Read an Excerpt
By Michael Parker
DELPHINIUM BOOKSCopyright © 2004 Michael Parker
All rights reserved.
ON WEDNESDAYS, THOMAS Edgecombe put the paper to bed. Thursday mornings he pretended to relax, sleeping as late as allowed for a man with two teenage sons at home, one of whom prepared for school by blasting bass-thumpy, arrhythmic rock which roused even the decrepit collie from his puddled sleep beneath the dining room table. Thursday afternoons, Thomas pretended to play golf. After nine years in Trent, he'd splurged on country club memberships for himself and Strickland, his partner at the newspaper, telling himself it would be good for business, they'd sell more advertising, even though he'd written an editorial criticizing the club's racist membership policies and lived in fear that Sidney Showenstein, owner of Trent's only department store and one of his most loyal advertisers, would discover that he was a member of a club that as late as 1974—last year—excluded Jews.
On the golf course he tried to enjoy himself, but usually found the weight of the next week's work too heavily with him. But sometimes in fall, when the light was generous and brilliant and reflected off the wide plate-glass windows of the doctors' houses lining the fairways, he managed moments of ease. Thomas liked golf courses, admired their artificial and manicured clarity, and sometimes he stood reverently silent and watched the wind ripple the flags on the green, until Strickland or someone else in his foursome called his name in a tone that made him feel as if he was wasting time pausing to contemplate such canned beauty.
Thursday nights he covered the county commissioners meeting until nine-thirty or ten if he was lucky, but often he was tied up past eleven, since the kind of Trentonian who would volunteer to run the county was given to redundancy, verbosity, and a flair for the obvious. Back at the office he typed up the story, for the issues were usually so belabored he could make no sense of his notes if he waited until Friday morning to make sense of them.
Friday morning, his week started all over. He wrote stories and helped Strickland sell ads and prodded his county correspondents for their weekly columns and broke fast with the Kiwanis, then later lunched heavily—meat and two sides, sweet tea, sliver of pie—with the Rotarians and contacted the sheriff's department, the highway patrolmen, and the Trent Police Department. Friday nights in the fall there were football games to cover, and there was basketball in the winter, and though eventless Friday nights in the spring seemed to him like a gift, rarely a night went by that some drunken carload of kids failed to wrap a Camaro around a tree.
Saturday mornings either he or Caroline fixed a real breakfast. Sausage and eggs, or pancakes and bacon, french toast when the kids were smaller. Saturdays he tried to spend with his family, but often he ended up going back to work after lunch. Saturday nights he and Caroline had cocktails, and he grilled steaks for the boys, and sometimes the four of them sat around the table like a family, at least for a half hour before his younger son, Pete, jumped up at the ring of the doorbell and disappeared into the night with his friends. Saturday nights he allowed both boys to stay out until midnight, even though Pete came home when he wanted to these days. Pete's older brother Danny ("Daniel" he insisted now—Thomas found it hard to remember their preferences—he too often slipped and called them by the names he'd always known them by), spent many Saturday nights at home, on the phone with a group of girls, who, Danny described, when quizzed, as "just friends."
Thomas was bothered by Danny's friendship with this group of girls. They were friends from Beta Club—Danny was president this year, a stellar student, almost certain to make valedictorian— and they'd marched with him in the band until Danny had, just this year, gone out for football. Even after the games or practices, he often went out with these girls. They were not beautiful, and they were smart and incongruously proper for the mid-seventies, and it seemed to Thomas that the mid-sixties, which had swept through Trent six or seven years too late, had somehow missed these friends of Danny's. They seemed throwbacks to an earlier and more innocent time, and though he knew he should be relieved, their innocence unnerved him.
He never mentioned his concern to Caroline, knowing in advance what her reaction would be. She seemed to want to cling to innocence, to keep the boys boys. Thomas did his best to discourage her coddling. He would not allow his wife to make the boys' lunches once they entered junior high school. They were to tie their own ties, a tight double Windsor, before Sunday school after their eighth birthday. He would not give them spending money, though he would gladly hire them to help out down at the paper. Past the age of thirteen, they knew better than to leave their room in the middle of the night if spooked by the settling sounds of the house or a dream precipitated by some horror movie he advised them not to watch.
Sundays, Thomas yanked at his tie and told his sons to shine their shoes. He dropped everyone off for Sunday school, stopped at the newsstand for Sunday editions of the Raleigh, Wilmington, and Fayetteville papers, then swung by the office for an hour to work a little on his column or to read the "Ideas" section of the Raleigh News and Observer, which sometimes prompted an editorial of his own. He never outright stole a topic or a slant from the N and O, though this was hardly an ethical decision; the lessons of journalism school had long since been replaced by the rote tug of getting the paper out in a hurry. Too many people in Trent read the N and O, and Thomas liked to pretend that these same people read his editorials as well.
