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Precious

Other books by Douglas Glover

The Enamoured Knight

Elle

Bad News of the Heart

Notes Home from a Prodigal Son

16 Categories of Desire

The Life and Times of Captain N.

A Guide to Animal Behaviour

The South Will Rise at Noon

Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon

The Mad River

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For Mal Aird, Barry Johnson, Peter Leney, Mike Clugston, Garth Wilton, Peter Walker, Walt Christopherson, and the rest of the night desk at the Montreal Star, 1975-1976.

And for Laura.

1

Jerry Mennenga’s bar hid like an overlooked misprint amid a block of jutting bank towers off King Street not far from where the Toronto Star building used to be. Jerry’s was a quiet place compared to most downtown bars. It boasted neither neon nor television. Two old mirrors reflected the weather from the streets, and behind the bar, in a niche surrounded by autographed pictures of hockey and football stars, was a bronze statuette of Jerry himself, thirty years younger, coiled in the pose of a discus thrower.

I was pondering the statue, thinking some woman had done it, that it was the product of some romantic, artsy liaison from the barkeep’s past, and trying to imagine Jerry as a marble torso in the Athenian room at the Royal Ontario Museum, when he started in on me again.

“Precious, you look awful. You look like you just got outta jail.”

“Bull’s eye,” I said. “Now are you going to give this poor ex-con a break or kill him with neglect?”

Jerry stuffed the stump of a burnt-out cigar into the corner of his mouth and wheezed asthmatically to express the pleasure he took in his own perception and my repartee. In the mirror over his shoulder, a ghostly face hovered, staring back at me like a fish in a bowl. It was pale, feverish, and needed a shave. Anne had often said I resembled one of those handsomely ravaged French poets gone to hell on drugs and absinthe. But now I looked like a corpse.

“You in trouble, Precious?”

There he was again. Ask the guy for a loan and he thinks he’s got a right to paw through your private life like an amateur detective.

“Just broke,” I told him.

“I heard you talking to Bellfield about some job in Ockenden. You desperate or sumpin? What do you want to go to a place like that for? Why not stay here? We got doctors and hospitals in Toronto, you know.”

Jerry was always thinking of his clients’ welfare. He had the idea that civilization stopped somewhere just east of Greenwood Raceway.

An expatriate Genoan with a Play-Doh face like Jack Dempsey’s, Jerry had ministered to generation upon generation of regulars, from Bay Street lawyers to newspaper publishers, from advertising flacks to office girls moonlighting as hookers, since the Second World War. He was already something of a legend in the sixties, when I first came to Toronto from the provinces to work a swing shift on the old night editor’s desk at the Star. A series of syndicates had owned the licence, using local jock celebrities as front men. But Jerry’s statue had occupied pride of place no matter who was in or out. By way of an avocation, the barkeep was a loan shark.

It had been a week since my fortieth birthday and less than thirty-six hours since the aforementioned Anne Delos and her crooked notary had arranged my release from the jail in Salonika. It cost her four thousand dollars in bribes, besides medical and legal fees. And I was cheap at that, the notary told me proudly when he came with the good news. The Lebanese wars had flooded Greece with a surplus of easy money, and my pet case of ambulatory pneumonia had turned me into a liability, one that might die any time at the state’s expense.

We had met at the courtesy bar of a Mediterranean shipping convention. She was a biggish American woman with a face like Ingrid Bergman’s and a shy lisp. According to the line she fed me, she was a female version of the old remittance man, running away to Europe to escape a failed marriage and nervous break-down while her long-suffering relatives paid the bills. Apparently they had decided to suffer no longer because the money had dried up and she was destitute.

I count it a major personality defect, pernicious naïveté, if you want to give it a name, that after two decades of adulthood, a career in the papers, three marriages, and countless skirmishes with the perfidy of human nature, all I could do was look into her eyes and believe every word she said. The trouble was that, like most of us, Anne’s quota of self-knowledge was strictly limited, and much of what she did know about herself she kept secret from me. It was the stuff she didn’t care to talk about that landed me in jail.

