On his way up the escalator at the mall, he slipped his press pass out of his back pack and looped the lanyard around his neck. He thought for about the ten-millionth time, how happy his mother would be that he wrote for a living. He wasn’t entirely sure how happy he was about it any longer — when was he going to sit down and work on the novel that had been teasing the back of his brain for years? — but he knew she would be pleased. And proud. Thinking of her made him realize that, once again, he’d been humming ‘If I Were a Carpenter,” without noticing it.
He loved that song. His mother used to sing it when she was working around the house or concentrating on writing a poem, sang more to herself than anything, her sweet voice drifting through the house. Since her death, he found himself humming it at the oddest times, and always when he was writing.
“The papers have already been here,” the store manager told him as he walked into the shop.
‘We spoke earlier, Miss Gilchrist. I’m from the online news magazine.” He extended his hand. “Tom Banks.”
“Oh, right.” She shook his hand, gave a small smile.
Her store had been robbed, and the young man who worked for her had been killed. And that was news, but it was a story because it was the third store in a week with an identical scenario.
Tom hated this kind of story, what other reporters called “real news” — organized crime, political scandals, voting rights violations. His heart was the human interest stories, the fluff pieces: the celebration of the county’s oldest operating pub, the crowning of the homecoming queen who was a sixth-generation queen, the crazy farmer with the Virgin Mary in a potato. Real news as other people would have defined it was important, but there were always people eager to cover it. He loved the small humanness of the stories that could easily be passed over and left behind. The homecoming queen had been sweet and humble, proud of her family’s long history in the community, excited for him to see how much she looked like her great-grandmother and wasn’t that just amazing? It was. To him. It was the kind of story his mother would have liked, the kind she would have clipped from the paper and tacked to the board over her writing desk.
He was aware that he was writing for her, writing pieces she would have wanted to read. He hoped she was enjoying them.
The beat reporter had pneumonia, so Tom had been pulled off of the flower festival and sent to the mall to talk to Rose Gilchrist, who owned the jewelry store, who greeted him with a crumpled ribbon of police tape in one hand.
“How are you doing, ma’am?”
She looked surprised. “What?”
“You must be so shaken up. Is there anyone here to help you? Would you like to sit down? Or can I get you a coffee?”
She smiled. “Well, you’re different,” she said. “I think it’s better to be brisk and efficient.” She shook her head. “But I am tired. I’ve been brisk and efficient all morning, and I still want to curl up and cry. Jimmy Wells was only 18. He was supposed to go to Johns Hopkins in the fall.”
They walked around the store talking about Jimmy, what kind of worker he’d been, what kind of kid.
She stopped when they’d circled back to the front of the store. “I know this is wrong to say, but he was the kind of person that my father would have described as a credit to his race.” She frowned. “That’s not okay to say anymore, is it?”
“No, ma’am. It really isn’t.”
She smiled again. “I didn’t think so. Even as a girl, I didn’t think so. It sounds like it should be a compliment, but you know how I knew? I never heard it said about anyone white.” She shook her head. “That’s an ugly way to compliment someone.”
“But you didn’t mean it that way.”
“No. I didn’t. And I’m sorry, but I was thinking it about you, too. What do they call that? Full disclosure?”
Tom laughed and nodded. “I appreciate your candor.”
“What story are you going to write now?”
“Something that gives my editor what she wants. But I’ll also write a longer, deeper piece about Jimmy Wells. Show people the young man you just introduced me to.”
“That’s the one I’ll read,” she said.
The song was back in his head as he worked on Jimmy’s story. He always thought of his mother when he wrote, the way she could disappear into a poem for hours at a time, spend weeks on just a line. And it never seemed to frustrate her. In the hospital, after the doctors had said there was no more room for optimism, Tom had asked if she needed anything, if there was anything he could do or give her to make her more comfortable. She’d asked for a steno pad and a pen. “I’ve got at least another short piece in me,” she’d said. He’d run down to the gift shop to get her tools. When he’d returned, she’d smiled, told him to write for her, but instead of dictating, she’d turned to look out the window and started singing.
He’d asked why that song, and she’d said she liked that it was about love and hard, honest work.
“I wish it had more verses,” she’d told him. “Three trades people is nice, but what about the writers and teachers, the librarians and social workers?” She laughed. “I guess the social workers wouldn’t make for good lyrics.”
He always remembered that she named the writers first, that she saw writing as a trade, a craft to be done with your hands.