Sighing Marna reaches to unclip the microphone. “I hate shooting,” Burt says. Handles the camera and audio equipment with precision and dexterity. “I got no damn eye for it.” Flicks away his cigarette. Safely the microphone is packed into its little box. Weary Marna hands him the rest of the gear, which he loads into the van. Doors slam, before Burt wrestles the engine, while Marna looks into the small mirror on the sun visor. Chapped red is her face, whipped by the biting wind, with hair blown all over the place. Tucked into a corner of the visor there is a photograph of another reporter’s sons. About seven and nine years old, laughing and mock choke holding each other. “We’re gonna get nailed up the wazoo for this,“ Burt says.
“Only me.” Turns away starling out the window, saying, “You were only doing your job.” Against the afternoon traffic they race back to the small cable station pocketed in a remote corner of the city. Most people would not believe this gray-cinder block building houses Action TV: Local 24-Hour Cable News – this beloved pet project of an eccentric and ever wealthy real estate mogul.
In the fluorescent glaring hall the director of the early news broadcast waits. Startled Marna is to see Jef’s hair cut short and entirely one color. When she began working here he was infamous for his long, streaked locks, earning him the affectionate nicknames: “Bonjovi or the Jersey Wonder Kid.”
“Burt,” Jef says now. “Take your lunch. Smitty’s drunk and you have to fill in again. When you get back hit the control room.” With an understanding nod Burt departs, already reaching for his cigarettes, and scowling Jef turns to Marna with his Jersey shore accent growing stronger, “What the hell were you thinking? You would’ve had an exclusive. We could’ve pitched the network affiliates.” In his own rhythm, his body rattles away, “Christ you blew it. They might have picked you up. Used you as a local string reporter.”
“Stop talking fairy tales. What did Lucas say?”
“He said it was better than having dead air.” Glaring Jef checks his watch, “I don’t have time for this. Besides he wants to see you.”
“Who’s going live?”
“Courtney. She’s at the police station for whenever they decide to have this damn press conference.” Ready to run the stairs, he backs away, “Your producer from hell – Peter’s been driving me friggin’ insane all day.”
“Jef,” Marna slides down her bag from her shoulder. “This guy didn’t want to talk on camera. I promised him.”
“C’mon you know promises are no good.” Hears his sneakers pound up every step.
Minutes later Lucas their news director motions Marna to sit down. He isn’t only her supervisor, but Lucas is her Mr. Grant, both her boss and mentor. His office is orderly neat, with the tell tale bottle of scotch never in plain sight. Voice is deep and melodious with a fireside chat quality. “First walk me through what happened.”
“Fisherman sees toe in net.” Havoc of toxic green glowing words of the story slug was the headline straight off the AP wire, against the black screen of the computer terminal, and it still makes her gag a little. “No one at the assignment desk picked up the phone. So I did and this guy is saying how he’s a fisherman and he was out there on his boat. He said he saw them recovering the body. Something about how she was weighted down by diving weights – that were wrapped around her waist. At that point I finished the wire copy with no mention of foul play. So then I asked him if he’d talk to us but he said: ‘Only if it’s off camera.’ I told him to meet us because we were taking the van and we’d be up there in half an hour.”
“That’s it?” The news director wears this blatant – how could you be so stupid expression?
Attempts not to fidget. “I got his phone number. In case he didn’t show up.”
“Marna what good is one anonymous source?
“Well I tried to get him to go live. I told him he could come back to the station. I said we’d do the whole disguising his identity with the lights and sound to protect his privacy. But he wasn’t going for it and knew it in my gut that this guy saw something.”
Back in his chair Lucas leans, “Maybe but that’s not good video. Besides the cops were already pushing back their press conference to go after this lunatic. Everyone else had that story. You had nothing. Not even a talking head on tape.”
“Well Jef thought it was an exclusive. I know I should have pushed harder and got him on camera but there wasn’t enough time. Considering how the story was breaking I thought I did the right thing. He said she was bound up. Definitely meant a murder instead of that story about her getting hit with the sail and falling overboard.”
“Yeah we know. The cop said she was: ‘hog tied’ but you’re off this story now. It’s all Courtney and you’re on suspension until next week. Morris wanted to cut back on day reporters anyway so I’ll try to get him to put you back on the overnight.”
After her meeting, Marna is casual about entering the large, beige-gray walled room called the bullpen. One of the assignment editors Kyle is hanging out with a bunch of crew guys, watching a Cubs game over the satellite. Her first week on the job, Jef called to check on hooking up the satellite, “Hey what do you want to watch?” Immediately the television screen flicks by every local channel, before going national, and across the world.
Now in a rare state of relaxation Kyle’s collar is loose and his feet are up. Retains his blushing, beauty of mid-western youth, which despite the oxford shirts and perfectly knotted ties, makes him look about twelve years old. Pats the chair next to him, waving her over and Marna sinks down, while the game announcer screams: “It’s off the wall and back again!”
“How’d it go? I heard you were getting demoted.”
“Really?” A strange compulsion overwhelms and Marna giggles. “Well you heard wrong. I quit.” Abandoning her seat Marna ducks not to obstruct the view of the television. Back in her cubicle starts emptying the battered desk with its broken drawers. Surprised both at how long it takes her to pack and the amount of junk she has accumulated in these few months. A collective groan emits from the room in the bump from the game to the commercial break. Stretching the crew guys head out to the soda machine and Kyle makes his way over. “I gave him my two weeks notice and Lucas told me to forget it. Seriously I know Peter always had it in for me. He’s a producer I’ll never forget.”
“Don’t worry about Pete. He’s certifiable and I can’t believe you are really out of here? What’s it going to be like for me? Not having to say: ‘Christ if I have to talk to Marna one more time today?’” They shake hands. “Don’t worry you’ll get something else.”
“Yeah.” Marna lifts the heavy bag of her belongings, shuffling into the hall.
The control room door flings open before Jef steps out. “What’s this? No official good-bye? Peter the psycho-ward winning producer will be crushed.”
“Give me a break,” she says, before realizing Jef is kidding. “Hey aren’t you going live?”
The red on-air light glows. Frantic inside the control room, Burt marks the sparse, script pages, “We got two minutes left!”
“Hi ya there Marna,” Neil the technical director brushes by her. “All right kids. Let’s rock and roll.” At the center of the desk, the director’s chair is expectant empty and the monitors fill with studio anchors, plus shots of Courtney out on the harbor. Through the glass wall, the audio engineers James and Wayne briefly look up from their sound check routine, grinning over.
“Tell them about me quitting after you’ve wrapped this okay?”
“Sure,” Jef says. “I’ll tell them you left a woman of honor.”
“Well I did sort of set myself up.”
“Thirty seconds!” A panicked scream from Burt interrupts. “Roll tape to record.”
“And we have speed,” Neil says in a half turn, beckoning Jef with a calm wave.
“Go over to Falstaff’s. I’ll meet you there. Promise I’ll buy you a drink.” Walks over to his chair sliding on the earphones, “A really big drink.”
The door inches to a close. Burt says, “Ten. Nine. Eight –” To herself laughing, Marna walks on, pausing only to shock Peter, her former producer with a firm farewell kiss on the cheek.