Thursday, March 24, 2016

‘The Seventh Suggestion’ -- a flirty newsroom story

Author Harry M. Zubkoff
In earlier posts on this blog, weve seen some of Harrys fictional stories, long saved and never published. The story I posted last week is a little different -- its an advice article that offers 10 tips for submitting ads to a newspaper -- and it complements the fiction below. 

To set the mood ... imagine its 1962. You’re relaxing with a fresh cup of coffee and a magazine story hot-off-the-press. 

Saturday, June 20
She placed her bag on the chest-high counter that separated the editorial office from the small reception area and took a deep breath in an effort to stay calm. Her eyes took in the jumble of envelopes and crumpled papers strewn on the floor before settling on the battered desk and its occupant.

He was sitting, head down, deeply engrossed in reading something, obviously unaware of her presence.

“Excuse me,” she said. No reaction. She raised her voice and repeated, “Excuse me,” so loudly that she startled herself. Now settle down, she told herself sternly, watch your temper. Then he raised his eyes, the bluest pair of eyes she had ever seen.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

The eyes shocked her. Electric blue, she mused, remembering what the women had told her. Now I know what they mean, she thought, staring at the eyes, almost hypnotized. A girl could get lost in those eyes.

“Can I help you?” he repeated.

She felt the color rising to her cheeks at her thoughts.

“Are you the editor,” she said abruptly, “Mr. Palmer?”

“That’s me.”

“That is I,” she corrected automatically. The eyes continued to regard her, but the question in them was replaced by speculation.

“I’m a teacher,” she added, uncertain how to proceed and uncomfortably aware of the disconcerting effect of his eyes.

“I never would have suspected,” he said dryly.

“Mr. Palmer,” she felt her temper rising again, “I'd like to know why you won't give the PTA any publicity about our Independence Day activities. It's only two weeks away and you haven't run a word about it in the Overview.”

“Oh, that,” he nodded thoughtfully. “Well, I’ve been waiting for someone to send me some information on it. Are you by any chance in charge of publicity for it, Miss ... ?”

“Armstead,” she replied shortly. “It’s Mrs. Armstead. Yes, I am.”

“Well, Mrs. Armstead, did you expect me to write your publicity for you?” He was an infuriating man, she decided.

“Mr. Palmer,” her eyes flashed ominously but her voice was dangerously quiet, “I personally delivered a story here. And,” with increasing force, “in time to meet last week’s deadline, too.” His eyes seemed to be boring holes in her. “And stop looking at me like that,” she ordered.

“Well, I never saw it,” he snapped, startled by the sudden vehemence. “When did you bring it and who did you give it to?”

“I brought it by on Wednesday night,” she replied. “There was nobody here, so I dropped it through the mail slot in your door.”

He looked pointedly at the stacks of papers on his desk and on the floor around it. “Maybe it’s still here,” he suggested. “Would you recognize it?”

With a withering look, she came through the swing-door at the end of the counter and started sorting the papers on his desk. The smell of freshly brewed coffee came from a pot burbling away on a hot-plate in the corner, and she saw, out of the corner of her eyes, that he had poured himself a cup.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” he asked.

“Eureka,” she exclaimed, waving an envelope in the air. “Yes, I would like some,” She handed him the story and took the proffered cup. After the first sip she made a face.

“What you need around here,” she said, “is someone to take care of the mail and make you some decent coffee.”

“All offers cheerfully accepted,” his smile was almost boyish.

“Now that you have the story,” she continued, “can we expect some publicity in next Thursday’s paper?” Her anger was gone, disarmed by his smile.

“I don’t know. I’ll have to look at it first. Meanwhile, did I hear you offer to help out?”

“Well, if it’s bribery you’re after,” her own smile was infectious, “okay.” She looked around. “I’ll clean up a little.”

“Then it’s a deal,” abruptly he turned away. “I’ll be in the back in case anyone wants me,” he said over his shoulder before he disappeared through the doorway into the printing plant.

