On Air

Scott Hughes


Hey somebody out there
Listen to my last prayer
—Bruce Springsteen

WBBX, THE RADIO STATION adjacent to Wrightsville’s high school, asked Harold to cut their grass every other Saturday. He did it for the money. At fifty-four, he’d just retired as a custodian for Johnson County High. Harold had mowed the station’s lawn for almost a year when three of the deejays quit at once. The station manager asked him if he’d ever wanted to work in broadcasting. At the time, his mind conjured up pictures of big-time radio personalities—Kasem and Imus—but he shrugged his shoulders and followed the manager inside. Harold was introduced to Slick Rickey, the only remaining deejay. Rickey was half Harold’s age, scrawny and zit-faced. He showed Harold how to record into the computer the commercials that were mailed to the station on compact discs. They used to come on cassette tapes, Rickey said, and before that they came on reels. Harold thought the kid was too young to know what reels were. Maybe even cassette tapes.

During the next few months, Harold was given more duties besides recording commercials into the computer. Nothing on-air, just behind-the-scenes work. He was in charge of making sure the station’s computer stayed connected to the satellite system, which provided ninety-nine percent of the station’s music. Harold was also responsible for cleaning the building’s seven rooms, doing janitorial work as he had for thirty-five years. He still had to cut the grass every other Saturday. 

Harold hadn’t spoken to his father, Lowell, in seven months. One day, a woman passing by Lowell’s house found him lying in the front yard and called an ambulance. As the only next of kin, Harold was notified. Lowell, seventy-seven, had suffered a major stroke and refused to stay in the hospital. The doctors were certain he didn’t have much time left. “A few months, maybe less,” they said. 

They could not keep Lowell in the hospital against his wishes, but he would not be able to take care of himself. Harold couldn’t afford a live-in nurse, so he decided to take his father in. A bald doctor with glasses explained the details of how to care for the old man: feed him, turn him so he didn’t get bedsores, change his diapers, give him baclofen pills to decrease spasticity. 

As Harold finished talking to the doctor, an orderly arrived pushing Lowell in a wheelchair. Lowell’s arms looked like skin stretched across bones, and they disappeared into the blue hospital gown that swallowed his frail body. The right side of his face drooped, but the skin on the left side was tight against his cheekbone and jaw. What little hair Lowell had stuck out in white wisps above his red ears. His eyes were dark and deep in their sockets, the lid on the right one sagging. Harold asked his father how he was feeling. Lowell didn’t acknowledge him, his mouth curved into a frown. Harold thought it wasn’t entirely from the stroke.

“If there is any change in his condition,” the doctor said, “call us immediately.” The doctor shook Harold’s hand, then patted Lowell’s shoulder. The orderly helped Harold get Lowell into the truck. On the ride home, Lowell’s breaths sounded wet, so Harold turned on the radio to the station where he worked. He didn’t like their music, but at the moment it beat the alternative.

He let Lowell have the only bedroom. Harold slept on the couch. The first few nights, Harold woke every few hours and shuffled into the bedroom where he turned on the nightstand lamp to check on his father, who was always sleeping, inhaling and exhaling shallow, rattling breaths.  

A week after his father’s stroke, Harold drove to the station early to get a head start on recording the new commercials into the computer. The door was locked, so he knocked and peeked in the window. All the lights were off and no one was there. He sat on the front steps, watching kids run laps on the high school track across the street and waiting for someone to show.

Half an hour later, an 85 Mustang swung into the station’s driveway, tires screeching. It was black with patches of paint missing, making it resemble the skin of a leper. Slick Rickey hopped out and strutted to the front door, nearly stumbling over Harold before acknowledging him.“Holy shit, Gerald,” Rickey said, pushing the sunglasses from his eyes to the top of his head. His eyes were glassy and red—hangover eyes. “Christ, I didn’t see you sitting there. You ought to say something, man.”

Harold started to tell the kid his name wasn’t Gerald, but Slick Rickey stepped around him and began to unlock the door.

“How long you been sitting here, man?” Rickey asked, and before Harold could answer, he added, “They haven’t given you a key yet? You been working here almost as long as me.”

Harold nodded even though the kid wasn’t looking at him. Rickey disappeared into the station and Harold heard him shuffling papers and moving CDs. Harold went in, and the kid was looking through piles of clutter in the office. “I thought there was a spare key around here somewhere,” Rickey said. “I’ll make sure you get one.” Harold almost said thanks, but the kid dashed past him, muttering something about jonesing for nicotine, and went out to his car.

The next day, Harold found a key stuck to a Post-it in his mail slot in the station’s office, or what the managers insisted on calling “the office.” It was really just another square room in the seven-room building that housed the radio station. The office contained a metal desk, a few folding chairs, a filing cabinet filled with who-knows-what, and a ten-inch black-and-white television perpetually on but never watched.

The note stuck to Harold’s key read: “Gerald—here’s the key I promised. Sin-celery, S.R.” Harold attached it to his key ring.

Tina, the secretary, came into the office sipping a cup of coffee and smiled without showing her teeth—her form of a polite hello. She was in her early forties, pretty for her age. She sat at the desk and started filing her nails while Harold stood there.

“How’s your wife, Mr. Harold?” she asked, still studying and working her nails, the tips bleached so white they reminded him of a porcelain doll.

“I’m not…” he started, but Tina didn’t seem interested in how he would finish the sentence, so he didn’t. He wasn’t married. No kids. Just his father, now on his way out. Harold put his keys in his pocket and checked to see if the office trashcan needed emptying.

Tina finished her nails and dug into her purse. She came out with a stick of gum and threw the silver wrapper into the trashcan just as Harold replaced the bag. “You know, Mr. Harold,” she said, smacking the gum, “you ought to talk more. You’re too shy. Too mysterious.”

Harold meant to politely chuckle, but it came out sounding like an uncomfortable groan. Tina opened a file folder on the desk and began writing on one of the documents inside. The ignored television was on, but Tina turned on the small radio sitting on the desk. It was tuned to their station: at the moment, the vaguely feminine screeching of a Damn Yankees’ power ballad. Harold hated 80s hair-bands, with their teased hair, eyeliner, and neon-colored spandex.

They really should do something about this music, Harold thought, wishing he could reach over and twist the radio’s knob in search of better music. The station advertised “soft hits,” and Harold got a good laugh every time he heard one of their station IDs since it sounded so close to “soft tits,” as in “WBBX—the softest hits in the South.” If it were up to Harold, he’d play Dylan, the Stones, the Who—basically any of the records he owned. He’d play Springsteen especially. Born in the USA, sure, but definitely Nebraska. Songs about loss. Loneliness. Real shit.

Tina rocked her head side-to-side with the music as she finished with one document and moved to the next. “I love this song,” she said. “It’s so real.”

Harold drove across town to check on things at Lowell’s house. The yard was overgrown, so he made a mental note to bring the mower over soon. The inside of the house was dusty and had the stale smell of the elderly. Harold washed the dishes in the sink, watered the wilting ferns on the back porch, and vacuumed the carpeted rooms.

When he tried to return the vacuum to the hall closet, something blocked it from fitting back into its spot. Harold bent down and saw that a box had fallen over on the closet floor. He pulled it out, and written in black marker on the top flap were the words “Harold’s Records.” He opened the box and found many of his old albums—Blonde on Blonde, Revolver, Don’t Fear the Reaper, Magic Bus. He lifted Nebraska from the box as if he was handling glass, turned it over in his hands, blew off the dust. He ran his finger over the faded red lettering and the black-and-white photograph on the cover, depicting a flat expanse and a road tapering to the cloudy horizon. Harold remembered bringing over the albums years ago so his father could listen to the Springsteen records. Lowell had said that Springsteen was the only current musician making good music. Later, his mother told him they didn’t even have a record player, and Harold had forgotten to get back his albums. He replaced the record, and after making sure all the lights in the house were off, carried the box out to his truck.

Back at home, Harold went to check on his father and found him more awake than before, garbling loudly as soon as Harold opened the door. Harold tried to calm him, explaining that if he wanted to talk he should write notes—an idea the doctors had suggested. Harold placed a thick pencil in Lowell’s left hand, even though he wasn’t left-handed, because his right side had been affected by the stroke in the left side of his brain. That confused Harold—how the brain was opposite from the body.

Harold held the notepad in front of him, and Lowell glared as if he were pissed off from being confined to written communication. He scribbled as best he could: HAROLD?

“Yes, sir. It’s me. How are you feeling?”

He wrote: WHERVE U BEN?

“I went to check on things at your house.”

Lowell grunted weakly, then glanced at the notepad with his good eye and his droopy, watery one. Harold held it for him again, and his father wrote: SHIT. Harold didn’t know what he was referring to, then he noticed the smell. He changed Lowell’s diaper first, then shaved his face, gave him his medication, and moved his arms and legs to prevent bedsores. Harold spooned mashed carrots into Lowell’s mouth and waited for him to swallow each bite. Harold could tell his father disliked being taken care of in this manner. Lowell grumbled and wriggled the whole time, giving Harold nasty looks. He even tried garbling a few swear words.

Harold sweated and pushed the mower, watching as the expanse of uncut grass shrank with each lap. No one came to the station. Harold began to wonder if everyone had taken that Saturday off until Slick Rickey’s leper Mustang squealed into the driveway a little after one o’clock. The kid said something that Harold couldn’t hear over the mower, but he didn’t have to hear to know that Rickey had called him Gerald. Rickey went inside, and Harold continued to mow. Only a few square feet of uncut grass remained when Slick Rickey emerged from the station carrying an armful of CDs and one of the stereo equalizers from the studio. The kid whistled, and this time Harold cut off the mower. 

“Hey, man,” Slick Rickey said, “can you shut the door behind me?” He glanced down at what he carried, as if Harold hadn’t already seen that the kid’s hands were full. Harold nodded. “I’m just borrowing this shit for something this weekend.” Slick Rickey put the music and equipment in his back seat. Harold walked over, and Rickey looked startled that the old man was approaching him. Harold wiped the sweat from his forehead and said, “Do you think the station has any old record players in there, maybe in the storage closet?”

Slick Rickey was dumbfounded for a moment. “Uh… I, uh… maybe. You need one?”

Harold nodded. His last turntable had died on him two years ago. He’d searched a couple of flea markets for one without any luck. Turntables were hard to come by in Wrightsville.

“They might have one in there,” Rickey said. “You’ll need a set of speakers to hook it up to, though.” The kid hopped into his car and peeled out of the station’s driveway, leaving behind a bluish cloud of smoke and a smell that reminded Harold of a playground.

Harold finished the grass, then stood by the front door to see if any of the other employees might turn up. When no one did, he locked the door and went to the supply closet. Everything in it was covered with a film of dust—cords and cables, empty CD cases, small boxes of commercial reels, a tape deck with knobs missing. Harold pushed these aside, and in the very back of the closet was a turntable. It was covered with dust like everything else and the needle was slightly tarnished, but it looked as though it would still work. He carried it into the office, plugged it into an outlet, and turned it on. The turntable spun without any problem. Harold smiled to himself and placed the record player back into the storage closet, in the front this time for easier access. He couldn’t take it home. He had no speakers to connect it to.

Harold found a note on the bed beside his sleeping father. It said: 2 QUIET. Harold’s foot knocked against the bedpost. Lowell groaned, his watery eyes opening slightly to look upon Harold. 

“Sorry,” Harold said. Now that Lowell was awake, Harold began the entire routine: he shaved Lowell’s face, gave him medication, changed his diaper, and so on.After it was done, Harold asked if he wanted his pad. Lowell nodded. 

2 QUIET, he wrote.

“I got your first note.” Harold held up the paper he’d found on the bed. “I don’t have a TV. Sorry.” Lowell muttered and turned to stare out the window. Harold thought for a minute. He could read to Lowell, but his father had always made it clear that he hated books. “Goddamn waste of time,” he used to say. 

He could talk to him, but Harold and Lowell had hardly ever spoken to one another. They’d lived in the same town all their lives, and Harold used to call every other Sunday to speak to his mother. After they talked, she would ask Lowell if he wanted to speak to his son, and Harold always heard his father grunt in the background. “He’s busy right now,” she would say, and Harold would tell her it was okay. After she died eight years ago, Harold called his father once a month to simply say hello, then once every three months, then hardly ever.

“I know,” Harold said and left the room before explaining anything. He went into the kitchen and got the old battery-powered radio that sat on the windowsill above the sink. He set the radio on the nightstand by the bed and tuned it to the only station it could pick up—WBBX. A song was playing that Harold didn’t know—a woman was singing about her broken heart. He turned the volume so that it wasn’t too loud, and looked at Lowell, who was staring at the notepad. Harold held it for him, and Lowell wrote: AWFUL MUSIC.

Harold laughed. “Sorry. That’s all they’ve got.” Soft tits, he thought. Lowell turned towards the window again, so Harold left the room and the softly playing love ballad. 

At midnight, Harold drove to the station. He fished the new key easily from his pocket, and it slid into the doorknob with a clink that sounded to Harold like a gunshot. He held his breath, imagining alarms going off—buzzers sounding, red lights twirling—even though he knew there was no alarm system. This was Wrightsville. No one wanted to break into a radio station, except for Harold, and he wasn’t exactly breaking in. He twisted the knob and the door creaked open.

The blue glow from the computer screen provided the only light in the studio. He laid the records he brought from his truck on the desk, then went to the storage closet and retrieved the turntable. After a time of fiddling with the cords, he managed to connect it to the station’s speakers. If he played a record now, it would be broadcast on the air. He sat and stared at the monitor for a time. The satellite was supplying the music as usual, but Harold couldn’t hear it since it was station policy to cut off the office speakers at night. He flipped the on-switch; the last few seconds of a Rod Stewart song faded into a commercial for a local jewelry store. Harold cut it back off. He pulled the microphone over, his mouth hovering so close to it that static electricity from the mic tickled his lips. He pressed the red square button on the switchboard labeled “mic #1.” He breathed into the live microphone and watched the needle on the volume meter, to see if he registered at all, then cut the mic’s power.

Harold took one of the records, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and placed it on the turntable. He thought of cutting the satellite feed and turning on the record, sending some good tunes over the air for once. His hand hovered over the computer keyboard for several minutes. Then he put the turntable back, gathered the records he’d brought from home, and felt his way through the dark station to the front door, checking three times before he left to make sure he’d locked it.

At home, Harold found his father lying face-down on the floor beside the bed. He ran to his father, turned him over, and made sure he was still breathing. “Are you okay?” he said, over and over. Lowell finally opened his eyes and stared around the room.

Harold slid his arms under Lowell’s body and picked him up. He did not weigh as much as a father should. Harold placed Lowell on the bed. As he stood over his father, different thoughts circled in his mind: no son should ever have to carry his father. Lowell once held him in a similar way, when Harold was an infant; they ceased to be father and son, or they were both father and son at the same time; Harold was Lowell’s father and his son, as Lowell was Harold’s father and son. Harold felt pity for his father, now only half of a man—one side of him already claimed, the other side simply waiting to join it.

Harold situated Lowell’s thin arms and legs and covered his cold body with a blanket. Harold stood beside the bed, not knowing what to say. Lowell began to sleep, his chest rising and falling slightly, almost not enough to see. Harold considered calling the hospital, but what could they do? They’d already said Lowell didn’t have much time left. Harold pulled a chair beside the bed and watched his father sleep. His own eyes felt heavy, and he thought of dozing.

The bedside clock read 12:43 a.m. The notepad they’d been using to communicate lay nearby on the nightstand. It still bore the last note Lowell had written: AWFUL MUSIC. Harold stared at the words for a minute, then crumpled the paper. He knelt beside the bed and woke his father. “You might want to listen in tonight,” he said, turning on the nightstand radio, where a man was talking about an upcoming used car sale. Lowell’s eyes opened, no larger than slits, dark and watery. Harold placed his hand on top of his father’s for a second, then covered it with the blanket. “Don’t go back to sleep,” he said, “not just yet.”

He left the house and drove back to the station. He made sure to bring his Springsteen albums—The River, Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born in the USA, and of course Nebraska. Again he hooked up the turntable in the studio and flipped the on-switch for the speakers. For several seconds the room filled with the raspy croon of Michael Bolton. Harold tapped at the keyboard to cut the satellite feed and finally the room was again quiet. This time, though, Harold knew the silence went past this room. Since he’d cut the music feed, only faint static was broadcasting over the station’s frequency. Dead air. 

Harold brought the microphone to his lips and turned it on. He sat for a minute, staring at the monitor. Before cutting power to the microphone, Harold said five words: “WBBX—home of soft tits.” He frantically pressed the lit red button on the switchboard.

He waited, imagining the station’s phone ringing off the hook, all three lines, the owners asking what in God’s name did he think he was doing. Swarms of police cars, officers busting down the door, handcuffing him, and shoving his head down as they tossed him into the back of one of their cruisers. 

When no police arrived to haul him away and the phone didn’t ring, Harold turned the mic back on. He spoke softly, as if the entire station was made of glass and, if too loud, his voice could send the whole structure shattering to the ground. “Dad, this is Harold. I hope you’re not sleeping. Here’s a song for you.” He took the Nebraska record from its sleeve, placed it on the turntable, and guided the needle into place. A crackle came from the speakers, and Harold prayed that the turntable would work—he’d seen it spin, but this was the first time he’d put a record on it. 

The soft harmonica and guitar of Nebraska’s title song began to play. Harold loved this album, but he wasn’t listening. He imagined his voice passing through the mesh of the microphone, transforming into electricity and zipping through wires to the broadcast tower outside, then traveling as waves and molecules through the air, his voice floating through the night sky to someone who might be on his way back home from the nightshift at the fiber plant on Osceola Highway, a certain deejay with nothing better to do than get stoned and listen to his station in the middle of the night, his father lying in a bed across town.

When the song began to fade out, Harold lifted the needle.

“Dad,” he said into the microphone, “don’t drift off just yet. I still have a few albums to play. Remember how you told me that Springsteen was the only person making good music? Well, I’ve got more of him for you. Enough to last all night.”

Harold placed the needle back onto the record, and “Atlantic City” started. He leaned back into the chair and tapped a hand on his thigh in rhythm. A lot was on his mind. He tried to think of what to say next. He remembered being a child, Lowell lifting him into the air and saying he could fly. He wondered if this song would lull his father to sleep.


Return to Fall 2018 Volume 10.1


Scott Hughes


SCOTT HUGHES’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in CrazyhorseOne Sentence Poems, EntropyDeep MagicCarbon Culture ReviewRedividerRedheaded StepchildPopMattersStrange HorizonsChantwood MagazineOdd Tales of WonderThe Haunted TravelerExquisite CorpsePure SlushWord Riot, and Compaso: Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology. His fiction chapbook, The Last Book You’ll Ever Read, is forthcoming from Weasel Press. For more information, visit writescott.com.