Written for Whatever reason. Journalist caught in the story. My last fiction offering.
|So many unfinished projects. Fall arrived too early. The trail behind the cancer treatment center was green this time last year. Why do trees suddenly change, unburden rich color?
* * *
I am not white in my world. I was told if I work hard, do what I was told, I would get noticed. The old man made me march, drilled me, second-guessed everything I did. If I didn't do it right, he took the lawn mower handle because I hit a rock. He grabbed the shovel to again demonstrate the proper technique for turning garden soil. I handed him the hammer when my school project went awry. He pulled every nail from that birdhouse as I walked away. I retreated to my room, pumped music into my brain as if I could kill it. I gave up on him and pursued my own interests -- the kind of stuff he couldn't comment on with authority. If he tried to throw me a football, I'd grab a tennis racket and slam a yellow missile off a wall all day. 'Make friends' he'd assert, too busy to notice my clotted, bloody nose. 'Learn a trade' was his final advice after brief glimpses of my poetry and sketch books.
I was 'different'. I couldn't be him.
My dad told my brother the night before he put a shotgun in his mouth, "Look after him. He can't take care of himself." My brother, who never showed emotion, called on the phone the next morning. He told me he loved me like he was going to die, too. Was I the only sane one?
Writing for a newspaper was not always an easy game. I could handle death, make routine calls to police to collect details of a murder-suicide or a traffic fatality -- bread and butter for a rookie reporter. Getting updates from the hospital on someone's condition after a traffic mishap would usually illicit one word: 'fair', 'stable', 'critical'. Sometimes, the phone would just - hang - up.
It will also cause you to chase your own tail.
Try interviewing a government official about debt incurred by a failing, county-run hospital at a public meeting (scheduled at 7:45 a.m. on a Monday, posted just 24 hours in advance). Be thankful alert watchdogs got you out of bed at 3, so you can prepare. The shower is cold, no place to get coffee, you're left to kick a vending machine next to an ever-vigilant ATM. The county building has restricted access before hours. You find someone at the sheriff's annex to buzz you in, usher you through a connecting door. Eyes of bedraggled meth users and last night's bar brawlers lowly look upon you. The neatly outfitted deputy with tight crewcut indifferently guides you through a brick and mortar maze. Apologetically, you follow, feeling he could as easily open a cell door.
Dull faces begin to scrutinize you minutes before the sparsely attended meeting begins. You can never be prepared when a controversial vote decides the fate of an entire county and the meeting quickly ends. Each board member slips through a rear entrance, gone by the time you hit the parking lot. A small town, you know what tavern to visit. Once there, the crowd forms around you. People you grew up with start the questioning, recite all kinds of details about you, your old man and brother.
I know I am not a yellow journalist. So, what color am I?
"Pete,” my childhood nemesis sneers, “why don't you go home?" I ignore him, make eye contact with Gary Carlson dressed in hunter's flannel at a corner table. He's drinking beer at 9 a.m. with the county treasurer, a pile of legal-sized folders between them. I'm not seeing an invitation. I look back at Vince, who's gotten nearly six inches from my face.
"Okaayy,” sizing up the room. They are as silent as a wall hanging, billows form above a NO SMOKING sign. All eyes on me. I sense surroundings without scanning. I'm in a boat too small for the giant, hovering waves of a cold, dark sea. The sharks haven't eaten. What am I supposed to do? Go back in my head and wonder if the old man was right? Vince tires of my hesitation, gives my right shoulder a shove, firm. Then another, to aid momentum. He's a half foot taller. I smell the stench of whiskey mixing with the air's molecules. I remain motionless. I look squarely at him, then back to the county board chairman, who visibly flinches.
What would the old man do? Not what I did.
I walked back outside, the throng of patrons close on my tail. This was their turf. Don't play by their rules, you're unwelcome. Intensifying light hit my eyes, as a new idea formed. I ground a tarnished heel into gravel and looked back at the four thick bodies on my exit.
Within 15 minutes, a tavern busboy opened the back door. I thought I would vomit from fryer grease and rotting table scraps piled high in black bags overflowing a sheltered dumpster. Thankfully, he let me in. "Is Gary here?" I was shown to a small empty office in the back corner. Within minutes, Carlson slid in, closed the door and apologized. He gave me all the details on the vote to file for bankruptcy. An attempt to sell the facilities to a major care provider fell through in the 11th hour. My 'unnamed source' was giving me 'off-the-record' dirt on the hospital C.E.O. who caused the failed merger, operating the hospital in the red. Doctors were relocating practices, major services cut, health care insurance coverages tightened. More residents would either drive out of the area for medical needs or were unable to pay for medical care. I knew this story would cause a stir, when I broke it.
