“Teenage Radio Receivers” by Rose Szabo

Issue 8 / Winter 2017

 

T he bearded man who stands at the corner of Garvey and Neptune Street is proclaiming the second coming of Big Deals at the mattress store. I find myself suddenly holding a flyer as I stumble past him. He’s wearing a sandwich sign shaped like a pair of pillow-top mattresses and the laces of his sneakers have come undone and are trailing in the slush. I’m glad he’s got a job this week, I feel bad he has such crappy sneakers to do it in, but by the time the traffic slows and I can jaywalk across Garvey I’m glad to just get away from him because that guy is a persistent sandwich signsman if I’ve ever met one. “‘Scuse me,” he keeps saying to my back. “I can tell a lot from your posture about your mattress needs. Your bed is too soft. ‘Scuse me. I don’t mean to bother you but you’d best look to your spine alignment.”

I keep walking. I’m hungry and I have to make it downtown before sun sets and the bars light up, the sign to all cops to try to rescue a young girl walking alone. I’m not as young as they think I am, of course. I’m actually a very old soul. Margery, who reads the cards, says I’m the reincarnation of a British prostitute and the first victim of Jack the Ripper—killed for breaking his heart. I’ve been killed a few times and I’m smarter now. Still, I hustle when I pass the corner where the gas station guys make kissy noises at me. It all feels so familiar. Past life trauma can really be a drag.

Late January in Franklin Park is always grim and quiet, with everyone hunkering in after Christmas and trying not to spend any money until they do it all again for Valentine’s Day. Norton says love is a government conspiracy intended to keep us in a state of deprivation and maybe I believe him. Still, I got these boots for Christmas and they keep my feet dry.

Neptune Street gets more and more littered as you get farther downtown. It’s not like people don’t try to use the trash cans. They’re just overflowing with cigarette butts and crushed fast food bags and probably dead dogs so everyone just sort of throws things at the trash can, like close-enough, and walks away. So every can is ringed with a puddle of coffee cups and crumpled wrappers and condoms and sometimes something weird like a single mitten or a car tire. It’s darker down here, too, every fourth streetlight burned or burning out. But Kyle’s Diner is always lit up and so hot inside that the windows get foggy. As I’m walking up, someone at our booth spots me and starts writing Hi Jane on the inside of the window, but they’re writing it their way, so I see it backwards. I wave anyway and climb the two steps that always give Gregor so much trouble. There’s a little bell on the door like a hardware store and it smacks against the glass. The gust of hot greasy air feels like an old man’s breath.

Kyle’s behind the counter, his paper hat translucent with sweat, his hairy arms jiggling while he flips patties on the big grill. Wanda isn’t behind the counter. She’s squatting down by one of the tables talking to a girl who’s about five. The whole place is like a burger sauna, white tile and red plastic and gushes of steam. And I look outside and see how dark it is compared to in here.

“Hey!” Kyle touches his paper hat at me and grins. “The usual?”

“Yeah,” I say. I arranged this with him the first week I came in. I told him it was cool to have a usual and wrote it down for him. I did this in case any new boys my age ever join the club or even come into the diner, so they’ll see me ordering a usual and think I’m cool. It’s good to be prepared.

I go over to the booth and wave. It’s full already so I grab a chair from one of the two-tops against the wall and pull it up to the end. Everyone beat me here today because the M-5 was late, even Norton, who’s usually the latest because time is an illusion. Everyone’s gotten their food except Norton, who hasn’t even taken his coat off yet.

“Hello, Muffin,” Margery says.

Margery is forty. Her hair is flat black; she dyes it but leaves a single gray streak in the front, so she looks kind of like the Bride of Frankenstein. She’s kind of birdy in the same way too, with a long neck and long fingers. All of her earrings have magical properties. Today she was wearing the ones that look like swastikas but are actually an ancient Indian fertility symbol. She sometimes gets stuff thrown at her on the street but she doesn’t let it get to her. Margery doesn’t have a husband. I can’t figure that one out; if I were a man I’d be in love with Margery.

“Hi,” I say.

