stop looking.

I’d been at Columbia a year by then, working in the writing program office less for the salary it paid than because as an employee of the university I got to take classes for free. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself and taking courses seemed as good a way to find out as any. My first thought was that my years as an investigator would set me up well for a career in investigative journalism, but the journalism school didn’t accept me and I somehow ended up drifting into the writing program, which felt a little like flunking medical school and ending up a mortician. Since I was a decade past college age, the courses I took were in the euphemistically named “School of General Studies,” the division Columbia reserves for middle-managers taking economics classes at night and empty-nesters looking to fill their afternoons with something more satisfying than Oprah. But some of the students in GS weren’t that far removed from their college years—they’d dropped out of college a few credits shy of graduating and after bumming around for a year or two were now ready to finish up. Dorrie was in this category. And in a room where the average age was pushing forty, she stood out even more starkly.

“Ms. Burke, I presume,” Stu Kennedy said, leaning across the seminar table on his bony forearms. His hands trembled, a combination of early-stage Parkinson’s and late-stage alcoholism. He could no longer type, he’d told me over a drink at the West End, and had started dictating his novels into a tape recorder.

Dorrie swept her hair out of her face, nodded.

“Then we are all here and can begin.” He leaned back in his chair, tented his fingers. “The name of the course is ‘Creative Nonfiction.’ What does this mean? It means telling the truth through judicious lying.” His voice was tremulous but very deliberate, like a Royal Shakespeare Company actor gone to seed. “And why are we here? I am here because the university sees fit to pay me a meager stipend on account of some generous reviews my books received round about the time you lot were being conceived. You, on the other hand, are here for a greater purpose: to become better writers. To help each other become better writers.” He turned to the man next to me, a muscular downtown type in a knit cap and two t-shirts, one worn over the other. Stubble on his chin, crude tattoos up and down his forearms in dark blue ink. “What do you wish to get out of this class, Mr. Wessels?”

I remembered the guy’s essay on his application. He was our ex-con, Kurland Wessels; he’d served three years for armed robbery and aggravated assault before his sentence was vacated and he was released. Second chances, all of us.

“I want to finish my book,” he said, in a tense voice that still carried, I thought, the echoes of cell doors clanging shut.

“And you,” Professor Kennedy said, turning to face Dorrie, “Ms. Burke: what do you hope to gain?”

She shrugged, looked around the room uncomfortably.

“Let me tell you what you can gain from one another. Stories.” He coughed wetly, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Young writers—and you’re not all so young, but you are all young writers—love nothing more than to write about themselves. That won’t do. You need to broaden your palette. Each of you needs fresh material, and as it happens each of you has fresh material to give. Your life is intensely familiar to you, but to someone else? It’s an unfamiliar, untold story. So. I want you to pair up and learn each other’s stories, and then tell them. That is your assignment. Do it credit.” He looked down at the class roster on the table and began rattling off pairings in no apparent order, marking each name with a penciled ‘X’ in the margin as he went. “Ms. Waithaka, Ms. Gross. Ms. Fenner, Mr. Reynolds. Mr. Wessels, Mr. Breen.” And so on, through eight pairs until at last I was the only one left on my side of the table and Dorrie Burke was the only one left on hers. “Mr. Blake, Ms. Burke.” The professor slapped his palm down on the table. “That is all.”

Some nights later, when we were in our back booth at the West End, sipping our drinks as the clock crawled toward closing time, I asked him about his method and he smiled at me. “Ah, John, John. Who else was I going to give her to? Kurland? That would be like giving a steak to a Doberman. No, you, my friend, will treat her kindly; and perhaps, if we are fortunate, she will do the same to you.”

We sat down over dinner at Restaurant Dan, a 24-hour tempura shop on Broadway and 69th. She was as shy with me as she had been in the classroom and to fill the silences I found myself throwing questions at her as if I’d never left my old job. Where was she born? Philadelphia. How old was she? Twenty-three. Parents? Divorced. The answers came a syllable at a time, at first. But I persisted, gently, and bit by bit she started to open up. Any brothers or sisters? One sister, but she’d died when Dorrie was three. How had she died? Some sort of leukemia, apparently; Dorrie’s mother had never been willing to talk much about it. But her mother had somehow blamed her father for it, and that was when their marriage had started to come apart.

Where’d she gone to school? A semester at Moore College of Art and Design back home followed by two years at Hunter College in New York. Why had she come to New York? She’d wanted to work in fashion; fashion was in New York. Ergo. Did she still want to work in fashion? She blushed before answering this one, looked down at her plate and picked the batter off a fat slice of carrot with the point of her chopstick.

“You know what the closest I’ve come to working in fashion is? In five years?”

“What?” I said.

She shook her head and the slender smile that had crept onto her face faded. “It was at FAO Schwarz,” she said. “The toy store on Fifth Avenue? I worked as their fairy princess, greeting people as they came in. The costume—it was a Bob Mackie original, they hired Bob Mackie to design it for them. A gown and satin shoes and a tiara, and a wand; I even had a wand. Little girls would come in and they’d see me there and their little faces would light up, and sometimes they’d be scared to come near me. It was like I was the most beautiful thing they’d ever seen.” When she looked up, I saw that there was a film of tears in her eyes. “And then three o’clock would come and I’d take it off and change back into my jeans and walk out through the store, and on the way out I’d pass the afternoon princess wearing it and all the little girls would be looking at her like she was the most beautiful thing they’d ever seen.”

She dabbed at her eyes with a paper napkin, balled it up and tossed it on her plate.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“What for? Because I didn’t magically rise to the top of the fashion world on luck and looks alone? I never won the lottery either. Want to apologize for that?”

“No,” I said.

She shook her head. “Sorry.” And after the silence between us had stretched on for a bit she said, “I just don’t like talking about myself, I guess.”

“That’s going to make this assignment hard.”

“Well, half of it, anyway,” she said, and for the second time that evening she smiled. “So what did you do before you ended up working at Columbia? Let me guess. You were a talk radio host.”




“A priest?” We both smiled at this, and she leaned forward, closer to me. “You’re a good listener, John.”

“Want to guess some more?” I said.

“No,” she said. “I give up.”

“Well,” I said, “I was a detective. A private detective. It’s a good job if you want to learn how to listen to people.”

“A detective.”

“That’s right.”

“That sounds exciting.”

“It wasn’t very. A lot of time spent on the computer.”

“And listening to people.”


“Did you help a lot of people?”

“Some.” Now I was the one doling out the one-word answers.

“Why’d you stop being a detective?” she said.

“Why’d you stop being a fairy princess?”

“I asked you first.”

I thought about it for a while. Finally I said, “A woman I’d loved died because of me, and another almost died. I couldn’t do it anymore.”

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