Editor’s note: we present our first piece of radiofiction, May He Rest in Peace by Peter Rugh. There is much to chew on in this tale of love, loss and a community radio fund drive.
Mother always complained Father was a loudmouth. He wouldn’t shut up when he was dead either.
He enjoyed making noise, you see. He was like a kid in that way, like a problem child who gets a thrill out of negative attention. I suppose it was his way of refusing to grow up, despite all his responsibilities. He got a big kick out of walking back and forth through the sliding glass doors of the Dollar General and triggering the automated greeting.
“Hello, we are happy to serve you. Hello, we are happy to serve you.” It pleased him to no end to set off that voice, which announced your arrival whether you were coming or going, and never lost its gusto.
The staff—dejected old men, immigrants and pregnant teenagers—must of heard it all day. They kept their mouths shut. They were numb to it. As far as they were concerned it was one more insult at a job that was full of insults. The pay was insulting, for one, the work beneath anyone with a prefrontal cortex, and the customers curmudgeons, penny-pinchers and thieves. They weren’t happy to serve anyone. At least the disembodied voice saved them the trouble of having to muster the enthusiasm they so vigorously lacked. Sure they heard it again and again, the taunt, the mantra, but what is one more prick in the ass, one more nail in the coffin, another bit of edging off the soul when the soul is already dying a slow death, pickled under halogen, amid aisles of carpet-by-the-roll, single-ply and stale Sour Patch Kids?
I started dreaming of that place after Father died. I’d wander the aisles, trying to remember what I was looking for. Father asked me to get it for him. He was waiting by the cash register. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember what it was. If I didn’t find it, I was a dead man.
Father always said I would wind up working at the Dollar General. Any grade below an “A” would set him going.
“You’re casting your die in with the Dollar General lot,” he’d say, shaking my report card in my face, spit flying everywhere. It landed in my eyes, my inner earlobes. It would have landed in my mouth but I was taught to keep my mouth shut in Father’s presence, as much as the things he did might have set it agape.
It got so Father could imitate the Dollar General voice perfectly. He must have practiced in the shower. Once a year he manned the grill at the company picnic and he’d parrot it for his employees while he slapped burgers on their buns. “Hello, we are happy to serve you,” he’d say.
Ground beef was either a mass of myoglobin or a pile of ash in his charge. When he wasn’t looking, his workers either slipped the foul fare into the garbage or under the picnic tables where their dogs didn’t deign to lick it. Father didn’t pay attention. He didn’t care. He wasn’t eating the filth he fed his people.
He himself had more expensive tastes. He’d skimp on toilet paper and splurge on food. The anus was of far less importance to him than the mouth. But Mother always said he was too loud to make the most of the instrument. He had so much to say he couldn’t wait to swallow. Half-noshed duck, beef Bourguignon, gratin dauphinois accompanied his every opinion and complaint. He had lots of those. Dental floss, for instance, was just a scam to pedal surplus thread on the masses. Each meal found Mother and I wiping bits of his discharge off our persons while we digested his take on world affairs. We didn’t interrupt. Servants came and mopped up.
After dinner one night, I found Father dead.
I was delivering his polished wingtips for his inspection when I came upon his lifeless body in the smoking chair he loved so well. His fly was open and so was his mouth. It was twisted in a grin, as if in ironic regard for the plot of the program on the television. It concerned a clique of crime-solving strippers. The strippers lived together in a mansion with a jacuzzi that they bathed each other in. They were hot on the trail of a sociopath who was out to kill strippers because the only woman he ever truly loved left him at the altar. She was a stripper. She was the first to go. He threw her in a fifty-gallon steel drum, welded it shut, and rolled her into the Pacific Ocean. The tide carried her away.
I zipped Father up, folded his hands over his death erection and laid his shoes at his feet. We watched the rest of the film together, even though I’d seen this one before. I sat beside him, cross-legged on the marble flooring, as I often did when he was alive.
The strippers nabbed their man using the power of seduction, along with a bit of cunning and luck.
The first stripper, you see, the one that broke the killer’s heart, it turned out she was alive and well. A kindly fisherman heard her cries for help and fished her out of the barrel. He and his wife nursed her back to health. This involved a lot of ointments. Then the three of them rolled around together a bit. Once the stripper was well she found the other strippers and they hatched a plot together in the jacuzzi but we didn’t know what it was until it came to fruition.
