Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Scoop" by Al Miller (chapter 2)

1961
Fifteen. That’s a terribly awkward age for a boy. Too old to play “guns,” but too young to drive a car. Old enough to be interested in girls, but too young for them to waste their time on you.  So you begin to do weird stuff just to get attention. You wear your hair long, not because you like long hair, but because your parents and teachers hate it. You put on weird color combinations. You decide to die half of your hair green and the other half red. You wear your hat backward and you tell weird stories about ghouls and monsters. Trouble is, no matter how hard you try, you’re still a geek. The girls treat you as though you had the plague. They only have time for those “older boys;” the ones who are sixteen. And you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you’ll never reach that age no matter how long you live.
Then there’s the English class. The teacher expects you to write about flowers and romantic scenery and a lot of other “girly” stuff. But you don’t want to write at all, let alone a bunch of sissy, romantic garbage.
So there’s Journalism class. I loved Journalism class. You get to write about neat stuff like car accidents and plane crashes and earthquakes. You know: stuff with real gory details. So one day the teacher gives us a special 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.”


Tommy Sutherland. He was my best friend in the whole world. When we were in Grade school, we used to compete to see who could make the most horrible face. Tommy usually won. He had a rubber face. He could even wiggle his ears and raise one eyebrow at a time. His ears were a little too large and came to a kind of point at the top. A few years later he could have played a Vulcan on “Star Trek.”
“Tommy,” I whispered. “You have any ideas?”
Tommy just looked at me and shrugged. “Search me, man. We’ll talk it over after class.”
“Tommy!” It was Miss Minor’s turn. “If you have something to say, say it to the entire class. Otherwise save it for later.”
“Yes Ma’am.” Tommy was nothing if not polite, especially to his teachers.
Five minutes later, the bell rang for the end of the period. Tommy and I were the first ones out the door. On our way to the lockers -- our lockers were right next to each other --  we talked about what we were going to write.
Tommy spoke first. “I think we oughta write about the war. Lotsa shootin’. Stuff like that. You know, like John Wayne was there.”
“Nah! I’d rather write about a train wreck. Lotsa gory details. People with their heads cut off,  lyin’ around moanin’. Maybe one of the cars could catch fire. People could be screamin’ in the background. Other neat gory stuff.”
“No good, man. That’s more like a reporter for a TV station. You can’t write good sound effects, you know. But maybe a car accident.”
“Or maybe a truck; a pickup truck.”


“Hey! Maybe the pickup gets run over by a train. A freight train with lotsa animals that start eatin’ up the people in the truck.”
“Ewe! Gross, man. Miss Minor’ll never let that one go. We gotta tone it down, or we’ll both get flunked. Maybe if we just make it a pickup truck with people ridin’ in the back, that oughta get ‘em. And nobody lives through it except the engineer.”
“I still like the animals bit.”
“Yeah! I know. But it’ll never fly, man.”
“Okay, but maybe later we could . . .”
The bell rang again, and we were late for our next class. It was Biology and everyone else were already getting out their frogs for dissecting when we walked in. Mr. Golding, the teacher, gave us that look that withers the soul. We just sneaked back to our lab table and started working without saying a word.
*
The paper had the desired effect. Miss Minor’s face turned purple from reading it. “Couldn’t you boys find something a little more normal to write about? This sounds more like a horror movie than a newspaper article.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” answered Tommy, “but what if it really did happen that way? Wouldn’t a real reporter have to tell the entire story just like we did?”


There was a long pause while she collected her thoughts. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. But unless you know something I don’t, this is fiction. Couldn’t you have come up with something a little less gross?”
I spoke up. “Yes, Ma’am, but if we’re going to be responsible reporters, we may have to write a story like that someday. Isn’t that true?”
Another long pause. Finally she spoke again. “If you ever do become reporters, I just hope you never have to write anything that terrible. But because you’ve evidently tried to be descriptive, I’ll grant you a B minus on it.” A cheer went up from the class who had secretly enjoyed the whole thing. “But next time you will try to keep the violence under control, won’t you?”
“Yes, Miss Minor,” said Tommy.
“Yes, Miss Minor,” I parroted.
Tommy looked at me and winked. We both knew this wasn’t the end of the matter. After all, there were too many good stories out there to be made up. A little discouragement from an English teacher wasn’t going to put us off.
*
2001
Jake had been sitting, fascinated by the entire tale. He could hold his tongue no longer. “Do you mean to tell me you made this whole story up?”
“Every word of it.”
“Even the names?”


