By Stephen Baily
“Close the door.”
Lamm eased it shut with the toe of his sneaker and sat down kitty-corner to Lyons at the head of the conference-room table. He’d prepared a joke for his arrival, but it remained uncracked on his lips, because Lyons, in place of the benign expression he usually wore, had assumed a solemnity that might have been copied from an undertaker.
“I’m afraid, Craig, you’re not going to be happy with your evaluation this time around.”
Lamm could hardly be blamed for disbelieving his ears. Not two days earlier, the state newspaper publishers’ association had awarded him a first place for headlines, and the plaque had already been added to the extensive collection hanging on the paneled wall behind Lyons.
“I don’t understand. After ten years, all of a sudden you have a problem with my work?”
It was just the two of them in the conference room, and the fluorescent fixtures hissed like a bad case of tinnitus as Lyons pushed a typed copy of the evaluation toward him across the varnished tabletop.
“What I’m unhappy about isn’t your work, it’s the amount of time you spend away from it. Is it possible you don’t realize you’re constantly on the phone?”
Lamm was flabbergasted. He couldn’t deny he made and received a lot of personal calls, but Lyons—who devoted a sizable portion of every hour to smoking in the parking lot, the hypocrite—had never complained about them before, and it didn’t seem to him the number had been any greater this year than in previous ones.
“I’ve never missed a deadline,” he finally spluttered.
“That’s beside the point. The company isn’t paying you to make plans to meet your friends at football games and rock concerts. You’re too loud, too. You’re disturbing people.”
“Who? Who complained?” Lamm demanded. “It’s Damrosh, isn’t it?”
She’d set her cap for him from the day she’d been hired as a reporter, but she was fat enough to be two women in one, and Lamm, a longtime jogger who was whippet-thin, had made an enemy of her by rebuffing her overtures.
“Who it is doesn’t matter. It’s your behavior that’s at issue and, as of now, you need to consider yourself formally warned to change it. That shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for you, though, so, if you’ll just finish looking this over and sign it, I’m running a little late for my own evaluation.”
As Lamm studied the indictment against him, he tugged nervously at his right ear, and Lyons was startled to see he was wearing a gold earring. In fact, Lamm had been wearing this earring forever, but Lyons had never noticed it before, because, with his short hair and taste for button-down collars, Lamm in all other respects was conventional in appearance to the point of invisibility.
Lyons suddenly remembered hearing somewhere that, if you wore an earring in your right ear, it signified you were gay. He was ninety-nine percent sure, however, that Lamm wasn’t gay, so maybe it was about earrings in the left ear he’d heard this rumor. Or was it earrings in both ears? He’d have to take that up with Google. Whatever the case, obviously he’d do well to keep a closer watch on Lamm. . . .
“What! No raise this year?”
“Can you look me in the eye and honestly say you’ve earned one?”
It was true the company’s annual cost-of-living allowances—or COLAs, as they were fizzily nicknamed—never kept pace with the federal index and seldom amounted to more than a few cents an hour, but there was the principle of the thing, and Lamm, deeply insulted, would have quit on the spot, but for his personal situation. Some years before, he’d married a pretty secretary in the ad department who’d promptly had three kids, gained sixty pounds, and become a religious nut. Their divorce, though bitter, hadn’t weakened his attachment to his kids, and as on their account he wanted to remain in Granford—where, other than at the Daily Dose, the demand for copy editors was nonexistent—he had no choice but to swallow his outrage and sign his evaluation.
Lyons—relieved to have this confrontation over with, because he was that rarity, a supervisor who didn’t get off on having underlings—went straight from the conference room to the editor’s glass-walled office at the back of the newsroom.
“Close the door,” Rocker grumbled from behind his desk.
The annual Christmas potluck had just concluded in the lunchroom downstairs, and he was still wearing the Santa hat he traditionally donned while carving the roast turkey that was the company’s magnanimous contribution to the festivities.
“I have to tell you, Jack, I’m very displeased.”
Lyons had barely had time to settle his considerable bulk across from him when Rocker thrust yesterday’s front page under his goatee.
“Notice anything amiss with the wild art?”
The three-column stand-alone picture in question was what the photogs called a TFC, for too fucking cute. In it, at a holiday fundraiser for some local charity, an eager ten-year-old perched on Santa’s knee was confiding his heart’s desires to the jolly old elf.
“Don’t tell me that’s you behind the beard?”
“I’m not joking, Jack. What’s wrong with that pic?”
Realizing he’d better get serious, Lyons gave the photo the professional once-over and promptly discerned—what had escaped him the day before—that Santa’s grin and beard were both suspiciously askew.
“I’d say Saint Nick’s had one too many.”