She looked after him, puzzled, searching for a clue to his abrupt withdrawal, then shrugged resignedly as she felt the wedding band on her finger. Through the Venetian blinds she could see the town’s Main Street outside. It was 9:30 and the stores would not open until 10:00; the street would not fill up with traffic and shoppers until noon or later. It’s a good time to work, she reflected as she began sorting the mail. Through the open door she heard the chatter of the wire service teletypes spitting out yellow sheets of news stories, punctuated by occasional bursts of clatter from a typewriter. It was almost two hours before he came out, holding a sheaf of freshly typed papers. She was seated at his desk, lost in thought. The office was swept and tidy, with a small stack of papers on one corner of the desk and a somewhat larger stack next to it. The coffee pot glistened and the aroma of fresh coffee was enticing. He went over and poured a cup. The movement startled her.

When he faced her she laid a hand on the smaller stack of papers. “These,” she said, “you’ll want to do something about. These,” moving her hand to the larger stack, “you may want to look at. The rest I threw out.”

He looked at her, but said nothing. After a moment she went on. “You certainly get a lot of nonsense in the mail, don’t you?”

Her faint smile didn’t quite come off.

“Yes.” This time, the silence lasted longer.

“What’s your first name?” she asked suddenly.

“Perry,” he answered.

“Perry,” she tried it. “Is that short for something? Percival?”

“Pericles,” he said, and in answer to her upraised eyebrows, “my father was a Greek scholar.”

This time her smile was genuine, though it faded when he spoke. “Isn’t there someone waiting for you?” he asked quietly. “A husband, maybe?”

She drew a deep breath, dropped her eyes, and exhaled slowly. Then she raised her eyes to his. “I’m a widow, Perry,” she said simply. “My husband died four years ago.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said automatically. He glanced at her hand, motionless on the stack of papers, and at her ring. Her eyes followed his.

“I know I should take it off,” she said, “and one of these days I will. It’s just that – I don’t know – it didn’t seem to matter …”

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Elizabeth. Most of my friends call me Liz.”

“Liz,” he rolled it around his tongue. “I’m not sure,” he grinned, “if it fits you, exactly. What else do they call you?”

“Well,” she admitted, “my maiden name is Deering, and when I was a little girl, the kids used to call me Deedee.”

“That’s not bad,” he approved. “In fact, I like it. Deedee it is, Dee for short. Okay?”

“Okay,” she smiled, eyes aglow.

“Now then,” he continued, “how would you like to work for me?”

“Me?” she looked surprised. “Doing what?”

“Oh,” he spread his hands, “just about everything, I guess. Running the office, keeping the books, billing the advertisers, taking care of correspondence, screening the mail, and so forth. Sort of a gal Friday.”

“But I have a job. I’m a teacher.”

“Well, school’s over, isn’t it? You’re on summer vacation, aren’t you?” Before she could answer, he glanced at his watch. “Look, I haven’t had breakfast this morning. Would you like to join me for some ham and eggs, or something?”

She hesitated only a second. “Well, maybe a donut.”

“Come on.” He took her elbow as she rose and led her out.

* * *

She came in Monday morning, cleaned the office, made coffee, sorted the mail and even typed some stories, which he had edited, before passing them to Old Art, who operated the linotype machine. She also met the four full-time and dozen part-time reporters and advertising salesmen who gathered the news and discussed slants, angles, treatments and facts with Perry. The problems connected with the publication of a weekly newspaper in a city of 30,000 were a revelation to her.

The first thing she noted was the enormous amount of editing Perry did. The material submitted by the reporters was ruthlessly trimmed, but the material which came in unsolicited, the dozens of stories about local events turned in by publicity chairmen of all kinds of organizations had to be rewritten completely to meet Perry’s high standards. The national and international news pouring off the teletypes received similar treatment. After the first two days she regarded Perry with something akin to awe, admiring the facility with which he wrote and the deft sureness of his editing.

* * *

Wednesday, June 24
On Wednesday he took her to lunch for the third consecutive day. “This is your third day,” he said while they were eating. “Have you learned anything?”

“Oh, yes,” she smiled. “I’ve learned that putting out a paper is a lot of work.”

“And what else?”

“Well, that there are a lot of people on your back trying to get free publicity for their favorite causes.”

“And what else?”

