was watching her again.
Renee Altman was in a Century City mall store, fingering the
rim of a champagne goblet, when she had the familiar, prickly
sensation. Lifting the goblet, she turned and pretended to examine
the facets so that she could see who was staring at her.
No one. Just nerves.
At the register she waited while the clerk, who seemed to take
forever, rang up her purchase. Then she made her way out of
the store and strode in the crisp, late morning air toward the
escalator. The salty smell of freshly popped corn wafted towards
her from a snack cart up ahead, and she was tempted to stop
for a bag when she felt eyes on her again.
Fear fluttered in her stomach, and now she was angry. She whirled
around—what the hell did he?—and almost stepped on a small leashed
dog leading a heavy-set, middle-aged couple whose eyes widened
The dog yelped. The man and woman scowled at Renée.
Her face was hot with embarrassment. "I'm so sorry."
Forcing herself to smile, she searched out of the corners of
her eyes but saw no one looking at her. Either she'd imagined
the whole thing, or whoever was following her had ducked into
a shop or been swallowed by the throng of mall visitors strolling
past her, mostly in pairs; talking, laughing, swinging their
shopping bags with a carefree motion that filled her with envy.
The woman had stopped scowling. She cocked her head and was
squinting at Renee.
ought to be more careful," the man grumbled. "You could have—"
Dr. Renee!" the woman squealed. Beaming, she poked her companion's
arm with a long, sculpted red fingernail that could have drawn
blood. "George, this is Dr. Renee Altman!" Back to Renee: "I
almost didn't recognize you—your hair is blonder than it looks
in pictures. You're prettier, too, and younger," she continued
without taking a breath. "I listen to your show every day. It's
just wonderful. I can't believe. . . ."
On and on and on until Renee thought she would scream. Still
scanning the crowd, she only half listened as the woman piled
compliment upon compliment—"so insightful. . . really change
a person's whole life. . . moral courage so lacking these days."
She noticed that the woman had stopped talking and was waiting
for a response. "That's very nice of you to say," Renee murmured,
hoping her comment would satisfy, and saw the woman's full face
dimple with pleasure.
it's all true! I talk about you all the time. Don't I, George?"
from George, who seemed unimpressed with Renee's celebrity.
So did the dog. He was tugging on his beaded leash and yipping,
his tail furiously fanning the air.
friends are going to die when I tell them I met you!" The woman
dug into a large, ugly, black-and-orange patent tote and fished
out a notepad and squiggly-shaped pen. "Would it be a terrible
imposition. . . ." She smiled shyly.
be happy to," Renee said, relieved that the woman hadn't asked
for advice. I have a problem, Dr. Renee. . .
it ‘To Irma,'" the woman instructed, shy no more. She thrust
pen and pad at Renee. "That's with an i, not like Bombeck. It's
so sad she died. Now she was bright, and funny. . ."
1. It was a quarter to twelve when Renee arrived at KMST's studio
on Sunset, east of Cahuenga. She inserted her ID card into a
slot above a call box, silently urging the electronic black
iron gate to slide open faster; moments later, her white Lexus
parked on the lot, she hurried toward the two-story, gray stucco
building, where she inserted her card into another slot and
gained entry into the lobby.
She exchanged quick hellos with Roland, the Don-Knotts skinny
guard sitting behind the tall reception module. He nodded when
she showed him her ID, a formality she'd sometimes found silly
but now welcomed, and though she knew the security was ample,
she wished Roland were taller and looked more formidable.
In the recording booth Ted Harkham, who hosted the nine AM to
noon segment, had stretched out his shoeless feet, ankles crossed,
on the hexagonal wood-tone table and was eating a tuna sandwich
while the station ran a pre-taped fifteen-minute news capsule.
Harkham was short and overweight and practically bald, but this
was radio, not television, and he had a great voice and a quick
wit, and energy that crackled through the air waves.
He greeted her arrival with an exaggerated sigh. "And here I
was hoping I'd finally get to cover for you. I just lost a dollar
to Alicia—she said you'd make it on time." Shoving the rest
of the sandwich into his mouth, he swung his legs off the table
and stood, brushing crumbs off his shirt and slacks.
She smiled with a warmth she didn't feel. "Thanks, anyway. Sorry
about the dollar." By Ted's standards she was early. He generally
breezed into the recording booth at five to nine—once in a while,
a minute or so after—but she liked to arrive at least forty
minutes before her show.
corrupt you yet." He winked and cleared the table, sweeping
newspapers and index cards into an overstuffed, worn brown briefcase,
then slipped his feet into his loafers and picked up a Nestlé
you tomorrow," she said, wishing him gone.
the talk." Grabbing the briefcase in one hand, he saluted her
with the chocolate bar and left. The room still smelled of tuna.
