Authors: Brian Matthews
A Voice in the Night
Brian J. Matthews
Text copyright © 2013 Brian J. Matthews.
All Rights Reserved
Late at night, when everyone else in the house was long asleep he would lie in bed turning the radio dial just the smallest amount to fetch another distant station out of the air. KDKA, Pittsburgh. WLS, Chicago. WOWO, Fort Wayne, CKLW, Detroit.
In 1953, it was still a miracle to hear the voices from these great cities so far away. It was as though the cities themselves were speaking. Luke would lie picturing them. The skyscrapers, streets and all-night diners in the distant darkness. The glow of light that the towns gave off in excess energy. And the stark radio towers sending their signals to the Ionosphere. And to him.
Most of what the announcers said was beyond his understanding, a foreign language like that of his mother and father. But he thrilled at the wonder and adventure of the cities speaking to him before sleep won out. It was a gamble to twist the radio dial another third of a millimeter in hopes of pulling in a new and perhaps more distant station. It was like trying to steal second base, leaving the safety of where you were on the chance you could win something more. Often he wouldn’t be able to get back to the station he had left and the radio would dissolve into a tapestry of crosstalk and interference, a chorus of imagined cities all talking at once, as if to one another.
Luke liked the ’50s announcers that gave the cities voice. Their assuredness in the early morning hours gave certainty that someone was on duty, vigilant. Then, in the early ’60s, he got hooked on Jean Sheperd’s bizarre stories of growing up in Indiana, his mother’s hair always in curlers, “because you never know what’s going to happen.” Luke would choke back laughter at the stories, lest his father burst in with his usual shut that thing off and go to sleep dammit.
It meant nothing because the thing was already done. He would be a radio man. He would speak for the great cities.
“So if you want to drop by the station on Sunday night, Tom is coming up. He can show you how to get there. A little hard to find.” Bob Jason seemed like a grownup, even as a high school sophomore. He was already a deejay at a small station in Waterbury on Sunday nights. His Valentino looks and a certain early urbaneness set him far apart from other kids, decidedly outside the high school mainstream.
“I’m Bob Jason and these are the sounds that swing for a Sunday night.”
Luke stood trying to seem nonchalant as he peered through the studio window in his chinos and penny loafers, sockless, as was the style. Bob backhanded the mike switch off with a move that was on autopilot and beckoned him inside, a Marlboro between his summoning fingers.
Artie Shaw’s “Begin The Beguine” spun on a turntable and beamed out a few miles on the station’s faint 250-watt transmitter. The final bars of Shaw’s solo soared high above the band, driving toward a crescendo. Luke, like Bob, was hooked on the music of the ’30s and ’40s, and so would miss most of the ’70s and ’80s rock revolution. In the ’90s, Luke’s wife would explain with amusement that The Who were different from the Guess Who.
The studio was nothing like his boyhood imaginings of the far-away radio stations that he had pictured as peopled by announcers and engineers in tuxedos pointing cues at one another through inch-thick panes of glass. This was more like an oversized hi-fi set, a couple of ancient turntables and a control board that the paint had long ago forsaken. But Bob reined supreme from the tattered announcer’s chair and that night, Luke knew again his boy-dream of being a radio man.
From then on his hangout in front of the corner pharmacy was relinquished and radio stations became his haunts. In time he fetched enough coffee and watched enough of the mechanics of record spinning to get a part-time job. It was on an even smaller station whose studio was a blockhouse in a swamp where the transmitter tower sat with its feet deep in mud, surrounded by cattails. It sent its feeble signal floating forth to a town too small for a radio station. But it survived playing polka records and $1 commercials in Polish. A dollar a holler the brochure said. Luke spun the polkas. The Poles did the talking. He never understood a word. It was a start.
She slammed into his consciousness the first day of class. Her face was made of just barely mismatched parts. But the total effect was startlingly beautiful. He ached inside as he stood watching her. Like he’d been punched in the chest. Then he noticed that he’d forgotten to breathe. Her green eyes were huge and mildly suspicious, her mixed blonde-brown hair, long and careless. Her mouth was too large but it alone would have made her a great beauty. Her lips were so perfectly formed that Luke wanted to reach out and trace them with a fingertip. They carried a pouting, mischievous smile as though she’d just told herself a joke and was deciding whether to tell it to you. But when she smiled in full, her face radiated an inner joyfulness and goodness as unguarded as a child’s. It was what made him love her in that first overpowering instant.
She was tiny, fragile, delicate, vulnerable. As he stood watching, he wanted only to envelop her, protect her. Only in later years would he learn how strong she really was.
Getting girls had been easy for Luke because he was fearless of rejection, although it happened most of the time. The majority of girls said he was “too forward.” But he lived by the law of averages. You ask enough, some say yes. He had also figured out that the best girls had fewer dates because boys were afraid to approach them.
“I was gonna get some coffee. You want some?”
She liked that he started in the middle of the conversation like the opening of a Hemingway story. She checked him out sideways as they walked across to the student union cafeteria.
“Luke. Luke Trimble.”
