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[personal profile] villagecharm
I apparently can't write anything under 8,000 words these days. Well, a productive use of a snowed-in Saturday, at any rate.



When I woke up this morning, my leg was still gone. Goddammit. I miss that thing, man.

You’re right to point out that I shouldn’t be surprised, since this April will mark a decade since I lost it. But it still feels odd, after a particularly vivid dream in which I’m toddling around on both my pins, happy as can be, to wake up and see that in reality I’m the Amazing Prosthetic Man. Do you have an idealized version of yourself that you see in dreams – maybe younger, maybe skinnier, maybe taller? I know a guy who says every time he pictures himself, he’s never wearing glasses, even though he’s had them since the third grade. That’s me and my leg, I guess.

Before we go any further, too, I’d like to correct my embarrassing use of that omnipresent euphemism: I didn’t “lose” my leg, like one night I came home from a party and frantically checked all my pockets for it. Shrapnel from an improvised explosive device so badly damaged it that it had to be surgically removed, a process for which I was blessedly not conscious.

In reality, then, my leg isn’t “lost,” it’s gone, vamoosed, extricated, severed, hacked off, arrived at the great sock store in the sky. I mean, it’s a minor point, but it’s one of those things that really irritates me, like when people say someone “passed” instead of “died.” Just say “died”! It’s going to happen to all of us, sooner or later. Why be so delicate about something that literally happens to every single human being? Cheese and crackers!

Listen, I’m really sorry. This is the worst suicide note I’ve ever written. Why don’t we back up?

##

The first question you probably have is “Why me? Why is this person I’ve never met sending me his suicide note?” Honestly, I don’t have a good answer for that.

It’s rude to answer a question with a question, so forgive my lack of manners here: Who else would I send it to? I could send it to my ex-wife, except she doesn’t exist, as I’ve never been married. Parents? Both dead. Girlfriend? It’s not going to amaze you to learn that I’ve been single ever since I broke up with Caitlynn, the waitress at Pacheco’s who had night terrors and slept with a gun under her futon. I really thought we clicked!

But she split two years ago when she joined a cult in New Hampshire that believed therapeutic massage was the only true way of communicating with the Divine. Last I heard, she had attained the Level Above Human and moved to Hooksett with a guy named Seth who uses a chainsaw to make bear sculptures out of tree stumps. God bless them all, Caitlynn and Seth and the bears.

So who does that leave? Ajax, my business partner. Honestly, the thought terrifies me. Even though she would be reading this after my death, I have this powerful fear that she would still find a way to kick my ass for burdening her with my terrible feelings.

People have hinted to me that they suspect our barely suppressed mutual suspicion is an elaborate ruse to hide our true feelings for one another – romantic feelings, most people say without saying it. I can assure you that is not the case: Ajax, as you know, is an ex-Animal Liberation Front bravo and super militant lesbian who once lived off the grid with seven other women, plotting to disrupt the patriarchy by bombing Dallas Cowboys games. And I’m, well, me. Our wariness of each other is wholly sincere.

The first time we ever spoke, she told me that even though I had been out of the Army for years, I was still a blood-stained spear carrier for white male imperialism, and when I jauntily replied that I carried an M16A2 rather than a spear, she squinted her eyes at me in a way that, were I a native of a Mediterranean peasant culture, would have sent me screaming to the priest to have the evil eye taken off me.

That works to our advantage, though. There’s no question of romance and not much friendship between us, so our decisions about the shop are always pragmatic and sensible. Each one of us is a hard worker with skills that compliment the other: I’m good with my hands and have lots of ideas, and she’s an accomplished artisan in several areas and always remembers to go to the post office when we have to mail something.

The truth is, in the five years we’ve run The Shuttered Room together, we’ve developed what I think is a genuine mutual respect, which has its source both in our dedication to running a small business in an unwelcoming economic environment, and in our meticulously maintained lack of interest in each others’ lives outside the shop.

One day, for example, someone called for her and left a message saying, “Oh, just tell her that her girlfriend called” and I was so appalled at the thought of a tender, loving Ajax (maybe, I don’t know, feeding each other tofu chunks at the dinner table and giggling???) that I had to sit down for a full five minutes and collect myself. I never gave her the message. She would have been unable to forgive me.

So imagine her rage if she were to read the following: “I love you, Ajax, in my own weird way. I’m sorry that I’m leaving you with the shop to run on your own and I hope that some day you can forgive me.”

That can never happen! It would be a bigger betrayal of our relationship than the suicide itself. She would find a way – my town has something of a dark reputation when it comes to this sort of thing – to reanimate my corpse and blow it up with all those explosives she had planned to use on America’s Team. I would deserve it, but that doesn’t mean I want to experience it, you know?

So, that leaves you: my favorite star of pornographic films.

