His Father's Radio

Mark Collins sat at the desk in the spare room of his house that he used as an office. He stared at his computer’s screen, at the colorful anonymous autumn scene pictured on it. He looked at the keyboard and mouse and wondered if this was the right time to open the file in his documents folder called “Me.docx.” He'd been thinking about that particular file for the past two weeks.

Collins, 66 years old, was afraid of the file. It kept him awake nights. It wasn’t an overdue bill or a computer virus or a report from some oncologist. No, the file contained a piece of creative writing that Collins had written himself. At least he thought he had.

Mark Collins had spent his life working hard and being responsible because he’d had a plan. After college, he’d married his sweetheart, Mellissa Tipton and they’d begun their family two years later. They’d had two girls, Fran and Terry.

Mark landed a good job with Banks, Maybery and Tuttle, a development firm with a good history. He worked as a hydraulics engineer and had a reputation for getting the job done. Twenty years of hard work had gained him a management position in the engineering section, which brought more hard work. He hadn’t minded, it was part of the plan.

He’d started saving early to provide a firm financial footing. Mellissa had worked part-time after the girls were born and continued until after they’d both graduated from college and got started on their own. Fran had a degree in Business Administration, worked at a manufacturing company and married a nice young guy who taught design at a community college. Terry, a year and a half younger than Fran, had studied psychology and worked in the university hospital.

Three years ago, after paying off most of his debt and building up his 401(k), Mark spoke with Mellissa and their financial consultant and together they decided that it would be safe for Mark to retire.

That was also part of the plan Mark had laid out more than 40 years before and he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He loved books and he wanted to write them. He wanted to write fiction, novels, short stories, poetry. Ever since he first saw a book it was what he wanted to do.

Mark Collins came from a large family with six children and little money in rural Oklahoma. Like many large families, the older kids raised the younger ones while the parents scrambled to make ends meet. His father had worked more than one job all his life. His mother took in work. She did people’s laundry and watched their kids while they scrambled for a living themselves. She kept a garden in the back yard and canned vegetables to sell or just to extend their food supply and she squeezed every penny that came their way.

They’d had no television set and that wasn’t uncommon in the little community but there was a large floor-model Zenith radio that sat in the corner of their front room. His parents had gotten it as a wedding present but it had stopped working while his father had still been overseas in World War II. But it still sat in that corner as if it were waiting for someone to turn the dial so the tubes would start glowing and the music would begin to play. There'd been talk of getting it fixed but that never happened and so it acted as a stand for pictures.

Besides the radio, the front room contained a braided area rug, an old horsehair stuffed sofa, two chairs and a coffee table. Most of the children just sat on the floor.

Every evening one of the older kids would read to the younger children and that was Mark’s favorite part of the day. It came after the neighbors had picked up their kids and the room had been straightened up, the dinner eaten and the dishes done, and the baths taken, if it were bath day. Then, and only then would someone read.

The books came from the local library and picking them out was another Saturday activity that Mark fondly remembered throughout his adult life. Almost every Saturday afternoon, all the children, except for those too small to walk, would march down to the little public library and return the books they’d read and pick out one or two more for the next week. Choosing the next selections was a fairly noisy affair that was tolerated, if not enjoyed, by the librarians.

While reading was taking place, their father would fall asleep in his chair in the corner by the radio. The younger children would lie about on the floor in every imaginable position. Sometimes playing with small toys, sometimes just staring into space. But everyone quiet so they could hear.

As a child lying there, Mark would willingly go anywhere the story took him. Always paying close attention, always surprised or happy or heartbroken, along with the people in the story. He shared their lives and they his. And when the story was over, he was always sad, always. Even knowing that another story would eventually follow, he mourned each ending as if it were the last. It was like when his cousins were packed into their cars and went back home at the end of Thanksgiving or Christmas, he’d feel deflated and sad and empty, in a way he couldn’t explain. It was that way whenever a story ended. But after each story, he would still carry a little bit of the story and the people in it, with him. And for the rest of his life, sometimes those bits would show up in his thoughts to surprise and remind him what it was that he wanted to do.

As a boy, Mark had told his siblings and then his parents about his dream of writing, and they were pleased with his interest in stories. As soon as he could write, he wrote, little stories and poems. His parents would try their best to muster the energy to compliment his little tales and tape them to the refrigerator where other parents put crayon drawings.

As he grew older, his parents felt the need to temper his love of books with more practical things. They were very aware that their children would face an uphill climb to make good lives and they wanted the best for all of them. It was wonderful indeed that he loved stories and such, but he needed to pay more attention to his arithmetic and science. Mark loved books, but he loved his mother and father more, so he tried his best to do what they wanted.

