The Job Interview
The 7:30 a.m. wake-up call
was a bit of a surprise, as Nate couldn’t remember having asked the pimple-faced night clerk for it. Shaking the kapok out of his ears, he implored his groggy consciousness to give him an update.
Things came back to him slowly. He had wanted to get up early to get ready for his 11 a.m. interview with Dave Sawicky, whom he dimly recalled having just about guaranteed him a job the night before at Sheila McNally’s post-memorial blowout. He had met some people. He found a wadded up, ink-stained cocktail napkin on the nightstand, which when he unfurled it was completely illegible except for two runny, underlined words in block letters: “CALL ME!”
There was definitely a woman involved. He would get to the bottom of it.
He recalled being excited about his move to Dutch Hollow, which despite being where Sheila was born and raised, would be the perfect place to shed his uncomfortable latest skin and reinvent himself as a muckraking, middle-aged cub reporter.
He would need a makeover.
More than most people, Nate embraced change. He had successfully performed complete physical, mental and emotional metamorphoses a number of times before. He was delighted when two years earlier, in the midst of his dead-end run with the Ex-Men, he had attended his 20th high school reunion in Albany and was virtually unrecognizable to everyone there, including his own sister. Nobody had known him at his 10th reunion, either, due to circumstances which were strangely similar to those in which he was now embroiled. His ex-girlfriend had just blown her brains out, snuffing herself and what she claimed in her suicide note was his “love child.”
Nate the Skate. Nate could, and often did, turn on a dime. He stood out as a particularly nomadic sort, even among a nation of restless Americans. In addition to his years on the road, he had lived in and left Albany, Boston, Denver, Clearwater, Fla., Los Angeles and now New York. He’d toiled, albeit temporarily, at more than 100 jobs—and had fucked more than twice that number of women, according to his recently fricasseed woman list. One of his favorite expressions to employ when rationalizing leaving a girlfriend, a job, a city—or a best friend clinging to life under a pile of rocks—was this: You can’t hit a moving target.
It started with the physical, he thought. You physically alter your circumstances, and other changes will naturally take place. He had physically lifted himself out of Manhattan and plunked himself down in a venue called Dutch Hollow. He had no ties here except the memories of one of the many ghosts in his life. He would get over that. He would cut his hair, shave his beard; begin a new career. Work his way out of it. Stay out of woman trouble. He had a new goal. The rest would follow.
Nate looked in the mirror. He looked every millisecond of his 39 years, if not much older. His face was a cut-up mess. He could tell he had lost a lot of weight over the last few weeks, what with all the drunken mourning, running around being a psycho and getting the shit beat out of him. Up until a month ago he was fifteen pounds overweight, slightly balding and bespectacled. No longer. He had lost his glasses looking for Sheila, and now that his left eye was permanently dilated, he could actually see better. He hadn’t really needed glasses anyway. They were more of a prop than anything.
What had recently been a short Van Dyke goatee and a stubbly, nearly shaved pate designed to hide his most obvious physical faults (creeping baldness, weakening chin) had now grown out haphazardly into a pair of matted, nappy clumps.
Yes, it was time for total change, he thought boldly. Physical, mental and emotional. Sure, and spiritual, too, if that’s your thing. “Is it, Nate?” he asked his reflection. “Do you believe in God? The Antichrist? Anything?”
The answer, as always, was no.
But now that he had not one but two dead ex-girlfriends, now that he had been a failure, a fugitive and fucking followed and nearly killed, he was more ready than ever for a change. He knew he could count on his physical chameleon quality, which before he began to age properly had been achieved mostly by sculpting his dense, fast-growing head and facial hair into permutations intentionally out of step with the fashions of the times. The Zappa-esque Fu Manchu and carefully tended Afro of his disco-era youth had given way to a full Grizzly Adams beard with attendant scraggly mop for the duration of the yuppified Reagan years, which subsequently were trimmed into an improbable walrus mustache and short, curly ringlets for the nerdy, aerodynamic early ’90s. Then came the goatee, which was only radical for about three days until a much-revered tennis Mephistopheles successfully co-opted and popularized it among the Gen-X booboisie. The world had finally caught up with him, it seemed. Either that or he was getting old.
It really was time for a change.
Nate decided to keep his hair relatively short, and shave his face clean, for now. Doing so brought about a complete transformation. He was unrecognizable, even to himself. He looked like an out-of-work Nazi. He planned to eventually let his beard lapse into a stylishly unkempt 5:00 shadow—which for him would appear promptly each day at 2 p.m. All he’d have to do would be to hack at his face distractedly with a pair of dull scissors once every two days, and at his balding head once a week. He decided this new look would serve him well in his new incarnation as a reporter—certainly one of the lowest forms of life on the planet.
* * *
Nate was doubly pleased when Dave Sawicky failed to recognize him when he showed up for his interview at 10:45. When he pulled up, Dave was standing alone on the veranda of the lovely three-story, mansard-roofed gingerbread Victorian that served as the main office of the Roosevelt Newspapers chain. He was enjoying the first of his many smokes for the day.
“Can I help you?” asked Dave, peering at him through the already filthy veneer of inky fingerprints smearing his thick, horn-rimmed spectacles.
“Hi, Dave. It’s Nate. Nate Randall. I met you last night.”
“Holy Jesus! Get a load of you. I hope you didn’t think you had to get all cleaned up for me.”
