Tuesday, December 16, 2008

NOVEL EXCERPT

As a holiday gift, I am sharing a chapter from my still-incomplete novel that has to do with the season. PLEASE comment on this. Tell me what you think. Even if it's negative. I don't care.




I didn’t know what to expect from the office buffoons regarding my first Christmas season at the Daily Gazette, but as a devout agnostic and overall holiday hater, I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. I was right.

It didn’t take long for me to understand the nature of the daily newspaper business. Days off were few and far between and those we observed always came with a price. For example, we got off President’s Day, but the Thursday and Friday before and Tuesday and Wednesday after were guaranteed stress days that made even me, a guy who took every opportunity he could not to go to work, say fuck it and come in to avoid four miserable days.

MLK’s birthday? Forget it. I had a dream too. That dream was to get his birthday recognized as a reason to sleep in. No one agreed. But Thanksgiving and especially Christmas were not in the same category as Busch leaguers such as the Fourth of July and Memorial Day. I just knew the time off procedure would be different, but the stomachache and hangover I endured behind my desk the day after Thanksgiving proved me wrong.

This wasn’t the first time I went to work with a pounding headache and it wouldn’t be the last. But something was different. Just after my lunch, which consisted of pretzels and a large Gatorade, a singing quartet wearing bonnets and stockings floated into the features department. They came from around a corner that separated the so-called respectable reporters of the city desk and the perceived hacks in my section. They turned to face the string of employees and, to no one in particular, began singing.

“”Tis the season to be jolly…” The night before I drank too much Thanksgiving wine, but I was one hundred percent certain I did not drop any acid. My head shook left, shook right. For the first time since I was hired, the people I worked with looked as confused, upset and embarrassed as I was. Finally, we all shared something in common: A complete lack of comprehension for what the hell was going on.

After their song, the foursome walked in front of me and decided that was the perfect stage to perform another tune.

“You better watch out, you better not cry…” I thought twice about whapping each one of these suckers with the mouthpiece of my phone, but didn’t for fear that I might have to pay for the damages to the equipment.

We clapped politely as they were finished and deep down I knew everyone wanted them to leave as badly as I did. Twice in my life I was so desperate I prayed to God. The first was when I was 17. I fucked a girl and she missed her period, but had one four days later than normal. This was the second. Both times, I got what I wanted, but still I doubted God’s existence.

Behind the singers – literally and figuratively – was Gerald, an old man who worked as the paper’s librarian for thirty seven years. Sometimes I had to make small talk with him, but conversing was more difficult with him than with the other schmucks because Gerald couldn’t breathe thanks to a distended belly that might have come from the personal coffeemaker he kept on his desk. I needed my java as much as the next guy, unless the next guy was Gerald. Mainly I knew this mammoth of a man as the dude you did not want to walk in on when he was taking a shit. All that caffeine really got to him as he’d go into the handicapped stall and huff and puff until he birthed a grandchild. His grunts and groans conjured images of hemorrhoids bursting from his ass. He’d talk to himself during the procedure, which made it hard not to laugh while taking a leak.

Gerald walked slowly behind the singers because Gerald could only walk slowly. He was too fat for anything else. When the group was on to the sports department, Gerald spoke up.

“Hey everybody… these guys are working for free… so let’s show them some appreciation.” I thought that meant clap some more, but then I saw Sally contort her body halfway to reach for her wallet. Fuck that. No way I’m paying for that shit.

The incident left me speechless. It was Friday, November 26 and here we were ushering in Christmas? There were photos to download, emails to print and a feel-good story about a local man who got through chemo by growing tomatoes on his balcony to get to, but I couldn’t do it. For once, I wanted to be working, so that’s what I pretended to do. I opened a new screen and wrote what turned out to be lyrics to a song called “It’s Not December.”
It’s November 26
and I don’t care what they say
It’s just way to early
to celebrate the holidays

It’s not even Decemeber
and maybe I can’t remember
but the last week of November
is not even December

Puzzled looks on faces
all around the office
How did they get in here?
and when are they leaving?


Thankfully, Gerald retired soon after and the carolers never returned.

That was one memory from my first Christmas at the Daily Gazette that I soon wouldn’t forget. But it didn’t stop there. Three weeks before the birth of Christ, Sally informed me that I was volunteered to create a list of every holiday-related event going on within a fifteen-mile range of the Daily Gazette’s downtown Long Beach office. “Call every city and ask them what they are doing for Christmas,” she said, “and make sure you don’t leave anything or anyone out. You’ll get calls if you do.”

