Sometime between going to sleep on a perfectly ordinary Tuesday night and waking up on Wednesday morning, Jake Jarvis became a bona fide sex symbol.
The news of his official studliness didn’t faze him much at first. Possibly because he hadn’t had his coffee yet. Or maybe because sex-symbol-dom was a state of mind, and it was hard to slide into it while sprawled in your underwear with Don King hair. Either way, Jake was content to chalk up the revelation to a crazy dream and go back to Snoresville.
That tactic became impossible when someone jumped on his bed, joggling his sleep-deprived brain in the process.
“Didja hear it?” his four-year-old son Noah asked as he jumped. His Spongebob Squarepants pajamas were a blur of motion. “Didja hear it? Didja hear it?”
“I mmmph.” Jake’s lips were still asleep. He smacked them together. “I heard it.”
“You were on TV again!” Noah said. “It’s not even your reg’lar time.”
“I know. Weird, huh?” For the first time since awakening, Jake realized he hadn’t imagined the six a.m. spot he’d groggily blinked at a few minutes ago. Noah had seen it, too. It had been real.
Tune in to KKZP “Sports at Six” with anchor Jake Jarvis, L.A.’s studliest sportscaster. He’ll make you want to get into the game...and play!
Groping for the horn-rims beside his alarm clock, Jake slipped on his eyeglasses and peered through them at his bedroom’s TV screen. The logo bobbing in the lower right-hand corner was for Noah’s favorite channel, Nickelodeon.
That wasn’t unusual. Noah’s typical wake-up routine was to drag his pillow and blanket into Jake’s room, then curl up on the floor until cartoon overload jolted Jake awake. Today, since Noah was training for the Flying Wallendas on Jake’s bed, he must have decided the usual process was taking too long.
“Did you just change the channel, Noah?”
“I was on Nick?”
“Yup.” Jump, jump. “Cool, huh?”
“Yeah. Really cool.” Especially with the double-entendre-style delivery of that “get into the game...and play” line. Sure. That was going to be a million laughs over goldfish crackers and juice boxes at the daycare center today. When the other parents of Toddler Time kids caught that commercial, Jake was going to have some major explaining to do.
He blinked again at the TV, nearsightedly trying to focus. Nickelodeon was for kids. Why would anyone buy local advertising space for sports coverage on a kids’ channel, especially during the preschool-oriented “Nick Jr.” time slot?
Then it hit him. Women. Mothers, in particular. Women watched “Nick Jr.” right along with their rugrats, while getting ready for Gymboree and cell-phoning their Mommies & Me group members. Somehow, someone at KKZP had decided women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five were a target demographic for Jake’s sportscast. But why?
Before he could figure it out, Noah jumped hard enough to dislodge the TV remote he’d been holding. It fell from his pudgy hand and landed with a thwack on Jake’s forehead.
“Bull’s-eye, Ace,” he said, laughing as he rubbed near his eyebrow. “For that, you win the booby prize.”
“Booby prize? What’s that?”
“A daddy hug! Rrrrrr!” Jake growled.
He tackled Noah by the ankles and flopped him onto the bed. The sheets and comforter fluffed beneath the impact. Noah giggled, already knowing what was coming. Jake tickled him, captured him in a bear hug, then tickled some more. Finally, when they were laughing too hard to remain coordinated, he rolled them both over and allowed his son to emerge the victor.
“I beat you again!” Noah crowed from his position straddling Jake’s middle. A wide smile beamed from his face. Eyes as blue as Jake’s own shone from beneath sandy little-boy bangs. He lunged forward, nearly knocking Jake’s chin with his head, and locked both chubby arms around his neck. “And I’m never letting you go!”
Affection squeezed Jake’s heart. In that moment, he hoped Noah never would let him go. Wrapped in his son’s clumsy embrace, inhaling the mingled scents of Crayolas and soap on his skin, he felt uniquely happy. He hugged Noah back, doing his best to imprint the memory of this feeling on his mind.
Given the way the boy had come to him, Jake couldn’t shake the fear that somehow Noah might vanish just as unexpectedly as he’d arrived. Jake had never planned to become a single father. But now that he had...well, Noah was the most important person in his life. He would have done anything for him, and had—including changing diapers, watching “TeleTubbies,” and saying “tinkle” on purpose to the Toddler Time mothers while discussing potty-training. As a father, he was in for the long haul.
