Gautreaux / SIGNALSRadio Magic
Cliff had a great desire to be famous, if only in a small way. Coming from a long line of people whose only legacy was a grave marker, he figured he could do better. The older he got, the more intense his yen for fame, until at age fifty-two, after his last child left to join the navy, he started taking piano lessons. His teacher, a Miss Deutch, told him he was hopeless and had the worst sense of rhythm in the state of Ohio. He asked if he might be suitable for another instrument and she suggested the ocarina.
Cliff tried art lessons, but his misshapen nudes looked like white cattle that had grazed too long on a nuclear test site. Next he took a creative writing class and tried for two years to get something published, but even a limerick he’d embedded in a letter to the local paper about trash pickup had been cut by the editor. His quest went on throughseveral other episodes before he realized he might have to settle for turning his twins’ large bedroom into a man cave, the most famous man cave in the county, a room full of startling objects that his friends down at the waterworks would wonder at and maybe bring to the attentionof the regional news media.
The first treasure he installed was a crumbling moose head half the size of a Volkswagen. He purchased it through an ad he heard on the local radio station’s Swap Shop program, the cheapest way to buy anything manly and grotesque. Every morning he listened at seven while he was eating breakfast with his wife, Tammy, a good woman who tolerated his purchases in silence, suspecting that her sweet-natured and naïve husband could have worse habits. After the moose head, he purchased an electric slot machine with semi-nudeAsian cowgirls paintedon the glass, and next the trunk section of a 1947 Plymouth that hadbeen made into a neon-greensofa, then a pool table covered with hot-pinkfelt, followed by two red-glazedcow patty ashtrays, though no onehe knew smoked. The collection grew, and his friends came over to playcards on a giant wooden cable spool that had a Lithuanian flag paintedin its center. No one said much about all these items, though two fromthe chemical department cast suspicious glances at the twin dress dummiesshaped like overweight women. Cliff liked his collection thoughhe sensed that most of the members of his poker group seemed mildlydisturbed by it, especially by the skeleton of a goat hanging over thecard table, two blinding bulbs descending from its crotch.
One morning on Swap Shop, a man with slurred speech called in tooffer five chickens that had been dyed green. The station was in BlueShaft, West Virginia, a ruined coal-miningtown, and the locals wouldcall up and try to sell anything they had just to keep the lights on. Thenext seller was a woman who was trying to offload a whorehouse pianothat had been struck by lightning. Cliff thought the offerings were agood omen, that something special might be coming up. When a youngboy came on the air attempting to sell his only pair of pants becausehe’d outgrown them, Cliff reached to turn up the volume. As the childdescribed his jeans, Cliff took a trip into his young life, about the onlykind of travel he could afford, since his wife was an assistant publiclibrarian for the hamlet of Lincoln Foot, Ohio, and he was only the guyat the waterworks who gauged how much came in and went out.
In the middle of the program Tammy got up from the table. “Bye,sweetie,” she said as she brushed past. “Don’t buy another hornet’snest.”
Cliff closed his eyes. “You don’t have to keep bringing that up.” Oneof his early purchases from Swap Shop was a large nest for $10 from aman down the road. It was an early fall day and the farmer thought thehornets were long dead, and they were. Cliff hung the big nest in hisman cave and proceeded to write reports for the water company, notknowing that a few dozen live eggs had been left behind. They hatchedmore or less all at once when the central heat came on, and the youngstingers descended on Cliff’s head like tiny syringes of poison. After his eyes swelled shut he figured he’d better go to a doc-in-a-box,but he felldown the side steps, ruining a new sport coat, and when he got into thecar, he couldn’t see to drive, so he called an ambulance, guessing at thebuttons on his phone and calling the Sears washing machine repairmanby mistake. By the time he was brought to the hospital, his nose wasthe size of an adolescent squash. The charge for the ambulance service,emergency room treatment, and injections was monstrous, but whatkept him angry for a week was the $109 service bill from Sears.Swap Shop
ran a little longer than usual, and the last item of the daywas an antique wooden radio. He remembered his grandfather’s Crosley669, which he was allowed to play when he was a child. Back then,the broadcasts sounded antique, the music muzzled and full of soft popsand windy static, as if there were a fire inside the cabinet, the announcersounding faintly like Edward R. Murrow even when advertising colorTVs. Gramps let him stay up late, and after eleven o’clock Cliff wouldswitch on the police band, which hadn’t broadcast police radio sincethe 1940s, but way down on the left side of the dial, he could tease ina ham-radiooperator in Australia who always talked about fishing. Hewould click a different knob and the set would land on the abandonedshortwave band, but sometimes he could hear what sounded like Chinese,the radio chanting in a far-offand mystical faintness, coming andgoing like consciousness during a fragmented dream.
