The breeze blew off Nantucket Sound, past the lighthouse that guarded the entrance to the harbor, past the freshly painted captains' houses lining North Water Street, past white picket fences laden with yellow, pink, and white roses. The breeze whispered through the screened front windows of the Island Enquirer, carrying the scent of honeysuckle, roses, and the sea.
Ordinarily, Victoria Trumbull wallowed in the newness, richness, and sensuousness of a June day like this.
But not today.
She didn't hear the tidy sounds of hedge clippers and lawn mowers. A boy painting the trim around the newspaper's windows called out, "Hey, Mrs. Trumbull," and she paid no attention. The boy shrugged, and dipped his paintbrush into his pail again.
Victoria opened the gate in the picket fence, strode up the walk, heedless of the way her lilac-wood stick jabbed the bright green moss that bordered the uneven bricks, marched through the open front door, and stopped at the reception desk.
Faith Norton, the receptionist, greeted her with a broad smile. "Good morning, Mrs. Trumbull. Nice day."
"Where is he?" said Victoria.
"Mr. Jameson? I think he's back by the press. Want me to call him?"
"That won't be necessary." Victoria pushed her way through the inside door that opened into a room with a dozen desks. She ignored the greetings of several people who looked up from their computer screens as she passed and continued through a second inner door that led to the far back room. There, the hugeold press was churning out a steady stream of this week's edition of the Island Enquirer.
A short man with too-dark hair spun around as Victoria pushed the door shut behind her.
"What are you doing here, Victoria?" he shouted over the noise of the press. He was wearing a white shirt with broad blue stripes, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and a tie that Victoria recognized as his prep school tie, loosened at his throat.
"I need to talk to you, Colley Jameson," Victoria shouted back.
"Hell of a time." The editor gestured at the press, which was spitting out pages of the real-estate section. "Call and make an appointment."
He spun back to the press, his jowls quivering, his tie flying out in an arc.
Victoria got as far as shouting "Appoint--!" when the press snatched up the end of Colley's tie along with the ads it was printing. Colley tried to free his tie from the jaws of the press, but the press ran on and his tie tightened around his neck.
In that instant, Victoria threw down her walking stick, flung herself at the giant red button on the side of the press, and slammed it with her gnarled hand.
The press stopped with a shudder. Except for Victoria's heavy breathing and Colley's muffled oaths, the pressroom was deathly quiet.
"Well?" Colley mumbled, his mouth pressed into the photo of a water-view trophy home.
"Do you want me to cut your tie? I'll have to find scissors."
"Jee-sus Christ," Colley mumbled. "Do something!"
Victoria found a pair of long editorial shears in the composing room next door and returned.
"Careful!" Colley mumbled as she snipped close to his nose.
Reporters, photographers, rewrite people, the ad sales team, the keeper of the morgue, the receptionist, swarmed into the room, drawn by the silence of the press.
Once freed, Colley glared at the crowd that had gatheredaround him. "What the hell are you gaping at! Get back to work, all of you."
There were a few snickers and Colley's face flushed a dark, unhealthy red.
Someone said, in a stage whisper, "What's black and white and read all over ... ?"
Colley loosened what was left of his tie and pulled it off over his head. Everybody but Victoria had gone. She handed the cutoff tie ends to Colley, who put them in his shirt pocket.
"It would be polite to say thank you," she said.
"The hell I will," said Colley. "If you hadn't distracted me ..."
Victoria pointed a knobby finger at the sign on the wall that stated, in ultra-large letters, NO TIES OR LOOSE CLOTHING AROUND THE PRESS.
Colley took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his hands.
"You'd better wash your face, too, before the ink sets," Victoria said. "I'll be in your office."
Colley's office was on the second floor of the old building, separated from the reporters' desks by a waist-high partition topped by a clear glass window. As Victoria walked down the aisle between desks, she was met with grins and thumbs up and a salute.
A few minutes later, a freshly scrubbed Colley, his striped shirt open at the neck, walked between the desks. On either side, reporters' fingers flew over keyboards.
