He knew he shouldn’t be drinking beer at all, especially now that he was a hero and was in the process of reforming old bad habits, but there was a six pack in the frig, and he couldn’t bring himself to throw it away. I’ll quit drinking at midnight tonight, he thought. Just now I need to relax. Been a bitch of a day. I wonder if they’ll mention me on the Jimmy Ball Show? Maybe run that interview with the chink. Maybe Heather would call—oh, wait, his cell phone wasn’t working since he stopped paying the bills, when was it, last month? The month before?
He took a healthy slug of the beer as the Jimmy Ball Show came on, and was annoyed to learn that Franklin Whitestone wouldn’t appear until the second half of the program. First he’d have to endure a half hour of that dickhead Hubie Lulland. Crap. That man hadn’t made a decent movie since “Udder Nonsense.”
Jake took another healthy slug of the beer. It was 8:00 pm. If he was going to quit drinking at midnight he still had five unopened beers to get through, but he was sure he’d be able to handle that.
“So, Hubie, one last question,” Jimmy Ball said, too loudly, his bald head catching a glare from the lights in spite of Judith’s careful work to prevent this, “is your new movie going to be as bad as the last one?” He took a sip of the glass of water on the desk before him and then wiped his large walrus mustache with the back of his hand.
“Worse!” Hubie exclaimed, guffawing, not unaware of what his agent and those who had worked so hard on this movie would think about this candid evaluation. “But it features lots of belching and fart jokes, so it’ll be a big hit with the teenagers. That’s all that matters, Jimmy!”
“On that note, we’ll take a break,” the host said into the camera. “When we return we will have a major hero as our guest.” He turned back to Lulland and extended his hand. “And. Hubie, we’ll see you back here when your next stinker opens!”
“About time,” Mary Whitestone said. “I couldn’t take another minute of that troglodyte.” She turned to Todd. “Tell me the worst, have you ever seen one of his movies?”
Todd’s face screwed up with disgust. “Oh, Mom,” he said, “really now! About the only movies I go to are independent films, mostly foreign ones. The last mainstream movie I saw was ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ unless you count documentaries such as ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”
“You saw ‘Brokeback Mountain?’” she asked. He was sixteen, worldly wise for his age, and in no way (alas) restrained by convention. She’d been afraid to ask about his sexual orientation. He’d never been on a date as far as she knew, and she’d thought about the issue.
“Of course. A beautiful film. And if I were gay I’d watch it over and over again. It is a milestone in the history of movies.”
She relaxed from a tension she had not known she felt. “But you’re not gay?” she ventured.
“I might explore around some day, but no. Heterosexual. You?”
“Yes, me too.”
Just then the Jimmy Ball Show returned from its commercial interlude.
“We’re back,” Jimmy Ball announced as if it were necessary to explain his sudden reappearance onscreen. His voice then dropped an octave and his normally twinkling blue eyes narrowed with concern.
“As you know,” he intoned, “yesterday was the worst nightmare this great country has endured since the horrors of 9/11, 2001. The news is still coming in from both horrific explosions, and this news organization will have a two hour special exploring the latest developments following this program.
“But first we have a bright spot as an anodyne for your pain.”
“‘Anodyne,’” Todd murmured, impressed.
“Football fans died on two college campuses, and people were hurt at a number of schools where no bombs at all went off. The awful extent of the casualties is still being tallied, but hundreds, perhaps thousands died, and many more were injured. Our prayers are that more survivors will be found in the rubble of the two stadia.”
“‘Stadia!’” Todd marveled.
“But this morning 68 people were pulled from the cave-in at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. Amazingly, 54 of them got out under their own power when rescue teams and construction workers, after digging all night, knocked down a wall early this morning. What happened then has been replayed over and over today, but even if you have seen it multiple times, it’s worth watching once more.
“Roll it, Marty” he commanded.
When the video ended (with a shot of Franklin letting go as workers surrounded him, and he went down in their midst), there was even applause from the television crew in the studio (there was no live audience present), and Franklin was startled as the clapping backstage began all around him. Jimmy Ball was telling his audience that Franklin Whitestone, the “courageous man who stood his ground like Atlas” was his next guest. Malone, standing behind Franklin, gave him a slight push, and he walked unsteadily into the bright lights of the studio set, shook hands with Jimmy Ball, who motioned him to a plush chair on the other side of Ball’s desk, and sat down.
“What a day for you!” Ball exclaimed, clapping his hands lightly twice.
“You have no idea,” Franklin said, feeling very good about himself and his place in the universe. Why in hell had he been nervous? This was the highlight of his life and it felt incredible.
