Fiction by Ace Boggess • Photo by Anndra Dubhacan

First Day at the Domestic-Chronicle

Ragged 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.
"Can 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.
"Collin Hearst," I said.  "I'm supposed to start work today."
She 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."
With 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."
She 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?"
Rick's 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 learn."
"Where 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?"
I nodded.
"Good.  Now this is. . . ."  Blah, blah, blah.
My 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!
This 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.
My 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.
Dunkin 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.
I did, feeling dried pumpkin guts against my skin.
"How you doing?" he said.  "You from the newspaper?"
"Yes, Sir.  Collin Hearst.  Nice to meet you."
"Same to you.  Jim Dunkin.  Welcome to Dunkin's Punkins."
"Nice place," I said.
"Thanks.  You like pumpkins?"
"Everybody 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.
"Twenty-three years."
I wrote it down.
"My daddy ran the place for thirty years before that."
I wrote it down.
He 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."
I 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?"
"Have you sold pumpkins all your life?"
"Oh, yeah."
"Ever do anything else?"
"What do you do in the off season, when pumpkins aren't in great demand?"
"Play the lottery, watch the tube, hang out down at The Scratching Post.  That's about it, really."
"Ever get tired of your work?"
"Do you make a good living?"
"Oh, yeah."
"Do you sell very many pumpkins?"
"Business pretty good this year?"
"Do you intend to do this all your life?"
"Ever plan to retire?"
That's 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.
He 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 those jack-o-lanterns."
My 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.
"Nice 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."
"Thanks," I said.  "Nothing special, though."
"Holiday 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."
"Yes, Sir," I said.  "I'll do what I'm told, but I'm looking for something bigger."
Hunter 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?"
"No, Sir.  Like I said, I'll write whatever I'm told to write."
"Uh 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."
"Why a hobby?"
"So 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."
"I see your point, but I'm too new at this.  I've got no contacts."
"Don't 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."
"But that's what you're good at.  That's why you're a columnist."
"Exactly 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 business?"
"How can you be sure they read it?  So many people?"
"Easy, 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."
"People like that are out there?"
He 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."
"I see your point, Mister Delaware. . . ."
"Hunter, Kid."
"Yes, 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."
Still 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."
"It's that bad?"
"It's 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?"
I nodded.  "I'm familiar with him."
"Well, 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?"
I shook my head.
"Okay, 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."
I cracked up, doubling over in my seat and holding my side.
"I'm telling you straight.  It was nothing but 'Gawdammit damned piece of shit Conway Twitty motherfucking bunch of pussy Conway Twitty gawdammit!'"
I 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 of air.
Hunter 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."
Before 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.
"No, not all of them.  The vast majority, but not quite all.  Kid, some of them might like you.  Might even write you poetry."
"Bad poetry, I'll bet."

He 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 people."

Back   •   Home   •   Next