| My Hero |
By Mary McBride
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I don't believe in heroes." "Holly, for crissake." Mel Klein wanted to tear out his hair. What was left of it anyway after thirty-five years in television news production. "Do you want to be a producer or not?"
He was bellowing. Okay. He couldn't help it. No more than he could keep his blood pressure from skyrocketing. He'd just spent the entire morning with the idiots in charge of programming for the VIP Channel, pleading Holly Hicks' case, practically begging Arnold Strong and Maida Newland to give his assistant a chance to produce a single segment for Hero Week.
One lousy hour out of the seven hundred they were projecting for the coming year. Forty-eight minutes of actual footage if you figured in commercials.
He'd sung Holly's praises, handed out copies of her creatively padded resume, passed her picture around, and popped in one of her tapes. With over three decades in the broadcast news business, Mel knew talent when he saw it, he told them. Holly Hicks had a real flair for putting together a story. She could write an opening sentence that nailed the average viewer to his BarcaLounger. Her sense of timing was impeccable. Her sense of balance was right on. She had a rare eye and an intuitive appreciation for the blended power of pictures and words. All morning he'd virtually tap danced on the big teak conference table on the nineteenth floor. He had a headache now, not to mention carpet lint on his knees and elbows from practically prostrating himself between Arnold on his frigging treadmill and Maida in her black leather, NASA-endorsed, ergonomic executive chair.
Then, just as he was about to toss his next raise and his firstborn grandson into the bargain, the idiots said yes. They said yes!
He'd nearly given himself a coronary rushing back to his office to tell her the news. And now Holly-the Holly who'd been on his ass ever since the day she walked into the building three years ago in one of her itty-bitty, primly tailored, "This is how a producer looks" suits-the Holly who wheedled and needled and wouldn't let go of her smoldering desire to produce anything-I'll do anything, Mel. Any-thing!- the Holly who left homemade, but not half-bad demo tapes on his desk every Monday morning-that Holly was blithely telling him she didn't believe in heroes. He bellowed again. "Do you want to be a goddamn producer or not?"
"Of course I want to be a producer. It's all I've ever wanted to be." Her chin came up like a little Derringer aimed at the frazzled knot in his tie. "I just thought I should be up front about my prejudices, that's all." "Fine. Great." He waved his hands like a maniac. "Hey, I don't believe in Santa Claus, but that didn't keep me from producing 'Christmas Around the World,' did it?" "No."
"I don't believe in capital punishment either, but I still did a helluva job on 'Drake's Last Meal,' right?" "Right."
"Well, then . . ." Mel Klein planted his hands on the top of her desk and leaned forward, lowering his voice, allowing himself to grin for maybe the third or fourth time in his grouchy life. "You got it, kid." Her pretty little face lit up. Two hundred watts at least. "I got it!"
Then-Cut!-the light went out. "Mel, I think I'm going to be sick." In the ladies' room, Holly Hicks splashed cold water on her face, then slowly lifted her gaze to the mirror above the sink, hoping to find Joan Crawford staring back at her. Big-shouldered. Yeah. Hard as a diamond. Tough as nails. Or Bette Davis-even better-with her bold, unblinking eyes. Madonna would be good. Instead Holly saw herself.
She shook her head and watched her strawberry blond bangs rearrange themselves in a series of sodden spikes on her forehead. She was hardly big-shouldered. In fact, at five foot three inches, she wasn't even tall enough for her shoulders to be reflected in the glass. As for her eyes, rather than bold and unblinking, they were a pale green, smudged with mascara at the moment, and the left one was definitely twitching.
God. She'd waited her whole life for a chance like this. If not her whole life, then at least since she was twelve. While the other little girls in Sandy Springs, Texas, drooled over Donny Osmond, Holly had been a 60 Minutes groupie in love alternately with Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace. But she didn't want to kiss them. She wanted to produce them. It was why she'd come to New York in the first place. Not once had she taken her eyes off the prize.
