The Channel 7 team had worked its way from the parking lot where its helicopter landed, and made it into the stadium, setting up in the middle of the football field. The rescue operation, large yellow machines and scores of personnel, was centered on the lower part of 22AA, right behind the benches for the visiting team, so the Channel 7 camera operator, Casey Bronski, standing on the 50 yard line twenty feet from the sidelines nearest the heavy equipment, had a clear shot over the shoulder of reporter Harold Wang, catching all the frenetic activity going on in the background. Alice Vanderbilt, the field director, was still in Bronski's ear, giving him the same obvious instructions she had been repeating all evening.
"Start out tight on Harold, then pull back," she whispered into her mike, as if Casey had not done this since the cows were young. Bronski thought she sounded more than usually hoarse as he listened to her rasping voice. She was relaying instructions from the director of production back at the studio, but these instructions hadn't changed much since they arrived. No one had thought of anything very original to do at the site of the bomb blast itself, and everyone who could be interviewed for information from the Governor to the President of Ohio State University had been thoroughly debriefed on camera.
The Channel 7 team had been at the stadium for five hours, and Harold Wang was obviously running on empty and nowhere near a gas station. But they were still on the air, as they had been since their arrival, broadcasting live to an attentive audience (and sometimes going national with their coverage—a professional triumph).
It was now ten o'clock at night, but the stadium lights were on, and the surreal scene was brightly illuminated. The football field was crowded with people: rescue workers, government and university officials, police and members of the National Guard, reporters, plus a large number of unexplained individuals, many of whom looked suspiciously like students, though the public was, in theory, banned from the area. Security was struggling valiantly to ascertain who was who in this mass of bodies. Outside the stadium there was a large and still growing crowd of worried people huddled together unhappily, wishing they could get in, praying for their trapped loved ones, co-workers, friends.
"Nothing new from the field here, Sally," Harold Wang was saying in response to a question from the anchor team in the studio, "and we're not sure whether the rescue workers can still hear anything from inside the rubble. They've stopped singing." He gestured at the chaos behind him—men, machinery, unmannered piles of stone looking horribly wrong in the middle of the undamaged part of the stadium, everything grey in the glare of the lights. "The workers are still trying hard to free them." Harold was dressed in casual clothes and not his usual on-camera suit. This was his way of showing that during this time of terrible trouble and in spite of the local fame he enjoyed, he was just a regular guy, as worried as the next person about the fate of those buried in the rubble.
"What's happening?" said an unfamiliar voice at Bronski's elbow. He glanced that way and saw a grime-covered rescue worker standing next to him, Coke in hand, obviously on a break. "I have a rescue worker here," Bronski mumbled in his mike. "Interview him," Alice commanded, and Harold Wang, hearing the exchange, jumped to comply, smoothly taking the man by the elbow as Bronski stepped back and centered them in the picture.
"Are you one of the members of the rescue team?" Harold asked.
"Yes, Sir. Jake Richardson, Columbus Fire and Rescue Auxiliary. Eight years." He was a thin, tall man, with bright blue eyes and a prominent Adam's apple. His light grey uniform shirt had a large "CFRA" on both the front and back.
"Tell us about your job, Jake," Wang prompted.
"I run the Giant Claw—we call her 'Suzy May.' For the last two hours, her and I have been dragging out parts of the building, clearing a space to get closer, and right now I'm taking a little break. Pete Shipek took my place for a bit."
Wang nodded. "And do you work full time for the CFRA?" he asked.
"Well, the Auxiliary is sort of like volunteer firemen. Normally Suzy May and I work for Abion Construction and Demolition. We were just brought in for this special wall removal."
"Tell me, Jake. Do you think you are about to break through to the trapped fans?"
"Don't know. Praise Jesus, it could be any minute, but might be hours, or—can't tell—even days. The stadium is very, very thick at its base where we think they're trapped. Another crew is trying to get at them from the other side, but I think we're closer to them here. All we can do is work hard, pray hard, and hope the Good Lord lets us find these poor people before more of this stadium falls down on them."
Wang lowered his voice reverently. "Are you a religious man, Jake?"
Richardson nodded with enthusiasm. "Yup. Found God at age seven and am still hangin' onto Him for dear life. I feel Him in my wrists every time I move the claw, so God Hisself is doing the dangerous work. Suzy May and me are just His robots."
"Why 'dangerous'?" asked Wang, probing for the obvious.
Richardson shrugged, and to the annoyance of the TV crew, he wasted air time by taking a long sip of his Coke before replying. "Pull out too much at once and the whole shebang caves in. Pull out too little and you ain't getting nowhere. Touchy, see?"
"It sounds like a lot of responsibility," Wang said, shaking his head in supposed amazement. "You must be glad when someone else is at the controls."
Richardson stuck out his lower lip. "Nope. I done told you. God called me to this work, and I have faith that I can do His bidding. Plus there's one other thing."
"Yes?" Wang prompted.
Richardson winked. "I could play tiddlywinks with that claw. I'm very, very good."
Franklin awoke with a sudden start as his body, propped against the wall, began to topple over and he caught himself with one hand. He had a momentary confusion before remembering that he was immured in this awful place, and immediately his heart jumped into the rhythm of a kettle drum, having been the ping of a triangle mere seconds before. He put his head on his knees, gasping for air, and tried to get control of himself before he had a heart attack or a stroke or began running around screaming wildly. He gyrated unsteadily between terror, depression, and then an overwhelming sense of utter helplessness.
