The evening began like any other. Just after five o’clock, the corporate ranks flooded the sidewalks of Grant. Streetlamps lit the way as they boarded their buses, their taxis, their trains. Clockwork. Routine. Normalcy.
Even the birds in July Park had a schedule to keep. Every evening, they’d flock to the park’s eastern corner and crowd around a solitary figure hunched inside a tattered trench coat. They had grown accustomed to the dried pieces of rye and wheat that were mixed in with clumps of sourdough bagels. Long ago, the birds had all agreed that this mixture was the perfect defense against the bitter edge of winter’s night.
Now, as the ranks filed by, another slice of routine was tossed out among the pigeons and sparrows. Conversations about “that little old man in the dirty raincoat,” as he came to be known, took place every night and always carried the same sympathetic tone. As two businesswomen walked by, their loyalty to this standard was as sure as the white sneakers beneath their black and gray power suits.
“Lisa, look. There’s that little old man in the dirty raincoat.”
“Aww. Feeding the squirrel. So cute, Franny.”
“Yes,” Fran replied. “You know, my heart goes out to people like that. It really does. He’s there every night by himself.”
“God, he looks so alone. Probably no wife, no children.”
“Can you imagine being single clear into your seventies? What a shame.”
Well, not exactly. Sometimes he was in his nineties. Last winter, “old, dirty raincoat man” was 200, according to a student at the grammar school around the corner. Gray Holliston was seventy-three years old and, in a manner of speaking, he was married. Like most citizens of Grant, he was married to his daily routine.
Unlike everyone else, however, the biggest proponent of Gray’s routine was his nightly addiction to radio shows. It began innocently enough as the seven-year old lay transfixed by the hum and glow of the giant Atwater Kent. He and his brother warmed their feet against the trusty coiled radiator as Captain Midnight and Nick Carter, Master Detective, dashed across the living room walls.
As the years went on, Gray became a bit of a sleuth himself, seeking the shows out as they became more scarce across the radio dial. In fact, as he frequently grumbled to the birds of Grant, “only WNUC, the college station, has enough sense to still run ‘em. All the rest are cowards.”
At quarter past seven, Gray’s routine had him heading toward the gates of July Park. At twenty after, he would buy a bottle of milk and a single can of soup at Sam’s Deli. On this night, it was beef and barley. He always bought the one can, no more. Now, why not stock up once a week, once a month? Why make the daily trip? Well, only Gray knew for sure but maybe, way in the back of his radio mind, he hoped for a sudden invitation to dinner. Then again, if you had seen just how fast the old boy scuttled down the sidewalk, you’d swear his pants were on fire. From the outside, it certainly seemed that his radio show routine had precedence over anything else.
By seven-thirty, Gray was in his dusty apartment, near the western edge of July Park. If he timed it right (and you know he did), Gray would be in his Morris chair by ten to the hour, eagerly slurping his soup of choice as a growing desire for the evening’s programming lapped against the walls of the living room.
Each night, WNUC played host to the long running Airwave Theatre from eight to midnight – four hours of suspense, science fiction, comedy or horror. This depended upon the night of the week. There was a small square of yellowed paper taped securely to the side of Gray’s radio. In heavy pencil, the days of the week were listed along the top and four consecutive hours beginning with EIGHT, ran down the left hand side. At five to the hour, Gray consulted the timetable for that particular evening’s choice of programming. This was in spite of the duplicate schedule taped to the side of his brain.
In the old days, Airwave Theatre held its own, alongside the giants of AM radio like W.C. Fields and George Burns. It won a Marconi Award for Broadcast Excellence back in ’43 but lately, its significance has escaped WNUC’s Program Director. You can find the award in the display case outside his office but only the film of dust over its face knows what the inscription reads for sure. Truth be known, the college was considering a halt on hosting Airwave, altogether. After all, it wasn’t “the old days” anymore. According to listener surveys, no one had any interest. Even if they had, it would have been incomparable to Gray’s insatiable thirst.
At three minutes to the hour, Gray would finish off his soup and turn on the radio. On this night, an announcer’s voice, one that could scratch water, shot into the room and knocked Gray’s spoon from his hand.
“Wall has got it now! He passes to Shadwell. Shadwell’s mid-court and passes to Couture. Couture drives the lane…with a lay-up…and it’s good! Ahhh, My God! What a Gaaame!”
“What a racket.”
“The score is even once more as we go into double overtime!” he wailed. “I wish you can see it, folks!”
