What do TIR graduate student editors do when they're not opening mail at the office? Writing, of course! Between afternoons of paper cuts and envelope licking, former occupant of TIR's fiction desk Josh Rolnick was working on a collection of stories he will be back in town reading at Prairie Lights tonight. Here's an excerpt:
Dale loved the Herald Times. He loved the simple, light blue, Goudy Old Style font of the flag. He loved the half-inch green bar beneath it, confidently declaring “The Newspaper for Klamasink, Wayne, and United Counties,” as if their competitors simply did not exist. And he loved the hard-edged tenacity of the news staff. They were paid less than the reporters at the Leader, and they got far less recognition, but they stayed later at council meetings and filed three stories a day instead of one, and they wrote about the towns they covered as if their readers’ lives depended on it.
The Herald was the paper that had been delivered to his house, growing up in Klamasink Borough. He’d made the front page himself once, during his elementary school Halloween parade, dressed as a bum in his father’s oversized slacks and suspenders, half-moons of his mother’s mascara beneath his eyes. In his senior year of high school, he’d been named Herald Times Athlete of the Week for catching touchdown passes of fifty-three and twenty-seven yards in a football game against divisional rival Opal Creek. His head shot had run over the caption Tapper leads Falcons, and for weeks thereafter, people he didn’t know came up to him at Krauszer’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, offering congratulations.
Dale’d started stringing for the paper shortly after graduating college, while working full-time at his father’s luggage shop. He took any assignment they gave him, no matter how short the notice, and he paid attention— never complaining when his leads were rewritten or his editors, pressing him on a point, asked him to call back a source after deadline. He watched for job postings on the newsroom bulletin board, waiting for the right opportunity. When the Upland Borough beat opened, Dale collected his very best clips in an envelope and walked them into the office of Abe Kesting, Editor-in-Chief, introducing himself as “the stringer who wrote Turmoil in the Firehouse.” Kesting had glared at him. My meetings are by appointment. Two weeks later, though, Dale had his first newspaper job. You’re just reckless enough to be good, Kesting said.
Over his years at the paper, as other editors and reporters came and went, Dale’d developed a ritual. At the end of a reporter’s first week, usually Friday after deadline, he’d take him or her for a drink at Sal’s, three blocks from the newsroom at the bottom of the hill, in the Italian section of town. They’d sit at the bar or—if someone had a preference—one of the wooden booths along the wall, and Dale would drill down through newsroom legend and lore. He told them about the time capsule, buried beneath the composing room, with a copy of the first issue, printed in 1899: River Fest Lights Up Esquand. He told them about the time Bob Woodward stopped into the newsroom on his way back from an interview at the U.N., to use the fax. And he told them about John Derrick, the founder and ruthless first publisher, who, famously—the day the paperboys went on strike—went down to the plant, loaded up his Essex Super Six, and, over the next eight hours, hand-delivered every last copy of the newspaper himself. They’d run a picture of Derrick on the paper’s seventy-fifth anniversary, smiling, cheek smudged with newsprint, holding up hands black as tar.
Spend time in the archives, Dale advised. Read the people who came before you. Figure out how we got where we are today. When you file, lead with a haymaker, sure, but never forget the story you’re writing is a continuation of a story we’ve been telling for almost a hundred years. A prelude to the next hundred. Pour your whole self into every article, write it as if it were your last, but don’t try to be Shakespeare, don’t get too precious—Queen’s English is for the Queen—and above all else, don’t miss deadline. The paper has come out with bad articles and flowery articles and wrong articles, pompous articles and just plain boring articles, but never with no articles.
Remember, Dale said. Somebody, somewhere, is picking up the paper and reading about the death of a friend. Someone with a heavy burden is circling classifieds, looking for work. Sure, someone’s reading the funnies on the crapper, and someone else has tossed sections A and B aside so they can get straight to the baseball box scores. But right this minute, someone with a cup of coffee is settling down to the paper at a kitchen table or diner counter or bus depot as if it were a long-lost friend, a lifeline.
At least, it’d always been this way for him.
From Pulp and Paper, by Josh Rolnick, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press, 2011. Used with permission from the University of Iowa Press.