Franklin forced himself to take five very slow breaths, and tried to recall some of the other calming techniques vaguely remembered from his brief flirtation with yoga and meditation. To his relief the slow breathing again worked. He was able to stabilize his emotions enough to be more or less rational. But the breaths had a negative effect of stinging his nostrils with ghastly smells: urine, excrement, and an odor he had begun to recognize as blood.
"How could I possibly have fallen asleep in this hell hole?" he muttered aloud, shaking his head, annoyed. "I could be dying at any moment and I'm sleeping away my last hours?" But sleep, he then decided, was probably an appropriate response to exhaustion—a defense mechanism to keep him from wigging out completely. A product of shock.
"I have to assume I will get out of this," he said to no one in particular. Even if this conclusion were untrue, he'd decided it was bad on many levels to simply give up and accept that this situation would necessarily end in his death. With a forced optimism, he decided he must now devote himself to life. He struggled to his feet. "Life," he insisted. "Life."
People around him were still murky shadows, some moving, some moaning, some ominously still. Yet others were talking more or less normally, as if this were some fun spelunking expedition and they were merely on a break.
But then he noticed something else, something important: the sound of big machinery. Close. He looked at his watch. It was 7:30 a.m. He had slept much of the night away!
And in fact, the redoubtable Jake Richardson was at the controls of the Suzy May when the key moment came just fifteen minutes later. As the cameras captured it all from three different angles, the claw suddenly pulverized a large section of wall, and the stunned people inside turned wide-eyed, blinking in the morning light.
Franklin Whitestone was standing right next to the tear in the wall the claw had created as it gobbled up a handful of the stadium and flung it off to one side. The TV cameras were perfectly positioned to focus on his startled expression as he peered uncertainly through the new opening, confused, trying to see what had just happened. It would become the starting shot for the famous video that followed.
The claw had exposed an opening just about Franklin's height and no more than five feet in width. Before he could react to his sudden freedom in any way, he instinctively ducked as he was attacked by a just-released iron beam—a girder—anchored in the upper part of the hole away from him, the loose end swinging lethally like a giant snake angrily striking at his head.
What next occurred happened so fast and was accomplished so efficiently that it looked as if it had been carefully rehearsed, instead of being merely the gut reactions of a number of terrified people.
Everyone was yelling. On the field the rescue workers gave cheers and shouts of praise, joy, tears, relief—they had done this incredible thing and made it work out right! Inside the hole the trapped victims screamed at each other to "GET OUT NOW," before the beam moved again and the hole collapsed. The survivors surged forward as one, and Franklin felt certain they would knock him down, unleashing the beam. Instead, starting with Hannah who had been right next to Franklin when the hole opened up, the crowd ducked under the beam, one by one, closely following each other, and flowing smoothly into the sunlight. A later count taken from the TV footage would show 53 people popping through the small opening between Franklin and the other side of the hole, all deftly playing a dangerous game of "London Bridge" as they passed under the beam and his upheld arms holding it in place. It took less than a minute for them all to get by Franklin and fall into the arms of those outside.
The rescue workers held back until the last of the survivors emerged, and then they sprang to Franklin's aid. Four burly men grabbed various parts of the girder, and then yelled at Franklin to let go himself and get out.
He looked at them blankly, nodded, and promptly slumped to the ground without taking a step. Of course he'd meant to do what they ordered, but his head was spinning in the bright sun, and his arms were atremble, stupidly flapping like the wings of a large bird trying vainly to take off. Impatiently, other rescuers scooped him up and yanked him away from the opening, which was now alive with a construction crew shoring up the hole, and emergency teams anxious to get inside to find survivors who were not ambulatory.
A tall woman in a hard hat said to Franklin, "Sir, are you all right?"
He looked up at her. "I'm fine, I'm fine," he replied in a very small voice, and immediately fainted.
He came to minutes later as they were loading him into an ambulance. He sternly insisted he was all right, that he just wanted to go home, but he could not persuade anyone of this. Siren blaring, the ambulance whisked him off to the OSU hospitals' emergency entrance, only a couple of blocks away. There, after a short wait, a doctor pronounced him largely unhurt, though they bandaged some scrapes on his arms and knees, and tightly wrapped a major gash on his left thigh, after which they showed him to a bathroom to wash up. It took almost an hour to escape from the hospital, with the bulk of the time spent either waiting around or filling out forms. He used his cell phone to call Kelly, and she screamed with excitement on first hearing his voice. She promised to call his ex-wife and son and relieve their anxiety, and they both agreed to meet at his home in half an hour.
After thinking hard about the issue, he finally remembered where he'd parked his car prior to the game (was it just yesterday?), and hiked the short distance to it. His automobile was standing almost alone in the huge parking lot. The other vehicles dotting the landscape here and there spoke ominously of owners who were probably not coming to claim their cars any time soon.
At 10:05 a.m., he turned his Honda into the cul de sac where he lived in a condo purchased only four months before. A major surprise awaited him in the form of vehicles of all sizes and shapes filling the streets and blocking his driveway. The largest of these had signs painted on their sides indicating the news organizations they variously represented. Dozens of reporters and technical staff surrounded his home, and they all leaped into excited action as his car crawled to a halt two houses down from his own. The journalistic mob ran toward him like twenty marathoners all sprinting for the finish line at the same time. A hundred questions were lobbed at him in one confused jumble. It was terrifying.