He jotted down the seller’s number and after many rings he spokewith a creaky-voicedwoman named Selma McKeithen, who lived downin nearby Blue Shaft. She wasn’t sure about the radio’s current condition,only that her deceased son, who had owned an electronics repairshop, had restored it years before, and she wanted fifty dollars for it.
Cliff called in to the waterworks and took the day off.
Blue Shaft, West Virginia, was just twenty miles from Cliff’s house.It had been slowly dying over the past six decades, one business closingup per year, ten newly boarded-uphouses per annum, fifty youngworkers moving out in the same time period, until the town felt like abig country house abandoned by its many grown children. The growlyold announcer on the radio read his announcements for yard sales andused car lots as if he could barely see the printed text.
Cliff drove past many dusty, empty storefronts. Behind them in the distance hovered mud-coloredmountains ribboned with seams oflow-gradecoal. Mrs. McKeithen lived in a large two-storyframe housesurrounded by broad, peeling galleries. He knocked and waited a longtime, thinking he’d been forgotten or was being ignored because theradio had already been sold. But after six or seven minutes of knockingand waiting, he heard slow, puffy footsteps and saw the white ceramicdoorknob turn as slowly as the second hand on a clock.
Mrs. McKeithen was straight in the back and had eyes the color ofblue willow china, but she was very old. She apologized for being soslow, explaining, as she motioned him in, that she’d just turned ninety-eight.After she closed the door, she evaluated him up and down.“You’re a little thick through the middle, aren’t you?”
He didn’t know what to say to that.
Putting up a hand, Mrs. McKeithen said, “My father used to say thata fat, happy dog wasn’t happy long.” Leading him to a back bedroomover her creaking floors, she pointed to the radio. “It belonged to myoldest son, Vernon.” A large mahogany floor model stood next to a tallwindow. A copper antenna wire snaked through the bottom of the sashand ran, he was told, up to the roof where it was strung between twosticks, one at the front of the house, one at the rear.
“It’s bigger than I thought.” He turned it from the wall and saw itwas a Philco 41-290 that brought in AM, shortwave, and police band.
“Does it work?”
She snapped a hand toward the wall. “Plug it in, my boy. It runs onelectricity, you know.”
“I don’t think so. It could go up in smoke.”
“Oh, nonsense. Don’t you have any courage? It should play justfine.”
Cliff gave her a doubtful look. “Can’t be too careful.”
“Oh, for goodness sake.” Mrs. McKeithen slowly bent over to pickup the plug.
“Please don’t. Let’s just make a deal. Will you take forty for it?”
She straightened up and said, “And what will you do with that extraten dollars in your pocket? Buy a yacht, perhaps?”
He looked down at the dusty cabinet. With some furniture wax heshould be able to see his reflection. “Yeah, okay. Fifty it is.”
She held out her hand, wide palmed, not shaking. “My husband says,or said, that Vernon put many new components inside that old dustything. He used to make a really good living before his heart went bad.”
Cliff pulled out his wallet and frowned into it. “Oh, has your husbandpassed away?”
She shook her frosty head. “No, we just got divorced last year.”
“Really? How long were you married?
”She touched her chin and closed one eye. “Seventy-threeyears.”
Cliff’s mouth fell open. “Why’d you get a divorce after seventy-threeyears?”
She shrugged. “Oh, we wanted to wait until the children were dead.”
Later that night, Cliff used a dolly to roll the big Philco into his mancave at the rear of the house, where it joined a mouse-nibbledanteater,part of a broken B-24propeller, a giant locomotive piston, a jukeboxwith two bullet holes through the glass, a straitjacket covered withbloodstains, a collage made with twenty red hot-waterbottles, andmany other oddities, all bought on Swap Shop
or given to him by friendswho were fine judges of bad taste. An acquaintance from work had oncegiven him a plastic donkey whose backpack was filled with cigarettes.When Cliff lifted the donkey’s tail the first time, a stale Lucky Strikeextruded from the animal’s rear end.
