At 27, Alden Jeffries was the youngest member of the staff at KFCH radio in Fletcher, Nebraska, not much of a distinction since there were only five employees there and the next youngest was 38. Even with that Alden saw himself being already three years behind in his career goal: television news anchor at one of the ‘big three’ stations in Omaha, preferably WOWT, the NBC affiliate. He was a Lester Holt fan after all.
He had a shot at a t.v. station in Kearney two years back, but for various reasons, some of his own making, others beyond his control, it didn’t quite work out, and he was left to creatively integrate that brief stay into the hyperbole of his own resumé, something he did as artfully as he wrote and read copy.
Alden did the daytime news for the station, ‘K-Fletch,’ as he liked to call it. He also covered sports for the Fletcher County Consolidated High School (the Comets) and did a Swap-Shop show from 2:00 to 4:00 Monday through Friday.
Fletcher had 3,476 residents, the county 6,560. There was another radio station out in Connorsville, his home town, but it was only two thousand watts. K-Fletch was the “Voice of the County” at five thousand. Alden Jeffries fancied himself the Walter Cronkite of the area.
It all kept him busy, though it never took his eyes from his prize, a ticket off the prairie. He looked up to the clock as he read the last segment of the news: “And finally, the Fletcher Rotary Club has decided to make the Children’s Home in Spencer the recipient of the proceeds from its annual talent show. Club president Sheldon Richards announced the decision at yesterday’s weekly meeting. Rotary will present the County Children’s Home with a $500 check next week.”
The clock clicked 2:04.
“Now a word from Fred Miller Motors here in Fletcher. Remember, if you car can’t make it... , make it to Miller Motors. We’ll be right back with today’s stay at the Swap Shop.”
The high-pitched voice of Fred Miller filled the air as Alden pushed back in his chair and took down his headphones. He sighed as he set out his pen and notebook for the show.
“I bet Dan Rather never had to do this crap.”
The August sun filled the window across the room, as if the dirty yellow heat poured from the flat horizon right up to the walls of the small building which offered only slight resistance. “Jesus, it must be 100 already,” he muttered. It was 98 in his own news report three minutes ago.
KFCH lived in what had been a four-room brick house just on the edge of town. With only two tall fans for relief, the small studio could get pretty hot, baking in the Nebraska sun all day and holding the heat until well into the night. Alden had taken to calling it the “kiln,” and the label had caught on among both the other station staffers and the listening audience.
“Welcome back to the kiln,” he chirped as the commercial track finished. “It’s time for Tuesday’s Swap Shop here on K-Fletch. You know how this works; call with an item you’d like to sell or something you’d like to buy, give a brief description and the price. Then I’ll need your name and phone number too, so our listeners can get in touch with you. And, as usual, the
first half hour of Swap Shop is brought to you by our good friends to Maxwell’s Market.
Remember, the finest meats, the freshest produce, and the friendliest people, that’s what make Maxwell’s your special place on the corner of 3rd and South Street here in downtown Fletcher.”
Downtown, my ass! Alex shook his head as the first call rang in.
“Hello, you’re on Swap Shop.”
“Yeah, hello,” a man’s voice came on. “I’ve got two Frigidaire Accudry dehumidifiers to sell.”
“They work just fine; they’re about ten years old.”
“How big are they?”
“They’re both the same, twenty-five pint.”
“Okay, and how much do you want for them?”
“I’ll take $25 apiece. They work just fine. We’re only sellin ‘em because our boy, he’s over in Lincoln now, got some big job at the University over there, he got us a new, whole-house unit, so we don’t need these two anymore.”
“Oh, that’s nice, and your phone number?”
“Uh, they can reach me at 641-8384. I’ll be here all afternoon.”
“Is that a cell phone or your house phone?”
“Don’t got no cell. That’s the number for the phone right here in the kitchen and out in the garage. I’ll answer it either way.”
“And who should they ask for?”
“I’m Tom. They can ask for me.”
