News-Free Love

(Monte Dutton sketch)
(Monte Dutton sketch)

I haven’t written enough short stories recently. This one could wind up as the beginning of a novel.

Fortunately, by nature, Jordie Smithson was annoyingly early. He always allowed for disaster. A traffic jam on the way to the airport, for instance. On this Monday, the traffic jam was on the way to the office. He had time. For once, his silly punctuality was going to be beneficial. Jordie spent too much time sitting on a bench in a rental-car center, thumbing through his Twitter feed or reading a book on his phone while waiting for one of his friends who was fashionably late.

He savored the finer things in life.

By Monte Dutton
By Monte Dutton

Jordie was strangely relaxed. The backup on I-85 was unavoidable. Why worry about what cannot be changed? He turned up the music and picked up his harmonica and jammed along. Occasionally, he glanced across at the people nearby, all red-faced and sweaty, not because their vehicles weren’t equipped with air conditioners but because they were consumed in stress. It was self-inflicted.

Shit like that’ll kill you, man. He hoped, when they peered back to exchange the glances, they thought him crazy. Crazy was okay. Jordie preferred to think of himself as irreverent. It served him well in his job.

When he pulled into the parking lot, his spot was taken. Son of a bitch. It was understandable, though. Jordie only rarely stopped by. Maybe taking his spot gave some kid straight out of college a shorter walk when he got off at one in the morning.

He swiped his car at the side door. What? Red? Now he was going to have to walk around the building, but he was going to have to do that, anyway, to get the card recoded. He banged on the door a couple times and walked away. Three steps down and one foot on the sidewalk, he heard it swing open.

“Thanks,” he said to some guy wearing coveralls who’d probably heard him while he was having a pack of Toastchees in the break room.

“Don’t mention it.”

The newsroom was getting ready to get busy. Half the people were sitting in front of desktops. The other half were leaning over wrap-around desks, chatting to the people sitting behind the desktops. As Jordie walked through the newsroom, the voices slowly quieted. He saw the people behind desks tilting their heads in his direction, signaling the visitors to cool it.

Uh, oh. No good can come of this.

The last time Jordie had seen a hush fall over the entire newsroom, it wasn’t because one person walked in. Maybe it happened when a celebrity stopped by. Jordie didn’t know. He’d never been there when that happened. No. It was like this the day management announced furloughs. Everyone went quiet and depressed, but then some started musing the benefits of being relentlessly upbeat “associates,” and others rationalized that it could be worst, but only Jordie had resisted being steamrolled by counterintuitive optimism. The Human Resources Coordinator — hers was a proper name, while his was strictly little “c” — had told all the panting faces that they were fortunate to have to take two weeks of unpaid leave because it was better than a pay cut, and Jordie had raised his hand to point out that, across a period of a year, it was slightly worse. Inexplicably, this had seemed to make him unpopular among his peers, at least until they were out of the room.

So, Jordie reasoned, this was bad.

It couldn’t be that bad, though. Just yesterday, he had been watching David Ortiz hit a home run, a single, and two doubles, and the latter double might have been a triple, and the cycle, had not the ball hit the top of a cushion and bounced into the stands for a ground-rule double. It had made him feel young again, or, at least, younger than David Ortiz.

Theoretically, following his customized pattern of life, Jordie should be on a hot streak for at least one more day. Probably two.

He pulled up a chair in the sports editor’s cubicle. They had a brief, uncomfortable “boy, those Braves sure do suck” conversation, and then it died when the sports editor said “we sure could use some rain.”

(Monte Dutton sketch)
(Monte Dutton sketch)

Then the EE — that’s Executive Editor, not a row in the lower grandstands — rang the sports editor, and he grabbed the receiver hurriedly so that “speaker” wasn’t on, and talked real low, ended it with a hushed “okay,” turned to Jordie and, “Well, Carson’s ready, Shall we go?”

Jordie said something profound like “I reckon so,” and off they strolled, the sports editor — his name was Jonathan this year, Seth the year before, and he couldn’t remember the one before that — trying and failing to look relaxed.

