Read an Excerpt
In Chicago, the snow was falling so hard that, although quite a few pedestrians saw the woman standing on the fire escape nine stories up, none were sure they recognized her. At first the woman leaned against the railing and looked down, as if calculating the odds of death from such a height. After a minute or two, though, when she hadn’t climbed the rail but had instead stepped back from it, most people who’d noticed her continued on their ways. She didn’t look ready to jump, so why keep watching? And how about this snow, they said. What the hell? It wasn’t supposed to snow like this in spring!
To the few who watched her a minute longer, it was conceivable that the woman in the black pants and white blouse could be the popular talk show host whose show was taped inside the building. Conceivable, but unlikely. Was Blue Reynolds’s hair that long? That dark? Why would Blue be standing there motionless on the fire escape, looking up into the sky? Such a sensible, practical dynamo of a person—she certainly wasn’t the type to catch snowflakes on her tongue, as this woman now appeared to be doing. And especially not when The Blue Rey nolds Show was going to start in twenty minutes. Tourists who’d hoped for last-minute tickets were right this second being turned away, the studio was full, please check the website for how to get tickets in advance.
This snow, coming two days after spring had officially begun, had the effect of bringing people throughout the city to windows and doorways—and to fire escapes, apparently. Though six to eight inches was forecasted, it was hard to begrudge snow like this, flakes so big that if you caught one on your sleeve, you could see the crystalline shape of it, perfect as a newborn baby’s hand. And with tomorrow’s temperatures rising into the fifties, what snow was piling up on railings and rooftops and ledges would melt away. It would be as if this remarkable snowfall had never happened at all. Much like the sighting of Blue—if in fact it was Blue—there outside her studio building’s ninth floor.
The black steel fire escape stood out against the buff-colored limestone, an add-on when the building got transformed from bank to apartments in 1953. Now that it housed offices again, its fire escape made balconies for those lucky enough to have access along with their downtown skyline views. Like a switchback trail, the escape descended from the twelfth-story rooftop to the second floor, with landings at each floor. The landing on which the woman stood was piled with a good three inches of snow, deep enough to close in on her ankles and soak the hem of black crepe pants. Her boots, Hugo Boss, lambskin, three-inch heels, were styled for fashion, not utility, and as she stood with her face upturned, she was vaguely aware that her feet were growing cold. Still, the pleasure of being pelted by snowflakes held her there. She could not recall the last time she’d been in, truly in, weather like this. And never alone, it seemed, and never focused, anymore, on the weather. Standing here, she had the exquisite feeling of being just one more anonymous Chicago dweller. Just a forty-ish woman on a fire escape in the snow, and not Blue Reynolds at all.
This snow made her want to be a child again so that, instead of going home to a bowl of Froot Loops eaten while she reviewed reports, she would be preparing to pull on snow pants and boots and head for the lighted hillside at the park, plastic saucer sled in tow. She would return home later soaking wet, with chapped red cheeks and frozen toes and a smile that would still be on her face when she woke the next morning. Was such a day a memory, she wondered, or a wish?
She knew the snowflakes must be wetting her just-styled hair, spotting her white silk blouse, Escada, she’d put it on not fifteen minutes earlier. These thoughts, they existed outside her somehow, far enough away that they didn’t motivate her to climb back inside her office window—even as today’s guests waited downstairs in the green room, nervous about meeting her. Even as the camera and lighting and sound and recording crews were gearing up for this last show of the week. Even as three hundred eager audience members were now taking their seats and would soon meet Marcy, Blue’s right hand, Marcy who managed her life, who would tell them what to expect on today’s show. They wouldn’t expect a snow-wet, distracted Blue Reynolds.
Still, even when she heard someone tapping the window to get her attention, she stood there squinting up into the whitened sky. One more minute. One more.
The tapping, again.
“I know, I’m coming,” she said.
Inside, the stylists and her producer and her assistants fluttered around her, clucking like outraged hens. What are you doing, it’s practically showtime! Look at that blouse! Are you sure you’re okay? No. She wasn’t okay, hadn’t been truly okay ever, that she could recall.
