THE California sky was ablaze with the quicksilver brilliance of a billion distant suns. So bright was that starlight, the sparse maritime clouds drifting in on the westerly breeze cast stark shadows upon the endless acres of flat farmland far, far below.
Nearly two miles overhead, where the orderly quadrants of cultivated field looked like a monochrome patchwork spread out beneath him, Nicholas Sullivan, barely twelve years old, had slipped the bonds of gravity to be borne aloft like a bird. Nick’s blond hair streamed in the wind, and his father’s much too large aviator goggles were cinched haphazardly around his head. His mouth split into a wide delighted smile, and he laughed. His hands were clasped tightly to the controls of a Boeing PT-17 Kaydet Trainer, his dad’s treasured Stearman, and he whooped in unrestrained bliss. His cry of joy was lost in the howl of the thin, cold air and the trademark throaty growl of the Continental R-670-5 engine that had carried him into the heavens.
Nick sat in the cavernous pilot’s seat, near the back of the aircraft, wrestling with a stick that was meant for much larger hands. Blocks of wood were strapped to his feet so that he could reach the pedals that worked the tail rudder.
Thomas, Nick’s father, had purchased the cherished plane for $250 in a surplus auction after the war and modified it into a crop duster, ostensibly to make a living. Instead of seeking his fortune in the booming postwar economy that saw increasing prosperity across a triumphant nation, the once decorated naval aviator had opted to eke out a living flying dangerous, low to the ground sorties of an entirely different character than those he’d flown in the war. Rather than dogfighting Nazis, Nick’s dad now waged chemical warfare against a legion of voracious insects, protecting innocent crops from certain devastation. Claire, Nick’s mother, would often bemoan this fact, and though her husband would vigorously defend his choices as “a fair and honest way to make a living,” Nick knew that wasn’t the whole truth of it. The simple fact was, like him, his father loved to fly.
The elder Sullivan had earned his wings in an airplane just like the one his son now commanded high over the California fields, and when the war was over, he’d turned to crop dusting to quench his insatiable thirst for flying.
“Once a man dares to touch the stars, never the earth shall he suffer then,” Claire Sullivan would mutter in her French-inflected lilt with a mixture of pride, love, and sheer terror as she stood hand in hand with Nick, watching the yellow biplane taxi down their dirt airstrip. “Though wings to heaven may carry thee, safely my love… return again,” she would finish with all of the fervor of a supplicant’s entreaty. The poem was from a letter she had written to Thomas during the war, shortly after they’d met. Over the years, it had become something like a prayer.
Each day, as the plane took gracefully to the sky, Nick would stand with her, the two of them shielding their eyes against the morning sun. Once aloft, Thomas would dip the starboard wings in a gesture of farewell, and they would both wave back as he dwindled to a speck in the distance. Once the plane was out of sight, Claire would ruffle Nick’s hair affectionately, and then, as if resigned to whatever fate awaited, turn and busy herself with the day’s work keeping house.
Thomas had taught Nick to work the controls of the airplane almost as soon as he could walk. At twelve, Nick was familiar with every rivet, every wire, that made up the aircraft. He could hear a tick in the engine from fifty paces and know exactly which bolt needed tightening to tease it out.
For a little more than a year, every Friday night, when Nick’s father drove the Ford into town to throw one back with the boys, Nick had been sneaking out of his room and down the dirt airstrip to the waiting plane. Grunting in exertion, he’d toil to remove the oiled tarpaulin that covered it and carefully check it over by the feeble glow of a lantern. Once satisfied with its flightworthiness, Nick would clamber into the cavernous flight seat, strap himself in, tie blocks to his shoes, and then, with practiced ease, guide the plane into the sky.
If his father ever caught him, there would be hell to pay, but Nick was too consumed with his own need to be held back by the threat of a tanned hide.
Nick looked down at the ground and checked the altimeter. As he suspected, he was approaching the safe operating ceiling of the aircraft. He had never dared to breach this invisible barrier. His father had warned him against it many times. Tonight, with the siren’s song of the stars crying out to be touched, he steeled himself to do it anyway.
The altimeter read 10,100 feet. Not high enough. Not high enough by far. Pulling hard on the stick, Nick nosed the plane upward and began to climb. The indicator needle passed through 11,000, 11,100… 11,200, 11,300.
The impeccably maintained Continental engine began to gasp in the thinning air, but Nick kept it vertical, the trusty plane pointing straight toward those stars he so longed to reach. He was going to touch them this time, by God.
Higher and higher Nick climbed. He passed through 11,500 feet and soared higher still. At 12,200 feet, the engine choked its last gasp and died. Nick floated upward in his seat, his body straining against the straps that held him in place as gravity took hold and began to drag the heavy plane back toward the ground like a truant child. His whooping resolved into a scream of primal ecstasy as the weightless euphoria of free fall overtook him.
The altimeter spun backward as Nick plummeted. Wind tore at the airframe, flexing and stretching the fragile fabric and wood structure of the wings, threatening to rip them apart. The plane teetered from vertical and rolled, swaying back and forth as it gracelessly tumbled end over end. Sensing the time was right, Nick muscled the stick and wrenched himself more deeply into the flight deck to work the pedals. He focused on the give and play of air over the control surfaces, sensing, with his whole being, the small adjustments that were needed to bring the floundering airplane back under his control.