His father who was always exhausted and most of the time dirty from working, assured him over and over, that there would be a time for writing when he grew up. But Mark had responsibilities that he had to take care of first. He had to keep his priorities straight. Take care of business and then came the fun things like writing. His father prayed that this was true for his son.

When Mark was in the ninth grade, his mother found a lump in her breast and died before he graduated high school. Then when he was a junior at the University of Oklahoma, he came home one weekend at the end of the first quarter and found his father in the front room, sitting in his chair in the corner, looking at the big silent radio. His father looked up at him in confusion and asked who he was. Mark told him his name and his father nodded and greeted him, and five minutes later, asked again who Mark was. That was the beginning of his father’s end and it had happened just like that.

He called his brothers and sisters and they’d said that dad had started slipping away earlier in the fall. He talked with his father for a long time during his visit. His father had assured him that he was OK, he just got confused sometimes, but he was OK. Then he would return to his chair and “listen” to the radio. They found a place nearby that would take his father in and care for him. A place where all the kids and grandkids could visit him. His father’s only request was that he have his radio with him. He died the next summer.

The night before Mark Collins retired, he couldn’t sleep. He could only think of what it would be like to wake up with the only thing on his agenda being to write. A thousand ideas swirled in his mind as he lay next to Mellissa that night. The next morning he was up at 4:30, exhausted and excited. He made coffee and toast and went straight to his office and cleaned off his desk. He put all the “business” notes, papers and reference books into boxes and set them by the door. By 9:00, his desk was empty except for the things necessary to create a world out of nothing.

He sat and looked at his computer for 15 minutes thinking and then he began. He wrote the rest of the day, until 7:00 PM, when Mellissa came in to tell him he needed to quit.

He was still excited and asked her to read what he’d written and she said she would. He attached his first piece to an email and sent it to her. He was certain that, even though it needed a few touches, it would show that he was finally doing what he should have been doing all along.

His first piece was a simple short story about a man who goes back to his high school reunion and sees his old friends and together they remember their expectations of life from the perspective of a teenager.

He waited on pins and needles for Mellissa to finish reading the first day’s work and come to tell him how good it was. He waited and he didn’t bug her. She had things to do. The first night went by and the next day was almost over and still she hadn’t said anything.

Though they’d both been in the house the whole day and he’d made a point to take frequent breaks and walk around, he hadn’t seen much of her and she was always busy doing something.

Finally, after supper, he asked, “Honey, did you get a chance to read the first part of the story? I was just wondering.”

She looked at him with a startled expression. “Oh yes. I did. You know, I’m not the best one to ask about this. I’ve no background or education for this. Also, it was the first draft and the first project.”

She continued speaking in preamble for quite a while as Mark wondered what she meant. It was not like her to ramble like this. He was seriously puzzled as to what she was saying, or avoiding saying. It couldn’t possibly be, that it wasn’t – good. Could it?

He finally held his finger up tentatively to stop her. “I don’t understand. Are you saying that it wasn’t --,” here he searched for words, “a story that you might enjoy?” He said this very quietly.

“No, no,” she tried to reassure him, “I’m just saying that the first draft might have problems that some later, more --,” she now scanned her own vocabulary for words, “some kind of rephrasing or re-arranging could improve the overall …”

He understood and his face flushed with embarrassment.

“Oh my dear. I didn’t know. I didn’t, um, mean to put you in this position. I’m sorry. I just, I was so excited. I understand.” He felt gutted. How could it be that he’d never considered this outcome? Thinking about it now, how could he expect to spend 40 years planning water supplies for housing developments and calculating catchments for rainfall and snowmelt and the next day create the Great American Novel. How ridiculous that seemed now.

He knew now that he needed to take this whole thing more seriously and treat it more like a job. Mark would get back to work and be more objective about his writing.

It took him three more full busy days to finish the first draft. He read it through excitedly and made a few corrections and additions, then he read it through again, pausing to admire some parts that he felt had captured his intentions with dramatic clarity. During the second reading, he didn’t take anything out, but had added more to give the story “more depth and presence.”

With the final draft of the first story in hand, he approached Mellissa again but this time, she said no. He told her that Stephen King’s wife read all his first drafts and she lovingly suggested that Mark get in contact with Stephen King’s wife and get her opinion. Mellissa told Mark that she loved him and supported him as her husband but she didn’t want to be put into a position providing critical reviews of his writing. Even if she was a professional fiction editor, which she was not, she would not want to edit his work. It was like asking a surgeon to operate on her own family.

