It was the first phone call from my son’s school that I’d ever gotten at work, and of course I immediately think the worst. I’m a divorced father who catches glimpses of his 17-year-old son on weekends, snapshots of his life ever since I split from his mother, and suddenly my guts go into free-fall with the knowledge that anything, absolutely anything could have happened to him. Failing grades. A drug habit. A fatal overdose. Whatever it is it’s my fault, entirely my fault for not being around.
These jolly possibilities shoot through my brain in less time than it takes to sneeze. If they ever have a Guilt Olympics, I’ll carry the torch at the opening ceremonies.
The caller identifies himself as the Headmaster, and I can feel sweat breaking out along my hairline. This is the guy who writes letters to me and the rest of the parents, asking for contributions to fill in the “gaps” not covered by tuition payments. Those payments come to about $24,000 a year, two grand per month, including February, which has just twenty-eight days. I’ve always been proud of myself for never writing a contribution check, not once, not ever. I probably wouldn’t have written the tuition checks, either, except that those payments are part of my divorce agreement, and if I miss one I’m in court, and as much as I hate writing a tuition check, it beats the hell out of writing a check to a lawyer.
That’s not quite true. The truth is that unless my kid goes to private school, he’ll wind up in a school where he has to pass through a metal detector every day, and who wants that for their child? Like so many parents trapped on the island of Manhattan I do what I have to do, and tell myself that it’s well worth the nightmares triggered by ever-deepening debt.
My mouth has gone dry. I have to lick my lips before daring to ask, “Is my son hurt?”
“Oh, no! Nothing like that!” The guy chuckles apologetically. “Forgive me for frightening you, Mr. Sullivan.”
Actually, this is just the jolt I need to burn the fuzz off a hangover I’ve been nursing all morning. Now, at least, I’m clear in the head. Nothing like a death scare to blow the pipes clean.
“Why are you calling?” I ask, nearly adding the word “Headmaster” to the sentence. It’s a funny word, that one, the kind of word you’d sooner associate with leafy English boarding schools than you would a soot-stained brick building on the Upper West Side.
The Headmaster clears his throat. “It’s a matter I’d prefer to discuss in person. Could you come to my office at one p.m.?”
An hour from now. “That’s not a great time for me, Headmaster.”
“I thought maybe you could extend your lunch hour.”
“I don’t get a lunch hour. Look, his mother will be back in town on Monday. She’s really the one who handles educational matters.”
My son is obviously not in a life-and-death situation. It seems fair to pass this mysterious mess off to the ex, the one who selected and insisted upon this school in the first place.
“I’m afraid it can’t wait,” the Headmaster says. “I feel I really must see one of Jacob’s guardians today.”
Guardians. He actually says guardians. That’s a bad news word, if ever there was one. I start to sweat all over again.
“What the hell did he do?”
“One p.m., then?”
“Yeah, all right, I’ll be there.”
He couldn’t have picked a worse time for a meeting. The newspaper goes to press at two p.m., and the story I’m working on this particular day is a bit complicated, and so far I’m not getting anywhere with it.
The story is this: was that bottle of liquid Britney Spears was photographed swigging from during a stroll with her elaborately tattooed boyfriend a bottle of whiskey, as the editors of the New York Star would like to believe, or a bottle of ginseng, as Britney’s publicist vows it was? Believe it or not this is our third day covering this matter, and the bosses are eager to stretch it to a fourth. It’s just an excuse to publish the photos over and over, but by now our excuses are starting to seem a little lame.
It’s also a tightrope walk, legally speaking. The words have to be just right, all your “allegedlys” and “reportedlys” tucked in place, which is probably why the story goes to a crusty old rewrite man like me. I’m good at this shit, it both shames and thrills me to say. I can imply things without actually saying them. I can titillate without showing tits.
And now, suddenly, I’ve got to dump this hornet’s nest into somebody else’s lap so I can go and see the headmaster at a school I haven’t set foot in for more than five years.
The day city editor is a prematurely balding Australian named Derek Slaughterchild, and I’m not looking forward to telling him I have to bolt with a deadline coming up. Slaughterchild is one of those guys who learned young that the way to move ahead in the tabloid news game is to go through the day with a pained, miserable look on your face, hang around long past your shift and always be anxious. He believes that work done in a state of panic is better than anything achieved in a state of relaxation.
And that’s pretty funny, because his father, a lovable alcoholic named Malcolm Slaughterchild, was his polar opposite. Malcolm was the day city editor back when I was a copyboy, nearly thirty years ago, and no matter what was happening I don’t think his pulse rate ever changed. Moments after Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan everyone in the newsroom was running around screaming, and as I handed the latest wire copy to Malcolm he took a deep breath, ran a hand through his thick, silvery hair and murmured, “This could alter my dinner plans.”
