Saturday, August 13, 2011

Loyalty--TCE 32

Well damned if I didn't have a *moment* and forget to save early when I began writing this week's TCE story. As you can guess, that pretty much ensured my computer would lock up, which it did, and so I lost the original version of this story, and now that I've rewritten/finished it, it doesn't quite...match...what I was aiming for earlier, and the ending is off as well. Oh well; I'm sure you can see where I was heading.

 I didn't stick super close to the prompt on this one, but I tried! (The first version was better; too bad I don't have a photographic memory.)

Here was the prompt: "Any moment now, he's going to press the button. Are the cameras rolling?"

And now, the story:


The large manila envelope for that month’s school board meeting sat on the desk in front of Jim, no thicker or thinner than usual. He’d covered the meeting in person; now Mr. Ira Stravinsky sat before him on the other side of the metal desk. Jim liked metal desks. They were clean-lined, cool to the touch. Mr. Stravinsky looked like the kind of man who liked metal desks too. Functional. Stravinsky kept laying his hands in different places on his thighs. Jim leaned back in his chair, took a deep drag on his cigarette, thought better, and offered Stravinksy one.
The man nodded, took a cigarette, lit it. Inhaled deeply.
“So, Ira—can I call you Ira? Great. ” Jim said. “Any of it true?”
“Any of what true, Mr. Samson?”
“Please, call me Jim. What I meant was, are any of the allegations true?”
“What allegations, Mr.—Jim?”
Jim frowned around his smoke.
“Why, the allegations that led to your firing?”
“I…I don’t think I understand. There were no allegations” Now Mr. Stravinsky frowned.

"No allegations?"

"No sir. Jim."
“Why don’t I start in another place? Good. Alright. In what year were you hired for the position of Athletics Director at Compton County R1 school district?” The tape recorder made a ticking sound between them. Jim hoped it wasn’t fouling up the transcript; he’d need everything perfect for the story to run on Thursday.
“I was hired in June of 1951, Jim.”  The frown was gone now from Ira’s face, clear deep lines showed as he dragged deeply on the smoke after his response.
“And were your political affiliations brought to forefront at any point of contractual negotiations, Ira?”
“No sir. Jim. Not at that time.”
“Not at that time?” Jim made a quick note on his paper pad. “At what time, then, were your political affiliations questioned?”
“My own affiliations were never specifically questioned, not openly, that I know of. But … during the winter break of this year; rather, two days before the break began—”
“That would have been December 17, 1952... A Wednesday, right Ira?”
“Yes,” Mr. Stravinsky replied,  “That’s right. That Wednesday, I went into the lounge, after the final bell; we usually have a fresh pot of coffee about that time... and … there was quite a, a stir, you could say, going around the room. And I went over to the table where everyone was gathered, and saw — was informed — that we were all being required to sign a loyalty agreement. There was a stack of them on the table there, of those loyalty agreements.”
“Loyalty to whom?”
“Loyalty to our school district and to our country.”
“And you … you declined? You didn’t sign it?”
“No! I mean,” Mr. Stravinsky leaned forward, stabbed out the cigarette in the ash tray. “I signed it. We all signed it! I am a good American, Jim. I was born and raised in America. Not here — Iowa. But I am now, and have always been, and will remain a good American.”
“Forgive me, Ira. What then, I wonder, was the issue which led to your dismissal?”
Mr. Stravinsky sighed, moved his hands back to his thighs.
“My father — he was Russian poet; he came over with his parents when he was only 12, but still he was considered a Russian poet. He passed away in 1944. God rest his soul. Or perhaps … perhaps my wife. My wife, she teaches piano from our home, you know this.  When she was a young girl — 14 — she went to Chicago to study music. Her teacher, we found out, had a sister who moved way out to California, and attended some meetings there, for a while. I only know because … well … because I asked her if she had any …” Mr. Stravinsky looked in his lap, where his hands once more spread across his thighs, “any, ahem, red friends. She got on the phone straight away. The way we figure, it must be because of one of those two.”
“You mean to say that formal allegations were never made?”  Jim ran a hand over his head.

