Paul Sawyer, real name Saul Sauerberg, pushed through the door and walked deliberately to Gerome’s desk. He put up his hands sideways like a field goal post. The gesture probably meant something else to him.
“I assume you’ve seen the piece,” Paul said through the uprights.
“I assume everyone on this floor has seen it.” Gerome folded his gnarled, brown hands. “I got it as an e-mail attachment, and I barely know how to open those.”
Paul got to pacing, shutting the door like an afterthought on his circuit between the window and his managing editor’s wall of plaques. He paced like this before shows. It was how he warmed up. “I assume you’ve seen it because you summoned me here. But I would have come anyway. I was on my way here when you were calling to have me come in. You were the first person who came to mind when I read the piece.”
“I’d think of the writer. If a pretty lady didn’t like me as succinctly as she didn’t like you, I’d think about her before any wrinkly black men. Now I want you to verify this for me. Is she right? Did you use methamphetamines last year, while under contract?”
“The gall. The bile. The various mythical juices this woman must possess to quote me out of context, and try to paint me as some junky riding a corporate account.” He broke his pacing to wave four fingers and a thumb. “I will have you know that at least five of the quotes in this piece are entirely fabricated.”
“Was the one about meth entirely fabricated?”
The pacing resumed. “She wanted an angle. I mean, why interview a sports journalist? Newsmakers make bad stories. It’s incestuous. It’s masturbatory. I only did it because Kendal said it’d draw more attention. Get me out there, get new eyes. Eyes always help. But it’s clear she only asked so that she could claim things about me. Unsubstantiated things that could damage my career if people in this company take them out of context.”
“You’re saying you used meth out of context?”
“I’m saying that she did not take a single sentence from my mouth and put it where it belonged, and I’m frankly insulted that this company would believe this borderline hearsay, this transparent case of libel, before even consulting me.”
“I’m sorry. Were you expecting the network heads to meet you in my office?” Gerome put a palm on his desk, as though affirming it was tangible and not an illusion. “I am consulting you. You’re facing me and we’re exchanging words in our shared language. What I think is our shared language.”
“This company should have more faith in me. I could have jumped two years ago. I could have jumped last year. I could have gone to NBC Sports. I could be Keith Olbermann right now. But I stuck with the girl who brought me to the dance. Do you know I’ll have been here five years this March?”
“Five years.” Gerome shook his head. “If it’s relevant, I’ve given twenty-three and I have no idea when my anniversary is. I say ‘if it’s relevant’ because I’m older and I know in your position it looks like I’ve had more years to hand out to corporations. But I’d like you to answer if you smoked pot.”
“I know you’ve worked here twenty-three years. Look at those awards.” Paul tapped one, and the noise it made disturbed him. He only gestured to the others. “You’ve earned them all for this company. I respect that, I respect the work. That’s why I’m coming to you.”
“You’re coming to me because I summoned you, and possibly because I can fire you.”
“Out of admiration for all your work in journalistic integrity. Because reason matters to you. Reason, ethics and journalistic integrity. You’re not going to let someone oust me from a position I put my heart into just so she can get more hits on her blog. You, of everyone in this building, will understand a man undermined.”
“Paul, in 1996 I was aggressively addicted to cocaine.”
Paul stopped pacing.
“I spent more than your current salary on it, and twice did lines of it off the backside of a Forbes 400 CEO. If you want to narrow it down, it was one of the female CEOs. My wife and children have forgiven me and I’ve undergone treatment in secret, but I actually still crave to this day, in the adjacent century. It took someone very powerful and patient to save my life. I’m telling you this because you’re making me crave it right now. Also because I think if I tell you this, you will answer me: at any time during your contract with the company we both work for but do not value more than the livelihood of a good man, did you use illicit substances?”
Paul sat. He smoothed out his pants aggressively. At some point the creases had gone uneven and needed pinching.
“Okay. Now we can talk.”