tagHumor & SatireHenry Mittleman's Thoughts on Writing

Henry Mittleman's Thoughts on Writing



Henry Mittleman had hung a poster of the periodic table of elements on the wall above his desk. It was a fold-out from an old issue of Popular Science. The magazine was in the waiting room at his doctor's office and was several months old so he didn't really think that anyone would miss it. He couldn't really recall the last time he learned anything of real importance, he had learned the first four of the elements, but it was hung in hopes that it would make him look a little smarter in the eyes of the rest of the staff at the Los Angeles Empire. He was pondering this, and a litany of other things when Chief Scratchet stopped yelling and, looking down at Henry, said something that brought him out of his thoughts.

"I just don't think that the news paper business is your cup of tea."

The flesh color started returning to the tough old editor's red face, the release of this news had been burdening him for more than a year now. He was the editor of the sixth largest paper in America, a fact that he didn't ever forget, and this was the hardest decision he would have to make all day. He knew that this news would crush Henry, and he couldn't stand to see the disappointment on the young reporter's boyish face. Turning away, Scratchet walked over to the bottle of bourbon on his desk and poured two glasses, keeping his back to Henry long enough to finished off one of the glassfuls without missing a thought.

"You just ain't cuttin' the mustard kid," Scratchet said this then turned around and offered the medium built young man the drink.

"Listen Mr. Scratchet, you know how much it means to me to be a newspaper reporter, especially here," Mittleman said, as he shook off the drink held in front of him.

"Take it," Scratchet demanded, the hooch warming his thoughts. "The first time old O'Grady fired your father and I, he got us drunk before having security come up to drag us out and throw our asses to the curb."

He paused then looked down at the vacant face of Henry, set the glass down and walked over and poured another for himself.

"Before your old man died I told him that I would watch out for you; make sure that you became a good, news man. Hell, you write as well as anyone I've ever read. It's your imagination that gets you into trouble. There is nothing fictitious about this business. I've got one point three million readers that want the dirty, honest truth, as corrupt as it may be. And I've got advertisers that demand that these people get it." He realized he was compiling a list of facts rather than saying what really needed to be said. "Even I'll admit that it was a little funny when you would enhance the classifieds, but then it moved on to creative control on the obituaries, and then today, on the front page! Above the fold!"

Henry had to be careful in his reply, he had seen Scratchet lose his temper before and if he wanted to keep his job then his only chance was to get him liquored up enough to start talking about the glory days of the newspaper business.

"Your father and I started out as news paper boys for the New York Times. We fought over the same corner for a week before we realized that we could sell more papers if we worked together," Scratchet paused and stared at his glass, then sat it, unfinished, on the desk.

Henry knew what would be coming next. Closing eyes, he tilted his head back and forced the bourbon down his throat. He felt better, but worse as he cleared his throat to speak.

"You know whatch," the burn of the bourbon had attempted to steel his first sentence. He re-cleared his throat and started over. "You know what my problem is?"

Scratchet knew better than to answer.

"I'm sick of this place. The news never changes and it's been the same since I was a kid. It's always Hollywood, crop reports, or maybe an occasional gangland-style murder. Everyone is on the take with everyone else. I even thought I'd try reporting on that story but apparently the paper is involved in the same take."

"Welcome to the big city kid. It only took you twenty-four years and you've already figured out how the whole world works. It takes some people their entire lives to figure that out. It's a start."

Scratchet knew that he had a fire to put out with the front page that had slipped by him. He knew that he had to take care of the situation with Henry first, though.

"Where would you write if you could write any where in the world?" Scratchet asked.

This was an easy question for Henry, one that he'd thought about since he first learned to write.

"A small town, I guess, somewhere far away from the greedy hands of corruption. I want to find a place that still holds on to some semblance of integrity; a place where the stories are real and have meaning, and people care. When I first started working here, not as a paper boy, but after college, as a reporter; the first thing you told me was that there is no such thing as a small story. I still believe that that is true. I also know that there is no place in our big paper for these so-called small stories."

Henry's words inflated him to a straight-up-sitting-position; his humbled slouch now replaced with a renewed sense of meaning and glowing thoughts. Scratchet was sitting on his desk with his head down; he had heard this speech too many times before.

"I think you're drunk. And I think you are a lightweight," Scratchet said as he stood. "I also think that you are right." The editor stood and brushed back his white hair with his ink-stained hands. "All the same, maybe you should consider writing fiction. You oughta go over and see Mack Sennett, see if you can get a job writing for the movies. You'd probably be great at that. If it ever gets out that you were the one behind today's stunt, you won't be able to get a job writing on the wall of a shitter, so we'd have to act fast"

"I'd rather write shit-house verse than to write for the pictures," Henry said, now standing, even with his boss, and mentor. "I'm just a writer with small town ideals, living in a big city?"

