With his interview coming to a close, S. Grady Barrett and his girlfriend have a week to decide whether or not they will make the move to New Mexico if the job is offered.
Author’s Note: This is the fifth part of a six-part story written from memory, and as memory is an unreliable source, I cannot say this story is entirely true, nor that it’s completely false. As a result, people’s names, the name of the newspaper and the town in which the newspaper is located do not appear in this story. Nor should they.
Part 1: “Hope in the Form of an Email Arrives” can be found here.
Part 2: “Head West?” can be found here.
Part 3: “Jesus is Watching You Masturbate” can be found here.
Part 4: “The Weather Makes the News” can be found here.
5: PEOPLE DON’T CARE ABOUT THEIR COMMUNITY
The next morning, when leaving for the office, a stack of newspapers was in the hotel lobby. I picked one up and proceeded to read whatever had been published as I drank coffee and ate the scrambled eggs that I scraped out of the buffet bucket. Both of my stories were on the front page of the local section, with the snow story at the top of the page:
Like a bad house guest, Old Man Winter simply doesn’t know when to leave…
Aren’t I special? I thought, as I headed out the door with a bounce in my step.
After I arrived at the office, the managing editor handed me an assignment to write a feature about the county’s volunteer fire department. She also told me that she had already set up and interview with a local volunteer fire chief later that morning.
In the meantime, I called the county fire chief and asked him a few questions. Afterward, he gave me the names of other chiefs at different county stations. Like the day before, the time passed quickly and I found myself frantically printing out directions to the local volunteer fire station then jogging out to the car without a clear idea of where I was headed.
Big city arrogance kept me from believing that I couldn’t find the fire station. This is a small town, I thought, It’ll be easy. But it took more than a little while to find, as it was located off the highway with no clear address posted. Even if an address were posted, it wouldn’t have been easy to see whizzing down the country highway at 70 miles per hour.
A few passes up and down the country highway helped me pinpoint where it was, and even when I pulled into a large lot—this has to be it, this has to be it—I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place or not. A man mulled around the parking lot, so I asked him if this was the fire station. He said yes, it was. Relieved that I was in the right place, I grabbed my bag, a notepad and a pen and a pencil, and looked around for a second, even though I was a few minutes late. I realized why I had so easily missed the location: it looked like an abandoned lot due to a large, concrete shell of a building that stood prominently on the property.
The man in the parking lot had disappeared into a small building with aluminum siding and a corrugated metal roof, which I took to be the actual fire station. When I walked in, five people were sitting at a long fold-out table, kind of hanging out and talking, like they were waiting for someone.
I introduced myself to the group and said I was from the newspaper.
“So you’re the reporter,” said a large, pot-bellied fellow with a mustache. He introduced himself as the station chief, the man to whom I had spoken on the phone. “Come on in. Sit down,” he said in a not entirely friendly tone.
Although I’d written a bunch of articles for several different publications, I’d never gotten to walk into a room and introduce myself as a real, live newspaper reporter. I wasn’t one, yet. I knew that. But still, it was great fun.
Each person introduced himself, as I sat down and took out my recorder. At the sight of it, every person in the room seemed to stiffen up. “Do you mind if I record our conversation? It’s so I can take accurate notes,” I said.
Everyone looked at the station chief. “Sure,” he said. “Go ahead.”
The questions didn’t take long. After I finished, the station chief and a few other fellas offered to walk me around outside, to show me their training equipment and to explain how, exactly, they trained to fight fires. I was a little anxious to get back to the newsroom, so I could work on the story, maybe make a few more phone calls. But then, I thought, Buy a ticket. Take the ride. I’ll only write this story once.
It turns out the empty concrete building out in the parking lot was where they did their maneuvers. Someone would set something on fire in the building, like a mattress or a metal oil drum stuffed with flammable products, and the fire fighters would snake through the building to put it out. The walls were made of cinder block and as we walked through the building, I noticed the burn marks that showed where the training exercises had happened.
The department was almost entirely men, so I asked them if they ever goofed around at all, if part of being in the volunteer fire department was socializing. At first, they tried to convince me that they were a very serious outfit and goofing off was strictly prohibited. After a while, though, the guys loosened up and admitted to hazing the new guys a little and drinking beer in the fire house. But it was nothing that was too horrible or strange.
When we were done going through the training building, we stood in a lopsided circle out in the parking lot and the guys told me about the history of the county’s volunteer firefighters. At one time, the local high school had a feeder program into the volunteer fire department, and some of the guys I interviewed had been a part of that program. No one could remember when the program stopped, exactly, but the last few guys to participate in it had become men, gotten married and had families.
