by Robert Douglas Friedman
I started my first real job the same year that Argentina invaded the British Falkland Islands.
My own invasion of New York City had thus far been a spectacular disaster. Base camp was the crusty kitchen table of a sublet apartment in Hoboken, where I sat circling want ads with increasing desperation. Every morning I would rise and prepare for a fresh assault across the river, my target visible beyond the sagging rooftops and rippling clotheslines of that scenic slum.
The defeats were piling up and a full retreat was imminent. Then I had one of my rare moments of luck. Which my new boss, Jonathan the news director, enjoyed pointing out.
“Know why I hired you?” he asked
We were in Jonathan’s office. It had glass walls that looked out over the perpetually frantic newsroom. A leather bullwhip hung on the wall behind Jonathan. He sometimes swung it above the heads of staff writers and editors. More often, he cracked it against the door that led to the business department. Jonathan didn’t like the business department.
He straightened his tie in the mirror behind his office door. “Because when I threw all three hundred resumes in the air, yours fell on this side of my desk. Hand me that tie clip, will you?”
I tossed it to him. It was a Mickey Mouse tie clip.
“What do you think?” he said as he fastened the clip. “Does it make a statement?”
“A clear one, yes. It’s crooked, though. So you were swayed by my impressive qualifications?”
He straightened the clip and settled back down into the big leather chair behind his desk. “Good. Then I’m ready for my meeting with the advertising department. Your qualifications? Absolutely. I studied them day and night. What’s your name again? Ed? Ted? Fred? Doesn’t matter. You lost Dickensian waifs are a dime a dozen. We pay you with loose change from the vending machines.’
“Speaking of which, can I have a raise?”
“Yes – on the day after the day hell freezes over.”
“Sounds reasonable. Thank you for your continuing cooperation.”
Jonathan was the best part of the job. He seemed more fictional to me than real, a New Yorker character brought to sudden life. Jonathan ate at the Algonquin Hotel and the Russian Tea Room, was married to a beautiful French woman, commuted daily to his Connecticut home. He spoke fluent Russian and French, the result of his years spent as a foreign correspondent in Moscow and Paris.
Most amazingly, he liked me.
“Stay on top of this Falkland Islands thing for me,” he said, suddenly serious, his sharp gray eyes fixed on mine. “Monitor the newswires, keep an eye on all the telexes, read every newspaper and magazine. You’re my point man on this thing.”
A glorified copy boy was more like it. But it didn’t feel that way.
“This is a hot story. Pay close attention and learn, Douglas. It’s a great opportunity.”
Opportunity: that was the word I kept hearing. Mindy Lowenthal used it as she showed me around the newsroom. Mindy, an office temp, was in her late 20’s. She had long black tangled hair, a warm smile, and wore subtle perfume that lingered.
“Okay, listen closely,” she said. “This is your opportunity for a grand tour before everyone else starts showing up late as usual. Over to your left are the clocks. It’s part of your executive position to make sure they’re all on time. You know, like when daylight savings comes. Assuming you last that long.”
I looked at her. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
She shrugged. “You wouldn’t be the first person bounced out of here. Or the last.” She pointed at the wall. “As you can see, we’ve got clocks for everywhere there’s a Global News bureau or correspondent. London, Tokyo, Moscow, Sao Paulo, that’s in Brazil in case you don’t know, Mexico City, Paris, and Geneva. I was in Geneva during my junior year abroad. Did I mention that I went to Vassar? I’m beautiful and bright.”
“You forgot self-effacing. What’s that window under the clocks?”
“You’re quick. I like that.” She leaned over and slid the little window open. “That leads to the telex room. The telex guys pass messages and news from the Associated Press through it all day long to Marcia and Tim, the domestic and foreign editors, who edit and rewrite the copy. You met them on your interview.” Mindy looked around and dropped her voice. “Marcia’s a sour mean old witch and Tim’s a prissy little wuss.”
“Is that in their personnel files?”
She laughed. “It should be. You see that weird looking door in the wall behind your desk? Under the big map with all the pins? By the way, the map shows where all two hundred of our correspondents are located. It’s been there forever. Some of those guys probably died during the War of 1812. That door is for the pneumatic tube system. Part of your job is to take the copy that Marcia and Tim churn out, stuff it into tubes, and send them through the system to all the different magazines in the building. You know – Business Day, Chemical Monthly, Aviation News, etc. And, of course, since your title is research assistant, your job involves a fair amount of research. The company library is downstairs on the 7th floor. You’ll get very familiar with it.”
