a Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
The noise threatened to break him apart.
He couldn't open his eyes again. Every time he did the lights flashed, sending pain burrowing into his brain. He was wet and cold and God knew where he was and if he could hold on for one more moment until the noise and the lights subsided.
Finally he was too cold to care.
When he opened his eyes again the pain was there, but bearable. The lights and the noise seemed to have offered a respite.
He discovered he was sprawled on the floor in the middle of his apartment.
As he stared at the ragged fringe at the bottom of the sofa, things came back to him, bit by bit: his confession to Betty, the hatred in her eyes, the quick, final kiss before he walked out of her life and the WENN studio forever. He'd gone directly out, turned the corner and disappeared into the nearest bar, proceeding to turn what cash was in his pocket into hazy amnesia.
He was used to holding his liquorbut even bourbon straight up couldn't do for him what he wanted. For once he envied Brent Marlow's ever-recurring problem.
Outside it was raining, which explained his drenched clothingand as he adjusted to the dim light from the lamp in the corner, lightning flashed, making him flinch.
And then the power went out.
The lights browned, then snapped off.
He pulled himself into a sitting position, remembering the remainder of the afternoon in flashes like the lightning: being hunkered at a corner of the bar, slowly but steadily sipping drinks and watching the bar life go by. The hurt blurred but never went away. He was approached by peopleat first he fobbed them off with a quick quip, but as haze invaded his brain he became abrupt. One of the last people to approach him had been a peroxide blonde. He hadn't been kind.
Unfortunately neither was the man she brought back, her boyfriend who made Charles Atlas look like a piker. He'd been outclassed even without the influence of the bourbon.
At some point Bluto Junior had kicked him out the door.
He didn't remember getting home, but somehow he had.
The lack of light was kinder to his hangover. He managed to crawl to his feeta stab in his side reminding him that Blondie's boyfriend also wore steel-toed bootsand made his way by touch to the small bedroom. He wasn't much on fancy living space; he could have afforded something three times as large, but he had always preferred not to tie himself down. The place came furnished, it was relatively free of vermin, and it held what little possessions he had, mostly memorabilia of his travels.
He guessed it was time to be packing up again.
Slumped at the edge of the bed, he removed his clothing. Each movement was an effort.
What was wrong? This had ended as many of his jobs had ended, the scam discovered and him out the back door. Sometimes he left by the front door, no one the wiser. He rarely made money on the dealonce enough to buy his schooner, other times the fare to somewhere new. It was the delight of new faces and new situations that kept him on, not the money, ever bouncing to the next thing, back on his feet and trying yet another adventure.
This had been just another job.
What was in his shirt pocket?
The piece of paper was mercifully only damp. He didn't have to read it, he knew what it was. Lately he'd kept it with him as...as what? A talisman? A reminder of why he'd traded in his traveling money for plans for a memorial for a man he hardly knew?
The last time he'd picked up Betty for a movie the buzzer at her residential hotel hadn't been working. She'd left a note for him on her mailbox telling him to knock and tell the doorman to come fetch her. Just that, nothing more.
But he liked to keep it with him.
This had been just another job.
He barely made it to the bathroom before he had to throw up.
* * * * *Scott Sherwood never stayed in bed late.
He always had too many ideas galloping through his head, whether it was a new idea for programming or a new angle on advertisers. Even if he had arrived at WENN late, it was because he was casting for new sponsors; he'd been known to show up at 10 a.m. with three likely prospects dangling. What type of program would they sponsor? Piece of cake. Betty was brilliant. Whatever he came up with she could invent.
Pity she couldn't invent a new scenario for him now.
Oh, he knew the game plan: he would get up, he would pack his things and ship them home express with a breezy letter. At least he didn't have to concoct those Junior Ambassador/FBI/Nobel Prize fictions any longerhe'd grown tired of them long ago. Then with the last of his cash he'd buy a train ticket to somewhere else, maybe somewhere where he had contacts, or somewhere with prospects.
At 11 a.m., he was still in bed, lying on his back with his hands laced behind his head, staring at old water stains in the ceiling. The roof had been repaired long ago, but the patterns remained.
He'd woken originally at eight. The storm had blown itself out and sun was making its way through the cheap paper window shades, spilling over the tumbled bed. He'd left his clothing on the floor instead of neatly hung up, his shorts and socks dashed across the floor instead of in the bag for the laundry.