He wasn't in any condition to deal with this new complication. Franklin was almost comatose from lack of sleep and the drain of the ordeal he'd been through. Nonetheless, he had the presence of mind to throw the Honda into reverse and back out of the cul de sac onto Martin Road, where he sped away, pleased to note that none of the fourth estaters could get their vehicles into action quickly enough to follow.
How had they found his home this quickly? It hadn't been much more than two hours since he escaped from that hellhole at the stadium, and except for the hospital personnel, he'd given his name to no one. But the media had somehow tracked him to ground in that very short period of time, and all of them wanted his story for their very own. It occurred to him—surprise!—that he was temporarily famous, and that the fifteen minutes Andy Warhol promised everyone had begun for Franklin Whitestone.
Trembling, Franklin pulled into the parking lot of the grocery chain a mile from his home, and sat there shivering until he calmed down enough to think through his next step.
He called Kelly's cell phone from his own, and she answered on the first ring.
"Where are you, Frankie?" she asked, sounding breathless herself.
"At Kroger's off 161," He replied. "I couldn't get to my house because of news hounds waiting for me there."
"I know," she said. "I tried to go to your house myself, and was forced to back off. They even tried to interview me, though no one seemed to know for certain if I was connected to you or not. They were just hungry to talk to anyone who would talk back. I beat it out of there."
He took a deep breath, hunched up his shoulders, and then, tired to the bone, sagged down into the driver's seat. "Oh, Kelly, now what? I've got to go somewhere—take a bath, get some sleep."
"I've been thinking. Meet me at Joan's right now," she urged, meaning the nearby home of her jogging partner. "I have a key, and the reporters certainly won't think to look there. I'd suggest my place, but it's already been compromised."
"Compromised? You aren't a secret agent, Kelly! What the hell does 'compromised' mean?" This wasn't like her at all.
She paused to consider her answer. "It's to the good actually . . . I think. Even exciting! There's more and I'll tell you the details when you get to Joan's. Will you come?"
He sighed loudly again, but sat up straighter in his car seat. "Run the bath water," he said. "I'll be there in ten minutes."
Their meeting in the driveway of Joan's home was more emotional than either of them had planned. By just the fortune of it all, at Ohio Stadium each had escaped death while those around them were buried in rubble. Neither had known what had happened to the other, and now, here they were, Kelly with her sprained wrist in a splint, Franklin with bandages on various parts of his battered body, but both more or less unhurt.
In the driveway, Franklin only had time to say her name before Kelly grabbed him and held him tightly. She couldn't talk at all, but sobbed and moaned and buried her face in his shoulder, overcome. This triggered a similar reaction in him, and he gagged on the raw emotions that filled his throat with ragged catches of breath. Kelly was so much smaller than he was that she almost disappeared in the folds of his embrace. Worrying that he might smother her, he pulled back so he could see her face.
"It's all right, it's all right," he mumbled, making low shushing sounds. "We're fine, honey, fine."
"We're lucky!" she said, her voice jagged. "Thank God we made it out of there alive. I was so worried about you."
"I was so worried about me too," he confessed with a small laugh. "I was frozen in fear for all those hours I was trapped, trying not to think about everything that was going on. But one thought kept haunting me: my Kelly. Where is she now?"
She sobbed even louder and pressed closer.
This was very unlike her. She was normally all calmness and competence—on top of every situation—something of a control freak. She could be warm and fun to be with (and incredible in bed), but he had never seen her cry. It both touched and disturbed him. All of life seemed upside down.
They'd met almost three years ago at a law school alumni function sponsored by his firm, Factor, Marroni, & Ray, which also hosted the event. She was an Associate Professor of Law at The Ohio State University, in her fourth year of teaching, one of six African-Americans on the faculty. She primarily taught courses in two areas: Contracts and Commercial Law. Franklin was a graduate of the University of Michigan School of Law (a connection that caused him no little trouble, living, as he did, in Columbus), but all members of the firm, even those not connected in any way with OSU, were asked to attend. Howard Ray, the Managing Partner, had introduced them, saying that they both were specialists in the same field and ought to get to know each other.
Franklin had been divorced for three years. His first marriage to the intelligent and charming Mary Balston, a childhood sweetheart, had begun well and finished badly eighteen years later. During that period, for reasons that Franklin had never quite understood, their initial compatibility had faded, and towards the end they were all but strangers living in the same house. In the final year, Franklin and Mary had quarreled more often than they talked, and by then they slept in separate beds. If it weren't for their redoubtable son, Todd, they would probably have divorced long before they actually did. She'd not resumed her maiden name, since her considerable professional reputation as a writer had been made as Mary Whitestone. Nowadays Franklin thought about his marriage as little as possible; the subject was too painful. A part of him much missed the Mary he had married, but not the one he had divorced. In the past year, things had improved dramatically between them, and, to the relief of both, they were becoming friends again.
At that law firm/law school function, and within minutes of their meeting, Franklin and Kelly came together like two magnets, both almost pulsing in the strength of their attraction to one another. Even Managing Partner Howard Ray, not the most empathetic person on the planet, had noticed that they spent most of the evening talking in a very, very friendly fashion. "Watch out for that one," he'd warned Franklin later. "She's hot for you." Franklin, uncharacteristically, blushed.
Fifteen minutes after they met, Kelly invited him to come to the law school the following Monday and speak to her Commercial Law class, to explain to the students what the actual practice of commercial law was like. Franklin accepted with alacrity, and during the weekend he over-prepared his talk as if it were the most important speech of his career, neglecting other matters, lying awake into the night in his bed thinking, trying to get it just right. He said to himself he was doing this to impress the students, knowing it wasn't true.