The editor shut the door, glared at Victoria, who was waiting in his visitor's chair, and sat at his desk. Victoria, facing the bright June sunlight that streamed through the window behind him, couldn't see his expression.
Her back was straight. She held both hands on her stick. Her beaky nose was high, her eyes were hooded. Her wrinkles were set in an expression of disapproval.
Colley opened the bottom drawer of his desk, brought out anornate silver flask, unscrewed the top, and took a deep swallow. He tightened the cap and put the flask back in his drawer. He wiped his mouth with a blue-bordered handkerchief that had matched his tie, refolded it neatly, and returned the handkerchief to his pocket.
Victoria said nothing.
Colley swiveled his chair left and right, left and right. "You have to keep up with the times, Victoria. The Enquirer needs a new look. More youth appeal."
"That's why you fired me?"
"I didn't fire you. I suggested that you retire. There's a difference." Colley fiddled with a beach stone holding down a stack of papers on his otherwise tidy desk. "You've been writing that West Tisbury social column for, what, fifty years now?"
"News column, not social column. I've been writing the West Tisbury news column since the year you were born."
"Forty-nine, then. It's about time you retired. Give younger writers a break."
"Bah," said Victoria. The sunlight coming from behind Colley was making her eyes water and she dabbed at them.
Colley looked down and toyed with the beach stone paperweight.
"You know, don't you Colley, there are laws that protect workers against age discrimination."
"You don't need protection, for God's sake," Colley snapped. "You are ninety-two, after all."
"Exactly my point." Victoria withdrew a crumpled letter from her cloth bag. "Do you plan to defend this in court?" She tapped the edge of the letter on Colley's desk.
"Can you afford to lose another discrimination suit?"
Colley swiveled his chair and looked out of the window at the street below.
Finally he turned back to his desk. "Stop tapping that damned letter, will you?"
There was a knock on the door and Faith, the receptionist, entered with the mail. She glanced at Victoria, then stepped behind Colley's desk. "Didn't you notice, Mr. Jameson? The light is right in Mrs. Trumbull's eyes." She lowered the shade.
Victoria said, "Thank you," and Faith dropped the mail on Colley's desk and left.
Colley picked up the top envelope and slit it open with a silver-handled letter opener. Victoria was still in the same position, her expression unchanged, when he finally looked up. He pushed the remainder of his unopened mail to one side.
"What the hell do you expect me to do, Victoria?" Before she could answer, he went on. "I get nothing but crap from everybody." He flicked his hand at the mail on his desk. "Letters from every damned environmentalist on this Island. All riled up because I support the golf course. The affordable housing types are furious because I accept upscale real-estate ads. Open space people are angry because I back the idea of a mini-mall. Do any of these do-gooders buy ads? Hah!" Colley stood up, raised the blinds again, and glared out of the window.
Victoria started to say something, but Colley went on. "They don't believe me when I say that I'm as much of an environmentalist as the best of them." He tapped his chest. "I'm the one defending the piping plovers. By sticking up for the damned birds, now I've outraged all the fishermen."
"Only the surf casters," Victoria said. "But ..."
"The damn fishermen run their buggies all over the dunes. I write one editorial supporting the birds and look at the mail I get. Shall I go on?" He sat again.
"You asked me ..." Victoria started.
Colley continued. "Readers cancel subscriptions because I accept too many ads. Advertisers cancel because they don't like my editorials. I get sued for harassment, sex discrimination, andnow age discrimination. How does anyone expect me to pay the bills?" He grunted. "I've got four ex-wives to support, for God's sake." He jabbed his finger at his chest. "I have to have armor-plated skin to publish this goddamned newspaper."
"I see I'm wasting my time." Victoria tucked the crumpled letter back in her cloth bag, stood, and headed for the door.
As she opened the door, Colley said, "You never told me what you expect of me."
Victoria turned. "You're right. I didn't."
THE PAPERWHITE NARCISSUS. Copyright © 2005 by Cynthia Riggs. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.