Reporter John Schram’s employer, the Lancaster Standard Newspaper, is tightening its economic belt with the installation of low-flush toilets and staff layoffs. One of the pink slips goes to the love advice columnist and Schram is handed the ‘Listening with Lily’ column. With three major stories brewing, Schram is none too happy to be telling housewives to see a counselor or settling disputes concerning wedding seating arrangements. What’s worse is his teenage son with major league baseball prospects is quitting his high school team.
This Work in Progress is the sequel to Red, White & Screwed.
My boss, the editor of the Lancaster Standard Newspaper, Bert Whitley, cleared his throat and waited till the room quieted down. “We’re going to have to go with some of the cost cutting measures the consultant has suggested.”
Everyone squeezed in the conference room on the third floor of the Standard building groaned in unison and then all started talking at once. The Sports Editor, Ed Fowler, was sitting beside me and reached for his breast pocket.
I nodded towards his hand reaching for phantom smokes like an amputee reaching to scratch a limb that was no longer there. “You don’t smoke any more, Ed.”
“You’ve never been through this before,” he said and awkwardly patted his shirt. “I have. Consultants are nothing but Bush league coaches who never picked up a bat.”
Bert was standing at one end of the oval conference table and he shouted. “Hey people. Let’s get some quiet in here. Nobody’s real happy with this but that’s the way it is in corporate America.”
Ron Longenecker sat across from me “How many you pink slipping?” he asked Bert.
“Mary Wolfstein and Pickles. I already told them. Lily Bell and Fiona were offered early retirements and took them.”
“Lily is a hundred and two. You call that early retirement?” Josh Ferosa said and got a laugh from the crowd including me.
“Pickles’ wife has cancer. Where in the hell is he going to get a job at his age that pays health insurance?” Longenecker asked.
“There are some unfortunate repercussions involved with this restructure,” Bert said. “And there will be some unhappy people but these decisions were made for the good of this newspaper over the long haul. I’m sure everyone in this room wants The Standard to be profitable.”
Bert Whitley was a good boss. Fair. Respectful. Not afraid to pat you on the back or kick you in the ass, whatever the occasion suited, but this speech was a canned, rerecorded load of bullshit if I ever heard one. I wondered if it was the same speech given to a roomful of Enron employees before their retirement packages were raided.
I was drifting off, as I am known to do when faced with something unpleasant. Pickles was in a pickle, I thought and had a silent, irreverent laugh to myself. His wife was sick and he was mid-fifties and a fair editor at best. Mary Wolfstein was still in her prime and a pretty good reporter. She’d latch on somewhere. Maybe Harrisburg or one of the Philly suburb papers. I drifted back to the present when everyone started laughing.
“What?” Cindy Hess snapped.
Cindy worked the courthouse and the county commissioners meetings and wrote a political column for the Sunday and was never known to be reserved.
“You’re going to have to pick up Fiona’s column,” Bert said.
Cindy shook her head in disbelief. “She writes the Astrology column.”
“Astromony. Not astrology,” Bert countered. “You studied geology in college. You told me yourself. You’re as close as we’ve got to a science guy. Brush up on your stars. Can’t be that much different.”
Ron Longenecker turned around in his seat to face Cindy. “Stars are rocks after all. Just bigger.”
“Ron. You and Josh are going to have to share copy writers with Cindy and John. We aren’t hiring anyone after all,” Bert said.
“I was told when I came here I’d have a fulltime copy writer at my disposal,” Josh said. “You promised me.”
Bert flipped through his stack of papers lying on the conference table in front of him. “Promises are meant to be broken. Get over it.”
Cindy smiled at Josh. “Are you going to have to type your columns all on your own? What a travesty. The literary world is in tatters. Maybe you should quit and finish that novel you never started writing.”
Josh muttered something to Cindy.
“You wish,” she said.
“Editorially, there won’t be any changes in the foreseeable future, however, Doonesbury’s being pulled from the Funnies,” Bert continued.
“They’re pulling Doonesbury?” Ed asked.
“What do you mean the ‘foreseeable future’?” Josh said at the same time.
“Look people,” Bert said and ran a hand through his hair. “We’re in a very conservative market. I’ll give up Trudeau to keep from having everything we write passed upstairs before it’s printed.”
“That had to come out of the marketing department,” Josh said. “They think we’re going to save a few readers if we dump a comic strip that takes pot shots at Republicans.”
“It did come out of marketing. If this makes our advertisers happy without sacrificing editorial independence and they keep buying a million dollars’ worth of ads a year then we keep getting paid. This is a business,” Bert said. “Remember that.”
