Radio Wave Ethics and Back-Woods Beatings
Copyright © by Jason Sanford, 12/25/03
You just have
to know the music is there. Walking beside you on those dim gravel roads.
Bouncing radio electrons through the passing pine trees and weeds. Beating past
your skin, skull, intestines, and bones.
The music's always there--even when you don't have a way to hear it.
A friend tells me this story while we are sitting at his lake house near Montgomery. For the past hour we've been watching the passing headlights of the Labor Day crowds--people driving home now so they won't oversleep and be late for work in the morning--and as they pass we drink beers and listen to a country music station over my friend's radio. My friend works as the program director for this station and he comments on every song that is played. ("You can't have a Labor Day without a little 'Take This Job and Shove It' by PayCheck," he says when that 1970s work anthem blares out.)
After my friend tells me this story he begs for secrecy. "Statute of limitations," he says awkwardly, as if knowing that my next question will be how long it takes before someone can't be tried for assault. He then admits that he isn't so much afraid of prison as he is of what people will think about him. "I have kids now," he says, "And a great job." As if either of these means he can never admit to having once been stupid, or cruel.
So call my friend "Bob."
Forget Bob's real name.
This is the story he tells.
* * *
midnight in Alabama. The car is parked on the edge of a cotton field that sits
on a large hill and overlooks the city of Montgomery. Through the trees the
distant street lights and cars wink and wave before turning their brightest
lights into mere sparkles at this distance, while around the edges of the field
the fence-line oaks give flickering moon shadows as the night clouds drift on
high-altitude winds. Cicadas and crickets buzz for all they can in the heat and
Bob has driven a friend's Honda and parked it in this field. He is fiddling with the radio's tuning dial when Scott walks up to the car window.
"What time is it?" Scott asks. His face is smeared in camouflage grease. Black and brown, with a dab of forest green.
"12:10," Bob says. He's still tuning the radio--the volume low, the tuner briefly picking up the signal of faint gospel music before lapsing to static.
"He'll hear that radio," Scott says.
"He ain't here. How's he gonna hear it?"
Scott nods, leans his baseball bat against the car door. Across the little field, sitting just in the tree line, is Flame. Bob can't see Flame, but he knows which dark shape of a tree he's under because every few minutes there's a flick of blue light there as Flame makes sure his stun gun still works. Electricity jumping from metal contact to metal contact.
"Let's call Cindy on her cell phone," Scott says nervously.
"No," Bob says, and Scott nods. He leans across Bob's face to see the time on the radio. His camouflage is dripping, running sweaty in the humidity. Several grease drops land on Bob's hands and pants.
Normally Scott's the nicest guy anyone could know. He even looks like a nice guy--with a too-skinny body, ribs and bones poking everywhere, and long hair going down to the middle of his back. Sort of like a smiley-faced hippie doll left over from some Woodstock-era souvenir stand.
A year ago, Scott had the shit beat out of him after Flame and Bob left him at a pool hall in Montgomery. They'd all had been shooting pool but, as time went by and more and more drunk rednecks came in, Flame and Bob wanted to leave.
"Let's go back to my place," Flame said. "Get stoned and work on my tattoo, huh?" Back in high school, Flame had been known as Jack. But after graduating he shucked that name, got a tattoo of fire surrounding the word Flame and took the word as his nickname. The tattoo was homemade--prick after a hundred pricks with a surgical needle dipped in ink. Every few months Flame would want to add another detail to his tattoo, so Bob and Scott would head over to his place and stab Flame's arm with needle and ink for a few hours.
"Man, I'm sick of that bloody shit," Scott had said to Flame. Besides, he was waiting for his new girlfriend, Cindy, to stop by the pool hall after she got off work.
Since Flame and Bob weren't big on Cindy, they left. On the way to Flame's trailer, they grabbed some pot and got good and stoned. Flame then showed Bob what to draw on his arm--a grinning skull, dancing under the flames already tattooed in.
Bob was halfway into stabbing an eye socket on Flame's arm when the phone rang. It was Scott's girlfriend, Cindy. She said Scott was in the hospital. Said he'd been beaten up outside that pool hall.
On the way to the hospital, Bob tuned the radio to one of Dolly Parton's early hits--"Jolene"--and actually cried at the beauty of everything she was singing about.
* * *
As Bob tells
his story, I ask about that song he heard on the radio while he was driving to
the hospital. Bob says that most of his memories are tied in to whatever is
playing on the radio. "Kind of like how smells bring back memories for some
people," he says.
This isn't a surprise--as long as I've known him, Bob has been obsessed on music. When we drive together in my car, Bob continually plays with the radio. He can ramble on for hours when he finds some station at the lower end of the dial playing obscure songs from the 1950s or '60s. "Obviously not a corporate-owned station," he'll say, "or they wouldn't dare play something that hasn't been surveyed to death."
