Manhattan Project #42 A Cloud of Calm

(wherein reporter Jed Berman has a People’s Drugstore experience, and gets a big raise)

“Jed, I want to get serious for a moment. I can tell you now that I had some grave reservations about taking you on when Fred pitched the idea. There wasn’t a GM or news director in the country that didn’t know about you and your Midwest meltdown. Even after I let Fred convince me it was a good idea, I reserved the right to bounce you right out of here at the first sign of that kind of behavior here. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

In my head, I thought, Yes, I understand all of that. Christ! I did it, I lived it. And I don’t need to be reminded of it every other day. But I obviously didn’t go anywhere near that in what I said to the GM.

“Yes, sir. Everything you say is perfectly reasonable. I understand that a company has to protect itself against anything that will damage its image, including an employee who goes off the reservation. I am extremely grateful to you and to Fred for giving me another chance.”

I stopped and took a deep breath. Revisiting that time made me feel a bit shaky. I tried to calm down a little before I said anything else.

“It is a privilege to work for you and this station. And I want you to know how much I appreciate all of the kind words you’ve shared with me just now.”

The GM nodded approval.

“Excellent, Jed. In light of recent events, I think we can consign all of that other stuff to the past, and assume nothing remotely like it will ever happen again. I asked you up here today to open a new chapter for Jed Berman and TV 22 News. You came here under a one year, probationary contract, as you know. If you’re okay with it, I’d like to tear that one up and write a new one, one that reflects our confidence in you and our appreciation of your work here. How does that sound?”

It sounded really good to me. Not that I was feeling unappreciated, after the response to the Afghanistan series, but hearing the GM say he wanted to translate all that good feeling into a deeper commitment to me as part of the station was even better. I still felt some bruises from all that stuff in the Midwest. I didn’t mind a good, solid pat on the back, at all. And I let the GM know that.
“That sounds very good to me. I’m happy to strengthen my relationship to TV 22 News.”

The GM slapped his hand on his desk and smiled broadly.

“I was pretty sure you’d say that. So I went ahead and drew up a new contract. It’s for five years and there’s a twenty thousand dollar raise in it for you. You can sign it right now if you want—all the other language is exactly the same—or you can take it home and think it over and get back to me. Your choice.”

He pushed the contract toward me and sat back, looking satisfied. I didn’t need time to think about it. And I knew Jane would be ecstatic. Her job in Maine didn’t pay as much as it had in the Midwest. Those extra dollars would be a big help in paying the bills. I pulled a pen out of my pocket, leaned forward, and let my excitement show.

“That is terrific news. I am a little stunned. But thank you for this. Where do I sign?”

DeMarco reached over and pulled the contract in front of me. There were actually two copies. He separated them, flipped over a couple of pages on each one, and pointed to a line with my name typed under it. When I finished scrawling my signature on them, Fred handed one to me and the other back to the GM. We all stood up. The GM extended his hand.

“Congratulations, Jed. Thanks for all of your hard work. You’re a real member of our station family, now. And we’re pleased as punch to have you. Keep it up.” He let go of my hand, and turned to shake Fred’s.

“And special thanks to you, Fred, for bringing this great guy into the fold. Nice work, both of you.”

He sat down as we left. When we got into the hallway, Fred turned and punched me in the shoulder. It wasn’t a grand gesture, but it was the most physical display of feeling I’d ever seen from him. But then it was over. He picked up his pace and clattered down the stairs and into the newsroom, a full four steps ahead of me. I saw people glancing at the rolled up contract in my hand as I walked to my desk. I’m sure they knew what it was, but professional etiquette meant you never asked someone about any numbers in their contract, except maybe how many years it was for. I laid it on my desk and started reading through the script for the six o’clock show.

You’d think a day like that would keep you in a good mood for quite a while, but—and you probably know me well enough by now that this won’t surprise you—other than a few happy moments while I told Jane about it when I went home to grab some dinner between shows, nothing really changed. She didn’t have time to talk much as she rushed out the door for one of what I teasingly referred to as her “do-gooder” activities.

