By Allen Eskens
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Joe Talbert, Jr. has never once met his namesake. Now out of college, a cub reporter for the Associated Press in Minneapolis, he stumbles across a story describing the murder of a man named Joseph Talbert in a small town in southern Minnesota.
Full of curiosity about whether this man might be his father, Joe is shocked to find that none of the town’s residents have much to say about the dead man-other than that his death was long overdue. Joe discovers that the dead man was a loathsome lowlife who cheated his neighbors, threatened his daughter, and squandered his wife’s inheritance after she, too, passed away — an inheritance that may now be Joe’s.
Mired in uncertainty and plagued by his own devastated relationship with his mother, who is seeking to get back into her son’s life, Joe must put together the missing pieces of his family history — before his quest for discovery threatens to put him in a grave of his own.
I'm lying on the hood of my car, my back reclined against my windshield, knees bent, fingers laced together on my stomach, my breathing relaxed to ease the throb of pain. I'd like to say that having the tar beat out of me was the low point of my day, but that would be a lie. The beating that thug laid on me can't compare to the hurt I inflicted upon myself. The night around me is large and weightless, the kind of a night that demands honest contemplation, and I'm doing my level best to oblige.
I feel like I'm in exile, a nomad of sorts, sharing my night with the stars and the trees and the occasional thistle seed that floats by on the summer breeze. I try to ponder the wrong turns that brought me here, but I can't seem to get past my pathetic excuses about why this shouldn't be my fault. I want to be like Adam and point my finger at the one who handed me the apple or, better yet, find a way to blame the serpent, but my conscience won't let me do that. I want to believe that I am a better man than I am, but I know that I am not. This one is on me, nobody else.
I don't know when it happened, but at some point I got cocky. I stopped counting my faults and became charmed by the image I put forth for the rest of the world—a side of me that allows people to find their own kindness in my plight. You see, I've been taking care of my autistic brother, Jeremy, going on six years now, and I have a girlfriend who I helped put through law school. People see those things and think, What a good guy that Joe Talbert is. They have become so blinded by the gleam of my armor that they haven't noticed that it's only tinfoil. I always expected the world to someday figure out that I didn't belong here, that I had risen far above my ditch-digging station, so I shouldn't have been surprised when it all started falling apart.
Years ago, when I ran away from home to go to college, half-cocked and broke, I had no real expectation that I'd ever earn a living with my head instead of my hands. Working my way through school as a bouncer, I often found myself harboring equal measures of contempt and envy for those guys who lived in that higher strata of life, men who wore pants wrinkled at the hip from sitting all day, their soft hands holding drinks poured with high-end vodka—no steel-toed shoes needed where they worked. If I could just be one of them, I thought, I'd be happy.
I still remember getting my first paycheck from the Associated Press, how I held it in my hands and stared at it for hours before taking it to the bank. Someone had actually paid me to think—to use my brain. No scraped knuckles. No sore back. A far cry from when I first ventured into the workforce back when I was sixteen—the summer that I worked for my mother's landlord remodeling apartments. His name was Terry Bremer, and I learned a lot from him, but boy that job sucked.
Once, on a scorching August day, half-blinded by the stinging sweat in my eyes, I crawled into a dusty attic dragging thick batts of fiberglass insulation to its farthest corners. The itch from that experience stuck with me for a week. Another time, I wore out a pair of leather gloves digging a truly foul-smelling trench to replace a collapsed sewer line. Who'd have thought that I could screw up a desk job so badly that I'd look back at shoveling sewage with a fond nostalgia? Yet I had managed it.
When it comes to bad days, it's hard to beat one that starts with a short, bald man serving you with a summons and complaint. I was absorbed by an article that I was writing that day and didn't even hear the man knock—you need a punch code to get into the AP office. I had no idea that he was in the room until I heard him say my name. Another reporter pointed me out, and the man walked up to my desk with a smile on his face.
"Joe Talbert?" he asked.
He held out an envelope, which I instinctively took. Then he said, "You've been served."
I didn't understand at first because he performed this act with the cheer of someone hoping to receive a tip. "Served?" I asked.
His smile grew bigger. "You're being sued for defamation of character. Have a nice day." Then he turned and left the office.
