The story of a man seeking redemption, a mascot who never removes his ferret suit, and a host of characters who learn that the place in the world they have been seeking is with each other.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Part 1, Episode 14: Questions and (some) Answers

Now totally flummoxed, Conrad tried to think of something intelligent to say but could only utter, “Huh?”

“I AM a woman, Conrad,” Frank insisted. “I’ve walked around in the body of a man all my life, but over the years I have come to the realization that inside I am truly a woman.”

Conrad looked at Frank for a moment then managed to spit out, “What do you mean?”

Frank, becoming frustrated with Conrad’s lack of understanding, said, “I’m in the process of going through a sex change. That’s why I’m going to turn in my resignation after the season. I don’t think the school, or the world for that matter, is ready for a male football coach to turn into a female and keep coaching.”

That was the first thing Frank had said that made sense to Conrad, but he was still unable to wrap his arms around this whole situation. “But you’re a football coach, Frank,” he said. “Granted, not a very successful one, but geez, it’s not like you’re a florist or a hairdresser. That wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Besides, how do you know you’re not just gay?”

“I wondered that for a long time myself, Conrad,” Frank replied. “It’s taken many years and a lot of counseling to understand who I truly am. Anymore, I feel like I’m living in someone else’s skin, wearing someone else’s clothes. You see Frank every day, but in my heart, my soul, I’m Frankie and I desperately want everyone to see me that way.”

Conrad wisely thought this would be a bad time to point out just how unattractive he thought Frankie was, but then again maybe the whole sex change process would help that. He really didn’t want to know, already having learned more than he cared to. Being a naturally curious person, though, he just couldn’t help himself.

“So,” he hemmed and hawed, “just how far along are you in the process?”

“I still have my penis if that’s what you mean,” Frank replied. “I’m taking hormone therapy now. It is, as you could imagine, a very complicated and lengthy process.”

That would explain those strangely soft hands, Conrad realized. “Here’s one thing I don’t get, Frank,” Conrad, pressing on, wondered. “I’m not a deeply religious man myself, but by doing this, aren’t you saying that, in effect, God made a mistake by giving you a male body?”

“Not really,” Frank patiently replied. “Think of it as more like a birth defect. Babies are born all the time missing vital body parts or congenital conditions like a hole in their heart. My defect, to simplify it, was too much testosterone and not enough estrogen. Oh yeah, and the penis.”

Conrad pondered that for a few moments, then said, “Wow. This whole process has to be really tough, isn’t it?”

Frank smiled and, nodding his head, replied, “You betcha. It’s better than the alternative, though.”

“What’s that?” Conrad asked.

“Looking in the mirror every morning and loathing the reflection I see,” Frank said as he stared at the floor.

“Come on, Conrad. Take a good look around,” the bartender said.

After finding his clothes and leaving Frank’s house, Conrad had returned that night to “Chaps and Spurs,” or, as he now thought of it, the scene of the crime. He was glad to see the same person behind the bar that was there last night, and was determined to find out why no one had bothered to tell him that he was hanging out with the cross-dressing, or pre-woman, or woman-under-construction, or whatever he/she was, Farnsworth football coach.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Conrad asked.

“Just look around this place,” the bartender insisted.

“Okay, I see the posters and memorabilia on the walls. There’s Ferrets’ stuff, Redskins, Orioles…” Conrad said.

“No, take a REAL GOOD look around,” the bartender insisted. “Look at the people.”

Becoming more frustrated by the moment, Conrad huffed and agreed. “Let’s see, there’s two guys sitting at the far end of the bar, two girls shooting pool, another couple of girls shooting pool, two guys holding hands in the corner,” Conrad abruptly stopped. “Two guys holding hands in the corner! Everybody’s paired up boy-boy, girl-girl, and the girls look like they could easily kick the boys’ asses! Oh my God, this is a gay bar!” Conrad shrieked.

“Duh!” the bartender condescendingly replied. “That’s why nobody said anything to you. We figured if you were hanging out here you must be gay.”