Over the next few months, Mark repeated this scenario with most of his siblings and a few of his friends. What he learned was if you wanted to get better as a writer you had to get feedback from someone who had a formal background in writing but more importantly, they must not love you or even like you a great deal. It is probably OK if they dislike you, as long as they have an adequate educational background.

Mark Collins decided he would learn this skill no matter what it took and he bought several books on writing and read them cover to cover, taking lots of notes and highlighting a ridiculous number of passages.

He joined a beginners writing group at the community college and struggled to understand what the instructor kept telling him about how to make his stories better. It seemed like every evaluation he had boiled down to the same thing; he would never be a writer.

Time after time, he would turn in a writing assignment and the instructor would give it back with notes saying things like, “Too wordy!” and “Don’t tell me, show me.”

For the first time in his life, Mark Collins felt like he just wasn’t capable of something. He should buy a bass boat and take up drinking. He was not a writer and never would be. After all, how can you be too wordy in writing? It was all words, after all.

And then some little bit of a story would come back to him and he would feel that slip in his location. He’d suddenly be back on the living room floor of his parent’s little house in Oklahoma and simultaneously, sailing in a whaling ship in the south seas, or flying out of an upstairs window of a house in London, off to a place where you never grew up. And just like that, he would know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

He worked at it every day. He started after breakfast and he would write most of the day. The only thing he did as much as write was read. He read fiction, poetry, and books about fiction and poetry. He worked to understand what made a story work. What kinds of characters there were. How conflict was necessary to a story of any kind. How the point of view changed the way a reader related to what they read. How to make ideas come across. How to set a scene quickly.

Mark wasn’t sure that he understood all of these things, but he knew now that they were the basics of writing. He longed to finally write a story that told how he felt, no, that made the reader feel as he felt. That was the difference.

Every time he doubted himself, he would do whatever it took to start again.

It was clear he wasn’t a great writer and he might not ever become one. But after the initial disappointment, he had to admit he loved the process of writing and so it was what he would do. He would work at it and improve, and enjoy being the best writer he could be.

He decided that the best way to learn to write was to practice, so in the second year after his retirement, he made a routine that he would follow every day. He would read fiction during breakfast and after eating, he’d take his coffee into his office and write in a journal on his computer. The journal entry had no requirements for content or length and it served three purposes; it let him record what was on his mind, it made his brain work to create something, anything, and finally, it relieved the stiffness and pain in his arthritic hands and fingers. He would type his journal exercise as quickly as he could to get things moving and try to write between 1000 and 2000 words. Sometimes, it was just nonsense. If that was all he had, that was all he wrote. When he finished, he would go back and read it and correct any mistakes and make additions or edit as needed. That was part of the drill.

After the journal, he would write a short story, or at least a stream of consciousness piece or essay. Mostly he tried to write something that had characters, scenes, dialog; the things that made stories. Maybe just a small part of a scene. When he finished it, he’d go back over it, again and again, correcting it, shortening it, changing words and sentences and paragraphs around to see if it made a difference.

And that is what he did. Same routine every day, even weekends. One week, two weeks, a month, two months. Four months, every day, journal, then a little story with all the editing.

Then one morning he sat down at his desk with a cup of coffee to begin the drill and as he started his journal, a breeze came through the open window beside his desk and something changed.

As his hands hung poised over his old keyboard, he felt something he’d missed for a long time. He couldn’t exactly explain it, but he thought he’d better write about it.

This time the words came in a torrent. His hands moved smoothly and his fingers had a deftness and purpose that he hadn’t felt before, but what he typed, what he saw as he typed, he had no explanation for. The words, the sentences formed whole feelings that stood by themselves. He was writing so fluidly and fluently, that it felt as if he were copying some finished, published work. The words came to him as if they were poured from a vessel where his memories and feelings were stored.

More than once he thought about stopping to try to understand this, but he did not dare. The words assembled into perfect sentences, the sentences into perfect paragraphs. Each in logical lyrical sequence. It was hard to describe. Each word was correct and no other word could have taken its place without weakening the meaning of the sentence. Each sentence was exactly enough to support and complete the thought. There were no extra words. The thoughts flowed from one to the next as naturally as a well-ordered mind could make them. Mark couldn’t understand where they came from. His own thoughts had never been so lucid in his life.

