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"Did I ask to see you?"
"No, Frank, I--"
"I want to see you anyway." Frank Jaffe, The Editor, refolded the competing newspaper, the Chronicle-Gazette, and put it under his elbow on the desk. "I have some tough things to say to you."
"Little ol' me?"
"How would you like lifting a shovel eight hours a day, every day, five days a week, maybe half-days Saturdays?"
Fletch looked at his sneakers on the rug of Frank's office. Through the top of his left sneaker he saw the knuckles of three toes. Only the smallest toe showed through the top of his right sneaker. "It's not what I see for myself in the parade of life, Frank."
"That's what I see for you. In the parade of life, what do you see yourself suited for?"
"And what's journalism, young Fletcher?"
"Developing the skill of ending sentences with prepositions? Especially questions?"
"Did I just do that?" Behind his thick lenses, Frank's watery eyes moved across the top of his messy desk. "I just did that."
"Frank, what I wanted to see you about--"
Frank opened a folder on his desk. "I've dug out your personnel file." The folder was not thick. "You're suited for journalism, or pick-and-shovel work. I wonder which it will be?"
"Why are you looking at my personnel file? You hired me months ago."
"Three months ago. Do you remember why? I don't."
"Because I can be really good, Frank. I--"
"I think I had the idea this newspaper needed a breath of fresh air, young maverick who wouldshake things up a bit, see things differently, maybe, jerk people out of their ruts."
"How can I do that, Frank, if you won't give me a job?"
"I've given you a job. Lots of jobs."
"Not a real job."
"First, I put you on the copy desk."
"Writing headlines is for poets, Frank."
"And kept you there, over the growing protests of your co-workers, I might add--"
"I spilled orange soda on somebody's terminal keyboard."
"That's not all you did."
"I made it up to him. I bought him a pair of surgical gloves.
"--until you wrote the headline GOVERNOR JOKES ON PURPOSE."
"I thought that was news."
"And somehow the headline appeared in two editions before being killed."
"Sheer poetry, Frank. Not long-lived poetry, I admit, not deathless poetry, but--"
"So then I assigned you to writing obituaries."
"You know I want to write sports, Frank. That's why I came in to see you this morning."
"Not the toughest job in the world, writing obituaries. You answer the phone, listen politely, sometimes you have to check a few facts."
"I'm very good at checking facts."
Frank held up a piece of paper. His hand quivered and his eyes shook as he read the first paragraph from it. " 'Ruth Mulholland died peacefully today, having accomplished nothing in her fifty-six years.' Did you write that?"
"It was a fact, Frank. I checked."
"Fletcher, one of the points in your writing obituaries is in our being able to print them."
"I kept asking her sister, What did she ever do? The sister kept talking. But I was listening, you see. This person, Ruth Mulholland, never graduated from anywhere, never got married, never had a baby, never held a job, never even supported herself. I mean, in fifty-six years she never accomplished a damned thing. Finally, I asked the sister, Did she ever make anybody a sweater? Cook a pan of brownies for anybody? Or even for herself? The sister kept saying, No, no, in fact Ruthie never did a damned thing in her life. I said, Well, is that what I should print? And the sister said, Well, yes, I guess that's the truth about Ruthie. I checked the facts, Frank. Ruthie never applied for Social Security, or a driver's license; she didn't even support her local beauty shop!"
"What, there's not supposed to be any truth in obituaries? When someone has won the Nobel Prize we print that in an obituary. When someone accomplishes exactly nothing in life, why don't we print that? Doing absolutely nothing is a statement, Frank, a response to life. It's news, it's interesting."
"Ruthie didn't get her obituary printed, either." Frank held up another shaking piece of paper. "So you were assigned to writing wedding announcements. That's just a job of taking dictation. You don't even have to be responsible for the main fact, the wedding, because it hasn't taken place yet. Your very first announcement read, 'Sarah and Roland Jameson, first cousins, are to be married Wednesday in a ceremony restricted to family.' "
"Crisp," Frank agreed.
"To the point."
"Absolutely to the point."
"And," Fletch said, "factual."
"Took talent, to dig that story out."
"Not much. When the mother of the bride called, I simply asked her why both the bride and groom had the same last name."
"And she answered you without hesitation?"
"She said they were first cousins?"
"She said their fathers were brothers."
"And neither the bride nor the groom was adopted, right?"
"Frank, I checked. What do you think I am?"
"I think you're an inexperienced journalist."