Automatically, he'd reached for the big portable radio that stood on the nightstand, waited for it to warm up. Only when he heard Jeff and Hilary doing their Bedside Manor routine did he remember that it was tuned for WENN.
He started to get up, stretching, and then was arrested by a voice.
Betty was filling in for Mapes...something about a cold...doing one of the Ingrams Coffee ads. She sounded bright and happy, with not a trace of the fury that had steamed from her yesterday.
He had shut the radio off and laid back down. Suddenly it was hard for him to breathe. It was almost if...
No, not crying. The last time he had cried it had from the pain after being assaulted in Singapore. They'd beat the crap out of him for cheating and he wasn't able to move without agony. When he was finally able to bribe someone to drag him to the hospital they'd discovered four broken ribs, a fractured arm, twisted ligaments. Luckily he'd had Aunt Agatha's address and had wired her for money so as to avoid the charity ward. He'd had plenty of time to plan his next expedition sitting in a comfortable bed in the private ward, attended by the prim British nurses who seemed to enjoy his flirting.
Hurt now? The bruises in his side and back were already more comfortable. There wasn't any pain he couldn't bear.
Except listening to Betty Roberts extol Ingrams Coffee on a tin-pot little radio station in the midst of Pittsburgh.
He'd drifted back into a half-sleep, half-nightmare in which he was in his...no, Pruitt's office now. It was enough of a nightmare to stare into Pruitt's ghoulish face the first time, but here it was again, like a death mask from those Universal horror movies.
The words that kept coming back to him were "Your friends are devaluing the coinage of this station." How like Pruitt to word it like that. To talk about how much WENN was worth in terms of cash, not how much it was in terms of what they broadcast, or the personnel and the work they did, or the listeners. Just the cash.
But then who was he fooling? When he came to Pittsburgh, all he wanted was the cash...oh, and the chance to meet this extraordinary Betty Roberts whose name had come up so often in conversation, but mostly for the cash. Delivering the book and turning it to his advantage had truly been "just another job."
Except something had happened here that hadn't ever happened anywhere else: he'd let himself care. About Betty, about Mackie Bloom and Eugenia Bremer, even about Hilary Booth whose nose-in-the-air attitude couldn't cover up a woman who loved her husband more deeply than anyone could have guessed. He'd let himself become friends with them and in turn they had become his friends- -not acquaintances that could be chatted up for new prospects, not bar friends to swap the latest dirty joke with, not "marks" to extract money from, but his friends, people who cared enough about him to put their own jobs on the line when he was fired.
They weren't his friends any more, he wagered. By now they knew about the forgery, knew the Victor Comstock Memorial was only a stopgap to cover up the embezzled funds, knew Scott Sherwood was exactly what they'd pegged him to be at first.
It was time he was on his way.
* * * * *But instead of packing up he had dressed in his oldest clothes and gone down to the waterfront, wandering among the docks and taverns until he could stand clear and stare at the grimy waters of the mingled rivers. Around him were overwhelming scents: garbage, diesel fuel, metal, stagnant water. He'd stood in many harbors and many places like that before, and it had always brought back his urge to travel, to kick off the dirt of one place and go on to another.
He didn't want to leave.
With the same astonishment he had felt when Pruitt said the words "your friends," he realized he felt at home. When was the last time that had happened? Certainly not since his early teens. Certainly not after he'd fled the confines of college for the wide world. Home was where he hung his hat, tucked his shoes, pulled up dinner and a lively date, for the past twenty years.
Trouble was, home was really WENN. And he'd been thrown from there as irrevocably as he had been tossed out of three schools.
At the edge of one dock was a tavern so old he figured it had done time as an Indian trading post. He wandered in, into dimness and an uneven floor and a bar that looked as if it had been made from old ships' planks. Perhaps it had been.
He perched on a stool, ordering a bourbon and water. Once his eyes adjusted, he could see a several round, battered tables and equally battered chairs. Two elderly men were nursing beers at one table, another was seated at a table under the small-paned windows, staring out the bubbled glass as he pushed a mug of ale around with a hand missing two fingers.
Scott Sherwood among the castoffs. How appropriate.
The bartender had his back turned when Scott ordered; now he turned to pour Scott his drink. He blinked at Scott, who blinked in return.
"Scotty, that you?"