I sat down at my desk. “How come you know all this stuff if you’re a temp?”
She fluffed her hair and noticed me noticing. “Oh, I used to work here. I was Jonathan’s assistant. I quit to work on my Master’s at Columbia. I told you I’m bright. I come in whenever they need me. Like this week, they wanted me here because you’re starting. Jonathan’s secretary, Debra, doesn’t have the time to train anyone, but really she doesn’t have the personality. You’ll see.
“Who else do you need to know about in this place? Lisa is sweet but very conservative. She turns bright pink if you swear around her or talk about sex, so I do both. Victoria, she’s friendly but ambitious, though I think her main ambition is to snag herself a lawyer from the legal department on the 15th floor. She gets off on that floor by accident at least three times a day. Barbara, their boss, is a little ogre. She runs the business department like a feudal lord. Jonathan hates her. And Judy is her right-hand henchman. Befriend them at your own peril, young knight. Did I mention that I’m in a Renaissance group? I’m Lady Jane. No need to bow but please remember that I’m royalty.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Barry the photo editor is out today but you’ll meet him tomorrow. That will be an experience.”
“What do you mean?”
“That sounds ominous.”
“Barry is unique. That’s probably all you need to know for now, except that if you ask me out for a cup of coffee after work, I’ll say yes.”
“I see. Well, thanks for the tour. I really appreciate it. And I look forward to that cup of coffee.”
She smiled. “Me, too. Glad to be of service. It’s always interesting to see how long the next one is going to last. I give you maybe six months. Possibly eight. Welcome to Global News.”
I had a new job and a potential date. Maybe my luck really was improving.
Debra also used the word opportunity during lunch.
“You’ve got a real opportunity to prepare for your retirement here,” she told me.
“But I just turned 22.”
“You’re right. Maybe it is a little late. But you still have some time left.”
We were sitting across from each other in the break room eating Japanese food. Debra, who was dressed in black, had a Yukio Mishima novel in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other. She had barely finished the tiny portion of noodles in front of her. But then Debra looked like she rarely ate very much.
“I only read Japanese literature,” she said, “because their stoic sense of fatalism appeals to me.” She absently straightened her short brown hair. “And my own highly developed sense of fatalism tells me that one day you’ll be old and sick and unable to work, so you should begin preparing for it now.”
I took a bite of my chicken teriyaki. “Can I finish lunch first?”
“Sure. Don’t let me bring you down. I always see the cloud inside any silver lining. And don’t bother to joke with me. I don’t have much of a sense of humor. Jonathan always tries to make me laugh but it never works. By the way, sooner or later, Jonathan gives everyone nicknames. Want to hear mine?”
“Charon. You know, from Greek myths. The one who ferries the dead across the river Styx. Speaking of Jonathan, he wants to see you right after lunch. Remember to start your pension plan as soon as possible. You’ll thank yourself later.”
Jonathan was hanging a basketball hoop on the wall as I entered his office. It was a genuine hoop. A regulation-sized basketball sat on his desk.
“There he is. Thank God I brought you on board. Your assistance in our organization is critical. How are you at drilling?”
“I’m quite expert, sir. My father is a dentist.”
“Excellent, Jeeves, excellent. Drill me a fresh set of holes, will you? I’ve never been good at these menial proletarian tasks. I think I hit some wiring earlier. Be careful, though. I felt a distinct shock. I’d hate for you to become collateral damage on your first day. It could take hours to replace you.”
I drilled. We hung the hoop.
Jonathan stepped back and ran a hand over his balding head. “Looks good. Looks straight. You may turn out to be invaluable. Now talk to me about the Falkland Islands.”
I sat down in the chair across from his desk and gathered the notes I took earlier in the library. The basketball flew past my head. It made a satisfying swish and fell into the open file drawer beneath the hoop.
“First sighted by Spanish and Portuguese seamen in the 16th century,” I began, “the Falkland Islands were visited by a British expedition close to 100 years later and claimed for the crown.”
Jonathan closed his eyes, lowered his head, and pretended to snore. “Fascinating. Wake me when you reach this century. Always remember that nobody wants old news, Douglas. Hence the first three letters of the word ‘news.’ Pass me that ball.”
