[Tyr Zalo Hawk]: 712.Stories.ShortStories.How to Make the Headlines

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2012-04-23 02:48:39
Some people just have all the luck...
short story
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Kids Make Delicious Snacks the headline read, and Roberto Martinez Helgarson was ready for the shouting. The chief would have a field day with a headline like that; Roberto imagined the metaphor of his ass being a delicious snack for the want ads, or the obituaries: Big Newspaper Fires; One Down. He never meant to write anything that could be misconstrued so easily, but that was his curse. His father’s ability to dive chest-deep into trouble was something Roberto had inherited, but he didn’t get the other, more important half: sheer dumb luck. His father’ gifts and guidance simply weren’t helpful in the world of journalism. What was a reporter supposed to do with a battle-axe or the proper technique to pillaging? No amount of schooling or encouragement from his mother had ever fixed his father’s genetic influences. They weren’t just problems in his life, they were the only problems.
“Helgarson!” the chief roared. “Get your icy ass in my office!” The chief had a voice that carried so well he might have been a ventriloquist, and Roberto’s ear was the dummy. Before the last echoes had died out, Roberto was in the chief’s office with his mighty hands held up in apology.
“Chief, I can explain.”
“Oh, you can eh?” The chief leaned back and set his booted feet on his big brown desk. The steel ends of his shoes glinted in the morning sun meaningfully. “Then explain to me how you managed to screw yourself in the ass yet again.”
Roberto had thought clear through to dawn about his answer to this question. Despite the chief’s gruff personality and the inclusion of his favorite body part in every sentence, he was understandable enough to allow anyone the chance to explain. This was the side effect of a bullet to the frontal lobe during the Gulf War, and Roberto thanked the bullet that granted him this kindness. “Chief, I was just trying to say what happened straight, like you’ve always told me. No creative stuff, just the facts.” Despite being born and raised in Florida by a lively Spanish woman, Roberto possessed an incredibly thick Icelandic accent that had originally made speaking to anyone a trying process.
“Is that so?”
“Yes, chief. That’s how it went.”
“So where’d the ‘delicious’ come from, Helgarson? Your icy buddies say that one about your ass and you figured it’d be good material for my paper?” Even if Roberto had friends, he knew better than to think anything was good enough for the chief’s paper. The snacks had tasted good, that was what delicious meant. He was certain this wasn’t just about one word; it was about one more wrong word in a long list he had chosen over the years. “We’re a serious newspaper here, Icy. We’re not the Inquisitor or The Village Voice, we’re The Tampa Times! I won’t have your sorry ass ruining my paper while I look for an editor who can stay up late enough to fix you.”
Wait!” Roberto shouted, accidentally using his god voice. The chief had never felt more compelled to sit around and just pass the time. Everyone in the office stopped what they were doing. A bird that had been passing close by hovered outside the window, awaiting further command. Oh Dad, now I’ve really done it, Roberto thought. “Stop waiting,” he said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “But you have to listen to me chief.” He’d promised himself to only use the god voice when absolutely necessary. He was Spanish. He had his pride.
The chief agreed with Helgarson. He took his feet off the desk, sat up straight and leaned forward. He’d heard that this was the sort of posture that let people know you were listening, even though he’d always known people were listening if they winced. He tried wincing and found it unpleasant. “Chief,” Roberto said, “you can’t just fire me. I’m really close to getting this thing, believe me. I just need another month and then I’ll be able to write real headlines.” There was something less interesting about what Helgarson had said than the chief expected. Where was the eloquence? The grandeur? He wondered why this foreigner didn’t always speak in that big voice of his, because his normal voice was awfully un-American.
“Well, I’m not giving your ass another month. You got one more headline to impress me, or even to moderately please me. Hell, I’ll accept anything that doesn’t turn this newspaper into tomorrow’s toilet paper, or you’ll be out of here and back on the next boat to your homeland so fast your ass’ll spin.” Helgarson was almost alright, in an Icelandic way. He was probably even the smartest kid in his whole village back home, but here he just didn’t have the stuff. The chief thought Helgarson would make a great boxer, or wrestler, or tank, but he wanted to be a reporter, and the chief appreciated spunk. “I didn’t hire you because you’re a screw up. I hired you because you graduated local, and I like that in a man, even a foreign one. Now get your ass moving!”
