Fall 2020, Volume 29

Fiction by Robert Kinerk

Can You Keep This Out of the Paper?

My mom, after she became a widow, volunteered to take in expectant mothers from logging camps when their due dates approached and they needed a place in town.

I was a reporter in those days for the Boon Daily News. Boon is a small town in the panhandle part of Alaska. I teased my mom by telling her I would write up her good deeds as a feature story. “Photos and everything, mom.”

“Don’t you dare, Peach”

My mom had called me Peaches almost until the time I began to shave, then she shortened it to Peach. My real name is Craig.

“Fools’ names and fools’ faces.” My mom liked to recite the first half of a rhyme-phrase from her childhood. The whole phrase, as I remembered it, said, “Fools’ names and fools’ faces are always found in public places.”

The Daily News was the public place for Boon. In it you could read the price being offered for halibut, bowling scores from the city’s various leagues, how the high school basketball game had gone, what weighty matter the city council was pondering, who would no longer be responsible for debts incurred by his wife, what sales representatives from what national firms were guests at the Grandview Hotel, who had been arrested for driving while drunk, and what disposition the District Court had made of those nuisance cases.

In the last year of the Eisenhower administration, which is the year I started as a reporter for the Daily News, the newspaper told you who was born, who died, and who got married. It told you who had disgraced themselves. The columns reporting disgrace—one titled Police, the other District Court—were the best-read columns in the paper. I could polish up the paragraphs of my school board reporting, and the only comments I would ever hear came from the skinflints who thought the schools wasted money. But let somebody’s son-in-law get busted for driving while intoxicated and a wife or father-in-law or mother-in-law would get on the phone to beg me not to report it.

The Daily News in Boon in 1960 filled a role the stocks or pillory would have played in, say, Sudbury, Massachusetts, in 1660. We publicly shamed the town’s miscreants.

I told my mom I was a personal friend of the city manager. I said I’d put in a good word so she’d get a citation for her charitable work.

“Fools’ names, Peach.” Her words were like a joke between us, as was my offer to solicit a citation. I talked with the city manager a lot but mostly about pothole complaints a city councilman might raise, or contract talks with whatever union’s turn it was to negotiate. The city manager’s name was Adam Groff, and his job was finding solutions. He was as amiable with an uninformed reporter as he was at council meetings when a particular councilman, cantankerous even by council standards, harped on about excessive welfare pay outs or a low-watt streetlight.

Captain Cruxer, the duty officer in the police station when I made my morning stops to glean news from the log, knew I was a chat-buddy with his boss, City Manager Groff. Ordinarily that would not have been a factor in my exchanges with the captain, a gruff man who called me Scoop as a way of letting me know his opinion of reporters wasn’t very high. Not that he called me Scoop every morning. Mostly he just ignored me, but on a morning in August he was waiting for me at the desk, the night’s log in front of him. “Recognize this guy?” He tapped the log-book page at a spot I couldn’t even see yet. I wasn’t close enough.

Captain Cruxer bore a grudge. He had asked me for a favor a month or so before, when his son had been nabbed for drunk driving. The Captain said he hoped that news could be kept out of the paper.

The name the Captain tapped with his thick finger on that August morning was Adam Groff, the city manager and my sort-of friend.

“They caught him giving a Coastie a blow-job up behind where they’re building the new high school, Scoop. Bound to be a scandal, isn’t it.”

He let his gaze linger on me, enjoying, I’m sure, my look of consternation. “Well, it’s a matter of journalistic ethics, isn’t it.” His smug look told me he was satisfied I was perplexed. He sauntered away and made whispered quips to the desk sergeant, who grinned in my direction as if he, too, relished seeing a reporter faced with a moral dilemma.

‘Coastie’ was what locals called the Coast Guardsmen who manned a base about a mile south of town. A hundred or so enlistees and their officers labored at setting navigational aids and assisting fishing boats in danger from storms. In their off hours, Coasties went to movies or hung out in bars, like the rest of us did. They refrained, as far as I know, from intimate relationships with city managers. Intimate relationships, male to male, in the last years of the Eisenhower administration, would have been frowned upon. Frowned upon is putting it mildly. The word to taunt such men was ‘queer,’ and it was as searing as a branding iron burned into the flesh.

I made my usual notes in a shorthand I did not think anyone could read except me, so if my reporter’s notebook ever fell into the hands of Soviet agents, say, they would be stymied by the hen scratches they’d see. Not that Soviet agents were going to be concerned about a small-town city manager who had been cited for public lewdness. ‘Lewdness,’ in the parlance of the law, usually means urinating at the curb where passers-by can see. There was nothing in the police report about a blow-job. Captain Cruxer had volunteered that information. He volunteered it in the spiteful, malicious, vindictive spirit of a law-enforcement official whose son had suffered the indignity of being stopped for driving drunk. I was not—I mean, I like to think that I was not—a spiteful and malicious and vindictive person. But I was the gatekeeper of news for this little, tiny corner of the world, for the town of Boon on its green island in the North Pacific. 

Was a blow-job news?

If the ordinary blow-job was news, the paper could have filled two pages every day with reports of oral sex, so the answer to the blow-job question is no.

But was the city manager news?

The answer to that question, I have to say, was yes, although I returned to my office not knowing, beyond taking off my jacket and sitting down at my desk, what I would do.

