“Charlie!” the producer yelled. “That author is at the front desk. Get her and take her to the green room.”
Charlie removed his headset and shot off his chair. He left the booth where the producers ran the radio show and made his way through the studio. Two walls of glass overlooked Michigan Avenue, right where the street met the river. The desk in the studio, in front of those windows, was massive and triangular, each side having two or three headphones and mikes, except for the host’s side, which had only one headset and a soundboard in front of it.
The host glanced up at him, gave a half smile and kept reading a newspaper. A commercial was playing, but you couldn’t hear it in the studio, and although the guy would have to be back on air, live, going out to millions of listeners in twenty seconds, he was unfazed.
Which never failed to amaze Charlie. The skill this guy had-hell, the skill that nearly everyone at the station had-was impressive and inspiring. Charlie had been sitting on his ass for so long in his apartment that he hadn’t seen this kind of expertise up close and personal for a long while. Sure, his mom and stepdad and Izzy were successful, but Izzy had been flaking lately, which made Charlie feel rather simpatico with her. Yet it was Izzy’s meandering in and out of jobs that made him realize he needed to get one. A real one, which he’d never had before.
Charlie had worked during high school and college, and he’d had the dump truck gig, but since he was an adult he’d never had a truly professional job. Of course, this thing with WGN was just an internship, something a college student could probably do, but it was perfect for Charlie. He got to watch the way people worked, the way they thought, the way they prepared. He knew the host was always up early in the morning-Charlie sometimes got e-mails from the guy sent at 6 a.m.-watching the news, boiling it down into witty, passing quips that sounded like off-the-cuff opinions. Charlie observed the head producer, too, who was a master of scheduling and glad-handing. The guy had to stack the book every day with interesting people-authors, comedians, politicians, celebs, sports guys-and then make the show feel as if it had exactly the right balance. When one guest called to cancel, or when the publicist for a better guest jumped in, the producer had to juggle the whole thing, moving this guest here, rescheduling another there.
The host dropped the corner of his newspaper. “Who do we have next?”
“The author.” Charlie gestured in the direction of the front desk. “The one who traveled with that band, The Decker Brothers, for a year.”
“It’s a kid’s band,” the host said, “right? They’re like six and eight years old?”
“Eight and ten.” Charlie had been up last night reading all the press releases.
“And this grown woman traveled with these…” The host shook his head, his voice trailing off, ending with a short sigh. Then something seemed to catch his eye, and he stared out the window onto the street.
Charlie followed his gaze. Outside was the usual collection of tourists, some trying to take pictures of the studio through the glass, others cupping their faces around it to see inside. Sometimes people stood and waved until the hosts would wave back, even though they were live. Sometimes the people outside brought signs and jumped around with them until the host read them out loud, and hearing their signs read through the speakers on the street, the people would jump higher and cheer.
But today, there was something else going on. Two guys dressed in Cubs jerseys and baseball caps were staggering around outside, sort of tussling with each other.
“Drunk,” the host said fondly. Charlie heard he was a recovering alcoholic.
One of them, a big guy with tattoos up and down both sides of his neck, threw the little one against the glass, and it made a huge bam sound. It looked like a fight, but then both of the guys just laughed. They turned to the glass and pressed themselves against it, pounding with their fists as if someone could open the glass and let them in.
The producer stuck his head out of the booth. “Charlie! Go control those idiots!”
Charlie hustled to the door. He was about to leave the studio when the host spoke up again. “Get the guest first. Make sure she knows we’re a little delayed.”
“But what about those guys…” Charlie pointed out the window where the two men were now doing some kind of cheer. The one with the tattoos on his neck threw his head back and looked as if he was howling. The other one cupped his hand and peered inside the glass then started banging on it again.
The host just rolled his eyes. “Guest first, then bozos. Hurry.”
Charlie rushed from the studio and ran down the hallway, past the executive offices to the front desk. He greeted the author and hurried her to the green room, which wasn’t green at all but brown, and strongly resembled someone’s rec room basement from a few decades ago. The author looked around with big eyes and pronounced it “Great!” Charlie’s producer said she was a first-timer and would be a little nervous.
“We’re just about ready for you,” Charlie said, “but we’re running a little late.”
“Sure, sure!” she chirped.
He turned and took off down the hall, past the reception desk and outside. It was a crisp, almost cool June day. The heat didn’t really blast Chicago until July. Charlie jogged through the plaza toward the street and the men.
When he reached them, they didn’t look at him. They were too busy banging on the glass.
“Hey, guys,” Charlie said in a loud voice, raising his hand in a sort of surrender gesture so they wouldn’t think he was being aggressive. The truth was, Charlie didn’t even know how to be aggressive. “Hey, guys,” he said, “we’ve got to stop that.” He thought the “we” was a nice touch.
The one with the tattoos on his neck turned to him. “What do you mean?” Now here was a guy who knew how to be aggressive.
Charlie looked at the tattoos. He never could understand what counted as art-or body art-to some people. The tattoos were all gruesome little images surrounding one big red tattoo-a large A with a circle around it.
“Guys,” Charlie said, “I have to ask you guys to stop.” He thought of how the producer was always talking about appreciation of listeners, so he went on. “We’re really glad you’re our fans, and we’re glad you’re here, but we just need to…”
They still weren’t listening. The little guy looked as if he was about to drop his pants and moon the studio. Charlie took a step closer. He’d have to control this situation or he’d lose his job. And even though this job didn’t pay a dime, he liked it. Really liked it.
So he took another step closer to the men, raising his hands higher in surrender. “Dudes, seriously, you got to stop knocking on the window. Why don’t I get you some T-shirts? Some hats maybe…” His words trailed off. The guy with the tattoos looked at him, and he didn’t seem drunk or even aggressive anymore. He was calm and focused, and he looked as if he recognized Charlie.
Both guys darted toward him, grabbing Charlie around the neck and dragging him to a stairway that led down onto Lower Wacker. Charlie fought against them, but they were powerfully strong, and so was the scent. What was that he smelled? Charlie realized then that they were pushing a cloth over his mouth and nose, and it smelled intense. But just as quick the smell went away. And so did the rest of Charlie’s world.