Excerpt from Chapter 2:
Wes Watkins hated vending machines.
He walked into the break room late Monday afternoon with spare change and a Snickers craving, and five minutes later he was still there with both. First off, his two quarters and a nickel didn’t work. One quarter kept funneling back out the change slot. So he switched the quarter for two dimes and a nickel from the company change jar, which was on the microwave for just such an emergency. Well, it worked, but instead of the Snickers spiraling off the rack and into the chute, the wrapper got pinned to the side.
One would think, after decades of perfecting vending machine technology, that someone would have been smart enough to develop a system that eliminated these kinds of mishaps. Maybe they have. But Wes’s workplace was years behind those innovations, and this was a vending machine that other snack machines would probably call Old Timer.
The North Georgia News was not a beacon of ingenuity. The News published daily to a circulation of just under 30,000. The News covered Talking Creek anda good chunk of the North Georgia mountain communities. The editorial content was similar to any other small paper: school board meetings, wedding announcements, Rotary club briefs, obits, and a classifieds section that could get you a John Deere tractor and a talking parrot in one phone call.
What the News covered best, and the reason why Wes was doing time there, was local sports. The sports department was bloated compared to the rest of the staff. They had three --- count ’em, three --- reporters. Nester Jacobs covered Tributary U. athletics and some general assignment stuff. Scott Friedman’s beat was the surrounding county schools. Wes had the so-called plum assignment of the group, not because of his résumé, but mainly because no one else wanted it. When the previous reporter had quit for a job in Pensacola, and Scott and Nester had said no thanks, they needed a warm body to cover the mighty Talking Creek Eagles.
Wes had joined the sports desk last June with the ink still wet on his college diploma. Because school was already out, he had zilch to cover, aside from the occasional fishing tournament at Carter’s Lake or a kids’ basketball camp. So he sat around writing about how little Anne Williams had won the free throw shooting contest at the twelve-and-under basketball camp. They called it “community journalism.” Wes called it a waste of time.
Working at a community paper like the News wasn’t all bad. Talking Creek was a fifty-minute drive from the Atlanta Braves, and an hour and a half from the University of Georgia in Athens, his alma mater. Wes often wished he’d stayed there and slept in class long enough to earn a master’s in history or political science; but he was already up to his neck in student loans, so he’d taken the small town reporting job.
Whenever Lewis Banner, the sports editor, was in a generous mood and offered press passes to the Braves,Wes jumped at the chance to get out of town. Clips of bigger stories were what got reporters out of podunks like Talking Creek to places like Birmingham or Nashville, or beyond. When he would eventually take a book full of his clips for a job interview at a bigger paper, little Anne’s basketball camp story wouldn’t be in there.
Wes negotiated the vending machine into giving him the Snickers bar. “Come on!” He kicked its side twice, because he didn’t have the biceps to shake it. Finally, the Snickers dropped.Wes needed the spike in blood sugar to keep his levels between 80 and 120, but he still eyed the candy bar wearily, knowing it wouldn’t help with the extra pounds that were showing up around his waist, or the slight double chin that had started in college but was lately making some serious gains. Staying on track with his diet was a more serious matter for him than for most people, but he still struggled with it.Healthy snacks hadn’t made their way to the News’ break room, so he’d have to make do with what little protein there was in peanuts and chocolate.
“Defacing News property, Watkins?” Keith Starks’s voice reverberated off the tile floor. A killer whale blowing water out of its airhole, Wes thought. Starks looked the part, too, with a shiny bald head and a ring of blubber bulging beneath his unpressed dress shirt and over his belt. He wasn’t exactly the spitting image of respectability, but he was the boss.
“It wouldn’t give me my Snickers bar,” Wes said sheepishly, tucking his shirt back in and pressing down on the stubborn shock of brown hair at the back of his head. He suddenly felt the need to get his wavy hair cut for professional appearances.
“Well then, instead of destroying the machine and ruining it for the entire office, why not leave a note and let Roy take care of it.” Roy was the janitor. He usually just shook the machine, took the note off, and kept the snacks for himself.
“I’ll remember that next time, sorry.”
Starks stood, arms folded, looking at Wes like he was judging the sincerity of the answer. He seemed to smell it: Wes didn’t want to be here.
“How’s Coach Lawler these days?” Starks asked, checking up on Wes’s beat.
Coach Lawler loved to rile his players by using articles from the News. He would say disparaging things about his players and then turn around and say that Wes had misquoted him. The first time he’d pulled that trick, Wes had had to answer to Starks. As the managing editor, Starks ran interference for the publisher, who spent his time on the golf course instead of at his newspaper or his tire factory in the next town.
Starks seemed to enjoy the double duty of being the de facto publisher --- with all the local politics that went with that role --- coupled with having authority over what was said in the local newspaper. When he’d called Wes into his office to discuss the article, Wes had pulled out his digital recorder and began to search for the Coach Lawler interview in question, only to be waved off.
“I don’t want to get into any pointing fingers,” Starks had said. When Wes held up the recorder again, Starks had shaken his head, as if he didn’t want to hear it. “Just be a little careful with what he says, no matter what he says.”
So Wes had taken to paraphrasing Lawler, which kept Starks off his back for directly quoting the coach when he poor-mouthed his team, and which continued to give Coach Lawler fodder to motivate his team. Wes would see his stories pinned up on Lawler’s “Board of Doubters.”