On Monday at 2:50 p.m. he met her in her office at the law school, ten minutes before the class began. They shook hands in the doorway, and both felt suddenly warmer than the temperature in the room would suggest. Awkwardly she walked him down the hall to the classroom, making small talk, but a minute later she was all business when she stood up in front of the class and introduced him. Franklin's talk to the class and his handling of the students' questions went well, and he surprised himself by getting into the whole experience to the point where he stopped wondering how the professor herself was reacting.
"Here's the thing," he told one student who had asked him for advice on how to keep motivated in school to study law, night after tedious night. "When you're in law school you're in a nice womb-like existence for three years, and it is separate from anything that comes before or follows after. Right now you yearn for the real world and for the start of your professional career, and you want out of here as fast as possible. But you no sooner leave law school and are pitched into that real world, and immediately things happen that make you to want to scurry right back into the academic womb and this time pay much more attention to your lessons.
"Take the course in Evidence. In one of my first trials the judge made a ruling in my favor while admonishing me, 'Mr. Whitestone, I'm going to allow this evidence to come in, but first you must lay a foundation.' I had no idea what 'lay a foundation' meant, so this was a bad moment. I stammered something stupid like, 'Yes, your Honor, I'm going to lay that foundation right down,' and, sweating bullets, I took the witness back through some of preliminary facts. Amazingly, the judge seemed satisfied. If I were to repeat the course in Evidence nowadays, I would hang on every detail, paying particular attention to the meaning of 'lay a foundation.'
"The clients are coming. Your clients. They will expect you to know the law." He paused for effect. "Make sure you do."
"You were wonderful!" Professor Keyfold said, beaming, as they had coffee at the restaurant across the street from the law school, immediately after class. Franklin thought she was the one who was wonderful—smart and funny, with beautiful light brown skin and softly curling black hair that fell to her shoulders. All in all it was a golden day, to be replayed with affection and laughter in the retelling as the months, and then years went by.
At last, still clutching him tightly in her friend's driveway, Kelly's sobbing subsided. She took a deep breath and then looked up at him, a slight smile belying her tear-streaked face. "Okay!" she said, mostly to herself. "I have some very interesting news to tell you," she said.
"All right. What?"
"Let's go into the house. I'll get us something to drink, and explain it all to you."
"I do need food," Franklin replied, suddenly aware of how important this was to him.
When they were seated together on the sofa in Joan's living room, sharing coffee and some doughnuts Kelly had found in her friend's kitchen, Kelly lifted one eyebrow in amusement as she said, "Here's the news. As it happened, we didn't escape the media completely."
"Oh?" he said, sipping the coffee. "Tell me what that means."
She paused to consider her words. "I find it incredible that they got through to me, and in so short a period of time, and that they knew my connection to you, etc. But by eight o'clock this morning a representative from the Jimmy Ball Show left a message on my cell phone, begging me to call him back."
The Jimmy Ball Show was a live call-in talk/news program on CNN, airing twice-a-week at 8 p.m. for one hour, and usually divided into two half hour segments with a different guest for each. After each guest verbally jousted with Jimmy Ball, the genial host, for awhile, they took phone calls from interested viewers. It was very popular.
"Uh oh," he said, seeing where this was going.
"Now listen, Frankie," she urged. "This is exciting! They want you to be on the show tonight!"
"TONIGHT!" he exclaimed. Was she crazy?
"Here's what they offered. A private jet would fly you and guest—moi," she touched a finger to her chest, "to New York, leaving Columbus at four. We would be met by a limo, and taken to dinner at a major restaurant, then spirited off to the studio where you would appear on the second part of the show. Afterwards the jet would fly us back to Columbus, arriving more or less at midnight." She paused while he took it all in. "I told them I would pass it on to you and let them know what you decided."
He pushed fingers through his rumpled hair, frowning. "But I've just spent the night sitting on a dirty floor surrounded by the dead and dying. I need sleep, a bath."
"I called Joan and she said we may have the run of the house. You can bathe now and sleep for hours before we'd need to be at the airport. And it's precisely because you've been through holy hell that they want you on the show. Jimmy Ball's assistant called you a hero, and said that all of America wants to know more about the brave thing you did."
"Oh, come on! It wasn't brave. That girder pivoted toward me and I reached up and grabbed it to protect myself. It was a reflex. While I was trying to figure out what to do next, all those people ran out under the girder. Then the rescue squad took over and I fainted. What is heroic about that?" He frowned. "I've never fainted before in my life! How embarrassing!"
She encased both of his hands in hers. "Frankie, you were a hero! Wait until you see the video. You were fantastic!" He detested being called anything other than "Franklin," but somehow found it endearing when Kelly called him "Frankie."
"There's a video?"
"Cameras captured it from a couple of different angles. They all show you leaping into action like Superman. Everyone is talking about it. That's the reason your house is surrounded by media trucks and we have to hide out here."
"But I have nothing to say to Jimmy Ball," he protested.
"Of course you do. You haven't been on some kind of happy picnic for the last 24 hours. You managed to survive a terror attack that killed hundreds, maybe thousands of people."
"Terror attack? Are you certain?"
"Yes. Some terrorist group I have never heard of is on the Internet claiming credit for the bombings. I'll show you their post before we leave for New York."