One of the strippers lured the killer back to their mansion. The killer made like he was reaching for a condom in his wallet but instead pulled out a razor blade. He was about to strike when the stripper he’d sent to sea called his name. She was made-up pale to look like a ghost and was wearing a wedding dress. This confused and bewildered the killer. Another stripper, one who had previously expressed a lack of self-confidence to her housemates because she thought her glasses made her look ugly, brought a vase down on the killer’s head.
The tender caresses of her housemates had done little to reassure the stripper who wore glasses of her beauty, but delivering that decisive blow sure did. Together they bound and gagged their prey.
The police soon arrived at the mansion. They criticized the strippers’ unorthodox methods but complemented the results and hauled the culprit away. Another case solved. The credits began to roll. I shut Father’s eyes for him. I tried to close his mouth but it wouldn’t budge.
The cops came to our house too. And paramedics. Nobody was in any rush. There wasn’t anything anybody could do for him. Everybody knew Father’s end was near. We expected what there was to expect. Mother, me, the local P.D. that Father kept in his pocket, and the shareholders in the bank that he possessed a majority stake in and which he ran for forty years.
He was proud of that bank and zealously guarded it like money under a mattress from threats internal and external. He was widely respected in the industry for being among the first to discover that you could charge your poorest customers the most exorbitant overdraft fees. “A deadbeat can be a cash cow,” he’d say.
A bit of a hullabaloo followed Father’s death. You can imagine. There was the funeral, the wake. Notices submitted to the press. Mistresses and long-lost relatives, rheumy-goggled, greedy and sentimental, came out of the woodwork. A feast of tears, veils, valium. Lawyers and event planners, oppressively attentive. It was a good thing Father’s wingtips were polished, I thought. They were on his feet when we lowered him into the ground.
Once the circus was over, I went back to visit him by my lonesome. His plot was on the outskirts of Queens, the graveyard quite dignified. Rows of gothic angels and women in Nasarean gowns rose from the grounds in weather-worn stone. They mourned the certainty of death in the shade of weeping willows and of cherry blossoms that cast their pink petals on the dewy green where the expired reclined, filed and catalogued.
It was a sunny September day, the cemetery empty, the sun busy at work burning away the last of the morning’s fog. Father had opted for a tombstone free of accouterment with a simple inscription below his name and dates. “What’s robbing a bank compared to owning a bank?” his grave asked the visitor.
I knelt on the soft, soggy grass, bowed my head, clasped my hands and began an “Our Father.” It was then that the voice came to me, a great booming voice, cheery, dripping with dedication and confidence, not unlike the voice that greets you at Dollar General. It came from the bowels of the earth and interrupted my prayers.
“Can you hear me Nassau?” it spoke. “Where are you Throgs Neck?”
I put an ear to the ground. “Father is that you?”
“Are you out there Boonton?” the voice replied. “Gerritsen, Gravesend, Bullshead, Sheepshead, Ridgewood, Norwood, Spuytin Duyvil? We’ve got a transmitter on top of the Empire State Building broadcasting far and wide. We’re in every crack and crevice of the New York Metropolitan area, spreading the word. Uncle Barry Bowles, M.D. knows you can hear him, Seagate, Tottenville, Monmouth Junction. I’m depending on you Totowa, Pompton Lakes. Let Uncle Barry Bowles, M.D. know how much you appreciate programming like this, how much you appreciate WEFU. Right now, for a limited time only, we’re offering the rare herbs and phytonutrients you need to stay young and spry. Make the most of this special offer and pledge today. Call up and give now and Uncle Barry Bowles, M.D. will send you his personal wellness pack. It’s chock-full of ginkgo biloba, turmeric dust, sea buckthorn flakes, nopal cacti, mangos teen and raspberry ketones. An army of volunteers is standing by to take your pledge right this instant.”
The voice recited the station’s telephone number several times slowly.
“Support this station and make a commitment to health, life and longevity now and I’ll even throw in my special DVD,” it said. “The wellness tips on this special DVD will last a lifetime. You won’t learn of them from any other station. The pharmaceutical industrial complex sees to that. This wisdom and these healing properties are not available in stores. This limited offer is only available to EFU members. Give now, and we’ll even include an EFU tote bag for you to carry your extracts, distillations, and essences everywhere you go. Operating a transmitter at the top of Empire State isn’t cheap, folks. The Food and Thug Administration is chomping at the bit to silence us. We will not be silenced. I repeat, we will not be silenced!”
