The day Alfred Mansley died, the sun eclipsed a pale sliver behind a bulbous moon, cloaking the skies in muddy darkness. Soothsayers babbled about ominous portents and dire prognostications of the solar event, while the sane merely balked and returned to their 24-hour cable bitchfests and the latest decapitation pornography.
Mansley would’ve enjoyed the sublime irony of the eclipse over his funeral. He might’ve told his guests casually over a strong demitasse and biscotti how he planned the entire thing, and coordinated his demise to coincide with the solar eclipse.
“It’ll give the funeral guests something to talk about on the ride home,” he’d say in his clipped northeastern accent.
His guests would’ve predictably guffawed at the remark, and respond with grins and giggles, “Madly droll, you are, Alfred! Where do you come up with these things?”
But such a scenario wouldn’t play out.
Alfred Mansley, publisher of the Rutland Beacon, Vermont’s most conservative newspaper, was dead of a brain aneurysm at age 78.
The Mansley family began the Beacon in 1894 and through the years weathered the tumultuous waves of success and failure. While other papers fell to financial realities of the publishing industry, the Beacon, tight-fisted and tenacious, clung like a wet kitten on the bow of a tempest-tossed scow.
When Mansley assumed control of the newspaper from his father, the late Lionel John Mansley in 1973, the country was in the throes of scandal, social upheaval and domestic unrest.
Mansley fired all male reporters with hair past their collars and ordered women in the secretary pool to wear skirts down past their knees. Priggish and puritanical, Mansley scoffed at the youthful “free love” movement and began a companywide purge of unmarried employees. To him, family values and tradition trumped a natural, healthy sexual appetite.
In 1994, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean presented a proclamation to Mansley, honoring the Rutland Beacon’s 100th anniversary. Mansley touted the success of his publication by offering deep discounts on subscriptions, which nearly doubled overnight.
Rutland Beacon reporters Jake Proctor and Ellie Grauman won statewide reporting awards, further boosting the paper’s reputation.
Yet things wouldn’t remain rosy for the stodgy daily newspaper. After 2002, the paper’s circulation began a steady decline in readership, subscriptions and advertisers. The once mighty bulwark of the Green Mountain State began crumbling under the hefty weight of cable news networks, Internet news sites and general public apathy.
After a disastrous shareholder’s meeting, Mansley, infirm and decrepit, cloistered himself in his mansion, never to leave. Mangy, unkempt and resembling Howard Hughes during the batshit crazy years, Mansley fell into a blissful dysfunction, a calming madness. He spent mornings cushioned in his four-poster bed, surrounded by opulent paintings, furnishings and the aid of his manservant, Othello, which wasn’t really the Dominican man’s name, but Mansley saw all black people with a fractured racial lens: either they were exotic foreigners worthy of Shakespeare’s titular Moor, or they were antebellum servants from Gone With The Wind.
By noon, Mansley struggled from his bedchamber, bathed, took his required bowel movement, and trudged downstairs for lunch. His cook, a Jamaican woman he called Mammy, served him the same thing every day: prime rib (medium rare), two eggs (over easy) and a bottle of Dom Perignon.
Following his meal, he’d head to his study, where, flanked by bookshelves, a liquor cabinet and a large oaken desk, the old man read the news and caught up with world events. He’d guzzle Scotch and soda and write correspondence to his friends and family; mostly rambling diatribes about how publishing is a serpent coiled around the leg of an incontinent elephant, waiting to be violently trampled.
When his business associates came calling, he’d welcome them with alacrity and entertain them in the billiard room. The old man, a gaunt, pale giant, towered over the soft green felt table, cue in hand, and eyed his next shot.
During one of these social calls, Beacon editor Walt Hirsch noticed Mansley hovered between lucidity and madness.
“The president thinks he can toy with this nation, with what we built, by punishing us, Walter. This ebony-colored jackal socialist yearns to put people like me out of business, and for what? Because we’re successful. Because we’ve labored our lives believing in America,” Mansley said, and tapped the ivory ball with his cue. The ball drifted slowly over the green felt and into a leather pocket.
“It’s getting difficult every day to do this job,” Hirsch said, staring absentmindedly into his Scotch, examining the light reflecting off the clinking ice cubes. “Reporters are paramecium. Flagellating protozoa. Microscopic pond scum. When I started in 1990, I was young and optimistic, right out of J-school. I was going to cover corruption at the highest levels and keep the bastards honest.”
“I take it things didn’t exactly work out for you.”
“Far from it. The more I delved into stories, the more I wrote, the more I uncovered, the more people pulled away. It’s as if the people resented me for bringing to light uncomfortable truths.”
Mansley chortled, and hacked up a glob of phlegm. He dabbed a handkerchief to the corner of his mouth.
“Pardon, Walter. I found your lament utterly ridiculous,” Mansley said. “If working in publishing has taught me anything, it’s the public’s fickle temperament. People are idiots. No discipline, no tastes. No capacity for responsibility.”