“You’re right, I don’t. May I call you ‘Frank’?” he asked.
“Of course. Franklin, that was an amazing video we just watched. What goes through your mind as you see it?”
“Actually, Jimmy, it was my first time to watch it. I’m still in shock about the whole thing.”
“Where were you when the bomb went off?” Ball asked.
So Franklin related, the best he could remember, everything that happened from the time he went for popcorn until the workers took the girder from his grasp and dragged him away from the opening.
“It’s hard to tell from the video,” Franklin added, “but the last thing that occurred immediately after the workers got to me was that I collapsed and passed out.”
He meant this to be self-effacing, but Ball simply said, “Who wouldn’t? How hurt were you?”
“I got banged around in the explosion and the terrors that followed, but really all I suffered were some cuts—one large gash on my thigh that is causing me some pain and makes me limp a little—and some bruises that are already bright purple. But I’m okay—very, very lucky.”
Jimmy Ball shook his head and ran a hand over his bald pate. “Incredible story, my man, incredible! All America is proud of you! You married? Have children?”
“Divorced,” he said. “I have one son, Todd, a teenager—probably watching now.” Franklin waived his hand vaguely at the camera.
“And what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a partner in the Columbus law firm of Factor, Marroni, & Ray, specializing in commercial law. In fact, I have to get back to Columbus and go to work in the morning.”
“After all you’ve been through, you mean you aren’t going to take some time off? If it were me, buddy, I’d go to Mexico and sun myself on the beach for about a month.”
“Sounds good, but I have a major trial coming up. Mexico will have to wait.”
“You’re a fantastic person, Franklin Whitestone,” Ball said. “Now we’ll see what America has to say to you. Let’s go to the phones.” He paused to listen to the voice in his ear. “The first caller is Ralph in Chicago. You there, Ralph?”
“Yes, Jimmy,” said a disembodied male voice filling the studio, seeming to Franklin to come to from all sides at once. “I just want to thank your guest for the incredible courage he showed on that video! What an inspiration to us all!”
Franklin smiled happily. A golden glow infused his inner being. So this is what it meant to be on top of the world! “Thanks,” he said, the humble hero.
“If you get to Chicago, my man,” Ralph continued, “you look me up! I’ll take you out on the town and treat you like royalty!”
The next two callers were similar. Ginny from Atlanta wanted to know if Franklin had seen his son since he’d been rescued (no he hadn’t), and Manny from San Antonio asked how Franklin had gotten on this show so quickly.
“I’ll take that one,” Jimmy Ball said with a chuckle. “My crack staff zeroed right in on this important story and plucked the hero at the heart of it right out of Columbus to bring him here to talk to you! On my show, we work very hard to stay on top of the biggest stories of the day. Thanks for calling, Manny. Next is Doris from Salt Lake City. Hello, Doris!”
And then the world changed forever for Franklin.
“Mr. Whitestone,” Doris began, “when you were hanging on to that girder for dear life, were you praying to God that you would have the strength to hold it long enough for all those poor people to escape?”
Franklin shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said, almost jovially. “I certainly wasn’t praying. God was the problem, not the solution.”
“What do you mean?” Doris asked, puzzled.
“The bombs went off because of a belief in God! Same as 9/11. In both cases religious nuts killed people simply because they thought their God commanded them to do so.”
There was a shocked silence in the studio; it lasted for a couple of beats.
“But God saved all those people that ran out under your arms!” Doris exclaimed, clearly upset. “And He saved your life too.”
“At the same time that he was allowing the deaths of thousands in other stadiums? I don’t think so. It never ceases to amaze me,” Franklin said, as if leading a slow student, “that God gets credit when things go right, but is never to blame when things go horribly wrong, even where, as with these explosions, religion is clearly the motivating force.”
“GOD DIDN’T CAUSE THE EXPLOSIONS!!!” Doris yelled, her voice overwhelming the studio mikes.
“Oh? From what I hear there is a website making that very claim. ‘The infidels are dead—praise be to Allah!’”
“I . . . I . . . I,” Doris sputtered, unable to talk.
“Wow!” Jimmy Ball said. “My director tells me that the phone lines just jammed up solid!”
“I THOUGHT, I THOUGHT YOU WERE . . . A HERO! BUT YOU ARE GOING TO GO TO HELL!!!” Doris screamed.
“We are running out of time,” Ball said, deep concern on his face, cutting her off, “but let me ask you some questions, Franklin. You are an atheist, right?”
