Eleanor Lerman, Radiomen
Publisher: The Permanent Press, 2015
Length: 288 pp.
“Hi there. What’s your name?”
“My name is Laurie.”
“Laurie. And something with a P.”
“Yes, I knew there was a ‘z’ in there, too. Well, hi, Laurie. Thanks for calling in. Do you have a question you want me to address tonight?”
I didn’t, really, or maybe I did when I started to make the call, but I couldn’t remember what it was. I don’t think I had actually expected to get through to the psychic who was answering questions on this station, way at the end of the radio dial. The show originated from somewhere in the city — some outer-borough outpost, probably not unlike my own neglected neighborhood — but it was syndicated nationwide.
“What’s your question, Laurie?” the psychic asked again.
It was late, I was tired, and I’d drunk half a bottle of wine: something Australian with an animal on the label. Maybe a kangaroo or some kind of bat. In any case, at the moment, I didn’t really have an idea of what was bothering me so I was about to say the first thing that had come to mind, maybe ask some dumb question about work (like there was really anything to ask; I was a bartender and every night at my job was pretty much the same), but the psychic spoke again before I even got a word out.
“Hmm,” she said. “This is kind of strange. Usually, I get a feeling-a strong impression — about some incident or event related to a question I’m asked but... well. You haven’t even asked anything yet and I already have something. This really is strange,” she repeated.
“Strange how?” I switched the telephone receiver from one ear to the other as I heard the psychic draw in a breath.
“Well, I’m being presented with an image, so let me tell you what I see. There’s a room in an apartment building. No, more like a boarding house. That’s the sense I’m getting, a boarding house. The room is kind of bare, but there’s a cot in it, a table and chair, a gas ring on a counter next to the sink. And there’s a window on the far wall; I can see through the window that it’s nighttime. The sky is full of stars.”
Then the psychic paused. She seemed to be waiting for some response from me — perhaps a confirmation that I knew the room she was describing. I said nothing.
Finally, she continued. “Okay, then. Here comes the strange part. There’s a... a figure, I guess I’d call it. Him. A figure sitting on the cot. I can see him, sort of, but I’m not sure how to describe him to you; he’s... hmm. He’s just a kind of shadow. I mean, I only seem to be able to see him in one dimension. He’s gray and flat, featureless. But... wait. Wait. He sees me. Yes, I’m sure he sees me. And because he knows I’m watching, he’s... he’s putting his index finger up to his lips — I mean, where his lips would be if I could see his face — like the way you do when you’re signaling for someone to be quiet. Now he’s doing something else. I can’t quite see... oh yes. Wait. That’s what it is: he’s pointing to the fire escape outside the window. There’s something important out on that fire escape. Hmm,” the psychic said again. “He seems very agitated. I don’t quite know what to make of all this. Do you?”
“It’s pretty weird,” I replied, deflecting her query.
“Do you know who... that figure is?” the psychic persisted. She seemed to have forgotten that she was the one who was supposed to be answering questions, not asking them.
“No,” I lied. “I have no idea.”
I imagine that must have frustrated the psychic along with whatever audience was listening to this late-night radio call-in show. It could have been a dozen people or teeming hordes of fans of the supernatural. I had no idea, really, but found myself trying to picture some selection of them: stoked on caffeine or cocaine, lonely or restless or just unable to sleep, listening to this program on some old boom box sitting on a shelf or a silver sliver of metal tucked in their pocket, broadcasting straight into their skulls through a pair of headphones. I possessed neither of those devices; instead, I was listening on a complicated contraption I thought of as a radio since it picked up a wide range of AM, FM and shortwave stations, though it was really something that my uncle had built for a different purpose. It was a Haverkit, a receiver assembled from parts made by a company that was no longer in existence. My uncle, Avi, had used it to listen to the telemetry signals broadcast by satellites — the signals ground controllers use to track an orbiter’s path around the globe — which was a hobby of his. Actually, it was his passion. According to family lore — the little that existed of it, anyway — he had always liked building and fixing radios, an avocation that baffled his parents. He had been a dedicated amateur radio enthusiast from as far back as anyone could remember, earning his amateur radio broadcaster’s license when he was a teenager. But with the launch of the first Sputnik satellite in 1957, his focus had honed in on building receivers that could pick up satellite transmissions, which in the early days of satellite launches were primarily broadcasts of information they sent to their ground stations reporting on their position, velocity and temperature. The radio I had was the most sophisticated, and probably the last device that Avi had built. When you attached a special antenna to it — a kind of inverted metal pyramid, hollow inside — you could also listen to the faint hiss of radiation given off by celestial objects such as the moon and stars in the neighborhood of the night sky that was visible to observers on Earth. I hadn’t seen that antenna since I was a child, but I didn’t miss it because I had enough problems listening to the radio without any special attachments. Mainly, it was sometimes difficult to tune because it was so sensitive that it reacted to changes in the ionosphere, which is one of the layers of Earth’s atmosphere. Avi had explained to me why that was: during the day, when sunlight hits the ionosphere, many of the atoms in this layer of the atmosphere lose their electrons and turn into ions, which are not good conductors of radio waves. But when it’s dark, this transformation of atoms into ions is halted and the ionosphere becomes a far better reflector of radio signals. So much so that sometimes they can travel hundreds of miles farther than during the day. Sometimes they can even circle the globe.
I thought of asking the psychic if she knew anything about that, but I figured she wouldn’t. And since I wasn’t giving her anything to help her connect me either to the room she had described or the strange figure in it, the psychic quickly cut me off. “I’m afraid that’s all we have time for,” she said. “I have to take another caller. Thanks for tuning in, Laurie. Bye now.”
“Bye,” I said, and clicked off my phone. I sat on the couch for a while after that, without the energy to get up. Finally, I did, steadying myself on my feet and then directing myself to the bedroom, where I pulled off my clothes, got under the blankets and fell quickly asleep. That was the way — that night, at least — I managed not to spend even a minute considering the psychic’s question. Did I know who the shadowy figure was? Well, maybe. Maybe he was the radioman, which was the only way I had ever described him to myself. And maybe I even knew where he was, since I was pretty sure that I recognized the room that the psychic had described: it was Avi’s, his cot-in-the-kitchen of a small railroad flat my family used to rent in a summer boarding house in Rockaway Beach, a peninsula that stuck out into the Atlantic Ocean at the end of Queens. But I hadn’t been there for — what? Almost forty years? Since I was a young child. So what was the radioman doing there now — if now had any meaning in this peculiar vision, sitting on Avi’s bed? As far as I knew, I had only met him once. And even then, it was only in a dream.
Copyright © 2015 by Eleanor Lerman