Henry giggles. “Yeah, hello, ‘Muffin.’ ”

“Henry,” I say, and I make my face really serious and try to channel my anger directly into his frontal cortex, “you don’t get to call me Muffin.”

Margery’s eyes don’t move, but her mouth splits into a wide smile. Somewhere at the back of her mouth I see the glint of a gold tooth.

“Okay, Fish Head,” Henry says, but he drops his eyes. I won.

Henry is about ten, the youngest here. He’s in love with me but like I said, he’s ten, so he acts like it’s this big joke, and throws around names like Muffin and Fish Head. He lives three blocks away, right in the middle of Franklin Park, and walks himself home at night. He says it’s because he has ESP so no one can touch him. I’m pretty sure it’s because his mom works until ten and doesn’t know where he goes at night. Sometimes one of the others will walk him to his apartment block, but he always tells me that even the cops in Franklin Park are afraid of him. He’s wearing a shirt today with a tiger on it and there’s an extra-extra-large men’s sweatshirt folded up under him to make him a little taller in the booth. I think he’s too young to have really had his powers revealed to him but Margery says we shouldn’t doubt each other since the rest of the world already doubts us. I mean, that’s great and all, but I’ve never even seen Henry bend a spoon. And his nose is usually runny.

Wanda comes over with Norton’s food and it hits the table with a loud plastic clatter. Norton looks up at her. “Is this really vegetarian?” he says. “Did Kyle clean the grill?”

Wanda sighs.

“Look, Norton,” she says. “It’s a grilled cheese. No meat. You’re on your own with the rest.”

“Cross contamination is important,” he says, but she’s already hustling away because Kyle’s yelling order up on my usual: a cup of black coffee and a side of fries. It’s the two cheapest items on the menu and if I don’t get lunch on Tuesday and Thursday I can pay for that and the bus fare.

“Jane,” Margery says. “Are you sure that’s all you want?”

A part of me is kind of eyeing the fried pickle Margery’s left on her plate. She doesn’t eat deep fried food but her tuna club comes with a fried pickle. Sometimes when Wanda’s about to take her plate I ask really casually about the pickle and then just eat it.

“I’m good,” I say.

“Good,” Margery says. “Let’s get rid of some of these dishes and we can get started.”

Henry nudges Gregor, who’s fallen asleep at the far end of the booth with his cheek against the glass. Gregor jumps and yells a little bit and then seems to remember where he is. He’s about eighty. He’s been coming to Kyle’s every day since it opened, so they have a place in the corner where they stash his walker.

“Get this,” Gregor says. And he pulls out a file folder and starts laying out newspaper clippings. “Five incidents this week. Five.”

Gregor tracks the involvement of the Russians in their psychic war against America. Gregor knows about it because sometimes stray signals from the Soviet strike team get transmitted to him through the special hollow fillings he got during the Second World War.

“Gregor,” Margery says. She reaches out and puts a hand on his. “Where?”

“Florida, North Carolina, Maryland, Maine, and one out of Puerta-Rico,” he says. He lays out the clippings on the table. “I can figure out the pattern up the coast but why Puerta-Rico?”

“To throw you off the trail,” Norton says. “They’re getting smarter.”

“Any word back from your congressman?” Margery asks.

“If I were a younger man,” Gregor says, “I’d go up to Baltimore and deal with that Russkie clown myself.”

“Well,” Margery says. “You have to keep trying.”

Gregor shuffles his clippings back together with his shaky hands and puts them in the file folder. He’s amazing. He’s decided that since he can’t convince anyone to help him stop the Russians, he’s going to create an archive of everything that’s happened so far, so that when America is ready to listen to him he’ll have all the intelligence they need. That kind of makes Gregor a hero. If he were younger I’d want to go out with him. I feel like he could teach me how to be a great spy.

“Norton, my boy,” Gregor says, fumbling with the zipper on his bag. “You and me. We could take on these commie bastards.”

Norton sneers. “I’m a pacifist.”

Norton is a difficult case. When I first met him I thought he was really handsome and I didn’t mind his greasy hair and the way his Adam’s apple sticks out of the black baggy sweater he wears every week. But now that I know him better I’ve noticed other things: the dirt under his nails, the weird smell on his breath that Margery calls funny cigarettes. He’s about thirty. He’s always cold because he’s an ectomorph, and his body channels all of his energy into his brain. Which is how he gets his powers of invention.

“Besides,” Norton says. “I’m in the middle of inventing a device which will make war obsolete.” He plants his hands on the table and lowers his head, bobbing it from side to side like a snake, grinning to get our attention. “A radio that can receive and broadcast signals from the future.”

Henry blinks. “Wow,” he says. I kick him; he has no idea what Norton is talking about, he just wants to sound smart.

I have to admit, I’m a little impressed. But I don’t want Norton to think that I like him.

“How does it work?” I ask. I fold my arms, trying to transmit I am a serious young woman. I won’t fall for your tricks.

“I’m glad you asked,” Norton says. If he received anything from me he’s ignoring it. “Essentially, all radio signals are frequencies–waves. And time–okay, to understand this you’re going to have to think of time as a flat sheet. But not a straight one, because time has a lot of wrinkles.” He bunches up a napkin and begins trying to poke his straw through it, and gives up. “Essentially,” he says, and here his eyes get really bright and I suddenly remember that, you know, Norton is kind of handsome after all– “well, when times are close to each other, sometimes sound waves on radio frequencies can pass between temporal boundaries. What I’m doing is creating a machine that can tune into those frequencies.” He sits back in the booth, grinning a little, looking proud.

Gregor is the first to start clapping, slowly with his arthritic hands. Then it spreads to me and Henry. And it gets louder and louder until Kyle yells for us to quiet down because we’re scaring the real customers. And then in that silence I look over at Margery. It takes me a minute to tune into Margery’s wavelength, to figure out that the expression on her face isn’t awe. It’s unhappiness.

At first I think she’s worried we’re going to get kicked out and I almost remind her that Kyle owes Gregor like five hundred dollars so we can’t really get kicked out. But then I realize that she’s trying hard not to cry.

I check to see if anyone else noticed. Margery is very sensitive. There was a little while when she and Norton weren’t getting along, and for a few weeks it was just me and Gregor and Norton and Henry constantly trying to get me to eat some of his French fries that he licked when he thought I wasn’t looking because he thinks that’s the same as kissing, and I started to think about leaving. Not that I had anywhere else good to be, but it just wasn’t the same without Margery.

When she came back she had chopped about six inches off the bottom of her hair and gotten bangs. I told her she looked like Cleopatra and she winked at me. I don’t know if I could stand it if she went away again.

“I want you to be very careful,” Margery says to Norton.

Norton bats his eyes at her. “Worried I’ll put you out of business?”

She turns white so I say, “Norton, Margery’s business is the occult. It’s totally different than your radio.”

“I dunno.” He turns to me and puts his hand on my hand, and as much as I like Margery, I realize I’m blushing. “I have big plans for a telephone that can call the dead,” he says.

“Norton!” Margery snaps, and he lets go. I’m sixteen but I’m not naive; I know what it means that I have a cold, tingling imprint in the shape of his touch on my hand. For a moment they stare into each other’s eyes, and then Norton looks away first. He doesn’t realize how strong she is. Poor fool, I think, stroking the place where his hand was.

“What about you?” Margery asks me. “Are you any closer to uncovering the source of your power?”

I’m still young, and the others aren’t exactly sure where I get my abilities. Honestly, mine are all over the place. Sometimes I’ll have a prophetic dream, which is where you dream something very specific and it happens the next day. Some days I can feel everyone’s emotions around me like wet blankets. But sometimes for days or weeks at a time, there’s nothing at all.

“No,” I tell them, and I feel embarrassed. Once I lied to them, told them a story about hearing my father thinking about divorcing my mother, and I hated myself afterward. Mostly I tell them the truth, about feelings and dreams and flashbacks to past lives, and they try to help me put it all together. I sometimes think I should tell them that I lied that once, but I can’t have them think I’m lying about everything.

“Nothing at all this week?” Gregor asks.

