When the male reporters on-staff nailed a story they would saunter into the story room ready to throw their balls on the table for all of us to see. They joked and prodded each other until any self-respecting journalist watching couldn’t help the urge to puke. I’d just sit back and think congrats idiots for putting two words together and making a sentence out of it. Earl, our editor, was the worst one of all. He almost looked normal with his corny ties and a pencil lodged behind one ear. He doled out assignments like it was a popularity contest then acted surprised when the powers that be congratulated his friends on jobs well done. Well, I’d like to see just one of them turn a story about the largest chocolate chip cookie ever made into a Pulitzer Prize.
“So what are we looking at here? Corporate espionage?”
Dutch shook his head and Earl groaned, getting a little hot under the collar at the guessing game. We were all used to it by then. Dutch never came right out and got to the point. He hopped up and down, singing at the top of his lungs first to make sure we’re all paying attention and then he said it.
“My sister temped for them for about a week. The CEO manufactured a deal with their manufacturer for the benefit of the shareholder’s meeting that is coming up this week. He lied, to make himself look good and now the board is going to fire his ass.”
“Sounds good, go with that.” Earl, practically shamed the entire room as he leaned over to scribble a brief note at the bottom of the dry erase board. “Anyone else do their own sniffing? Or do I have to give you all assignments?”
The entire room turned to me like I claimed to be the messiah. It’s really not that hard once you get the hang of it but I sat up straight and prayed that my knees would stay still. Two years in the field and I’m still considered a novice by the old bags in the room. Half the time I expected them to just break into laughter at the mere hint of my voice. Not an entirely rational thought, so I kept that one to myself.
“What is it Gray?”
“Well, I just happened to be down at the VA Hospital and I met a soldier who had been injured in combat. I know – a wounded soldier, we’ve all seen that one before but she was different.”
“Mmhmm. She served two tours in Iraq and on the second she was assaulted by one of the men in her brigade. The brass tried to sweep it under the rug so they sent her back and claimed the bruises came from combat. It took me forever to get her to tell me the whole story.”
Earl waved his hand dismissively through the air and my story was dead before it even got started. No one wanted to read about a female soldier’s problems, he said. The Memphis Star supported the troops not tore them down, he said. End of discussion. Not that I expected a helluva lot more from the idiot with the big empty head.
“Fine, well I’ve been working on something else too.” Leaning back in my chair, I steadied myself for rejection once again. “A friend of mine at the Chicago Tribune told me this story about a girl that was convicted of shooting a Pakistani man at this shopping mart and-”
“And let me guess, she’s claiming she was innocent?” Earl chuckled and a few others followed suit. “You wanna go on a crusade and find all those innocent women behind bars cause some bad man put them there?”
“Yeah Earl, that’s exactly what I want.”
“You want to write a feminine inspired story? Alright.” Earl straddled the back of his chair and I completely tuned him out. His expression and the jeers from the choir were enough to know that whatever words were coming out of his mouth were utter garbage.
The sooner the staff meeting was over the sooner I could get the next story over with. Maybe a young coed got lost and ended up on the wrong side of town. Or a bakery was closing its doors after twenty years of business. Either way, it would have taken exactly two days to get the facts and write it up all nice and pretty for the boys.
Boys in the office came in all sorts of shapes and degrees of stupid but three always stuck out. They sat together at every meeting and poked fun at every utterance of the words balls, sausage, and the like. I did a story about an Italian restaurant once and they didn’t stop laughing long enough to hear the premise. Their snickers barely fazed me anymore. All I saw was dumb, dumber, and dumbest fumbling for a punch line. Earl flipped the white board around to a fresh side and waited patiently for my answer. I couldn’t admit I wasn’t listening. There was a ten percent chance he wanted me to do something that a real journalist would do, something that required guts and a brain.
“I’m not sure,” I said checking out the other girls’ expressions around the table. They all managed to avoid my gaze, which told me one very important thing. “I don’t think so Earl. I’ll pass.”