Not while growing up in a house where watching the news was considered a foolish waste of time, where reading was deemed eccentric at best, subversive more often than not. What's that you're reading, girl? A Separate Peace? Some kind of Commie Pinko story, I'll betcha. Lemme see that.
Not while attending a high school where her nickname was El Cerebro, or The Brain, in a school where beauty and brawn were prized over intelligence, where the football coach was the only PhD on the faculty, and where her classmates put far more effort into getting laid than getting an education.
Not while filling out reams of scholarship forms each year at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism or practically indenturing herself every semester to the campus bookstore.
Not while working her way east for so many years at so many stations she could have thrown darts at the alphabet and come up with the call letters of at least one of her employers. Not through downsizing, takeovers, cutbacks, drawbacks, freezes, firings, new regimes, old boys' clubs, pink slips, and innumerable sorrys and so longs.
Hers had been the great American migration in reverse. Go east, young woman, go east. With her journalism degree hot in her hands, Holly had crossed the wide Missouri and the mighty Mississippi to a station in Peoria, Illinois, where the phrase "entry level" meant being solely responsible for a temperamental, two-pot Bunn-o-matic. Across the moonlit Wabash, in Terre Haute, she graduated to a three-pot coffee machine. Ohio took a while to traverse, and a lot of coffee, from Cincinnati to Columbus to Canton. In Wheeling, West Virginia, she'd actually been Acting News Director for two days before they brought somebody in from outside. She spent a winter in Buffalo that lasted a millennium. One wet spring in Syracuse. Then she'd bided her time in Albany before crossing the Hudson and hitting the Big Apple at the ripe old age of twenty-eight.
Here at the VIP Channel, Holly had finally found a mentor in Mel Klein, a man who not only appreciated her abilities, but who also supported her goals. A man of uncommon generosity in this notoriously cutthroat business. You got it, kid.
"I got it," she repeated now as her adrenaline surged again and her heart began to race with a weird combination of high-flying excitement and lowdown fear. "Breathe, dammit." She sucked in a huge breath and held it while she kept her eyes closed. She counted to ten, slowly letting the air out through pursed lips, telling herself there was no one at the station, no one in New York, and probably no one on the planet more ready for this assignment than she was.
Then she opened her eyes, and there she was. Holly Hicks. Producer. Hot damn.
"You sure you're okay?" Mel asked her. "You want to take the afternoon off and we'll go over this tomorrow?" "Not on your life. Are those the production notes for Hero Week?"
"Yep." He slid the folder across the top of his desk, somehow managing to avoid a calendar, a tower of pink while-you- were-out notes, an electric razor, three empty coffee cups, and a bottle of Maalox. Bless his heart. Mel's little office was an oasis of friendly clutter in the otherwise sterile chrome and glass headquarters of the VIP Channel. Holly held the dark blue binder a moment before she opened it, then she read the first page with its list of the five heroes Programming had chosen for the special week. Other than Neil Armstrong, she didn't recognize a single name. "Who are these people?" she asked. "Who's Al Haynes?" The springs of Mel's chair creaked as he leaned back. "He was the pilot of United Flight 232. Remember? The plane that pinwheeled down the runway in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989?"
"Oh, sure. Good choice," she said. Great footage! "Thelma Schuyler Brooks is the woman who started the music school on the Wolf River Reservation in Arizona, and now has at least one student in every major orchestra in the country."
"Okay." Holly was thinking she'd have to work closely with her sound man on that one, not to mention brush up on her Beethoven.
"Howard Mrazek is the NYPD hostage negotiator who saved all those people a couple years ago during the standoff at the Chemical Bank."
"Mm," Holly murmured as her eyes drifted further down the page. "Who in the world is Calvin Griffin?" "The Secret Service agent who took the bullet for the President last year. He's your hero." "Excuse me?"