Her real husband turned out to be a bad-tempered Greek economics professor who owned three oil tankers and had friends in the justice department. One night I was dragged, kicking and shouting, press card in hand, to the local prefecture and charged with sedition and crimes against the state. This meant I could be held without trial indefinitely while the prosecutors and police dissected my recent past for every possible subversive act from fomenting revolution to littering. The cops beat me twice out of curiosity to see whether I would confess to anything indictable. I took sick instead and threatened to succumb if they touched me again.

Anne’s notary was a comical little fellow of advanced years who had lost one and a half lungs and part of his rib cage to cancer. Desiccated and bent, he nevertheless managed to conduct himself with great charm and courtliness in a white linen dinner jacket that must have dated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On visiting days, after earnestly inquiring about my chest, he would chain-smoke black Turkish cigarettes that smelled of rotten plumbing. He told us he had relatives in the police and launched an energetic campaign of payoff and arm-twisting that only made the authorities more suspicious than ever.

I have to credit Anne for her loyalty in a situation like that. She may have been sinfully reticent about her family affairs, but she was also true blue. It was her grand gesture, pawning her grandmother’s emerald pendant, that finally did the trick. The old confidence man was touched to his gentlemanly core. He suddenly found the right magistrate to bribe, and my prison doors sprang open.

I was sick and broke, and they put me on a Lufthansa jet bound for Frankfurt, Paris, and Toronto with orders not to let me off until we reached the end of the line. Anne was at the airport to say goodbye. She placed an elegantly gloved hand on my forearm, looked at me with those innocent New England-bred eyes, and begged forgiveness for the trouble she had caused. I said not to mention it, which was pretty chivalrous considering that she had nearly been the death of me. I said I would write.

All of which doesn’t tell you why Rose Oxley was murdered a month later, or why people insist on calling me Precious. But it does explain why I happened to be in Toronto that January with nothing but thirty-nine dollars and an out-of-date UPI card in my pocket, a stained London Fog raincoat over my shoulders, and a pair of tinted Italian sunglasses. It also explains why I borrowed all that money from Jerry Mennenga and why I took a newspaper job in Ockenden on Bellfield’s say-so. Which is how the story really began, if you’ll forget the inquest and those tabloid epics the big-city journalists churned out on their word processors long enough to hear my side of it.

“Are you going to lend me the money or not?” I asked. “You’ve known me a long time, Jerry.”

“I ain’t seen you in three, four years.”

“I’ve been away.”

“Some kinda foreign despondent or sumpin, right?”

“Yeah, a roving foreign despondent.”

“I heard the boys talking about it.”

Jerry chomped on his cigar and gazed at the ceiling, turning this earth-shattering piece of intelligence over in his mind. The man was a well-known incurable evader. I saw my chances of extracting a loan disappearing like lead slugs in a melting pot.

“I need cash to live on until I get a job. I haven’t even got enough for a hotel room in this godforsaken town, damn it.”

“You just got a fifty from Bellfield.”

“What if I don’t get a job right away?”

“You want sumpin to eat, Precious? We got a nice Swiss steak.”

I slumped against the bar in disgust.

An hour earlier, alerted by my frantic call from the airport, Bellfield had bounced into Jerry’s, beaming like a caution light. A pudgy, pot-bellied man with a yellow bulldoggy face, he had been in the RCAF with me just out of high school. Now he ran a public relations firm called Richard Bellfield Himself, which boasted two stunning typists, both taller than Dickie. In the years since I had last seen him, he had switched from leisure suits to three-piece pinstripes and someone else’s old school tie.

“Oh ho, Precious, my lad!” This was how he greeted my re-emergence from the slipstream of history. “You look like somebody dragged you through a car wash without the car. Lord, how the mighty have fallen. And now you’ve come to old Dickie Bellfield to get you out of a jam.”

