Allison stared out of the window of her father’s pickup truck at the unending expanse of boring old nothing that was the main street of her hometown.
She read once that in the restaurants of the future, all of the food would come out to the customer on a conveyor belt. “Isn’t that something,” she thought to herself. “If you don’t like a thing, just wait a minute, and something else will appear.”
She watched as they drove past the hardware store, the diner, the Woolworth’s, the thrift store, drug store, and the tavern her father referred to as “home away from home.” Some days she wished he’d just live there.
As they puttered along, she closed her eyes, and imagined that it wasn’t she who was moving, but the main street of her town.
She imagined that all of these buildings, buildings that she could draw from memory with her eyes closed, she had seen them so many times, were on a conveyor belt. She imagined turning up her nose at each one of them as each one faded into the distance, and then smiled as she imagined as a bunch of new buildings taking their place. A toy store. A clothing shop. A soda fountain. A book shop. A pet store.
She imagined a big red button, and when she pressed it, the whole county would hear a teeth-chattering but equally satisfying SCREEEKTCH, like when her father’s pickup fell out of gear. The conveyor belt would lurch to a stop. Allison would walk up to each new business, nod solemnly, and let the proprietor know that they were welcome in her town. In return, they would be so happy and grateful that Allison chose them, that they would give her the finest thing in their respective businesses as a gift of good faith.
And there she would stand, in a pink party dress that was also overalls, holding a stuffed dog and a real dog that looked exactly like the stuffed dog, eating an ice cream cone, a crisp paper bag of heavy new books slung over her shoulder. It was all hers. All she had to do was press the button, and—
“GOD DAMN IT, GOD DAMN IT ALL.”
Allison’s father rested his head on the steering wheel of his suddenly rock-dormant pickup truck.
Allison sat in her seat, as still as the truck. She once read that when faced with a wild animal, make no sudden movements. Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, her father was hardly a bear, or a tiger, or that thing that lived on the upside-down side of the world that had “devil” right there in the name (isn’t that something?).
Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, her father was like one of those pill-bugs that rolled up into a tight ball when it was provoked, a ball so tight that you couldn’t tell its front from its back, a ball so tight you couldn’t tell anything about what it was thinking or feeling.
But Allison knew that if this was one of those one out of a hundred times, then the world would have hell to pay, starting with her. Allison also knew that she was very lucky, in comparison to some of the other kids in her town, to have a father who didn’t hit, and a father that didn’t mess. But that was little comfort when he opened his mouth in anger, and all of the wild beasts in God’s creation and the Devil’s imagination leapt out.
This wicked menagerie sent her mother packing years ago. She imagined her mother staring at a different conveyor belt, shaking her head “no” as Allison and her father quietly rolled away, and nodding her head “yes” at a new, shinier, quieter family.
Allison thought about all of this as she sat in her seat, as still as the truck.
And then her father sighed, a defeated, lonely sigh, and she knew this was one of the ninety-nine times.
“Go walk around town, girl,” he muttered, digging through his pockets, and coming up with a handful of loose change. “Meet me in front of the home away from home in an hour. If I’m not out there, stay put and wait.”
He kept a dime for himself to call the garage, and gave the rest to Allison. She was thankful for this small gesture of kindness, even though there was nothing in this entire town she wanted to buy.
She hopped out of the truck and watched her father walk towards the tavern. She bent over to fix a buckle on her shoe, and idly thought again about the conveyor belt that would bring her a whole new town.
When she stood up, she found herself staring at a building she had never seen before. Rather, she had seen the building plenty of times, it was a barber shop, or some such other kind of men-arguing place. But now it had a brand new sign out front.
She walked up to the store, cautiously, as if at any second, it might roll away.
She took a deep breath, and walked in.
“Now I am in the future,” she thought to herself, “Isn’t that something?”
All around her were machines she could identify as radios, and then machines that looked like other machines entirely, but were dressed as radios to fit in. Radios the size of the basement freezer, radios that you could hold in your hand, radios that had so many knobs and dials and things sticking out of them, you could probably use them to talk to God himself.
“See anything you like?”
