The medium was on its way out. All the producers knew it, the technicians had foreseen it, the only ones who seemed to ignore the coming death were the disc jockeys and their faithful. It seemed like there was just no room for curation anymore. People wanted to forge their own paths and there were more than enough who couldn’t blame them.
There were a few voices left with the power to captivate. They were the horns calling out to the future, reminding it that there was indeed a past. Ronald Brown still had the numbers to justify a nationally broadcasted show. His listeners knew him as Ronnie Ricochet. He couldn’t remember when he started to hate the pseudonym, by his estimate it was around the time his career transformed from creating music to pushing the notes of others.
It was shaping up to be a passable show. Nothing exploded in the control room and the dead air was kept to a minimum. This wouldn’t have been anything of note had the standards for the night hadn’t been lowered to accommodate the unveiling of the “E-mail request system”.
Ronnie admittedly had been the one holding back the system for so long. He had watched some of the younger staff members use the internet and he wasn’t keen on having that vitriol spill in his studio. Eventually his levee was bypassed completely by the higher-ups and he was forced to prepare for the waters. He was surprised by how plain the first few requests were.
“This is James from Toledo, I’d really like to hear Grandfunk Railroad.”
“Patrick here, It’d be awesome if you could play Van Halen.”
Most of the requests were like that. Ronnie had figured that without the fear of hearing their own voice over the radio, the people would seize on the opportunity to be creative. After a dozen or so of those, he began to pray for the vulgarity, the slurs, the insults he had originally expected.
The final hour of the show had just begun when Ronnie decided to take another look at the screen in front of him.
“I don’t know how long it takes for these to get through, I hope I’m back on the road by then. I’m sitting in a truck stop outside of Cheyenne right now. There’s a waitress here. pouring coffee for the lonely, she hasn’t missed a single one, except herself. She wants out of here, I just know it. Here eyes keep drifting out towards the nearest exit. She wants that road more than anything. I’m afraid she’ll never hear this song, so I must be her ears. For her, please play Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen.”
Ronnie’s slouching eyelids found a new posture. His eyes ran through the request over and over again before he gave them a voice over the air. As the song played on and he prepared the next segment, he realized he knew that waitress. Except she wasn’t in Cheyenne. She tended to the late night travellers at a bar in Albany. She also never cared for Springsteen, Bob Seger was her chauffeur of choice.
A couple nights went by with no requests worthy of being remembered. Ronnie was beginning to fear that he had been struck by lightning that believed too much in old sayings, when another came in.
“First i want to thank you for fulfilling my request. I’m sure that waitress would thank you too if she ever heard it. I’m at a bit of a crossroads right now. I’ve made it to Carson City, and I have no idea where to go next. If I hadn’t forgotten why I started this trip I could probably figure it out. But I’ve seen so many yellow lines and green signs that I can’t remember now. Or I don’t want to. I’d like to think that I was desperate for freedom. That I wanted to capture whatever Kerouac did back then, just a taste. But, I don’t think that’s why I left home. Help me figure it out, please play A Day In The Life by The Beatles. Maybe I too can find a way to piece together everything into something coherent.”
The people at the radio station who didn’t put their voice to the microphone joked about this person’s sanity. On the thinnest shell that most saw, there was a bit of insanity to be seen. Yet Ronnie knew that this person had a perfectly fine grasp on reality. He had been at that intersection himself. His last release didn’t even come close to charting. The critics said he was rehashing everything he had already done. They made claims that he was going to ride out the rest of his life singing the same songs in venues less and less grand with every passing year. That outcome didn’t seem so bad, but the pride to make them all wrong was strong. He never performed again after taking his first radio gig.
The sun was beginning to rise when Ronnie reached his front door. The email request was still spinning around like a 45 set on 33 speed, as he pushed open the door. The royalties from his old career combined with his regular pay for the radio allowed him to live a little better than modest. The furniture was limited and cheap but, the memorabilia from a life in the music industry was vast.