It almost impressed Roberto how fond the chief was of that one word, and he wondered if he couldn’t find a story to use it for. It did mean donkey too. As he sat down at his desk, Roberto mulled over possible headlines for donkey-related incidents. “Wild Ass Found Downtown. A Real Ass Causes 30 Car Pile-up.” The likelihood of a donkey showing up to give him the opportunity for headlines like that were too slim though. He wrote them both down on a loose sheet of paper. There were hundreds of ideas for headlines inside Roberto’s desk, but none of the stories the husky Spanish/Norse/American thought up ever materialized. He rubbed up his face and grabbed at his red hair, pulling at it in frustration.
Margaret “Gretz” Zimmerman was already in the room, silent as a cat despite her heft. “Hey Icy. Great headline today. The chief fire you?” Roberto shook his head but Gretz was the one to speak. “I can’t believe he hasn’t yet. You just don’t have the talent for this line of work. No offense.” She had a voice as broad as her hulking stomach, and smelled thickly of edelweiss. Roberto couldn’t imagine a more perfect woman. Gretz liked the attention.
“Well, it’s not for not trying to. He gave me one last headline, Gretz, and if I botch it: I’m gone.”
She went with the sympathy card. “So, don’t botch it, and if you do botch it, make sure it’s not my story and you mess up with style for once.” What was supposed to be a wink of encouragement ended up as an odd twitch as she strolled away from him. Roberto watched her go to her own desk - the entire way - tracing the sway of her hips as his mind worked out something new. Icelandic Spaniard gets it Wrong Right for Once. He wrote it down.
And hour had passed and all of the good stories were taken by people with reporting skills. Roberto wasn’t actually given a story of his own, just one to come up with a headline for. Roberto should have been the perfect journalist. He spoke three languages, graduated from the University of Florida with his journalism degree, and dedicated his heart and soul to the story. None of that could override his genetics. On his first assignment, he’d been given a heartwarming tale about some working girls asking forgiveness from the Pope and had written all day to produce a fitting story that spanned most of the second page. Trouble found him, and Prostitutes Appeal to Pope was a rather crippling blow to his career.
The chief had never sworn so much since the war, or so he’d claimed. He’d been a teacher, then a gym coach, then a drill sergeant and had finally settled on being able to boss people around without any fear of ‘higher ups.’ He knew how to drill weakness out of anyone. So, he attached Helgarson to rookie stories and response columns to practice headlines until he got it down. It just wasn’t working.
Roberto would’ve given anything to be on a team with Gretz on her investigation into the scientific facts behind the alligators in the sewers. He would’ve killed for the opportunity to type out even 200 words on the violent Hurricane Gilbert that had just passed over Jamaica. Instead, he was writing a headline for a sale at the recently opened supermarket: the Publix. It was impossible to mess up something so simple.

“No one can pick their parents,” the therapist said. It was nice to have the reminder, but Roberto still prayed, in his own way, that someone could find a way to change that brand of fact. If ever given the opportunity, Roberto might’ve at least chosen two mortal parents. Thor was the stuff of legends, literally, but that hadn’t equipped the god for a son who wasn’t ready for war. It was impossible to communicate this without seeming insane.
“Isn’t there anything I can do? Hit a reset button and try with a new set of parents?”
“I’m afraid you can’t. If it were that easy, I’d press that button instead of getting divorced.” This was a rough time for John Trainer. His wife of ten years was leaving him because of a few acts of indiscretion, and now the confusing Roberto was back with his father issues. John was no expert on DNA, but he was fairly certain that Roberto’s headline troubles were all just in his mind.