It did not surprise me when Adam Groff showed up ten minutes later. The uncertainty I felt about what to do centered on Adam Groff. He wasn’t a friend, but he was someone with whom I conversed almost daily. I went to him with questions, and he—within the limits of discretion—gave the best answers he could. I watched him parcel out advice at City Council meetings. I saw how he delicately steered those meetings. If I saw him at a basketball game, we always traded greetings. He had introduced me to his wife. I had seen him cheering the team his son played on at Little League games.

“Got a minute, Craig?”

“Pull up a chair, Mr.  Groff.”

“You know what this is about.” He had seated himself and was leaning forward in confidential closeness. I was silent in reply, but silence is an answer, too. He understood that I was waiting to hear more.

“I’m in a bit of a bind, Craig, and I have to ask a favor. If my name could not appear in the paper this afternoon, I’d appreciate it.”

Mr. Groff was old enough to have lost most of his hair. I always saw him dressed in a suit and tie. He wore rimless glasses, and his eyes, behind his lenses, looked inevitably kind. He may have donated to charities for widows and orphans. He was the kind of person you would turn to if you needed money in a pinch. And he was asking me to keep news of his infraction from reaching a wider public through the medium of the paper.

I have had no journalistic training. I took the job at the Daily News because the job was advertised at a time when I needed work. In performing my daily duties, I routinely turned my eyes away from some items of potential interest. On my rounds of the city’s hotels, for instance, I listened to desk clerks spell the names of visiting salesmen, but when they obviously skipped a name—when they hesitated before they moved their fingers down a list—I knew some local must have checked in at the hotel and was sleeping there with someone else’s wife. A clerk would even skip the name of a husband temporarily ousted from home and putting up in a rented room after a domestic spat. I called ignoring those items discretion, not a very exact standard for reporting or not reporting the news, but a necessity in a small town.

By what stretch of journalistic ethics could a city manager caught in oral sex with a young Coast Guardsman be considered a discretionary matter for the mill of daily news?

“It’s not really in my hands, Mr. Groff.”

He had played his hand for mercy, but mercy wasn’t trump. His sad eyes showed me he realized that.

“Who should I speak to, Craig? Should I speak to Carol?”

Carol Ventura was the paper’s publisher, my boss. She served as managing editor, too, and the door to her private office in our little cubbyhole of a newsroom was about a dozen steps away. Her door was open, as  it almost always was. When I nodded in the direction of where my boss was isolated with her red pencil and her hard-copy of articles of news, Mr. Groff rose, and with what struck me as quiet dignity, he stepped to where he had to go. He rapped on Carol’s door frame to announce his presence. At an invitation from my boss, which I heard only as a murmur, he disappeared inside. Seconds later, my boss, a wren-sized woman, closed the door. What happened behind it would happen in confidence. That was the signal she sent me.

And I was satisfied with that. I was glad this decision had been removed from my hands. I told myself I was only an employee. I wasn’t a decision-maker in the daily endeavor of putting a newspaper out, a labor involving in part journalistic standards, but also involving hit-or-miss, seat-of-the-pants, by-guess and by-golly, devil-take-the-hindmost, ordinary gossip, scandal, tsk-tsking, blue-nosing and high-principled, phony-baloney bullshit.

Not to say that high-principled bullshit was going on behind Carol’s door. All I can say for certain is that when Mr. Groff emerged, after ten minutes in conversation as private as the conversations between priests and penitents, he neither smiled at me nor frowned. He proceeded to the street without giving me a glance at all. He had his  hat in his hand. When he’d stepped out into the rain, he put his hat on, hunched up his shoulders and hustled away from the newspaper office at a pace any person caught in a downpour would set. 

Carol, a minute later, came silently to my desk. “Write up what you’ve got and bring it to me, Craig.”


I did what I was told. In the fourth paragraph of my police report I wrote that Adam Groff, cited for public lewdness, had been ordered to appear in District Court.

What happened after that is that the city manager shot himself to death.

This was even before our afternoon paper came out, so I never knew if my report would have gone as written into the paper. I can’t imagine Carol would have left it without elaboration, although she would have had to make some calls for further details.

The suicide became our lead story for the day, and in the story, with Carol’s byline on it, mention was made, in a paragraph below the fold, of a morals offense. The Coast Guardsman involved was named, even though the police, as far as I know, had not cited him for lewdness. Captain Cruxer must have given up his name. Maybe it was Captain Cruxer’s duty to do that. Maybe, as a reporter, the boy’s name was something I should have asked for myself.

But all of that was nothing on the day of Adam’s death. A member of our community had taken his own life. Regrets were voiced all around, and then—halibut prices and bowling scores. The world marches on.

Years have passed since all this happened. It may well be I am the only person who remembers it. My mother never mentioned it, neither when it happened nor in the twenty years of life she enjoyed afterwards. The only difference the bloodshed made—I’m ascribing this by guess—is that my mother from that day on stopped calling me her pet name, Peach. From then until she died she called me only Craig.





BIO: Robert Kinerk, who was born in Seattle and raised in Ketchikan, Alaska, is the author of a story collection titled Reef Point, after the fictitious Alaskan town where the stories are set. He has written several books for children, including Slim and Miss Prim, winner of a Western Writers of America Storyteller Award, and Clorinda, a Child magazine Best Book. His musical play The Fish Pirate’s Daughter celebrated its fiftieth year of summertime performances in Ketchikan. He lives with his wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts.