Another excerpt – Searching for Sanity

12 Jan

Chapter 2

“Look Steve. I don’t read books. I do enough reading sitting here every day going over my copy.”

“But it’s a great book. This Tom Waiter is a wonderful writer. You can really identify with these people he writes about.”

Steve watched Coy Frusty roll his eyes from his seat in front of the computer screen. It was mid-week of another late afternoon in the newsroom. Sitting before a couple of other computer terminals nearby were Sue Karinsky and Larry Moran.

Karinsky was an earnest young woman several years out of college, who dreamed of working for a big city newspaper, but couldn’t seem to break the ties of home. She was very close to her family. Moran was a kind of introvert, somber and serious, a quiet bookworm, who often engaged Steve in conversations about fiction.

“Who is that author?” Moran asked, peering around his computer screen at Steve.

“Tom Waiter. Check him out.”

“How do you spell his name?”

“Like waiter in a restaurant.”

Moran nodded and peered back into his computer screen.

“Has anyone read All the President’s Men?” Karinsky said.

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Long time ago.”

“I saw the movie,” Karinsky said. “Woodward and Bernstein. Pretty cool stuff. How they broke that story and stayed on in it like bulldogs.”

“Brought down Nixon,” Moran added.

“Really cool,” Karinsky said. “Do you remember that Steve?”

“Sure. I was born before the internet.”

“More like before automobiles,” Coy said. “Ha.”

“Look who’s talking Frusty. Those AARP magazines have been piling up on your desk for the past five years.”

“Ha. Good one Steve,” Moran said.

“Seriously,” Karinsky said. “You guys remember Watergate? That must really have been weird. Seeing the President get impeached and actually get tossed out of office.”

“Actually. Nixon resigned,” Frusty said.

“That’s right,” Steve said.

He leaned back in his swivel chair and looked at Karinsky then Moran. Jesus, he thought. The two copy editors were so young. Nineteen seventy-four, when Nixon flashed those peace signs before boarding the jet and flying off—his political career having crashed and burned for good. It was all so long ago.

“Do you think something like that can happen again?” Karinsky was peering around her computer screen once again.

“Ha. With the looney we got in the White House now, it’s possible,” Frusty said.

“Trump? Aw c’mon. He’s not so bad. Just a deranged narcissist.”

“Listen to Steve here,” Frusty said. “A liberal defending our president.”

“I’d love to be a reporter who breaks a story like that,” Karinsky said. She looked past Steve through the window behind him.

It was one of those bright, blustery November afternoons, a day to be outside where the wind could whisk you away someplace—far from this damn newsroom. Steve often paused from banging out stories to look out the window. From his desk he could take in part of the small city of Meckleyburg’s downtown, which of late, had undergone a kind of renaissance with restaurants and stores and artist galleries opening. The economy was booming right now, with no signs of slowing down. Unfortunately, the good times didn’t seem to help the newspaper’s revenues where Steve and his co-workers were stuck toiling away at full-time jobs, working odd hours and pulling down janitors’ wages.

“Not at this newspaper,” Frusty said. “You need to go somewhere else. Washington, New York, maybe even Philadelphia, where they do investigative reporting.”

“That’s my dream,” Karinsky said. “Maybe not those cities, but somewhere … a real newspaper.”

“And now you’re on the copy desk.” Moran said with a smile.

“I needed a break from reporting on school board meetings and fluff pieces that the local chamber of commerce hangs on its walls.”

“Ah well,” Steve said. “You’re young. You got your whole life ahead of you. As for me and Frusty here, we’re screwed. Too old to find other jobs …”

“And too old to give a shit,” Frusty added.

Frusty turned his attention back to his computer screen and resumed tapping away on his keyboard. Frusty was a grinder, the workaholic of the newsroom, constantly banging out stories seemingly for no other reason than he felt duty-bound to do it. Or maybe it was the boss, Sam Sneed, who wielded this kind of power over him. If Sneed needed someone to stay late and cover some meeting or make a few phone calls to get a story he felt was badly needed for the front page, Frusty was his man.

The few other reporters, Steve included, didn’t usually get hit up for the extra work. They were more eager to get home to babysit a kid or God knows what else. Steve had submitted to the extra work that came up too. That is, until the past few years, when he’d decided he’d had enough. He didn’t care about the overtime, basically a pittance anyway. Time was running out on his life, the gas tank was emptying, and he wanted to spend as little time as he had left not working.

“Oh. You guys aren’t that old,” Karinsky said.

“We’re old enough,” Steve said.

He turned to Frusty, who fought a smile, as he sat poised with his fingers for another attack at the keyboard.

“What?” Steve said, leaning across his desk toward his longtime newsroom mate.

“Not too old to still get it up now and then,” Frusty whispered, throwing the two of them into fits of near uncontrollable laughter.

“What?” Karinsky said. “What did he say?”

“Nothing,” Steve said. “Get back to work.”

Steve needed to get back to work too. There was that feature due on the soup kitchen’s closing. He had already done the legwork for that one, attending the last meal there with a couple of the nuns and the volunteers who ran the place and the poor, miserable folks who showed up for free meals there several days a week. Where were his notes for that story?

