Real Dickhead allows me to stop by Mandy Jo’s desk just long enough to ask her to look after my cat before hurriedly ushering me the rest of the way out of the Daily Herald building as if he is shielding me from a horde of reporters in the midst of a feeding frenzy.
Which, I reckon, can conceivably happen in the middle of our own newsroom. Strike that. IS going to happen the second we vacate the premises.
If you know anything at all about reporters, then you can accurately deduce that we’re a nosy, tenacious lot. And I know my co-workers VERY well. I can just hear all of their speculative murmurings, and I instantly feel sorry for Mandy Jo. I have no doubt whatsoever that they soon are going to be inundating her with questions faster than a machine gun can spit out bullets, doing every attorney in the free world proud with their, uh, cross-examination-like skills.
Good thing for me Real Dickhead is withholding all the juicy tidbits, that is, until further notice. When he gets what he wants. When he possibly brings me to my knees, begging him not to share my family’s potentially dirty laundry with the entire world. But I’m getting ahead of myself with all of these ludicrous conspiracy theories.
I light up the instant we’re outside in the blazing sun, the humidity even more oppressive as what little remains of the morning gives way to afternoon.
Real Dickhead raises a brow and gives me that aggravating, smug grin of his again, but he doesn’t look at all surprised. How can anyone be, considering the most unlikeliest of circumstances even I can’t think of conjuring in this increasingly fucked up thing I call my mind?
He lights up, too. It’s the only REAL thing we have in common, so we puff away in silence, each thinking about the journey that lies ahead of us.
I’m already dreading it. Not just the long-ass car ride in his shitty company, but having to ask my parents questions to which I’m already wildly guessing the answers.
Best not to create more drama before knowing all the facts.
“I suppose we should get going,” I needlessly say after a few minutes.
“We’ll take MY car,” he answers, giving the eyesore that is mine a disdainful once-over.
“Fine by me.”
I’m not in the mood to dissuade him. My headache won’t go away, if you’ll pardon the double entendre, and I know I will inevitably lose the argument if I insist on taking mine just to spite him.
So we dispose of our cigarettes and head toward his brand new black Honda Accord, get in, drive away.
I’m relatively sure he bought it with his bonus from the powers that be for making the Daily Herald more profitable than it’s been in years, thanks to single-handedly pushing damn near all of us to our quitting points with his impossible expectations. And we’re not what you call slouches, either. We work our asses off for him, but it seems like nothing ever is good enough to please him. We have several award-winning reporters and photographers on staff, but we never get any praise or recognition for our achievements. The only things Real Dickhead ever notices are our mistakes, and he makes sure everyone knows about them the few times we actually DO fuck something up. It happens. No one is perfect.
But there is no joy in my work when my boss rides roughshod over me every day. The only time I’m truly happy is when I’m out on assignment. I often toy with the idea of looking elsewhere for employment, but why allow him to run me off like he has so many others? I’m too stubborn to give up. I won’t let him defeat me, or my spirit. I WILL prevail.
I dig around in my purse in hopes of finding aspirin, but my efforts are futile. I rub my forehead, gasping from the pressure of the painful thump-thump-thumping of this headache as we reach I-65 and head South toward my hometown of Tideville, Alabama. I can only hope the next three or so hours — depending on traffic — pass quickly with him saying as little as possible, and that this ceaseless pounding doesn’t transform into a full-blown migraine. I won’t be at all functional if it does. Like a deer freezing in the headlights that transfix it, migraines immobilize me like nothing else can, reducing me to little more than a pathetic, helpless, crying mass.
“I’ll stop at the next exit for something to drink and get you some aspirin for that headache,” he says quietly, reverting back to Impostor Dickhead. “Put the seat back, if you like, and try to get some sleep.”
I do just that, close my eyes, drift off.
I wake with a start, disoriented by my unfamiliar surroundings, feeling as if it’s only been mere minutes since closing my eyes. The sounds of Pink Floyd fill the quiet car, the volume low. Comfortably Numb.
How very apt.
“How do you feel?” still-Impostor Dickhead inquires.
It takes a moment to collect myself, take in my surroundings. I look at the clock on the dashboard and do a double take.
We’re not moving, instead sitting in the gridlock that is all-too-typical of Nashville, Tenne-damn-ssee. Doesn’t matter WHERE you drive in Nashville. You’re going to sit in hurry-up-and-wait traffic anywhere you go, and that’s that. Listening to your radio is a MUST when navigating your way through the city so you know where NOT to drive to avoid the backlog of traffic whenever accidents occur. So, take heed anytime you see Davidson County plates.
I love the city, come here often, but its drivers are more accident-prone than all of Kentucky’s put together, thanks to the infamous “Nashville turn.” That’s the terminology for when a driver nonchalantly glides across multiple lanes without so much as looking, thus almost always resulting in at least one collision. Think I’m kidding? Try driving in Nashville and see for yourself. It’s not pretty. The people here are some of the nicest you’ll ever meet, but all bets are off when they get behind the wheel of a car. My best advice? Drive defensively.