On Sundays he often went to work in the mid-afternoon, stuffed with post-church pot roast, and did not return until the boys had settled into their rooms at night. Sunday nights were always busy, as were Mondays—there were layouts to do, articles to write, ingots of metal to heat for the Linotype—and it all had to be finished before the Monday-night school-board meetings. Tuesdays were the penultimate dash and Thomas often did not come home until late; Caroline had Daniel drop off his supper and he ate on the run.
Then Wednesdays. Just after noon, Thomas loaded the plates into the panel van and drove the thirty miles of backroad to Mt. Sinah, where he overpaid an old friend from journalism school to print his paper, since he could not afford his own press. While the paper was being run, Thomas waited at a hot dog joint down the street from the paper. One Wednesday in late October of 1975, he sat at the lunch counter chewing on a long since-expired Tiparillo. Though he easily could have sent Wayman, his Linotype man, to pick up the paper, he looked forward to these four hours each week. He liked the time alone, though it embarrassed him, owning a paper but no press—like a laundry with no dry-cleaning machines, his partner, Strickland, often complained. Strickland sold ads and handled payroll and circulation; he was a businessman, not a journalist, though as an equal partner he had a right to question the amount they overpaid Hampton for the weekly run. Thomas wanted to tell Strickland to get off his ass, sell more ads, more subscriptions. His partner's idea of marketing was to drop his insert crew off at the housing projects on "Mother's Day" first of the month, when the government checks were mailed and the malt liquor was flowing and the strapped poor were profligate enough to pay for a year's worth of news they would not, in some cases could not, read. Had Thomas time to worry about such things as ethics he would have stopped Strickland from hawking the paper to welfare moms, as it compromised his editorial support for black school-board members, his criticism of the segregation academy that had opened its doors moments after court ordered busing.
Thomas checked his watch, saw that it was nearly four. He needed to have the papers back by five in order to get them inserted, wrapped, and sorted into mailbags for the last evening run of the post office. His inserters would be waiting: Danny, Pete, and a team of five or six black boys Wayman recruited from his neighborhood.
Thomas smelled the ink before he noticed Hampton making his way down the lunch counter. A few months ago, Hampton had switched to a cheaper ink, which smelled strongly sulfurous and clung to clothes and furniture. Thomas had spent hours on the phone with complaining subscribers, and the smell had bothered him, too, until he'd gotten used to it. Now he hardly noticed it, but today it clung to Hampton in a cloud, announcing his arrival.
Hampton crowded in beside him, called for a Coke. He slid the slim sheath of news down the counter to Thomas, who leafed through it quickly, examining the grocery ads for smudges or whiteouts, the classifieds for uneven inking.
"Fine," said Thomas. It was, however, never fine—Hamp's pressman was lazy and incompetent—but Thomas had requested too many extra runs, and he did not have the energy nor the time to argue with Hampton, who blamed everything on the Linotype. Hampton had switched to a computerized system three years ago and relished telling Thomas how obsolete the Linotype was, even though he knew Thomas could not afford a computer. Nor could Thomas stomach standing around to examine the first paper off the press, listening to Hamp lampoon his leads: front-page photos of single-car collisions, prize-winning oversized gourds, a sincere coverage of the Jaycee's annual Womanless Beauty Pageant. Hamp's paper ran only wire service, his column was ghostwritten by a secretary, who clipped "interesting statistics" from the Guinness Book of World Records and Ripley's Believe it or Not!, and his editorials were exemplary in their avoidance of controversy or content.
"Got yourself a murder, hey?" said Hampton.
"Bad for the boy, good for you. Ought to sell some papers this week."
Hamp laughed. They had known each other in journalism school at Chapel Hill twenty-five years ago, and Rick Hampton was one of those people Thomas thought he'd see only once a year at the press convention.
"Okay, Tom," said Hamp. "Bad all the way around. If it's so bad, how come you run it as your lead?"
"It happened. If it happens, I slap it on the front page, Hamp."
"Hell, even if it don't happen, you put it on the goddamn front page." Hamp sucked at his bottled Coke. He reached across the counter to snatch a pack of peanuts from a rack, tore the plastic open with his teeth, and emptied half the contents into his mouth. "Thank God I don't have to worry about that no more. I'm done trying to cover every chicken crosses the road around here."
Thomas looked at Hamp, who took the rest of the peanuts in a second mouthful, winked, lit a Winston with a gleaming silver Zippo. Hamp's paper made money, mostly from advertising—he had sold out to a chain several years ago, which freed him from the anxieties of operating costs and allowed him to purchase his own press. All he had to do was keep his editorials bland and non-controversial and spell people's names correctly.
"Okay," Hamp said. "So it happened, and you ran it. Good. That's what you're supposed to do. But what I don't get is what happened. Seems like from the story here, don't nobody know."
Hampton wrote about like he talked, which was why it was good he'd turned the news over to the Associated Press.