As a sex symbol, though...well, this was Jake’s first official time at it. He had no clue how to proceed. Extra publicity was not what he wanted—not now that he had Noah. Their lives were crazy enough, with the occasional autograph seeker at In And Out Burger and the giggling, whispered conversations that followed them through the grocery checkout line at Ralph’s. He wanted normalcy for Noah. Normalcy, ordinariness, and “Leave it to Beaver”-style constancy.
He’d get it, Jake vowed. No matter what.
“So, how ‘bout we get some breakfast?” he asked Noah. “I think there’s still some leftover pizza from last night.”
“Yay!” Noah yelled.
He launched himself from the bed, exactly as Jake had known he would, and ran from the bedroom with a whoop. Following slightly less energetically and without the “Blues Clues” slippers, Jake pulled on a pair of drawstring-waist cotton pants and made his way to their apartment’s kitchen. There, springtime sunlight streamed through the window. Lego Duplo creations littered the countertop. A basketball occupied one of the four chairs in the breakfast nook, and a baseball and mitt served as an impromptu centerpiece at the table.
Dwarfed by the magnet-covered refrigerator door, Noah struggled to remove the cardboard pizza box.
“Let me help.” Jake slid it out. Balancing it on his fingertips, he swiveled in his best Harlem Globetrotters-style move to twirl it onto the countertop. While Noah retrieved two paper plates from the drawer, Jake opened the box.
“Mmmm,” he and Noah said in unison, gazing at the pizza semicircle.
Jake hefted a chilly slice. He nodded. “Go long.”
Noah did, holding up his plate in both hands with practiced expectation. He caught the slice of pepperoni pizza which Jake—after an exaggerated windup—carefully lobbed toward him.
“Six points!” they shouted.
Jake switched on the radio to hear “Sports Talk.” He and Noah settled down at the table, happily munching pizza for breakfast. Such was their life together, and Jake liked it that way.
Sure, this new studliest sportscaster ad campaign might put a temporary crimp in things, but he figured he could handle it. He’d explain his position to his managing editor—maybe even the news director—and they’d rethink the promos. Everything would return to normal. It was only a matter of time.
~ ~ ~
Time obviously moved differently in the official sex symbol zone. By the time Jake had showered, shaved, and dressed in a pair of khakis with a crewneck pullover, he’d heard the “Nick Jr.” studliest sportscaster spot twice more. It may have been his imagination, but he’d have sworn the level of suggestiveness in the female voiceover’s tone quadrupled each time the words “...and play” were repeated.
Shaking off the thought, Jake paused at his apartment’s front door with the usual armload of travel supplies—books, toys, water bottles, HandiWipes—in a canvas KKZP bag.
“Noah? You ready?”
His son emerged from the hallway with a G.I. Joe action figure in his hands and a frown of concentration on his face. “Uh-huh.”
“Is that what you’re wearing?”
Noah glanced downward. Shrugged.
“What about the stuff we picked out last night?” The parenting magazines recommended giving your child “easy choices” to build their self-esteem. Jake tried to do that whenever possible. “The little Levis and the Lakers T-shirt?”
Noah shrugged again. Jake swept his gaze over his son’s plaid shorts, cowboy boots, tuxedo-style ruffled shirt, and snorkel mask with hose. “Are you wearing clean underwear?”
Noah bit his lip as he wrenched G.I. Joe’s arm in a commando move. “Yeah.”
“Fair enough. Let’s go.”
Leaning forward, Jake wrapped his free arm around Noah’s middle. He swept the laughing boy upward and balanced him on his shoulder, then pivoted to leave the apartment. The way he saw it, a dad had to save his energy for the important things—fairness, bedtime, and teaching his kid how to take it like a man when Miss Suzy ran out of his favorite color of Play-Doh at arts-and-crafts time. In the overall scheme of things, wardrobe didn’t really matter.
In the car on the way to Toddler Time, Jake heard another studliest sportscaster spot on drive-time radio. And then...
“Look, Daddy!” Noah said, pointing from his buckled-in booster seat in the Accord’s backseat. “You’re on the bus!”
“I’m not on the bus. I’m in the car with you.”
