Ken couldn’t wait for his 50th birthday.
Maybe that’s because he enjoyed it so much the first time.
There was no doubt Ken had passed his 50th birthday. When we installed the new computer system we had to put everyone’s birthday in the database along with their passwords and titles and all that. Since it was a new system, we were very serious about making sure all the data was correct. Later we found out the only reason the birthday was in there was so that the machine could send a greeting every time the user signed on on his birthday.
We might not have been so diligent if we’d known that was all it was. But diligent we were. We went around to all of the reporters and classified clerks and everyone else who would have a logon ID. Then we pulled out the official list of employee information. More like pulling teeth. All we needed was a list of birthdays. But the boss was very secretive for a newspaperman. If he’d really been one, instead of an ad salesman who’d gotten above his raising. But that’s another story.
The list said Ken was born in 1935. That put him right at 60. We also had a bootleg list of registered voters in the newsroom. He was 60 on that list as well. I would have guessed 55. But I wouldn’t have cared — if he hadn’t made an issue of it.
Ken kept himself in pretty good shape, mostly by golfing when he should have been running the newsroom. That was one reason we couldn’t guess by looking how old he was. Another reason was that he didn’t give away much by talking about himself. One time he’d refer to his more than 30 years of experience in the news business, another time he’d make it 25. Either way it brought to mind Confucius’ warning to beware the man who claims 20 years experience when all he really has is one year of experience repeated 20 times.
Another reason we couldn’t guess his age was that his hair color never gave him away. Or perhaps I should say colors. One day his hair was the color of burnished copper. Another day he’d come in as a strawberry blond. Generally the change would come on a Monday. He’d show up looking a little sheepish and avoid looking at anyone for a while. Eventually he’d start talking to people again, and as soon as he was out of the newsroom — by around 5:30, just when the real work began — we’d start talking about his latest hue. There was some discussion about where some of the colors might be found on the periodic table of the elements: rare earths or heavy metals.
Someone pointed out that you could generally tell on Monday whether he’d done his hair on Saturday or Sunday. If the latter, his fingertips and nails would still be stained with the dye when he returned to work.
Then his 50th birthday approached. Again.
First he divorced his wife. We all assumed he’d been working at that for awhile. It just happened to come about that time. Then he got the red sports car with the vanity plate that said UNATCHD, which we assumed meant “unattached.”
Then he and Dale formed the singles group.
They pitched it as a community service, and Ken ordered the lifestyles editor to put a listing in the community calendar, and stuck in a little ad. If he’d shown any other signs of community service that hadn’t doubled as self-aggrandizement, we might have given him the benefit of the doubt. But we all assumed he formed the singles group as a way to meet babes.
No fool like an old fool, and all that.
Next he decided, apparently, that what he needed to go with his new single lifestyle was a savage tan. Only he decided he could get it the same way he got his youthful hair color. Maybe he even used the same bottle.
Word soon got around. Some of the women talked about using that stuff on their legs when they were teenagers so they wouldn’t have to wear hose. Men talked about the fact that he did as poor a job on his skin as he did on his hair. And everybody talked about the fact that Ken was turning orange.
We’re not talking about tan here, or even burnt umber. We’re talking about a deep and eerie orange. The color of brand new basketballs and traffic cones. Tangerines.
Which might have almost passed for real on a person a little younger or one a little more cautious. But Ken had the bits of wrinkles and crows’ feet and all that that come with age. And he was no cosmologist. Most of him was orange. But the crows’ feet, and the wrinkles between his eyes, and the hatched network on his elbows — those all turned black. And he apparently didn’t spare his hands when he applied the QT: His palms were orange, too.
If his personality hadn’t made it impossible, you could almost have felt sorry for him. His wife and his youngest daughter had gone back to Tennessee after the divorce, and his other two children lived in Atlanta, and there was just no one around to tell him he was orange. But he was the kind of boss who’d write up a reporter for misspelling a name and then misspell the reporter’s name in the memo. He’d change the facts in a lead and claim it was the reporter’s fault for not making it clear. Nobody felt much sympathy for him about anything. And no one told him he was turning orange.
Although Gus would have been glad to. He told everyone else. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Ken made one more concession to turning 60. He had his driver’s license changed to say he was 50.
He showed it to Dale, a newcomer to the newsroom, who mentioned it to me. And I could picture Ken in the Department of Motor vehicles, laughing sheepishly, saying look at the mistake someone had made years ago and he’d never noticed, and the clerk looking at the cranky lunchtime line behind him and deciding not to argue.
I thought of DC comics deciding to rewrite all their stories, especially the origins of Batman and Superman, because it was hard to explain away even a superhero who hadn’t aged in 50 years. Of course there were at least two differences between Ken and Superman: Clark Kent was a real newspaperman and his hair was a more realistic color.
To give Ken the benefit of the doubt: He might have actually been 50, and he might have lied when he originally came to town, in order to make himself appear more mature and managerial. Regardless, he’d lied one time or the other. Which was something you could usually say any time he talked about something twice.
Gus didn’t understand about the change in age. Gus had just turned six and couldn’t understand how anyone would lie about being older. Gus wanted to be older.