When he managed to pull out of the tumble, Nick pointed the nose downward, ignoring the airspeed indicator and relying, instead, upon the howling of the wind and the rapidly approaching ground to tell him when the time was correct. Seconds before his nose-down attitude would have plowed him into the earth, Nick jabbed his finger into the electric starter and grinned in triumph when the prop spun back to life. Thick blue smoke belched out of the engine compartment. Yanking the stick hard toward his chest, Nick pulled out of the dive, and at high speed, coaxed the plane low and level over the cornfields.
Hollering at the top of his lungs, Nick skimmed over the ground, barely ten feet from the deck. As the fields whipped by, a long swath agitated in the chest-height corn, his heart swelled with a freedom and joy he was certain he would never know in any other time or place. There was a dangerous and forbidden pleasure in this triumph over gravity and death, in the freewheeling flight of a bird.
His heart racing, his screams of joy rising momentarily over the growl of the engine and the banshee cry of the wind over the wings, Nick pulled back on the stick and climbed. Reluctantly, he brought the plane around and headed back toward the waiting airstrip. Judging by the height of the slivered moon in the east, he had just enough time before his father got home to return it to its proper place.
As the wheels touched down and Nick braked to a stop, his heart dropped into his stomach. Leaning against the weathered wooden shed, his face frozen into a mask of anger, his father stood waiting for him. One glance in the man’s hard eyes was enough to tell Nick that his hide was in dire jeopardy. He could already feel the sting of the leather strap on his back, and he quailed in fear.
Squaring his chin and making sure the brake was set, Nick slowly climbed out of the plane. Head hung, he walked up to his father and waited patiently to receive his due.
“How long have you been at this?” Thomas Sullivan asked with a menacing growl. Barely restrained rage was evident in his clipped tone.
“’Bout a year, sir,” Nick replied. Better to tell the truth now than to face the consequences of a lie on top of what was already coming.
“Your mother know about this?”
“N-no sir. I… leastways, I don’t think so.” Nick toed the ground anxiously. He couldn’t remember ever seeing his father so mad before.
Thomas was silent for a long while, allowing the anxiety and tension to build. “You set the brake?”
“Get the tarp back on ’er and go on up to bed.”
Nick was stunned. That’s it?
Hesitantly, Nick sneaked a glance up at his father’s face. The craggy, lined countenance was still pinched with anger, but there was a glimmer in the older man’s eyes too. Something that looked suspiciously like pride and… understanding.
“I’m not in trouble?” Nick asked.
“You’re clear up shit creek without no paddle to get you home, son. Hell yes, you’re in trouble.” Nick flinched. Thomas paused, pursed his lips, and then ruffled his son’s hair. “But that was some damn fine flying. Ain’t seen nothing like it since… well….” Thomas’s eyes roamed the sky, maybe in remembrance of glorious days now long in the past. After a pause, he said, “Get to work now. Put ’er away. Tomorrow, you’re going to strip her down to the gears and clean every nook and cranny, till she’s like fresh off the assembly line. I don’t care if it takes you a month of Sundays.”
Nick grinned from ear to ear. He knew his father would be watchful from now on and that his days of stolen flight time were over, but the pride in his voice, the look in his eyes… it felt almost as good as flying. Almost.
Nick’s father gave him a sharp nod and walked away.
Nick looked up at the stars in wonder and anticipation. He was going to touch those stars one day.
TWO thousand miles away, nine-year-old Tait Williams lay on a blanket with his parents, Hugh and Jane, under the August Iowa sky. He was intent on the story he was reading when his father shouted, “There! Off to the west.”
Torn away from the exploits of Holden Caulfield, the rebellious protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, Tait glanced up in exasperation and murmured, “Seven for you. Still sixteen for me.”
Tait’s mother traced a finger over his cheek and smiled softly. “You’re enjoying the book?” she asked.
“Uh-huh,” Tait responded, his eyes flicking back to the page. The story was complicated, and there were mature situations that often perplexed him, but one thing he understood well was his admiration for the character Mr. Antolini, an English teacher like his mother. He found the teacher wise and admirable, even though he was sloppy, used some funny words, and did an awful lot of drinking.
“J.D. Salinger,” Hugh said, reading the book’s cover. “What’s it about?”
“Teenage rebellion,” Jane replied. “It’s a coming-of-age story.”
“Sounds a little mature for a nine-year-old, Jane.”
“He wanted to read it. I saw no harm in it. We had a talk about the language.” She stroked Tait’s hair fondly as he looked up at her with solemn brown eyes. “I wish even one of my high school students had such a passion for literature,” she said.
Tait’s father moved in and pulled them both into an embrace. He tweaked Tait’s nose. “You get your smarts from your mom.” Hugh beamed at his radiant wife. “And your good looks.”
Jane grinned back. Though she spoke to Tait, her eyes remained on her husband. “Your heart, though… you get that from your father. That’s maybe the most beautiful part of all.”