"He's your hero, Holly. He's your guy. That's the segment Arnold and Maida want you to produce." "I'd rather do Haynes," she said. She was already imagining how she could use repetition of that fiery runway footage to come up with a really dramatic piece. Hadn't they been in the air a long time, flying touch and go, trying to bring that sucker down? Had Haynes flown in Viet Nam? Was the crash footage in public domain? What was her budget? Her mind was going ninety miles an hour, so she was barely aware of Mel's reply. She knew he'd said something, though, because the little office was still reverberating from his growl.
"You're doing Calvin Griffin," Mel said. "You don't have a choice, kid. That's what Arnold and Maida want. Griffin's how I sold them on the idea in the first place." She glanced down at the name on the page. "What do you mean?"
"I mean because you're both from Texas. Because you know the territory. You speak the language." Holly wanted to laugh, but it would have come out high and maniacal, like a person being carted off to an asylum. She didn't know the territory. She hadn't been back to Texas in over a decade. Thank God. As for speaking the language, she'd had six months of very expensive lessons with a voice coach in Cincinnati in an attempt to bury her accent. She hadn't said y'all in years.
"I do not speak the language, Mel." She rolled her eyes. "When was the last time we went out to lunch and you heard me tell the waiter bring me a slab of baby back ribs and a big ol' beer?"
Her mentor narrowed his eyes. "When was the last time you didn't have to remind yourself not to ask for mayo on pastrami?"
He was right, of course, and Holly could feel her lips flatten in a thin, stubborn line. Why couldn't she have been born to a lovely couple in Connecticut, instead of Bobby Ray and Crystal Hicks of Sandy Springs, Texas?
"Hey. Come on, kid. The accent's cute. Refreshing." Mel's chuckle was just obscene. "Plus it got you the job. Not to mention an all-expense-paid trip back home." "Where I get to interview some good ol' boy who got shot just doing his job," she added glumly. "Take it or leave it, kid."
Well, of course, she was going to take it. Hollis Mae Hicks might have been a rube, as Mel had so deftly pointed out, but her mother hadn't raised a fool. Which wasn't to say that Crystal Hicks hadn't tried to raise one or done her damnedest to quash her daughter's unquashable broadcast dreams. Even as Holly was filling out the application for the Journalism School at the University of Missouri, her mother was waving a brochure from the Bi-County School of Cosmetology under her nose. "Mama, please."
"Do you know how much Marsha Stiles makes in a good week at her shop? A bundle, that's how much. She sets her own hours, too. If she wants to take off for Padre Island in the middle of the week, by God, she does it. Beats me why anybody as smart as you would turn up her nose at a career like that. Just fill out the application. They're picky, Marsha says. You might not even get in."
Holly got in, of course. To the Bi-County School of Cosmetology as well as the University of Missouri's School of Journalism. When she chose the latter, her mother had washed her hands of "so-called" higher education. Being no fool, Holly left work half an hour early in order to stop at the Gap on her way home. Maybe she didn't speak the language anymore or know the territory, but she still had a pretty firm handle on the couture of South Texas, where dressing for success meant wearing clean jeans and a T-shirt with no obscenities printed on it.
She couldn't produce a story if she couldn't get that story in the first place, and she doubted anybody in Calvin Griffin's hometown of Honeycomb, Texas, would be very forth-coming to a woman in a banker's gray chalk-stripe suit. So, after wriggling into a pair of sandblasted, five-pocket, overpriced denims, she plucked two more just like them off a pile, gathered up an assortment of T-shirts, and then handed her credit card to the clerk.
"I'm going to Texas tomorrow," she said with a slight roll of her eyes, feeling compelled to justify not only her taste in apparel, but the sheer magnitude of it, as well. "Yee-hah," was all the salesgirl said as she proceeded to scan and bag the clothes.
Holly signed the receipt, vaguely wondering if it was Thoreau who cautioned wariness of any endeavor that required new clothes. Obviously Henry David had never been sent to Honeycomb, Texas, on assignment. But, hey, with a name like that, he would have fit right in with all the Billy Joes and the Jim Bobs. Come to think of it, there had been a Henry David in her class in Sandy Springs. Henry David Thibault, otherwise known as T-bone. Good God. She hadn't thought of him in years.
