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Franklin Flyerby Nichola Christopher
A young man in a rumpled white suit and yellow fedora ascended a stepladder perched on a table and, opening a skylight flooded by the noon sun, pulled himself up and out onto the slanted roof. Hands on hips, smiling, he stood backdropped by big clouds seventy stories above the humming streets, surveying the jagged skyline and the flash of the harbor when a swirling gust blew off his hat. He grabbed for it, teetering momentarily, before it spun into the canyon of granite below. After dancing in the crosscurrents, dipping far down and then swooping up just as fast, the hat sailed through an open window in the building across the street.
The window was six stories down from the building's eaves and two windows in from its southeast corner. Had his hat tumbled to the street, the young man thought, squinting through the glare, he would have let it go; but the fact the wind had carried it to the one open window in those upper stories made him want to pursue it.
Ten minutes later, he crossed the intersection and entered the Ice & Fire Assurance Company Building, newly constructed of Texas limestone, white as snow. He rode the elevator to the sixtieth floor and turned down the long corridor to the southeast corner. The clicking of his lace-up boots echoed on the marble floor. The second door from the end had a frosted-glass center with the numeral 6000 painted on it. He knocked twice, then turned the knob and found the door unlocked.
The room was cool and dark, an office larger than the outer door had led him to expect, but sparsely furnished: a brown sofa, a bookcase without shelves, and a heavy wooden desk by the window. The desktop was dusty, an inkwell and a silver picture frame to one side, and--yes, there it was--his yellow fedora beside the telephone, as if someone had casually laid it down. At the same time, there was no chair behind the desk, its empty drawers were pulled out, the inkwell was dry, and the telephone was unplugged.
Only after he circled the desk and picked up his hat, examining it curiously, did he see that the silver frame contained a photograph. Wearing a long camel's hair coat and black gloves, a fair-haired young woman with olive skin, full lips, and eyes set wide apart was standing on a stone bridge over a rushing stream. The sunlight was bright on her face, and her hair was long, combed straight back. The boulders along the bank of the stream were dusted with snow. The trees behind them were bare. She had turned to the camera without smiling--and with a hint of surprise. It was a face unlike any he had ever seen, wonderfully balanced, yet imperfect, as if each element had been uniquely created before being set into a whole. What most attracted him, though, was that she seemed to be looking directly at him--and no one else--drawing him toward her, speaking to him with her beautiful eyes. The longer he looked back, the more he wanted to know what she might be trying to tell him. And the more certain he became that this photograph was the reason his hat--an unexpected instrument of fate--had floated into this particular room.
He went to the window and gazed at the roof of the dark gray building where he had been standing not long ago. Its windows reflected the gold and pink undersides of passing clouds. It was known as the Globe Building, named for the trading company that once owned it. A giant globe, lit from within, with turquoise seas and emerald continents, still rotated in its lobby.
He had worked on the forty-first floor of that building for eleven months--his longest stretch at the same job since dropping out of college. At Harvard he had mostly taken courses in history and chemistry. A shade under six feet, lithe and muscular, he was awarded a sports scholarship, playing baseball (a centerfielder with a terrific arm) and fencing. But all the while he had been restless to get out in the world, not to study it: to see things for himself, taste and feel what might be offered him--and as much as he could of what might not.
He had liked his job, but thought he had learned from it all he could. That morning, feeling certain he ought to quit, he did. And at once enjoyed a tremendous surge of energy--ebbing now as quickly as it had risen. He felt tired suddenly. He sat on the sofa, then reclined, resting his head on the arm and swinging his legs up. He placed his hat on his chest and closed his eyes.
Immediately he found himself back on the summit of the Globe Building, scanning the horizon. Only this time, instead of his hat, it was he himself who was blown off the roof, out into the bright air currents on which he was carried far away, over wide open spaces and indigo lakes and vast cities. As he gained altitude, riding the wind, he was at first exhilarated and then frightened watching the cities shrink until they were no bigger than dark pebbles on a sidewalk. Clutching his hat, he continued climbing toward the sun until he was nearly blinded, the sweat flying off his brow.
He jumped up from the sofa and rubbed his eyes. His shirt was stuck to his back, his tongue was dry. Thinking he had been lying there only a few minutes, he glanced at his watch and was stunned to see that an hour had passed.
