On nights I have trouble sleeping, I ride the bus around the city and get off wherever I feel like. I like this, following my impulses. Sometimes I don’t get off at all, just ride around and around. The whole route takes about an hour. It’s a small city, unplanned, haphazardly situated on a fertile inkblot of land. Two rivers make a wishbone through the city, snaking along, and grey slopes peppered with skinny houses loom across the water. It’s soothing being in motion, headed somewhere. I like watching the people we pass who also can’t sleep. I like the noises, the screech as the bus lurches to a stop, the door letting out like a gasp. But the best part is how my mind plays tricks on me. A silver Lincoln town car is cut in half by a walnut tree. A headless man walks down the sidewalk, struggling with his sweatshirt. A fat woman in neon workout gear appears to goosestep by a trashcan.
I started riding the bus when the couple upstairs broke up. They fought on a nightly basis while their TV blared. It would start at around 10 and I’d lie in bed with my radio pressed to my ear, straining to listen to the Radio Man on 1050AM. I learned to sleep with the fighting, and after a while it was like white noise. Comforting even, how they’d scream at each other and fuck like animals when their throats were sore. But then one night, there was no fighting. After a few days, I realized the woman had moved out. It’s been completely quiet up there ever since. I can’t even hear the TV. And I can’t sleep.
The bus is quiet tonight. I pull today’s postcard from my jacket pocket. It’s of the Windmills at Kinderdijk. One of the corners is torn off and the picture is streaked with pink and yellow. It’s not a real postcard, but a photograph printed from the Internet and glued to heavy cardstock. Last week she sent one of a man in Tiananmen Square, pointing at an exploding tank. All are blank, except for the signature–Love, Mommy–even though I never called her that, not even as a baby. Nancy-Claire says I should burn the postcards, make a ritual of it, let go, but they’ll just keep coming. Besides, they help me keep track of time.
Nancy-Claire is in my bathroom, pouting and puckering into my spit-specked mirror. She says I have an unhealthy obsession with the Radio Man. She says I need to get out.
“I mean, you don’t even know what he looks like. He could be hideous. He could have, like, boils and scabs everywhere,” she says, snapping her gum.
I frown. “He sounds like he has clear skin.”
“He could have a goatee,” says Nancy-Claire.
I imagine that the Radio Man is built like a 1920s circus performer, not particularly tall, but stout, with wavy hair and olive skin. He probably sleeps in silk pajamas. Listening to his voice every night, I feel like I know him, like he could love me if only I introduced myself.
Nancy-Claire paints my lips with an ashy shade called “Cremains of the Day” and drags me to Touching Without Feeling, a new wave dance party in this guy Tom’s living room.
Men with coiffed hair in fitted jeans are out on Tom’s porch smoking American Spirits.
I tell Nancy-Claire I feel like I’m in a Levi’s commercial.
Nancy-Claire gives me a sideways glance, as if I’m directly implicating her. As a teenager, she couldn’t step foot in the mall without being hounded by modeling scouts. She slouches to look less pretty but she only looks more chic.
The stairway up to the apartment is blocked by a couple with matching Eraserhead haircuts. They’re making out like teenagers. They might be teenagers. Nancy-Claire squeezes past them and says, “What is this, Europe?” The couple glares at her. We fly up the stairs into the orange sweating room.
Nancy-Claire immediately disappears and I decide to make myself a drink. There’s no cover at Tom’s but you’re supposed to bring a bottle to share. I’ve brought a bottle of Gordon’s Gin. Mom used to mix it with lemonade. I’m usually a whisky drinker, but I’ve had a taste for the stuff lately. There’s a card table littered with castoffs, leftovers from housewarmings: piss-yellow Chardonnay, Peach Schnapps, Manischewitz. I set down the gin and feel like a hero. I search for tonic but don’t find any. I make myself a drink. My hands feel grubby, like I’ve been browsing at the Salvation Army. I go to the bathroom to wash my hands and avoid looking in the mirror.
Then I look for Nancy-Claire. I look for where the boys are. They tend to swarm around her like drones to their queen. It probably has something to do with her lips and breasts and hair and eyes. Sure enough, a crowd of pale bony guys are huddled by the left speaker and Nancy-Claire’s blonde head bobs in the middle, the center of a daisy. I hop up and down to get her attention for a minute before she notices. She grabs for me like a metallic claw grasping a teddy bear in one of those arcade machines and we dance like maniacs.
