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AUDIO (VOICE-OVER): "A mystery solved is a fine remedy for death. It suggests there is sense, or justice, in the messy unraveling of mortality. It presumes to clean up ragged edges, explain all events and sell it back: case closed. Such a nice feelingwhile it lasts"
10:00:00 a.m. Sign-on
Bad days are the raw material of life. Good days are earned. Apparently, I was undeserving as well as unemployed.
"Sorry, Rich. I'm solo."
"Not anymore. Not if you want this job," Richard Gatt shot back at me. Picture your typical Midwestern fireplug of a guyshiny head, white button-down oxford and a blunt, booming voice.
I could feel my interview smile warping into a grimace. Must have made for a fabulous ensemble, with my current suicide-blonde-in-leather-pants look. My fingertips worried the seam across my knee. My lucky pants.
News flash: the pants weren't working either.
"Come on, Richard. Why tie up resources? I'm a one-woman show. It's part of my charm." I attempted the smile that once got me out of a cardboard box and into a bullet-proof truck in Somalia. Works pretty well on bartenders, too.
Gatt ducked his chin into his collar. I caught a tinge of blush on his unprotected forehead. He pulled a handful of sugar packets out of his desk drawer. "We can help each other out here, O'Hara. But if you want this job, you gotta train my kid."
"Kid?" The sudden deja vu resulted in serious stomach acid.
News of Gatt's job opening was whispered in my ear by a friend at the tippy-top of the network-TV food chain who owed me a favor. WWST was a small sister station camped in western suburban Chicago Land. Not exactly top ten, but Gatt was the only program director in the state looking to hire a producer for a position that offered both salary and benefits. People in jobs that sweet sat tight until ratings offed them or they actually died.
It wasn't my dream job. But I'd stopped feeling picky two months ago. Too long between gigs. Every freelancer knows the feeling that creeps over you as the jobs spread thinner, the fear that what you've got insideall your dreams and abilitiesno longer match what's happening outside. If you aren't working, you're a fraud.
My stomach issued another warning shot.
Gatt pretended not to hear it. He ripped the tops off three sugar packets and dumped them all into his cup at once. "We want stories with a local slant. Warm-fuzzy Midwest shit. Local, but with national appeal."
"Sure," I said. Local but national. Oxymorons are Television Marketing 101.
"How much do you know about this area, O'Hara? They told me you're local."
"I grew up in the city. But my parents brought us out this way occasionally. My dad used to race dirt bikes when I was a kid. We'd always end up picnicking at that war museum out here where you can climb on tanks while you eat your tuna sandwich You know the place I'm talking about?"
"Cantigny." Gatt nodded.
It was one of many grand summer homes dotting the farm county, built by Chicago's landed gentry of a century ago. Cantigny's owner survived France and the First World War. His house was a monument created to display the souvenir tanks-cum-lawn-ornaments he'd brought home.
My grandfather survived that same war. He claimed all he'd been allowed to bring back was a bad case of foot rot.
We did the mutual yeah.
My eyes kept straying to the window behind him. The view from Gatt's office was the visual definition of horizontal. Farmland at the horizon blended into a field of grassy weeds that ended at the black-topped parking lot.
War. Tanks. Foot rot and flatland. Unfortunately, local story associations weren't looking very warm and fuzzy.
Gatt bent his mouth into something like a smile. "Born and raised in the city myself, O'Hara, and I'll tell ya, this ain't Chicago. But it has its moments, you know? Small town. People know people. Sometimes reminds me of the neighborhood." He raised an eyebrow and opened his palm, the regional gesture for your turn.
"Grew up in Longwood." The far south side neighborhood I hadn't seen in years.
"Then you know what I'm talking about. Neighbors help each other out."
Translation: the kid Gatt wanted me to train was a favor. Payback.
The best way to think of a Chicago neighborhood is like a clan designation. Clans are all about relationships and alliances. Favors are the currency most often traded. I might know somebody; I'll make a call is Chicagoan for money in the bank. Who you can call is the last best measure of the good life, whether you need a driveway plowed, a ticket fixed or a special-order birthday cake from a really good German bakery.
Out on the East Coast, it's all about the pedigree. On the West Coast, it's only about the pay stub. Here on the Third Coast, it's the clan pact.