"The bombings, plural? There was more than one?"
"Two. Each at half time of a football game. The other was in Texas. Plus a lot of people were trampled in the panic that broke out at other stadiums that had no bombs."
"The news of bombs going off at half times in college stadiums spread like lightning across the country, and fans panicked most everywhere that a game was still in progress. The television films are sickening. The country's in shock. Everyone is glued to their TVs, hungry for more news."
"How many dead?" he asked.
"No one knows."
"But are planes still flying?"
"I think so. The Jimmy Ball people were sure that a private jet would be allowed to take off from Port Columbus."
He put his head in his hands and rubbed his face.
"Oh, Kelly, I don't think I can, or should. I don't want to relive the horrors I've been through." He looked deep into her eyes. "I saw people blown apart, limbs everywhere, walls suddenly collapsing on those who thought they were survivors, people screaming for hours and hours! That wouldn't make entertaining television."
She shuddered thinking about this, but took his hands again. "Your particular story is one of the few from this horrible weekend with a happy ending. You saved fifty three people when you grabbed that girder. The country needs something to cheer about."
"Hmm," he said, confused. Maybe she was right. That did seem important.
"And telling it all on national TV would be a catharsis for you, the beginning of closure, a chance to put it all into perspective and seal it off so you could get on with life."
That also sounded right. A full minute went by without either of them speaking.
Finally he said, "Do you have a phone number to call?"
Newscaster Harold Wang was very proud of the second interview he conducted with Big Claw operator Jake Richardson because it promptly veered off in a heart wrenching direction that he didn't see coming. Channel 7 showed this interview five times on September 12th. In it Wang caught up with Richardson shortly after the survivors emerged from the hole that the Claw had dug, and the machinery worker was asked how he felt now.
"It was the most awesome moment of my life!" Richardson said, clapping his hands together. "Jesus be praised that it had such a happy ending! Jesus be praised!"
"Of course," Wang commented, "not everyone got out of there alive."
"I know, and I'm very sorry for the ones which didn't make it, but they're in heaven now, and that's where we all want to end up."
"You told me when last we talked that you were a real talent at the controls of that big machine, and now you've proven it. You're a hero too, Jake! What do you say to that?"
Instead of replying, Richardson bowed his head and didn't speak for a moment. When he looked up his eyes glistened with tears.
"I ain't always led a life I'm proud of," he said. "My wife left me last year, and she won't even let me see my little girl, my darling Charity, excepting twice with a social worker watching every move." The tears started down his cheeks, but he just looked right into the camera and let them fall. "If I done good now, like you say, Mr. Wang, maybe she'll forgive me. And if she can't take me back, at least please, please let me see my girl. Please, Heather! I'm a hero now. I've changed."
It was all Wang could do to keep from smiling—this was the perfect cap on the whole stadium disaster story. He could feel the emmy in his hands already.
"Dad's going to be on TV," Todd told his mother. "He called."
"Your Dad is already on TV," Mary Whitestone replied. "They keep showing that video of him holding up the girder, and I suspect that everyone in the United States who has a TV is getting tired of it."
Todd beamed. "No, I mean he's going to be on a program, live. The Jimmy Ball Show."
Mary looked up from the computer where she was sitting, writing her monthly travel column for Jaunt Magazine. "Really? That is news. When?"
"Tonight. 8 o'clock.
"Tonight! That can't be right. He was still trapped in the stadium this morning and now he's made it all the way to, what, New York?"
"New York," confirmed her son, nodding. "Long day for old Dad."
"Beyond belief," she replied, nonetheless somehow believing it. "Set the DVR so we can record it."
"I plan to watch it live," Todd replied.
"We both will," his mother said, "but let's make sure we have a permanent record. Someday you can show your grandchildren what a truly great hero their great-grandfather was."
"What's wrong with you, Frankie?" Kelly asked, menu held in her good hand. "You're sweating like a long distance runner and I don't like your color."
"I'm scared," he confessed.
"Scared of what? The hard part is over."
"The dangerous part is over, but going on the Jimmy Ball Show in front of the entire country is very scary. Look, my hands are trembling." He held them out for her inspection. There was indeed a perceptible tremor to them.
"Frankie, please, calm yourself. For God's sake, you’ve argued a case before the United States Supreme Court! Is this scarier than that?"
"That case centered on the issue of the exact moment a check is considered paid for purposes of Regulation CC. I was nervous, yes, but it wasn't a heart-pounding experience like this."
"You'll feel better when you eat something," she predicted.
"If I eat something that will only mean fatter butterflies in my stomach."
Just then the waiter, a thin man in his forties with an accent Franklin could not place, arrived at their table. Smiling affably he welcomed them to the restaurant and proceeded to explain in breathless detail the specials the chef had prepared for them (and, Franklin surmised, for a hundred or so other people as well).
"You order for me," Franklin told Kelly. "I can't think. Make it something light."
"We'll both have the first special you mentioned," Kelly told the waiter. "Make sure the salad dressing is on the side." The waiter nodded and hurried off, to be replaced almost instantly by the sommelier.
"Good evening, Sir and Madam," said the handsomely dressed, corpulent man, bowing slightly. "Will you be having wine with your dinners tonight?" He handed large wine menus to each of them.
"Yes," Kelly replied. "Suggest something moderately expensive—someone else is paying the bill of fare."
"No wine for me," Franklin hurriedly corrected her. "I mustn't be drunk on the air."