Since it was only a few blocks from the Gap to her one-bedroom sublet on East 59th, Holly decided to walk. It was late spring with the temperature a perfect seventy-five degrees. There was a swath of blue sky above her and even the pavement beneath her feet seemed cleaner than usual this afternoon. Still, dirty or clean, gray skies or blue, she loved Manhattan. She'd been here for three years and it still amazed her that within a ten- or twelve-block radius of her cramped little apartment was ...well ...everything, including the United Nations and Simon & Garfunkel's Feelin' Groovy bridge.
To celebrate-the promotion, not the upcoming trip-she stopped at a liquor store along the way for a split of champagne. "I just got promoted to executive producer," she told the clerk, whose reply was either a muttered lucky you or fuck you. It was hard telling which from the man's deadpan expression. After that, she splurged on take-out from Ming's, then kicked herself the last half block for neglecting to ask Mel if a raise went along with the promotion. At last, entering the lobby of her building, she smiled cheerfully at the terminally crabby doorman and called out, "I'll be out of town for a week or so, Hector. Could you keep an eye on my mailbox?"
Holly took his grunt for a yes, and then, even though she could have ascended on her own, newly acquired executive producer wings, she took the elevator up to her tiny twelfth-floor apartment.
She courted sleep that night the same way she had every night since she was twelve years old, by packaging a story in her head. She did it all-the producing, the writing, the reporting-with the exception of the camera work, which, since about 1992, had been handled by an imaginary cameraman named Rufus who, for some unknown reason, had gone through three imaginary wives in the past eleven years. Sometimes Holly would do a re-take of a story she'd seen on the news that day, and she'd craft an opening sentence that blew the actual televised one out of the water, then she'd get better sound bites, each of them guaranteed to play forever in broadcast archives. Other times she'd invent murders or scandals or disasters, but the creative effort of doing that usually got her so jazzed that she couldn't fall asleep at all. Sometimes the voiceover in her head was in Charles Kuralt's plummy tones. Sometimes it was in Jane Pauley's crisp, Midwestern, no-nonsense voice. Most of the time, though, it was Holly's own voice, minus any residue of drawl.
Tonight she had Rufus panning Honeycomb High School, a single story, distinctly ugly, Texas-Danish modern building of fake stone and glass erected in the '50s to replace the old, red brick two-story school that had stood on the site since 1896.
As Rufus panned in on the portable marquee in front of the building-Honeycomb High School, Home of the Hornets-Holly voiced over.
Despite appearances, tradition runs deep at Honeycomb High, where the great-great grandchildren of... Cut.
She flopped over on her side, swore softly, and jammed the pillow under her ear. There probably was no Honeycomb High. Not anymore. It had probably gone the way of Sandy Springs High, consolidating with Gardenville and Cholla and Roper and Spurge, to become the Bi-County Consolidated High. Okay.
Rufus panned Main Street, closing in on the limestone court house in the town square. Holly voiced over, maybe with the merest hint of a drawl for effect, assuming she had any hint of a drawl at all.
Heroes are hard to come by here in Honeycomb. In 1874 they hanged Horace McGinty for stealing two horses, one for himself and one for his neighbor's wife. Sixty years later, in 1934, the notorious Bonnie and Clyde stopped just south of here. . .
Cut. Wait. A person could make a pretty cogent argument that Bonnie and Clyde were heroes in their own perverse fashion, which made heroes even harder to come by, assuming they existed at all.
Holly sighed as she punched her pillow and kicked the covers off her feet.
Rufus, yawning, panned over a vast, flat landscape, roughened by mesquite and prickly pear and the occasional live oak. A pickup truck spewed dust in its wake. An armadillo bumbled along the side of the road. And nary a hero in sight.
Excerpted from My Hero , by Mary McBride . Copyright (c) 2003 by Mary Myers. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top