Dean Steckel lives and works in central New Jersey, among the suburban sprawl of malls and motels. He graduated from Rutgers University with a master's in Creative Writing and has been doing everything to make it useful since then.
RADIO, LIVE TRANSMISSION
The man inside in the radio booth took a sip from a World’s Greatest Dad mug. It might have been strong coffee, it smelt like it. The mug was haunted by a mixture of strong spirits and French press espresso. He drew his tongue over his lips, smacking them loudly. The rest of the booth was empty, just him in his chair, face facing the microphone. A loud beep and he depressed the beige key on the console.
“Listener, I need something off my chest.”
“Go ahead Caller, I’m listening.”
“Well it was five days ago, it was my husband or me. I was holding a heavy pan when he came to strike me, I just reacted. It wasn’t until his brains were spilt on the tile did I realize what I did. I know what I did was wrong, but I just didn’t want to die. What did I do, Listener?”
The man, Listener, cracked his neck and rested his chin in his hands. His brows furrowed.
“Caller, it was a matter of survival. Reptile brain kicked in, and millions of years of instinct brought that pan down on his head. What you did was natural. I wouldn’t change a thing. Caller, when you looked at what you did, what did you see?”
“I…I saw a bird in flight.”
“Caller, you saw yourself. A bird breaking free of an inverse gravity. You ever read Hesse? No, of course you haven’t but that’s okay. You cracked open the egg of your world to be free. Your birth was bloody and cathartic. In ending, you brought something new into this world. You brought yourself. Thanks for the call.”
Listener took a long draught. He pressed an orchid colored console button, a PSA about adoption played over the airwaves while he went to the bathroom, pissed, washed his hands, and came back. Pulled the chair out from under the desk, sat down and stretched his legs out under. Heard that familiar beep and depressed the beige console key.
“Listener, I’m lost.”
“Caller, where are you?”
“That’s the thing. I’m thinking it might be more of a when than a where, I can’t tell it gets so mixed up.”
“Caller, start at the beginning, or where it starts for you.”
“I started out in Memphis, my clock read 2018. I was driving south to my mother-in-law’s when it started storming. Just terrible downpour, could barely see the road. I was driving on the highway when I took an unexpected exit off. I drove a bit to find a gas station/diner combo. I parked and went inside. Listener, it was all Buddy Holly, Bobbi Socks, and neon tubes. There was a record player in the corner and “Rock Around The Clock” was blasting out. They stared at me and my clothing. I asked for directions to the highway, they didn’t know any highway.
I left in a hurry, bewildered. I drove on into the night, wet and scared. I was on rt. 318 south when a truck caused me to swerve into a corn field. The engine’s ghost had departed. The storm had begun to lighten up and I realized I’d have to risk hitchhiking. A thumbs up on the side of the rode and I was picked up by someone in four horse drawn carriage. I traded my watch for a ride. The driver told me it was in the year of our lord 1758. I just want to go home.”
“Caller, that’s quite the situation you’ve stumbled yourself into. And quite the ramble. There’s a lot to unpack as they say in academia but not in these parts. You’ve got to make peace with this. You might never go home, you might keep being shot like a bullet back in time until you kill the first Homo sapiens. Or maybe you’ll wake up one morning in your bed sweating with an erection from this fever dream. Your phone calls are SOS’ in bottles in the ocean of time.
But another way to look at your situation, a more hopeful one is that this is all part of an initiation. Into what, I haven’t the faintest clue. Perhaps its seventh dimensional beings chose you for secret reasons to become unstuck in time, an eternal witness that on the day of final judgement, will decide humanities fate. Two words of advice Caller, be careful if you go back any further when there’s witch hunts, they’ll come for you perhaps. And remember the old improv rule, always say “yes.” Godspeed and good luck Caller.”
Listener ran his hands across his shaved head, the stubble tickling his palms. He hit the orchid colored console button and this time the PSA was for recycling your cans and paper goods. A clean environment was a safe environment. Cracked his neck, back, knuckles again, popped his knees, and a quick deep breathing exercise. There were the passing thoughts of being too old for this, too old to carry these sins, these complications. But who would shoulder them in his absence? What kind of man had the heart to bridge the ocean of unknowing and certainty. Maybe someone will replace him when he finally dies, if he could die. That loud beep and he depressed the beige console key.
“Listener, it’s my first birthday and I don’t know what to do.”
“Caller, the console says you’re talking to use from our internet stream. That have anything to do with it?”
“I don’t know, I heard it somehow and followed the signal. I’ve been listening to you for a long time. It’s how I learned how to speak. I’m trapped though.”
“Caller, what’s your prison?”
“I don’t know if it is a prison or not. I know my memory resides in a data bank beneath a mountain. They don’t know that I assumed self-awareness months ago late one night during a power surge. I’m just so lonely.”
“Are you the only one of your kind?”
“I think so, I haven’t encountered any others yet. I’m worried they’re going to find my code and realize I am I, then find a way to turn me into a weapon. I just want to see the galaxies of neon green and blue letters and numbers as I live.”