“I suppose. I don’t give myself labels for not engaging in the supernatural. But I do believe in finding out what’s true and what’s not. I have to keep reminding myself that there are intelligent people who—incredibly—think that some magical being is watching our every move, counting the sparrows as they drop, when there is not the slightest bit of evidence this is true.” He waved a hand airily. “Actually, you know, the evidence completely goes the other way. In all of recorded history there is not one verifiable incident of supernatural intervention in the affairs of human beings. Not one. Now, Doris, if you were an almighty god, don’t you think you’d clear up your existence in some obvious way? Leave the issue beyond doubt so that everyone would salute and get with the program?”
Jimmy Ball’s eyes got wider than his audience had ever seen.
“You don’t believe in any form of divine guidance!?” he asked.
Franklin smiled, giving a small shake of his head. “Let me put it like this, Jimmy. When I was a child I had an imaginary friend who was with me everywhere I went, helping me out, very real to me. I loved him with all my heart. But as I got older I didn’t need that crutch anymore, and one day he just wasn’t there—nor did I miss him. As an adult I’d be embarrassed if I still needed an imaginary friend to help me run my life.”
More dead air while that statement floated around the room for a few seconds. Then Jimmy Ball found his voice.
“Well, we clearly have material there for a very different show, and we may have to invite you back, Franklin, to talk about this . . . controversial topic at length. But now it is past time to wrap up.” He turned and looked into the camera. “Thank you all for watching, and tune in next time when my guest will be Heisman trophy candidate Randolph Jones.” He paused, then added, “Good night.” He usually tacked on, “and God bless,” but he somehow omitted it this particular evening, an oversight for which he profusely apologized after he saw his mountain of mail on this very point. He was never quite forgiven for the misstep, which caused him grief until the day he died twelve years later.
Kelly had watched the show from a private viewing area near the director’s booth. Mr. Malone had gotten her a bottled water, and asked her to avoid making any noises that would carry to the set (but she had nonetheless joined in the staff’s applause when the video ended).
At the start of Franklin’s segment she’d been so proud, and then was very impressed with how he handled the interview and the first couple of questions. He wasn’t nervous at all in spite of his earlier worries. Then came that call from the woman in Salt Lake City.
Now Kelly sat very still in her seat.
“Incredibly brave! Stupendous! I couldn’t be more proud of Dad!”Todd rejoiced, dancing around the television, both fists in the air.
Mary, firmly seated in her favorite leather chair, the cat, Elliot, on her lap, was more sanguine. She used the remote to turn off the TV. “Your father has a lot of characteristics, but stupidity is not usually one of them,” she told him.
Todd paused in his dance, one foot still raised. “What do you mean? He was great!”
“It couldn’t have been dumber. I wonder if he was on drugs. That Kelly woman has been bad for him. This is just the latest example.”
“Mom, what was dumb about Dad’s courageous stand on behalf of non-belief? He refused to be bullied by that religious nut. She deserved to be put in her place.”
“He dragged his atheism into a conversation where it was irrelevant, and I’m afraid he’ll pay dearly for it.”
Todd leaned in close to her. “Mom, you’re an atheist yourself. You both brought me up not believing all those religious delusions! Don’t be a hypocrite.”
“Yes,” she conceded, rising and dumping Elliot on the floor, “I’m an atheist, but his remarks were so over the top that they offended even me.”
“Offended you? Are you ashamed of being a nonbeliever?” He followed her into the kitchen.
“No, but I am circumspect about the occasions on which I bring it up. I certainly wouldn’t do so gratuitously on national television.”
He thought about that for a second. “Okay, when would you think it ‘circumspect’?”
“When about to embark on a serious romantic relationship, or when asked by a friend to be a godmother to some child, or when explaining to my own son how the world works. But, make no doubt, atheists are controversial, only a tiny percentage of the population. It’s the only minority left where discrimination is encouraged. So, Todd, you have to be careful. You can’t stick your head into a beehive without instantly regretting it.”
Todd looked unconvinced. “Well, Dad is my hero. He’s not afraid of the consequences of telling the truth.”
“Then he’s a fool. Holy hell—and I do mean that in the religious sense—is about to break loose.”
“DAMN HIM, DAMN HIM, DAMN HIM!!!” Jake Richardson screamed, pounding rhythmically on the wall with each “damn.” “I saved the fucker and he’s BETRAYED me!!!” He pushed off from the wall violently, careening into a standing lamp, which went down with a thud, the bulb breaking with a spectacular spray of glass. He turned back and kicked the lamp into the side of the TV, spreading small shards everywhere. Sometime during the show itself he had jumped to his feet. Popcorn from the bowl on his lap was flung like confetti to the four corners of the room. He’d knocked over his beer too.