I didn’t know where to begin. Luckily, Sally gave me a copy of the previous year’s list and I went off that. Some cities were easy, others were not. I preferred getting information via email so I could cut and paste the text into my story, but nothing at the Daily Gazette was ever that easy. Most I talked to wanted to fax their programs, which meant manually typing all the whos, whats, whens and wheres. Others wanted to recite the info over the phone as if I knew the correct spellings of all the unknown musicians and actors they were using in their plays and concerts. And some wanted to send the info through regular mail, which would have delayed the process by however long it took the Postal Service to deliver the letters. Still, by the end of the day, I had seventy-five percent of the necessary information and the story wasn’t due for four days. Of course, that time was spent calling the cities of South Gate, Paramount, Norwalk, Seal Beach and Wilmington to ask where the hell their info was. The first two had absolute idiots working for them who must have had a parent high up at the city. Norwalk still hadn’t decided on what they were doing for Christmas and the last two were nothing but phone numbers that no one answered. I dialed the Seal Beach City Hall to inquire and the woman who answered told me to call the number I already had. I explained my predicament, but she said the city had nothing to do with those events. Then I tried Wilmington, a port town run by Los Angeles. With all the shit going on in LA, you can imagine how much a priority it was for those officials to return my calls.

South Gate and Paramount came through on the day my story was due. Norwalk emailed me the info three days after the story ran and I’m still waiting to hear from Seal Beach and Wilmington.

I rolled my bike in slightly past 10:30 a.m., took my seat and checked the phone messages. The recorded voice told me I had fourteen new voicemails, which wasn’t out of the ordinary. I was jotting down the info from a woman who wanted to place an ad when the red light lit up, telling me someone was calling. I clicked the receiver and answered.

“Daily Gazette.”

“Yes. Is this Jim Hall?” I was shocked. Almost no one ever asked for me by name.

“Yes it is.”

“Well, I’ve been a subscriber for fifty-two years and never have I been as offended as I was this morning.” This sounded good, so I put down my notepad, leaned back in the chair and actually listened to the old bag.

“Ok. Why?” At previous gigs, I’d written all sorts of offensive things, some intentionally. But my hands were tied so tightly at the Daily Gazette that I couldn’t have pissed off anyone intentionally or not.

“I was reading your Christmas round-up story and you have at least four mentions of cities with ‘holiday’ events. Why can’t you just say ‘Christmas’ like the rest of us?”

I had no clue what the old lady was talking about, so I picked up the phone and stretched the chord as far as it could go so I could lean over and pick up a paper sitting at the vacant desk nearby. Combing through my story, I saw what she was talking about, but was confused as to why it bothered her. “Ma’am, can you explain this to me again? I understand what you’re talking about, but I don’t see the problem.”

“Goddamnit, it’s Christmas. Not ‘holiday.’ Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our lord and savior Jesus Christ. Show him the respect he deserves. He died on the cross for chrissakes.”

Now I got it, but wasn’t sure if it was worth the effort to explain to her that I didn’t name these events, I just reported them. The person, or people, she should have called were the ones who organized these gatherings. Not me. But I didn’t get the chance.

“And another thing…how dare you put Xmas in your article? It’s one thing to say ‘holiday,’ but if you’re going to say ‘Christmas,’ say ‘Christmas.’”

This woman sounded like her decrepit head was about to explode, so I did my best to calm her down.

“Ma’am, I didn’t name those things. The cities did. I just reported it.”

“Well why’d you do that? If you knew they were wrong, you should have corrected them.”

“I never said I thought they were wrong.”

“Oh, so you do think it’s ok to use ‘holiday’ and ‘Xmas?’ What’s wrong with you people? First you switch to ink that runs all over my hands and now this.”

“I didn’t say that either. It’s my job to report the facts, ma’am. I can’t add or subtract information based on personal beliefs or I’d get fired.”

“Maybe you should be fired.” Then she hung up. I wanted to trace the call, track her down and slit her throat while I shit in a copy of my story to shove down her old ass throat. But I didn’t. The holidays already put me in a bad mood and I didn’t need to go to jail for killing someone who was bound to die soon anyway.


A day later the entire office got a message from someone named Erin. It read, “Come see me to sign up for Secret Santa.” I deleted it instantly and thought nothing of it. By Friday, Erin, whom I’d never met before, appeared at my desk.

“Hey Jim, I’m Erin. I noticed you haven’t signed up for Secret Santa yet, so I wanted to make sure you got your name before the weekend.”

“Got my name?”

“Yeah, of the person you’re shopping for. Here, it’s Todd, the night janitor.”

I was caught so off guard that for once in my life I had nothing to say. “You wha?”

“Every year we do Secret Santa here. You know what that is, don’t you?” I nodded yes. “You’re the only person who didn’t sign up and I tried looking for you Wednesday, but Sally said you had already left. And I was gone all yesterday. That’s why it’s taken me so long to get to you. Sorry.”

“But I don’t want to be in Secret Santa.” Erin’s demeanor went from annoyingly bubbly to depressed with a hint of confusion. Her shoulders slumped, her smile turned upside down and her brow was filled with lines that indicated she was trying to process what I had said.

“You don’t want to be in Secret Santa? Why not?”

“I just don’t want to.” It was the truth. I had no real reason other than not giving a fuck.