Hoping that Jerry wouldn’t notice, I flashed my ingratiating smile and did an imitation of a limp doormat while Dickie gloated. Envy had been his long suit ever since he washed out of pilot training and I didn’t, back in Base Caribou Heart, Saskatchewan, when we were both still ignorant of womankind and lying like mad about it. That was when the Precious thing got started.

Out of some quirky instinct for revenge, Bellfield set me up on a blind date with the acting colonel’s niece, an elephantine, hysterical woman ten years my senior. I reacted badly. I drank too much. After a long and embarrassing evening, full of painful silences, I was steering her toward her uncle’s porch light when she lurched and pinned me against the picket fence.

“I adore chess,” she said, lapsing into baby talk and kneading my ribs. “I adore piwots. Hold me, my pwecious! Oh, my pwecious!” Her voice rose with the urgency of impending crisis. “Take me, pwecious! Have your way with me, my dawling!” And then the old acting colonel himself came hotfooting it from the house with a bird gun to save her.

On isolated prairie air bases such incidents rarely escape notice. I never saw the lady again, but the nickname has pursued me through twenty years of evasive manoeuvres, a dozen or so jobs, those marriages, and five armed conflicts. My real name, if you can remember it, is Moss Elliot, after my father and a primitive form of plant life. There is also a “C.” in the middle sometimes that stands for Claude; I once went out with a girl from Quebec City who called me Clo-Clo. Some people are not lucky with names.

Bellfield was only too happy to see I hadn’t yet become a roaring success in life. I didn’t have to ask; he jumped right in, offered me money, and then made a big to-do about getting Jerry to cash a cheque. Needy as I was, I was doing Dickie’s ego a world of good. He even wanted to help me find a job.

“But you won’t get one in the city, Precious,” he said eagerly. “You’ll have to go back to the boonies. The news game has passed you by. You’re a regular Rip Van Winkle. You spent too much time in the yellow-fever belt, playing correspondent, chasing fire engines. It’s all mass marketing, journalism school, and video display terminals now. You ever write a story on a TV before?”

“Doesn’t sound like the good old days,” I said, trying to pitch the proper mixture of misery and awe into my voice. A few feet down the bar, Jerry was polishing glasses, listening intently. “I can always slash my wrists and charge admission.”

“Wait a minute. Like I said, there are still the boondocks. And lucky for you I’ve got contacts. Ever hear of a guy called Burton Spandrell?”

“Not in this life.”

“Came to Toronto from Fleet Street three years ago. He’s as Canadian as you and me but he affects one of those mid-Atlantic accents and pretends he grew up in the shadow of Big Ben. He pulled down a big money job at the Daily News running a string of investigative reporters, and for a while he was making a name for himself as an A-one cast-iron incorruptible muckraker.”

The Toronto Daily News was an upbeat tabloid paper that specialized in crusades, government exposés, and cheesecake. It was sued a lot, most recently by a provincial MP over allegations involving a bid-rigging scandal. Sometimes the Daily News won these lawsuits, sometimes the plaintiff. But it had a reputation for taking chances while the other city papers were looking the other way. Next to the Sun and the Star, the News was the most popular paper on the subways during the morning rush hour.

I only half-listened as Bellfield rattled on. In his excitement he had spilled some of his drink, and I dabbed absentmindedly at the reddish puddle it made on the bar with a napkin while thinking about my second wife, the only one who lasted long enough to hurt. She and Dickie had come from the same world, though they’d disliked each other at first sight. They both had contacts, as well as conferences, meetings, lunches, and projects. I myself never had contacts. When I went out to get smashed with a friend, Rini had drinks with a colleague. In moments of drunken excess I am still liable to suggest the marriage died of incommensurate vocabularies.

“. . . quit just like that,” said Bellfield, snapping his fingers. “Surprised the hell out of everybody.”

