December 16, 2016
Bob Boland is surrounded. Yuppies everywhere. Goddamned professional women with their blunt cuts and power suits, their wimpy men, pale faced and narrow shouldered, their PhDs, MDs and JDs on proud display in their book-lined studies.
The neighborhood has always been full of snobs — half of it belongs to Harvard, the other half to Harvard professors, grads, and wannabes, the type who donate buildings and gymnasiums, who endow symphony chairs in perpetuity — but there used to be room for the little people, who deliver the mail, plow the driveways, clean the teeth, fix the burners. Now the new rich are crowding them out, throwing around so much money that the neighborhood is barely recognizable. Slate roofs, copper drains, specimen trees, heated driveways — nothing is too good for them. If there’s a beautiful front yard, they put up a fence. If there’s a fence, they tear it down and put in a hedge. Blacktop becomes lawn; lawn becomes groundcover; groundcover becomes brick. And God forbid the house should peel. Bingo! An army of painters descends, airlifted from the latest Third World country in collapse, sanding, scraping, hanging like bats under the eaves, risking their lives to try out matching trim colors.
Bob never thought he’d be singing the praises of the horsefaces, stingy old bastards with their patched tweed jackets and homely gray-haired wives, wearing the same frayed shirts and resoled shoes year in and year out, living in their gloomy mansions, driving their ten-year-old Mercedes, riding their three-speed Raleighs with the cracked leather seats and rusty wire baskets, scarves wrapped around their necks like they were in merry old England, the motherland, the well from which their bottomless coldness must have sprung. But now he feels something approaching affection for them, for mannish old Pricilla Sutton, lurching down the street in her Wellingtons and worn flannel shirt, her white hair escaping from a headband. Even she looks a little uncomfortable now, unsure where she belongs in this new world of conspicuous consumption.
At eleven-thirty at night, when everyone else in the neighborhood is getting ready for bed, clicking off the TV after an IQ-lowering dose of local news, turning down the covers, slipping between the six-hundred-thread-count sheets, curling up with a New Yorker, a mystery, a spiritual how-to, Bob is heading to WJZY. His shift starts at midnight, but he likes to get to the station a few minutes early, pull some CDs, set up the breaks, clean up the studio after that pig BJ, who will watch him clean, never once getting up from his chair. BJ is so lazy he will roll to get another CD, to program the computer, to read the log. He has mastered the soundboard push off; he’s the gold medallist of the chairbound. Every night the trashcan overflows with fast food wrappers, crushed coffee cups, old newspapers, spent ketchup packets. And BJ has the body to show for it. He has grown into the chair; his hips and ass seep girlishly over the sides. Like nearly everyone in radio, BJ has a good voice, deep and round, with a butterscotch finish; you picture James Earl Jones, maybe Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but what you get is a pale, fat, thirty-five-going-on-fifty-five white guy who is obsessed with jazz.
Bob is obsessed with jazz too, but he doesn’t look the part. He still has the broad shoulders and muscled upper body of the athlete he was supposed to be. His sports career foundered his freshman year at UMass, when he discovered jazz and pot. The coach threw him off the team. His father stopped talking to him. His mother slipped him tuition money and he graduated with an individually crafted degree in Altered States of Consciousness and the Evolution of Bebop. Find a job with that.
Bob always gets to the station before Riff, who is out in the parking lot smoking a joint. Now that it is forbidden to smoke in the studio, Riff makes do with a before-show toke and a pick-me-up in the men’s room during breaks. Back when Bob started in radio everybody smoked, cigarettes and marijuana, ashtray right next to the microphone, helped your voice get that nice gravelly touch, gave men the balls they might lack, and women the balls they almost certainly did.
Riff is another little white guy pretending to be black, but at least he was one of the first. He’s been around forever, snuck into clubs to see Miles and Coltrane when he was a teen. He has a very low maintenance approach to his appearance: shaves his head once a year, ignores it for the rest. He wears nothing but jumpsuits, which he designs and his third young wife dutifully sews. His only regular upkeep is his pointy little goatee, a must for white guys pretending to be black. After twenty years in radio, Bob could write a treatise on white guys pretending to be black. Like you didn’t already fuck over black people, you have to steal their culture, appropriate their blue moods, envy them their suffering. Most of these white–black guys ended up with drug problems, the only surefire way to shed their middle class privilege and get down with the brothers.
