Short Story Of the Day (flash fiction) – Senior Smackdown by Bill Chance

“The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”
― H.L. Mencken

B-17 Nose Art, Commemorative Air Force

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#91) Almost There! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


Senior Smackdown

It was so hot that the air conditioning in the clunky old radio station van couldn’t keep up and Emily had to keep daubing the sweat off her face. Bernard, the assistant sound engineer kept giving her a hard time.

“Man, you’re sweating like a stuck pig… good thing this is radio,” Bernard said.

“Shut up Bernard.”

She was getting sick of doing all the crap assignments, and today was the worst of all. It was Tuesday afternoon and it was time for a new bit, something called “Senior Smackdown.” It was one of the bits that came down from corporate – they said they had focus-grouped the whole thing and it was super-fun and popular for their target demographic – the urban teen and tween girls that spent the most money at their sponsor’s stores. To Emily, it was just another humiliation she had to endure.

“OK, Bernard, enough of this crap. Remind me again, what are we supposed to be doing? What is this ‘Senior Smackdown’?”

“Simple enough Emily,” said the assistant sound engineer, “We drive out to this old folks home, we’ve got their permission, and they set us up with some old geezer. We’re supposed to get somebody really old and kinda crazy, someone that doesn’t really know what’s going on. You ask them some questions – the station will send suggestions in on your device, keep an eye on it – and we broadcast the hilarity.”

They pulled off onto a loop driveway and parked in front of a long, low, dingy gray building. A sign said, “Lazy Acres,” in peeling paint. Bernard unloaded his remote broadcast gear and checked it out.

They walked in past a clump of old people sitting around staring into space. Emily didn’t like how they looked at her or how the inside of the Lazy Acres smelt.

“This place smells like pee,” she said as they walked up to the head nurse’s station at the intersection of two long halls.

“Get used to it,” said the nurse, glaring at Emily.

“Oh, Hi,” said Emily, pulling up her best fake smile and a little giggle, “We’re from KKDA and we’re here to…”

“I know why you’re here,” said the nurse. Her voice dripped poison. You’re late, Helena is waiting for you.

“Helena?”

“Yea, Helena. I chose her for you myself. She’s ninety five years old. No family, never been married. She really looks forward to any visitor she can get, not that she gets any.” The nurse paused and looked Emily up and down. “I think she is just what you need.”

“Well, good,” said Emily while she did a little eye-flutter that she knew would aggravate the nurse. “Let’s get this over with.”

They walked down the hallway and the nurse opened a door without knocking. “Helena, the radio people are here.”

There was an ancient old woman sitting in a simple desk chair. There was a comfortable padded lounger facing her for Emily to sit in. She smiled eagerly as Emily and Bernard entered and the engineer began to set his equipment up.

“Can she hear me?” Emily asked the nurse.

“I can hear fine,” the old woman answered. “My name’s Helena,” she said in a clear and strong voice. It’s so nice to have someone young and pretty like you come to see me. I’m so sick of the old people in this place.”

“Helena, this is Emily,” the nurse said. “I’ll leave you to it now.”

Bernard managed to get the remote humming and started his sound checks while Emily and Helena sat quiet, staring at each other. Emily felt the sweat running down the side of her face.

“Here, honey,” Helena said, “have my handkerchief. They do keep it warm in here.”

Emily felt like screaming. Finally Bernard tapped her on her shoulder and gave her the two minute sign. In her ear she could hear the intro bump music for Senior Smackdown and the guffaws of the two disc jockeys back at the station.

“Ok, now Jane, it’s time for a new segment, Senior Smackdown!” said Bruce.

“That sounds like fun Bruce!” Jane shouted back at the station. Jane then launched into one of her famous laughing fits, her voice booming out in rough guffaws while Bruce tittered in the background. This was the signature of the two afternoon jockeys – this constant laughing. They could vary it from simple giggles to obscene snorts and sniggles all the way to booming shrieks of hilarity. The focus groups indicated that their listeners loved this.

