After the incident in the hallway, it took a while for Vince to find his breath. More accurately, it took a while for him to find my bottle of gin. “Tommy Lee Jones was the most notorious cop on the force,” he said finally, swirling his drink.
I couldn’t believe it. “My upstairs neighbor?”
“Dirty deals, assaults on women, you name it.” He nodded, pleased with himself, and tapped out a cigarette.
“Please don’t smoke in here.”
He rolled his eyes. “Fine. Got any Pop-Tarts?”
I had met Mr. Jones (Mr. Lee Jones?) once before. He was recently divorced and relatively quiet, and it had never occurred to me to wonder about anything else—why I occasionally caught a riff of opera drifting from his apartment, or why a grown man with a face like barbed wire would go by the name “Tommy.”
That’s before Vince started poking around—stealing pieces of mail and taking long, hard stares at the recycling bin. After a week of thorough investigation, Vince discovered that Tommy drinks Heineken and may be hiding some minor credit card debt. I wasn’t sure what Vince was hoping to find, but there was no subscription to Corrupt Cop Weekly, no discarded envelope labeled “bribe money.”
At first, I enjoyed these surprise visits from Vince. It wasn’t about me, of course, but I found myself changing into fancy, embroidered underwear in case he dropped by, considering whether my legs looked better crossed or uncrossed as I sat on the sofa, waiting for his knock. But it soon became obvious that the visits had little to nothing to do with me and everything to do with my neighbor. Vince spent most evenings flopped on the couch, flipping through old police files that he had fanned across my living room floor. I began to find balls of dirty socks in the strangest places. I stopped wondering about whether or not we were dating and began wondering about more pressing issues: Does Vince even have an apartment? Is he hiding from someone? And also: What happened to all my Pop-Tarts?
“Sorry, babe,” he said, kicking a tube sock into the magazine bin. “Blueberry’s my favorite.”
After about a week of this I traded the itchy underwear and pinching posture for the luxury of my flannel pajamas and a cooling, cucumber eye gel. I wouldn’t even say anything when he arrived, usually around 10 p.m., reeking of vermouth and olives. I’d just open the door and let him in.
“I know, it’s late,” he’d say. But he wasn’t apologizing for the time. He was referring to his cover story.
These were people I wanted to view through binoculars, to understand through news clippings; I didn’t want them stopping by to borrow a little cumin. Vince had become so obsessed with Tommy that he had all but abandoned his overdue story on a school shooter. (Which he had burned with enthusiasm about as well, and begged to have on the cover, knocking off Parker Posey’s story on fair housing.) Redford and Newman were usually good sports about Vince’s foppish indifference to deadlines, seeing in his dazzle and eccentricity reflections of their younger, less hairy selves. But they had gone red-faced on Vince two days ago, calling him a prima donna and threatening to dock his pay. Vince apologized, and apologized some more, but as far as I could tell, he still hadn’t done any work on the piece in weeks. One night, while he snored on my couch, I peeked at the school shooter file on his laptop. It was nothing but one long email correspondence, yet to be spellchecked, and a list of last week’s college football scores.
I sympathized with his writer’s block, but what I couldn’t understand was his need to spy on Tommy. If I found out I lived near the person I was profiling—the person into whose life I was going to be lobbing a grenade—I wouldn’t have been excited, I would have been horrified. Creeped out, as if the world had tilted a bit. These were people I wanted to view through binoculars, to understand through news clippings; I didn’t want them stopping by to borrow a little cumin. But Vince was the opposite. He wanted as much contact with Tommy as possible. The flimsy Sherlock Holmes act was a smokescreen, really. He wasn’t researching Tommy; he was soaking in his presence.
Finally, on the eighth day, Vince made contact. As Tommy was taking out his trash, Vince snuck out to the front steps for a cigarette. Vince, being Vince, struck up some conversation about the weather, or Tommy’s Chevy pickup.
I had only met Tommy once, briefly, so I was fairly certain he didn’t know where I worked, far less that Vince might be a writer for that same magazine, far less that the magazine was planning to sandbag him in mere months. But it made me nervous to see them talking together.
It was only later that I began to wonder what Tommy might have on me, what he had gleaned from my comings and goings, the noises and smells that peeked from under my door. The fact that he even knew my name startled me a bit. But as he was coming up the stairs, I heard him say to Vince, “So, you’re the lucky guy dating Drew?”