Tait leaned into their embrace, feeling loved and safe. As another shooting star streaked across the heavens, he closed the book and set it aside. Catcher in the Rye could wait. Even at nine, some deep part of him knew these warm summer nights were precious and fleeting. “Seventeen for me,” he said to his father, whose eyes remained fixed upon his wife.
“He’s winning, Hugh,” Jane teased. “Even with his nose in a book, he’s beating you.”
Hugh grunted. “Just a bunch of shooting stars,” he said, imitating Tait’s earlier indifference. “The Perseids will be back around next year.”
“Or maybe you just have enough stars in your eyes that you don’t need the ones in the sky,” Tait advised sagely.
They all laughed. Tait’s mother reached out and tilted his chin upward. Looking deeply into her son’s eyes, she said, “How’d you ever get to be such an old soul, my little Tait?”
Tait shrugged, not really sure he understood the question. “Just lucky, I guess.”
His mother was thoughtful for a moment, and then finally said, “You know what I think? Someday you’re going to be someone special. Someday….” She reached out and brushed a shock of black, curly hair away from his forehead. “You’re going to change the world.”
CEDAR RAPIDS was cold in December, a deep chill that gnawed through clothing and skin and dug into the marrow like a tick. On the ground, a thick carpet of snow had been laid down during the night. As the clouds scudded eastward after dropping their load of moisture, the world was bared to the frigid depths of space, and the temperature plummeted. A crisp crust developed on the newly fallen snow, which hardened in response to the deep freeze.
Tait Williams was rudely awakened at 4:00 a.m. on December 25—Christmas for the rest of the world, but just another day for him. Groaning, Tait slapped his hand on the obnoxiously buzzing alarm clock at his bedside and reluctantly pushed the covers away from his chin. The tiny apartment did little to keep the cold at bay. It had a small oil radiator that might have provided sufficient heat to warm the space once upon a time, but now just contented itself to make funny noises. The feeble warmth it was able to muster wouldn’t have been worth the hike in his electricity bill during winter months, except Dr. King’s life depended on it. The plodding little goldfish hadn’t chosen to be born in captivity, after all. If that meant Tait had to subsist on peanut butter and white bread for months, at least his conscience would be clear.
Tait blinked bleary eyes and forced himself to sit upright. The nest of thick blankets was too inviting, tempting him to remain huddled beneath for just another few moments of blissful slumber. If he didn’t face the cold, though, he knew he’d oversleep and miss the morning beat meeting. Having endured Jack Smithson’s threat of consignment to obit purgatory for the rest of his career once before was more than enough incentive never to be tardy again. Tait hadn’t broken his back through four grueling years of college at Indiana State, one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the country, to spend the rest of his life writing dull remembrances of Aunt Faye or Uncle Charlie. No, sir. He had his eyes on a Pulitzer one day or maybe a spot on the editorial staff at the Associated Press news desk, maybe Time or National Geographic.
Yawning, stretching, Tait greeted Dr. King with a sleepy, “Morning, you,” and then he shoved the covers away from his body. He dropped his legs over the side of the bed and winced as his bare feet hit the frozen hardwood. “Any speeches today?” Tait asked the fish as he peered into the bowl. Dr. King just hung there, suspended in the water, staring back at him with vacant, unblinking eyes. “Didn’t think so.”
Tait dipped his finger into the bowl and frowned. “A little chilly, eh? No wonder you’re so talkative this morning.”
Tait gathered up the fishbowl and carried it into the kitchenette. After tapping some food into it, he set it on the stovetop, flipped open the ancient oven, and turned it on as high as it would go. “Don’t worry, Dr. King,” Tait promised as he set about brewing a pot of coffee. “Oven’ll warm you up in no time.”
Tait knew it was nuts to converse with a goldfish, but it was probably no more heretical than having named it for the charismatic black pastor who stood at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Tait really didn’t see the harm in it. Dr. King was a daily reminder that, more than his teachers, more than the literary giants who had inspired him to write in the first place, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eloquent speeches had shown Tait the power the pen wielded when one purposed it to a cause.
Tait had been too young to understand the implications of the bus boycott in the fifties and the subsequent desegregation actions of the Supreme Court, but he’d been a senior in college when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, and he fully understood how monumental that moment in history was. Though there was a long road to travel before true equality would be realized, society was on a steady march, and Tait, pen in hand, planned to be on the frontlines.
In the meantime, he’d suffer through peanut butter winters and conversations with goldfish, biding his time until his moment came.
Chuckling to himself as the coffee began to percolate, Tait walked over to the frosted window and peered out at the moonlit landscape, noting that another several inches of snow had fallen in the night. “Guess I’m walking to work,” he groused. His ancient Chevy would be impossible to start.
Tait closed the curtains and snagged the Gazette off the front porch. He made a point of reading the competition to see what their angle was on the stories of the day. This practice kept him competitive and occasionally gave him a lead.