He caught the ball one-handed, spun his revolving leather desk chair around, and tried a backward shot over his head. It bounced a few times on the rim and then went through the hoop.
“Of course. Continue.”
“On April 2 in this year of our Lord, 1982, the Argentine navy landed on the Falkland Islands with thousands of troops and seized control. The underlying goal may have been to distract everyone in the country from their economic troubles. Inflation is over 600%. Manufacturing is down. Jobs are impossible to find. There’s growing civil unrest, mass union demonstrations, etc. For obvious reasons, the military junta is not very popular, and their political opponents seem to disappear on a regular basis.”
“Not the site for my next vacation, in other words.”
“Seems like it might be an acquired taste. On April 3, the Argentineans seized two associated groups of islands, South Georgia and the Sandwich group. Also on April 3, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 502, which calls for the withdrawal of Argentine troops from the islands and an immediate end to hostilities.”
“Which ain’t happening.”
“No, sir, it is not.”
“And that’s where we stand today?”
“I agree. You’ve done your homework, Douglas, and quickly. Good job. I’m quite serious. I’m impressed. I’ve already dispatched one of our most experienced correspondents, Dan Burke, to cover events down there. Your research confirms that I made the right decision.”
I felt like cheering, or at least grinning from ear to ear. I did neither. It would lack coolness. Instead, I picked up the basketball and took a shot from the corner of the room.
I missed, of course. I was not Jonathan.
He shook his head and frowned. “Better practice that jumper, Corporal, or we’ll never have a chance against Navy next week.”
“Will do, sir.”
Marcia, the foreign desk editor, was not pleased about Jonathan’s new pastime. She and Jonathan shared an office wall.
“What the hell is he up to now?” she asked. Her voice held the raspy memory of many cigarettes.
The wall shook as Jonathan took another shot. “Jesus Christ,” she muttered. “The shit I have to put up with here.”
She turned to me and forced a yellow smile. Marcia was probably in her 40’s but looked 60. She had bad skin and a worse dye job.
Spread out on her desk were dozens of index cards with contact information for foreign correspondents. Marcia had indecipherable handwriting so she was the only one who could read whatever she wrote. I believe she viewed this as a form of job security.
“Well, Douglas, how are things coming along?”
“Fine,” I replied.
“Are you enjoying your first day here?”
“I’m glad for the opportunity.”
My answer seemed to please her. “Keep in mind that you can learn a lot. And not from Jonathan. It’s people like me in editorial who can teach you what you need to learn.”
“Sounds great,” I told her.
“Here’s the first thing you should learn.” She looked around to see who might be listening and gestured me nearer. “I don’t like Tim,” she whispered, “and he doesn’t like me. So even though we sit next to each other, I’ll need you to deliver the notes I write him. Just take them from my outbox and put them in his inbox. That way he and I never have to talk.”
Amazing. “Okay. No problem.”
She looked pleased. “You’re adaptable. I like that. I think we’ll get along just fine.”
Barry, the photo editor, did not feel the same way. He looked me over from head to toe the next morning as I entered the office and hung up my raincoat, an expression of angry contempt on his bearded face.
Barry was about a foot shorter than me and at least fifteen years older. He looked like an outraged leprechaun.
He continued staring as I sat down at my desk with my morning coffee and bagel. You could buy both from a café called Fritzl’s on the first floor.
“How old are you?” Barry demanded.
I unwrapped the aluminum foil around my toasted bagel. The cream cheese was nice and creamy. “Twenty-two.”
“Okay, fine, I’m not twenty-two.”
“Glad to see you have the courage of your convictions.”
I took a bite of the warm bagel. “Hey, I’m just being agreeable. I don’t like to upset my feeble elders.”
He glowered at me and then grinned, running a pale hand through his ginger beard. “Heard you were a smartass. Okay, I like smartasses. Even if I do have socks older than they are.”
I washed the bagel down with some coffee. “You might consider shopping.”
He snorted. “And you might consider where I was when I was your age. I don’t like you for it. I resent you. I truly do. You’re a smartass, I like smartasses, but I resent you. You might as well know it.”
I wiped some cream cheese from my face. “Thanks for the update. Where were you at my age?”
