Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gone To Green - Chapter 1

Gone To Green
Abingdon Press (August 2009)

Chapter 1

Post Media Company announced yesterday that its multimedia division will offer newspaper readers information around the clock, relying on the latest technology and innovation. For more information, see our Web site.

—The Dayton Post

I glanced down at the floorboard and noticed it was Thursday.

Somewhere in the last dozen years or so, I had gotten into the habit of figuring out what day of the week it was by checking the number of coffee mugs rolling around. At least I don’t keep tuna sandwiches and an ancient typewriter in the backseat, the way a guy in sports does.

Hurrying into the building, I flashed my security badge at the guard, who reluctantly lifted his head from his Word Jumble puzzle to glance and nod. Let it never be said he didn’t get his money’s worth out of the daily paper—especially since free papers are one of the perks of working at The Dayton Post. He saw me every day, several times a day, but still made me show my badge.

When I hit the front door of the newsroom, I dashed to my desk. I spend a lot of time dashing, especially in the morning when I slide into my cubicle just in time to make eye contact with my staff before the news-planning meeting.

As city editor, I’m in the middle of things, right where I like to be—most of the time. If it weren’t for night meetings and procrastinating reporters, this job wouldn’t be half bad.

I learned long ago to shape my personal life around my work. That means only occasionally grumbling about the nights and weekends. I’m still a little annoyed about Christmas—I always get stuck working because I’m the one without kids. The schedule’s already posted for five months from now, and there I sit: Lois Barker, holiday editor.

“How’s it shaping up, Scoop?”

Ed stood in the same spot he stands each morning when I hit the door, waiting to ask what we have for tomorrow’s paper. He’s the managing editor and has been for a decade. His old-fashioned nickname helps make up for all the annoying jokes I get about my name being Lois and working on the city desk: “How’s Clark Kent?” “Feeling mild-mannered today?” “Seen any speeding bullets?”

Ed probably should be the editor by now, but corporate sent in Zach about eighteen months ago—a young, suit kind of bean-counter editor who spends most of his time in accounting meetings.

Zach’s a nice enough guy, but he and Ed don’t exactly mesh. Ed thinks Zach is all stick and no carrot. “Looking good, Ed. Anything special you want us to chase?”

“Just make sure you scrape something up with a little juice to it. And, hey, are you up for some lunch today . . . maybe that sandwich shop down by the library?”

My inner radar spiked into the Red Zone. First of all, it was pork chop day at Buddy’s, our favorite spot, just around the corner. Next, Ed and I and a handful of other editors ate lunch together on a regular basis but never made it this formal. Usually we casually gathered at the back door of the newsroom and walked downtown after the noon news on TV.

To set something up in advance was close to an engraved invitation. To choose the mediocre sandwich shop meant he wanted to talk in private.

I frowned. “Sure, I’m good for lunch, but what’s up?”

Ed glanced around. In a newsroom someone always lurked with a question, a joke, or to eavesdrop. “I’ve got some news, but it’ll have to wait.”

During the news meeting, I watched Ed closely and wondered what he had on his mind. He had been antsy lately— not happy with changes in the paper.

“I don’t have anything against corporations owning newspapers,” he told me recently, “but I don’t like it when they start running newspapers.” He was particularly unsettled about the new focus on the Internet and technology. “I didn’t get into this business to do podcasts.”

Ed threw in a couple of good story ideas during the planning discussion to make sure Zach knew he was paying attention. My best friend Marti, the features editor, tried to keep her top reporter from getting pulled off onto a daily story, and Diane, the business editor, talked in riddles, as though that would somehow impress Zach.

Diane desperately wants to move up and knows Zach can help her get a plum assignment. Thankfully, she hasn’t realized it’s actually me Zach plans to move up and out. He’s supposedly grooming me to be a top editor, not only because he likes me, but because he gets some sort of company points for his promotable employees.

