The Weekly Critter: A Short Story

Facing what remained of a chafed and grizzled newsroom staff, publisher and editor Ace King stood with hands on hips, a red and black silk club tie neatly knotted around his neck. Starched monogrammed French cuffs on a white shirt protruded about a half inch from the sleeves of an Italian black double-breasted suit with chalked pinstripes. Two crossed pens and swords imprinted on his 24 karat gold cuff links gleamed in the glare of overhead fluorescent lights.

“I’m shutting us down as of today,” said the 60-year-old owner of the 100-year-old family newspaper.

Scoop Kincaid, 65, applauded.

“Jesus, that’s about five years overdue, don’t you think?”

City editor Karen White, 70, wearing a psychedelic kaftan and love beads, threw her rectangular professional reporter’s notebook into the air.

“It’s about time, dude,” she said.

“But we’re going to keep working for a while,” Ace said.

That stopped the presses.

Ace went to Scoop’s desk and opened the top drawer. Pulling out a half-empty bottle of Four Roses bourbon, he removed the cap, took a swig and passed the holy water to Scoop who took a nip. He passed the bottle to Karen White who took a healthy gulp.

Ace talked fast as a preacher high on the Holy Spirit.

“No more putting up with bullshit press releases, pompous advertisers trying to control the news, lying corrupt elected officials and young, timid colleagues better suited to public relations and real estate sales. No more irate calls from stupid readers. Today we’re a real free press.”

So long Daily Pencil.

Hello Weekly Critter.

Instead of pushing to get a hard news broadsheet on the street seven days a week, cut to three, cut to two, struggling to publish an award-winning paper they once took great pride putting together, the staff settled in to get even and make a killing in the gullibility market.

“If we can’t beat ’em, and we can’t, we’ll join ’em – but on our terms,” Ace said.

The insurgency was simple.

Ace noticed the devolution in human behavior for years. Americans loved animals more than they loved other Americans. They particularly detested immigrants and other men, women and children with different ideas, cultures, skin color, languages and traits unique to our species. Even with their mean streak, though, most Americans loved all kinds of critters, especially abused and abandoned animals. They loved their dogs, cats, gerbils, snakes, rats, tropical fish and other creatures with a passion bordering on mental illness. Black bats matter more than Black lives matter.

Animal rescue enjoyed more popularity than human adoption. You could make people cry with a sappy dog story without even trying. Most men and women loved their pets more than their spouses or partners. Parrots that cursed, cockatoos that kissed you and pythons thick as a sewer pipe that snuggled without strangling you to death went over bigger than most interpersonal relationships. Gourmet pet food sales took in more money than donations to Meals on Wheels for needy senior citizens or Head Start breakfast programs for poor children.

The Weekly Critter would feature nothing but animal tales. The new color tabloid would teem with bankrolled creature features, subsidized columns about stray mutts and feral kittens, paid-for varmint related briefs and other wild thing adventures. The newspaper staff would unanimously crusade for beastly birth announcements, lavish goldfish baptisms, duck weddings, birthdays (“coverage of doggie birthday parties our specialty”) and obituaries with long tear-jerking details of the dearly departed fur baby’s life and times. Front page exposés on first responder K-9 and military veteran pooches would shine. Glowing editorials advocating emotional support raccoons and turtles and a three-part series on holy cows targeting local Hindus in the increasing Indian population would prompt massive response.

Ace expected U-Haul trucks full of cash to quickly pile up in the bank. Readers would pay through the snout for the privilege of going to the dogs. After struggling to keep the paper and themselves afloat, Ace, Scoop and Karen needed cash. People would pay for photos, too, as well as print reproductions. The Weekly Critter would make more money in a week than the Daily Pencil made in a month.

Ace King sat down and laid out the first edition. To give readers a sense of the barnyard about to open to them, Karen banged out stories about six cats, three chickens, one possum and a pregnant donkey. Scoop wrote about the pet pig he raised as a child, a porker named Bacon who became ham hocks stewing in a soup pot of greens and now communicated with Scoop from heaven. Ace wrote an editorial about saving the world by saving the whales, the dolphins and every other animal Noah crammed into the arc, including woodpeckers and termites that would have sunk the Biblical ship.