“Who gets ‘Listening with Lily’ since Lily Bell’s retiring,” Melanie Thrasher asked from the back of the room. “Please don’t tell me we’re going to buy Dear Abby. It’s just not the same with the daughter doing it. I’d be glad to take it, Bert.”
“We’re not buying Abby. Lily’s column’s one of the most popular at the paper and we want to keep it in-house. It needs somebody with some years under their belt. Schram’s going to take it.”
I was busy picking some dirt out from under my thumbnail with the cap to my pen when Bert said my name. “Are you crazy Bert? I can’t write love advice. I’m in the middle of three potentially major stories. I’m working sixty hours a week as is.”
“You can use Bueller for background stuff and get Thrasher to help you sort through the mail to Lily. That’s half the job. Deciding which idiot to write back to,” Bert said. “That’s it folks. Back to work.”
Everybody stood and started to file out of the room and Bert hurried out before I could catch him.
I veered around chairs and slow movers. “Cindy? Can I talk to you?”
“No,” she said.
“I’ll trade you Star Gazers for Lily.”
“Not a chance, Schram.”
I caught her elbow. “Aw come on. You’ll be way better at Lily than I’ll ever be and we owe it to the old broad to do her column right.”
“The only reason you want me to take ‘Lily’ is because I’m a woman,” she said. “I didn’t see you grabbing Ron or Josh.”
“Partly true. I’ll give you that. A guy writing this column just won’t be right. We just don’t give a shit about other people’s problems.”
“And you think a woman is more suited to the job.”
“Yes.” I nodded emphatically. “Yes. A woman would be. They’re naturally more empathetic. Women nurture. They empower others selflessly. They breast feed.”
Of course, being a man, when I said the word breast I had to look at Cindy’s chest. Award winning size D’s clad today in a knit sweater. I raised my eyes and smiled.
“You had me right up until you locked on my boobs, Schram,” she said. “Maybe getting in touch with your feminine side would do you some good. And I would never get in the way of a man trying to better himself.”
Cindy walked out of the conference room into the lime green hallway leading to the press room that always smelled so much of chemicals it made my eyes water. Melanie Thrasher was waiting for me there.
“Do you want me to start on the mail right away, John?” she asked.
Melanie was young and eager. She was also about fifty pounds overweight, wore glasses that were forever riding down her nose and sported a nervous tic that made me dizzy after a while.
“I’ll find you something real easy to start with,” she said and turned to the stairwell. “You watch. You and I are going to be a great team.”
I smiled and gave her a little salute. I made my way down to the newsroom and went in search of Jason Bueller. I swatted him on the shoulder and told him we were going to lunch.
“I just ate breakfast,” he said.
I kept walking; completely confident that Bueller would be right behind me. I opened the front door of the building, stepped out onto the sidewalk and soaked up the blaze of an October sun.
“Where are we going?” Bueller asked.
I turned right and headed for the Hamilton Bar. It was just nine in the morning but the door was open and I went in with the kid right behind me.
“Hey Pete,” I said to the guy behind the bar. “Any chance we can get some coffee.”
Pete looked at his watch and the pile of dirty glasses on the bar and shrugged his shoulders. I slid into a corner booth and pushed the cigarette ashes off the table with my coat sleeve.
“It smells in here,” Bueller said.
“The sweet aroma of spilled beer and yesterday’s smokes.” I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Pete came over with two cups of coffee and tossed some creamers on the table.
“May I get a bottle of water, please,” Bueller asked.
Pete stared at the kid. “Yeah. Sure.”
“You don’t drink coffee?” I asked.
“Not that coffee,” he said and pointed. “There’s lipstick on your mug.”
I turned my cup around and glanced at the rim. “That’s why I’m drinking from the other side.”
Pete tossed a bottle of water from behind the bar and said, “Heads up.”
Bueller caught it right before it hit him in the ear. He twisted the cap off and took a drink. “So what’s this all about?”
“You’re supposed to help me do some background. You have to know what I’m working on to do it. You did good work last February on the Democratic Dinner.”
Bueller fiddled with the paper label on the plastic bottle. “Thanks.”
“Look kid, I’m not going to try and steal your story like Josh. You do this right, keep it under your hat and get me the info I need and I’ll give you a ‘contributing’ byline.”
“What are you working on?”
“Couple of things,” I said. “I got a source that says Wrightstown’s School District building project is going to be short a few million bucks.”
“School districts are always short money. That’s not news.”
“It is when the school board fired their comptroller a month before. It is when the Board President’s brother-in-law is a vice-president of the construction company building their new school.”
“Could be news,” Bueller said with a smile. “What do you want me to do?”