“And on the scene is our very own roving reporter, Emily Lighthouse, to talk to one of the city’s oldest senior citizens, Helena. Emily, ask Helena if she has ever been married.”

And that was her cue.

“Helena, have you ever been married?”

“No Emily, I’ve been single all my life.” Helena suddenly became silent. Her face became calm, reflective. It looked for a moment like she had forgotten about Emily sitting there.

Emily felt a moment of panic and glanced down at the handheld device. It flashed a lurid single word, “LEZBO!” in bright flashing letters. She was relieved when Helena spoke first.

“Well, Emily, I haven’t been single by choice. I was engaged once. It was back in nineteen forty one. I was engaged to a boy named Ralph and was so much, so deeply in love. We were so young. After that, I couldn’t find it again. I remember when he joined the Navy. We were to be married at his station on Hawaii. I was going to fly out on the Clipper for New Year’s. I went to San Diego to watch him set sail on the Arizona. They were, all the boys, a thousand of them, all lined up on the rail in their dress whites. It was such a sight to see. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

“Well, what happened?”

“I said, he sailed to Hawaii on the Arizona. Nineteen forty one.”

“And?” Emily asked. Helena suddenly stared at Emily with eyes as clear as spring water, her face as sad as a dream denied. Emily felt that she had disappointed Helena somehow.

“He died at Pearl Harbor.”

“Oh… and you never married?”

“No, I’ve already told you that. Well, I did have some chances, I was asked. But I always thought of Ralph, and those other boys. It just didn’t seem right.”

“Well, then, how did you get by, back then, by yourself.”

“Oh, I know you probably find this hard to believe, but I was a professional tennis player. I was pretty darn good too. I toured the world. I was a real up-and-comer. It was all there, all in front of me.”

“So you played tennis? What tournaments…”

Helena kept on, ignoring Emily. “I had it all. Well, that is, until I go the Polio.”

“Polio?”

“Yes, honey. You don’t know anything about that, I’m sure. Thank God. You’ve probably never seen an iron lung. Probably never had any of your pretty friends going to a dance with braces on her legs.”

Emily glanced down at her device. It was flashing, “THIS ISN’T FUNNY” Emily didn’t know what to do. This isn’t what it was supposed to be like. That nurse had set her up. She was supposed to be interviewing some doddering old fool, someone she could make fun of, someone the radio audience could laugh at.

Helena was no doddering old fool. She was still talking, about polio, about some guy named Salk. She was talking about how hard it was to get by as a single crippled woman and about how it felt to have your dreams taken away from you. She then talked about how she had found strength and how, now, looking back, she could not imagine wishing it to be any different.

“Umm… what did you do?”

“I was a school teacher, a teacher for fifty years, eighth grade English. I taught Kindergarten for one year – kind of tapering off when my mother got sick.”

“You said earlier that you are sick of old people.”

“I look around at these women here and think about whether I would want to be married to any of them, if I was a man, and I think, no. They line up like a bunch of old crows at the front windows waiting to see who comes to visit, I’m not like that, I like to talk to folks, but if nobody comes I’m happy to get back to my room.”

“Ummm, uhhh, like, what else do you want to say?”

“There’s been a few highlights in my life – I saw the president, Kennedy, in his car ’bout twenty minutes before they blew his head off – that was a highlight… if you can call it that.”

“You were there?”

“Lived in Dallas all my life. I guess I’ve had a pretty ordinary life – never did anything much – I probably would have if I hadn’t got the polio.”

Emily glanced at her device, it said, “CUT IT OFF NOW!”

And that was the end of this week’s Senior Smackdown. Emily couldn’t even make eye contact with Helena while Bernard packed up his equipment. She heard Bernard thanking Helena and asking her if she needed anything while she fled the room looking for the head nurse. She wanted to give that bitch a piece of her mind, but she was nowhere to be found.

