Al Kane had been in the radio business too long. That's why he was looking at the pawnshop guns in the display case.
The man behind the counter had tried to yuk him up a little by saying, "Home defense, right, sir? That's what everybody's buying 'em for these days."
"Yup," said Al. "That one there." He pointed to a snub-nosed .38.
The counterman, bald at 38 and smoking a Marlboro, fingered his left suspender. "Okay. 98 dollars, sir. You can pick it up in five days."
Al looked up.
"Cooling-off period," said the counterman. "Can't help it, the law makes us."
He and his boss used to make a game of trying to guess how many times they'd been asked by the cops to i.d. a murder or robbery weapon as being sold in their store. After awhile, the counterman refused to play anymore.
And that was after the Cooling-Off Period law had been enacted.
"Five days. Okay."
Al dug into the right-hand pocket of his jeans and pulled out $240.00 in twenties. Week's pay. He handed five bills to the man. For a moment, he considered waving off the two bucks change.
But that might have put the clerk off.
He took the two bucks and a claim check and left the pawnshop.
Forty-three. Forty-three sucking years old.
Al estimated at least twenty of that had been spent on the air. Three radio stations, plus one at college. He'd been doing badly at school, but found out he could spin the sides, make the patter, have people listening to him, tell groaners and still be loved for it.
Plus he loved pop music.
If you took home movies of young deejays on the job, you'd see wannabe Mick Jaggers and Jerry Lee Lewises and Jimmy Pages in their element. Just singing with the records? How gauche, sir. Young deejays not only sang at the top of their sucking lungs with the records, they grabbed the underside of the countertop and went up-and-down-up-and-down in their swivel chairs, jumped up and air-guitared like Peter Townshend or banged a nonexistent piano like Little Richard or Mickey Gilley or Elton, pounded phantom drums like Ginger Baker / Keith Moon / Buddy Rich, and did they sing? Yes, they sang...acting out the songs with the mannerisms of an old bop king from the Fifties, or a Jim Morrison Lizard King of the Sixties, or Bruce Springsteen or Meat Loaf or Robert Plant or whomever unfurled their freak flag high.
That was what young deejays did.
And they got paid for it.
Chump change, sure, but you were there, you were on the air, a whole city, maybe a whole decent part of the state, was listening to you and your music, and you got paid for it.
You weren't breaking your back at hard labor, either. You weren't working some sucko job at Wal-Mart or Piggly Wiggly, putting on a brave face in front of the unwashed. You were a Jock, Prince of the Air.
That was what it had been like, twenty-three years ago.
But time intervening. Lord, time intervening.
First, that damn automation. Every tape tagged with an outro by some guy in L.A. or Dallas compared to which, no matter how good you were, you sounded sucko. Only the biggest of the biggest got to stay in the major markets, and Al had not been that.
It was down to the pony league, to the small markets.
Well, that wasn't so bad. Small town, sure, but it paid, and the job was yours for a damn long time if you didn't screw up. Al knew enough not to screw up. At least he thought he did. Hardly any booze, no drugs--not ever!--and no wife or kid, just an occasional live-in now and then.
So he didn't have a kid with his last name. So what?
What could he pass on to him? The Great Lost Art of Deejaydom?
Nope. Just the blue denims on his back and on his legs, his blue checked lumberjack suit, a pair of shades, the Marlboros in his pocket, his boots and belt, and a smudged pair of Ray-Bans. That and about 500 albums, some of which looked like they'd been played on a porcupine.
Al's boots crunched grit on the sidewalk. He lifted the catch on a wire fence and went up a walk to the boarding house he shared with his landlady. No need to disturb Mrs. Martinez. He unlocked the door locks, went inside, locked them again, collapsed on the couch and closed his eyes. Not sleeping.
Five days from now, he would destroy his self.
Around 4:00, he ambled into the station office.
Kerry, the secretary ("It rhymes!", he'd told her scores of times) gave him kind of a funereal smile as she saw him. "Hi, Al. Getting ready for the big push, huh?"
