(Not where he should be, of course, not where he belonged, but sometimes one mistake could ruin a man.)
He’d be someone again.
For the last fifteen years, he’d worked his ass off, making progress in steps too small to be seen by the human eye. In a series of shitty little towns, he’d paid for his mistakes. Today, finally, he had a decent opportunity, a chance to get back into the game. There was no way in hell he was going to drop the ball.
He got out of bed and immediately winced in pain. This damp climate played hell with his knees. Grimacing, he limped toward the bathroom. As usual, he had to walk over fabric samples and paint chips and open magazines. Birdie had been "redoing" their bedroom for months now, planning every move as if she were the defensive coordinator in a Super Bowl game. It was the same story in the dining room. Stuff heaped in every corner, waiting for that rarest of moments: his wife actually making a decision.
He had already showered and shaved when Elizabeth stumbled into the room, tightening the thick cotton belt on her bathrobe.
"Morning," she said with a yawn. "God, I feel like crap. I think I’m getting a cold. You’re up early."
He felt a flash of disappointment that she’d forgotten. "Today’s the day, Birdie. I’m driving up to Seattle for that interview."
A tiny frown tugged at her brow; then she obviously remembered. "Oh, yeah. I’m sure you’ll get the job."
In the old days, Birdie would have pumped up his ego, assured him that it would all work out in the end, that he was destined for greatness. But she’d grown tired in the past few years; they both had. And he’d failed to land so many jobs over the years, no wonder she’d stopped believing in him.
He’d tried like hell to pretend he was happy here in Oregon, that all he wanted out of life was to be the noon sports anchor, covering mostly high-school sports in a midsized market. But Birdie knew he merely tolerated living in this nothing town on the edge of a barely-there city. He even hated being a mid-level celebrity. All it served to do was remind him of who he used to be.
She gave him a perfunctory smile. "More money will be great, especially with the girls in college."
"You can say that again."
Then she looked up at him. "Will the job make everything better, Jack?"
Her question sucked the air from his lungs. God, he was tired of this discussion. Her endless quest for the answer to what’s wrong with our lives was exhausting. Years ago, he’d tried to tell her that all her happiness shouldn’t depend on him. He’d watched as she’d given up more and more of herself. He couldn’t stop it, or didn’t stop it, but somehow it had become all his fault. He was sick to death of it. "Not today, Elizabeth."
She gave him the sudden, hurt look that he’d come to expect. "Of course. I know it’s a big day for you."
"For us," he said, getting angry now.
Her smile was too bright to be real. "I picked a place for us to celebrate your new job."
The sudden change in subject was their way of smoothing over the rough spots in their marriage. He could have stayed angry, forced a discussion, but what was the point? Birdie didn’t fight back and there was nothing new to say. "Where?"
"There’s a bear camp in Alaska. A place where you fly in and stay in tents and watch the grizzly bears in their natural environment. I saw an interview with the owner–Laurence John–on the Travel Channel."
He unwrapped the towel from his waist and slung it haphazardly across the edge of the bathtub. Naked, he turned and headed into the walk-in closet, where he grabbed a pair of underwear, stepped into them, and turned to her. "I thought you were going to say dinner at the Heathman and dancing in the Crystal Ballroom."
She moved hesitantly toward him. He noticed that she was twisting her wedding ring–a nervous habit from way back. "I thought maybe if we could get away . . . have an adventure . . ."
He knew what she was thinking, and it wouldn’t work. A new location was no more than a different stage upon which to act out the same old scenes, say the same old lines. Still, he touched her face gently, hoping his cynicism didn’t show. There was nothing he hated more than hurting her, although she’d grown so fragile in the past few years that protecting her emotions was an impossible task. "The bear camp sounds great. Do we get to share a sleeping bag?"
She smiled. "That can be arranged."
He pulled her against him, holding her close. "Maybe we could celebrate right here in our own bed when I get home."
"I could wear that Victoria’s Secret thing you got me."
"I won’t be able to concentrate all day." He kissed her. It was long and sweet, a kiss full of promise. The kind of kiss he’d almost forgotten. For a split second, he remembered how it used to be between them, back in the days when sex was unbelievably good. When spending the day in bed seemed like a perfect idea.
As he pulled back from her, he looked down into her beautiful, smiling face. Once, not all that long ago, they’d loved each other unconditionally. He missed those days, those emotions.
Maybe everything really could change for them today.
Traffic in Seattle was stop-and-go. Jack couldn’t believe the number of cars on the freeway. The city was a study in gray, shrouded in mist, buttressed by concrete. Even Lake Union was rainy-day dull today. Every few minutes came the honk of a horn and the screech of rubber on wet pavement.
He loved the hustle and bustle of it all. The energy. It was the first time he’d been in a city-on-the-go in a while. The tech industry had given Seattle a hipness, an edge that it never used to have.
He drove across the floating bridge. He hadn’t been here in years, probably not since his college days at the University of Washington. The changes were amazing.
