Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Eternal Conversation

March 1995.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

You could call it the winter of my discontent.

I'd just begun my nine-month probationary training period with The Associated Press in Philadelphia, and already, I was burning all ends of every candle. Stuck on a night shift, I did nothing for the first three months but take newspaper stories and boil them into "30-second broadcast snippets" that could be ripped and read on television and radio.

If you've ever seen the Karate Kid, where Ralph learns martial arts by repeated motions from chores, you'll understand why the AP requires night after night of broadcast writing for its new recruits. The goal is to churn tight copy within minutes that can be read verbatim on CNN. After that, you can sling together any story off the top of your head and call it in from the back seat of a taxi.

It was in the midst of this endless night of Journalist Purgatory that Joy called. She said she wanted to travel to see me for a weekend, even if I was working odd hours.

When she showed up at my door, I had to force myself to hide my surprise at her appearance. Joy was a skeleton. Her head was wrapped in a colorful scarf, as her beautiful thick and curly hair had long ago fallen out. She spoke feebly and in a near whisper. She laughed as she brought out three different wigs from her suitcase and modeled them, resembling a mannequin wearing a mop. Despite popping one breath mint after another, she couldn't shake a perpetual breath odor that seemed to be straight from the grave.

She listened patiently as I regaled her with tales of my psychotic editor and fellow AP staff members, whose pretentious self-opinions of their writing gifts squeezed out any earnest attempt at objectivity. She wasn't strong enough to tour the city, and she really just wanted to stay in my apartment and veg with movies on the television. She slept while I worked. After I got home and slept a few hours, she made eggs and bacon and strong coffee for me like an older sister.

And then we talked.

Her life had taken a turn for the worse. Her husband was leaving her for another woman, and she knew she only had months to live, if that.

Then came the words that I never thought I'd hear.

"I've been reading the Bible. Really reading it," she said.

"No kidding. What have you been reading, specifically?"


"John's a good book to start with."

"I love it."


I didn't press her. I allowed her to just talk and muse, dissect it and understand it. We didn't discuss her salvation or whether she was ready to believe. We just walked around the perimeter of that while I answered her questions about John's writings.

The hours flew, and before I knew it, Joy was on her way home again.

I had no idea it would be the last time I would see her. I didn't know that our conversation had eternal repercussions.

And I was in no way prepared for what would happen the next time I heard from her.

Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion of this story series.