“Naw, I just needed a change, that’s all. Am I late?”
“Nope, early. Come on in and let me show you around.” He tossed his still-lit cigarette over the hedge into the quartz-pebbled driveway.
Stifling a strong gag reflex in reaction to the reek of stale Marlboros, body odor and beer wafting off of the beefy editor’s unwashed hair and clothing, Nate was led upstairs to what Dave called the “newsroom.” Running the length of the building, the loft-like space featured a well-worn, visibly warped wide-plank oak floor that dipped more than a foot toward the center from each end. Perched precariously atop most of the battered gray metal desks lining the walls were nine ancient MacIntosh computers. Six other desks scattered around the room—four of them large wooden corner units—sported relatively new Power Macs with large-screen monitors. Newspapers and scraps of paper littered the desks and the floor areas surrounding them.
The room would have been illuminated warmly by the morning sun, had it not been for the harsh, flickering banks of fluorescent tubes suspended in a crumbling drop ceiling overhead. A faded pincushion map of Roosevelt County was loosely taped to the far wall, underneath which bound volumes containing the progressively brown and brittle local news of Dutch Hollow from 2000 back to 1857 were stacked on sagging oaken shelves.
“This is it,” said Dave Sawicky proudly. “Nobody’s here yet. Reporters don’t usually get in before 11 on a Monday.”
It wasn’t much of an interview. Dave was desperate—as he would turn out to be on a more or less permanent basis—to hire someone, anyone, to fill one of multiple chronically empty reporter positions. Having been a songwriter, a computer programmer and a music promoter in the past, Nate was apparently more than qualified for the job.
“When can you start?” asked Dave impulsively, before explaining what being a reporter for Roosevelt Newspapers entailed.
“Right away. Today, if you need me. How much does a reporter make?”
“Well, that’s a good question,” said Dave, his eyebrows rising nervously over the tops of his spectacles. “It may depend.” He went on to explain that he also needed something he called a “paginator”—a person to lay out finished stories using one of the company’s six “deluxe” computer stations.
“With your computer background and all, you could easily pick it up in a couple of weeks,” said Dave. “Between being a part-time paginator and a full-time reporter, you could probably pull down $250 a week, which is usually what a ‘bureau chief’ makes.”
Despite his having plenty of money for the foreseeable future, this came as a shock to Nate. He knew upstate New York was depressed compared to the City, but there was such a thing as minimum wage. He decided to push Dave a little bit. “Really? I don’t mean to be rude, Dave, but how do people live on that kind of money? I’ve checked into rents around here and I couldn’t find anything under $600 a month. Plus I’ll need to buy a car. That’s pretty tough.”
Dave was far from offended. He had been through this before. Taking a deep breath, Dave gambled and, in hushed, conspiratorial tones, began to explain his ongoing dilemma to a stunned and skeptical prospect, for probably the thousandth time in his sad seven-year career as Managing Editor of Roosevelt Newspapers. Having met and partied with Nate the previous night, Dave was somewhat more forthcoming than usual, but the desired effect was to provoke sympathy and manipulate the coveted prospect to accept indentured servitude.
“Look, I got drunk with you last night,” said Dave without irony, his red-veined eyes focused on the doorway behind Nate’s head, “And I trust you. So don’t tell anybody I said this.”
Nate leaned closer.
“You’re exactly right,” Dave went on. “Journalism pays shit everywhere, but nowhere lower than here. Our esteemed owner, Winston Babson III, or ‘Winnie’ for short, is a benevolent despot; a millionaire politician. We call him ‘Citizen Babs,’ His mother was the evil queen in ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ remember her?”
Nate nodded, remembering.
“He’s related somehow to the Roosevelts. He’s married to a billionaire oil heiress. It’s her money, really, that pays for all this.” Dave waved his hand grandly around the room at the old furniture and the battered, outdated computers.
“He takes the low-rent mentality of publishing extremely seriously. His excuse is that he sincerely believes that any writer who is worth a damn would do it for free. Of course, what he really is, is cheap. He refuses to pay his reporters—or his editors either—a living wage. I’m the fucking managing editor of 10 newspapers. Whaddya think I make?”
Nate shrugged. “Thirty-five?”
“Funny. More like 28 thousand,” said Dave, his eyebrows gesticulating wildly for emphasis. “A job like this is worth 45 anywhere else. But if Winnie likes you, he takes care of you, if you know what I mean.”
Nate didn’t, but decided to wait and find out for himself.
“Anyway, I like you. I want you. Here’s what I’ll do. There’s space in the Dutch Arms. It’s a big rooming house Winnie owns, out by the falls. Most of the reporters live there—the ones that don’t live with their parents. It’s 100 a month for a room, taken out of your salary. Winnie’ll kill me, but I’ll give you 300 a week, to do the Mohican Valley beat and to come in extra on Tuesday nights to paginate. You can use one of the company vehicles for four days a week until you find a car. That’s my final offer. With the turnover around here, you’ll be an editor in a month. Whaddya say?”
Having effectively increased his rate from $5 to $6 an hour, with dirt cheap rent and a car, Nate was more than satisfied. “Winnie” was right. He would have done it for nothing. “You’ve got yourself a reporter,” he said, reaching out his hand. “And a…what?”
“Paginator,” confirmed Dave as he shook Nate’s hand, his wide smile betraying a mouth less than brimming with nicotine-stained teeth.