Sipping his coffee and holding the paper in front of himself, Tait remarked, “WNB-TV is selling to Orion of Louisville.” He leaned his elbows on the stovetop and flashed the front-page article in the direction of the goldfish, who was busy pecking crumbs off the surface of the water. “Wonder if there’s a human angle?” Tait mused. When media conglomerated, people often lost their jobs. “I’ll give Randy a call and see what the rumor mill is churning out these days.”
Randy Whitford, a high school pal, worked the security desk at WNB. If anyone would have heard who was coming and who was going, as the gatekeeper, Randy would.
Noting the time, Tait returned Dr. King to the top of the radiator and dressed hastily. Toothbrush dangling from his lips, he ran fingers through his mop of curly black hair and grimaced. He was long overdue for a haircut. Somehow, he’d have to scrape together five dollars from his meager funds to get it done. Tait tilted his chin upward, checking the night’s growth on his neck. He decided he could go another day without shaving. After spitting, rinsing, and then splashing some water on his face, Tait patted his hands dry and dressed hastily.
Tait’s closet was as threadbare as his minimally furnished apartment and sparsely provisioned cupboards. He owned five pairs of wool slacks—all gray—and as many white shirts. He was a newspaper reporter, not a fashion model, and he didn’t really have time for the triviality of coordinating outfits.
After dressing, Tait pulled a tweed coat out of the closet and brought it to his nose, breathing deeply the fragrance of aged wool and faded cologne. These were remnants of his father that lingered deep in the fibers. He smiled sadly, pulled the jacket on over the shirt, and with a perfunctory farewell to the goldfish—his only companion in the world—Tait headed out to start his day.
Tait wandered into the office at five minutes before five. He had just enough time to drop his messenger bag at his desk and grab a mug of coffee before the start of the morning’s meeting. Assignments would be handed out, and the reporters would then scamper to get on the beat, gather their news, and churn out copy before the three o’clock deadline to get everything ready for printing. From five o’clock until five thirty in the morning, the office would be relatively sedate, but once the meeting was over, pandemonium would ensue.
Tait crept into the meeting room, took his customary place against the back wall, and waited as the rest of the editorial staff arrived.
The clock signaled 5:00 a.m., and right on schedule, Jack Smithson marched through the door and went straight to the head of the table. This was the pulpit from which the chief ministered, and woe be to the reporter who did not hang on his every word.
Tait reached for his notepad and began writing down the assignments Smithson rattled off, just in case he should be called in at the last minute to fill in. He’d needed to scramble in the past, so he liked to fill idle minutes with additional research. Getting up to speed on a story he hadn’t been assigned left less time to polish his prose.
“Williams,” Smithson barked. Tait looked up from his notepad expectantly. “Copy edit.”
He frowned. Smithson apparently didn’t miss his disappointment, because he said, “Unless you can think of something else.”
Squaring his shoulders, Tait said, “Actually, sir, I was thinking there might be a human angle to the WNB sale. They covered it on the front page of the Gazette, but it was largely technical. With your permission, I’d like to go do a couple of interviews, see if there’s a story there.”
Smithson thought about it while gnawing on his bottom lip, and Tait braced himself for a pitch. He was going to fight this time. “I’m down a copy editor,” he said. “Can’t afford to waste time on goose chases.”
All eyes turned on Tait. He drew in his breath to go to bat for his story. Impatient looks from his colleagues bored into him. Tait folded. “I… understand, sir,” he said. His shoulders slumped and his cheeks burned. Why did he always chicken out?
Smithson looked vaguely disappointed and gave Tait a sharp nod before turning his attention to other matters. Just before the end of the meeting, Smithson said, “Any other business?”
“Sir,” Tait said timidly. Hold it together, Williams. “It’ll only take an hour. I’ll double-time it when I get back. If there’s a story, I’ll work after hours to get a jump on the copy for tomorrow.”
Smithson sighed deeply. “It’s Christmas, son. Don’t you want to get home?”
Once again, all eyes turned on Tait, and he felt heat rising to his cheeks. “No, sir,” he said quietly. “I don’t have any reason to hurry home.” Tait kept his eyes focused intently on his notebook, supremely aware that every man in the room was staring at him.
The chief cleared his throat, perhaps sensing that he’d stepped over a line. Hurriedly, to change the subject, the gruff editor dismissed his team to begin their day.
“Stop by my office before you head out, Williams,” Smithson said as he passed Tait on his way out of the room. Tait cowered, but nodded as the chief passed.
Tait took only enough time to call the security desk at WNB. He was in luck. Randy Whitford was working on Christmas too. He agreed to get Tait through the doors, but he couldn’t guarantee anyone would be willing to talk to him.
Tait grabbed his notepad, slung his messenger bag over his shoulder, and then headed toward the exit. He paused at the door, remembering at the last second that Smithson had requested an audience.
Great. This should be fun.
Tait turned back and looked at the closed door to the chief’s office. He frowned.
I could just say I forgot. Tait shook his head. That wouldn’t be advised, particularly if he wanted to have his story on WNB make it to print. Dreading every step, Tait shuffled to the closed office door and rapped on it lightly.
In response to a muffled, “Enter,” Tait cracked the door and peered inside.
