Thru the open window I could hear Mr. Brown playing the blues. He was always playing his guitar, parked under the big oak tree in the backyard picking out a tune. The doleful melody reflected my somber mood as I lay in bed and idly watched the window curtain move listlessly in the slight breeze. Sleep evaded me as the events of the last week twisted me in knots. Everything was different and I didn't like it.
I was deeply conflicted. Along with the relief from the burden of hiding was the uproar caused by the dramatic revelation. If I had a rewind button I would have done it differently.
I pushed the sheet off my naked torso and mentally went thru the list of do's and don'ts Stori gave me for the big show, laying around nude was probably a don't even in the privacy of my bedroom.
I disliked brooding so I rose, putting on jeans and a tee shirt. Most of my clothes and stuff remained in boxes piled in the narrow living room next to the stairs. I started putting things away but lost interest after an hour when I got hungry. I wanted to go out for lunch but remembered being mobbed the day before when I went out for pizza. Everybody wanted to see the flying man.
I walked downstairs and Della invited me in for a bowl of chili. She worked in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant and was a fine chef herself. She planned to open her own place but had put it off when the baby was born. I entertained Tina in her highchair while she cleaned up. Della was a tall, elegant figure with a creamy complexion and I kidded Roscoe that she was way too smart and good looking for him and he would agree with a hearty nod.
"You got a bigger appetite than hubby," she joked as she handed me a Roscoe --sized bowl and a chunk of cornbread, it was true, I was always hungry.
My energy restored by lunch I finished unpacking and went to collect mail from the P.O. box I had been using for years. I found a note in it informing me I had more mail than would fit in the little cubicle. I went home with a huge cardboard box, aghast to discover the public got my address.
I made two piles: bills, magazines, a birthday card from Mom three months late, and work related stuff I kept, the crazy shit I tossed.
And I mean crazy. Lots of women, and some men, sent me everything from marriage proposals to naked pictures and most disturbingly, underwear. After the first surprise, I automatically put any strangely padded envelope in the toss pile. It was bizarre having strange women offer themselves to me: "I want to have your super powered love child." Instead of being flattered I was appalled. Call me an old fashioned guy, I believe that sex should be with someone you know and love.
The demands that I admit to being an alien, a government agent or an angel, and the secret to my flying ability tried my patience. I threw it all in the box in exasperation. There went a couple of hours of my life I'd never get back. Stori called to check on me and I told her how I spent my morning.
"Oh good Lord, why didn't you tell me earlier. We have secretaries to handle that for you," She said, incredulous. I gladly handed over the task to her PR business along with the answering service for messages instead of wrangling with my constantly full machine.
I was supposed to do some flying homework but a thunderstorm intervened, instead I went to a gym for some strength testing. I loved weight lifting but it had never been satisfying because I had to hide my strength.
The gym was Roscoe's favorite haunt. It had a slightly seedy air to it with dark walls, a bare concrete floor covered with old rubber mats and bare lighting that was in serious need of upgrading. There was no air conditioning, just a couple of box fans in the rear door and windows and an overhead fan running so fast I expected it to take off with the ceiling. This was a place for real gym rats, not for the pretty boys trying to impress or be fashionably healthy. These were power lifters, off duty cops and jocks who didn't give a damn about the lack of a juice bar or spa, only that they had a lot of iron to lift. The only sound was the clank of metal, grunting and a radio loudly tuned to a local rock station.
I obeyed the order to lay low by wearing sweats with a sleeveless AC/DC tee shirt and unshaven. I spent time warming up and slowly adding weight to get an accurate measure. I parked in a corner so as not to be noticed, working my way up to a squat of 560 pounds and a dead lift of 700, the kind of weight muscle--bound power lifters who eat steroids for breakfast pick up, not lean looking guys like me. I started benching my own weight and kept adding weight until I was up to 450 when someone noticed. The guy had a thick black handlebar mustache and was the size of a small truck. He watched as I finished my set and sat up sweaty and winded. He calculated the weight on the bar, his eyes wide in recognition. He blinked and with a small bow of respect, moved on. I checked off that task from my list.
The next work shift was the opposite of the last. Rueben was gone so I assisted Darryl who was airy and enthusiastic, cracking jokes about everything he saw during a run. We got a call about a kid who got his head stuck between the bars of a wrought iron fence at a schoolyard. I managed to pry them apart enough to get him unstuck while his buddies watched in awe. He thought it was cool until I lectured him about doing something so stupid.
Like last week, photographers followed us everywhere, hoping I would do something spectacular much to the crew's amusement.
"Look, it's a plane, it's a bird, nah it's just what's-his- name," Kaz parodied to much laughter. I cringed at the comparison.
There is a tradition that whoever has to speak to the press-- a task everyone loathed-- had to buy ice cream for the crew. Naturally the press wanted to talk to me.
" Hey, get Neopolitan this time," Mike said, rubbing his stomach as he walked back to the truck.
"Come on guys this is costing me a fortune," I complained to no avail.
We got back to the firehouse and barely had time to wolf down some cold pizza when another apartment alarm came in. Jesus, not again I prayed. Fortunately it was a small fire put out quickly and the press vultures were disappointed. The guys from the other engine company were not amused by the attention. Don't blame me, blame them, I glared back.
On my next day off I decided to get rid of the rising stress with a speed test. A storm had passed through, dissolving the heavy humidity, leaving the air clean and bright. Perfect for running.