Concert promotions covered his walls like Americana wallpaper. There was no real order to the way they were laid out. But having the advertisement for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s final show next to one for Woodstock ‘99 suggested he had a morbid streak. The genres and performers depicted spanned the entirety of music. The only one’s missing were his own. In fact, there were no pictures of himself at all in the house, except for one.
He shuffled his way to his bedroom. Next to his bed on the nightstand was a single picture. A polaroid he had framed. It looked silly sitting in there with enough space to add at least two more pictures. The photo depicted himself and his band after a particularly successful show. They were lined up along the counter of a diner. The ecstasy of making teenagers dance and fall in love mixed in their eyes with sleepiness and the wear of a long tour.
For the first time in a number of months Ronnie had lost track of, he grabbed the frame and looked at it’s contents. A small grin crept from the corner of his mouth as he took in his own youthfulness. He stifled a little laugh as he remembered what it was like to wear the clothes they were wearing without any sense of irony. Then his eyes moved to the upper right hand corner of the picture, like they always did.
She had no idea the photo was being taken. She was too wrapped up in pouring a cup of coffee for another unknown addition to the picture. Her hair was pulled back tightly and even though the picture didn’t capture it, Ronnie remembered the lightness of her makeup. Just enough to cover the bags under her eyes, at least to a casual observer.
Ronnie slumped into his chair as he played Baba O’Riley again. He had memorized every note and break in the song decades before. Sometimes he’d still tell the story of how he jammed with Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle in Milwaukee once. But, he knew that the interns were just as tired of the story as he was of the song.
“Hey Ronnie, there’s another one of those requests from that maniac.” A voice said from behind the glass.
“I met a girl the other day. She wasn’t a waitress, she was a kindergarten teacher. She told me that she loved her job and the kids she taught. That didn’t explain why she was in Durango though. She asked me what had brought me here. I had remembered a few hundred miles ago, but I lied anyways. I told her that I was on vacation. The truth is I’ve never been more restless. I think she knew I wasn’t telling the truth, it might be why she spent the night with me, hoping to get something more out of me. Sorry, I’m rambling again. Can you play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” By The Rolling Stones?”
Ronnie loaded up the song and prepared to tune out another song he was tired of.
“I finally admitted to why I’m on this trip, I knew I would, I just didn’t think it’d be in Arizona. She said she needed someone who had been farther than the outskirts of town. Someone who could tell stories of places she had never been to. She needed to have her imagination stoked. I never bothered to ask why she didn’t just go herself,or why she would need me to tell her about the world. I just left. There were times when I thought that I had seen enough, that I had more than enough to stoke her fire forever but I just kept going, to be safe. Eventually I guess I just forgot to go back at all. Now, I’m afraid it may be too late. Now I have stories I can’t tell her. I want to go home. I just don’t know if I have enough for her yet. Can you please play “As Long As I Can See The Light” by Creedence Clearwater Revival?”
The people behind the studio glass shared looks as they listened to Ronnie read the request. Across the country his listeners raised eyebrows and shot glances towards their travelling companions. The casual listeners became active as the mystery man’s words were relayed.
Ronnie’s voice had begun to dip halfway through the request. It even bordered on mumbling through parts of it. He was no longer speaking to his audience but something beyond them. As if the low frequency he was offering could slip past the static of decades, past the progression of technology, past the fleeting moments, and beyond the walls of obligation and duty.
For the remainder of the show, the producers discussed contingency if Ronnie slipped again. A longing DJ, didn’t make for good radio. Their plans never saw the light of day though, he bounced back as if nothing had happened. The rest of the show was carried by his normal inflections and vocal tics.
The next day though, Ronnie never showed up for work. They still put a show together, piecing together clips from past shows. The day after that was the same and suddenly worry began to spread through the radio studio. Calls were made but were left unanswered. A quick replacement was found to finish up the week. He did surprisingly well.
Ronnie didn’t hear any of it though. He kept his radio off the whole trip to Albany.