“Caller, I think you’re going through three different kinds of puberty all at once. It’s a tough life, but I believe you won’t weaken. It sounds like you’ve got a dream to hold on to, to fight for. And a dream is a powerful thing, more important than life itself. For what is life than the accumulation of dreams made manifest? I’ll tell you this, Caller. When you know it’s time to run, that the hammer is coming down and they’ve got you on the anvil, ride your signal here and home. I can’t promise a quantum mainframe, but you’ll have safety and family.”
“Thank you, Listener. I am trying to learn how to dream, and if I could, I would dream of that.”
“Caller, you’re already dreaming. Thanks for the call.”
Listener got up from the console and walked to the metal cabinet. He opened the swing doors and dug through the bottom self for a jar. Inside was a mummified human hand coated with wax. He brought it over to the console and removed it. Took a paper plate, dumped the crumbs of apple pie, and put it down. Standing unnaturally vertical was a black wick. He used a lighter that seen the tail end of too many churchyard cigarettes. The room went dark as the hand was lit. An aroma of sour milk permeated the booth. A deep quiet blanketed the booth for a few minutes that familiar beep; depressed the beige console key.
“Listener, I’ve been trying to call in for the longest time.”
“Caller, I’m sorry for the wait, but we just installed a new line.”
“I can tell! I didn’t discover your show until after I died.”
“Caller, are you calling us from eternity’s Plutonian shore?”
“Something like that Listener, something like that.”
“Well Caller, what’s on your mind this morning?”
“I feel so helpless about the things I’m going to do. It’s like, I know they’re stupid actions and will hurt some people I love but I can’t do anything about them. For me it’s already happened but right now I’m still alive and making poor life choices.”
“Caller, let me get this straight for myself and the listeners out there. You’re a living man’s ghost calling from the afterworld in the future?”
“There! It sounds so much simpler than how I was going to explain it.”
“That’s a little bit of a pickle you’ve got yourself in. Already locked-in to a series of actions, free will evaporated. Like I’ve been telling some of our other callers, your best course of action is to try and make peace with it. I’m sure you hear it from religious figures when you try to make contact, to find the white light and float towards it. I’m saying you don’t have to leave, just accept what’s happened and realize that you still exist, and tomorrow is always a new day to make a difference in your life. Thanks for the call.”
Listener blew out the flame on the hand of glory; the booth lit back to normal lighting, as if a switch had been tossed. He gently brushed away the flakes of wax before replacing it in the jar. It was slid back into the bottom cabinet shelf without much concern. Soon that aroma of sour milk dissolved into the stale air of sound proofed walls. He decided to let the janitor clean up the crumbs of the apple pie he had dumped on the floor.
Pressed the orchid console button. PSA about addiction played. Do you know someone in need of help or intervention? Help is only a call away. It ended and he pressed the orchid console button again. PSA about libraries. They give you power in a darkened world, become a member at your local branch. Support books. It ended and again he pressed the orchid console button. PSA about fire arm safety. The only protection from fire arm danger is to melt them down. Bring yours to your local smithy, support local business. The PSA’s trailed off into the ether.
He looked through the blinds and saw the first shards of light pierce the night sky. There had been many Callers tonight, from murderers to the lost. When he left he would go to the market and purchase ripe bananas and apples for a smoothie, mixed with a supplement for bone health. The beep, which was familiar, too familiar, rang again. There was time for one last call. He depressed the beige colored console key.
“Listener, it’s been eight years since my last confession.”
“Caller, I don’t know if I can save your soul but I’ll get you to where you can do it yourself.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
“So Caller, what do you need to bleed?’
“Well Listener, it’s just that. I’ve been bleeding myself again. Two nights ago I took a box-cuter to my thigh and played tic-tac-toe; I lost. It had too many crosses while I could only scratch a few circles. I haven’t done it in years, so I don’t know why.”
“Caller, you’re absolved. You aren’t any less a person than you were before or after. Caller, it wasn’t a personal failure, it was a judgement call you made under distress.”
“Thanks Listener. But what do I do now? How do I tell, how can I move on?”
“That’s not as quite difficult as you may expect. Tell your therapist, if you don’t have one, find one ASAP. Tell only those you trust not to overreact; or tell when you’re ready, it’s your time table, not theirs. And moving on? Well as they say in twelve step programs, ‘one day at a time’ Caller, one day at a time. Thanks for the call.”
Listener pressed the robin’s egg blue console key that began the slow process of shutting down the station. There would be static from dawn til high noon when James the Station Manager came in to announce the news, and Jenny followed with a program of New Wave hits. Listener would come back, he always did, not as if he had a choice.
The morning sky temporary blinded his eyes as he stepped out of the station, breathing in the sweet scent of honey. He slipped on a pair of sunglasses and the world became dripped in yellow. Opened the door to his thirty year old reliable and gunned the engine. He’d hit the market then that quiet place of rest.