image: Radiation by Rhonda Fishman
Freddy had wired a radio in the bathroom so that whenever Freddy turned on the light, he had music. He stood in front of my bathroom sink, staring into the mirror, looking for something to shave. Crosby, Stills, & Nash sang their new song about a ship made of wood on his brown plastic radio.
The song ended and Paul Jacobs, the DJ, described his walk to work through Central Park. He often described a Manhattan scene at the beginning of his show. He spoke about summer in New York like he was sitting in a diner talking to a waitress pouring him coffee. Some days, Paul chose to describe a softball game he had passed on Central Park’s Great Lawn. He did it in such detail and with such enthusiasm, that Freddy tuned in as if Paul were talking about and as if he were listening to, the World Series.
Paul loved baseball as much as music and would talk endlessly about how they were similar, about how clocks stood still at a game or during a song. Some nights he would put together baseball teams made of musicians. Dylan had to pitch of course. He was crafty. You’d never guess what he was going to throw. Paul Simon on second. Hendrix on short. He had great range. Jerry Garcia on first. Probably batting cleanup. Some nights Jonah and Freddy would draft teams against each other. The possibilities were endless. The combinations intriguing. Why did it make sense that Frank Zappa would make a great pitcher and that Steve Winwood was a center fielder, Freddy wondered? Paul loved that the baseball offered complete moments—the moment a fly ball reached its peak, the moment an infielder stepped toward a ground ball, the moment before the bat made contact. Everything made sense then. Chaos was in check during those moments. Good moments. Like in a Hendrix solo or a Dylan lyric.
And then Freddy heard Paul Jacobs announce that he was doing his last show. Just like that. Not last for the week. Not last before he left for vacation. Just last. No warning, no buildup, no promos, no farewell tour. No speech. No words of advice or parting speeches. He was moving on. Paul didn’t say why he was leaving or where he was going. Freddy wanted to tell him that he was not okay with Paul’s rash decision. Freddy was not okay with this sudden change at the last moment. And even though Freddy was listening to the show, he was not okay knowing it was only by chance that and that he might well have not been listening and would not have known what happened to Jacobs.
Paul continued speaking in his calm voice, pulling Freddy into the armchair beside him. He had always been able to make Freddy feel like the city was a small town and everyone was his neighbor. More importantly, Paul had the right questions and even had a few answers and Freddy had started to count on him. He wanted to ask Jacobs who he was supposed to turn to in Paul’s absence. Paul Jacobs knew stuff and Freddy had always been comforted by listening to his show.
Freddy turned up the radio and though he was only inches away from the tiny speaker, he strained to hear each word. Desperately, Freddy tried to slow down sound. He tried to make my brain listen in slow motion and record every moment. He wanted to break words into syllables, syllables into letters. For a moment Freddy was sure that he no longer understood English.
And then Paul said he was going to sing a song as his farewell. Footsteps echoed inside the radio. A chair scratched across the floor in the studio and the sound of piano keys being struck leap out of the speaker. How did they fit a piano in the studio, Freddy wondered as Paul began to sing about birds and wires and drunks and choirs at midnight and about wanting to be free. The song ended and Jacobs thanked everyone for listening and that was that. He was off the air.
It all happened fast. One of those rare moments, those times that Freddy could pinpoint as the precise instant before and the actual moment after. It was not some subtle slide toward something. Nor was it a series of decisions and events and circumstances leading to. Just the moment before Freddy knew Paul was going off the air followed immediately by the instant Freddy knew he stopped being available to him.
Freddy shut the light which shut the radio. He pulled the plug which disconnected the radio so that it no longer turned on with the light. When Freddy got dressed that evening, he chose only black clothing. Black t-shirt, black jeans, black socks and his black canvas high-tops.
Freddy left the house to meet his friends at the schoolyard knowing that he had one less adult he could rely on.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Elan Barnehama’s new novel, Escape Route, will be published in late 2021. His first novel, Finding Bluefield, was published in 2012. His writing has appeared in Rough Cut Press, Red Fez, Boston Accent, Jewish Fiction, Route 9, Drunk Monkeys, Writer’s Digest, HuffPost, the New York Journal of Books, public radio, and elsewhere. At different times, Elan was the fiction editor at Forth Magazine, taught college writing, taught at-risk youth, had a gig as a radio news-guy, and was a mediocre short-order cook. Elan is a New Yorker by geography. A Mets fan by default.