The tradition continues! Every year from 1997 to 2007, The Inquirer published a fictional Christmas story by Chris Satullo and artist Tony Auth, at that time the Editorial Board editor and cartoonist, respectively. Satullo continued the story at WHYY-FM from 2009 to 2014, and it returned to The Inquirer in 2015. Like last year, Satullo has teamed up with staff artist Rob Tornoe. The whole story is at philly.com/story.
Second of five parts.
The story so far: The editor of a successful digital news site in Philadelphia has his happy pre-Christmas mood shaken by a homeless man's mysterious comment.
Josh Ransom awoke with his brain full of light, same as it had every day since Game 7 of the World Series, when his beloved Cubs ended their jinx.
Then, like a posse of thunderclouds galloping in from the ocean to pelt the beach with hail, the memory battered him.
Oh, yeah, that.
The day before, at precisely 2:08 p.m., Josh had been fired from the best job he'd ever had.
His mind edged to the brink of panic; he pondered whether just to tumble over into the abyss.
Then, a touch on his shoulder, a voice. Christie.
He rolled over. Her blond hair tousled, she placed her hand gently on his bearded cheek.
"Babe, how are you?"
Josh dug an elbow into the bed, propped his head on one hand, groaned.
"Ooof, I'd feel better if I didn't have this Black & Decker power drill burrowing through my frontal lobe. What a hangover."
"Yeah, your guys were very generous with the Jameson last night. So" - a glint of mischief danced in his wife's eyes - "do you remember the part when you jumped up on the bar and belted out 'I Gotta Be Me'?"
"Nooooooo, I did not! Tell me you're lying." The saying can't carry a tune in a bucket had been invented for Josh.
Christie giggled and kissed Josh's forehead.
"You are a cruel, heartless woman."
It was a tenet of their marriage: When bad stuff happens, that's when we try hardest to find a way to laugh.
"But, really, how are you?"
Josh opened his mouth, groping for an answer. Into that pause bounded Wrigley, leaping onto the bed, diving between the two of them, and licking Josh's face with vigor.
"Aaack, Wrigley, cut us a break, will ya?"
Josh hopped out of bed, began to pull on jeans.
"Josh, no, the dog can wait. Talk to me."
"No, it's OK, he needs to go out. Maybe the air will do me good. I'll be able to answer your question better after a walk and some coffee."
Wrigley did that annoying thing where he kept pawing at Josh's feet as he tried to tie his sneakers - canine illogic delaying the very thing he was frantic for. Finally, Josh wrangled the dog into his NPR leash. They began to stroll the tree-shadowed, uneven sidewalks of West Mount Airy.
Wrigley was a rescue, four years theirs, of uncertain lineage. A year back, they'd sprung for a DNA test, which reported that Wrigley was part schnauzer, part poodle, part Wheaten terrier. "And part nuts," Josh usually added.
As Wrigley shambled along, sniffing and marking every tree that caught his eye, Josh's mind lurched to memories of the previous day's meeting with Fergus McKay.
Fergus, technically, owned Benjamin's Key, the digital news outlet Josh had founded. Josh had sold the Key to Fergus a year ago. But Josh still thought of the Key as his, banking on what he thought was Fergus' promise that he could be its editor-in-chief as long as he wanted.
The day before, Josh had strolled into Fergus' office in a top corner of a Center City tower. North and Northwest Philly sprawled before the media baron's gaze like vassals.
The first thing that hit Josh's eye was the legal pad.
It lay on the lap of Dan Jackson, the HR person for Fergus' company, Tartan Media.
A finger of dread scampered down Josh's spine, but his brain pivoted to brush it off. "Why, Dan? One of my guys must have done something dumb on social media I don't know about."
"Hi, Dan," Josh said evenly. Dan nodded wordlessly, directed his gaze to Fergus' desk.
"Josh," Fergus said, rising to shake his hand, then gesturing to a couch. Fergus sat opposite, leaned forward, elbows on knees, eyes boring in.
"Josh, you know how much I admire and appreciate everything you've done for the Key."
What is happening?
"Your original vision was bold. You birthed it ably. You hired well, trained and mentored those young ones brilliantly."
You bet your ass I did. So where is this headed?
"The Key is a success journalistically, and in audience growth. But not financially. Not by a long sight. Last year's margin was 2 percent. Revenue growth this year is clocking at 1 percent. Unacceptable. Unsustainable. There's no solution but to adjust the cost structure. And when I look at costs, by far the biggest single one is you."
"You want me to take a pay cut?" Josh's indignation raced to collect sharp-edged words to hurl back at Fergus.
"No, Josh. Not that. The thing is: We're going to have to let you go. When I'm scraping together nickels to pay the bills, I can't afford a manager who's making twice what his No. 2 makes."
As Wrigley's hind legs scratched furiously at a patch of grass somewhere on McCallum, Josh shuddered at the memory of those words. Wrigley turned in a circle three times - the tell that he was ready to put down a deposit.
Josh clawed a poop bag free from the cylinder on the end of the leash. The emotions of 2:08 p.m. Monday, Dec. 5, flooded him anew.
"Y-you've got to be joking, Fergus. You can't do that."
"Dan will take you to his office now to go over your severance package, which I think you'll find quite fair."
"We had a deal, Fergus. I could be editor as long as I wanted."
"Josh, dear boy, that's not true. Surely, you of all people know the power of the written word. Go back and read what our agreement said when you sold me the Key and decided, if I might put it bluntly but accurately, to cash out all your rights as founder. It says only that you can be editor as long as 'mutually agreeable.' Mutual, as in both sides. And what I'm telling you now is that, on my side, I no longer am agreeable.
"Look, Josh, take this as a compliment. You've done a marvelous job of launching the Key, in grooming Mallory as your logical successor. Now the time has come, as you surely must have known it would, to apply that logic. You will leave for new adventures, and Mallory will rise to take the Key where it needs to go."
Jabbing at the grass to wrap Wrigley's deposit in the blue plastic bag, Josh thought ruefully: Logic? More like a two-by-four up side my head.
Josh barely remembered what had happened in the minutes after Fergus' little soliloquy, so vast were the jolts of adrenaline, so frantic were the thoughts ricocheting about his head. There came a point, he seemed to remember, when he'd been on the precipice of begging, but pulled back, his dignity meaning more to him than even this job he treasured.
Back on the Center City sidewalk, trembling beneath an ironic December sun, he'd called a labor lawyer he'd used as a source a few times. It had taken the guy only one question - "So, Josh, do you have an employment contract?" - to let Josh know Fergus was right. The sole owner of Tartan Media could do what he wanted, and Josh had no recourse but to howl at the moon.
Wrigley and his hungover owner trudged up the final block on the path home.
One more memory of the day before flashed in Josh's mind:
It was what Charlie Parker, the homeless guy who often sat outside the office building where the Key staff held court, had said as Josh had sauntered happily, cluelessly into work in those final hours of his vanished paradise:
"Presume not, young man. The sword swings where it will, and no armor will avail."
Josh bent over, petted Wrigley with a shaky hand.
What the . . . ?
How had a toothless guy on the street known what awaited Josh that day?
That was one of many questions Josh wanted answered in this battered moment.