“I want to know everything you can find out about Gerry McClain, he’s the school board president. And Phil Morris. That’s the brother-in-law that works for Field’s.”
Bueller was scribbling on a little notepad. “OK. What else?”
“Let’s start there,” I said.
“Thought you were working on a couple of things.”
“I am. Just start with this.”
* * *
The newsroom was humming from the sound of keyboards tapping and telephones ringing when I walked back to my desk. The energy level was up a bit from normal, probably because everyone was wondering how far down their name was on the downsizing list. I hit the answering machine button on my phone. Lynn, my wife, had called to remind me about parent teacher conferences scheduled for this evening. Couldn’t wait for that. Herm of Herm’s Sporting Goods left a message that the rod and reel I ordered had come in. I pumped my fist and did a little silent hooray.
I turned on my computer and put a couple of finishing touches on a story about a Lancaster County native who worked for the Department of Justice in D.C. He had been working on a drug investigation and apparently turned over one too many stones for some New York gang to turn a blind eye. Someone had shot him up with enough heroin to kill a horse, cut off his hands, put him in his car and parked it two blocks from the White House. He sat in his car, overdosing and bleeding and dying long before anyone noticed. The F.B.I. declared his death a suicide. I sent the story on its way to the copyeditor and closed my laptop. I picked up my phone and dialed.
“Fleece, Flanagan and Associates. May I help you?”
“This is John Schram from the Lancaster Standard. May I please speak to Mr. Fleece.”
“One moment please.”
“What can I help you with Mr. Schram?” Tom Fleece said.
“I’m with the Lancaster Standard and I’m in your neighborhood. I’d like to ask you a few questions about Wrightstown School District.”
“I am no longer employed by the Wrightstown School District.”
“I know. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“I’m very busy today. Maybe another day.”
“Won’t take more than ten minutes.”
“I don’t really have anything to say.”
“Then it’ll be five minutes,” I said.
“I eat lunch at Betty’s. You know the place?”
If I hurried and traffic wasn’t terrible, I could make it to Herm’s Sporting Goods before lunch with Tom Fleece. My cell phone rang just I was getting on Route 283. I was behind a dump truck, hanging low and spewing clods of manure.
Lancaster County was endowed with some of the finest soil on the planet. Some woman, back when hunters and gatherers were the norm, stuck some corn kernels in the ground and ended up with the best patch of ‘Butter and Sugar’ in the neighborhood. Of course, being a woman, she couldn’t keep her mouth shut and pretty soon everybody was planting and the word got out. More recently, the Germans that settled this area about three hundred years ago were highly industrious and generally humorless so farming suited them fine. Their descendants still farmed Lancaster County accounting for the dump truck of manure in front of me.
“Schram,” I said into my cell.
“Are you going to be home in time to get to the parent teacher conferences?” my wife asked.
“What parent teacher conference?”
“You know very well . . .” Lynn began and continued into a full scale bitch.
I let her go on until I got a radio station tuned in. “I’m just messing with you. I know it’s tonight.”
“This isn’t funny, John. I told you what Mr. Erlichman said.”
“Six thirty, right?”
“I’m getting paged. I have to go,” Lynn said. “See you at home.”
My wife worked for the Lancaster County Hospital. Over the years, she had parlayed a nursing degree into an administrative position getting her Master’s Degree on the way. Lynn worked Monday through Friday and made almost twice as much as I did. My wife was the primary breadwinner in our home and it didn’t bother me. I felt that said something about the confidence I had in my manhood. My mother said I was just too lazy to try and get ahead. I jumped off at the next exit and pulled into Herm’s.
I spent twenty minutes listening to Herm tell me about the good old days and examining my new rod and reel. I checked my watch and hustled the old man along. I had to be at Betty’s in ten minutes.
* * *
I slid into the old-fashioned, high-back booth across from Tom Fleece. “Thanks for seeing me.”
“You’re late,” he said. “I went ahead and ordered.”
“Traffic’s a nightmare.” The waitress came over to the table and I ordered a cup of coffee since Tom Fleece was already eating his sandwich. “Going to have a nice big new school in Wrightstown, I hear. Funny, they’d dump the comptroller who laid out the budget right before the project begins.”
“The new high school and its funding was voted on and passed by the duly elected members of the Wrightstown School Board. Site preparation has already begun.”
“I’m not looking for a quote,” I said. “I’m just trying to get a direction.”
“Direction to what?”
“To the reason the comptroller was fired without board approval from what I can tell from the published minutes. A comptroller who lives in the school district, works for a respected firm and has been serving the board for over fifteen years. Show me the way to get the answers to those questions.”