“Well, not rightly. I don’t believe so. I attended the board meeting, as did you, and was there for all of open session. During closed session, they simply informed me I would no longer be working for Compton County school districts, because I had violated the loyalty agreement.”
“And then?” Jim almost reached for another couple of cigarettes, but didn’t.
“And then I returned home. That Friday I was arrested and held for two days here in the county jail.”
“And to whom did you speak, while you were … incarcerated?”
“I—” Mr. Stravinsky hesitated. “I’d rather not say, Mr. Samson.”
Hmm. Jim noted the return to last names.  The interview continued. Between the two of them, they went through two pots of coffee and three packs of cigarettes. By the time Ira left, the front of his slacks were damp from how many times he’d wiped his sweating hands across the fabric. Jim was pretty sure he looked rumpled, too.


Jim stared at the layout before him; the Stravinsky story fit in perfectly next to the garden party story, right on the front page. Garden party; as if that were really news. He snorted.
“You really think we should run that, Jim?” Vernon Edwards—the man with the plan, the man behind Edwards Publishing—stood behind his right shoulder, dragging on his soggy cigar. “Awfully risky, given the climate. We’re good Midwestern folks; we don’t need stories of subversion on the front page.”
Jim tried to glance over his shoulder without moving his head. Edwards’ profile showed no particular emotion.
“Oh, I don’t know, Vernon. Seems like a pretty good story to me. Important issues at stake here. Plus, look — it fits perfectly. Who else can say that, this close to deadline?”
Vernon leaned over the layout, then stretched, glanced at the clock above them. 11:02 p.m.
“Gah,” he blustered around his cigar. “I think I need a drink. Run the damn thing, and we’ll just pray for mercy.”


Everyone was on time for the staff meeting, for once; nobody skittered around the edges of the pit for ash trays or note pads.  Nobody quite looked at each other, either. Vernon sat, placed a fresh cigar firmly between his teeth, snapped open the week’s newspaper.
“Well,” he said. Seventeen other newspapers snapped open in response. Still, nobody looked at one another. Someone coughed.
“Well,” he said again. “Good issue, folks.” The moment following softened.  A few glances skirted the room.  “Terry, nice job on the adverts. Particularly the half page on B2. They willing to run a weekly?” Everyone rushed to open the B section. Anything to keep away from A1.
“Monthly,” Terry said.
“See if you can up them to every other week,” Vernon said. Terry marked on his note pad. A few more glances skirted the room. “Ahh, hell,” Vernon said, snapping the paper closed. “Glenda, bring me a scotch, please,” he called to the front desk. Glenda bobbed her head around the pit wall and then darted off to Vernon’s office. 
“Awful early, don’t you think, Vernon?”
“Shut up, Jim.” Vernon looked around the circle of reporters and salesmen for a moment or two, then dropped the newspaper on the floor, grabbed his briefcase, opened it on his lap and pulled out a stack of papers. “Here,” he said, handing them to Jim as Glenda pressed the scotch glass into his waiting palm, “take one and pass it down.  Ahem. Ahh, hell, folks. You all know what this is. You all know. You know what we’re being asked to sign. Now, “he said, draining half the scotch in one motion, “I want you each to think very carefully. Think of your spouses, your siblings, your parents, your neighbors — if you’ve borrowed a cup of sugar from someone who’s on a newsletter list, now is the time to remember.”
One by one, seventeen heads dropped to the papers before them. A loyalty agreement. Jim looked up.
“But Vernon, what—”
“Don’t even try, Jim. That stunt we pulled with the Stravinsky story — it attracted some attention. Too much attention.  There’s no way around it. We have to prove ourselves now.”
“We have to prove ourselves what?” Terry looked shrewdly over the edge of the neat white pages.
“You know,”  Vernon waved his free hand through the air, “that we aren’t … a threat. Dissenters. Communists. Fornicators. Unamerican, card-carrying, yellow-bellied, whathaveyous.” A few titters.
“Mr. Edwards,” Glenda said from behind him, her voice almost a whisper, “we can’t all possibly guarantee that any of us haven’t had … contact … with someone who’s attended meetings or, or, had pamphlets or whatnot. We can’t possibly be for sure of something like that. It’s … it’s a death sentence for the paper, for us to sign that! If…” and here she rushed it, “if any one of us has, oh I don’t know, say, a Great Aunt Thea with communist sympathies back in Finland, and we don’t know it, and then we sign that paper and somebody finds out, then, well, then we get fired. Right? Right, Mr. Edwards?”
Vernon said nothing. For a few breaths, nobody did.
“Anyone got a light?” Terry asked. Vernon tossed his over. The light of the flame bounced off Terry’s face as it settled onto the cigarette. All the quiet faces had now shifted to Terry; Terry quit smoking five years before. “ I, ahh …” he coughed a bit on the smoke, “back when I was a teenager, I went to some meetings. Nothing big really, just when I was out visiting my cousins in Indianapolis. But, ahhh …” he drifted off. Terry had worked at the paper for 16 years, moving up from running the prints over, all the way to lead sales. “I’m really sorry, Vernon.”
The silence in the pit grew.
“Well,” Jim said, trying to keep the desperation from his voice. “We’ve served solid years with you, Terry. At least we don’t have to sign this ridiculous thing.”  And they didn’t, Jim knew just as all the rest of them did, because if Terry had attended meetings twenty years before, and they had worked side by side together, then they were all implicated. A small business like Edwards Publishing couldn’t fight this.
“What will we do?”
“I don’t know, Glenda,” Vernon said. “I don’t know. I  suppose … I suppose we’ll get out a few more issues before they shut us down.  Don’t bother signing anything. We’ll … we’ll think of something. The news never stops.”


