked the caller.
“Yes, I believe so,” he said. “I’m concerned about the facts related in the story. You see, the article here says he took his own life.”
I checked the first paragraph of the story, where indeed it said that Wallace had jumped from the Queensboro Bridge. “Correct,” I said.
“Suicide,” he said slowly.
“That’s right, suicide.” I said it the way he’d said it, using his rhythms, his elisions of the vowels so that it sounded like “Soocide.” Killing of Sue.
“But that’s not right,” he said, and then he used the word again: “Suicide.”
I did a quick mental check of the facts I’d gleaned the day before from DCPI, police press. It was my typical morning call to
Detective Pinsky for updates and confirms: Wallace, Malcolm A. Deceased black male found on the rocks near base of the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, Queens side. Discovered Saturday, 5:47 a.m. Time of death: approximately 2:15. Body waterlogged, bloated, no visible marks. Jump from bridge. ID in breast pocket.
“Let me see.” I pushed some faxes around my desk to make it sound like I was checking. “Yep, Sue Side is what we got.” Each syllable on tiptoe. “Sue Side from DCPI.”
We got calls like this from time to time from people who weren’t happy when they saw the cold, hard facts in dark, gray ink. My first few months on the desk, I’d get nervous and run them by Jaime Cordoba, the chief Obit editor.
Jaime was an Orthodox Jew born in Cuba, raised in Georgia, and he’d gotten enough guff for just his name (“hymie at the hymie-town paper?”) that very little rattled him. He had skin the color of ginger and a mane of curly black hair he kept under his yarmulke with a few dabs of Brylcreem. When I needed his advice, he shook that mane like a just-roused lion, and spoke with a Latin southern twang no louder than a whisper.
“People don’t like to accept death,” he’d told me. “It’s like a railway that runs on a senseless schedule and we obituary writers are station workers cleaning up after the train’s already left. We’re wearing an official uniform so people think we can give them answers. But here’s my advice: stick to pushing the broom. Just tip your hat and say, ‘I’m sorry, mister, I don’t have any control over departures.’”
Since then, I’d developed a system for phoners. Step one was to comfort: “It may take a little bit of time to get adjusted to your loss,” I started, but the caller wasn’t listening.
“Who said suicide?” he wanted to know.
“The police reported ‘jump from bridge.’”
“Malcolm just put the down payment on a permanent space for a painting school,” the caller said. “A man who’s going to kill
himself doesn’t secure a mortgage. He doesn’t say he’s going out for ice cream and jump into the East River.”
“No,” I said. “Not usually. I know these senseless acts are sometimes hard to understand. We need to try and look at the big picture…” This was step two: Help the caller contemplate death in the abstract.
I was laying it on thick as cement, but I wasn’t much interested in the caller. I was thinking about my cup of coffee getting cold upstairs. This Wallace fellow had already gotten plenty of ink. He’d been famous in the eighties—hell, he’d even been the subject of a 1985 Sunday Magazine feature—but only for as long as it took to shake up a can of spray paint. He’d since been scrubbed from history. I figured the main reason he’d made the page was the weather: 104 by day, a sauna in the shade. Jaime had been complaining about our section “looking geriatric” and when he found the Wallace notice, he said, “Finally, some young blood,” slapping the fax on my desk. “This’ll be fun for you, Vane. Has to do with art.”
“Listen,” the caller was saying now. “I know a lot of people don’t mean much to some people. A lot of people are just some other guy. I don’t know how the police concluded suicide, but I’m sure whatever they told you is wrong, because Malcolm Wallace would never kill himself. He wasn’t that type of man.”
Then something crept up my spine. It was Detective Pinsky from the previous day’s morning call: “They’re saying suicide but it’s too soon to tell. You know the drill, Val,” I now remembered he’d said. “DA’s got it.”
I’d made a follow-up call to Betty Schlacter, the flak for the Manhattan district attorney. We’d chitchatted about the supermodel slaying and then she’d cut it short, claiming a lunch date. She couldn’t give me anything on Wallace, not even basics, she’d said. Investigations were off limits and off the record until they were closed. I’d jotted in my notes: O/B DNP (On
Background. Do Not Print.). And then Jaime had come by with a frosted cupcake.
You see, for two years, I’d been an up-and-comer, a star cub recruited from a glossy to write flashy features for The Paper’s Style section. I’d covered society galas, celebrity soirees, and red carpet premieres. I’d been an all-access insider, behind the velvet ropes. But things had gone wrong somewhere along the line, and then they’d gotten worse, and then they’d gone all the way south. Ultimately, I’d been demoted to the Obit desk to putter out my remaining days with the washed-up hacks, the union stewards, and other miscellaneous nobodies.
The day before had been my six-month anniversary on Obits. Jaime meant the cupcake as a form of celebration, but to me it was more like a frosted nail in the coffin. I swallowed it down, and then excused myself for my half-hour lunch break and went in search of something to gnaw. Down the block, at the usual office haunt, there was no collegial patter at the cashier’s counter. No office chums clapped my back. I bought myself a day-old bagel and walked to the kiddy park to watch babies waddle in the spray. I wrenched bite after bite from the stale dough and pitied my sad fate.
When I’d gotten back to the office, Jaime was waiting on the Wallace squib to move the page. I’d been late and now I was harried, thinking I’d messed up again for good. I’d whipped up the Obit to specs, including “jump from bridge.” In my muddled state—I now realized—I’d forgotten all about Pinsky and Schlacter. I’d forgotten all about O/B DNP and “too soon to tell.”
