Theme from an Unfinished Novel: “mixtape (10/13/94)” (Track 8)


TRACK 8:
ICE CUBE, “IT WAS A GOOD DAY”

“Today was like one of those fly dreams.”

friday, july 22, 1994
6:13 p.m.

’Nother summer night in the newsroom. The three’ll hang for a few hours before going our separate ways, perhaps a movie, maybe a party. We’re expecting a grand — and I use the word grand loosely — total of three phone calls, all of which’ll be taken care of before the sun faints around nine. Honestly, we could take the initiative right now and be on the streets in a half-hour, but fuck that. We need money. We’re more than willing to sacrifice a few useless hours priming the pump.

Gary and I usually arrive separately but around the same time, 5:30. We dip into the well of letters to the editor, transcribe them at a snail’s pace, and catch a few minutes of television before Chris comes through the side door. This is our cue to telephone the Hasty Freez across the street and order dinner to-go. (We highly recommend the fries, but for thrift’s sake, you’re better off buying a 44-oz. Pepsi [a 75-cent value] at the Stop-N-Go across the street on the building’s opposite side, because the Freez offers nothing larger than a 24.) We’ll make the short trip, sun our egos in the congenial beams of the female burger-peddlers, who all know us by name. Then we visit the Stop-N-Go and come back to the office to sit around, bullshit, and wire-troll, one ear perked for the faint ring of the receptionist’s telephone, which is separated from us by a thick wall and a closed, locked door. Of course, we seldom answer before 7:30. Until then, fuck it. None of us are keen to deal with irate subscribers ignored by their paperboys. Not our fault, not our responsibility.

Tonight’s topic is a variation on a familiar theme: This newspaper is a fucked-up dump run by clueless old jackasses who wouldn’t know shit if it was seven-feet tall and wore a nametag and fright wig. I do my usual routine about the paper’s lack of a proper entertainment section, primarily because I’m desperate to write film and music criticism and don’t want to be trapped forever in the mausoleum of prep sports. I’m dangling a bite-sized chunk of bacon cheeseburger over a thick patch of ketchup when Chris Sabjeck changes the subject.

“You know the thing that sucks the fuckin’ worst about this place?” he asks. “The lack of adequate femaleage.”

“Define adequate,” Gary replies through a wet nosh of fried potatoes, “because this place is like a Mennonite graveyard when it comes to women.”

“That’s exactly the problem,” Chris says. “They’re married or unmarried but they’ve been on staff for a hundred fuckin’ eons, hence, married to their work and to that bald froggy fuck in the editor’s chair they’re always trying to impress. Gotta make good for Daddy. Where are all the young, attractive, single reporters just looking for a nice night out? Because as much as I dig you guys, I gotta have something better to stare at than a couple Adam’s apples.”

“What about the interns?” I offer.

“Oh, yeah,” Chris snorts. “The interns. Here’s a free education, junior: You don’t want that hassle. Both of us been down that road. Believe it.”

“What’s wrong with the interns?” I ask. “They seem nice — ”

“Of course they seem nice,” Gary says. “They are. But then they do a not-so-nice thing: They leave your ass.”

“Tell ’im about Sheryl Hargrove,” Chris says.

“Who’s that?”

“Well,” Gary says, “it’s not really a story about Sheryl Hargrove but about how fuckin’ nasty this company’s internship program is, OK?”

“OK.”

“Sheryl Hargrove was an intern here about, what, ’89?”

“Summer of ’89,” Chris confirms.

“For the summer, like every intern every year, right. Most beautiful girl I’ve ever laid my eyes on, smartest girl I’ve ever met in my life. First day we met — instant chemistry. It was one of those River Rhythms shows in the park. I don’t remember who was playing, but that’s not important, right. Anyway, me and Chris got a blanket out, a couple coolers, a few brews — sitting pretty, enjoying a warm night, good music. Sheryl shows up. Says, ‘Hey, don’t I see you guys around the newsroom? Just thought I’d stop by and say, “Hey.” ’” Whatever.”