##

Don’t think of it that way! I never really found your films arousing; in fact, I found them frightening, which is kind of what attracted me to them. If you can’t really feel something on most days, then it’s nice to feel anything, even if it’s fear – my response to fright is generally a desire to understand what’s frightening me, and I’ll work at it until I solve it. This is actually how I cam to settle on suicide! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I made a compilation video of the talking parts from some of your films, where you’re berating the dudes having sex with you, the viewers you regard with imperial disdain, and even the crews working behind the camera – you really seem to have it in for that guy Vic!

I would play the compilation in the shop sometimes, both to serve notice that The Shuttered Room was not the genteel representative of Doily Country, New England that so many antique stores are, and also because it drove Ajax insane. She has very uncharitable things to say about you, but I think deep down she doesn’t mean most of them.

The grainy image of a petite young woman with raccoon eyes snarling obscenities at all the world was, in my estimation, the perfect ambience for The Shuttered Room – “Antiques, Oddities, The Horror Of Life,” as our sign out front advertised. Occasionally people would come in and look at our lovingly restored furniture alongside paintings of bleeding pro wrestlers and say, “OK, I see the antiques and the oddities, where’s the horror of life?” and I’d smile and raise my hand. Because it’s kind of true!

The work is demanding, as you know if you’ve ever run your own business (which I think you kind of do? Google isn’t so helpful when it comes to details about you). But I like doing it – I like the routine of coming in early (Ajax comes in at lunch and closes; she does not like mornings), dusting and straightening and trundling over to a small piece I might be restoring, talking with customers and dealing with online orders. Most of that is Ajax: generally, I find and fix the antiques, and she makes the crafts and sells them online. It’s a good combination; we keep the bills paid and make enough to occasionally hire teenagers to do the boring stuff part time while we fix old day beds or make quilts showing famous American mass murders, which is Ajax’s new obsession.

To be honest, I like being someone other than a Combat Wounded Veteran, which is a role people will never let you stop playing. Maybe you get the same kind of feeling as an ex-pornstar? In the beginning, I was pretty good about it, because I knew most people don’t know anyone who fought over there, and fewer people know someone missing a limb. But after years and years of the same questions and meaningless assurances that they want to thank me for my service (awesome, can I have better medical care, in that case? No? OK, your empty thanks have been noted!), I just got tired of it.

Kook Who Owns Local Shop suits me better these days, and I am a Kook, make no mistake. I revel in it, really. I live in the same house where I grew up, and my thing lately has been putting those little statues of the Virgin Mary in the front yard. First, a normal one, just one. Then, another. Then, one I painted in lurid green. Then a bright blue one. Eventually I started painting scripture quotes on the little half-shell things the statues come in. Then I found an old bathtub, and I was off to the races!

The best part of it is, my neighbors never say anything to me, even though they’re dying inside every time I install a new BVM. The guy across the street, a retired soccer coach from the high school, once approached me to ask if I had found religion, which was an innocuous way of saying, “What the fuck is with those fucking statues?,” and I just said, “Nope!”

But he is a guy who identifies himself in letters to the editor as “a Panama-era Army Reserve veteran” and who has a “Government Is The Problem, Not The Solution!!” sticker on his Toyota, and I am the Noble Army Cripple. He can’t say a critical word to me. Sometimes this whole disabled veteran thing is really sweet – my neighbors shovel my driveway in the winter, swallow their comments about my fucked-up decorations, and I get to eat free at Appleby’s on Veterans Day!

I hope you understand, then, that this suicide is not some delayed reaction to my experiences in combat or to my disabling wound. There is a suicide epidemic in the military, one that’s shamefully ignored by Congress and our grateful nation, but I’m not part of it: I haven’t even been in the military since before Hurricane Katrina. If you kill yourself 10 years after you graduate high school, you’re not committing teenage suicide, are you?

Nope, that’s not it at all. It’s the radios.

I’m killing myself because of the radios.

##

The radios were a legacy from my father. He collected them – antiques, all pre-war, none of that 1950s plastic crap – from estate sales and junk shops all over the region, lovingly restoring them in a workshop he built in our basement. Ordering tubes and parts from all over, to the point where the arrival of a slightly battered package in the mail from Bosnia or Winnipeg or Belize was no more exciting than taking out the trash on Monday nights.
I didn’t really care for the radios, to be honest. My dad would show me how he’d repair them, and I remember the excited, triumphant look in his eyes when he’d finally coax some stubborn old Air King or Cleartone back to life, a triumph invariably heralded by the voice of Jerry Remy calling a Sox game through the static.

My dad would bring me along on some of his excursions to buy these things, usually if the model in question needed two people to lift it, or if it was in a sketchy neighborhood – I was over six feet by the time I was 14, and muscular from playing sports. My father, shorter and more professorial, referred to me as “a juvenile deterrent.”

I remember one night in particular, when we had to go up to Quaker Hill to buy something from this guy named Otto – Otto! – who insisted both on meeting at night and being paid in cash. Quaker Hill was a great place to buy drugs, but it was not known for its antique radio collectors, and I was as nervous as my dad was, even though I was young and stupid and didn’t know enough to be nervous.

