THE ASS KICKING
Rick put his feet on a corner of his desk. “I’ve come up with a new motto for life.”
Jack’s eyes felt hot. He’d been hunching over his keyboard like a vulture, and his spine cracked as he used Rick’s claim as an excuse for a stretch break. “Let’s hear it.”
“Lazy people make more work for the rest of us,” Rick said.
“Us?” The word came out like a snort.
“Whatever.” Rick waved his hand airily. “You’re the boss. You’re supposed to work harder than me.”
Jack nodded. He really didn’t have much to complain about with Rick. The kid had barely read a newspaper when he showed up six months ago. Now he was Jack’s go-to guy. He was like a young retriever. If Rick could spell Jack would have adopted him.
“What brought on this epiphany?” Jack said.
“This.” Rick pointed to his monitor. “This ‘Hero of the Housing Project.’ He spends every night patrolling the neighborhood to keep people from getting mugged. If everyone who lived there did that for a couple hours each week, he could stay home and watch CSI.”
“Which is how they’re making more work for this guy.” He pointed to the monitor again. “Did you know he lugs around an oxygen tank? He’s got emphysema.”
Jack winced as another vertebra popped. “You volunteering to take a shift?”
“Nah. Gotta maintain that journalistic objectivity.” Rick grinned. “We’re like Star Trek. Can’t violate the Prime Directive.”
“You’re a model of ethics and restraint.”
Rick spread his arms. “I’m writing a story about him. If the aroused community comes to his rescue, driven to action by my words --.”
“I’ll put your Pulitzer in the mail.”
“Damn straight.” He dropped his feet to the floor with a clunk of Doc Martins on worn carpeting.
“When are you filing it?”
“Maybe an hour.” Rick glanced at the clock. “Isn’t the new girl due right about now?”
Jack shifted his eyes to the clock face. “Shit. Yeah. Any minute. Is the conference room clean?’
“How the hell should I know? You’re the one who took a nap in there after lunch.”
Jack hit two keys as he stood up, saving his work. The city was fighting with the university again, and he was writing yet another editorial on the importance of town-gown relationships. Personally, Jack thought the university would get on just fine without city hall and that the Lewistown elite should kneel to kiss the black-robed ass of their intellectual sugardaddy at every opportunity. The editorial would likely take a more conciliatory approach.
The conference room was better than it could have been. There were four old pizza boxes on the table and a six-pack of empties near the trash can. Someone had been using the couch for a bed. It was usually Jack, but Rick had slept off more than a few long nights there, too. Jack tucked the pizza boxes between the couch and the wall, and lowered the carton of empties inside the trash can. He straightened the couch cushions and put the thin blanket in the bottom drawer of the file cabinet.
It didn’t look too bad, he thought. Didn’t smell too bad, either, although it was hard to be sure. The Lewistown Democrat had been a boys’ club for the past couple of years, and Jack found he didn’t have much perspective on how a woman might see things. He made a mental note to get Rick a copy of the sexual-harassment handbook.
Jack went into the bathroom to give himself a once over. His shirt was mostly clean and looked fine once he slipped the tie over his head. The nap had lightened his mood but not the circles under his eyes. He needed a shave. Jack washed his face to see if it made any difference. The paper-towel holder was empty, so he dried off on his sleeves and the legs of his jeans. A last look in the mirror told him he still looked like someone who should be sleeping at the dark end of the bar.
Rick was gone when Jack got back out to the main office, probably on a run to the doughnut shop downstairs. Jack sat back down and started to read over his editorial again. He’d barely gotten through the first paragraph when the cat bell tied to the front door jingled. As Jack watched, the door opened about four inches, paused, and then opened the rest of the way. The hinges squealed like they always did and the blinds rattled against the smeared glass.
“Is this the Democrat?” the woman said, half in and half out of the door.
She was wearing a tan suit and Jack thought it looked good with her red hair and nearly fluorescent skin. Another red-head, he thought. God damn it. He gave her his best welcome-to-the-weirdness smile. “You got it. You’re Megan.”
Jack took four steps and stuck out his hand. “I’m Jack.”
Megan juggled her purse and the door for a few seconds before freeing one hand enough to shake. “I didn’t see a sign.”
