The following is an excerpt from A Special Detail: The Untold Story of a Reporter’s Suspicious Death, a work of fiction that the Oshkosh Independent is presenting in serial form. If you can’t wait to get to the end or would like to read the story in book form, it is available on Amazon. Chapter Eight will appear Oct. 22.
All summer I wanted to make friends with Neega, but I felt so bad about how things had gone with the other two interns, that I stayed away.
Still my caution made me anxious, and my anxiety made me dream, or whatever the verb form of nightmare is. More nights than I can remember I would wake up at the same horror-filled moment based on this recurring vision of me and Neega, best of friends, coming home from a night at the bars, and singing pop songs at the top of our lungs. We would alternate, singing a “white” song, like Joni Mitchell or Jackson Browne, and then a black song, R&B or Motown.
Sooner or later we would get to the Shirley Ellis hit, “The Name Game.” Neega would go first, messing with my name, and screeching out the last line. Then I would go.
Neega, Neega, bo-beega
And then, without any warning or sense of self-control, I would just scream out the last line of the verse, slipping from a long e to a short i, from a soft g to a hard one:
Even in my sleep, I knew better than to say the second part of that word out loud, and I would always catch myself, but only by violently clamping my mouth shut and shaking my head, slamming my jaw into my pillow, where I would lie for a second, wondering if anyone else had heard me.
My fear of saying the wrong thing kept me from approaching Neega or striking up a casual conversation for weeks, not that she seemed to be in any particular need of my friendship. She was all Southern charm and manners, beaming at editors and other reporters. A couple of her stories had made A1, although I personally wasn’t convinced that they deserved that kind of play. One of them was a kind of day-in-the-life of a city playground during the summer. I mean, how many times has that story already been done?
But she was another female, close in age, and occupying the same tenuous job situation that I did. I decided I would try to ease into the topic of photography and see what kind of reaction I got, see if she had any advice about how to handle Tom Gibson.
I hadn’t gotten very far in my stammering attempt to establish a bond based on our common internship experiences, when she cut me off.
“You mean, Tom? Are you talking about our very own Candid Camera man? Frank warned me about him.”
It turns out that Frank had told her all about Tom Gibson’s habit of shooting photographs of the “fresh meat” in the newsroom. Tom apparently had put together portfolios of every female intern and new hire over the last 10 years. All the editors knew about it, and they had decided it was just harmless fun since none of the women had complained.
“When did Frank tell you?”
“Back in May, during one of our weekly one-on-ones.”
I was shocked. Frank not only had not warned me, but now I realized that he was giving individual attention to the other interns, at least one of the other interns, while letting the rest of us, or at least me, flail along, left to my own devices.
Charneega could be sweet, but she also knew how to cut. “I’m sure Frank just forgot to tell you. You should ask him, next time you two meet.” I was furious.
Was Frank sleeping with Charneega? Was she giving it to one of the editors? Him or her, I didn’t know which one to trust less. Why wasn’t he giving me feedback, the way he did with José? And why wasn’t he guiding me through the newsroom culture, the way he did with Charneega? You could be sure it wasn’t her writing, or her reporting, that was getting her onto Page One. Of course, what did I know? I was such a great reporter that I didn’t even realize that my sort-of supervisor was ignoring me, letting me twist in the wind.
I abruptly ended my conversation with Charneega and headed across the newsroom to see the internship coordinator, the one who apparently didn’t want to coordinate with me. “Frank, could I have a word with you?”
“Sure, sure,” he said, keeping his eyes down on the Sports section that was spread out on his desk. “Lunch? You free for lunch?”
“Frank, I think this is something that needs immediate attention.”
“OK, what is it?”
“Frank, I am not comfortable talking about this in the middle of the newsroom. It has to do with you not doing your job.”
Frank’s head swung slowly up from the newspaper, and he fixed me in a steady gaze.
“I am doing my job.”
“You are reading the goddam Sports section.” I was so angry I could spit, but I immediately regretted my choice of language.
“I’m a reporter. Reading the newspaper is part of my job.”
“You are also the internship coordinator.”
“So is that what you want to talk about? You don’t like the job I am doing as internship coordinator?”
“Frank, this is not something I want to talk about in the middle of the newsroom. There are some things that I feel like I need to say.”
“Well, you can say them to me now, while you are interrupting my reading of today’s newspaper. Or you can say them to me at lunch. Your call.”
A strange look came over Frank’s face. He seemed to be pursing his lips and squinting his eyes, in an almost comic fashion. And then I realized that he was mimicking me, giving me back the strained and frustrated look that had come over my face as I tried to figure out what to say.
“Meet me downstairs in the lobby at 12:15,” he said. “Let’s do lunch.”
Lunch was at the Tunnel Inn, a divey place down the street that wasn’t known for its food or its ambiance, but it drew a large crowd during the middle of the day mostly because the service was fast.
Well it was fast as long as you knew what you were going to order.