“I’d say so, too—but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s the kid. Look at the kid. Are you blind? Can’t you see? His fly’s open!”
In spite of himself, Lyons burst out laughing.
“You think that’s funny?”
Lyons got control of himself with difficulty. “I’m sorry, you’re right, that should never have run.”
“It’s your job to catch embarrassments like that. How could you miss it?”
“I guess I’m not in the habit of checking out little kids’ crotches.”
Rocker wasn’t interested in excuses. The truth was that, like many papers, the Dose was blessed—or cursed, depending on your point of view—with a handful of readers, retired schoolmarms, for the most part, who had nothing better to do with their lives than to comb through each issue for open zippers and their typographical equivalents. Rocker ached to tell these biddies off every time they called up to reprimand him—only the publisher’s policy toward subscribers could be summed up in one word: obsequiousness.
“Starting today, there’ll be zero tolerance for this kind of thing—is that clear?”
“Zero tolerance—I hear you.”
“I’ve warned you repeatedly, too, about such carelessness and, as it doesn’t seem to have sunk in, I’m sorry, but I can’t recommend you for a raise this year.”
Though Lyons had more than once in our hearing spoken dismissively of Rocker as “not a strong man,” he preferred signing off on his evaluation to making a stink about it. This was because, as a college dropout, he’d always be grateful to the company for having permitted him to rise to a managerial post. And anyway he could live without the extra pittance, his wife being a second-grade teacher with a top-of-the-line pension and contractually guaranteed pay hikes.
Moments later, Rocker, without taking his Santa hat off, descended the stairs to the publisher’s office on the ground floor to be evaluated himself. The publisher’s office was little bigger than a closet, but, as it stood at the intersection of four corridors leading, respectively, to the newsroom, the pressroom, the ad department, and the classified department, it was, unmistakably, the nerve center of the paper.
“Close the door,” Scroop said.
His nose needed a shave. That was the first thing that struck you when you went one-on-one with him—the coat of fur that covered his long-pinched nose from the nostrils to the bridge. It was as if you’d surprised him in the act of turning into a werewolf. But his cold gray eyes soon made you forget this disconcerting anomaly.
“So, Bob,” he said to Rocker, in the quiet voice he never had occasion to raise, because we all hung on his words, no matter how softly he spoke, “how would you assess the past year?”
Rocker at once sensed a trap. Though he met privately with Scroop almost every day, he knew better than to relax around him, because there was no telling when he’d pounce.
“I’d say,” he ventured cautiously, “it wasn’t half bad.”
“Then you’d be mistaken.”
“We won seventeen awards! That’s up four from the year before.”
“Bob. Bob.” Scroop’s tone was somewhere between weariness and contempt. “Do I really have to remind you we don’t put out a paper to win awards? We put it out to serve our readers, and their number continues to dwindle. So I ask you. Who am I to hold responsible for this decline, if not you?”
Rocker succeeded only in irritating Scroop by pointing out that the Internet, in combination with the implosion of the economy, was hurting papers everywhere.
“We’ve been the sole newspaper in Grenadine County for a hundred years,” Scroop said. “If we can’t hold on to our share of the market after all that time, then something is seriously the matter in this building, and the buck stops with you.”
For a moment, Rocker had the sick feeling he was about to be fired, but he was too serviceable an instrument for Scroop to consider dispensing with him.
“What it comes down to, Bob, is you’re in a rut. Any ideas how you can dig yourself out?”
“Lyons has been after me to let him tackle a redesign.”
“No.” Though the paper hadn’t changed its appearance for three decades, Scroop was unshakable in his conviction that our demographic was too old and shortsighted to be able to make out headlines in anything but ham-fisted Helvetica bold. “The answer isn’t cosmetic—it’s to reinvent the wheel. Here, look at this.”
He held up a copy of some daily in the midwest that was devoting a portion of its front page to a box headed “Wish Your Kid a Happy Birthday.”
“News out of Washington is all very well, Bob, but it’s not what people want from their local paper anymore. They want to read about themselves. They want to read about their kids. They want to know where they can find bargains. They want to know what restaurants have the fewest cockroaches. In a word, they want the newspaper to be their friend. Are you ready to be their friend, Bob?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
“Good.” Scroop tossed a copy of his evaluation at him for his signature. “I’m not saying you should drop the government news entirely, but start by moving it inside. Let’s see more local faces on the front. Let’s hear what’s happening at the Legion posts, the support groups, and the service clubs.”
Malleable though he was, Rocker might have gagged on this suggestion, if his eye hadn’t been distracted by the last paragraph of his evaluation.
“I’m not getting a raise?”
“You can’t really think you have one coming when circulation is down for the third year in a row?”
