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Maxine, 1932
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Maxine, 1932

Maxine, when a young woman, fresh home from business school, got a job at the local paper. At her interview the editor said, “Your fah-thah says that you can do anything.”

“My father is fond of exaggeration, Mr. Beal.”

“Can you fix that typewriter?”

She looked at the typewriter. “Yes I can,” she said, for this was one of the things they taught at business school. And she fixed it. And Mr. Saunders was sore amazed. Several weeks went by, Maxine working hard, and there came a letter in the mail--a letter, by god, in the mail--from her own boss. He said she was the best secretary he ever had. She was making $4 a week.

Word got round about the able young secretary and soon W.O. Saunders came looking. Saunders was a newspaperman well known through the south, and increasingly through the north, the H. L. Mencken of the Albemarle. Saunders ran his own little daily called The Independent which was a good name, considering there was no one he wouldn’t estrange in the exercise of his first amendment bloviation. Saunders had recently lost his secretary and offered Maxine more than double her current wage. She went. And soon she found enough to justify her increase in pay, for when Saunders wasn’t excoriating rivals in print, and making it risky just to walk down the street if you worked for him, he was thundering at her. He was a big fat man, bald with a monkish fringe of red, and liquid with sweat in the warmer months.

Starting in May he set two electric fans in his office, on stands, and kept them trained rigorously at his person until October. For the correction of his employees he allowed nothing to moderate his impulse to scream; he had only one volume. The mind accustomed to hacking his opponents to shreds and burning their carcasses in vast funeral beacons to his own sagacity was not well suited to the subtle correction of error. Maxine learned this on the very first day, when Saunders happened to use the word matrices in dictation and she typed mattresses in the letter. There ensued a storm unlike any Maxine had seen raging over the Pasquotank River. A few days and a few storms later, under tutelage not calculated to increase her self esteem, Maxine was thinking fondly of retirement. When after an especially trying session of dictation he rose to his feet and boomed, “I wish Mary Byrd were back here with me now,”—this being his former secretary, gone away to school--Maxine said, “Mr. Saunders I wish she was back here too.”

Whereupon the great man quieted, peered at her closely, enclosed her in his great arm and, walking the length of the office, consoled her in her distress. She need not be upset, he said; it was only his way, and they would get along fine if she only knew that.

If she didn’t know it then, she had more opportunity to learn it, for the storms did not abate, but came regularly, and if not always on the best of causes then sometimes just for practice. But neither did they last. Saunders could be counted on to rage over the slightest fault, but the man who made his living flinging spears at councilmen, senators, governors, businessmen and other journalists had little to spare for his own employees. It was efficient allocation of resources, you see. You can’t eviscerate all the people all the time. Maxine managed to bear up.

What was yet harder to bear were the occasional bullets that came spanking in through the window to form intriguing patterns on the wall. Bullets were not the sort of disputants you could argue with, or conciliate with a tear. Fortunately for Maxine, though, Saunders was mostly shot at on the street, or on his front porch, or in public restaurants.

Yet there came troubles to that monkish head that not even he could lambast out of existence, from places least to be expected.

There happened to be attached to this fiery journalist two fair daughters, the princesses of the town, pretty, poised and sweet, the beloved coquettes of the village. Or they would have been coquettes if the favors which they pretended they might bestow they did not actually bestow. But, indeed, bestow them they did, with simple and blithesome abundance, bestow them throughout the town on all who appeared to be in want.

This, for the crusader, the bearer of the righteous cross, came to be seen as something of a liability. One day having received some especially startling revelations of his daughters’ activities, Saunders arrived at his office in a wrath that looked like a black column of ire, a thunderstorm he carried with him, an anvil-shaped darkness shedding fury and brimstone upon his head, and when he went to his office it followed him in.

For an hour he rained blows upon his typewriter, then emerged from his office in a cloud of volcanic ash and gave his compositor the editorial for the next day. Mr. Haskel read it, and blanched.

“Mr. Saunders,” he said, “I can’t….”

But Saunders was already gone.

Catching him on the sidewalk, Haskel pleaded. “Mr. Saunders, you can’t say these things about your own family. You can’t say them about anyone’s family.”

“Set it up,” bellowed the editor, striding along, “and let fall what will.”

“There’s got to be some other language,” Mr. Haskel said, “some mild path of implication.”

“A shoat is a shoat is a shoat,” thundered the editor. “We want no milder pathway here. Set it up!”

It was useless, but Haskel strode along with him, speaking reason, speaking forbearance, pleading for a second thought, and that was how Maxine saw them pass: the fatter man red and fiery, the taller man leaning toward him, hustling to keep up despite his greater stature, wearing a look that spoke of hope not just for his job, but hope for the ultimate ascendancy of sense.

The two men reached the corner, Maxine following at some distance on the chance she might be of use in this apparent crisis, whatever it was, when a slight twanging sound arrested their attention. It was a small sound but it seemed to occupy a large space behind the men and on the sidewalk near their feet. Such is the way of animal response they were already running before they understood they were being shot at. They didn’t know by who or from where—a blank billboard across the street would make an excellent cover—but it seemed impolitic to stop just then and inquire into the matter. And, anyway, they had gotten up some very good speed and it seemed a shame to waste it. Maxine left just as quickly in the other direction.

She met them back at the office, heated and shaken, their eyes very bright. By this time Saunders had built up an entirely new rage. He approached his typewriter with his fingers outstretched, itching for the justice only they could bring. He had no proof concerning any suspect, numerous as they were, but had already gone through indictment and trial of someone, apparently, and was burning for execution.

Mr. Haskel whispered the story to Maxine while they stood in the outer office hearing tomorrow’s new editorial being beaten into life. He did not at this point have the old editorial with him, and did not mention what had become of it.

It was this story Maxine told her mother that night when things had finally quieted. Her mother listened to all of it, and to Maxine’s surprise seemed annoyed.

The mother of those girls, she said, Miss Columbia Saunders: was she not the very scamp of the town herself even before there were automobiles to ride in? Did she not sit on this very porch in 1903, with her hem deliberately pulled over her knee, to show a pretty garter to Maxine’s handsome uncle?

“It’s no wonder those girls can’t be controlled,” she said. “Look who they had for a teacher.”

This was life in their small town.


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