My father was actually more nervous about the radio than the neighborhood, telling me, if Otto were right about what he had for sale, “This will be our finest hour!” But my father suspected Otto was an idiot, a thought that made him squint and mutter.

I was underwhelmed with what Otto had to offer: this was a tiny, plastic radio colored a gross marbled red. It was not like the hulking Thomas Edison Phonograph, built in 1916, that he and I had hauled away, grunting and groaning, from a log cabin – an honest-to-Christ log cabin! – on the edge of a swamp near UConn; this looked like the postwar radios he had piled up on the floor of his workshop, which he disdained as “the sweepings of lesser imaginations.”

Otto and my father haggled over the price, as was customary with dad, and they finally settled on something. When the radio changed hands, Otto – who heretofore had been nervous and jumpy, his eyes scanning the room – suddenly seemed relieved.

“You dudes wanna do a celebration shot?” he asked.

“Thanks, Otto, but we’ve got a long drive,” my dad said, which was a lie.

“Cool, man. I gotta split town myself. Later!” Otto said, and he did that stupid devil horns thing with his hand.

Even as a dumb teenager, I knew enough not to say anything until we got back in the truck.

“So, this was not what you’re looking for, right?” I asked.

My father’s pokerface immediately dissolved into a Christmas morning grin.

“This, my boy, is a jen-ewe-ein ‘Tom Thumb Deco’ from 1938, cast in gorgeous catalin by the American Radio Manufacturing Company out of Boston, Massachusetts,” he said.

My lack of response was as good as a follow-up question.

“In other words, my boy, this. Is. Our. Finest. Hour! Thousands abed in Orford Parish will rue that they were not here to stand by our side as we slew the mighty Otto, and made off with his treasure! To hither and thither we go!”

“OK, Dad,” I said.

These were privileged moments, I now understand. Just me and dad, as it had been since mom died all those years ago; him, happy and joking in his corny way, thrilled by his radios and his successful haggling and the chance to share what he loved with his son, and me, more time with him than I’d ever have again.

Of course I didn’t appreciate it at the time, and by the time I appreciated it, it was too late. Dad was dying of dementia in a rented bed, I was broken and ruined by the war, and Otto, presumably, had gone to hell or Connaught.

It was like when I was little, too little to even remember, and my father would sing “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral,” that faux-Irish lullaby popularized by Bing Crosby, to me. At some point, when I was maybe three or four, he’d try to sing it to me and I’d get genuinely upset – “I’m not a baby!” I’d protest. “Lullabies are for babies!” And he’d just keep singing. Now, of course, no one sings to me.

I still have the Tom Thumb Deco, by the way. In its marbled red catalin, which singularly failed to impress my stupid teenage eyes, it’s worth about $9,000.

##

Shortly after I came home from the Army Medical Center, with a prosthetic leg and an outlook on life that I now admit was not the most upbeat, my father had the stroke. They didn’t accurately diagnose it for a full weekend, because Orford Parish Memorial is a hospital for doctors who graduate medical school with C+ averages, and lots of damage was done.

He seemed to recover in those first months, but before long he started having speech problems and difficulty remembering things. I lived at home – no wife, no leg, no prospects! – and would notice things, like the signature on his checks getting shakier and less certain. I made him go to the doctor after he couldn’t remember the lineup of the 1955 Boston Red Sox, his favorite of all time.

It was a long time before we got the diagnosis of vascular dementia, which proceeds through a series of small, almost imperceptible strokes, gradually starving the brain of blood and oxygen and causing symptoms similar enough to Alzheimer’s to be mistaken for the more common malady.

Before the doctors made up their minds, I had started doing more things around the house for him – cooking dinner (at which I was terrible), doing the laundry, that kind of thing. I offered to drive him around to the pharmacy and wherever, but he would have none of it – he was disgusted by my handicapped parking sticker.

“You’re not handicapped!” he’d say.

I’d roll up my pant leg and he’d make a dismissive motion with his hands.

“You’re fine!”

He was not fine. Cooking dinner and doing laundry turned into clipping his toenails and helping him up and down the stairs, and eventually to trying to bathe him and help him use the toilet. I say “trying to,” because these episodes – the one-legged son and the 68-year-old, ornery father suffering from dementia – were like Dadaist burlesques ruthlessly parodying the very act of human movement itself. If you’ve ever wondered why Disneyland doesn’t have a ride that simulates the act of giving your retirement-age father a shower, it’s because it’s no fun at all.

Whatever psychic smog I brought back with me from Sadr City was now joined to the toxicity of feeling like a failure ate being unable to care for my father, a conviction that became more secure after the doctors said he needed the kind of round-the-clock care that could best be provided in a nursing home.

Despite going to the nursing home every day, and carrying myself with what I hoped the staff perceived as an air of sincere menace, I knew that I was the kind of son who abandons his father to the care of strangers. It didn’t help that, in his rarer and rarer lucid moments, he’d demand that I drive him home, and then berate me for failing to comply.

“Some son you turned out to be!” he’d yell. “You’re dumping me here like an old mattress.”

“Dad,” I’d say, desperate not to look at his angry face. “This is the place you need to be. The people here can give you the best care.”

“I’m fine! Now go bring the truck around.” And on it went.

He died sometime overnight one February. They called me at five in the morning and I drove down to get his things. His body was lying in the bed – waxen and yellow and ice cold. I had seen dead bodies in much worse shape. I sat in the chair across from the bed and stared at what used to be my father until the janitor opened the door and said, “Hey, where do you want these boxes?”

Finally, I thought, I can kill myself.

That had been the plan more or less since the diagnosis came through, when I did enough reading on vascular dementia to realize that it is not a condition from which one recovers. I knew I couldn’t kill myself while my father was still alive – that would have been a total betrayal – so I passed the time taking classes at the community college and making a fanzine, like I had in my high school punk rock days.

You’re too young to remember fanzines, I suspect, and perhaps too young to remember when punk rock actually seemed threatening, but maybe I’m patronizing you. My fanzine, in any event, was not about music. It was called “Satan’s Kingdom,” which is the name of a park in my hometown (for real! If you call the little office where you can rent inner tubes to go rafting down the Hobomock River, they answer the phone, “Satan’s Kingdom. How may I help you?” Sometimes I call just to give myself a little treat), and it was dedicated entirely to the war, to my father’s illness, to bad news and ugly feelings in general.

It was not artful. It was full of drawings in black ink and mutilated newspaper photographs and writing that communicated nothing but bottomless self-loathing. I’d make maybe 25 copies on the Xerox machine at the Whiton Library (where no one ever goes, oddly, making it perfect for this sort of thing) and leave them at the little art gallery/performance space/coffee house downtown that’s run by the community college. I thought of each issue as a new suicide note.

But when my father died, I found myself curiously drained of the desire for self-destruction, at least in the near term. He left me everything in his will – house, estate, crappy car, radios, you name it – and although he wasn’t a wealthy man, I found myself suddenly among the ranks of the middle class. One of the classes I had taken at the community college while waiting to commit suicide was a program run by the state called the Entrepreneurial Boot Camp for Veterans, in which we learned about business skills, along with getting information on the array of low-interest loans and other perks designed to keep our fighting men and women productive members of society rather than troubled loners ascending our nation’s clock towers with high-powered rifles.

And I met Ajax; that helped, too. She accosted me at the art gallery/coffee shop when she saw me depositing another pile of copies of “Satan’s Kingdom.” She had read previous issues and liked them, and now that she saw the creator, she wanted to express her displeasure at my genitals.

“I really thought this was done by a woman, because so much of it actually rings true,” she said, and I laughed because that was the nicest compliment anyone had ever paid me.

For whatever reason, she kept talking to me, and before long we had a very rough plan to launch a joint venture that would enable us to pursue our mutual interest in confrontational art. One thing I had learned in the Entrepreneurial Boot Camp, though, nagged at me: we would need to make actual money for this venture to work.

“Hey, why don’t we sell antiques along with the stuff we make ourselves?” I said.

“Antiques?” she said, warily (although, after five years together, I can now attest that Ajax says basically everything with wariness). “Like what?”

“Well, how about radios?” I asked.

##

The radios basically paid our rent in the first year or so we were in business. As it turns out, more people are interested in buying Jet Age radios that make them think of “Mad Men” than in purchasing images of Assata Shakur stenciled onto pieces of plywood along with anti-imperialist slogans (I apologize for selling radios from the 1950s and 1960s, Dad; ours is a fallen world, what can I say?).

Eventually, once my father’s stock of old radios had been depleted, I even became adept at fixing the things myself, restoring damaged wood, replacing frayed cords, and using valve testers to check the integrity of the tubes I’d buy in odd places. Ajax found her stride, too, and before long our slightly Goth, slightly steampunk, all confrontational shop was making actual money. If it meant having to regularly turn down people trying to sell us fetal pigs or taxidermied owls, so what? Such were the risks of running a store that advertised “oddities.”

I don’t suppose I believe in the concept of happiness, but I was content enough, working six days a week at the shop (on the seventh, I rested; or, rather, I drove to auctions and estate sales looking for interesting old junk and, always, radios), maintaining a professionally successful but cheerfully unfriendly relationship with Ajax, and occasionally dating damaged women. I was not good at this last activity, I confess, and when Caitlynn left me for the delights of the cosmos I was happy enough to discover your oeuvre, madame, and let that sustain me.

I could have pleasantly gone along in this fashion until claimed by a brain aneurysm at the age of 50 or so, but such a satisfying ending was not to be. The radios – or rather, something talking through the radios – had other ideas.

