Mixed Signalsby Liz Curtis Higgs
Belle O'Brien, the woman behind the warmest voice in Virginia radio, has one problem: her oldies show on WPER-FM is a solid-gold hit, but her love life, at thirty-two years and counting, is an off-the-billboard-charts disaster. The pickings are slim in small-town Abingdon. Will it be smooth-talking Patrick Reese, the man who launched her radio career a decade earlier?… See more details below
Belle O'Brien, the woman behind the warmest voice in Virginia radio, has one problem: her oldies show on WPER-FM is a solid-gold hit, but her love life, at thirty-two years and counting, is an off-the-billboard-charts disaster. The pickings are slim in small-town Abingdon. Will it be smooth-talking Patrick Reese, the man who launched her radio career a decade earlier? Moody but handsome David Cahill, the chief engineer with a mysterious past and a new life in Christ? Or Matthew the Methodist, her pastor across the street? Surrounded by an on-air cast of colorful characters, Belle's journey toward joy is filled with humor and heartbreak, surprises and disappointments. Norah Silver-Smith, her friend and encourager, will join Belle in discovering that it's never too late to listen to your heart.
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By LIZ CURTIS HIGGS
Multnomah PublishersCopyright © 1999 Liz Curtis Higgs
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFailure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.
Rainy days and Mondays never got Belle O'Brien down. Not when her radio listeners were waiting. "Hold On, I'm Coming," she sang out with off-key abandon. Sam and Dave had nothing on her, she decided, grinning, as she tucked her jeans inside her short leather boots.
She tamed her unruly hair into a thick braid that reached her waist, and darted out the apartment door. A chilly, mid-October downpour waited to greet her. Overnight, the rain had carelessly washed the leaves out of the maple trees lining Lake Shore Drive, plastering them across the pavement like small scarlet hands.
Belle was still humming when she spun the wheel of her Pontiac toward the station. Still humming when she tossed the keys toward Max, the parking lot attendant, and made a wet dash for the glass front doors of her radio station.
The doors with the famous call letters mounted above them.
Yup. There they were. W ... WT ... WTI ... W-what?
Her humming abruptly stopped as her heart lurched toward her boots, then snapped back with a sickening thud. Not again. Not this time.
Numb to the core, she stepped inside the reception area. Her umbrella was hanging open. So was her mouth.
"Belle!" Her general manager emerged from a huddle of men in suits and moved toward her. "You're just in time. We've ... made some major changes here."
She gulped. "Starting with the call letters?"
"Right." His smile was strained. "Welcome to WTIE, Chicago's All- Sports TIEbreaker."
Sports? Help, Lord! "I don't do sports," she croaked.
"You do now." He reassured her with a wink. "Come meet your new program director, Snap Davis."
She watched the circle of suits move toward her, all smiling, all talking at once. Her mouth had gone dry-past wool, past cotton, clear to the linen setting.
"There she is, gentlemen." One of the strangers clenched his cigar in a churlish grin. "The Belle of the Ball."
"The what? You have the wrong announcer, Skip ... ah ... Slap ... er ..."
His tobacco-stained smile broadened. "Call me Coach."
"Great." She fought for breath, struggling to get her bearings. Her eyes drifted to the walls covered with thirty years of bold signatures scrawled there by every musical act that had hit the Windy City, from Sam the Sham to Manfred Mann.
Wait. She blinked. They didn't! They couldn't!
But they had. Her heart sank another foot as she took in the newly painted walls, now a solid navy latex. All those signatures, all that history, all her history.
Slam-dunked out of existence.
The suits guided her toward a row of shiny lockers, one of which prominently displayed her name in block letters. BELLE. She did as expected and yanked open the narrow metal door, only to find the shelves stuffed with sports paraphernalia: a Chicago Bulls jersey, a Cubbies cap, two Bears coffee mugs, a Blackhawks hockey puck, and two tickets to a White Sox game.
The loathsome new call letters were printed on everything.
She shuddered at the sight and slapped the door shut, turning to find her new boss regarding her with amusement. "You've planned this for months, haven't you?"
"Smart girl." Her cigar-chewing coach looked infinitely pleased with himself. "Only took us six hours and a ton of manpower to make the switch last night. None of your golden oldie pals were right for the new format. But we've found the perfect spot for you, sweetheart."
"But where-where is everybody?" She knew. Of course she knew. Hadn't she been down this road before?
"Nothing to worry your pretty head about, Belle. The rest of the staff received a generous severance check."
"And the contents of their desk in a box, I suppose."
He shrugged. "Ten years in broadcasting, isn't that right, Miss O'Brien? You've been around. You know how it works. Frankly, if you weren't a woman-"
One of the suits delivered a sharp elbow to his ribs.
"A talented woman, that is, you'd be looking for work along with the rest of them. As it is, Belle, we're delighted to keep you on the payroll as WTIE's official announcer. Commercial spots, sports scores, station IDs, all yours, ready to record."
Why, oh why, on this of all mornings, hadn't she listened to the station on the way to work? Instead of walking in clueless, she could have steered onto 94 South and kept driving.
