Monday, March 28, 2011

Short Story: Profile

This is the OTHER, and in my opinion better, story I wrote for my fiction class last semester. I would have posted it sooner but I had to wait and make sure it didn't win the Scribendi competition (which it did not) so here we go. Quick notes, this one is a little longer than The Game. Also, any perceived similarities to my life are purely coincidental...;->

Profile

Brent sat facing an empty desk. He tapped his foot on the floor and thought about the phone calls he needed to make. Outside, the sun was rising and the rays hit the blinds at just the right angle to enter the otherwise dimly-lit room and produce a soft orange glow. Behind him the door shut, and he heard Mike walking toward him.

“You know why I called you in here?” Mike asked, slipping into his leather chair.

“I do.”

“And you are aware that you screwed the pooch on that Bernstrum article?” Mike said, leaning forward and placing his hands on his desk, his fingers interlocking into one giant fist.

“I am.”

Bernstrum, a local businessman, ran a rather successful appliance store that had just recently expanded into the tri-county area. He was a family man, a tithe-payer, and a lousy driver after a night out. Two weeks before, Bernstrum had wrapped his Hyundai around a particularly large tree. His passenger was a 17-year-old gem who at the time was wearing little more than the apron Bernstrum Appliance employees wore behind the register. The airbag, along with the bourbon bubbling its way to his liver, had knocked him out, meaning he didn’t have time to pull up his pants before the authorities and, more importantly, Brent arrived -- camera in hand.

It was a decent story as it was, the kind of front page juice that made people look up from their pancakes and show their wives. Brent knew, however, that no misstep comes to the prom alone so he dug. Turns out Bernstrum funded his nights out with Tanya with the help of some petty cash from the company and what was a nice little tale of “when good men go bad” was suddenly an old-fashioned scandal. His sources wouldn’t go on the record, but Bernstrum was guilty as hell and no small-town broom-pusher was going to go through the hassle of a libel trial, so Brent slapped together a bundle of allegations and anonymous sources and sent the puppy off to print.

Ethical? Not even slightly. Brent knew the black, white and grey of journalism but in today’s market, where every day another paper went under, the only ethics that he cared about was what got readers to the page. His editor, Mike, thought the exact same thing but had to play his part, which is why he was sitting, just then, in Mike’s office getting his slap on the wrist.

“If this guy sues us–”

“You can’t sue unless you’re rich or you’re innocent,” Brent said, “and Walter Bernstrum is neither. The guy is already waist deep in statutory quicksand and he knows that if he starts to squawk libel then the authorities will look into his finances and find the same things I did – the legal way – and then we’re home free.”

Mike was silent for a moment. He closed his eyes against a mental strain and let out a slow purposeful breath.

“All right, we’re safe. But that doesn’t change the fact that you broke every rule in the book. No listen to me, you built a story on unsubstantiated claims and published defamatory information without a single source.”

“It’s true, who cares who said it,” Brent said.

“The readers expect—”

“The readers don’t expect shit and you know it,” Brent said. “You think they asked themselves ‘gee, I’m not sure if this information in credible’? No, they laughed at a stupid man who was dumb enough to get caught and then turned to the funnies at the back.”

Another moment passed and Mike leaned back in his chair. His head was near the wall of the office, just below a framed front page from the 1972 Watergate scandal. There were about 4 similar portraits around the room but Nixon’s folly was placed front and center. Mike had told Brent once that reading about Watergate was what lit the match. He was just a kid at the time but he dreamed about the day when he would blow open the doors with truth. He still had the fire, but Brent had noticed that he looked more and more exhausted every day.

“You’re off the news desk,” Mike said at length.

“Wait just one—”

“No. You know I’m being soft. If you were anyone else you’d be sitting on your hands for a month. Cameron has a story for you, we’ll talk again in a couple of weeks.”

“Mike, come on—”

“No,” Mike said, grabbing a pen and working at a paper on his desk. “You’d better get going on her story if you want to get paid this month.”

Brent sat staring at the top of Mike’s bald head. In truth, he had expected this. It wasn’t the first time he had been exiled to the features section for bad behavior. Most of the writers would kill for the bump to features but not Brent; he was a news man through and through. He knew there was no use arguing, mostly because it was less an argument than a mere formality, so with a sigh he got up and headed out to the newsroom.

