Absent Friend
a novel by
Wes Boyd
2002, 2008

Chapter 1: Wednesday, May 14, 1975

“What in hell am I doing in this burg?” Mike thought to himself as he got out of his rusty old Chevy Malibu and looked at the old wooden building on the corner across the street.

Back when he started in journalism school, he’d at least thought he’d be working for a daily newspaper when he got out of school. But, he’d had resumés out for months, and even though he was near the top of his class, there hadn’t been so much as a nibble, except for the one letter from the Spearfish Lake Record-Herald – and he hadn’t even sent a resumé there.

He’d given some thought to just ignoring the letter he’d gotten, but had taken a minute to talk to one of his journalism professors. “Yeah, I sent them your name,” he admitted. “I knew you were having problems finding something. Spearfish Lake is kind of lost in the woods, and a weekly at that,” the professor told him. “But George Webb is the editor, and he’s pretty good at breaking people in, and has a good reputation. Spend a year with him, write some real stories, get a good recommendation, and you should be able to walk into a daily and not have to spend a year or two editing obituaries before they let you have a real story.”

Mike didn’t have anything against obituaries, per se, but they did seem sort of dead to him, when there were real stories out there to be covered. It was probably the prospect of real writing that had brought him up through the woods, but a little town like this seemed pretty dull to him. He supposed he might be able to take up fishing or something to help pass the time, but it sure didn’t seem like there was anything happening here. If he got the job, he was sure it was going to be a dull year.

The old wooden building that housed the Record-Herald looked like it had seen better days a long time ago, but inside was a smell that just reeked newspaper – newsprint, ink, machine oil. Mike had done a little investigation and found that the paper had gone to offset printing a few years before, so was no longer printed on site, but suspected it took a long time to get that newsprint smell out of a building. The smell excited him.

He looked around the small front office. There were a number of desks there, filled with mostly older men and women. Back in the rear there was a big, blue Compugraphic typesetting machine like he’d run a little in school; a well-dressed older woman, probably in her thirties, sat running it, while she talked with a cute little blonde. Though his mind was on other things, Mike couldn’t help but wonder if the blonde had a boyfriend. There had been few enough women in his life since he’d gotten shed of the Ice Queen, his sometimes-girlfriend back in college.

“Hi, can I help you?” said an elderly woman – she had to be in her sixties, at least.

“I’ve got an appointment with George Webb,” Mike said in a businesslike manner.

“Oh, you must be Mike McMahon,” the woman smiled. “George said to keep our eyes open for some guy with a confused look on his face. You just get up here?”

“Yeah, I’ve been driving all day,” Mike confirmed.

“He’s out in the back forty somewhere, Virginia,” the cute little blonde said. “I’ll go see if I can find him.”

“Thanks, Kirsten,” the older woman said. The little blonde got up and stretched, showing off a well-filled blouse before heading to the back room.

A couple minutes later, she returned with Webb in tow. The editor had sandy brown hair, what there was of it; he was nearly bald. He was quite a bit shorter than Mike – though at six foot, four inches, there weren’t a lot of people taller, and thickening up. “So you’re McMahon,” he said brusquely. “How do you like our little town?”

“Haven’t seen much of it,” Mike said. “I was running a little late, so I came right here.”

“It’s a small place, but there are those of us who like it. You want to come into my office?”

He led Mike into a glassed-in room off to one side of the open office. It was quiet in there, and cool; an air conditioner hummed, even though it was a fairly decent spring day outside.

“Let’s see,” Webb started off, glancing at Mike’s resumé, “You’re from Overland Heights. Don’t tell me, let me guess. You played basketball.”

“Only in high school,” Mike admitted. “I could probably have played at some smaller school, but I wanted to go to State.”

“Play any other sports?”

“I played volleyball at State,” Mike admitted. “It’s not a scholarship sport, and they’re not real serious. I did it mostly for fun, to get some exercise. Baseball and cross-country in high school.”

“No football?”

“No,” Mike said, “A cousin of mine got busted up pretty bad playing football years ago, and he’s still in a wheelchair. My dad said, ‘Not just no, but hell no.’”

“Understandable,” Webb nodded. “Let’s see, you’ve been 2-S, and just as glad about it.”

“Yeah, I missed the cut on the draft. Too young, just barely,” Mike said. “I’m just as glad.”

“If you’d been five years older, would you have bugged out to Canada?”

Mike shook his head. “I didn’t want to be in the service, but if I’d been drafted, I wouldn’t have run off.”

Webb nodded. “And again, just guessing, you’re disappointed that you can’t find a job on a daily.”

“Well, yes.”

“It’s tight out there,” Webb smiled. “Every young buck coming out of J-school these days wants to be Woodward or Bernstein right away, and get some big shot by the nuts the first year out of college. You too?”

“Let’s say I could imagine it happening, but I don’t think it’s going to be real likely.”

“That’s something,” Webb said. “Let me explain. We practice community journalism here, not investigative reporting. I can’t tell you the last time the word ‘Nixon’ was in this paper. Maybe a letter to the editor or two, but in a staff story, probably not since the election. Our focus is on stuff that’s of interest to the people in this community that they’re not going to get off of the TV set or out of the Camden Press. There aren’t often big stories, but a lot of stuff that seems piddly. Most of them are important to people in the community, at least some of the people. On the other hand, you’ll probably be handling bigger stories here than you would as the junior gopher in some suburban daily newsroom, and you get to write a lot. Most people in this business will never be a Woodward or a Bernstein, but are going to be involved in community journalism, and have to be aware of the power they’re handling. The value of a small newspaper is that they get the opportunity to learn to handle that power responsibly, mostly because they have to face the people they’re writing about after the story goes to print. It’s too easy for a guy in your position to get involved in seagull journalism, and we have to guard against that.”

“Seagull journalism?” Mike frowned. He hadn’t heard the term.

“Yeah, where some young stud flies into town, craps all over everything to try and make a name for himself, and flies off. We can’t have that.”

Mike nodded. “I can see that,” he said. “And I can see how it’s important.”

“Now, you have to realize that in a town as small as Spearfish Lake, we have to be less of a newspaper than a rumor control center,” Webb continued. “It’s not very often that we put a story into print that I haven’t heard about down at the breakfast table at Rick’s long before we go to press. What it does mean is we have to be accurate, and careful with the facts. I’m old fashioned enough to think that’s still important in this business. You get a chance to learn that here, and after a year or so here, you’re not going to be the junior gopher at something like the size of the Camden Press. If you do OK I’ll give you a good recommendation and maybe pull some strings when the time comes. Does that sound fair?”

“I guess,” Mike said. “You sound a lot like Professor Sinkavich at State.”

“We went through J-school together, but he sold out to the ivy halls instead of being honest. Stinky says you write a fair stick but need some seasoning, and I ought to hire you. That’s a pretty fair recommendation in my book. Here’s the deal. You get to do a lot of scut work. We’ll probably keep you pretty busy, mostly on government stuff and sports. Sports are a big deal in this town, maybe too big, but we have to supply what the reader wants to read about. You’ll burn up a lot of evenings, but you’ll meet a lot of people and write a lot. I’ll give you some afternoons off to make up for it. You’re not married, or anything?”

“No, not even close.”

“Well, you won’t mind having something to do in the evenings, then. Sometimes, it’ll be fun if you let it be. Maybe even often. Sound like a deal?”

Mike didn’t have to think about it much. Right at this point, it looked like about the only decent deal he could find, and a year or so in this lost in the woods place might not be too bad to endure. “I’m willing to give it a try.”

“When can you start?”

“I could start right now if I you want.”

“Then let’s go introduce you to the gang.”

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