The next morning most the news crews were gone except for a couple of foreign hold outs. I made a few phone calls, had a huge breakfast and prepared for the trip back. There were lots of hugs and farewells. Mom held on particularly long as she hugged me.
"Be safe and don't forget us," she said, in an unusually solemn voice. I gave her a frown.
"Of course, I'll call once a week and be back for Thanksgiving as usual," I assured her. She touched my face and gave me a sweet, yet sad smile. I was no longer her little boy and we both knew it.
I intended to go on with life as usual but some things had to change. First, I needed a new place to live. Roscoe and Della had intended to convert the house they rented from George into a single dwelling by blocking off the second entrance and opening a doorway to the upstairs but George nixed it, instead offering the upper apartment to me, much to Roscoe's exaggerated disappointment.
"Next thing you know more white folks will move in and there goes the neighborhood," Roscoe said, shaking his head melodramatically while George and I discussed the arrangement. I spent the morning packing. I would miss the small apartment with the view of the golden triangle-- as downtown is called, and went to the local market for some supplies on the way out. Mollie’s was the classic friendly neighborhood shop that had everything in one easy location. The staff was nice, especially one cashier, Sally. We always flirted with each other with playful, innocent banter. We would compliment each other’s fashion sense—both of us in uniform. This time she glanced at me as if I were an alien then rang up my purchases without looking at me or saying a word.
I thought maybe she wasn't feeling well or had broken up with her latest boyfriend- she went through a lot of them. As I thanked her warmly, she practically threw the change at me, avoiding contact. I was thrown by the complete change of character.
After I got to the car it I realized she was afraid of me. Plain old me, the Boy Scout at the firehouse. It dawned on me some people found my special skills frightening. I sat for a long time quietly mourning my diminishing innocence.
At Roscoe's house I used the private, and convenient backstairs as the front door didn't work. Roscoe had a sign on his front door that read "please use the other door" with an arrow pointed at mine. Of course there was an identical one on my door pointing to his. It was confusing for deliveries but cut down on solicitors.
As I had promised Victoria, I contacted the publicist and to my surprise Stori arrived an hour later at the front door. Roscoe, ever the protective bull dog, demanded identification before letting her in. We retreated to the sunlit kitchen so we wouldn’t disturb Roscoe's two year old daughter Tina and Grandpa George napping in the front bedroom.
Stori introduced herself with a variation of the death grip from a tiny hand. She was a striking woman with straw blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail and steel blue eyes set in an attractive oval face. Her height was the only average thing about her and she could easily be a model at thirty something.
"Are you alright with Mr. Lionel participating in our conversation?" Stori inquired, a bit put off by the hulk next to me.
" It's ok, he's my brother," I said with a straight face. Stori quirked up an eyebrow in curious amusement. She pulled out a blank hardbound notebook from her voluminous purse.
"I want you to know how grateful I am for your help dealing with the media, it worked like a charm," I told her and she shrugged as if to say it was nothing.
"Also, I don't make a lot of money so I don't know if I can afford your services." She put up a hand to stop me.
" The privilege is mine. Any PR agent would kill to be in my position. Given your current public value I should be paying you," she laughed at her wit. "Vic informs me you are worth the effort. I was equally impressed with your handling of the press at your parents, I do hope they're fine," she said, her warm drawl softening her professional manner.
She proceeded to ask me a lot of questions about my background, my job and people I knew in order to understand who she was representing, jotting the information down in her swift, florid handwriting. Satisfied, she moved on to the matter of prepping me for a press conference I would have to endure. She asked me what I planned to say and proceeded to veto most of it.
" The first thing you need to learn, if Vic hasn't told you already, is never answer the unasked question. Keep your replies direct and relevant. Anything else is none of their business. You must always have the press dance to your tune, Figaro." She tapped the table with a well manicured fingernail for emphasis. I got the reference to the opera "The Marriage of Figaro" where Figaro plots revenge on the count.
We spent some time discussing what they would ask, what I would reveal, what to avoid, and where the conference would take place.
"As you know Chief Mallin's public appearance did not go well," Stori commented and my blank expression revealed my confusion.
"Oh dear. You missed that." she said, putting a hand to her pearl necklace in alarm. She updated me on the disaster, including the controversial debate that I was a fake. I suspected this would happen once I went public.
" Of course everyone wants to know how you fly," Stori said, pointing out the elephant in the room.