“You wanted to see me?” Tait asked, hoping that lurking beyond the threshold would keep the lecture brief.
Smithson’s eyes remained on whatever he was reading. He didn’t look up at Tait, but beckoned him inside. “Sit,” the man said, pointing vaguely in the direction of the chair in front of his desk.
Sighing, Tait came fully into the office and did as commanded, placing his messenger bag at the side of the chair. So much for lurking.
“Why are you in this business?” Smithson asked firmly before Tait’s butt was completely settled into the seat. Tait eyed his boss warily and hovered just above the chair.
Smithson looked up at him. He seemed angry. His dark eyes were narrowed, the wrinkles at their corners more pronounced. He pointed at the chair. All the way, the gesture seemed to say. Tait settled fully into the seat.
“Why am I…?”
“Why do you want to be a journalist?” Smithson emphasized every word.
“I… to make a difference,” Tait said, confused. That was what all journalists wanted to do, right?
“Wrong, Williams. We don’t make a difference, we report the news.”
Tait bristled. He had been afraid this was going to be another one of those talks. “But people read the news to be informed, to get perspective on what’s happening in the world. We provide that service,” he argued. His voice was quiet and tremulous.
Smithson glared, and Tait clamped his mouth shut. “You want to provide a service, go be a social worker,” Smithson said. “On my dime, you report the news. Clear?” The chief’s hard stare bored into him with an almost physical force. It took everything Tait had not to look away. “This bleeding heart stuff you’re always chasing is dangerous. It’s editorializing.”
“News isn’t always black and white, Mr. Smithson,” Tait argued. He was starting to get angry.
“Speaking of… this reminds me of that squabble back in April when those colored folks were denied housing.”
Oh no, not this again.
Tait straightened in his seat. “Those people were humiliated. Landow Realty deserved to be called to account.” Tait knew he was walking the line again, but he’d fought this battle before. He had been proud of that story.
Unfortunately, Smithson hadn’t. He had a low tolerance for fluff, and civil rights, in his book, most assuredly qualified as fluff. It had taken every ounce of persuasion Tait could muster to get the story into print. It seemed like he was still having to defend it. Surprising himself, Tait continued to hold the chief’s hard stare.
“Journalists don’t make moral judgments,” Smithson scolded.
“I just reported the facts,” Tait challenged, crossing his arms and lifting his chin. He was digging in this time, not like last time. “If the facts are ugly, how can I help that?”
“Editorializing.” Smithson spoke the word like a curse. His gaze bored into Tait.
Tait deflated slightly. “Fine,” he conceded. “But it sold papers.”
Smithson leaned back in his chair and curled his lip distastefully. “That article landed me in a heap of hurt with our conservative readership,” he reminded Tait. “You didn’t have to mop up the mess.” The surly man glowered for a moment longer, and then shook his head. “Bah,” he intoned, waving his hand dismissively. His voice was more conciliatory when he spoke again. “You ever wonder why I toss you piddly assignments and keep you on copyedit, Tait?”
Tait considered and then shrugged. Meekly, he guessed, “I have to do my time, earn my place at the table?”
“It’s because of your goddamn obsession with human interest bullshit. Wouldn’t be a problem if you had the chutzpah to back it up. You want to write about fluffy shit, fine—but that’s not what the newspaper business is about.” Smithson picked up his coffee and took a sip. He tapped a Lucky Strike out of a pack from his drawer and lit it. He gestured toward Tait with the cigarette. “Your folks were good people. You did them proud graduating top of your class. Damn shame they weren’t around to see it.” Smithson leaned back in his chair and contemplated Tait thoughtfully. “You know what I think, Williams? Crooked bankers took your daddy’s farm, so you want to stick it back. Be some kind of hero. Stamp out injustice.”
The contempt in Smithson’s voice stung. Tait felt heat rise into his cheeks. Not for the first time, Smithson’s scorn made him feel small and ridiculous.
“Let me tell you a little something about injustice, kid,” Smithson said. He took a drag on his cigarette and peered through the smoke as he exhaled. “You’ve got nobody to spend Christmas with. That’s injustice.”
“Injustice,” Smithson said firmly. He leaned forward and fixed his eyes on Tait’s. Though his tone was hard, his expression had softened. “Little piece of advice? You want to stick up for the little guy? You want to be a voice for someone who really needs it? Take a good long look in the mirror and start there.”
Tait was suddenly reminded of all the times he’d backed down from a fight because someone challenged his ideas, all the times he’d kept quiet when he disagreed with another reporter’s angle on an important story. Smithson was right. What did he think he was doing playing news reporter? Maybe he was only cut out for copyedit duty.
Perhaps sensing Tait’s shame, Smithson said softly. “Hell, I know this is tough to hear. You’re a good kid. Your old man was a good friend. I owe it to him to tell you the truth.” Smithson sighed and stared deeply into Tait’s eyes. “I had your back on that article about the colored folks, but you can’t go picking fights and expect to hide under my skirts forever. How do you expect to fend off pitchforks and torches when you piss off the villagers if you can’t even stand up for yourself among friends?”
