Watchin’ My Stories: “The Radio War”

When I was thirty-two and still living alone in the rented house near the river, I found myself in conflict with the radio announcer.

Nowadays I need quiet to write; I cannot abide even the softest music, or the flicker of the television with the sound off.  But then I found it easy to work on my books with the radio chattering away every minute.  I was in the habit of listening to a jazz station that broadcast out of New Orleans.  I would get up very early in the morning, just after dawn, to walk the dog, and by the time I got back, the radio was beginning a broadcast which would accompany me as I wrote – continuous ragtime, uninterrupted by advertising (it was a publicly subsidized station), broken up only occasionally by news broadcasts.

It was these news breaks that caused the conflict.  The morning disc jockey I had no quarrel with, a hush-voiced cipher who barely registered in my consciousness.  It was the newsman.  He was, I began slowly to realize, taunting me.  Certain inflections in his voice, the way he would over-enunciate foreign names, seemed designed to infuriate me.  After a while the mockery and often lewd suggestions that came out of his mouth spilled over into the content of the news itself; there would be stories specific to my region of the state that I never heard anywhere else and which were obviously designed to instill in me a fear of violence or injury.   Soon enough he began to ask me questions directly:  “Do you think you’re better than me?  What are you doing, with all your education?  Am I supposed to fall down to my knees and crawl around in the filth and dust just because you call yourself a writer?”

At first I thought I might be going insane.  I would bother my friends (it seemed too bizarre a request to make of my neighbors) to come over and listen to the broadcasts with me to assure me that I heard what I thought I heard.  It so happened that I wasn’t just hallucinating, but that came as little comfort.  “Did you hear that?” I would ask, panicky.  “Did you hear him read that story, about drug violence in Opelousas?”  My friends would say of course they heard it, they heard it exactly as I did, but what was the big deal?  So there’s drug violence in Opelousas.  I’m sure it’s all over the news.  These things happen.  I shouldn’t take it personally.  It’s just a news story, they would say, and it isn’t about you, everything doesn’t have to be about you.  They similarly dismissed my objections to the odd inflections and curious pronunciations the newsreader would employ as paranoid.  It was pointed out to me more than once that we lived in a part of the country with highly idiosyncratic regional accents and there was nothing so unusual about someone pronouncing things different than I did.

“What about the questions, though?” I would ask.  “Did you hear him ask those questions?”  They did.  But the prevailing opinion seemed to be that the questions were meant to be rhetorical and were directed at a sort of universal and idealized member of the listening audience and not to me at all.  Perhaps he is trying to be controversial, my friends would say; perhaps he is trying to make a name for himself.  There’s certainly nothing sinister about it, was the consensus.

I didn’t believe it.  Now that I knew I wasn’t insane, I determined to fight back against the newsreader’s attempts to tyrannize me.  I would shout back at him when he asked his insinuating questions:  “Who are you?”, I demanded.  “Who are you to judge me?  You’re a small-time newsreader on a public radio station!  You don’t know me!  You can’t judge me!”  I made it a special point to go on about my daily business in town on those days when the news reports were the bleakest, to give him the message that I would not be intimidated.  But I wasn’t getting any work done.  He read the news from 6AM until noon, and after disputing with him all morning, I had no time for writing – I had to get to class and the entire day was shot with nothing to show for it.  Something had to be done.

The more I would try to ignore him, the more vituperative his reports would become.  Eventually I began to see bright red flashes of light in front of my eyes whenever I would hear his voice.  The back of my throat felt hot all the time and I was a tangle of knotted muscle and unfocused rage.  I decided that the only thing to do would be to shoot him in the head, to still his voice forever.  I was not thinking clearly, but whose fault was that?

I purchased a huge, silver-skinned revolver from the man who lived at the end of my street and repaired motorcycles.  He didn’t even ask what I wanted it for.  I went home, carrying death in a wooden box that seemed bigger than a suitcase, and set it down next to the telephone in the dining room.  Dialing the number of the radio station, I cradled the headpiece of the phone against my left shoulder and slid the bullets into the cylinder, one for each ring.  They made a heavy, satisfying clacking noise as they went in.  The gun was terrifically heavy.  I couldn’t stop staring at it, at its oiled pureness and perfect metal form, as I talked to the girl at the front desk.  I asked her how I might be able to meet the newsreader, spelling his name slowly and over-enunciating each letter in savage parody of the way he spoke.

She told me that he didn’t work for the New Orleans station.  He came in over a national feed from the public radio group that syndicated the news.  She was gracious enough to give me the number of their headquarters, though God only knows what a wreck I must have sounded.  I telephoned them in a haze, and I can only remember the pale green light-up buttons of the telephone through a sickly pink haze.  After half a dozen transfers from department to department a producer told me that the newsreader was gone, that he had quit that very day to pursue other interests with a news bureau in a foreign country.  I don’t remember hanging up the phone and I very well might have passed out.

The gun was sold at a charity auction sponsored by the university a few months later.  I don’t remember who bought it, but I remember thinking how curious it was that no one asked me to present any credentials for owning the thing.  My friends don’t speak to me often about this period, and when they do, they use words like “episode” or “phase” or “disturbance”.  It was not.  It was not.

It was a victory.

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