Back to the novel. Remember, this is fiction!
It’s a good crew, Wendy the Witch had said during my interview at the diner. Including production and distribution, she said, the newspaper employed 55 people.
And it was a good crew. About 20 of us were in the office at any given moment, most of us working downstairs, “on the floor.” Advertising had a home base on one side, production stretched across the other side, and editorial filled everything in between. Tina started every school tour of the office, for any age group, with advertising: “This is what supports the newspaper,” she would say. The all-female production team was a little prickly, afraid they were about to be dissed, but the ad guys were fun, and editorial talked to everybody.
With the possible exception of the two upstairs. Tina the Terrorist—as she was known to all her staff and half the community—had a terrible temper and a garbage mouth, as my mother would say. She dissed the production crew weekly, she looked me in the eye and lied to me, she made enemies in a field in which networks were essential. But she worked like a maniac and more than once she was right about something.
I did work harder than ever. I had pulled all-nighters to finish freelance projects on deadline, but once I put the package out for Fed Ex, I could go to bed and sleep half the day. At the newspaper, our office day began at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m., with a half-hour off for lunch—the maximum Wendy could legally extract from us. But she and Tina were there at 8:30 when I arrived and at 5 when I left, and they took a half-hour off for lunch. They got their weekends, but the rest of us rotated responsibilities, so that the office was open seven days a week.
At least two week nights, 5 p.m. was just a dinner break before we all—Tina too—went out again to cover a 7 p.m. board meeting—town, school, zoning, planning, they went on and on, all of them wanting our presence, too many to oblige. Because I had “editor” in my title, I earned no overtime for the meetings, or mileage reimbursement, the way the reporters did, but neither, supposedly, did Tina.
The next day we wrote our stories and then Tina, Catherine, and I edited each other’s and reporters’ work, and everybody tackled the never-ending onslaught of press releases.
Twice a week, on deadline days, Tina worked downstairs, and my first gift to my coworkers was to accept the desk nearest to her outpost. At 30, Catherine was moving up from reporter to editor, and she and I had been instructed to decide which of us would work where, between two available desks. “Would you mind taking that one, between Tina and me,” Catherine whispered. “Not at all,” I said, determined not to be afraid of where I sat.
If Tina put up with my weekly mistakes, it was because I could write, I had a firm grasp of grammar, she didn’t have to tell me not to wear jeans to work, and, unlike her, I kept my emotions to myself.
“It’s like being the children of alcoholic parents,” Evan observed on one of the last days warm enough to lunch at the picnic table in back of the office. “You never know when the boom is going to fall.”
I returned his gaze, took in his gray-blue eyes. “And the need to affix blame,” I said, “on someone else.”
“They’re not drinkers,” he added quickly.
We were alone at the picnic table, having made our 2 p.m. deadlines for entertainment features. Evan lived with Lakota, who had helped me with the lost dog ad, and I didn’t think of this as a come-on, but rather something he would say to someone he knew would get it.
"Does it show in my eyes?” I asked.
He smiled back. “Like minorities nodding to each other within a crowd? No. If it were the eyes, I might have thought it was your loss of Ed, for which I’m very sorry,” he added, “but it’s something more. How you deal with them, I guess.”
“I’m not so great at dealing with them.”
“None of us are,” he said, “but you bring something to it.”
“I do what I can. It was nice of you to take the desk near Tina, so Catherine didn’t have to.”
“It’s a desk,” I said. “I can see a window from there. Watch the light change during the day.”
“And know there’s something . . . more, beyond this.”
For all the hellish days of the job, we were lucky. Editorial had turnover, because most of the reporters were young; we had three j-school grads among us that fall. They would serve a year or two in this upstate backwater and then move on, but most of us—the ad guys, the production ladies (who could wear jeans to work), Evan, had roots here, families even. People were fired more often than quit.
In fact, I often found the work soothing. For every minute that was fascinating I endured an hour of stultifying boredom, but I seldom had the brain space to worry about money. I seldom had the time to spend any money.
And every week, along with a tiny check, the newspaper handed me the plot line of a juicy novel. Too busy for last week’s novel? Here’s another one! Tragedies of Shakespearean proportion, tales of greed and avarice, the occasional comedy. The tragedies—the fires, the accidents—seemed to occur the weekends I was in charge of the paper, and I grew accustomed to talking to survivors. Possibly I began with a shared well of grief; whatever, on my first Sunday in charge of the Monday paper I called the parents of the 12-year-old who had been riding his bike home Saturday night and was struck and killed by a drunk driver. To my astonishment, these parents both got on the phone; they wanted to talk to me. And then I remembered, yes, you want the story, whatever it is, to be correct. I did so well on that front page, I could see Tina eyeing me on Monday, slotting me for the Tragedy Desk.
Some days I got lucky: the man accused of strangling his wife, whose body washed ashore in a duffle bag, lived in a town I covered, so the story was mine. I took notes as Catherine coached me on what to ask the DA, but the sartorial observations—of the accused, his girlfriend, and his lawyers—were mine, and Tina relished them.
Copyright © Debby Mayer