Bob says he's always wondered about the power of radio. "I mean," he says, "you listen to a CD, you know what music's coming up. Pop in some damn Britney Spears on a drive to the grocery store and Britney's gonna be bopping along until you tell her to stop. But radio--you never know what might come up there. Ain't you had the experience of being at a stoplight, flipping a station, and the exact perfect song you needed for that exact perfect moment comes on? Some song you just couldn't have picked for yourself even if you'd known what you wanted."
"What exactly is radio?" I ask. I figure Mr. Radio Man should know these things. "Radio is sine waves," he says. "Endlessly curving electromagnetic waves going up and down, jumping through all of us. In one spot you hear them. In another you don't."
I ask him if radio waves are also like ethics.
He doesn't answer.
* * *
Flame and Bob
found out later that Scott was walking out of the pool hall to see if Cindy had
arrived when someone hit him from behind with a baseball bat. The police said
there were bloodsmears and dragmarks for twenty feet along the asphalt and
cement parking dividers. The only reason the police could figure for Scott
getting beat up was because he looked like a hippie.
The next day the police arrested three rednecks who called themselves the Bama Boys. "Well no shit, they're Bama Boys," Flame said, cursing their gang for such a stupid ass name. Bob figured they were just some random rednecks, getting drunk and starting a fight. But when he went to the arraignment a few weeks later, he found out that the leader of the group was a guy he knew named Lester Allen.
Lester Allen had passed through high school with Flame and Bob until he got kicked out and sent to vocational school. Lester was older than Bob--he'd been held back a year or two--and, in Bob's words, "He was way big and tough." Flame never had much trouble with Lester in high school because Flame played football and was a starting tackle. He was short, squat, with massive arms that kept Lester away from him. For Bob, though, the more he exercised the more the skinny stuck to his bones. He and Lester fought all through high school.
The last time they fought was in tenth grade. Somehow Lester found the combination to Bob's school locker. Bob would come out of class to find his books and stuff scattered up and down the hallway.
The last time it happened, Bob was picking up his victimized books when Lester came marching down the hall. They were both late for class and alone in the hall, so Lester walked right up to Bob and planted one foot on top of Bob's books like Napoleon surveying a damn glorious victory.
Bob jumped and punched. Before he knew how it happened, Lester had pinned his neck and smeared his nose across the dirty tile floor. "Don't ever fight me, you fuck" Lester said.
By eleventh grade Lester was gone. The next time Bob saw him was at his trial for assaulting Scott. Lester was now 22 and still big--six foot four and all muscle. Coming into the court one day, Lester passed Bob in the hall and mouthed a silent "Fuck you."
"You know that guy?" Scott asked Bob and Flame later. Scott had only moved to Montgomery a few years ago and didn't have Bob and Flame's histories with half the town.
In the end, Lester's lawyer worked a plea deal--a month in jail, two years probation. The judge agreed because Lester had been drunk. "Just boys getting out of hand," the judge said. Scott protested to the prosecutor--said that it had taken two months before his bruises healed, longer for the cast on his right arm to come off, and that his nose now seemed to move at right angles to distant horizons--but the prosecutor simply said this was the best they were going to get.
It was then that Scott said he was going to get even with Lester. "No way we're taking on all three of those Bama Boys," he would say. "Just gimme Lester. He'll do."
Flame and Bob worried about Scott. Since Bob was the only one who'd ever really fought Lester--Scott refused to call getting hit from behind a fight--Scott kept after Bob for all the details of Lester's fighting style.
"That was back in high school," Bob said. "He didn't have a style. He was bigger than me and kicked the shit out of me." Flame and Bob tried to convince Scott to forget about Lester, but he was obsessed.
Still, Flame and Bob felt guilty over having left him alone in that bar. In the end they said they'd do whatever they could to help him.
* * *
Bob, when you promise to help a guy beat someone up, you can't just hang out
together. Every other conversation is, "Can we really do it?" or
"How are you gonna feel after you bust his face?" It gets old--or so
Flame figured Scott was bullshitting, that they'd never really do anything. As the months went by Bob guessed he was right. Still, Bob couldn't figure out how he felt on all this. He hated Lester beyond belief and sometimes caught himself in flashbacks to high school hell as Lester kicked his ass time and again. Bob understood why Scott wanted to kill Lester. But he also didn't understand it. Part of him just wanted to move on.
But one night when Bob and Flame were slightly drunk, Scott drove up in his car with his girlfriend Cindy and said they were going to go get Lester.
"We ain't going to get no Lester with her here," Flame said. But Cindy said she was staying and Flame and Bob were too tired to argue. Everyone piled into Flame's Honda and they drove to where Scott said Lester lived. They parked across the street for two hours, hunched down so passing drivers wouldn't see them.
"What are we gonna do?" Bob asked. "Jump Lester when he comes home?"
"Yeah," Scott said.
