This is the first of a three-part series.
The call came from my editor, Tommie Fitch. His voice carried across the rows of desks like a foghorn. He was a cigar-chompin’ bushy-eyebrowed curmudgeon. He was a newspaper man’s newspaper man and probably born about eighty years too late. Despite his cantankerous disposition, I learned more from him than I can ever thank him for and I credit the old goose for launching my career.
Me? I’m New York Times cub reporter Ephraim Williams. I know. Don’t get me started. I didn’t choose the name. Okay? And, for the record, it’s pronounced EEF-RAM. But, my brother Joey couldn’t say it properly, so he called me “Effy.” And, damn if that didn’t stick. But, then my contemporaries (née crumbbums) at The Times started calling me “Iffy, as in “Iffy he gets his facts straight, he might turn out to be a decent hack.” Damn if that didn’t stick, too.
So, I’m sittin’ at my desk on July 2nd thumbing through old issues of magazines like Hot Rod, Girls and Corpses, Stained Glass and “Y’all, the magazine of southern people. Yes. I’m weird. But I needed inspiration for something clever to write about. Then Fitch bellows. I hustle over to his desk. He wants me to write a feature he can run on the Fourth. “Something ‘patriotic’,” he says. Then he hands me a note. “Run out to Billerica, Mass will you. . .”
“Billa-what?” I said.
“Google it. Find it. Get there and interview this guy…” He checks his note. “Thomas Ditson.”
“Is he a serial killer,” I said, hoping this might turn into a real criminal thriller.
He looks up at me. His eyebrows wrangling like loose worms above his sheep-dog eyes. He slides his never-smoked cigar from the left corner of his mouth to the right and chomps. “Now, what the hell would be patriotic about a serial killer, Iffy?”
I shrug my shoulders. I’m a dumb cub reporter. What the hell do I know. “I dunno,” I say.
Fitch gives me his patented low growl. “The guy claims to be Yankee Doodle.” The eyebrows raise and wiggle, as if in some sort of conspiratorial salute.
I step back wishing I had found a cool story angle in Girls and Corpses. “This guy a nut case, or what?”
Fitch leans on his elbows and nearly slides a big pile of papers off his desk. “Well, now, Iffy, that’s what we don’t know, and that’s what I need you to find out.”
I stare at his scrawls on the note he had just handed me. I’m incredulous.
“Interview the schmo and give me a profile…no more than 800 words by tomorrow. If I like it, I’ll run the piece on the Fourth…with your byline. Questions?”
“Yeah,” I scratched my head. “This legit?”
He waved his big paw at me. “Get outta here.”
As I turned to leave, he called out. “Iffy. Before you go. Check yourself, will you. You got something green there in your teeth.”
# # #
Billerica, Mass is an old industrial town but it could be anywhere in Middle America. It sits along Route 3 about twenty miles north of Boston. Records say it was incorporated in 1655. That’s freakin’ ancient in my book. And, get this. There are villages situated around the town with such original names as East Billerica, North Billerica and South Billerica. It’s a blue-collar-hard-workin’-sports town and is home to a handful of high-tech and low tech industries. One of its notable citizens is Tom Glavine, the famous baseball pitcher.
I pull my rental car over and stare at the tiny map on my mobile phone. Then I find it. The residence of the afore-mentioned Thomas Ditson. I park opposite his home. The street, named “Constitution Avenue” is replete with cracked concrete, but is saved by a nice canopy of shade trees that arch over this funky street of proud lawns, shotgun houses, and an eclectic mix of World War II era and modern single-family homes. I stand in front of a natty gray and white bungalow with a white picket fence. The house number says, “1776.” Quaint.
A man answers my knock at the door. He opens it wide and peers out at me. I figure the man to be in his sixties. He’s medium-built, has salt-and-pepper hair, and is handsome in a rugged sense.
I’m nervous as a plate juggler on the TV show, America’s Got Talent…and I blurt out his name. It comes out all wrong. “Mr. Datson?” You could hear a plate drop.
He cocks his head like a border collie trying to understand the command, fetch my Glock will you, Sparky. Then he says, “You mean, Ditson?”
I apologize. Say it correctly and announce I’m from The Times. “May I come in? I’d like to talk with you.”
“What’s this about?” he says. The door inches closer to being shut.
“Uh, I’ve heard rumors in which you claim to be Yankee Doodle.”
“The Times, you say? You’re sure you’re not with NSA or FBI? You got I.D?”
I shake my head and show him my media credentials.
He glances at my I.D. photo which makes me look like I’m just out of high school. “I hate the Times, but ‘mon in.” He waves me in quickly, but not after an audible grunt, “And, they ain’t rumors, sonny.”
To be continued. . .