April 19, 2024 Short Story


ON THE RADIO Artwork by Nate Krenkel

On the drive home, NPR is talking about the earthquake in Turkey. It’s been all over the news for the last few days. The earthquake, seven point eight, Turkey and Syria, pure horror, dead of winter, buildings pancaking. When did pancaking become a verb? Probably on nine-eleven, and still to this day I cannot think this without flashing back to Pap’s roof up above the Indian restaurants on East 6th Street, watching the second tower fall, taking photos with my little Olympus PEN half-frame, hoping this would somehow normalize the shear insanity we’d crossed into that morning.  I still look at those photos from time to time and all I see is a starfish reaching across lower Manhattan swatting away millions of futures. Pancaking became a verb at 9:59 AM, then again at 10:28 AM. The radio voice from Turkey pulls me back to the present, a scene is being described in all its horror and voyeuristic slap, they say she fell to her knees and let out a low moan, this was after finding her son in the rubble still alive but trapped under concrete and rebar, trapped in a building that pancaked. They know he’s alive because he’s wiggling his foot. They tell him to hang on, that the machines to free him are coming, to reunite him with his mother, he’s only forty-three years old, still her baby in many ways, still her baby, hang on son she cries in a language I don’t understand, hang on the machines are coming. And the machines arrive and she cries out every time they lift a chunk of former building, she cries, go slower be gentle my son is in there he’s not made of steel or rebar or modern durable plastics he’s just a fragile human being who’s been trapped in this pile of pancaked building for two days, and finally they remove the rest of the building and everything is silent. Is it snowing? It feels like it’s snowing. I squint at the blue lights of the radio. I can’t tell if it’s snowing, I’m at the mercy of the NPR reporter who’s there watching and relaying, but to me it sounds like unreported snowfall.  I picture her holding the mic, it says NPR in yellow letters and she’s eyeing her crew not daring to speak but indicating with nods and unblinking eyes, are you getting all this, are you capturing the silence? Is that snow falling, listen can you hear it, the snow is falling, and now the hush goes even deeper, folding in on itself, it’s the sound of several men holding their breath wishing they could reverse time maybe just for a minute, back up the tape for five minutes, that last thrust of the machine which broke the trapped man’s body. But no one can reverse time, and there’s an eruption as the mother realizes her son who was alive is no longer. She wails. Men shout a siren passes the reporter says something about allowing her to grieve in private, and there is something pornographic about all of this. The sirens, the mother’s cries, a crushed body wrapped in a sheet that three days ago was just a sheet on a bed, the corners neatly tucked by someone taught at a young age the value of making your bed every morning before you start your day. But the earthquake came in the night when everyone was in bed, everyone was sound asleep, everyone was dreaming, not planning on being pancaked. Of course, hearing the mother’s cries through the car speaker, the car that’s all electric and costs well north of thirty thousand dollars, that’s like the price of four tickets to see the Boss, and my thoughts swerve; I’d recently read about the guy who ran the Boss’s fanzine for forty-three years and how he’d shut it down just this year, he was so outraged by the greed and vile behavior of an industry and culture that’s allowed one garbage-fire company to take over all the large tours, his passion for the Boss, for Max’s insane drumming on Born In The USA, his defense of not only Tunnel Of Love but those twin albums that amounted, everyone reckoned, to pure filler, but not this guy. No, this guy, he took his time and went through each cut, each lyric. He found all the gold, all the hidden gems, he found the tracks with Sam from Sam and Dave. He ignored the fact that Sam is a Republican, ignored the fact that Sam changed Soul Man to Dole Man when he was supporting Old Bob Dole. He ignored it all. Kept his head down. Kept his focus on the man, the Boss. BROOOOSE. But now this guy is walking away from his passion because one greedy-as-fuck company shat all over the art he loved while the Boss just got another dumb haircut, made another album with Sam from Sam and Dave who by now was no longer known for Dole Man but rather and more disgustingly, for singing at Trump’s poorly attended inauguration.

I exit off the interstate toward Portland and the NPR reporter has moved down the block. Now she can no longer hear the mother’s cry. The reporter counts from one to six like it’s Sesame Street, one two three four five six, six apples six flying squirrels six racks of lamb six school busses six bowls of soup six flaming tires six broken vertebrate six spinning tops six Sam & Dave singles six Trump Steaks six MAGA hats six LET’S GO BRANDON flags six buckles on the boot six blue checks six Coors Lights six garages in Detroit discharging furious rock and roll music, today’s episode is sponsored by the number six. And the letters F and U. Six is the magic number.  Only today, it’s six dead bodies. No one is around tending to them, they are just lined up—at least someone bothered with a bit of symmetry—dead bodies in the road, and the reporter speculates: maybe they are Syrian. Someone nearby backs this up, yes Syrians come over across the border fleeing war, fleeing civil unrest, finally safe. Finally across the border, this line that’s not real, like money, just a social handshake, a religion, cross over into King Friday’s realm where they can go into a shop and buy an orange soda and some bootleg Magic cards. Go into a shop and not worry, just enjoy the sweetness on their tongues, but now they are lined up, six in a row, today’s number is six, and the NPR reporter moves on down the road.