Two weeks ago I was at home, turning off the lights and getting ready to head upstairs to bed, when I heard a voice coming from the basement workshop I had inherited from my father, where I wrestled the wrecks of the radio age back into worthy vessels ready to sail the airwaves.

Imagining I had neglected to switch one of the radios off, I went downstairs, and heard, through a gauze of static, the voice of Ross Calhoun. I knew it, vaguely.

My father, although almost young enough to have been a Baby Boomer, never cared for the rock and roll of the 1950s, and regarded its waves of successors with positive horror.

“Elvis Presley destroyed popular music,” he would tell me, in my high school punk rock days. “Where’s the swing? Where’s the soul? Big Joe Turner had more soul in his pinkie finger than in the entire pelvis of that rattletrap rocknroller from Tupelo.”

“OK, Dad,” I’d say.

For my father, popular music never matched the heights of the 1930s and 1940s – the era of the big swing orchestras, Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw, and the crooners, Dick Haymes and Frankie Laine and Al Bowlly and Crosby, the true king now and forever. Dad would put on some Count Basie record, or Louis Armstrong, and snap his fingers and scat along with the music, which to a teenager – actually, no, to any child over the age of five or so – seemed scientifically designed to be the least cool and most mortifying behavior a parent could exhibit.

“Now that’s music, real music!” he’d say.

I knew the music growing up, then, in the same way I knew pre-war manufacturers of radios, or the pitching prospects of the Sox: distantly. Bing Crosby always made me think of Dad, so I’d play that from time to time, but the others didn’t do much for someone whose idea of ambient sound is a 19-year-old pornstar barking at her viewers that they’re “fat, worthless eunuchs.”

I recognized Calhoun, though, a guy my father never played all that much; too syrupy, maybe, too much of an obvious Crosby imitator. I switched off the radio, an Atwater Kent that just needed some varnish, and went to bed.

The next morning, trudging downstairs to put out food for my cats, Whalley and Goffe, I heard the unmistakable sound of music coming from the basement workshop.

Flipping on the light and, for some idiot reason, grabbing a bread knife, I went carefully down the stairs. There was Calhoun again, mooning his way through some old standard, trying to be heard over the static of an old RCA. An old RCA that, actually, I was convinced needed a new tube.

Because I am neither crazy nor an idiot, my first assumption was that something was wrong with the wiring in the house.

This was actually a decent assumption. Built in 1929, the electrical system of my house was almost entirely original, made of porcelain and copper. Once I had a friend’s brother, an electrician, come look at the wiring to give me an estimate on updating it, and all he did was take pictures because he knew no one would believe there was still a house with this stuff working.

I called Ajax to say I’d be late in opening the store (the response: a silence heavy with impatience at the unreliability of men) and called an electrician from a directory of businesses that are either owned by veterans or that employ veterans.

Don’t get the wrong idea: I left whatever patriotism remained in me in a bedpan at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I just liked dealing with veterans because they never asked about my injury, and sure enough, when this guy arrived – moving uneasily on knee braces – and I offered, “Lost it in a barfight with Sasquatch,” about my leg, his eyes gave a little acknowledgement that said, Thank Christ, I don’t want to talk about it either.

A few hours later I was at the shop and the electrician called from my house to say the wiring was fine.

“I took a bunch of pictures of it, though, Jesus Christ,” he said. “I’ve only read about this stuff in books. It’s like a museum over here.”

This was actually less reassuring, especially as I had passed the idle time – Mondays are always slow in the horror of life business – googling Ross Calhoun. The results made me wonder if I’d be better off having to replace all the wiring in my house.

“Ross Calhoun,” I learned, was the stage name of one Celso Cadel, born in the Italian town of Tarcento in 1905. Emigrating as a child to the U.S. with his family, he became a popular singer in the late 1920s, working with a bunch of orchestras whose names meant nothing to me.

He had an intense rivalry with the young Crosby, fueled partially by a number of Ross Calhoun Clubs that sprung up around the country including at least one, jarringly, that still seems to exist today.

He wasn’t as prolific as Crosby, though, because he was shot to death in 1933 by his girlfriend, who was acquitted by a jury that bought her claim that Calhoun was trying to “sing her to death.”

Calhoun – who was apparently known as “The Lonesome Romeo” in life – had a slew of hits, but his most famous number was a song called “These Night Battles With You,” written by an obscure composer who I could only find listed as “C. Odad.”

The song apparently had the reputation at the time, and subsequently, of being so unbearably sad that it drove people to suicide. I found references dredged from contemporary newspaper accounts of “Calhoun Suicides,” people jumping in front of trains, blowing their brains out, or turning on the gas after leaving notes that quoted the chorus:

“It may sound mad, my dear, but it’s true / I’d rather die than fight these night battles with you.”