Apparently such a temperament skips a generation. Malcolm and his ruined liver were dead and buried, his son was alive and miserable, and here I was, damn near fifty years old, screwing up my courage to ask for the afternoon off. Working for a tabloid newspaper is a little bit like being in high school forever. They scream your name when they want you and treat you like an untrustworthy child, and prom night never comes.
He looks up at me squinty-eyed, the light from the overhead flourescents making his scalp gleam at the crown, where his hair is thinnest.
“You wrapped up?”
“We really need a new angle on this Britney bullshit, Sammy. Got to freshen it up, mate.”
“Yeah, well, sadly for us there wasn’t a second photographer on the grassy knoll.”
If he gets the Kennedy reference, his face doesn’t show it. “What have you got, then?”
“Derek, we broke the story. Then we broke Britney’s denial. Then we went to the man on the street for his opinion. The only thing left to do is wait until she checks into rehab.”
For the first time, he seems interested in something I have to say. “Is she checking into rehab?”
“I have no idea. But I don’t think there’s any way you can abuse ginseng, so I’d say it was unlikely.”
Derek picks up the photo of Britney and stares at it like a man hoping to hear voices from above. Suddenly he says, “What about her body language?”
“Her body language, mate.” He runs a bony finger along the length of Britney’s body. “The way she’s positioned. Does it or does it not indicate whether she’s drinking a health supplement, or whiskey?”
If you ever find yourself working for a tabloid publication, remember that it’s important not to laugh at moments like these. You’ve got to take every editor’s suggestion as seriously as Marie Curie took the tons and tons of dirt she boiled to get that one little teaspoon of radium. The only difference in the tabloid game is that you boil tons and tons of bullshit to get one little spoonful of dirt.
My heart is hammering away. I am actually afraid to ask this man for the afternoon off. I am ashamed of myself for being afraid to ask. I am angry at myself for being so cowardly about the whole thing.
And I’m gasping as if I’ve just run a hundred yard dash.
Derek notices. “Are you all right, there, mate?”
I force myself to calm down, wondering where the tumor that’s sure to be triggered by all this pent-up anxiety will strike me - lungs? Liver? Kidneys? Ten years from now, I’m going to die of cancer of the something-or-other because of my reluctance to ask for a few hours off in the middle of a work day. This is insane. I’ve just got to go ahead and do it.
“Thing of it is,” I begin, fighting unsuccessfully to quell the quaking in my voice, “I’m going to have to hand the story off to somebody.”
Derek’s eyes narrow. “Why must you hand the story off?”
“I need to duck out of here for about two hours.” I’ve picked a bad verb with “duck.” It sounds like I mean to run out to the racetrack, but it’s too late to worry about it now.
Derek is shaking his head. “I need a reason, mate.”
I stare at him long and hard, this son of a man I liked very much, a man who used to bring little Derek to the newsroom when he was a toddler. He had a red fire engine that he’d roll back and forth along the floor, and once one of its rubber wheels came off its rim and rolled out of sight, so I got down on my hands and knees and found the little black doughnut under a desk and squeezed it back onto the rim, good as new. I handed the truck back to the teary four-year-old and urged him not to cry, because everything was okay, and the kid even thanked me for what I’d done, unbeknownst to anyone but the two of us.
And if someone had tapped me on the shoulder that day and told me that the cute kid in short pants would grow up to become my boss, busting my balls over a request to take a few hours off from work, who would have believed it?
Of course, there is a way out. I could tell Derek that it’s an emergency of some kind involving my son, but I wouldn’t even share my zip code with this man, much less a problem from my personal life. I’m actually suffering a miniature nervous breakdown, here, having imagined everything up to and including my son’s death, and all I want to do is get to his school and find out what the hell is going on.
“Derek,” I manage to say, “just trust me. I have something important to do, so I’m going.”
“No, you’re not,” he sing-songs.
“Leave now and you’re fired.”
He says it flat-out, no emphasis on the word “fired,” no real emotion in his voice. He means what he says, and not only that, he’s happy to say it. This has been building for months now, I suddenly realize. He knows I think he’s a lousy editor, and he can taste my contempt for him. I guess he’s grown tired of the taste.
I’m not exactly dealing from a position of strength. I’m one of the dinosaurs in the newsroom, older than most of the reporters by fifteen, twenty years. The paper has always been lousy but there was a time when it was the best lousy thing around, funny and irreverent and occasionally even sympathetic to the plight of the little man. We used to do stories about honest cabbies who returned lost wallets. Now the only time we write about a cabbie is when he turns out to be a suspected terrorist, or when a celebrity stiffs him out of a tip or pukes in the back seat. Mostly we’re up the asses of celebrities - following them, photographing them, trying to guess what they do with their genitals, and how often. It doesn’t take much to become a celebrity anymore so the field is huge, a cluster of idiotic young people either posing for the camera or pretending to dodge it.
