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By her own choice, Margaret’s workday began at five a.m., about the time that Louis, the janitor, began buffing the terrazzo floor of the lobby of the Selby Reflector. Her job, transcribing four to five hours of thick, middle Georgia patois, required great concentration, and the daily arc of life in the newsroom did not begin until around nine o’clock, when the first reporters, still puffy-eyed from indulgences of the night before, began to mill in. Clutching brown-stained, steaming coffee mugs from Starvin’ Marvin’s, they would walk into the darkened room and find Margaret sitting at her computer, headphones on, her face ghostlike from the glowing, gray light of the monitor. The only sounds were an occasional squawk from the police scanner and the whispering clickety-clack of Margaret’s keyboard.
For three months, Margaret had been editing the new phone-in-and-vent column named Chatter, and in that time it had grown to be one of the most popular features in the Reflector. People quoted it on elevators in the Perry County Courthouse downtown and on the benches outside Johnny Chasteen’s Seafood Shack. Local disc jockeys called it the redneck Internet, quoting it daily with a whoop and a holler. One day, when Margaret was picking up a pair of leather slides she had had resoled at The Peach Cobbler, she overheard a woman say, “Y’all treat me good or I’m gonna call Chatter.”
Anywhere from fifty to two hundred people called the Chatter hotline each day to leave a comment or query at the sound of the beep. They wanted recipes for homemade fried pork rinds. They wanted to know who stole the sofa off their front porch or who could tell them where to find the best barbecue in Perry County. They called to condemn the owners of the new We-Bare-All that had opened up in the old Stuckey’s building on the interstate west of town.
Lonely alcoholics would call in the middle of the night, verbally stabbing at anything that might make them angry: news anchors who talked too fast, teachers’ vacation time, a neighbor’s barking dog, an editorial that frightened them, dishonest refrigerator salesmen, Dillard’s underwear ads. As the first and only Chatter editor, Margaret felt like Selby’s psychiatrist. Despite her newcomer status, she had a feel for this city’s collective values and paranoias, a verbal patchwork quilt composed of nonmatching yet oddly compatible sound-bite squares: Jane Fonda and guns and smoking and Jesus Christ and rude cashiers and chitlins and birth control and kind strangers on the corner of Mulberry and Second.
“ ’Mornin’, Margaret.”
Harriet Toomey walked up and set a pile of manila folders onto her desk, then patted the back of her impeccably tamed silver beehive. Even after three months, Margaret still could not stop staring at Harriet’s hair, voluminous and oblong like the cotton candy she remembered from the Erie County Fair. When she first saw it, she thought, “So this is why it’s called a beehive!” It was easy for Margaret to imagine something going on inside.
The Reflector’s food editor for sixty-one years, Harriet appeared to be about eighty, and she produced on her own an entire page of food news for central Georgia readers every Wednesday. Her column, Thanks for Askin’, answered readers’ questions about the food in their lives, even though for lunch each day Harriet ate Wheat Thins topped with processed cheddar cheese from a can she kept in her desk.
Margaret took off her earphones. “You’re here early today,” she said.
“I’m fixin’ to leave town,” Harriet answered. “I’m goin’ down to Valdosta to see my great-granddaughters, and I got to get these pork recipes done.”
Harriet sat down in the cubicle next to Margaret’s, the only other cubicle in the newsroom free of rebellious, visual declaration. Most journalists seemed to have a burning desire to be noticed and unique and irreverent, and they used their desks to make statements about themselves. Some had pinned up cutouts of comic-book strips with disparaging remarks about some authority figure. There was also a dancing porcelain hula girl on springs, and a bust of Shakespeare entwined with a feathery purple boa. Jason Nohr, the education reporter, kept a headless Barbie on his desk to use as a stirring stick for his coffee. The doll’s legs, permanently stained, appeared to be covered in suntan-colored pantyhose.
“You look tired, Margaret,” Harriet said.
“I was up late, Harriet. My cat’s stuck in a tree behind my house.”
“He’s been up there for five days.”
“Shouldn’t I be worried?”
Overnight, while dusting Harriet’s desk, Louis had nudged a bookend of gold-painted plaster hands in prayer from its position, and the cookbooks had fallen over and lay on the desk like a row of expired dominoes. Harriet set about pushing them back into place and aligning the spines so they were flush.
“Well,” she said, “everything’s gotta come down some time or other.”
Harriet then shook her head and looked into the air with a quizzical expression, an index finger on her closed lips, as if she were searching for a book on a high shelf. Suddenly, her face lit up.
“Did you call the fire department?” she asked.
“Do they really do that kind of thing? I thought that was a myth.”
“Ben Tuckabee’s cat got up in a tree and they got him down.”
“Good morning, ladies.”
