Fiction from Web del Sol


Michael Martone

      My husband, I'll call him David, left me for my best friend. I'll call her Linda. Since then, I have found it difficult to sleep.
      I have taken to listening to the radio through the night. The radio is next to the bed, an old floor model filled with tubes that heat up and glow through the joints in the wood frame. My father gave it to me when I left home to live with my husband, I'm calling David. I used it then only as an end table next to the bed. I painted it a gloss red and covered it with house and garden magazines, the bottom one's back cover still sticks to the tacky enamel surface. I live in a city I'll call Fort Wayne.
      I listen to a local station, I'll call WOWO. It is the oldest station in town. It's been on the air since the beginning of radio. My father listened to the same station ever since he bought the radio consol on time. I have seen the payment schedule. He kept it in the drawer beneath the sad face of the staring dials and the frowning window scaled with AM numbers. He penciled in 37 each week after he walked downtown to a store I'll call The Grand Leader to turn over the installment.
      One night, when I couldn't sleep, I rolled over in bed and noticed for the first time since I had painted the radio red the two clunky knobs the size and shape of cherry cordials, one to tune and the other the power switch that also controls the volume. Without touching the tuning knob, I turned the radio on, but nothing happened. Nothing happened even after I waited the amount of time I thought it would need to warm up. I turned on the brass table lamp perched atop the pile of wrinkled magazines. I had never plugged in the old radio. I rolled out of bed and onto the floor. Behind the radio was an outlet where the table lamp and the modern clock radio were connected. I had the other radio's plug in hand as I pulled out what I thought would be the plug for the clock radio. It was the plug for the lamp instead. In the dark, I scraped the walls of the bedroom with the prongs of the radio's plug looking for the outlet never thinking to reinsert the plug of the lamp. I had painted the walls a linen white about the same time I had painted the radio red. When I found the outlet the radio lit up inside, green light leaking out every seam and joint. I was sitting on the floor when WOWO faded in, the station my father listened to years ago when he listened to this radio before I was even born.
      The next few weeks I listened through the nights and into the morning. I left the radio on during the day for the cats who I'll call Amber, Silky, and Scooter as I stumbled off to work each day. They liked the purring box. In the evenings when I staggered back in I'd find them attached like furry limpets to shiny skin of the radio. The paint, constantly baked by the glowing tubes, gave off the stink of drying paint again and steeped the bedroom in that hopeful new smell it had when I first moved here with the man I am calling David.
      The later it got at night the further back in time WOWO seemed to go with the music it played. After midnight scratchy recordings of Big Bands were introduced by Listo Fisher who pretended the broadcast still came from the ballrooms of the Hotel Indiana. Alfonse Bott, Tyrone Denig and the Draft Sisters, the bothers Melvin and Merv LeClair and their orchestras, Smoke Sessions and his Round Sound, the crooner Dick Jergens who sang with Bernard "Fudge" Royal and his band or with Whitney Pratt's Whirlwinds, and Bliss James singing the old standards. It was as if I had tuned into my father's era, the music slow, unamplified, and breathy. Toward morning the sound was like a syrup with wind instruments scored in octave steps, the brass all muted, the snares sanded, and the bass dripping.
      Bob Sievers, who had been the morning farm show host at WOWO for as long as I could remember, came on at five. I had first seen him, though I had heard him for a long time before that, when I was in high school. On television, he was selling prepaid funerals to old people. He didn't look like his voice. And now I heard that voice again thanking Listo Fisher for standing watch at night and then cueing the Red Birds, a local quartet, to sing "Little Red Barn" as he dialed the first of ten Highway Patrol barracks to ask what the night had been like in the state I am calling Indiana.
      The sputtering ring of the telephones on the radio sounded swaddled in cotton. It was five in the morning. My head melted into the flannel of the pillow slip. The only sound was the mumble of the connection as a desk sergeant answered in a place called Evansville. He whispered a sleepy monaural hello encased in the heavy Bakelite of an ancient telephone. Bob Sievers, his bass voice lowered a register, identified himself and ask about the weather down there in the southern part of the state. The flat accents of the trooper reported snow had fallen overnight but that the major roads were salted and plowed.
