Buck hit the fifth floor newsroom that Monday right at six a.m., as he had been hitting it give or take a couple minutes for five days a week every week for two years until two weeks ago. Two weeks ago he had begun his first official paid vacation, and now it was over.
As the elevator door swished shut behind him, he paused. The first thing that hit him was the new-old sensation you get when you’ve been away officially and are coming back. It was kind of like September, going back to school, but felt far more serious. He thought maybe the end of his first paid vacation in his chosen line of work represented some kind of watershed. His uneasy honeymoon with puberty was over and a settled marriage to his balls was now in prospect; he was grown.
From all the way back behind the deserted newsroom he could hear the hammering of the ranked Associated Press and United Press International teleprinters, banging the world news onto their long spools of paper. The hot-oily smell of their electric motors had penetrated all the way to the elevator lobby, mingled with always-present chemical smells from the engraving department. He thought he would remember these Monday mornings of his life long after Friday nights were all mixed up with Saturday hangovers and regrets.
He started the long walk through the newsroom on the worn rubber runner past the executive editor’s suite and the state editors’ desks on the left, and the entire assembly of the a.m. paper’s vacant desks on the right. Next were the sports department desks on the left and the Sunday magazine desks on the right.
The crew-cut p.m. sports editor was already in his copy-desk horseshoe with one rim man, studying the weekend game results as they took apart a long yellow spool of UPI overnight sports stories. The sports editor’s perennial cigar clenched in the corner of his mouth added a Havana note to the general newsroom miasma. As Buck passed, they began to cackle like two-thirds of Macbeth’s witches over something they were reading. Buck glanced at his wristwatch. They found something to cackle about every single morning before he’d been at work a half-hour; today their mirth was early. It was like a welcome-home.
The p.m. paper’s news desk was arrayed across the room past the city desk and reporter’s desks, backed up to the typesetter’s room. All the other desks had to shoot copy to the typesetters via a tangle of overhead pneumatic tubes; all George the German news editor had to do was turn around and shove it through a sliding window.
The closest desk in that array to the aisle was the telegraph editor’s desk, whose duties were rotated between an actual midget with a red, drink-destroyed face and a rangy tanned giant with ropey muscles who resembled a frontiersman trapped in a dingy yellowing dress shirt. Talk about Mutt and Jeff combinations. The frontiersman had an explosive temper that made Buck uneasy; he was about the only man in the newsroom Buck didn’t think he could take if it came to fisticuffs.
For his first Monday back at work, it was big Zack on the telegraph desk, early to work as usual. Zack had the AP A-Wire spool already in hand, ripping and spiking stories or discarding them after a quick scan. Buck was five minutes late. There was no graceful way out, so Buck dodged the issue.
“I guess you’ll want the UPI A-Wire next, huh?”
“No hurry. I’m ahead this morning.”
Two weeks ago Buck would have heard a No thanks to you silently freighting the innocent remark. This morning he knew it wasn’t there; Zack was just stating a fact. Zack laid the zinc-metal cutter over the strip of copy that emanated from the bulky roll at his feet, tore off a 250-worder and spiked it Society News.
“Welcome back, Buck,” he said, looking up finally. “Good vacation?”
Buck hid his shock; this Monday was definitely off to a new kind of start. “It was, yeah,” he said.
He walked into the teletype room into a solid wall of machine racket. He turned on the UPI Markets machine, checked the patching to make sure the sub hadn’t plugged it in the wrong feed, and hung up his light jacket. Then he systematically checked the rolls of paper in all the machines; none were showing pink striping along the edge, but he wanted to make sure they had enough to run through first deadline without a new roll. He cleared the wires one at a time and took the yards-long strips of copy to his battered reject of a desk to rip stories into precise rectangles with his personal zinc cutter.
His hands moved smoothly into a rhythmic stroke developed over two years and hundreds of yards of copy-cutting. Before very long the pounding of the machines receded beneath his awareness to where it had been before he left on vacation. It was just there, like the ocean was just there when he was swimming underwater in the surf. When he had the copy from a machine totally broken down and organized, he emerged from the room, shedding droplets of sound like salt water into the quiet newsroom, carried each stack to the appropriate desk and spiked it, and then submerged cleanly into his underwater world once more.
Ray, the Associated Press Wirephoto operator, came in and connected to Atlanta. The shriek and squawk of photo signals being transmitted down the wire joined the constant chattering roar of the teletypes. Ray deftly manipulated levers on his console to modulate the squawk until needles in the meters aligned, and opened the circuit to expose the 5x7negative in a metal cylinder snapped in place on top of the machine. He exposed several pre-loaded cylinders and vanished with them into his tiny darkroom to develop. He had given Buck a wordless nod and grin when he came in; Ray wasn’t much of a talker first thing in the morning, even when he and Buck went deer hunting in November.
By the time Ray was drying his first glossy prints on the rotating drum beside the soft-drink machine, Buck had all the teletypes trimmed down to the story coming in. The rest of the copy desk crew was in place, swapping ritual morning insults as Zach dealt the copy down the line. Buck changed the thin aluminum blade on the new-fangled UPI PhotoFax machine, which functioned twenty-four hours a day without an operator. Then he scissored the previous night’s transmission into individual photos from the continuous roll of tissue-thin, still-damp paper.
