by Jack Alcott
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Not quite simultaneously — the bourbon had slowed his responses — original Doug came to the same conclusion. This was a news event and he had to get on the story! But he was too late leaving the driveway in his own slightly dinged-up car to see the same blue model with the same missing passenger-side mirror heading down the road ahead of him.
When he got out on I-684, it did strike him that there were a lot of the same types of vehicles on the road, sometimes traveling in pairs: silver Accords, black VW Rabbits, coppery Siena vans, and drivers that looked awfully familiar, as though he’d just seen them. And of course, he realized, he had!
Thirty minutes later he turned into a corporate park entrance carved through rock ledge and woods off Westchester Avenue, and followed the road up a hill to 1 Pullitt Drive, home of The Westchester Dispatch, one of more than 80 dailies owned by a national newspaper chain.
It was not a good time to be working at a newspaper. On top of the worst recession in decades, the Internet was all but finally killing the business. Ad revenue — the lifeblood of a newspaper and the reason the ink flowed and everyone got paid a decent wage — was draining away into a bottomless digital abyss.
Times were changing and no one seemed to really have a clue about how to turn things around. Desperation came disguised as innovation, and real innovation was nowhere to be found.
In response to unstoppable revenue losses, the geniuses down in Corporate had smacked the paper with a succession of layoffs, furloughs and buyouts, along with other brilliant downsizing moves that had left the Dispatch’s huge four-story building largely empty, and its newspapers starving for content.
The paper’s giant presses were gone, cut up for scrap, and the pressmen were gone, too, human scrap, obsolete. The newsroom was hit hard, and there were now maybe a third of the editors and reporters, or “content providers” as the idiots in charge referred to them, than there were five years ago. The cuts were made with an eye on the bottom line and the quarterly stock reports. It was easier to get rid of employees and sell presses for more revenue than to improve the newspaper and sell more copies.
It was, in truth, all a shell game meant to siphon off whatever revenue was coming in to shareholders and the top execs before it all disappeared online. Oh sure, Corporate made noises about innovation and “watchdog” journalism, but, unlike the past, there was nary a journalist among their ranks; most were marketers, advertisers and accountants, including the company CEO.
And of course, the new “product,” the online presence, the paper’s website, was going to turn everything around soon, soon. They just had to throw some resources at digital — but not too much, of course — and make some cheap hires, some revenue-saving fires and presto change-o — everyone would be reading their local and hyperlocal news online at ReDisPatch.com.
Original Doug was still reflecting on the death of the industry as he drove behind the newspaper building, where there was plenty of parking. In fact it was a wide open desert of cracked and pitted asphalt. As he swung into the rear lot, he couldn’t help but notice the long line of vacant truck bays where a fleet of delivery vans used to line up every morning to wait for spit-out bundles of tightly wrapped newspapers. Delivery was now outsourced to some fly-by-night firm fifty miles away in Jersey, and the inevitable decline in home subscriptions had continued apace as more and more people canceled because the paper wasn’t finding its way to their lawns and mailboxes on a regular basis.
There were only a few cars and trucks in the depressing lot, which could hold a couple of hundred vehicles. After dodging a pothole the size of a small IED bomb crater, he pulled diagonally across two spaces and turned off the engine. While he’d noticed how empty the lot was, he’d failed to see a Honda Civic remarkably like his own and already neatly parked between the lines next to a burgundy PT Cruiser. In fact, as he rushed from his car toward the building’s rear entrance he failed to note that several other cars in the lot looked suspiciously alike.
As he hurried into the newsroom, it became quickly apparent something was askew. He stopped in mid-stride to absorb it all. The place was buzzing with energy and excitement, something he hadn’t seen since Corporate cut the staff in half. The TVs positioned on armatures at eye-level around the newsroom were all at top volume and tuned to CNN where Anderson Cooper was still interviewing himself. But that wasn’t the cause of most of the din.
It was the doubles. There were a bunch of them and they all seemed to be arguing or talking incoherently. There were two big-bellied executive editors, red-faced and shouting at each other, their shaggy eyebrows going up and down in unison. Two Dan Brownfields, the assistant digital editor — editors? — wrangling with each other about what reporters should be calling whom. Several knots of look-a-likes were scattered around the room, and between them, also gathered in small groups, were the “singles” — the unduplicated.