“No kidding,” I said, not certain what he was talking about but willing to share in the general astonishment at a sudden twist of fate.

“Claimed he wanted to be his own boss. Story was that he’d inherited a bundle when his first old lady kicked off a year ago. She was some kind of English county bluestocking, too good for mere mortals — nobody I know ever met her. He hired a sharp corporation lawyer, set up a company called Bar-Tor, and took over an independent daily, the Star-Leader, in Ockenden.

“I handled his PR during the takeover. On paper he looked really good, but between you and me, Precious, Spandrell’s no publisher. People management, employee relations, whatever you want to call it, he hasn’t got the knack. Can’t keep his hired help. The extra cash he brought to the operation has been going into new plant, computers, offset, photo labs. His back shop keeps walking out. He makes do in editorial with a bunch of tired hacks, kids out of journalism school, and steno girls dragged upstairs from classified.”

“What you’re telling me, Dickie,” I said, with heat, “is it’s a lousy job with a rotten boss, but I can have it because no one else wants it. What’s wrong with Spandrell? He a lush, a martinet . . . ”

Bellfield smiled triumphantly. “Take it easy, Precious, my friend,” he said. “He’s just an old-time hard-ass editor who likes to fire you every afternoon and hire you back every morning. Just the thing to soothe your shattered nerves.”

With those words as a parting shot, he wrote Spandrell’s number on the back of a business card and left Jerry’s bar, promising to call the guy later in the afternoon to give me an introduction. The way he looked as he skipped out the door, the Cheshire cat grin, struck me as a bad omen. But there I was: too old for the army, too young for a pension. I didn’t have a lot of alternatives.

I went into a coughing jag and lit a last French cigarette to clear my lungs. Jerry was looking at me with a mixture of pity and skepticism, as though he knew what was coming and didn’t like it.

“Listen,” I said, “all I need is a little capital to keep me going until I set up a cash flow. Doesn’t that sound sensible?”

He looked pained and disappointed.

“Geez, Precious, I want to help, you know, but not in business.”

After veering out of control, our conversation was getting more or less back on track. As soon as he mentioned business, I knew Jerry was getting ready to negotiate. He always had a soft place in his heart for regulars.

“I’ll pay it back right away. You want me to go to somebody else and run the risk of getting my legs bent?”

He shoved his cigar into the kink of his mouth with an air of authority.

“I wanna show you sumpin, Precious.” He turned away and shouted toward the back of the building. “Hey, Marty, come out here a minute, will ya?”

A monstrous primate, something between a gorilla and a neanderthal but uglier, dressed for the Queen Street disco scene, entered from the nether regions. He was built like a fullback, all wrapped up in platform shoes, brushed denim dungarees, and a silk shirt open at the chest. Nestled there in a mat of thick black hair, suspended from a gold chain, was a little corno to ward off the evil eye. He stared blankly in my direction.

“I wanted you to see another aspect of the business,” said Jerry. “On account of Marty I can do business with some very high-risk clientele. You might say he’s my default insurance like they have for car accidents. I just wanted to show you, Precious, in case . . .”

“Okay. Okay. Put it back in the box. I get the picture. This isn’t some damn B movie, you know. I’m just taking out a loan.”

Jerry dealt me two hundred dollars from the community chest. That made two hundred and fifty dollars for the day. I ordered the Swiss steak and fries and stood myself another drink. But somehow the atmosphere had turned chilly and officious.

2

It seemed to me that I had spent a lifetime, more or less, in towns just like Ockenden, changing buses to get to other towns.

A small branch-plant city of about forty-five thousand on the shoreline of Lake Ontario between Toronto and Kingston, it boasted a decayed waterfront that hadn’t seen significant shipping since the 1890s, a ponderous close-built Victorian midtown, and a helter-skelter collection of brick or stucco subdivisions. At the ragged urban fringes there rose grey low buildings that housed a cable factory, a tractor assembly plant, a foundry, a knitting mill, and the regional warehouse for a grocery store chain, all owned by American conglomerates.