I stood there with the envelope in my hand, not sure what to think. Then I looked around the room at the faces of my fellow reporters, hoping to see the smile of a prankster, someone holding back a laugh or biting a lip, but all I saw was a mixture of fear and pity in the eyes of my colleagues, people who were figuring this thing out one step faster than I was. I opened the envelope, pulled out the documents, and recognized the name of the man listed as the plaintiff. State Senator Todd Dobbins. I knew then that this was no prank.
This wasn't supposed to happen to me. I had done everything right. I had written the article over a month ago and it had everything: sex, scandal, political power—everything, that is, except a second source, a fact that made my editor, Allison Cress, more than a little nervous at the time. But I had given Allison the bona fides of my one source as well as the corroborating evidence to back up the story. I had convinced Allison that the source was solid. In the end, Allison ran the story as much on the strength of my word as anything else.
I walked to Allison's office to show her the document naming me and the Associated Press as co-defendants in a lawsuit, hoping to hear words of comfort, something like: this happens all the time, or don't worry, it's just a stunt by a corrupt politician. But what she said chilled me to the point that I nearly threw up. Her face went pale as she read the documents; then she told me to close the door and have a seat.
"This is bad, Joe," she said. "Really bad."
"But the story's true," I said. "Truth is a defense to defamation."
"The story's only true if we can prove that it's true. That's the problem with stories where you only have one source—an anonymous one at that."
"But I have a source. That's the important thing," I said, hoping that Allison would agree.
"The last I heard, your source doesn't want to be identified. That's a problem. If we can't produce a witness—especially given the circumstances of this story—it's going to look like we made it up. It'll be your word versus his word."
"Their word," I said meekly. Allison looked confused. "Mrs. Dobbins wrote out an affidavit backing up her husband's story."
Allison had large, chocolate eyes that undermined any chance of her holding a poker face. I could tell she was trying to look calm as we spoke, but I could see fear settling in. "What are the odds that the source would agree to come forward?"
Come forward? My source had let go of her rope and now dangled in my grip, trusting that I would not let her fall. Unmasking her identity not only would break a promise that I had made, but would cost her everything. Some lines can't be crossed. "But reporters use anonymous sources all the time," I said.
"Yes. And those reporters run the risk of something like this happening." Allison shook her head slowly as she continued to read the complaint. I eased back into my chair and waited. When she came to the end, to the part where Dobbins was making his demands, she looked up. "He wants a retraction, and he wants you fired," she said.
"He also wants a buttload of money. Did you read that?"
"Yeah, but I don't think this is about the money. Your story killed his political career. He's finished at the Capitol. The only way to get that life back is to get some kind of declaration that the story was false. To do that, he needs the retraction. I think having you fired is just icing on his cake."
"They wouldn't fire me, would they?"
Allison looked at me with a sad expression that all but said, Oh, you poor, naive little boy. Then she told me about a reporter who got fired last year for making a single mistake. He had a perfect record—not one error in twenty-eight years; but then he misidentified a set of initials on a document, attributing the initials to the wrong politician. That was all it took.
I stared out through the windows of Allison's corner office, a view I'd taken in many times before, the last time being a week ago when Allison and I discussed whether my article would be submitted for Pulitzer consideration. Now we were talking about the end of my career. She balled her hands together and leaned onto her desk, the legal papers at her elbows, her knuckles pressed against her lips. "There'll be an investigation," she said without looking up. "I'm on the hook with you. I approved the story. If they fire you, they'll fire me too."
And I didn't think I could feel any worse than I already did.
"The AP will give you an attorney. I went through this once when I was a reporter. It sucked. You'll have to waive any conflict of interest, or you can hire your own lawyer."
"Lila's about to take the bar exam." I'm not sure why I said that; I guess I was thinking out loud.
"You'll need someone who specializes in journalism law. I'm sure Lila's very smart, but don't take this lightly. If you get fired, no legitimate news outlet will ever hire you again. You'll be blackballed. Just sign the waiver and let the AP lawyers handle it."
"Yeah, I guess that's the smarter way to go."
I waited for Allison to say something to lift my spirits, but that didn't happen. By the time I left her office my head hurt and my chest squeezed in around my lungs making it hard to breathe. I spent the rest of the day staring at my computer screen; I didn't trust myself to type a single word. I kept seeing the accusations from the complaint, words and sentences floating across my field of vision. This could be the end of my career. Then what? Go back to digging ditches? Pull up a bar stool and man the door at Molly's Pub again? Every time I let those thoughts loose, they nearly choked me.
When I couldn't take it anymore, I went home to tell Lila the bad news. The twenty-minute trip took me from the crystalline towers of downtown Minneapolis to the working-class neighborhood of St. Paul's Midway, an old part of the city where small houses elbowed each other for space and boxy apartments wore the same dingy yellow brick as the outdated storefronts.
The apartment that Lila and I shared, a two-bedroom inside of an eight-unit complex, was the kind of place that most people would drive past and never think back on. It had no balcony, no lawn, no view other than that of the apartment building across the street, and because of a weird guy in that building who liked to stare into our windows, we kept our blinds closed, adding to the prison-block feel of our place. It was cheap, however, and close to Lila's law school, and that's what we needed for now.
Lila Nash was still just my girlfriend, and when I say just, I mean that I hadn't done the one-knee thing yet. I'd thought about it often, but it never seemed to be the right time, with college and then law school. I didn't want to propose to her when she had this final or that memorandum of law to work on. I was pretty sure that she would say yes if I asked, but then she would have put the ring aside and gone back to her books. I wanted to wait until we could enjoy the moment, give it the gravitas and attention it deserved. I had hoped that the right moment might come after she graduated from law school—but then came the bar exam.
We were only eight days away from that soul-sucking ordeal, and Lila was riding the bull with white knuckles and gritted teeth. She had a job offer with the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, an offer that would disappear if she failed the bar. So for the past two months she'd been studying for that test to the exclusion of everything—everything except for Jeremy, that is. In the middle of all the chaos, Lila somehow found time for my brother.
From the start, it was Lila who took the lead in caring for Jeremy. She was the one who trudged through the bureaucratic maze to get Jeremy his first job, sorting items at a recycling center. Lila educated herself on autism, reading a dozen books on the subject after Jeremy came to live with us. She found time for this even as she trimmed back her time with me, because law school was "kicking her ass." She and I used to play gin or cribbage almost every night. I can't remember the last time we did that.
Her latest project had been reading books with Jeremy. My brother learned to read when he was in school, but our mother never valued that skill, so at home he watched movies. Lila started him on children's books, classics like Snow-White, and Beauty and the Beast. And though Jeremy didn't like reading books at first, Lila persisted, working with him every day when he came home from his job, going over the words and the pictures, comparing the story on the page to the story on the DVD. After a few months, those books became part of his routine.
That's where I found them when I came home that day, sitting on the couch together, going over the words of a new book—Dumbo. They both looked up when I came in, Jeremy for only a second before turning his attention back to the page. He had no idea that I was home three hours early. Lila, on the other hand, looked at me, then at the clock, and back at me again, lines of confusion tracing across her forehead.
"You're early," she said. Neither a question nor an accusation, more of a note that she was jotting down in her thoughts.
I walked to the couch, sat next to Lila, and handed her the summons and complaint. Then I leaned back and waited for her to read it.
"Oh my God," she whispered. "This is…" She looked at me, her confused expression melding into concern. "You're being sued?"
"What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything," I said, sounding more defensive than I had intended.
"I'm sorry, that's not what I meant." She turned on the couch to face me, as if she wanted to look in my eyes as she asked me her next question. "They're saying that you made up a story. You didn't do that, did you?"
"Of course not. I would never make up a story."
"Todd Dobbins…he's that state senator you wrote about…the one who beat up his wife." Lila turned her attention back to the complaint.
"Yes, he beat up his wife."
"But…" Lila read some more, and I could see that she was reading the affidavit, where Mrs. Dobbins was now swearing that her trip to the emergency room happened because she fell down some stairs. She was swearing, under the penalty of perjury, not only that her husband did not hit her, but that he had saved her life by taking her to the hospital.
Lila looked up from the document. "If he says that she fell down the stairs…and she says that she fell down the stairs…then…"
"I have a source."