I called up the cemetery’s front office from the highway back to Westchester. A fugue by Bach played in the background while I waited on hold. Finally, I got through to the cemetery’s warden.
“Father chose his plot because he thought it would offer peace and respite,” I told him. “Instead he’s stuck listening to a community radio station during pledge drive week.”
“Ah yes, yes” the warden said in a heavily affected mid-Atlantic accent. I’d met him twice before. Once when I’d accompanied my Father to pick out his grave and once when my Father was buried in it. He was a rather corpulent fellow, I recalled, attentive as a small dog. There were always plenty of small dogs in Father’s orbit, hoping to sit on his lap or to fetch a few scraps that might fall from his table. I didn’t not want to look at the man, otherwise I would have visited him personally. I could hear him on the other end of the line cracking nuts and putting them in his mouth. He mumbled and huffed through his nostrils while he chewed.
“Yes, I’m aware of the matter,” he apologized. “We’ve received several complaints about your Father from other customers already. The dear ones of our customers, that is. The boys are quite fond of that Uncle Barry Bowles, M.D., you understand. They have nothing but praise for his moringa pulp and lychee concentrates. I have half the mind to ask them for some of the doctor’s cat’s claw capsules myself. They tell me clinical trials conducted in Argentina have produced miraculous results in reducing blood pressure in rodents. The boys have been quite distraught since the loss of their radio. It seems they allowed your father to take it with him into the afterlife, you understand. Once they realized the gravity of their error, they have taken their lunch at your Father’s tombstone every day since just to sit and listen.”
“They’ll have to dig it out of there.”
“Would we if we could, my son. That was their first impulse, and, I must confess, mine as well. Upon a period of reflection, however, it occurred to me that surely this isn’t a matter worth disturbing the perished over any more than necessary. Tell me, what sort of music did your father enjoy in life?”
It was a baffling question. “if you must know, he was a Ted Nugent fan,” I said.
“Splendid. My suggestion is that before you retire this evening, light a candle and put on an Amboy Dukes record. In this way, pay tribute to your father. Think not of the voice from beyond his grave. The batteries in that thing will perish eventually as all things must. Soon your father will meet the silence of eternity that finds each and every one of us at the beginning of our next journey.”
The warden shoveled some more nuts in his mouth. Peanut, I’m guessing. “Believe you me, the boys will have to wait a while before they earn back their radio privileges,” he said.
Rather than listening to the Nuge, aka Motor City Madman, I turned the dial to EFU. I listened to it from my Buick all the way home and put it on in the house after I parked. I was up much of the night and the days that proceeded listening. In a strange way, it was the only remaining link between Father and me. Knowing we were both tuned to the same station made him feel close once more. I tried to channel his spirit.
In addition to Uncle Barry Bowles, M.D. the station offered an array of programs catering to different ethnic groups and constituencies. Haitians, Irish, Filipinos, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Arabs, and North Africans each had a program. There was a show for Marxists, anarchists, feminists, Black nationalists, hackers, queers, for listeners with legal problems, money problems, sexual problems, computer problems, for Rastas, necromancers, birdwatchers, and finally, at three a.m., for fans of the Grateful Dead. All the people Father never associated with in life were keeping him company in his grave. They were bringing Father and I together.
I sat in the dark with the radio on, losing track of the dawns and dusks coming and going past the curtains. Gospel followed by low-budget, left-wing news programming greeted the day. Then Uncle Barry Bowles, M.D. was at it again. He had something like a six-hour slot.
Periodically, Mother wrapped on the door with a plate of something in hand. As soon as Father went she became just as attentive and resentful toward me as she’d been toward him. She fired all the help in order to fully devote herself to the task. Even with the radio on, I could hear her mouse-like footsteps approaching from down the hall, accompanied by the familiar stampede of her pack of Lhasa Apsos at her heel. Whereas Father had people pawing at him, she contented herself with pooches.
“No, thank you,” I’d whisper if I was conscious. I was busy considering what Father would do were he able to aid his own plight. Channeling him through the airwaves, I drifted in and out of a trance-like state.
