Corrections or additions?

This column was prepared for the July 23, 2003 issue of U.S. 1

Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Richard K. Rein: Charlotte’s Web Revisited

Cobwebs cleared, literally and figuratively, our

hero writer bore down on the keyboard, seriously contemplating the

idle proposition that had presented itself one year ago to the day:

That he would produce a short story suitable for the annual fiction

showcase published by that Route 1 newspaper.

He had thought about it a year ago, and read a few lines aloud in

front of the metaphorical campfire that gathers once a week or so

at the back of the newspaper. People had liked the idea, they said,

but of course they were mostly being polite — what else would

they say. Still, he was emboldened by a few critical comments that

suggested the project was worthy of serious thought and he was

enthralled

by the sheer audacity of the plot line:

An editor and publisher of a small weekly newspaper (recovering

from heart disease) disappears during a week of R & R on a small

Caribbean

island and is finally declared dead despite a futile search for the

body (heart attack, the authorities conclude, suffered during a

snorkeling

outing in shark-infested waters). Back in the states his publishing

empire is taken over by a trio of former assistants who battle each

other for the lead position.

Meanwhile, an ambitious young reporter — our writer hero’s hero

— discovers that the departed — but not so dearly departed

— editor may have had major reasons for getting lost at that

particular

moment in his sorry life. Moreover, the reporter discovers, the

effects

of an invisible hand seem visible at the newspaper. Could the editor

have faked his death and could one of the trio of former assistants

be in cahoots with him to deceive and defraud various creditors? And

if so, which one?

The best part of the plot was how close to the truth it cut. The

besieged

former Route 1 editor had disappeared in very similar circumstances.

That memorial service for the old man should have raised some eyebrows

— held on the cheap at the American Legion hall instead of at,

say, the Princeton University Chapel, as you might have expected.

And the guy’s two sons — remember them exchanging knowing glances

at several points during the service and then breaking into crocodile

tears as if on cue?

But in fact the Route 1 News was not taken over by the

assistants.

It had ended up in the hands of the suits from the newspaper chain.

They were pleasant enough fellows, and for the most part the staff

seemed to appreciate them and their management style. Finally there

was real leadership at the Route 1 News, with meetings and —

hallelujah!

— praise and encouragement for jobs well done. For a while they

were giving out awards for the best picture captions in each issue,

but that was discontinued when the caption writers said they would

rather just write the damn things and not worry whether or not they

were particularly good or bad.

The best thing about the suits was that they never read the stories

in the paper, and they certainly never read the fiction. Our writer

knew that he would be able to slip in chapters of his forthcoming

novel without anyone realizing how close it was to a roman a clef.

Yes, our hero bore down at the keyboard. Forget short story, think

novel. It was not beyond the realm of the Route 1 fiction issue. That

e.e. cummings — or whiting or whatever — had three chapters

of a novel printed in successive years and reportedly had enough in

the bank to carry him (or her) into the next decade. Linda Aldrich

Teichmann submitted a short piece for the 2003 fiction issue but

allowed

that she also had a complete novel, just sitting in a drawer! John

Symons, a contributor to the Fiction Issue since the beginning, noted

that he, too, had a novel in the works.

A novel, that was it. Too soon, of course, to think about movie rights

(but if pressed our writer could come up with a short list of movie

stars who should be given a crack at this script). Too soon. Now was

the time to think about that all important opening sentence —

the one that would grab them and hold them and propel them into a

frenzy of page-turning.

He thought back to that seminal moment of a year past, when he was

transfixed by a spider efficiently weaving a web across the window.

There was a back and forth rhythm that had intrigued him. In fact,

while he had named the spider Charlotte, he referred to it alternately

as he and she. Our writer scanned his mind for an opening that would

have a certain intrigue built on uncertainty. Instead of opening the

novel in Princeton he would open in the Caribbean. Instead of

focussing

on the editor, he would focus on the search — the alleged search

— for the poor lost soul (lost, perhaps, in more ways than one).

That was it. He hunkered down at the keyboard, imagined high seas

rising and falling around him, and began to type furiously:

It was a dark and stormy night — or was it?


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