Franklin Flyer

Franklin Flyer


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.

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Excerpted from Franklin Flyer by Nicholas Christopher. Copyright © 2002 by Nicholas Christopher. Excerpted by permission of Dial Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.