As Flame and Bob sobered up, they begin to see how stupid this was. Even if Lester showed up, he had twenty neighbors to see them beating him up. Plus Lester was big and all they had was Scott's baseball bat.
"This is shit," Flame said, starting the Honda and driving away. "You want us to help, we gotta do this smart."
So they made a plan. It turns out that every Friday night, Lester went to Deacon Blues in Montgomery. Cindy agreed to go hit him up at the bar and convince Lester to go out with her.
"Think you can get him to drive to that overlook?" Flame asked.
"Yeah," Cindy said. "I'll make him think there's a chance of sex or something if we go up there."
Scott was nervous about Cindy being near Lester, but she said she'd take her cell phone and call 911 if he tried anything before they got to the overlook. Once there, Flame would run up to the car, hit Lester with a stun gun and drag him from the car. Scott would then go at Lester with the baseball bat.
"What about Bob?" Cindy asked.
"We'll let Bob really give the scare to Lester," Flame said. He walked back into his bedroom and came back with a large double-barreled shotgun. Bob said he didn't like the idea of a gun, but Flame said Bob had to have one.
"A gun's the only way a skinny shit like you can ever look scary."
* * *
So now they
wait for Lester.
Bob is still flipping radio stations when Flame flashes his penlight at him from across the field. Moments later Lester pulls his truck into the field and parks next to the dropoff. His headlights die and smooth music comes out the open windows. That's good, Bob finds himself thinking. Flame had been worried they'd have to bust out the window with a bat to get at Lester.
Bob gets out of the car, hating and loving what's going to happen. The ethics of hurting another person. The ethics of supporting a friend.
Flame runs out first. Bob can't see him too well in the dark but he follows with the shotgun and reaches the truck just as Flame shocks with Lester the stun gun. Cindy bolts out the other side of the pickup truck as Lester grabs the steering wheel and won't let go. Bob waits as Scott and Flame tug Lester like a mother trying to pull her kid away from the one toy he most wants in the world.
Flame has to stun Lester twice more before he lets go of the steering wheel. Lester then falls into a fetal pose on the ground as Flame kicks and zaps him again and again. Scott wails on him with the bat. The whole time Lester screams "Don't hurt me, don't . . ." over and over.
"That's fucking enough," Bob suddenly yells. Scott hits Lester again with the bat, then he and Flame step away. Lester lays there on the ground, crying and shaking as Bob walks up to him and brings the shotgun to Lester's eyes. Bob doesn't want to do this, but he knows that Scott and Flame are expecting him to do his part. Lester mutters "fuck" and tries to raise a broken arm to the gun barrel.
Bob pulls the trigger on the empty chamber. Click. Other barrel. Click.
Lester keeps crying and saying, "Don't hurt me, don't hurt me," as if unaware that he could have been killed just now.
They get in the car and leave him there.
* * *
how radio waves travel through everything. He says they exist between you and
me, within you and me, and all around you and me.
However, he adds, if you don't have a receiver, you'll never know they are there.
The radio waves, he means. Not ethics.
* * *
back to Montgomery, Bob turns on the radio. He can't remember what station they
listen to, or even what music plays.
Before the beating he'd been most scared of getting caught, of being arrested for doing something just because he'd told himself that the ethical thing was to stand by his friend. To make up for not being there before when he'd been attacked.
But now, driving that back road home, he feels disgusted at thoughts of Lester laying there on the ground and begging them not to hurt him any more. Flame and Cindy are also quiet, while Scott keeps describing parts of the beating in an excited voice--"Did you see him cry? Did you see him grab that steering wheel?"--until Flame tells him to shut the fuck up.
They pass an old abandoned gas station. The only thing still working in the place is a payphone by a light pole.
"We need to call 911," Scott suddenly says. "Get someone to go up there and make sure Lester's okay."
Flame can't believe that Scott just said that and asks Scott what the hell is with him anyway. However, Scott insists. He says that it's the right thing to do. Cindy volunteers the use of her cellphone, but Flame says the police might be able to track it, so Bob turns around and drives back to the payphone they just passed.
Cindy calls. She makes her voice sound deep and masculine and says there was someone beat up and hurt out at that overlook.
Then they are driving again. The radio keeps playing music that Bob no longer remembers.
* * *
story as he tells it, these ten years after the beating.
"Well, it's over and done with," I say. "Not much you can do about it now."
"Of course." Bob adds that he doesn't regret anything he did. Or that regretting what's done is a silly practice.
I ask him why he doesn't remember what music was playing while they were driving away from the beating. "Didn't you just tell me you remember stuff by what music you're hearing?" I ask.
Bob is silent. The Labor Day crowds are almost gone and with them the passing headlights that illuminate us as we sit by the lake. The radio is still tuned to the station Bob works for, and suddenly a new song comes on, a song I've never heard before.
"Hell, yes," Bob says, turning up the volume. "I just chose this song for the playlist the other day. It's a hell of a song to hear--really going to go somewhere, it is."
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