Castoffs indeed. So here was where Reg Pennell had ended up, tending bar at a waterfront dive so low Mickey Rooney would look down on it. The last time he'd seen Reg, he'd been flying high as a croupier in a Riviera casino, before Hitler, before the Nazis had come tramping across Europe and poisoned everything with their touch.
"Damn, it is you. What the bloody hell are you doing in a place like this, Scotty? Slumming w'the natives?"
"Same question here, Reg," Scott said easily, taking a drink of the bourbon.
Reg hadn't changed much physically; the dark blond hair seemed a little thinner, but then indeed he seemed a little thinner, but everything else was unchanged, including the Cockney accent lying behind his voice that he'd never lost. "Well, we had a buyout at me old place, you know..."
"Not much profit there," Scott responded thinly.
"You're tellin' meI got out with me life. Anyway, I couldn't go back to the East Enda little matter of the policebut me brother-in-law raised enough brass to get me here to the States. They live out in MonroevilleI live out here. Denny and me never did get along." Reg stopped polishing the shot glasses and leaned across the bar. "Now tell me what you're doing hereI thought you were workin' at that five-an'-dime radio station."
Scott realized the insult stung, but covered with a derisive laugh. "That joint? I got bored with that weeks ago." For a second he regarded Reg, then lowered his voice. "To be honest with you, I'm...between prospects right now."
"I'll treat you a farewell shot then," Reg answered breezily. "Knowin' you, you're off."
Scott found himself saying, "Not yet. Actually, I'm looking for work. Got any leads?"
Reg stared until Scott dropped his eyes and took a gulp of his drink. "Nothin' you'd want, Scotty."
He lifted his chin, swallowing, his eyes hard. "Try me."
Reg snorted. "After that la-de-dah job? You couldn't make it."
"Try me." Now his voice was dark and still. It was Reg's turn to swallow.
"Halpin Brother's Brewery needs help on the loadin' docks. Customer was tellin' me yesterday." He looked at Scott with a mixture of astonishment and wariness. "I told you, ain't your type of work. Long hours and the pay's bad."
"Maybe," Scott answered softly. He finished the drink. "What do I owe you, Reg?"
"On the house," the man said in amaze.
Scott pushed a fifty-cent piece at him. "You keep giving drinks away, Reg, you aren't ever getting out of here." And then, with long practice, he looked at his watch. "Oh, will you look at the time."
* * * * *He went home and had a shower and a shave, dressed in the appropriate clothing and an old jacket. Within an hour he was talking to Doug Callan, the boss, a mustached older man who could have played bouncer at the Crimson Follies. He missed nothing about Scott, from his build to hands that had not seen manual labor in a long time.
He took his leaf from Mr. Foley and kept his silence unless asked a question, only speaking up for himself when Callan bluntly opined that he wasn't up to the job. Callan seemed to like that.
The first day was hellhis muscles knew all the moves but they were rusty. He'd hardly swallowed a mouthful of lunch before he wanted to lie back and take a nap, but he knew he didn't dare. By nightfall his back and arms screamed for relief. He ate his supper, half-asleep, at the cheap diner at the corner near his apartment, barely having time to undress before he collapsed in exhaustion on the bed. Next morning was almost harder than the day before, and the urge to resort to the bourbon he had tucked away in a kitchen cupboard strong. Instead he limped to work, falling back into the rhythm of the lifting and the hauling.
The other men on the dock who had been skeptical of his staying power grew a little friendlier as the days passed. A couple of them were good joes, including a young man trying to earn money to marry his childhood sweetheart, the others he dismissed: they smoked and sniggered at anyone different from them who wandered in sight of the dock, catcalling young women in lewd tones.
Callan let them alone as long as they worked, and was not too proud to come out to help between arranging shipments. He had a pocket-sized "office," if you could call it that, off the side of the dock, a small battered cubby where he kept paperwork, the telephone, and a small radio.
Callan listened to WENN a lot and, with his ear always cocked to the door as he worked, Scott could make out snatches of things going on...Maple seemed over her cold...Mackie's voice sounded especially concerned about the news coming out of Europe...the ever-present complaints about Jonathan Arnold...even some fuss going on at the Hands of Time broadcast; the dock had been quite noisy and he had never caught what was going on.
On his fourth morning as they were waiting for a truck to back up on the dock , Scott heard the familiar strains of the Bedside Manor theme. Sidling closer to the door, he leaned his head back, closing his eyes. Mapes had a great voice, but he was glad to hear Eugenia back; the ode to Ingram's Coffee hadn't been the same without her.
