March 18, 2020KR OnlineFiction

The Newspaper Wake

And then we had the wake. It was lovely with tears and laughter, roar and uproar. Nobody died. Well, only a little. We all died a little. But death mostly let us be. Death seemed to think there was, for us, a fate worse than it. Which left us alive in the end, and so very, very drunk.

I remember only parts of it. I remember it began with a benediction of sorts. It was Vollintine, the city editor, who gave it. He said he was the strayed son of an Irish Catholic father and a Hard Shell Baptist mother, and married a Pentecostal-raised dabbler in every fringe religion from neo-paganism to Ghost Dance to Elvis Presley, and so he had, he said, as much religion as any bastard or wench in the room. You would have thought a bastard was the very thing to be, and a wench was a rare and beautiful thing to glimpse in nature, like a blue-crested something, the way he said it. We all cheered, we bastards, we wenches. Vollintine carried on—or rather, he got started.

“We gather here, you mourners and we mourned, in this bar called Little Blind’s, down on old South Main, in this city on the bluff, Memphis, Tennessee, on this Friday night, the tenth day of May, in the Year of Ought Not. . . .”

That’s as far as he got, or as far as I remember him getting. I think he called for a drink then. Maybe he was shouted down. Or else that was all the benediction he intended to give, or that we required or deserved. The wake was on.

• •

I remember elegies and requiems. I remember toasts and chants. I remember blues songs about the midnight crawl and the dead rat swing. I remember someone, it may have been Donleavy, who covered city hall, produced an actual dead rat. He paraded it through the bar, holding it by the tail and addressing it as our esteemed editor in chief. Most everyone remarked upon the likeness of rodent to man, though several allowed as how the rat was a slightly more handsome fellow and carried just less of a stench, and far fewer diseases. We cursed the editor in effigy and then we drank some more to our fates and then we broke into old stories about the time when . . .

• •

I’d forgotten how many rounds of layoffs there’d been. They’d been going on for years. Reductions in force, they called them. RIFs, for short, like some brand of kids’ sneaker or a cartoon dog that talked. You were riffed, and then you were riffraff. Pity, too, the ones who remained and tried to carry on. The newsroom was a third of its former size, a shell of itself, skeletal remains.

There were ten of us this time. Five bastards, four wenches, and the poor son of a bitch who tells this tale.

Death by paper cut, the official cause.

• •

“But God forbid they’d say the word,” I said.

“What word’s that, Charley?”

I was sitting at the bar, two beers into the wake. It was Francis the bartender. Saint Francis, we called him. Patron Saint of the Pour. He slid another pint glass across the bar to me. Rim of foam at the lip. Perfection. He knew what I was about to say. He waited for me to say it. He knew I needed to.

“Fired,” I said.

“Sure. Fired, of course, Charley. The other f-word.”

“I made a scene of myself, Francis. I banged the table. I all but begged. But he wouldn’t say the fucking word.”

“The editor in chief, you mean.”

“He said it wasn’t the term they use. I said we don’t use terms. We’re newspaper people. We say things, straight out. We don’t flinch. When some poor son of a bitch dies, we don’t say he passed. We don’t say he went to his great reward. We say the poor son of a bitch died.”

“I’d have fired you, Charley,” Francis said, smiling as he poured another. There wasn’t anyone there to drink it, but there would be. He kept them coming.

“You’re a good man,” I said. “Veritable saint.”

Watkins joined us.

“Did the son of a bitch tell you it wasn’t personal, Charley?” he said.

Watkins was my favorite photographer. He didn’t think he was a fucking artist, like some of them. He thought like a reporter. Detail man. Clean lines, master of the telling expression. But they sacked him, all the same.

“He did, Watty. I was waiting for it, too. I said, ‘If it wasn’t personal, it would have been somebody else.’”

“It was, Charley,” Watkins said. “Me.”

• •

I remember Madison, the columnist, walking in with an ex-wife on each arm, shouting, like always, “We have nothing to drink but beer itself,” and then buying the house a round. It had been an old act for a long time, but it went down fine with that free beer. (Old newspaper adage: we can’t be bought, but we can be plied.)

Madison had been living off his reputation for years, but I didn’t blame him so much. He’d become an institution, poor bastard. How hard it must be to beat the streets for columns when you’ve been turned to bronze like fucking Jefferson Davis in old Confederate Park. But nobody puts up statues to the likes of us. So he was the newspaper version of an institution—a picture on a MATA bus panel, a scowling mug with jowls and a devilish gleam in his eyes, and two words stamped out in black, in an old-style typewriter typeface, under the southernmost of his chins: “Get Mad.”