He hesitated, then removed the woman's photograph from its frame and rolled it up carefully as he left Room 6000, wondering what role that woman might play in his life. He took the elevator to the lobby and waded into the lunch-hour crowd, anonymous as anyone else, but with a pocket world atlas and a ship's passage--second-class--to Lisbon in his jacket.
Five years later, he would return to that white building. And again eight years after that. Somewhat battered the latter time: his dark eyes puffy and his face pale as he limped through the revolving glass door, his left arm in a sling, his left pinky missing, and his head shaved. He had lost his finger the previous month, and, unknown to him, it was on display in the Museum of the Risorgimento in Brescia, Italy, along with the relics of several heroes of the War of 1859 in a jar of formaldehyde labeled:
The finger of General Emilio Manzone, severed at the battle of Magenta.
This man would sometimes use other names in his life, but never Manzone. And he had never set foot in Brescia. How his finger had found its way to that museum--displayed with bones, other digits, and several ears preserved fifty years before his birth--and why his head was shaved, were two of the more recent mysteries of his life.
This is his story, seen from a particular angle, and so, like all stories, biased in its omissions, by necessity unsatisfactory, and without a doubt open to question.
A few facts, however, on which we can be certain from the start:
He entered the world on the first of May 1907, on a train outside Charleston, South Carolina.
Shortly afterward, the train's locomotive, the Franklin Flyer, was whirled from the tracks by a tornado and deposited in the sea. With ten coaches and a caboose derailed in the sand dunes, it was the worst train wreck in the history of the state: sixteen passengers dead, fifty-one injured--and one newly born.
Discovered alone in a sleeping compartment by rescue workers, the infant was named after the locomotive by the newspaper reporters who had swarmed to the scene. Even after his mother--knocked unconscious, hurled down the corridor during the wreck--came to claim him at the foundling hospital in Charleston, the name stuck.
And he did indeed walk out of the Ice and Fire Assurance Company Building on October 29, 1929, minutes before the stock market crashed--one of the few people in the city on Black Tuesday to quit his job rather than pray he could hold on to it--clutching a stranger's photograph and adjusting the brim of his yellow fedora, to shade his eyes.
In Antarctica, on the Ross Ice Shelf, not far from where Captain Scott was stranded and died, Franklin Flyer kindled a charcoal fire beneath a full moon with a splinter of flint. In windblown flakes of snow he saw darting black and silver birds. Among the glittering stars the only constellation in that sky was the Octant, an eight-sided polygon. For six long hours, fighting to stay awake, Franklin connected and reconnected the Octant's eight primary stars in every possible combination.
The cold was intense as fire. Beneath an oilskin cape, a fur-lined parka, the turtleneck sweater handknitted by a blind woman in Punta Arenas, and silk long johns, his skin felt like glass. On his feet he wore two pairs of waterproof socks and double-thickness boots with rubber insulation. On his head a leather cap with fat ear muffs. Tied around his face a woolen scarf. His mittens were a gift from the Inouek tribe, on the Isle of Desolation, where his ship, the Mariana, had put in during a terrible storm en route from New Zealand.
Even worse was the storm that tore up the ship two days later, killing twenty-eight of the thirty men onboard, as well as two teams of Canadian sled dogs, and a pair of parakeets who spoke Portuguese. Abandon ship, one of the parakeets had cried for nearly twenty minutes, as the broken hull slipped below the icy waves. Franklin had rescued the ship's cat, a coppery Abyssinian with one white ear and a striped tail named Archimedes, who in his everyday dealings with the crew went by the name of Archie.
Curled inside Franklin's parka, Archie waited patiently for the faint ringing of the ice cutter's bell that would signal their rescue. Before leaping into a lifeboat with Archie and the boatswain named Forbes who would also survive the wreck, Franklin had run into the galley to snatch a bag of charcoal, a box of crackers, and six tins of salted mackerel. He had also grabbed his sketchbook, and with it the photograph of the woman on the stone bridge, which he carried with him always, and slipped them into his inside pocket. From the moment he discovered that photograph, he had been certain he would someday find the woman. Now he wasn't so sure. After two days, he and Archie were down to a few more hours of charcoal, one tin of mackerel, and four crackers. Within an hour of their making land, Forbes had disappeared in a blizzard--his red woolen cap bobbing in the sheets upon sheets of white--and Franklin had given up hope of seeing him again.