“I was hauling my skinny ass through the jungle while the Viet Cong tried to kill me in fifty different ways. Bombs, bullets, bungee stakes, you name it. I was infantry. No college deferment for this poor boy from the Bronx. Nossir. Just basic training and then a swift trip to the heart of darkness.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Joseph Conrad. A reader, yet. Probably have a friggin’ English degree. I used to read a lot, too. Sometimes I’d even take a day to read when I was on R&R. After all the drinking and whoring I’d sit down and make my way through Tolstoy, Hemingway, Crane. I read about war. Then I lived it.”
I finished the first half of my toasted bagel and started the second. They’re best when still warm.
“One time,” he continued, staring into the distance, “I went back to base camp, and I was all clean and shiny the way you are now, fresh from my time off, relaxed, you know, I’d had my ashes hauled and had this calm demeanor, and I saw this guy, a buddy, Earl was his name, we were in basic together. Earl. Earl from Alabama. Fucking Earl. He was sitting there drinking his coffee, just like you are right now, and eating something, just like you’re munching on that bagel, and we were talking, and the next thing I knew old Earl’s head had blown up and his brains and skull and blood were all over my clean uniform, it was some sniper out there in the shadows and no more Earl. So long Earl. Dirt nap for the Earlster.”
I put down the bagel. My appetite was gone.
Barry grinned at me as the rest of the department started arriving.
“Remember, I don’t like you,” he told me.
“Got it,” I replied.
What did I think of these people? Like Jonathan, they all reminded me of characters I had met before in a novel or a movie. So did the other residents of our 50-story midtown building. Global News was just one department in a huge multimedia conglomerate that was more like a Wall Street firm than a publishing house. I was surrounded by carefully groomed executives wearing custom-made Italian suits, elegant women of independent means who worked just for the fun of it, scruffy foreign correspondents with their ties undone and rumpled Burberry raincoats casually tossed across their shoulders.
The correspondents would visit from Nepal, Burma, Egypt, Peru and other exotic locales and sit in Jonathan’s office sharing news and gossip in equal measure. I would watch as he smiled, shook their hands, and sent them off to cover breaking stories in Rome, Jerusalem, or Helsinki.
I was nothing like any of these people. I was from a small town and had attended a small state college. If they thought of me at all, it was as a recent graduate with a typical corporate future. But I knew that I was different, and young, and that my future would be my own. Meanwhile, I studied them like an anthropologist doing field work in the wilds of Borneo.
Mindy was right about Tim, a slight, fastidious man who seemed frightened of Marcia despite his earlier experiences as a foreign correspondent in war zones. I didn’t blame him. Marcia scared everyone but Jonathan, who delighted in annoying her.
Mindy was also correct about Barbara, who ran the business department with an iron fist and was prone to sudden bursts of rage. “A thousand dollar expense I can hide!” she shouted at her assistant Judy one day. “But not five thousand dollars! What the hell was Jonathan thinking?”
I knew what Jonathan was thinking because he told me. We were in his office during this outburst and overheard every word.
He shrugged. “What can I say? It costs money to cover a war. The bribes alone are a fortune. Burke is doing a great job and we can’t leave him high and dry.” He took a deep breath. “Okay, bring me up to date on this nasty little confrontation, Steinbeck.”
Jonathan had learned that I enjoyed the novels of John Steinbeck. My official nickname was now Steinbeck. I admit that I kind of liked it.
Every day, I reviewed the Associated Press newswire stories as they printed out from the teletype machine – literally hot off the presses – along with dozens of newspaper articles and magazine stories in the library downstairs.
I also read Dan Burke’s informative dispatches from Argentina. I was really starting to like Dan, who wrote with clarity and compassion about both sides of the worsening conflict. Dan had a feel for everyday people and how traumatic events affected them. He was only five or six years older than me and taking risks that I wasn’t sure I would ever be brave enough to take.
I cleared my throat. “On April 25th, British forces retook South Georgia Island and captured an Argentine submarine. They also sank an old Argentine battle cruiser, General Belgrano, with a nuclear submarine. Fierce battles broke out between the British navy and the Argentine air force. On May 4, yesterday, the Argentine forces sank a British destroyer, the HMS Sheffield, but Dan estimates that Argentina has lost 20-30 percent of their air force. The main British forces are on their way across the Atlantic.”
“In other words – escalation,” said Jonathan. “Prediction?”
“Argentina is about to get its ass kicked.”
“Agreed. And so are you if you don’t get out of my office. I need some alone time for my afternoon nap.”
“I’ll try and keep it quiet out there.”