Nine times out of ten my assignments involved food or animals. The month before one of the other girls got one that involved both. I saw her crying in the restroom and made the mistake of asking why. She latched on like I was the last person on earth and wouldn’t stop crying for anything. Watching people cry makes me itch. I’ve always been like that. I don’t know why. I offered her a stick of gum but that didn’t help. It’s just not my scene. Neither one of us left the putrid pink stalls until half an hour had passed. Dumber took it as a sign that we were lesbians and spread it to dumb and dumbest. Next thing I knew, all the guys were making googly eyes at me and asking if I’d like to meet their girlfriends.
“I’ll do it.” Dutch Bikerson offered to much hooting from the testosterone section of the room. “You say the word and I’m on it boss.”
“Hey me too!” A voice yelled from the masses behind me.
I shifted around in my chair, seriously curious. What did I turn down? Politics, a gang war, a police conspiracy – what?
“I hear she’s got this move. It’s called the bomb-”
“No, I need one of the girls on this one.” Earl interrupted and scribbled CANDY JESSUP across the top of the board. “Can’t have one of you letting your Johnson get in the way of the story. Gray!”
“Yes sir. Umm … who’s Candy Jessup?” The room went silent. Even the researchers gossiping in the back bit their tongues. How could I not know who she was? Their eyes asked. “What? Did she win American Idol or something? No. She probably lost her cat, right? It ran up a tree and disappeared into thin air and now we’re running it’s picture with a tiny blurb about how it was born to a litter of eight other kittens who are also missing.”
“No, smart ass.” Earl pursed his lips like he did whenever he was particularly irritated with me. “Candy Jessup is a working girl.”
“I hate to break it to ya Earl but we’re all working girls.”
“No, she’s a working girl. She was seen with Senator Perino week before last. Don’t you read the papers? Never mind. We ran the same headlines as every other paper in the Memphis area but nobody has gotten her on the record. I want you to track her down and get her to spill her guts about the senator.”
“You want me to … no, absolutely not and I’m offended!” The chair squeaked to warn everyone as it almost catapulted me across the table. “I’m not going to scrounge up dirt on some guy because of what he does when the lights go out! Now if you want me to look into his policies and his voting record-”
“Gray,” Earl tapped his pencil along the edge of the table and I knew I was in trouble. “We are in the business of selling papers. So … we write what people want to read. You do this or I can have you out searching for that missing kitten. Your choice.”
The meeting ended with a bang and I returned to my desk in the middle of the system of cubicles. Partial privacy aside I hated everything about the office – the tepid brown fabric that supposedly divided one person’s space from another, the exuberant lights that hung entirely too low, and the windows that were so easy to forget were there. Dutch and I shared close quarters and as far as the boys went he wasn’t so bad. He was shorter than most tall men and we happened to be in the same age bracket.
“Not so bad.” He fell into his chair, twirling a number two pencil between his thumb and middle finger. “Coulda been worse.”
“Mmhmm.” I had already made up my mind to hate this assignment as much as any other. Neither Dutch nor anyone else was going to convince me otherwise.
“I wonder what makes a person become a hooker.” His chair rolled around the partition so he can look me in the face. “What do you think? Think she was molested by a sick uncle or gang raped like a porn star? Hey, maybe she’s even got some ambitions.”
“You mean like other than being the senator’s mistress?”
“Gray, life ain’t always that simple.”
“I know that.”
“You don’t know what that girl has been through. Hell, truthfully this story might be right up your alley.” Dutch chuckled, leaning in to whisper the joke to me. “I bet Earl wasn’t even trying but he might have finally gotten it right with you.”
My grandmother used to say that they named me Gray so I would never see things in black and white, or color for that matter. I’m not entirely sure they succeeded in that point. But whenever my career faced those make or break moments I remembered that I was named for this, destined for this. There was nothing else I’d rather have done.