“Oh, heavens no!” Conrad replied, annoyed at how gay that probably sounded. “I’m not gay. I’m the exact opposite of gay. I’m totally un-gay. I don’t even like to use Ben Gay.” Realizing he was now sounding like a homophobe, he quickly added, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.”

Conrad took a deep breath, then asked, “So just how many cross-dressers do you get in here, anyway?”

“Well, I’m not exactly sure. We don’t exactly check under everyone’s hood when they walk in, if you know what I mean” the bartender sarcastically replied.

“I wish I had,” Conrad said wistfully. “I guess you wouldn’t be interested in doing that yourself anyway.”

“I’m as hetro as you are, pal. They hire straight bartenders here. Management figures that way they don’t have to worry about the help hitting on the customers,” the bartender told Conrad.

“That’s the first thing I’ve heard that makes sense,” Conrad pointed out.

“Anyway,” the bartender continued, “coach Williams has been coming in here for a long time. He figured he could blend in and people wouldn’t bother him. Everyone knew who he was and why he hung out here, so there was no problem.”

“Not everyone knew, my friend,” Conrad replied testily.

“What do you want us to do, put up a chart with pictures and names of known cross-dressers?” the bartender replied. “Give me a freakin’ break.”

“You could at least put up a sign saying ‘Welcome to Chaps and Spurs, proudly serving gays and cross-dressers in the Midville area,” Conrad suggested.

“Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” the bartender sneered. “Look, I’m not sure what your problem is, but it takes most people about 10 seconds or less to figure out what type of clientele we serve. Without a sign,” the bartender insisted.

After pausing a moment, the bartender said “Hey look, Conrad. I’m sorry you had a rough time. Let me buy you a beer and make it up to you.”

Conrad began waving his hands. “Noooo thank you. I had quite enough last night. I will take a diet cola, though, if you’re buying.”

“My pleasure,” the bartender replied. “You’ve been a good customer. Just because you’re not gay doesn’t mean you’re not welcome here. Come in anytime. Just be careful who you leave with, okay?”

Conrad smiled for the first time the entire day. “Sound advice. Yeah, this IS a nice place. You just might see me back here, after all. Now where’s that diet cola?”

Conrad stayed at “Chaps and Spurs” long enough to finish watching the late NFL games, then headed back to the suite he shared with Freddie. Upon entering, Freddie greeted him with, “Hey, did you make a road trip last night?” Then, after thinking for a moment, he asked, “Wait a minute, aren’t you still married?”

Conrad plopped down in the recliner he had claimed as his territory in their living area and replied, “No, there was no road trip and yes, I am still technically married.”

Freddie pressed on, “Sooooo?”

“So what?”

“So where were you last night? I know you never made it back here.”

“Aw, it’s nice to know you cared.”

“Yes, I care. Now give, what happened last night?”

“I almost feel like I need to go to confession for this.”

“Oooo, it must be juicy. Tell, tell.”

‘Well, you know this lady friend I told you I’d been hanging out with the last couple of Saturday nights.”

“Yeah. Frankie, isn’t it?’

“Yes and no. It turns out Frankie was actually Frank.”

Freddie began laughing so hard he fell off his perch on the couch.

“I’m glad YOU think it was funny. Even worse, Frank turned out to be “Stump” Williams, the football coach,” Conrad continued.

“What, you didn’t know he was rehearsing for his sex change?” Freddie asked incredulously.

“Nooo, I didn’t,” Conrad replied with a tone of great indignation. “Am I the only one on campus that DIDN’T know that?”

“Maybe,” Freddie responded. “How did he ‘reveal’ himself to you?” Freddie asked, beginning another laughing fit.

Conrad hesitated and began intensely studying his shoes. “I wound up in bed with him last night,” he finally spit out.

Freddie’s laughing fit escalated to the point where Conrad was concerned he would go into convulsions.

Finally, Freddie pulled himself together enough to ask “don’t tell me, you met him at ‘Chaps and Spurs’, our local gay sports bar?”

“I guess I didn’t get that memo either,” Conrad said with disgust.