“I see it fine, Fire Truck,” Gray grumbled. “I can see that my shows are gonna be late because of your lousy basketball team and your dog whistle yakety-yak.”
He looked at the framed picture of Dwight Eisenhower, hanging above his long since retired fireplace. “The only thing that team has won in twenty years is my sympathy.”
“Ahh folks, what a game. Action packed! A time-out has been called. Hey! Hank’s Fish Market has the largest seafood selection with the lowest prices in town.”
“Tastes like hell.”
“That’s right,” the announcer continued. “Hank’s…Fish is it! We’d also like to remind you that Airwave Theatre will not be aired tonight so we can continue broadcasting this game and sure-to-be-exciting post game show! Now back to the action!”
Gray froze. He stared dumbly at the General Electric Logo in the center of the radio. Cancelled? Actually cancelled?? His muscles tensed, his jaw tightened and the air pressure in the room dropped a few notches.
“Sure to be exciting? Back to the action?!”
He slammed a pallid fist down onto his spoon, catapulting it and several bits of beef across the room.
Picking up the radio, Gray shouted into the speaker. “You little shit! Airwave broadcasts every night! There’s no change! No basketball! STOP THE GAME!!”
But it was true. For the first time in its 60-year run, Airwave Theatre had been pre-empted. He slammed the radio back down onto the end table and the basketball game was gone. A low murmur of static began trickling from the speaker.
“Oh no,” Gray whimpered. “Now, what am I going to do?”
After a moment, his wizened face hardened. He stomped over to the other side of the room and picked up the spoon, leaving the small pieces of meat on the wall out of spite. Grabbing the bowl from the table, Gray looked up at the picture of Eisenhower.
“They stole my shows, Dwight. They stole my shows then broke the God damn radio.”
He stormed into the kitchen and threw his spoon and bowl into the sink.
Back in the living room, the former president stared at the radio. Over the years, he had seen the exterminator come and go along with electricians, plumbers and Gray’s fair-weather friends. An indifferent smile had always stretched across his face. Those visitors would return or others like them. No cause for alarm. No reason to think the next day would be any different from the last. However, as the low murmur from the radio grew louder, Eisenhower suddenly had reason to raise his eyebrows – if they hadn’t been made of acrylic. The static became rhythmic chunks of sound and the chunks formed pieces of conversation, spoken between two women.
“Oh…it’s grand, Agnes. It matches perfectly,” said one.
“You’d never guess that you lost the original and this is a replacement!” replied the other.
“Good job, ol’ girl! Good job!”
Gray stumbled into the living room and looked around, frantically. “What’s that? Who’s in here?”
No one. The room was empty. No one near his chair. No one near the front door. Gray nodded at Eisenhower. Eisenhower smiled back.
“The transistor!” Gray clasped his hands together. “It’s working again!”
The speaker sent the beep and bing of a cash register into the room and Gray sat down with giddy legs.
“Airwave Theatre back on the air!” he pumped two scrawny fists in the air. “They came to their senses and killed Fire Truck!”
“Helen, have a good night,” said the second, “Be careful out there now, okay?”
“A shopkeeper,” Gray said to Eisenhower. “Standard banter for a general store or pharmacy.”
“I’ll be fine,” voice #1 a.k.a. “Helen” replied. “It takes a lot to get over on this ol’ battle axe!”
Gray chuckled. “‘Battle axe.’ I like that. Let’s see,” he looked at the ceiling. “Fifties…no, sixties. Yes, early sixties. Maybe a little overweight but she takes care of herself…Helen. Helen takes care of herself.”
He heard the jingle of bells. Then, a door opened and closed. Wind whistled as shoes clip-clicked down a cobblestone sidewalk.
City sounds filled Gray’s living room. A city bus drove into the kitchen and crowds of people walked past his Morris chair. Once more, a seven-year old watched phantom scenes play out across the opposite wall. The sound of a brass band grew steadily louder and a single bell tolled.
“Every penny counts this holiday season! Every penny counts!”
“Good evening, young man,” Helen said.
Coins clinked into a stiff metal cup and cold air shot across Gray’s chest.
“Thank you, ma’am. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you too, son,” Helen said sweetly.
The sound of the band faded and soon only the clip-click of Helen’s shoes remained.
“Outstanding effects!” Gray cheered. “Boy, that Salvation Army band must have been taped with a high quality mic. I know the difference between a cheapo and the good stuff, Dwight. Not since…oh, that Superman serial in ‘43 have I heard such high standards!”
