The Static of the Spheres
AT HOME, in my parents’ house in Babbington Heights, in the corner of the attic that was my bedroom, I had, on a table beside my bed, a small Philco radio. It was made of cream-colored plastic. The radio had seen years of use on somebody else’s bedside table before I got it for my room. Over the years, the heat from the bulb that lighted its dial had discolored and cracked the plastic in a spot along the rounded edge of the top, right above the dial. On winter nights, when the attic was cold, I would bring the radio close to me, onto the bed, under the covers, and rest one hand on the warm, discolored spot while I listened.
Of all the programs that I listened to on that radio, I can remember only one clearly: one about a boy about my age who lost everyone who was dear to him — his mother and father and grandparents and a clever younger sister with a voice like a flute — in a shipwreck, and was left alone, entirely alone, on an island somewhere warm and wet and windy, and called out for them in the night, calling against the persistent, overpowering sound of the wind and the sea, and listened in despair for the sound of their voices through the crashing surf and howling wind. I huddled in my bed, with the blankets pulled over my head, and trembled when the sound of his voice and the wind filled the little cave that I had made. This program so terrified me that I wanted to cry out for my own parents, to run downstairs for some comfort from them, at least to reassure myself that they were still there, but I couldn’t run to them because I was listening to the radio at a time of night when my mother didn’t allow me to listen, since the programs that were broadcast at those late hours were, she had told me often enough, the sort of thing that scared the wits out of young boys.
Though I remember only that one program, I can remember as clearly as a memorized poem or a popular song the susurrous and crackling static that accompanied everything I heard on the little radio. Over the course of time, this insistent sound has pushed its way from the background of my radio memories to the foreground, and the private detectives, shipwrecked travelers, cowboys, bandleaders, and comedians who once were able to shout over it now call out only faintly and indecipherably, like voices calling against the roaring of the sea and the wind.
Then Guppa bought a Motorola console radio as a Christmas gift for Gumma, and at once the Philco became a pedestrian radio. The Motorola had several bands, and it could pull in programs from places so far removed from Babbington that their names alone, printed at intervals along the dial, were enough to bring to mind notions of places so remote and exotic that I had to work to convince myself that they were real places, places where people worked, slept, ate meals, listened to radios, places that I could, someday, actually visit: Balbec, London, Macondo, Moscow, Paris, Tokyo. It was as if the Motorola were more worldly, more sophisticated, more knowledgeable than the Philco, as if the Philco were naive, untraveled, because it knew only Babbington and the surrounding towns and cities that everyone knew. Not only could the Philco not detect the signals from far-flung places, but it seemed to me that the little radio was ignorant of the notion that these places even existed.