Approaching by road, you threaded rows of cut-rate gas stations, fast-food outlets, cheap motels, craft stores, and shopping malls surrounded by acres of parking lot. In the centre of town there was a bandana-sized park where pigeons disported between the War of 1812 cannon and a blue and gilt bandstand. Looking hopelessly out of place against the aged sedateness of its backdrop, a chamber of commerce banner loudly proclaimed Ockenden’s annual winter carnival, complete with snowmobile races on the lake and an ice-fishing derby. From either end of the green space, the Anglican and Baptist churches glared at each other through a lattice of bare maple trees, rubbing shoulders with a railway hotel, a restaurant called the Ritz, a tavern called the American House, an art gallery, and the Star-Leader.

The newspaper occupied a squat two-storey building cheerfully decorated with patterns of brickwork in two tones of grey. From the upper floor, suspended over the sidewalk, hung a combination clock-thermometer advertising a local insurance agent who shared the office space. Neither device was working the next day when I arrived in Ockenden, or any other day for that matter. The time read 7:18, the temperature was eighty-two degrees.

Bellfield had been right about Spandrell. He was nasty and he needed a journeyman editor badly.

“Your friend says they call you Precious. You a pansy or something? I can’t stand pansies. I won’t have homosexuals working on my newspaper.”

That was the first thing he said to me.

“Anyway, I wouldn’t hire you in a million years on that idiot’s recommendation.”

That was the second.

It sounded bad, but it was difficult to take the man seriously because of the wig he was wearing. It was a cheap, ill-fitting specimen that looked like a small flat fur-bearing mammal which had taken refuge at the summit of Spandrell’s bald head.

I said, “At least we agree on Dickie’s mental ability.”

Under the hairpiece my future employer was about forty-five, over six feet tall, and constructed along the lines of an over-the-hill sumo wrestler: bulging torso, thighs like fire hydrants, a skull that sat squarely on his shirt collar without the intervention of a neck. His eyes were small, angry, and almost hidden behind the thick black rims of his glasses. The lower part of his face was covered with a beard that only missed matching the colour of his wig by about a third of the spectrum.

He was sitting behind an antique Underwood typewriter in a glass office behind the U-shaped “rim,” or editorial desk. His door was open; he had been poring over the day’s page proofs, which littered the floor.

“I hate people who make wisecracks,” he shot back in a voice that was trying to make up for the toupee.

He resumed stabbing his proofs with the stub of a grease pencil. The sheets on the floor bore the scars of his attacks, irritable circles, illegible hieroglyphs. He hadn’t told me to leave, so I sat back and waited.

“Can you edit copy?” he demanded finally. “That’s what we need to find out. Lay out pages, write headlines, size photos? You’ve been out of this end of the business a long time.”

Instead of reciting my resumé, I picked up one of the proofs and held it in front of his face.

“You’ve got two busted heads and somebody doesn’t know how to spell the capital of Nicaragua. On yesterday’s front page — I read it outside — the council story lead was buried in the fifth paragraph. The picture should have been blown up over three columns and the story played beside it. Who does that page, anyway?”

“I do,” said Spandrell. “Think you’re smart, don’t you? I want to show you something.”

He placed a heavy hand on my shoulder and led me to the doorway.

It was a newsroom like any other newsroom, a little older, a little scruffier: scuffed tiles, banks of vinyl-topped desks, the chatter of aging typewriters, telephones ringing, the low buzz of conversation, and the suck and whoosh of pneumatic tubes. Along the length of the window ledge there were stacks of yellowing Star-Leaders, empty Styrofoam cups, cobwebs, and curled photographs. In one corner an office had been partitioned off for the sports department. Two doors led through the side wall to the composing room and the morgue.

Spandrell gestured grandly with the hand that wasn’t gripping my clavicle and muttered, “The troops.” The place suddenly went quiet, everyone looked up expectantly.