There weren’t a lot of radio stations playing much music in the early 1930s, but supposedly “These Night Battles With You” was banned from several of them; Paul Whiteman vowed never to play the song in concert; and “Owen ‘Stay Up’ Steen, ‘The All-Night Record Fiend,’” an overnight DJ for a Manhattan station, was fined for playing the record repeatedly in 1936, according to an old “Talk of the Town” piece from the New Yorker.

The strangest thing I found was a YouTube clip showing an interview Bing Crosby did with Joe Franklin in 1971. They talked about a lot of things, but at one point, in the midst of reminiscing about the early days, Franklin brought up Calhoun.

FRANKLIN: So many greats, Bing. Just wonderful, wonderful entertainers. Here’s a name: Ross Calhoun.

CROSBY: Oh, sure.

FRANKLIN: You remember him?

CROSBY: Sure, I do. Sure.

FRANKLIN: Wonderful singer. Wonderful voice.

CROSBY: Ross was … he did have a good voice, Joe, that’s true.

FRANKLIN: An interesting man? You knew him?

CROSBY: I knew him a little bit. He was very … Ross wasn’t just a singer, you know, he could play the violin as well. And he had a lot of peculiar – well, to us at the time, you know, young musicians, it seemed that they were peculiar interests.

[Cross-talk: Crosby says something that sounds like “old libraries,” Franklin mentions “cards”]

CROSBY: That’s right.

FRANKLIN: Tragic end, for Ross Calhoun, was it not? I seem to recall he was - he was, I believe, he was shot – by a woman? Is that your recollection?

CROSBY: Yes, and that was, oh, must have been 1933 or 34.

FRANKLIN: A young man. Very unfortunate.

CROSBY: Well, Joe, you know … I don’t want to say that … you know, I believe that everything that happens, happens because there’s some reason behind it. That’s what the Good Book tells us, isn’t it, Joe?

FRANKLIN: Absolutely.

The next thing I did, of course, was dial up “These Night Battles With You” on YouTube, and there it was, a song like every crooner record from that time, nothing special, a little melodramatic. Calhoun did have a nice voice, though.

The idea that this record caused some kind of mild moral panic seemed absurd to me, until one of the radios in our shop, one of the radios I had painstakingly restored and put out for sale, crackled to life, and through the static I heard old Ross singing:

“It may sound mad, my dear, but it’s true …”

That was bad enough. Worse – much worse – was the sight of the radio’s plug, coiled in front of the console, far away from any electrical outlet.

##

You probably don’t even listen to the radio, do you? You’re 24 or something, right? You probably just listen to your iPod or iPhone. I don’t blame you, really.

Recently, a guy came into the shop and was going to buy a black Air King Skyscraper 72 – just a gorgeous radio, built in 1933, an art deco dream come true and an expensive piece for us – and he asked if I could put an iPod dock in it.

“No, because that would be vandalism,” I said. He huffed out the door, and Ajax later congratulated me for blowing a sale for the sake of an absurd principle. It was the kind of thing she really appreciated.

I mean, you were born in 1991, so there’s no reason you’d think of radio as a particularly special technology, but try and put yourself in Sao Paulo on June 3, 1900, when a young priest named Roberto Landell de Moura got a group of reporters together and wirelessly transmitted the sound of a human voice from five miles away.
That was the first time it ever happened, and it must have been like seeing God. One day, sound produced by humans is something that everyone knows and understands and which follows mundane but immutable patterns and restrictions, and the next day you’re standing on the surface of fucking Neptune. Metaphorically.

Six years later, on Christmas Eve, sailors off the coast of Massachusetts sat in their boats and heard Reginald Fessenden, on dry land in Plymouth, play “O Holy Night” on the violin, the world’s first radio program broadcast. Imagine how it must have felt, sitting on that boat in the cold and the dark, hearing music coming out of the air around you.

And of course they thought, in those days, radio could be used to communicate with the dead. Nowadays, every new innovation is measured for its utility in getting us quicker access to pornography – heh, my dear – but in those times every gizmo chucked up by the Age of Volts was a possible tool for reaching the dearly departed: telephones, recording equipment, television, and radio.

Edison thought about it. Tesla wrote about it. Ebert von Lazay, a photographer and trance medium from my hometown, experimented for years with radios set up in cemeteries, radios in mortuaries, radios into which he put human bones obtained illicitly, trying to rig up the set that would allow him to eavesdrop on the broadcast of infinity.

Right now, if the mood strikes you, you can go on YouTube and see videos where people demonstrate “Electronic Voice Phenomena” with the kinds of radios we sell here at the shop (and oh, how my heart grieves to see the clumsy, inaccurate descriptions and terrible maintenance of those radios!); they like the old radios, just like the ghost photograph people like poorly-made film cameras, because they’re prone to functioning just badly enough that you might convince yourself that sound hiding under the static like a formless lump under a wool blanket is the voice of your late Uncle Carl, instead of what it really is, which is a Spanish-only AM station at the far end of the dial trying to throw some salsa music at you. Uncle Carl, I never knew you had such island rhythms!

