I’ve got headphones in when I walk past the counter to the water fountain at the gym, so I don’t hear him speaking. But I see his lips moving and pull the earbuds out, answer the question he always asks. I’m fine, thanks, how are you? I don’t like thinking about how red my face is, the way it always is after I run.
He says his fine, but his body language says otherwise. It usually does. For working at a gym, he’s out of shape, moves slowly, and always looks like he’s exhausted and this is the last place he wants to be.
It’s even more obvious today, and I pause, breath still coming in gasps.
Tired? I ask him.
Not really, he says. But he just came back from the funeral at the church – the double funeral for the elderly couple who died in the fire. He didn’t know them, except that he recognized them from church. But so sad…
“That was a really good story, by the way,” he says then, surprising me. Most people don’t read bylines unless they’re related to me.
And so I stand there in running pants and a sweaty T-shirt and a face the color of a tomato and breaths still difficult to come by, talking about them, about the story.
It’s like that everywhere I go, really. I meet someone new, they ask where I’m from, then where I work. Then they ask if I’ve written anything they’ve read.
Hard to answer, if I don’t know what they’ve read.
Sometimes, when I see them again, I know they’ve been looking for my byline. “I saw your story on the front page! It was really interesting,” they say, eager.
“Oh yes? Which one?” But they don’t remember, other than that I wrote it and it was on the front page. And since by and large most of the stories reporters write here end up on the front, that doesn’t help much.
And now it’s making me nervous. One of these days I’ll be chatting with the mother of someone whose crimes I elaborated on in one of those stories. Eventually a neighbor will realize that I’m the one who wrote the unflattering article about his business practices.
So it goes with journalism in a small town.