The production director chimed in. "Yeah, we're looking for a sexy, breathy sound, Belle. Higher-pitched than your normal on-air voice. Kind of like ... like ..."
Her stomach tightened, desperation setting in. "Like Betty Boop?"
"That's it!" the suits sang out in unison.
She knew what she wanted to do. What every fiber of her being insisted that she deserved to do. Tell Mr. Slap Happy to stuff his cigar in his cauliflower ear. Bulk-erase every inch of tape in the wretched place. Plant that hockey puck between her general manager's chattering, chicken-livered lips.
That's what she wanted to do. And more.
But what she did-what she had to do-was choke down the huge lump in her throat and accept the inevitable.
She had no choice. Single, living alone in an expensive city, she needed the money. They wanted Betty Boop? They got her.
All week long, she marched into the recording booth, put aside her pride, and squealed like a teenager on helium.
All night long, she sobbed herself to sleep.
Five stations in ten years, Lord! Her life was like a broken record. The Shirelles singing, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?-tomorrow?-tomorrow?"
Five times she'd stuffed everything she owned into a moving van and headed for a new horizon-Kingsport, Richmond, Atlanta, Philadelphia, then, two years ago, Chicago.
Five times she'd prayed this would be the one. Home.
Five times she'd had her dreams trampled by new management, new formats, and men very obviously from Mars who had no idea how oldies radio worked.
Finally, Friday afternoon, after a depressing hour of heavy breathing and squeaking in the production studio, she pulled on her green wool coat and started toward the front door, her feet and spirits dragging.
"Belle." She turned to see the receptionist signaling her. "Line three is for you. Pick it up in Snap's office if you like. He's already left for the Sox game."
She ducked into his crowded corner office, wrinkling her nose at the stale cigar smell that permeated the air, and perched on the edge of his chair. Clearing her throat as if an imaginary On Air light had blinked to attention, she cradled the receiver against her ear and punched the third button. "Hello, this is Belle."
"Sorry about the format switch, babe." The male voice was warm, familiar, empathetic.
"Patrick!" She tightened her grip on the phone. "You heard about it, then?"
"Everybody heard about it, Belle. It was in all the trades today. Front page of Radio & Records. And above the fold, no less. Big story with a photo of the staff."
Her throat suddenly felt drier than melba toast. "The staff? Before or after?"
"Before." His voice softened. "You looked great, kid. Major-market material. Have I ever told you how proud I am of you?"
Patrick Reese, her first boss in broadcasting, always knew the right thing to say. She felt herself relax for the first time in days. "We haven't talked since you moved to San Diego. How's that working out?"
His masculine hoot was all the answer she needed.
"Guess it's my turn to say sorry, Patrick. What happened?"
"The owner insisted we'd score big in the ratings with around-the-clock Christmas music. In July."
She grinned. Good old radio. "So where are you now?"
Faint images of a small town tucked in the southwest corner of Virginia drifted through her mind. "I've been there." Her memories swirled into focus. "A bunch of us from Appalachian State took a carload there one summer for the Virginia Highlands Festival. Very historic, as I remember. Quaint." She chuckled. "Not exactly a radio town."
"Precisely why I'm here, woman."
"Let me guess." She sighed, so weary she could hardly think. "You have a job offer I can't possibly refuse."
"More than that."
She sensed him pausing for effect, imagined him leaning back, leather loafers propped up on a secondhand desk, the sleeves of his striped sport shirt rolled up to the elbows showing off his tanned, muscular arms. Casual. Confident. In control.
"I have the one thing you've always longed for, kid."
"Is that a fact?" And don't call me kid, she wanted to say. He was only a dozen years older than she. Forty-four to her thirty-two. Kid? Buddy, those days were long gone.
Wait. She frowned. What "one thing" had she always longed for?
Surely he wasn't aware of that silly crush she'd had on him all those years ago? She had been a kid then, green as April grass in the Carolinas. They'd kept in touch over the years, simply because they were friends. Right? Just friends?
There was one way to find out. "W-what thing have I longed for, exactly?"
"Acting what?" Foolish, she chided herself.
"Belle, I'm talking about theater. Acting on stage. You know, drama? You majored in it, remember?"
"Oh, that!" Relieved, she grinned into the phone. "Of course I remember. Truth is, I haven't tramped the boards since you lured me away to WTFM."
"I can fix that. Abingdon has a restored playhouse-"
"Barter Theatre!" Of course. The State Theatre of Virginia. "Patricia Neal played that stage."
"And Gregory Peck and Ned Beatty and ... Belle O'Brien?"
"Hmm. It does have a nice ring to it. What shows are they doing this season?"
"Aha! So you might be interested in Abingdon and WPER."
"WPER, huh? Who's the owner?"
"Uhh ... I am." He cleared his throat. "WPER stands for Patrick Edward-"
"Reese!" She chimed in with him, laughing.
He groaned. "I know, I know, it's an ego thing." The man sounded genuinely embarrassed. "The call letters were available so I couldn't resist. Forgive me?"
A warm sensation skipped along her spine. She'd forgotten how much she loved sparring with him. "At least I won't have to worry about whether or not the owner likes me."
His tone was more subdued. "No, you won't have to worry about that at all."