I felt like I had all the information they would give me, and the photographer had taken all the pictures he could take, so I thanked everybody, shook everyone’s hand, and got back in the car. I used the time during the drive back to think about how I was going to write the story, maybe get a rough idea of what the lede might be. This story is going to be fine, just fine, I thought.
When I got back to the newsroom, I had an interview left to do with woman who was the fire chief at another station, so I made the call. She didn’t answer. I left a message and hung up the phone wondering if she forgot that we were supposed to speak. While I waited for her to call me back, I went through my notes, organized them then starting writing the story.
The woman called me back a short while later. She said she worked awfully hard as a volunteer for 17 years and wouldn’t be doing it anymore after that year. She said her husband was also a volunteer and so was her son, so she felt the place would be in good hands.
She complained that the square area that their department had to cover alone was simply too big and the volunteers were too few, so sometimes a fire swallowed whatever was in its path before they even got there. “People don’t have the community pride they used to have,” she concluded.
I hung up the phone thinking that I got more useful information from her in 15 minutes than I got from the other guys in more than an hour. I started writing the feature. By mid-afternoon, I was done with it, but I needled around with a few sentences and checked my facts and changed a few paragraphs around. I struggled to put the part about the high school feeder program into the article, but no one to whom I spoke had any information about it, including the county chief. As the story took shape, I didn’t see a place for it.
When I felt like I couldn’t do anymore, that I was simply killing time, I printed out the story and gave it to the managing editor. She glanced at it and told me to wait around. She wanted to talk to me before I left. After I slouched in the chair at my desk for several minutes, she asked me to come into her office.
I remember thinking that maybe I’d messed something up with the feature piece. Perhaps someone had called to say that I was a rude city slicker who had no business covering the fine people of this New Mexico community. “So,” she said, as I sat in a chair across from her desk. “What’d you think?”
“Everyone was really nice,” I said. “I really enjoyed doing the feature. I think it turned out well.”
“No,” she said. “What’d you think about the newspaper, the area?”
“I like it. You know, it’s a good opportunity and I suppose if don’t get the job, at least I have a few more clips, right?”
She smiled. “Do you think you could live here?”
“Sure,” I said. “I think so. I’d like to talk to my girlfriend about it, though.”
“Well,” said the managing editor. “Do you think she’d like it here?”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “It looks like she could find something to do out here. We’d both have to work, you know. She may have some concerns that I can answer now that I’ve been here.”
“It’s not that bad living here. There are some pretty cool areas to live. Were you planning on living here, in town?”
“We weren’t sure.”
“How long do you think you need before you can move down here?”
“I really have to discuss it with my girlfriend. But I think three weeks should be enough.”
“What do you need to discuss?”
“It’s more a matter of making the final decision,” I said. “She said she’d move down here. I told her I wanted to move down here. But we agreed to make the final decision together, after the interview, when I get home.”
“OK,” said the managing editor. “That seems fair.”
We talked a little more about the paper and the work I did for the past two days. She said she was impressed by the feature piece and that she could tell I had listened to her comments from the day before. We shook hands. “Another person is coming in tomorrow for an interview, just like you did,” she said. “After that, we’ll make a decision. You should hear something in about a week.”
I asked if I should say goodbye to the editor, but she said he was already gone for the day, so I went back to my desk and started packing up my belongings. I said goodbye to the guy who sat next to me and the two reporters with whom I had a drink the night before.
Relieved to be done, I strolled out the door and across that ugly parking lot for the last time, and drove slowly back to the hotel to get my things before heading to the airport in Albuquerque. On the way out of town, I stopped at the same gas station as when I arrived two days earlier.
As the fuel pump ticked out the amount owed and the soft rush of gasoline flowed into the tank, I looked out over the highway and stared at that Jesus billboard again, the one right above the adult video store. I shook my head again and chuckled at the sight of it.
I got home late that night. I’d barely made my flight and, yes, a crying baby was hidden somewhere between the rows of the cabin. As soon as I walked through the door, R. asked all sorts of questions about the town, what it looked like and how everything went. I tried not to lie to her. I told her that living there might be difficult, and it wouldn’t be financially easy if we both went down there to live. I repeated what the managing editor told me, that there were some cool areas to live and good, interesting people who lived in those areas.
She asked what I thought. “If I get the job, I have to take it,” I said as if the statement were a mantra.
She asked when I’d know if I got the job. “About a week,” I said. “They’re interviewing someone else starting tomorrow.”
“OK,” said R. “We have a week. Then we’ll know.”
—Photo by DafneCholet/Flickr