"I can't divulge that—not even to you. I gave my word."
"Joe, this is serious."
"Don't you think I know that?" I heard my voice rise, and I immediately felt bad. Lila wasn't the enemy. I took a deep breath to calm down.
"If you don't give up your source, how can you prove your case? Libel law…Times v. Sullivan…" Lila began speaking as though she were reading from a flash card—her preferred method of study. "There's a different standard if Dobbins is a public figure, and as a state senator, he's got to be a public figure. They'd have to prove that you wrote the article with actual malice—that you knew it was false and wrote it anyway."
"My story wasn't false."
"But your witness is someone you won't disclose. You have nothing to contradict their version of events. You see how this looks, don't you? You've put yourself into a box."
"I can't give up my source," I repeated. "I won't." But even as the words left my lips, I knew that Lila was right. I was screwed. My mind flashed back to my conversation with Allison and the prospect that I would get fired over this, and I was once again on the verge of throwing up. I leaned forward on the couch and cupped my face in my hand. Slow breath in. Slow breath out. Lila brushed her hand up and down my back, which didn't help but was a nice gesture.
And then Jeremy spoke. I had forgotten that he was sitting on the couch with us. "Joe," he said. "Maybe it will be all right."
I sat up and looked at my brother, his hands on his lap, the book lying beside him, the expression on his face one of uncertainty, probably questioning whether his response was appropriate in that situation. I have no doubt that he didn't understand what a lawsuit was, but he understood my reaction to it. He understood that the papers in Lila's hands had hurt me somehow. That was all he needed to know. And the thing he thought to say was the one thing that I wanted to hear—that everything would be okay.
I smiled. "Of course it'll be okay."
"That's right," Lila said, tossing the papers to the floor.
And with that, Lila and I came to an understanding that, at least around Jeremy, nothing bad had happened that day. We dropped the subject and pretended that it was a normal Tuesday. She went back to her studies, and I went to the kitchen where I could sit on the floor, out of Jeremy's sight, and let the world around me spin out of control. Yet, as bad as that day had been, the day that followed would prove that things can always get worse.
I considered taking that next day off, calling in sick to tend to my wounds. I didn't want to wade past the downturned eyes of my colleagues or hear the low hiss of whispers escaping from the breakroom as they discussed my failings. But I needed to face this thing. I hadn't done anything wrong, and staying home would have made me appear guilty. Besides, staring at my apartment walls would only let the worms of my self-pity burrow deeper into my brain. Working on another story might help keep my mind off the lawsuit. Who knows, I might even get my appetite back.
The AP office was housed in the Grain Exchange Building, a nine-story structure that probably constituted a skyscraper back in 1902 when they built it—the sky being so much lower back then. It stood hunched and heavy on the northern edge of downtown, the thick-fingered uncle of the Minneapolis skyline. Over the past four years, I had come to see that office as my second home. Now, as I walked to the elevator, an image popped into my head of my being escorted back out with a box of my personal effects in my arms. Do they really do that when they fire someone?
On the fifth floor, I punched the code into the key pad and entered the office of the Associated Press, a smaller space than most people might expect, especially if their concept of a newsroom comes from movies like All the President's Men, where a small army of reporters fills an entire floor. The AP office, which covered news in a four-state area, was just big enough to house six reporters, a breakroom, a conference room, and a separate office for Allison Cress.
We wrote the news while sitting at workstations, a modern form of cubicle with shorter walls so that you had the confinement of a cubicle, but not the privacy. The setup had the appearance of a big raft made up of six inner tubes tied together. I was fine with having no walls, though, because I worked on the windowless side of the raft. In slow times, I could look out through the windows—my view bouncing off the top of Gus MacFarlane's head—and let my daydreams catch the breeze. Those musings usually transported me to the glass towers of Manhattan, or the granite enclaves of Washington, DC, places where I had once hoped my career might take me. Now, my highest aspiration was to make it to quitting time and still have a job.
I had just plopped down into my nest, when Gus leaned toward my workstation and whispered, "Hey, Joe, Allison said she wanted to see you when you got in."
The bottom fell out of my stomach. "How'd she look?"
Gus pondered that for a second before answering, "Serious."
