The stoplight felt endless. I flipped through the radio dial—sick of the same old stuff—and paused at a soft hits station. It blared some power ballad from the 80’s. Not my music. I reached for the dial but hesitated, vaguely captivated by the hypnotic mélange of synthesizer, melodramatic falsetto, mechanical drumbeat.
Definitely not my music. Back in high school I was strictly into metal. The hard stuff. No synthesizers or sentimentality, just power chords and teenage anger. Album covers filled with gun-toting skeletons, that sort of thing. Drifted to angst-ridden alternative rock in my twenties, stripped acoustic stuff in my thirties. But now that I was pushing forty …
The singer’s name escaped me, but his image was burned into my mind: leather jacket, earnest look, well-coiffed mullet eerily rigid under the stage lights. My buddies and I used to ridicule him back in the day. And he deserved it. But now, something about his voice …
I cranked the volume and nodded to the rhythm. The beat intensified and I found myself gazing into the distance in contemplation. As the chorus arrived, my lips moved involuntarily to the words—flubbed a few but that didn’t matter—and my head bounced with such vigor that I strained my neck. I ignored the pain as the song barreled into crescendo. Goose bumps erupted on my arms. A tear formed in my eye. I wiped it away and belted out the lyrics. They emerged precise, heartfelt, dredged from latent memory.
As I rode the song to its denouement, movement caught my eye. I turned and saw a carload of college girls idling beside me. They roared with laughter. At me, not with me. And not in a isn’t-he-a-cute-older-gent sort of way.
The other way.
I quickly lowered the volume and changed the station. The stoplight turned green. The girls sped off, still laughing. One stuck her head out the window and blew me a kiss. Sheepish, I puttered behind in my generic sedan crammed with baby seats and a subtle but persistent reek of sour milk and infant turd. At least I wasn’t driving a fucking minivan. Still had that shred of dignity.
As I drove off, my chagrin mixed with something indefinable. Nostalgia? Bitterness? Resignation? I flipped back to the soft hits station. Another power ballad churned away. After a few moments of vacillation cum self-loathing, I added the station to my stereo preset list.
But only preset number six, the farthest to the right. Far enough that I’d have to stretch a bit. Make an effort to push the button. Not in the top five, the preferred choices within easy reach. But number six. The last option. Maybe on a late night solo drive somewhere, jacked up on coffee, the window rolled up. Yeah, number six.
I could live with that.
Tom Mahony is a biological consultant in central California with an M.S. degree from Humboldt State University. His fiction has appeared in flashquake, The Rose & Thorn, decomP, VerbSap, Void Magazine, Long Story Short, Flash Forward, Six Sentences, Laughter Loaf, and Surfer Magazine. He is currently circulating a novel for publication.