Islands of Thieves

Posted: March 16, 2018 in Prose
Tags: ,

Okay, my prolific poet/novelist friend, Jenny, makes me ashamed that I never finished my novel about newspapering and searching for answers in the Far East. So, I am going try to kick this thing into gear again. Below is my first chapter. tell me what you think.

No matter what happens, newspapers will always break your fucking heart –
                                                Paul Sann, former executive editor, New York Post

CHAPTER ONE

“I quit!” Jacob Riley shouted as he stormed into his editor’s office. Hank Christian was hunched over a cup of black coffee and an illicit cigarette, reading the competing morning paper. He made no motion to acknowledge Jake’s presence.

“Goddammit, I said I quit!”

“You know what I’d like?”  Christian asked, still not turning to Jake or taking his attention from the paper. “I’d like an office with a door. A real office where people would have to knock first, with maybe a window so I could look up and see who’s coming at me before they barge in and disturb my morning. That’s what I’d like.”

Jake took three steps to the far corner of Christian’s cubicle and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot, which always seemed half full. He sat at the edge of the small table.

“I mean it, Hank. This business is just too depressing.” He took a sip of Christian’s special blend of Cafe Noisette and Colombian Supremo and launched into the morning’s diatribe.

“Shit, I can deal with the murder of the month, child molesters, mother rapists, random and not-so-random drive-by shootings, disasters and diseases, scandals and scams, fires, floods, and famine. But I can’t watch newspapers die,” he said.

“You alliterate too much,” Christian mumbled, slashing at a column in the paper in front of him with a red felt tip pen.

Jake didn’t listen to him; he was on a roll.

“I can’t stand this kind of slow, painful death,” he said. “I can’t stand fucking story quotas, bullshit editors paying more attention to bullshit readership surveys than what’s news and what’s fluff. Man, they’re taking all the fun out of newspapers!”

Jake took another sip of coffee and, without looking to see if Christian was paying any attention, continued. “And now, damn it, the suits are downsizing Metro. Cut three FTE’s, they say. Full-time Employees, shit, they can’t even call them people. Did you see the memo, Hank? It’s hitting everyone — slash manpower by 25 percent, consolidate beats, bonuses for early retirement.

“Downsizing, shit!” he yelled. “They’re gutting the goddamn paper!”

Christian looked up from his paper and turned to Riley. “You kiss your mother with that mouth, son?”

The stocky metro editor was only seven years older, but the father-son relationship fit. Jacob Riley, a short, wiry redheaded Yankee from New York had never grown up. At 44, in faded blue jeans, a blue chambray work shirt, and a wide, wild, flower print tie, he easily passed for someone in his early 30s.  Hank Christian, conversely, had grown old fast in a business that had more than its share of alcoholics, failed marriages, ulcers and hair loss — all problems Christian embraced as small price to pay for the privilege of being a newspaperman. A native of the South, he was a paunchy newspaper gypsy in brown corduroy baggy pants, blue shirt, striped tie and a brown cardigan sweater.

“Calm down, Jake,” Christian said. “You’re not involved in this. Your job’s safe.”

“Sure it is,” Jake said. “It just means getting more shit assignments the cubs should be doing. After 18 years you’d think I’d seen the last of obits.”

“You can do it in your sleep,” Christian said, still giving more attention to the newspaper in hand than the cranky writer. “What’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is the better you are around here the more you have to do because of the incompetent deadwood we’re getting from the J-schools. Goddammit, Hank, they force out the veterans and then hire some J-school pukes who couldn’t find a lead if it was biting them in the ass — and at half the salary. Everything’s bottom-line, nobody gives a good goddamn about news anymore.”

“That’s why we hold on to people like you,” Christian said.

“Yeah, bleed me dry until they find some reason to can me so they can divide my salary between two J-school kids.” Jake, who had started working on weeklies when still in high school and majored in history in college, made slashing motions with his hands, holding an invisible knife that cut his wrists. He held his arms out in a Christ-like pose and looked down at his right wrist as if he was watching the blood drip to the floor.

“They’re killing me! J-School pukes! Damn it, Hank, Evans has been here two years and still can’t write a simple city council story.”

“That’s why he’s on the cultural affairs beat,” Christian said.