“You know,” she said, “I’ve been toying with an idea. Why don’t you run an article someday advising all those – us – publicity chairmen, on how to go about getting their organizations publicized in the paper?”

“They don’t need any encouragement,” he said wryly, and then, noting her crestfallen expression, went on slowly. “Now, don’t get me wrong. I happen to be a great believer in local organizations. Next to the churches and the schools, community organizations are the greatest force for good in our society. As a matter of fact, I believe that our success as a democracy in this country is due, in large part, to our ability to get things done through community organizations at the local level, with people acting voluntarily.” Her eyes widened as he warmed up to the subject. “What’s more,” he went on, “every one of the 10,000-odd weekly newspapers in America depends to a great extent on the news which these groups generate, and I’m aware that our readers want to see this news in the paper.” He broke off suddenly. “Hey, do I sound like I’m writing an editorial?”

“Maybe a little, but go on, I’m fascinated. If you believe all this, why is it so hard to get our news in the paper?”

“Well,” he shrugged, “you have to understand some of our problems. One of our troubles is that we don’t have unlimited space, you know, so we have to be pretty selective. Every week I have to make some decisions on what to leave out as well as on what to print, and those decisions often depend on what kind of material I get from publicity chairmen.”

“I know, so wouldn’t it be a big help to you if their stories came in neatly typed instead of scribbled on old envelopes?”

“Say,” he said, “that’s a wonderful idea. I’m glad I thought of it.” They both laughed. “Why don’t you try writing it?” he added.

“Oh, I couldn’t.”

“Sure you could. At least, you could work up a draft and maybe I could add some ideas and polish it up a little.”

“Well, okay,” she agreed, reluctantly, “I’ll try.”

* * *

When the paper came out the following afternoon, there was a huge front-page spread on the Independence Day plans, describing all the events that would take place, from the parade in the morning to the picnic in the afternoon to the fireworks in the early evening and the dance afterwards. The combined PTA organization, which was sponsoring the daylong festivities, was mentioned prominently, and the Independence Day Publicity Chairman, Elizabeth Deering Armstead, was quoted liberally.

* * *

Wednesday, July 1
Mrs. Marcia Rockingham thrust her impressive bosom forward and rapped the gavel peremptorily. “Ladies,” she announced, “the meeting will come to order. As you know, this will be the last meeting before the 4th of July. Now let’s review everything tonight and make sure that nothing goes wrong.” When the buzz of assent died away, she continued. “I want to pay a special compliment to Liz Armstead for the excellent publicity we’ve received in the Overview. I don’t know what her secret is, or how she did it, but she must have hypnotized that good-looking Perry Palmer, or something, because we never got such good treatment in the paper before.”

“Hear, hear,” someone shouted.

“Would you like to comment, Liz?” asked Mrs. Rockingham.

She rose, slightly embarrassed, but noting the genuine interest in the faces around her, went forward. “There really is no secret,” she explained. “I just went to work for Mr. Palmer, and I’ve sort of been learning about the newspaper business. As a matter of fact,” she added, “I’ve written an article, which I think will be published tomorrow, telling the publicity chairmen of other organizations how to get more of their publicity into the paper.”

“Wonderful,” several of them exclaimed.

“Tell me,” someone said, “is that Palmer as nice as he looks? Is he a wolf or is he a sheep? Have you got him eating out of your hand?”

“Girls, please,” she held up her hand to quiet the hubbub. “Mr. Palmer is a hardworking, competent, charming man,” she said, “and as for me hypnotizing him, I’m afraid it’s the other way around.” She resumed her seat, aware of the thoughtful, appraising looks following her.

* * *

She had left the finished article on his desk just before she went home at six o’clock, but he saved it till after he had read and edited all the other copy. Then he looked it over carefully, surprised and pleased by the way she had handled the material. Embodied in the article was a list of six suggestions on how to get publicity into the paper:

  1. Type stories double-space, using only one side of each sheet of paper, and leave out all adjectives.
  2. Learn the difference between news and advertising. Then buy advertising space for ads, and put only news in the stories you want published free.
  3. Stress the unusual aspects of your story to distinguish them from the normal facts of who, what, where and why. Put in some background, which the editor may or may not use, but which may just wind up in a good feature.
  4. The deadline for news is the latest possible time for stories to be accepted – but the earlier the better. Stories turned in a week ahead or even a day ahead of the deadline are more likely to be used.
  5. Give the newspaper follow-up stories after the publicized event; frequently, the follow-up report is more newsworthy than the prior publicity.
  6. Turn-about is fair play, so publicize the newspaper at your meetings and affairs, and invite the paper to all affairs you want it to publicize.