But Gus could understand about turning orange. Not in any deep and philosophical way, although he was a wise child, but rather it was something he could picture. He had once commented that he didn’t like Ken because Ken looked yellow and laughed like a horse.
He could picture Ken turning orange. He could picture it well enough that he laughed himself to near hysteria. And then, I assumed, forgot about it.
Until the night he and his mother were sitting in the car in front of the newspaper building chatting with me. Every time someone walked into the building Gus would call out, “Hey. Are you Orange Ken?”
Luckily for my job prospects, none of them was. Most of them chuckled appreciatively. The sports editor glared. And Jeremy looked thoughtful. I could tell he had put the moniker on his hard drive for later retrieval.
Jeremy was the best writer I ever worked with. Part of his talent was born with him, and part of it came from his Mennonite upbringing, which shielded him somewhat from the sin of pride. Jeremy never became extremely full of himself, the downfall of most good newspaper writers, and he could never quite admit that he had written one of the best sentences ever constructed in the English language.
Jeremy gave that distinction to the title sentence from Norman MacLean’s “A River Runs Through It.” You could look it up. But to understand MacLean’s sentence, you had to read the whole novella. That’s no burden, mind you, but Jeremy’s best, on the other hand, stood alone. He was covering a cattle drive near Bridgewater. Really. Someone had sold a farm but not the cows and had to move them somewhere else. I shouldn’t have sent Jeremy to cover anything involving cows at that point in his career. He had just been peed on by a calf during a stint as a celebrity clown at a rodeo and he was still bitter about it. His acrimony showed in his sentence summing up the cattle drive:
“A cattle drive is a triumph of intellect and will power over creatures who, if intellect and will power were objects, would eat them or step on them or both, not necessarily in that order.”
I read that sentence three times, pretended that I as an editor had had something to do with its creation, and decided I could now leave journalism as a whole man.
Jeremy really hated cows.
His Mennonite heritage, however, would not allow him to hate Ken, who, if will power and intellect were objects, would step on them or attempt to hit them with a golf club. Jeremy did, however, like everyone else, show a marked distaste for the man, and laughed at him with the rest of us. Jeremy loved to laugh. He loved to do funny things. Like the time he arranged a story about an anti-abortion march so that the first letters of the paragraphs, taken in order, spelled out the phrase, “Freedom to choose.”
Late-night editing reduced it to “Freedom t chos,” but once he told me about it – six weeks later – I could never relax with one of his stories again. I read them backwards. I read them forwards. I ran them through cryptography programs to be sure a story on a cancer benefit wasn’t an anagram for “Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays.”
Because I knew he would take his opportunities where he could get them. I knew that he might stick a line in a story about a spelling bee saying everything in the story was spelled right because, “My spell-checker tolled me sew.”
But I took a chance. I had him cover the spelling bee anyway.
Actually, all he was doing was taking the National Spelling Bee story off the wire every day, calling a local participant for quotes, and rewriting the thing with a local angle. Naturally he broke a few rules. He used mock seriousness to mock the seriousness of the bee, and he commented on how difficult it was to get through to the kid because of the calls from reporters the kid had to take.
But Jeremy made the kid look good and spelled everything right, and we kept the story out front for two days as the suspense mounted.
On the third day the kid bombed out in the final round. We still wrapped our story around his experience, but we waited for the final write-through on the wire story before Jeremy began his story.
I had alerted the wire editor to let me know when the spelling bee story showed up. About 8 o’clock he called me over to his desk. As I walked across the newsroom I noticed that the wire editor bore the look of a stunned trout, and I wondered if the president had died or something, and if Ken would still want the spelling bee story out front.
The wire editor didn’t say a word. He pointed to the story on his screen. I didn’t say anything either. I walked away from the wire desk wondering if I looked like a stunned trout.
I told Jeremy to call up the wire story and he did. I read it over his shoulder. It still said the same thing. It said the winning word in the National Spelling Bee was “xanthosis.” We couldn’t find the word in the dictionary, but the Associated Press assured us the word meant “a yellow discoloration of the skin.”
I looked at Jeremy. He was still looking at his screen. He looked like a stunned trout. The story still said the same thing. I went back to my desk. I knew I could trust Jeremy to do the right thing, although I didn’t have the slightest idea what that might be.
I thought I was disappointed when I finally read the story. It began with, “Orthographically speaking, (local kid) wasn’t the best speller. Realistically, he had a lot to be proud of.”
I looked up “orthographically.” It had something to do with spelling. Beyond that, the story was a rather pedestrian pass at the subject. There was not the slightest double entendre or irony in the paragraph describing the winning word.
I read it again and it was still slightly pedestrian. It wasn’t Jeremy’s best work. But there he was beside my desk, asking me to please not change a word unless I absolutely had to. This from Jeremy, who had seen some of his best stuff rewritten mercilessly without so much as a peep. And he hovered over my desk, wanting to know if I changed a single comma.
It took me a minute to catch on. I looked at the O beginning the first sentence. I looked at the R beginning the second one. I knew the third sentence would begin with an A.
I ran a spell check on the story. I didn’t read it again. I didn’t have to.
Last Revised: 02.10.03 Publisher: Joseph Gus Fitzgerald