“Of course, the real problem isn’t that the stories aren’t there; it’s just that headlines always seem so intelligent until I see everyone laughing and pointing in the morning. Typhoon Rips through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead. What was so humorous about the gripping story of a murderous hurricane?” John stifled his snort for professional reasons. “Or Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian to Take Over. An endangered species was nearly lost and all anyone could say was ‘That’s hilarious!’”
“That’s because it was hilarious.”
“But I always get the joke too late. When I finally read my own work in big, black letters, that’s when the irony strikes me like my father’s hammer.” Now this was progress, and news. “There’s no logical reason for-”
“I’m going to stop you there, Roberto. You say your father has a hammer,” John did his best not to sound smug, but this was going to be good “and that he struck you with it, yes?”
“No. I didn’t say that.” Roberto sighed. Therapy wasn’t working, it never worked. Just like his mind didn’t work right even though there ‘wasn’t’ any medical or logical cause. He’d seen therapists like John, psychologists, psychiatrists, and two dozen other doctors of every field he could imagine. All of them told him he was in perfect health. In that mess of paper back in his desk there was even a headline he wrote about his experience: Man Seeing Doctors; Can’t Find Cure. He wasn’t sure what was wrong with the headline, because it stated all of the facts just as it happened, but there was something to it that wouldn’t look good if it ever came out in print. This time though, it was going to be different.

Get a Set of Nuts at the Publix Now.
The chief was red. The red of Gretz’s big lips painted in a smile on the other side of the office; red like a berserker in battle. Red like a dying sun ready to nova. Roberto pulled at the collar of his shirt and offered his dignity as a sacrifice to stall his Armageddon. “Chief, they’re selling them in sets of three. If it would’ve been pairs of nuts I’d have put that instead, honest.”
“You think pairs of nuts would’ve been better?”
The correct answer had to be no. It just had to be, but Roberto didn’t know why. He never knew why. Comedy clubs and water coolers hadn’t helped in his understanding, nor had copious hours of Comedy Central and hypnotherapy. Now he clucked when people said horseradish, but he couldn’t see the humor in getting a pair of nuts at the supermarket. “No, sir. I don’t think that would be better. It’d be worse, of course.”
“You bet your ass it’d be worse. You know what else is worse, Helgarson? Your employment status.”
“Wait, no. Chief, you have to let me explain.”
“Not this time.” The chief was standing over Roberto, and the Miami heat felt even more unbearable. “This time you’re just gonna go. Your icy ass is fired!”
Roberto sat still. He’d hoped, beyond all sanity, that maybe he’d make it through this situation again. That somehow this moment could’ve been avoided, like it had been so many times before. The chief’s finger, much smaller than Roberto’s or Gretz’s, pointed straight out the door to a life of newfound misery and despair. It was time to go, but Roberto just sat.
In through the window came a strong, cold wind, laced with the smell of ocean rain. It blew several papers off the chief’s desk, and sent a chill up his spine. The chief closed the window. “Damned wind.” He didn’t know why, but he felt out of place. In his own office of all places. When he turned around, Helgarson was still there. “Didn’t I tell your ass to get ou-” the window flew open behind him, forced up by hurricane-like winds. It sent the chief’s hairpiece through his office door just before it slammed shut. He didn’t remember reports of the hurricane coming towards them. Of course, this didn’t feel like a real hurricane.
Helgarson was looking down at his feet or something. The kid was dejected, of course, but he couldn’t have him ruining his paper anymore. Business was business, even in the news. Rain started flying sideways in through the window as the chief pulled down with all his weight. The winds were too strong. “Helgarson! Help me close this window!” The big guy could still be useful to him, even if he was a little mad, but Helgarson didn’t budge.
The rest of the office was staring in through the windows. Papers and office supplies flew through the tiny room. Their former coworker sat, and their current employer struggled to stay alive. Gretz was scribbling on a notepad. She was shocked too, naturally, but her instincts told her that this was a scoop. The chief’d pay her a nice commission for a story about a hurricane forming entirely in his office.