Ah, Madison. I still liked him, because I was old enough. I could remember when he’d do anything for a column, go anywhere. He’d come in the newsroom some days with one eye socked black and a high stink rising. We’d cheer the man, and he hadn’t even bought us a beer. We were drunk just on the sight of him. He’d barge into the newsroom with some wild tale and then bang it out. I’ve never seen a good writer write faster. He was a two-finger banger, a violent basher of the keys, but the words—God, they were something. Nobody ever captured this city better, a thousand words at a time. Madison did the ship-in-a-bottle trick some better. He put a whole fucking city in there, three times a week.

He knew everybody and the next of kin. He knew the high and mighty, the men who ran Memphis, but he wasn’t one of them, never would be, and so he worked them from the edges. He knew their mistresses and yard men. He knew where they got their hair cut and who cut it. He knew the pit masters of their favorite barbecue joints and whether they liked their shoulder pulled or chopped. He even knew their henchmen, drank with them, chased women with them, and so the henchmen pulled their punches, but only a little, when they had to rough him up. It had to look real, after all, and anyway, it was good for his image to be a little beaten up. (Madison’s eternal plea to the henchmen, or so he liked to say: “Do what you will to my face, boys. Just don’t break any fingers, for I’ve a little typing to do later.”) He had, in his prime, brought down a mayor, a bishop, two senators, an entire family of cotton barons, and councilmen enough to fill the Mid-South Coliseum to the cheap seats like it was the night of the Stax/Volt Yuletide Thing, 1968.

He loved the common man. They were his people. He was no better. His father was a lifelong factory worker who died on his feet, a heart attack, they said, at the last of his factory jobs, the headache powder plant out on President’s Island. His mother cleaned houses for people who weren’t even rich.

He’d ride shotgun with this old South Memphis rag-and-bone man on his daily rounds, Midtown and East Memphis, the better neighborhoods there, looking for whatever folks had put out on their curbs as trash—lawn mowers tossed the first time they wouldn’t start and exercise bikes that had been ridden twice, and one time a litter of kittens. Abandoned kittens, Christ. It was like handing Madison the Pulitzer Prize on a plate with a slab of ribs and side of beans. He wrote that for a week and drank free for a month in every bar in Memphis. The whole town wept. I wept—and I’m a dog man. Those fucking kittens were more famous than the Peabody ducks, there for a little while.

Lauderdale Slim—that was the name of the rag-and-bone man. He would appear once or twice a year in Madison’s columns. Some said he didn’t exist, that Madison made him up, concocted him, but that whorehouse lamp on his newsroom desk had to come from somewhere.

“Mad,” I said. “I’m glad to see you, my man, but the circumstances like to kill me.”

He stepped out of the arms of those ex-wives. He wobbled a bit and then seemed to steady himself. But he made the mistake of taking a step and began to pitch forward. One leg buckled and the other seemed to bend funny. I’d seen it happen one other time, in Hot Springs, to a horse. I froze, but those ex-wives swooped in and scooped him up. They seemed about to buckle, too, but were able, between the two of them, to bring him back up to standing. Muscle memory, I guess. If you married Madison, you were under no illusions about the heavy lifting being merely figurative. Or that the heavy lifting would end with the marriage. But Madison seemed to have missed it all. (I think he’d missed entire marriages—he’d had six, counting the gal he married twice.) He stood and looked about the room, unruffled as ever, and said to me, “Who died, Charles?”

I didn’t know whether he was that deep in denial, or that drunk, or whether it was both. But he seemed sincere in asking, and so I told the poor bastard.

“We did, Mad. We did.”

• •

And I remember sitting with Will Gentry and Sal at a table in back. He was our courts reporter and she was queen of the desk rats. They were telling a young stranger about the business, the life, how dreadful a dodge it was—the low pay and long hours, the ink barons we slaved under—and how they would miss it so.

“I loved everything about it—the language, most of all,” Sal said. “The words we used, you know, to describe what we did.” She leaned back, took a healthy swig of beer. She smiled. Then she leaned into the young thing, and said, “We worked under threat of deadlines, and our library was called the morgue, and when a single word ended up alone on a line of type, like it had been abandoned by the rest of the sentence, left to fend, that was called a widow. When there was a story even I couldn’t save, why, we spiked it—killed it, that is. And I could tell you, too, what it means to bleed. I could show you the gutter.”

Will Gentry said he loved the smell of ink. I did too. It hit you every day when you walked in the back door of the place. He said he dreamed some nights of drinking the stuff and other nights of swimming in it. He said he supposed he’d go to work in the family business now, the mortuary, but he didn’t think he’d ever come to love the smell of embalming fluid. He didn’t think he’d dream of drinking it or taking a dip. I wanted to ask what color it was, embalming fluid. (I didn’t care. I just wanted to put words to work to describe it.) Was it like varnish or shellac or one of your clear liquors? Was it brown like bourbon and could you sniff it like you would bourbon, pick up woody notes of peat and regret? Did the smell of it hit you when you walked in the back door to work every day, lift you off the ground and rummage your senses, like ink did. Ah, ink. Goddamn, ink. That’s how you send some poor soul out of this world, not with embalming fluid but ink, with an obituary, written proof of passage, letters of transit. (Old newspaper adage: even God reads the obits.)