“Whaddya want?” Frank asked, motioning toward the menu board on the wall behind the deli counter. I was about to reply when he continued, “See, this is why I prefer going out with a big hungry black woman. She knows what she wants, and she asks for it right away.
“White girl likes to take her time. Maybe this, maybe that. Tuna salad, though. It’s always gonna be tuna salad. You want me to just order you a tuna salad, so all these other people don’t have to wait.”
I was incensed. “I’ll have a meatball sub,” I said, knowing that I was ordering the fattiest, sloppiest thing on the menu. I didn’t have to eat it, after all. I just had to show Frank that he didn’t know what was going through my head.
“I’ll have some soup. You got some chicken noodle today?”
We waited in awkward silence while our orders were prepared, me staring down at the white linoleum, Frank gazing out the plate glass window at the traffic going by. Fortunately, the kitchen crew was fast, and we were soon at our table, facing each other across our respective meals.
“A funny thing about hot soup on a hot day—it actually cools you off,” Frank said to break the silence. “That’s something I learned a long time ago.”
Was that just a throwaway line? Or was Frank telling me that I needed to cool off. I looked down at the red sloppy sandwich on my plate and pictured it dripping down my blouse. I reached for a potato chip instead. It tasted like it came from the bottom of the bag, where it had been soaking up grease and burnt potato flavors.
OK, I decided, I will restrain my urge to get straight to the point and play along with this game. Just like with a source, I would do some small talk, play a little chat-’em-up.
“Thanks for getting lunch,” I started.
“Don’t mention it. It’s part of my job as internship coordinator.”
OK, I deserved that, I guess. I really shouldn’t have thrown that hissy fit in the newsroom.
“Well, Frank, I wanted to talk to you because I realized that we’ve gone almost all the way through the summer, and I haven’t had a chance….” Even as I was saying them, I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. I was about to come across as a female type I despise, the little coy one, the coquette who needs attention.
“…to ask you …” Maybe there was still a chance to turn this around.
And then I decided I would just blurt it out: “The thing of it is, Frank, is that I know what you are doing with the other interns. I know that you are meeting with them, helping them, giving them pointers and advice. It’s not fair. You are making me do this all on my own, while you are helping them succeed. It’s not fair.”
There, I had gotten it off my chest. I had let him know where I stood.
“What do you mean, ‘Go on’? That’s what I have to say.”
“I mean go on and tell me that I’m a racist, that I’m not playing fair with the white people.”
The conversation was definitely going in the wrong direction. I didn’t mean for this to be about race. I didn’t see it that way. I just wanted an equal shot, the same help that the other interns got.
“Look, Frank, that’s not what I am saying.”
“Sure sounds that way to me.”
“I really don’t think race should be a part of this at all. I don’t know why you even brought it up.”
Frank put his soup spoon down and looked at me. “So you don’t want race to be a part of this? Is that right?”
“No. Not now. Not ever.”
Frank leaned across the table and fixed me with his eyes. “That’s good. That’s something we can agree on.” His words made me think that maybe I could relax, but his tone made it clear that he was not yet done.
“But you know what?” he continued. “That’s a luxury that you can enjoy, and that your fellow interns cannot. Did you ever think of that? Did it ever occur to you that as soon as they walk into the Star’s newsroom each morning, race is a part of it. Race is a part of everything they do for that paper. You get to pick and choose when race is a part of it, or not a part of it. But for Neega and José and Lynn, race is not something they get to forget about.”
Frank was right, but I was not about to say so. “That’s not the point,” I countered. “I would appreciate it if I could get a little help, maybe a little advice, once in a while. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. All summer long, you haven’t even once given the slightest indication of what you think about my stuff.”
That wasn’t exactly true. Once or twice Frank had given me a high sign across the newsroom, or tossed a “good piece” about one of my stories out of the side of his mouth as he passed my desk. But I didn’t think those counted. He didn’t either, or maybe he didn’t remember.
“I think your stuff is fine.”
“Fine. That’s all?”
“Fine is fine,” Frank countered. “If you want to be better than fine, you need to do better than fine.”
I tried a different tack. “So what you’re saying is that if I were a minority, you would be willing to help me, but because I am only a white woman, I don’t deserve the help.”
“That’s not it. What I have been trying to say to you, trying to show you, is…,” Frank’s voice trailed off.
“How did you like it when I said you wanted a tuna sandwich because you were white?” he asked. Not waiting for me to answer, he continued, “Not very much, right? Well for your fellow interns, that’s what they get all day every day. People—sources, editors, other reporters—saying I know what’s inside you because of what I can see on the outside.
“And that gets to you, after a while. And as a result, I think they need a little extra boost—and that’s what I’m giving them.
“You? You need something different. Just think about what I said, Ms. Nick.”
With that, Frank excused himself. “Enjoy the rest of your lunch. I have an appointment.”
A Special Detail is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental and completely unintentional.