— Franklin P. Jones
Reporter & humorist
Instinct told me this wasn’t going to be pleasant when the country twang on the other end of the line asked, “Rick, can you take a little constructive criticism?”
I knew not to answer this call. It was late. I was tired, probably a little cranky. My stomach was growling and my head hurt. Tired of staring into this newsroom computer all day, I just wanted to go home and chill a few hours with my wife whose unconditional friendship the past couple of years has kept me clinging to this side of sanity.
I had stared briefly at the blinking phone as it rang and even muttered a little something known only to me and the fly on the office wall. But I answered it anyway. And the fly just listened.
Pondering the caller’s opening question, I hesitated in my response but responded nonetheless.
“I guess it depends on exactly how constructive the constructive criticism is,” I replied. “Regardless, I imagine you’re going to give it to me anyway.”
He chuckled. I reciprocated ... a bit uneasily, but reciprocate I did. It was the least I could do. After all, the guy made the effort to call. I owed him a couple of minutes. Besides, he seemed cordial enough. Obviously country born and Southern raised as judged by his Confederate accent, he told me his name and said we had talked before. I can’t recall if that conversation was another constructive one, but his laid-back monotone sounded familiar if not downright comforting.
Perhaps his name was Bill, maybe Darryl or even Jim Bob. I wish I could remember, but over the past couple of years my remaining, formerly reliable brain cells — those dedicated to memory — have begun a desertion like that of a conscientious objector headed for the Canadian border.
So my telephone guest and I talked although I mostly listened.
Leaning back in my squeaky chair, I had prepared for the worst. My necktie was undone. The front of my shirt had a coffee stain. The pain in my forehead rivaled the ache in my back. I imagined swatting the fly. I wondered what he was thinking. I didn’t even know if he was a he. I assumed flies sometimes were shes. How else could we have little flies? It was just that kind of day.
William, Walter, Perry or maybe it was Jackie Bob ... took exception to a news story I had written a couple of days earlier. He knew it was mine because it had my name on it. Darn those bylines. We needed a change in newspaper policy.
“Rick, it was a good enough story, but you needed to dig a little more,” my friend explained. “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but I know a little bit about this subject. There’s more to it.”
“Maybe I can write a follow-up,” I suggested. “Would you be willing to go on the record and let me interview you? It might help answer a few questions from other readers.”
He never hesitated.
“Oh, no, no,” he said. “I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t want my name to get out there. I don’t need the publicity. Besides, I’m not a part of this story. I just know what’s going on.”
“Then maybe you can give me a name of somebody who will talk to me,” I offered.
“Oh, if I did that they’d figure out it was me who gave you their name,” he countered. “No, I need to stay out of this. I just wanted you to know there’s more there than meets the eye.”
“OK,” I said, thanking him for the call. One breath away from saying “goodbye,” I was prepared to hang up the receiver and tend to the fly that still clung to the wall listening to my every word. But Phil, Pierpont, Ramon or Joe Bob continued.
“There’s something else I needed to say,” he stressed.
I sighed, while noticing the coffee stain on my shirt danced like a ballerina juiced on caffeine each time I fidgeted.
“More?” I quizzed. “Fire away.”
“There’s one part of your newspaper I hate,” he said.
“I don’t like the Editorial Page,” Deep Throat II continued. “In fact, most days I can’t stand it. Well, maybe ‘can’t stand’ is a little strong.”
“Yeah, maybe it is,” I again chuckled. “But why don’t you like it?”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he replied. “You do a good job of recognizing the work of a lot of groups and people who help this community. But you need to take a stand on more issues. You do sometimes and I appreciate that, but you need to do it more.”
I reminded him of a few editorial positions we had taken in the past. But he wanted it every day.
“I like reading editorials that are more negative, where you’re really blasting somebody whether it’s about government, big business, politicians ... that bunch,” he cited.
Again I pondered, watching the fly as it took a few steps along the wall to the left, closer to my computer. It was almost within reach. Without a fly swatter handy, I considered using a file folder that lay on the desk to my right. I studied the winged insect again and wondered how it could cling sideways on the wall for so long. Must be some pretty sticky feet.
Returning my attention to the caller, I caught a few trailing words by George, Paul, Ringo or Billy Bob, something about, “... people need to be put in the hot seat.”
I agreed ... at least, when their discomfort was warranted. I reminded him newspapers shouldn’t have opinions about everything. Sometimes just reporting the news is enough. Let people form their own opinions. I think the fly heard me because he stopped moving. Maybe he was thinking. Maybe he agreed with the caller. Maybe he agreed with me.
“I’ll say two things to you,” I offered as a closer. “First, thank you for at least taking the time to read our newspaper. And two, I’m sorry we’ve disappointed you.”
“Well,” he drawled, “you can’t please everybody, can you?”
“No,” I agreed. “We can try, but I don’t see it happening, not in this lifetime.”
“Well Rick, thank you for your time,” he said. “Maybe I won’t cancel my prescription just yet.”
Assuming he meant “subscription” ... I’ve made the same snafu myself ... I wished him well, invited him to call back any time, placed the receiver in its grimy cradle and returned my gaze to the fly.
He was motionless. And I think he was giggling.
Darn that fly.