Was it her imagination, or was the ground shifting?
"Uh, Patrick, I ... I really do need to think about ... things. When do you need an answer?"
His manner was all business now. "The station goes on the air the third of November. I'll need you here by the first." He launched into a description of the format, the hours, the staff he'd lined up, barreling along with his persuasive salesman patter.
After five nonstop minutes, she jumped in. "Slow down, mister! I've heard this song-and-dance before." She swallowed, determined to make him see what this career was costing her. "Don't you get it? I have a car with Illinois tags and a Pennsylvania driver's license and a North Carolina savings account with exactly twenty-nine dollars in it."
A week's worth of frustration came rushing out of her, sweeping her along in its emotional wake. The tears she'd wept alone at home now showed up in Snap's corner office, unbidden. "Patrick, I'm thirty-two years old and I have nothing. N-not a house, not a husband, not a child, not even a decent dining room set." She sniffed, looking wildly about her for a tissue. "I have friends all over the country, but not one person I could call at four in the morning."
"You could call me."
"W-what?" With her eyes and nose running, she stared at the edge of her wool scarf, desperation growing.
"You could call me. At four in the morning." The phone line hummed between them. "I'm single, too, remember, kid?"
"You probably snore and wouldn't hear the phone ring," Belle muttered, pouncing on an ancient tissue tucked down in her coat pocket. With her tears quickly dried and voice steadied, she begrudgingly offered an apology. "I'm sorry to sound like a shrew. I'm absolutely-"
"Exhausted. I know, babe, and I'm sorry to pressure you after a week like this." The sympathy sounded genuine. Patrick was her mentor, after all, her confidant.
There had never been anything more between them. She was certain there wouldn't be now.
"Look, I'll get back to you," she promised vaguely, then hung up the phone before she realized she didn't have his number. Should I have asked for it?
She couldn't deny his offer was tempting. Oldies music, the midday show, small town, smaller egos, no more competition for ratings, the thrill of a brand-new station, the chance to pursue theater.
The chance to work with Patrick again.
"Oh, Lord ..." She sighed into the smoky air around her. "I don't know whether to sing a chorus of 'You've Made Me So Very Happy' or 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore.'"
Patrick dropped the receiver in its cradle with a sigh of satisfaction and exchanged glances with his engineer, standing across from him in the production studio.
"Is she coming?"
David Cahill, radio engineer, construction crew, and all-around handyman, rested his lanky frame in the doorway, arms folded across his chest, one shoulder propped on the salvaged door frame he'd installed and painted only days earlier. He regarded his boss, bemused. "Are you sure that's what she said?"
Patrick shrugged. "She may need some time to adjust to the idea of small-market radio again." Patrick nodded at the felt-topped turntables, one of the many scratch-and-dent specials he'd dragged up to their third-floor studios. Someday it'd be digital equipment, he'd promised David. Today it was electronic leftovers.
"I'll warn you, David, these turntables will make her nervous."
"Why? Hasn't she ever played vinyl records on the air?"
"She's played 'em, all right. At WTFM in Kingsport, she was interviewing a world-class pianist who was in town to perform a benefit concert for the Bach Society. Belle cued up his latest album to the famous 'Minute Waltz.' You know the song?"
"As soon as the first note hit the air, this highbrow lowlife flung himself across the console, calling her every name in the book. Poor Belle had forgotten to change the turntable setting, so instead of 33 1/3 RPM, the album was moving along at a zippy 45 RPM."
"Ahh." David grinned. "More of a 'Half-Minute Waltz,' eh?"
"Right. 'The Chipmunks Go Classical.' It was hysterical."
"Did she think so?"
"Eventually." Patrick smiled, recalling her crimson cheeks. "Belle is an ambitious gal who doesn't cut herself a lot of slack. Always wanted to make it big. Sure enough, she did."
"Then what happened?"
Patrick sighed. "I'll let her tell you about that when she gets here. And she will get here, trust me. I taught Belle everything she knows about this business. I'm the one who convinced her the jingle singers couldn't handle 'Belinda Oberholtzer' and changed her on-air name to 'Belle O'Brien.'"
"O'Brien? Sounds Irish."
"She's redheaded and stubborn enough to hail from County Clare, I can assure you of that." An image of Belle suddenly came to Patrick's mind-small hands on hips, eyes snapping at him, freckled face scrunched up in dramatic disagreement about one thing or another. Probably a song she refused to play on her show.
He smiled at the vivid memory. "O'Brien's her name now, legally and professionally. Since I gave Belle her first radio job in Kingsport, I figure she owes me."
But not for Kingsport. For Richmond. For the job that took her away from me.
Patrick felt his smile fade and his chest constrict. Mailing that demo tape of Belle to WRVQ in Richmond eight years ago was the hardest thing he'd ever done. It had cost him dearly, and not only in rating points. He'd sent it anonymously, knowing WRVQ would hear her talent in the first sixty seconds and make her an offer she could not-must not-refuse.
Excerpted from Mixed Signals by LIZ CURTIS HIGGS Copyright © 1999 by Liz Curtis Higgs. Excerpted by permission.
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