Something in me snaps. Suddenly, my fears are gone. All that’s left is rage, but it’s not a blind rage. In some weird way, this is exactly how I wanted it all to play out - me versus the asshole in charge.
I clear my throat and say, “You’re going to fucking fire me, Derek?”
He’s almost smug about it. He leans back in his chair and folds his hands together behind his head. “You heard what I said. If you want permission to go, I’ll need a reason.”
I think it’s the word “permission” that does it. It’s in the same league with “guardian.” Suddenly, the ridiculousness of it all comes into diamond-hard focus. I am literally embarrassed by the way I have spent my working life.
I want to bash Derek’s face in. There hasn’t been a newsroom punchout since the old days, when boozing chain-smokers would mix it up and then buy each other drinks after hours. Now nobody smokes, and nobody fights. The reporters belong to gyms and exercise in Spandex pants, to the barking commands of their personal trainers. When conflicts arise, they phone their lawyers. I know that if I touch Derek, I’ll wind up in court. Enraged as I am, I remain sane enough to know I don’t want to go to court, so I can’t hit him.
All I can do is leave. In my head, I can hear the drum roll that precedes my next words.
“I’m going now, Derek.”
“You’re fired, Sullivan.”
These are the words every man in the world is supposed to fear, right up there with “It’s inoperable,” but the first thing that hits me is the absurdity of the fact that this little weed should have the clout to speak such a sentence. A short, perfect sentence, noun-verb, bang-bang. Hemingway couldn’t have put it more succinctly, and Derek Slaughterchild is no Hemingway.
I look at my hands, where I can feel a tingle of blood flooding to my fingers. Without realizing it I’d balled my hands into fists and loosened them at last at the words “You’re fired,” and what, I can’t help wondering, would a body language expert have to say about that? (“Loose hands? Well, it’s clear that deep down, you’d been clenching your fists for many, many years, and not until you were free of this miserable job did you finally relax...”)
I rub my hands together, push the blood along.
“So that’s it? That’s all there is to it?”
“Give your notes to Hoffmann.”
“There aren’t any notes, asshole!”
I’m practically shouting. Derek picks up his phone and dials. “I’m calling security,” he says, his voice suddenly gone shaky. “You’ve got five minutes to pack up.”
I walk back to my desk, every eye in the newsroom on me. The only good thing is that a few years back, when the thrills had gone out of my job, I got rid of all the shit that had accumulated in and around my desk, so I have nothing to pack - no files, no personal effects, nothing. It’s as if I always knew my departure would be sudden and ugly.
And I have no photographs to take off my cubicle walls, because I never hung any pictures here. I hate the whole idea of trying to turn the workplace into a little piece of home. This was never home, it was where I went to make money.
Hoffmann is looking at me over the border between our cubicles, both fascinated and scared, as if getting fired might be contagious. He’s about fifteen years younger than me, single and wild, a true cowboy of tabloid journalism. His blind quotes always sound as if they’ve been spoken by the same person, a person who sounds a lot like Hoffmann.
I put on my jacket, straighten my tie, tap on the partition separating me from Hoffmann. “Feel free to knock this down and make a duplex, Hoff.”
“Are you really fired?”
“I am canned goods, man.”
“Aren’t you going to appeal it?”
Hoffmann extends a hand over the partition to shake with me. “I’m really sorry, Sammy.”
“Water my plants, would you?”
“You don’t have any plants.”
“Good point,” I say. “Good luck with the Britney story.” I walk to Derek’s desk for the last time. His hands are trembling as he pretends to read the latest edition of the newspaper.
“Hey Derek - ”
“Don’t come any closer! Security will be here any minute to escort you to the sidewalk.”
“Fuck security, I’ll be gone before they get here. Listen to me, Derek.”
He sighs with mock impatience as he looks up at me, feigning courage. “I’m listening.”
“I’m sorry I fixed your fire engine that time.”
He stares at me in genuine wonder. He doesn’t remember the favor I did him, all those years ago.
I flip him the bird and begin my final walk down the long hallway to the elevator. The walls are covered with framed front-page stories from years gone by, three or four of them written by yours truly, back in the days when my heart harbored something that resembled hope.
I have been a reporter at this newspaper longer than I have ever been anything else. I didn’t love the place, and much of the time I didn’t like it, but I did fit in here, and now I’ll never be coming back. I guess I should be crying, but I’m not. I’m just numb over how such a momentous thing could happen so abruptly.
I don’t know what my next move will be. For that reason I’m almost glad I have to go to my son’s school, to find out what this fuss is all about.