“Okay, Tom. Anyone interested in a twenty-five pint Frigidaire Accudry dehumidifier, about ten years old but in good working order, can call Tom at 8384,” Alden read from his notes. That’s 641-8384. Thank you, Tom.”
Alden picked up the next blinking line.
“Hello, welcome to Swap Shop.”
“Yes, this is Swap Shop.”
“Is this Alden?”
“Yes, this is Alden. Welcome to Swap Shop.”
“Uh,… Umm…hello,” a man’s voice crackled softly.
“Hello,” Alden rolled his eyes, tapping his pen.
“Alden? This is Arty Becker.”
Alden thought that it might be. “Hello there, Mr. Becker.”
“I’ve got a Sears lawn mower for sale.”
“Okay, Mr. Becker, tell us about it.”
“Well, it’s not real big. I think it’s a twenty-two inch deck. It’s a mulcher, and it works just fine, just needs oil and a new plug every year and she’ll start up every time with just one good yank of the chord.”
“And what are you asking for it?”
“Oh, I don’t know…it’s not real old, and it cost me $250 new. I guess $50 will do. Yep, $50 will get ‘er.”
“And your number Mr. Becker?”
“Don’t you have that already?”
“I bet we do, but not right here in front of me, why don’t you...”
“Okay, then. Anyone looking for a good used Sears twenty-two-inch mulching mower, side discharge—it is a side discharge, Mr. Becker, isn’t it?”
“Why yes it is.”
“...that works well, can call Arty Becker at 641-6749. Thank you Arty.”
Becker had already hung up. Alden would hear from him again this week, probably on Thursday.
He pulled the right desk drawer open, took out the small bottle of Jack Daniels he kept there, spun off the black cap, and gulped a quick swig. He took a deep breath and returned the bottle.
“Hello, welcome to Swap Shop.”
There were sounds on the other end but no voice.
“Hello, welcome to Swap Shop.”
“Hello,” a woman’s voice managed, barely audible.
Arlen squinted, cocked his head. “Would you please speak up a little ma’m.”
“Oh, okay; I’m sorry” the thin voice increased only slightly.
“Welcome to Swap Shop; this is Alden Jeffries.”
“Hello Mr. Jeffries,” the lace doily voice replied.
“What do you have for sale?”
“Well,…ummm… I have a man’s ring... it’s a square-cut amethyst in a gold setting…”
“That sounds really nice,” Alden offered.
“Uh…yes, thank you,” the delicate tone returned. “It is quite nice.”
This sounded very different. Alden had done Swap Shop for two years now, and he had heard all manner of callers, many of them repeaters. He had even met some of them on remote broadcasts out at the drive-in or at the high school. They’d come up to him as if he were a celebrity: “say, you’re Alden Jeffries, aren’t you? Well, don’t that beat all. I’ve called you on Swap Shop a couple times, sold my old Buick that way, I did.” Some would even ask for an autograph. He always obliged.
But this was different. It sounded, felt different.
“What size is it?” he asked, his own voice quieting.
“It’s a ten as I recall. I bought it for Henry years ago. It’s a size ten.
Alden closed his eyes trying to put a face to the voice.
“It was a long time ago, over fifty years by now.”
Thin, he decided, lined and thin with sharp blue eyes.
“Oh my, so it is something really special,” he offered
There was a quiet moment. “Well,…yes…it truly is…”
“And how much do you want for it?”
“Uh,...well…I haven’t really thought about…maybe…well, no, I…”
This was definitely different. “Well, if you…”
“I’m really not sure Mr. Jeffries. Perhaps, I…”
“I’m Jen…maybe I just shouldn’t. It’s all so…so…maybe I just shouldn’t…”
The phone clicked; the voice was gone.
“Ma’m? Are you still there ma’m?”
A dial tone.
Alden Jeffries sat silent in his chair. He shook his head. “Well, then…we’ll be right back after this message from… ” He looked down the ad list, “from Sunny’s Suds and Pizza,” and he flicked the switch.
