Martin waited so that the straight shift was completely gone when he ventured into the cubicle-pen. The editor lunged out from the donut table, surprising Martin, who didn't expect him there, being as the Live At Tens were on.
"Polishing your pullet-surprise? Still keeping it over the toilet?"
"Saw a shooting last night."
"It so? Did I read about it? Is It possible I overlooked it?"
"Story's not through happening. I'll have it punched in by Friday."
"Friday. Okay. Friday. Has the ring of finality, that day, doesn't it? End of the week. I'll look for it then. Okay. So. I sat at your desk today. You know what? I answered your phone. You have strange friends, Martin."
"Said his name was Mac and said you would know him."
"Now. He could be an informant. That makes sense. Such things are known to happen still. But the problem with him, he seemed nice. Polite in a homey way. That doesn't make sense. Further, there's the feel of him being off, you know. Not quite on the mark, and I think you catch my load of driftwood here. But that makes me sense that he's not a person you would call your friend. So that leaves me where? I don't know. Is it my business? No. So I'll just shut up."
The editor, butt on the refreshment table, one leg hiked up with the raised pant cuff displaying a hairy lower calf and drooping white athletic sock.
"But this much I know. And watch my face, would you, Martin." Eyes meeting. "Words. Productivity. Do you realize they used to say 'copy'? Copy. Readers read copy, in the long run. Each a separate copy of the paper. The more copies, the more copy, the better. And in order for them to read it, to be able to read it, it has to be there. In words, in black print. Am I confident you know what I'm trying to get across to you?"
Martin was slow to say what he could say. He looked at the editor--a slow, long calm take.
"Now, are the things that I'm mind you just lightly mentioning here so hard to bring up for contemplation? Is there any agony associated with the mere possibility of compliance?"
There was a word, a word Martin knew. It was a word the editor knew also. More precisely, a name. Martin watched him. Would the word have to be said?
"Oh no. Don't you say it. Bodie. I know. Don't you think I know." The look exasperated, almost pleading, in a fake kind of way. "Okay. Maybe what I'm asking is you not to say it. Maybe--could I?--not even think it. You could call it an experiment. Just to see what could possibly happen should a certain name not be mentioned. Who knows? Maybe you would like what you produced, if you did that. No skin off me. I don't pay the bills, do I? I'm not the publisher of this paper. I'm not the one whose office is exactly three square feet larger than the next closest one."
Martin's face a mask of boredom, concealing boredom.
"You know, there are things I don't know. Like for instance, what are you doing here. I knew, even before I even got this job, I heard about the pullet-surprise over the toilet. I knew there was a guy who did such a thing."
"I like it here."
"Enough said. That's fine. It does not have to make sense, does it. Does it?"
"There's a kind of bizarreness here."
"Yeah, like why is this place even here? That what you mean?"
"Kind of. Interesting. It's just a strange mix--Southern politeness, Southern denial, but the hillbilly-slash-Aryan clans on your left, that side of the river, swamps to the north, the nation of the Ouachita to the south, a black population of some 55 percent that's still never been able to elect a significant member of the city government, and over here to the right side of the river, going all the way to the Mississippi, you have the Delta. Flat as a pancake. As a Nebraska pancake, wouldn't you say?"
"Yes, that's true. It's been said my boyhood home consists of four-fifths sky. But you know, Martin, I've been told, New Orleans is pretty damn flat itself."
"I didn't grow up there."
"Yeah, I know, a secluded village that's not even on the English-speaking maps, right? Where, as I have surmised from company talk, your dad made childhood acquaintance with the name we don't even have to speak. But you yourself, a carrot-top, and protestant to boot. Even a cornhusker knows The Big Easy is a third thing, into itself, totally outside Acadiana and North Louisiana. Not a given that you'd end up there, writing for a major paper, getting a pullet-surprise before the ripe old age of twenty-five."
"It was part of a team. The team as a whole was awarded the prize. The event was not something expected. Not a given."
"Perhaps a function of the material itelf? Hope in the projects, always at least a single candle in one window in Desire, one of the bleakest places on the face of the earth outside the high-rise-hells of Chicago? Right there in your back yard?" The editor cleared his throat. "You know what? I have actually read that piece. I participated in the admiration of that work. And this was before I knew you. Before I knew the chain was sending me to this sinkhole of a town, the first day I'm here driving down this Grand Street and there's a crevice the size of a small community right in the center of the pavement where I'm trying to get to downtown, and I'm thinking this is where I will live, before I even knew you were on the staff here and would nominally be working under me--before all that I had read the accoladed series, as reprinted in a certain high-ranking journalism weekly."