I decided to take a walk, our normal route, across the Stillwater River Bridge and down around the north side of town along the Penobscot. It was already dark as I stepped out the front door. I glanced across the street at my neighbor’s house, which she was renting to some UMaine students while she worked in New York someplace. The light was on in an upstairs bedroom, and I absent-mindedly glanced up at it. There was just enough light from the street lamp outside for me to see a woman standing there, totally naked. Our eyes met briefly. She just kept staring out the window, but I quickly looked away. You don’t see that sort of thing in our neighborhood much, not that I make an effort to peer in people’s windows as I stroll down the street. It just seemed strange to see it. I thought maybe this was going to be what Jane and I called a People’s Drugstore kind of night.

Years ago we walked into a drugstore at about that time of day, and found the strangest looking group of people either of us had ever seen. I mean, they were really odd looking; several of them could have been aliens or something. And we only saw them in the store. When we stepped back out onto the sidewalk, the people passing by looked completely normal. And we’ve had the same experience a few times since.

You go along for months, maybe even years, encountering human beings as you pass through the world, and they all look fairly standard issue. Then you walk through a doorway, and it’s like a time-warp has transported you to some strange new place, where the word “normal” has a very different meaning. It’s like that old Twilight Zone episode where a woman is in the hospital with her face all bandaged up, and people you can’t see are standing around her bed talking about the surgery she just had and saying how they hope it worked and she won’t be so strange and ugly anymore. Then at the end they unwrap her face and she’s absolutely beautiful, only the people around her are disgusted by how she looks. Then we finally see those people and they all have pig snouts, which apparently was the norm on whatever planet they inhabited. Anyway, it’s that kind of thing, and seeing that woman standing in the window, naked, acting as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world put me in a People’s Drugstore frame of mind as I walked down the front steps and headed toward the river.

We hadn’t had much snow yet, but we’d had enough to make the woods along the river look beautiful. Small drifts had already started to form along the riverbank. The water looked very cold, but it hadn’t frozen over. It was a fairly ordinary outing; I didn’t see anymore strange sights. But I did have a strange experience.

As I was approaching the house, I had a really unusual feeling. I had just passed the bike shop and was starting to think about what I was going to do when I got back to work. It was cold; I was anxious to get back inside. At that moment, as I walked casually down the street, I stepped into a patch of very warm, soothing air. Two strides later I was back in the cold again. It happened so fast I almost didn’t realize what was going on, but my brain sort of yelled, “What was that?” And, for the life of me, I didn’t know. I quickly turned around and walked back to the spot where I’d felt the warmth, but it wasn’t there anymore. I know this sounds like some sort of hallucination or something, the imaginary experiences of a guy just back from war with a slight case of PTSD. But I swear it really happened.

I stood there for a few moments, waiting to see if I’d feel it again, but I didn’t. I realized that while I was in it I felt really good. It was like I’d strolled into a cloud of calm. I walked back through that space lots of times afterwards, at about the same time of day, hoping it would be there again. But that was the only time.

I tried to explain it to myself, but nothing I came up with made a lot of sense. There was nothing around there that could have caused it—just the sidewalk and the street and a vacant, grass-covered lot sloping up to Main Street. I remember thinking about Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, stories where they talk about ghosts and spirits, and how they contact living people. But I’ve never put much stock in any of that. All I know is that the pocket of warmth was there, and the calm part was definitely part of it.

In my more far-fetched imaginings, I wondered if it was my mom’s spirit come to soothe my frazzled mind, worn out by the battlefield experience and my incessant search for answers to my questions. I really wished it was that, because that’s the kind of thing she would do, if you can after you die. Maybe it was that thought, or maybe it was actually something in that strange cloud, but it left me feeling hopeful. It tamped down some of the despair that welled up from time to time, as I contemplated the human condition.

Despite all the dead ends and failures up to this point, I thought I might just get the whole thing figured out, after all. Yeh, I know that’s giving a lot of credit to a puff of hot air, but that’s just how it was. I wrote it down in a little notebook I keep when I got home, and told Jane about it later. She thought it was interesting and unusual, but she couldn’t explain it, either. She agreed, though, that I’d definitely had a People’s Drugstore kind of night.


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