As the ‘pepperoni special’ went out over the air, Alden rested his chin on his left hand and looked out to the yellow glow of the Nebraska afternoon. He opened the desk drawer and took another swig from the bottle.
As Alden drove to his apartment three hours later, he kept hearing that faint, unsure voice. When he had come back on the air after that Sunny’s commercial, he had three calls asking about the ring. Two of them also asked if the woman who had it for sale was all right.
He had assured them that she was. He hoped he had sounded more confident of that statement than he felt.
At home he pulled the frozen pizza from the oven and sat down with it just as the news from Omaha came on. He flipped the cap on his Carona, took a swig, and snickered as anchor Rex Reynolds appeared seated beside Ellen Anders at a desk before a large skyline picture of the city, the First National Center and the Woodmen Tower standing out against a twilight sky.
“Oh, geez, look at the suit,” he scoffed aloud, “gangster stripes Rex? Really? And who told you that tie works? A paisley with a print shirt? Who dresses you, for Pete’s sake, NFL draft day fashion consultants?” Alden took a large bite of pizza.
Rex Reynolds looked stern-faced into the camera, “None of the passengers were seriously injured…….”
“Was!” Alden flung his left arm into the air. “None of the passengers was seriously injured, you flaming moron! Did you sleep through seventh grade?”
Rex Reynolds offered the news in a semi-squint, subtle turn-of-the-head way with a voice deepened for his duties on the set. Alden was certain that he did not order pizza or talk to his mother in that voice. Beyond that, his well-sprayed hair was too perfect, and his face too powdered.
He preferred Ellen Anders. Her demeanor and delivery were more direct and unaffected, though he was certain that he would be, that he already was, better than both of them.
When Lester Holt and the NBC Evening News followed, though, he sat attentively, often nodding approval, not at the stories, but at the look, the delivery, the sharp gray suit with the straightforward white shirt and blue tie, not too much make-up, but hair in place, sincere eye contact, not a lot of movement, an appropriate touch of feeling when called for. Just right, he always thought, Mr. Lester Holt, Alden Jeffries’ hero at the anchor desk.
He finished his pizza and a second beer during the broadcast, then dialed up the Kansas City Royals baseball game as he usually did. Tonight, though, his mind kept drifting back to the soft voice of the woman with the ring. “I bought it for Henry fifty years ago” repeated in his thoughts. “Maybe, I just shouldn’t.”
The words echoed for Alden as he wrestled to fall asleep..
The next day’s Swap Shop was well into its first hour when Alden noticed a Breaking News banner across the television monitor. That was followed by a live shot from the main branch of the Nebraska Horizon Bank in downtown Omaha. There were perhaps a dozen police vehicles fanned out near the front of the building. The words Hostage Situation appeared at the bottom of the screen.
Rex Reynolds’ powdered, tidy face appeared with just enough furrow in his brow to convey an important news moment.
Alden aimed the remote at the set and pressed the captioning button. White words in their black rectangles began to appear across the bottom.
“Omaha police say that two men… are holding nine people… hostage in the Nebraska Horizon… Bank.”
Rex Reynolds nodded gravely toward the audience, reinforcing the number and the significance of the event like a father repeats a life lesson to a young child.
“Two men, donning ski masks…at the door and drawing…guns, ordered six customers and…three bank employees down on the ground….one other customer was able…to escape just as the gunmen entered…and was able to call…the police.”
Alden could feel his heart quicken. Jesus, he thought, what a story!
Two lines were flashing on his phone.
“Hello, welcome to Swap Shop.”
“Alden? Is that you?”
“Yes it is; you’re on Swap Shop.”
The television focused on two police officers crouching by their cruiser with guns drawn. The camera panned over to the front of the bank as if it wanted to reach inside for a picture.
“What do you have for sale,” Alden squinted toward the television.
“The police negotiator arrived…at approximately 2:30 and has…established contact with the gunmen.”