All the way back to the station Bernard couldn’t stop talking about Helena.

“Wasn’t that the most amazing shit you’ve ever heard? Think of it. Pearl Harbor. Polio. Can you imagine what it was like to be a professional female athlete, a tennis player, in the nineteen forties? ”

“Oh, shut up, Bernard.”

“I mean it. I’m going to go back there and tape her some more for myself. Can you imagine the stories she can tell? What an amazing life. Jeez, she was there when Kennedy was shot.”

But Emily wasn’t listening. She felt another rivulet of sweat course down her temple and mopped at it. She realized that she still had Helena’s handkerchief. She took one last swipe at the sweat, rolled the widow down and threw it out into the breeze.

Short Story Of the Day Radio Radio (flash fiction) by Bill Chance

“Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.”
― Stanisław Lem, Solaris

Flock in Space, Ruben Ochoa
Trinity River Audubon Center, Dallas, Texas
(click to enlarge)

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#49). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


 

Radio Radio

Winston Devine was always something of a hoarder… not too bad, but he liked his stuff. The quarantine lockdown kept him from going to his favorite thrift store and it was hard on him. When things began to free up and Thrift World opened for two hours a day (with social distancing and a mask requirement) Winston was excited.

There is a certain smell of a big thrift store – mostly a slight musty odor from those vast racks of used clothes – and Winston was happy that Thrift World still had it. It brought back such good memories of bargains found and purchased. He had a route through the store where he wound looking for what he was interested in. He always found things he liked – he was looking for different things than the usual poverty-stricken denizen was.

It the back corner was a giant plastic bin full of obsolete, useless electronics. Single and scuffed speakers, old phones, DVD players, audio cassette recorders, phone answering machines, overhead projectors, VCRs, broken printers, fax machines… all the detritus of fast-changing technology. A hand lettered sign was taped to the wall, “Old Electric.” The items were tagged with color-coded stickers indicating the price.

Winston couldn’t help a quick dig. At the least it sent a surge of nostalgia through him. From near the bottom he lifted out what looked like an old radio. It reminded of a portable tube set that his father had when he was a little kid.

Clad in reddish leather it was a rectangular box about the size of a loaf of bread. It even had a leather strap handle on the top like the one his father had owned. It sported a purple dot which Winston knew represented a buck. For a dollar he’d buy it – even if it didn’t work.

At home he sat down at his kitchen table with the bargain, excited to figure out if he could it to do something. His father’s old radio had opened up with two snaps on the back and contained a huge plastic tube that required nine “D” batteries – electronics from that age weren’t very efficient.

But on this unit the back was featureless leather. Turning it over, there was no opening on the sides or bottom, either. The top only contained the carrying strap.

“How the hell does this thing get power?” he muttered to himself.

On the front there were two large silver knobs on either side – one labeled “Vol” the other “Tun.” Between them was a linear tuning dial with three lines and a red slider that moved across it. Below the dial was a simple sliding switch.

“Well, that looks right,” he said to nobody.

But that was all there was. It was too simple, there should have been more stuff on it. He was confused because there was no logo or brand name… no “Zenith” or “GE” emblazoned proudly. Maybe it had fallen off.

Winston gave the volume knob a twist and after a click the tuning dial lit up with a strong blue glow. The thing worked! He was elated.

The slide switch had three positions. AM, FM, and the third had a symbol that looked like a stylized swirl. He set it to AM, turned the volume up and began to scan.

Each time he turned the tuning knob, even a fraction, sound began to come out of the radio. It was crisp and distinct. Winston smiled as he thought about how well stuff was made back then.

The odd thing was, the stations weren’t all in English. Few were, as a matter of fact. As he tuned he realized the radio was picking up stations from all over the world. Picking them up strong and clear like they were right next door. It was receiving hundreds of stations.