“Still, it’s a bit depressing to try to do your job when everyone hates you.”
“Bullshit,” the old man said, and sunk another billiard ball without blinking. “Look at me. Everyone despises me. The liberals, the secularists, my competition. Those frumpy, effete country club bastards. All tough talk and no balls. I didn’t make this organization thrive without making enemies. Believe me, if you’re making people angry, you’re sticking to your guns. You’re true to yourself.”
Hirsch realized Mansley was correct. Bless his diseased, shrunken heart, he thought.
“The Internet is killing us. Everything is instant updates, minute to minute,” Hirsch said, swallowing the last of his Scotch with a satisfying gulp.
“Such is the nature of things these days,” Mansley said. “High-speed data transfers this, fiber optic network that. Can’t wrap my head around all this technology. We’ve got people who understand that shit better than I do. That’s what I pay them for.”
“I don’t want to keep whining about this…”
“Oh, don’t stop. It’s amusing,” Mansley said, and handed his cue to Othello, who wore an expression of grim indifference. “This is business, Walter. It’s gathering the news, feeding the beast. It’s convincing businesses to advertise with us. Making money. Prospering. Thriving in a world of infotainment, opinion-spewing pundits and lurid photos of some starlet’s tits.”
“How do we compete against that?”
“We don’t. We continue to print the news the way we always have. Stay the course.”
“But the world isn’t a 45 rpm vinyl record. It’s an mp3 blaring from an iPod. News has to be sensationalized, in-your-face, obnoxious roar. It’s The New York Daily News, Fox News, MSNBC. It’s telling people what they want to hear. I hate this new world we live in, too, but we can’t ignore it.”
“So what do you suggest?”
Hirsch thought for a moment as the old man fixed his eyes upon him like a vulture surveying a piece of freshly-killed carrion.
“We make the Beacon relevant, not just for Rutland, but for all of Vermont. Hell, make it regional. New England. Make is essential for people to read,” Hirsch said. “Crank up the volume and make it louder, better, bigger.”
Mansley thanked Hirsch for his thoughtful input and welcomed further dialog on improving his family’s newspaper.
By the day’s end, he fired Hirsch.
* * *
“You know what they’re saying about me, Othello?” Mansley said to his manservant as he stood over the toilet pissing. His urine trickled in a puny stream into the porcelain bowl, splashing on the rim and sprinkling on the tiled floor.
The butler shook his head.
“I don’t know, sir. What are they saying?” Othello replied.
“They say I’m a low-rent Charles Foster Kane. As in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Can you imagine? Me, some greedy, tyrannical plutocrat.”
“The mind boggles, sir.”
“Right,” Mansley said, finishing his tinkle and pulling his wrinkled penis into his striped silk pajamas.
The butler wiped Mansley’s hands with a scented towel and the old man clutched his ivory-tipped mahogany cane.
Ambling into his bedchamber, Mansley crawled into bed. It was nearly 2 a.m.
“It’s not my fault this dysfunctional world lost its purpose,” Mansley said as Othello kneaded the downy, goosefeather pillows. “Everyone’s looking for a quick fix, simple solutions to complicated problems. Nobody wants to work anymore, to sweat. The whole country’s gone soft.”
Othello finished fluffing the pillows and stood ramrod straight.
“Will there be anything else, sir?” the butler asked crisply.
“Perhaps a nightcap. Snifter of brandy, please.”
The butler nodded and retrieved a bottle of brandy the next room. He poured the syrupy, heady liquid into a bulbous snifter. Mansley rolled the glass in his hand and sipped it gingerly. The brandy warmed his throat as it descended down his esophagus.
“Othello, can I tell you something?”
The old man sat up in bed, his eyes moistening, lip trembling.
“Years ago, I could’ve gotten married. I met this beautiful society girl at the yacht club. She had grace and poise. She didn’t take shit from anyone, either, especially me. Thought I’d met the one. Her name was Beatrice, and she was everything I’d hope for,” Mansley said.
“What happened to her, sir?”
Mansley coughed and stiffened.
“She wouldn’t wait for me. I delayed the courtship because I wanted to make more money. Wanted to make the Rutland Beacon the greatest paper in the state. So demanding. Working late at night. Meeting clients during the day. This newspaper consumed my time. In the end, Beatrice thought I wasn’t interested and moved on. Married an investment banker and moved to Martha’s Vineyard. The years haven’t been kind to me, Othello.”
“My condolences on your lost love, sir.”
Mansley acknowledged his butler’s empathy with a slight wave of his hand. He dried his eyes and sunk deeper into the pillow.
“That was a long time ago,” Mansley said, shifting his tone from teary recollection to tough indifference. “We’re all at the mercy of the past, sooner or later.”
“Quite right, sir.”
The butler turned off the light and departed in silence. A moonbeam fell through the window, across the room, pouring over the satin sheets and four-poster bed where Alfred Mansley slept, curled like an infant, drifting dreamlike where Beatrice awaited, her arms outstretched.