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Radio Talkers


by James Robison


 

                            

 

It does not matter what they say, they never say anything, but they are still here. That summer in St. Louis I worked in the glove factory and the Philco radio stood on a steel shelf before windows with green light.

The bobber throbbed 6 strikes per second so I'm stitching the glove thumbs in an arc with the web of my splayed hand an inch from the beating needle. Fawn garden gloves. You better not think of anything but the job. You cannot drift to Suzy's allure or motorcycles.

Glove one, two, 42, glove 42 hundred. This is the job in St. Louis. Standing up. Weeds green through greasy glass.

Pepsi machine and I had Kent cigarettes with the  white filters. The Philco radio was blond wood with it-looked-like gritted teeth, a fabric square above two knobs, volume and tuner. It was loud.

Richard Bangs owned the radio, a floor manager, obese, with octopus sucker marks on his face and neck. Gooey hair, wrought by digging a comb through pomade, curving it all back, leaving fine ditches. He tuned always to KMOX and therefore in the morning, with glove work, I got Arthur Godfrey talking, for for Richard there was only Arthur Godfrey.

Arthur Godfrey said he was The Old Redhead and had it seemed like a stuffed up nose. I shuddered to hear him.

I tried to be friends with co-workers but why would they talk to me in 1966 with my long hair? Wasn't I a mad bomber? Hazel worked the thundering Addressograph and was motherly and you'd think she'd say cheerfully, Good morning.

Or Calvin was a lay preacher and you'd think he might say, Going to the Steak ‘N Shake for coffee, you want one?

No. Didn't. Never.

No friends, no nothing, just make the fucking gloves and do not lose your hand and try to ignore Arthur Godfrey.

A.G. told listeners about his politics, airplanes, Waikiki, tea. Ads for tea. With a stuffed up nose he said whatever the hell came into his head including all about his detestable horse, Goldie.

No one has enough talk to fill three hours a day, not Nietzsche or Shakespeare or that Roman orator, and here's a freckled person talking on radio five days a week for years.

On radio you should say, The recording you are about to hear is Beethoven's overlooked opera, Leonore, the original 1805 three act version of what became the two act, Fidelio, and this is an Archiv Produktion issue with John Martine Gardiner conducting the Orchestra Revolutionnaire et Romantique and includes the Monteverdi Choir and features Hellivi Martinpelto in the title role of Leonore, Alastair Miles in the role of Don Fernando, Matthew Best as Don Pizzaro, Kim Begley as Florestan, Franz Hawlatta as Rocco, the soprano, Christiane Oezle, as Rocco's daughter and the tenor, Michael Schade, as Jaquino.

And then go away.

Why didn't Arthur Godfrey shut the fuck up?

Goldie is sick, he might say. He hired people to surround him and pretend aloud that what he said was interesting.

Aw, his on-air employees would say. You love that horse so, Arthur.

In the factory, Richard Bangs would say, Did you hear that, Hazel? Goldie is sick.

I'm like, Glove 801, 02.

I'm afraid I was sort of: Die Goldie. I was praying, If there is a god and he is the Father of Mercy, oh mighty lord, change the station. My co-workers were right to mistrust me. I did want to bomb the factory and Arthur Godfrey. I had the square apartment room for 39 dollars a month. Hot.

A window. Paper cups of coffee. No screen. Ashtray. Books. That was what you could do off work: read books or magazines. True Crime. When big storms blew in I was happy and left open the window. The rain made the linoleum shiny. The wind cooled the room, scattered smoke off my Kents.

The skyblue walls were thin and I could punch a hole in one; I could pop a hole into those stale cake skyblue walls.

Through which I could hear the addled man in the next apartment. He was old and alone but on my mornings off he was talking in there, talking to Arthur Godfrey.

Arthur: How are ya how are ya how are ya?

Poor old fucker: Humpin' through, Arthur, thank you for asking.

Arthur: What is this, Wednesday already?

P.O.F:  It sure is, Arthur. How time flies.