He also had phone calls to make. A guy no one had ever heard of was running for political office on the Green Party ticket. He wanted the same coverage for himself as the Republican and Democratic candidates. Fair enough. He had to have that story turned around by tomorrow too. Shit. There was always something. He asked himself again? Why had he ever gone into journalism? Hell, he knew the answer.

Steve picked up his iPhone from off his desk and tapped into the website. For the fourth time that day, the numbers were the same. No book sales. Seventeen books he had written over the past seven years and not a single sale since mid-October. Oh, so depressing.

He had started writing novels more than thirty years ago. This had come right after losing his first newspaper job. The reasons for his firing were vague. Something about a bad attitude, the boss had told him after summoning him into his office one bleak winter day.

He should have taken the dismissal as a sign. Maybe it was time to get out of the newspaper business. Why be a reporter when he didn’t enjoy being one? Sure, it was a job where one could make a small difference, challenging authority and making the powers-to-be squirm a little now and then. He’d never liked authority either. But, if truth be told, he was a bit diffident to ever be this hard-nosed, brash reporter, which in Steve’s mind, was the way the job should be done.

Instead, he’d played it safe his whole career (if a career is what you could call a low-paying, thankless gig), dutifully carried out his assignments and collected his paychecks. But he kept telling himself through the years: That was okay. He was marking time really, as he banged out stories in his spare time at home toward his real purpose of becoming a novelist.

But after all these years what had it really added up to?

His ex-wife, Gloria, had been supportive. For a while anyway.

“It will happen honey,” she said. “That New York publisher will send a limousine and we’ll be whisked away to the city for a weekend of literary parties and craziness.”

But as his thirties turned into his forties and he still found himself sending out query letters and manuscripts to agents that inevitably came back with the same “Sorry, not for us” message, he wondered if perhaps he had wasted his life trying to write the great American novel.

The divorce could have been blamed on any number of things. The miscarriages that aborted dreams of children and Gloria’s battles with depression, the fights over money and her nagging about him finding another job, “one that pays a living wage.”

And, well, he had tried other things—peddling janitorial supplies, driving a cab—but he’d always come back to reporting, which he knew best, and yes, somehow became miserably comfortable doing.

He knew what he was up against trying to write fiction. Hardly anyone ekes out a living at it, and yet, he continued to hold out this false hope that somehow, one day, the gods would look down benevolently upon him and declare one of his books the greatest literary achievement of his generation, at which point he’d quit his miserable, soul-sucking job forever and do what he was meant to do.

After all, it happened for Tom Waiter. This obscure blue-collar guy from The Plains had found literary fame at fifty-nine. Steve found himself thinking more and more of Tom Waiter. For a time, it seemed like every other day he was tapping the guy’s name into Google to find any little nugget of information about this literary wonder until he exhausted all sources.

Eventually, there was nothing new about Tom Waiter. All the magazine interviews and podcasts were dated. The internet search engines turned up nothing. Tom Waiter became like a murder case gone cold.

And yet, it kind of figured, Steve thought. There was something mysterious about the guy. The story about meeting the old man in the bar had been the last thing he read about Tom Waiter. Who was that man? And how had he changed Waiter’s life. Was the story true? Or, was it just a means of Waiter adding to his already mysterious and elusive persona. Perhaps his agent had concocted up the whole story to help Waiter further peddle his book.

The book, Dakota People, had been out for five years, and while it failed to become the number one book on the New York Times bestsellers list, it had nevertheless done quite well and been critically acclaimed. The stories resonated somehow with a great segment of readers, including Steve. But what had Tom Waiter been up to the past few years, and when would he come out with another book?

Steve returned to his desk and pulled the paperback copy from beneath the papers on the corner of his desk. He loved the front cover of the book: barbed wire stretching seeming into infinity across a Dakota wheat field at dusk. A lonely and desolate and mysterious landscape. Perfect. Tom Waiter’s mug shot on the cover revealed a man in a dusty ball cap, the words on the front of the hat indecipherable, the weathered and lined face of a working man, unsmiling, the somber eyes looking off in the distance.

And the stories. There were twelve of them. People, small town and rural folks, desperate souls, crying out for something. Perhaps meaning. Steve had read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio many years ago, in his eighteenth summer. These stories reminded him of those same misunderstood folks with longing and hunger in their souls. The very essence of Tom Waiter?

Steve had devoured Dakota People in two furious nights of reading. All two-hundred-fifty-one pages. The stories haunted him. The people of Tom Waiter’s world, hardworking and often tough, but so often beaten down by life, both physically and emotionally, part of it from relentless farm work and the raising of families, but perhaps more from an inability to articulate and quench a deep thirst or desire for something.

Tom Waiter had tapped into something that other writers had tried, but few had successfully managed to somehow portray: Mankind’s utter, futile struggle for not just meaning but happiness.

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One Response to “Another excerpt – Searching for Sanity”

  1. mreuther January 12, 2019 at 6:16 pm #

    Reblogged this on mreuther.

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