In the seventies, Bellevue had begun life as a bedroom community for commuters who wanted a rural lifestyle. Families settled in clumps, buying matching tri-level homes in cul-de-sacs with names like RainShadow Glen and Marvista Estates. Thick black asphalt had been rolled in four-lane strips from east to west and north to south. Before the streets had even dried, the strip malls popped up. Flat-topped, white-sided shoebox buildings that huddled beneath the neon glare of their own signage. For years, the suburb grew unchecked; by the late eighties, it looked like southern California.
Then the Internet exploded. Microsoft and Immunex moved into this sprawl of tract homes and suddenly a city was needed. A place that the growing number of hip, young millionaires could call home. The changes came as fast as the money did. Strip malls gave way to beautiful, themed shopping centers. Trendy restaurants offered alfresco dining on concrete, under umbrellaed tables. Barnes and Noble built a flagship superstore in the old bowling alley.
At the corner of Main Street and 106th stood an imposing and ornate building, a sleek combination of concrete and glass with a trendy rococo facade at the entrance. It was a perfect representation of the "new" Bellevue–expensive, brash, and trendy, with just enough atrium space to display its northwest roots.
Jack parked on the street out front. He sat in the quiet car for a minute, gathering his confidence, then he headed into the building. On the seventeenth floor, he quickly adjusted his silk tie–more out of habit than any real fashion sense–and stepped into the expansive brass and glass reception area.
He thought, You’re Jumpin’ Jack Flash. They’d be lucky to get you; then walked up to the desk.
The receptionist smiled brightly. "May I help you?"
"Jackson Shore to see Mark Wilkerson."
"One moment, please." She picked up the phone and announced him. After she hung up, she said, "Have a seat. Someone will be with you shortly."
He sat down on the sleek red leather sofa in the waiting room. A few moments later, a woman walked toward him. She was tall and thin–nice body. The gold jewelry at her throat glittered in the overhead fluorescent lighting. She offered her hand. "It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Shore. I’m Lori Hansen. My dad always said that you were the best quarterback the NFL ever had. Well, you and Joe, of course."
"This way, please."
Jack followed her down a wide, marble-floored corridor. There were people everywhere, clustered in pods around the copiers and doorways. A few smiled at him as he passed; more ignored him.
Finally, they reached their destination–a closed door. She knocked softly and opened it.
Jack closed his eyes for a split second and visualized success–Jumpin’ Jack Flash–then smiled confidently.
The man behind the desk was older than Jack had expected–maybe seventy or more. "Jackson," he said, rising, extending his hand.
They shook hands.
"Have a seat," Mark said, indicating the chair in front of his huge, mahogany desk.
Jack sat down.
Mark did not. He stood on the other side of the desk, seeming to take up an inordinate amount of space. In a black Armani suit, Wilkerson was an industry prototype for authority and power, both of which he’d been wielding so long his hands were probably calloused. His was the largest independent production company in the northwest.
Finally, he sat down. "I’ve seen your tapes. You’re good. I was surprised at how good, actually."
"It’s been, what, fifteen years since you played for the Jets?"
"Yeah. I blew out my knee. As I’m sure you know, I led my team to back-to-back Super Bowl wins."
"And you’re a Heisman winner. Yes," Mark said, "your past triumphs are quite impressive."
Was there the slightest emphasis on past, or had Jack imagined that? "Thank you. I’ve paid my dues in local broadcasting, as you can see from my resume. Ratings in Portland have gone up considerably in the two years I’ve been at the station." He bent down and reached for his briefcase. "I’ve taken the liberty of outlining some ideas for your show. I think it can be dyn**ite."
"What about the drugs?"
Just like that, he knew it was over. "That was a long time ago." He hoped he didn’t sound defeated. "When I was in the hospital, I got hooked on painkillers. The networks gave me a big chance–Monday Night Football–and I blew it. I was young and stupid. But it won’t happen again. I’ve been clean for years. Ask my previous employers. They’ll stand up for my work ethic."
"We’re not a huge company, Jack. We can’t afford the kind of scandals and disappointments that are standard operating procedure at the networks. The truth is you’re damaged goods. I don’t see how I can risk my success on you."
Jack wished he could be the man he’d once been. That man would have said, Cram your shit-ass little TV program up your wrinkly white ass. Instead, he said, "I can do a good job for you. Give me a chance." Each word tasted black and bitter on his tongue, but a man with a mortgage, a dwindling stock portfolio, and two daughters in college had no choice.
"I’m sorry," Mark said, though he didn’t look it.
"Why did you bother to interview me?"
"My son remembers you from the UW. He thought a face-to-face meeting would change my mind about you." He almost smiled. "But my son has substance abuse issues of his own. Of course he’d believe in giving a man a second chance. I don’t."
Jack picked up his briefcase. He used to think that losing football was rock bottom, the damp basement of his existence. It had been what sent him reaching for a bottle of pills in the first place.