Chris butts in. “No, if you remember, she was asking about your Roger Clemens column.”

“Oh, that’s right. She read this thing I did about meeting Roger Clemens. It ran a couple days before. I didn’t think anything of it. But yeah, she did say something about that column, I remember now. Anyway, we get to talking, and we had a lot of things in common: same age, same points of reference — ”

“Man, you’re lucky I was, like, 14 pounds overweight that summer. Because I woulda been buff as fuck,” Chris says.

“I can’t believe you’re still harping on that,” Gary snorts. “It wouldn’t have mattered if you had washboard abs and were all oiled and naked and shit — ”

“Dude, if I were oiled and naked that day, it would’ve mattered. Believe me.”

“Yeah, you woulda been arrested,” I interject.

“Hey, last time I checked, having the biggest cock for 70 miles ain’t no crime, which, I might add, just happens to be its exact length.”

“Anyway,” Gary continues.

“You know I’m just flicking you shit, right?” Chris asks. “Seriously. You guys were great together.”

“Well, thanks. I appreciate that, five years after the fact,” Gary says. “Anyway…where was I?”

“I was naked and dicked up like a motherfucker,” Chris zings.

“Anyway, the point is, Pud Nuts, what I’m trying to get at, is this: TeddCities, in its infinite corporate wisdom, developed this internship program for one specific purpose: Fucking with the male race, specifically townies like us at these podunk little shit rags out in oblivion. Think about it for a second. It’s totally devious. Nubile young things get sent to four newspapers in one year for a ‘learning experience.’ Wink-wink. Three months, just long enough to establish friendships, relationships, roots — then, just when you think, Hey, I’m actually happy, they’re off again, zoop, down the chute, bye-bye. New faces, new adventures. And you’re stuck back wherever you are, going, ‘Dude, what the fuck?’ Unless they get a job offer and stick around, which they never do, right? And can you blame ’em? Man, if someone loosened the shackles that’d been growing around my ankles since birth and said, ‘Hey, the world is yours,’ I’d be fuckin’ gone. One year to fuck around? A trip across the country? Shit, yeah.

“The point of many points is: Nothing good’s gonna come of it. OK? The program’s just too perfect. A psychological mind-fuck nobody can crack. It’s like in the Old West, y’know, when the wagon train of women pulls into town, knickers shooting out the stagecoach windows. You think, Somewhere in there is my soulmate. Actually, you just wind up getting punched in the mouth with gonorrhea. Officially, the whole thing about the internship program is to educate budding journalists on the job. Send them to backwater towns to cut their teeth. That’s what all the fine print says. The unofficial objective is to leave jerks like us stuck at these little papers so heartbroken we never want to go anywhere else, because all we’ve got going for us is hope. No turnover.

“Sheryl fucking Hargrove, dog. Did you know I didn’t wanna get out of bed for six months after that shit? Sure, we were, like, ‘Oh, I’ll write you.’ And we did, for a while. A lot of addresses: Belleville, Illinois; Clear Lake, Iowa; New York, New York. The letters got shorter and shorter and fewer and fewer. Finally, they just stopped.

“Then about two years ago I get this wedding invitation in the mail, along with a very short note. Handwritten, one page, about the size of a baby’s face. She’d met this ‘really nice guy.’ Her editor, for Chrissakes; dude’s, like, twice her age. And they were oh, so happy, and she hoped I was happy for her, and was she doing the right thing, and…eesh. She wanted me to come. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. And I couldn’t tell her why, because it’s stupid to still feel that way after all that time. Anyway, it was all just as well, because I got that invitation two days before the wedding. Can you believe that? I was, like, a last-minute invite, like I just suddenly popped into her head. Hey, remember me? The guy you said you loved?

“Tell me this: How is that people can just forget you so easily? You know? You can spend every minute of the day with someone, tell her things you’ve never told anyone, make promises about how it’s never gonna change, ever, ever, ever. But it’s all horseshit between bedsheets, man. Because somewhere down the line, you wind up a meaningless afterthought. You’re not even a person anymore. Just a pleasant little memory to pass the time while she’s doing the fucking dishes.”

