FICTION: Slow News Day by Warren Moore

“Poor Chris Chubbuck,” I said to Bob. It was 4:53, and we’d be on in seven minutes, bringing “The News the Midlands Needs” to the elderly, shut-ins, and folks who had gotten home from work early. Bob was putting on the last of his makeup. It’s a high-definition age, and even though he hadn’t been at the anchor desk for too long – hell, he hadn’t been out of college for too long – you want to stay ahead of the wrinkles, open pores, or blemishes that might distract the folks at home from the day’s list of murders, sports scores, and tomorrow’s School Bus Weather Forecast.

Me, I don’t have to worry about makeup on my side of the camera. I stay in the booth, making sure the teleprompter is running smoothly. It isn’t high tech at all, really – it runs on DOS, if you can believe that, but it works and it’s paid for, and as long as we use it, my job is secure, because I’m the only one left who can run the damn thing. You don’t find too many people who spend their whole careers at the same station, but most of them are on my side of the camera.

“Who the fuck is Chris Chubbuck?” Bob asked. Give him credit – he could cuss like a sailor, but as soon as the red light went on, he was all pro, baritone creamy as tapioca, hair just poofed enough. Wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful. That was why little old ladies from Walhalla to Winnsboro made Bob Jeffcoat a part of the afternoon routine. I heard at least one old broad set a TV tray in front of the screen every day, with a full dinner for her and one for Bob. I can believe it – they all wanted to invite Bob into their homes, the ones who didn’t want to invite him into their daughters, granddaughters or nieces. What kind of freak pimps their kids to a TV news guy? I don’t know, but they helped our ratings.

“Was, Bob. Who the fuck was Chris Chubbuck. She was an anchor at a station down in Florida back in the Seventies. One night she was sitting at the anchor desk with the red light on, and she said, ‘In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.’ Then she pulled out a gun and shot herself in the head. Died the next day.”

“Fuck,” Bob said, then paused for a moment as he put the makeup down. “Did they get a tape?”

“Two-inch quad. Only one copy, and I think the family got it. The tape was never aired – I guess they figured once was enough. I imagine the family burned it or something.”

“Well, that all sucks, but what made you think of her just now?” He got up to walk to the big desk.

“If she had done it these days,” I said, “it would have gone viral. People everywhere would have gotten to see her off herself any time they wanted. Hell, they could beat off to it.”

“Wonder if they do that to Charlene?” Charlene was already at the desk, wearing a copper-colored silk blouse. A lot of stations don’t use the desks so much anymore, something about looking more active and “newsy” if the talent are on their feet. We still do it the old way, though, and I bet Charlene prefers that – she’s got a nice face, and the lights hit her blonde hair just right, but she’s a bit wide in the hips. They say the camera adds ten pounds – apparently there’s a camera on her ass 24/7. Besides, it’s easier for the camera guys this way. The talent are paid to read and smile, not to hit marks.

When the cameras aren’t on, there’s a kind of locker room atmosphere on the set – everyone gearing up for a live performance like football players before a big game, and with the news, there’s not exactly the chance for rehearsal.

You get off on the tension sometimes, at least I do, which is probably why I still do this stuff. Of course, other folks have their own ways of getting off. We’ve had techs who were pillheads, and in the 80s, makeup wasn’t the only powder being dispensed, if you know what I mean.

And sometimes, the talent likes to fuck. Makes sense – pretty people working close together, stressful setting. I heard Bob and Charlene had a thing for a while, but they broke it off. Apparently Bob wasn’t terribly selective. Still, the chemistry was good. I’ll give them that – they’re pros.

“Up yours, Bobby,” she said, and he was getting ready to say something back, but the director was counting it down, and Bob hit his seat, slapped in the earpiece, and clipped the mike of the lapel by the time the count went silent at three.

I heard the opening play, and saw the animation of the city’s skyline with setting sun on the monitor, and then the two-shot of Bob and Charlene at the desk.

“I’m Charlene Watson – ”

“And I’m Bob Jeffcoat. Gary’s in the Doppler 32 weather station, and Trent’s at our High School Game of the Week. We’ll hear from them in a little bit, but first, the headlines…”

Yep, they can read, and yep, they even read those intros. It’s funny – they’re the talent, but the show would grind to a halt unless I keep the feed scrolling in front of them. You’d think they’d know their names, anyway.

Well, that’s not really fair – they’ve been to college and all that; they aren’t stupid. But when the feed is running, they don’t actually have to think. It’s like a security blanket, I guess.

Me, I go back 35 years. I started working as a gofer after high school, went through Master Control and switching, up the ladder. Even thought about doing a little reporting, but I never really had the right look. So instead, I did some of the writing, and from there it was natural to feed it onto the prompter, and so here I am, and it pays the bills and paid for Ellie’s braces, and for college next fall, maybe. Not bad for somebody without a degree.