" I honestly have no idea how I do it. It's completely natural to me," I answered blandly. I rarely give it a second thought but this stunned them.
"Well there's no avoiding that topic," Stori said curtly, making another note in her book.
She insisted I fly to the conference but I was reluctant. Being airborne in broad daylight was unnerving and I was afraid of someone trying to shoot me down as some had threatened.
"I'm not entirely ignorant of the speculation going on around me," I stated with confidence, but I had been out of the loop and was playing catch up.
" You don't know the half of it," Stori said with heavy emphasis. In addition to the numerous rumors, Victoria had been subjected to an enormous amount of professional jealousy and badgering from her peers.
" Everyone wants to either interview you, expose you as a fake or incinerate you in a media auto-de-fe," Stori repeated Victoria's conclusions, shaking her head heavily. I hadn't realized how hard this frenzy had been on her. There was a deep silence as I stared at the floor wondering what I had gotten everyone into.
"I think it's time for a drink," Roscoe announced, heaving his frame out of the chair. He reached into a cabinet above the fridge and brought out a bottle of bourbon while Stori fetched three small glasses from the dish rack on the counter. Roscoe poured each of us a shot and proposed a toast.
"Here's to my little bro, may he be as good and humble as ever." We clinked glasses. Once revived Stori returned to the elephant.
She proceeded to bombard me with the kinds of questions that would be asked. How fast can I fly, how high, what's my range? How strong am I really? I started to hyperventilate as my anxiety rose. Stori stopped and put a comforting hand on my arm.
"Darling, I'm only trying to show you what you're going up against. I strongly suggest you figure these things out now so you can give them accurate information or they'll just make things up." Her smooth voice had a calming effect on me.
I made a mental list of how to figure this stuff out. In the meantime, it was total blackout until the conference. I wasn't to let anyone-- that included family, friends and co -workers-- talk to the media. Stori was relieved to learn that no one but the present company knew where I lived.
I told her I had to visit the Bureau's Public Information Office and she agreed. We worked on a list of things he could refer to until the press conference. Up to now the bureau put up a stone wall to the media because of lack of information. We had to give the poor slob something to offer to the wolves.
Stori advised me to go to work, resume a normal schedule and keep in touch with her. After consulting a calendar we decided to hold the press conference in two weeks--provided there was no rain or a thunderstorm to cancel it. Time enough for her to handle all the arrangements and for me to do my homework. The meeting was adjourned to everyone's satisfaction and just in time.
The next day I stopped at the district office to meet the bureaus' version of public relations. The nameplate on the door, William F. Abernathy, sounded familiar and as I entered, I instantly recognized the man who greeted me.
“Bill, what a surprise,” I beamed, greeting my old academy comrade.
“Neil, you son of a bitch, it’s about time you showed up," he said with cheerful annoyance as we shook hands. Bill still had his movie star looks; tall, auburn hair and square jaw. His uniform was tailored and impeccable.
“How the hell did you end up here?” I asked.
He shrugged and nodded at the array of photos, and certificates on the wall including the Distinguished Service Award. There was a newspaper clipping next to it. A few years ago during a call, he had placed his breathing mask over the face of a toddler and carried her down two flights of stairs out of a burning building.
There was one particular drill in the academy everyone dreaded, 'the maze'. It required us to enter a pitch black, smoke filled building wearing our mask and breath off the tank then search for a 180 pound mannequin. Hypothetically, if you took your mask off because you were too hot or ran out of air, you would be killed by the heat or toxic gases.
The idea we would be doing this in a real fire terrified everyone as we crawled around, sweeping an arm out in front to find the body in five minutes or less. The drill took its toll on everyone.
"You're too late Abernathy, the victim is dead from the heat or smoke," The instructor informed him on his second attempt.
Bill sat on the ground in dejection, his face flushed and sweaty. He wanted desperately to be a firefighter to please his father, a district chief, he often failed from over exertion. I offered him a hand and pulled him to his feet.
"You'll get it, just relax so you can think clearly," I encouraged. He gave a halfhearted nod and walked back to the engine.
“You finally learned to relax huh?” I kidded him and he shrugged humbly.
He got his badge of courage to impress the old man and promptly got himself kicked upstairs to safer work. If anyone was suited for this job, Bill was it. He was articulate and understood the game.