“Nope,” I say. “I feel like I’m broken.”

“Not broken.” Margery leans over Norton to pat my arm; he looks startled as her hair swipes over his face. “Learning. When I was your age my powers were so volatile I had no idea what to expect from one day to the next.”

“It’s like you’re picking up all these different frequencies,” Norton says. “But you’re not sure which ones are meant for you.”

Gregor has fallen back asleep. Henry is just beaming at me. But he’s a little kid, so he’d think I was special no matter what I did.

 

M argery writes down some notes on lucid dreaming for me and I promise her I’ll practice when I get home. And then it’s sort of time to go because Kyle needs the table cleared for the VFW guys who come in later and we’ve got to get going. I’m not liking the idea of walking back to the M-5 alone, especially when I imagine that mattress guy still out there. Margery’s already hustling off. She still looks upset as she throws her shawl over her shoulders and slips through the door without rustling the bell. I feel bad for someone who used to be the queen of a nice hot empire, trapped in our cold little city.

And then Norton is holding the door for me on the steps.

“You know, Jane,” Norton says to me as I shuffle past him, “I’ve been giving your problem some thought.”

We start walking. Normally we all part ways outside and Margery blesses us, but since she’s gone and it’s cold, everyone’s already scattered. And suddenly I’m picking up something weird from Norton. All week I’ve gotten nothing, and suddenly there’s this humming energy I haven’t felt before, and I can’t tell whether it’s good or bad.

“Yeah?” I say, trying to sound cool.

“Well,” he says. “I know Margery thinks you’re a psychic of some kind. And well.” He scoffs. “But I have a theory that you might be sensitive to pheromones.”

“Pheromones,” I say. I haven’t heard that word before. It sounds paranormal.

“Oh yes,” he says. “When we have emotions our bodies put off subtle chemical signals to other bodies. It’s how animals know when to fight. Or when to mate.” He stops and wraps his scarf around his neck. The end of it flicks my cheek on the way past and the feeling of the fringe lingers. We keep walking toward the corner. “Most humans have severely weakened pheromonal sensors. I think you’re very sensitive to them.”

“Why do you think that?” I’m very conscious of every nerve in my body. The cold makes everything sharper.

“Well,” he says. “You always seem to know when people are happy, or sad. You’re very wise in a way that’s beyond most people your age. It feels as though you always know what we’re all thinking. And it’s probably because you…know what we’re feeling. What we smell like to you.”

He’s leaning toward me, as though he’s trying to see something in my eyes. He puts a hand on my shoulder and I realize that Norton is right. I can smell his whole personality: the subtle reek of his nervous armpits and the excitement in his breath and that bitter smell from some gland just behind his ear. I know everything he’s feeling, and I’m a little scared.

“I’d love to take you to the lab,” he murmurs. “Run some tests.”

I know it’s a bad idea, and I know that it’s going to happen. If not tonight then soon. And that isn’t pheromones or senses. That’s a prediction, like a prophesy of doom. It feels like deja vu and I’ve been down this road in hundreds of lives but he’s leaning toward me with cigarette lust breath and I can feel the prick of Jack the Ripper’s scalpel in my guts and if it’s going to happen anyway…

And then from somewhere just a little behind us, I hear Margery calling.

I turn back and Norton’s arm sort of drags across my neck as I take a step away from him. She’s walking toward us at a good clip, her clogs slipping a little on the ice, her long skirts and coat and scarves all swishing around her. When she gets under a working streetlamp I can see the deep lines on her cheeks that only show up when she’s very, very worried.

“Jane!” she says. “I just remembered I have an errand in Beaton Heights tonight. Do you want me to give you a ride home?”

“Yeah,” I say, already taking little steps toward her across the invisible ice. “I can give you directions. It’s not far.”

I can smell her pheromones too: something sour like worry.

Norton takes a step back from both of us as her hands and mine meet. He’s angry, I think. But there’s also something else that I don’t think he knows about. He’s relieved.

“Well,” he says. “I’ll leave you two ladies to it.”

Margery catches me by the shoulder. “Hear that?” she says, her breath warm against my ear as she joshes with my shoulders in a kid sort of way. “He called us ladies.”