In the morning, Nancy-Claire and I ride bikes to the Point, where the rivers join and suburbanites dock boats with names like The Contender and She Got the House. We sit on a bench and look around. “The world is full of beautiful people and ugly people,” I say.
Everywhere I look, I see this dividing line. A perfect pair of tawny thighs slinks past us and bruised, dimpled ones follow close behind. Girls with shiny hair and glowing skin strut through the square, while others drag their flip-flopped feet through dirt and Laffy Taffy wrappers, their chests tattooed with faded flames. They look like cheap bikes imitating Harleys. Nancy-Claire doesn’t notice, or if she does, she lets the thoughts float away like she does those of moving to Croatia or adopting a box turtle. They don’t consume her. Nothing does. This is what I envy most about her, more than her beauty. She orders us raspberry Dole Whip cones, and we sit in silence, licking. I can tell by the careful way she licks hers that all she’s thinking about is how good it is.
I come home to another postcard. I thought it was still October, but the postmark says November 3rd. Nancy-Claire says that you’re a wimp if you turn your heat on before November. I go to the thermostat. It says 50 degrees. I turn the dial to 68 and sit by the radiator.
The postcard is of ring-necked snakes in the desert, weaved together like a basket. This is the first one in years that seems relevant. I wonder if she remembers the snakes.
My mom left when I was in sixth grade, shortly after Halloween. That year I decided to be Medusa, so she and I went out into the garden and gathered snakes. It was a rainy week. After a couple of hours outside, we had a small bucketful of black and yellow striped Garter snakes.
We dressed Babs, our dog, as a pumpkin, which she tolerated. My brother went to a boy-girl party with a butcher knife in his head. Mom draped a white sheet around me, tapering it in with some bailing twine. She’d burned holes in the sheet with a cigarette and stained it with old coffee. She’d put dark makeup around my eyes to make me look ghoulish. Then she drove Babs and me into town to the lakeside cottages. Where the good candy was.
Mom pulled out the bucket from the trunk and snapped off the lid. The snakes writhed on top of each other. Babs barked incessantly. Mom put the hair net over my head, tucking in most of my hair, but leaving a few strands out. She weaved the snakes under and over the hair net. It was precarious– any sudden movement and the snakes could wiggle out of the net– but they were there. She held up her compact so I could see. It tickled as they slithered about my head. She had to have known what people would think of my costume, but she amused herself by scandalizing our family, as if she was daring herself to live each day.
We walked up to a blue cottage with white trim and shutters. The cottages on the lake looked like doll houses. Boring kids in boring costumes ran around. I rang the bell. Mom stood back smoking a cigarette, holding Babs on her leash.
A lady in a church sweater opened the door, and the color drained from her face.
“Trick or treat,” I said and held out my plastic jack-o-lantern. A few of the snakes wiggled free and fell on her doorstep. The lady screamed and slammed the door in my face. Mom laughed so loud that kids and their mothers turned to look. She untangled the remaining snakes from my hair, cigarette hanging from her mouth, and threw them on the lawn. The lady was peering at us through her curtains. “Cunt!” Mom yelled. I spent the rest of the night dressed as a generic ghoul. I sucked on Warheads until they weren’t sour anymore and spit the sticky lime-green knots onto people’s lawns. I had no use for sweet things. I just liked people looking at me.
The phone has been ringing off the hook all day. Telemarketers. So many that I’ve been saying, “No, thanks,” into the receiver and hanging it right back on the hook before they can get a word in. It rings again, and before I can say anything, my brother says flatly, “It’s me, idiot.”
“Oh. Hi,” I say.
“Hi,” Henry sighs. “Have you visited Dad lately?”
“I went over the other day. He said it’d been a while.”
“If you know it’s been a while, why did you ask?”
He sighs again. This is how conversations with him go, a lot of sighing and a few choice words. Cowboy conversations. “Just go over, will you?” he says and hangs up.
