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The International Writers Magazine: DUI STORY

A Fatal
• Stephen Baily
Bev the receptionist was away from her desk and the phone on it wouldn’t quit ringing.
“You want to get that?” Lyons finally grumbled at me when everyone else pretended to be too busy.
Drink Driving

Ordinarily he’d have taken the call himself because as news editor and therefore quote-unquote management he saw it as his duty to make nice with the public. He was doing page one today though and time was running out so I grudgingly reached for the receiver.


We were supposed to give our name too and in a cheery tone ask how we could be of assistance but they didn’t pay me enough for that.

“I want to know if I’m in the paper.”

The caller was in an ugly mood and not long in confirming my suspicion he’d been cited for drunk driving overnight.

No—scratch that. We were required to call it drunken driving because Rocker  the editor would tolerate no deviation from the stylebook even though the stylebook hadn’t been updated in so long it still spelled teenager with a hyphen.

I once consulted an expert on the subject, a friend of mine who was a public defender in L.A., and he told me drunk driving was the only way they referred to it in the courts. But when I relayed this information to Rocker he couldn’t have cared less. “Last I noticed we weren’t in L.A.,” he said.

“What’s your name?” I asked the guy on the phone.

After he gave it to me I turned to Lamm on my left, who was working on the local pages. “You got a Smathers in cops?”

Lamm ran his eye over the three columns of type he’d broken the police report up into. “Bingo. Sheriff’s office. Sunset Highway. DUI.”

“Yeah you’re in there,” I passed the good word to Smathers.

He immediately changed his tone and began to whine but I cut him off.

“You want to talk to the cops reporter not me and he’s not at his desk. Hold on a second.” I couldn’t see the sign-out board from my workstation so I appealed to the neighborhood. “Anyone know where Fiedler is?”

Damrosh, whose desk was across the aisle from us in front of Fiedler’s, looked up in annoyance. You’d have thought she was writing poetry the way she resented being interrupted when she was working on a story.

“Weren’t you listening before? Something came over the scanner about a possible drowning and he ran down to Waterside Park with Hoff.”

The scanner, which sat on Fiedler’s desk among piles of old newspapers and photos of his wife and daughters, was on all the time and I never paid any attention to it except to go over there and turn it down when the volume was up too high.

“He’s out of the building,” I told Smathers, “but I can give you his voice mail.”

“I don’t want his voice mail, I want my name out.”

I tried to make him understand Jesus Christ if he got a DUI couldn’t get us to suppress the fact but my eloquence was wasted.

“I’ll lose my job if my boss sees it. I’ve got a family to support. Do you want to ruin my life?”

“Let me transfer you to the publisher. He’s the one who sets the policies.”

As I punched in Scroop’s extension O’Brien across from me sneered: “And good luck with that.”

“Yeah it’s a gas being in the shaming business, isn’t it?”

O’Brien—who some years back had had a DUI himself and was the proud graduate of a diversion program—shrugged. “You don’t want your name in the paper don’t drive blotto.”

“Don’t call up about it either,” Lamm said. “I once answered the phone and a guy was crying because he’d got a dewy on I-5. Somehow it slipped through the cracks though and I told him he had nothing to worry about but Fiedler overheard me and checked with the state police and the poor sap ended up in the paper after all.”

We were enjoying a laugh at this proof the proverb is mistaken and it’s not always true God looks after fools and drunkards when Rocker sauntered over from his office. On his face was the smug look he could never keep off it when he was about to assert his authority.

“Who’s got page one?”

“That’d be me,” Lyons said.

Coming around behind me Rocker positioned himself over Lyons’s shoulder and stood jingling the change in his pocket as he studied the largely finished page on Lyons’s screen.

“You heard about the drowning in Waterside Park?”

“LeVine sent me a heads-up a while ago but he said it was only a possible.”

“It’s a definite now. Hoff just phoned in to say they’re fishing the body out. A teenager apparently. We need to get it in above the fold. You think you can move the story at the top inside?”

The story at the top was the usual from Iraq and nobody would miss it but the only place we could move it to—the world page—had long since gone down to imaging.

“Then lose it altogether,” Rocker said. “The war’ll still be there tomorrow.”

He followed Lyons’s glance to the clock on the wall, which showed we were fifteen minutes from deadline though it was deliberately set fast.

 “I told Hoff to get back here ASAP with Fiedler and not wait for an ID. The cops won’t release the name anyway till they’ve notified the family. Tell them downstairs in the meantime we’re liable to be late. I’ll clear it with Scroop.”

Rocker knew his man. Scroop would always stretch a deadline for a fatal—especially when the victim was a kid—so finding himself for the moment with nothing to do Lyons went down to the pressroom instead of phoning and—after detouring as a matter of course into the parking lot for a smoke—returned with a bag of Cheetos from the vending machine in the lunchroom.

He was vainly trying to get the orange guck off his fingertips when LeVine the city editor, whose desk adjoined the stairs, whirled toward them sharply.

“So? Talk to me!”

Hoff walked past him to the photo desk without a word. He had a mountain man’s beard and a gut to match and he looked badly shaken. So did Fiedler, though in a more subdued way. Like Hoff he was a big guy but clean-shaven and bald except for a fringe of hair over his ears. Rocker, who’d been watching through the glass wall of his office for the two of them to return, came out at once. “Well? How was it?”  

“Hard,” Fiedler said. “Sad.”

“You’ve got ten minutes to write it up.”

“I can make do with ten inches if there’s a photo,” Lyons said. “Preferably a two-column horizontal.”

“I’m on it,” Hoff muttered from his computer.

He had the shot sized, cropped and over to Lyons while Fiedler was still pecking at his keyboard.

As spot photos went it wasn’t likely to win any awards but as LeVine liked to say it told the story. Two rescuers were carrying a stretcher up the grassy bank from the river through a gaggle of Canada geese. Several bystanders were between the rescuers and the camera however and you couldn’t really see much. The bystanders were straining for a look at the stretcher and though their backs were turned I recognized Fiedler’s bald head among them.

Lyons swiveled around from the screen deferentially. Rocker was again standing over his shoulder jingling the coins in his pocket.

“I think we can go with it,” he said. “You can’t make out the body.”

That was the important thing because Scroop had a strict policy against photos of bodies. True the wire moved plenty of them out of Iraq every day but we never ran them no matter how many papers they might have sold. Death couldn’t be shown, even when the taxpayers were footing the bill.

“Yeah I think we can go with it,” Rocker repeated. “How you coming with the story, Tom?”

“I’m ready to give it to LeVine.”

“Forget that. There’s no time. Send it here. I’ll read it on the page.”

Fiedler struck a key and rose from his seat. “You’ve got it.”

As though he’d stood up too fast and the blood had rushed to his head he hesitated at the top of the stairs and steadied himself before starting down.

I opened a read-only copy while Lyons was placing it. Without a byline it began:

“A teen-ager drowned today when five friends cooling off in Waterside Park decided on a dare to swim across the river. All but one made it to the other side. Tiffany Fiedler, 17, was pulled under by the current. Police said alcohol may have been a factor.”

© Stephen Baily September 2013
Paris, France


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