Short stories

Jeremiah Peach Makes His Deadline

Here’s a short story I wrote in the spring of 2020 about the editor of a small-town newspaper whose recent cancer diagnosis causes him to re-think his definition of “news.” Someday, I hope to write a longer work about Jeremiah and the staff of The Weekly Whisperer. In the meantime, enjoy!

Jerry

Jeremiah Madison Peach was not in the habit of considering the plight of the fat black flies that accumulated against his office windows on sunny afternoons, but he was in a contemplative mood these days. There were three tapping against the glass today, painstakingly surveying its surface millimeter by millimeter for some passage to a more expansive world of wind and dust and light. Just outside the window, the wind wove the ash trees’ branches into an ever-changing quilt of shadow and light, and the mid-afternoon sun flashed off the glass and chrome of the cars passing slowly in the road. The larger world pressed its face against the windowpane, and yet, as far as the flies were concerned, they may as well have been trying to escape into a painting. If they had only bothered to look down at the windowsill, where the shriveled corpses of their predecessors lay, they might have realized the hopelessness of their quest. Might have, if they had the faculties to reflect on their situation, and to feel hope. Instead, they buzzed against the glass like little wind-up toys, driven by some primal instinct to seek the light above all else.

Jeremiah contemplated all this while reclined at a dangerous angle in his ancient green office chair. A glance at the wall clock revealed that he had wasted a full seven minutes on this spectacle. He stretched and rubbed his eyes. Time flies, he thought; ha ha. These catatonic reveries had become a habit with him in the past several days. He would be doing something mundane, like buttering toast, and his consciousness would evaporate; minutes later, he would find himself still holding the butter knife, along with a cold piece of bread, as his mind lost itself in some small, precious detail of the world. The shining pink surface of a porcelain bathroom tile. His hairbrush. The ragged line that treetops make against the sky, like the outline of a green coastline in a blue sea.

Jeremiah grabbed a copy of Wednesday’s paper and rolled it up, thinking to put the little buggers out of their misery. Once again he scowled at the front page. He had just returned from two days at the Mayo Clinic, an unpleasant series of tests and consultations culminating in his own personal breaking news (“World to end within six months”). In his absence, he’d left Dot in charge of editorial. The resulting edition was, in his opinion, a low-water mark in the twenty-three-year history of the Weekly Whisperer. He took some satisfaction in the thought that this stain of ignominy would be the last thing his buzzy little acquaintances would see before departing for whatever heaven God might have seen fit to provide for their kind.

He smacked the window with enough force to make it rattle, but his target skittered away. He aimed and smacked again; another miss, but he found it strangely satisfying to be hitting something. Adrenaline-fueled strength flowed into his arm as he launched a fusillade of blows—not so much at the flies, now, as at the stupidity of the paper’s front page, and the cruel, teasing world on the other side of the glass.

Jeremiah swiveled in his chair to regard the flies. Why had he wanted to kill them? To put them out of their misery? No, he realized; it was all about revenge.

Dot poked her head into the sunny office. “Why don’t I just get the bug spray?”

“No,” Jeremiah said, taking a half-hearted swipe at two of the flies huddled in an upper corner of the window. “That stuff smells horrible, and it’s toxic.” Actually, the main reason he hated using bug spray was he couldn’t stand the death throes of its victims—that noisy buzzing they made as their chitinous clockwork unwound and ground to a halt.

“This kind is pine-scented.” Dot offered.

“Well, that’s more humane.” Jeremiah threw the newspaper onto his desk and put his hands on his hips, slightly out of breath. “If I were a housefly and I had to suffocate, I’d definitely want to do it in a pine forest, not the editorial office of a third-rate small-town newspaper.”

Dot stepped into the office, folding her arms across her chest. “Is that your passive-aggressive way of telling me you’re upset about Wednesday’s edition?”

“Ah! Wednesday’s edition,” Jeremiah exclaimed, brightening as he picked it up from the desk and unfolded it with a dramatic flourish. “Let’s see, what’s front-page news in Prairie Island, Minnesota, this week? Ah, here’s an item: ‘Cat mourned by owner, neighbors.’ Apparently pet obituaries are front page news in this town.”

Dot arched an eyebrow.