“My services were no longer needed. Whether the school board president followed the law is not my area.”
I leaned forward over the table. “Doesn’t it piss you off?”
Tom Fleece concentrated on dipping his French fry in just the right amount of Heinz ketchup. He finally looked up at me.
“My youngest is a junior at the high school. My wife works for the Chamber of Commerce. I go to church with Gerry McClain. I don’t want my reputation and my family dragged through a bunch of political crap. I just dropped it, Schram.”
“I don’t blame you. But don’t sandbag me. Give me something. I don’t reveal my sources,” I said.
Fleece picked up his check and reached for his wallet. He threw a buck down on the table and stood up. I figured I’d lost him. This guy wanted to fade into anonymity in a few years and didn’t want to rock any local boats. Then Tom Fleece did the right thing.
“Check the subcontractors, Schram. That’s where you’ll find your answers.”
I’m twenty-four years old with two daughters. For the past six months my husband has been coming home late almost every night and he smells like beer. I’m home all day with my kids and need a break sometimes and the girls miss their Daddy. I’m worried he’s seeing another woman. Should I confront him? Sad in Marysville.
“What’s to say Melanie?” I said. “Sad in Marysville is also ‘Stupid in the Real World’. Of course this guy is drinking and banging somebody else. What the hell else is there to do after nine o’clock on a week night?”
“That’s why we should give her some good advice,” Melanie said.
I picked up a copy of the e-mail and read the ‘Listening with Lily’ letter again. “This is a fake letter. I can feel it. Nobody’s this dumb.”
Melanie’s eyes were twitching like humming bird wings. I didn’t know her well enough to make a judgment but as a keen observer of human nature I concluded she was pretty pissed off.
She pushed her glasses up her nose with a vengeance. “Sometimes we don’t know things that are obvious to everyone else. And sometimes things aren’t as they appear.”
I rubbed my forehead. “OK. What do we tell this woman?”
Melanie and I spent the next twenty minutes cobbling together a response that was sensitive, astute and didn’t make me puke. I checked my e-mail and then Googled the Wrightstown School District and clicked the tab for previews of the building project. Every public school in the country was going to want to recreate the new Wrightstown School. The descriptions of each artist’s rendering included the word ‘interactive’ and ‘cost accountable.’ Townspeople from New Jersey to Washington State were going to be asking their school board’s why their school wasn’t a ‘next generation model of efficiency and duality with accountable results.’
Bert pulled a chair up to my desk and sat down. “What’s going on with the prison?”
“They’re going to sell it,” I said.
“Cindy talked to Hertzog. Said the sale’s off.”
Republican Tim Hertzog was one of three Lancaster County Commissioners. Alan Snavely was the chairman and the other Republican. Hertzog and Snavely both belonged to the Word Ministry Church, long considered the breeding ground for Republican candidates. Word held lots of leadership seminars on their twelve acre compound. The church was a thirty-five thousand square foot monstrosity of pews and had more televisions than a Panasonic convention. The sanctuary was annexed with meeting rooms, a full gym, nursery and a kitchen equipped to feed a thousand guests in the social hall.
Twice a month, it seemed, there was a seminar, world-renowned speaker or Christian concert held at the Word ‘campus.’ And since three-quarters of the Lancaster County Republican committee attended that church, one can only imagine that lots of candidates cut their leadership teeth in those hallowed, twenty-five million dollar halls. Siphoned from Sunday School teacher to political candidate in less time that it takes to say the Lord’s Prayer.
“It’s going to sell, Bert,” I said. “Snavely’s got Beckquist’s vote.”
“Bullshit,” Bert said. “Beckquist isn’t going to vote with Snavely. The dem’s would hang him out to dry.”
Gerry Beckquist, lone Democratic County Commissioner, spent half his time telling everyone what a good guy he was and the other half funneling county contracts to his computer company. The Lancaster Democratic Committee chairman, Melvin Smith, was going to pop a nut or blow a vessel when he found out Beckquist teamed up with Snavely.
“You know for sure?” Bert asked.
“As sure as I can be in these types of things,” I said. “Won’t know for absolutely certain ‘til the night of the vote.”
“When do I get the story?”
“The minute I have a quote,” I said. “I got a meeting with Beckquist next week about the new 911 Call Center equipment he’s trying to get Phillips in emergency services to endorse.”
“Think he’ll tell you anything?”
“Don’t know. He’s no brain surgeon but he ain’t stupid either.”
“How’s Lily’s column going?”
“Kiss my ass, Bert.”
Bert laughed, stood and dragged the chair back to the empty desk across from me.