My name isn’t Frederick H. Westinghouse-Marconi, but I know enough about how radio waves work – and enough about how dead people behave, which is “placidly” – to know this is sentimental nonsense. But, armed with this apparently superior knowledge, I still had a significant problem: radios that should not have played at all were not only working, but were broadcasting a long-dead crooner’s suicide-inspiring signature song.

After staring at the unplugged radio for maybe a minute, I moved toward it and, in perfect horror movie fashion, it stopped immediately. I fired up my laptop, my dear, and put the loop of your curses on as loud as these tinny little speakers would allow. I thought it might function like burning sage or ether, to purge the air of evil spirits, in preparation for work that needed to be done.

“I thought we talked about your rape propaganda,” Ajax said without anger when she came into the shop, to hear your guttural snarls and to see me picking at the innards of the radio with a screwdriver and pliers. “I thought we agreed that the rape propaganda would not be playing in the shop while a woman is in the shop.”

I reached over and paused the video.

“You know, Ajax, I’ve been thinking: I’m sick,” I said. “I’m sick with, I think, the flu? Or maybe norovirus? Something regrettable, in any event. I should probably go home for the day. I’ve already tallied up the morning’s online sales for you,” I said, with what I hoped was an ingratiating, I’m-unwell-but-I’ll-soldier-on smile.

She looked at me with the same vague expression of irritation she always had, although perhaps there was something more this time, some deep recognition that the long awaited crackup of the imperialist white male had begun at last. Neither one of us ever called out sick unless we were immobile. I didn’t look immobile; I looked like I had been masturbating into her laundry, all guilty and sweaty and full of shit.

“Fine,” she said. “Please remember to hydrate.”

At home, winter’s early evening shadows were darkening my Rainbow Virgin grotto. Whalley and Goffe, who normally wait for me on the front porch, weren’t at their usual spot.

I sat at the kitchen table and wondered what I was going to do. My biggest fear, watching my father’s decline into dementia, was mental illness. I had mastered the disability of having a prosthetic leg; if you didn’t know, you would have a hard time guessing I’m a pegleg, unless I wore shorts or drew attention to it, which I typically only did when desiring to make an eccentric political point and not be contradicted on it (“AS A COMBAT WOUNDED VETERAN, I THINK WE SHOULD RESTORE THE JACOBITE MONARCHY”).

But to lose your personality – that was so much worse than losing a limb. To become someone else – no, to become less than the self you had been. A runny, viscous version of your old self, with familiar words and mannerisms occasionally floating to the surface, only to bubble away again. The thought of it was too much to bear, especially knowing that I had no one to even attempt the inadequate care I had given to my father. I would be utterly alone.

Then, in the basement workshop below me, suddenly and unmistakably, women and children were shouting to each other in Arabic.

Since I am neither crazy nor an idiot, I got up and left the house as fast as I could. Outside, in the driveway where I played games of four-square as a child, under a purple and grey sky, I tried to stop myself from hyperventilating as I watched the colorful Marys on my lawn disappear into the growing darkness.

I thought, absurdly: This is going too far, Calhoun.

After maybe five minutes, getting colder and no less frightened but calmer, I took my Mag Lite and multitool out of my car’s glove compartment and flipped open the knife on the latter. Not much use in Sadr City, I reflected, but then I wasn’t there. I was home. Wasn’t I?

It took me longer than I want to admit to go back into the house and down the stairs to the basement workshop. Everything was quiet. The radios were off. There were no Iraqi women or children in my house. Reciting the names of state capitals – a trick I learned to bore myself into calmness – I walked around the workshop and pulled out every plug that was attached to an outlet or surge protector, making sure not to miss a single one.

When I was finished, I stood in the center of the workshop and looked at the inert dials of the radios, my breath coming normally, my heart beating at an approximation of its resting rate.

All at once, the radios came on. Their luminescent faces glowed yellow or green, their needles swayed and bounced, their volume knobs spun to the loudest setting. Addisons and Distantones and Motorolas and Zeniths, tombstones and cabinets, even the goddamn Edison Phonograph was playing, although there was no shellac platter on its turntable.

With no static, clearer than any high-fidelity set ever devised, from each radio a quavering tenor rang out:

“I’d rather die than fight these night battles with you.”

##

Do you know what it’s like to live without love?

Perhaps you do. I actually don’t know much about the circumstances of your life or whatever made you decide to make a career of demon-fucking people on camera in the San Fernando Valley for the delectation of frightened onanists across the globe. Perhaps you’re reading this suicide note and thinking, “Combat trauma, a missing leg, a dead father, and some trouble with a singing ghost? What’s this guy complaining about? Jesus, he should hear about MY problems!”

Perhaps that’s true. But perhaps you live a happy life free from trouble and spend your nights curling up on the couch with an entertainment lawyer from a Mainline family who went to Brown – his name, to me, must be Derek, even if only metaphorically – and watching British television shows on Netflix. I kind of hope that’s the case. Give Derek my regards.