"Oh, Frankie," she replied with a little wave of her hand. "One glass won't make you drunk—moreover it's likely to have the very beneficial effect of calming you down. Besides, we're going to need a whole bottle; I'm planning on having a couple of glasses. I don't often get wine of this quality."
Miserable, his mind elsewhere, Franklin said nothing. Let her make herself happy, he thought. At least one of them would be.
Kelly and the sommelier had an extended discussion before agreeing on the appropriate choice. The man appeared much taken with Kelly and delightedly answered all her questions, even explaining details of his job when she asked.
"I consider that choosing the right wine for a meal is more than a pleasant occupation," he told her, "it is an ethical duty."
"Very high standards indeed," she replied.
"Madam is most kind," he said. "I will return in a moment."
True to his word he was almost instantly back at their table, sommelier knife twisting effortlessly through the cork, the wine poured into their glasses, and the bottle placed in an ice bucket on a small table next to them. That done, he bowed again and disappeared.
Kelly studied Franklin with concern. "Frankie," she said. And when he didn't look up, lost in his thoughts, she turned on her classroom voice and commanded, "Frankie, look at me!"
He did, worry clouding his face. She picked up her wine glass and with a gesture indicated he should do the same. "Time for a toast to my hero, Franklin Whitestone, the man who saved 53 people from death."
"I didn't save 53 people from death," he protested, reaching for his glass all the same. "What I did was to keep the door open so they could run out."
"Don't spoil my toast, Frankie," she scolded. "Bask a little in your wonderful accomplishment. Who would have thought that when we went to the football game yesterday that it would end with this incredible night in New York City? So," she raised her wine glass, "to my hero and my love."
He smiled wanly, and then with a slight shrug, he clinked his glass against hers, and had a drink.
"Oh, my," he said in surprise. "That is good!"
"Very, very good," she agreed.
He took another small sip, rolled it around in his mouth as he'd been taught, and then swallowed. "Incredible," he told her. "Easily the best wine I've ever tasted!"
"And I'll bet the food will be equally as stupendous if you can just relax enough to enjoy it," she said.
He nodded slightly. "You're right. I'll try." He took another small sip.
Shortly, a small army of waiters and their helpers brought dish after dish to them, and Franklin realized with pleasure that he was hungry after all. By this time the wine had begun to do the task assigned, and Franklin relaxed enough to enjoy eating. The meal was every bit the triumph of the gourmet art they'd expected, and, given all he'd been through, Franklin decided to give the Atkins diet the night off.
Finding just the topic to banish thoughts of the coming TV show, Kelly launched into something that she'd been avoiding for a week.
"Okay," she said, with a small sigh. "I guess it's time to tell you. My parents want to come up and spend Thanksgiving with me in Columbus. My brother and sister and their families too."
Franklin brightened. "Great news!" he said with enthusiasm. Kelly's parents lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and he had never met them, though he'd spoken with them a couple of times on the phone when he happened to be there when they'd called. The last occasion was Kelly's birthday four months ago. "I'm so looking forward to finally meeting them. We've been together for over two years, and it's embarrassing that I've never even seen your family."
Kelly gave him a small smile with no humor in it. "Well, as it happens, there's a reason for that, and that's why I've postponed telling you that they're demanding to come for a visit."
"Yes. The truth is that I've repeatedly discouraged them, and they've finally rebelled and insisted. I gave in."
He regarded her with concern, the Jimmy Ball Show forgotten. "Better tell me all," he counseled.
"You're right, of course. Okay, here goes.
"I've had good romantic relationships with some fine black men, but the two great passionate loves of my life were both whites. It just happened that way. The first occurred when I was in law school, and I sat next to Clayton Kneller during my first year classes—we were seated alphabetically. He was a good looking guy with wavy blond hair, lots of personality, smart and dedicated to improving the world—I was hooked from day one. After dating for three years—dating, hell, we were living together for the last two years of law school. Oh sure, we both had separate places where we lived, but we were mostly at my place day in and day out. He had a roommate, but the guy mostly had the place to himself."
"Something bad must have happened," Franklin commented. "What was it?"
"My birthday party in May of that third year. I turned 25, and my parents insisted on throwing a party for me in Birmingham, so I bravely took Clayton home with me. I'd told them he was very important to me, and they weren't happy about him being white, but they appeared to accept it at first. The day before we left for Birmingham—we'd just finished final exams and graduation was scheduled in two weeks—Clayton proposed to me, and I accepted. This was no surprise. I knew it was going to happen. We'd talked about getting married for almost a year. We both had jobs waiting for us in Chicago: him with Legal Aid, me with a downtown firm. Everything seemed to be coming together beautifully.
"We arrived in Birmingham, and my parents and sibling were friendly when they met Clayton—what else could they do? He was one of the most charming human beings on the planet. But trouble arose almost immediately: my mother had assigned us to different bedrooms. I put my foot down about that, telling her that Clayton and I were on the verge of getting married, and this led to a scene involving my father, which ended with tears and shouting (Clayton wasn't there, thank God), but in the end, I won. We shared the same bed.