“He gets management stars,” Marti said when I told her about my career conversation with Zach a while back. “Or he gets to order a prize out of a catalog with lots of corporate merchandise in it. Maybe you can talk him out of a baseball cap to show off that ponytail of yours.”

Admittedly, I’m intrigued by Zach’s plans for me. At age thirty-six and still single, it’s probably time for me to consider a change.

After we finished the news meeting, Ed herded me out of the conference room. “Let’s beat the lunch crowd.” It wasn’t even 11:30 yet.

“Give me a minute,” I said. “Let me get a couple of reporters going on their assignments.”

“Hurry up,” he said and looked at his watch.

It’s a professional habit, but I try to figure things out before people tell me. Ed’s secret was killing me. As soon as we hit the door, I tossed my ideas at him. “It’s the ad director, isn’t it? He really did get fired from his last paper.” “Tony’s applying for that sports desk position in Atlanta, right?” “Zach’s mad at me about that drowning story we missed, isn’t he?” Ed wouldn’t even look at me. “I can’t take this any more! What’s up?”

“I’ve got something to tell you, something big.”

“You’re scaring me. Tell me.”

“I’m going to tell you all of it, but first you have to promise you won’t tell anyone, and I mean anyone—not Marti, not your next-door neighbor, not your aunt in Cleveland. This has to stay between us.”

Torn between irritation that he seemed to think I’d put this on the Associated Press wire and worry about the bomb he was about to drop, I stopped on the sidewalk. For once, I did not say anything.

He looked at me and smiled big. “I did it.”

“Did what?”

“Scoop, I did it! I bought my own newspaper.”

“Ed!” I squealed and gave him a quick hug. “Where? When? How? What will I do without you?” I peppered him with the standard journalistic questions and felt that sad, jealous thrill you get when something exciting happens to a good friend.

“Let’s get moving, so I can tell you everything without a bunch of ears around.”

We started walking, and I tried to smile. “Where? Details, details!”

The Green News-Item. Green, Louisiana—great little town, about seven thousand people. Lots of potential—a big, beautiful lake, a courthouse square downtown, major highway on the drawing board.”

“Louisiana? You’re kidding me. You said you’d go to Oregon or Florida or somewhere like that. Have you ever even been to Louisiana? I mean other than that editors’ convention we went to in New Orleans that time?”

“Have now, and I like the feel of the place, Scoop. I realized I didn’t want one of those cute places we talked about. This place definitely isn’t cute. Besides, if it were, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford the paper.”

He sort of laughed and groaned at the same time. “This is a family sale. They want to keep Grandpa’s paper out of the hands of the government and Wall Street. It’s a twiceweekly: a twice-weekly—bigger than a puny weekly—but an honest-to-goodness newspaper, circulation 4,930, distributed throughout the county … I mean, parish. You know, they have parishes in Louisiana. Green, Louisiana. Bouef Parish. Spelled B-o-u-e-f and pronounced Beff, like Jeff. Weird.”

He laughed again.

I had never seen Ed so excited. “They like the looks of me, and I like the looks of them. Most of the family’s out of state, too, so I won’t have them breathing down my neck. It’ll be my paper to do whatever I want with.”

As he talked, I thought about what this meant in my life. What would I do without Ed? Whose shoulder would I cry on about being thirty-six and single? Ed is my mentor, friend, and confidante for every piece of good gossip I’ve picked up in the past decade and a half. The newsroom without him would be like the horrible Thanksgiving when I covered that tornado in Preble County and ate my holiday lunch at a gas station—lousy, just plain lousy.

We turned onto Calhoun Boulevard and headed into the Sandwich Express. I felt a twinge of shame at my selfishness. Ed had wanted to buy his own paper for years now, saving, always reading Editor & Publisher to see what was on the market, scouting, working the grapevine. He wanted to put miles between himself and his ex, and he was unhappy with the new corporate policies and his thousand extra duties.