Martin's look innocent, yet wary of a trick somehow: Really?
"You know what? I really like that portrait of little Jimmy, the spunky four-year-old, wise beyond his years in dodging the bullets and sidestepping the junkie needles and still pronouncing hopeful about mankind. Quite a character. Uplifting. Which I'm sure didn't escape the notice of the pullet-selection committee. And you know what further? After seeing some of your work for this paper, am I not incorrect in surmising some trace of your own characteristic style in that admittedly team-written episode?"
"Well, a substantial part. . ."
"I thought so, I'm not shy to say. But this, further; are you just lucky? That boy was worth his weight in gold. How did you manage to find such a gem in such dismal, even prohibitive circumstances? Is it cruel of me to raise the spectre of that ugly word--composite. . .?"
"There was a kid," Martin said hotly.
"Hey. Hey. Far be it from to imply. I, whose very livelihood is dependent upon the existence. All I am saying is that I understand. I am sympathetic to your position."
Martin glanced at the clock. "I was going to get you the Elsong piece. It's almost done."
"Except for the writing of it. Am I right? Okay, okay, don't wound your mitral valve. What I am even further saying to you--what I "have been thinking in my mind" as the locals say--is that perhaps where you and I differ is in my curiousity. Inquisitiveness. A trait much needed among storymen, I think all would agree. And you, I get this feeling about you, despite your value as a writer of copy, value you indubitably hold even without a pullet-surprise, that on a personal level at least, you are made uneasy by such curiosity. Displays of curiosity. As if there was something distasteful in asking questions, a violation of basic privacy."
He let that sit a moment, watching Martin's refusal to squirm. "Not that you don't talk to people, because I know you can talk for hours on end, because I've seen that occur. But personal stuff. Is it shyness? I can even understand that, although I perhaps wish it weren't the case. What I maybe don't understand is, that curiosity, or the lack thereof, does it apply in your job? I mean, I've never seen a newsman in action, and I admit I haven't seen many pullet-surprise winners in action--never seen one get his story out of such short conversations. The briefest of interviews. How do you do it?"
Martin stands before the editor like the shamed child before the father or the school's-most-brilliant-but-ridiculously-underachieving student before the principal. Absolutely stonefaced.
"It wouldn't be possible that you get a quote and pull the story from the woodpile because--and I hesitate to even suggest lightly a scenario that might be light-years remote from the actuality--all stories have already always been told? You wouldn't be a victim of this, or even worse, a perpetrator of this worldview, would you?" A forced, quizzical look on the editor's edge-of-middle-age-jowl (he actually looks like an ex-football star.) "Now what is they teach freshmen now, help me be correct here, Martin, there are only a handful of basic narratives available to be embellished? One of them being a stranger rode into town on a horse one day. . ."
"Gosh, gee willy sir. Sounds awfully deterministic to me, sir. Can some people actually think that, sir?"
"I see. My own sarcasm. Back at me in the mirror. Am I right? So you are saying I've hit the nail on the head."
"Not at all. What I am saying is I think you're off your rocker. I book sources. I do all the push-buttons I'm supposed to do. Somebody's been complaining about my stories, is that it?"
"Negative. Even the mayor, with the insinuations. . ."
"Because over twenty witnesses saw it."
"I speak to you not as editor to writer, but as me--to you. Just I may have noticed a tendency, Martin."
"Okay. Noted and documented by yours truly. Any more? Should I be on the lookout for other opportunities?"
The editor waited a handful of distinct instants, then began to laugh, slowly at first, then strongly, wearily. "All right. I hear you. No, no. Far be it from me to do something with my star reporter. My only pulletsurprise winning reporter in my entire career ever. No. Not at all. And you don't even have say the word. The name." The editor stood up and brushed Martin's shoulder as he passed, then turned. "No. I just had this wild, fleeting thought. Silly me. Imagining. Imagining what's not on the page that actually could be."
Martin, at last sitting in his cubicle, the floor deserted, just the hum from somewhere that's always there, maybe the cylinders in the run room. His right shoulder jumping, a twitch that happens. A thing he hates.