After a few seconds of thought, Scratchet, putting his years of deadline experience to work, made his decision.

"Sounds cliché, but I'll buy it," Scratchet offered.

A quick knock on the opaque glass of the office door momentarily broke the purchase. Delores, the secretary leaned the upper half of her body in through the crack of the door. She had a notebook and a pencil in her hand, as well as a pencil behind each ear. The remorse-laden look she gave Henry, although quick, was easy to spot as genuine.

"Chief, I got the Mayor, the Governor, and the Chief of Police on the phone," she said this trying to make it sound like it was a good thing.

"Is that a good thing?" Scratchet asked.

"Well, I also got the Times beatin' down the backdoor," she added less enthusiastically.

"Tell the first three I am working on a retraction, and I will call them as soon as I can. Tell the Times," he paused to think, "Aw, hell. Tell the Times, no comment. And Delores, get your pad and pencil, and come back in ten minutes. I need to send a telegram to my brother."

"Got it Chief." She looked again at Henry. "How's things, Henry?"

"I dunno yet, how do they look to you?" he asked with a smirk that let her know he might survive.

Delores looked at Scratchet, who was now pacing back and forth with his trademark, Parker fountain pen in his mouth, then back at Henry and with a wink she shut the door.

"I don't think that you have a clue to how much trouble you could be in here. You gotta lay low for a while," Scratchet said, as he wiped the fresh ink stains from his hands to his slacks.

"So I'm not fired," Henry asked.

"Between you and me, you're on temporary leave. If anyone else asks; I haven't seen you in a week. Things are bad for you right now, and things are bad for me right now. Nothing I haven't dealt with before though. But still, I'm sending you on assignment. I guess I gotta keep you alive long enough so that some day I can fire you."

"Where to," Henry asked, beaming, hoping for a break.

"To a small town," Scratchet answered before throwing back another glassful.


Delores had to wait until three AM to sneak Henry down to the docks to catch the ship going north. Henry hid under his hat and a fake moustache in the passenger seat. As they sat in the model T Ford, backed into the far corner of the dock, a light rain fell on the windshield, giving some cover should anyone be looking for him. In all the years that he and Delores had worked together, this was the first time that they had ever been alone, much less, out of the newsroom together. Delores was the best looking girl he knew, and with her new short haircut, that was all the rage, he wished that he could be seen with her. He was glad that he had never asked her out though; he saw all of the problems that having a best girl had caused all of the other guys, and he didn't want that between them. Besides, he had his career to concentrate on, and now he was going on an assignment that was so secret, he still didn't know where he was going. He would just wait until he got back in a couple of weeks, maybe with a real moustache of his own and an article worthy of any front page in the country, then he would tell her how he felt.

The docks were like something out of one of the suspense novels that Henry liked to read; dimly lit, with a thin layer of fog rolling in off of the ocean, and the distant sounds of freight being loaded mixed with the blowing of the ships horn.

"Feels a little bit surreal out her huh," Henry broke the silence between the two.

"You gonna be all right, out there by yourself?" Delores answered without considering what he had said.

"Oh yeah, of course, I'll be just swell. In fact it'll be like a little vacation, 'cept I'll be busy tracking down fresh stories. Boss wants an expose' on small town life and culture." A serious look replaced the brave smile on his face, a smile that wanted to last forever, but faded into the hall of cowardly smirks. "From the viewpoint of the big city journalist."

"I still can't figure out how you snuck that front page by everybody today. No one can," Delores threw the phrase out, like an after breakfast goodnight.

"It's not important how I did it, Delores; only that people saw it. Sure the bigwigs are steamed plenty, now. But in a couple weeks I like to think that I'll be remembered as the one who blew the lid off this whole racket. I'm forging a new path in the print game."

"Well it looks like you better start forging a new path onto that boat; the Mayor's goons just showed up," Delores added while slinking down in her seat.

A long black car pulled up onto the docks and two burly men in pinstripes and bulges got out and walked over to the gangplank, where a man with a clipboard was making last minute checks. The tough guys made subtle demands upon the guy with the clipboard, until one of them pushed him out of the way and boarded the ship while his accomplice took control of the clipboard.

"What do we do Henry, those guy's are looking for you?" Delores said.

"I ain't scared of those guy's. I know that what I did was right and they can go to Hell if they think their gonna keep me from my next story. To tell ya the truth Delores, I really don't give a rat's ass what the hell happens. All's I know is I gotta do something' different from what everyone else is doin'; even something' different from what everyone expects me to be doin'."

"Well, at least you got a good outlook on things. I just hope we can get you on that boat, cause these guys ain't gonna let up, Henry."

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