Then Ace asked in a heartrending full-page appeal that readers submit their own touching and humorous stories. Ace also published the inflated price list required to publish these reports and recollections the way newspapers normally set rates for obituaries, full-page advertising and other sponsored content.

The premier Weekly Critter hit the streets at dawn Sunday morning, distributed free by family and friends of the staff who loaded issues hot off the presses into their vehicles and dumped bundles on street corners, outside bars and restaurants and houses of worship. By Wednesday afternoon, Ace had more overwritten copy, personal checks and credit card purchases than he could use for the next three editions.

First thing Monday morning Scoop howled from his desk beside the men’s room door.

“Hey, Ace, I got a woman on the phone who says her male Chihuahua who barks in Spanish wants to marry her male Siamese cat. What do you want me to do?”

“Tell her we support ethnic diversity. We’ll cover the wedding with a centerfold photo spread of the honeymoon for $1,500. Two thousand for a page one nude layout like John and Yoko on the cover of the Rolling Stone.”

Grinning like a Cheshire cheetah, the whiskey-sotted newsman hung up and called out to Ace.

“Can I drink at the reception while I’m covering the story?”

“You drank at every other event you covered the last 40 years. Why should this be any different? Whatever kibbles your bits, Scoop,” Ace said.

Karen White wanted to know if she could bring a sick rooster into the newsroom until she could nurse the cock-of-the-walk back to health before the paper auctioned off the bony bird to prissy Junior Leaguers who wanted to take the bird under their wings. Ace put his thumbs under his arms, flapped his elbows, jumped on his desk and pecked at the tuna sandwich he had laid out for lunch.

“Guess that’s a yes,” Karen White said.

Within a month national news reporters showed up asking for interviews.

Ace turned them all down.

Scoop ran into the newsroom one Friday right before deadline laughing so hard he bent over and split the seam in the crotch of the Sears slacks he bought before the local store went out of business a decade earlier.

“The Chamber of Commerce wants us to cover their dinner for the most influential pets in the community,” he said.

Ace clapped his hands in anticipation.

“Tell their horse’s ass chief executive officer we’ll take care of everything as long as they pay for everything plus a limo to take us to and from the dinner,” Ace said.

“The Chamber has more horse’s asses than an Elks Club rodeo,” Scoop said.

Karen White whinnied.

Nine months later on New Year’s Eve, Ace popped a bottle of champagne and stood in bare feet and cutoff jeans happily staring at the horizon from the deck on his new beach house that looked out over the Pacific Ocean. A newspaper conglomerate from Iowa (children of the corn, Scoop called them) had won a corporate bidding war for The Weekly Critter as Ace sweet-talked the greedy bean counters into a $15 million deal with nationwide distribution.

With his cut Scoop settled into a Victorian house built in 1900 equipped with a built-in mahogany bar, floor-to-ceiling frosted glass mirrors and a wine cellar stocked by an eccentric vintner who fell into a vat of pinot noir and drowned. Scoop easily exchanged his prized Four Roses for plump squeezed grapes.

Karen White opened up a farm stand alongside the road selling fresh artichokes and live chickens. She told the little kids whose hipster parents stopped at the stand she could talk chicken, and when they laughed she clucked. At the end of the day she took great satisfaction in changing the newspaper pages she used to catch the droppings beneath the chickens’ bottoms. The birds always had a fresh edition to crap on the way you train a puppy to pee on a newspaper.

Readers across the nation gobbled up The Weekly Critter. In the process they missed countless hard news stories that impacted their lives published in what was left of credible newspapers. As a result the masses got stupider and more gullible. More and more print outlets failed, voluntarily committing “mediacide” by a fearful willingness to serve as weak pabulum press drudges that catered to nonaggressive “community news” and wire service filler. Their barks became worse than their bites.

But our newshound hero trio did well – birds of a feather and all that. Ace, Scoop and Karen White never looked a gift horse in the mouth. And they never looked back. As an elephant never forgets, all three are as happy as a clam.

In the animal world the early bird gets the worm.