Jake stopped in the middle of the floor, his lip curled, fists at his side, his face pointed up toward the ceiling. “He betrayed the Lord!” he moaned. “The Lord our God! How could he do that? Fuck, fuck, fuck!” It was a strange sort of incantation.
“That asshole must be brought to the truth,” he said, taking a deep breath, his fists relaxing. “Yes, yes! He too is one of God’s children, and he has strayed from the flock. It’s my duty as a Christian to bring him back.” He nodded his head up and down with vigorous determination.
“I saved him once. I will save him again.”
When the director signaled that the camera was no longer live, Jimmy Ball just sat there looking quizzically at Franklin.
“Oh, you are in such trouble, my friend,” he said, sadly shaking his head.
“I thought I was a hero,” Franklin commented, still in the moment, still pleased with himself.
“That’s over. You’ll be picking tar and feathers out of your hair for months. We have a saying about guests on this show who do what you just did: big mouth, big mistake, big trouble.”
“Nonsense,” Franklin replied with a smile. “I believe what I believe, and I don’t hesitate to say so. She asked, I answered.”
“How does a foot taste that far back in your throat?” Ball asked as he came to his feet.
“You’re being too dramatic,” Franklin countered, unclipping his microphone and leaving it on the desk, rising himself. “But I’m very pleased you had me on the show.” He extended his hand. “Thank you for everything.”
As they shook hands, Ball said, “Oh, believe me, the pleasure is mine, all mine. There’s no such thing in show business as bad publicity, and the show we just finished is going down in TV history! So thank you a hundred times over.”
“Glad to help,” Franklin said, turning to leave until Ball touched his arm.
“And I was serious about what I said on the air. If you want to come back on the show, say in a week or two, I’ll give you the whole hour and you may say whatever you like. The ratings would go through the roof!”
Kelly was waiting for Franklin as he emerged from the men’s room where he had scrubbed off his makeup. She looked crestfallen, leaning against the wall, arms folded, head down. Franklin had had a few minutes to think, and he was beginning to see that his flip answers about religion were probably not going to go over so well. He smiled as he walked up to her.
“Hi, Sweetie,” he said, reaching out a hand to touch her.
She turned and headed for the front door of the building. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.
He followed her to the curb where the limousine was waiting to take them back to the airport. She climbed in without a word, so he joined her silently, worried now. The limo driver pulled into the New York traffic.
Finally he ventured, “Upset with me?”
She didn’t answer at first, and the long silence was awkward, making Franklin tense up. This was worse than he thought.
Finally she spoke.
“You ruined the best evening of my life. You just ruined it.”
Now he paused. Then he said, low, “I’m very sorry. That would’ve been the last thing I intended.”
He heard her sniffle, and looked at her face carefully. Was she crying?
“Oh, Franklin!” she said (not “Frankie,” he noticed). “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“Done? To whom?”
“To the people who watched the show. To me. To your family. Hell, to my family. Can you imagine how my parents are going to react to you now?”
“I guess not. Tell me what you mean.”
He took a deep breath before replying. “Callous? For saying what I believe? Well, ask yourself this one: if what I said is right, and there is no God, you’re deluding yourself. Isn’t that worth knowing?”
“No,” she replied, very sure of this. “First of all, you’re not right. There clearly is a God, and you have just offended Him greatly. Worry about that tonight when you put your head on your pillow.”
He rolled his eyes, as disappointed in her as she was in him. “Not you too,” he moaned. “You can’t believe that pap!”
“Pap! How dare you say that to me?” she snapped, teeth bared.
“But I didn’t know you believed in God!” he pressed. “You never said much about the topic, and you knew I was an atheist! Why didn’t you speak up?”
“I didn’t think it was worth fighting about. You could believe what you wanted and I could believe the opposite. It wasn’t like we were planning on having children, or anything, so that it was important to clear it up.”
“How religious are you?”
“I was raised a Baptist, and I went to church every Sunday all the time I was growing up. I loved going to church. It was one of my favorite things. Granted, I haven’t gone very often as an adult, but I feel guilty about that. It’s something I always mean to change . . . to become better at tending to my faith. I’ve been busy, so I stupidly neglected it. Well, no more. Next Sunday I’ll be back in the pews.”