Late that night, Cliff pulled the back panel off the Philco and foundthe insides to be remarkably clean. Nearly every tube, capacitor, andresistor had been replaced, and some modern components seemed tohave been added. The plug wire was restoration-gradeline sheathed inbronze-coloredcloth. Cliff decided to string a temporary antenna wirearound the room and fire the set up.
He began his tour on AM with a click and a hum, then a rising whinelike a musical saw, so he turned the selector knob and brought in thelocal country music station. The sound was like his gramps’ machine,but cleaner—abig, soft sound with no edges to Taylor Swift. He rolledup on an oldies broadcast and listened while working on a lab reportfor the county. Then he tried out the police band, which was empty.Cliff found it hard to believe that anything on earth was empty, much less a radio frequency. He turned the tuning knob at a creeping pace,and finally, down at the left side of the dial, he heard a ship call for abar pilot to come out into the Gulf of Mexico from the mouth of theMississippi. The conversation was full of depths, currents, and locationsand lasted two or three minutes before fading as though the pilot wereindeed floating off into the night. Then calypso music drifted in for amoment and left at once, the melody like a supple deer passing throughheadlights.
For a long time there was nothing, then an old man singing “Dosgardenias para ti,” solo in a soft voice, followed by more dead air, interruptedby a tickle of accordion, then more silence. Cliff made himselfa whiskey sour and pulled a chair up next to the radio, turning aknob to the shortwave band. From Del Rio, Texas, an amateur stationannounced its existence and began broadcasting a waterfall of SpadeCooley’s western swing music. Much later, tuning farther up the dial, hepicked up nothing at all until he hit a steady stream of news in Englishfrom the Ivory Coast, and he moved to the sofa. Cliff and his wife hadhardly ever left the state, their vacation time of two weeks a year not givingthem much latitude for it, but this night, for the first time, he beganto understand how vast and varied the world was, and he listened lateuntil he rolled off to sleep in the trunk of the ’47 Plymouth.
Tammy woke him up in time to shower and shave. She mentioned thatthe radio smelled hot, and if he didn’t want to burn the house down hemight take it over to old man Blumenthal’s electronics repair shop toget it checked for safety. He brought the big unit in on the way to workand picked it up when he knocked off, Mr. Blumenthal telling him itwas safe.
As he helped load the heavy cabinet the repairman said, “You know,this old gal has been redesigned. I mean, things have not only beenreplaced, but everything’s modified. It’s like somebody was trying tomake it bring in a specific station more strongly. I’ve never seen suchcircuitry, especially in an antique box like this.”
Cliff closed his hatchback and took a breath. “I just wanted to knowif it’s going to catch fire.”
“No, no,” Blumenthal said. “These things tended to run prettywarm. It’s normal. Hope you tune in something interesting.”
That evening, Cliff and Tammy sat together in the man cave andwatched a football game until the score reached 48–18and his wifestood up. “No sense in burning time on this turkey. How’s your radioworking?”
“Blumenthal said it was okay.” Cliff turned on the shortwave bandand immediately hit a Delta airliner asking for a change in altitude.But that was all, just a shooting star of words and nothing else. Rollingdown the dial he found another ship-to-shorebroadcast, a tugboat pilotasking for a lineup at a lock on the Ohio River. Then nothing. “Late atnight,” he told her, “a few more things come on.”
She crossed her legs and leaned toward the set. “This is kind ofcreepy, like we’re spying or something. I mean, it’s fun.”
After two rounds of drinks they discovered a program of belly-dancemusic from Turkey. Tammy jumped up and swayed her arms andpopped her hips until she fell over onto the Plymouth sofa. Aroundeleven-thirtythey gave up listening as the music faded out.
For the next two months Cliff developed a habit of searching the dialright before bedtime, sometimes as late as one o’clock on weekends.He heard marimba music, Cuban club music, Alaskan diatribe, backwoodspreaching from three continents, Radio Australia broadcasts toNew Guinea in pidgin English, all weak signals except for one brightbroadcasting point in the Solomon Islands, from a town, the announcersaid, near Gizo.