Roberto stood up and thunder burst from the drawers of the chief’s desk. Windows shook, bent, retracted, threatened to shatter from the cacophony, but none did. “Why won’t you let me explain?
The chief didn’t have an answer that could be heard over the storm. Even in his head it was muffled and soft, not really an angry shout at all. He was plastered against the wall of his office, hoping that the winds wouldn’t suddenly change direction and pelt him with pointy pencils. Outside he could see the sunshine, the yellow that could save him if only he wasn’t trapped in this nightmare. Oh right, a nightmare. It was just a bad dream. The chief had had some weird ones before. This one definitely took the cake, but he wasn’t the kind of man to let a dream win.
Things were really getting good inside that office. The chief was actually braving the storm, walking towards Rob, who seemed to be at the center of it. His courageous push through the micro-cane inspired his entire staff. They cheered and hooted, rallying the chief onwards. No one was sure what had initially erased the gaping horror from the chief, but whatever it was they wished they had it. Gretz thought that ‘indomitability’ was nice, but that ‘guts’ would sell papers tomorrow morning.
“HEL-GAR-SON! GET THIS HURRICANE’S ASS OUT OF MY OFFICE!” To emphasize his point, the chief struck the failed headliner in the face, and even though Roberto barely felt it, he blinked and everything fell. The officane faded as hundreds of miles away, Jamaicans would’ve given anything for a demigod to punch in the face, if only they knew such a thing would’ve helped
“Sorry, chief.” Roberto let himself out as the crowd rushed in. He gathered up what few things he had in the office: the papers filling his desk, a picture of his mother, a wooden shield, a few pencils and pens, a UF rubber ducky. When he looked up from gathering the last of his papers, Gretz was there, notepad in palm.
“Gretz. Hi.” He was touched.
“Rob, I’m sorry about the job,” Gretz beamed the words through her teeth. “But can I get a comment from you on the hurricane?”
Of course that’d be Roberto’s luck. The woman he wanted for two years only wanted him for a line of text. And even that was only because the cosmic forces residing in the core of his being bent reality a little bit. He didn’t even have anything to say about that fiasco. Stuff in arms, he did his best to leave gracefully, but there was no way that was going to happen. Woman Who Doesn’t Love Local Man Won’t Let Him Go.
“Any comment at all? The public is dying to hear your side of the story.”
“They are?”
“Of course they are. This is the story of the century.”
“How’d they find out? It just happened.”
Gretz was confused. This was the sort of thing that worked with public icons and everyday folks on the street. Who was Rob to go against the grain like that? “Here at the Tampa Times, we’re dedicated to getting the news to the people as fast as humanly possible.”
Roberto was confused. Gretz had always been rather adept at getting a story out of someone, or so he’d been told. Was this her only angle? “But if you’re only just doing the report, then we haven’t released anything yet.”
Rob was good. He knew the secrets of the trade almost as well as she did, but good old Gretz still had an ace up her sleeve. “You don’t want the press figuring out about us, do you?”
“Us?” They always squealed when she roped them in like that.
“That’s right. I’ll tell everyone about our affair.”
“We never had an affair, Gretz. We haven’t even kissed.” Typical denial. Push it through, Gretzy.
“But I’ll tell everyone that we have. Think of what your neighbors and wife will say. You’ll be ruined.” She smirked to herself and readied her pen. It was odd though; Roberto didn’t look terrified for his career.
“I’m not certain if this is a joke or what, but I have to get going. Take care of yourself, Gretz.” Gretz was too stunned to block him. Her best bluff had just been called. She was ruined forever as a reporter.
A storm had settled in outside. Roberto was liver-deep in yellow-brown beer and white-enough foam. He hated drinking, and hated beer more, but his ancestry had always proven that no amount of hatred could overcome the intoxicating effects of alcohol. His father had always loved to drink, and so the now-jobless journalist had done everything he possibly could to avoid liking drinking, drinking games, drinking establishments, drinking songs, and being drunk. This didn’t stop him from participating, he just didn’t like it. “¿Por qué yo?” Roberto always spoke in his mother’s tongue when he wasn’t sober. He’d trained himself to never revert to Old Icelandic, not even at his worst. It was a tribute as well as a small rebellion; it was all he could do against an immortal father.