      I waited for the next question, lifting my head from the pillow. Bob Sievers voice dove even lower, "And Sergeant were there any fatals overnight." For a second I listened to the snow of static, the voltage of the phone picked up by the sensitive studio microphones. "No, Bob," the trooper answered, "a quiet night." Instantly I would hear the ratchet of the next number being dialed, the drowsy cop, the weather outside Vincennes, then South Bend, Terre Haute, Jasper, then on the toll road in Gary, Indianapolis, Mount Vernon, Monon, and finally Peru. At each post, the search for causalities, the crumbs of accidents. Every now and then someone would have died in a crash. The trooper sketched in the details. The road, its conditions, the stationary objects, the vehicles involved, and the units dispatched withholding the identities of the deceased until the notification of the next of kin.
      There were nights I waited for such notification. I saw my husband behind the wheel of my best friend's car, his face stained by the dash light of the radio. He is listening to WOWO, the big bands of the early morning, when the car begins to pirouette on the parquet of black ice. I know that the radio is still playing, a miracle, after the car buries itself in a ditch of clattering cattails sprouting from the crusted snow. The last thing he hears, the car battery dying, is the quick muffled dialing of Bob Sieves, his morning round of calls, and the hoarse routine replies. I think to myself I am still some kind of kin. Those nights, I practiced my responses to the news brought to me by men in blue wool serge huddled on my stoop.
      WOWO is a clear channel station, 50,000 watts. At sunset smaller stations on nearby interfering frequencies stop broadcasting and the signal can be picked up as far south as Florida and out west to the Rockies. Just north the iron in the soil damps the power, soaking up the magnetic waves before they spread into Canada. Listening, I felt connected to the truck drivers in Texas and the night auditors on the outer banks who called into Listo Fisher and told him they were listening. Often they would ask "Where is Fort Wayne?" as if they had tuned into a strange new part of the planet. Listo Fisher would take requests, explain patiently the physics and the atmospheric quirks that allowed the callers to hear themselves on the radio they were listening to broadcast by a station days of travel away from where they were. "It's a miracle," some yahoo in a swamp would yodel.
      One night in the middle of a beguine, a voice came on the radio speaking what I found out later was Spanish. For a moment in my sand bag state, I thought it must be part of the song, a conductor or an announcer turning to a ballroom full of people in a hotel, both the people and the hotel now long turned to dust and the evening just charged molecules on magnetic tape, saying to them good night and good-bye. Thank you for the lovely evening. We've been brought to you by United Fruit and now are returning you to your local studios. But the voice kept talking, rising and falling, the r's rolling and the k's clotting together. Every once and again I would recognize a word, its syllables all bitten through and the whole thing rounded out by a vowel that seemed endless, howling or whispered.
      The telephone rang. It was three in the morning.
      "What the hell is that?" my father asked. The words were in both my ears now. I could hear the speech in peaks playing on his radio across town, like a range of mountains floating above clouds.
      "Dad, what are you doing up?"
      "Listening to the radio when this blather came over it."
      I asked him why he wasn't asleep instead. The radios continued to emit the speech, a rhythm had begun to emerge beneath the words, not unlike the beguine it had preempted. Just then there was a huge crash of static. I heard my father say, "What the," but it wasn't static it was applause, and as it trailed off, I heard the voice say the same phrase over again a few times, starting up again, as the cheering subsided.
      "Oh," my father said, "you're awake then."
      "Of course, I'm awake," I lied to him. "You woke me up." I asked him again why he was awake.
      "I haven't slept in years."
      "Well, go to sleep, Dad."
      "You go to sleep then."
      "I am asleep. I've been asleep," I said.
      "What's that crap on the radio?"
      "Change the station, Dad. Maybe it's the station."
      "But I always listen to WOWO."