He gave her a sideways smile. "Oh, yeah. Best believe it, honey."
She looked at him for an instant and then turned back to fixing an operating log for next Thursday on the computer. Kerry was a cute kid, sure. Short black hair, brown eyes, knew how to use makeup, pink dress, good legs, still nice at 32 years of age. There had been a time he'd have tried to tumble her, whether he'd gotten her or not. But in a nice way, leaving them both friends whether she'd accepted or declined.
Now, there didn't seem much point in it.
A screw before the hangman's drop? Nope.
She turned back to him. He'd been standing there for a few seconds. "Something wrong, Al?"
He laughed. "Nope, everything's comin' up roses, Kerry. It's because we have so much crap to grow 'em in around here." She laughed. He smiled. It was good he could still do that to her.
Kerry lay her hands on the desk, turning away from the computer. "Look, Al, I know it's going to be tough for awhile. But you're going to be able to find a new job. I mean, you are looking, aren't you? You can start sending tapes to other stations and all."
He ran a hand through his hair. "I imagine I can do that," he said. "As long as I lie about my birthdate. Hell, if Zsa Zsa can do it, why not me? All I gotta do is a Hungarian accent."
She giggled. "Dahling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue."
"Wrong Gabor. But that's okay." He walked over and patted her cheek. "Gonna miss you, honey."
"Miss you, too. Better see the boss today, Al."
Al sighed. "Just what I was hoping for. Adios, Ker."
He turned and rapped on the manager's door. It wasn't shut. Peeking in, he saw Sawyer on the phone.
Irving Sawyer was in his damn blue leisure suit, 28, sprayed-down brown hair, mustache and tinted glasses. Goodbye, Midwest, hello, L.A. He was sitting at a desk which cut off one end of the room from the other, except for a foot-and-a-half-wide walkway. His phone was custom, red-white-and-blue.
"Well, Mr. Tyler, I can understand that," he was saying. "But it's like this. If you wanted that said in the commercial, shouldn't you have told us beforehand? I mean, you did hear the preview we gave you before we ran it, didn't you? Well, sir, it may just be we've got both our signals crossed. Now, look, Mr. Tyler, I'm not trying to-- No. Mr. Tyler, now, come on. If I let you have those spots free, what about the sixty or so other accounts we've got? Don't you think they might want the same thing? No, I don't think that. Yes, I do want it. Tell you what...you pay for these, we'll give you a discount on the next batch you do. But you can't tell anybody about it, okay? That sound fine? Okay, you think about it. We'll give you a call tomorrow. Thanks, you too. Bye."
Al sat unmoving and unexpressive in the white plastic chair facing Sawyer's desk.
Sawyer banged the receiver down, missing the cradle. "Oh, shit." He picked it up again and spoke into it: "Sorry, Mr. Tyler. The damn thing slipped out of my hands. No, that's all right. Bye, now." He carefully set it back on the cradle and made it this time. Then he sighed and rubbed his hands through his stiff-as-a-board hair.
"Damn it to hell, Al, if these sonofabitches can't afford to pay for their ads, why the hell don't they not take 'em out in the first place? I ask you."
Al laced his fingers in front of his stomach. "Don't know, Mr. Sawyer. Human nature, I guess."
"Right. Human nature of a bunch of friggin' deadbeats. Damn Clinton anyway."
"What's Clinton got to do with it?"
"He's in office. That's what presidents are there for, they encourage deadbeatism. Ah, okay, Al. I wanted to talk to you today. You are okay, aren't you?"
Al opened his palms briefly and closed them. "Sure. Why?"
Sawyer picked up his black pen and used it like a conductor's baton during the conversation. "Just wanted to check with you. You know there isn't any hard feelings in what I'm doing, right?"