As Randy Whitestone approached, Harriet quickly turned her focus to the pile of folders before her. Margaret realized early on that the new executive editor, with his un-Southern, brusque delivery and the impatient, staccato manner in which he chewed his gum, made Harriet nervous. He also bombarded her with constant requests to add an international flavor to the food page. Randy was a foodie. Harriet would come to work two or three days a week and find hurriedly-torn-out clippings on her desk from Cook’s Illustrated and Saveur, recipes for kimchee and Vietnamese beef soups and low-fat pad Thai. Harriet responded by pinning to the gray fabric walls of her cubicle certificates of appreciation from the Middle Georgia Muscadine Growers Association and the Georgia Pecan Board, among others.
“What deep-fried delicacy are we planning for this week’s food page, Harriet?” Randy asked. He leaned forward, resting his arms on the top ledge of her cubicle.
“Well . . .” Her hands, usually as steady and fluid as a heavy door on hinges, shook slightly as she looked at a press release from the Peach State Pork Council. “See, next week is National Pork Week. I was gonna write up some recipes for pulled pork.”
Randy ignored her, turning his attention to Margaret. “Have you had the barbecue here yet? It’s incredible. Tangy, not sweet like you’d expect it to be. Why is that, Harriet?”
“What’s the story behind the barbecue in central Georgia? How did it get so tangy?”
“Just always been that way,” she said.
“No, no, no, there’s got to be a reason for it. It’s got to do with ingredients or influence of some culture or something. You need to call a food historian.”
Harriet wrote on her yellow legal pad—Call food historian—in slow, curvaceous letters that reminded Margaret of the young, delicate tendrils of a vine.
“What about next week’s page?” he asked.
For the first time in the conversation, Harriet looked up at him. “I was gonna write a story about an artist in Vidalia who’s makin’ fake food.”
“Yes, sir. They call it faux food. He makes polymer fruits and some desserts that look real as can be.”
Randy laughed and started to shake his head. “Why would anyone want to use fake food, Harriet?” he asked.
“For decoration,” she explained. “People like to use fake food in their decoratin’. Like a bowl of fruit out on the counter.”
“But why not use real food?”
“Because it’ll spoil,” she answered.
“That’s okay, Harriet. Never mind. It must be a cultural thing. . . . Did you get that article I put on your desk yesterday?”
Harriet stared at the blinking cursor on her screen for a moment. Her chin began to tremble slightly, and her eyes grew shiny with a coating of tears. Finally, she looked up at Randy.
“Mr. Randy,” she blurted. “I just don’t think my readers are gonna wanna read about raw fish.”
“It’s sushi, Harriet.”
“I already write about fish.”
“There’s only so much you can say about fried catfish.”
“There’s no need to get ugly with me.”
“I’m not getting ugly, Harriet. I just know that three hundred Japanese families now call Selby, Georgia, their home. We’ve got to diversify our food coverage to meet their tastes.”
Just two months before Margaret arrived in Selby, the Toyota Corporation opened its newest North American auto assembly plant southeast of town. Along with the executive families relocated from Osaka, nearly twelve hundred workers from a closed plant outside Camden, New Jersey, followed their old jobs south. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the world discovered Selby, Georgia.
In these tumultuous, post-Toyota days—Randy referred to them as A.T., After Toyota—a Japanese grammar school moved into the abandoned Ponderosa Steakhouse on Cusetta Road. Walgreens bought out a local four-generation drugstore chain named Ringleman’s and not only stopped home delivery but replaced the adjacent Hallmark card shop with liquor marts. Natives were boycotting their banks because the new out-of-state owners fired the receptionists and installed voice mail. Selby’s first X-rated video store opened in the old post office on Pio Nono Road. New Yankee parents at Ronald Dunwoody Elementary School started a petition to fire the principal because she refused to abolish the moment of silence that followed the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. Four sushi restaurants opened in the affluent, northern part of town, and the Selby roll was born—a marriage of barbecued pork, tempura-fried Vidalia onions, and rice wrapped not in nori but in a ribbon of steamed collard greens. And, for the first time ever, it was possible for Selbyites to get their hair cut and car washed on the Sabbath.
Two months after the Toyota plant opened, the Reflector, a family-owned newspaper that had seen just six publishers, all with the same last name, in its one-hundred-eighty-year history, was sold to Granite-Peabody Communications of Washington, D.C. On the day the sale was announced, they brought in Randy Whitestone, a Pulitzer Prize–winning editor from the Philadelphia Inquirer who, unfortunately for Harriet Toomey, knew the difference between a serrano and jalapeño chili. It was Randy who took the daily Bible verse off the front page. He cut the society column that featured monied Selby enjoying themselves at Sugar Day Country Club. He directed the features editor to include a men-seeking-men and women-seeking-women section on the personals page in the weekend entertainment guide. He started Chatter and hired Margaret, despite his concern that she was vastly overqualified with her master’s in women’s studies from SUNY-Buffalo.