RADIO GHOSTS

By R.C. Hampton

"And Then There Was None:1" Drawing by R.C.Hampton

Oh, treachery. It happened again, just now. My jazz lite radio station shot me in the heart with a Top 40s Pop hit from the seventies. I'd rate it a pretty good shot, too. A near-kill. Damn their eyes. At least this time I'm alone.

It seems like this sort of thing usually happens when I am in the company of Kind Near-Strangers, or maybe I'm just more aware of how awkward it all is. They mistake that odd look on my face for amour, and think we are sharing a special moment. Sweet, callow things; we aren't sharing anything. They are hearing a piece of music, a lyric, perhaps even forging a moment of their own, but if they are, it will be a bittersweet one at best, because they are in it alone. I'm decades away, lost in the texture of memory. When I come back to the present, the damage has been done. My Kind Stranger no longer has any shine, the evening is pretty much through, for me anyway, and almost certainly I won't see this one again. Poor child, whose only fault is not having lived long enough, or hard enough.

Oh, they are mostly all lovely. After all, I still have my taste and my standards, but after a visitation by a radio ghost how could any of them stand up to you? You who stand alone in my memory, and past. The blazing, brilliant face apart from, and part of, that crowd of humanity that has touched me, and whom I've touched through the years. They can hold no candle, these sweet, young Kind Strangers, and from my perspective, "young" has rather a different quality of definition than it once did.

When one of the ghosts gets me I don't know whether to "shit, run, or go blind", as my old Granny would have said. I want to rage, to break my stereo, to weep. The memories of those tumescent seasons long gone are so close to the surface now, but no matter how I feel, a casual observer wouldn't see it in me. I hold myself in, even here, even alone, though I want to rage and break and weep. I can do that now. Age has its perks. I've mellowed a bit, as they say. Gained control. Even, to a degree, over you, or the memory of you.

Startled by the radio ghost into thinking of you, I struggle with a torrent of feeling, and as ill luck would have it, the weather and season make it all the more tender and hurtsome. Rainy early summer nights and warm late autumn afternoons are when I feel most keenly those ghost bites, though I don't know why, except that it was on a warm late fall afternoon that we first made love, on the ground. Made love like panthers, so intense it was like making hate instead, with all the rage we had in us, and, finally spent, the tenderness was like nothing else I had ever known in my young life, and am not sure will ever be matched again. Yes, I understand the reason that fall afternoons leave me more susceptible, but not rainy early summer nights. It seldom rained on us, so it must have to do with the weeping in my heart.

It is raining tonight, in very early summer, and raining now in my heart. On the wet spattered windows I see my soft, back-lit reflection, and if I unfocus my eyes a bit, it could almost be you. I ache to hold that reflection, but if I were to see you for real, flesh and blood real, I'm sure I would run the other way, run like a panther, the way we first loved, with all the rage inside of me.

How is it that you still have this hold on me, after decades? What kind of juju magic passed between us, that this is still so strong? If you still walk this side of the river Styx do you feel it too, on early summer nights, and fall afternoons?

I look through my reflection to the wet streets below, the neon and car lights a smear of vibrant colors. Were I to go down to the streets, just a few blocks away I could find all of the same action we knew so well, years ago. Different streets, half a continent away, half a lifetime away, but city streets are city streets and the night is the night, and they are all the same, really, this city very much like any other. The vibe, the hustling, the scams, and the sense and flavor of it all, it's the same. And once exposed to that dance you never really lose the edge of it that the streets impart, although it may dull with time.

"And Then There Was None:2" Drawing by R.C.Hampton

Sometimes when the mood is on me, or I've heard a Radio Ghost I go and walk those streets, to feel the hum of action, licit and illicit, and sometimes I recapture for a moment the energy of what it was like to be in the street life, in over our heads in everything. But that's only sometimes. I no longer have much of an edge. I've grown older.

These days I live very high above the streets like we once ran. All those years ago, as we would lie together and dream futures, I'm sure I never imagined that my life would become what it has. I remember some of those dreams. We would somehow become very wealthy; we would be the very essence of cool; we would have all the best; do great and wild things. And we would do them together. Always, we were together in our dreams. Together . . . and I haven't seen or heard from you in twenty years. Nobody has. Your parents have grown old, your brothers and sisters grown up, have made lives for themselves. Do you know that? I've kept up, in your stead. Twenty years. A generation. Strange to think that if there had been fruit of our union, it would be grown to adulthood now, with fruits of its own, but of course the only fruit of our union was the scars that I carry, inside and out.

