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Nick Ellis

 

 

11:30 pm

You've got WNTE, your nighttime connection to all the greatest hits, and I'm Paul Thomas, spinning out the biggest chartbusters of all time during our round the clock marathon of music kicking off our tenth consecutive hour of uninterrupted music with Martha and the Vandellas . . .

Requests

As usual, the caller light starts flashing as soon as I've shut the mike off and before I get a chance to take a sip of coffee. Tyler's been on my case for leaving the callers holding too long lately, so I put the mug down and hit the red switch.

 

WNTE, your nighttime connection, what's on your mind?

"Uh . . . Mr. Thomas?"

 

Mr. Thomas is my dad, big guy, and he's not here. You got a request?

"Uh . . . yeah . . . could I hear . . ."

 

Sorry, buddy, I don't know what planet you're from, but if you'd been paying attention to my ranting and raving instead of squeezing the zits on your palms then you'd know I'm in the middle of a countdown and I can't take requests. Call back when I give a damn.

The red light stays on until the phone rests on its stand again, indicating that my caller is probably still holding the phone against his head in a catatonic state. Sometimes I hate these morons so much it makes me want to quit. But then I think of the money . . .

 

WNTE, your nighttime connection, what's on your mind?

"You guys gonna play any Sabbath?"

 

Black Sabbath went out with buggy whips, pal. Call me when you get a clue.

This time the light's out before I hang up my line, so it looks like I got someone who actually knows when he's being insulted. Give the man a cigar. I sit back for a second and raise the mug to my lips, quickly discovering that the coffee has a few minutes to go before it reaches that point where it's just at the perfect temperature, cool enough to gulp but hot enough to restrict you to a mouthful at a time.

Speaking of time, I think I've got too much on my hands if I can come up with a sophisticated philosophy on hot beverages.

 

WNTE, your nighttime connection, what's on your mind?

"Yeah, I was just wondering, are you guys giving away anything?"

 

Free frontal lobotomies to every tenth caller, but I see you've already won. Try not to drool on the phone. Ciao, baby.

WNTE, your nighttime connection, what's on your mind?

"Paul?"

Through the haze of my nightly migraine and the hyperawareness of too many cups of coffee the voice caresses my ear, a sharp contrast to the outside world's blaring headphones and brain dead listeners.

"Jasmine."

"I need to talk to you, Paul. Do you have time?" For a second I'm too engrossed in the simple sound of her voice, the texture of it, to concentrate on what she's saying. Then, a second later, it registers. Time.

Just the one word takes me back, back to when I was too busy doing eight things at once to listen to my own wife. Back to when I put everything else in my life before her, even during the good years. Now I spot an nice seven minute song on cart that's definitely going to play into where the commercial break's supposed to be and jam it into the machine.

"Plenty. Is everything all right?"

She sighs a little, a familiar sound that lets me know two things: first, that everything is most definitely not all right; and second, the reason everything is not all right can be traced in a straight line directly back to me. I ignore the sinking feeling in my gut and squint a little, as if that's going to make it easier to listen.

"I talked to Karen, Paul. Do you realize it's her birthday today?"

Uh, oh. Think fast, Thomas.

"Jasmine, I've been on the air for--"

"For what, Paul? Twenty three hours? Are they putting you guys on week-long shifts these days?"

"Jazz--"

"She's your daughter, Paul! The least you could do is pick up the goddamned phone and--"

"And what, Jazz? Tell her I'm sorry again? Every time I talk to that kid its, 'Maybe if I had a father,' this and, 'Maybe if I had a father' that! I can only apologize so many times before I realize that I'm never going to be forgiven."

"Well, when every time you talk to her turns out to be once a year at best, what do you expect?"

"God damn it, Jazz--" I look at the cup of coffee, leaning a bit closer to see if the steam is still rising. Nothing. The perfect moment is past, I've missed it, and now I've got to start all over again. "She's eighteen years old. It's not like she's a fragile little child anymore. I don't have to coddle her." I hear the last song start to fade, so I punch the cart button to start the eight minute song and watch the seconds start to count down, noticing that the caller lights are flashing. Tyler's going to have a fit.

"Coddle? Coddle her, Paul? Jesus, I don't believe you! You make no effort whatsoever to reconcile with her, you call once a year out of obligation, and then you pull this..." Jasmine's voice fades into a less important part of my mind; I've heard this before and it wasn't worth listening to the first time. The trick this time around is to pick a moment between now and when my song ends seven minutes down the line when my song ends to jump in with a solemn promise. Luckily, she pauses for breath with three minutes to spare.

"Listen, Jazz. I'm sorry. I've been under a lot of pressure lately, what with being sent back to overnights, and it's just making me crazy. I'm sorry I snapped at you."