I started to get up, but then I changed my mind and sat back down, taking a minute to clean up my browser history. It's not that I had anything scandalous to hide, but I didn't want my replacement to know how frequently I used my thesaurus, and that I still struggled with the proper use of lie, lay, laid, and lain. I looked in my drawers to get an idea of how big of a box I would need for my stuff, and the answer depressed me. The entire accumulation of my personal items would likely fit into a shoe box. Maybe, subconsciously, I'd been preparing for this day all along.
A gurgle churned in my stomach as I made my way to Allison's office. She had always been a good boss. Smart. Levelheaded. I was going to miss her, and it killed me to know that I had pulled her into my mess. I paused at the door to gather myself, then knocked.
"Come in," Allison said.
When she saw me, her neutral expression took on weight.
"Hi, Joe. Have a seat." She waved me to a chair. I closed the door and sat down, my hands already sweaty against the tan vinyl of the armrests.
"Am I fired?" I asked.
"If you're going to fire me, do it quickly." I kept my eyes open, but I held my breath.
"No, Joe. That's not why I wanted to see you."
I slowly exhaled.
Allison gave me a half-smile. "If that were the case," she said. "I'd probably be heading out the door with you."
I wanted to say that I was sorry, but I was pretty sure she knew that already.
"Joe, do you have any relatives in Caspen County?"
"Caspen County? No. Not that I know of. Why?"
"Not that you know of?"
"My family tree is more of a patch of scrub. I can never be sure what's out there. I have a brother, Jeremy, but you know about him already."
"What about the rest of your family?"
I hesitated, but then answered. "I have a mother in Austin, but I haven't spoken to her in years."
"What about your father?"
"My father? He took off when I was born. Left me with nothing but his name."
"You have the same name as your father?"
"Yeah, but I never…" I sat back in my chair, seeing now that Allison was drawing me to a specific target. "What's going on?" I asked.
She picked up a piece of paper. "Do you have any idea where your father might live now?"
"None whatsoever," I said with a hint of pride. I had managed to live my entire life without ever seeing the face of the man whose name I carried. I convinced myself that other than donating his spermatozoa to my cause, my father could just as well have been a myth, a fairy tale that fed my childhood imagination, something I had discarded long ago, tossed aside like an outgrown pair of sneakers.
"What's this about?" I asked.
She slid a piece of paper across her desk to me, and I read it. It was a press release about a man named Joseph Talbert who had been found dead in a horse barn by sheriff's deputies in rural Caspen County, Minnesota. The press release stated that foul play was suspected.
"Do you think that might be your father?" she asked.
There had to be a lot of Joe Talberts walking around this planet at any given moment, but this one died in Minnesota, and it involved foul play; those two factors had to increase the odds that this man might be my father.
"I don't know," I said. "Other than a few stories that my mom told me, I don't know anything about him."
"You think your mom might know if he lived in Buckley?"
"Like I said, I don't talk to my mother."
"I'm sorry. I'm not trying to pry. I just thought you should know. I mean if it were my father—even if I'd never met him, I'd want to know."
"I appreciate that," I said. My tone had turned cold; that wasn't my intention.
"Are you okay?"
"Honestly, Allison, I'm not sure."
"There's one thing more," Allison said, pulling a second piece of paper out of her drawer. "I asked the Sheriff's Office in Caspen County to send me a picture of the man they found dead. Would you like to see it?"
I stared at the paper in her hand, unable to answer. This man meant nothing to me—less than nothing. I should have walked out of Allison's office and left it that way, but I didn't. I held out my hand, and she handed me an old mug shot. And just like that, the myth that was my father began to grow flesh and bones.
When I was in fourth grade, a kid named Keith Rabbinau called me a bastard. I wasn't sure exactly what the word meant, though I'd heard my mother use it often enough, a blunt-tipped arrow shot at the many men who'd screwed her over. Back then, the word bastard fell into a basket of swear words that I could use with some dexterity. That day in fourth grade, however, I learned that bastard had a special meaning, making it a glove that fit some of us better than others.
- FINALIST -- MINNESOTA BOOK AWARD, BEST GENRE NOVEL
- On Sale
- Oct 1, 2019
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Mulholland Books