German George, the news editor, began his routine harassment of Buck for delivering all the copy before he cleared the PhotoFax; George wanted “art” first and foremost to begin plotting page layouts. He loved the new UPI machine for its volume of photos, with plenty of gratuitous cheesecake filler to make salacious comments about, even though the new machine’s definition didn’t come close to the quality of human-developed AP photos.
George stopped himself in mid-gripe. “Buck! You’re back!”
“I am,” Buck said. George was his cross to bear; among other offenses, George still thought copyboys should deliver his coffee to him. He and Buck had had words about that before. But today George had a surprise for him.
“Good to have you back,” he said. “That sub was hopeless. Don’t ever leave us, Buck.”
“Why George, I didn’t know you cared.”
“’Course I care! Good vacation, Buck? Did you get laid at last?”
Buck’s ears immediately turned scarlet, to his mute fury. George smirked broadly. George couldn’t be nice for more than a minute if his life depended on it.
“Ask your wife,” Buck said loudly.
“Oh-ho!” shouted Zack. “Copyboy coming out for a new number.”
The whole desk erupted in laughter, George loudest of all. “Good one, Buck!” he applauded. “Only reason I’m not worried is that not even a virginal copyboy would be that desperate.”
Everybody got a good laugh out of that one, and Buck joined in. He was back as if he had never been gone, but the two-week absence had somehow changed his status. He put a dime in the cigar box for his first cup of coffee from the typesetter’s urn and noticed that the supervisor, Gretchen’s, belly bulge was more pronounced; she’d be on maternity leave before Christmas. Joanne would move up as temporary TTS honcho. There was a new slim boy at one of the TTS machines who looked as queer as those swishy night-side operators, ill at ease as a vampire in the bleak morning light through dirty windows. Gretchen actually gave Buck a hug.
The unexpected warmth of the welcome-backs, Buck thought, was cementing this first Monday after his first official vacation into his memory beyond forgetting. The morning was complete when Brindle, the sour-puss managing editor, welcomed him back and asked him — again — if he had ever considered becoming a reporter. Buck had begun to realize that his vehement affirmatives didn’t seem to take root in Brindle’s granite brainpan.
Buck had thought that’s how you got to be a reporter, by serving a copyboy apprenticeship; that’s what the city editor who hired him had done. He was beginning to feel mean about Brindle’s failure to act on his affirmatives. But today Buck forgave him, recognizing that all men are brothers in the first numb hours of another Monday on the job. He figured that along about the 11:30 deadline the sentiment would wear thin and they’d start shaking down for the week ahead.
He completed his private coffee ritual alone in his lowliness as keeper of the teletype room, reading the proofs of all the copy mats mailed in by the cartoon syndicates. He enjoyed following the strips that his newspaper didn’t run. A particular favorite was “Gordo,” about a portly Mexican whose quest in life seemed to be for a perfect haircut, by which he meant a trim that made it look like his hair hadn’t been cut at all. Still vain about his own hair, Buck understood perfectly.
He read the comics with an ear cocked for the clear ding of the teletype-machine bells, counting them off automatically. Three meant urgent, possibly an update or correction to a story that moved earlier. Five meant a bulletin — some kind of newsbreak from somewhere. Those he checked immediately, but nothing was earth-shattering. At precisely 8 a.m. he went back out to confront George and start moving his early photo selections back to the engraving department. The dayside reporters were trickling in by then.
As usual, though he had the morning’s photography offerings spread all over his space in the slot, George had only selected two half-column cuts so far, to go with the People in the News box on page one. Buck took them back anyway, down the corridor and through the door where the bitter tang of metal-engraving chemicals was so strong it always made his eyes water on first entry. He skirted the big engraving cameras, lined up like proton-beam projectors on a science-fiction spaceship, and stepped around the partition that separated the art department from the engravers.
Ancient Brad Brownloe, with a fringe of silver hair around his tanned bald skull and twinkling eyes webbed in wrinkles etched by seventy years of Florida suns, was not at his desk. A woman sat there, ramrod straight and poised in Brad’s battered old swivel chair, head tipped down, focusing on a piece of advertising art. Tires, some remote part of Buck’s stunned brain noted. The deft way she handled the tools of the trade left no doubt that she belonged at the desk. They had actually hired a woman for the art department!
Buck’s reflexes saved him. He dropped the two photos in the precise spot he always did, made the same pivot on his left foot, and got the hell out of there before she could secure her dripping brush and raise those downcast eyes and turn him to stone, or a basketful of snakes, or maybe a toad. He made it past the first Arcturian ray projector and began to think he was safe, but he wasn’t looking where he was going. His dazzled vision was full of that profile, those lowered eyelashes, that midnight hair pulled back from a smooth ivory forehead into some kind of a twist that looked vaguely Spanish, that slim straight back resting on a tidy round rump scooted forward to the very edge of the chair…
He stumbled straight into Norm, sauntering out of the number two engraving darkroom, and would have flattened him if the short-legged ex-coal miner hadn’t been so stocky and well-muscled. As it was, he knocked Norm’s pipe flying in a cloud of ash and sparks.