Back at the magazine, the staff was stumbling through the painful first experience of making videos for the website. Honestly, most of them were terrible. As soon as we turned a camera on him, Mickey Rooney blinked as if he had Tourette’s. Heath Ledger’s “Indie Rock Mixtape” resembled little more than a hostage video—every album recommendation was delivered as if there were a gun pointing at him instead of a boom mic.
The one exception was McConaughey. His videos were captivating. Even when he said nothing, I wanted to lean in and listen.
“Welcome to JK Livin’. That stands for ‘Just Keep Livin’,’“ and ‘Just Keep Livin’’ is my motto.”
See? The copy was total trash, but I couldn’t stop watching. I had never really considered McConaughey’s good looks before—they were obvious, the first thing anyone noticed, but thinking about them would have been like contemplating Vince’s height. It now seemed nearly agonizing that no one had filmed him before. It wasn’t merely that he had cute dimples, or a blinding smile; it was that he had an ease that made you feel more comfortable, too. I found myself wondering why we’re not better friends, thinking maybe we should karaoke after work sometime.
“This is my first episode,” said McConaughey, holding a frozen margarita. “I guess maybe I should call this a webisode. Is that a word, y’all? Webisode?”
You could hear Keira, on the other side of the camera. “Yes, it is!”
McConaughey took a sip of his margarita and nodded. “All right, all right, all right…”
I walked into the bosses’ office and cracked. “Let’s call Lindsay,” I said, “and tell her this is her big break.” Vince hadn’t done his video; he was on lockdown until he finished the school shooter story. A part of me felt bad for Vince—I remembered the fear and loathing of an unfinished Word document. That’s why I left reporting in the first place. But I was also beyond annoyed with him, watching the rest of the staff scramble to accommodate his screwups. Newman and Redford hadn’t merely concocted backup plans for the December issue; they’d concocted backups to the backups, the most likely of which involved giving Parker the cover and slotting in a not-at-all-terrible story on the spread of STDs, written by Lindsay Lohan, who was turning out to be less of a stupid hoochie than I feared.
Desperate to know how his story was progressing, and completely unconvinced by Vince’s salesman assurance that it was “just about done, maybe in a day or so,” the bosses asked me to start spying on him—not knowing that I was already spying on him while he, in turn, was spying on my neighbor—and so I had to invent reasons for knowing the information I did, as well as inventing stories that gently buffered him from their wrath without betraying their confidence in any way. I’m telling you: November had a lot of levels.
Three days before the issue closed, I walked into the bosses’ office and cracked. “Let’s call Lindsay,” I said, “and tell her this is her big break.”
Newman and Redford summoned Vince to their office, and, of course, they received several silky assurances that his story was nearly finished. It wasn’t until Newman demanded a draft—or at the very least, a lede—that Vince broke down. Finally.
“I really was planning to write it tonight,” he said.
Redford seemed ready to plant a fist in Vince’s face. Instead, he lifted a wall calendar, revealed a portion of drywall already buckled, and hit it again.
Bad as the scene was, at least the charade was over. Vince explained that he had become obsessed with his upcoming story on Tommy, though he called him Thomas, like all the police reports. He talked about how he couldn’t concentrate on anything else, far less a cover story on little Haley Joel Osment from Kentucky. And he explained how “just last night, while returning a book to Drew I had borrowed from her once”—a lie that spoke of a little unnecessary detail for my taste, but whatever—he discovered that Thomas Lee Jones lived in my apartment building. His fever had now consumed him.
“So let me get this straight.” Newman ran a squeaking finger around the rim of his teacup. “You want us to kill your school shooter cover. You want us to let you hurl yourself into this new investigation. You want us to replace your piece, the piece you begged us to run, with a first draft about VD written by a 20-year-old intern. And you expect us to just say, ‘Yeah, sure, no problem—nice work Ace?’”
Vince nodded. It occurred to me that he did not think it so much to ask. At that moment, I realized I was done with Vince Vaughan. I was done with the late-night drunken visits and the mysterious phone calls to God-knows-who. Honestly: What had I been thinking?
I was deep inside this loop of empowerment when Newman finally spoke. “Fine. We’ll let you write the story on one condition: Drew writes it with you.”