“I’ve got a tree lopper and four saws.”
“Tell us about them.”
“The lopper’s been used a lot; I’ve always kept the trees out by the creek trimmed back, but it still works just fine. I’ll take $15 for it.”
“The gunmen have not made…any demands yet but it is…believed that one of the hostages……..is the wife of Grayson Cooper…CEO of Nebco Industries.”
Alden’s eyes widened. Marilyn Cooper, holy crap!
“And the saws are in real good shape. I figure $5 each or all four for $15.”
“And your name and number?”
“They can call Billy at 2781.”
“That’s a saw for $15 and four loppers for……I mean, a good quality lopper for $15 and four saws at $5 each or the whole lot for $15. Call Billy at 2781.” Alden wrote down the information.
He pressed the next button as he watched Rex Reynolds looking like a man who had a wonderful meal set out before him after just seeing that his lotto ticket was a winner. Most people couldn’t see it, but Alden Jeffries could, that infinitesimal, smug smile on his face, that tiny glimmer of satisfaction like a figure skater passing a judge just after he’s pulled off a perfect quad jump. Oh, he can see it all right. Alden Jeffries could see it, even if no one else could. He saw it, and it was eating him up like a tumor.
“Hello, welcome to Swap Shop.”
It was the woman with the ring again.
Alden sat up straight.
“I’m sorry that I…that I hung up on you yesterday.”
“Oh, that’s okay; I’m just glad... that happens sometimes; people get a bit nervous when they get on the air.”
“Yes, well, I guess.”
“You have a ring for sale?”
“Oh…yes, yes I do.”
“An amethyst ring, I believe?”
“Yes. I have an amethyst ring that I’d like…that I’d like to sell.”
“Tell us about it.”
“Well, it’s five karats square cut in a 14 karat gold setting.”
“That sounds lovely.”
“It is a very pretty ring, and, as old as it is, it’s fifty years old, you know,” the fragile voice said softly, “it looks like new. I could hardly ever get him to wear it, Henry. He said that he wasn’t really a ring kind of guy, too busy getting his hands dirty to be wearing something like that.”
Alden watched the television, but he had lost the train of the captions. Now it was something about the gunmen and a list of demands.
“I got it for him on our fifth wedding anniversary, amethyst, his birthstone.”
“And how much do you want for it?”
“He wore it a couple times that first year. It looked real good on him, you know, but not much after that.” She paused, sighing. “He hasn’t been well for…for a long time. He hasn’t been into town since I don’t know when. He’s been real sick...and...”
“The gunmen have asked for…$1million and safe passage…out of the city…they say they will take…two hostages with them.”
“I think the last time I saw him wear it was six years ago at our great grandson’s christening.”
“And how much are you asking for it?”
“What? Oh,…yes. I’m not really sure, but I think that maybe $50 will do it.”
“That’s $50 for an excellent men’s 5 karat amethyst ring. And what number should they...”
“Umm, I also have…I have a man’s pocket watch.”
“And there is a man’s pocket watch too,” Alden said quietly.
“It’s a gold watch…a commemorative gold pocket watch…a really handsome thing,” the voice managed between slow breaths. “It was given to Henry about fifteen years back... when he retired… .”
There was quiet.
“…Henry was so proud of it …he kept it in the top drawer of his dresser, polished it about once a week. He’d go out on the…out on the porch on Friday after dinner, turn the baseball game on the radio, and polish that watch. After he got sick, he’d sometimes just sit with it in the chair. We’d listen to your show, and he’d smile sometimes. He liked to listen to you and all those people. He just…he just loved…I’m not sure…I don’t think I should…I don’t think I can…”
“I’m sorry,” she said softly, and then the voice was quiet.
A crowd had gathered beyond the arc of police vehicles outside the Nebraska Horizon Bank. Rex Reynolds was still on the air with Ellen Anders; they had gone to continuous coverage. Lights were being set up by television trucks in the parking lot across from the bank; all three networks were there. Alden even saw a CNN crew setting up shop.