Doug’s brain reeled as he tried to process everything and it wasn’t until Will Spiceman, the paper’s columnist, broke off from one of the singles’ clots and rushed over to him that he came around.
“That was fast,” Spiceman said, his stark blue eyes more bloodshot than usual. “But where’s your coffee? I thought you were going for coffee?” He seemed taken aback and suddenly more circumspect. “Oh hell, another one,” he said, looking over Doug’s shoulder. And then he skittered away, back to the clot of singles he’d just left.
Doug heard someone coming up behind him and when he turned, he was greeted by himself.
“I was wondering when you were going to show up, “ his other self said, handing him one of two plastic foam cups of coffee. His other self noticed original Doug’s hesitation.
“Don’t worry, you won’t explode. It evidently doesn’t work like that.”
“Won’t explode?” original Doug said, having no other words handy. He took the coffee.
“Yeah. It’s not an antimatter thing. Nobody knows what it is, but it’s not that.”
Doug’s duplicate raised his cup and drank a gulp of coffee. Original Doug did the same.
“They’re calling us dupes,” Doug’s dupe said, pointing with his cup at one of the TVs. “It’s like the whole world’s been duped, like it’s one big cosmic prank, hah, hah. Funny, right?”
Original Doug was starting to come to his senses, if that’s what it could be called. Nothing really made any freaking sense.
“Uh, yeah, a big joke on us all. Just what the world needs. Twice the mess it’s already in.”
“Hmm. Didn’t know you were so deep. Maybe it’s what the world needs, though. It’s going to give us a chance to really learn something about ourselves, about the human race, isn’t it?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. It’s damn weird, though. I still can’t believe I’m standing here talking to myself.”
“At least we’re not fighting, like some of the others.” Again, he waved his coffee cup in the direction of Brownfield, who remained in a power dispute with the other assistant editor doppelganger.
Original Doug had to agree and his curiosity about himself was starting to get the better of him. “You know, you are homelier than I expected.”
“Yeah, well, you’re not exactly an Adonis.”
“Yeah, I can see that. So, what’s it like being me?”
Dupe Doug thought for a moment. “Not bad. I like it. You’re a bit of a neurotic, but at least you’re not a schizo — or are you?” He laughed aloud and took another swallow of coffee. Original Doug laughed, too.
“Anyway,” dupe Doug said, “I’m really not you anymore. Ever since I got here from wherever-the-hell, I’ve been going my own way. Sure, you’re the starter dough for whoever I am, but I’m already changing. I’ve got free will, far as I can tell. And you know, I feel some pressure to get going on something, anything. I mean who knows how long I’m going to be here, or if I won’t just go up in smoke at any moment? So I intend to enjoy every sandwich, just like Warren Zevon advised.”
“Wow. You know who Warren Zevon is? This is messing with my mind.”
“Yeah, well, it’s messing with everyone’s minds and it’s a big story. Are we going to cover it? Together, I mean?”
Original Doug glanced around the newsroom, which was somewhat less electric now. The two executive editors were amicably talking and trotting past the wall of aquarium windows that were the sub-editors’ offices, disappearing into the corner office, probably to call the clones at Corporate — and there were no doubt even more of THEM, Doug thought. Over at the digital “information center,” the Brownfields had settled into some kind of detente and were beginning to coordinate news coverage.
“Life goes on, I guess,” original Doug said. “Let’s go.”
Together, the two Dougs headed over to their desk. Original Doug got there first, and pulled up a chair from the next desk over, which had been vacated during the most recent layoffs. He offered it to his dupe, and they sat down side by side and got to work.
* * *
To say it was a crazy day would be a gross understatement. It turned out that Vladimir Putin wasn’t the only head of state to be duped. Iran wound up with a couple of ayatollahs calling each other the “great Satan,” usurping the United States in that role.
France and Greece both had two more ineffectual leaders. Back home in New York, there were now two Sen. Chuck Schumers running around, each with the same precisely combed wavy silver hair, and their own duplicate press corps. The double-Chucks were popping up on all the TV and radio stations in the metro area, opining on every aspect of the dupe phenomenon. At least a dozen other states also had duplicate senators and most were butting heads with each other and vying for the limelight.