“No one ever says no. It throws off the balance because somebody has you and now you need to have somebody.”

“No I don’t. What I need is to get back to work. Please remove me.”

“But it doesn’t work that way. You have to.”

“Look, I don’t want to, now please leave me alone.” I was getting upset and it was showing. “I don’t celebrate Christmas with my family or friends and I’m sure as hell not celebrating it here.”

“Fine. I guess that means I have to buy Todd’s present.”

“I guess that’s what you get for being in charge of Secret Santa.”


Monday, December 27. Late afternoon. I was sitting at the communal Mac downloading some pictures for Sally. Her chair and this computer were separated by a makeshift wall that a previous power-tripping editor erected as a form of distancing themselves from the other peasants in the department. They sat about six feet apart, close enough to see and hear what the other person is doing.

The rarest of rare occurred. Dick Thompson, the paper’s editor, number two man at the Daily Gazette, came over to the features department. In my eight months on the job, I’d never seen him in this part of the building. He approached Sally, who had to put on a pleasantly surprised face, and handed her something.

“Hey Sally, workin’ hard? Can you be a doll and do me a favor and give this to Jim Hall? Thanks so much.” Hearing my name, I looked up and saw him leave my boss’ office. Sally looked at the piece of paper she was given, stood up and called me in.

“Hey Jim, can you come here a second?” I thought I was in trouble, for what, I wasn’t sure. Sally reached out her left hand without looking up and said, “this is for you.” I took it back to my desk and opened it. Inside was a Christmas card from the Thompson family. The inscription read: “Thanks for all your work Jim. You really help make the Daily Gazette the best paper in Long Beach.” Hmm, I thought. The Daily Gazette is the only paper in Long Beach.

Then I got to looking at Dick’s two college-age daughters. One was a plumper wearing a Colorado State sweater, but the other was a gorgeous brunette with a UCLA t-shirt. How nice, wearing your college gear for daddy’s Christmas card. I took a mental note and instructed myself to remember her name. Holly. If I ever met a Holly Thompson from UCLA, I’d do my best to not just fuck her, but cum in her hair.

It wasn’t until I was rounding up my thermos before heading home that I realized the idiocy of Dick’s card. First, Christmas was two days prior. Second, I was within earshot of him when he handed it to Sally, which meant he was excused for not giving me my card on time because he had absolutely no idea who I was or that I even worked for the paper. To top it all off, the card lacked anything of monetary value. No Christmas bonus, no $10 gift certificate to pay for half of an overpriced CD at Best Buy, no raise, no health insurance, no new car, no nothing. Season’s greetings indeed.

3 comments:

Steve said...

I think the newsroom is a good place to start, with all that's going on there (even though newsrooms are a dying breed, which I'm sure you'll address down the road). The attitude of the protagonist is terrific (crying, cum in her hair, etc.) LOL. I like the Long Beach vibe as well. Reminds me of Bukowski, which is actually pretty cool.

The first chapter almost feels like a short story or an essay piece... it doesn't lead me into the next chapter in that it doesn't pique my curiosity. As a reader, I need to feel the need to read more. If not a bite then just a nibble will do. But perhaps I'm saying this because I know there isn't more to read just yet.

I do feel that you have a lot of material to work with in that first chapter, which will allow you to elaborate even more if you like. You can probably break it up into several chapters, too.

Overall, it does NOT suck, so keep it up. And don't be afraid to rewrite, since this is what transforms the ideas in your head into a great book.

It's not easy to write a novel, but it's rewarding when you're finished. I'm in the middle of my own hell as we speak.

Jim Hall said...

Hi Steve,

I really appreciate your comments. It's nice to know someone digs what I'm doing.

I've already made a few changes and will make more I'm sure.

As far as the book touching on the journalism industry, I'm not sure how deep I'm getting into that. It seems like I could write another novel on just that subject.

How did you find this blog?

Thanks. Good luck with your writing.

Father Luke said...

2677 words

I agree with Steve, above, Jim:

you have a lot of material to work with in that first chapter, which will allow you to elaborate even more if you like. You can probably break it up into several chapters, too.

There was obviousness to the
narrative. I'm trying to figure out
if it is just from using a passive
voice, or if it is a particular
style, like Dashiel Hammett,
writing short, clipped, terse
sentences which punch the reader
in the eye like a jab from a
professional boxer - - one who
knows what he is doing so that it
connects - - or if it is truly flat
writing:


He thought he knew, but couldn’t
tell, if what they had said was
vital, so he waited until they said
some more to understand, before
asking them anything.


Writing like that tells a lot, but
it's the popcorn around what's
inside the package.


Fiction writing is different than
what you have been used to on the
newspaper. Papa Hemingway made the
transition. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,
never did. It takes practice. It's
a matter of style. The style of AP,
and UPI versus William Strunk.

You have a nice sense of humor, and
your ideas are clear.

Anyway, that's what I see at first glance.


All the best.

- -
Okay,
Father Luke