Hoboken’s future looked a lot brighter than Argentina’s. Gentrification was in the air. Old brownstone buildings that you could buy a few years earlier for $20,000 were getting snatched up for six-figure sums. The fruit trucks selling fresh produce on side streets and the old Italian delis and the barbershops and the shoe repair stores and the pizzerias were disappearing as law offices and condo developments sprang up. On Washington Street, which ran through the heart of town, sleek late-model Saabs and Honda Preludes were replacing the clunky American junkers that once filled every parking space. Maxwell’s – a hot new club where you could eat a bad meal while listening to indie-rock bands like the B52s, REM, and the Feelies – was turning away eager customers.
Even the drug dealers who did business around the Steven’s Institute campus every night could feel the change as a flood of new customers increased demand and diminished supplies. My downstairs neighbor, a drug dealer named Raymond, was not happy with the situation.
“Those yuppies are a pain in the ass, man,” he told me, scratching his neck. “They want designer goods and the profit margin on that product line is minimal. I’m starting to wonder if I took the wrong career path.”
“It’s a possibility,” I told him.
In the mornings, I would walk the cramped Hoboken streets from my apartment to the bus stop as the intoxicating smell of chocolate hung over the city. Sometimes I followed my nose to the source, Lepore’s Home Made Chocolates, where they crafted delicious candy fresh every day and you could get a warm breakfast croissant with dark chocolate melted inside.
My regular bus driver was an aspiring stand-up comedian who tried out jokes on his passengers every morning. We would boo or cheer each joke as he took notes on our responses.
“Thanks for your help, everyone,” he would announce over the sound system as we arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal. “Come by and see me this Saturday night at the Improv.” But we already knew his whole act, so why bother?
Hoboken was changing and so was I. Within a month, I fell into a work routine that felt like I had followed it for years. I would hop off the bus and walk across town past the porn shops and bait-and-switch electronics stores to our building at Sixth Avenue and 48th street, weaving my way through the sidewalks crowded with other morning commuters. The women all wore sneakers and carried their dress shoes in shoulder bags, and the men all had newspapers folded under their arms. Homeless people rummaged through garbage cans, waved their arms, muttered, shouted, and begged for cash. Cabs accelerated into turns and pedestrians scattered like schools of frightened fish.
I would pass the High School of Performing Arts, where students often danced and sang for passers-by just like their fictional counterparts did in the movie “Fame.” Then I would march north through the perpetual wind tunnel of Shubert Alley where bright playbills left behind after last night’s shows fluttered and circled in the breeze like lost tropical birds.
My work day began at 8:30 am and ended at 4:30 pm, and every day was pretty much the same in our dysfunctional office. I now understood why nobody lasted in this job. It wasn’t the work. It was the vicious bickering. On Fridays, the staff would adjourn to a local Irish pub called Molly Bloom’s for drinks and more drinks, but I always politely declined the invitation. Eight hours a day with this crew was more than enough.
The stressful daily grind that had become my life was disrupted one Wednesday afternoon when my parents dropped in from New Jersey for a visit. They were the last two people I expected to see strolling into the lobby. I was on my way back from delivering a package to the basement mailroom when I spotted them, my father towering over everybody else and my mother smiling beside him. My mom wore a new black dress and my dad a blue blazer with gold buttons. They were holding hands.
“Hello there, young man,” my father said. “Surprised to see us?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Shocked, actually.”
I was also shocked by how glad I was to see them. “What are you guys doing here?”
My mother’s smile grew bigger. “You look so professional in your business clothes. So grown up. We’re going to see a matinee of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Your father thought it would be nice to see where you work.”
“How about it?” my father asked. “Embarrassed to be seen with your old parents?”
“Speak for yourself,” said my mother. “I’m not old.”
“It’s a figure of speech,” my father said.
“Well, you figured wrong,” my mother said.
I laughed. Surprisingly, I was not embarrassed by them at all. Maybe I really was grown up.
“Come on,” I said.
We rode the elevator to the 37th floor while my father rattled off statistics about my employer. He was a business teacher and always did his research. My mother the nurse was fascinated to hear there was a fully staffed company medical office on the 12th floor.
Everyone was very gracious in the newsroom and my parents were duly impressed by the clocks on the wall, the big map, the constant clattering of typewriter keys. Jonathan, who was taking a phone call in his office, waved through the glass and then finally emerged to shake my father’s big hand.