CNN, he thought, Jesus Christ, continuous coverage and a national story. He shook his head.
Alden had stayed at the studio after his last news report at 5:00, watching the coverage from Omaha and thinking about the woman with the ring and the watch. He sat there until nearly 9:00 while night host Joey Brothers, and his Country Cavalcade went on behind him. It was the third story on Lester Holt’s NBC Nightly News. It included a video report from Rex Reynolds.
At home he turned on the television to watch the unfolding story two hundred miles away. The gunmen had threatened to kill one of the hostages by midnight if their demands were not met. The police chief was interviewed, the mayor was interviewed, three experts in hostage situations were interviewed, an expert in criminal behavior was on talking about the psychology of hostage-taking. Two former hostages from similar crimes were on. By the time those opinions were fully expressed and added to the dynamics of the event, Alden had fallen asleep on the couch.
And while the television flickered across his closed eyes and the stubble on his face, he dreamed of an old woman walking into a bank, crying softly, carrying an amethyst ring and a gold pocket watch in her open palms.
Alden was driving back from Spencer the next day—he had gone to do a piece on the County Children’s Home there—when he saw two sheriff’s cruisers racing south down highway 14 that runs through Fletcher. Their flashing red lights were just fading from view when he pulled in at the station. He stood by the car and watched as they vanished over the horizon.
He wiped sweat from his forehead as he worked with the audio he had just taken, alternating clips from his recording with glances to the television where a rested Rex Reynolds could be seen standing with a blue WOWT NBC Omaha jacket holding a microphone and describing the current situation at the bank. Apparently there had been a “major development.”
Alden leaned in to hear.
“…and we have just confirmed with the Chief of Police that the siege on the Nebraska Horizon Bank is over. The gunmen have been apprehended, and all nine hostages have been released. All appear to be in good shape. We understand that one of the gunmen was shot by police, but his injury is not life-threatening.”
And how do you feel about that, Rexie, Alden thought. Bet you wanted another day, maybe a fatality or two.
“Once again, the hostage standoff at the Horizon Bank in downtown Omaha, where nine hostages were taken forty-eight hours ago is over. The hostages are all fine, and there were no injuries to the police. One of the gunmen was shot in an exchange with police: he is not thought to be seriously injured. We are hearing that the hostage negotiating team did an excellent job here. We’ll have more on that as it is available.”
Alden smiled as he set back to work on the audio from Spencer and the other items for his two-o-clock news report.
“…and that’s Joseph Kolak, Director of the Fletcher County Children’s Home in Spencer, describing how the $500 from the Rotary Club will be put to good use there.” Alden was in good voice this day. “Now stay with us for words from our friends at Rex Miller Motors and the Fletcher County Bank, and we’ll be back on the other side with the Thursday session of Swap Shop.”
The second Alden flipped the switch, the studio’s news line rang. He recognized the voice in an instant, Brian Chester, the Fletcher County Sheriff’s Dispatcher. He called the the station from time to time with news. He spoke excitedly:
“I don’t have all of this Alden, so don’t say anything yet, okay?”
“Okay, sure. What’s up?”
“There’s two people dead out on a small farm about three miles south of town.”
“Jesus! What happened?”
There was a short pause, then “the Sheriff thinks it might be a murder-suicide.”
“Holy crap! Do they know who?”
“Not positive yet, but they think it’s Jennifer and Henry Godfrey.”
“Jennifer and Henry…….!” Alden’s eyes flew open. His jaw dropped.
“Alden,……Alden, you still there?”
“Yeah,…I’m still here,” he exhaled slowly.
“Okay, remember, nothing on the air yet. I’ll get back to you if I hear anything, but they might be tight-lipped on this one, okay?”
Alden Jeffries was silent.
“Yeah, yeah, sure…okay…not a word.”
Brian Chester hung up.