As he typed, he began to laugh and still the words kept coming, one perfect word after another. He could only watch. He didn’t dare look back at the last word for fear of missing the next one and the next one. The thoughts kept appearing on the screen in front of him. His thoughts, but placed in front of him in flawless fidelity, they seemed to capture his heart’s images.

He began to cry as a single sentence appeared in front of him capturing the birth of his first daughter and he was suddenly there in the delivery room again, overwhelmed, terrified and thrilled, all at once. Mark couldn’t understand how this could be happening but he never wanted it to stop. It was like falling through heavenly music.

The rest of the room disappeared as he typed and for this little while, his world seemed clear to him. Hidden meanings popped out as obvious. Still the words came as if God himself were whispering in his ear. He laughed again and kept typing. He ached for a drink of his coffee but he could not interrupt this work and force his burning eyes away from the screen as long as the words kept coming. He worried about what this all meant, about where this power was coming from, and where it was taking him.

He blinked hard to clear the tears from his blurred vision. He glanced down at the bottom left corner of the screen and saw that he’d typed over 4500 words this way and he wondered if it were true. He was afraid it was a dream and if it was a dream, he did not want to wake from it, not yet. He continued. He didn’t have to think about where the piece was going, it went where it had to. He was typing the contents of his life. All the worries, the hopes, the fears, the thoughts that he realized made up who he was.

Not the profane things like the objects, the cars, the money, bicycles, the space ships, the beautiful women, not even the security and love and respect that he thought this was all about. No, what he read in the sentences exposed the matters that were deep within him and in the space beneath his heart, and they were flowing out, through his hands and appearing on the LCD screen in front of him, in simple words packed with meaning. Words that were like sweet cream that disappeared from his mouth as he imagined saying them.

The sentences actually appeared to have physical beauty when he sat back and looked at them. A chill ran down his back and back up again. If this was insanity, and he feared it was, he didn’t want it to stop.

It went on, it showed no sign of ending. The sentences building, one word on another, exquisite symmetry in shape and meaning. Words fitting together like DNA assembling itself. This must end, he thought. What if someone sees it? He closed his eyes and prayed, and still his hands moved over the keyboard. Eyes closed, head down, he saw events come and go in his vision, things forgotten, flooding back in order of importance and meaning. He felt the warm dry hand of his mother in his own, and then his father’s rough scarred hand, and then his new wife’s trembling, clammy hand as they spoke their wedding vows, then the tiny grasping hands of his baby daughters.

Mark Collins prayed out loud for this to stop—and it did. The typing stopped. He did not dare to read what he had typed. It was too soon. No.

He quickly held the Control key down and hit S. He looked up at the screen and typed in the title, “Me” and hit the return key. He glanced at the lower left corner and just before it disappeared from the screen, he saw the document was just over 9500 words long.

That all happened almost two weeks ago and he wondered if this was the day he should open the document and read it. He had checked several times without opening it, to see if it had been a dream. There it was, “Me.docx” in his documents folder, it was 54 kilobytes in size. It didn’t look so scary there in the file system.

Nothing like that had happened since that day and he hadn’t spoken about it to anyone. Certainly not Mellissa. There was no reason to worry her about this.

He wasn’t really even sure why it had scared him but he knew what he was afraid of. He was afraid of opening the document and reading it and seeing that it was gibberish. Maybe random letters, as if typed by a toddler, like: “jkas doafjms d jic uwdma uiffsdi isdpsdcd isdsddj”

If that’s what he saw when he opened the file, well, he thought he knew what that would mean. It would be his version of his father’s radio. He wasn’t ready for that yet, he was 66, for Christ sake. He’d just retired. Was that the way it would go?

On the other hand, what if he opened the file and it contained what he’d thought it did? What would that mean? He’d read about temporal lobe brain tumors causing remarkable hallucinations and even religious experiences, epiphanies.

He hadn’t become some kind of mystical genius overnight. He hadn’t written anything like that again in the two weeks since. He was not even sure whether he should keep writing. Some part of him said that it was like messing around with a Ouija board and scaring himself.

He didn’t think today was the day to look at the file. Maybe tomorrow.

The End

dlwilson   dlwilson wrote
on 1/13/2017 11:28:18 AM
Good story. Well-written. Engaging. Great ending.

Short Story
writing JackVB
Retired and Free to Create.
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Mark Collins retires after a successful career and takes up writing. After a number of failed attempts, he writes a piece that makes him wonder about his abilities and his mind.
A Word from the Writer
Copyright © 2016 Jack Vander Beek, All rights reserved.
Published Date
8/16/2016 12:00:00 AM
Published In
Previously posted on Rising-Gorge.com
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