Lost and Found: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Laid off from his job at The New York Times, Frank Barry moves back to his childhood home in North Carolina, hoping to stretch his severance pay to cover the time he needs to write a book about the disappearance of his father. High school friend Susan Conrad, whose father also disappeared when she was a child, is already there, trying to recover from her third divorce. Frank and Susan decide to c

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1. Chapter 1

Frank rose from his chair to steal a look over the wall of his cubicle, slamming his knee into the underside of the desk and sending a pile of file folders and a photo of his parents and sister crashing to the floor. Heads were raised briefly at this breach of decorum in The New York Times’ third floor newsroom, where one rarely heard more than the bee-like buzz of reporters’ telephones emanating from the wood-veneered cubicles.

At this very moment, three editors were in a glass-walled conference room not twenty feet away, debating the merits of a story Frank had spent the last three months on. If only he could read lips.

An obsequious intern scrambled to help Frank pick up the photo and file folders, foolishly assuming that Frank’s opinion of him might have an impact on his career. He wouldn’t have bothered if he’d known that Frank’s career itself was in the balance. The story, an investigation into city employees accepting artificially low apartment rents from landlords currying their favor, was one Frank had done on his own time. That was a “no no” at The New York Times. The newspaper had recently abandoned its vinyl-tiled and low-ceilinged warren a few blocks away on Forty Third Street for this Renzo Piano skyscraper that architecture critics described as “daringly diaphanous.”  But The Times hadn’t abandoned its ancient rule that editors, and only editors, decided who wrote what. Frank, whose career long ago had stalled, thought breaking an arcane rule at this most byzantine of institutions was worth the risk if it resulted in a story that got him off the rewrite desk and back into the reporting he loved. At a minimum, this show of initiative might help Frank keep his job at a time when the fancy wood-paneled cubicles in The Times’ new newsroom were being emptied of their occupants almost daily by bean counters upstairs trying to figure out how to pay for Piano’s masterpiece during the worst recession since the Thirties.

Frank, wincing with pain from his right knee, raised himself to look over the cubicle wall again. His editor, Jacob Healey, now was frowning and nodding his head as he listened to a pale and soft-shouldered stranger seated across from him. Then Frank’s phone buzzed. Healey was ready to render his verdict.

 

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A freshet of tourists, messengers, and office workers on their way to lunch flooded the sidewalks of Eighth Avenue on this first spring-like day of May. Frank fell into it, clutching the plastic-framed photo of the only family he had. He bobbled along for a few blocks in the human stream before tumbling into a dark Irish bar that never would be mistaken for a hipster hangout. He settled onto a worn wooden stool, ordered a whiskey neat, and, ever the journalist, wondered if there was at least a magazine piece in what had just transpired. But no, he realized, people get fired all the time. Especially in this economy. Especially in the newspaper business. Especially, or so it seemed these days, in New York.

It all had happened so quickly. Already Frank was having trouble remembering his progression from the third floor conference room to the marigold lobby of The Times building. Had he looked stunned as he walked across the newsroom to the elevator, stopping at his cubicle only to grab the family photo? Had his face betrayed what had transpired to anyone he passed? How could a man whose stories and columns once had put a mayor in jail have been rendered impotent and invisible in a ten-minute conversation with his boss, awkward human resources clerk at his side? And what was his severance? Frank fumbled open the envelope he'd jammed in the side pocket of his jacket and withdrew several sheets of paper. For twenty years of work at The New York Times he was walking away with a lump sum of ninety thousand dollars, lifetime health insurance benefits, and a promise to ship the contents of his desk to his tiny walk-up on the Upper West Side.

Frank threw the drink back and ordered another, thinking he must look like a hack out of a Fifties film. Truth be told, he didn't frequent places like this, all dark brown wood and deep red paint and reminiscent of an ancient New York when the Irish were immigrants — yesterday’s Latinos  — and not the cops and politicians and bankers they eventually would become, and Frank was more likely to order a glass of red wine or a Campari and soda than the whiskey neat he was drinking today. Frank bet that ordering a Campari and soda in this place would raw a snicker from the thick-waisted bartender who looked as if he’d been working here for decades. But being let go (fired? made redundant? laid off?) made one do strange things. Investment bankers jumped out windows. Cops shot themselves. Postal workers came back to the office and shot everyone else. Frank finished the second whiskey, dropped a twenty on the bar, stepped outside, blinking in the bright sunlight, and, indulgence of indulgences, hailed a cab for what he estimated would be a fifteen-dollar ride home.

