I want to tell you about my friend Jackie. For a long time, she has been a steadfast colleague. I think about her, and I don’t think about her, in the same way that I think (or not) about other happy constants in my life:
Mornings? Hello pink and purple sunrise.
Coffee? Hello robust explosion of caffeine.
Birthdays? Hello pretty frosted cake.
Friendship? Hello dear, loyal, smart and sassy Jackie.
The reason why she popped into my mind as a bright and shining singularity (after so many years as a trusted continuity) was a favor that I asked her. I needed her to write a character reference for an application I was submitting.
“Sure,” Jackie answered. “I’d be happy to.”
The letter she wrote, though, instead of being reassuringly traditional (“Shelly had never robbed old ladies of their rent money or cheated at Scrabble”), was charmingly original; and it induced an avalanche of delicious memories.
Years ago, Jackie worked for an industry magazine called Fire Engineering. My late husband, Charlie King, had been a fireman with Tom Brennan, its Editor-in-Chief. After both men rose up through the ranks and retired from the FDNY, Tom moved into publishing and Charlie opened a private fire and arson investigating firm. He and I got married, and I became his sidekick.
At that time, our business was thriving, and Charlie was busy, busy, busy, busy, investigating fires in New York State, Alaska, Canada, and everywhere in between. Other than investigating fires, we also wrote a lot of technical articles and books.
If was after Tom asked Charlie to write a chapter for The Fire Chief’s Handbook that I was introduced to Jackie.
She was then and still is a Super Hero with a blue pencil. For readers unfamiliar with the concept, it was once standard practice for editors to read manuscripts while clutching blue-leaded pencils in their hands, and to wield power over a helpless writer’s work by applying said pencil to said page.
The Merriam-Webster definition of blue pencil (as a transitive verb) is: To edit especially by shortening or deletion.
And in article after article that Charlie and I wrote for Fire Engineering, Jackie did exactly that. She was terrific. Without diminishing the tone or intent of our prose, she tightened overlong sentences, clarified obscure references, and made sure that we got all our attributions right.
Over the years, Jackie and I became friends. Friends, however, who had never actually met.
Then, my first book was published. At that time, Jackie knew me only as Charlie’s wife and co-author of the articles she edited for the magazine. That changed one day when we were talking about the wording in an awkward paragraph. Suddenly, my alter-ego couldn’t keep its mouth shut any longer, and I blurted out, “Tonight I’ll be in the city, doing a library talk to publicize my new book, Julian Solo.”
Jackie responded instantly, “Tell me where and when, and I’ll come.”
Nine publications and one career change later (Jackie left publishing to become a school teacher), I can report that she has been with me at publication parties or author events for every one of my books. Over the years, she has also edited, without charge, countless manuscripts before I submitted them to editors, and she has given me a sense of what it would feel like to be an NFL football team and have my very own cheerleader.
But that isn’t what I want to tell you. What I wanted to tell you about was a magical night.
I don’t recall which novel I was promoting at the time, but I do remember that my audience was lively, I’d sold a lot of books, and we’d had a good time. As we were leaving the library, Charlie, Jackie and I realized we were hungry. So instead of going home, we turned left on Third Avenue and headed for The Automat – yes. That Automat. The one from old black and white movies – on 42nd Street in Manhattan.
The date was just weeks before it closed its doors. Forever. In a last ditch attempt to attract customers, Horn & Hardart had created a nostalgic ambiance, with Art Deco murals and wonderful 1930s music. As we drank coffee and ate pie, we conjured up images of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers floating across that vast and elegant space to melodious strands of “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Cheek to Cheek.”
We were happy.
Before we left, I announced cheerfully that I wanted to visit the ladies room. By then, the automat was completely empty, except for Charlie, Jackie and me. My objective was down a distant staircase and further into the bowels of the building along a wide and vacant corridor. I stood up, threw my purse over my shoulder, and off I went, thinking only about applying a fresh coat of lipstick and “Putting on the Ritz.”
Five minutes later, I emerged from the ladies room to find … what?
My new friend, standing at the foot of the stairs, arms folded across her chest, immobile and motionless.
I squinted up at her. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
Jackie looked a bit abashed, but didn’t answer.
Then I laughed. “You came down here to protect me, didn’t you?”
She said nothing; but she blushed.
I laughed again. There I was. A healthy, hearty, licensed private detective with a gun in my purse (I had a carry permit at the time), who fearlessly went where no man had gone before, and had a history of investigating fires in dangerous neighborhoods.
Okay. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But I was hardly helpless.
And there was Jackie, a slender, feminine, indoor editor with no experience of grappling with thugs or demons, but ready to confront anything or anyone who might dare to endanger me.
Which is why, many years later, after she provided me with a very flattering “testament to my character,” what popped into my head was not relief that I had another good reference to submit with my application. But memories of articles I had written, talks I had given, and tunes I had heard on an enchanted evening in a now long defunct Automat on 42nd Street.
Jackie had written about my alleged virtues.
What I read, though, was a testament to her own.
One in which I was drawn down memory lane, accompanied by a generous, talented, and fiercely loyal friend, who had once existed for me only on the other end of a phone.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2017
Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com.