Tait would hardly classify his colleagues at the paper as friends, but Smithson had a point. He was weak. He always backed down when push came to shove. Disappointed in himself, ashamed, Tait said, “You’re right, Mr. Smithson.” Damn his voice for cracking. “I just never thought about it that way.”
“That article back in April? Best thing I’ve ever published. You’re a great writer, kid, but I can’t help but wonder….” Smithson paused, thinking. “How far you could take it if you put as much effort into being a man?”
If it would not have absolutely proven the point, Tait might have broken down into tears just then. He sat slumped in the chair, feeling like someone had just kicked him in the stomach. In response to Smithson’s impatient look, Tait said, “I’ll think on it, sir.” He could no longer look the man in the eye.
After a long silence, Smithson asked, “You really don’t have any friends to spend Christmas with?”
Tait was pretty sure if he mentioned the goldfish, his already questionable manhood would be irreparably destroyed, so he shook his head. There were reasons why he isolated himself, of course, dark secrets he kept deeply buried. The last person he could confide them in, though, was his boss. Particularly after the ego bruising he’d just endured.
Smithson brought a fist down onto his desk. “Not on my watch, Williams,” he said firmly. “Dinner is at six sharp. Joyce and I are having the kids over. Louise has a new baby, and Joe’s little Jack is really starting to talk now.”
Stunned by the invitation, Tait resisted an urge to refuse outright. He’d gone to school with Louise and Joe, so it wasn’t like he would be among strangers. When he flicked his eyes up and saw the irritated look on Smithson’s face in response to his hesitation, Tait nodded quickly. Guess I’m going. His nod seemed to placate the man. “You think I’m a bear about tardiness, wait’ll you’re late on Joyce’s watch. Now she’s someone to be afraid of.” Smithson stamped out his cigarette and said, “And none of that ‘Mr. Smithson’ crap in front of the kids. They’ll never let me hear the end of it.”
Tait rose and forced a weak smile. “Right… uh, Jack. In that case, I’d best be going. I have a lot of work to do.” Tait thought he would agree to just about anything to get out of the office. He snatched his messenger bag off the floor, slung it over his shoulder, and then practically sprinted toward the door. Just before he left, Smithson called after him. “You think about what I said.”
Tait paused midstep and looked back. He would try. He bobbed his head in acknowledgement. “I… I will, sir.”
Smithson immediately turned his attention back to whatever he’d been reading when Tait had come in. Duly dismissed, Tait made his escape.
WNB was a graveyard when Tait arrived. In contrast to the bustling Tribune offices, the empty corridors and sepulchral silence of the television station were jarring. Maybe television people didn’t care as much about the news as the folks at the paper.
Randy, a tall, lanky man with a bucktoothed grin, met Tait at the entrance and led him into the reception area. He fixed Tait with a skeptical look. “Old man Jones is in a mood today; he’s expecting you, but it’s probably not such a good idea, you stopping by.”
Tait hesitated for a moment and then gave Randy a reassuring smile. “I won’t impose, Randy. I just need a statement. Try not to worry.”
Randy’s expression said he was only partially placated. He took his seat at the security desk and said, “Gavin Granger, the six o’clock guy, is in with him right now.” He rolled his eyes. “Asking for another raise or a bigger dressing room or something.” He gestured toward the hallway. “Down that way and to the right. Just wait outside his door.”
Tait worried as he walked down the hallway. Granger had been on the evening broadcast for as long as Tait could remember, and he’d heard horror stories about what a prima donna he was. Rumor had it local celebrity had gone right to his head. Granger’s fights with Harvey Jones were legendary, and Tait was beginning to have second thoughts about the timing of his visit.
As Tait settled into a chair in the reception area outside Jones’s office, the sounds of a heated argument issued forth. Feeling a little guilty for eavesdropping, Tait strained to hear. Granger’s voice was raised in anger and clearly audible. “People in this community trust me, Jones. I’ve been with them at the supper table for more than a decade. You lose me and you might as well shut this station down.”
Tait couldn’t hear Jones’s response. His voice was too low. Granger’s reaction was loud enough to make out, though. “Well, then, I quit. You can do the six o’clock your damn self for all I care. I wasn’t going to entertain an offer from that NBC affiliate setting up shop in Iowa City, but maybe I’ll just pay them a visit. No doubt they will appreciate having a trusted and respected voice representing them to the community.”
Just then, the door flew open, and Gavin Granger stormed out, purple-faced with rage. Tait hurriedly settled back into his seat and tried to appear nonchalant, as if he hadn’t heard a thing. Granger cast a disdainful glare in Tait’s direction and then marched straight down the hall without so much as a how do you do.
Tait watched him go. Randy was right. This was a bad idea. He peered down the hallway, wondering if he could just sneak out. “You can come in,” Jones called from his office. Tait looked around guiltily. Was there a camera in here somewhere? Had Jones been watching him? “I can see you in the mirror on my wall,” Jones explained.