What expectation she saw on the faces of her studio audience when she took the stage! It wasn’t her they’d come to watch; she never lost sight of that. Because she was a regular person who argued with her mother, who cleaned hair from her shower drain so that the cleaning lady didn’t have to. She was a woman who failed to floss, who needed to clean out her purse, who paged through People at the dentist’s office, just like most of them. They were here to see the woman who, upon seeing that magazine, could then book whoever interested her and interview them on this very stage. They were here to see the woman who sometimes made the cover herself.
On today’s show were a sociologist, a high school superintendent, a Christian minister, and three teens—one boy and two girls. One of the girls was eight months pregnant. The topic was abstinence education.
In talking with Peter, TBRS’s producer, about this show, Blue had protested his suggestion that she open with an audience poll. Getting the audience involved in hot-button issues had in the past led to a Jerry Springer–like atmosphere she had to work hard to redirect. Peter said, yes, but think of the drama. “We want people to engage,” he said. “And not only because it’s good for ratings.” She agreed in part; engagement was the point of it all, or was supposed to be the point.
He continued, “You saw the latest numbers. We’re slipping—just a little, and obviously we’ll bring it back up, but if we lose our edge right now, we lose our contract renewal leverage.” Lower ratings also led to lower ad revenues, lower production budgets, more difficulty in booking guests who had the power to draw viewers—all of which then trickled down to lower salaries for everyone on her payroll. Lower salaries meant good people jumped onto newer, flashier, competing ships. Ultimately, she’d agreed to do the poll.
Standing at the front of the stage, she welcomed the audience. Three hundred faces of all skin tones and both genders watched her eagerly, fans from any and every place on Earth. Beyond, too, she sometimes suspected. While Marcy claimed there was an angel in every audience, Blue rather thought there was an alien, who would inevitably write in to rant about how offbase she’d been on a particular topic, even if that topic was the fifty best uses of phyllo.
“Let me introduce you to some typical teens,” Blue said, and the two teenage girls appeared from the wings to take their seats behind her. Indeed, both girls were typical-looking, with long brown hair and eye makeup and TV-modest clothing bearing popular-brand logos. Both girls were white.
Facing the audience, she said, “Kendra and Stacey—who is eight months pregnant—are seventeen-year-olds from intact middle-class families. Their parents are professionals. Both girls are B-students, involved in extracurricular activities”—this drew a chuckle from some of the audience—“and both have made preliminary plans to attend college. The main difference in these young women’s lives is that one of them attends a high school that follows an abstinence-only curriculum, and one attends a school where teenage sexuality is considered ‘normal’ and the students are educated accordingly. Abstinence is taught as one of several possible choices.
” She stepped down from the dais and walked to the lip of the stage. “With a show of hands: Which of you thinks Stacey, our pregnant teen, got the sex-is-normal message?”
About half of the audience raised hands.
“Now, who thinks Kendra did?”
Most of the other hands went up, as did the volume of voices, arguments already begun.
Blue waited a beat, resisting the urge to rub her face. Looking into Camera 4, she said, “The answer, when we come back.
” She allowed the rumbling to continue during the break, hoping the audience would get it out of the way now; things were not going to get better.
Taking a seat between the girls, she looked at each of their nervous faces. “Are you hanging in there?”
Kendra shrugged. Stacey shifted in her chair and smoothed her pink maternity top. “I’m okay, I guess,” she whispered.
In a moment, they were on-air again. Blue said, “With me today are Kendra and Stacey, Chicago-area teenagers who, like most of their peers, are dealing as best they can with the pressures of growing up in our increasingly sexualized culture.
“Before the break I polled the audience on which of these girls received the teen-sex-is-normal message from her school, and which was taught to abstain until marriage.” She looked at Camera 2: “Brad, give us that tight view—audience, watch the screen.
” She waited, knowing that on the screen behind her would be a close-up image of a girl’s left hand, on which there was a silver ring. Brad nodded, and Blue continued, “This is known as a purity ring, representing adherence to the abstinence ideal: a vow of chastity, a promise to wait for the right man—or woman, because some young men are wearing them, too—and marriage.