In a way, I’m kind of like a backup for the prompter. After I put the text in, I can use a foot pedal or a hand controller to manage the crawl rate – the speed at which the talent sees the text. But I don’t even have to do that. There are auto settings, which will scroll the text at whatever speed seems normal. But honestly, I like doing it myself – I can adjust the speed to whatever is going on in front of the camera, stop it during the ad lib chatter, do what it needs. When you go live, you need to have backups. That’s why the talent still has a script at the desk – in case the prompter fails.

We did the live reports – an overturned chicken truck on the Interstate – and the canned stuff from earlier in the day, discussion of a neighborhood watch group downtown, shit like that. Then it was a commercial break, and when we got back, Gary did the forecast.

I feel kind of bad for Gary sometimes. He’s a real meteorologist, not just a suit. But he reads the forecasts the station subscribes to, and types up the forecast we send out to the e-mail list. I don’t know when he did his last real forecast, but he does his job, just like the rest of us, and there’s no harm in that, I guess. He even has a gimmick – he stands behind the big weather map and writes backwards, mirror style, so he never gets in the way of the map. Most stations do it all with green screen and computers now, but it’s kind of a trademark for Gary, even if he started it to hide a bald spot.

I kept the feed rolling, with a break for a live thing with Charlene and the lady from the adopt-a-mutt program. Charlene gets out from behind the desk for that bit, but we still put her behind a table where the dog scrambles around – the hips thing, again. Once, one of the dogs let go – pissed all over the table, splattered Charlene a little. She had to play it cool, but we were dying in the booth, until the director told us all to shut the fuck up and go to commercial.

Meanwhile, Bob was hanging cool, checking off stories from the list on his desk, checking himself in the monitor. He rocked his suit – he should. A menswear shop downtown tailored the suits for Bob and Gary in exchange for a blurb at the end of each broadcast. Because he’s the sports guy – and the designated “goofy guy” on the team – Trent gets by with a Channel 32 polo shirt and khakis. And when we came back, we cut to Trent’s remote from a high school in the burbs. The usual thing – pep band playing, kids screaming and clapping, Trent trying to talk to the coach, but no one can hear shit over the band and the kids. It doesn’t matter – it fills two minutes, and Grandma gets to see her little angel wearing facepaint in the school colors. We’ll probably recycle a bit of it for use in B-roll for the highlight show tonight at 11:35.

“They certainly seem excited, Trent!” Charlene chirps as we go back to the studio. From there, Bob gives us the lead into a canned piece from the network about the movies that have come out this weekend.

And… commercial. Just about done here. Time to roll the last bit of script before the network takes over. I’ve heard that Bob might get a shot at network before too long – he’s young enough, pretty enough, and has the right pipes. But I have my doubts. As Bob starts reading the feed, I hit autoscroll – I’ve been working with him long enough to have his rhythms down – and I get up from my chair, step out of the booth. The director gives me a “What the fuck” side-eye, but he’s still busy.

My timing is good; Bob is going into his last story, sticking to the feed. “And finally, Channel 32’s own Bob Jeffcoat was killed in an act of workplace violen— What?”

I had the gun out now, pointed at him. “Keep reading,” I said. Don’t miss a fucking line.” And I said loud enough for the director to hear, “Keep the goddamn camera rolling.” Back to Bob: “Read.”

“— an act of workplace violence. Studio technician Alex Bordwell, having learned that Jeffcoat had been carrying on an illicit relationship with Bordwell’s 17-year-old daughter –”

“Seventeen,” I said. “Seven-fucking-teen. What, fatass over there wasn’t enough for you, you gotta rob the cradle?” Well, Charlene didn’t much like that, but what the hell. Report the truth, right?

“Oh, come on, Alex,” he said. Are you – are we still on?”

“Some of us,” I said, and pulled the trigger as fast as I could, as many times as I could. They didn’t all hit him – I saw splinters flying from the glossy-painted particle board of the desk, backup script fluttering to the floor – but I’m damn sure enough of them did, and he didn’t feel any of them after the first one damn near took the top of his head off. Blood and brains splashed onto Charlene’s copper blouse.

It was about that time that Billy from Camera Two tackled me. Give the director credit, though. As I was going down, I saw Camera One on us, with the red light shining. It was OK – I like Billy, and the gun was empty anyway.

And what the hell – Bob should have been thankful. No Chris Chubbuck for him in the age of DVR and YouTube. People would always know what had happened and why. Bob Jeffcoat’s last big story was gonna go viral.

#

Warren Moore is Professor of English at Newberry College in Newberry, SC. He is also the author of BROKEN GLASS WALTZES, a novel published in 2013. His stories have appeared in a variety of small magazines and webzines, as well as DARK CITY LIGHTS (2015), an anthology edited by Lawrence Block. Moore lives in Newberry with his wife and daughter.

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