Either way, Mother left the food at my door. There was a stack of it, rotting on the china, waiting for me when I emerged from my cerebrations. The plates were smeared around their gilded-edges with the tongue prints of Mother’s Lhasas who, once she was asleep, returned night after night to lap up the opulent helpings she’d deposited at my altar.
One thing was certain, I’d decided by then, Father was a man of action and would therefore act decisively. I gave Garthright a ring, or, as Father used to call him, Barfright. Barf for short. There was heavy breathing on the other end of the line. “Barf, are you there?” I said.
A wearied, guttural “yes” came back after a pause.
“You really ought to announce yourself.”
“I’m here, man.”
Barf was the neighbor kid, only by now he was the neighbor man, if you could call him a man. He still lived with his mother. Father would give him a quarter to perform odd jobs around the house, little tasks that I couldn’t do or couldn’t do alone for one reason or another. Once Father gave him a nickel on accident. Barf never complained, so Father just kept giving him nickels. I started giving Barf nickels myself when Father assigned me chores. The night Father died, it was Barf who shined his shoes. Barf wound up being one of his pallbearers. He nearly dropped him.
Working with Barf was a little like fucking yourself. On the one hand, it was convenient because he was always around. On the other, you were still just fucking yourself. Yet he only cost a nickel.
The day before the funeral, I employed him to pack some of Father’s belongings into a warehouse that I procured beside an Olive Garden in White Plains. I parked the U-Haul by the loading dock, handed Barf the keys to the warehouse and walked next door where I ate shrimp linguine accompanied by a lovely white zinfandel. When I returned, the truck was empty, the warehouse stuffed. It looked as if Barf’d done a bang-up job. Orderly too. The medieval weaponry and Victorian sex toys Father purchased from the most prestigious auction houses in Europe, the dozens of appliances he’d ordered from Sharper Image and never removed from their packaging, his National Geographics and vintage smut rags—it was all stacked and organized.
Father’s big-game kills, the full-body stuff jobs, not the ones already mounted to the wall, were given a pile of their own. Predator cat mounted cowboy-style upon predator cat. Mother was glad to see those go. They frightened her Apsos. She’d pleaded with me to get rid of “all this gewgaw” the morning after Father keeled. It was no skin off my back. This way, I and I alone would know where Father’s treasures were hidden.
Naturally, I gave Barf a nickel and was so pleased with his efforts I would have thrown in a twenty-cent tip, were I not afraid of reversing the precedent. I sang Barf’s praises until I dropped the steel curtain to lock the place up. I felt in my pockets for the key and recalled, with trepidation and dread, that I’d left it in his care. A tragic mistake. It took us hours to uncover it among the parts of a disassembled trebuchet against a back wall. The sun was setting by then. I bought Barf dinner. What was I supposed to do? Sit there and eat my Lasagna Classico while he stared at me?
Strange to think the kid in the ringer tee who sat across the table—heaving unctuous morsels of pasta, dripping with milt-textured white sauce, into a hole in his face—was only maybe a year or two younger than me. Maybe we were even the same age. Nonetheless, I always think of Barf as a kid. Always have. Always will. Maybe cause he’s always calling me “man.” It seems a childish thing to do. Come to think of it, Barf is something of a younger brother to me.
“I got something for you, kid,” I told him over the phone. “You’re going to help me find something, and I hope to God you do a better job then you did with that key. Meet me at my place and bring a shovel. We’re heading to my Father’s grave tonight. There might be a quarter in it for you.”
“You people,” he scoffed. “It’s always something with you. You think I come around for the money? This shit is going into my memoir, man.”
The Rastas kept interrupting the music while we dug, me with my shovel, Barf with the trowel he’d turned up with. Before we could start shoveling to the rhythm, the disc jockeys would whip the volume down on the music and start babbling over the bass beat. This went on every twenty seconds or so. Then they’d throw on a new track and interrupt that. I could only guess what Father must have been going through in there. We were interrupting the ground, I suppose, intruding upon the work of its insects and garden snakes. It was hard to understand what the Rastas were saying but evidently they were fans of the good uncle-doctor’s berry bowls too. The pledge drive was ending and they really pushed the stuff. They were just $8,000 shy of their goal. It went on for an hour. By the time they finished they were just two grand shy.