“We’re very lucky to have Douglas here,” he said. “I just wish he’d stop stealing from the pension fund.”
My father laughed. “I think I like this guy.”
My mother turned to me. “I’m very disappointed in you. Didn’t I raise you not to get caught when you steal?”
This time Jonathan laughed. “I see where Douglas gets his sense of humor.” He gently shook my mother’s hand. “Your son learns fast, gets along with everyone, and will go far.”
My parents were thrilled with this glowing report and went off to their matinee in high spirits. I sat down at my desk feeling better than I had in a long time.
Barry looked up from the photographs he was reviewing and grinned. “Your folks seem like nice people,” he said. “I’m adopted and never knew mine. And I still hate your guts.”
“Understood,” I replied.
I didn’t feel good for very long. Dan Burke was missing.
“Needless to say, I’m deeply concerned,” said Jonathan at our weekly staff meeting.
British forces had landed on May 21, which was also the last day we received a dispatch from Dan. It was now May 23 and the ground fighting had grown intense.
“There goes five thousand bucks down the drain,” muttered Barbara.
Jonathan turned to her. “Excuse me, Barbara? Did I just hear you correctly?”
She hesitated. “I certainly hope Mr. Burke is alright. But the cost remains an issue.”
I’d never seen Jonathan angry before. “I sent him down there and I hope like all hell that he’s okay. So please spare me the callousness and sarcasm. This is a man’s life we’re talking about here.”
“And spare me the condescension,” said Barbara. “I’m trying to do my job and keep this department financially solvent despite constant undermining. I’ll be in my office if anyone needs me.” Nobody else said a word as she slammed the door behind her.
Jonathan stared at her closed office door for a long moment and then shook his head. “Marcia, please reach out to our contacts in Argentina and see if we can get any word about Dan. Ask them to check all the local hospitals. Meanwhile, we have a coverage vacuum. Any suggestions?”
Marcia frowned thoughtfully, although it was hard to tell since frowning was her usual expression. “I’ll look into it and see if anyone is available.”
“Please do. Thank you. That’s it for today’s meeting, everyone. I’ll keep you all informed as we learn more.”
Dan Burke wasn’t the only person missing. Also off the grid was the woman who sublet me her Hoboken apartment, a former NYU business major and apparent criminal who was nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, she had not forwarded my rent payments to the landlords, Ernest and Catherine, who lived on the first floor and until now had been very friendly. They were so friendly that I always snuck past their doorway to avoid getting dragged into a conversation with this pair, who addressed me endlessly about different exciting topics like the weather while ignoring each other.
Ernest and Catherine were no longer friendly. In fact, they were now threatening to evict and sue me.
“That’s rough, man,” said Raymond the drug dealer when I ran into him one morning. I was on the way to my job and he was on the way home from his job. “But I’ve always liked your apartment more than mine, so it could be good news for me.”
“Thanks a lot,” I replied.
He smiled and yawned. “Hey, I’m just busting your balls, dude. The rumor is they want to sell the place fast and cash in on the big real estate boom. That’s pretty funny since they had seventeen fire violations the last time the building was inspected. It’s even funnier since Ernest used to be the fire captain. The point is, they’re eager to get rid of us both. If I were you, I’d use this information to arrive at a mutually satisfactory resolution to your dispute. I plan to do the same.”
“I appreciate it. I will.”
Mindy was missing, too. We never got together for coffee because she met someone in her Renaissance group who quickly became her new beau. He was an earl or maybe a duke. Whatever his title, he swept Lady Jane off her feet and they were now probably living somewhere in a drafty castle on the Scottish moors, or maybe in a one-bedroom coop in Flushing. Who knew? Who cared? I was worried about Dan Burke.
The Falkland Islands war was no longer a distant geopolitical event with a wide range of contributing factors for me to research and discuss with Jonathan. It was real. Dan could be horribly wounded or dead along with thousands of others. I hadn’t given mortality a whole lot of thought before but I was starting to understand the brutal fact of it. Dan’s parent’s phoned every day and Jonathan took those calls. He looked somber and drained every time he got off the phone with them.
Mortality didn’t seem like much of an issue to Tim the domestic desk editor, though, who had volunteered to replace Dan in Argentina and was now winging his way south. Tim was an experienced correspondent, spoke fluent Spanish, and was willing to report from a war zone rather than continue working with Marcia and the rest of us here in the main office. I didn’t blame him.