We’re still a good two-plus hours from Tideville IF the flow of traffic goes back to normal sometime soon.
“A little better,” I finally respond.
“I got you a bottle of water and some aspirin a while back, but I didn’t want to wake you,” Impostor Dickhead says, motioning to the two built-in cup holders between our seats.
I break the seal on the bottle of aspirin, shake out two, put them in my mouth. My gunky mouth.
Fuckity fuck fuck fuck! Funky sleep breath. Great.
I’m suddenly extremely self-conscious with this revelation, but force myself to untwist the cap on the water and take a few big gulps to help me get the aspirin down. The water refreshes me, though I avert my face so Impostor Dickhead doesn’t get a whiff of my skunkadelic breath.
He clues in on my discomfort, again opening the glove compartment to present me with a pack of Certs. I unravel the tube packaging in no time flat and toss three into my mouth. I guess they’ll have to do until I can get my hands on a toothbrush and some toothpaste. Even a swig of mouthwash will make me less — I dunno — uncomfortable about this latest quandary of mine, stupid though it may be considering the man whose undesirable company I’m keeping.
Yes, I know people wake up with bad breath every day, but I’m a bit of a fanatic about oral hygiene. There’s nothing worse than sewer breath except those nasty ass McDonald’s farts within half an hour — if that long — after eating their greasy food or forgetting to close the bathroom door following a dump so that innocent bystanders don’t gag on the stench. Gross, I know, but true all the same.
“Better?” he asks, breaking into my stomach-churning musings.
“Yes,” I say. “Much.”
Traffic is beginning to move at a slow crawl, but we’re not going to break any speed records getting out of Nashville. I guesstimate it’ll be another hour before we hit the outskirts, barring any more accidents.
“Did I snore?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
“Was I loud?” I persist.
His smile turns into a smirk.
I ignore it.
Meanwhile, I can already feel the beginnings of another sunburn. Which translates to more freckles and some discomfort. I’ll have to get some Aloe Vera gel so I don’t start peeling like a molting snake. I have to use at least the 60 SPF sunblock for babies — any brand will do — because anything less is completely ineffective. It’s tough being a redhead sometimes, but alas, it comes with the territory.
“You are quite possibly the most fascinating person I’ve ever met,” Impostor Dickhead reflects aloud. “Your mind never stops.”
Now THAT, I can’t ignore. He NEVER gives compliments. EVER. Not even of the backhand variety.
Astonishing. Simply astonishing.
“Am I that transparent?” I recover enough to ask.
His droll look says it all.
“I’m not very good at hiding my feelings,” I admit.
“Surely, you jest,” he quips, a matter-of-fact observation rather than a question.
“I gather you’re terrible at cards.”
Again, a statement. But he is correct.
I can’t help grinning, flashing both sets of dimples.
They’re the bane of my existence, these damn things, particularly when little old ladies think nothing of walking right up to me to pinch the hell out of my cheekbones because they think “they’re so adorable on your cute little heart-shaped face,” to quote one of my mom’s annoying-as-fuck friends who does it every damn time she sees me. All I can say is thank fuck they don’t squeeze the life out of the dimple in my chin — only, mind you, because there’s not much excess skin for them to hold onto — although plenty of them still tend to point and poke at it like it’s the Eighth Wonder of the World because, to once again quote that same pain-in-the-ass friend of Mom’s, “it makes you look alluring.”
Maybe, just maybe, this impromptu “adventure” with my boss tagging along isn’t going to be so bad, after all.
“And there you are,” he says, returning my smile.
Ask. NOW. He’s off-guard, relaxing, approachable. Do it NOW!
The smile leaves my face as the heavy traffic reaches another stalemate.
“How do you know about my friendship with the Hardys?” I pounce, inwardly crossing all of my extremities that he will come clean this time.
He expels a long-suffering breath that erases his smile.
This is news to me. It’s much easier thinking he’s totally oblivious to my world other than my comings and goings in the workplace. It’s staggering to realize that he may be acutely aware of many more of my personal goings-on in the real world, and I can’t help but wonder how far that knowledge expands beyond my personal friendships.
“You knew Coach Smith?”
He shrugs, noncommittal.
“Yes and no,” Impostor Dickhead says. “I like to know what my reporters are up to, how all of you interact with people while you’re in the public eye, whether you’re acting in the best interests of the newspaper, your ability to maintain the highest level of professionalism and integrity — those kinds of things and others I won’t delve into … for now. I’ve spoken to him on several occasions about Bob, Jackson and you. He thought very highly of you. As do I.”
There he goes sneaking up on my blind side again, this time knocking me for a loop with his praise. Who IS this man?!
I can’t conceal my shock. I almost feel guilty for calling him Dickhead. ALMOST.
“I do far more than sit behind a desk and give orders,” he adds. “I’m not the monster you make me out to be, and don’t bother denying it.”