“Gratz, city desk,” he said, nodding at a Teutonic youth who had just entered from the reception area rubbing his hands with a paper towel. “Spends a lot of time in the bathroom.

“You see that guy at the end of the rim with his mitt in a sling? That’s Kercheval, the wire editor. Tried to run himself through a blender. See that empty desk? That’s Millicent Pietrowski, my women’s editor. She just eloped with her little theatre director.

“See that fat kid in the blazer? That’s Wishty, court reporter. He’s been here four months and we spike ninety percent of his stories because he’s unreliable. That guy beside him? The one in tweed with the apple cheeks? Ashcroft. Here two weeks. Don’t know about him yet. He hasn’t turned in a story.

“My best photographer is a wino with a wooden leg who won’t go near fires because he’s inflammable. My sports editor takes drugs and thinks he talks to God. The old guy trying to hide by the coat rack? That’s Damon Barrett. Pen name, you know, as in Damon Runyon. Maybe you heard of him. He keeps talking about when he was nature writer for the Toronto Star. He plagiarizes his copy from Field and Stream.

“Now, Precious,” he said, turning to me, “I don’t like you, but I think you’ll fit right in. You get me? You can start on the women’s pages and sub on the desk when you get the time. You know what a puck is?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I’m grooming you for sports when that guy in there flips out.”

He tightened his grip on my shoulder for emphasis.

“And I don’t want to hear another peep out of you. That’s how I know things are working properly. I don’t get any complaints. Okay?”

I looked around the newsroom. Nobody made a move. They were all terrified of Spandrell.

“Okay,” I said.

The publisher’s eyes narrowed suddenly as though he detected an element of insubordination in my answer. They were poker player’s eyes, they gave away nothing but his anger. Then he dismissed me with directions to Payroll and Personnel, where a jolly fat lady with hair like fire, a moustache, and at least eight rings seemed to think my hiring on at the Star-Leader was the funniest thing since the invention of plastic doggy-do.

“Sorry, honey,” she said, her mirth subsiding in a series of tremors that shook various parts of her anatomy independently of the whole. “Welcome to the Foreign Legion. You must be running away from something really awful to end up in a dump like this. What was it, hon? A woman? Booze? Drugs? Murder? Nobody wanted to publish your memoirs?”

“All of the above,” I said, “and more, much more, too sordid to relate.” She bit her lip to suppress another explosion of laughter; judging from the colour of her cheeks, the effort was nearly fatal. “You get a lot of that class of talent passing through?” I asked.

“Oh, honey, you don’t know the half of it,” she said, pausing to wipe tears from her eyes and take a deep breath. “We turn over more bodies than a massage parlour.” She stretched out an arm the size of my leg and opened a filing cabinet. “See there? I don’t file them alphabetically; I bet on how long they’re going to last with Burton Spandrell. See! I had Millicent’s folder at the front of the drawer. Of course, she was a friend so I knew what was coming. You taking her job?”

The fat lady erupted into hiccups when I nodded, then handed me a sheaf of forms and questionnaires.

“You have to fill out every one of these, even if you only stay a day, honey. Otherwise the tax people have epileptic fits. Here’s a Star-Leader pen. It’s the only thing you’ll get around here that’s free, except me.” She winked coquettishly. I started to read some fine print dealing with loss of limbs in pursuit of my occupation. “You don’t have to do that now, beautiful. I’ll put you on the payroll. Just drop them off sometime before you quit.”

“Thanks,” I said edging toward the door. “Anything else I should know before I sign the lease?”

“That skinny blond in classified?” she asked with a giggle. “Name’s Alice Varney. Don’t try anything on her. Varney’s got the clap.”

“I’ll try to remember,” I said. “How about a map to the press-room? I’d like to look the place over.”