The clip-click of Helen’s shoes went on for another minute. Occasionally, the sound of a passing car broke the monotony. Other times, she’d start humming a song then stop. Her halt was always in the same spot followed by a slightly agitated “hmm.”
“Okay, I get it,” Gray moaned. “She’s walking and humming. Pretty voice but let’s get on with it. This is starting to get boring. By the way, Helen, the rest is ‘da da dada da da d-dah dahhh.’ ‘The Entertainer,’ Scott Joplin, 1902. Great old song.”
Just then, her footsteps stopped. There was a shuffle as Gray imagined Helen turning around. Had there been a second set of footsteps? Gray leaned in. Her humming and the familiar clip-click began once more. She stopped again. There was another set of footsteps – not a clip-click, more of a shump-shump. Helen increased her clip-clicks and the shump-shumps kept pace. Gray leaned still further toward the speaker. Someone was following Helen and since the sounds of the city, so lively and bunched together earlier, were now scattered and low, Gray deduced that she was in an unpopulated area, an unpleasant place…even for an ‘ol’ battle axe.’
“Very unpleasant,” Gray said. “An alley, probably. All we’re missing here is the alley cat.”
Just then a cat shrieked and something dropped.
“There we go,” Gray nodded. “Who’s after you, Helen?”
There was a gasp and a quick flurry of clip-clicks followed closely by the ominous ‘shump-shumps.’ A tear of cloth and a sharp scream made Gray jump.
“Don’t move, lady,” came snarling through the speaker. “I ain’t gonna hurt ya.”
An image of cold stubble brushed against Gray’s mind.
“Thas’ a knife against y’throat. Unless y’want it in y’throat, y’gonna gimme y’purse and whatever y’just got from the jewelry store. Yeah, I know where y’been…I know.”
“Just let me go,” Helen whimpered.
“Don’t turn around. I want us to get along, here. No troubles. Now hand it over, baby. C’mon.”
A moment later, Gray heard a dull thump on cloth and the sound of metal hitting the ground. There was a deep groan and Helen’s clip-clicks dashed into the room once more.
“That will teach you to try something like that on an old lady!” she yelled. “How’d that feel, baby?”
“WOO HOO!!!” Gray cheered. “Outstanding! No narrator, no music, and I don’t even miss it! This is action packed! Run Helen! Run!!”
And she did. There was a scrape of metal against concrete then an irregular set of shump shumps increasing in succession.
“Bad move, lady! Now, you know what I look like. Y’give me no choice.”
“Uh oh,” Gray muttered. “She’s in trouble.”
“Please! Someone help me!” Helen screamed. “I’m being chased and…”
Gray couldn’t hear the rest. What sounded like a convoy of ambulances screamed by his building.
“That figures! That damn game is probably going into triple overtime and Fire Truck called in the reserves! Shut Up! Shut Up!!” he yelled, waving his arms at the window.
The sirens soon faded and Gray could hear a shallow panting from the speaker. There was an occasional crunch. Helen’s breathing picked up. Gray imagined her hiding somewhere, brave but scared.
Just then, the sound of ambulances crackled in the speaker.
“That’s funny,” he pointed. “Those sirens were just…”
The blood ran from Gray’s face. At that moment, his mind raced at a velocity unexplored since his teens. He quickly began stringing the evening’s events together. Airwave Theatre had been cancelled. Only static came from the radio. The crisp brass band, the incredible sound effects, the lack of music and narration, and now the sirens – it all pointed toward a singular impossible truth.
“Oh God,” he said. “This isn’t a radio show at all.”
“Jesus. Somebody help me,” Helen whimpered.
“You can’t be far, lady,” came immediately after.
“She’s real,” Gray sat, transfixed by the radio, “and so is he. I…I have to do something. Think. Okay, okay. That sound earlier. That crunch. It sounded like…leaves? Yes, leaves on the ground. And then, the ambulances. They’re close. Maybe they’re in the park. Maybe they’re right outside in July Park!”
He thought for a minute then looked up at the president. “Oh, this is ridiculous! None of this is real!”
“I can’t make it to the other side,” Helen whispered to herself. “He’ll see me.”
“The other side,” Gray looked at the radio. “The other side. They are in the park!”
Gray stumbled to his feet and into his slippers. He hurried over to the closet and swung open the door. A box of Christmas decorations tumbled down. He grabbed an old cardboard box on the top shelf and slammed it onto the floor. A sloppy ball of extension cords, light bulbs and fuses rolled into the room. After fishing out two ‘D’ batteries, he sprinted over to the radio and tore off its back cover. Clumsily, he put the batteries inside, kicked the plug out from the wall and dashed out of his apartment.
