I covered the animal beat. I wrote stories about trick pigs and clever ferrets. I covered jumping-frog contests and birthday parties for overweight cats. If there was a fire, and a pet, and survivors, it was my byline on the piece. (“Snuffy the rabbit smelled smoke and bleated–loud enough to wake Harold and Irma Flance. And in that magical moment, with that simple utterance, Snuffy was forever transformed from mere pet to beloved and immortal big-eared hero.”)
Animals didn’t talk, so I didn’t have to interview them. Animals didn’t sue, so I didn’t have to worry too much about getting facts straight. The animal beat provided a safe place for a reporter like me, who, in his first two weeks on the job, had reported that a chamber of commerce director had been sued for sexual harassment when he hadn’t, and who had shown up for work late and hungover four times. I had been at the Columbia Daily Tribune for just a year and was already, barely 25, a floridly failing journalist. I suspect that Carolyn “Sissy” White, the editor, was hoping I’d become so humiliated at writing about hamsters and puppies that I’d quit. She overestimated my sense of personal dignity.
“I want atmosphere,” she said, after she’d summoned me to her office. “And leave out the telepathic Shih Tzus, okay?”
“Hey, c’mon, my Jim the Wonder Dog feature won second place in the Boone County Press Asso…”
“All I want is a mood piece. A mood piece with actual facts. No animals.”
“Got it, boss. Can do.”
“And no drinking. If I even suspect you’ve been juicing, you’re going to wish you were writing about mind-reading squirrels. You think the animal beat’s bad? I find out you’re hitting the bottle, you’re going to be interviewing farmers at the state fair about their prize-winning giant vegetables.”
“Can do. Hold page one, above the fold,” I said, and Sissy sighed.
I drove through long stretches of flat land and gray, hard sky. I had the road mostly to myself, plus the occasional hawk circling overhead and gangs of large black crows that descended, picked at some unlucky skunk’s remains, then flapped heavily away. By the time I arrived at Gus’s Diner, I needed a drink.
Instead, I ordered a burger and a cup of coffee. The waitress was slim and had pale blue eyes and I wondered if she had been working when the couple from Eureka Springs lost their son. The kid had been missing for only three days, but reporters from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star and the Springfield News-Leader had already been here, had filed big-city features filled with “hushed silence” and “rare locked doors” and “rural mystery” and all the other clichés that big-city reporters trot out when big, bad things happen in small towns. Then they had packed up, along with the cops and hunters and other volunteers who had searched every square inch of the nearby woods, and now it was just me. Me and the Formica tables, and knotty-wood walls, and in back a bald man in a dirty white T-shirt muttering and moving jars from shelf to shelf. I made a note to myself to find out what kind of wood the walls were made of. That would help with the atmosphere.
It was dusk, and the gravel parking lot was fading into nothingness and the only sounds were a gentle breeze slithering through the woods outside, and, occasionally, the whispery rubber of a car passing on the highway. When that happened, the bald man and the waitress would both look out the front window, and then–was it my imagination?–they would both check over their shoulders, toward the back of the restaurant, and the river, and the woods beyond.
“Best not go in there,” the waitress said, jerking her head toward the back of the restaurant, toward the woods.
“Anything else?” she asked, in a normal, pleasant, I’m-just-a-waitress-and-not-some-hillbilly-from-a-horror-movie voice.
“Don’t go in where? Why? What’s going on?” I asked.
She stared at me.
I noticed her looking at the counter and I followed her gaze. She was gazing at my hands, which were trembling.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, yeah, fine, I’m fine,” I lied. I told her I was down for some rest and relaxation, and that I was looking for a place to stay.
“Only place to stay around here is Gus’s,” she said.
“I thought this was Gus’s.”
“This is Gus’s Diner. I mean Gus’s Hotel, a hundred feet up the highway, just ’round that corner. Easy to miss, so look out for the sign,” she said.