I pull onto the bridge. It’s too dark to see where the tide’s at. I recall a recent moment in the car with Roxy. I wanted to play her Heaven Or Las Vegas, but she couldn’t get the phone to sync with the car. How many minutes of my life have I lost due to stress from Bluetooth related issues? Why did I ever quit smoking when I just replaced that curse with the curse of getting mad at technology, and why was I getting mad at my kind beautiful creative joyful daring magnificent wonderous daughter? Why am I letting anything distract me from my only task which is to steer this futuristic electric vehicle up the road to her school where I will say have a good day and watch her and her brother walk up the path. They never look back. They are looking for their friends, just reaching the age where friends don’t just mean playing games or playing with toys that are not your own but realizing friends are actually other human beings with thoughts and feelings and bodies you’re interested in. Who knew other people could be so fascinating? I remember that age, my friends and acquaintances and enemies. I remember walking down to the bus to take me to middle school and the time I thought my butt smelled so I tossed a palmful of foot powder up my backside, only to discover while waiting for the bus that the powder was spilling out my underpants, leaving white streaks down my thighs. I was wearing surfer shorts, maybe those corduroy OP shorts, this being the mid-80s. My bare legs streaked in white foot powder there at the bus stop surrounded by girls and bullies and devout Mormons and kids too poor to really know and kids with the newest Atari games and kids already experimenting with sex with jerking off with inhaling glue and fumes all those kids were witness to my legs streaked with foot powder. My face turned red, my heart exploded, I did the best I could to brush it all off and it might have worked I don’t recall anyone saying, hey why do you have foot powder running all down your legs? Is it because you were trying to mask the stink of your smelly butt? So maybe I got away with it, but on the other hand maybe the reason Tyler came up and said watch this and then proceeded to grab my head and pull on my ear until the cartilage holding my ear to my head popped, maybe he did this because he’d seen me surreptitiously brushing foot powder off the back of my legs and inner thighs and he thought nope, not on my watch. You need humiliation, you need pain, and pain and humiliation he did deliver. None of that matters now, my two beautiful children made it safely in school—safe LOL safe except there’s a house two doors up that has a blue lives matter flag hanging out front and foil sunshades in the windows. So, safe, except for the fact that a straight-up fascist lives two doors away, certainly armed to the teeth, certainly ready to go Breivikian on all these little wokists if the voices say GO—and now I’m at the stoplight waiting, listening to NPR as they remove pancaked concrete from an alive-but-now-dead son’s surroundings and I’m thinking, how will I ever keep these kids safe? How is it possible with blue lives matter 2A death cult motherfuckers roaming the streets and earthquakes and floods and fires and king tides and droughts and the salinization of the oceans and the deregulation of food safety standards and ticks.

Oh my fucking god, the ticks.

The ticks are going to kill us all, but even if the ticks don’t get us there are the mosquitos viruses bacteria and slippery sidewalks, methane-burping feedback loops it’s not permafrost if it’s not perma, it’s not even frost, now it’s just like, death moss. And how many times have I heard one of the kids thundering down the stairs and imagined a trip and a fall and a wheelchair and a feeding tube for life?

A white nationalist Christian in Dockers approaching with a torch?

A category six hurricane wiping us all off the map?

A ferry boat caught in an unexpected set of incoming swells.

A mad dog, a mad MAGA. A supreme court burning witches.

A mad Karen. Banning books. Fucking children.

A man with a pouchful of ground glass, pouring it surreptitiously into the gourmet ice-cream as it slowly churns. Shreds of beef rotting on a shelf then dropped into a stew. How am I going to keep them safe and how are they going to keep their own kids safe when the surface of the planet is as deadly hot as cold ocean depths?

It’s too much. The light turns green and I start to drive up the hill. Slowly. Making sure no one’s about to dart out into the crosswalk.

Almost home, thinking about cell phones, smart phones, dumb phones, the internet, unplugging, our broken culture circling the drain, the abandonment of first principles, our collective inability to focus, both as a society and as individuals.



Superfans losing faith.

And I think about how I still need a job.

I get home, exhausted, and sit in the car in the dark for five minutes, the radio off, taking deep breaths and shaking, like Moose at the groomers.

I go inside, put on Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life, and start to feel better.

But I keep returning to this thought of cultural rot and our broken capability as a species to think and problem-solve. I read recently that multitasking is a myth[1]. Humans can’t actually hold more than a single thought at one time. What multitasking actually is: it’s thought juggling. And it’s not a good look. It breaks our minds because it erodes our ability to focus and concentrate. I imagine everyone in their living rooms, eyes glued to several screens. A television, a phone, a tablet, screens attached to fingernails, screen on our teeth. I’m picturing people in their homes, the TV on, laptop on the lap, their phone in their hand. Triple-screening it. Pornography on their watch. Phones sewn into their palms, entire ceilings above beds turned into live streams of Korean youths playing first-person-shooters. Screens in the shower, in each drop of rain, on tiles and toilets. Yet, still only able to focus on one item, so their thoughts race, stumble and crash, bounce from bumper to bumper. Breaking Bad on the TV, last night’s Fox News screed on the laptop, TikTok on the phone screen, and on the watch a GIF of Elon Musk jerking off to videos of himself jerking off to exploding rocket ships, ejaculate looping in and out on the screen embedded in the bottom of the coffee cup. All going at once, forcing the mind to stutter like a teenager on speed at a Ministry show. Flashing. Buffering. A pop-up ad for a cruise getaway. Another requesting you sign up for the mailing list, act now and receive the coupon code for ten percent off, temperatures rising, the moon discovered to be nothing but a god turd. God is a rabbit.  A text saying, your Amazon order has a problem, but all you need to do is text us your credit card and a dick-pic and we’ll sort it out. A push-notification about a cop beating a violinist to death. A book-tokker named Nate being cut into thousands of pieces, and I’m bidding on the toe.

God is a fucking rabbit.


[1] Stolen Focus by Johann Hari