Then the door thundered open and in stepped the mighty Thor himself. “It’s because you’re my boy!” Oversized warhammer slung over one shoulder, the Norse god of thunder sat down on a stool at the bar and roared with laughter. “It’s good to see you out of that office and doing some man’s drinking!
Ha!” Roberto silently wished that his father would learn not to speak with so many exclamation points. He hadn’t stopped in 25 years though, nor the near millennia before Roberto’s birth. “Barkeep! Get us some ale and some wenches!
Behind grey eyes, the bartender’s mortal mind was trying to work out how to comply with the commands given to him by a god. He had no girls to give, only the beer, but his entire being was compelled to obey. If the paradox couldn’t be solved, he’d likely go insane. Roberto had seen it happen once before, when he was 11 and his father had first brought him to a local pub. “Don’t worry about the women,” Roberto commanded, “He really only wants the beer.
Awww, Hel. My boy knows me!
If it hadn’t been for the sudden appearance of two giant mugs, overflowing with majestically golden brews, Roberto might’ve tried something more. He might’ve even tried to keep the man from serving his father drinks, but there wasn’t much chance of him winning that argument. Instead, he wondered where the pouring rain stopped and clear skies resumed. Mood Weather hadn’t always been the best passive power for a demi-god, but at least it wasn’t long range.
As he drank, the bar slowly morphed into a setting more befitting a Viking war god and his dejected son. The wooden floors and walls lost their polished flatness as they rolled themselves into huge logs. The hurricane-proof roof splintered into thatched straw, and the jukebox stayed a jukebox. Thor had never been one for the modern, but he liked beer a lot more than the specifics. That didn’t make the bar’s transformation any easier on the owner, who continually poured beer with a pained smile, his body still bent on obeying.
Why did these people always have to come into his bar? Pour. The bartender no longer felt the few beers he’d had an hour before were a good idea. These walls can’t be regulation. Pour. The possibility of a fire is going to make my insurance premium skyrocket. Pour. God, why did I quit Pour. School?
“So, what’re you doing here? Valhalla run out of ale?”
Ha! Not at all! I came to drink with my boy! Celebrating your first day of freedom!
“Of course.” Roberto raised his impossibly large mug with one hand. There wasn’t any weight to it. “Here’s to my freedom, then. Now that I’ve lost my job, I don’t have to worry about anyone’s ass.”
Here, here!” Thor quaffed what was left of his drink, sending ambrosial beer across the oaken floors. A roaring hearth fire sprung up against one wall in the new fireplace, just so it could catch the ale and flare brightly. This was not the kind of Pour. Thing the bartender felt comfortable with seeing.
“I don’t have to see anyone I don’t like, and anyone who doesn’t like what I do can spend the winter in Greenland.” The winds spiraled around the bar; the door slammed shut.
That’s the spirit! Now you got more time for doing whatever it is you really want to do!” Not the least bit drunk, but pretending to be because he enjoyed the feeling when he was, Thor grabbed and started downing two full mugs at the same time.
“You’re right,” Roberto said. He punched his father in the gut and beer sprayed out of the god’s mouth; it rained heavily. Spanish pride fueled his Norse rage, and Roberto threw blow after blow into his father’s stomach and chest as the storm intensified. Thor laughed in cracks of thunder that shook the building. Roberto’s lightning fists struck the god who dared call himself his father again and again until his arms were sore and his chest heaved. Howling winds threatened to pull the creaking timber apart. The bartender wondered Pour. If it was too late to Pour. Retire before his bar was torn to Pour. Shreds. Roberto threw a last uppercut into his father’s jaw, knocking him supine. Lightning struck somewhere just outside, and Roberto unclenched his fists. It was the Fisting of the Century. He’d write it down later. The jukebox sang ‘The Winner Loses All’ to a Tampa bar slowly becoming itself with a guffawing deity on its floor.