Jonathan asked me to help cover the domestic desk until he could find a replacement for Tim. This new role involved greater interaction with Marcia. Her limited tolerance ran out almost immediately and it wasn’t long before she was sending me notes via her outbox rather than talking to me. This was not a great loss.
Finally, after some very long weeks, word came about the fate of Dan.
“I have some great news to share,” announced Jonathan as he emerged from his office with a big smile. “Dan Burke is alive and well.”
The office erupted in cheers. Even Marcia looked happy. I was surprised to feel tears in my eyes and roughly brushed them away before anyone else noticed.
“He’s currently being held in a British detention area,” Jonathan continued. “Apparently, he lost his press credentials in the middle of the fighting and was captured along with thousands of Argentinian soldiers. He suffered minor injuries but is otherwise no worse for wear. The U.S. State department has contacted his family and is arranging for his release.”
Jonathan paused. “While I have everyone’s attention, I’d like to make another announcement. As some of you know, I was recently offered the opportunity to take over as the editor-in-chief for one of our magazines, Business Management News, which is headquartered in London. I’ve accepted the offer and will be leaving at the end of next week. It’s been an adventure working with you all. Thanks so much for your support and hard work, especially during this difficult time. Douglas, do you have a moment?”
I followed Jonathan into his office and closed the door behind us.
“I know my imminent departure comes as a bit of a surprise,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “it sure does.”
My tone of voice gave me away and Jonathan looked at me. “I was sworn to secrecy, Steinbeck. Only a few people in the business department were informed.”
“Okay. I understand.” But I didn’t really. He had hired me while knowing that he was about to leave. That wasn’t exactly a crime but he could have told me the truth. I was trustworthy. Besides, I thought we had a mutual respect thing going on.
“Good. The reason I asked you in here,” he continued, “is that I’d like to make you an offer. You’ve done an excellent job filling in after Tim’s departure. So how would you feel about taking over the position of domestic desk editor?”
“You mean keep working with Marcia? How much of a raise are we talking about here?”
He didn’t smile. “Unfortunately, our budget doesn’t support a raise. But, of course, a promotion like this would put you on a great career path.”
“And what if I chose to remain in my current position?”
“It’s no longer an option. We’re combining the two roles.”
“I see. Twice the workload, no extra money, and I’d have to work closely with Marcia? That’s quite a path.”
“It’s still a great opportunity, Steinbeck. And, yes, you would work closely with Marcia. I know she can be difficult but Marcia is really rather knowledgeable. You could learn a great deal from her.”
I couldn’t believe he was saying this stuff to me, or that he was handling me in the same smooth way I’d seen him handle other people. But then Jonathan was a company man and leaving behind a fully staffed department would make him look a whole lot better to upper management. So would the cost savings of using me at the domestic desk instead of someone more experienced and expensive.
“Yes,” I said, “her people skills and patience are legendary. Maybe I should have gone to the Falkland Islands with Tim. A war sounds like more fun.”
Jonathan frowned. “Think seriously about this offer, Douglas. You have a few days to decide. Bear in mind that it’s career suicide at this company to turn down a promotion.”
“Understood,” I said. “I’ll give your offer all the consideration it deserves. Thanks very much for thinking of me. I really appreciate this potential opportunity. And congratulations on the new job.”
Jonathan wasn’t the only one around here who could handle people.
He grinned. “Thanks. This has been in the works for a long time and it’s a challenge I look forward to taking on. Plus, on a personal note, my wife’s family is in Paris so we’ll be just a hop, skip, and a jump away from them. Happy wife, happy life, Steinbeck.”
“Good to know.”
What could I say? Don’t go because it’s been great fun working with you despite the fact that you were playing me the whole time? Stay here because Marcia is the midnight spawn of Satan and working with her will destroy my mortal soul? Life was too damned short to worry about any of it.
I picked up the basketball and took a final shot at Jonathan’s hoop. The ball swished through the net. It felt good to be on target for once.
“I’ll get back to you soon,” I told him but I already knew my answer was no. I had been invaded. It was time to beat a hasty retreat before I got captured.
Robert Douglas Friedman’s short stories and humor pieces have appeared in Story Quarterly, Narrative, The Satirist, Boomer Lit Mag, Jokes Review, Penny Shorts, Literally Stories, and many other publications. He is the founder and president of Raising the Bar Media. Robert lives and works in New Jersey.