She sat down and was relaxing against the faint indentations
Ted had molded into the chair when the door opened and Alicia,
the thirty-two-year-old producer who screened the show's callers,
entered. She was tall and large-framed and sometimes complained
about her size, but Renee thought she moved with a cat-like
grace. Her eyes were cat-like too, amber agates in almond-shaped
seas of white made whiter by the deep mahogany of her skin.
Wavy dark brown hair, brushed into a sleek knot, rippled against
it close," Alicia remarked, sounding relieved and surprised.
Her eyes flicked over the shopping bag at the side of Renee's
complain. I heard you made a buck." She flashed a quick smile.
"I stopped in Century City and lost track of time. Sorry I worried
was worried. I called your house, but Blanca said you left over
an hour and a half ago. Pollin's been asking, where are you."
She placed a hand on a shapely hip. "Why didn't you use your
car phone, girl?"
She was speaking in the soft South Central L.A. cadence she
sometimes used, playfully, with Renee, the cadence she'd worked
hard to erase. Her professional voice was low and throaty ("I
could've been a top 900 phone girl," she often said, laughing),
and perfectly "white." She'd told Renee when they first met
that she loved the stares of people trying to pretend they weren't
shocked to see she was black.
wasn't thinking. I should have called," Renee said, piqued by
the screener's persistence. "How's Trey?" she asked, referring
to Alicia's seven-year-old son.
better, so I got to sleep some last night, but not enough."
She yawned as if to prove her point. "I hope Brynn and Tyler
don't get it."
Renee nodded. "Tell Pollin I'm here?"
already did." She placed a sheaf of papers on Renee's desk.
Newspaper clippings and faxes from Renee's listeners. Renee
liked to scan them every day for interesting material or comments
to share with her radio audience, but with eight minutes left
until air time, she'd be able to skim only one or two. On top
of the faxes was a printout with last quarter's Arbitron ratings.
seven percent?" Frowning, Renee kicked off her flats and flexed
pick up," Alicia said too brightly. "There's a piece from the
Sun-Sentinel on deadbeat dads you may want to use."
Ordinarily, they would have talked about this—Alicia's ex-husband
had left her stranded two years ago with three young children
and no support. But today Renee nodded absentmindedly. Point
seven percent share of the Los Angeles audience. With ninety-nine
radio stations in the greater L.A. area vying for listeners,
two percent was considered good. Anything less than one percent
was worrisome, even for a small station like KMST. Point seven
percent wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the program director,
who had called Renee in three months ago to discuss her slipping
have to be a little tougher," Max Pollin had advised, again,
in a tone just short of a warning. "Use a little more humor.
And a little more warmth when you greet the callers."
Be tough. Be funny. Be warm. What he hadn't repeated, but had
clearly meant, was: Be like KFI's Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the
number one talk show host who was besting Rush Limbaugh. Well,
she wasn't Dr. Laura. She'd never promised she would be. She'd
argued strongly six months ago against being switched from the
nine-to-twelve slot to the twelve-to-three that Dr. Laura dominated.
(Had Ted engineered that? she wondered again.) Argued for more
than one reason. Now the ratings were down, and it didn't matter
what she'd said. The buck stopped with her. She crumpled the
printout and tossed it into the trash can at her feet. Alicia
was looking at her thoughtfully.
else?" Renee asked more brusquely than she'd intended.
okay? Aside from the ratings, I mean."
fine." She smiled but knew she wasn't fooling Alicia, who had
been her producer ever since Renee had started at the station
three years ago, and was expert at culling the interesting callers
from the seriously disturbed and the boring and the ones who
wanted to rant at Renee.
Alicia returned to the screener's booth. Renee put on her headset.
From the shopping bag, she pulled out a small pewter frame (buying
it had seemed so important this morning) and slipped in the
photo of her blond, six-year-old daughter, Molly. Her chest
tightened as she gazed at the smiling face. She positioned the
frame on her desk, then started to skim the first article but
found it hard to concentrate. She glanced again at the photo,
then sat, staring into space.
minutes, Renee." Alicia waved through the Plexiglas window.
Renee waved back, startled to learn that five minutes had slipped
by. Focus, she told herself sharply. She thumbed quickly through
the papers and pulled a promising story, highlighting in yellow
the sections she liked.
seconds, Renee," the sound engineer's voice squawked through
the headset. "I'm ready."
Looking up, she saw Max Pollin standing behind Alicia. Their
eyes made contact; the program director smiled and gave Renee
a thumbs up. Jerk, she thought, returning the gesture.
Pollin disappeared from view.
music. Ten. . .eight, seven. . . . And you're on."