Brent pushed open the glass door that separated Mike’s office and was immediately struck with the surge of a hundred sounds. Telephones were ringing, people were scampering by making dull thumps on the carpet and a chorus of keyboards being struck at between 80 and 100 words per minute clicked off-tempo in his ears. He ducked around a passing intern carrying six steaming coffees and entered a corridor of cubicles. After about 40 feet, he came to a halt at Cameron’s desk.

Cameron was facing her computer at an angle that allowed her to see his approach and allowed him to see only the profile of a curt smile she was being obvious about suppressing. She was wearing a light blue collared button-up and sat with the poised comfort of a yoga instructor. Her brown hair was pulled back loosely, coming to rest just past the top of her shirt. Brent tried not to notice the way her slender neck vanished into the fabric.

Brent and Cameron had started working at the paper at roughly the same time. Back then, they were two beat reporters in over their heads. In no time at all, they began a friendship that immediately turned romantic and just as quickly crumbled into something that couldn’t quite be defined. They would spend a month together in the purgatory between friends and lovers and just as they were passing into a more official phase Cameron would begin to act strange, ask Brent “what they were doing,” declare them to be, once and for all, merely friends and vanish. Two or three weeks later she would appear on his doorstep, “to visit” she would say, and the entire process would begin again.

There were a few times during the years that a suitor would squeeze into her life. It would never last and like clockwork, she would be back. The entire office knew, but after Cameron graduated to an editor’s desk it became a workplace faux paux to discuss the boss’s love life.

“So,” she said without turning from her monitor, “I hear you’re my bitch.”

“Like I wasn’t already” he said under his breath just loud enough for her to hear and sat down at the chair in front of her desk. The corners of her lips turned upward in the most subtle and fleeting responses of understanding.

“So what’s the story?” he asked.

“Profile piece,” she said. “Don’t roll your eyes. Get her talking and you’ll have so much human interest the readers will choke on it.”

“Human interest?” the words tasted sour in Brent’s mouth. “Come on Cam, can’t you get some rook to bust this out?”

“That’s what we’ve been doing for six months and it’s become boring and predictable. I want someone with chops to shake up the page.”

“Who’s the subject?” Brent asked.

“Dolores Allred.”

The name caught Brent’s attention and made him focus. “The mayor’s wife?”

“The mayor’s widow,” Cameron answered with a gleam of satisfaction in her eye.

The honorable Mayor John “J” Allred had served the city for 20-plus years. On multiple occasions, Brent had poured through legal documents and tax records, searching for any sign of wrongdoing but J ran a tight, spotless ship. He was old-school and tough as nails, with the Solomon wisdom of traditionalism that commanded respect. J never asked for your vote, he seized it with the benevolent ease of it already being his, and the buses always ran on time.

For a split second, Brent thought that maybe now, six years after his retirement and a year after his death, the skeletons might appear. He looked back over his shoulder and saw Mike standing at his office window with his hands on his hips, eyes fixed on Brent. Brent shook the thought away and reminded himself that this was not meant to be that kind of story. Besides, it was nearly hopeless. J really was too good to fall.

“Didn’t we already—“

“No. We’ve quoted her hundreds of times, but we’ve never taken a good look,” Cameron said. “Plus, it’ll be nice for you to write a story for once where not everyone in the world is a horrible person.”

With that she turned, grabbed a notepad and scribbled an address and phone number, handing it to Brent.

“She’s expecting you,” she said, and added: “don’t scare her.”

Brent took the paper and stood up to leave. Cameron returned to her monitor and began typing at a furious speed. He paused, wondering what her dinner plans were for the night but immediately pushed down the idea. Experience had taught him that if he chased, she’d run. He turned to leave when she stopped him.

“Brent,” she said, not lifting her eyes from the screen. “What are you up to tonight?”

Brent smiled and began walking away, calling over his shoulder: “8 o’clock, I’m making pasta.”

. . .

An hour later he was out the office door and heading uptown. He had called the number Cameron gave him and marked an interview for later that day. After stopping at a bakery and buying a bagel – strawberry cream cheese – he walked next door for an Italian soda. He’d given up coffee years before; even for a journalist it made him anxious and decaf tasted like shit.

Brent ate in his car, listening to the radio. A political science professor with a snobby name from a university back east was talking on NPR about the evolution of communication.

