I was surprised to hear Burns’s deep and authoritative voice on the other end of the phone, not the hung-over slur or nasal prankster tones of my joking friends. The only phone was in the kitchen. Mom never left when you were on the phone. She shuffled between the sink, the stove, the refrigerator, eating, cleaning, moving things around. I am surprised, now that she is gone, not to see a triangular path worn into the green linoleum tile.

“Can you turn that radio down?” I asked. She clicked her tongue and turned down Newsradio 78.

“I did a little asking around about that fire in the warehouse,” he said. “There might be something to it. That building had had a fire inspection just a month before. I was wondering if you could help me with it.”

“Sure,” I said, glancing over at my mother, wishing she would leave but not saying anything.

“Find out something about her boss, the guy who made that arson report. Maybe you can get a biography of him or something? It would be in their annual report.” In those days there was no such thing as a Web site. Everything was in printed books.

“Sure,” I said, trying not to sound too excited. This was exactly what I had wanted—to work on a real news story, to participate in an investigation, to “dig up dirt,” as reporters sometimes say casually without thinking about where to put the dirt or who will get dirty.

“Find out how long he has been there and how many reports he has done. Maybe that will be in their literature somewhere.”

“OK.”

When I hung up, Mom left the kitchen and went into the living room. “Who was that?” she asked.

“My editor,” I said.

“Oh, is he giving you more work? It would be so good if he would give you a real full-time job instead of writing these columns once in a while.”

I let the sting of what seemed like her continual dissatisfaction with what I was doing wash over me. Far, far back in the reptilian part of my brain, a voice said: I’ll show you. I said, “Actually, he does have a job for me, to help with a story,” I said.

“That’s great!” she sat down in her recliner, a plate of pastries on her lap. “Is that something you might do all the time, so you have a regular paycheck coming in?”

“Maybe,” I said. “It’s sort of a trial.”

“Well, if that doesn’t work you should think about the insurance industry,” she said. “It’s very stable, very steady.”

I thought quickly and was pleased at the nimbleness of my mind. “Maybe I should find out about your company just in case a reporter job doesn’t open up. Maybe I should stop over there some time—this afternoon even.”

She said that would be just fine. I made a note to stop over after my classes got out, and felt like a young Woodward or Bernstein. I’ll have to buy a trenchcoat, I thought as I made a sandwich for lunch with the food my mother had purchased with the money she worked hard to make at the insurance company I was about to investigate.

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