“I took it down,” Jack said. “This isn’t the best neighborhood. Sorry about that. Coffee?”
She shook her head.
Jack smiled again. “Let me show you around.” Jack reached past her to pull the door closed and caught a whiff of her shampoo. He tried not to think about it. “We’ll start with your desk. Get you settled.”
Jack led her to a battered metal desk, separated from Rick’s by a single rickety half wall. The monitor took up half the space on it, another quarter was dedicated to a stack of plastic shelves. “Here it is.”Jack gestured like a game-show model. “Home, sweet home.”
She looked at the phone. “Do all these lines work?” The phone was a rotting beige color, with four buttons across the top. One button glowed red. Jack shook his head. “Only two of them. Budget cuts.” Her nod was so tight Jack could swear he heard a squeak. She put her purse on the desk. “The keyboard is on a slide underneath,” he said.
She nodded again. Jack thought she looked like a bird, cocking her head and fluttering in mild alarm at a strange situation.
Three steps took them to the door of the conference room. Jack made another grand gesture and Megan stuck her head in the door. “Nice,” she said.
“The bathroom is back there, behind the little kitchen area. It’s co-ed. Sorry.”
“I think I can deal,” she said.
“It doesn’t look like much but --.” Jack pointed to the wall around the doorway, which was lined with rows of plaques. Journalism awards dating back six or seven of his predecessors. “We get the job done.”
“I’ve heard good things about you, too. Grey’s a big fan.”
Jack knew that Grey wouldn’t have noticed her hair, or how she looked in the tan suit. He’d just see her as another kid with talent who could learn a few things at the crusty old Democrat. In a year she’d start to get itchy for more money or bigger stories. Six months later she’d be gone, a savvy veteran but still young enough to work cheap. The thought made Jack tired. His tie felt tight. At thirty-two he was already ancient in Democrat years. He should have moved on a long time ago.
“He told me I’d be covering city hall,” she said.
“Mostly. Some of the neighborhood groups, too. Schools to the extent we pay attention to them. Do you know anyone in the city?”
“Not yet.” She grinned. “But I’m quick.”
That was her real smile, Jack thought, a high-watt special that started at her toes and ended in show of teeth that said “Damn, I’m good” and “I’ve got it all ahead of me” at the same time. He cleared his throat. “Your first deadline is two o’clock tomorrow.” Jack looked at his watch. “Head over to the city clerk’s office and introduce yourself to his deputy, Sheila. Tell her I sent you.”
“What am I looking for?”
“Just talk to her. She’ll tell you more in thirty minutes than you’d learn in a year of committee meetings and press conferences. Go to the Board of Alderman meeting tonight. Get me a story on the supermarket proposal the mayor is pushing for Spalding Square. Who wants it, why, when, and who’s going to end up fucked.”
“Will the office still be open after the meeting?”
“We’re on deadline. It’s open as long as I’m here.” Jack was tempted to throw in a “kiddo.” “I’ll be here with a pot of coffee if you want to come in and work. Otherwise, we’ll see you at nine tomorrow.”
Megan got her purse from the desk and turned to go but stopped before she got all the way around. “Mr. Farkas?”
He gave her a mock scowl. “It’s Jack. Don’t make me feel any older.”
She smiled, not the real one, he thought, but close. “I need something from you.”
“I need you to kick my ass.”
Jack knew she hadn’t said “kiss,” but an image of her ass, as palely luminous as the rest of her, hung in his head like an autumn moon. He cleared his throat again. “Elaborate.”
She clutched her purse in both hands. “Make me a better reporter. A better writer. Grey says that’s what you do.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
She shook her head. “I don’t want to do fine. I want to do great. Kick my ass.”
They had sex for the first time that night, on the greasy conference-room couch. Rick had come back with a new story, another of the police-corruption pieces that made the Democrat the darling of the main office and nervous anytime anyone on staff saw a cruiser in the rear-view. He filed it, along with the Ridge Tower story by seven-thirty, and was gone by eight, probably to the Irish bar where he spent most of his evenings. Megan came in from the aldermen’s meeting at nine-thirty, looking like she’d spent four hours in line at the DMV. Her face was shiny, her makeup surrendering her secrets under the hot lights of the council chamber.