"Well, that's good, Al. You know, I don't find it easy to fire anybody. It's a real bitch getting out at your age and trying to find a job, I know. And I'll give you a reference that glows so, I mean, you'll read in the friggin' dark by it. Count on it."
"But, well, Al, we've been over this before. It's like, I've got the demographics. And they say we're getting whupped out there in the evenings. You know that's important, Al. I mean, you know that, don't you?"
"Oh, yeah. Sorry I'm not better in the demos."
"Well, it's not like you were trying to be low in 'em." Tyler grinned. "That's a joke, Al, don't get me wrong. And, well, Al, I need more of a...a..."
"Team player," recited Al.
"Right. It's not like I don't think you're a great guy. You are, Al. It's the little things, they add up. Like being an hour late with the giveaway. I mean, they're waiting for it, you know that, right?"
"Right. Sorry I was late."
"Oh, no problem. And I know it's hard for you to get used to new systems. But let's face it." Sawyer banged the pen down on the desk. "I've got to get those demos up. And I need somebody younger to do that, you know?"
Sawyer paused. "Al, look, I'm sorry. It doesn't feel good for me, either."
Al said, "Mr. Sawyer, in five days you'll still be getting paid, and I won't. You lose your job here, you can go to a headhunter and he'll get you another management job. What do I get? A clerk at a 7-11? Pumping gas? Ever done that, Mr. Sawyer?"
Sawyer said, "That's not my problem, Al."
"No, it isn't." There was quiet for a few seconds between them. It was long.
Sawyer held the pen between the forefingers of each hand. "Al, if you want, I can let you off today and you can just take the severance pay."
"No. I'll do you a good job, Mr. Sawyer, for these five days. I want you to know just what you're losing. That's all."
The manager looked serious. "Al, I'm going to be listening. I expect you to be professional."
"Because if you say something on the air about this, we'll have you off the board inside of ten minutes. And if you say something really bad, well, we might have to sue."
"Of course. Don't worry about that."
"Well, I do worry about it, Al. I don't want you to go postal on me. I think more highly of you than that."
"I want you to think of me as a friend, Al. Even if I'm letting you go. Still friends, Al?"
"Good. Now, get in there and give me your best five days."
"You've got it." Al got up and was out the door before Sawyer could stick his hand out to be shook.
Down the plush gray carpet of the hall to the studio. Within its fishbowl walls, Raymond O'Hanrahan, aka Ray Hanna, was jiving out the last few minutes of his shift.
Open shirt, glasses, sweating even under the air conditioner. "So if you really want the flit to hit the fan, remember, Memorial Auditorium at 7 p.m., Thursday night. We're lucky Chitown decided to make the gig, believe it! Their lead man Harvey Moore will be providing his patented Moore and Moore, and you can expect us Mooreons from KLDM to be out in force, too. Don't feed the deejays, though, they might--not know where the bag of popcorn stops and your arm--starts. That's it for me, now--" (RECORDED SFX: "OHHHHH!") "--big Al is up next, you make him welcome. Here's Bowie's theme from 'Paradigm Lost'. You be good now--Aushante. Swahili for, 'I'm comin' home, Mama, get the TV dinner in the microwave.'" Bowie's vocal started the instant after he shut off the mike.
Al stood impassive in the doorway. Ray jumped up, put his arms around him. "Al, my big buddy, my best buddy in the whole wide world, what's kept you away for so long? Ah, I hear that crinkling in your pocket."
"Okay, okay," said Al, pushed him away gently, and gave him a smoke and a light. "Gonna burn in hell for getting you hooked on Marlboros."
"Why not?" said Ray. "Leastways, in hell, you've got full employment. Kinda like the New Deal."
Then Ray checked himself. "Oh, jeez. Al. I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that."
Al said, "Don't worry about it, Ray. I think, more likely, hell's gonna be like lookin' for work for all eternity. Or maybe being a telemarketer, and gettin' Howard Stern every time you call." Ray smiled. "I'm all right, just let me get in here, okay?"