I take the bus downtown, and then hop on a greyhound to Zelienople. I hate going home. Whenever I visit, I worry I’ll find my dad dead on the toilet. Or I won’t even know about it. Or my mom will call long-distance to tell me Dad is dead. She’ll mention it casually, the way she did when our pets died. (Good job on your report card. By the way, Sadie kicked the bucket. Sadie, black as oil, dead bugs in her whiskers, buried under the willow tree.) My parents still aren’t divorced, though they’ve lived apart for over a decade.
Since Dad’s stroke, the light bulbs have burnt out in most of the rooms. The remaining cats have dropped dead, all five of them. Even the regular Schwann’s man, the one who delivered our personal pizzas with pepperonis so hard we cut our tongues on them, died of an aneurism. Visiting my father is like visiting a cemetery, bodies exhumed.
Dad greets me from his usual spot on the couch.
“Did you open that IRA we talked about?” He holds his head up with a shaky hand, as if it might topple off. All he likes to talk about is investing and politics. These are the only subjects about which he can get through without stuttering.
“Yes, I did.”
Dad gives me a look, but it’s hard to tell what kind with his face melted on one side. Suspicious, I decide.
When he gave Henry and me our pre-inheritances, he told us we could use the money however we wanted. “No catch, catch, catch,” he had said.
“Don’t worry. I’m not touching the money,” I say. Lies can just spill out of your mouth with no one to fact check. The truth is I quit my job the day he gave me the check.
“You always were the reasonable one, Bernie,” he says, patting my arm.
Bernie, Bernadette, is one of his aids.
“Want me to clean your teeth?” I ask.
He plucks his dentures out of his mouth. I hold out a little cup and he drops them in, like a child spitting gum into my hand. I take them to the bathroom where I scrub them vigorously with Arm & Hammer toothpaste.
“Consider it practice…” he says when I sit back down, trailing off.
“Practice for what, Dad?”
His breathing is slow, measured, rationed out.
“For when you have a husband someday.”
I force a smile.
“Poor Claudine,” he says, and just like that, I am me again. “You’ll find someone.”
But I have found someone.
I am in love with the man on the radio.
At 9:30, I tune into 1050AM while I heat up last night’s borscht on the stove. I don’t particularly like beets, but I have a nostalgic affection for the color. It reminds me of fake blood. On weekends when we were kids, Mom took Henry and me to midnight horror movies at the drive-in. More than the movies themselves – full of slick-skinned, screaming women – I liked watching the teenagers make out in their cars, their faces blue from the light of the screen.
At 10, the Radio Man’s voice chimes in. He sounds like Chet Baker, soft as velvet, nothing like the other DJs, all sonorous and gimmicky. “Good evening. How are we feeling?” he says. “I’ve got something special on deck for you tonight.”
He plays jazz and ragtime until midnight. I’ve grown to love it, how all over the place it is, how unpredictable. “Go Down Moses” comes on and I shimmy around, slurping the borscht.
Around 11 the Radio Man takes a break to field requests. I call in, as I always do, and he says, “Hello, night owl. What can I play you?” as he always does, and I sit perfectly still, the phone in the crook of my neck, one hand to my throat, the other between my legs. “Caller? Are you there? Caller?” And just as he puts the phone back on the hook, I come, as I always do. I switch off the radio.
I lock the door behind me and walk to the bus stop.
The bus careens down through the Jewish neighborhood, where there are more Orthodox Jews per square mile than anywhere else in the world, except for Israel. There is a forest on a steep hill bordering the west side. Sometimes you can see deer peering out. Years ago, a couple of does managed to jump down onto the roof of Schwarz’s Locks, and they couldn’t figure out how to climb back into the woods. Panicked, they pranced around, and in their frenzy, jumped off the roof, down onto the road, where their legs broke before they were run over by oncoming cars. Someone moved the bloated carcasses to the side of the road– the beached whales of the east coast. The pavement was red for weeks.
A middle-aged man gets on the bus and approaches me. He has on a tailored navy suit and he has wild grey hair. He could choose to sit just about anywhere; the bus is mostly empty, but he sits by me. I can feel his eyes on me, below my right ear, where the birthmark is. The one that looks like Ohio. I can smell the scotch seeping out of his pores. If I could I’d lick it off him.