“Nothing new to report,” Wes said. “He’s been pretty good with interviews, I just have to be at his office at a certain time or he’s in the weight room lifting.”
“That’s a sight now isn’t it? Bud, the old tight end, pumping iron like a senior trying to impress the girls in gym class.” Starks chuckled. He enjoyed reminding the news staff that he knew everyone of importance in town on a first-name basis. “Bud lives for adrenaline. He’ll sit up for hours at night trying to come up with the next great speech to fire up the troops.”
“Yeah, he can get into it,” Wes said. “He really focuses on the off-season conditioning, I hear.”
“Well, he’s reined it in, like every other coach. Too many kids today playing video games in air conditioning; not enough time outside. If they had practice like we did back in our day, they’d be dropping like flies.” It took all of Wes’s willpower not to glance at Starks’s midsection.
“I guess they would.”
Starks checked his watch. It was a few minutes past 5 o’clock, about 30 minutes later than Starks usually stayed in the office. “What do your assignments look like?”
“I called the Calhoun coach for quotes, and I’ll have a story on that. I was planning on going out to Talking Creek’s practice tomorrow to do a player feature for Wednesday.”
“Good, good,” Starks said impatiently. “Always look for the stories about people’s kids. That’s what we do.”
“Got a few minutes? Let’s go to my office.”
Only the publisher and managing editor had an office at the News. Everyone else was assigned workstations in cubicles. Starks probably liked it that way, because it cut down on closed doors and gossip rings while he was there. Most of the reporters, and especially the editors, hated it. It didn’t really bother Wes, who was out doing interviews and usually back in the office around the time that Starks and the publisher left.
Starks’s office was a case study in organized chaos. Half his desk was immaculate, showing off pictures of himself and the mayor of Talking Creek, the president of Tributary University, and a congressman. The other half of his desk was a mountain of assorted paperwork and files. A huge, outdated computer monitor took up a side table, and the keyboard was piled under more papers inside the pullout shelf. A bookshelf in the left corner displayed pictures of his kids and a wife who had seen better years. Wes wondered what kind of father he was, then let the thought pass with a shiver.
Starks had two seats in his office --- a plush black leather chair, well worn on the bottom, that he called home eight hours a day, and a small maroon-colored chair that he’d probably stolen from a local church. On the maroon seat was an envelope.
“Take a seat,” he said, closing the door. “You heard the news?”
“About?” They were a newspaper, there was a lot of news, even in Talking Creek.
“Michael Gavin died this morning.”
Wes gave a quizzical look, as if the name was supposed to mean something. Apparently it did to Starks. “Did you know him?”
Wes shook his head no.
“Great guy,” he said. “Played ball at TCHS with Coach Lawler, was an All-American his senior year, and then played at University of Georgia. Could have been great there if he’d gotten the chance. Won the Medal of Honor, came back and started a weekend retreat for foster kids. He spoke at a lot of the town’s Memorial Day celebrations. Knew him well.”
There he went again, name dropping.
“Michael’s father, Paul, stopped by today and gave this to me, along with some information for Michael’s obit.” He pointed to the envelope.
“Is this for a sports story?” Wes asked.
“I thought Gary did obits.”
“He does,” Starks said. “And he’ll be doing the obit on Michael for Tuesday’s edition. This is something different.” He handed Wes an envelope cutter. “I’ve already talked with Lewis, and he’s okay with it.”
“With what?” Wes asked.
“Go ahead and open it. For the next week, you’re going to have a new assignment.”
“New assignment?” Wes didn’t like the sound of that.
“Yeah,” Starks said. “Something wrong?”
“No, it’s just that it’s the Talking Creek–Calhoun game.”
“Yep, and we’re going to have Scott cover it.”
There went covering the only game worth a lick on his beat. Wes took that as a cue to open the envelope. Inside was a single sheet of paper with names and numbers. Taped to it was a smaller white envelope. Surprisingly, his own name was written on it.
Wes sliced the envelope and took out a handwritten letter addressed to him.
Before I write anything else, I want to apologize. You’re probably going to hate me for what I’m about to request, but there wasn’t anyone else that I could have asked, and I think you’ll figure out why.
My name is Michael Gavin, and a few short months after I write this, I’m probably going to die. I’ve got a type of cancer that won’t quit, and after extensive chemotherapy and other treatments, it’s only grown worse. So I guess you could consider this one of my last requests.
Everyone in Talking Creek knows me. Growing up here and then returning to work and live, it’s hard not to be known in a town like this. I’m fine with that, but something I can’t have is everyone going around during my funeral saying how great a person I was.
That’s where you come in. I’ve read your articles in the News and I like your style. Bet you’ll go far. I also know from talking with Keith that you went to Georgia.
Wes looked at Starks. “What’s this all about?”
As a reporter, I know it’s your job to ask questions that other folks wouldn’t, and the journalists who seem to go far are the ones who ask the toughest questions. You’ll get your shot here. Enclosed is a starter for contacting people who knew me. Some liked me. Some didn’t. And I think that’s the point.
I don’t want this town going up to the pulpit and spitting out pleasantries about my life. That seems standard practice, like somehow when you croak you all of a sudden become an unblemished person. Well, as you’ll find out, I was anything but. I want you to have an open door to the people in my life, the good and the bad, the successes and the mistakes. If my life was worth what I hope it was, then it will probably show as much through the people I hurt as the people I loved. They were often the same folks.
Wes, I want you to give my eulogy. You, and only you.