Fiction by Ace
Boggess • Photo by Anndra Dubhacan
First Day at the
in dress, anxious in mannerism, I entered the newsroom in a mixed-up
strut, proud but timid. I twitched nervously--a scared college
sophomore stepping into a news pro's world.
I help you?" asked a receptionist sitting behind what could've been a
papier-mâché desk, stacked high with facsimiles, fliers,
newspapers, forms, and other pulp.
Hearst," I said. "I'm supposed to start work today."
told me where to go, and from there it was a jumble of introductions
and instructions. I met a cranky middle-aged woman in a gray
jogging suit. The boss. "I'm Kathryn Carter," she said,
"the editor. Nice to meet you. Don't say the same.
You'll learn soon enough it's not true."
effortless grace, Kathy gave me the full-bore tour, presenting me to my
colleagues, only stopping long enough for a handshake and a quick
hello. "This is Gray, our obit clerk. He'll teach you how
to use our computers. That's Michelle, our late cops
reporter. She'll teach you everything you'll be doing on the
weekends. Say hello to Arnold Baker. He's our city
editor. If you have questions or problems and you don't want to
be yelled at, ask him. Arnie'll take care of you. Rick
Dunlap, managing editor. If it's important enough for a little
yelling, go to him."
was distracted a moment by the receptionist who wanted to check on the
importance of a fax. I used the opportunity to engage Rick.
"Is she serious? Or is it all a show to scare the new guy?"
lip eased into a tired smirk. "Watch and learn," he said.
"That's all I can tell you, Hearst. You'll have to watch and
were we?" Kathy asked. "Oh, yeah. This is Agatha, one of
our copyeditors. Pay close attention to her. She'll show
you all the trivial or superficial things that'll get you fired."
Then, after pointing me toward my desk, she introduced me to a face I
recalled from years of newspaper columns. "This is Hunter
Delaware. Ignore him. Nothing he says has any value.
If you follow his advice, you'll wind up doing something
unacceptable. Then you'll get yelled at by everybody. The
things he does, you won't get away with. He's allowed because,
aside from me and the publisher, he makes more money than anybody
here. You make a little over minimum wage. Get the picture?"
Now this is. . . ." Blah, blah, blah.
first story, by assignment, I wrote about pumpkins, those balls of
sloppy orange pulp and seeds, sliced into faces with crooked
candlelight grins. Symbols of the season, these jack-o-lanterns
soon to be are meant to be displayed on porches rather than newspaper
pages. Reporters know that. I got the job that no one else
wanted: the annual ritual of deifying dealers of overpriced holiday
melons. I was supposed to make those people look golden, as if
they served a Samaritan purpose by making their profits in the true
take-the-booty-and-run spirit of Halloween. To me, pumpkin
pushers were no different than kids satisfying their greed with a
song-like Trick or Treat!
story never changes. It's the same as writing about Christmas
trees or county fairs. Nothing unique, nothing original, but it
has to be done at least once every year. I had never done
it. I went in thinking it would establish me. It'd place my
name in newsprint, and from there, it'd be all front-page features with
banner headlines stripped across the top.
contact's name was Jim Dunkin, owner of Dunkin's Punkins. He had
a patch several acres across just outside the city limits off
I-279. The stink of rot and droning hum of a thousand flies
assaulted my senses as I got out of the car. That scent repulsed
me, but I contained my disgust.
greeted me from a distance, waving one gritty hand while using the
other to continue stacking fresh produce in the back of a beat-up black
Chevrolet truck. He was a portrait of man as an animal, an
evolutionary link. Hair oily, beard clotted with muck, skin
eternally stained from sweat and soil, he'd given himself to the land,
and the land, in turn, had devoured him. The left side of his red
flannel shirt was tucked neatly into his faded denim jeans, while the
right side hung down parallel with his unzipped fly. As I
approached, Dunkin straightened up, revealing more than six feet.
He stretched, cracked his knuckles, and then extended a grubby paw,
expecting me to shake.
did, feeling dried pumpkin guts against my skin.
you doing?" he said. "You from the newspaper?"
Sir. Collin Hearst. Nice to meet you."
to you. Jim Dunkin. Welcome to Dunkin's Punkins."
place," I said.