Frank slumped into the back seat of the taxi and tried to shut out the driver's Punjabi shouts into a cell phone and the cheery prattle of a blonde anchorwoman on the seatback video monitor. What would he do next? He could take time to mourn the loss of his job. But that wasn’t Frank. He had to act. First he had to figure a way to tell his mother, for whom Frank’s job at The Times was a major source, perhaps her only source, of pride in her son. Then he would call his sister.

His father? God, if only Frank could consult Jeffrey Barry about what to do. But his father had disappeared long ago. No matter how often Frank had asked, his mother wouldn’t, or couldn’t, explain how or why. His father eventually was declared dead — after the six-year waiting period mandated by law. Frank attended the funeral at the Shiloh Baptist Church. But Jeffrey Barry never died for Frank, who liked to imagine him in some faraway corner of the world, an old man now, wondering what had become of the son he left behind. Not much, Frank thought, sighing as he ran his fingers over the return address embossed on the severance letter envelope. Not much at all.

The cabbie was still shouting into his phone when Frank realized he had missed his stop by a block. He pounded on the plastic protective divider until the cab screeched to a halt and then reached for his wallet and handed over his final twenty, mumbling "keep the change." Frank walked down the block and, his knee throbbing, climbed the steps to the fifth-floor apartment where he’d lived alone for the past fifteen of his twenty years in New York City. Inside, he felt himself sink into a narcoleptic depression. Within minutes he had stripped to his underwear and socks and was sound asleep on the double mattress and box springs he had purchased when he first moved in.

###

Frank woke up hours later, his underwear stuck to his body, his armpits itching slightly in the early May heat. It took him a few seconds to realize it wasn't morning. Then a few seconds more to remember why he was lying there, six o'clock on a weekday evening, with the rancid taste of cheap whiskey in his mouth and a sense of foreboding clouding his mind. He looked at his BlackBerry. Voicemails. Emails. Text messages. Now everyone knew. The ones who still had their jobs wanted to tell him how sorry they were, how unfair it all was, how they wished it hadn't happened. Schadenfreude, Frank thought, was especially sweet when one could wrap it in sympathy.

Yet now that the shock had worn off, Frank wasn't sure he was the unfortunate one. It wasn't easy being a journalist at fifty-seven. There were days he didn't have the old hustle. His investigative beat had been taken away from him four years ago; lately he’d spent most days on rewrite. On the rare occasion when he was assigned a story, he had the feeling that everything had been written before — always Who, What, When, Where, and Why, just the names, places, and dates were different. The job didn't have the allure it did when kids flocked to the movies to see Woodward and Bernstein bring down a president. In an age where Paris and Brittany and Lady Gaga ruled, reporting seemed so, well, 1980s. Ninety thousand a year also wasn't anything to brag about in New York City, even after the financial meltdown had culled those thirty-year-old financial types with the multimillion-dollar bonuses. Excesses still seemed the norm. Frank thought he would puke if he read another story in The Times about a college student who bought a one million dollar apartment so he would be spared the noise of an NYU dorm, or an Upper East Side couple who dropped a couple million to buy a loft in Tribeca so they could hang out with the "cool" people on weekends. Frank’s savings were miniscule. He had put more money than he should have in Times stock. A share whose price once would have bought dinner for two now wouldn't buy two vente lattes at Starbucks.

Frank sat up and shook his head to clear it. He padded into the tiny living room and plopped down on the overstuffed black leather sofa — the epitome of cool when he bought it twenty years ago. He lowered his moist head onto the sticky back of the couch and punched the remote control. As he looked around the room, Frank realized the apartment was as old and out of date as he felt. That Bruce Springsteen poster, the cassette deck stacked next to the DVD player, the wilting snake plant, the sagging beige curtains. Either he was going to slide headlong into old age and obsolescence or everything around him would have to go. Then again, maybe he should go? They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Frank had made it, and now he had lost it. What was keeping him here? It was a eureka moment. Frank knew what was next. He turned off the TV and picked up the telephone.

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