“A twice-weekly,” I said. “Busy enough to be a challenge but not the hard work of a daily. In a nice little town. Green, did you say? Sounds like some tree-hugger kind of place.” I babbled, collecting my thoughts.

“Very un-tree-huggerish,” Ed said. He smiled and shook his head. “But plenty of nice trees.”

“Wow. I’m shocked. You actually did it, Ed.”

Then I asked the hardest question. “When?”

“I plan to tell Zach this afternoon that I’ll stay till after prep football season—give us time to wrap up the projects we’ve got going. I don’t know if he’ll want me around that long, though. Lame duck and all. I need to get down there before the end of the year. There’s a lot of paperwork and stuff to be done, plus I need to find a place to live.”

“Till after prep football season? That’s less than two months. Ed, what am I going to do without you?”

“You’ll do great, Lois. You’ll be out of here within a year anyway. Zach’s got you pegged to move onward and upward. I’ll be sitting in my dusty office reading about your successes on some corporate PR website. And you can come visit. I may ask you to train my staff—all twelve of them, and that’s twelve in the whole building, including the maintenance guy.”

My roast beef sandwich sat heavy in my gut, a reminder I need to eat healthier if I’m going to keep the trim figure I’m so proud of. I asked Ed for one of his antacids. He gobbled them by the truckload and complained about losing his appetite in his old age. Between the coffee and the cigarettes, his heartburn was legendary.

“Ed, you know I’m happy for you . . . I really am. I’m going to miss you, though.”

We headed back to the newsroom and the official news of the day. Suddenly, my cubicle seemed a little too small and a little too cluttered. The stack of special projects I was most proud of looked yellow and smelled musty. The ivy had more brown leaves than green. My office coffee cup had grown a new layer of mold.

Two fresh memos from Zach were in my mailbox. “Please tell your reporters to quit parking in the visitor lot,” and “The city desk needs to increase the number of stories geared to younger readers.” As I studied the second note, it pained me to realize I was no longer in the coveted younger reader category.

Ed took the next week off to handle details. “Gone fishing,” he wrote on a note posted on his office door. “Back soon.”

I moped while he was gone. “Must be a stomach bug,” I told Marti, who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I hated to mislead her, but there’s always a bug going around the newsroom, so it was a fail-safe excuse.

When Ed returned, he hit the highlights of his week over a cup of coffee in the break room. “I made a quick trip to Green and sealed the deal with the owners. The sale remains confidential until I officially take ownership in ninety days. Then the current owners—McCuller is their name—will make some sort of official announcement.”

That would be one of those announcements that newspapers hate when other people make, but love it when they do. I rolled my eyes, oddly annoyed.

“I used some investment money and that little inheritance from my folks,” he said, “to get things going. And then I took out a whopping line of credit at the local bank. I have a year to start paying for this baby or bail out. Kind of scary.”

“Sounds exciting,” I said, trying to encourage him, even though it sounded very scary to me.

“There’s tons of paperwork. I met with my lawyer here in Dayton and my CPA and got all the particulars taken care of and filed for my retirement pay. I hope Zach will cut me loose—with pay, of course.” He laughed. “I’m ready to let my new life begin.”

Those were the last words Ed spoke before he passed out right there in the break room.

Within two months, he had left the newsroom all right. My gruff, sloppy, smart, hand-holding friend had died of leukemia. Not one of us had seen it coming.

The weeks of his illness were excruciating for all of us, filled with sadness for our friend and fear for ourselves at how quickly life could turn. I stopped by his house to see him as often as I could, but was ashamed that my visits were mostly hit-and-run efforts.

“Hey, how are things down in Green?” I asked one day, but he changed the subject. I didn’t have the heart to try again and ignored the copies of the paper by his couch. Somebody down there must have put him on the mail circulation list; he was too weak to travel.

I was among a handful of people, including Zach, who spoke at the funeral. Somehow I felt Zach had earned that privilege, even though Marti and a few others grumbled about a corporate newcomer charging into our private time. When it mattered most, Zach had treated Ed right.

My comments seemed a bit lightweight—corny stories like the time Ed put a banana on my telephone and called me, so I would pick the fruit up, thinking it was the receiver. I kept my comments short.

“No cry fest and no superhero stuff,” Ed told me in one of my final visits with him.

At the service, I surprised myself and several other people by saying a short prayer. “Thank you, God, for the impact of Ed’s life. Have mercy on all of us in the days ahead that we might be the people we were meant to be. Amen.”

My colleagues and I awkwardly walked away from the grave. We were good at writing about emotion, but we didn’t quite know how to handle it in this first-person version.

I cried all the way back to the newsroom, having designated myself the editor to make sure the Sunday paper got out. Sadness washed over me. Ed had never gotten the chance to live his new adventure, to try out his newspaper, to get out of Dayton and into Green, Louisiana.

His obit had missed the lead. Instead of going on and on about his distinguished career in journalism and how he was nearing retirement and loved to fish, it should have highlighted the new life he had planned. Ed wasn’t wrapping up a career. He was about to embark on a Louisiana journey.

As I hit “send” on a story, I saw Zach strolling toward me. Since he usually only phoned in on Saturdays, his appearance surprised me. Sitting on the corner of my desk, he chitchatted about the next day’s edition and picked up a paper clip, moving it back and forth between his fingers.

“I appreciated what you said at the funeral, Lois,” he said, laying down the paper clip. “I really wish I’d known Ed better, like you did. You did a great job capturing his personality—made me wish I’d taken more time to know what made him tick.”

Zach absently rummaged through my candy jar. “Moving around like I have these past few years,” he said, “I just haven’t gotten to know people deeply the way you knew Ed.”

Embarrassed and feeling like I might cry again, I concentrated on my computer screen and deleted old e-mails to avoid eye contact.

“You know, Ed thought the world of you,” Zach said. “Told me often how talented you are and how you’d be running your own paper one day. You know that, right?”

I sort of laughed, self-conscious and a little proud. “Oh, Ed liked me because we had worked together forever. He taught me so much.”

“Well, I agree with Ed. I want to offer you his job—the managing editor’s job.” My eyes widened. I closed my computer screen and slowly rolled my chair back. “I beg your pardon?”

“I’d like you to be the next M.E. I’ve already run it by corporate and gotten their okay.”

Rumors had swirled in the newsroom about who would take Ed’s place, but this had been one game I’d not let myself get drawn into, mostly because I knew it would mean Ed was truly gone.

Part of me was excited at the idea of a promotion. The other part was annoyed that Zach’s plans had been put into motion before he talked to me and that corporate had already signed off on my life.

“Well?” Zach said. “Is that a yes?”

I realized I hadn’t given him an answer. I picked up my pencil and doodled on my ever-present reporter’s notebook. The ambition in me fought with the fatigue and uncertainty these past weeks had unleashed. Ambition won.

“Thanks, Zach. That sounds great. Thanks. Sure. I’d love to be the M.E.” I tried to sound enthusiastic.

“Fantastic!” He leaned over my desk to shake my hand. “I look forward to working more closely with you. I’ll iron out the details with HR, and we’ll tell the staff within the next week or so.”

“Sounds good to me. Thanks again. I guess I’ll head on home. I’m pretty tired.” A great need to escape engulfed me.

My neat little condo with one puny pink geranium on the patio was about all I could handle at that moment. I walked straight to the bedroom and flopped down on my dark green comforter. I was too beat to think about how my life was about to change.

I briefly considered setting my alarm for church the next day, a habit I had long ago given up. I needed the inspiration, but I could not bring myself to do it.

1 comment:

Josanne said...

I like this. I like this very much. I want to read more. I am feeling the angst and the loneliness that is imminent in Lois's life without Ed to talk to. I can almost experience the fatigue and weariness of the weight and burden of the new job. I wonder what God will tell her when she goes to church the next day. I'm hooked!