Timidly, Tait shrugged the messenger bag higher on his shoulder, swallowed hard, and then crept into Harvey Jones’s office. “Mr. Jones,” Tait said, with a small, terrified smile. “I’m Tait Williams from the Tribune.” At first glance, Jones didn’t seem as curmudgeonly as legend had portrayed him. He was a short man, portly and balding. His face, flushed with frustration, seemed jolly in a way. That bolstered Tait’s flagging confidence.
Tait stepped farther into the office and said, “I know you’re busy, sir, but I wonder if you might spare five minutes to talk about the acquisition? I read in the Gazette that Orion of Louisville has made quite an attractive offer.”
Jones appraised Tait frankly. His eyes swept up and down over him.
“How tall are you?” Jones asked.
Confused, Tait answered automatically. “Five ten,” he said. At a skeptical look from Jones, he blushed and corrected, “Okay, five nine.”
“Do you own a suit?”
Bewildered, Tait stared blankly at the man. “Uh… no, but I don’t see what—”
“You say you’re from the Tribune?”
“Yes, I’ve been assigned to cover the acquisition of WNB by Orion, sir.” Tait sure hoped that the lie wasn’t obvious. He hadn’t been officially assigned a story. Not yet, anyway.
“You’re a writer,” Jones said.
Tait nodded. “But I prefer journalist.”
“How old are you, Williams?”
What was this inquisition all about? Tait was supposed to be asking the questions. Hesitantly, Tait said, “Twenty-three, sir.”
“Knock it off with the ‘sir’,” Jones snapped. He peered at Tait through narrowed eyes. “I suppose you oppose the Vietnam war? Support civil rights? Free love, all that?”
The curl of Jones’s lip made Tait wary. “Free love? I don’t understand.”
Jones tilted his head to the side. His eyes pinched closed and he said, “Williams. Williams. Why do I know that name?”
“My dad was… Hugh Williams.” Tait fumbled for words as he always did when speaking about his parents. “He… and my mother passed away a couple years ago.” Tait cast his eyes to the floor and said quietly, “Ten-car pileup on the 380.”
Jones seemed to recall. He said, “’Bout this time of year, wasn’t it?”
“Christmas,” Tait confirmed sadly. “They were on their way back home from visiting me at college.”
Jones leaned forward and pointed at Tait. His face broke out into a wide grin. “Hey,” he said wonderingly. “You’re the one who wrote that piece on discrimination a while back, aren’t you?”
Tait smiled hesitantly, pleased that Jones would remember. “That was me.”
“Fine piece of writing… er, journalism.”
Tait’s smile warmed. After the beating he’d endured in Smithson’s office, the praise was welcome. “Just doing my job.”
Jones was staring off into space as if considering something. Tait could tell that the gears in his head were turning, but he could not imagine what the man was thinking.
When the long silence started to make Tait nervous, he prompted, “So, the acquisition, sir? I’d be most obliged if you’d grant me a full interview.” Jones flicked his eyes toward Tait, none too pleased about being interrupted in his musing. “B-but just a statement today will get me started,” he stammered. Earnestly, he added, “I promise to do everything I can to maintain the public’s goodwill toward WNB.”
Jones leaned forward and gave Tait a stern look. “I need a lot more than goodwill to keep this station afloat, young man.” The muscles in the rotund little man’s jaw worked. “Times are changing too fast for me to keep up. New technologies, remote, on-location broadcasting, younger faces.” Jones shook his head ruefully. “I never thought I’d have to sell, but there’s that NBC affiliate setting up shop in Iowa City.” As if remembering something, Jones shuffled some papers on his desk; finding the one he was looking for, he flashed it at Tait. “Says here they’re going to have a correspondent in Houston covering the space program. Now that’s the stuff people want to see. Not some fat hen sitting behind a desk reading cue cards with as much emotion as the lady’s rotary bingo caller.” He rattled the paper at Tait to emphasize his point.
“He is a bit of a dinosaur,” Tait agreed shyly, not sure his opinion was welcome.
Jones paused, reflecting. “The times got away from me. Orion’s keeping me on as station manager. I still get to call the shots, but now I have to answer to a board.”
Emboldened, Tait said, “But you’ll be capitalized. You’ll be able to purchase state-of-the-art equipment, send your own people out into the field to file reports.”
The older man contemplated the dispatch from the NBC affiliate. He looked at Tait curiously. “You interested in the space program, Williams?”
“Apollo? The moon ships? No, sir.” Tait laughed. “It’s boring science stuff. Too technical for me. The real meat is in civil rights. Vietnam. Those are the issues people really care about.” He took a step closer to Jones’s desk, warming to his subject. “If you ask me, the space program is a fad. Once we reach the moon, the public will lose interest, Congress will cut funding, and it’ll all go away. The important stuff is right here on the ground.”
Jones frowned. He returned the paper to the pile and stared at Tait. “You’ve got a lot of gumption for someone who’s barely started shaving.”
While it might have been meant as an insult, Tait decided to accept it as a compliment. “I’m not much different from my contemporaries,” he explained. “They call us the passionate generation.”
“Bunch of hippies, most kids. I like you, though. You’ve got charm. Even if your hair is a little long.”