From the look on Gatt's face, the only way I was getting this job was if I agreed to train his kid.
Settling deeper into the chair, the faux leather protested with the kind of rude noises my pants would never dream of making. "First things first, Richard. Let's hear what you've got."
Exactly what the man was hoping I'd say. "Network's launching a new magazine show, half-hour format. It's a late-season fill but they'll go sixteen weeks if it gets any kind of numbers. Most of it'll come to us in the can. They're leaving a hole for each market to drop in a local story."
"We get four to six minutes," Gatt said.
I nodded. Six minutes was a hell of a lot of network time. "What's the time slot?"
"Pre-prime or first half hour. They want to see if we can pick up viewers drifting from the news. You'll produce one story a week. Schmooze the network crap as necessary." Gatt spun the scenario without fuss. "Deliver the story to engineering before we pick up the satellite feed and that's it. You don't even have to cut me promos. Those assholes in promotion need to stay busy, or they start bitching about what kind of doughnuts they're getting free every morning."
Free? Any money bet, most of those people didn't clear 30K a year for the privilege of working here at the crap-end of the business.
"What's the angle?" I tried to sound like it didn't matter. Like I hadn't spent the last ten years building a reputation. "What kind of stories they looking for?"
"Crime, sex, local movie stars. Whatever you get that captures a 'Midwest sensibility.'" He put little air quotes around the words. "New York will help set you up."
"The 'Midwest sensibility' on crime, sex and movie stars?"
He shrugged, what can you do?
Sound effect: Ker-flush. That would be my reputation going down the throne in the name of health benefits and geographic stability.
There aren't a handful of women in this world who make a living freelancing in international crisis scenes. It took me years to earn the respect that would buy me access. Years before I got the chance to take the picture people remember, be the one that shouts, Look at this! Do something!
And one phone call is all it took to send it down the tubes.
"But" Gatt raised a finger in the air. "I don't care how many New York big-shits you get to blow smoke up my ass, O'Hara. You want this job? Train my new guy. He can camera for you. Drive the truck. Whatever."
"How 'new' is this guy?"
Gatt made a show of adding another pair of sugar packets to his coffee mug. "First job. Got his card last month."
"Just got his union card?" I almost laughed. "A college newbie who doesn't know an f-stop from No way. That's not going to work."
The man flopped backward in his chair. He was so short it made him harder to see behind the cluttered landscape of his deskthree years of flip-page calendars, a dozen remotes for the monitors behind me, piles of color-coded files, a tower of old black tape boxes and a phone that could double as a NASA console.
"Let's be honest, O'Hara." He spread his hands. A classic how-bad-do-you-need-it move. "I'm willing to offer you a nice predictable gig, but I don't want the station left high and dry if, or should I say when, you decide to blow."
He had a point. "I'd have to meet this kid first."
"Sure you do." Gatt hit a button on his phone. Nothing happened. He jabbed at a few more, grumbled a few expletives in the back of his throat, then stood up, which didn't really make a lot of difference to my overall view.
"Barbara! What the hell is going on here?" he shouted in the direction of the door. "Barb's my assistant. My absolute right hand. Make her happy, she'll take care of you. Make her unhappy, everybody suffers. Barbara! Damn it, I'll be right back." He walked as far as his office door, flung it wide and shouted, "Barbara!" at the top of his lungs.
I could see from where I was sitting, there was no Barbara at the nearby desk. Gatt disappeared through a side door to the WWST reception area, a time capsule of early '80sretro with a touch of grunge. Dark paneling and mirror tiles on the walls, olive-colored carpet with a plastic runner, and orange burlap upholstery on the lobby chairs. A stunning first impression.
The nasal drone of the receptionist drifted this way.
"I don't care if her entire family has Ebola. You promised me coverage from nine 'til five, Monday through Friday. Either you get someone in here to answer my phones or I tell Mr. Gatt we're doing an ex-pose-ay on a certain local weasel who runs a temp agency."
It was a voice you didn't forget. On the way in, the woman had looked me up and down and assumed I was a courier. Didn't care for the biker boots or the leather pants. The boots might be a little butch, but the pants were my mother's finest Gold Coast Goddess knockoff. What's not to like?
"Barbara," Gatt whined. "What the hell are you doing at reception?"
"What does it look like I'm doing? And I will tell you right now, Richard, I go on break at ten. I don't care if this whole switchboard crashes."
