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Fiction #137
(published June 5, 2003)
by J. Daniel Janzen

I had an old radio. It wasn't the really old kind, the floor-standing furniture-looking ones you see advertised in old National Geographics, the kids down on one knee in front listening to uncanny radio ventriloquists—just a little neither-here-nor-there radio about the size of a breadbox, dating from a time when people still kept their bread in breadboxes. It had a knob for tuning, another for volume, a third for tone, and a fourth for symmetry, this last one actually a switch disguised as a knob, for AFC on <-> off, whatever that meant. The sound came out of a fabric-covered grille emblazoned with a gold-tone ellipse, below which was a backlit dial, the red-on-silver needle permanently fixed at 1170 AM or 101.7 FM, depending on how you looked at it. The tuning knob turned a few rotations to the right before meeting spongy resistance, then down down down to encounter the same at the low end. In between, across the AM spectrum, static, faint speech, static, sudden ear-splitting white noise, static, nothing like a station you could listen to, not one night, not the next. Nothing at all on FM, so I never tried. I tried FM one night. I couldn't find a thing. At the high end was something that was almost something, just the edge of something, a ridge of sharper static as if something lay just beyond. But the knob wouldn't turn any further. The soft give at the end tantalized me, but made me slightly uneasy, like a too-tight ring pushing against a bony, swollen knuckle. I tried it again now and then. Sometimes I didn't even get the ridge.

Following the Soviet victory in the Great Fatherland War, with the menace of National Socialism banished and the better part of Europe safely in the arms of the International, many brave young men offered themselves for the next great challenge: to carry the class struggle beyond the earth's boundaries, into Space, and humiliate the capitalist dogs in the process. On a cold April morning in 1956, one such hero left his home in Nizhny Novgorod to enter the Chernyshevsky Rocket School of Workers and Peasants, a top-secret installation tucked away behind the Urals. Within two years, he had vaulted to the top of his graduating cadre and stood poised atop a proud iron gantry beside a majestic silver needle. He waved to the crowd, stepped inside, and blasted into history. Space gasped through the porthole, cold distant rocks and stars shining. He watched the universe expand as one watches the hour hand on a wristwatch. Meanwhile on earth, all was motion. Stalin was toppled from his pedestal, replaced by the quivering meat of Kerensky's troika. A third of the brass in the Red Army rusted and blew away, and another third perished by auto da fe. Project farms were plowed under and the historical records brought systematically into line with the accepted past, free from retrospective error. Tumbleweeds blew down the streets of secret installations manned by mice grown fat on dusty bones in lab coats. And mission control's murderers, murdered themselves, took to their graves the secret of the small silver capsule orbiting the earth once every two hours, twelve sunrises a day, twelve sunsets. Strapped in and cathetered sits Uri, fingering his contraband St. Christopher and whispering a prayer for his parents. He turns the radio dial, fingers long grown numb from the stiffness in his joints, ears pulsing with the blood still flowing through his veins. There's a signal that almost comes in, just beyond the end of the dial, and sometimes something almost like language, like the sound of the wind in wet trees.

Sometimes we connect, sometimes not. I'll try him for an hour with no luck, and then as I'm walking out of the room I hear him break through the static. Sometimes it's worth it, sometimes not. The only thing that really gets me down about Uri is that he can be so self-absorbed, and always at the wrong times. When I've got nothing to say and I'm just rambling in circles about oblivion, he's the best listener in the world. When there's something really on my mind, he keeps changing the subject. The thing about spending all those years alone in a sardine tin is that Uri tends to lose perspective. The gold trim isn't the only thing elliptical about that radio. I don't know why I even turn it on some days. The other day, we were having one of our light chats about the objective verification of a reality independent of subjective experience. It's one of his favorite topics—he's always pondering whether anything exists at all outside his little pod. (That's also what I mean about his being self-absorbed.) I sometimes say, you know, you might be right. Maybe even I—then I fall silent, and wait until he begs me to speak. What a riot—there's his voice crackling out of this ancient radio, heavy Boris Badonov accent, saying Otto, Otto, you do exist, Otto, I'm sorry, everything exists, birds, flowers, whatever you want Otto, it's all real, only speak to me, Otto, for the love of God I plead you. What a gas. Sometimes I leave him hanging for a few days, until his cries have faded to whimpers and muted, hysterical sobbing. Crazy Russkie—of all people, Mr. Bird's-Eye-View should know what's real and what isn't. But I digress. Anyway, we're frolicking through the ontological meadows, and we somehow arrive at the subject of love. I suggested to Uri that the fact of the matter is that one can never be absolutely certain that anything else exists, but that it might happen that you find another person who gives you reason to suspect strongly that they do exist, and you get to the point that you're just about convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that if nothing else, at least the two of you do exist. And that's love. He was quiet for a bit. I thought he'd fallen asleep or something. It happens. I got up to go, and then I heard his voice, soft: But what if the other person is just a figment of your companionship-starved imagination, wouldn't your mind create just such a person as you would fall in love with? Eh, Otto? Someone you absolutely failed to comprehend would make a far better proof of reality. Uri, I said to the man, sometimes I just don't know where you come up with this stuff.

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