Jack rinsed out a mug for her and filled it with coffee. “How’d it go?”
She tried the coffee and made a face like poison. “I took a lot of notes. Talked to the mayor and a couple of aldermen afterward. I have some interviews set up for tomorrow morning.”
Jack leaned against her desk. “Peter come talk to you?”
“The website guy? Yeah, as soon as I showed up he walked over and sat next to me.”
“Peter has a sack full of axes to grind, but no one keeps a better eye on city hall than he does. Great information, but you have to be picky about what you use.”
“He asked me out for a drink.” She smiled. It was dim but genuine. “He settled for coffee.”
“Nice work. I’ll leave you to it. I have to clean up a few of Rick’s stories -- you’ll meet him tomorrow -- and finish the editorial. You all set?”
“I know where you are if I have any questions.”
At eleven-thirty they crossed the street for a beer break. They chased the beer with a couple of scotches and traded stories about growing up rural: Jack in Indiana, her in Vermont. On the way out, when Jack’s hands were full holding the door for her, Megan stopped and stood on her tiptoes long enough to kiss him full on the mouth. For three or four heartbeats after her heels touched the ground again, her eyes searched his for rejection. He didn’t have it to offer. As soon as he got the door closed he gave her one back, the best one he had, hands-in-her-hair with a full-body press. They crossed the street and kissed again halfway up the two flights of stairs leading to the office. Then, with the scotch loosening the straps on his brain, Jack helped Megan out of her clothes until she was naked and nearly glowing in the stale conference room.
She gave him a quick peck on the cheek as she came out of the bathroom twenty minutes later. She’d fixed her makeup. “I’ll be in after my interviews tomorrow.”
“I’ll call you if anything else comes up.”
Megan left the circle of light thrown by Jack’s desk lamp. Jack heard the front door open, the cat bell jingling, then close.
At two-thirty, Jack stood over the conference room couch and debated sacking out on it until dawn. The pizza boxes were still tucked between its arm and the wall. Jack could smell her there, smell them: soap, a light perfume and mildly boozy sex. He didn’t want to think about what the smell meant, so he propped the conference room door open with a dictionary and went home to catch a couple of hours of sleep and a shower.
The smell was gone when Jack got back to the office at nine, so he reclaimed his dictionary. Rick strolled in at ten, and went immediately to the wall-mounted first-aid kit for aspirin.
“Rough night?” Jack said. Rick’s eyelids were swollen, which made him look like a young Sean Penn. “Glitter Girl again?”
Rick grinned and dry swallowed some of the tablets. “No idea what you’re talking about.”
Rick had an on-and-off relationship with a go-go dancer whose claim to fame was that she’d slept with two members of The Back Street Boys. She had her sights set on John Mayer next, but Rick would do until then. Jack could usually tell when they were on because of the flecks of glitter stuck to Rick’s face and hair.
Megan came in at eleven-thirty, dressed more like a working reporter and less like someone trying to impress her new boss with her professional wardrobe. Rick took her down to the doughnut shop for “pre-lunch.”
She filed her story by one, a pretty solid piece of work. Jack sent it back to her with a handful of questions, and she got him a new draft by two-thirty. Jack got all the content and his page maps to the layout department by the six o’clock deadline. At six-thirty, Megan shut off her monitor. “Do you have anything for me tomorrow?”
Jack nodded. “Drop by the city manager’s office around nine and talk to Peter Pasterolli. Bring him some coffee. Two sugars, no cream. He’s the public-relations guy, and you’ll be seeing a lot of him. Then get back here and make some phone calls. Introduce yourself to all the school secretaries. See what’s going on with the kiddies.” She’d flipped open a notebook and started writing as soon as he opened his mouth. “Story meeting at twelve-thirty here. Rick will tell you the best way to avoid getting stuck with the boring shit I assign is to have better stories to pitch.”
“That it?” She flipped the notebook closed. “I’m going to head out.”
Jack wanted to ask her if she had a date but figured it was none of his business. “Go for it. Nice work on the supermarket piece.”
