Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Scoop" by Al Miller (chapter 1)








2001
I’m not quite sure when it began. I only know that I first became aware of it on that terrible “morning after.” I had slept in that morning, fighting a hangover that felt like African drums beating a signal to the other side of the continent. But that wasn’t new. I’d been there and done that. It didn’t get any less painful, but the scenery was familiar. Breakfast, that morning, was strictly liquid: the kind with lots of Tabasco sauce. By eleven a. m. I was finally able to focus my bloodshot eyes enough to look through the morning paper. I looked first at the dateline, a habit I had long ago established. It helped me focus on the events of today without worrying about yesterday or tomorrow. "Sunday, October 15," I said aloud. The headline, as usual, told of another disaster: a train had run over a pickup truck. People had been riding in the truck bed, and no one had survived, as could be expected. It was odd. You see that type of headline hundreds of times in the newspaper business. After the first hundred or so times, you don’t even think about it anymore. Yet there was something striking about it. Was it someone’s name? Not likely. I’d never heard of any of the people in this story. Well, no matter. Just another stupid accident caused by someone who refused to follow the rules of common sense.

“On to other matters. As usual, most of the paper was advertising. Except for that filler article on page three. I didn’t realize Yul Brenner had made that many movies. Must have been a busy man in his day. Now how did that get back here on page six? Seems to be the rest of that headline story. They really do get terribly graphic, don’t they? Who wrote this article anyway? Must have been a really crude gore hound.”
I read on, looking for something else to take my thoughts away from the details. Yet I found myself drawn helplessly back to it. I turned back to the front page. “This is ridiculous. You’ve seen stories like this before. Wait. Yes. Here it is. The byline is . . . Oh, my. It’s Lance Latimer. That’s me. But I don’t remember writing this. I must have been drunk. On the other hand, it doesn’t sound like the ravings of a drunk; not even me. Still there’s something oddly familiar here. I’ll bet this is Jake’s work. Just like him to pull a prank like this. Well, I’ll get on his case when I go in to the office this afternoon. This is really crude. This isn’t even worthy of the worst rag in the business.”
I arrived at the office just after three. Jake was sitting in his swivel chair looking – I don’t know – smug? Well, it was time to call him to task.
“Cute, Jake. Simply cute. A bit gross if you ask me, but cute nevertheless.”
“Why, thank you Lance. I appreciate that. But just what is it that’s cute?”
“Yeah, go ahead, play dumb. But only you would play a trick like that on someone. Just how do you think you’ll get away with it though? As soon as the authorities get hold of that story they’ll nail you to the wall.” I was beginning to get a little angry. You can’t just run a fake story like that even in a little newspaper like the Herald. Someone’ll call you on it.”
“Fine, Lance. But just one thing. Would you mind telling me just what the heck you’re talking about?”

“Right. Like you don’t know. Listen. If the cops read that story, they’re gonna want to know what your sources were. What am I saying? They’ll want my sources. You’ve gotten me into a real pickle. You’d better type up a retraction right now before they . . . “
”Hey! Hold the phone there, Lance. Are you talking about that accident with the pickup and the train?”
I gathered all the sarcasm I could muster. “No. I’m talking about the article on the garden party. What did you think I was talking about? This is serious, man. We have to stand behind that story no matter . . . “
”Hey, man. You wrote the story. Besides, it’s all true. I checked on it myself before I turned it in.” Jake was beginning to look a little worried.
“Whadaya mean I wrote it? I don’t remember writing that garbage. I’d had to have been drunk out of my mind not to remember writing something that horrible. Besides, the story is too coherent to’ve been written by a drunk.”
“I’m serious, man. You sent the copy boy around with it last night about eleven thirty. Just made the deadline. Said to be sure and run it in this morning’s early edition.”
“Which copy boy was it?”
“Gee! I don’t know. It was a new guy. Blond hair, infectious smile. I don’t know his name. Must have hired on yesterday. Why?”
“Then how come I don’t remember the story?” Now I was beginning to worry. Maybe it was all true about drunks having blackouts and forgetting what they did the night before.

“Well, you didn’t look drunk to me when I saw you in your office. Maybe that was your double. You know what they say; everybody has one. Remember that Twilight Zone where some doubles kept showing up and taking over people’s lives?”
As we walked toward my office, Jake continued to ramble on, but I don’t remember most of what he said. I was too busy trying to remember writing the story. In my office, I began rummaging around in my own desk, trying to find my copy of the story. If I had written it, I would have kept a copy.
Jake chimed in. “Is this what you’re looking for?”
Jake handed me a typewritten manuscript. I looked it over. It was all there; every gory detail. Apparently I hadn’t missed a thing. “But this is written on a typewriter. From the typeface, I’d say it was an ancient Underwood. I haven’t even seen one of those in years. Heck, since they started using computers, I haven’t even seen an electric around here. Just where would I have gotten hold of an Underwood?”
“I don’t know, man. But that’s the manuscript you sent me.”
I sat down at my desk and looked at the story. “Why does this look so familiar?”
“Well duh, man. You wrote it.” Now Jake was getting a little sarcastic.

The more I sat there, the more the story looked familiar. The tense, the turn of phrase, even the punctuation. It was mine. No doubt about it. But when could I have written it. “I haven’t written anything like this since . . .” Then it began to dawn on me. I began to look off into space and dream. “I was in high school. Journalism class. Miss Minor gave us an assignment. ‘Write a story about some current event. Or just make one up. Pretend you’re a reporter. Make it sound real, like you were really there.’”
Jake looked puzzled. “I don’t understand. Are you taking some sort of journalism class, at this time in your life?”
“No. No, I already took the class. This was a class project.”
Jake looked even more puzzled. “But this just happened last night. How could you have written it before that?”
“You don’t know the half of it.” I said.
“Whadaya mean? How long ago did you take that class?” Jake sat down in the nearest chair to prepare himself for the shock. I looked at Jake, then turned around to look out the window behind my desk. After a long pause, I said slowly, “About forty years.”
The room became very still. After about thirty seconds, I turned around again to find Jake with his hand raised, his right index finger prepared to point. “But . . .” he began. “How could you . . .? If you wrote this . . .” He settled back into his chair again. This was just too much.
We both sat there for several minutes, afraid to speak. Jake was the first one to break the silence. “If you wrote this forty years ago,” he said drawing out the words, “how did you get all the details just exactly right? Some of the people in that truck weren’t even born then.”
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