You like pumpkins?"
likes pumpkins," I said, as evasively as possible. "So tell me,
Mister Dunkin, how long have you been in the business?" I pulled
out a pen and notebook, ready to capture every detail.
wrote it down.
daddy ran the place for thirty years before that."
wrote it down.
put an arm up to his forehead, wiping away the product of his
labors. "You'll have to forgive me," he said. "I've been
loading pumpkins all day, and I'm sweating like a stuck pig."
wrote that down, too. Hell, I wrote everything down. Every
word, every phrase, every colorful colloquialism. I wanted to get
the story right, without a hint of a breakdown or misquote. The
questions I asked weren't much help. I went in to my first
interview well prepared with plenty of perfect preformed
interrogatories intended to get a firm grasp of the story. But
they were far from open-ended, and most earned a one-word
response. "Do you like selling pumpkins?"
you sold pumpkins all your life?"
do anything else?"
do you do in the off season, when pumpkins aren't in great demand?"
the lottery, watch the tube, hang out down at The Scratching
Post. That's about it, really."
get tired of your work?"
you make a good living?"
you sell very many pumpkins?"
pretty good this year?"
you intend to do this all your life?"
plan to retire?"
the way the interview went: an hour of yeses and noes, yeahs and nahs,
and occasionally a usable line or two. I only stole one gem from
the vault of his vocabulary, just enough to add length and color to my
clip. "What is it about selling pumpkins that makes you enjoy
it?" I asked.
rubbed his chin before replying. "I'm filling a need," he
said. "I'm not feeding the poor or finding a cure for
cancer. This ain't brain surgery. All the same, I supply
something essential to our culture, our tradition, our American
way. I can get in my truck and drive around town, seeing my
contribution grinning mischievous greetings from every porch or every
other window. Sure, I know they're not all mine. But they
could be. I'm doing something that, for a while at least, makes
parents smile and kids glow. That helps me feel good.
People only rely on me once a year, and I won't let them down."
He turned away for a moment, perhaps reminiscing. When he resumed
his oration, it was with passion, or perhaps conviction. "You
know, I'm not the most educated man, not the sharpest, not the hardest
worker. I'm not any of that, but I do what's expected of
me. You won't see Jim Dunkin asking for handouts. You won't
see Jim Dunkin down at the welfare office. I work for a
living. I do my job. When the harvest's over, ten thousand
freshly-cut faces tell me I'm a success. That's why I enjoy
this. That's why I keep doing it. It's something even a
dumb old farmer like me can do well at, and when I do well at it, I add
to the tradition. Continuing the tradition's special. It
gives me a tingling feeling, a fire deep down inside, just like one of
article made the Local page along with a head shot of Jim Dunkin, a
photo of some little girl's truly evil-looking carved masterpiece, and
a bold headline that read, "Pumpkin man sells the fruit of
tradition." Not a brilliant story. Not much different than
any before or after. Not the kind of article that would add
insight to any reader's life. Still, I clipped it and spliced it
into my portfolio.
story, Kid," said Hunter Delaware. He was sitting at his
terminal, just opposite mine, sandaled feet propped one on top of the
other to the right of his keyboard. His faded blue jeans were
rolled up, exposing bare ankles covered with thick, black hair the same
tint as his bristly beard. "You did a hell of a job for your
first effort. That's no shit. A hell of a fine job."
I said. "Nothing special, though."
stories rarely are. Thanksgiving you do your turkey stories and
your classic soup kitchen stories. Christmas, you got Christmas
trees, toys, the mandatory weather story, and usually another take on
the soup kitchen angle. On Valentine's Day it's paper hearts and
love stories. Of course, Flag Day you got flags and old
veterans. So on Halloween, what else is there but to write about
pumpkins and ghosts? They're staples in the fold. You write
these once a year to fill a page, and in a day, or at most a week,
they're long forgotten."
Sir," I said. "I'll do what I'm told, but I'm looking for
lifted a cigar from the pocket of his striped pink shirt.
Stripped of its wrapper, the cigar hung loosely from his lips. He
didn't light it. That would be rude indoors, even for the highest
paid eccentric on the staff. "You're getting the idea pretty
quick. Have a specialty?"
Sir. Like I said, I'll write whatever I'm told to write."
huh," he said, nodding and chewing on his cigar. "That'll
change. Give it a couple months. You'll get into a groove,
find something that meets your needs as an individual. And the
more stories you do on a subject, the better writer you'll be with
regard to that subject." He paused to plan his next line.
"Besides, you'll find Big Boss Lady likes the grunts to have a hobby."
you'll have something to work on late at night, like tonight for
example, when everything's quiet, nearly all the rest of us have gone
home, and all you have to do is listen to the endless monotony of the
police scanner, hoping for a fire or a major traffic accident to help
you pass the evening."
see your point, but I'm too new at this. I've got no contacts."
worry. When you've been here long enough, everything falls into
place. Whatever your interests are, you'll find a way to work
them in one day. Then it'll happen for you. You'll
excel. Personally, I've spent ten years trying to excel, but all
I know's politics. Nobody excels at politics."
that's what you're good at. That's why you're a columnist."
my point. I'm a columnist because I'm highly opinionated and I
can put those opinions into clever phrases and cynical sentences.