The Mariana's mission had been to test out a new gyrocompass in subzero temperatures and rough seas. The first Sperry designs, barely modified since 1913, had worked well in temperate and tropical waters, but then faltered on ships crossing the Arctic or Antarctic Circles. The three experimental gyrocompasses in the Mariana's wheelhouse had been overseen by a man named Emmett Barnwell from the Sperry laboratory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Employing them separately or in tandem, the captain performed countless complex maneuvers, zigzagging down the coast of South America, through the labyrinthine channels of Tierra del Fuego, and around the Falkland and South Orkney Islands, due south into frigid waters.
Barnwell, whom Franklin had known professionally in New York City, had helped him secure his position as ship's carpenter. Barnwell was a friend of Samuel Carstone, the inventor for whom Franklin worked as a lab assistant. A large, imposing man with a rumbling voice and an impatient manner, Carstone was famous for inventing, among other things, a foolproof airplane altimeter and the most powerful radio antenna to date, and--less sensational but better known to the general public--a ballpoint pen that could write underwater. On a freelance basis, he had put in some work on the Sperry gyrocompass with his old friend Barnwell.
Shipwrecked, Franklin did not even have a magnetic compass, much less a gyrocompass. From where he sat, on a plateau of dark blue ice, he watched moonlight flickering in a frozen pool and, far off the coast, slow-moving ice floes where he hoped to spot the lights of a ship. He calculated that if the depot on Beaufort Island had picked up his one radio signal the previous day at dawn, a ship could be within ten miles of the coast at that moment. Four miles closer, and he would spot it. He was adept at making such calculations in his head.
If the depot hadn't picked up the signal, he would be dead--maybe in twelve hours, certainly within a day. This wasn't how he had expected to go. But, then, he wasn't the type to concoct scenarios around his own death. He was anything but a fatalist. And he wasn't despairing now. Having survived a train wreck at birth, he had grown into a fearless child, never shying away from conflict, unflinching in the face of danger. Upon hearing the circumstances of Franklin's birth, a fortune-teller in St. Augustine, Florida, told his mother that the boy would always be a wanderer, seeking in turmoil the enlightenment other men sought through introspection. Now, huddled and shivering, closing his eyes against the biting wind, he had no choice but to look inward. As the hours crawled by, a procession of shades out of his early life appeared before him: neighbors, friends, teachers, and finally the two women who had raised him, his mother and his aunt.
His mother, Zoe Everhart, was an itinerant actress; she had barely known his father--whom Franklin didn't know at all. He didn't even know what his father looked like--Zoe had no photos--but she claimed that Franklin greatly resembled his father: brown hair and eyes, slender, long-legged, with strong hands and handsome, but not overly fine, features. (And a shared peculiarity: a lobe more square than circular on his left ear.) Because she was unmarried, Zoe had been secretly delighted to learn that, after her baby was rescued unharmed from the wreck, he had been christened for her by the newspapers. Thus, instead of giving him her own surname--sure to make the child's situation even more awkward--she had established "Franklin Flyer" as his legal name.
Franklin lived with Zoe and her sister Vita in Isle of Palms, South Carolina, a large town on one of the barrier islands south of Charleston. Zoe was always on the road, usually performing in second-rate productions of Shakespeare or Shaw. When she came home--never for more than a few weeks at a time--and learned her lines, smoking cigarettes and sipping wine on the front porch, it was Franklin who read the other parts to prompt her. One of the few activities he shared with his mother, it left him with a close knowledge of Shakespeare. Even now, odd lines flitted through his mind from Julius Caesar and Coriolanus and The Tempest, with its famous shipwreck. He kept hearing Ariel's song: Full fathom five thy father lies/ Of his bones are coral made/ Those are pearls that were his eyes. . . . Zoe told Franklin his father had been a soldier of fortune--interested less in soldiering, she added, than in acquiring the fortune which constantly eluded him. The last she heard of him, he was hunting for sapphires in Mozambique. He, too, had been unable to stay in one place for long.
From the Hardcover edition.
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