“You’re on the bus! Look!”
Stuck in Santa Monica Freeway traffic, Jake looked. He groaned. There, pasted on the side of the nearest city bus, was his face. His head and torso, too, in a three-quarter shot obviously designed to make the most of his studly sportscaster image. The whole thing loomed at least five feet high, a horror he could barely stand to contemplate. Who wanted to see their own nose in Giganta-Vision? His left nostril was the size of Noah’s head.
Below a new tag line—Jake Jarvis, Sports at Six: Scoring has never been like this!—Jake’s picture grinned at him. In it, he’d rolled up his shirtsleeves and loosened his tie. His hair was suggestively tousled. His horn-rims were not on his face where they could do some good, but were held playfully in one hand while he gazed myopically into the camera. Between the glasses, the partially unbuttoned shirt, and the gaze—which could have passed for a smolder, given its optically challenged lack of focus—he looked like a come-on for the Smarty Pants Dating Service.
It was worse than he’d thought. These KKZP promos might have begun in official sex symbol territory, but now they were veering toward the official sex object zone. This must be what the Victoria’s Secret models felt like when their pictures wound up on billboards for men the world over to hoot at, slobber over, and talk about. It was almost enough to make him regret the catalog subscription that came to his apartment.
Dragging his gaze from the ad, Jake glanced in the supplemental child-view mirror clipped to his rearview. Noah was staring out the window at his father’s Godzilla-sized schnozzle. His mouth was agape. He’d even abandoned G.I. Joe to the Dr. Seuss hardcover minefield beside him. This couldn’t be good.
“Noah, let’s do the Bananaphone song.” Jake dropped in a Raffi CD. Cheerful kids’ music filled the car. Usually Noah loved Raffi music, with its silly lyrics and upbeat melodies. Striving to make his deep voice hit the notes, Jake sang, “Bananaphone...boo boo be doo be do!”
It didn’t work. They inched forward in traffic, Jake singing and Noah staring. In the convertible in front of them, two women pointed at the Jake ad. One blew kisses toward it. The other—the driver—took advantage of the slow traffic to pivot toward the city bus and shimmy at the ad. Her breasts jiggled and the car rocked. Both women giggled.
That was it. Jake scanned the freeway signs, got his bearings, and changed lanes. The exit—and a faster path to Toddler Time via surface streets—loomed ahead, and he meant to take it. He had to get Noah to daycare and hurry to the station, where he’d settle this mess once and for all.
~ ~ ~
At Toddler Time, though, his reception wasn’t what he expected. Jake had no sooner gotten himself, Noah, and Noah’s stuff out of the car than he heard the first wolf whistle.
He wheeled around. No one else was in the parking lot, but the Toddler Time facility’s front door was swooshing closed behind a mom and her little girl. Frowning, Jake took Noah’s hand and led him inside.
“Mr. Jarvis! So nice to...see you,” the receptionist said. Her up-and-down perusal suggested she’d like to see much more of him. So did her eyebrow waggle. “You’re looking terrific today. New workout program?”
“Nah,” Jake said, reaching for the sign-in log. “Not unless I’m doing it in bed.”
“In bed? Mmmm. You don’t say?”
“I mean, in my sleep. Working out while I’m sleeping. Sleepacizing. So I’m not aware of it.” Geez, this sex symbol stuff was hard on a guy’s equilibrium. Jake finished signing Noah in, then helped him put his things in his assigned cubby. “Between Noah and the usual eleven-to-seven, I don’t have time for much more than a daily run and some weight lifting. The gym has a babysitting service, though. I think Noah’s really found a buddy there who—”
“Short or not, those workouts are working,” she purred, eyeballing his biceps and chest. “Keep it up.”
Jake blinked, feeling puzzled. He’d been bringing Noah to Toddler Time for over two years now. No one had ever flirted with him before. He’d always figured it was because he and the staff and the mothers had bonded on another level—a Noah level—which precluded anything else. Really, once you’d discussed your child’s stranger anxiety, biting issues, and penchant for running through the house naked, flirtation was beside the point.