One morning in December, Cliff got a call from his boss, who saidthat a pipe had frozen and burst in the attic of the lab and that he didn’tneed to come in because the place was flooded. He watched the newsin the living room for a while, then went into his cave to see if anythingwas on shortwave. He wasn’t having much luck until he reached thespot on the dial for the station in the Solomons, which came in strong.At nine o’clock someone was broadcasting an old recording of a femalecomedian, originally taped at a nightclub in the Catskills, the announcernoted, in the early forties. Cliff checked his laptop and discovered it was after one a.m. in Gizo. The old Philco had eight preset buttons, and ona hunch he punched each one; four delivered old stations like WWL andWSM, three hit nothing, but the eighth landed the radio back in theSolomons. He listened to the same fast-talkingwoman deliver a seriesof vintage barroom narratives. Her bright alto was energy itself sailingover the noise of the club.
One began, “A customer walks into a bar trailed by a big goldenretriever. The bartender hollers, ‘We don’t allow dogs in here.’ Thecustomer says, ‘But my dog, Jane, can talk.’ ‘I don’t care,’ says the bartender.‘I get two talking dogs a week in here.’ [Audience laughter.
] ‘Yes,but this dog can do what no other dog can do.’ ‘What’s that?’ he asks.‘She can shop. I’ll give her a dollar, and I bet you ten bucks she’ll bringback what you ask her to.’ ‘I’ll take that bet,’ the bartender says. ‘Askher to go out and get the evening edition of the city paper.’ [More laughter
.]The customer gives the dog a dollar and sends her out the door. Aminute later she comes back with the right newspaper in her mouthand says, distinctly, ‘Here you go.’ ‘Well, that’s okay,’ the bartendersays, handing the owner a ten. ‘But let’s see if she can do something alittle more complicated.’ The dog actually speaks up and says, ‘Okay,bud. Give me a try.’ [Laughter again.
] The bartender gives the dog a tenand says, ‘Hundred-dollarbet. Down the street is Jim’s diner. Get me alarge hamburger, no mustard or pickles, extra mayonnaise, and a largeorder of fries.’ ‘Okay,’ the dog says, and bolts out the door. Fifteen minuteslater she comes back with a bag in her mouth holding the correctorder. The bartender is fuming. ‘I’ll give her a hundred and we’ll up thebet to a thousand dollars. Here’s the deal, girlie: Four blocks south ofhere is the Paradise Liquor Store. I want a quart of Jack Daniel’s blacklabel and a bottle of French wine from the Loire Valley, vintage 1926.’Jane takes the hundred-dollarbill in her mouth and trots off. Twentyminutes later, the two men get worried. After an hour, they go out onthe streets looking for the dog. Eventually, the customer looks in thewindow of a beauty parlor and sees his dog lying back in an adjustablechair, her coat perfectly brushed and tinted, a jeweled collar aroundher neck, her ears getting a permanent wave, and an Asian girl laboringover her glossy pink claws. Her owner runs inside and yells, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ The dog says, ‘I’ve never had a hundred dollarsbefore.’ ” [Audience roars
The comedienne delivered two more stories, and then in a crash ofnightclub orchestra music she sailed off on a wave of applause. Whoevershe was, the long joke had been her stock-in-trade.
The announcer, in an odd English accent, asked the listeners to tunein at 100 hours on Thursdays and Saturdays to hear more comedy recordingsfrom Sally Gruen’s 1940s performances. Cliff turned off theset, but the brightness of the comedienne’s voice stayed with him. Shesounded so happy. The nightclub crowd loved her. She must have beenfamous.
The following Saturday he caught the whole program, and he hadhis work hours adjusted so he could listen to the Thursday program aswell, which lasted a little over fifteen minutes. The comedienne was aperson not even the Internet knew anything about. Into the new year helistened, laughing, captured by the voice and its shining rhythms. VernonMcKeithen might have appreciated the comedienne’s work, sincethe old Philco had been rewired to focus on this one spot on the dial. Hewondered about Sally Gruen, when she had died, where she was from.But just as great a mystery was why these tapes were being broadcastfrom half a world away.