Jeremiah looked down and read from the article. “’Mittens, a black-and-white cat of unknown pedigree, passed from this world into eternal beatitude’—eternal beatitude! Nice turn of phrase there—’last Thursday; he is survived by his owner, Gretchen Wojciechowski, age 83, who buried the feline in her backyard in a service attended by numerous friends, neighbors, and twelve other neighborhood cats. Cake and punch were served after the interment.’

“Hmm. And on the jump page“ –Jeremiah snapped the paper open—“we have several bad photos of the cat, along with numerous humorous anecdotes about the deceased feline, including—ah, this is wonderful—an incident in which he escaped from his pet carrier inside the cabin of a 747 on a flight from Panama to Miami.”

There was a long pause as Jeremiah lowered the paper to pierce Dot with what he hoped to be an icy gaze of principled indignation. Dot parried with an annoyed expression of detached aloofness—a formidable move, considering she had honed it over fifteen years of teaching high school history and social studies.

“Gretchen is a neighbor and a dear friend,” she explained mildly, lifting her chin a little. “The cat was well-liked in the neighborhood for its many amusing antics. And everyone loves pet stories.”

She had him there, Jeremiah realized. Everyone did love pet stories.

He returned to the front page. “And here’s the spring flood forecast, ripped straight from the Army Corp’s press release, completely unadorned by reportorial initiative.”

“It floods every spring, Jeremiah, like clockwork. The Army Corps is forecasting a peak river stage here of fourteen feet, which is barely worth a yawn. What more would you have said?”

Jeremiah didn’t lift his eyes from the front page, but he waved his free hand around as he began pacing the room.

“Then we’ve got Stacey’s photo of crocuses in the snow, which, really, why don’t we just save her the trouble and run the same one every year? Who would notice?

“And right across the top is our banner headline: ’Thirty-eight Dakota Indians hung in Mankato: Largest mass execution in U.S. history.’” He stopped pacing in order to hold the story in front of his chest. His bushy white eyebrows leapt halfway up his forehead as his eyes boggled at Dot in an accusing way.

“You have to admit, that’s big news,” Dot said.

“Yes, in 1862!” Jeremiah shouted. He threw the paper up in exasperation and dropped into his chair, which emitted a surprised squeal. “One hundred and thirty years later, not so much.”

“Jeremiah, having taught high school history for a few years in this town, I can assure you that it will come as news to the vast majority of your readers. Plus, there’s an anniversary tie-in.”

“Dot, you’re not trying to get me to fire you again, are you?” Jeremiah asked. He rested his head against the palms of his hands.

“In a matter of speaking, I am,” Dot said. “I’d love to be ‘fired’ from any further reporting responsibilities. I’m more than happy to answer the phones, make photocopies, pay bills, sort mail, make coffee, take dictation, shovel the sidewalk, sub for twelve-year-old paper carriers who quit without notice, mail out clippings, return people’s photographs, change ink in the printer, order newsprint, deal with that stupid payroll software—“

Jeremiah waved a hand in surrender. “All right, all right.”

“I’m not done,” Dot exclaimed, pointing a finger at him. “I’m happy, believe me, to unclog the toilet, clean the microwave, type classified ads, delete spam, chase Stacey’s boyfriend out of the dark room, feed the cat, deposit checks at the bank, run to the post office, harass clueless vendors, call delinquent advertisers to request that they pay up—in a diplomatic way, of course—and sit on the phone with cranky, nut-job political activists and conspiracy theorists and religious fanatics who are ticked off that their letter to the editor was cut to two hundred and fifty words and who seem to think that if they could only persuade me of their position, you’d print their magnum opus in its entirety.”

“I—“ Jeremiah began.

“Still not done! I don’t mind dealing with the occasional death threat—those are always a welcome distraction, especially mid-afternoon, although I do wish for once we’d get a death threat over something that I cared about, like the abominable quality of the prose in Peter Palewski’s ‘Packers Perspectives’ column, if only to provide an excuse for canning it. Nor will you ever hear me complain about typing up the many handwritten submissions for the Poet’s Corner. Not even for that Gwyn Leftse-Monroe woman, the one who insists that her name not be capitalized and whose handwriting would have taken no less a figure than Jean-François Champollion a week to decipher. And Jeremiah, if you ever have any angry parents, teachers, elected officials, advertisers, or community organizers who get ticked off over the coverage or lack of coverage of their little corner of the world, do send them to me, because I know just how to soothe and sweet-talk them, because that’s the sort of very nice person I am.”