As they say, it’s only twice that most people get their names in the newspaper: when they’re born and when they die. They’re the lucky ones, I suppose. The ones we wrote about, mostly, had gotten up to no good, and lucky for us they had.

“I’d drink a shot of poison straight away,” Sal said, raising her glass, “if I weren’t so attached to beer.”

“You’ll be all right, Sal,” I said. “We all of us will.”

“You don’t believe that, Charley. You know better.”

She turned again to our young stranger. She wagged a finger at him and then at me. “Now, this man here, this Charley Pogue, he was one of the good ones. He was a reporter—a reputable thing to be, if you can’t be a desk rat. He went out and found stories, Charley did. He pulled threads, overturned stones. He sorted through rubble. Sometimes it really was rubble—that hurricane down in New Orleans, the tornado that blew some little Mississippi town clear across the state line to Alabama. Charley was a detail man. He’d find doll parts and love notes, the neck of a guitar, anything to make a story. Hell, one time a hank of gray hair! Damned if he didn’t find the old woman it belonged to, some twenty miles away, in a school gym-turned-shelter, asking had anyone seen her cat named Archie Manning.”

It was a dog named Eli, but still.

“And he talked to people—Charley, who doesn’t particularly care for people, as a lot. A loner, by nature. Professional introvert. No better at small talk, idle chat, than that ashtray there. And that—”

“You flatter me, Sal,” I said. “I wish you’d go flatter some other poor son of a bitch.”

“—is why he was so good at it, see. No better at human interaction than he was, why, he didn’t pussyfoot around. Didn’t know how. He’d ask what question needed to be asked. He’d blurt out what other reporters, ones with tact and social skills, would only slowly build up to—but they’d never get there, quite. Couldn’t bring themselves to ask it like it ought to be asked. Or would ask it, but just the once. But Charley Pogue here—he’d not hedge or haw. Out with it! And he’d ask it as many times as need be. So here’s to Charley Pogue, one of the good ones! Charley Pogue, who put his stunted social skills to work in the only way he could!”

Glasses were raised. Mine got as far as my lips.

“To Charley Pogue,” said Will Gentry. He made it sound like I really had died.

“And he had this other thing he’d do,” Sal said. “It was classic Charley. He’d just stop talking. Wouldn’t say another word—couldn’t. It was such a chore, to gab on. So he’d just stop, midsentence. Some reporters—blowhards, basically, the business draws them in droves—talk all the time. They don’t know what our man here was born knowing: you’ve got to shut up and listen.”

Sal finished her beer and caught Francis’s attention for another, without so much as a raised eyebrow between them. Simpatico, those two. The patron saint loved to pour those pints and the queen of the desk rats loved to drink them down.

I took the opportunity to change the subject at the table, from yours truly to pretty much anything else. I looked up at the TV over the bar. “How about those Grizzlies?” I said. “They going to beat those fucking Clippers tonight?”

It was Game Six of the playoffs, Memphis needing a win to stay alive. Big doings of local import, though I wasn’t much of a sports fan and Sal hadn’t watched the NBA since the days of Magic and Bird. It wasn’t the artistry she missed, she’d said more than once. It was the tight trunks.

“Nice try, Charley,” she said to me, though she did offer a “fuck the Clippers,” rather in the manner of a barroom motion.

“Fuck the Clippers!” came a chorus of chants.

Motion carried, drink to that, and then it was back to your man here, in all my stunted glory.

“But any fool can shut up,” said Sal, back in the young stranger’s face. “I heard of a sportswriter doing it once. But Charley, he was the master of the awkward pause, the stilted silence. If Proust had never written a word, that’s Charley. Silence as an art, see? But really, he was just being Charley Pogue the professional introvert, having said all he could and then stopping, and this look on his face like desperation, like one more word from himself and he’d die, and take them with him. It’s when they answered the question he’d asked seven times already. The awkward pause, the stilted silence—well, it’s a form of torture, isn’t it, Charley? People can’t take it. They’ve got to say something. So they blather on. Masterful, how he did it. But really it was just Charley being Charley, bringing his weaknesses to bear in the one job in life he was fit for.”

The young stranger looked at me like I was lying in state, like I was his first dead body.

“It’s OK, son. It’s all pretty much true—the bad parts, anyway,” I said. “I’m only about two dance steps above special, or whatever they call it these days. Like Sal here says, I found a career where I could put my lack of social skills to proper use. I brought my weaknesses to bear. It almost sounds profound, put that way.”

“Christ—profundity,” said Sal, who didn’t touch the stuff.