© Stirred Water Studios
Sophie waved and ran off up the street, through the crowd of Saturday morning shoppers. As she passed food and grocery shops and clothing stores, a pharmacy, a bookstore and a shoe store, it came to her that Hebert wasn’t really so different from New York, at least not where it counted. Maybe the little Louisiana town lacked the big name chain stores that lined the streets where she and her mother shopped, but other than that, the scene was little different from what she was used to, with grown-ups and kids going in and out of the various shops, juggling their bundles of groceries and whatever. Throw a few tall buildings into the background and drain the air of some of the humidity and she could have been back home.
Except, of course, she wasn’t.
Midway up the bustling street, Sophie came to a small storefront. Painted in fancy gold letters on the spotless window was “Bayou-Gazette, Serving Hebert Since 1921. Delson Esponge, Proprietor.” Sophie put her face to the window and peered inside, where she saw two old wooden rolltop desks, both with large black typewriters on them nestled among precariously balanced mounds of newspapers, books, papers and file folders. Tied up bundles of printed newspapers were stacked everywhere. Behind the desks a waist-high wooden railing divided the space in half, on the far side of which stood a massive and, to Sophie’s eyes, ancient, printing press.
“Well,” Sophie said to herself, “it’s not exactly the New York Times.”
“No, don’t suppose anyone would ever confuse the Gazette for the Times,” said a voice behind her. Sophie jumped and spun around. The man standing there, a newspaper folded under one arm and holding a steaming mug of coffee, was about half a head shorter than Sophie, with a shiny brown and round smiling face topped by thick, black framed glasses that were pushed up on top of the few wispy hairs that covered his bald head. He wore wrinkled dark slacks held up by fraying suspenders, an ink-stained white shirt with rolled up sleeves and a dark and hastily tied necktie speckled with bits of what Sophie imagined were his last dozen or so meals.
“On the other hand,” the man said, “I’ll wager you no one at the Times knows the name of every single one of its subscribers.”
Sophie swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t mean any disrespect,” she said quickly. “I was just, you know....”
The man chuckled and waved the hand holding the coffee cup, some of the dark liquid sloshing over the side onto his hand. “Not to worry, young ‘un,” he said. “Man publishes a newspaper and sells all of four hundred and sixty-two copies a week’s in no position to be easily insulted.”
“Are you Mr. Esponge?”
“I am indeed he, owner, publisher, editor, writer, advertising manager, typesetter and printer of the Bayou-Gazette, at your service,” Mr. Esponge said, bowing his head in her direction. “And, unless I miss my guess, you would be Miz Sophie Boudreaux.”
“How did you know?” Sophie asked in surprise.
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” he said with another chuckle. “A good newsman makes it his business to know what’s going on. Now, as we have but one newcomer in town, that being the aforementioned Miz Boudreaux, and since you and I have never had the pleasure of meeting before, you would, ipso facto, be she.”
Mr. Esponge shifted the coffee cup to his left hand, extending his right to Sophie after a quick swipe to his trouser leg to wipe away the spilled coffee. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
Sophie shook his hand. “Hi.”
The smiling newspaperman swung open the door to his office and gestured for Sophie to enter. “To what do I owe this honor?” he asked.
Sophie walked into the newspaper office, followed by Mr. Esponge. The air inside was cool and the large space smelled like pulp paper and printer’s ink.
“I guess you could say I’m also a reporter...well, I want to grow up and be a reporter. But I, you know, write for my school newspaper back in New York, and, well...”
“Ah, yes, of course, a professional courtesy call,” Mr. Esponge said happily as he settled on the wooden swivel chair behind the nearest desk and balanced his coffee cup atop a stack of papers. “Splendid. Please, Miz Boudreaux, have a seat.”
Sophie looked around. The only other chair in view was practically invisible under a confusion of paper and books. She chose instead a stack of bundled newspapers.
“First, young lady,” he said, his bright round face growing momentarily serious, “May I say I know of your troubles and wish you a swift and happy resolution to them all. I knew your papa quite well when he was a boy. Indeed, he used to deliver the Bayou-Gazette about town. But as fine a lad as he was, he grew up to be an even finer man. If there is anything in my power that may be of help to you or your grandmere, you have but to ask. In the meantime, I can only pray for the safe return of your dear parents.”
Sophie swallowed back the lump in her throat and blinked back tears, taken aback by Mr. Esponge’s kindness. “Thank you, sir,” she said softly.
The smile returned to his face as quickly as it disappeared. “Now, then, young lady, about you. When I heard a fellow journalistic was coming to town, I naturally checked out your credentials.”
“Certainly! The Lincoln Center Middle School’s Monitor, isn’t it? Quite a nice website. A lovely showcase for your very enjoyable columns.”
Sophie eyed the ancient manual typewriter on the desk in front of Mr. Esponge. “You have internet access?” she asked in a voice that carried a little more surprise than she had intended.
Mr. Esponge, who seemed to chuckle almost as often as he blinked, said, “Pretty surprising for a backwoods rag, huh?”
“Oh, no, sir, I wasn’t...”
“Just joshing with you, Miz Boudreaux. I may still like to write on my trusty ol’ Smith-Corona typewriter, once the property of my illustrious predecessor, my own papa and founder of this fine paper,” he said, fondly patting the side of the black hunk of metal, keys and typewriter ribbon. “And the Gazette is indeed yet printed on a press introduced not long after the turn of the previous century, but I am a man who is not afeared of embracing progress. I am a long-time subscriber to the nation’s wire services which supply me with news of the nation and the world via the internet.”
Sophie sat up straight, eyes going wide. “High-speed?”
“Top of the line DSL,” he said with a wink.
“Mr. Esponge,” Sophie smiled, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”