I have a good memory for objects.
Up until I was thirteen, my grandmother let me borrow her transistor radio whenever I visited her. It was five inches long, four inches wide, gold, silver and beige. It had a round, inset dial, and the only tricky part was steadying that dial to pick up my favorite station, WSGN-610, clearly. There were no earplugs, or if there were, Ma Ma chose not to hand them over, so I would sit on her back steps with the radio lodged against my ear for hours. She never asked me to replace the batteries, which is another good thing I can say about her.
While I don’t dream about that radio, I do think of it often and see it clearly. On my visits to Ma Ma’s—usually on Sunday afternoons when our entire family would gather for take-out Jewish deli suppers—the weekend DJ, Ken Scott, would spin the tunes I knew so well: Issac Hayes’ version of “Walk on By,” Santana’s “Evil Ways,” and Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds.” I didn’t know the word “eclectic” then, but that’s what AM radio was in the years 1969 and 70. Ken Scott had six-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays, and I always wondered what other job he had, how he lived beyond the airwaves.
Here is what I think of often, though Ken Scott is not always the object of this thought: right now I am the only person in the world thinking about or remembering this guy. “It’s Ken Scott Showtime,” he’d regularly proclaim. “I’m with you every Saturday and Sunday from noon to six.” It seemed like a promise to me. Up until he broke it.
I remember the Sunday that he announced he was leaving the station; that this would be his last show. There I was sitting on those hard steps thinking my world was secure when I heard his farewell. I don’t think I’m the only person who ever bonded with a disc jockey, though maybe I’m one of a very few who would still admit it. I’m sure I listened on the following weekend, feeling a little lost and forlorn, but I don’t remember who took Ken’s place.
He certainly didn’t tell any of his listeners where he was going.
Ma Ma used to buy me whatever I wanted for my birthday. When I turned six, she called and asked what I wanted. I wanted three books: Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and Black Beauty. The first two were children’s abridged hardbacks, which, in the end, I never read. Black Beauty, however, came with pictures in an oversized binding. I treasured it, re-read it countless times after I was supposed to be in bed asleep. I told Ma Ma about my after-bedtime crime, and she said she would keep my secret. She made me feel loved and understood. Whenever I re-read Black Beauty, I thought about her.
I’m sure Ma Ma preferred me to my brother Mike, in that way that grandmothers do, but aren’t supposed to, pick favorites. I got the most ice cream, the bigger Cokes, and I got to spend the day with her, seemingly whenever I wanted to.
But I also got this:
One Sunday night after supper, my Dad decides to snap some pictures of us.
“Sit down on the couch here by me,” Ma Ma says, “and let’s put our arms around each other. Let’s pretend we’re sweethearts.”
I found this photograph recently. I’m sitting on the arm of the sofa, and Ma Ma’s arms are around me, our cheeks resting side by side. She’s smiling, but I can’t tell what sort of look is on my face. It’s a half-smile at best, like I didn’t trust that moment. Like I knew that the promise of her love wasn’t true. In my memory, I hear her saying, “We’ll pretend that we’re lovers,” but I know that isn’t right.
Even now I wonder what I did know of that time, what I really felt about her.
Thirteen was the last age when I spent whole days with Ma Ma. Ever since I was five, Dad would drive me to her apartment in Mt. Brook, and then she and I would play my board games—Monopoly, Sorry!–card games, and on one occasion, she taught me how to shoot craps. I loved those days, and for lunch, Ma Ma would drive us into the village where we’d meet my Aunt Carole at Britling’s cafeteria, and after, she’d treat me to a comic book from the Rexall Drugs nearby.
When I was seven, Ma Ma quit driving, and we then depended on my aunt to drive us to lunch. I wondered why Ma Ma sold her car, gave up driving altogether. She was able, had no physical maladies. Carole lived with her then, so I guess they thought Carole’s white and sky-blue Impala was sufficient for them both.
Once, I asked Ma Ma why she gave up driving:
“Because, dahlin’, I have agoraphobia.”
“What is that?”
“A fear of open spaces.”
“You mean you can’t go outside?”
“Well, no. You’re too young to understand.”