Alden sat back in his chair, staring blankly out the window where the hot yellow Nebraska afternoon burned around him. Jennifer and Henry repeated in his mind. A bead of sweat rolled from his forehead. He closed his eyes and saw again the woman in his dream, hands extending the ring and the watch like an offering.
He looked up at the clock: 2:04:55. The last words from the bank commercial came and went. It was 2:05.
Alden leaned forward, drew a long, slow breath, and flipped on the microphone.
“Hello, welcome to the Swap Shop.”
He didn’t hear from Brian Chester the rest of the afternoon.
When he arrived at the station the next morning, Alden found a copy of The Fletcher Flag newspaper folded on his desk. Beside it sat a small brown package.
Most of the front page above the fold was consumed by a photo of the Nebraska Horizon Bank in Omaha taken just as police emerged from the main doors with the robbers in custody. In the story beneath the photo, comments from Rex Reynolds were featured.
“Well, I don’t think there’s been a story like this in Omaha in quite some time, a two-day hostage situation at a major downtown bank that involved people from across the city, including one of the most prominent women in the region. We had national news people here, and the eyes of the world on us. The Omaha Police really did us proud.”
Alden Jeffries shook his head slowly. “The eyes of the world were on us,” he muttered tersely, “the eyes of the world!”
He then picked up the small brown package which had been mailed from there in Fletcher the previous day.
There was no return address, and he didn’t recognize the handwriting, so his first instinct was to just toss it away. He had received several ‘interesting’ things in the mail in his time in Fletcher, but something told him to go ahead and open this small box.
He looked around as if he were about to sneak someone’s yogurt from the small station fridge though there was no one there to see him.
He slid his thumb under one of the triangle folds at the end of the package and pulled off the brown paper wrap. Beneath it was a white cardboard box.
He lifted the lid slowly.
There in the box, resting on a small swaddle of black felt, were a beautiful amethyst ring and a gleaming gold pocket watch. Alden drew a long, deep breath.
Between them was a small piece of paper which he picked up and unfolded. There, in the same shaky script that addressed the parcel, was the short note.
I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to sell these.
Please take good care of them.
Alden rubbed his left hand across his face and read the note again. He looked out the window across the room.
The sun was well up, and it was hot already. It would probably clear a hundred again.
Alden shook his head slowly and reached down to his desk drawer.
He swirled the black cap off the bottle of Jack Daniels and took a long swig. He closed his eyes and once again saw the image of the fragile old woman standing in the bank holding out the ring and the watch in the palms of her thin, lined hands. This time, she reached out to him.
Alden put the note back in the box, put the cover back on, and set the box in the desk drawer beside the bottle. He closed the drawer quietly.
He picked up the newspaper and flipped it to the lower half of the front page. There, below the fold, was a second headline: Local Couple Found Dead in Home.
To the left, beneath the bold print, were two small pictures side-by-side: a distinguished-looking Henry Godfrey smiling out from the page in a photo that appeared to be at least twenty years old and what seemed to be a more recent photo of his wife Jennifer. Though her thin, drawn face seemed to labor for its smile, it was clear that she had been beautiful once and, in some ways, still was.
Alden Jeffries stared at the pictures that seemed to be staring back at him, through him, beyond him.
He looked up at the clock. His news report was up in nine minutes.
He shook his head and reached for his notepad.
He drew a long breath and began to write.
John P. Kristofco, from Highland Heights, Ohio, is professor of English and the former dean of Wayne College in Orrville. His poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in over a hundred different publications, including: Folio, Rattle, The Bryant Literary Review, The Cimarron Review, Poem, Grasslimb, Iodine, Small Pond, The Aurorean, Ibbetson Street, Blue Unicorn, Blueline, Sheepshead Review, and Slant. He has published three collections of poetry, A Box of Stones, Apparitions, and The Fire in Our Eyes and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. His fourth chapbook, The Timekeeper's
Garden, came out earlier this year. His work has appeared frequently in Offcourse.