“Girls, raise your hands.
” Of the four hands now displayed, three were bare of jewelry, as they’d arranged ahead of time.
The silver glinted, of course, from Stacey’s left hand.
Amidst the reactions of surprise from many in the audience, and satisfaction from others, a skinny, dark-haired woman in the middle of the room stood up and yelled, “Sinner! Hypocrite! Take off that ring!”
Stacey’s face crumpled. “It’s not wrong! I love him,” she said, then burst into tears.
And before Blue could stop herself, she did, too.
After refereeing fifteen rounds between the sociologist and the minister—had Peter chosen such a closed-minded, sanctimonious old man on purpose?—Blue escaped the set the minute they were clear. Reverend Mark Masterson, a tall, self-serious man with heavy jowls and bottle-black hair, followed her backstage.
“Just what do you think you’re going to accomplish by telling teenage girls to go ahead and have sex?”
“Was that what I said?”
“You made that child out to be a hero.
” He’d made no secret of his disdain for the facts and the statistics, which were the substance of her supposed endorsement. Blue looked at him coolly. “And you made her out to be a whore—I’m sorry, ‘whoremonger’ was your word, wasn’t it? I thought you were a minister, but apparently you’re a judge."
He frowned down at her, his height giving him an illusion of superiority she was sure he made the most of. He said, “When I agreed to do this show, I was under the impression that you had a conscience.”
“And I was under the impression that someone who has committed to serving his community would at least attempt to do so.
” He straightened the lapels of his brown suit jacket and picked off a spot of lint. “These are children we’re talking about. They require firmness and absolutes to shut down ungodly urges. Romans chapter eight, verse thirteen, for example: ‘For if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’ ”
“So Stacey must die? That’s a reasonable punishment.”
“Now let’s not be ridiculous. The Bible permits a certain amount of interpretation.
” Blue nodded. “So true. Excuse me.” Giving him no chance to reply, she walked away quickly, shoulders pulled back, chin up, and shut herself in her dressing room. She’d known there would be no easy consensus on such a complex issue, but just once she would have liked to have the kind of powers needed to instantly transform a person like Masterson into a hormonal, love-struck teenage girl.
Blue was pulling off her boots when Marcy joined her, looking as fresh and enthused now, at four-fifteen, as she had at eight this morning. It was more than Marcy’s white-blond hair (“Of course it’s dyed,” she’d told a woman in the audience during a commercial break. “Nature doesn’t make this color…”), more than her flared-leg jeans and gray cashmere T-shirt. Marcy had what Blue’s mother Nancy Kucharski called “a dynamic aura,” grown even more dynamic since meeting Stephen Boyd, an industrial designer who was teaching Marcy ballroom dance. Passion created that aura, Nancy said. “It’s good for the complexion, and not bad for the rest of the body, either!” Blue had to take her word for it—and an experienced word it was.
“Good show,” Marcy said, as though things had gone just as well as the day before, when they’d hosted four champion dog breeders and four captivating puppies.
“Compared to what?” Blue stepped out of her pants and stripped off the substitute Escada blouse (there were two of everything, just in case) then put on gym gear and brown velour sweats. Or rather, a brown velour track suit, as they were being called again. The seventies were back, complete with Barry Manilow and Cat Stevens and Neil Diamond on the radio, which Blue didn’t mind so much. The songs were reminders of a time when she was young enough to believe she knew where she stood.
“I’m serious. Except for that little…outburst, you really kept things under control.”
Blue shook her head, still embarrassed. “I don’t know what that was about.” “Empathy, maybe.”
“Is Peter having a fit?”
“He’s too busy working on a spin strategy. Stacey’s still a mess though, poor thing.”
“I suspect she’s going to need therapy.”
“I did. I just didn’t get any."
Marcy reached behind Blue to straighten her hood. “Speaking of misguided youths, your mother called. She’s not coming to the Keys with us after all; she says she met someone and he wants her all to himself this weekend.”