One morning in October, I woke up in my tiny Lincoln Park apartment at seven a.m., just like I always did. I got ready, ate a dry waffle, put on four layers of clothes, and walked to the L station at Fullerton and boarded the train at approximately eight fifteen, just like I always did. Nothing about that morning stood out, but it was a game-changer day—I just didn’t know it yet. I walked through three train cars before I found him. I took a seat behind two of my fellow parishioners and prepared to take in the mass. This was our church every morning, and our pastor was Just Bob, or at least that’s who he was to me. The first time I met him, I asked him his name and he said, “Bob.” I waited for him to continue and then he said, “Just Bob,” so that’s what I called him.
Warning alarms of self-preservation should have gone off in my twenty-six-year-old head when a man named Just Bob began preaching on an elevated train full of innocent people seven months ago, but those warnings never occurred to me because the first time I had heard him speak, I was immediately hooked. He never brought up the Bible or religion or fire and brimstone—nothing like that. The first thing he had said that day was, “You’re all you’ve got!”
He was an old, tired-looking man, probably seventy years old, at least. There were five gray hairs sprouting out of his round, bald head, and he wore the same Dockers and Pendleton every single day. His clothes were clean, or at least they looked clean, but he still had a very distinct odor. He smelled of old books, like the far-back recesses of the oldest library on earth. I imagined that he lived in a dinky apartment that was stacked ceiling-high with old hardbacks. He could barely stand, let alone walk, so it was a small miracle that he made it to that train like clockwork every day just to speak to his loyal followers. There were maybe ten of us. I didn’t know the others at all—we kept to ourselves—but the faces had become easily recognizable to me over the last seven months.
Chicago has its share of totally insane people who like to get on the L and speak loudly to no one in particular. I’ve ridden that train my whole life, but Just Bob was different. He had a message to deliver, a message that I needed to hear. Every day was a different topic. Sometimes he would channel Suze Orman and talk personal finance; other days he would talk about pesticides and preservatives in food and how he thought they were making everyone taller. That day, I’m pretty sure he was channeling Gandhi with a thick Chicago accent. He was talking about being the change you want to see. He said, “Visualize to realize, that is what I’m telling you today, good folks. You must see it before it happens. You must be your own oracle. Visualize to realize the dream!”
As we approached my stop, I stood up and headed toward the door. Just Bob often sat at the front near the exit while he gave his sermon. As I passed, he stood on shaky legs and put his hand on my shoulder. This was very unusual. “Kate,” he said—I didn’t even know he knew my name—“It’s a game-changer day for you. Visualize to realize it.” And then, like he always said at the end of his speeches, “And remember . . .” Just Bob arched his eyebrows, waiting for me to finish the line.
“I’m all I’ve got,” I said.
It was kind of creepy, in retrospect, but it was exactly what I needed at the time. He let go of my shoulder, and I exited the train at State Street into the icy cold Chicago wind, with the weirdest feeling that my life would never be the same.
It’s not like a little change would hurt. After my first chance meeting with Just Bob, I began searching for him every morning on the Brown Line, even though that route made me late for work. It started exactly one week after Rose died, when I first felt truly and completely alone. Rose was my mother’s childhood friend and had raised me after my mom passed away from breast cancer when I was eight. My mother had me at the age of forty, after spending most of her life thinking it was impossible to become pregnant—until she met my father. Too bad he didn’t stick around. I never even met him.
My mother was a wonderful person. She thought of me as a miracle, so she doted on me and tried to give me everything I needed. At the same time, she taught me to be an independent thinker. She was the type of person who always looked put-together until she got sick, yet I remember her telling me, You’re a beautiful girl, Kate, but don’t ever rely on your looks. She would tap her index finger on my temple and say, It’s what you do with this that matters.
I remember she was affectionate but tough, like she was preparing me for the challenges of life. I always had the sense that she wouldn’t be around for very long, and she wasn’t, but at least I had Rose . . . until I didn’t. She died from an infection after having textbook surgery to remove a gallstone. I didn’t understand what kind of God would take away every person who cared about me. Then I realized, There’s no one to take care of me, no matter how many people surround me. I’m all I’ve got. Those words became my mantra.