“… as the technology continues to evolve, we will see a shift in the manner in which information is gathered and passed on. Every facet of the human experience – science, religion, politics, art, entertainment – will become collaborative and traditional sources of information will cease to exist. We’ve already begun to see this change in the realm of literature and journalism and for the time being publishing houses and newspapers are clambering to reinvent themselves in a digital format when really they should just accept their own demise. They are a relic of the past, much like the telegram, and will soon discover that there is no latitude…”

Brent shut the radio off and finished eating in silence. Ten minutes later he was on the freeway and after another 20 minutes he was off, winding through the back roads of a residential neighborhood where the houses seemed to grow in size with each mile. After getting lost twice, he doubled around and arrived at an attractive two-story home. The lawn sloped gradually up to a porch about 30 yards off the road, where four concrete steps led up to a white door. It was there that he knocked.

The knob turned with a resolute calm and swung inward. In front of him stood 60 inches of wrinkles, blue veins, and wispy white hair that flowed on an invisible breeze like spider webs.

“Mrs. Allred, it’s lovely to see you again.”

“Thank you, Mr. Samuels,” she said. “Please, come in.”

She was old, certainly, but she was not feeble. She walked on steady legs and shook his hand with a firm grip. She led him between two walls of photographs to a small room, Spartan in its cleanliness, and invited him to take a seat while she went to the kitchen for some lemonade.

Sitting alone, he scanned his surroundings. A large window faced him, guarded on each side by identical padded chairs which faced a cream two-seater couch on which he sat. Between the opposing forces was a glass coffee table, located at the center of the room on top of an oval, burgundy rug. Next to one chair stood a modest table, upon which sat a single black and white photograph of a young couple. The man wore a uniform, the woman an elegant gown.

His hostess returned carrying a tray with two glasses and a pitcher of opaque yellow liquid. She poured him a glass, which he accepted with a “thank you,” then filled another halfway and carried it to the chair, setting it in front of the photograph.

“Before we begin I just wanted to express our condolences on behalf of the paper. All of us thought very highly of your husband,” Brent said.

“Thank you, I know he would appreciate that. J always respected the work the Post did for the city, and he was of fan of your’s Mr. Samuels.”

Brent smiled at the thought, imagining the mayor reading one of his exposés over a plate of toast. A mayor, of all people, should read the local paper, and true to form J was one hell of a mayor.

“So,” she began, “what can I do for you?”

“Well, as my colleague no doubt explained, we would like to write a story about you,” he answered.

“She said something to that effect, yes,” Dolores said with more than a hint of sarcasm, “Though, if you don’t mind my saying, I worry you’ll find me a boring subject considering your usual fare, Mr. Samuels. Was there no one to bring to justice this month?”

Brent chuckled and took a sip of lemonade. “I can assure you I mean you no harm. Just trying something a little different.”

For more seconds than he liked, they sat staring at one another. He was unsure where to begin. He had written his share of geriatric profiles and was accustomed to patiently begging his subjects to stay on topic as they eagerly presented photo albums, old letters, and quaint unusable stories about their nosey neighbors who, may they rest in peace, had all usually passed on only to be replaced by rambunctious teenagers that played their music too loud. Frankly, he had never had to begin the conversation before and only now did it occur to him that he didn’t have a plan.

“What is it you would like to know?” she said at last.

“Why don’t we start with how you and J met?” he said.

“Are you ready to begin?”

Brent produced a tape recorder from his pocket and pushed record, setting it on the table in front of him. He clicked his pen, flipped open his notepad and lifted the glass in his right hand to his mouth to take a long draught of lemonade. He swallowed, smacked his lips and placed the glass down.

“Yes.”

She talked calmly, but relentlessly like the water of a deep, wide river as Brent furiously jotted down notes, trying not to lose her. She had grown up in the country. After preparatory school she moved to the city to study to be a nurse. It was there that she met her husband, an ROTC cadet with a jaw like a jackhammer. No sooner had they been married then he was called up to fight the Germans in the big one.

Unlike most of her military-wife friends, she was not content to measure her contribution in the sock-knitting gossip circles, so she made herself useful by working at a military hospital stateside. The men under her care were a special grey area of injuries where they were too injured to potentially return to active duty but no so injured that their death was more pressing than the time it would take to ship them home. Mostly, she saw severed limbs; arms and legs amputated or blown to pudding by shrapnel. There was hardly a patient that wasn’t missing an eye, an arm, a leg, one of each, both of one, or the whole lot. She changed their bandages, pumped them full of pain meds and whispered in their ears about how everything would be ok and their girls would love them all the same.

