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Orcas

The stage lights wound their way around the set until they came to an abrupt, synchronized halt, shining down at me in fixed stares, their warmth comforting in the steely cold studio. With each beat of the stage manager’s countdown of “3, 2, 1...” I peered into the audience to find my father but could not make out the faces through the glare of the lights. “Action!” At the stage manager’s cry, I caught my breath and looked to my right where the podium was positioned at center stage. Stepping down from behind it and grinning into the camera, a man in a dark blue suit, white pleated shirt and gold tie made two strolling steps towards the audience, and greeted the world: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am Stan Albright, host of “What Do You Know!”, America’s favorite quiz show, and it is my honor to welcome you to a very special edition of our program. In celebration of our 20th anniversary running on television, we have three of the nation’s brightest young academics joining us. That’s right! It is a ‘What Do You Know!’ children’s edition. Let’s go meet the kids now.”


Stan started walking towards me and I could not help but compare him to the image of himself ten years younger. I had seen him many times on my family's home taping of the show's tenth-anniversary edition, and the man approaching me had seen considerable aging. The skin of his creased brow ran down into his cheeks which drooped beneath his jawline and dragged at the corners of his mouth, in front of which he held fixed a microphone. “We’ll start with you, Anders. Go ahead and tell the audience your name, where you are from, what grade you are in, and, in your case, you have a very special connection to the show, don’t you? Why don’t you tell the audience about that too, huh?” Trying to smile, I stuttered out, “Hello. My name is Anders Rossi, I am from Hempstead, New York, and I am in the sixth grade.” I stopped here, unsure of how to answer the last part of Stan's question. Leaning over me, Stan said with a wet lipped smile, “And tell us about your connection to the show, Anders. Who is your father?” I glanced nervously back and forth from his face to the camera that gaped in front of me. “My father was on the show a while ago for the tenth-anniversary edition.” I looked down for a moment, breaking eye contact with both Stan and the camera. "You had a special, professors competition, and my father had just started teaching at New York University. In the anthropology department." Beaming, Stan said, “That’s right! And how did your father fare in the competition?” I took a swallow of saliva and smiled sheepishly at the camera. “Very well, Mr. Albright. He won.”


___________


When I descended the staircase earlier that morning, rounding its corner into the kitchen, I found my father, Alexander Rossi, busily tending to a pot of oatmeal on the stove and squeezing fresh orange juice into a pitcher on the counter beside it. He was a great believer in fresh juice and started every morning with a glass of it, as well as oatmeal and almonds. He stood tall in the kitchen, his head approaching the top of the cabinets at 6'2. Slender and wiry with greying hair and olive complexion, he looked like an Italian Daniel Day Lewis. He always wore polos, today's a pastel green, paired with grey, form-fitting slacks.


He glanced sideways at me when I came in. “Well, did you study through the pages I marked last night?” “Yeah, I finished them,” I said pushing back a flop of long, blonde hair out of my eyes. I took after my Swedish mother in appearance, and only inherited my father's tall, slender form. “Very good. Take a seat and we’ll have some breakfast.” "That's okay, Dad. I'm really not hungry. If I ate, I think I might throw up," I said, putting on my most persuasive grimace. "Now son, that's just nerves, and I won’t have you start the day by giving in to that. You’ll eat your breakfast and without dawdling." He squeezed the final orange into the pitcher, ringing out its last drops of juice. “You’re acting sluggish this morning, I can tell already. If you take the opportunity you have today seriously, you'll wake up and wake up fast. Understand?”


I sat up tall and nodded my ascent with as much vigor as I could muster, but inside I was yelling at him that I was tired from staying up past midnight pouring through textbooks and encyclopedias as I had done all the nights of the last two weeks, after which I stared up into the ceiling, mind racing, for three endless hours before falling asleep.


___________


Standing on top of a ramshackle wooden structure over fifty feet in the sky, my head shaved bald and bleeding from razor wounds. I looked down on the tribe below. They chanted something in their language which I did not understand, dancing back and forth in a growing fever of expectation. Two ropes were tied around my ankles. “The Vanuatu land diving ritual,” I thought. I knew what I had to do. Heart pounding, breath shallow and rapid, my whole body was in tremors. The tower rattled beneath my shaking feet. The tribe's chants had kicked into full gear, drums beating as if sounding a charge into battle, yelps and war cries flying from the throng. I knew I had stood up there too long; they expected me to jump, were wondering why I hadn't yet. There was no way out. I closed my eyes tightly, shutting back tears, leaned over the edge of the tower, and let the weight of my body pull me off my feet, a missile falling to the ground.