She took a deep breath and planted her hands on the desk, leaning into the amazed expression on Jeremiah’s face. At a little over six feet and two hundred fifty pounds, he had been trying to “slim down” for many years; he would have been impressed with just how small he looked under Dot’s baleful gaze.

“Any of these responsibilities, and more,” she continued, “might reasonably or quasi-reasonably be interpreted as part of the duties implied by the title ‘administrative assistant.’ But I don’t seem to recall any inquiry into my journalistic qualifications when I was hired, and asking me to maintain my regular responsibilities while also providing editorial copy to your very high standards while you traipse off to Rochester to go fishing with your brother for a couple days is opprobrious in the extreme. Why, if you don’t fire me from reporting responsibilities, I will happily quit.”

In the deafening silence that followed, Jeremiah noted that the flies had resumed their frantic search for a way out of the room. He sympathized. Ostensibly, Dorothy Bonner was his employee; in fact, she was his very first employee, hired in the first year of the Whisperer, back when the enterprise’s situation closely resembled that of the ducklings who attempted to cross Broadway every spring on their way to the lake (and whose plight had been featured in many front-page photos). Over the years, she had acquired such a vast storehouse of specialized knowledge about the paper’s day-to-day operations as to render her practically irreplaceable. That, along with her apparent willingness to walk out the door, made her in reality more of a partner than an employee. Every so often, she suspended her normally temperate disposition to remind Jeremiah of this fact with the fierceness of a sudden summer squall.

Jeremiah sighed. “Stacey has a boyfriend?”

“I don’t know whether she would call him that,” Dot replied, as calm as before her tirade, “but she was making out with a young man in the darkroom on Tuesday. I walked in on them, which is why you have crocuses on the front cover of yesterday’s edition.”

It took Jeremiah a moment to process that. “Oh.”

“Now, do you want me to bring the pine-scented bug spray or not?”

Jeremiah swiveled in his chair to regard the flies. Why had he wanted to kill them? To put them out of their misery? No, he realized; it was all about revenge. Ah, now we’ve put our finger on it, he thought. Sweet revenge on God, or the universe—which one didn’t matter much, although in his gut he felt it would be better if the flies belonged to God, who might actually notice and give a damn, whereas the universe would grind on, utterly oblivious to three random blips of self-organized matter suddenly succumbing to the inevitable forces of entropy. At least you could kick God in the shins for making you die before you got to hold your first grandchild. Not that Jeremiah had ever been able to believe in God the way he could believe in physics and quantum mechanics. He was sympathetic to those who could, though, which is why he had always attended church with his wife. He liked the singing, and listening to the Bible readings. Now those were honest people, when you got down to it, those people in the Bible. Abraham and Isaac, Sarah and Rebekah. Plain-spoken and direct; you might not like what they had to say, but you sure knew where you stood. Sarah, for instance—what a pistol, ordering everyone around, thinking she could manipulate God, laughing in the face of angels. She was mean, too, the way she beat her slave girl. You didn’t hear much about that in Bible study. No one raised a hand to question the sanity of a God who would choose such a woman to be the matriarch of all his people.

It kind of took the wind out of his sails, as far as killing the flies to spite God went. Compared to what those Old Testament types got up to, swatting three flies seemed pretty thin.

“Boss?”

Jeremiah started. “Huh?”

“Do you want me to get the bug spray…or not?”

Jeremiah waved a hand in the air. “Ah. Live and let live, right?”

 “Uh huh. If you say so.” She regarded him closely. “Are you all right? You’ve been kind of spacey ever since you got back from your trip.”

Another dismissive hand wave—but then his face came alive, as if he’d had one of his famous flashes of inspiration. “Can I ask you a question?”

“You just did, but shoot.”

“Have you ever thought we’re covering the wrong stories?”

“Are we back on Wednesday’s edition again?”

“No, no—I mean, what if we’re covering trees and missing the forest? Week after week, we run the police blotter, we cover school board meetings, we do a good neighbor profile—”

“Don’t forget pet funerals.”