That is not the case for me. A lonely child who never knew his mother, I found myself a loner for much of my life – friendly enough, but reluctant to form bonds with people. As you can imagine, that got significantly worse after the war, when I came home up to my neck with the rottenness of all things and found my father falling apart in front of me. I wasn’t, you know, good company.

And so, I tussled with Caitlynn for a little while, but even a dipstick thick enough to join a massage cult knew I was not meant for the long walk together through life. My closest relationship is with Ajax, whom, I suspect, genuinely dislikes me on some important and supra-conscious level. When I kill myself, she’ll be the first to know (well, apart from you, my dear), but only because I’m not there to open the shop in the morning. That’s my function: unlocking a door and turning on lights. I can’t wait to see the statue they build to my memory!

A life like that makes for very long nights, my dear. I filled the time with making things and fixing things, and for a while that was good enough. I convinced myself I didn’t need people, because restoring old radios or making strange collages was more productive than sitting around Pizza Satrap and drinking pitchers of beer while talking about stupid bullshit. And isn’t it?

Here’s the thing, Ms. Hyde: I didn’t even believe in love, just like I didn’t believe in all those other abstract concepts that are supposed to be so important, God, patriotism, or the female orgasm. (Ha! Another joke. The jokes go where the feelings are supposed to be!)

But it’s true. Love was for idiots, I knew. Now, I know that love is oxygen. It’s too bad I’m under water, and I can’t hold my breath any longer.

Ross Calhoun is dead, just like my father. Neither man has anything to say to me now. No one commits suicide over a song, and those radios aren’t playing when they’re not plugged in. It’s not possible. If I’ve failed to believe in anything larger than myself, at least I believe in boring old science.

No, the reality here is that I’m losing my mind. If they bother to do a forensic autopsy (side note: They will not. The state of psychological health care in this country is appalling!) they will have lots of raw data for their theories. Combat soldier? Check. Wounded in action? Check. Disabling injury? Check. Family trauma? Check. Stressful occupation? Well, he was a small business owner, so pretty much check and double-plus-check. The hard part will be deciding what factors didn’t contribute to my suicide.

But you alone, Saraya, will know the truth. I’m killing myself because I can’t face a future of diminishing capacity and growing weakness without anyone to love me. I can’t be crazy and alone. Being alone is bad enough. I realized – too late! – that the only person in my life who would ever treat me with unconditional love was my father, and that I repaid him by leaving him to die among strangers.

I guess that’s the fate I deserve, but life isn’t about what we deserve, is it?

Listen, I should wrap this up. This suicide isn’t going to commit itself. You’ve really been an unsettling presence in my life, in a way that I will never fully be able to explain. I wish only the best for you and Derek, unless he doesn’t exist. Actually, even then; existence is overrated, my dear.

OK. This is going to be pretty messy, because I don’t have a gun. I didn’t have one in the house because – you’ll love this – guns substantially increase the risk of suicide. So I have this razor and some knives, and yeesh, I’m going to have to cut my throat and my wrists, which presents some problems. I don’t envy whoever finds this body, in a pool of congealed blood amidst all these smashed antique radios.

Oh, that. Well, as I said, I’m reasonably certain I’m insane, or going insane, and that Ross Calhoun is not trying to lull me to my death from across the great beyond, but I really, really did not like seeing (or hallucinating, I guess) all those radios turn on by themselves and play his stupid song. So I took a hammer – the kind of hammer you might use to break up an ice dam – and I smashed all of them. Zeniths and Distantones and Atwater Kents, wood cabinets and Bakelite shells splintering, dials and knobs and little bits of glass littering the floor. Countless hours of work and thousands of dollars, all gone.

Well, almost. I couldn’t bring myself to smash the Tom Thumb Deco. It was “our. Finest. Hour!” as my father said, and as a little tag I placed near the radio tells Ajax, the beneficiary in my will, it’s worth nine grand to her. So, without further ado –

Actually, hang on.

Can you wait a second?

The Tom Thumb Deco – in all its marbled, bright red glory – just started playing. Not plugged in, of course. No way it should work at all. No current running through it. No hands moving its dials.

It wasn’t Ross Calhoun, though, and it wasn’t “These Night Battles With You.”

It was “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral,” that old faux-Irish lullaby made famous by Bing Crosby.

Crosby wasn’t singing on the radio, though. My father was.

Faintly and low and behind a screen of static, but unmistakably my father’s voice, sounding happy and wry and gentle, just like when he’d sing that stupid song over my four-year-old protests.

Dad.

I put down the knife and the razor and went upstairs to his old room and I sat down on the bed there and leaned backwards onto the pillows. For the first time in what seemed like years, I felt safe and, I suppose, loved.

Listen.

I’m really sorry to have strung you along like this, but I think I’m going to live after all.

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