9:02 p.m.

Chris and Gary just stepped out the door, the names of lost girls attached to their dialogue like TP to tennis shoes. They have a date with a fresh pitcher of ice-draft medicine down at the First Round, which they’ll quaff between even more stories. See, right after Gary recovered from talking about Sheryl, they went into long, wistful volleys about all the other interns they’d pursued, captured, and been forced by company mandate to return to the sea. There was Sheryl Hargrove, Amy Mendoza, Justine Dickerson, Darcy Donnen, and Stacey Stevens from USC. (I remembered Stacey and her Benneton sweaters and her corkscrew sorority locks. She neatly deflected the nine dozen marriage proposals fired from every bachelor pad in the whole besotted county.) Finally, the roll call was cut off by a closing door, and I was alone at last.

There’s something cool about a newspaper office when no one’s around. Usually it’s so anxious with activity that when it finally gets its space to itself, you can feel the whole building sigh and slump into at-ease. The air conditioning hums sweetly at timed intervals. The main computer terminal exchanges excited chatter with itself, sputtering unread wire stories down unseen links into every hard drive. The composing room hisses during the day with the sounds of precision slicing and hurried human implorations for news pages over the violent rhythm of the press. But at night it is dead, with only tiny scraps of paper, melted balls of glue, and X-Acto knives (our managing editor calls them “exactamundo blades”) awaiting duty.

Sometimes I go wandering. I hang out by the silent printing press or try to balance myself on my stomach atop the paper rolls in storage. I think about the future, which always seems more promising than the now. I further elaborate on my eternal interview with Charlie Rose, who decides I’m worth exploring for the entire hour. I refuel my imagination in the break room, another clue to the newspaper’s hectic pace with its salt-pocked tables and issues laying exactly as they did when their readers stopped and leapt back to work. A chalkboard outlines advertising revenue for the quarter and compares it to last year’s position. I guess we’re doing OK.

What I really want to do, though, is get on the phone. And I think I’ve been on every phone in every room I’ve thus far visited. Strangely, nowhere seems private enough, even though I’m the only one here. I want 40 layers of plaster between me and any intrusion, whether it be man, mineral, or vegetable. Maybe if I went back to the printing area. But then there’s nowhere to sit except atop the inky-footprint steps leading up to the press’ top level. There are no secrets in the break room, since any conversation can sneak down a hall and be heard by anyone passing through to take a leak.

Eventually I find the perfect phone on the other side of the building, in the assembly area where workers fold newspapers every morning and hitch ’em up for the trucks. I walk up a flight of stairs built of thick, exposed wood and find myself in the morgue, where every past issue dating back to the early 1900s is bound between green and black hardcover. I take a seat at an empty desk with a phone. My index finger hovers ever so hesitantly above the “9” that will grant me an outside line. A scrawled number sits in black ink on a torn scrap of paper. It stares blankly back at me as a reminder that I already know this number by heart, but maybe, hopefully, I’ll forget it mid-dial and be forced to check it again. Myriad doubts crowd my mind, but I resolutely split them down the center and, with some dramatic trepidation, punch the six digits.

One ring. Good sign. I didn’t miss any of the numbers.

Two rings. Hey, I’m in deep now.

Three rings. Well, at least I had the nuts to try, right? I kick my tootsies like a little kid about to get free ice cream.

Four rings. I’m feeling relieved because, really, what business do I have calling her?

Fi—

Hello?

Startled, I sit up.

“Uh. Hi.”

Hello?

“Zis Deanne?”

Yes.

“Um, hey. It’s Eric.”

Hey! What’s up, Pud Nuts?

“Hey, look, I’m sorry for calling so late.”

Late? Aw, hell, Eric, it’s only, what, 9:30? I’m just sittin’ here watchin’ some movies.

“Oh. Cool.”

So, what’s up?

“Um. Well, nothing, really. Work. You know.”

You guys work on a Friday night? Harsh.