"If the rules of journalism apply on political and crime and sports pages, why don't they apply on obituaries and wedding-announcement pages? Newspapers are supposed to tell both sides of a story, right? Pah! Sundays we devote pages and pages to wedding announcements. Why don't we give equal space to divorce announcements?"
"News is news, Frank."
"You think that by writing obituaries and wedding announcements in this heavy-handed, factual way is how you re going to get yourself assigned to the sports pages, is that it?"
"Truth is truth, Frank."
"Someday, Fletcher, may you be a victim of someone like yourself.'' Through his pupils dipped in clam juice, Frank looked at Fletcher. "You're getting married Saturday?"
"Yes. Next Saturday."
"Barbara has the day open."
"Unless the purpose is to have children," Frank said slowly, "marriage is a legal institution guaranteeing only that you get screwed by lawyers."
"You don't believe in true love?"
"True Love ran at Saratoga Saturday. Made a strong start, faded fast, and ended at the back of the pack. I suppose you expect time off, for a honeymoon?"
"Barbara's rather counting on it. That's another thing I wanted to see you about."
"You haven't worked here a year yet. In fact, some say you haven't worked here at all yet!"
"Yeah, but, Frank, how many times in life do you have a honeymoon?"
"Don't ask. Why are you so sunburned?"
"I ran in the Sardinal Race yesterday."
"Your hair looks like it hasn't crossed the finish line yet."
Fletch smiled. "There's a story there."
"In your hair? I'd believe anything is in your hair."
"In the race. Do you know about the Ben Franklyn Friend Service?"
"Guess I don't."
"Basically, it's a company specializing in health and prostitution."
"You call them and this sultry voice answers, saying, 'Ben Franklyn Friend Service. You want a friend?' Only sometimes she slurs a little, and it sounds more like, 'You want to, friend?' "
"You call them often?"
"The guys on the desk played a joke on me one night. They told me to phone out for pizzas and that was the number they gave me. The girl on the phone was trying to set up an appointment for me, and I kept asking if she had anchovies and pepperoni. I guess she thought I was a pervert. You ought to call them sometime."
"I need a friend."
"So I looked into 'em. Big business. Beautiful girls. All of 'em in great physical condition. They're made to work out, you know?"
"What's the story?"
"They were running yesterday. In the race. All of 'em. A flotilla of call girls. About twelve of them, all together. Running through the city streets. Downtown. Wearing T-shirts that read in front, You WANT A FRIEND?, and in back, BEN FRANKLYN. They all made it to the finish, too."
"So what's the story? Don't tell me. I've got it." Frank put his hands to his forehead. "STREETWALKERS JOG--"
"CALL GIRLS COME RUNNING?"
"Consider their leg muscles, Frank."
"I'm all excited."
"They were advertising their business, Frank."
"So where did you finish in this race?"
"Right behind them. I was following a story, you might say."
"Faithful to the last."
"You're not getting the point."
"These call girls were using a city-run health and sports event to advertise their service.''
"So a few prostitutes ran in the city footrace yesterday. Why shouldn't they? Not against the law. They wore T-shirts advertising their services. Gave thrills to a few dirty old men leg-watchers standing on the curbs. So where's the story?"
"You ran pictures of them today. On your sports pages. Coming and going. Front and back."
Frank paled. "We did?"
"Jeez!" Frank grabbed the News-Tribune off the floor and turned to the sports pages. "We did."
"There's the story."
"You mean, we're the story."
"Gave a call-girl service a nice big spread. Lots of free publicity. Have you heard from the archbishop yet? How about the district attorney? Any of your advertisers object?"
"Damn. Someone did this on purpose."
"You need me on the sports pages, Frank."
"Look at the caption. Oh, my God. Physical beauty and stamina exemplified by employees of the Ben Franklyn Service Company who ran together yesterday in the city's Sardinal Race. Group finished near end of race . . . I can't stand it."
"They weren't in any hurry."
"Neither were you, apparently."
"You were just telling me never to get ahead of my story."
"Get up and come into the office early Monday morning . . ." Frank was tearing through the competing newspaper, the Chronicle-Gazette, on his desk, trying to find the sports pages. ". . . Have to waste the damned day firing people . . ."
"The Gazette didn't run pictures of the call girls, Frank. Front or back. They just ran pictures of the winners. Jeez, they practice tired old journalism over there.''
Frank sat back in his chair. He looked like a boxer between rounds. "Why did I have to start off the week by seeing you?"
"Bring a little freshness to your life. A few laughs. Shake you up a bit. Make you see a few things differently, like a couple of photos on your sports pages.''
"You own a necktie?"
"I've never seen it."
