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In 'Quantum Deadline,' Daedalus Howell explores alternative versions of Petaluma and himself


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Early in my career, I was a green reporter who wrote purple prose that read like yellow journalism. But they printed the paper in black and white so no one ever noticed.

Now I was just a hack, one who needed a story and needed it bad. The problem, as always, is that I'm not the type to make my own breaks. I'm not inclined to write a bogus memoir, say, or parade as a pillhead or claim to be the last, lone believer in my generation. I'm also not opportunistic enough to know a good thing when I've got it, so whatever it is, it won't make it into print—or pixels—let alone a bestseller list. Even if it did, the editors wouldn't believe it. Such is the hazard of being in the truth business, not the fact business.

Forgive me. I buried the lede . . .

You see, back in J-School, in the '90s, my future colleagues and I knew nothing of the then-nascent Internet and the havoc it would wreak on our prospective industry. Now there's an entire generation that has never read a printed newspaper. And they're the ones running the papers. Or what's left of them.

This is how I found myself on the lifestyle beat for a startup that required endless filing of snark and crap that met certain considerations of "keyword density" and adhered to the house style of punchy prose that was neither punchy nor prose by any definition of contemporary letters. IMHO. For the past five years, the work had been winnowed, watered and weighed down in equal measure. For the past five years, I've been in psychic exile. For the past five years, I've been leaning on a pseudonym to make the rent because . . .

I also buried an intern.

This is the truth. When you fail to talk your newsroom intern out of jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, prepare yourself for the following: Your intern will be dead, your career will be over and your newspaper will fold. And not into a paper hat.

That's really how I became a small town newspaperman without a town or a newspaper. I'm sure some even questioned whether I had the moral ground to call myself a man.

With some modest triangulating on Google, it could be known that I was the writer whose words—my stock and trade—had utterly failed to talk a young man out of taking two steps back onto the bridge's pedestrian walkway and into the rest of his young life.

"Is it going to get better, the newspaper, life, all of this?" he spat against the wind as it whipped his hair against his 21-year-old forehead.

"No. It's only going to get worse."

"Then why do we do it?" he asked.

I didn't have an answer. Or, I did, but it wasn't the right answer. He shifted his grip and the sweat from his palms darkened the rust-hue of the girder. I improvised.

"Deadlines . . . ?"

MAN ABOUT TOWN The hero in Daedalus Howell's 'Quantumn Deadline' is a fish-out-of-water newspaperman named Daedalus Howell.
  • MAN ABOUT TOWN The hero in Daedalus Howell's 'Quantumn Deadline' is a fish-out-of-water newspaperman named Daedalus Howell.

This much is certain: It was not the answer he was seeking. He let go and in one glib moment, with no foresight and no hindsight of which to speak, changed both of our lives forever.

There's more, but we'll get to that. What's germane is from that moment hence I'd been searching for a story—a new story that would make my past and failures a footnote to the shiny future I'd lost, that my intern lost, that everyone lost. Really, my new story needed to be an old story: a redemption tale, as they say in Hollywood; one with enough truth and triumph to clear my byline so that, among other advantages, I might use it again.

I found the story. Or, I could get cute and say the story found me. Apparently, that's an antimetabole. Some day I might look it up to prove it. In the meantime (not to fracture the fourth wall into constituent fractals of meaning) the story begins, as these things do, in a mirror.

There's a kind of guy who can wear a cheap suit well and I like to pretend I'm him. Frankly, I had no choice, especially after I burned a cigarette hole through my last good blazer and I have an image to maintain. I am among the last of a dying breed of lifestyle reporters, feature writers who, as one neckbearded editor put it, "grok the grub and grog," which always sounded to me like the sounds of someone being strangled. But it's a living. Or was. Hence, my pitstop at Gemelli Bros.

The discount suitery was owned by a pair of oily identical twins squeezed into double-breasted suits who called themselves Tweedle Deep and Tweedle Dump in their local television ads. Tweedle Deep, I think, was marking up my new coat with chalk when it happened.

"You like a little room in the chestal area?" he asked, tugging at the coat's hem. I stood still in the three-way mirror like a human mannequin if they made them in my size, 44 long, wide in the shoulders, taller than most, which made the gut passable if I never exhaled.

"I've gotta fit a reporter's notebook in my left breast pocket," I said. "And a pen."

The man grunted and swiftly drew an X over my heart.

"I never met a newspaperman before," he said. He was being facetious, as if "newspaperman" was what a paperboy grew up to be.


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