When he reached the end of the dial, he switched the radio to FM and moved back down. Again, every tiny movement tuned in another station from somewhere in the world, strong and distortion free. There was no static. There was music from all genres and talk in every imaginable language.

Winston was confused. He had no idea how this thing was working like that. Then he noticed something else. The radio had no speaker grill. He turned it around in his hands and could not figure out where the music was coming from. It seemed to be radiating out of the whole radio in all directions. And he noticed that the radio was pristine. The leather was completely unmarked… no scratches or stains. The dials were perfect. How was that possible on an old radio that ended up in a thrift store?

He was beginning to freak out. There was no way this was possible. On the other hand, it was an amazing bargain. He had only paid a buck for it. It had AM and FM bands – but what was that third switch position. Maybe it was short wave.

He looked more closely at the dial. On the FM and AM lines were numbers, frequencies, like he expected. On the third line, however there was a series of small circles. Each circle was labeled in tiny lettering that read:

Arcturus

Betelgeuse

Canopus

Capella A

Capella B

Deneb

Fomalhaut

Mimosa

Pollux

Procyon

Rigel

Sirius

Spica

Vega

These were names of stars, he recognized that. Looking at the sliding switch he realized that the symbol on the third position was a stylized galaxy. It was crazy.

Taking a deep breath, he tuned the radio to Arcturus and switched the band to the galaxy. Immediately an odd series of clicks and tones started pouring out of the radio. He had never heard anything remotely like those sounds. They were completely alien. Alien. The word stuck in his mind.

He began to turn the dial, working through the names. Each one had a completely different sound – Betelgeuse was an odd wailing, while Canopus sounded almost like whale song with an oboe playing in the background. Capella A and B sounded similar, though A was at a higher pitch. Nothing, though was familiar at all… it was all… alien.

Until he reached Sirius. When the red line crossed that little circle Winston was shocked to hear “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys in perfect clarity. When it ended, the old doo-wop classic “Earth Angel” played. The next song was an ancient instrumental by The Ventures, “Telstar.” Winston had always liked that song.

After the guitar faded away Winston was jolted when a voice came over the radio. It was an odd voice – he couldn’t decide if it was male of female, young or old. It had no discernible accent and Winston decided it was an absolute perfect generic voice.

“Welcome all you listeners from across the known galaxy to our afternoon show, Sounds of Earth. Our agents are working hard recording the music and culture of that little planet for the archives. Their time and their job is almost over. Once the invasion is accomplished, the population enslaved, and the planet stripped we want to preserve as much as we can in the unlikely case they produced anything of lasting value. In the meantime we select what we think you might enjoy and let you hear it before it’s gone.”

“Next up, Space Oddity by a human singer named David Bowie.”

Winston turned the radio off. He was shaking and sweat was pouring down his face. He walked into his living room and turned on the television. He was relieved when the normal pair of newscasters appeared on the screen sitting behind their usual desk. There was no panic and no mention of an alien invasion.

The male announcer said to his partner, “Well, Wendy, twenty twenty has been quite a year. The pandemic, political insanity, then the demonstrations and the riots. We can hope that soon, things will start to improve. Twenty one will have to be a better year.”

“That’s right Chad,” his partner replied. “What could possibly happen next? I can’t imagine things getting worse than this.”

Winston couldn’t help but let out a chuckle as he said to the screen, “Worse? Oh, I’m afraid you have no idea how much worse it is going to get.”

Breathe the Air

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The view from the parking lot as I go home from work. Dallas, Texas

Clouds, sky, and steel. There are things of man and things of nature. Sometimes there is beauty in both.

Eating Barbequed Iguana

I’m on a mexican radio
I wish I was in Tiajuana
Eating barbequed iguana
I’d take requests on the telephone
I’m on a wavelength far from home
I feel a hot wind on my shoulder
I dial it in from south of the border
I hear the talking of the dj
Can’t understand just what does he say?
Radio radio…
—- Wall of Voodoo, Mexican Radio

The Tennessee Williams quote on the wall at the Gallier House, Royal Street, French Quarter, New Orleans.