“Eileen Farrell. Why me? ”
This, Luke knew was dangerous ground and it could go either way. So he told the truth. “You look how I always wished my girlfriend would look. That’s all.” The cafeteria coffee sat before them unwanted. “OK. I’ll be your girlfriend. For a minute.”
“Yeah. I’m on a kinda tight schedule here.” It was the sort of offhand thing she would toss off in a monotone, and he would never see it coming. “Anyway, I could use a boyfriend. Call me tonight. Here’s your girlfriend’s number.” She tore off the paper and dropped it on the table in front of him. “I thought it was only for a minute?”
She just smiled the child smile. Then she was gone.
She rolled him around in her thoughts the rest of the day. Tall, lean and athletic. He would be handsome in a few years, but not quite yet. In sum, appealing and he didn’t seem to know it. She liked that, and that he had told the truth and that they were already started.
After a while, college was something they did days. Radio they did nights, at a station in Bridgeport, just down the street from school. Luke was pretty certain that there were very few actual listeners. That was good because he was terrible for a long time, unlike Bob Jason who already was getting noticed by the big stations in New York. But Luke hung in there, putting on mileage and waiting for his voice to drop an octave.
Eileen came to the studio every night, curling up on a chair with her books, paying him little notice. Just being there. When his shifts were over they would park down the street behind an egg distributing company, out of sight between the egg trucks, fogging up the windows with their heat. One night, as their excitement took over she whispered, “I love you,” furiously into his ear. Later he asked quietly, “You love me?”
“Yeah. I did. For a minute.” But he knew she really did, and not to push it. He held her for a very long time between the egg trucks that night.
School was torture. It was easier than his Catholic high school because the professors, like the college, were third rate, disorganized. He suspected that few of them had ever read the textbooks. They were like the sidewalk preachers in Manhattan who pounded their fists on their Bibles but never opened them. His notes made no sense. Eileen was the only reason to go. It was a way to be with her every day.
They would skip the worst classes together and sit in his car down at Seaside Park and talk. He would smoke and try to understand her because she was a mystery to both of them. Whenever he pushed too hard she would slip away with a flip remark. “Look we’re still gonna have sex and everything so don’t be so
. Let’s go put our feet in the water.” It was late October, but he did it and stopped being deep. She squeezed both her arms around one of his, like a constrictor as they walked back to the car.
In later years he would flash on the way her arms felt, remembering her smallness and that she had loved him then without the complications of celebrity that would come later and take over their lives in a way now unimaginable.
Another year of school and he just stopped going, after hooking up with the big station in town. Eileen came to the new studio on nights when she wasn’t on duty. She’d transferred to nursing school. Other nights she would call him from the nurses’ station and they would snatch three minutes of a visit while each record played on the air.
He had an apartment in town that she had picked out in a three-family house, steering him away from his inclination to take the first, hopelessly seedy place he saw. She decorated it with deliberation after devouring the scant design books she could find at the library. He saw what she was doing and let it go with only an occasional nod of appreciation. He didn’t want to frighten her off by making too much of her nest-building. She was sneaking up on it, and though she still lived with her parents, this was really her home now.
Over the last year she had succumbed to his patience and loneliness. The boy who had listened to the cities in the dark of his room hungered for affection. It gave her a new purpose and he thanked her for it with a connection and intensity that became a central part of her life. He couldn’t pass without grazing her hair or tracing her spine with his fingertips. When it frightened her too much she would still retreat a little. But she thought now that they would endure.
“You know we’re living in sin, right?” She said it, as they lie in bed one afternoon in the devastated sheets of their lovemaking.
“I thought it was Connecticut. When did they change that?”
“Well, I think my parents know but they’ll never say anything. That would mean a conversation and there’s never been one of those at our house.”
“It’s not a sin, by the way.”
“When did they change
“I did. Just now. I mean, how could God give us this great sex thing and expect us not to do it? That would be one perverse God, right?”
“Have you let the Pope in on this?”
“ No. Really. I just don’t think a lot of stuff they tell us are sins,
They’re just society’s rules and religions are the cops.”
“So the Ten Commandments don’t count?”
“A nice story but Moses probably just went up the mountain, thought up the rules himself, then came down and said,’OK, everybody listen up. Here’s the deal.”
“Listen up. Perfect. Let’s tell my parents your Moses theory and that’s why it’s all right we’re doin’ it over here every day. And you went to Catholic school for how many years? How’d you slip through the net?”
“Well, anyway if you got pregnant I’d marry you.” It just hung in the air. He had no idea what would happen next. He looked at her and saw the different emotions play across her face like clouds racing in the jet stream.
“I know.” She slid close to him then and he heard himself say, “Even if you weren’t pregnant I’d marry you.” He meant it. It wasn’t just something to end the awkwardness. She sat up, wrapping her arms around her knees.“You will. No rush. I’ll even marry you back.”
“I’m not kidding.”
Then she looked at him for another long moment. She didn’t blink or breathe. Then her chin quivered and her eyes brimmed over and she dove at him, hiding her tears in the space between his neck and shoulder. He could feel them running down her face onto him. They lay there like that with the sun washing over them until he had to go to the station.