I walked to an empty racetrack at a nearby school. The feel of gravel under my feet brought back memories of my track days in high school. A thin, gawky kid, shy as hell but I didn't get picked on because the guys learned I didn't back down if challenged. Besides I was too fast to punch. Running helped channel my hormonal frustrations as well as develop my speed in a productive way.
I warmed up for a few minutes with stretches and a slow jog around the track. I stepped up to the starting line and the familiar excitement rushed up. For me, the competition was about besting myself rather than beating the other guy. If I lost it suited me fine as long as I was happy with my performance. I usually won.
"Hi there," a voice halted my reverie. I looked up to see an older man sitting on the bleachers holding a small white dog. I waved and he took that as an invitation to join me.
Despite a shock of white hair, he looked to be in good enough shape himself.
"Training for a marathon?" he asked. I shook my head.
" I used to run track in college. Good way to work the body after using the brain all day, I majored in business, " he said tapping his forehead, oblivious to his interruption of my workout. I fidgeted with my stopwatch.
"Can I keep time for you?" he offered and I decided to have some fun.
"Sure," I said, handing him the stopwatch. He took his place a few feet in front of me as I crouched to a starting position. He gave me the signal and I took off.
Once more I was running against the big man on campus, Tommy Lewsom or "lose some" I used to taunt and I enjoyed beating him whenever we raced. Dad expressed disapproval of my prideful behavior, but the arrogant jerk needed to be taken down a peg every once in a while.
I crossed the finishing line after four circuits for a mile run and slowed down, panting from the effort. I made a mental note to start jogging to stay in shape. The old man looked at the stopwatch then at me with a furrowed brow.
"There must be something wrong with this young man, " He said in curt disbelief as he handed it back to me. According to the time, I just ran the current world record.
" Yeah I guess so, " I said breathlessly. He bid me goodbye and hurriedly continued on his walk after rousing his dog from a nap.
Well, I thought it was funny.
Just when I thought the attention on the flying man died down something would come along to remind me.
I was working the eight to eight shift and at six a.m. I heard the distinctive sound of metal crashing into metal followed by a car alarm. The crew looked out the window to see a media van bristling with antennae had been rear --ended by another one. The media had been warned to keep clear of the firehouse and driveway and not crowd the narrow street.
"Damn it," I spat. This circus was getting out of hand. We rushed across the street to check for injuries. The driver of the incoming van was bleeding profusely from a cut on the head, but it turned out to be superficial. He freaked at the sight of a blood but I calmed him down and had him apply a compress to the wound. Darryl dealt with the driver of the parked van. He had been asleep when hit and he struck the windshield, cracking the glass and his head. His passenger arrived on the scene, having gone off to fetch coffee and dropped everything at the sight.
"Oh my God, is he alright? Will you have to fly him to the hospital?" he sputtered. This was no time for theatrics I informed him and his excitement instantly cooled.
Properly chastised, he watched as we dealt with a possible skull fracture and got both victims into an ambulance which rushed off, leaving behind the reporter numb with shock.
"Hey buddy come inside," Mike invited him into the firehouse to get his bearings and use the phone. He sat in the day room with an untouched cup of coffee while we talked quietly over breakfast. He finally came out of his stupor, realized where he was, and spotted me sitting at a desk. He tried to engage me in conversation but I made it clear I didn't want to be disturbed while I filled out the accident report. Rebuffed, he turned to Phil.
He soon discovered Phil's bigotry and in the age of PC it was a gold mine of controversy. As he dug a tape recorder out of his pocket, everyone stopped talking and looked at him as if he held a poisonous snake. The captain walked by and politely but firmly suggested he leave. The guy knew he had stepped over a line. He put the device back in his pocket and meekly left.
I watched the whole scene waiting to see Fabiano's reaction. He glanced at me, wondering if I was responsible.
"Sorry sir, that was my bad call," Mike spoke up.
It's one thing to be in the spotlight, it's another thing when it shines unintentionally on others. Fame doesn't just affect you, it affects everyone around you, I discovered. I wished more than anything to protect my friends and family from its intrusive glare.
The day got worse. As I left the shift and headed to my car a man approached and asked my name. I figured he was an overeager reporter until he put an envelope in my hands.
It was a subpoena. The woman I rescued at the DuPont fire, Anna Geraint was suing a columnist for slander when he called her a "delusional eccentric" and accused her of being in on a colossal hoax I was pulling. I was officially pissed at all the fraud, and phony rumors floating around.
"Yeah I got one too, so did Vic. Don't worry about it," Stori said practically yawning when I called her. The PIO pretty much had the same response.
"But this is all they talk about, it's asinine," I complained.
"Yes, and her lawyer just wants to show off. When you come flying to the press conference all bets will be off. Forget about it." She wasn't the least bit concerned.
" I could settle this bullshit right now," I suggested.
"Nope, unless duty calls, you stayed grounded. Remember, you're in charge," She reminded me. Actually, she was in charge and I was beginning to resent it.
I got off the phone steaming with aggravation. The more I mulled it over the more I found the timing curious. Here we were just days away from a press conference and a dubious lawsuit was threatening to muck it up. The whole thing smacked of grandstanding to stir up more controversy. The woman's beef was with the journalist not me and it reminded me to stay out of other people's problems.
Maybe I was being paranoid but I couldn't shake the feeling something else was going on.