Next came an old man who played opera music on a wind up gramophone, followed by a jockey who must have known everything about Charlie Parker there was to know. I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew what color drawers the Bird was wearing on June 7, 1944. He knew so much, that he hardly got around to playing any of his music. This programming failed to bring the station any closer to its goal. We were still pretty far from ours, as well, what with Barf pecking away with his meager instrument.
Then came punk music. Awful stuff, yet it somehow made Barf work faster. I smiled at the prospect of locating the racket before daybreak. I relished the thought of smashing the radio to smithereens. But something funny began to happen. The more we dug, the fainter the abrasive malodies eliminating from below became. There was more distortion too, but I couldn’t tell if that was the music or the radio itself. Perhaps the batteries were giving out. I mentioned something about it to Barf.
“It’s freakin’ weird that this thing is picking up a signal at all,” he said.
He had a point there.
“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Barf,” I told him, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
“I believe in the church of Heaven on Earth, man,” he snorted, whatever that meant.
The more we dug, the more elusive the object of our digging became. I began to become concerned our labors were for naught.
“Alright,” said the disc jockey, as the garbled sounds of guitars screeching and jackhammer drums faded out. He kinda sounded like Barf, half-awake and dissatisfied, only his voice gurgled static. “Did we meet our goal?” he asked. “Brad’s telling me, ‘No, we didn’t meet our goal.’ You guys know Brad. He’s the night manager around here. He’s shaking his head. How far we got to go, Brad? Oh, yeah, Brad. That’s a lot of scratch to round up in the ten minutes we have remaining in this pledge drive. I’m not going to tell you how much scratch we need because if I did it would just depress you. What I will say is every little bit counts. If you listeners wouldn’t mind getting up and turning over your couch cushions, please write us a check for any change you find. We promise we won’t cash it right away. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already given. I’ve still got plenty of Descendants ’84 van mixtapes to handout, and, for you big money givers, a pair of tickets to my annual pub-rock-pre-punk-post-punk-rockabilly-rocksteady-new-wave-two-tone-mod party. It’s next Tuesday at that craphole on Delancey.”
He recited the number to call like a sardonic prayer.
“Or don’t give a dime,” he said. “Me and myself will go together. Now back to the—no, Brad’s telling me I have to pitch some more. Well, I will say this, if you listeners want to know what the sound of EFU off-the-air sounds like do yourselves a favor. Go into the bathroom, draw a warm bath. Stick your head underwater and scream at the top of your lungs. That’s the sound of the voice of the people being silenced. How’s that, Brad? Good enough for you, Brad? Okay, that was good enough for Brad.”
The disc jockey sounded like Barf alright, caustic and lackadaisical, but he had more to say than Barf ever had. Well, he spoke more, at least, although he might as well have been coming through on a dusty VHF out at sea as far as he reached us. Soon the lazy voice and the auditory violence it summoned would die on us. My shovel might as well have been a paddle if that happened, since I’d be up shit creek.
“Here’s a little ditty from Thee Headcoats off their Messerschmitt Pilot’s Severed Hand record,” the jockey informed us. “I’m going for a cigarette.”
I gestured to Barf for him to quit pecking at the ground with his trowel so that I could better trace the clangor.
“Punk rock ist nicht tot, punk rock ist nicht tot,” went the refrain. The singer’s German, if you could call him a singer, was an insult. There was no hiding his cockney accent, despite the foreignness of the words he hollered and the crackling, imminent death of the charge behind them.
Barf propped himself up on the edge of our hole, broke the seal on an energy bar and began chewing at his leisure while I bent my back toward the furtherance of our goal. How like a chimp Barf seemed, peeling back the wrapper like the peel on a banana. I was chin deep in Father’s final resting place. “Punk rock ist nicht tot,” the ground beneath me proclaimed with a religious fervor that was becoming swiftly inaudible, despite its vehemence. “Punk rock ist nicht tot, punk rock ist nicht tot.”
“I’m coming, Father,” I whispered, barely louder than what I was hunting for. It was close at hand. If I didn’t find it now, it would be there forever. Barf took a final bite from the energy bar and tossed the packaging below. Peanut butter, oatmeal, raisin. His legs dangled over the hole we’d accomplished. He looked comfortable up there above me, watching me struggle. I almost envied him. I dug a heel into the shoulder of the spade. “Once and for all, Father, I’m coming.”
Return to Freq-Amp homepage.