I wrote about this on my Facebook page back in February – but I don’t think a lot of people followed the link.

At any rate, this story started back in 2012, on a trip to New Orleans. I ran into a group at the St. Vincent’s Guest House and soon was involved in a one-day writing marathon – walking around with a handful of folks, scribbling away.

I was inspired by the experience to the point I organized a Writing Marathon or two of my own, here in Dallas.

Then finally, in July of last year, I was able to swing attending the full week-long Writing Marathon Retreat – branching out from the Gallier House to write across the French Quarter and beyond.

One day, the group I had gone with that day stopped for the fixed-price lunch at Antoine’s (highly recommended if you are in New Orleans in the summer). I remembered an incident that had happened in that very restaurant thirty five years earlier. I pulled out my pen and notebook wrote up my memories in the bar.

At the end of each day, there was the option for a few folks to stand up and read from what they had written earlier. I put my name on the list and read the story from Antoine’s. The readings were recorded.

Then, in February, a selection of the recordings were played on KSLU radio.

You can listen to the 2017 readings AT THIS LINK – If you want to skip ahead, my reading is at about the 14:10 point.

If that link doesn’t work – go here – http://www.kslu.org/awards_recognition/index.html and click on “2017 Writing Marathon.”

People have asked me about the siren at the end of my reading. That isn’t a sound effect – the fire engine actually went by on the street outside, siren blaring, as I finished.

Now I need to get going and register for the 2018 Retreat. So much fun.

Touch of a World That is Older

I feel a hot wind on my shoulder
And the touch of a world that is older
I turn the switch and check the number
I leave it on when in bed I slumber
I hear the rhythms of the music
I buy the product and never use it
I hear the talking of the DJ
Can’t understand just what does he say?
—-Wall of Voodoo, Mexican Radio

Apartment Building, The Cedars, Dallas, Texas

Oblique Strategy: Think of the radio

When I was a kid I was really interested in archaeology. I even joined a local archaeologist club and had a fantasy of going out somewhere and digging crap up. Of course, nothing ever happened. I loved a book about archaeology called Gods Graves and Scholars. I was always fascinated by this photo from Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza - from the book Gods, Graves, and Scholars

Chichen Itza – from the book Gods, Graves, and Scholars

A couple decades or so ago, I found myself in the exact same spot – sort of cool. It turns out that photo was taken from the top of the great pyramid.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

But as far as actual archaeology goes… nada.

Now I’m cleaning out my garage, organizing, sorting and throwing as much stuff away as I can. Finally, I feel like an archaeologist, slowly moving through the detritus of the past, working layer by layer, trying to understand the purpose of things that have been long forgotten.

Thunderstruck

Marconi antennas at Wellfleet

Marconi antennas at Wellfleet

Creative nonfiction is the use of fictional techniques, such as characterization, conflict, foreshadowing, in the service of a factually accurate narrative. To me, the most important aspect that separates creative nonfiction from, say, journalism or scholarly writing, is the use of scenes. The story is broken up into scenes of varying length and detail, carefully crafted and arranged to affect an emotional result in the reader, while staying strictly within the known facts.

In the many years since In Cold Blood there have been many masters of Creative Nonfiction… Mailer, Wolfe, McPhee spring to my mind immediately… but right now the current master of the genre, in my humble opinion, is Erik Larson.

I read “Isaac’s Storm” a few years ago and was absolutely enthralled. Of course, the fact that I am very familiar with Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula made the story even more harrowing and effective. For years we vacationed at Crystal Beach on the Bolivar Peninsula and I would imagine the horror of the storm surge inundating the island. I would look at the black iron lighthouse and imagine the poor souls huddling inside as the water rose and the winds howled. I read the book before Hurricane Ike struck and wiped our old vacation haunts off the face of the earth.