I woke to my mother stepping through my bedroom door at 6:15 with a cry of, "God morgon, dear!" Walking up to the foot of my bed, she sang on in her bubbly, Swedish candor, "It's your big day, and you cannot afford to lay around in bed. The studio is very strict about call times." Bending down from her stout waist, she picked up the books from the floor I had been studying the night before. She threw back the heavy waves of her yellow blonde hair out of her face and off the front of her floral print dress as she straightened and looked at me reproachfully: “Anders, you stayed up late again, didn’t you? I told you to get your sleep last night.”


She studied me for a moment, and the thought of my late night studying seemed to fall from her eyes. “You know, many little boys are fussy when they are woken early in the mornings. They put up a fight to their mothers.” She circled round the end of my bed and sat down beside me, books still in hand. “You know, Anders, even though it might be hard on me sometimes, I would not mind it if you fussed now and then. I bet it would be good for you. You weren't always so quiet, you know. Of course, if little Lucas were here, you would probably fuss all the time. He would always be breaking your toys and hiding the TV remote. You would certainly fuss at him. And I should have liked that.”


I decided in my mind to reach out my hand to hers and say something to comfort her, but she was too fast for me. She stood up from the bed with a spark and crossed the room to my dresser. “Well, dear, I am proud of you for being so strong and studious. You are just like your father.” Then pulling out the outfit we had prepared in my dresser the evening before, “Now let’s hurry up and get your clothes on so you will be on time!” Sliding off the bed, I went to her and took the clothes, then I began to turn away towards the open door and hallway into the bathroom, but stopped and seized my mother in an embrace, quickly, desperately, as if saving her from being sucked out the window by a gust of wind and taken from me forever.


___________


At 7:00, my father and I backed out of the driveway and drove off to the call of my mother, “Take care, dears! Anders, be polite to Mr. Albright! You’ll do wonderfully!” Mr. Rossi turned the radio on to his favorite jazz station and we drove on in silence for some time. It was not until Long Island City and the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge was in sight that my father broke the silence: “Damn. I do love driving into the city on a Saturday. It takes me at least twice this long on a weekday morning.” A riff of brass sounded through the radio. Mr. Rossi adjusted the volume down a few notches and turned towards me. “Well, son, are you still nervous? Because if you are, I think I know what could help. Remember this: we are all fallible. You won’t know the answer to every single question, and you can’t win them all. The secret is knowing how to move on. Some people just don’t know how to move on in life. It’s a sign of weakness, and it holds them back. It is an evolutionary principle, son. Humans and animals for all time have faced tragedy continually. The instinct to survive has propelled all living things to move forward and leave the past behind. Those too weak to do so make themselves victims to their circumstances. You can’t be perfect, son, but you can keep your mistakes from beating you.”


We were on the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge now and the Rockefeller Center loomed in front of us. I took a quick breath of sea air and turned to my father. “But what about when you lose someone you love? I mean, if it’s just evolutionary to move on, why do some animals grieve their dead? Like how elephants visit the bones of their dead relatives or how magpies bury theirs in grass? And then there was that orca who appeared near Canada carrying her dead infant through the Salish sea for 17 days! They’re not being weak, are they, Dad?” Brow furrowed, Mr. Rossi retorted, “How unreasonable do you think I am, Anders? Of course you have to take time to grieve the dead. But when the grieving is done, it is done. You have to move on.” We were already in the parking garage at this point and pulling into our reserved space. “I try to encourage you with sound advice and you paint me like a villain. Well, we’re here, so that’s enough of that.” Opening the door of the car, he was about to step out when he stopped and looked at me over his shoulder. “Also, there are only 73 Salish Sea orcas left in existence.”


__________


We had arrived at the studio fifteen minutes before call time, which meant lots of waiting around in the green room. Each contestant had their own so that left my father and me to ourselves. To warm up my brain, he quizzed me on various subjects; talk of Russian tsars, famous composers, maritime terminology, and animal kingdoms filled out little room.


When it finally came we were led by a woman in a headset through a few corridors and a set of double doors into the studio. The set was enrapt by stands for the audience and backed up by stage curtains. The stage featured the podium in the center and the panel where the three contestants sat just left of it. Walking across it to my seat, I realized I was the first contestant there. My name was announced and the audience cheered. Next came the second contestant. He was a stout boy named Rick Bailey who was clearly expecting his solo entry and waved and blew kisses to the audience before taking his seat next to me, a smile of self-satisfaction on his face. The whole ceremony reminded me of the gladiator rings of Rome and made me wonder where our Caesar, Stan Albright, was. I hadn't seen him and was peering around to catch sight of the man when the name, “Greta Sterling!” rang through the studio and the third contestant stepped onto the stage to the cheers of the crowd.