Freddie resumed rolling around on the floor in convulsive laughter while Conrad looked for something to hose him down with.

Later that week, Conrad was at Farnsworth Field watching the men’s soccer team take on Backstreet College, one of the challengers for the league title. It was late in the first half of a tense 0-0 match when Conrad saw his protégé John Smith running toward the stands. John jumped the bleachers two rows at a time, obviously excited about something. My God, Conrad wondered, could this be good news. “Would the earth open up and swallow me whole if that happened? Well, at least I’d go out on a good note,” he thought.

John, proving he was not a candidate for the track team, was almost completely out of breath by the time he reached Conrad on the top row of the bleachers. Conrad wished he had a paper bag to give John, convinced he would soon be hyperventilating. “Whatever’s on your mind, I hope it was worth all this,” Conrad told his young associate.

“I, gasp, think, gasp, it, gasp, is,” John haltingly replied.

“Come on, take a minute to catch your breath John,” Conrad advised. After waiting for John’s breathing to approach normalcy, Conrad asked, “Now, what’s all this about?”

“Bowling,” John replied, still struggling for breath.

“At least I won’t have to worry about the earth opening up to swallow me now,” Conrad thought. “What, did you win free passes to go bowling? Okay, I’ll block out an evening when we can go, it should be fun.”

‘No sir, it’s not about us bowling. It’s about the school bowling,” John said.

“What, you want to have a school bowling tournament?” Conrad asked. “I guess we could, but it doesn’t seem worth getting all that worked up over.”

“No, no. The school could compete in bowling,” John said, still gulping for air.

“Oh, you mean sponsor a team in a local league? I don’t know, I’m not sure how that would look,
Farnsworth University taking on Al’s Auto Parts,” Conrad replied.

“Sir, you don’t understand,” John said, becoming frustrated with Conrad’s lack of comprehension. “The NCAA sanctions women’s bowling as an intercollegiate sport.”

“I didn’t know that,” Conrad replied. “Well, since we have lanes at the student union, I guess we could field a team.”

‘Here’s the best part, sir” John said, the excitement building in his voice. “They don’t have it broken up in three divisions. There’s only one women’s bowling division. Therefore…”

“Therefore, we could compete in Division I!” Conrad said, the light bulb switching on.

“That’s right, sir” John concurred, pumping a fist while he did so. “That would enable you to meet the stipulation in your contract.”

“Darned if it wouldn’t,” Conrad replied, recalling the clause that Mr. Farnsworth had inserted requiring him to establish a Ferret team in Division I within six months. “Do any big schools compete in this?” he asked John.

“Nebraska’s the only big-time school so far, and they’re the defending national champion. Right now, it’s a mix of smaller D1 schools, some in D2 and a couple in D3. We’d be at the low end of the totem pole, but at least we’d be on it.”

“True enough. Do they just have women’s bowling?” Conrad asked.

“Yeah, for some reason that’s all,” John replied. “Maybe they’re afraid men’s bowling would just turn into a kegger.”

They both chuckled at that thought, although Conrad added, “I don’t know, with some of the women’s leagues I’ve seen I think that’s still a risk.”

After another chuckle, Conrad shifted into business mode and began to give John directions. “I think water polo was the last sport Farnsworth added. I need you to go through the files and find the paperwork that had to be filled out and use that as a guide to get the ball rolling on this, so to speak.”

“Will do sir,” John said as he snapped to attention, also shifting into business mode. “I’ll try and roll it right in the pocket for you.”

“Nice bowling lingo there, John,” Conrad replied. “Just keep it between us, though. Play it very straight on the paperwork. And for crying out loud don’t let Four F get wind of this. He’s liable to stick his nose into it and make it nearly impossible to pull this off.”

“Should we talk in bowling codes, sir?” John asked.

“That won’t be necessary,” Conrad asked. “Why don’t you sit down and watch the rest of the game.”

“No thanks, sir. I want to get a jump on this,” John replied in that Boy Scout manner of his.