But as he entered the four-year-olds room and greeted Miss Suzy, he realized it—apparently—wasn’t. Miss Suzy and her assistant both gave him giggly hellos and surreptitiously sneaked glances at Jake while he double-tied Noah’s shoes. They exclaimed over his haircut and examined the fit of his khakis. They treated him like...like a piece of meat!
As he was about to leave, Miss Suzy sidled up. “So I was wondering...do you really need those glasses?”
“Only if I want to see.”
Giggle. “I thought maybe they were just props.”
“Nope. With me, what you see is what you get.”
“Oooh!” Both women squealed, blushing. “We wish!”
Jake gave them a stern look. So far, he’d avoided the groupie effect at Toddler Time. But if it started now...
“So you’ve both seen the ad, then?” he asked.
Suzy nodded. “‘If you want more action—’”
“‘Jake Jarvis is your man!’” her assistant added.
“‘KKZP Sports at Six,’” they concluded gleefully.
He groaned. Evidently, there was another one out there. Who knew what part of him—now that his nose had been bussed all over town—had been glossified and expanded to skyscraper status?
“Okay, okay.” He put out his hands, palms down, in an attempt to calm their giggles. “Is this going to be a problem? I’m putting a stop to the promos this morning, but until then—”
“No, sir. Not a problem,” Suzy said, sobering immediately. “I’m very sorry. There won’t be another word about it.”
Somewhat reluctantly—and with a final salacious visual sweep of his torso—her assistant agreed. Jake nodded.
See? he told himself, reassured by their cooperative air. This whole mess could be handled capably and quickly. By the end of the day, everything would be back to normal.
He crouched down to hug Noah good-bye. “See you later, buddy.”
His son flung his arms wholeheartedly around Jake’s neck. He squeezed with all the force a two-foot person could muster, making the enormous sacrifice of ignoring all the Toddler-Time-only toys in the corner.
“Here’s a kiss to keep for later.” Jake opened Noah’s little palm and pressed a kiss in its center. Performing his part in their morning ritual, Noah fisted the kiss as he lowered his hand. Then he shoved his hand into his shorts pocket and opened his fingers, releasing the kiss there for safekeeping.
“Love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, too. See you soon.”
Jake winked, pushing away the sense of melancholy that always struck him when saying good-bye to Noah. With his back still facing the room’s doorway, he started to rise.
Another wolf whistle hit the air.
He straightened to confront the culprit—a five-foot-nothing mother of three with a baby on her hip and a defiant expression on her face.
“Hey, my figure might be going downhill,” she said, “but my imagination is as limber as ever. Nice tushie.”
“Nice tushie! Nice tushie!” the Toddler Time preschoolers echoed, exhibiting their usual fascination with potty humor. “Nice tushie!”
Jake covered his eyes and bolted. This was a nightmare. He had to get to work, and fast.
~ ~ ~
Los Angeles’s KKZP-TV was located in a nondescript two-story building with a security guard in the lobby and no signs whatsoever on the outside of its gated compound. Finding it was easy enough if you knew where to look—but most people didn’t. The on-air talent liked it that way. So did the management, producers, and staff. Picketers, crazies, tourists, and desperate aspiring actors looking for any chance to get on TV could make getting to work a real challenge. The station’s incognito policy made avoiding those inconveniences possible for everyone.
Having weathered both cross-town traffic and an appalling billboard sighting (Sports at Six with Jake Jarvis: He knows how the game is played!) on the way, Jake half-expected to find a clump of screaming, shimmying, kiss-blowing women gathered by the sign designating his reserved parking spot. As he pulled in though, his erstwhile fan club wasn’t there.
Okay, so maybe this problem wasn’t as big as he thought it was.
Then he saw the ten-foot banner decorating the lobby. Hanging directly above the security post, it depicted a photographed version of himself lounging poolside. Drops of tanning oil beaded on the bare skin of his tanned torso and legs, and a skimpy Speedo covered the bare...essentials of the rest of him. Sliding along his body were the words “Jake Jarvis: the man with the action. For full coverage, watch Sports at Six.”
Jake saw red. After the bizarre and difficult morning he’d had, this, this was the final straw.
It was the Speedo that did it. He’d never in his life worn a banana hammock like that in public. He’d be damned if he ever would. Furious, Jake checked in with security, stalked down the hallway through the newsroom, and drew a bead on his managing editor at the end of a row of cubicles.