Rocker found it impossible to argue the point, but he left Scroop’s office not altogether in despair.
After all, his job still paid three times as much as Lamm’s and twice as much as Lyons’s, and it came with a number of perks, including membership in a health club at which he was under orders to swim daily laps on the company’s time, lest he die of a heart attack at fifty-five, like his immediate predecessor but one.
His immediate predecessor was fired after a year, for losing it in a fit of liberalism and calling the county commissioners wing nuts.
After Rocker’s departure, Scroop put on his suit jacket and headed out for his own evaluation—because, in business, even the boss has to answer to someone. As often as not it’s the IRS, but, in Scroop’s case, it was Ennis Vanderwarker, president and owner of the Daily Dose.
A plush corner office was scrupulously maintained for Vanderwarker on the second floor off the newsroom, but he was almost never seen in it. Now over seventy, he spent most of his time in his million-dollar home on the grounds of the Granford Golf Club, and Scroop, in pulling up to it, found the circular driveway crowded with cars belonging to members of Livia Vanderwarker’s Bible-study group. Despite the lateness of the year, the ladies had taken advantage of the unusually mild afternoon to move their weekly meeting onto the lawn, and Mrs. Vanderwarker—in her fifties, with frosted hair—waved at Scroop as he made his way past them to the front door of the house. Like Lamm, Vanderwarker had married his wife out of the secretarial pool and, though the marriage had produced no offspring, it had been successful in the sense that, after years of struggling, she’d finally prevailed on him to give up bourbon before lunch.
“No need to close the door,” he said, after leading Scroop into his study.
A wiry ectomorph afflicted with restless-leg syndrome, Vanderwarker had inherited the Daily Dose from his mother, whose father had started it in the back of his print shop when Granford was still little more than a muddy frontier town. Conglomerates eager to snap up the country’s few remaining independent dailies were always romancing him, but so determined was he to keep the paper in the family that he said no to the handsomest offers, even though his only heir, a ne’er-do-well nephew, had long since made it clear he cared less for inkpots than fleshpots.
“Well, Tom,” he said, tapping the spreadsheets on his desk, “the numbers are far from encouraging, but, by consolidating so many positions, you’ve managed to keep us in the black. I congratulate you.”
Scroop inclined his head modestly. “I learned long ago you can always ask people to do more for the same pay. Nobody works to capacity. They only think they do.”
“Having the supervisors look for pretexts to withhold COLAs saved us a bundle, too. Life may be getting more expensive, but you bet I agree raises from now on should be based exclusively on merit. Needless to say,” he added, “your own ten percent is assured.”
Scroop again nodded in grateful acknowledgment.
“Now, as to this idea you’ve had of moving presstime back two hours,” Vanderwarker went on, “I have to say I don’t see any downside to it.”
“Yes, and the upside is we’ll be on the street before lunch, which should boost single-copy sales. All those businessmen and out-of-town shoppers eating their solitary sandwiches in the restaurants will have us at their elbows now.”
“Where we belong. But you’re sure the change in time won’t cause problems on the desk?”
Scroop shrugged. “Those guys are animals, and they’re already coming in before dawn, so what’s getting up a little earlier to them? Besides, if they don’t like it, there’s another paper seventy miles up the freeway.”
Vanderwarker swiveled in his chair and, jiggling his knee, looked thoughtfully out the sliding-glass window. In Granford, the grass is always lushest in winter and, on the emerald-green lawn, the Bible students were intent on the testimony of a middle-aged guest speaker who’d made a career out of repenting the abortion she’d had at sixteen.
“We’ll weather this latest crisis, Tom,” he said finally.
“That we will, Ennis. We’re carrying next to no debt, and that’s bound to help us through.”
“The main thing is the town will continue to have its newspaper.”
“Because, without us, how are people to understand what lines can’t be crossed?”
“Granford’s in no danger of being deprived of that guidance on my watch.”
“I know that, Tom. I know I can depend on you.”
After Scroop, with a flourish, signed off on his evaluation, Vanderwarker saw him out to his SUV and then strolled onto the lawn, where the ladies were just rising from their meeting.
“Won’t you join us in our closing prayer, Ennis?”
He was only too happy to stand at his wife’s side as she and the others formed a circle and bowed their heads in silent devotion. True, it didn’t always happen that the spirit consented to descend upon them at such moments, but today, perhaps because of the participation of the master of the house, it did and, as one, they lifted their linked hands aloft. Some began to stammer and others to weep, but Vanderwarker, like the good journalist he was, came straight to the point.
“How am I doing, Lord? How am I doing, Jesus?”
About the Author:
Stephen Baily has published short fiction in over thirty journals. His novel “Markus Klyner, MD, FBI” is available as a Kindle e-book. He lives in France.