But Bob respects Riff. Back when he decided to become a black man, it wasn’t the thing to do. And Riff still likes white people. He and Bob started working together when WJZY was mostly jazz; now it’s mostly news. They have been together for thirteen years, longer than any of Riff’s marriages, longer by far than any of Bob’s relationships. Occasionally they socialize on the weekends, getting together after midnight. Riff’s wife Sue cooks dinner, and they drink and talk until dawn. Riff always manages to find a woman who will cater to his schedule, breakfast at 4 p.m., lunch at 11 p.m. Sue is up when he rolls in. Maybe you were a little hard on the guy who didn’t know who Johnny Hodges was. You should have let the old lady finish. Riff does a kind of hybrid jazz / talk show. When he feels like it, he plays music; when he gets bored, he takes calls from the audience. Old people, insomniacs, sick people, shift workers, drug addicts, musicians — they’re the ones who are up all night, roaming their houses, spinning the radio dial. They talk about music, sleep, God, food, sex. Bob will cue up a CD — Pharaoh Sanders, Ron Carter — and sneak it in under the conversation. Some nights Riff awakes with a song or artist under his skin, and they play CDs all night, Riff’s head bopping, Bob’s foot tapping out the beat. He used to get stoned with Riff. It made a fairly easy job into a challenge. The control board turned into a cockpit, the On Air light a beacon, the music a message from the other side. But now pot makes him paranoid. He starts reconsidering everything. Why do men wear pants? What if his last relationship was his last relationship? What if there were no heaven and this life mattered? Now Riff smokes alone, and Bob relies on the roiling chemicals his own brain makes to keep up with him.
This fall has been hell for Bob. He can’t seem to sleep. The neighborhood comes back to life in the fall, after the relative quiet of the summer. Students return to their dorms, scientists to their labs, the goddamn squirrels start fighting, designer dogs barking, school kids singing and laughing. And worse, the renovations begin anew. Contractors, plumbers, roofers, landscapers arrive in a convoy of earthmovers and pickup trucks. Bob prefers the winter, the days as tight and silent as the night, the ground frozen, the air forbidding, doors and windows shuttered against the cold. Although snow is a mixed bag for the daytime sleeper. At first it muffles everything, swaddles you in a lovely white cocoon, but then the snow blowers start and plows crash onto the asphalt and roaming bands of kids ring your bell and ask if you want them to shovel. Snow is almost worse than fall.
Bob has tried sleeping pills, ear plugs, a mouth guard, room darkeners, a white noise machine, a fan, an air conditioner, a contoured neck pillow, melatonin, kava kava, St. John’s Wort, acupuncture, vodka, beer, wine, warm milk, and chamomile tea. Nothing works. He has asked the neighbors to keep their workers quiet. He has pleaded with the workers to have pity on a fellow working man. He has stayed up whole days to make himself tired. But something new is happening. Thirteen years on the overnight shift and he can no longer sleep.
Riff has no such problem. He and his wife live in the woods on their own ten acres and they sleep all day, stay up all night. Their house smells like mildew and is developing a mossy green tint. Vines grow over the windows; huge pine trees dwarf the front porch. The backyard has reverted to forest. Wisteria has wrapped itself around an entire patio set so that it is now green and impenetrable. On the weekends Riff will smoke a joint and go out in the yard in the late afternoon and think maybe he should hire someone to hack away at this jungle. Then the light will fade, and the place will morph into an enchanted fairytale of vines and primeval forest. Luckily they live in a rundown part of town. Their neighbors have cars up on blocks, boats that will never again float, motorcycles in pieces, and broken down refrigerators on their back lots. So they are not about to complain.
Riff glides into the control room a few minutes before air. “My man,” he says. “How’re things? You sleep?”
Bob shakes his head. “No. Today the city got into the act. They’re re-bricking the sidewalks. Do you have any idea how loud a brick cutter is?”
Riff shrugs. “That’s a drag, man.”
“Who the fuck wanted new bricks anyway? Some stupid historical commission, I’m sure. Did I tell you, this woman rang my bell the other day at eleven a.m.? Complaining that my trim color was not historically correct. Eleven in the morning!”
“Should be against the law. I think it is against the law.”
“And she had the nerve to give me the name of some historically correct painter, who will come over and do some founding fathers juju on the paint scheme. Probably cost a fortune. My neighbor Abigail’s probably behind it. She left me another message this afternoon.”
Riff is flipping through the CDs, pulling out Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter. “You should sell that place, Bobby,” he says. “Move out with me and the masses. Relax. That neighborhood is taking years off your life, man, and between you and me, you haven’t got that many left.”
“I was there first. Why should I have to move?”
“Cuz there’s one of you and lots of them, and plenty more where they came from. Sell that place. You could buy a cool pad, doesn’t have to be out in the boonies with me. Could be in the city, Roxbury. Black people wouldn’t give you all that shit.”
Riff hands the CDs to Bob, walks into the studio, sits down at the mic, puts on his headphones, and waits for Bob’s cue.
“Thirty seconds,” Bob says into the talkback.
“Plus those ugly women in your neck of the woods.”
Bob cuts his mic, holds up his hand to silence him, watches the digital clock trip from 11:59:59 to 12:00:00. He starts Riff’s theme music and cues him in.
“Hey, Riff here, Oliver Nelson in the background, you’re up, you’re listening, we’re cool. It’s a nice night out there. Saw some deer on my ride in, heads down, grazing on the yellow line, felt like stopping my car and giving them a lecture, when will you boys learn about highways and automobiles, anyway the moon was pink, pink, that’s cool, the sky was kind of charcoal gray, and I got to thinking what would it be like to be an animal, roaming around this messed up world that humans created, how are they supposed to know about yellow lines and why shouldn’t they snap the heads off all your tulips? They were here first.” He cuts his mic and motions for Bob to bring up the music. Then he speaks into the talkback. “You could make a lot of money on that old haunted house of yours, Bobby. You could live on a boat. You could buy yourself a penthouse. You could fucking retire.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Bob says into the talkback.
Riff cues him to lower the music. “Tonight we’re going play some Billie, and maybe some Ella, and whoever else you want to hear. If you feel like talking, give me a call. If you don’t, that’s cool. Me and Bob will just groove out for the whole evening.”
Irene, the overnight newscaster, bounds into the control room and hands Bob a script. “Hey, Bob, you hear about Omar?”
Bob spins his chair around to face her. “No.”
Irene leans against a tape deck, pushes a strand of dark hair off her face. “They caught him falsifying health insurance claims and fired him!”
“Omar? He seems like such a straightlaced guy.”
“Yeah. Well. Some insurance company dumped them when his wife got sick. So he was exacting his revenge. Took them for thousands and thousands of dollars over the years.”
“Really? Omar? But how’d they find out?”
“Kathy. Who else? Omar had lied about when she started here, so she could get covered sooner. Do you believe it? He did her a favor and the little bitch turned him in!”
“Doesn’t make sense. Why would she do that?”
“Beats me. Phase one in her scheme for total world domination? I tell you, though. You should never, ever, trust a woman who wears makeup in the middle of the night.”
Bob looks more closely at Irene. Is she wearing makeup? He doesn’t think so, but what does he know? Her cheeks and lips are pale. Her eyes are large and dark, but so are the circles under them. “She’ll be our boss some day,” he says, and turns to load the cuts for Irene’s newscast into the computer. Kathy is just like the people in his neighborhood, claiming the moral high ground as long as it keeps them on top and little fuckers like Omar on the bottom. “Her type always wins.”
Kathy is the new morning drive newscaster, imported from Cincinnati or Cleveland, some place in the Midwest, which she flies back to every three weeks to get her hair cut. She and Bob had gotten into it her first day on the job. She wanted him to record a spot. “Get O’Mara,” he said. “I’m off the clock.”
“News doesn’t follow a clock,” she said.
“But I do. And I get time-and-a-half plus night shift differential.”
She changed her tack, smiled at him, shook her carefully cut blonde hair. “Please? I don’t understand all that union stuff. I’m under the gun. And I don’t know O’Mara.”
He’d stayed and recorded the spot, then edited and mixed it before leaving. The next day he was called into his boss Mitch’s office. “What the fuck are you staying overtime for? No one okayed that.”
“Kathy was supposed to.”
“Well, she didn’t. And she filed a complaint about your attitude, said you were uncooperative, and slow.”
Oliver Nelson finishes. Riff hands off to Irene who starts her newscast. Riff gets up and wanders into the control room. “Something going on between you two?”
“Irene likes you, man. I can feel the pheromones right through the glass.”
“Who else is she going to go for, BJ?”
Bob shrugs. “We were talking about Omar. Did you hear they fired him?”
Riff smooths his goatee. “Bet Irene looks great without her clothes on.”
“There’s nothing going on between us. Believe me.”
Riff snorts. “You handsome guys are all the same. Never had to work hard to get women, so you never learned how to read them. But I did, and trust me, Irene likes you.”
Bob looks at Irene, her hand poised over the control board, ready to trigger a flood of haranguing ads for excess stomach acid, muscle aches, white sales, and spreadable cheese. She catches him watching her and breaks into a shy smile. Bob smiles back. For the first time in days he feels like he could sleep.
LOUIE CRONIN, author of the novel Everyone Loves You Back, is a writer, radio producer and audio engineer. For ten years she served as NPR’s “Car Talk” traffic cop, producing the show and ensuring that every call was entertaining. Everyone Loves You Back won the 2016 Molly Ivors Fiction Prize from Gorsky Press in LA, leading to the novel’s publication. A graduate of Boston University’s Masters program in Creative Writing and a past winner of the Ivan Gold Fiction Fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston, Louie has had her fiction and essays published in Compass Rose, The Princeton Arts Review, Long Island Newsday, The Boston Globe Magazine, and on PRI.org. Her short stories have been finalists for both Glimmer Train and New Millennium Writings awards. Louie has been awarded residencies at the Ragdale Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Currently she works as a technical director for PRI’s The World and lives in Boston with her husband, the sculptor James Wright.