“How are you?” the man asks me.
“Fine,” I say.
“You’re a liar,” he says.
“It’s okay, I lie a lot,” he says and leans in, covering his mouth. “To the IRS, insurance companies, even the girl who makes my coffee. Whenever anyone asks how I’m doing, I always say ‘good.’”
I giggle even though this is the least funny thing I’ve ever heard.
We roll along for a while, not saying anything, his knee rubbing against mine. The bus stops at the light next to Zaw’s Chinese.
He stands. “This is my stop.”
Before I can think of a reason not to, I’m following him off the bus and into the building next to Zaw’s. The elevator smells like pork.
“You’ll like it here,” he says, “Great view of the city.”
He unlocks the door to his apartment. The view is of a strip club, a parking lot teeming with feral cats, and way off in the distance, a high rise, just a smudge in the sky. He hangs his coat on a nail.
“I’d like to freshen up,” I say. He points to the bathroom.
It’s pretty clean and the toilet seat is down. A man with class. I pull back the shower curtain and see expensive shampoos and musky scented body wash, a halo of black and grey pubic hairs around the drain. I open the medicine cabinet and pull out a cotton ball and rip it in half. I stick the cotton deep in my ears.
When I open the door, the man is right there, unbuckling his belt. He drops his pants, but leaves his button-down shirt on. I can see the outline of his potbelly. He leads me to his couch and moves quickly, pushing himself inside of me and holding, legs tremoring. I watch his mouth, his grunts dulled. They could be coming from anywhere. This could be anyone. This could be the Radio Man, the pattern of his hot breath beating into my ears like a song I’ve never heard.
In the morning, I decide to clean my apartment, but put on Carole King and cry instead. I pull down the box of postcards from the closet shelf and pick one out at random from the middle of the stack. It’s of the Golden Gate Bridge. The colors are all off, like one of those Victorian hand-colored photographs. The ocean is green. The bridge, purple. There’s a pixilated figure I didn’t notice before. It’s hanging off the side of the bridge, preparing to jump. The figure is raised, cut from somewhere else and pasted there. I imagine my mother shaking ink cartridges violently and printing off the pictures from a shitty Dell somewhere in Flagstaff, where the pictures are always postmarked from. Strangely, she has never sent one of the Grand Canyon.
The doorbell rings and there’s Nancy-Claire, asking if I want to go to the Lutheran church down the street. She says she misses the hymns.
“They’re so loud they fill you up,” she says. “There isn’t room for anything else.”
“It sounds nice,” I say, “but I’ve got a lot to do.”
“No offense, but you look like shit,” she says.
She’s probably referring to the bags under my eyes. I can’t remember when I last looked in a mirror. I’d since cut my hair off into a pixie cut, so I wouldn’t have to brush it. I probably look like an orphan from a Brontë novel.
“I’m just tired,” I say. “Maybe we can get dinner later?”
This response seems to satisfy her, and she walks down the hill to the church.
I glance at the postcard box still sitting on the coffee table. I pick a card and rip it in half, but it isn’t satisfying. I grab my scissors from the desk, fold a piece of the post card in half and begin cutting into it. I cut little shapes. Triangles, squares, hearts, and jagged ones that defy definition. I fold and cut up another postcard, and another, and another. Before I know it, I have turned every postcard into a snowflake and it’s dark outside. I string up the snowflakes in my windows with dental floss and turn on the ceiling fan. I lay next to the radiator in my living room and listen to the paper knock against the glass.
A vision comes of my mother, sitting on the porch in her slip. She’s watching daytime soaps. I bring her oatmeal and coffee, like I used to when she made me stay home from school. Everything is how it really was, except usually she’d pat the couch and demand that I sit, but now she says nothing. She stares right through me. I’m probably forgetting what her voice sounds like.
When I wake up, I’ve slept for six hours, and tears stream down my face. I look at the clock. I switch on the radio and sit at the counter and snack on bits of hardened cheese and stale crackers and whatever else I can find. I eat pitted kalamata olives from a jar, waiting for the Radio Man. When he comes on, I lick the brine from my fingers, pick up the phone and dial.
“Hello?” the Radio Man breathes.
“Hello, I’m here,” I say and I wait.