"Sure, Al. Look, uh, if there's something--"
Al cut him off with a hand-wave. "See you around, big guy."
"Sure. See you." Ray turned and left. The door closed.
Al was alone in his fishbowl world.
Swivel seat, counter top, board, computer, two CD machines stacked on top of each other, a bank of CD's in a rack, TV with the mute on and turned to the Weather Channel. Walls covered with hole-filled tiles. Greyish rug that didn't show stains easily. Plastic cover under his chair to protect the rug. And, quite possibly, a mouse that hid out behind the board and left turds to mark its presence.
It was Bowie, then the news, then the ID. Then Springsteen's "Human Touch" came up. Al began to sing along with it, not caring who saw him. "You and me, we were the pretenders / We let it all slip away..."
He hit the interrupt button after that to stop the machine from doing the autosegue into another song. Reaching over to the CD holder, he snatched a Steve Winwood disk, popped the case open, hit the Open button of the CD machine, and popped it in. He closed it, hit Pause, and arrowed it to the right track.
"KLDM, a little point-blank music from Bruce there." Flawlessly, he punched up the Winwood track so that the synthoed organ rode over the fadeout of Springsteen's song. "I'm Al, be here with you for the next six hours. Steve Winwood now, his advice? 'While You See a Chance, Take It.' Got a few good chances out there, or some good choices, let me hear it on the request line. 864-KLDM, we're here for you, you're here for us...just might make it through the night together."
Steve Winwood, whom he would always think of as Stevie, started his vocal.
So it went for the next six hours. And so it went for much of the next four days.
Sawyer was pleased. Al wasn't always "up", but he was a quieter sort of jock, and at least he seemed to be handling the damn depression better. He felt all right about leaving him there alone at night, as he was for the last five hours of his shift, usually. On one of those five nights, Sawyer gave Kerry a quick bang on his office couch, paid her, and gave Al a friendly wave as they left the building an hour late.
On another one, Ray brought Al a whole carton of Marlboros and a Beatles Past Masters CD. Al thanked him.
On a third, the janitor tried to make small talk with Al. Al smiled, thanked him, and turned back to his board.
On the afternoon before his last board shift, Al walked into the pawn shop and presented his claim check. The counterman briefly smiled, put the gun in a shoe box, and slid it across the glass counter. "Hey, aren't you on the radio?" he asked.
"Nope," said Al. "Thanks very much." He stuck the box under his arm and ambled out.
The clerk looked after him for a few seconds. Then he went back to work in inventory.
Sawyer had a short talk with Al before he started his last shift. Mainly, it was a replay of what he had said before, with a lot of you've-been-great-sorry-to-see-you-go, and don't-let-the-doorknob-hit-you-going-out.
Al finally held up his hand. "Mr. Sawyer, please. I'm a professional. I know how to do a board shift. Now if I don't get in there and do it, Ray's going to wonder if we're having an affair or something. Please let me go, sir."
The boss's face registered shock. Then he saw that Al was smiling, at least with his mouth, and started laughing. "Way to go, Al. Get out there and give 'em your best," he said.
"I'll do that," said Al.
He got up, walked out, and entered the studio.
Ray had finished his last shpiel. He was sitting down. He looked up at Al. "This is it, isn't it?"
"Fraid so, Ray. Thanks."
Ray got up, shook his hand, and gave him the masculine hug. "If I find out about some jobs, I'll let you know."
"Appreciate that, Ray," said Al. "I do appreciate that."
Then Ray left and Al took his seat at the throne.
This was the only place where a deejay really felt in control. Like a conductor before his orchestra, like a general overlooking a battlefield, the deejay could twist his pot dials, flip his switches, talk his talk, and believe, for however long it lasted, that he was really, truly, in control of his world.
Al opened his mike at the start of the first song.
"KLDM with Al," he said. "One last ride, folks. Let's make it a good one."
Kerry came by to give him a cake, a hug, and a peck on the cheek. He thanked her sincerely. Then she left.