"Over dinner that evening, when we were all at the table, Clayton and I announced our engagement, and Daddy, who had had a couple of drinks, went nuts. He started yelling at Clayton about his motives in marrying outside his race—saying Clayton was just attracted by the exoticness of it all, and didn't really love me, and Clayton, furious, yelled back. He said that Daddy was a racist, which was true, of course, but it infuriated Daddy even more. He called Clayton a 'son of a bitch.' Clayton went red in the face, thinking, probably correctly, that this was meant as an insult to his mother. By this time we were all on our feet trying to calm them down, keep them apart, mouthing soothing things. My mother was crying, and I probably said one or two things that didn't help the situation—I was plenty mad at Daddy. After that everything happened so fast. Clayton called Daddy a 'bigot.' Daddy grabbed a fire poker and swung it at Clayton, who jumped back, fell across a coffee table, and broke his arm."
There was silence at the table for a bit, as they both considered this.
"Then what?" Franklin finally asked.
She shrugged. "We never recovered from that. Clayton went to the airport straight from the hospital, and I didn't even realize he'd left until after he was gone. By the time I returned to law school, he had moved all of his things back to his apartment, and he told me coldly that it was over between us. I pleaded with him not to let my family's attitude affect us, but he wanted nothing to do with them, and, by extension, me, and he wouldn't discuss the subject. We were both living in the City of Chicago for two years thereafter, until I moved on to my first teaching job, but we almost never saw each other during that whole period."
Her eyes were swimming with tears. "Oh, Frankie, I loved him so much; it just broke my heart! I was sure I'd never love anyone again. I kept all my subsequent dating on a pretty superficial level—all with black men, by the way. I thought I was through with passionate romance. And then I met you, and passion returned, doubled in strength.
"Now," she concluded, "you can see why my family coming for Thanksgiving has me staring at the ceiling at night. I hope Daddy will be better behaved this time—he has hinted as much, without actually apologizing for the last catastrophe—but . . . well, you are white, and you are sleeping with his little girl. You might be risking a broken arm or worse. It scares me."
"Hey," Franklin said, reaching out to touch her cheek gently. "Don't worry about it. We'll get through this. I'm a big boy, and good at finessing difficult situations."
"And it doesn't bother you—walking into this minefield?"
He shrugged. "I long ago gave up worrying about discrimination in so far as it affects me personally, and by that I mean all forms of discrimination. I don't care about race, or gender, or whether people are short, tall, fat, foreign, gay—except that I loathe seeing these things used to harm good people. As for me, I stick with 'content of character' as a measuring stick for the worth of those I meet."
"And you never had any thoughts—good or bad—about getting involved with a black woman?"
He leered at her, the wine doing its job. "I did notice the woman part. Truth to tell, I've never before been so attracted to anyone as I am to you. But that bewitchment has nothing to do with your skin." He raised an eyebrow. "Now, your breasts . . ."
Kelly looked around, embarrassed. He'd said "breasts" far too loudly. "Franklin!" she warned.
He took another sip from his goblet. "Anyway, about your family. Now that I'm properly briefed, I'm sure we can figure out a way to navigate your 'minefield' without major explosions. And if we can't, that will be their problem, not ours." He smiled. "But I do have something important to ask you, based on what you've just said."
He looked deep into her eyes, a smile on his face. "Do you really think we have a 'passionate romance'?"
She took her time in replying, lowering her head, her eyebrows raised challengingly, a sly smile on her own face. "Yes, I do . . . lover." She purred these words in a certain way she had that always sent him into sexual overdrive. "Both of us are passionate people. Right?" She rolled the "r" in "right." It drove Franklin crazy. He almost knocked over the table as he started to stand, but stopped himself because Kelly, seeing his reaction, held up a hand like a traffic cop.
"Later," she said in an urgent whisper.
He hesitated, considering his options, and then sighed. "Later," he agreed while privately wondering whether it would be too late to explore the passion issue when they got home tonight. Probably, he decided. She had a ten o'clock class in the morning, and he had a meeting at his office at nine. Hmm. Maybe they could get in some serious cuddling on the private jet flying home (they would be the only passengers on board, after all). Or, he thought, suddenly excited by the idea, maybe we could have a stab at joining the mile high club. He felt a mile high at the prospect.
Franklin didn't notice when one of the waiters refilled his wine glass. He took a sip before realizing the goblet had been topped off. "News," he said, holding the glass up so she could see. "Apparently I'm having two glasses of wine tonight."
"Perfectly fine," she told him. "Stop at two, and those drinks will put you in just the right mood to sail through your encounter with Jimmy Ball."
"When you're right, you're right," he said, tucking into the main course.
"I don't think I've ever been made-up before," Franklin told the matronly woman, introduced merely as Judith, who was lathering him with something as he sat in her chair.
"You have very smooth skin," she informed him. "It will take makeup beautifully, and no one will notice that you have any on. How old are you?"
'Forty-four," he replied.
"Well, you're fortunate. You have the skin of a twenty-five year old. Her hands flew around his head with strange implements. "Hold still."
After ten minutes she paused and looked at her work, nodding in satisfaction. But as she leaned in close to inspect some nagging detail, she suddenly sniffed.
"Is that wine on your breath?" she asked in a matter of fact way, not being accusatory.
Franklin looked sheepish. "Yes, a little courage before face-the-nation time."
She reached into a drawer and handed him a small vial. "Here," she said. "Right before you go on, gargle with this and no one will notice."
He slipped it in his suit pocket. "Many thanks, Judith," he told her. "I wouldn't want Jimmy Ball to think I'm a wino."
"Jimmy Ball talks so much that the wind keeps him from smelling anything within a ten foot radius." She removed the large paper napkin from around Franklin's neck, and indicated he should get up.
"Well, thanks anyway," he said as he did so.
She smiled. "Break a leg," she said, which proved prescient.