“Jesus, Norm. I’m sorry.” He started to look for Norm’s pipe while Norm stamped out live coals.
That wily old West Virginian was grinning like a crocodile. “I see you survived vacation, Buck,” he said as Buck shamefacedly handed him his pipe. He immediately began refilling it from a foil packet of rough-cut Granger. “Now the trick is to make it through Monday without causing an industrial accident.”
“I’m really sorry, Norm.”
The engraver was still grinning that predatory grin. “Nothing to apologize for. It was your first glimpse of her after all.”
“I guess Brad finally retired, huh?”
“He’d been threatening to long enough. Yep, he hung it up. Did you introduce yourself?”
Norm started laughing so hard he choked on his pipe as he tried to light it. “Oh, boy.”
“What?” Buck demanded.
Damn it, he could feel his ears beginning to burn. The dark secret of his life — his catatonic fear of girls — was probably a running joke at the newspaper by now.
“C’mon,” Norm said. “I’ll introduce you. Better get it over before the first photo deadline or you’ll screw something up for sure. Her name’s Glenda.” He was puffing his pipe, sending out a small cloud of smoke signals. “Number one — she’s married. Number two — she’s older than you. Number three — you’ve already got competition here in the office for her affection.”
“Who said I wanted her affection?” Buck’s vocal cords were so tight it was a croak. “You mean Roman’s putting a move on her?”
“C’mon.” Norm was herding him back toward the Medusa. “Yeah, Roman. Quite the lady’s man, Roman. Too bad for him she don’t think so. She’s got a head on her shoulders, this gal.” High praise from the mountaineer.
Buck tried to hold back. Norm took his arm and moved him forward with the easy strength of a man who had loaded many a sixteen-ton in his day. “She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen!” Buck whispered hastily.
“Wal,” Norm said in his normal voice, “you don’t get out all that much. She ain’t bad. She ain’t bad at all. But you’re not being objective, Buck. Love at first sight does that to a feller.”
Oh god. Buck wanted to sink through the dirty floor and into oblivion. “Hey, Glenda,” Norm called. “Meet the reg’lar copyboy. This is Buck. He’s been on vacation.” He half dragged Buck around the partition. The woman stood up. She couldn’t have been very much taller than five feet, but from Buck’s prejudiced perspective, she filled a very large space. And filled it perfectly. She stepped toward him and held out a slender hand, man-fashion. And looked up at him with blue eyes. The deep blue, Buck thought crazily, of a jungle pool shaded by the most exotic of lotus plants. Very deep — bottomless.
“Hi, Buck,” she said. Oh God. She had one of those throaty smoker’s voices, like Lauren Bacall. Not much of a Southern accent; she must be from someplace else. She was holding the two photos he had dropped off in her left hand. “You must have left these. You were gone before I could look up. You move like a big cat, quick and quiet.”
And she smiled up at him, like being a big cat was the most marvelous thing you could be. The blue eyes changed to the pale cirrus blue of a Florida autumn sky and twinkled at him. Her hand was engulfed in his big paw. He held it as if it were precious China.
“Say something, Buck,” Norm prompted. “So she’ll know you’re alive.”
Two things instantly came together in Buck’s mind that he could not have voluntarily recalled if his life depended on it: the rituals of formal ballroom dancing from his teenage Cotillion days, and words from his high school French class. He straightened his back and bowed over that small captive hand with an air-kiss — the rituals specified no touching; that was too intimate — and raised his eyes to hers.
“Enchante, Madam,” he said.
“Oh, my!” she said, looking momentarily flustered.
“Wow, Buck!” Norm said as Buck released her hand, unable to release her eyes. “Wow, Glenda — I guess Buck has attributes unknown to us mere peasants. A young Southern gennelman, to the manor born.”
Buck dropped his eyes as his ears flamed so hot he thought they would ignite. He thought his heart would stop when she reached up and patted him in a friendly way on his shoulder.
“Now don’t let Norm make fun of your sweet gesture,” she said in that husky voice. “What the hell do coal miners know about gentility anyway?” Damn, that mild profanity made her sound even more like Bacall. “This old world is so ugly it can use a little gentleness,” she added.
“Aw, you’re just sayin’ that ’cause we all haze you so hard,” Norm said. “We do that to all rookies. We can’t cut you slack just ’cause you’re a knockout.”
She laughed at him. “In my dreams,” she said. “They do give me quite a ration,” she told Buck. “First woman artist on staff and all. But I’m tough. I can take it. Nice to meet you, Buck. Very nice, as a matter of fact.” Then she startled him by saucily sticking her tongue out at Norm. Norm laughed out loud.
Somehow Buck made his escape back toward the newsroom. He almost collided with Zack this time.
“Guess you caught the thought wave,” Zack said. “George has dithered around and made up his mind, and he’s ready to move pictures. Better go tend him before he gets cranky.”
“There’s not a thing he can say that will ruin this day for me now,” Buck said.
The big man rubbed his chin and thought. “Oh,” he said, and grinned. “I see you met Glenda.”