From my windows high above the animal streets I think about those long ago dreams of wealth. I had no real concept, then, of what luxury could be. I do now. I live in the very lap of it, but I've become accustomed to it. And getting here was not half the fun, to misquote that old aphorism. I wonder, did any of your dreams ever come true? Any of them? All of them? Did you leave to make those dreams come true, driven by some deeper ambition that I just never possessed? Sometimes I think that I want to believe that, that somewhere now you are looking out a window and, if not remembering, then reflecting. I want to believe that somewhere now you are grown into middle age. I want to believe, even, that you've lost your looks, your wits, your way. I want to believe, mostly, that somewhere now you are . . . just are. I want to believe, but I don't.

I think that the way you were living when I saw you last couldn't have lasted very long. You were way too close to the edge. Besides, between the wars—both sanctioned and non-sanctioned—bad dope, prison, and the pandemic there are so few our age left. That's why I'm seen occasionally with one of my young Kind Strangers. They are not so terribly young, either. They are all older than the scars I carry from you, but some not by much. But they do seem terribly young, perhaps because they never saw the madness I sometimes saw in your eyes, or the wildness and desperation of my own eyes reflected back from yours, as I tried to search your soul through those windows.

In a while, a while, I'll gain control over myself and drive your memory back into that place in my mind, and my heart, where they live and are kept safe, and at a safe distance from the rest of me and who I have become, but right now I ache. Ache in a way that hasn't changed much in a generation, that is, in fact, the most constant thing I have known in my life. The only thing I have owned longer than that ache is an old cotton shirt of yours, much worn and unwashed. I keep it carefully wrapped. It still has your scent to it. When I hold that shirt, and smell you across the years, you become a palpable presence in the room with me. I wish I could sleep with that shirt tonight, but I keep it in its bag in a safety deposit box. To keep it very safe, but at a distance, like I try to keep your memory. The bank people look askance at me when I open that box and sniff that shirt and weep, but I can't have it close. Your memory would have a life of its own, then, and consume me, I'm afraid. It has taken me a very long time to become who I am now, to build the life I have and am sometimes satisfied with, to gain the strength to control my emotions, which I lacked as a youth, and I will not be consumed, not even by you.

No.

Getting that bank box was the first thing I did that was anything like being responsible for property. Removing that tangible piece of you to a safe distance was my first step in the long climb up from the streets, my first step toward not being young, although at the time I was, still. Getting the box gave me breathing space, separated me from that passion for loving, and life, and the dance of the boulevards that only the young, or the naive can feel. I believe that you can feel true passion for many things, and people, and certainly can feel it more than once in a lifetime, but only the first time, whenever that happens, can you feel it burn with all its exquisite, inutterable power. Ever afterward, you are changed, and passion, like a wreck on the highway, might be terrifying, or compelling, or both, but having seen it once, you will be affected even though you have some idea what to expect. Passion might burn again and again in your breast, but it will sear you only once.

My capacity for passion is gone, scorched out. A lifetime's worth crammed into one long season of a few years in my youth. Any opportunity for my heart to flourish was surgically excised when you severed our ties that bound. When you left me alone and wounded. I think maybe that is why I can take no satisfaction in my life. Without passion you cannot truly dream, and without dreams to measure success by, you don't know when you have succeeded. What I don't now for certain, and never shall, is whether my accomplishments are barren for me because I am alone, or because you are not with me.

I choose not to examine that too closely. I would rather keep that puzzle in the pocket of your cotton shirt, locked in a box in the bank. At a safe distance.

"And Then There Was None:3" Drawing by R.C.Hampton

The reflection in my big windows that could be either of us is looking more and more like me. The worst of the moment is past. Perhaps I will spend a little time grooming my graying hair and then get busy. Busy at playing those games that others play with such passion, those games of financial chance that I am very good at, but play with no passion at all. I suppose it could be viewed as an asset, this dispassionate attitude. I honestly do not care if I win or lose, succeed or fail, unlike the others around me who care a very great deal. I do the things I am good at, and forge my life into a chain of time that lies heavy on my heart. Sometimes I leech some enjoyment from life, but mostly I feel very little.

Finally, I wonder, if you live do you still carry the fire? I am certain that you would always have passion, if not for me, then for another; if not for this, then that. We are so unlike, at last. The only thing I ever cared for, besides a dirty old shirt, slipped out of my life decades ago.

Text and illustrations © 2001 R.C.Hampton

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R.C. Hampton,
former hustler, former dancer, former
dirt-bag street-creep, former entrepreneur X3, former soldier, former bi-ped, lives in Nebraska, where he is settling into an early and tenuous geezerhood. He's written for BENT before.

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2001