This, I understood more acutely with each smoky breath on the other end of the line, may indeed have been a mistake. Another mistake. I didn’t say anything to the caller. I didn’t even let myself think it too loud. If I had to tell my editor that we had to run a correction, it wouldn’t look good for me.
I cleared my throat. “Sir,” I said. “This is The Paper of Record. We write
with a capital
as in ‘The Truth.’ Maybe you want to speak to the news desk, if there’s news on this case. Maybe you’d like the cop shop, if there needs to be an investigation. At Obits, we don’t do updates. We just stack ’em and pack ’em.”
Once it came out of my mouth, even I was surprised by the harshness of the phrase. I could hear the anonymous mister breathing in short, smoky bursts, saying nothing. His pause sprawled about a yard and then stopped abruptly.
“Are you a reporter?” he asked.
The word jumped up between us. I didn’t flick at it, didn’t try to grab it out of the air. He said the same thing again, only louder. “Are you a reporter?” His words poked me in the chest like a frat boy looking for a brawl.
A year earlier if someone had asked me that question I would’ve guffawed. Who didn’t know that Valerie Vane was a reporter? I wasn’t just a reporter; I was the supreme scribe of the urban zeitgeist. Who
could have gotten upstairs at Moomba for the first celebrity karaoke night? Who
would have convinced transsexual heiress Zita Marlowe to do her first, and only, face-to-face after the surgery?
had identified gray as the new black,
Thursday as the new Friday. And later, when the trends shifted again,
was the one who’d let everyone know that Monday was the new Thursday. That’s why Buzz Phipps, the Style editor, had always rushed over to my desk, breathless with the latest hot tip. He wanted every worthy story to get the Valerie Treatment.
Now, with the word
balancing on the line between us, I wasn’t so sure.
“The name’s Vane,” was all I could offer the caller. “Valerie Vane.”
It meant nothing to him. “Well, if you are a reporter or if you ever want to be one, don’t just take down what you hear from the cops. Try doing a little research.”
I opened another stick of gum and folded it under my tongue. “Who is this?” I said, chewing audibly. “I’ll take your name. I’ll get back to you.”
The man laughed a slow, even laugh. “No, Valerie Vane,” he said, his teeth clamped on the sharp
edges of my name, his throat coughing up the
s. “I’ll take down your name and I’ll be calling you back. We’ll see this mistake is corrected one way or another.”
buzzed in my ear like a fly about to land in my soup. “You haven’t told me
name,” I said.
He gave it a little thought and said, “Cabeza. Just call me Cabeza.”
“Cabeza, as in—” There was a dial tone, hard and flat.
Head? I thought. Wasn’t
Spanish for head? Or was it beer?
The Paper’s newsroom was on the third floor of the copper-topped fortress in Midtown. It was arranged in concentric circles of clout. In the center were the top brass, orchestrating the movements of the planets and scorching any Icarus who tried to fly too high. In orbit were the lesser gods: backfield editors, assignment editors, and design chiefs. Reporters were spun out on the periphery like comets beyond the orbit of Pluto. Obits was in deep, interstellar space, far from the action. Close to the exits.
The furnishing was Late-Century Nondescript. Gray Formica desks connected low-slung gray canvas cubicles, boxy computers, gray swivel chairs. All of it was gray upholstered, with beige carpeting wall to wall. On most days, the place was about as lively as an insurance office. No one yelled, “Stop the presses!” or ran through the newsroom snapping out patter like Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant. Reporters talked in hushed tones, and typed with their heads crooked solemnly over ergonomic
keyboards. Clerks imported panini from the gourmet grocer and ate at their desks, swallowing three-dollar pink bottles of water called “Calm.”
But if I listened intently, with the right amount of reverence, I could sometimes hear the two-finger
of old Underwood typewriters. I could imagine blue suits waltzing in like Clark Gable from a wet lunch with the beat cops at Jimmy’s Corner. Or the boys in short pants running between desks yelling “Copy!” I could, just barely, if I listened with imagination, make out the subterranean rumble of the defunct printing presses, the throaty laughter of the newspapermen smelling of machine oil, cigars, and cheap scotch.
Most of them were gone, but a few still trolled the newsroom, like my cubicle mate, Mickey Rood. Rood had been at The Paper fifty-eight years and then some. He’d started as a copy boy at fifteen and had climbed the ranks until he hit a glass ceiling made of bottles of Wild Turkey. Some time ago, I didn’t know quite when, Rood had “retired” to Obits.
During his early years at The Paper he’d moonlighted as a jazz pianist, subsisting on a quart of single malt and three packs a night. The veins of his translucent cheeks mapped long-closed Greenwich Village jazz, blues, and juke joints. His face had three neat slits: two for his twinkling, cantankerous eyes and another for his thin-lipped grin. He wore a navy suit jacket with a stain around the neckline and loose threads at the wrists. His button-down was jaundiced, and his slacks, two sizes too large, were cinched against his waist with a stretch of white rope. When he wasn’t using his battered wooden cane, he hooked the handle to that rope. He trailed a smell of tree mold and shoe polish.
“Name’s Rood,” he’d said, clearing some phlegm and standing to offer me his hand, the first day I’d arrived at Obits. “As in discourteous.”