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Fall had arrived early in western North Carolina, bringing with it invigorating breezes. But inside a tatty office building in downtown Asheville, The Bugle’s stuffy newsroom reeked of press ink, abandoned pizza boxes and drugstore cologne spilled months before by a despairing City reporter as he packed up his belongings. Dust coated darkened light fixtures and broken file cabinets. Cobwebs draped over forgotten spaces. And in a lonely conference room, Senior Copyeditor Ginna Bristol sneezed as she sat across from her boss, who, scratching out what must be his two-hundredth cat doodle on a yellow legal pad, allowed a “gesundheit” before continuing on about the future of the newspaper.
“So, you understand,” he finally said, lifting his eyes from the artwork, but not quite meeting her own.
She internalized a sigh. “Understand what, Lenny?”
“Ginna, please,” he said. “It’s not about good or bad work. It’s about… journalism. Democracy. I mean, making sure this newspaper continues. For that to happen, well, without one particular person, will anyone really notice?”
“I’m totally lost.”
Unblinking, he tapped the pen with a single, final thud and looked directly into her blue eyes. “You’ll find another job.”
She flopped back, nearly tipping over in the frail office chair. When he lurched forward to steady her, his red pen struck hard against the table, soared and targeted her heart.
Frowning, she looked from her white shirt to him. “Lenny! For crying out loud!”
“I’ve heard club soda… .”
She rose from the wobbling chair. “I’m being laid off!?”
He stood and shakily re-capped his pen. “It’s not personal.”
“Sensei! Why’d you dump this hot mess on me?” Renée, a Junior Copyeditor at the adjoining desk, called out when Ginna returned.
Newsroom staff was about a quarter the size it was just a few years before, but everyone had bunched their desks together in the center of the large, open room. Safety in numbers, maybe. The click-click-click typing of all those still-eager, or desperate, reporters and editors created a cacophony in Ginna’s ears. She squinted at her co-worker. “Huh?”
“Sensei! This freelancer’s story. It stinks.” Renée watched her for a moment, then took a bite of apple. “What’d Lenny want?” she said with her mouth full. “Man, what a toadface.”
Ginna’s head pounded, along with her eardrums. She opened a desk drawer as a nearby reporter asked her, again, how to type an em dash. She gave her head a quick shake. “Don’t. Re-write the sentence,” she said and grabbed her bag from between a stack of old newspapers and reference books.
Renée set down the apple, stood and ambled to Ginna’s side. “He’s not making you work another double, is he? That piece of … .”
Ginna grabbed a bottle of ibuprofen from her purse. Empty. “I need some air.” She brushed past Renée and headed for the door.
Renée followed. “Word. But when you get back, I need you to edit the story behind me. It cannot go to print like this or The Toad will axe me.”
Voice cracking, Ginna said over her shoulder, “Watch it, Grasshopper. He’s going to hear you one of these days.”
On the sidewalk outside of the building, the man she ran smack into apologized to her, presumably because he couldn’t imagine what else to say to a woman with tears streaming over her cheeks. Steadying herself after the crash, she peered ahead at Battery Park Avenue, which appeared coated in petroleum jelly. She spotted her car and ran to it. “It’s not personal,” she croaked as she yanked open the door. Boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, the Civic responded. “Oh, shut it,” she said and tossed her purse on the passenger seat. But the car didn’t listen. “Dammit!” Fumbling with the key fob, she pressed button after button while from inside her bag her cell phone trilled. “Oh, for fuc… ,” she growled.
She pressed her fingers against her temples and willed the noise to stop and then, just like that, there was quiet. She leaned her head against the cool glass of her door window and closed her eyes. “Dammit. Dammit. Dammit,” she said softly. A few moments passed before her cell rang again. She retrieved it and glanced at the screen. “Not now, Renée,” she whispered and declined the call, but it only rang again. Her best friend, Melinda, this time. She took in a deep breath before answering.
“Renée called me.”
So much for confidentiality. Renée must have spouted off to Lenny, who then filled her in.
“News really does travel fast. I only found out like thirteen minutes ago.”
“They’re wankers, but they just did you a favor.”
“Sure. Who needs a paycheck? Or a career?”
“Dude, this is an opportunity.”
“Mel, this is a rejection. And you know what day this is? Makes it even worse.”
“Um. August 29th?”
Ginna’s father had died fourteen years ago. Aside from the sadness over his death, his illness had ended graduate school for her, though Mel never understood why. But Ginna had had responsibilities. Mel was right, though. Long in the past. Of course, it was also the anniversary of her divorce. One year.
“Hold on. You’re not talking about the end of the un-love affair?”
“I mean, the job, yeah, I can see the sucky parts of that ending. But your marriage?”
“I said OK, Mel.”
“Seriously, that outfit you wore to Carly’s birthday party is reason to mourn. But Darrin?”
“Hey! I just lost my job, you jerk.”
“That job was bullshit and you know it. As was your marriage.”
“Is this the kind of counseling you give your clients?”
“Only the ones I’ve known for twenty years. Look, I have some time. Let’s grab a coffee at Izzy’s.”
“No. I want to be somewhere else.” She paused. “Like really somewhere else.”