This chapter is part of the ongoing serialization of The Archaeologists, the new novel by Hal Niedzviecki to be published by ARP Books in Fall 2016. The Archaeologists is being serialized in its entirety from April to October with chapters appearing on a rotating basis on the websites of five great magazines. Read the first installment here. Next week's installment will be up at Taddle Creek, Friday, April 15. See the full schedule here.
Hal doodles on his reporter’s pad.
Okay what else do we have for this week? the Boss asks.
A sewer being expanded. The mayor promising a new school and more funding to deal with the rapid expansion of housing developments in the West End. A local pet store joining forces with the Wississauga fire department to lead a campaign about cat and dog safety in the event of a home or apartment fire.
What else team? The Boss scans the three people in the shabby meeting room, the entirety of the Wississauga Cable TV Community News Channel 47 team.
Hal keeps his head down.
Hal? she finally says.
Hal’s pen freezes over the shading in of some abstract collection of twisted triangles.
Hal, isn’t it time to catch up with Wississauga’s oldest citizen?
It’s Hal’s time of the month! cackles Trevor.
Sarah, sitting next to Hal, titters.
Let’s send Sarah this time, Hal offers.
Sarah digs an elbow into his ribs. She does weather, lifestyle, and local sports. Hal does news, mostly, plus the occasional in-depth interview. Once a month, he’s tasked with interviewing 104-year-old Rose McCallion, known not only for officially being Wississauga’s oldest living resident, but also, unofficially, for being the closest the scattered-edge city has to a bonafide, genuine homegrown celebrity. Hal’s monthly sit-downs with Rose are one of Wississauga Cable’s most popular features, much to the delight of Hal’s co-workers.
Sarah, laughing again, puts an arm around Hal’s neck. He can smell her perfume. You’re the one she wants, Hal.
You’ll get it done, right Hal? the Boss asks.
Yeah. I’m on it. He crosses out his heap of shapes.
Okay, the Boss says, come on guys. Let’s focus. What else do we have?
They go around the room again. New 7-11 opening up, will anchor the mini-mall at the corner of Hurontarion North and Elm. The store’s handing out half-price cups of Super Fusion All Energy Organic Slushie infused with Ginseng and Jicama during the first week of operation. A local ten-year-old has created his own comic, “Amazing Fatso Man,” selling over 200 copies and closing in on raising the $750 necessary to buy a water buffalo for a needy family in Pakistan. A 43-year-old hit by a car after parking illegally on the shoulder of the 472 and attempting to cross eight lanes of traffic to take advantage of Free “Arabian Roast” Coffee Wednesday at McDonald’s new McCafé is going to make a full recovery. Police have decided not to press charges. McDonald’s has sent over a get well card signed by the manager and staff, and issued a statement reminding customers to obey traffic laws.
And it’s going to get cold again, Sarah says happily. Forget Spring! Winter’s back.
That’s always a good story, the Boss says.
I’ve got some clips from Groundhog Day we can use, Mitch pitches in. We can do a whole thing on how much longer winter will go, compare it to previous decades, multi-year trends, get someone from the national weather service, work the climate change angle.
Good, good, you two get on that. What else?
Um. Hal clears his throat importantly. He starts off tentatively, like he hasn’t been waiting the entire story meeting to bring it up. There’s the community meeting at the school about the riverfront expressway.
Right, the Boss says. Right. She waits for Hal to say more.
It’s likely to be very contentious. There are a lot of rumours swirling around, a lot of anger about the idea. Also there are accusations that the planning committee is pushing this through at the last minute and not really interested in public consultation.
One angle, Mitch jumps in, might be to interview an environmentalist at the university. I’ve got a lead on—
We’ve already got the climate change angle on that weather thing, Hal says, pretending he’s thinking aloud.
Right, the Boss says, let’s just stick to the government-consults-local-community angle. No need to do two environment stories. Hal, I want you on this all next week. Preview it, report it as it happens, and follow up. Community reaction, comment from government, local opposition, the whole bit.
I’m on it, Hal says, this time with more enthusiasm.
Great. Great. Keep me posted.
Will do, chief. Hal writes Keep Me Posted on a fresh blank page. He snaps his notebook closed. Meeting over. Everyone gets up. He’s got the top story again. Mitch tried to horn in. Sarah’s looking at him like he’s a superstar. She keeps cornering him by the coffee maker, leaning in close and whispering little gossipy tidbits.
You wanted to see me, Boss?
Hal, come in. Sit down.
The head of Wississauga Cable TV Community News Channel 47 is Carla Fairlane. She’s got pictures of her three grown up kids arrayed on her battered desk. She wears minimal makeup and is remarkably resilient, having survived decades of internal re-thinks, corporate reassessments, industry realignments, government regulations, and government deregulations. It’s been a lengthy process of consolidation, cost-cutting, and malicious neglect, all of which have culminated in their present-day state of bare-bones, barely watched, repeated four times daily cable access local news bookended by several hours of inane amateur-hour talk shows. Behind the Boss hangs a series of cheaply framed plaques commemorating awards the television station earned in previous decades. Hal notes that the plaques stop some ten years before he was hired, around the same time their corporate taskmasters replaced local news coverage with a national news broadcast anchored by a greying dignitary whose singularly sonorous voice relegated their government-mandated community coverage to a semi-amateur skeleton staff of underpaid journeymen, has-beens, and young up-and-comers just passing through.
Which am I? Hal wonders.
The Boss, looking at him, smiles. Hal, she says warmly. How are you?