"Where's Katie?" he asked.
"Schmed's got her unpacking boxes."
Gatt grumbled something I couldn't hear. "Leave it. Go find the boy. Please," he added with some effort.
"You don't pay me enough for this, Richard," she threatened. "I am serious."
He came back into the office rubbing the top of his shiny head. "Okay. Ainsley's on the way."
"Ainsley? Are you shittin' me?"
"No, Ms. O'Hara, I am not 'shitting' you." He plopped back into his chair and answered deadpan, "It happens to be an old family name. Ainsley Prescott is my sister's kid, so I'd appreciate you keeping it clean around him."
"Your sister's kid?" My mouth stayed open. Possibly from the foot I'd inserted there.
Maybe it's the same everywhere, but the majority of men in the television business seemed to have only recently evolved from the single-cell organism. Behind the scenes, we've got the engineer geeks who think it high-end comedy to splice beaver shots into color bar preroll, and behind the closed doors upstairs we've got skanky VP executives waving their standing invitation to lunch. Talk about something that'll put a girl off her feed.
You learn to cope or you get out. Harassment is CDBcost of doing businessif you're a female in Television Land. A little garbage mouth helps. I learned early how to do the boy patter, what would help me pass and what wouldn't. Most of the women I know in this business cuss like soldiers, skim the sports pages enough to blend and would personally scoop out their eyeballs with plastic spoons before they shed tears in public.
What was Gatt expecting me to teach this kid?
A quick knock was followed by a bright blond head around the door. "Hello?"
"Come on in, buddy." Gatt took a swallow of his candied coffee and waved.
Welcome, Ainsley Prescottposter child for the Aryan nation, all flaxen haired and sweet smelling. He flashed me a mouthful of sparkling teeth and popped out his hand to shake.
I turned back to Uncle Gatt. "I don't work with stand-ups."
The kid's perfect smile down-shifted from eager to encouraging. The offer of his hand was not retracted.
"Ainsley's not talent," Gatt assured me. "He wants to camera."
"I want to produce," he corrected and pumped up the output on his Kegel-watt grin. "But I'm willing to start with camera."
"Sure you are." I forced myself to smile back and take his hand.
Nearly six-foot in my boots, I'm tall as the average American man and could probably bench-press him too, if he'd stick around long enough. I usually get a pretty good feel for a guy by eyeballing him in the clinch and watching for flinch.
Ainsley didn't flinch. He tipped his head nearer my ear and in a private voice added, "Cool pants."
Gatt beamed, the picture of a satisfied matchmaker. "Look, Ms. O'Hara, you want this job, Ainsley gives the tour, shows you to the truck and you two go get to work. Our first feed is next Wednesday. So there's"
"less than a week to produce the story." Typical.
"That's right." Gatt started making himself busy sorting his stack of phone messages. I was being dismissed. He had me and knew it. "You don't want the job, say so now. I got a conference call in five minutes."
I looked the kid over again. He wore razor-pleat khakis and a white button-down shirt so squeaky clean-cut it hurt my teeth. Most camera jocks lumbered around in size double XL athletic wear. Ainsley barely topped six feet, had the beanpole build of a young man who hadn't fully grown into his feet and the smooth blue-eyed complexion of the perennial ingenue. How was he going to handle fifty pounds of camera equipment at a jog?
Ainsley's head flipped back and forth between Gatt and me, looking for one of us to say something. His smile faded on a sigh of resignation. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, elbows locked, exactly the way my eight-year-old niece, Jenny, does when she's worried.
What the hell. I'd made a career of specializing in disasters.
"All right. I'm in." I accepted Gatt's deal with a grim nod.
Gatt looked relieved. "Great. You're hired. I'll get Barbara going on the paperwork. You have a look around. Make some calls. Like I said, we need something in the can by next Wednesday."
Looking at Ainsley, all I could think was I'd have to change my damn hair color. Side by side, we'd look like the freaking Bobbsey twins.
"Awesome," Ainsley said. The smile was back.
"Go show her around, buddy." Gatt winked. The boy's charm wasn't lost on the uncle. "O'Hara, I'll set you up with the GM for a meet-and-greet later, and get your offer finalized today."
"Anybody pitched you a story idea for this week?" I asked.