“Night, Norton,” I say.

We walk down the street. Margery leans on me a little to help her balance on the ice. Behind us, Norton fades off across the intersection.

“How did you know?” I ask.

“I just knew,” she says.

Normally I’m reserved with people from the club. I want them to see me as an adult, you know, not some kid who hangs around them. But since no one’s here I throw my arms around Margery’s wait and squeeze.

The inside of Margery’s station wagon is all burgundy leather. She cranks the heat all the way up and by the time we clear the bus station it’s hot enough to take my jacket off. I make a little nest out of it and snuggle in as we speed past the mattress store farther down Neptune and out past the car dealerships. Margery doesn’t have an errand in Beaton Heights. I wonder if Norton knew that. I wonder if he’s going to be angry at her later, or if he’ll get too sucked into his radio to care.

And then, just like that, it happens. My powers turn on and things are suddenly clear.

“Why did you and Norton break up?” I ask her.

In profile all her emotions show more strongly. She looks startled at first, and then it all gets swept away by her sadness.

“I told him I was worried about the things he messes with,” Margery said. “Norton is a good man, but there’s a darkness in him that even he doesn’t understand. I worry the radio will bring it out in him.”

I know she’s telling the truth. But I also know that even she doesn’t see how jealous she is of him, that she still loves him, that part of why she followed us tonight wasn’t to keep me safe but to keep him from me.

Sometimes having powers is strange. Sometimes you know something is true but you don’t know how, or what it means, or why. I don’t know why this woman who used to be Cleopatra could ever be so hung up on someone like Norton, or scared of someone like me. But I don’t know how to tell her that. I don’t know how to tell her she’s beautiful in a way that will touch her. So instead I ask her what she sees in my future in this life. Am I doomed to die young in every life?

I don’t want to die young. I want to be like Margery. I want that even if it’s lonely.

“Doomed?” she says. “No. What Norton doesn’t understand about the past and the future is that they’re not places you can travel to. There’s no flat sheets, no straight lines. What you do in this life can have an effect on the past and the future. All we can get are flashes. What you do with them is up to you.”

I think she’s wrong. Sitting in her car feeling safe I’m disappointed that Norton isn’t gutting me in his lab right now. And I know that I’ll find a way to sneak off with him. If not next week then the week after that. I wonder if Margery knows it, too.

And then we’re in my neighborhood, pulling onto my small street, and I tell Margery to stop the car.

“See you next week,” she says as I climb out. The smell of her perfume and her worry are still thick around me as I shut the door. I walk home slowly so that I arrive at the same time I would have if I’d taken the bus. Out here in the suburbs the snow is still white in places, not packed into gray slush.

Outside my house I stop. Inside I can see my mom sitting in the front window, on the couch she used to share with my father. On the spot he used to sit, the cat’s curled up. Out here it’s cold and clear.

In a minute the future begins.

In a minute I’ll go inside and my mother will ask about the library, and I’ll tell her I closed them out, and she’ll ask me if I’ve given any more thought to being a librarian since I spend my whole damn life there, and she’ll think about asking me if I’m lying but she’ll bite her tongue and just think it at me instead. In a minute I’ll go down the hall and the cat will follow me, leaving my mother alone on the couch where she used to be happy. I’ll pass the door to the basement where my father’s hiding from us. And then I’ll go up the stairs and brush my teeth and get into bed and try to stop feeling everything long enough to get some sleep.

But for now I’m still out under the hazy sky where the blinking government satellites broadcast their messages into Gregor’s teeth. Though I can’t see them I can feel that the same stars are shining that shone on us when me and Margery were Cleopatra and Jack the Ripper’s best girl. And I can feel the radio waves, invisible and all around us, that burn my skin with the touch of the past and the future and all the truths I can feel so strongly but still don’t understand.

 

Rose Szabo graduated from the University of Maine with an MA in English and is now pursuing her MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has been previously published in Quaint, Treehouse, and See the Elephant magazines. Rose lives in Richmond, Virginia with her partners and a steadily-increasing number of cats.

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