I chanted those words as I entered the lobby of the Chicago Crier, a well-known Chicago newspaper and blog, and my workplace for the last five years. I had been writing articles for the special interest section on topics like the dangers of trans fats, yoga vs. Pilates, the merits of red lipstick, and where to find inexpensive, quality wine. I was never given a serious assignment. Jerry, the editor, loved me, but from the time of Rose’s death I had been producing subpar articles with zero enthusiasm. I had no expectation of moving up at the paper because my energy for life had withered, and frankly, I didn’t deserve it. But somehow, when I walked through the doors that day, I had a new vision. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it was an image of me at a computer, writing with fervor and passion—something I hadn’t done in eight long months.
When I reached my floor, I found Beth standing near my cubicle. She was a tall, mousy-haired, intimidating-looking woman, but she had a huge heart and a true talent for writing. She dressed like a teenage boy in basketball shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers every freakin’ day, but it didn’t matter because she was the head writer at the paper and damn well deserved it. She got all of the biggest assignments because she put her heart and soul into every single word she wrote. I admired her.
“Hi Beth, how was your weekend?”
“Great. I knocked out ten thousand words.”
Of course she did. Why couldn’t I be more like that?
“What’s this?” I pointed toward a stack of papers on my desk. The cover sheet was blank except for the bold words: R. J. LAWSON.
“Jerry is giving you that story,” she said. I had no idea what it meant at first, but then I remembered hearing Jerry rant about R. J. Lawson. Jerry was obsessed with getting a story on him. I personally didn’t know anything about him.
“Me? Why in the world would he give this to me?”
Beth just smiled her knowing smile. “I don’t know, but he’s gonna be over in a sec to talk to you about it. Boy, I wanted that story, Kate. No one has been able to get an interview with him since he disappeared from public life. I’m glad you got it, though—you need it.”
I stared at her for several moments and then I mumbled, “Yeah, I know . . . might be a game changer.”
Smiling, she said, “You got it, sister.” Then she did a jump shot with a balled-up piece of paper, lofting it perfectly into the wastebasket behind me. “Swoosh, nothin’ but net.”
When she turned and walked away, I stared down at the neatly stacked papers and laughed to myself, thinking Jerry had truly lost his mind giving me a real assignment. I looked up to find him peering over the partition.
“You like? It’s an exclusive,” he said, arching his eyebrows.
“Kate, what do you know about that guy?”
“Nothing except that you’ve been hounding his people for a story, and I can tell you that Beth would have easily sacrificed a limb for this assignment.”
He nodded slowly and then looked up at the ceiling as if he was thinking. The large warehouse-like room was separated by about a hundred cubicle partitions. The huge space rattled and hummed with the sound of writers chatting and typing frantically at their computers. Jerry pumped different kinds of music through the overhead speakers, creating a cocoon of creativity, but I hadn’t felt creative in a long time, and it was nobody’s fault but my own. At that moment, a sad version of the song “Heartbeats” by José González was traveling through the airwaves. I watched Jerry as he continued to look up pensively.
He was forty years old and he looked exactly like Richard Dreyfuss circa Close Encounters. He wore his bifocals on the very last millimeter of his nose, which aged him, but he thought it gave him a look of credibility. He was in love with his wife and kids, a true family man, but he had no filter at all, so it didn’t surprise me one bit when he finally looked back down and said, “You’re a good writer, Kate. You have what it takes, and you have a nice ass, too.”
“Jerry! What does that have to do with anything? I don’t want you to give me a huge assignment because I have a nice ass.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s not what I meant. I said you have what it takes. R.J. is a thirty-year-old bachelor. Looking the way you do can’t hurt.”
“Well gee, thank you,” I said sarcastically.
“You don’t want it?” He reached for the stack.
“No. I want it. I just can’t believe . . .”
“It was a compliment, Kate.”