Still, Jordie was guardedly optimistic that it might be a cutback in his schedule, or maybe they wanted him to write a feature column on Tuesdays, or switch to another beat, or, horror of horrors, fill in with Legion baseball. All had happened before in sixteen years, six months, and four days at the News-Free Press, which had been the paper’s name since the News merged with the Free Press, and no one in charge had any sense of irony.

The optimism crashed with the force of a Pinto, horse or car, into an oak tree, when Jordie noticed the presence of the Human Resources Coordinator, wearing the kind of smug expression one wears when secretly enjoying the dismissal of the smart guy who was always making smart-alecky questions in her required presentations.

Jordie thought the black cloak and glistening scythe made her look hot. Alluringly evil. He was already cascading into the waterfalls of absurdity that accompany the exhilarating freedom of disaster.

Not even Cold, Cold Carson, of whom it was said a cash register should be played at her funeral, had much enthusiasm for the execution. She shuffled her shoulders — “You know, we both knew this was coming,” and Jordie said, “No, we didn’t know. No one warned one of us” — and tried to look empathic as, behind her steely-gray eyes, math was being quickly completed to indicate the progress toward a $5,000 bonus that would be achieved with just one more mercy killing.

Jonathan the Boy Wonder Sports Editor, who would undoubtedly soon be shipped off to be managing editor at an even smaller paper, just like Seth last year and whatsisname the year before, was, by then, long gone, undoubtedly back at his desk whispering to someone about how painful this was.

Jordan had been toying with the idea of quitting and trying to make it as a free lancer. Part of his deal with the News-Free Press had been the freedom to write books, and on-line columns, and magazine pieces. As a result, he had never quibbled much about salary, even back in the days when money was still negotiable. They let him alone, and he let them alone. What had stopped him was revenue sharing, and the 401-K, and health insurance that got only mildly worse each year.

He’d thought about it, most often when frustrations with management mounted, but he didn’t have the guts actually to take the leap of faith. Now his hands were being forced instantaneously. It was June the seventh, and the HRC was now telling him his final day was … June the seventh.

“How convenient,” Jordie said.

“I thought so,” Jalene the 26-year-old HRC (proper name!) said, failing to get the joke.

Carson excused herself. She almost offered Jordie her hand, but then she shivered a little because she realized he might leave it hanging, so she put it in her pocket. She was wearing pants, undoubtedly because she took pride in wearing the pants of the family … newspaper.

“So I don’t have to write a column tomorrow?” Jordie was overflowing with the type of one-liners that fit so well in a column.

“Uh, no.”

“Cool.”

Jalene, in spite of her relative youth, was already well-schooled in the subtle art of head-lopping. She explained an absurdly modest severance package as if it were some arcane, legal form of embezzlement. She provided detailed and easily understandable instructions on how one would go about filing for unemployment. She had him sign his career away in a variety of convenient ways.

When it was over, Jalene sighed and asked if he had any questions.

Jordie stared at her directly.

“I really think you’re hot,” he said. “Are you married? I am, but not for long after today.”

Jordie left wondering if it was technically possible to be reprimanded for sexual harassment after one’s employment had been terminated. Oh, well. He had no need to worry. He was fairly sure his permanent record had just been permanently sealed.

(Jennifer Skutelsky cover design)
(Jennifer Skutelsky cover design)

                My new novel, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, is a small-town crime thriller about the corrosive effect of patronage, not to mention drugs, sex, corruption, a father and a son, and spoiled kids who are as out of control as their monstrous father.

                Crazy of Natural Causes is about a Kentucky football coach who manages to rebuild and reinvent himself by dealing with absurdity on its own terms.

(Cover photo by Crystal Lynn)
(Cover photo by Crystal Lynn)

                Longer Songs is a collection of eleven short stories, all derived from songs I’ve written.

                The Intangibles is a story of the South during the 1960s, dealing naturally with bigotry, desegregation, civil rights, and high school football.

                The Audacity of Dope is the story of a pot-smoking songwriter leading government operatives on a sometimes merry, sometimes dangerous, chase.

                Follow me on Twitter @montedutton, @hmdutton (more from the writer’s perspective), and/or @wastedpilgrim (irreverence stressed). I’m on Facebook at Monte.Dutton.

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