“Talk to me, Helen,” Gray said, hitting the street. “Where are you?”
His breath was small puffs of white. The cold, though, had little effect. For the first time in his life, Gray wasn’t listening to a radio show. He was the radio show.
“I can’t believe this,” Helen whispered from the speaker. “I can’t run. I can’t scream. Ohh, he’s so close. He’s going to find me. I know it. Maybe if I run across the ice…”
“Ice,” Gray echoed. “The lake! She’s by the lake!”
He raced into the park, holding the radio with both hands. Had it always been so heavy? Gray couldn’t recall. How long had it sat on that end table?
A scream shot from the speaker.
“No, please!” Gray pleaded frantically with the radio. “Please be okay.”
He wildly scanned the lake and saw two figures running along the other side, under the glow of the full moon. Gray started running too, attempting to match their speed.
“Give it up, lady!” the attacker screamed from the speaker, “You can’t outrun me! You’re too old!”
Moments later, Gray heard pieces of the insult echo across the lake. As frenzied as he was, he still marveled at the inconceivable “transmission” that he was now a part of.
Helen and her attacker were nearing the eastern side of the lake. Gray quickened his pace so that he reached it first. He hid with his back up against a tree and waited.
Labored breathing came over the radio. Was it Helen or the attacker? They were very close. The footsteps could now be heard from the speaker and from behind. Gray’s timing would have to be perfect. He lifted the radio to eye level. His pulse throbbed. Helen darted by and Gray stepped out from behind the tree, lunging the radio forward. The impact of wood on bone broadcasted into Gray’s face before the radio split in two. Helen looked back as the attacker fell sideways onto the frozen ground. Blood trickled from his forehead just beside the splintered pieces of Gray’s radio.
“I guess you were too young to outrun me,” Gray said to the would-be killer.
He bent down and picked up the knife with his handkerchief, in classic Nick Carter fashion.
Helen walked over. It was the first time Gray saw the real Helen. She looked a lot like the “radio” version except for two subtle, beautiful differences.
A blue knit cap was cocked to one side and a tuft of blonde hair had fallen out during the chase. There was something about that hat and tuft of hair. Gray couldn’t keep his eyes off them. Now, maybe it was because he hadn’t imagined that part. Or, maybe it was because reality was staring back at him. She was flustered, random and unpredictable – the very antithesis of the scripted evenings that stretched far into his past. It was fascinating. For the first time in his life, humanity was more attractive than scenes spun by electric imagination.
They stared at each other for a few moments, trying to understand the evening.
“Thank you,” she said, still breathless.
“You’re welcome, Helen,” Gray replied.
“How…how do you know my name?”
“You know, I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you.”
She looked down at her attacker, lying beside a shattered radio. “Try me.”
“My name is Gray Holliston,” he said, extending his hand.
“Helen Briggs,” she grasped it, “but you already know that. Oh, you’re freezing.”
“Why don’t we go somewhere where we can talk?”
Helen looked down and smiled. “What about him?”
“My apartment is just over there,” Gray said, gesturing over his shoulder. “We could call the police from inside if you’d like.”
“And your radio?” she asked, her eyes fixed on Gray’s.
“I, umm…I don’t think I’ll be needing it anymore.”
She smiled again and nodded.
Gray and Helen did call the police that night. Gray claimed that he’d been walking through the park when he heard Helen scream so he rushed to her aid. However, when he had caught up with them, he saw that she had already taken care of the situation with “her” radio. For the record, it was to be a present for her sister.
“What a waste of a good Christmas gift,” the detective said, jotting down the report.
Gray had smiled as Helen mouthed the words “thank you.”
As time went on, the city of Grant didn’t change much. Clockwork, routine, normalcy, it all still set the scene.
The eastern edge of July Park was no different. Every evening, an elderly couple sat close to the lake, feeding the pigeons and sparrows dried pieces of rye and wheat mixed in with clumps of sourdough bagels.
One spring evening, two businesswomen walked by and noticed the couple sitting on a bench, surrounded by birds.
“There they are, Carol,” the first said, “Mr. and Mrs. Dirty Raincoat.”
“Look at all the birds!” the other replied.
“I hope that’s me when I get up there.”
“Oh, me too! That’s a routine I would love to have. Look at them. They’ve probably been married for years.”
Well, not exactly.
© 2008-2021 Brendyn Schneider, Use or reprint not authorized without permission from the author. Airwave Theatre was published in the Winter 2008 issue of Tales of the Talisman.