Tag Archives: marriage

Searching for Sanity – Chapter excerpt

14 Jan

 

Happiness considered 

 

man standing on brown rock cliff in front of waterfalls photography

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Chapter 3

“You want to what?”

Sam Sneed lowered his head and ran a single hand over his nearly bald head. His eyes narrowed, forming a frown on his face. He looked up from his desk in his small office at Steve.

“I want to write some stories about happiness,” Steve said. “A long series.”

“Happiness?” Sneed said.

He shook his head. Sneed was a small man, close to retirement age, who’d been editor of the Meckleysburg Times Tribune for more than twenty years. He’d worked his way up to the position after many years as a reporter. He oversaw a paper that reported on the usual happenings that many papers serving small cities captured—local government, crime, happenings in the community. And, of course, there was the sports section, a department, separate from the general news-gathering operation.

“I want to interview all sorts of people. What makes them tick. Why they do what they do with their jobs, their off time. Where they see themselves in the grand scheme of things.”

Sneed was now staring at Steve, like he was deranged.

“Steve. I mean … happiness?”

“It’s an important topic. Maybe the most important issue of our times.”

Sneed continued staring at Steve. He lurched back in his chair and looked through the big window of his office that afforded him a view of the newsroom.

“The newspaper needs to do something different once in a while,” Steve said.

“Oh, here we go with that again.”

“It’s true.”

Sneed came forward in his chair and shuffled some papers on his desk. “Seems to me like you got enough to do with other stuff.”

“I can handle it.”

Sneed raised his brows and blinked. He looked down at the floor. “What about those novels you write? Don’t you get into that stuff in your books?”

A good point, Steve thought. “Sometimes … sure.”

“Then why this?”

“I want to talk to actual people. I want to really explore this topic of happiness.”

And now Sneed smiled. “You know what would make me happy? Standing on the first hole at Green Valley with a driver on my first day of retirement.”

“So. That would really make you happy. Huh?”

“Throw in a cold beer waiting for me at the eighteenth hole and I’ll be ecstatic. At least for that day.”

“Interesting. You want to retire?”

“Sure.”

“Why? Aren’t you fulfilled in your job?”

Again, Sneed leaned back in his chair. The question, Steve realized, seemed to amuse the editor. “You always were a little bit different Steve. You’ve done some good work over the years, although sometimes you seem to get bored, off track with things. Like that time you led the reporters revolt and you all walked off the job for a day.”

“We hadn’t had a raise in six years,” Steve said, still seething from the memory.

“Okay,” Sneed said, raising a hand. “Let’s not dredge up old bones. Go ahead if you want and do your series on … what is it? Happiness? Now leave me alone. I got work to do.”

 

 

“Really. He’s going to let you do a series on happiness.”

Frusty looked intently at Steve as they sat across from each other at the small table of the Chinese Wall restaurant. He took a bite of his egg roll and shook his head. “Who will you talk to?”

Steve gestured with a hand toward the window behind him. “Hell. Out there. The people are everywhere. Living their miserable lives. Sitting in their homes wasting it away in front of the boob tube holding their TV flickers. Making that death march to work every day.”

Frusty stopped from biting into his egg roll. His eyes widened. “Hey. That sounds like my life.”

“No offense,” Steve said. “But … well.”

“Nobody is going to open up to you about their inner self.”

“Oh? Let’s try it out. Are you happy Coy?”

“C’mon.”

“Well?”

“Are you?”

“No.”

“Well there you go,” Frusty said, crossing his arms and throwing Steve a smug look.

Steve poked at the noodles floating in his bowl of Won Ton soup. He looked off into the kitchen rich with the aroma of Chinese food cooking where he could see people furiously busying themselves with preparing meals.

“You think these people are happy?”

“Who?”

“This Chinese family working their tails of every day. The same routine over and over.”

Frusty’s eyes squinted toward the kitchen. “I think they may be too damn busy to give it much thought.”

“Really?” Steve said. “So, you’re point is that keeping busy is the solution to happiness?”

“Well, kinda. Yeah. I mean … work keeps your mind occupied, free of all the other crap going on.”

“And that’s why you work so damn hard?”

“I think we already established that I’m not happy.”

“But you’re content with your job and your big screen TV and NFL football package and your nice house and a wife.”

“You were going good there till you mentioned the wife,” Frusty said with a grin.

“So, I guess you are kind of miserably happy. Coy Frusty, a victim of inertia, unwilling to change, settled in and counting down the days till retirement.”

“Something like that Steven. Something like that.” Frusty pushed his plate of rice away and looked at Steve. “And what about you?”

“I can’t say I’m happy either. I’ve never been crazy about having a job with a boss. Writing about stuff that doesn’t get me fired up.”

“But you have a job.”

“I have a job. You’re right. And it does pay the bills.”

“Right. I guess that’s my point. I mean …. What can you really expect out of life? Hardly anyone gets the life they really want. That’s just reality.”

Frusty stared at Steve.

“What?” Steve said.

“The divorce. It was tough on you. Wasn’t it?”

Steve sighed. “At first. Yeah. Kind of a shock really. I mean … I think we were like a lot of couples. We kind of drifted apart after so many years of marriage.”

“Wasn’t she always complaining about money? How you didn’t make enough of it at the paper?”

“Yeah. Sure. That was part of it. And she had always wanted kids.” He thought of the miscarriages. After all these years, it still hurt. “But then we got into our forties and that ship had kind of sailed.”

“Yeah. Marriages aren’t perfect. That’s for sure. But I think there is more good than bad with them.”

“For some people maybe.”

They exchanged smiles.

“Was it Freud who said if you’re happy in the bedroom and happy in your work, you’re a happy man?”

Frusty laughed. “Well. He just might have been on to something.”

They walked out of the restaurant. It had been a wet summer, one of the wettest in memory, and the fall foliage that Steve always looked forward to had arrived late this year. Off in the distance, the trees on the hills across the river that swept past the small city were aflame in bright fall colors on this brilliant warm autumn day.

“What a great day huh?”

“Makes you glad to be alive,” Steve said.

“So. Am I your pilot test case?” Frusty said as they walked the two blocks back to the newspaper.

“I didn’t think about it, but I guess you kind of are.”

“What the heck. Use anything I told you, but don’t include my name.”

“Well. You know how we both feel about anonymous sources in stories.”

“Oh hell Steve. Do what you want. In this age of social media and everyone bearing their souls to the world, what the hell does it matter?”

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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.