by Garrett Zecker
When I was sixteen, companionship came from the high desert. I never believed in the paranormal, the cryptozoological, or the conspiratorial, but between the hours of one and four in the morning, Art Bell and his program Coast to Coast AM quieted my manic mind. My brain ate it like junk food. Drifting in and out of sleep, I found order in the voices discussing nonsense. I never told anyone about my 'Scientific Method Comedy Hour' in the same way I never introduced my girlfriends to my family.
It was September 9, 1997, my sister's thirteenth birthday, twenty years ago. Bill Clinton was president. I navigated high school. The world trade center stood. I wasn't married, didn’t have children, made copies, did my homework, and wrote. College was coming, and I was escaping. In hindsight, everything felt so optimistic amid the fear. Mom had a stable of unemployed, listless, flighty dudes that needed saving. Her kids needed a father figure. There was irony in everything those days. Comfort was elusive in our dark house. Men, food, warmth, mom's sobriety. I built a terrified, helpless dread around family that carried through to today, and has made me aspire to be the reliable father my sister and I didn't have. It's probably why strangers have always felt more like family to me.
I felt like I had to do everything I could to make it. I'd get home from working retail after school, enter my cold and lonely room to read and write into the late hours. I became an owl. I became skeptical. Alone in the dark with the computer off and my notebook finally closed, I turned on my radio and scanned the thin, crackling AM airwaves for familiar voices. Art Bell talking to a Phoenix city council member named Francis Barwood. He wanted answers about the "Lights Incident." I lay in the dark, listening strange.
The next day, I got home from school and Mom's then boyfriend Frank was above the garage. I heard Howie Carr's tinny AM baritone droning aggressive right-wing political conspiracies. Legions of New England listeners tuned in for his vitriolic sermons. A man like Frank rattled off the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh like Polonius, so it was strange for Carr's contrary words to drift around his head. He stood in the middle of the unfinished room lit by bare-bulbs. His hands moved slowly, practicing Tai Chi. A cigarette hung from his mouth, a steaming cup of chamomile rested on the chair. The chatter from WRKO absorbed into the exposed fiberglass insulation, and he paused between poses to hit redial on the speakerphone hooked up to his private landline.
On my way out the door to my retail job, he asked for a ride to the train station next to the Kinko's where I worked. He didn't drive. He offered me five bucks. He got into my red K-Car, the only car I ever loved, and we drove. A Better Than Ezra CD played in my discman, running through one of those tape-deck converters. Five minutes into the ride, he pointed to a turnoff underneath the overpass.
"Pull over here, for a second," he said.
"I'm running a bit late."
"I'm having a seizure. It'll be safer."
We stopped. His left thumb started. His hand started bouncing next to me on the bench seat along to the music. It bounced closer to my leg, my goddamn crotch. Was this a pathetic attempt at molesting me? I'd let a peer down gently, but my mom's fortysomething boyfriend wouldn't leave with anything less than a bloody mouth. Five minutes went by. Ten. The tremors abated. He said I could get back on the road. I asked if he needed anything. He was fine, and I was fifteen minutes late for work.
Twenty years later, Frank is dead. Surprisingly it wasn't the cherry-sized aneurysm they found in his brain. I don’t worry about the same things. I have control. I am certainly loved. But my past fears whisper at me with every decision. No matter how irrational, I am learning how conditioned, how inescapable they are. No matter how good things are, the gnawing paranoia of starvation nibbles away, the neuroses, anxiety, only obsessive work quiets my mind. So when it's time for bed, I find I can still quiet my mind by streaming Art Bell's old programs over Wi-Fi from a little pair of headphones in the dark.
Garrett Zecker is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.