“Okay, fine.” He didn’t mean any harm by it. Like I said, no filter. He was the most loyal man in the world, and he wasn’t trying to objectify me. I think he thought that with R.J.’s history of turning down interviews—the only thing I did know about him, based on what Beth had told me—Beth’s aggressive approach to getting a story wouldn’t be a good fit.
“I would love this opportunity, Jerry, thank you. Honestly though, I’m curious. Why in the world did he agree to give us an interview—and an exclusive one, at that? We’re not exactly a nationally recognized newspaper.”
“I just bugged the hell out of him,” he said triumphantly. “I kept on sending requests until he finally replied. He said he was impressed by my persistence, and he felt our paper had more integrity than others. He most likely checked us out. He seems eager to spread the word about the winery’s sustainability and their environmentally friendly practices, which sound pretty cutting-edge. The only thing is that his e-mail stressed how extremely private he is and how he would prefer the article to focus on the wine, not his personal life. But, Kate, a story like this could really launch the Crier into a whole new league, especially if you can get the dirt our readers want. That means finding out everything there is to know about R. J. Lawson.”
I swiveled my chair out from my desk, crossed my legs, and leaned back. I was intrigued. “Tell me what you know about him.”
“Hold on to your seat, this guy is truly a conundrum. In 1998, Ryan Lawson was a young MIT graduate, computer engineering prodigy, and cofounder of the largest technology company in Silicon Valley. He had the potential to be Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak rolled into one—a savvy business mind and a technological genius.”
“Yeah, he invented some computer server that’s used in almost all government agencies, banks, and large corporations. It’s impossible to hack.”
“So you expect me to interview a tech mogul when I’ve been writing articles on lipstick and wine?”
“That’s the thing, Kate. In 1999, he sold his share of J-Com technologies and fell off the radar. No one knew where he went or what he was doing with his three billion dollars. Rumors surfaced that he took the money to Africa and was building schools all across the continent with his own hands, but that was never confirmed.”
“So how did you know where to find him . . . and what is he doing now?”
“I started hearing about him three years ago when it was leaked to a California newspaper that he had purchased a nine-hundred-acre ailing winery and outdated bed-and-breakfast in Napa Valley. He managed to keep things quiet until this year, when his wine started winning every award known to man.”
The pieces were coming together slowly. “R. J. Lawson,” I said. “Yes, that Pinot is fantastic!”
“Right? It’s like everything this guy touches turns to gold.”
“Why in the world would Beth want to interview a winemaker?”
“Because he’s refused to grant interviews and hasn’t been photographed in more than a decade. Imagine if Bill Gates or Steve Jobs had disappeared at the peak of their powers. It’s a huge story.”
“I still can’t believe you’re giving this to me.”
“Well, I’m not gonna lie, Kate. You’ve been producing crap lately. Did I hear that you submitted a proposal to write a feature article on the myth that fruit gum gives you fresh breath?”
“It’s true, though. Fruity gum does not give you fresh breath. It gives you disgusting breath, and people need to know. Come on, that’s what special interest is.”
“Key word being interest. Our readers don’t care about the worthlessness of fruity gum. They want interesting stories—stories that will make them feel. Even if you’re writing a story about wine, you need to touch readers’ hearts. There has to be an element of humanity in every piece you write.”
“No, I know what you’re saying. I just haven’t been motivated since . . . Rose died.”
He looked sympathetic for a millisecond. I got the feeling that excuse was wearing thin. “You’d have to leave for California tomorrow. He’s agreed to do the interview in two parts. Tuesday and Thursday are the only days he has available, so you’ll stay at the B&B there. It will be peaceful, and you can probably knock out half the article while you’re there. Go home and talk to your boyfriend about it and let me know.”
He won’t care. He couldn’t give a shit.
“I’m in, Jerry. I don’t need to talk to Stephen about it. How long will I be out there?”
He paused with that profound look in his eyes again, and then in a low voice he said, “You’ve lost your spark, Kate. Don’t come home until you find it. Bring back a great story.”