A Huge, Old Radio, by Ander Monsen
Josh waits his turn, shirtless, in the dark. He hears his friends’ voices tossing back and forth in the quiet, wet air up ahead, punctuated by spurts of canned music and talk coming from behind, open car windows a hundred feet back on M-26 through Baraga, through L’Anse, by the Reservation. They’re here to jump off the rushing spout of Canyon Falls into the pool below. An early winter rite. A flashlight trolls across the rocky pathway and disappears. A brief ‘Cannonball!’ and a second of silence, then a muffled two-tone splash—ba-whoosh—somewhere up ahead.
It’s October. The first snowfall hit last night and was gone by morning, burned off by a warm late fall sun—probably the last day before real, sticking snow. The snow here comes and goes, piles up and gets burned off, until it settles in for six months, collecting dirt, salt, and urine, blackening on the sides of roads and plowed driveways.
The cars parked in the short two-rut road off the highway are in states of disrepair. Jelly’s Aerostar with the driver’s side mirror bashed off, hanging by a black cord, taken off on a birch tree driving home from the Breakers last summer. Dan’s old key-scratched blue Ford Fairlane running only through the grace of God he says, kept with a King James Bible and a Virgin Mary figurine in the cracked dashboard recess. People feel up the Virgin Mary and tear out the pages in the Bible when they ride with him. Because the car’s metal body is so rusted out from road salt and extended winter, you can see the space in the walls and the floor. There’s a huge hole in the back of the roof in which rain collects, spawning bugs and mosquitoes that bite backs and necks.
Josh has taken his dad’s climate-controlled company car without permission, a Lincoln Mark VIII with speakers and working sound. This is the only still-whole car in the group, but no one will ride with him—he doesn’t have a full license yet. Only half the group likes him. He’s a week shy of sixteen.
Throwing a quick hopeful glance over his shoulder, he can’t make out the vehicles hidden in the black air. It’s so dark, he can smell boys’ bodies clearly up ahead but can’t see. No one’s speaking. The line is halted. Thin Rupert must be up ahead, teetering on the edge, his breath stuck, his fingers grasping in his pockets for his inhaler. “Hey guys?”
“Jump, you fuck!”
Chuckles echo from someone else up ahead.
“Who’s that up there?”
Paul is telling the Goat Boy story again.
Everyone knows the story; everyone listens. Laughter breaks out from the line when he gets to The Cross! The Cross! part. It’s not as funny, though, this time. Josh can hear wet, asthmatic hacking from below. Like something from a movie or a book. Like emphysema and the breathing machines his grandfather had in the last month of his life. The story doesn’t work as well in this place, this particular dark. It feels like they’re in something’s mouth.
The words get lost in the wet air, among the birch trees that populate these woods like huge white vertical bars. Paul’s mom died last year. Nobody talks about it. The image of her offering fruit salad in a big red bowl to everyone at Halloween, face wide in a cherry-lipsticked smile, keeps coming back to Josh, breaking down his laugh, making it mechanical, dysfunctional, strange.
He feels stupid.
Tiny pinpricks of cold all over his neck and back. It must be snowing again. The cold makes his skin feel hot. Move ahead.
He hears a half-caught breath and reaches out ahead of him to touch Paul’s skin, but finds nothing, feels the air swirling. A splash down below.
“Yeah, that shit.” Rupert’s voice comes up reinforced from below.
A dash of laughter cut off in the middle. A smell like old dirt under a house, moving, filled with pill bugs and sticky worms.
“Ya fucking shitball.”
Tiny hairs poke out, erect, from his legs,
He can feel the edge falling away, disintegrating under his toes. There is a honk from the road. A tire-squeal. The air from below moves against his chest, melting the snow before it hits his body, so he’s crowned with hundreds of tiny drops. From below it might look bright and gleaming, like sweat when the flashlight moves across. He thinks he might look like Jesus. He’s the last one in line.
“Get your ass…” The flashlight vanishes.
It’s different up here against the edge. Everything below is hidden in the swirling, gently snowing darkness. Josh can hear their broken muttering coming up from below. For an instant, he thinks the world might be a huge, old radio, alive and electric with voice and squeal, the crossover of stations bleeding into one another. Like the kind Paul has in his living room, with a big luminescent dial that clicks when you turn it, and a knotty wood cabinet—the signal coming in clear then breaking up into a static hush, repeating.
He’s steaming now. Like pasta in a colander. Or breath coming out in winter. A breast fresh from the bath seen through the old keyhole in a door. Like a kidney pulled right out of the body. The air around the freshly dead. Like microwaving all the water out of a potato until it’s dry, a rind.
The flashlight comes up against him again, illuminating the air around his thin wet chest. Smoking, burning off. He wonders how he looks, who he is right now. Inhales, raises his arms, lets the pits breathe. A shiver. Strobe effect. Sublime. He thinks about his mom, and Paul’s mom, tries to summon a sharp clear image of them both at one time but can’t hold it, starts to breathe out, leans forward, and lets himself go—drops like a spinning cat’s eye marble in a deep, deep well—into the cooling black air. He falls. Dark. Free in this moment. Then light. Down. Melting. The stars disintegrating in the sky. The radio waves through and through him. The air below warming with his passage, moving up. Conversation and convection. Slices of Bon Jovi. Everything steam and motion. Filter. A vector. Depth and car alarm. Snow and snow and snow.