Some people may not agree with everything I have to say, but most of
them listen. Ninety percent of the folks who read this paper read
my column, and if a few bullheaded old geezers would kick off, that
might jump right up to ninety-one. In any case, the vast majority
do read it. They may hate it, but they read it anyway because I
know what I'm talking about. What more can I ask out of this
can you be sure they read it? So many people?"
Kid. I know from experience, as will you. You'll know
because they'll write you letters. Nasty letters most of the
time. They'll call you up to chat and occasionally even to offer
praise, but mostly they'll call to yell and scream and do what the
public tends to do. That is to say, they'll bitch and moan on
topics about which they have no idea, they've considered very little,
or they have very valid opinions that are just plain wrong. If
you're unlucky enough not to be here, they'll call your answering
machine and converse with it for two hours about how evil you are
because you support this candidate, this proposal, this radical new
idea. You know, I tried to program my answering machine so it'd
limit the time on all my messages to two minutes. Would you
believe those crotchety old bastards would call back over and over to
resume their soliloquies as if they'd never been interrupted?
Some would go as far as to pick up with whatever the next word would've
been in their previous sentence."
like that are out there?"
nodded and pointed his cigar at me. "That's not all, Kid.
Folks will stop me on the street, at a restaurant, even while I'm
standing at a urinal in a public restroom, just so they can argue with
me as if I had no world outside this paper. Tell you the truth, I
had a lady follow me around the grocery store watching what brands I
picked up so she wouldn't get caught choosing the same ones.
We've got a hundred thousand readers, Kid. Believe me, they let
you know when you strike a nerve."
see your point, Mister Delaware. . . ."
Sir. Anyway, I see your point, but I don't understand how that
applies to me. I'm not a columnist. There's not much room
for opinion in a police blotter or a story about pumpkins."
pointing his thick cigar at me as if an extension of his index
finger, Hunter said, "You'll see. I take a lot of flak because
I'm a columnist. It's the same with the editor and the editorial
board. That's why we're paid so much. But you'll get
tagged, too--for stories you've written that folks don't like, and even
for my opinions, none of which have anything to do with you."
that bad. And what's more, people call about the most trivial
things. They've got nothing better to do. Sometimes you'll
get sworn at by pure chance for the misfortune of being the one who
answered the phone." He paused. After a long breath, his
eyes began to gleam like a madman's. "This is a true story,
Kid. You wouldn't believe it if someone else told it, but it's
me, so you'll know it's true." He laughed. "Anyway, it was
years ago, back when Conway Twitty kicked the bucket. He was an
old country singer. You know who I mean?"
nodded. "I'm familiar with him."
he'd had some problems, and he'd been in the hospital for a few
days. We'd been running the wire stories, keeping people up to
date. When he died, he had the bad manners to kick off in the
middle of the night, or around midnight, maybe. Whatever it was, it was
after we'd gone to press. So whoever was on the news desk that
night had the bright idea to stop the presses, pull some minor story,
and insert the Associated Press clip about Conway Twitty's death.
Out of a hundred thousand papers, the story made it into five or six
thousand. In other words, it slipped into a handful of papers
from the final edition. You see where I'm going?"
shook my head.
this was on a Friday night, if I remember correctly, or maybe it was
Saturday night. Whatever. Well, my bad karma kicked me in
the head. I got up early the next morning to come in here and
work on my column. When I got here, the phones were ringing off
the hook. I was the only one in the newsroom, so I had to
answer. I took these ridiculous calls all morning, over and over,
and basically, they went like this: 'Hey Buddy, I want to know why my
neighbor gots Conway Twitty in his paper and I don't!' Time after
time, the same thing: 'Hey Buddy, where's Conway Twitty? Somebody
forgot to put him in my paper.' One hick even called in without
ever saying a thing except expletives, punctuated off and on by the
words 'Conway Twitty.' I swear to you, Kid, it's true."
cracked up, doubling over in my seat and holding my side.
telling you straight. It was nothing but 'Gawdammit damned piece
of shit Conway Twitty motherfucking bunch of pussy Conway Twitty
felt like a piñata smacked too many times in the gut. I
was laughing so hard I thought I might collapse from exhaustion or lack
didn't help matters much. Every time I started to get the fits
under control, he'd say something like, "Hey Buddy, Conway's not dead,
'cause he ain't in my paper," or even, "You all killed Conway Twitty,
and now you're trying to keep it from me."
I regained my composure, it seemed like I was the one who'd died.
"Are they all that bad?" I asked, not so sure I wanted to know.
not all of them. The vast majority, but not quite all. Kid,
some of them might like you. Might even write you poetry."
poetry, I'll bet."
propped his cigar between his stubborn, grinning lips. "Now
you're catching on. Like I said, I think you'll fit right
in. You just have to learn not to expect anything from anybody,
and you have to figure out how to deal with a whole world of crazy