He’s right, of course. The denial comment, not the monster part. Curious that he’s mentioning the monster thing again, though. It sounds to me like he’s trying to justify his bad behavior, but it’s more of a “too little, too late” scenario.
Just hear him out. Listen without judging. Give him a chance. You owe him that much.
So I grudgingly decide to listen to my guilty conscience and allow him to have his say just this once. It’s the least I can do after trashing him nonstop since becoming my boss a year ago. But I downright refuse to apologize for the way I feel about him and his fucking awful managing techniques.
“I’m not here to be anyone’s mate, er, friend,” he admits, firmly gaining momentum but not shouting — yet, “nor am I here to win any popularity contests. I push all of you to do your best because anything less is unacceptable. When you make mistakes, it is my job to see that you don’t make them again. Even if it means making an example out of you in front of everyone. I will not allow anyone to undermine the integrity of this paper, and if they do, they can seek employment elsewhere, and have, as you well know. There is NO margin for error in this business. The public trusts us to report the news truthfully and it is our duty to see that they get nothing less than our best efforts to provide it to them without bias. And if that makes me an unfeeling di … bastard, so be it. I will NEVER lower my expectations.”
DAMN. Talk about being brutally honest. But, you know, I can respect that. Hell, even admire it. He has balls, that’s for damn sure.
“But you never appreciate us,” I interject, only to be cut off as he wildly slashes his right hand through the air to quiet me.
“I don’t have the time or the inclination to go around the newsroom showering everyone with praise for a job well done every day!” he snaps, changing all the way back into Real Dickhead. “I’m not here to hold your hands, or pander to your needs! I refuse to stroke anyone’s ego, gush about their work OR pat them on the back for winning awards! I won’t allow anyone to rest on their laurels because I cannot stomach complacency! If that makes me the bad guy, then fine! But, goddammit, I am not a monster for doing what needs to be done!“
Holy-fucking-moly! Talk about tense! Calgon, take HIM away so he can chillax!
“Of course not,” I try placating him, but he interrupts me once more.
“Don’t. You. Dare,” he enunciates each word softly, dangerously. “Don’t you dare try to humor me and don’t you dare try to pacify me when you know NOTHING about me.”
But he’s right. And therein lies the chasm between us.
Don’t judge a man until you walk a mile in HIS shoes.
The old proverb chides me to see the world through his eyes, to understand his everyday plights, to respect his decisions even if I don’t always agree with them OR him. And, most important, to make peace with him even if I don’t like him.
Eating crow doesn’t agree with me, but I shovel it down anyway.
I’m not proud of myself.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, shakily reaching for his hand, lacing my cold fingers through his.
I don’t know what else to say.
“I’m a simple man, Piccolo,” he says, squeezing my hand with a startling tenderness that somewhat lifts the grim atmosphere of his car, “with a difficult job I don’t expect anyone to understand. But I won’t apologize for being who I am, or doing MY job the way I see fit. Not how everyone else THINKS I should. I’m not there to be chummy with everyone, nor to be anyone’s bleeding-heart confidant. I can deal with the resentment, the nasty comments behind my back when you’re all lunching together, even the, ah, creative nicknames. I made a promise to the owners that I intend to keep when they handed over complete creative control to me as managing editor. And whether you’re in MY newsroom or out and about representing THEIR newspaper, you are a reflection of US and everything WE stand for: Integrity above all else.“
He turns my hand over, still holding fast to it.
“But it smarts, sometimes, Piccolo,” he confesses, lamenting, “knowing things I wish I didn’t, wanting things I know I shouldn’t, wishing for something that can never be — all in the name of integrity.”
Deep stuff. The man has more layers than an onion.
“Then you … you KNOW … ” I trail off, unable to bring myself to finish asking what I want — no, NEED — to know, even though I already know the answer to my question.
“Yes,” he hisses, confirming it.
Cat’s out of the bag now.
“I’m sorry,” I say again, a lame attempt to undo what cannot be undone.
“Don’t be,” he replies with self-deprecating humor. “Don’t apologize for being who you are, or for your, ah, INTERESTING choice of nicknames. Your quirkiness quite amuses me.”
His palpable loneliness bothers me, gnaws away at me, calls out to me in a way I cannot yet grasp — compelling me to make things right.
Go ahead. Ask him before you lose your nerve. C’mon! What’s the worst that can happen?!
“I can … I can be your … your sounding board,” I shyly suggest, heart in hand, offering a truce. “Away from work. Without judging. If you … if you like. Even if you just rant on the phone to me about your day. I’ll listen. I’ll always be honest with you, that is, if you want my opinion, and I won’t tell anyone. You can trust me. I never told a soul about Amber. But you knew, and you still kept my secret.“
His dark eyes seek out mine, measuring me, searching for something, and then he kisses the hand holding his before letting go, satisfied with whatever it is he finds.
And just that quickly, we form an improbable alliance, each uncertain of what to expect from the other, but both willing to risk the unknown.