“And look what you were hiding all this time. No wonder you scored better than us at the tower drills,” he said with mock outrage. It was easy for me to hike up five stories in full gear hauling an eighty pound hose. We had a good laugh over that history.
" Had I known, I could have better handled the press clusterfuck after seeing you in Mallin's office," he tried to look cross but his wide grin gave him away.
“You were there? Damn, I didn't recognize you." I said, stunned.
"I'm not surprised, you looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights," he said highly amused.
"No kidding. Sorry I would have come by sooner, but I’ve been busy," I said, ducking my head in embarrassment.
Bill was unfazed and we got down to business. I explained what we had planned for the big press conference and answered any questions he had.
“Good, now when the big dog comes around, I got something I can throw to them so they don’t go digging in the trash,” he said with relief. The “Big Dog”, as he called the press had a habit of relying on unreliable eyewitness accounts for a sound bite if the PBF didn’t talk to them.
He offered to deal with the union representative, who was another grandstanding pain in the ass, and as ambitious as the Chief. Bill had a good grasp of the situation and I told him to call me or Stori if he needed anything.
“Fine, I can't have you hogging the spotlight Mr. Bigshot,” he teased.
“ You keep the press at bay and you can still be the poster boy for the bureau,” I shot back.
We shook hands with a promise to get a beer sometime. I wished my relationship with the press could be as cordial as my meeting with Bill.
I got to work afterwards, parking at the rear entrance as I always do. A swarm of photographers were buzzing around but I ignored them.
The firehouse was busy at the change of shifts. Besides the regular debriefing, Captain Fabiano went over the bureau’s usual media policy- no talking to the press.
"Especially about me," I interjected. That was met with good natured ribbing from the guys but the new crew regarded the insider attitude with cool reserve. As the meeting ended Fabiano handed me a note from Mallin requesting a meeting ASAP. Stori said not to talk to anyone, including him. I tossed it aside.
'"You can't avoid him forever," He said, tightening his jaw in disapproval. I sighed in resignation at the inevitable. He stopped Rueben as he passed by.
"You two in my office. Now." It was the tone he used when we were in trouble and we exchanged ominous looks for another trip to the principal's office. Once seated Fabiano looked just as uncomfortable as he toyed with a pen.
"I know things have been . . . strange. . . around here since Neil's histrionics and the fall out. That's tolerable and we can deal with that right?" Fabiano shot me a glare and I nodded obediently. He turned to Rueben, who was pleased to see that I was the target of the captain's wrath.
"What is not acceptable is the big freeze between you two," his voice grew harsher as he went on. "I'm also displeased that you didn't come to me first before putting in a transfer, Ehler,"
he continued. I couldn't bear to look at Rueben. Guys transfer to other companies all the time, but I was as furious as the chief.
"Captain I have my-" Rueben began.
" I'm not fucking done yet," he cut him off and Rueben flinched under the scolding.
" Rueben, you'll work with Darryl, meanwhile, I expect you two to stop acting like spurned lovers," he ordered.
We got the message. I had no problem with Rueben I wish he would talk to me. I missed his kinship and wisdom.
"Good, now you two kiss and make up," he said, then left us alone.
We sat side by side, our emotions tumbling within like clothes in a dryer. I glanced out the window and watched a father holding his son's hand as he pointed out the firehouse. I smiled as it reminded me of the early thrill of wearing a fire fighter's uniform and little kids looking up in awe.
"I've always been impressed with your ability at this job," Rueben suddenly spoke and I turned to him.
"It's not easy to see all the tragedy out there and walk away from it unscathed. You build up a kind of armor, like the gear we wear, to protect yourself. I always wondered how you had that armor from the beginning and now I know," he said carefully.
"You're a damn good fire fighter but I just can't wrap my head around your--abilities." It was almost condescending the way he said it.
" Where I come from it's just not philosophically possible and I can't get over it," he said, looking at his hands as he fidgeted in obvious distress.
" I don't understand them either but I accept them and I hope some day you will too," I replied after a time.
We never spoke like this as Rueben wasn't a touchy feely guy, no easy handshake, a slap on the back or a friendly hug from him. He got up and left the room, quietly closing the door after him.
When one transfers, it's shrugged off as a given to move from one place to another. But when a fire fighter dies everyone mourns. The brotherhood is a big deal. I felt like Rueben had died. After that shift, I never spoke to him again.