“Not a name in the bunch that didn’t come out of our own imaginations.”
“I’m sorry, Lance, but I don’t buy into this. It’s all too surreal. Besides, I can’t see boys back then taking the time to type out a manuscript like that. No misspelled words, no grammar mistakes. And where did you get the typewriter? I thought you told me once your folks were too poor to buy something like that.”
“We used one of the typewriters at school. They used them for typing class.”
“But you didn’t take typing class, did you?”
“Not really. But Gloria Aaronstien taught me how to type.”
“I thought you said the girls didn’t pay any attention to you.”
I thought for a minute. “Gloria wasn’t just a girl. She was more like one of the guys. She played baseball with us, went swimming in the creek, went fishing. She even baited her own hook. After a while, we didn’t even notice when she went skinny dipping with us one day. Course that was before she reached puberty. After that, she got a little shy.”
“So, where is Gloria these days?”
“She joined the Peace Corps. Said she wanted to do something that counted for. They sent her to Sierra Leone. She went back a few years ago. Decided to become a missionary. Last year, she was murdered by the rebels. Truly a tragic end to an otherwise wonderful person. The world is gonna miss her.”
We both sat for a while without saying a word. Finally Jake broke the silence.


“This is all too much for me. Do you honestly expect me to believe that you and this Tommy-what’s-his-name . . .”
“Sutherland.”
“You actually want me to believe the two of you wrote this piece forty years ago?”
I started to answer, but Jake gestured as though to push me away. “This is nonsense. Pure nonsense, or major coincidence. Either that or you’ve cooked up a major league scam for April Fool’s day.”
“Look,” I said. “Do you really think I would make up something this fantastic? This is major crazy. I don’t even know what to make of it myself. I really do hope this is a dream or something, ‘cause if it isn’t, I may be losing my mind.”
Jake gave me one final look of disgust and got up to leave. “I know you’re pulling something on me. Now lay off.”
As Jake walked back toward his desk, the office staff was returning from break. I sat for a few minutes, lost in my own thoughts. If I were listening to Jake tell me this story, I wouldn’t believe it either. I wasn’t even sure if I believed it myself, but it was all true, that is if I wasn’t dreaming. But the hangover was real enough. I don’t think I could have invented that. Nor would I even try to fool somebody. It hurt too much for that.


The remainder of the day was relatively uneventful. That’s the way it always is at a small daily paper. Typically understaffed, the really big stories just sort of pass you by. Oh, we got an occasional scoop; the bar fight, for instance, where the police just happened in and found a major fugitive involved. He was wanted for murder in Seattle. He found Loganville a good place to hide. He probably would have gotten away with it too, but Sam Whitfield happened to pick that particular night to get drunk and pick a fight with him. Jake was at the Police station when they walked in. There on the desk was a wanted poster with this fugitive’s picture on it. Jake made him on the spot. That was back in February. Other than that, it had been a very quiet year; that is until this pick-up truck ran into a train.
The evening was spent looking for a lead story, or any story. But the back streets of Loganville yielded nothing more than a dog which viciously attacked a chicken. By the way, the chicken was a Banty rooster, so the dog lost the battle.
So I decided to get drunk. This had gotten to be a regular event for me. It tended to fill in the void. After being fired from the Boston Globe, I thought I could find my place in a small town. But I missed the action of the big city. Nothing ever happened in Loganville. Maybe that was what was happening now. Maybe I was subconsciously making up the story to fulfill my desire for action. No, that couldn’t be it. The truck really did hit the train. And now I remember writing the story forty years ago.
They told me later how drunk I was when I left the bar that night. How I ever made it home on my own is a mystery. But the next day dawned as usual, and I awoke with a head the size of a watermelon, also as usual. When I could face the newspaper, I picked it up and began to read. As usual, I looked first at the dateline. “Monday, October 16,” I said out loud. After scanning the picture on the front page, I was afraid to read the story.
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