Congress had even more dupes and was in chaos. But there was still only one president, and Barack Obama urged the nation to remain calm, saying that he believed all the duplicate leaders, like their progenitors, had the countries’ best interest in mind. But there were two Vice-President Joe Bidens, and both were being kept under wraps — original Doug guessed — for fear of multiple malaprops or damaging double-entendres. Meanwhile, the stock market was tanking in triple digits, a break from the doubling format.
On the local and hyperlocal news front, the world had also fractured into a million mirrored pieces. For starters, there were now two county executives, and they didn’t get along. Which came as no surprise to either of the Dougs because the guy didn’t get along with anyone except his sycophants.
But even on the Garden Club level, things were getting out of control. At a meeting of the Tarrytown club, almost all the members were duped, and a brawl broke out that took half the police department, many of them dupes, to quell. The Dispatch photographers — all dupes — got twice the usual number of great shots and videos of several pairs of elegantly dressed look-a-like matrons yanking each other’s hair and lobbing flowerpots. The photos were in the mix for possible Page One centerpiece, competing with the Putin face-off on the international scene.
And on it went all day, without let up, just getting weirder and weirder. There was a murder of a Scarsdale heiress — but her accused husband only killed one of her dupes! The other one witnessed the whole thing, and she called the police.
In another criminal case, two duped taxi drivers in Yonkers got into an argument over who was going to drive the cab, and one beat himself — or rather his double — into a coma with a tire iron. You can’t make this stuff up!
Throughout the long day and into the night they worked seamlessly together, with original Doug handling the phones and taking notes while his dupe shaped and rewrote the raw material into a readable story. Then they’d switch roles. When needed, one would go out on the street or to a crime scene for quotes and color, and maybe an iPhone photo, then call them in for yet another online update. It was grueling, maddening and an adrenaline blast to the brain every minute: Exactly why they were hooked on news reporting — times ten.
Sometime around 9 pm with no end in sight — but thankfully a deadline looming — the two Dougs had to call it quits.
Exhausted, fried, frayed, flayed and wasted, they fled the newsroom, their sanity barely intact.
Outside in the desolate parking lot they walked dazedly under the orange glow of sodium-vapor lamps. They were whipped but happy, with a giddy and newfound respect for themselves, for each other.
“I didn’t think it was possible, but there is such a thing as too much news,” original Doug said.
“You can say that again,” the other Doug said, and then caught himself. “But please don’t. Don’t repeat anything!”
They both laughed pretty much the same laugh.
“I’m so shot — you wanna go get a drink?”
“How about two?” They laugh-snorted together.
“Better make it three,” original Doug said.
* * *
Duffy’s Tavern was dark, packed, and noisy with conversation, imprecations and ancient sixties rock blaring from ceiling speakers. They had to push their way through a crowd of singles and numerous pairs of twins to get to the bar. The place seemed darker, sweatier, louder and more redolent of humanity and spilled beer than ever. When original Doug finally reached the mahogany bar he ordered two Guinness, but dupe Doug grabbed his sleeve and yelled that he’d rather have a Harp.
“You’re really finding yourself, aren’t you? Becoming a real individual.”
“Nah, I just prefer a lager right now.”
Original Doug happened to glance down the length of the polished bar and got a shock. The twin brothers George and Jorge, who were regulars at Duffy’s before the universe went haywire, had budded off into quadruplets! All four had bellied up to the bar on stools alongside one another. It was among the strangest sights the Dougs had ever seen, and they’d seen some doozies today.
All four were identical sad-eyed, graying, middle-aged losers in extra-large sweatshirts and baggy blue jeans, and they sat silently together over identical draft beers. The two Jorges — and that was just a jokey pre-dupes nickname; their real name was Pete — looked as drunk and disconsolate as the two Georges as they sat hunched over and watching their beloved Mets on the overhead flat screen.
“They’ve got it worse than we have,” dupe Doug said.
“They were probably the first ones in here.”
“They appear to be getting along okay.”
“Don’t seem too interested in each other, though, do they?”
“What’s there to say? They look comfortable with each other. “
“I don’t know, I thought I’d want to know more about myself,” original Doug said thoughtfully.
“Well, don’t look at me. I don’t know anything more than you do.”
Original and dupe Doug looked at each other for a long intimate moment, drinking each other in the way lovers do — but without the sexual feelings, of course.
They were alone and yet together, and they liked each other. They were friends. And in this new and shattered world, that was all right.
Copyright © 2012 by Jack Alcott