Reading over the list, he smiled at the memories the suggestions evoked. If heeded, they would certainly make his job easier. He put a heading on it and marked it for a 2-column box on the editorial page, and put her byline on it. Then, hesitantly, he scrawled an editor’s note at the bottom with his blue editor’s pencil:

      7. “If none of these work, try marrying the editor!” and signed his initials, P.P. He placed it neatly on her typewriter, where she would see it in the morning.

But she did not go to the office that Thursday. Her statement at the meeting the night before had brought her face-to-face with a stunning fact. She was in love with him. It had happened so quickly, and so insidiously, that she was not fully aware of it, nor fully prepared for it. She needed time to think.

He missed her, but it was publishing day, and in the weekly mad scramble to get the paper out he forgot about the article. One of the regular reporters saw it on her typewriter, noted that it had been edited and marked for print, and passed it along to linotype. Old Art, who had seen everything, shrugged as he knocked it out on the linotype. The proofreader duly corrected errors in the copy without regard for meaning or sense, and the press-man put the forms on, concerned only with space, position, and fit. So it was not until Thursday evening, after the paper had been printed and the circulation boys were well started on their delivery routes, that Perry finally saw it in black and white. He tried at once to call her, but no one answered phone.

* * * 

Saturday, July 4
She looked at herself in the mirror and noted the new sparkle in her eyes. Then, thoughtfully, she removed the wedding band from her finger and placed it gently in her jewel box. For a heart-clutching moment she felt an infinite sense of loss; and then, her quickening pulse reflected a growing sense of anticipation.

The day’s activities went off without a hitch, from the parade in the morning, through the carnival atmosphere in the afternoon, to the fireworks at the lake-shore in the evening. Now, culminating the successful day, the high-school auditorium had an overflow crowd at the dance and, with a reporter and a photographer covering the affair, Perry was there to enjoy himself.

* * *

There was a roll of drums, the crowd gradually hushed as Mrs. Rockingham majestically approached the bandstand and paused at the microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” her rich voice filled the huge auditorium, “on behalf of the combined PTA organizations of Overton, I want to welcome all of you to this affair, which climaxes the most marvelous Fourth of July we ever had.” The applause was thunderous, but after a moment, she raised her hand and continued. “I want to thank everyone who participated in making today’s activities so successful. The list of names is simply too long to mention, but all of them will be in the newspaper next Thursday. I do want to make special mention though,” she paused and looked around, “ ... in accordance with the list of suggestions which we all read in the Overview,” there was a roar of approval, “of the newspaper, which gave us such wonderful publicity and which did so much to make this day so successful.” This time the applause almost raised the ceiling and it took repeated rolls of the drums to quiet the crowd. “And now,” she finally resumed, “in honor of Liz Armstead and Perry Palmer, who are the beneficiaries of the seventh suggestion,” another mighty roar of approval, “we dedicate the next dance to them.”

The laughter and applause drowned out the first few bars of music as he made his way toward the bandstand. He saw her near the microphone, her shapely figure accentuated by her evening gown, deep in conversation with several women. They fell silent when he approached.

“Good evening, ladies,” he said.

“Good evening, Mr. Palmer,” they chorused.

“Hello, Deedee,” he said.

“Hello, Perry.”

“I want to explain …” he started and hesitated.

“Yes?” softly.

“… about that article,” he continued. “What I mean is …”

“Dear, dear,” said Mrs. Rockingham, “our editor is speechless.”

He managed a smile. “What I mean,” he repeated firmly, “is that I love you, DeeDee. Will you marry me?”

She smiled radiantly. “Shall we dance?” she raised her arms and he came into them. It was a perfect Fourth of July.


Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman  

1 comment: