Take it from me, when you’re on the lam like some rube in witness-protection—except from your dumbass choices instead of the mob—and you find yourself out on a nameless ribbon of blacktop in the middle of the night, unsure even of what state you’re even in, you’re gonna wish you’d spent more than five bucks on a pawnshop boombox of dubious provenance. Especially when the tell-tales in the dash light up like a Christmas tree, the open hole where your car stereo used to be is venting hot air into the cabin, and there’s nothing but the feeble cones of your jaundiced headlights stirring the darkness in front of you. Because when that Pawnshop POS eats your last mix-tape and you’re left with nothing but a gutful of anxiety and the static-lashed spectrum of AM radio on the dial, you’ll know what you should have done with the extra cash instead of splurging on Camel Wides.
I was pretty sure I was still in Montana, but only my watch and the gas gauge told me so. If my calculations were correct, I had just enough fuel to coast into a parking space in front of the dorm at my new job in Yellowstone and immediately begin singing for my supper. The only actual certainty was that I was southbound and down on Highway 89, I had a quarter-tank of gas, a pack-and-a-half of smokes, six dollars cash—assuming two bucks of assorted change in the seat cushions—and exactly that much was right with the world.
In the debit column was everything about my hooptie. The window didn’t actually roll up, but was wedged with a matchbook between the frame and glass, the speedometer was inaccurate to different degrees depending on what gear you were in, and the driver’s side door was held shut with a rope. Don’t even get me started on the calamities the heads-up display was screaming about. I should’ve put those last couple bucks in the tank back in Livingston, but I thought I might want something to eat besides roadkill.
I’m on a road with a number for a name and no speed limit that feels like it’s being created from nothingness just beyond the reach of my headlights. There’s no one ahead, and no one behind, so I’m hoping for a gas station or rest area to appear before my bleary eyes forget to open after a blink; with no music to combat the numbing road noise, my head begins to seem like a bowling ball rolling around atop a tired post. So I paw at the Pawnshop POS on the bench next to me to toggle it over to the radio.
There’s no sense pretending that FM exists out here in these Martian badlands of sage, scrub, and igneous peaks; that wavelength is just too short to even attempt the vastness. Without looking I can tell the difference between the polite, muted white-noise of the FM band and the insistent buzzing of AM static like a swarm of something angry. So I begin to scroll the tuning knob indiscriminately, sifting for anything from the dark. Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette, Dr. Demento… Anyone. Anyone at all.
Drowsing in and out of highway hypnosis I strain to decrypt an otherwise silent message, somehow embedded in the air itself using technology invented in the 1870’s. For God’s sake they didn’t have ballpoint pens, but this they could do. I’m practiced at this patient crawl through the increments of the potentiometer from all the nights I spent trolling the barren airwaves with the crystal-radio kit my vaguely anarchistic uncle helped me build as a kid.
Then, as now, I was up past my bedtime with nothing but all the time in the world to strain for a voice in the darkness of mere being. Didn’t matter if it was sleepy public-radio monologues, Waylon Jennings, or madmen crying out in the wilderness of local-access radio. There is an exquisite loneliness inherent in a single voice arising from the emptiness, at once furtive and confidential, like a guttering flame pressing back against the void. With radio, neither the speaker nor the listener can know one another, or whether or not they are alone in this world as they connect in some uncreated space of charged particles.
My head drops and I catch the faintest wisp of dream, ephemeral as smoke, before my chin hits my chest and wakes me. I snap back up with an electrochemical jolt of purest panic, and for a second it’s the road that’s moving under my seemingly stationary vehicle. I shake a cigarette loose from the dwindling supply and chase the tip with my Zippo, willing the nicotine to work some buzzing magic on my head as I blink away the flame’s after-image from my dark-adapted eyes. The dial bottoms out at one end and I start back the other way, patiently searching.
Each blink is a gamble and the white-noise is beginning to sound dangerously like a lullaby when a voice emerges from the static, as real as a passenger suddenly with me. It was an ancient baritone, grown tired from decades of whispering through an AM megaphone about perpetually falling skies. His seditious murmurs are those of an agitator, stalking the edges of a crowd, gently inciting, fomenting. Art Bell. The Hobo-Laureate of the airwaves, whose voice distinguishes itself from the fuzz of interference by virtue of its madness alone.
Soon I’ve sucked down four smokes back to back and I’m wide awake like a kid listening to ghost-stories around a campfire, except it’s grown-ups telling them to each other with a straight face. Time seems to dilate until I see my own dim campfire-glow ahead that resolves into a pair of sodium-vapor lights attending an empty parking lot. I pull into the oasis of the Emigrant Peak rest area: picnic tables, restrooms and an inexplicable little chapel.
I drag the POS into the bed of the truck and pull the canopy shut behind me, wrapping up against the April chill in a nest of sleeping bags and allowing conspiratorial whispers to lull me to sleep. In the morning the station is pure static once more. The serendipitous dance of the Van Allen Belt that arced an errant signal off the Stratosphere to find me has passed.
I offer the only genuflection of my life at the bust of St. Christopher and hit the road. Turns out I’m a half-hour from the dorm, and arrive with almost an eighth of a tank. Almost.
Lawrence Elliott is a journeyman carpenter of seventeen years. He enjoys playing the guitar and creative writing. He blogs about autobiographical oddities at Scratched in the Sand.