The East End Daily had been losing money every year for the last three years. Its staff had been downsized to a skeleton crew who all had to play multiple roles for the paper. This was no more evident than with the writers who had to edit, format, and provide photographs for their own pieces.
Four staff writers hung out in the break room. All but senior writer, Charles Connors, had a mug off coffee in hand. He was also the only one disengaged from the conversation, opting to sit alone at the table instead.
“I’ll tell ya what, I need to try to get in over at the Tribune,” said Dickson, a fresh-faced journalist out of Columbia University. “Starting salary over there is more than we top out at here.” His arms grew more animated as he spoke. “And they get way more action.”
“They also work more hours and travel like carnival workers,” Bernie responded, taking a long swig of his room temperature coffee before continuing. “And the traffic. Don’t even get me started on the traffic.” His portly belly jiggled up and down as he chuckled. He’d worked for the East End Daily since he was 28, which was almost 30 years ago. As a result of working the same job with the same routine for so long, he’d grown rather dull and found every little thing humorous.
Dickson looked almost insulted by Bernie’s dismissal. “Traffic? That just means there are things happening. People making moves. Stories to cover, goddammit!” He set his coffee mug on the counter with a hard thud, sloshing a few drops of the deep brown liquid on the floor.
“Now there’s no need to go and get excited,” Said Melvin, the oldest person working for the paper at 73-years-old. “You should be happy. You got it pretty good here.” He flashed an unnaturally white smile.
Dickson responded to the old man’s friendly smile with a serious scowl. “How do you figure?”
Melvin laughed. “You young guys are so full of piss and vinegar.” He walked over and took a seat next to Charlie, who had up to this point been minding his own business and reading over some notes for a piece he was working on. “You never worked at a big city paper, Dickson. It’s not all Law and Order crime drama and yakking it up with celebrities.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dickson leaned against the counter while Bernie took the other seat next to Charlie. “You really think writing about drunken bar fights is exciting news?”
Melvin shook his head. “Son, what’s your gripe here? You get steady hours, every other weekend off, and you rarely have to leave town to cover a story.”
“Yeah, and it’s boring. Nothing ever happens around here worth writing about.”
“You know, when you get older you’ll realize that boring is good,” Bernie said.
“And you should count yourself lucky you even have a job with the way this economy is,” Melvin added.
“Look, you guys might be happy covering antique car shows and horse races, but I want more. I want to cover stories people care about. Things that matter.” Dickson pulled the coffee pot off the burner and poured himself another mugful.
“You know who you sound like?” Melvin flashed another toothy grin. His dentures looked like they were fitted with piano keys. “You sound like the last guy who left this place to work for one of the big papers out there in New York City.”
Bernie and Melvin shared a knowing look. Charlie continued reading his notes without a care while Dickson looked at the three older men with a hint of annoyance on his face.
“And who was that?” Dickson immediately wanted to kick himself for continuing the conversation.
“He was a young guy, just like you. Started here, when was that? 25 years ago?” Melvin looked at Bernie who nodded in agreement. “He had worked at a few smaller papers before landing here. Back then this paper was really something. Staff of, 200?”
“150,” Bernie answered.
“Our numbers were through the roof. We even won some awards.” Melvin pointed through the glass window of the break room toward three tarnished trophies sitting on a shelf. “And, um. What was I talking about?”
“The last new guy who left here.” Bernie got up and poured himself another cup of coffee.
“Yeah. He was a hard worker. A little brash, like you,” Melvin said, pointing to Dickson with a grin. “But he did his job, and got damn good at it, too. Eventually, he outgrew the Daily. Wanted to sail for greater lands.”
“We were all a little brash back then,” Bernie injected as he sat back down.
Melvin winked at him and continued. “True. But we were all content with small town life. Most of us were born and raised here, except that new fellow who was originally from Chicago.” Melvin paused for a moment, searching for the right words. “I guess the likes of me and Bernie were more interested in settling down and raising a family. We didn’t have that wanderlust a lot of the youth these days seem to catch.”
“I’ve been to New York City once. When I was 27.” Bernie stared at the table with an absent gaze as if he were reminiscing on old times in his head. “Traffic was terrible.”
“Anyway,” Melvin ignored Bernie’s comments, “that young writer worked here for a few years. Then one day he up and left for New York. Barely gave the boss a two-weeks-notice.”
“And?” Dickson was unsatisfied with how the story was turning out.
Dickson gave a slight grin. More out of disbelief than anything. “What happened to him when he went to New York? Did he get a job for a big paper?”
Melvin and Bernie both chuckled. “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Melvin motioned his head toward Charlie.
Dickson furrowed his brows and tilted his head slightly. Charlie didn’t so much as glance up from his notes.
“Well,” Dickson stumbled over his words, “you get a job in New York, Charlie?” He felt awkward for asking.
The room grew silent for a minute, then Charlie spoke up with a simple, “Yeah.”
Melvin and Bernie stayed quiet, not bothering to help Dickson out of the hole he now found himself stuck in.
Dickson took a sip of his coffee and grimaced. He forgot to add more sugar. “The Times? New York Daily?” He paused to think for a second. “The Wall Street Journal?”
“Yup,” Charlie said dryly.
“Okay?” So you worked for—”
“All of them,” Charlie interrupted.
Dickson looked to Melvin and Bernie for help, but both old men just smiled. He didn’t know if he should ask more questions or let the conversation die. Then he thought of something clever to ask. Something to give him back control of the conversation. “If you worked for all these great publications, why the hell did you come back to this rinky-dink town.” Dickson was rather pleased with himself.
For the first time since their break had started, Charlie looked away from his notes. Emotionless, he stared right into Dickson’s eyes.
“The real world will eat you alive, kid. Not right away, of course. But over time.” Charlie looked down at his weathered hands. There were deep creases carved across his palms like dry riverbeds. “At some point,” he continued, looking back up at Dickson, “life will get to be too much. Happens to us all at some point. And when it does,” he paused, thinking it over. “When it all starts to weigh down on you, that’s when you’ll understand the importance of having a place to call home.”
Dickson finally walked over and sat in the open chair directly across from Charlie. “And this is your home? I thought you were from Chicago?”
Through Charlie’s glasses there was a longing in his eyes. That flicker of regret that accompanies old age.
“Home isn’t just a location.” He let the words linger in the air for a moment. “It’s a place where you feel you belong. A place where you can just be.”
Dickson heard Charlie’s words but he didn’t allow himself to listen to them. “So you wanted to come back and work for this cracker-jack publication because it felt like home?”
Charlie smiled a little. “No, I came back because it is home.”
“Man, I don’t know—”
A loud bell rang out, signifying it was time to get back to work. Charlie, Melvin, and Bernie all stood up and headed back to their desks. No one said a word, leaving Dickson to sit alone and think about what Charlie had said to him. But try as he might, he couldn’t understand why someone would give up a great, action-packed career to come back to this small town life. Though, something Charlie had said was bothering Dickson more than he would ever let on. “Home isn’t just a location. It’s a place where you feel you belong. A place where you can just be.”
Dickson got up and looked through the window at the office. It was quiet and everyone was hard at work. They all look so content, he thought to himself.
He walked over to the sink and dumped the rest of his coffee out. He rinsed the mug and set it in the strainer. Then he went back to his desk, and for the first time since he started, he thought only about the piece he was working on.
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