It’s an impressive catalog, really, the chief said. And if times were different, believe me.
He trailed off. I knew it was hopeless. It was the third newsroom I’d visited that day, just the first time I was allowed past reception. Nobody was hiring, nobody needed a writer.
The Web’s changed everything, he said. Looking at these clips, you’re a good writer. Very good, in fact. But that’s all you are, son. Nowadays you’ve got to be more.
You know if anyone in the area might be looking for a writer? I asked.
No, I’m afraid not. Not around here. I’ve got a colleague up in Chicago. A former colleague, I mean. He’s trying to start something up, looking for freelancers.
What’s the content?
I don’t know. You’ll have to talk to him.
The chief thumbed through his wallet and pulled out a business card and handed it across the desk.
Could you, you know, maybe put in a word?
The chief just looked at me.
I’m getting pretty desperate here, chief.
He leaned back in his chair and said, I’ll see what I can do.
I thanked him and left and got a cheap room near the bus station. I slept all through the evening, through the drunken shouts and animated coitus and drug abuse taunting me through the walls, I slept through the honky-tonk clamor and the engines roaring in the avenue below. At midnight I woke feeling refreshed and wrote a few pages in my notebook and then showered and walked back over to the bus station to buy a one-way seat to Chicago.
When I wasn’t sleeping on the bus I was meditating on the disarray of my life. I pulled the notebook out of my bag and took up where I’d left off back in the room in Nashville, deliberately revisiting the past year, reconstructing the mistakes, all the wrong turns, trying to figure out where to go next. I went all the way back to the layoff and my trip to Las Vegas when I was on the precipice of destruction, then onto the nightmare in California and Colorado’s magnificent relapse, all the way up to today, chasing down the night to Chicago, running after ghosts of opportunities that probably weren’t even half-real, seeking divine providence or luck or a balancing of the scales, so to speak, because I had no idea what I would do if it didn’t work out in the windy city, I didn’t know what I’d become, running and fleeing and chasing specters as I was. But then maybe it wasn’t so much a question of what I’d become as what I’d always been, only now I was completely unmasked, exposed, free of facade or other agents of deception that I’d learned to cloak about myself. What was I looking for? What would I find?
I faded in and out of sleep, toward and away from varied episodes of depression, exasperation, longing, desperation, self-loathing, loss of identity, fear, grief, regret, and I also would have experienced some degree of shame, had I not pretended that the dark landscape slipping past the window concealed my pained reflection from the rest of that cold and indifferent world I happened to love with a savage bitterness. The self-critical web I’d spun had caught me at the junction of its thickest strands and I remained stuck there for over seven hours on the approach to Chicago.
Nine other people spread themselves out equidistantly throughout the bus and so it was only natural that I also began to wonder about them. What were they chasing? What would they find? What spoiled plans or delusional dreams had they carried with them on this veiled midnight run from Nashville to Illinois? The sun was just about up at the horizon painting its range of promise and I finally nodded off, sleeping more soundly in those final thirty minutes into Chicago than I can remember.
I called the number on the business card from a payphone in the terminal. Maybe we could schedule a brief meeting, said the man on the other end of the line. Would just before lunch work for you?
That’s perfect, I told him. I’ll be right over.
I hailed a cab and the driver was a burly red-haired guy full of Cubs talk and crude jokes. I humored him for the duration of my ride and then tipped him generously. Standing on the sidewalk near the epicenter of Chicago my thoughts navigated once again to time travel, to which way I’d migrated to get to this precise point, which direction did time actually travel, did it travel backward and forward or up and down, or was it more of a wave rather than a straight line, and then out of nowhere I experienced a brief but very powerful episode of déjà vu. I shrugged it off and walked into the building and up to the office where a young man greeted me with a handshake in a room that appeared to be under construction.
Look, we gotta make this fast, he said. I’m having some kind of god-awful crisis with the server.
His desk was a dusty chunk of plywood spread over the top of two empty beer kegs.
Have you got any clips with you, or is everything Online?
I have a few, I said, and pulled from the bag two printouts from my last major daily and a printout from the weekly I’d helped start up in San Francisco. He looked it all over in silence and my eyes wandered about his office, the clutter of books and paper, the dirty floor, the bare walls. I wondered how long it would be before he started sleeping there, if he hadn’t yet.
I see you’ve got some experience with science writing, he said.
So here’s the thing, he said, handing the papers back to me. I’ve got myself and another full-time writer on board, plus a freelancer, and then maybe you. I won’t be able to pay you anything until the money starts coming in. But by then, hopefully, subscriptions will be upward to where we could at least sign you on full-time.
Basically, we’re all taking a leap of fucking faith here. But you’ve been in the game for long enough. You know how it is.
He motioned to the papers in my hand.
You seem to be a pretty good writer.
So what do you say?
He looked around his office, which must have seemed to him at that moment to be some kind of farce. In a flash he imagined what he would have thought if he was in my shoes and what he thought was that he would probably laugh, he would lean back, cackling mad at the ceiling right before he walked out.
I’m in, I said.
Good, he said, rifling through some papers on his desk. First assignment is, there’s a guy out in Aurora, you know where that is?
It’s about an hour east of here, suburbs. There’s a guy out there been calling up radio shows, telling them he’s building a time machine.
I swallowed hard.
He’s been calling universities, asking if he can borrow their equipment, stuff like that. One of our guys called him up and he said he’d talk to us.
I tried to act natural. I felt flushed and feverish.
I haven’t done any background on it but I’ll bet he’s got a record. Probably currently unemployed. Shit like that. Lives with his mother. May not be a story there, but you’d be the guy to write it if there was.
I smiled and said, You got it.
He gave me the address and phone number and said, How about three days. What is today? Tuesday? How about Saturday at noon?
Just use the e-mail on the business card, he said, and stood to leave.
Can I ask you a question, I said.
You want an advance.
Well, no, I said. But I could sure as hell use one.
Here’s a hundred, he said. I can get you more this weekend.
Thanks, I said, and put the money in my pocket. But that’s not what I was going to ask you.
So what is it?
Are we a magazine or a newspaper? Or is it a strictly Online thing?
He sighed, closed his eyes.
A daily or a weekly or what are we?
Well, he said, and chuckled. We’re still working on all that.
He clapped me on the back and said, Right now we’re nothing, brother. But we’re gonna try to be everything.
Do we even have a name? I asked, standing in the hallway.
Just make something up, he said, and closed the door.