“Oh, it’s nothing. Just a few things. Stray things. Not, like, big, important stuff.”

Oh, I know all about that big, important stuff. Did I tell you about my expose this week?

“Big scoop?”

Biggest in my whole career. I thought the Timber Carnival was the be-all of this town, but I was so very, very wrong. I wasn’t sure my heart could take much more excitement. Then Grant assigned me the break that could put me on a very little map.

“What, pray tell, is that?”

Are you ready? Are you sittin’ down?

I look around and reply in the affirmative.

Lawn care.

“Lawn care?”

You heard me. Lawn care. Can you believe it? Listen to this. I mean, I’ve got [rustling of paper], listen to this, are you listening, I got 19 pages of notes on lawn maintenance. Dang, I can’t even read this, I was writin’ so fast. I think this says, “snail death,” or maybe “small dish” — I don’t know. I’ll have to check the tape.

“There’s a tape?”

Of course there’s a tape. There’s a tape and 19 pages of notes, and there’s gonna be a follow-up phone call on Monday to some landscaper in Sweet Home named — what is his name — Darren Tweller, about using tree bark and mulch as decorative elements. I don’t think we should be talkin’ on the phone about this; I don’t want any of y’all’s rival papers to pick up this story before we get a chance to blow the whole thing wide open.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Everybody knows about the power of mulch.”

Aw, man. Why’d you have to go and tell me that?

“I’m sorry.”

I thought I had my fingers on the pulse of a revolution.

“We know everything about lawns by now.”

There’s gotta be somethin’ new, though. I wanna come across somethin’ no one’s ever known about lawn care. Somethin’ the president of lawn care don’t want you to find out. Somethin’ sexy. Like this: I hear them little lawn figures are makin’ a comeback, like the one of the woman in the summer dress bent over the tulips with her bloomers showin’?

“Hey, sex sells.”

You know it.

“Yeah.”

I doodle an infinite Figure-8 on the desk with my fingernails.

So, don’t you have a hot date or somethin’?

“Nah. Not tonight. This is my day of rest. What about you?”

Not in the mood tonight. Sometimes I enjoy the peace and quiet, you know what I mean? Sit down with a good movie, good book — just be by myself.

“With your lawn care notes.”

With my lawn care notes.

Now I’m extravagantly doodling my name.

“But, yeah, seriously, I know what you mean. I like the peace and quiet too. Like now. Have you ever been in this place when there’s no one around?”

No, I’m usually too busy running screaming out of it.

“It’s actually kinda cool. Feels like everything’s all right. Like nothing’s goin’ on. No good news, no bad news. Just life.”

We won’t know ’til tomorrow.

“Yeah, but there’s something comforting about now.”

Except for the fact I’m trying to —

“Hey,” I say, “I just wanted to tell you it was really fun hangin’ out.”

Really? I had fun too. We should do it again sometime.

“Yeah.”

I have now written my name about 17 times.

What are you doing next Friday?

“Next Friday? I dunno.”

Well, maybe we could do somethin’.

“OK. Cool. Sure. Yeah, we’ll hang out, get a couple beers, maybe catch a movie.”

Oh, so you’re askin’ me out on a date?

“No! No, of course it’s not a date. You know, we’ll just hang out.”

Heh heh.

“What’s so funny?”

You.

“What’s so funny about me?”

Oh, no, no, no, God, no, it’s not a date! HISSSSSSSSS!

“Well…”

You act like a, like a datin’ vampire or something.

“Dating vampire. I like that.”

Anyway, you figure out somethin’ not-date-y for us to do and give me a call.

“OK. I will.”

See ya then, Pud Nuts.

“Sounds good.”

Don’t forget to have me back before daylight, or remind me to bring a shovel and a bucket.

“Hey, that could be the story you’ve been waitin’ for.”

Nah. I’ve taken buckets and shovels out with guys before.

“You’re good. You’re vicious, but you’re good.”

I know. See ya.

“Bye.”

Bye.

I bask in the dial tone, the new sound of heaven.

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