Like all things, the war ended eventually. She got a shiny pin; J got a purple heart for taking some fragments in the thigh. He came home running and jumping and every year his limp got just a little worse. They moved to the suburbs, had a brood of rambunctious boys, handed out candy at Halloween and went to church every Sunday. She told him about hand-painting signs for J’s first campaign, about city council meetings where she had watched her husband shout himself hoarse, about coordinating the city’s annual 4th of July celebrations and meeting each new daughter-in-law, more beautiful than the last. After he retired from public service, they filled their days gardening, walking along the river and sipping lemonade on the deck while the sun set. At 72 his heart failed. It was quick, as far as deaths go. She woke up and found him clutching her hand with a smile of peaceful acceptance. She told him how she had felt that morning, and how every day since she’d had nothing to live for.

“I’m sorry?” Brent interrupted.

“Yes, Mr. Samuels, nothing to live for,” she repeated calmly. “I don’t mean it in the adolescent, ‘danger to myself and others,’ way. My boys are grown and have families, my husband is gone and I am merely waiting to join him.”

Brent recalled to his mind the image of a senior citizen. They rambled aimlessly and clung to the past as thought it were the life vest that would keep them from drowning in irrelevance. Yet, here was Dolores Allred. She was healthy and strong. She had saved lives during a war. She had married and supported one of the most respected individuals the city had ever seen. She was one of the most respected individuals the city had ever seen. And now she was sitting there saying her life was over?

“Surely, Mrs. Allred, with all of your accomplishments…”

“Mr. Samuels, my greatest accomplishment was marrying the man I loved. We spent 51 years together and now he is gone and there is nothing of comparable worth that I’m am ever going to do again.”

With little more than a slight inflection in her voice she had finished speaking. She looked at Brent and it was then that he became aware of the pen dangling lifelessly between his fingers.

When had he stopped writing? He glanced down at his notepad and discovered that it had, in fact, been quite some time. He stole a quick glance at his recorder, relieved to see the wheels still spinning, next to the now-empty pitcher of lemonade. He looked up at the woman. Her face was shaded and the silhouette glowed on its edge from the setting sun sneaking through the blinds.

“Well,” he stammered, clearing his throat, “it’s getting late. I had best be going.”

“Did you get the information you needed?” she asked.

“I think so. I may call you in a couple of days with one or two follow-up questions.”

He stood slowly, grabbed his recorder, collected his pens and paper with a pensive tranquility, shook the woman’s hand and turned to head for the door. He stopped, one hand on the door knob.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for telling me your story.”

“Oh, it’s no problem dear.”

He opened the door and stepped onto the porch. The last gleam of the sun was disappearing over the hills. The evening was calm but the first hint of night’s chill was pinching his skin.

“It’ll be dark soon,” she said, “be safe as you drive home now.”

“Oh, I’m not going home. I’m going to the office,” he said. “I have to write.”

“In that case you should just stay on this road,” she said pointing towards town. “You lose about 10 minutes but it takes you alongside the lake and comes out right by the library. It was always J’s favorite route to the office.”

“Thank you, I might,” he said and with a wave turned to go. By the time he heard the door shut behind him he was already planning the article out in his head. Wife and closest confidante of a giant, mother of three, bringing soldiers home with every stitch, first lady of the city. It didn’t take long, though, before her last statement came back to his mind. For some reason he could not shake the thought of Dolores Allred welcoming death as a release from loneliness. And what’s more, speaking of it like it was the most perfectly natural thing in the world.

His mind scanned a book of memories – dinners, movies, first kisses, nights at his apartment – then turned to the memories that weren’t there. Thanksgiving dinner with the family, quiet walks by the lake, a glass of lemonade under the setting sun. And then he thought of a day long in the future, when he would die and wondered to himself what it would be like to love someone so much that the meaning of their life would die with you.

He opened the door to his car and sat down. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out his phone and dialed Cameron’s number. There were five long rings followed by a recording of her voice..

“Cameron, it’s Brent. I’m going to get a head start on this article so I might be running late. Go ahead and let yourself in and I should be there by 8:45. And Cameron … there’s something I want to talk to you about,” he hung up the phone and threw it over his shoulder into the back seat.

Bringing his car into gear he drove forward 20 yards to an intersection and signaled a turn towards the freeway. The car sat idle, its left light blinking rapidly. After a minute, the blinking shut off and the car pulled forward slowly through the intersection.

1 comment:

  1. Hey I had to stop in the middle to go get Jaren up and I kept thinking about it and wondering what was going to happen - a sign of good literature. :) Very nice. I like the ending! Underneath that layer of cynicism lies a romantic I know! :) Well done.

    ReplyDelete