Jim stood alone in the Channel 23 news room. Well, not completely alone; plenty of people rushed about him, shouting directions, mumbling transcripts, waving papers and cue cards at other people rushing about. But none came anywhere near him; the stench of traitorousness and unemployment rolled off him Jim in waves.  The producers had wanted Stravinsky himself to go on the air, but he had declined, citing his wife’s health. Jim knew better. The Stravinsky’s were moving, to where … he didn’t know. So the producers had settled on Jim.
Larry, the man with whom he’d been in contact most of the time, had paraded Jim about the room two hours before so he’d know where everything was, pointing out buttons and cameras and ash trays. But now Jim waited, not knowing if there was a way out of the hole he’d dug.
Voices began calling out orders to the anchor, and a set of unknown hands propelled Jim by the shoulders into a seat in an adjoining false-room thing lined with cameras. Someone called for quiet, papers shuffled, the countdown began. Seven minutes tricked by; the first segment closed. Commercial break was called. Jim was sweating; those damn bright lights everywhere made him feel sickly. Perhaps he would need an ash tray.  By the time he had a smoke lit, the anchor, Sam Robbins, sat before him on another chair, sifting through notes in his lap.
“Now,” Robbins said, all business, “take some deep breaths. Look that’a’way, to camera two. That’s right. Stay focused either on me, or on that camera.  See, when he makes that motion,” and the shadowy man moved, “that means it’s your go. Okay. Got it?”  Robbins snapped the papers, scooted a standing ash tray closer to Jim. In the garish lights the brass looked positively orange.  For some reason that struck him as funny. Quiet was called for again. Count down began.
“Camera rolling?” he mouthed to the shadowy camera man, who must have responded, because the next second, Robbins was all smile lines and teeth, introducing his guest.
Jim swallowed, smashed out his cigarette.  As Robbins turned to Jim, Jim felt his palms wipe down his thighs; Robbins introduced the segment, and then with a flash of teeth, turned to Jim.
“So Jim — can I call you Jim?” Jim nodded numbly. “Wonderful.  Any of it true?”
The words chased themselves in Jim’s head.
“Any of what true, Mr. Robbins? ” he asked.
“Please, call me Sam. What I meant to ask, was if you could clarify for our audience whether or not any of the allegations made against you, your coworkers, your sources, or the company for which you worked, were true?”
Jim looked through the glare down to camera two.
“There were no allegations.”
“No sir, Sam,” Jim said.
The interview began in earnest.


  1. I really liked this one; I liked the way you characterized Vernon, and Stravinsky's dialogue, and the way it all came full circle at the end...yeah. Nicely done.

  2. Thanks Michael! Glad you liked it. *wrinkles nose* I'm not very happy with it, lol-- I got so mad that I hadn't saved the first one I literally banged this one into the keyboard (imagine stiff, angry fingers, ha!--no, really) and copy-paste-and-post-ed before getting it ironed out at all. Typical me... I'm looking forward to the next installment of the Caitlin Chronicles!