* * *
Dim fluorescence buzzed a drowsy bullpen. Askew, bent window shades were pierced by a persistent riser. My editor, doughy, spineless, surprised me when he said my article will run -- every last detail. He had pizza sauce on his sagging collar. I felt pretty good, pushing a photo with his son aside to rest my feet on the desk. This story was like a visa stamp for a tropical week, somewhere beyond Florida this time. I could forget about the busted car antenna and shards of beer glass that clung to my hood.
Though I got through a labyrinth, a parallel universe waited on the other side. The vision would have to fall apart.
He was tall and bespectacled. Gabriel Manders' blond hair parted like tent flaps in a breeze as he strode; tails of blue blazer slapped his hips. He leaned in and got right to it. "Who do you think you are?" Coy, I was about to answer. "You can't run that story. We'll lose our federal subsidies. Do you want to be the person who leaves an entire county without health care?" the hospital C.E.O. added with emphasis. I leaned uncomfortably in my black chair, forming all kinds of thoughts like 'how is that going to happen?' My job wasn't to side with this or that, just report.
The wall clocked torment. Nearly an hour went by as he mostly talked. My cross-armed editor had mostly stood behind me. Manders' story was tiring, too intellectual. I didn't want to seem ignorant, mentally check out, repeatedly nodding. I couldn't think straight. Was I yellow? Do I back off my original story? My mind wanted to kill itself again. I couldn't give assurances. He gave the most paternal look, not worried for me, but worried what I might do. Eyes locked in dull anticipation when the silence began. He finally offered, "I was sorry to hear about your dad." I about fell off my perch.
"My dad? Whaddya mean?"
"We knew him. It was a shame about his passing." My deliberate, dumbfounded look must have implored him to go on. "You know, he cleaned floors...at the hospital?"
"Yeah. Didn't he get fired?" I had him.
Manders blinked, then composed, "I had nothing to do with that. That's H.R."
"Oh, I know. He had several unresolved grievances after his hours were cut."
"Well, yes. I know..."
"He was a nurses aide. But, after 20 years was forced into early retirement...or be let go. He took that job mopping floors. And he griped..."
"I'm pretty sure he was unhappy because he was assured full time. He couldn't afford medical coverage, had to make ends meet. He started getting written up...for every - little - thing. I mean, what do you think you're doing over there, huh? Rolling around in your BMW, chasing dumb nurses back to your cozy high tower of an office...when you were there! When real shit goes down, no hospital administrator around! What's up with that?!
A familiar voice calmly intoned, "Okay, Peter. Calm down." I felt an arm on mine. That's when I could sense the shaking.
"You killed him, you - goddam - fucking..."
"Enough! Go sit over there," my stupid editor said, shoving me toward a corner. "I'm really sorry, Gabe, about that." The two continued a conversation out the door.
I could hear that damn clock in my head. The damn sun was directly in my eyes. For some reason I just sat there with damn wetness around my right eye - my fucking, weepy eye since I was a kid. I hated feeling like shit. I hate people giving me shit. The old man would have a good laugh right now. I hated when he laughed at me.
My editor was back and the sun still stung. "We're not cutting that story!" I yelled.
"Of course, we're running it." He paused, with a very attentive look. "But, we can't use your unnamed source stuff. It's out."
"Nooo, that stuff's true. You know it. I know it. The whole, damn town wouldn't be surprised -- except it'd be in print. Finally, in print."
"That's a hard no, Peter."
"It's not Peter. It's Pete," my voice faded. "We have to do something."
"Pete," he stepped closer, put a hand on my shoulder. "It's biased reporting. I'm putting you on probation."
"Probation?! Shit, why?"
"You know why." He looked deep into my one dry eye. "Do I have to spell it out?"
I gave. "No." I was punished for standing up to a bully, again. Or, maybe for going about it the wrong way. Or, damn! I was in the wrong line of work.
I slumped in my office chair. I was the dog that found a bone in dirt, keen with my very special set of instincts. 'Give both sides', they say. Reach for a pen, 'off-the-record', 'sensitive information'. Run a story with unnamed sources? It would be my word. One moment, you're a colleague who could do the right thing -- the next, lectured like a child who can't comprehend what parents do. They spoon fed me what they wanted me to report, then scolded for trying to get at the truth.
Manders smartly wasted my time, so the story might not make deadline. What got to the printer was a watered down version of truth -- a white lie. If it had run, I'd need more car insurance. I wonder who runs this town? Had Gary played me? Was I reporting the news or just a mouthpiece? Reporters get squeezed in the middle, left looking like rats or dogs or monkeys?
"What are we doing, it's almost two," my editor called to lingering staff. It meant crawl across the street to the dimly lit pub. Not my scene. I needed to walk that trail behind the cancer treatment center, unburden. Maybe, gardening would be a good hobby, right after Florida.