I’m good, Hal says carefully.
So…it’s been a year since you joined us.
Yes it has. And I just wanted to sit down with you and just see how you were doing.
So…how are you doing?
Good. Really good.
How are you finding our little community?
I…I like it. It’s different, of course, from the city. But I like it.
He’d acted as if it was a major hardship to say goodbye to his apartment in the village, to his friends, to the clubs and restaurants and lounges none of them could even afford though they somehow seemed to keep ending up in them. He’d pretended that moving to a place like Wississauga was an unbearable setback. But, really, he’d been relieved. In Wississauga, there are people everywhere but you don’t see them, you don’t feel their eyes tracking you as you walk down the street—Who’s he with? What’s he wearing? Where’s he going with who he’s with? In Wississauga, people avert their gaze, hide behind drawn shades and tinted windshields, move from interior to interior without making a big show of themselves. Hal feels freed by the nothingness, liberated by the generic mix of malls, parking lots, high rises, highways, and pre- planned neighbourhoods. Fences, walls, and locked doors mark the terrain, delineate spaces, make everything clear.
He’s on TV every night, and no one even knows him.
I’m glad you’ve settled in, Hal. The Boss puts on a news casting face, blank and important.
Here it comes, Hal thinks.
You know, the Boss says, leaning in, you’ve got real talent. And you’re hungry. I can see that you’re hungry. And that’s great. I’ve been in this business for a long time. I won’t even tell you how long! And I can see that you have something, Hal.
But you know, Hal, it takes more than just drive and ambition and smarts. You’ve got that, I’ve seen it. You also need more.
Oh. Okay. Hal feels colour moving to his cheeks.
You need to soften up a bit, Hal. The Boss looks at him. Our viewers like a bit more of an…informal approach. They want to feel like they know who they’re dealing with, like if they saw you on the sidewalk they could just come right up to you and shake your hand and give you an earful.
An earful, Hal says uncertainly.
You know, shoot the shit with you.
The Boss’s phone rings. She waves it away with her long fingers. The voice mail will get it, she says. Voice mail! I remember when we used to have real people answering the phones around here.
Hal isn’t sure what he’s supposed to say. He doesn’t say anything.
Are you getting me here, Hal?
I want you to lighten up. Try to be less stiff, less formal.
Sure. I can…be…
Just be yourself, Hal. I mean c’mon! It’s not like you’re reporting breaking news of earth- shattering consequence. We don’t have much of that around here. The Boss laughs at her own joke. Relax. Let loose a little. Connect.
Relax. Let loose.
Hal fingers the fraying cuffs of his cheap, blue, no-wrinkle Oxford button down. He needs another one. $21.99 at MensClothingWarehouse.com. Scott buys his clothes at boutiques in the city.
Are you seeing someone, Hal?
What? The word comes out raspy, like there’s something in his throat.
You know, dating, going out, whatever you kids call it these days.
Oh, uh, no. No. I just…I’ve just been…
I understand. You’re focussed. I respect that. But live a little, Hal. Get out there. Have some fun. Play the field!
Yeah, you know, lighten up. People want to see you out and about.
Sure they do. Sure they do. They want to see you putting on a little bit of a show. Preferably with a nice young lady on your arm.
Get out there young man. Time’s a wasting. Don’t be so serious!
Get out there, Hal says.
You’re going to go far in this business, Hal. I really do believe that. Now, do you have any questions for me?
Uh…I’m…Sure. I get it. Loosen up. I can do that. Hal lets out a stilted laugh.
Great, the Boss says. That’s great, Hal. And thank you. Thank you for all your hard work. Hal gets up. The Boss extends her hand and he shakes it, her cool dry palm against his moist hot one.
Hal stands in the hall. It’s quiet. Everybody else has probably gone home. Hal is usually the last one to leave. Scott says he works too hard. Scott says he should take it easy. Just like the Boss, Hal thinks. How weird is that?
The door to the ladies room swings open and Sarah pushes out.
Hey! Hal! Sarah’s smiling. It’s the end of the day, but she smells fresh and soapy. She’s perky and blonde and Trevor is always making comments about her “knockers.” She could have any guy she wanted. Just about.
You in a hurry?
I was just—
What did the Boss lady want?
Oh…nothing. Nothing really.
She just wanted to…it was like a…one-year kind of review, kind of.
Really? What did she say?
Hal looks longingly at the dimly glowing red exit sign at the end of the hall.
Hey! Sarah says with pep. We should celebrate! It’s your one-year anniversary! Let’s go have a drink! Do you want to get a drink?
Scott calls her the weather girl. How’s the weather girl? Whoo…nice blouse weather girl…
Oh, Sarah, I can’t…I’ve got a…I want to but I’ve got a…thing.
In another minute he’ll be in the car, on the way to the Save-A-Centre Grocery. Scott’s coming over for dinner tonight. Actually, it’s a celebration too. It’s their three-month anniversary. Another anniversary. Hal’s promised to cook something romantic.
A date? Sarah teases.
No, it’s not a…it’s just…Hal pretends to look at his watch. I’m…late, he announces. He can feel the heat on his cheeks. Lobster, he thinks suddenly. Hal saw them cook lobster on Wississauga’s Cooking with Wanda! It looked pretty easy. You just toss them in the hot water and wait until they turn red.
Hal Niedzviecki is a writer of fiction and nonfiction exploring post-millennial life. This was an excerpt from The Archaeologists, to be published by ARP books in Fall 2016.