You’ve got quite the punch!” Thor sat up, wiping tears from his cloud grey eyes. “You got it all out of you yet?” Roberto struck him again; a blow that would’ve cracked the bone of a lesser being. The bartender finally stopped pouring beer, and the storm quieted enough to ease the pain of his heart attack.
“Why won’t you leave me alone?”
I want to know why my youngest son keeps running from his fights! I’ve never given birth to a coward before!” Thor stood and picked up his giant hammer. Mjolnir crackled with power.
“I’m not running. I just can’t win. Everything I write turns into some joke, like the stories about you are all just jokes.”
Tell that to Jörmungandr!
Roberto sighed and flopped into his seat. His father was too stubborn and too lucky to lose at anything, even serious arguments. Meanwhile, Roberto was the unluckiest person he’d ever known, and that included those people in Jamaica. He wished his mother was still alive so she could at least take Thor’s attention away. “Then tell me, Eindriði. Tell me exactly what I’m supposed to do.”
Use your strengths! A warrior without strengths will make his weakness into strength! Grab your axe, your sword, your shield, and bring death to your enemies! Do not expect them to bring you your weapons, to kill themselves on your blade! Even a dull blade can be used to knock a man aside in combat!” As he shouted, the thunder cheered and the bartender ran out through the storm, intent on making his way into the world of insurance sales, battleaxe or no. “Use the gifts I’ve given you! You’re my boy, and you can do anything!
“What gifts? You haven’t given me anything!.” Roberto’s storm was growing violent again, and the only recently reformed glass windows wobbled. “I can’t even write decent headlines because of the many things you haven’t given me.”
Have another drink with me then! Not making it out there goes just as well in here!” Roberto’s anger fell into a drizzle of disappointment. He didn’t even bother with a rebuttal. I Couldn’t Help It. Somebody Stopped Me.
The bar swung open and Roberto had to catch it before he ended up with a concussion. A white man, about Roberto’s age, entered the bar and pointed outside. “You guys aware that this is the only bar in the whole area with its own hurricane? And did you see that bald guy running out of here? I don’t know what got into him but I was thinking I could get some here.” He noticed Roberto’s imposing figure over his shoulder and laughed. “You the bouncer?”
“Nah, just a failure.”
“Sorry to hear it. How’s about I buy you a beer?” The stranger looked around at the nearly empty bar. Thor was the only other person there, and he certainly didn’t look like any bartender he’d even seen. “Is the bartender in the john or something?”
“He was the bald guy.”
“Huh. Weird,” he said. “Well, then I guess we’ll just have to commandeer the beer ourselves.”
The trio sat and drank a round all to themselves in relative silence. Roberto found it odd that his father could be so silent, especially when drinking was involved. “So,” he paused to find the words through a bit of beer haze, “What did you say your name was again?”
“Tim Keck,” Tim said. “You?”
“Roberto Helgarson.”
“No way,” Tim grinned. “I’ve been looking all over for you since I got into town.”
The rain stopped awkwardly in midair. “Er, what now?”
“Somebody sent me a copy of the Tampa Times the other day. You have the funniest damn headlines I’ve ever read.” Tim grabbed himself another beer and took a swig. “Man, what are the odds, huh? Tell you what, me and some friends are starting up a little gag newspaper of our own up in Wisconsin. If you’re interested, we could really use someone with your unique talents.” The man offered his hand to Roberto.
Thor was smiling at them. He’d seen that smile before, but couldn’t remember how long ago it had been. As he tried to figure it out, his father grabbed his hand and stuck in Tim’s. “It’s a deal!” Before Roberto could argue, the god had vanished and Tim seemed pleased with himself.
“Great then! I’ll give you a while to set up things, and I’ll see you in Wisconsin, eh?”
“Yeah. Right. What’s this paper of yours called again?”
The Onion.

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