"I printed all I could find out. A kid got killed. His parents went out of town and he had a keg party and half the kids in town showed up. Last of them to leave claim the boy was passed out drunk. Next day the parents come home from the beach and find him lying in their bed, dead."
Thomas paged through the paper again to discourage more questions. Now that the paper was out, it seemed he'd had nothing at all to do with it. It was always this way—all the sweat and late hours erased by the appearance of the thing itself. After twenty-five years in the business, sixteen as a reporter for a Piedmont weekly, nine as the co-owner and editor of the Daily Advance—which had not been a daily paper for years, but Thomas hadn't bothered to change the name, mostly because it would cost money to design new plates but more so because it felt like a daily, the relentlessness of it, the almost hourly pressure—he had long since gotten over the swell of seeing his work everywhere he looked: from the histrionic verbs of the sports page (TRENT PUMMELS MT. SINAH; JUNIOR SPARTANS NIP TROJANS) to the geometrical grid of the grocery ads. Sometimes he missed the pride he'd felt in the early days at seeing his name in print, but mostly he dismissed this feeling as youthful vanity. These days the thing that gave him the most satisfaction was having muddled through another week. That he had some smudgy, dispensable newsprint to show for it was gravy.
"You know the boy?" asked Hamp.
"Know of him. Know the family, slightly. His dad's a doctor. Quiet guy. Came here originally to work in the emergency room. The wife teaches piano lessons."
"No. He's from Florida, I think. She's from out West somewhere."
Hamp nodded, as if this information was relevant to the murder of their son.
"Your boys about his age?"
"The oldest is," said Thomas. This was a question he'd asked himself when the police chief called him at the office Sunday night with the news. He remembered Daniel hanging out with the boy—Brandon was his name—back in junior high school, and maybe he'd seen Brandon riding in the front seat of the old Ford he'd bought for his sons. Last Sunday night, when the body was discovered, Thomas had phoned Caroline. He was often one of the first to hear when something happened in Trent, and Caroline, though she wasn't a gossip, liked to be the second. He'd asked to speak to Daniel, who'd seemed genuinely shocked by the news. Daniel's quickened breath and muffled words suggested he might even have cried a little.
"He's never known anyone to die except our parents, and that was back when he was a baby," Caroline told Thomas late that night over a nightcap.
"Were he and Brandon close? I don't remember seeing him around; he never called over here much, did he?"
Caroline said, "Daniel mentioned they used to be friends, but that was a long time ago."
"How long could it have been?" Thomas asked her, pondering the notion of time to an eighteen-year-old.
"You know how those adolescent friendships fall apart," Caroline said. "One year they have homeroom together and they're inseparable, the next year they're split up and they forget they knew each other."
"I know how quickly everything about a kid can change," he said.
In the past two years, they'd watched Pete plummet from honor roll student to frequently expelled. Lately it seemed everything reminded Thomas of his younger son's descent—he could find a way to connect his beloved Tar Heels losing to the Blue Devils to his son's problems. He was reluctant to talk about it with Caroline, who could easily devote her waking hours to trying to run their sons' lives. Recently he'd come home to discover her reading I'm OK-You're OK—just the kind of popular psychology he thought a woman of her intelligence would have sneered at—and when he made fun of her, gingerly he thought, she became defensive and all but said that he wasn't doing enough to save Pete.
She had not replied to his statement about how quickly kids could change, and he realized that he was glad, for he did not want to talk about Pete. Most of their conversations these days were about Pete.
To head her off, he said, "Danny's an exception to that rule, I guess."
Caroline said, "What rule?"
She put her drink down, and he noticed it was nearly full.
"You haven't noticed how moody Danny is lately?"
"He's eighteen, Caroline. He's up for the Carmichael. He's got a lot on his plate."
To Thomas, there was just cause in all this for the boy's moodiness. The Carmichael, a lucrative scholarship to Chapel Hill, was a huge deal; it could well determine the course of Danny's future, as it was the regional equivalent of the Rhodes, and among its recipients were hundreds of success stories. Danny had been approached by the guidance counselor early in his junior year and was told that he was definitely Carmichael material, though deficient in athletics. Thomas had tried hard to be noncommittal about his son's pursuit of the scholarship—Caroline felt it was best not to put any more pressure on him, as he was, like his father, very good at putting pressure on himself—but once the possibility was introduced, it was hard to remain neutral. For one thing, it would save Thomas thousands of dollars, which he could salt away for their retirement. He hated to think of the money, but on the other hand, his son was gifted, and the Carmichael was designed to recognize such gifts. Why not his son?
"He seems so driven," Caroline was saying.
Thomas drained his drink and counted to three, then said what he was trying not to say by draining his drink and counting to three.
Excerpted from Virginia Lovers by Michael Parker. Copyright © 2004 Michael Parker. Excerpted by permission of DELPHINIUM BOOKS.
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