“Second door past the food machines and back of the loading bay. You’re not a union man, are you?” she asked. “Old Burton Spandrell hiring a union organizer. That’d be a laugh and a half. Say! Aren’t you the guy they call Precious? What a riot!”

I left her lolling helplessly like an upturned turtle in a sagging office chair that shrieked metal fatigue every time she moved. The sound followed me along the corridor until I was almost out of earshot, when she shouted, “And don’t eat outta those machines, honey! Stuff’s poison. Couple a years ago I coulda been Miss Universe.”

The pressmen were replating for a second edition when I pushed through the last fire door into the double-storey cavern that housed the Star-Leader printing plant. The steel floor shook; the air was thick and sharp with the heavy throb of machinery, like the beating of a heart, and the acrid newspaper smells of oil, ink, and hot lead. For a moment or two I gazed in awe at the intricate pile of cogs and wheels and giant cylinders like a kid in a museum staring at his first dinosaur skeleton.

The first press I had ever seen was an ancient creaking Campbell flatbed that crowded the tiny shop at the back of my Uncle Dorsey Elliot’s house. Dorsey was a stereotypical hack newsman; his blood was eighty proof, his family life zero. That his wife had left him was history; no one ever talked about it except Dorsey when he was drunk, and then he talked too much. I could never tell whether he missed her or wanted to kill her.

In 1945, for reasons of economy, my mother and I moved in with Uncle Dorsey, soon after my father and his Hurricane were shot down over the Netherlands. Neither of them seemed much enamoured of the arrangement. My mother’s name was Nicolle, although everyone called her Nickel. She was a black-clad proto-beatnik who made her living painting portraits at a hundred dollars a shot. Uncle Dorsey published the local weekly, a chronic money-loser known affectionately by its subscribers as the Ameliasburg Times and Distemper. Nickel spent so much time at the Parmesan Bar and Grill, the town night spot, that she made a serious attempt to have the bar legally designated as the final repository for her ashes. Dorsey did all his drinking in his office with a mangy misanthropic golden retriever bitch called Adolph. Often Mother and Dorsey would go for days without saying a word, stumping around the house lost in their separate worlds, like the proverbial ships that pass in the night.

Yet that little newspaper and the cluttered printing shop enchanted me: the holy of holies where the silent press stood like an altar, its black rollers as high as my head, the stern cabinets with their neat gunmetal type trays, the Ludlow machine for casting heads, the small galley press with a brayer for inking, bales of newsprint, drums of ink, cubbyholes along the walls for column rules, space slugs, and stand-up lines, and the smooth-surfaced stone, always mysteriously cool. As a boy I rummaged there for hours, mixing the fonts, printing messages on bits of scrap, carving lead pigs, watching my uncle’s hands flutter over his composing stick.

When I was old enough, I went to work for Dorsey part time after school to earn pocket money, and it stood to reason that I had my eye set on a career in the papers. But Mother had other ideas. She had decided I would follow my luckless father into the air force. When I asked her why, all she could do was sniffle into a paint-smeared rag and mutter something about men in uniforms being nothing but heartbreakers. Unaccountably, Uncle Dorsey backed her up. The day I left Ameliasburg for basic training he dragged me into the pressroom, spilled gin into two cracked coffee mugs, and said, in his inimitably pickled voice, “Moss, don’t ever become a newsman, and never fall in love.” It was there they found him a few years later, face down, dead, in the litter and ink.

I stayed where I was a few minutes longer to see the hands lock down the last plates, hear the warning bells, and watch the freshly folded newspapers flooding off the line. Twenty years had fled. I hadn’t listened to Uncle Dorsey. When I got out of the air force, I had my wings and a ticket to a gold mine. In the early sixties airlines were offering a million bucks, fifty grand a year, to ex-servicemen who wanted to fly passenger jets. But the thought of turning into a glorified bus driver at the age of twenty-three chilled me. And somehow I thought the money would always be there.