“—we chronicle the mundanity of daily life in a small Midwestern town. But we never bring it all together, Dot. It’s like we have all these ingredients sitting out on the counter, but we never get around to putting them in the same dish and baking them at three-fifty for forty-five minutes to see what comes out of the oven at the end.”

“Now you’re describing my husband’s casserole. And what comes out of the oven at the end you don’t want to taste.”

Jeremiah thrust a finger at the flies trapped in the window, half-rising from his chair in his enthusiasm. “What’s the meaning of a housefly, Dot? Say there’s no God. No God whatsoever. Even so, shouldn’t the common housefly pretty much strike us dumb with wonderment? Some star exploded somewhere around here a few billion years ago, and if the only thing that came out of that star dust were just one of those flies—just one, mind you, not all three, not the whole damn green world and me and you, wouldn’t that make you a little more than curious? Wouldn’t it make you ask what the hell is going on around here?”

In the ten seconds of silence that ensued, the flies renewed their efforts with a sudden burst of energy. Perhaps they had been inspired.

Dot was giving him the look she reserved for advertisers who submitted their copy five minutes after the noon Tuesday deadline. “You know I was just headed out the door for the day, right? I just thought I’d stop by and see if you wanted some bug spray. But Jeremiah, I have gotten so much more out of this little diversion than I ever expected. I’m going to go home now, but I promise to lay awake in bed tonight pondering all that, and I’ll get back to you in the morning.”

After she had left, Jeremiah tried to plow his way through the stack of mail that had accumulated on his desk while he had been gone. So much mail—and he hadn’t even checked his e-mail. Whose bright idea was that, electronic mail? Seemed like it just made more work without much benefit. Unless you needed an ED remedy. He didn’t like the direction this whole Internet thing was taking. Not that he’d be around to see it play out.

The flies were a continual distraction. Their buzzing seemed to merge with the buzzing of his brain, his consciousness working in the background, tap, tap, tapping against the glass, trying to find a way through to the light.

He had a sudden inspiration. Jumping up from his chair, he hurried down two flights of stairs to the basement, passing several darkened offices and Paul Sommes, the copy editor, who had fallen asleep at his desk. In Stacey’s office, he grabbed one of her spare SLRs and rummaged around to find a decent 50mm lens and a 12m macro extension tube, as well as a roll of 100 ISO film. So equipped, he marched back upstairs, taking the first flight of stairs two at a time as if he were late for an appointment.

He had worried that the sun would shift and the flies would disappear to some other part of the building—into the casing of the fluorescent lights, perhaps—but they were still there. Dropping to his knees, he crept up on them as stealthily as if he were stalking snow leopards in the Himalayas.

It was a technically tricky shot made all the more complicated by the fact that the damn things wouldn’t stop moving around, but he bided his time, making each shot count. It took him forty-five minutes to shoot the whole roll. When he was done, he was sweating profusely from the exertion, and the sun was just beginning to fall below the roofline of the buildings across the street. But he was completely confident that at least one of the shots would work out. He set the camera down on his desk and collapsed into his chair, elated.

In his mind’s eye, he could see the headline in next Wednesday’s edition: “Why, then, the fly?” And below the headline, twenty-five taut column inches of copy in which he would invite his readers to consider whether the common housefly was not merely a pest, but also an emissary, like the angels of the Old Testament—God poking us into wakefulness any way he can. Jeremiah would not propose answers, but would end by asking—no, begging—his readers to supply the rest of the story: What did such a thing as a fly mean?

He laughed, imagining the expression on Dot’s face. She would think the ink fumes had finally poisoned his brain. His readers, too, would arch their eyebrows. He would become an object of ridicule. He might lose advertisers over it. But what the hell good was it to be a journalist if you didn’t report the news of the world as you found it? What kind of journalist would you be if you sat on the story of a lifetime—or, worse, buried it in the B section?

Well, he was about to find out. He would write the story tonight, after supper, and he’d come in early the next morning to develop the roll he’d shot. He could imagine the image of the fly slowly emerging from the white fog of the photo paper: the shimmering ovals of the wings, the symmetrical barrel of the body, the protuberant goggle-eyes with their three-hundred-sixty-degree vision of the world. And, in the background, blurry and indistinct, the beckoning light of the world beyond the glass.

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