The Fuse is Lit
By Elizabeth Cutright
(Excerpted from East Junction, a novel in progress)
He never could get used to the relative quiet of the newsroom. Although he’d never actually worked at any of the “big time” newspapers, his first memories as a journalist always included the roar of the presses, not the hum of the laptop. Of course, those early days on the beat occurred well before the advent of the personal computer. Joe Adler, graying pony tail and battered Birkenstocks notwithstanding, could now look back from a settled, sober place at the early years that forged his career – years filled with tear gas and water hoses and more than the occasional bottle of whiskey, hastily rolled joint or covertly passed acid tab. So tired to say it’d been a long, strange tip from Berkeley to Nueva Paz, but how else to describe it?
He was on the old end of the hippy movement for certain, and maybe in the beginning it had all been about meeting women and smoking dope. Then he’d met Becky Adler, his wife of over 30 years. She’d been the radical back then: spokeswoman for the National Organization of Women and the Student Democratic Society. She’d already worked in Selma and marched on Washington when he saw her, standing next to an old juke box at a roadside burger joint off the Pacific Coast Highway just a little nouth of Big Sur. Swaying her hips slowing in time to the Elvis tune warbling out from the old, blown out speakers. She stood out because of her outfit, the Levi’s and black sweater a complete contrast to the gypsy peasant attire all the girls were wearing at the time (they’d always seemed to him like they were playing the part of the farmer’s daughters, just waiting for the next big co-op adventure to happen). But Becky Alan never went along with the crowd – except maybe when she whipped them up into a revolutionary fervor.
But like all cliches that end up being true, she’d mellowed over the years. Now she taught kindergarten and monitored the local school board like a one-woman special interest group. They’d come to Nueva Paz in search of the peace and brotherly love promised by the romance of small town life. Instead, they’d been confronted by outsized bigotry and an almost unimaginable absence of rain. That last one hurt the most, completely foreclosing their dream of a communal farm on the banks of the Colorado River – irrigation being scientifically possible, but fiscally out of reach. With all their money spent and nothing left to lose, they stayed almost to spite the residents who loathed them. Ironically, they were now the old timers – and it was their turn to protect the home turf from “agitators.”
In the past decade, Joe switched places with his activist mate, championing the latest causes of the western frontier through his self made newspaper The Nueva Paz Daily (or NPD as he liked to call it). He used the editorial space to rail against those who failed to recycle, or the militant tactics used by the police force to cut down on tee age truancy. He poured out passion and soul onto those pages, thriving off the dirty looks and threatening letters he received for his efforts.
Every morning for the last ten years, Joe picked up a hash brown and coffee from the town’s only fast food outpost, standing like a lonely sentinel next to the interstate. At times he felt guilty with the knowledge that he gave his buck fifty to an establishment that cut down vast swathes of rain forest in order to deliver freeze dried coffee and limp hamburgers to the masses – as cheaply as possible. But the lone coffee shop in town was a little too precious and a little too pricey ($3 for of coffee!). And anyway, that shop kept banker’s hours – it was never open before 9am, and he was knee deep in copy by then.
He spent the early hours of the day typesetting the next day’s edition before settling down to the current features and editorials. He always kept the police scanner on, and wielded the weapon of his wife’s well known (and well loved) cookies around town to keep the lines of communication open – court clerks, deputies, tow truck drivers – they all were kept on the cookie payroll. This way he could keep up with the local happenings: the stray traffic violation, the loose dog, and the weekly call regariding the town’s more eccentric citizens: the drunken postal carrier passed out at midday, his route unfinished; the spinster at the edge of town who constantly saw peeping toms lurking around her heavily curtained home. The constant barrage of trivia was comforting and dulling, and Joe looked forward to the warm stream of familiar information that washed over him day after day.
He happened to be working late the evening the call came through about the K Street arrest warrant. A bucket of cold water seemed to pour down his back, causing him to jump up out of his seat and shiver. K street wound it’s way through the worst part of town; a place where only the most desperate members of the Nueva Paz community resided. The most desperate and nefarious.
Joe grabbed his camera and his dog eared steno pad and raced out the door, pumped up with adrenaline. LIke a rookie journalist with his first big assignment, he tapped his fingers nervously on the steering wheel as he navigated through his quiet community. A bomb was about to explode, and Joe couldn’t wait to watch the fireworks.