Then I read “The Devil in the White City” – which didn’t have the same emotional effect on me – but was actually a better book. It was fascinating in its story (which I knew nothing about) of the fantastic Chicago World’s Fair. This story of man’s best creations on display was contrasted with the darkest depths of human depravity in the parallel story of H.H. Holmes, the country’s “first” serial killer, who set up shop in his “murder castle” constructed only a few blocks from the fair.

The book is mesmerizing.

I went to a lecture by Erik Larson at the Eisemann Center here in Richardson and loved it. He talked a lot about the research he did for his non-fiction. I remember he discussed one sentence in Isaac’s Storm where he described what Isaac Cline saw, heard, and even smelled while he walked from his office to his home the day before the hurricane hit. “People ask me how I know what he experienced on his walk over a hundred years ago,”  He went on to explain that he knew from Cline’s letters he walked home and Larson learned from the maps of the city that there were stables and workshops on the way, and Cline would smell the horses and hear the workers.

It was very impressive.

So now I’ve finished a third Larson non-fiction book, published a few years ago, Thunderstruck. This, like Devil in the White City contrasts a famous accomplishment – Guglielmo Marconi’s successful “invention” of wireless communication, with a horror – Hawley Crippen, the most unlikely of murderers. The two stories are told separately, until the unexpected coincidences of history brought the two together in an unexpected way.

I found the Marconi story the more interesting of the two. The murder was horrific in its details – but the murderer was portrayed as almost a sympathetic character. Marconi was especially interesting in the fact that he didn’t actually invent anything – he never really even understood how radio worked – but he had the single-mindedness, courage, and business acumen to put other people’s inventions to work in a way that made sense and was successful.

And isn’t that the most important thing… really?

Any criticism of the book is merely picking nits. Larson is famous for layering on detail and here, especially in his description of the murderer’s daily life, it piles up pretty thick and gets a little tedious. I would like to have had less information on Crippen’s love life and more on the fantastic, gigantic, wireless installations that Marconi built on both sides of the Atlantic – spending millions of dollars and risking his entire company trying to get Morse code across the sea – never mind that nobody thought it was possible, that undersea cables could already do the job, and Marconi had no idea what he was doing in the first place.

The ultimate irony is that, in an odd way, the murderer was responsible for Marconi’s ultimate success.

So, in short, very good book, put it on your reading list – enjoy yourself and learn something at the same time.

Larson has another book out that I haven’t read – “In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.“ Oh, man, that sounds good, doesn’t it?

Early Marconi Radio

Early Marconi Radio

Radio Paradise

Radio

Radio

Internet radio is a gift from the gods. I mean it, isn’t it amazing that this music can come out of the ether? And it follows  you around, were ever you go.

I have tried out a thousand Internet radio stations but I keep coming back to one, Radio Paradise. Right now, I’m at the library after work, listening to it on my laptop (yes, very good sound-isolating headphones, of course) trying to get some pages hammered off in one window, radio paradise in another, and this procrastinating tripe in a third.

Day after day, I’ve fallen into the bad habit of coming home from work and collapsing. To try and put that vice to rest, I’m going to stop off at the library on the way home. I guess I can fall asleep at this little cubicle, but at least it will be uncomfortable and I’ll drool and such – can’t snooze too long.

Back to Radio Paradise… over the last few years I have found so much great new music from their programming. It’s a great mix of old and new, popular and obscure (leaning toward the new and obscure) – mostly not too upbeat, but not too downcast either.

I love it when I can play it while I sleep and wake up to some mysterious music pouring and bouncing through the dark room.

At home, I’ve been playing around with the Roku Box and found something really cool. Radio Paradise has a channel on the box and while it plays the music it displays a series of HD still images. You can watch it here on your computer screen – but it is really something nice on a big screen HD television and sound system.

This truly is the best of all possible worlds.