With jet black hair, pink framed glasses and a beige blazer over a flowered t-shirt, she reminded me very much of a librarian I once saw downtown. Upon sitting down, she nodded and gave a gap-toothed grin to Riley and me, then fixedly studied the room from behind her pink frames. Stan Albright followed us, taking his place behind the podium to the loudest applause yet rendered by the audience.


He came over and greeted all of us at the contestant panel, and my father came up as well. He walked up as Stan was just taking my hand. “Well, Mr. Albright, it’s good to see you again. You haven’t changed a bit since I was here last!” Stan turned his smile from me to my father. “Alexander Rossi! It is good to see you back.” As tall as my father was, Stan was even taller. At least, it felt that way looking at him. “And how is your wife? The little Swedish one? I seem to remember her being pregnant while nursing this young man," Stan said with a wink in my direction. "Yes, she is doing fine, thank you. She loves the show, you know. We watch it as a family all the time. There are very few sources of entertainment these days that stir up the intellect like yours does.” Stan tilted his head to my father and closed his eyes in a look of humble gratitude. “That is very kind of you to say, Alex. Now I think we’re about to get this show on the road. See you after the dust settles,” he said with a wink. The two men parted and I was alone. The call of "lights!" followed shortly afterward.


The start of the show unfolded and after telling the world how my father won the professors edition ten years ago at Stan's behest, my competitors, the laughing and fist-pumping Rick and the prim librarian, Greta, made their introductions. Sounding pleased at the stage presence of his child recruits, Stan addressed the crowd, “Well, I for one am excited to see how our young competitors will fare! Let’s go to the board now to see the day’s categories.”

___________


“Cut!” The stage manager’s cry put an exclamation point on the first half of the show. Where a moment before no one in the room but Stan and some cameramen were allowed to budge out of place, a whir of movement filled the studio. The stage crew made adjustments to lighting and audio, audience members got up to stretch, talking expressively and laughing to one another. A voice faintly projecting over the incoherent buzz said, “Damn, that’s a smart kid! I’d fill my history class with kids like him if I could.” I felt nauseous, and when the woman with the headset walked up to see if we contestants needed anything, I was about to ask to go to the bathroom, when I suddenly thought of an idea.


The moment she left, I faced Rick and Greta and blurted, “Hey! I have an idea.” “What?” Rick smirked resentfully. Leaning in close, I said, “What if we tell them we are not going to do the rest of the show! We’ll just refuse to go on and they’ll have to let us go. If we all do it together, they’ll be powerless!” “Are you shitting us, Anders? You’re killing us right now, and you’re really saying you want to quit?” “Yeah, I don’t get it,” Greta injected. Eyes scrunched up behind her glasses, she gave me a half confused, half distrustful stare. “What’s the point, Anders? The odds are pretty much a million to one you’re going to win. And besides, our parents would kill us.” “But they would never see it coming. I am sure we would win.” My voice broke and trailed off under the stage manager’s call of “Quiet on set.” Rick turned away from me, shaking his head in disgust. Greta gave me a last, confused look then turned away as well.


___________


I gave the answer. Stan’s free hand shot up in the air, a grin flashing across his face as he exulted, “The boy has done it, ladies and gentlemen! Anders, you not only clenched the victory but you have set a new all-time show record of $21,000!” The crowd was giving a standing ovation, and Stan Albright beamed: “Never before has a contestant won so handily! Anders, I am sure you have made your family proud.” Addressing the camera, “See you right back here after this break for our awards ceremony.” Then the cameras went off and so did the cheers.


I sat frozen, gaze fixed straight ahead at the feet of the audience closest to me. The command from the stage manager to “reset for final take” and the excited murmurs of the audience now filled the air. I could tell Stan was turning to walk towards me. Unable to bear the thought of him sumptuously congratulating me on my victory, I bolted out of my chair and half walked, half jogged off the back of the stage, through the curtains, and into the hall leading to the bathroom. I was sure my father must have left his seat as soon as the cameras went off to come to me. I began to run. I rounded two corners and slammed through the bathroom door. I paced back and forth across the tile floors, then sat down against the wall on the far side of the bathroom and braced myself against whatever would come through the door.


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