According to his laptop, only one shortwave station was left in theGizo region. The man he reached there said in wordy English thathis station aired no comedy programs, but there was an old Japanesegentleman living on a nearby island who, as a hobby slightly aided bythe government, ran renovated World War Two surplus equipmenttwenty-fourhours a day. Cliff got a phone number and reached a Mr.Matsumoto, the third shift announcer and owner, who spoke excellentEnglish and talked at length about his affection for outdated broadcastingequipment.
Eventually Cliff got a chance to ask about the comedy program theyaired at one a.m.
Mr. Matsumoto laughed and said, “That’s because we have cheapestbroadcasting rates.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The programs you mention are a series of forty-eighttapes recordedin the early 1940s in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles by the comedienne’shusband. We get calls from all around the world about them,maybe four or five a week. We’ve run them over and over for twenty-threeyears now.”
“People don’t get tired of them?”
The man laughed again. “We have a widespread audience, mostlyby accident. Besides, jokes are like silly friends you can stand to meet atleast twice a year.”
When Cliff asked how Mr. Matsumoto got hold of the tapes, thephone grew quiet for a few seconds.
“It’s kind of odd telling this. About twenty years ago I visited mysister, who lives in West Virginia. She had an old Zenith that she wantedrestored, so I found a man named Vernon who ran a local shop. Hewas a skinny blond guy, very tall, and just as interested in radio historyas I was. We met every day the two weeks I spent at my sister’s. Yearslater, Vernon sent me ten thousand dollars in the form of a stock-basedendowment to broadcast his mother’s comedy routines, and eventuallywe digitized her old tapes. I tried to reach him a couple years ago andfound that he had passed away.”
Cliff had to sit down before he could ask, “Really? His mother wasthe comedienne?”
“Yes. And we’ll broadcast these things forever. My son is takingover the station. Who knows how long these jokes will go out from theCopa and the Blue Angel in New York, Chez Paree in Chicago. Even theConcord.”
Cliff took a deep breath. “The broadcasts I heard didn’t mention thecomedienne’s real name. It wasn’t Selma, was it?”
“Of course. Her stage name was Sally Gruen, but she was VernonMcKeithen’s mother, Selma. Where you calling from, by the way?”
“Ohio. Not far from where Selma lives. I met her recently when Ibought one of Vernon’s radios.”
“No. Can’t be the same lady. This one was born in 1917.”
Mr. Matsumoto became excited, his voice bounding up and downas he yelled in Japanese to someone else in the studio. “Is she still clear minded? You think she’s able to handle an interview? I’d love to speakwith her on the phone. Maybe a couple long talks, if she’s up to it. Weneed programming for a VHF station we’re starting next year.”
“I think she could do it, but I can’t guarantee she’d want to.”
“You are her acquaintance. If you set it up for us, I’ll say who you arein the interview and talk about you a bit. How you met her. I’ll run ittwice a year.”
“I don’t know.”
“You sure? I can make you famous.” Mr. Matsumoto said this as ajoke, but Cliff got up out of his chair and turned in a circle.
He tried for several days to phone Selma McKeithen. The followingSaturday he drove over to Blue Shaft and parked in front of the oldhouse at ten in the morning. The grass needed cutting, and nothingabout the place seemed to have changed, except more paint had peeledaway from its weatherboard siding. No one came to the door whenhe knocked. Sitting in his car for a long time, tapping his fingers onthe steering wheel, he grew so increasingly nervous that he decided togo around back, where he stood on a porch hung with rotting mopsand rusty galvanized pails. Then he felt foolish. The woman was ninety-eightyears old. Maybe she had passed away. A dispiriting thrill of losstrembled through him as he remembered what his own mother hadtold him when they were at a funeral for his great-aunt,that wheneveran old person dies, a library burns down.
But when he came around the house again, a big sedan had pulledup behind his car and a woman about sixty-fiveyears old was helpingSelma McKeithen out into the sunshine. The old woman waved at him.“Hello, there,” she said. “I hope you don’t want your money back forthe radio. I lost it all at the horse races.”
“No ma’am. I’d just like to visit for a few minutes and ask you somequestions about it. The radio works fine, just like you said.”