“You mean the suck-ass beat,” Jake said. “And most of what he covers is the Heritage of the Month, mostly African-American and Hispanic community news. Couldn’t have anything to do the fact he’s black, does it?”

“Naw,” Christian shrugged. “It has to do with the fact he can’t write a simple city council story and no one’s going to criticize his stories about Black Heritage Month because he’s black,” Christian said. “Jesus, Jake, lighten up a little, will you? I’ve got to finish going over the morning rag to see what we missed.”

Christian turned back to the paper, the Morning Advertiser-Proponent. He had slashed in red at columns of stories the afternoon Dispatcher-Press had the day before. Broad red exclamation marks marred two of the stories.

“How the hell did Franco miss the farm truck accident on the interstate yesterday?” he asked. “A pickup full of chickens, feathers flying and cars careening all over the place, cops chasing after squawking hens. You could’ve written the hell out of that — a real slice of life piece.”

“Franco said she heard the report on the police scanner and passed on it,” Jake said, watching Christian’s Camel burn its way toward the editor’s nicotine-stained fingers. There was a new rule banning smoking in the building, but Christian claimed his cubicle was a ban-free zone.

“She said there wasn’t anybody injured, so didn’t think there was a story.  The only photog on duty was too busy taking a picture of some new French chef at the Hilton for Lifestyles.”

“No story, Jesus!” Christian snuffed the Camel out in an overflowing ashtray and rooted around his desk, looking for something. “Where’s my Maalox?”

Jake watched his editor slam desk drawers and move piles of paper from one place on his desk to another in a vain search for the blue bottle Jake had seen sitting next to the coffee pot a moment ago. He liked it when Christian’s Buddha-like demeanor dissolved in an ulceric rage.

“I know I had a bottle here somewhere,” Christian said, looking in the bottom drawer for the third time.  “You know, if I had a decent sized office — something with a door to keep interlopers out — I’d know where everything was.”

Jake snatched the bottle and threw it on Christian’s desk. “Here you go,” he said.

“Thanks.” Christian quickly twisted the cap off and drank half the bottle in a single gulp. He made the kind of face a four-year-old makes when given a spoon of cough medicine.

“Hits the spot,” he said.

“You ever think of getting that treated?”  Jake asked, smiling at the chalky mustache the Maalox made on Christian’s upper lip. “You gotta have a hole the size of a quarter in your stomach.”

“Why?  The doctor would only tell me to give up coffee and cigarettes and booze. There’d be nothing left to live for.”

“What about sex?”  Jake asked.

“You forgot I’m married,” his boss answered. “Gave that up a long time ago. ”

Their laughter was cut short by a timid knock on the plastic wall of the cubicle.

“Yes?” Christian asked.

“Uh, Mac wants to know if you’re going to the morning editorial meeting,” a frail woman in her early 20s said. “It started about five minutes ago.”

“Tell Mac to go, he wants my job anyway,” Christian said. “Hell, those meetings are too depressing anyway.”

“You want me to tell him all that?” the woman asked.

“No, just tell him I’m busy chewing out one of the reporters. He’ll love that.”

“But he won’t believe it, Hank,” Jake said. “You’d better go. If the suits come up with one of their stupid story ideas, Mac will come back to us with it. At least you try to deflect them.”

“Guess you’re right,” Christian said, standing. He moved with a grace that belied his weight and turned his attention to the woman.

“Too bad about the chickens, but you learned something about what makes a good story, right Franco?”

The woman stared at him dumbly. “You mean I should write up all traffic accidents?”

“No, just ones where if you don’t you wind up with egg all over your face,” Christian said.

Franco continued her blank look.

“I don’t think she got it,” Jake said, chuckling.

“Neither did we,” Christian said as he left the cubicle. He stopped and turned to Jake. “Hey, didn’t you say something about quitting?”

“I’m always saying something about quitting,” Jake answered.

“Okay, well let’s talk about quitting over a few beers tonight at Gentry’s. Let’s see if I can talk you out of it — again.”

Comments
  1. jckrais says:

    How colorful. I can smell the burning pot of coffee and the sweat of a crowded office cubicle. How many of those characters are just you in different clothes at different points of time in your newspaper career?

    Like

  2. Edwin Feliu says:

    Get “Stein on Writing.” Should I elaborate on the chapter in a letter?

    Like

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