Malone next ushered Franklin into what he called the "Green Room," which was in fact painted green, and told him that he should wait here until it was time to take him to the studio. He pointed out an adjacent restroom and a refrigerator filled with soft drinks and bottled water, and gave Franklin a remote control for a large television mounted on a wall.
"You may or may not want to watch the show," he said. "Guests vary as to whether that is a good idea or not. No one will think less of you if you choose to watch one of our competitors while you wait." Franklin fingered the remote absently. "Now where is Hubie?" Malone worried, looking at his very expensive watch.
"Hubie?" Franklin inquired. Then, before Malone could answer, he jumped to the right conclusion. "Hubie Lulland?"
"Yes," Malone replied with a nod of his head. "He's tonight's first guest. His latest comedy, 'Wife Trouble,' opened on Friday, and he's here to plug it. I just hope he's sober."
Sober? Franklin thought about it, and remembered Lulland's large red drinker's nose. The Jimmy Ball Show must have had problems with the comic in the past.
"I'm sure it will be fine," Malone said, apparently trying to reassure himself.
And just then the Green Room door opened, and Hubie Lulland himself, all 300 pounds, waddled into the room. He threw his arms around a squirming Malone and hugged him tightly.
"Donald, baby," he boomed. "Were you taking bets on whether I'd make it or not?"
Malone freed himself with as much dignity as he could muster.
"Not at all. You are ever the professional, Mr. Lulland," Malone lied. "I'm pleased to see that you're already made up."
Lulland put his huge overcoat on a hanger by the door, and then took off his suit coat which he hung next to it. Great sweat marks bathed the area of his shirt under his armpits. The shirt was a bright yellow, and in that color the sweat bands looked vaguely obscene. "Yup," he replied to Malone. "I stopped in for a little love fest with Judith before hurrying over here to see you." He turned and smiled at Franklin. "Fifth time on this show," he said with a wink. "You?"
Barely believing that a famous person like Hubie Lulland was treating him so casually, Franklin grinned back stupidly, his nerves once again trying to escape the confines of his skin. "My first," he said in reply.
"First time, eh?" Lulland said, far too loudly.
"My first time on nationwide TV, in fact."
"Mr. Lulland," Malone interrupted, "I will come for you in about ten minutes and escort you to the studio," and he slipped out the door of the Green Room before Lulland could respond, shutting it behind him.
"Your first time, eh?" Lulland repeated. "Nervous?"
"Oh yes. Very."
"To be expected. What brought you to the attention of the Jimmy Ball Show?"
Franklin paused, unsure how to answer. "I was in an explosion at a football stadium and I ended up on TV," he explained, gesturing palm up as if to say it was no big deal.
Lulland looked at him carefully. "Wait a minute. You're the guy who held onto that thing and let all the people run under it!"
"Well, hell, I certainly want to shake your hand, dude," Lulland said, grabbing it and pumping vigorously. "Goddamn it, man, you were awesome!"
That made Franklin feel even worse. "I wish people would stop saying that. I didn't do much of anything—it all happened so fast. Now I'm jumpy as a dog in a thunderstorm."
"Here," Lulland said, walking over to his overcoat, reaching into the pocket, and pulling out a silver flask. "Have a drink of this and calm yourself down." He unscrewed the cap and had a swallow, and then held it out to Franklin.
"Oh, no," the latter said, waiving it away. "Best not to."
"Friend, this is how I get through everything, and I mean everything. Look," he said, returning the flask to the overcoat pocket, "it's in here. Help yourself if you change your mind. Very good scotch, a malt produced by Balvenie especially for a few customers, of which I'm one. Private label. Best alcohol you've ever tasted."
Thinking of the wine from dinner, Franklin doubted that, but smiled and replied, "Thanks anyway."
"Well, you shouldn't underestimate the curative powers of good whiskey. Just one sip and you'll feel like a tiger. Eat Jimmy Ball and those callers right up. Let me tell you about the first time I was stupid enough to go on this show." And he launched into a long story about being a guest here right after getting a messy and very public divorce. It involved his ex-wife phoning him on the air and accusing him of bestiality.
"Almost ruined my career, and I wasn't even guilty! I loved that basset hound, you understand, but not in the way she insinuated. Bitch was just trying to take me down."
"Time to go, Mr. Lulland," Malone said as he popped into the room. He took Lulland's suit jacket down from the rack and helped him into it.
Lulland shook Franklin's hand once more as he left. "You're a hell of man, kid," he said. "A hell of a man!"
Alone in the Green Room, Franklin couldn't sit, couldn't think. His hands were trembling again, and he stuck them into his pockets trying to stop that. How in the world was he going to get through this?
Without thinking about it, Franklin found himself with the silver flask in his hand, and hurriedly took a small sip.
It burned his throat all the way into his stomach, but it tasted every bit as good as Lulland had promised. Franklin was not much of a drinker, and he hadn't had scotch in years, but, as promised, this beverage vied with the evening's wine for the best alcohol in his life. He allowed himself a small amount more.
He put the flask back in Lullhand's overcoat pocket and sat down in a large comfortable leather chair just as the Jimmy Ball Show came on the TV. Strangely, Franklin did feel much calmer, and this happened almost immediately. After all, he asked himself, how hard could this really be? All he had to do was explain what he'd been through in the past day, take a few calls, accept congratulations, and get the hell out of here. Then the plane flight home with Kelly! Anticipating that made him smile.
He did notice the buzz was back.
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012