Tait’s hand went self-consciously to his curly locks. The haircut climbed higher on his priority list. “That’s… very kind, sir. And if I may return the compliment, you’re not the ogre they make you out to be.”
Jones seemed shocked for a moment, and then laughed a deep, pleasant belly laugh. “An ogre? Is that what they say?” He chuckled again. “Well, it’s mostly true, I suppose. You just caught me on a good day.” Jones stared at Tait for a moment longer, then he reached in his drawer, withdrew a flask, and brought it to his lips. After taking a swig, he grimaced. His gaze drifted back to Tait. “I’m not normally a man who makes hasty decisions, Williams, but it’s Christmas, and I’m in a what the hell kind of mood.” Jones paused dramatically. “How would you like a job?”
Tait was flabbergasted. He took a step back and stammered, “I have a job. The Tribune? The article about the acquisition?”
Jones was undeterred. His eyes were alight with inspiration. “What do they pay you over there? Fifty, seventy-five dollars a week?”
Tait’s eyes widened, and he swallowed hard. “Twenty-five.”
Jones had been bringing the flask to his mouth again. It hovered inches from his lips. “Twenty-five dollars a week?” Jones gaped. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. How the hell do you live on that?”
“Humbly, to be sure,” Tait acknowledged shyly. He really didn’t need much more, but it was sometimes hard to make ends meet.
“What if I offered you a hundred a week? I’ll buy you a couple of suits, get you a haircut, and put you on the anchor desk until the new color equipment arrives. What do you say to that?”
One hundred dollars a week? Jones had to be joking. The look on his face said he wasn’t. “I’m not sure, I….”
Nodding, Jones said, “We’ll see how that goes, and once I find someone to replace the dinosaur, we’ll send you on assignment. You’ll be our first on-location reporter.”
Tait couldn’t speak. He just stared dumbly at Jones. Finding his voice, he said, “But I’m a print journalist. I wouldn’t know the first thing about being on television.”
Jones waved his hand in the air. “You’ve got a good look, a megawatt smile. Important for color TV. Women will swoon and men will trust you. You’re young. You’re a bit shy, but you have great energy. You’re exactly the kind of face I need to bring this station up to the times.”
“But I’d be too nervous.”
“Bullshit. Nothing to be nervous about. It’s a camera, not a machine gun.”
Tait’s head was reeling. The things Jones was offering him were staggering. It was a chance to report on real events, in person, as they happened. Tait would make more money in a single week than Smithson paid him for a whole month’s work at the paper.
Tait was stunned when he heard himself ask, “Could I write my own copy?” Was he considering the offer? Seriously considering it?
“Hell yes. That’s how it was done in the Murrow days.” Jones’s eyes took on a nostalgic gleam, “Back when news was news.” The man took another grimacing sip from the flask and then waved it toward Tait. Tait eyed it cautiously. Considering the faces Jones had been making, the contents were entirely unappealing. Tait shook his head. Jones shrugged and tucked the silver container back into the drawer. “You’re a damn fine writer. Besides, it saves me money. That’ll look good on the bottom line.”
Not quite ready to jump in with both feet, Tait said, “I’ll need some time to think about it.”
Jones looked irritated. “Don’t wait too long. I can get away with filler tonight, since it’s Christmas, but come six o’clock tomorrow, I’ve got to have an ass behind that anchor’s desk.”
Tait nodded slowly. “I’ll let you know first thing in the morning.”
BY THE time Tait’s feet hit the deep snow on the sidewalk outside the television station, he had completely forgotten about the story he’d come there to chase. He had barely even remembered to say good-bye to Randy and thank him for his help. Tait glanced at his watch and was surprised to see that he’d spent far longer at the station than he’d expected.
Another storm was rolling in, and Tait made it back to the Tribune offices just as the first flakes started drifting down.
It was a good thing the Tribune reporters generally wrote clean copy, because Tait really struggled to concentrate on the stories he was supposed to be editing. Smithson would kill him if he misplaced another comma.
Despite the turmoil, Tait wrapped up his work on the last article just ahead of the three o’clock deadline. Instead of hanging around to write, as he’d promised, he made his way home and dropped onto his bed.
Tait lay there for a long while, thinking. Why shouldn’t he accept Jones’s offer? What was holding him back? What about Time and National Geographic? Did television reporters get Pulitzers? Could he really choose his own stories? Could he really write them himself?
Still undecided, he rolled on his side and stared at the goldfish. “What do you think, Dr. King?” Tait asked. An image of Smithson’s scornful expression swam up in Tait’s memory. “I know what Mr. Smithson would say.” Or do I? What will he say? To the goldfish, Tait opined dourly, “Probably that I’m not ready.” He stared at Dr. King, remembering his earlier shame in his boss’s office. “I live on peanut butter just so a stupid fish won’t freeze. I am pathetic.”
At ten minutes after five, Tait was still consumed with indecision. He looked worriedly at the clock. It was a long hike to the Smithson residence. Smithson had warned him not to be late.
Before Tait left, he stood over Dr. King and stared down at the fish thoughtfully. “Stand up for yourself, Williams,” he urged. “It’s just a fish.”
And then he turned off the radiator.