Hilary came on, but the brightness in her voice seemed quenched. He waited for Jeff's response, then was astonished to hear Hilary say Jeff had gone back to London to broadcast for the BBC. For a moment he was back at the station after Victor and Jeff's BBC broadcast: the others stunned, Hilary trying to act as if everything was all right, but her manner forced, Betty-
He shouldn't think about Betty.
But she came to him unbidden, her face pale and strainedand then the news had come about Victor's death and any animation left her. She became a marionette on strings, completing her daily tasks by rote, tearless, grim. He would have done anything to stop that...hell, he had.
Hilary sounded forced again, her cheerfulness an act as surely as every one of his excuses had been. What the hell was Jeff up to, anyway? Didn't he realize how much she cared...how much they cared about him?
"Hey, Sherwood!" came the yell from the dock. "You plannin' to put in any work today?"
Scott straightened, opening his eyes, grinning at the man who had called for him. "I dunno, Daugherty. You plannin' to put in any thinking today?"
He drew the expected scowl from the eternally sour Daugherty and a roar of laughter from the rest of the men. Daugherty might take offense to it, but for now he didn't care.
* * * * *A Sunday came and went. He slept most of the day, had a good meal, walked around town for awhile. He'd thought about going to a movie, but right now movies reminded him too much of Betty.
Since his muscles got back into the swing of things, he had gotten into the habit of buying a hero for lunch and walking some of his old haunts during the break. He steered clear of the Crimson Follies, knowing Maple sometimes came to visit her old friends on the chorus line, but he enjoyed winding his way through the theatres and burlesque houses, seeing what was going on, keeping up with the business.
This Monday morning there was a knot of men standing in the alley by the Orpheum Theatre. It was, he remembered, where they kept a message board about upcoming roles. Aspiring actors of both sexes, running to their bread-and-butter jobs, would stop here to see if there was any action in their chosen profession. Evidently here was a bite.
He ambled over, curious, in time to hear one young man snort, "At WENN? Not much of a job."
"Either act on the radio or sling hash like you are now," someone retorted derisively from the crowd. "I guess you prefer the hash, Rooney..."
He noticed Rooney wasn't too proud to write down the phone number and address.
Mackie was probably doing all of Jeff's roles, he realized, after doing several dozen of his own. He must be near collapse. Of course Pruitt wouldn't care. Pruitt wanted WENN to fail, he always had. This must be Betty's doing, Betty who wrote the scripts and helped him talk to the sponsors and kept everything running like clockwork.
Betty whose trust he'd abused, who had looked at him with such raw anger that the force of it had driven him to drown his sorrows.
He walked back to the job thoughtfully, wondering if she had indeed told the others about his forgery. He kept thinking, through the afternoon, his body working the proper motions, his mind elsewhere.
When it was quitting time, he told Callan he was leaving.
It was a gamble, but he was used to gambles. If Betty had let the forgery secret out, he probably would barely make it in the door, only to be thrown out by Gertie or hauled off summarily by either Mackie or Foley, vilified by Hilary in words that would be calculated to maim. If Betty had not told, there was still a chance that the job wouldn't be his. Someone else could win the audition. Or with a flick of her brow Betty could dismiss him from even trying out. Pruitt could forbid his hire.
And then of course he'd never acted beforeat least not professionally. But, thinking about it, what were all his cons but acting? When they went successfully, it was equivalent to Hilary in The Rivals. He'd been acting all his life, in front of schoolmates, co-workers, Aunt Agatha. Surely he could act on the airwaves.
He did wonder if he could work with Betty againand if he could ever regain any of the trust she had once put in him. That was the real long shot. If he was being honest with himself, it was about as likely as Aunt Aggie becoming President.
But at least this time he's be free of Victor Comstock's shadow. If he regained her friendship, he'd be judged on his own merits. A long shot indeed.
If it didn't work out, well, that would be the end of it. There would be no use in his staying in Pittsburgh any longer.
He was passing Rosenbaum Brothers' Haberdashers and stopped before the tall mirror they kept outside their door as a courtesy to passers by. He didn't look much like a radio actor right now. But with a shower, a shave, a fresh suit of clothes, the right attitude...who knew what could happen?
He grinned at the figure in the mirror.
"Piece of cake," he said.
Return to Linda's Remember WENN Fanfiction Page