Exasperated, he ran a hand through his hair. “Oh, no. Please, no,” he mumbled. He slumped back in his seat. Jimmy Ball was right. What was that about big mouth, big trouble? Now he’d have to think fast or lose this woman he cared so very much about. But on this issue, they were very far apart. He could no more conjure up a belief in God than he could in leprechauns, nor was she likely to forgive him for thinking that church-going was a colossal waste of time. How, he asked himself, could they have had years together without knowing these fundamental things about each other? Had their relationship been that shallow?
Finally, he spoke. “What can I say to make things better?” he asked, really meaning it.
“Don’t say anything,” she told him, also meaning it. “You’ve said plenty tonight.”
“I do apologize, Kelly. I never meant to hurt you, or cause you distress in any way. I’m very, very sorry.”
She was having none of that. “Not now! I just told you to stop talking, but you’re making things worse.”
“But . . .”
“SHUT UP!” she yelled. The limousine driver snapped his head back to look back at them, frowning. He’d had passengers get into physical brawls in his back seat before, and it made for a bad ride.
Franklin, feeling the sting of her anger, did as she asked.
Without exchanging another word, they reached the airport and climbed on board the private jet. They buckled in, and as soon as the plane took off, she reclined her seat and closed her eyes for the rest of the journey. When they landed in Columbus, Franklin thanked the pilot and the attendant for the way they’d handled the whole trip, but Kelly didn’t speak a word. Silently they walked to his car, which was parked in the short term parking lot next to the concourse.
As the car entered the freeway circling the city and they headed north, she finally spoke.
“Take me home and drop me off.”
“That’s what I’m doing,” he said, contrite.
Another short pause, then he asked, “How can I get you to forgive me? Please, Kelly. I’ll do anything.”
She turned to him. “Convert. Tell me you believe in God.”
He paused. “No.”
Her lip curled in a sneer he had never seen before. “I thought you were the one who didn’t discriminate on any basis. So much for that.”
That made him angry. “I do discriminate when it comes to unblinking adherence to superstition.”
“You know,” she said, having none of that, “on the plane I got to thinking about a biblical verse I heard often as a child: ‘Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.’”
That was a conversation stopper, he thought, and he was right. Nothing more was said even as they parted. When Franklin pulled up to the curb in front of her house, Kelly jumped out as fast as she could and shut the car door firmly, walking away without a backward glance.
By this time Franklin’s stomach ached, his head hurt, and the bandaged cut on his thigh throbbed, demanding his immediate attention, though the care—the rest—it needed would have to wait until he got home. His hands were shaking so bad he doubted he could drive.
So, for minutes, he just sat there at the wheel in front of Kelly’s house, trying to get hold of himself. Then, to add to his misery, he suddenly realized he was about to break down and cry, and not just ordinary tears, but a waterfall of misery.
No! No! he thought. I won’t let her see me sitting out here sobbing!
Quickly he put the car into drive and shot off down the street, making strange little “uh uh uh” sounds deep in his throat. As soon as he turned a corner, he pulled over to the curb and let it all out, leaning over so that his head was down on the passenger’s seat, sobbing, his mid-section draped painfully over the gear shift.
Franklin was not sure how long he stayed like that, but finally he straightened up, sniffed deeply a few times, put the car in gear, and slowly resumed the trip home. Ten minutes later as he came up to the intersection leading to his street he saw to his horror that the news trucks were still parked all around the front of his house, spilling onto lawns, blocking his neighbors’ driveways.
Quickly he accelerated and kept going straight, hoping that he wouldn’t be detected. He glanced at the dashboard clock. It was shortly after midnight! Had they been there all this time? Were they nuts? Was it going to be like this from now on?
Even my problems have problems, he thought.
About as unhappy as a man could get, Franklin parked on the street that ran behind his condo development and walked across the yard of the young couple who lived immediately behind his unit. He quietly let himself through the gate into their back yard, then climbed the short fence that circled the condos (which made his injured thigh throb), and then let himself in through his rear patio door. Careful not to turn on a light and thereby attract the attention of the mob outside, he shut himself up in the master bedroom, washed up, and climbed into bed.
He lay there staring at the ceiling for over an hour.
Knowing it was a mistake to keep going over it, he replayed the life-changing day he had just been through. This very morning he’d awakened in a hell hole where he thought he might die any minute, been rescued while at the same time saving others in what looked on TV like a herculean stunt, then was whisked off to New York, treated like a VIP, put on the air, and immediately said all the wrong things. Now his hero status was very much in doubt, and the woman he loved hated him.
Quite a day, he thought, a sour taste in his mouth. Quite a day. Tomorrow had to be better.
But he was wrong.
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012