“Okay, go for it. Nice work finding about the bowling, John,” Conrad called after his dutiful assistant.

“Thank you sir,” he replied. “I’ll make you proud.”

“That boy’s got to get a life,” Conrad thought, “but not too soon. Maybe that can wait until after I get a contract extension from Old Man Farnsworth.”

The Ferrets wound up losing to the boys from Backstreet 1-0 when their shot at the tying goal caromed off the goal post with less than two minutes remaining in the game. Conrad was of course disappointed with the loss but very pleased with the level of play. At least there was one team I don’t have to worry about right now, he thought as he walked toward the parking lot.

On his way, he saw Jimmy Harris, the beat reporter from the Star-Bulletin. When they made eye contact, Conrad gave him a friendly wave and Jimmy hustled over to meet him. “Tough loss, huh Conrad?” Jimmy asked.

“Yeah, it would have been nice to get the tie here, but we played really well,” Conrad replied. “Ferret soccer is definitely heading in the right direction.” His sincerity behind that statement was bolstered when he saw a couple of young boys, probably fourth or fifth graders, run by wearing t-shirts with a cartoon image of Freddie Ferret bouncing a soccer ball off his head.

Soccer could become a fairly big deal at Farnsworth, Conrad thought. For a place he had always thought of as a hick town, he had been surprised by the size of the international population in Midville, particularly the Latino community. After drifting off for a moment, Conrad then refocused his attention on Jimmy.

“So what kind of review will we get in your fine publication?” Conrad asked with a smile.

“Pretty much what you just said, except longer,” Jimmy responded, his smile matching Conrad’s. “You guys are really competitive at this level. I wonder, though, what your buddy Troy Flemstone would do with these names,” he added.

Conrad burst out laughing at the thought of announcer Troy Flemstone trying to pronounce names like Chavez, Guevara, or Guerrero. Even the thought of him getting his tongue tied on Garcia or Gonzalez was amusing. “Let’s hope it never comes to that,” Conrad said.

After a brief pause, Conrad turned to directly face Jimmy and asked, “Have you thought about what we discussed last week?”

“You mean the whole sportswriting vs. news reporting thing?” Jimmy asked.

“Yeah, that,” Conrad said, already disappointed with Jimmy’s flip summary of what he had hoped was a heart-to-heart talk.

“Yes, I have,” Jimmy firmly responded. “You made some real good points about getting stuck covering the city morgue and stuff like that. But I also don’t want to spend the rest of my life at Division III field hockey and soccer games, either. I need to break news if I’m going to earn respect in this industry, and that needs to be my main focus.”

“I suppose that means you’re going to go ahead with digging into Freddie’s background,” Conrad said with a tone of resignation.

“I don’t know of any other story around here worth investing any effort in,” Jimmy shrugged. “I don’t have anything against the ferret, but you have to admit that there’s got to be a story to tell about why a guy decides to wear a ferret suit 24/7. Was he abused as a child? Is he hiding some deformity? Is he a wanted felon? Whatever it is, it’s likely to be newsworthy.”

Conrad knew Jimmy was right but still tried to re-direct him. “Even if there is a very good reason why he wants or needs the story to stay untold?” he asked Jimmy.

“If it’s true and I can prove it, it’s news,” Jimmy replied with a tone of finality.

Conrad picked up on the tone of Jimmy’s response and realized he had a new problem to deal with. Sure, he was curious about Freddie’s background, probably more so than Jimmy, but he also respected his privacy. Looking at the bigger picture, an expose of Freddie probably wouldn’t help him or the school. In fact, depending on what the story was, it could be a severely damaging public relations blow to the university. Rightly or wrongly, Freddie was the public face of Farnsworth University. Any attention given to the person inside the suit could diminish Freddie’s stature and, indirectly, the school’s presence in the community.

“Will you at least give me a heads up before anything goes into print and give me a chance to deal with it?” Conrad finally asked.

“Sure. For what it’s worth, I really hope it’s a good story,” Jimmy responded in a more conciliatory manner.

“Me too,” Conrad sighed.


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