When a rear door of the car popped open, Selma McKeithen put aspotted hand on Cliff’s arm. “See if you can help Mr. Bill there get outof that low seat. That’s my husband. Once he’s upright, he can locomoteon his own.”
Cliff stepped to the curb and pulled upright a bony old man wearingblue jeans and a heavy sweater. Before he could stop himself, he blurtedover his shoulder, “Didn’t you tell me you two got a divorce?”
The old man looked at his wife and shook his head. “You told himthe one about the old people with the dead children?”
“It was a joke, son,” Selma told him. “Don’t you know what a jokeis? Molly there is my daughter, and I’ve got two other living children.Vernon’s the only one we lost. He had a weak heart all his life.”
Once inside the house, Mr. Bill sat in a wing chair and seemed tofall asleep. Selma and Cliff settled on the sofa while Molly went intothe kitchen. Later, he explained over his coffee what he’d found outabout her routines and how they were broadcast. He figured she’d besurprised to know that her work was still being listened to. He told herhow excited Mr. Matsumoto was by the prospect of interviewing herabout her career.
As Cliff talked, Selma’s blue eyes stayed focused on his own, but herexpression didn’t change. She shook her head and said, “Son, we listenedto those programs for about ten years on Vernon’s special radio.It took a year for that boy to modify the thing and then two more tofind someone to put me on the air, longer than I was in the business.Listening to his radio was fun, but then it got old. When Vernon passedon, I didn’t need to hear any more. Me and Mr. Bill still know thoseroutines by heart. But Vernon, he loved me so much he’d play thosetapes late at night, and we could hear him laughing to himself from allthe way upstairs. All his life he’d ask me things like why I quit the show,and he’d tell me I could have been rich and renowned and all that stuff.Finally, I told him the truth: that he came along, and I liked him somuch, I decided to make Annie and Chuck and Molly.”
Cliff sat back on the flowered sofa. “He wanted to make you famous.”
“I guess so.” Then her voice softened. “He told me one time howradio signals bounce around in the sky, and that I was landing all overthe world. He said it would keep happening for years. Oh, he got soserious one night, he leaned into me like when he was a baby.” Hereshe moved her head over toward Cliff and drew closer, her pale andwrinkled face at odds with her youthful eyes. “He told me some signalsgo straight out into space, toward the planets. How someday one of my
jokes would scratch past Pluto and keep going to God knows. Way outto whatever’s past all we can see. Sometimes I think about that, howthe sounds we make never really stop, and then I believe all of us arefamous but just don’t know it yet.”
“What do you want me to tell the radio station operator?” he asked.
Selma turned to her husband, who opened his eyes and winked ather. “You can tell Mr. Matsumoto,” she said, “that he’s got enoughalready, though not the best of me.”
Cliff’s face darkened and he studied the floor. “He said he’d mentionmy name in the interview. He’d tell about how I found you and madethe connection.”
Selma pulled back and patted him on the shoulder. “Mr. Cliff, if youwant to be well known, go out in your backyard and say your name tothe sky.”
When he got home, he was angry. There was a note from his wife onthe table, telling him she was spending the night with a sick aunt in thenext town over. He wandered through the house for a while feeling likehe was catching the flu, so he went into the man cave to take a nap. Butthe space he’d given so much time to now seemed to accuse him, andhe couldn’t bear to look at it. Suddenly he punched the moose head tothe floor and shoved it out the back door and down the steps into theyard, where it landed with a puff of dander and loose hair. The tablewith its tribute to Lithuania was next, followed by the disgusting donkey,which he threw overhand into the dark, then the terrible manikinsand everything else, until after an hour, the room was bare except forthe radio. He retrieved a bottle of furniture wax from the kitchen andrubbed the cabinet all over, then he tuned in an accordion festival inFrance, standing there listening stone-stilluntil his legs ached. After raisingthe volume, he turned and walked through the back door, past thehill of embarrassments, and all the way to the fence, where he stoppedin pitch-darkshade at the edge of the woods, the radio, from here, justa dancing tingle. He looked straight up at stars massed like schoolfish, acurrent of silver signals.
“Hello,” he called out. “My name is Cliff.”
Copyright © 2017 by Tim Gautreaux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.