Friday, January 09, 2009

Maureen, 1932

Maureen, when a young woman, fresh home from business school, got a job at the local paper. At her interview the editor said, “Your fah-thah says that you can do anything.”

“My father is fond of exaggeration, Mr. Beal.”

“Can you fix that typewriter?”

She looked at the typewriter. “Yes I can,” she said, for this was one of the things they taught at business school. And she fixed it. And Mr. Beal was sore amazed.

Several weeks went by, Maureen working hard, and there came a letter in the mail--a letter, by god, in the mail--from her own boss. He said she was the best secretary he ever had. She was making $4 a week.

Word got round about the able young secretary and soon W.G. Slocum came looking. Slocum was a newspaperman well known through the south, and increasingly through the north, the H. L. Mencken of the Albemarle. Slocum ran his own little daily called The Independent which was a good name, considering there was no one he wouldn’t enrage in the exercise of his first amendment rights. Slocum had recently lost his secretary and offered Maureen more than double her current wage. She went. And soon she found enough to justify her increase in pay, for when Slocum wasn’t excoriating rivals in print, and making it risky just to walk down the street if you worked for him, he was thundering at her. He was a big man, bald with a monkish fringe of red, and liquid with sweat in the warmer months. Starting in May he set two electric fans in his office, on stands, and kept them trained rigorously at his person until October. For the correction of his employees he allowed nothing to moderate his impulse to scream; he had only one volume. The mind accustomed to hacking his opponents to shreds and burning their carcasses in vast funeral beacons to his own sagacity was not well suited to the subtle correction of error.

Maureen learned this on the very first day, when Slocum happened to use the word matrices in dictation and she typed mattresses in the letter. There ensued a storm unlike any Maureen had seen raging over the Pasquotank River. A few days and a few storms later, under tutelage not calculated to increase her self esteem, Maureen was thinking fondly of retirement. When after an especially trying session of dictation he rose to his feet and boomed, “I wish Mary Byrd were back here with me now,”—this being his former secretary, gone away to school--Maureen said, “Mr. Slocum I wish she was back here too.”

Whereupon the great man quieted, peered at her closely, enclosed her in his great arm and, walking the length of the office, consoled her in her distress. She need not be upset, he said; it was only his way, and they would get along fine if she only knew that.

If she didn’t know it then, she had more opportunity to learn it, for the storms did not abate, but came regularly, and if not always on the best of causes then sometimes just for practice. But neither did they last. Slocum could be counted on to rage over the slightest fault, but the man who made his living flinging spears at councilmen, senators, governors, businessmen and other journalists had little to spare for his own employees. It was efficient allocation of resources, you see. You can’t eviscerate all the people all the time. Maureen managed to bear up.

What was yet harder to bear were the occasional bullets that came spanking in through the window to form intriguing patterns on the wall. Bullets were not the sort of disputants you could argue with, or conciliate with a tear. Fortunately for Maureen, though, Slocum was mostly shot at on the street, or on his front porch, or in public restaurants.

Yet there came troubles to that monkish head that not even he could lambast out of existence, from places least to be expected.

There happened to be attached to this fiery journalist two fair daughters, the princesses of the town, pretty, poised and sweet, the beloved coquettes of the village. Or they would have been coquettes if the favors which they pretended they might bestow they did not actually bestow. But, indeed, bestow them they did, with simple and blithesome abundance, bestow them throughout the town on all who appeared to be in want.

This, for the crusader, the bearer of the righteous cross, came to be seen as something of a liability. One day having received some especially startling revelations of his daughters’ activities, Slocum arrived at his office in a wrath that looked like a black column of ire, a thunderstorm he carried with him, an anvil-shaped darkness shedding fury and brimstone upon his head, and when he went to his office it followed him in.

For an hour he rained blows upon his typewriter, then emerged from his office in a cloud of volcanic ash and gave his compositor the editorial for the next day. Mr. Haskel read it, and blanched.

“Mr. Slocum,” he said, “I can’t….”

But Slocum was already gone.

Catching him on the sidewalk, Haskel pleaded. “Mr. Slocum, you can’t say these things about your own family. You can’t say them about anyone’s family.”

“Set it up,” bellowed the editor, striding along, “and let fall what will.”

“There’s got to be some other language,” Mr. Haskel said, “some mild path of implication.”

“A shoat is a shoat is a shoat,” thundered the editor. “We want no milder pathway here. Set it up!”

It was useless, but Haskel strode along with him, speaking reason, speaking forbearance, pleading for a second thought, and that was how Maureen saw them pass: the fatter man red and fiery, the taller man leaning toward him, hustling to keep up despite his greater stature, wearing a look that spoke of hope not just for his job, but hope for the ultimate ascendancy of sense.

The two men reached the corner, Maureen following at some distance on the chance she might be of use in this apparent crisis, whatever it was, when a slight twanging sound arrested their attention. It was a small sound but it seemed to occupy a large space behind the men and on the sidewalk near their feet. Such is the way of animal response they were already running before they understood they were being shot at. They didn’t know by who or from where—a blank billboard across the street would make an excellent cover—but it seemed impolitic to stop just then and inquire into the matter. And, anyway, they had gotten up some very good speed and it seemed a shame to waste it. Maureen left just as quickly in the other direction.

She met them back at the office, heated and shaken, their eyes very bright. By this time Slocum had built up an entirely new rage. He approached his typewriter with his fingers outstretched, itching for the justice only they could bring. He had no proof concerning any suspect, numerous as they were, but had already gone through indictment and trial of someone, apparently, and was burning for execution.