Maybe so. Still, up until I was 13, I understood these “spend-the-day-with-Ma Ma” times as happy, fulfilling. After all, she did everything I wanted, even giving me the two Coke breaks I got at home. The only time I had to fend for myself was when her programs—“The Guiding Light” and “As the World Turns”—came on. Then, she’d hand me the radio, and I’d find stations up and down that wheeling dial.
I also brought my own books to read, but something about a transistor radio made me feel older, competent, cool. I wanted one of my own, yet my parents never granted my wish. Maybe they wanted me less glued to devices, or maybe they thought rock and roll, while not the Devil’s music, was nevertheless corrupting to a young boy’s mind. We had a stereo at home, but mainly we listened to Big Band music, or at best, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I was ten before they bought me my first Paul Revere and the Raiders record, and even then, I couldn’t play it if my Dad were home. He let me have the old, tubed electric radio that he kept by his bed, though. I put it by mine, but since I couldn’t hold it to my ear, it just wasn’t the same: transportable.
What also turned out to be not the same was that day in Ma Ma’s apartment, an early spring break day when I was thirteen. I’m listening to that transistor radio:
“We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out….”
Dad is supposed to pick me up soon, as he promised. Ma Ma is in her bedroom getting dressed. She has a date tonight, she says, and is getting irritated because Dad is late. She’s also irritated because I’m looking at her Cosmopolitan Magazine.
As if she senses my quiet reverence, she storms into the living room: “What are you looking at? You can look at anything but that!”
I’m a 13-year old boy, and I’ve been looking at Raquel Welch in lingerie. What else should I want to look at? The copies of Readers Digest and Plain Truth magazine hiding on her TV stand? The TV news at 5?
An old woman who seems not to want me any longer for her sweetheart?
She snatches the Cosmo from me.
But when we come to visit her on the following Sunday, while the adults play Pinochle, I will find the magazine in her bedroom and slip it under my shirt. I will then walk calmly into the bathroom where I will…
Use Ma Ma’s manicure scissors to free Raquel Welch from bondage. Now she’s mine, and I will keep her in a special folder of beautiful female images.
Back in that apartment, however, on that early spring day, Ma Ma’s irritation grows deeper: “If your daddy doesn’t come soon, I don’t know what I’ll do!”
Finally Dad arrives.
“Where have you been?”
Ma Ma asks this with the greatest exasperation, as if it’s never occurred to her that my Dad has been where he always is during weekdays between 8-5: slaving for Ma Ma’s nephew in a windowless wholesale jewelry store in downtown Birmingham, a place that’s broken into frequently.
With an ashamed smile, Dad ushers me out into the night. I ask if we can listen to the radio on the way home, and I don’t know if it’s his shame at being scolded by his mother, his weariness with the workday, or that he’s missed me and wants to please. In any case, he says yes.
Don Martin is the DJ, and he announces a new song, something called “Rainy Night in Georgia,” by someone named Brook Benton. The dial from Dad’s ’67 Buick Special glows brightly as Benton sings of “…trying to find a warm place to spend the night.”
“He’s been around a long time, an old cocker,” Dad says.
The song almost soothes me, too, until I remember Ma Ma’s blaming face, her date: the unknown man who’s supposed to come by later, whom she rushed us out for.
And that radio lying on the table by her living room couch—the one I had hoped she would give me one day, knowing how much I loved it. She never did, though, because that’s the kind of woman she was. I’ll always wonder what she would have done if her date had arrived first, before my Dad. Maybe I could have taken her radio then, amidst the anger and confusion. Maybe she would have left me sitting in her living room listening to it, alone, while she traipsed out into the open spaces of downtown Birmingham. Maybe that would have been best.
For a few Sundays later when I asked for it, she told me that it didn’t work anymore, that she’d thrown it out. Just as, I thought, she did with her car. Just as, I felt, she did with me.
Terry Barr’s essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, will be available in a second printing this July, from Red Dirt Press. His essays have also appeared in journals such as Eclectica Magazine, Turk’s Head Review, The Bitter Southerner, Quail Bell Magazine, and South Writ Large. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family. Read more about Terry here: http://TerryBarr@wordpress.com