On a whim I took a job covering the police beat for a small city daily not unlike the Star-Leader. Inside of a month I was hooked on the steady rhythmic surge of the deadline, dropping Dexedrine tablets and working eighty-hour weeks, drifting through my free Sundays in the company of chain-smoking, liverish veterans, their hoarse endless talk echoing in my ears and dreams. I got married; I got divorced. The years accumulated like spent butts in an ashtray. When I finally pulled my nose out of the rat race long enough to grasp the situation, when I finally realized Dorsey had been right all along, it was too late to change and too late to kick.

Twenty years.

But, as the French say, even the most beautiful woman cannot give more than she has.

3

I took a room over the American House, where I could roll downstairs to the bar if I had to, and started working the early-morning shift at the Star-Leader. Each day I wrapped the raincoat around my body like a winding sheet and plodded wearily to the newsroom. Yellow street lights blazed at irregular intervals. My shadow waxed and waned like successive incarnations of a soul. My ulcer played up. I caught a cold which threatened to revive my pneumonia.

Yet, if the truth were told, I was relieved and content to be back in harness to the daily press. In the aftermath of my collision with Anne Delos, I needed a place to hide out and nurse my rumpled self-esteem. By the time a month had passed, I had lapsed comfortably into the anonymity of the editorial desk, the diurnal tussle with blank dummy pages, and the stubborn syntax of faceless wire service rewrite men.

I took Spandrell’s advice and stayed out of his way. I was only being pragmatic. What I worried about was losing my temper at him. Although my recent stint in a Greek jail had taught me the wisdom of accommodation, I wasn’t sure that would be enough to prevent me from offering constructive criticism if he started pushing me around. But I soon discovered a couple of regular paycheques had turned me into an addict, and I didn’t relish the thought of a sudden decline in prosperity. After paying my debts to Jerry Mennenga and Dickie Bellfield, I had opened a savings account.

Afternoons I spent in the American in the company of various colleagues, usually Kercheval and Barrett. I liked these men, tough old birds flying upwind against time. The wire editor, his sliced hand held in front of his chest like a puppet, was one of those stolid types who stuck with one paper for forty years, hated unions, belonged to the Legion, invested in duplexes, and moved to a prefab in Arizona when he turned sixty-five.

Barrett, on the other hand, was a bona fide burnout, an aging hack who swore undying friendship as soon as I let on I did remember his fishing columns in the Star. A sad-faced, teary-eyed man with a nose like a strawberry, he had grown up in Ockenden, where he had apprenticed at the Star-Leader, arced briefly into the big city limelight, and finally subsided into familiar obscurity. No one remembered his real name, possibly not even Damon himself. What he had done for entertainment before I came along, I’ll never know. I would sit for hours listen-ing to his stories, drinking his booze, vaguely hoping someone would do the same for me twenty years down the line.

When I rented my room, the woman at the desk (who also doubled as barmaid and dinner hostess) told me that there wasn’t much happening in Ockenden. The young people with any get up and go usually got up and went to Toronto. The rest played musical marriages, stagnated in the plants, bought motor-boats and trail bikes on time, and raised fat cells in front of their TV sets. The only thing that ever got them excited was the town hockey team, the Oaks, which hadn’t had a winning season in eight years.

As January quietly congealed into February, I began to enjoy myself. It was lonely at times but I got to enjoy that too. I took my meals at the Ritz and drank beer at the American. I made some friends and dated a checkout girl at Food City. I avoided writing Anne, and except for a couple of postcards, I didn’t hear from her.

I read a lot. The Ockenden Heights Secondary School English department was leaning heavily on Dickens, Yeats, and Heming-way that winter. As the school year wore on, the book and supply store a block down from the tavern began letting its overstock go at half-price. When I was bored I took walks around town, especially along the waterfront, where I got all the excitement I wanted watching the lake freeze. In a short while, Barrett told me, the little bay would come alive with ice-fishing shacks and buzzing snowmobiles. But for the time being I had the place to myself.

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