Mr. Haskel whispered the story to Maureen while they stood in the outer office hearing tomorrow’s new editorial being beaten into life. He did not at this point have the old editorial with him, and did not mention what had become of it.

It was this story Maureen told her mother that night when things had finally quieted. Her mother listened to all of it, and to Maureen’s surprise seemed annoyed.

The mother of those girls, she said, Miss Columbia Slocum: was she not the very scamp of the town herself even before there were automobiles to ride in? Did she not sit on this very porch in 1903, with her hem deliberately pulled over her knee, to show a pretty garter to Maureen’s handsome uncle?

“It’s no wonder those girls can’t be controlled,” she said. “Look who they had for a teacher.”

This was life in their small town.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

A Sort-Of Love Story

Once upon a time there was a little brown-haired princess who loved to skate and cook and to say what she loved. She lived in an expensive condo with a guard out front who opened the doors and accepted the packages that came for the princess. She liked to live in the expensive condo and have the man standing out front at all times, and she liked to receive packages.

One day the brown-haired princess was out skating, and skating, and having a marvelous time telling those around her about the number of BMWs in her condo's garage, when she met a toad skating in the same direction.

"Hi," she piped. "I own an expensive condo."

"You're cute," said the toad. "Let's have coffee."

Over coffee the toad learned that the cute princess also liked to snow ski. She also liked to water ski. She also liked to jet ski. She was also learning how to golf. She sold loupes and everybody loved them and she sold a lot. Also she leased a Jeep Cherokee. Also she loved to swing dance, and even took lessons in it.

"What's a loupe?" the toad wanted to know. The toad was rumpled and unshaven but fancied that he held a full set of cards in the brains department and, because he liked the Princess very much, wanted to listen carefully.

"A loupe is a pair of glasses that dentists use," said the princess.

"Oh," said the toad.

They sat and drank their coffee and the princess smiled a smile of blue hyacinth and chirped away and the toad was enchanted. An enchanted toad, he was. And after meeting for coffee he climbed into his 10–year-old car and went home and sewed the missing buttons back on his shirts.

By and by the princess and the toad came to skate together often, and one day were out skating when the princess encountered one of her friends, the big friendly bear. The big friendly bear rolled up to them with his great belly forward and laughed a deep laugh that accompanied absolutely everything he said, and the princess hugged the bear and they talked about their swing-dancing adventures. For the big friendly bear was the animal that had gotten the princess interested in swing dancing.

"The big friendly bear is a great swing dancer," the princess said. When she smiled, her eyes became little painted daubs of mirth.

Swing dancing, they called it, though persons of a certain age—the princess's mother's age, for example—had only called it dancing, for they had known no other kind.

The princess and the toad and the big friendly bear skated awhile along the river pathway. And the big friendly bear kept them entertained with his big friendly laugh, a laugh that started out pungent and diminished quickly—"HENH henh henh henh," was usually how it went. But what it lacked in endurance it made up in frequency, and the princess and toad were never long away from its hearing.

"We could skate around the river twice or just pretend to be tired and stop after one," said the big friendly bear. "HENH henh henh henh."

"I need a snow cone," the bear said soon after. "It's been an hour and I haven't eaten anything. HENH henh henh henh."

Things went on. The princess often found herself skating first with the big friendly bear and then with the toad, sometimes both together, and often with numerous other animals. Nothing so delighted the princess' heart as stopping by an inn on a summer's eve, and entering therein, and hoisting a merry bumper or two, or three or four, in company with her animal friends, and moving herself into the very eye of the company, where she could be petted and admired, and touched and adored. Any time a question arose about boyfriends in her life, she would say, "It's not easy being easy." Sometimes she said this four times in the same night. "It's not easy being easy." That usually put the question to rest--though not to permanent rest. For if the animals had pondered it, they would have understood they had received no answer at all. But this contributed all the more to the mystery of the princess.

One such night she sat in a pub and sang with the animals, and the singing went on and the singing went on, withthe princess at the center as usual, and talking about how she had purchased her own house, and was impressed by it, and had correctly estimated the cost of fixing her roof, impressing the roofers, and was impressed by it, and that her condo project had a great many Mercedeses and Cadillacs in its parking garage, and wasn’t that the most impressive thing of all.

“HENH henh henh henh,” said the bear, looking at her, as the toad was. And she was sweet and dimpled and demure and the greatest little egomaniac the toad had ever seen. Not a great talker, certainly, but marvelously skilled in the language of the flesh. She could work up a kind of grand oratory of the physical, and shape and modulate it with the skill of a rally speaker.

And the toad realized: First, they seemed to be an official couple, he and the princess, yet had never attended any function as such—certainly the mark of an official relationship, and maybe they should talk about it.

Of course this never worked with the princess, and that was the second thing he realized: You just couldn’t pin the princess down on anything. And there were all these other animals. The squirrel and the ferret, the emu and the sloth, and all adoring her like their mother or something else. The toad wandered home to think about this, leaving the princess singing in the inn.

And a few days later, when she called before boarding a flight and asked him to pick her up at the airport—she was selling loupes in a faraway land--and he got into his car in the 90 degree heat, and drove round and round the airport waiting for her to say she’d arrived, getting chased out of hiding spots by airport security, his dog panting in the back seat—only to be called an hour later and told she’d made other arrangements and got a ride from someone else, he decided, yes, she was too great for one toad alone. Her fame was too exalted. She belonged to the forest. It was perhaps selfish of the toad to have ever thought otherwise.

And so he let her sing at the inn with the other animals and stayed home himself. And she lived happily ever after, and he lived happily ever after, and went skating as often as he could and allowed some of his buttons to come off his shirts.