Sid Spielman, Jake’s long-time boss at KKZP news, jerked at the sound of his name. He glanced sideways. His eyes widened—undoubtedly at the Incredible-Hulk-style fury on Jake’s face.
“Jake!” Sid bowed his gray-haired head to dismiss the administrative assistant he’d been talking with. She headed toward the wire service room carrying an armload of papers, leaving the two men alone. “If it isn’t the man of the hour. Was that a bellow of delight I heard thirty seconds ago? Or has Skip been editing his fluff piece on mating rhinos again?”
“It was a battle cry. Damn it, Sid! You ambushed me. Do you know what I had to go through just to get to work this morning?”
“Legions of adoring female fans between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five, I hope.”
“Wolf whistles! Shimmying! Innuendo.” Jake clenched his fists to keep from raking his hands through his hair with frustration. “Thanks to your new ad campaign, I’ve become a...a boy toy overnight.”
“So? So when I was pumping gas this morning, a redheaded jogger swerved from her running path and pinched my ass.”
“And that’s a problem because...?”
Sid moved in with a serious expression. “How old was she? Does she watch TV? Does she watch the news?”
As a managing editor, Sid definitely had a one-track mind. Shaking his head, Jake put both hands on his boss’s shoulders. “You’re not hearing me. My life is turning upside down, thanks to your ads. I want them stopped.”
“You’re contractually obligated to perform advertising services.”
“Fine. I’ll tape a nice series of ads for you. Without the Bain de Soleil and the banana hammock.”
“Banana hammock?” Sid looked confused, then amused. “Oh, right. The lobby banner. Yeah, it’s a miracle what the graphics guys can do with a computer these days. You take a simple picture of a guy at the office pool party last summer—”
“Strip him of his dignity—“
“—swap his trunks for a Speedo—“
“Erase all pretense of professionalism—“
“—add a cabana boy tan, and voilà!” Sid grinned. “Sex sells, you know. I’m positive you’re not naïve enough to believe that looks don’t matter in broadcast journalism.”
“I know that, Sid. I put up with putting mousse in my hair and wearing suits on the air, just like everyone else. But I’ll be damned if I’ll be made into a laughingstock.”
“Those whistling, pinching women weren’t laughing, Jake. They were responding.” Sid took Jake’s arm and led him toward his nearby cubicle, where he leaned against the desk with his arms folded. “The phone’s been ringing off the hook. L.A. Magazine wants to interview you. The New Times is pitching a piece. And that’s in addition to the coverage we’ve got planned on our own ‘Wake Up, L.A.’”
Amber Nielson, the blonde and freckled host of the lifestyles segment of KKZP’s morning show, popped up from a neighboring work area. She nodded. “Yeah. See me when you’re done, will you, Jake?”
He groaned. Amber’s typical lifestyle segments included features on Go-Go dancing fish, piercings for your pet, origami as a career choice, and “extreme” knitting. They were, to put it politely, fluffier than cotton candy. Jake didn’t want to be cotton candy. He might have fallen into sportscasting as a second career choice, but he took it damned seriously now.
“I. Want. Those. Ads. Stopped,” he said.
“Can’t. They’re critical. The most important demographic today is women aged twenty-one to forty-five. They’re the ones making eighty-five percent of the buying decisions. They’re the ones advertisers want to reach. They’re the ones we need to appeal to if we want to survive.”
“Fine. I’ll speak to a few garden clubs.”
“That’s not enough anymore. These women want more. Much more. And that’s what you’re going to give them.”
Uh-oh. “What’s what I’m going to give them?”
“More of you. That’s the number one request we get in viewer mail, especially from women. They want to see more of L.A.’s studliest sportscaster. More, more, more.”
“I’m beginning to feel lucky the graphics guys left me my banana hammock.”
Sid grinned. “Ever heard of ‘Dream Date?’”
Jake nodded warily, willing to see where his managing editor was going with this apparent non sequitur. “I’m familiar with it.”
Everyone was familiar with it. It was one of their parent network’s hottest prime time game shows—a cross between “Blind Date” and “The Newlywed Game,” with a little reality TV thrown in.
“Good,” Sid said. “Because as part of our new publicity campaign, you’re going to be a contestant. Congratulations!”
(end of excerpt)