Renee squared her shoulders. "Welcome to Talking With Dr. Renee.
This is KMST, AM 612. I'm Dr. Renee Altman, and I'll be here
with you today, and every weekday, from twelve to three. The
toll-free number is one eight hundred. . . ."
She spoke about teenage pregnancies, read aloud from an article
on the subject that had appeared in the New Yorker. Then she
scanned the small computer screen in front of her which displayed
the data Alicia had entered: Name, age, and location of the
caller; the line the caller was on (there were six lines altogether);
a brief description of the nature of the call.
Line three was Cynthia from Westminster, forty-nine, daughter
sleeping with a fiancé. A good call to start the day.
welcome to the show." Renee pressed line three. Lots of warmth
there, if Pollin was listening. "Dr. Renee?" The voice was thin,
quavering. "I can't believe I'm really talking to you. I listen
to your show all the time."
A typical caller's reaction—after three years, Renee still found
it gratifying. "What's on your mind, Cynthia?" she asked cheerfully.
I'm a little nervous." The woman laughed with embarrassment.
"Our daughter and her fiancé are planning to spend Thanksgiving
weekend with us, and she wants him to stay with her in her room.
My husband and I aren't comfortable with that."
Cynthia, if you're a regular listener, you know I don't approve
of unmarried sex. So for me this is a no-brainer. As for your
position—it's your house, your rules."
what my husband says. The thing is, our daughter moved out of
state two years ago because we weren't getting along, and this
is the first time she's coming home. And she's stayed with her
fiancé at his parents', so it's kind of hard for me to argue
this. They are engaged."
tomorrow they could get unengaged. Don't let his parents' weakness
pressure you, Cynthia, and don't sacrifice your principles to
fix a relationship with your daughter. It won't work."
says she won't come home unless they can stay together in her
room, Dr. Renee. She's very stubborn."
you want to encourage that behavior? It's emotional blackmail,
Cynthia. Tell your baby girl you love her, you'll be disappointed
if she won't come, and you hope she'll reconsider so you can
all share a wonderful weekend. But don't sigh and don't cry,
Cynthia. And don't let her smell your fear."
The woman sighed. "You're probably right. It's just hard to
say no, ‘cause we really want to have a relationship with her.
So you don't think we should compromise at all?"
I've said five times what I think. Am I talking to myself?"
How's that for tough? she thought, wondering again if Pollin
was listening. "So figure out what you want, Cynthia," she said
in a kinder voice, "and then you'll know what to tell your daughter.
Renee scanned the computer screen and pressed another line.
Gerald, forty-two, calling from his cell phone about a spoiled
son. "Hi, Gerald. Welcome to the program. . . ."
Three hours later she was drained of energy and advice. After
signing off, she phoned home and talked with Molly, whom the
housekeeper had picked up from school. She debated going to
Pollin's office to discuss today's show, which she thought had
gone extremely well.
Better not. No point showing him she was anxious.
collected the faxes that had come in during the show, said her
good-byes, and left the building, her temples throbbing from
another tension headache. Inside her car, she was grateful for
the quiet and the delicious solitude and the tactile comfort
of the butter-soft tan leather that sighed under her. She started
the engine, then switched on the radio to drown out her thoughts.
Traffic was light, and she was home in half an hour. Unlocking
the door, she heard Molly's "Mommy!" before she saw the six
year old bound into the hallway, her blond curls flying. The
housekeeper was right behind her, padding quietly across the
marble floor, a feather duster in her hand.
sweetheart." Renee swooped Molly up and hugged her tightly.
She smiled at the housekeeper. "Hi, Blanca. Everything's okay?"
bien, Mrs. Renee. Molly is excited for you to come home," the
short, heavy-set woman said in a lilting Hispanic accent. "Every
minute she is running to the door to see if you are here. Is
that not right, chiquita?" A broad smile lit her round, freckled
face and revealed a gap between her small, uneven top front
you happy to see Mommy?" Renee nuzzled Molly's neck, which was
slightly sour with perspiration. "How was school?"
got a present! Come see!" The little girl squirmed in Renee's
arms, all elbows and knees. Renee put her down and followed
her into the kitchen. An oblong box wrapped in glossy white
paper and topped with a white bow was sitting on the granite
ledge that separated the kitchen from the breakfast room.
No outer wrapping, so someone must have dropped it off. She'd
is it from, Mommy?"
find out." Molly's excitement was infectious. Grinning at her
daughter, Renee tore at the wrapping, exposing a plain white
box. Inside were two crystal goblets, one with a snapped stem.
. . . goblets identical to the one she'd been admiring this
morning. Nestled in the bowl of the damaged goblet was a small
HOPE YOU'RE HAPPY, DR. RENEE. . .