"It's holding one end of my surfboard off the floor."
"I suppose you're serious. What's holding up the other end?"
Fletch looked down at the top of his jeans. "A belt someone gave me."
"I decided over the weekend to give you one more chance." Frank looked at his watch.
"You're going to try me out as a sportswriter!"
"No. After all, what companies do is expect youth, energy, and experience all from the same person. That's not fair."
"The police beat? Fine!"
"Thought we might try knocking a few of the rough edges off you."
"City Hall? I can do it. Just give me a score card."
"So I figure it's experience, polish, you need. You do own a suit, don't you?"
"The courts! Damn, you want me to cover the courts. I know how the courts work, Frank. Remarkable how little they have to do with the law, you know? I--"
"Society. Seeing you're so quick to identify deceased people who never accomplished a damned thing in their lives, and point out to the public first cousins who intend to marry each other, I think you might have a little talent for covering society."
"You mean society, like in high society?"
"High society, low society, you know, lifestyles: all those features that cater to the anxieties of our middle-class readers."
"Frank, I don't believe in society."
"That's okay, Fletch. Society doesn't believe in you, either."
"I'd be no good at it."
"You might be attractive, if you combed your hair."
''Little old ladies slipping vodka into their tea?''
"Habeck. Donald Edwin Habeck."
"Didn't he once try out as goalie for the Red Wings?"
"If you read anything other than the sports pages, Fletcher, you'd know Donald Edwin Habeck is one of this neighborhood's more sensational attorneys."
"Is he on an exciting case?"
"Habeck called me last night and said he and his wife have decided, after much discussion, to give five million dollars to the art museum. You're interested in art, aren't you?"
"Not as poker chips."
"He wants the story treated right, you know? With dignity. No invasion of their privacy, no intrusion into their personal lives."
"Frank, would you mind if I sit down?"
"Help yourself. I forgot you ran slowly in a footrace yesterday."
Fletch sat on the rug.
"Thanks. La-di-da philanthropy."
"Finish the verse and you may have a hit song."
"Frank, you want me, I.M. Fletcher, to do an arm's length, hands off, veddy, veddy polite story about some for--God's--sake society couple who are giving five million pieces of tissue paper to the art museum?"
"Polite, yes. Why not polite? Here are a couple of people doing something nice for the world, sharing their wealth. Curb your need to report Mrs. Habeck slips vodka into her tea. Time you learned how to be polite. By the way, I can't see you over the edge of the desk."
"Well, you'd better reappear. You're meeting with Habeck in the publisher's office at ten o'clock. Pity your necktie and belt are holding up your surfboard."
"God! Any story which starts with the reporter meeting the subject in the publisher's office isn't worth getting up for."
"See? You're improving as a journalist already. You just ended a sentence with a preposition."
"I won't do it."
"Fletch, I'm pretty sure you'd be just as attractive working a pick and shovel in the city streets. You wouldn't have to wear a necktie, belt, or comb your hair. I can arrange to have you leave here Friday and you and Lucy can take as long a honeymoon as you can afford."
"Might make a nice weekend. And her name's Barbara."
"I thought so. Sunday bliss with Barbara. Tuesday with blisters."
"Frank, why don't you let Habeck write the story himself? He's paying five million dollars for the privilege."
Hamm Starbuck stuck his head around the office door. He looked at Fletch sitting cross-legged on the rug. "It's that kind of morning, is it?"
"So far," Frank answered. "Floored one. After glancing at certain photos on the sports page, I see I have a few more to floor today."
"Frank, were you expecting Donald Habeck?"
"Not me. John's expecting him. He should be sent to the publisher's office."
"He'll never make it."
"No. He's dead in the parking lot."
Frank asked, "What do you mean?"
"In a dark blue Cadillac Seville. Bullet hole in his temple."
Fletch sprang off the floor without using his hands. "My story!"
"Guess we should call the police."
"Get the photographers down there first," Frank said.
''Already done that.''
"Also Biff Wilson. Has he reported in yet?"
"I radioed him. He's on the freeway."
"Biff Wilson!" Fletch said. "Frank, you gave this story to me."
"I haven't given you anything, Fletcher."
"Habeck, Donald Edwin. Was I supposed to interview him at ten o'clock?"
"Fletcher, do me a favor."
"Get lost. Report to Ann McGarrahan in Society."
"Maybe there's a necktie in my car."
"I just made a career decision," Frank said to his desk.
"What's that, Frank?"
"I'm not coming into the office early Monday mornings anymore."
Copyright© 2002 by Gregory Mcdonald