Her smile was one of her real ones, but it disappeared quickly. She nodded. “See you tomorrow.” Megan picked up her purse and left. Jack heard the front door open, then close.
Rick’s chair squealed as he changed his position. “She’s pretty.”
“So are you. Hasn’t hurt you much.”
Jack shrugged. “She does solid work. That’s all I care about.”
Rick snorted. “Dude, she’s a redhead and you are a weak, weak man. I’d make a move if I were you.”
Jack picked up the sexual-harassment manual he’d dug up that morning and tossed it into Rick’s lap. “You’re not.” He stood up. “I’m going home. Your lady fucked John Mayer yet?”
He shook his head. “Lucky me.”
Jack lived in a one-bedroom walk-up about thirty minutes away. Mostly highway. The radio in his car only picked up AM talk-radio and arguing with the right-wingers kept him distracted until he got home. His brother, Travis, was already there. Travis was between gigs and couch surfing for a couple of months. The brothers’ schedules didn’t mesh, so they didn’t see much of each other in spite of the close quarters.
“We’re out of everything,” Travis said, stepping back from the fridge as Jack powered open the front door.
Jack put his bag on the counter. “Go shopping.”
Travis hip checked the fridge door closed and started eating olives out of a jar. “No money. The guy stiffed us last night.”
“Mike at The Bull? That surprises me. He having trouble?”
Travis chewed olives and shrugged. Jack filled a Mason jar with cheap scotch and ice and took a sip. He made a mental note to tell his business freelancer to check on The Bull’s financial health.
“Paper going all right?” Travis said.
Jack took another sip from the Mason jar. “Got a new reporter yesterday.”
“So far.” Jack took a bigger sip and let the liquor roll around his tongue. “She’s a redhead.”
“Shit. That’s not good.”
Jack nodded. “This one will kill me, cost me my job, or put me in therapy.”
Travis grinned. “I get first dibs on all your shit.”
Jack gestured around the tiny kitchen. “All yours.”
Travis moved out a couple of weeks later; his band got a gig opening for a bigger act with regular bookings and a scatological name. A week after that Jack put the sign back on the Democrat’s door. On cue, the homeless people started coming in again, most with a whacked-out conspiracy theory the newspaper just had to hear. A skinny woman with two cats on leashes stole the bell off the door. One morning a guy with shit on his pants stumbled in, carrying a bottle in a paper bag, and demanded to talk to a “reportah.” When Jack offered to buy him some coffee downstairs, he pulled a knife. Rick called 9-1-1. Jack took the sign back down.
The thing with Megan kept going. Whenever they worked late, alone, they ended up on the couch. Jack slept at her apartment every once in awhile, ducking out before her roommates woke up. They kept it quiet.
“Are you getting what you need from this?” he asked her about fourteen months into it.
Jack waved the pint of beer in his hand in a vague circle, taking in himself, Megan, the table, and the office across the street. “All this.”
She picked up her drink and had a sip.”I think my writing is getting better,” she said. “I’m learning a lot.”
Jack nodded. “No arguments. I could see you getting the Hoy Award next month.”
The Hoy was a regional award, given out every year to the rookie who showed the most promise. Jack had nominated her for the award, filled out the paperwork, but made her pick the clips herself. She’d made good choices, Jack thought; she’d look good to the committee.
“How about you?” she said. “Are you getting what you need from this?”
Jack smiled, one of his fake ones. “This what?”
Two months later, on a Friday afternoon, Megan put her notice on Jack’s desk. He studied it without picking it up. “Where’re you going?”
“Pennsylvania. Mid-sized daily upstate.”
Jack tapped the letter. “Two weeks?”
She nodded. “But they want me sooner if they can get me. This Monday.”
Jack ran his hand through his hair. “We can probably handle it. It’s pretty slow right now.”
“Maybe you can get out of the office. Cover a few meetings.” She smiled. He couldn’t tell if it was real.
“Maybe.” Jack held his hand out. “Good luck.”
Her smile held. “Say goodbye to Rick for me?” Megan leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Jack. For everything.”
“We get the job done.”
She bit her lower lip. Her eyes looked wet, but Jack couldn’t tell if that was real, either.
Jack looked back at the letter and read it again. He heard the front door open, then close.