Even though you started it this time.

She lets out the sigh again, and then after a pause, "Just try to be more understanding, Paul. If not for her, for me. Can you do that?"

"The only thing I can do is promise to try. I can't make things the way they were, Jazz. There's just too much history."

"I know."

There's one of those long pauses that means neither one of us really wants to hang up, even though the whole encounter has been less than pleasant. I don't want to leave her voice only to go back to the cold, stupid calls yet. Maybe she feels the same.

"I wish I could see you again." It comes out of me in a breath, and I hear something in my voice that I wish I didn't have to admit. That pathetic little hint of a whine from a lonely man reaching for comfort, knowing full well what the answer has to be.

"Too much history, Paul," she says, and I almost thank her for making it simple. Then my heart gets gripped by an icy fist and I want to be back in the dark again, in the cold with the other losers occupying the night.

"Goodbye, Jasmine." I hear a whispered "Goodnight" as I bring the receiver back down onto its hook. I hope I cut her short in the middle of a sentence. God, that would be great.

 

WNTE, your nighttime connection. What's on your mind?

"Jesus, Paul, I've been letting it ring for almost ten minutes! What the hell are you doing over there?"

 

My job, Tyler. Thanks for letting me. Hey, I'll return the favor by letting you do yours. Chop chop, now, pally.

I'm gonna regret that one before I get much older.

 

WNTE, your nighttime connection, what's on your mind?

"Yeah, uh, Paul, I wonder if you could help me and a buddy settle a ten dollar bet. I think he's just stupid, but he--"

 

I can settle that one right now; you're probably both stupid, so give each other five bucks and call it even. Glad I could help.

The light stays on until I punch up the next line.

 

WNTE, your nighttime connection, what's on your mind?

"Oh, wow. Paul? Am I on the air?"

 

No, no, no. Look down at your feet, pal, you're on the floor. Now, don't be upset, I know you folks just get confused from time to time.

WNTE, your nighttime connection, what's on your mind?

"I think you suck ass, Thomas."

 

Not for the money they pay me here, big guy, but if they ever need someone for that position, I'll be sure to mention you.

WNTE, your nighttime connection, what's on your mind?

"It's Tyler, Paul. Listen, I've been getting a lot of complaints--"

 

Then try to shower at least once a week, old bean. No charge for that advice.

WNTE, your nighttime connection, what's on your mind?

"Yeah, Paul? I've been thinking about getting into radio, and--"

 

Forget radio, pal, it's way too small. Go for a larger appliance like a big screen TV or better yet a refrigerator, you'll fit into that no problem.

WNTE, your nighttime connection, what's on your mind?

"Dad?"

God damn you, Jasmine.

"Karen."

I can hear the guilty edge in my voice, so I take a deep breath to force the words out louder before I continue. "Happy birthday, baby. How have you--"

"Cut the bullshit, Dad. Were you even going to call me today?"

"Honey, I'm really sorry, but I've just been so busy."

"Busy with what? Coming up with new ways to insult your listeners? Figuring out more efficient methods for alienating the people who love you?"

"Karen, please--"

"No, Dad. I've really had it this time. No amount of apologies are going to make this go away. You're never going to change."

"Listen, sweetheart, I know we can work this out. Let me call you when I get off the air."

"Don't you see? You're trying to apologize one second, and doing the same old thing the next. You're really not going to change, are you?"

"Of course I--"

"Admit it. I want to hear you say it."

"Karen..."

"Please, just say it. Say it and we can get on with ending this thing. Tell me you're never going to change and I'll finally be able to give up on us ever being a family again."

 

You want family, kiddo, go watch Little House on the Prairie. I'm working, here.

"Don't you dare talk to me like that, Dad."

 

No, no, you've got it all wrong. It's Pa. You want to live a cheesy TV show, you got to talk like a cheesy TV kid. Come on, let me hear you say Pa for your old man.

"I'm . . . I'm going to hang up."

 

Promises, promises.

"Please don't do this. Please don't make a joke out of me."

 

You know what your problem is sweetheart? You don't know how to have fun. So loosen up, relax and get that bug out of your--

There's a click on the other end, the red light flickers off, and now I'm the idiot holding the phone. I rub my forehead a few times, then lean forward to dial her number. I'll get her back on the line, explain that I've been under a lot of pressure, maybe get some of my life back together...

Out of the corner of my eye the red light flashes, and Karen's phone number fades back into that less important part of my mind where it belongs. Two more hours, and then I can go home. I put the phone down and pour another cup of coffee, watching the steam rise up and waiting for that perfect moment.

 

WNTE, your nighttime connection, what's on your mind?

 

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