Then A.G. played a ukulele. A man with adenoidal intonations singing and strumming those plinky tinky sounds. Was this supposed to be cute? You had Oh, Carol by the Rolling Stones or Stop In The Name Of Love by The Supremes or The Beach Boys Surfer Girl or Smokey Robinson The Tracks of my Tears. You had Pablo Casals or Glenn Gould. Who would choose Arthur Godfrey and tinky pinky? Why didn't a milk truck hit him and kill him? A vicious person my age who I knew from high school came to visit. Ray.

It was an era of harsh irony, like now, I think. Actually, like always, I think. So I presumed Ray's contempt for the weak and minorities and dogs was joking. He had the beardy jaws but no beard, just blackened jaws, baggy khakis with butt bagging and unlaced boots and smoked my Kents without asking.

I have no idea why he boxed in the amateur matches, but he did. He always lost. Maybe this made him hate blacks; they beat him up. He worked with a trainer called Panama Smith.

This was when he still wanted to go to law school. To prosecute everybody and get them off the streets, he might say and I would laugh thinking he was joking.

In a bar on the TV we see LBJ talking in a press conference and Ray says, “Then he gives us that smile like he was just out in the woods blowing bears.”

He managed always to scramble up some woman for sex. He soon had one in St. Louis: Marcia, some guy's pregnant wife. Ray had her for sex. He didn't like rock and roll or anything. He hated the French. I drank too much. I was so used to solitude that being around anyone made me uneasy and I drank too many beers from dark brown bottles.

I go to glove factory sweating and hungover. That big hammering stitcher nearly catches my hand. Ray's out with Marcia for sex.

I say later, How was that?

He says, Not good, really, she says to meet her at the library and I do and she's studying but suddenly she looks crazy, [he popped his eyes] and I guess her water broke. She smelled funny. So, you know, I took her to the emergency room. That's it for her.

But what will you do now?

There's always someone else… all-though, it's too bad because I could go almost a whole side of a record without coming with her. My goal is two sides.  

I ask, What record?

He doesn't know.   

He would tell you anything. He didn't care. He made a living chopping and selling firewood for a while. He charged extra per cord because he said the wood was “dry-cured”.  

What does that mean?

Nothing. I made it up. People hear that, they pay extra. They ask, I glare at them, like, You're kidding? And then I explain, as if they're right off the boat, I go, it burns cleaner and catches faster, all right? They apologize to me. They say to their friends, we bought three cords of dry cured. A little extra, but worth it.

Where do you get this wood?

You drive around, find a farm or house or something, tell the guy you'll clean out his brushfall for only ten dollars and haul it away. They pay you. I mean, they pay you.

What's brushfall?

I made that up too and even guys been farmers all their lives never ask. Not once. No one goes, What the hell are you talking about, ‘brushfall'?

Years later, I pick him up at the airport back from Vietnam and ask, You have to kill people?

Sure did, he goes. Not enough, he goes, but some.

20 years after that, Ray inherits hundreds of thousands in a windfall. 23 years after that, which is like two years ago, Ray puts his own dad, who does not want to go, into a hospice deal and moves into his dad's house. Ray has burnt through the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He gambled at the track where trotters run. He gambled on line and at an Indian casino and he bet on boxing and lost and lost playing the market.

He has goggle glasses, white beard, is bald and works as a clerk for a community college. At stoplights, I hear people listening to guys talking on car radios. From inside their cars, like madmen raving under water, the radio talkers sound like, Gungdin bun COW rab? Dab bad HODER si tee mirk...Bix DAY braw queet fir FIR na tisTOO

And it ricochets and is canned loud.

There's a heavy bag in the basement of Ray's father's ex-house. Ray boxes that bag still, making now weak sounds, bump bump bumpo. On the floor are cigarette butts. He chops wood still. I never make gloves anymore. It's hot in Oklahoma, where we both wound up now. One day, now, this summer, we are both old men, I am at his father's ex-house, (his father is languishing in a miserable square hospice room, alone, like 95 years old) and Ray is downstairs and it is hot and some asshole is talking on the radio non-stop. All those years. So I finally get up and throw the radio at the wall.     

 

 

 

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