Sawyer sat in his office for an extra hour, making sure Al didn't say anything crazy. When he was satisfied that things were still properly online, he left.
Between the fourth and fifth hours of his shift, Al went down to his car, took the box out, and came back up.
On his way back into the studio, he surveyed everything, from the carpeted hallway with the fire extinguisher and filing cabinets to the small room with the coke machine and refrigerator and microwave to the salesmen's and manager's offices to the music library, that holy of holies. Al's mouth worked.
He listened to the speakers pounding the music through the hallway. The song was about a minute shy of ending.
Al padded back into the studio, put the box on the floor under the board, and took his seat. The box was out of sight, nestled against the toes of his shoes.
It stayed there for all but the last ten minutes of his shift.
Al wondered up to almost the last minute what he would play last. "Layla"? "Lucky Man"? "You Can't Always Get What You Want"? "Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys"? His heart was always with late Sixties and Seventies rock.
"Didn't call it classic for nothing," he grumbled.
"The End" by the Doors? Nah. Too much of a downer.
In the end, there was only one choice. Sighing, he fumbled through the rack of old anthology discs, the kind sent out to radio stations with huge conglomerations of golden oldies on every CD. For this one, he didn't have to throw open the blue notebook and consult the song / artist index.
He knew which one contained Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven."
"You played it for her, you can play it for me," he cracked as he put it in the open CD machine, watched it slide home, cued it up to the right track, and waited for Collective Soul to end. When it did, he thwacked the play button with his middle finger. Jimmy Page's guitar and the flute intro started up.
Al leaned back in his chair, laced his hands behind his head, and closed his eyes. Heaven, all right. For eight minutes.
And then it was over.
Al had put the computer system in interrupt. That halted the automation after the current selection had played.
There were three seconds of dead air while he fumbled with the package at his feet.
Sawyer, listening it on his bedside stereo with another girl beside him in postcoital bliss, heard the nothing and said, "Oh, shit."
The late-night listeners at the convienience stores, in the cop cars, in the all-night diners and night-shift factories, in the cars doing the strip one or two last times before heading back to Mom and Dad, and in the homes where sleep just wouldn't come and the radio was tuned on for some last-chance companionship, all wondered what had gone whacko at the station.
Then Al spoke.
"This is my last night on the air," he said. "And I've decided to destroy my self."
He paused. "I've been in radio for a long, long time. I don't see anything else I can do, group. Not much I really want to. But Mr. Sawyer says that my demographics aren't as hot as they should be.
"Well, I'm going to take care of that little problem simply and efficiently. Because, gang, my 'self' for the last twenty-odd years has been out there with you. On the air. It's really where I live. So, Mr. Sawyer, I'm playing my own request. On the charts this week, it's Number One--with a bullet."
Al brought the pistol up to the mike. He turned the mike level all the way up to 80 percent as he cocked the thing.
Then he fired.
The whole town, and everyone listening in an 80-mile radius, heard a bang so loud its sound was distorted.
The shot went right where Al was pointing the gun.
Straight at the transmitter.
The bullet drilled a hole through a plastic meter cover and penetrated into the guts of the mechanism itself. Al shot two more times. The machine was dying. Sparks were flying in back. A fire was beginning.
He hustled in back of it with the fire extinguisher and foamed the hell out of it until the fire was as dead as the station.
The lights had gone out. A fuse had blown.
For the first time that night, Al smiled.
He pulled a wastebasket out and dropped the gun in it. Sure, it had his prints. Big deal.
Al hustled to the elevator and wondered if he'd manage to make it out of the building before the cops came.
He didn't. Two of them were there with drawn guns when the doors opened on the first floor.
Al stuck out his hands, waiting for the cuffs. "Evening, boys," he said. "Got any requests? You may have to wait a little while for 'em."
Still smiling, Al was hustled out and locked into the back of the police car.
At least he knew where he'd be waking up late tomorrow morning.