      I hung up and listened to WOWO. The speech continued for two more hours punctuated by bursts of applause the sound then breaking into a chirping chant, steady at first then going out of phase, melting back into itself and the rising hiss of more applause. The voice would be there again. It seemed to plead or joke. It warned, begged. It egged on. It blamed and denied, sniffed its nose. It sneered. It promised. I could hear it tell a story. It explain what it had meant. It revised. It wooed. Toward the morning it grew hoarse. It grew hoarse and dried up. It wound up repeating a word, which seemed too long to me, again and again until that word was picked up by the listeners on the radio who amplified it into a cloud of noise that this time was static. Then Bob Sievers was on the radio and his theme song was playing:
      Let me lay my head on bed of new mown hay, hey hey!

      There are so many secrets in this world. About the time my husband, who I'll call David, and my best friend, who I'll call Linda, started sleeping together, two silver blimps were launched in a swamp south of a city I'll call Miami. They were tethered there to slabs of freshly cured concrete a thousand feet below. I think of those balloons floating there, drifting toward each other, perhaps bumping together finally, and rebounding in excruciating slow-motion. The wires connecting them to the ground shored them up, I imagine, so their nuzzling was reigned in, the arc of rotation proscribed. They moved hugely, deliberately like whales in a tropic bay. Their shadows shifted on the spongy ground below. I am almost asleep, dreaming, when the nodding blimps turn into the slick bodies of my husband and my best friend sliding beneath a skin of sheets, moving as deliberately and as coyly until they are tangled up in each others embrace and then that Zeppelin in New Jersey bursts into flames and melts into itself, the fire spilling from the night sky. There is a voice on the radio crying how horrible, how horrible to see the skeleton of the airship support, for an instant, a white skin of flames.
      The curious in south Florida were told that the bobbing balloons were part of a weather experiment, a lie. Their real purpose was to hold aloft a radio antenna aimed at Cuba. It was propaganda radio. The voice I had heard was Castro's, Cuban radio's response, jamming the signal spilling south from the balloons, overflowing on the clear channel all the way north.
      For a long time our government denied what was going on and the speeches continued through the night. I bought a Spanish to English dictionary and translated one word I'd catch out of the one thousand perhaps that flashed by, leafing through the book until I found something I thought sounded like what I had heard. He's talking about a ship, I'd think. And he is sitting or he sat once. Overlooking the sea specked with ships. Now there are roosters. Ships, the holds filled with roosters, who crow out the watch. Mothers waiting for the ships, I thought, at the docks, shielding their eyes in the sun, empty baskets balanced on their heads.
      WOWO's ratings went up as people stayed awake late into the night to listen to the interruptions, the speeches with the static of applause. And, as if they realized they now had an audience, the programers in Havana began to salt the broadcast with cuts of Latin music, bosa novas and sambas, anthems and pretty folk songs plucked out on guitars with squeaky strings. Downtown, during the day, I began to see people napping at their desks, sleepwalking to the copying rooms and the coffee machines. More men smoked cigars. High school Spanish classes were assigned to listen to the station at night, meeting at their teachers' houses for slumber parties. So tired, we were infected by our dreams. The days grew warmer. I had been unable to sleep for so long the measured pace of the people around me matched my own endless daily swim through the thick sunlit air. We moved like my cats, lounged and yawned, stared at each other with half-closed eyes.
      I listened for Fidel at night. Over time, I counted on him. I translated his rambling monologues in my own dreamy way as he talked about his island with its green unpronounceable trees, the blooming pampas where butterflies from the north nested in the fall, lazy games of catch performed by children in starchy white uniforms chattering in a dialect that predates Columbus. You see, I was ready for someone to talk to me, to explain everything to me. How I looked like a movie star in those sunglasses I wore continually. How fires smell in the cane fields as the sugar carmelizes. I thought I understood romance for once and martyrdom, maybe even revolution. This ropey language, the syrup of its sound, an elixir, was on the air now all the time, crept into my bed each night.
      What would my father say? It filled me up, crowding out the mortgaged furniture, the old sad music, the phone calls to the police, and all the names, especially the names I've now forgotten were ever attached to those other frequencies through which I drifted.

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