Allison spun around, unsure if the voice she had heard emanated from a person, a radio, or her imagination.
“I’m going to assume most of these are out of your price range, but maybe we can work out a deal, so long as my husband doesn’t find out. He thinks we’re going to get rich selling these, although lord knows to who. Ha-ha!”
Allison had never seen a woman so beautiful in her entire life, and her mother used to be a beauty queen. If somebody were to tell her to close her eyes and describe the woman, all she would be able to say was, “Light. Light and eyes. Light and eyes and smile.”
“He’s in Boston right now, might as be on the other side of the world,” the woman continued, “Left me in charge of the place, can you believe that? Open two weeks, leaves me in charge. The modern world, I tell you. Luckily I know more about these things than he does. Go on, ask me. Ask me anything.”
Allison trembled with excitement and terror that an adult, an adult woman, a smiling adult woman, was talking to her like she was another adult woman. Like they were adult woman friends, laughing together in a city cafe over dinners that didn’t even have meat in them.
Allison pointed to the biggest one, the one with the knobs and the dials and the things sticking out of it.
“Why of course that’s the one you want to know about. You can use that to talk to people anywhere, and people anywhere can talk to you right back. It’s called a ‘Ham Radio’. Know why they call it that?”
Allison shook her head “no”.
“Because when they first came out, people thought they were for folks what weren’t good enough to get on real radio. Hams, you see? People who just liked to hear their own voice, and the voices of others who liked to hear their own voice.”
Allison took this in, and squeaked out, “So… it’s a bad name?”
“Ha-ha! It was! But then us folks what liked the sound of our own voices took it as a point of pride. Damn right, I like the sound of my own voice! Hams are another word for pigs, besides, and I defy you to find a creature on this whole big rock prouder and more sure of itself than the pig.”
Allison thought of all of the pigs she had known, and had to admit, they did seem pretty confident.
“Can you make it work?”
“I was hoping you’d ask, new friend.”
For the next forty-five minutes, Allison sat enthralled as the woman flipped switches, turned knobs, adjusted things, clicked dials, and then went back and did it all over again. For her troubles, amazing sounds came out of the radio. Sometimes it was just static. Sometimes it sounded like a million people talking in a million languages all at once. And sometimes, it sounded like the world itself breathing, humming as it exhaled, like her father on the couch.
Finally, after another fifteen minutes or so, a faraway voice crackled from the speaker. The voice talked in a jumble of letters and numbers, and the woman talked back to it. Allison didn’t understand any of it, but it didn’t matter. All she wanted to do forever was sit right there, and listen.
“GOD DAMN IT, ALLISON!”
Allison looked out of the radio shop’s window, to the tavern across the street. There her father stood, next to the pickup, which had been given its seven hundred and forty-eighth lease on life.
“I have to go,” Allison said to the woman.
“I suspect you do,” she replied, staring out the window, through Allison’s father. She opened a nearby drawer, and pulled out what looked like a jewelry case, but slightly bigger, maybe the size of two biscuits.
“Don’t let my husband know I gave you this. It’s small. But it picks up a mighty strong signal.”
Allison clutched it to her heart.
“ALLISON! WHAT THE HELL DID I TELL YOU? ONE. HOUR.”
Without even saying good-bye, Allison skittered out of the shop, into her father’s truck, and narrowly avoided provoking the one in one-hundredth time.
Later that night, while her father hummed on the couch, dead to the world, Allison snuck out onto the porch.
She hated her part of the world, but she loved the night sky with which it provided her. She had read about places in cities where you went inside to see a pretend version of the night sky, and it was one of the few times where she felt bad for city folks. Imagine. Imagine having to go inside to see stars. Isn’t that something.
For the first time since it was in her possession, she opened the box the woman had given her, and pulled out a tiny transistor radio, no bigger than her fist.
Allison hoped against hope that when she turned it on, she would hear the voices, the chatter, the world breathing, the letters and numbers.
Instead, she heard music. Just plain, boring music. She fiddled with the knob, and heard more plain, boring music, and plain boring men talking about plain boring men things. It was amazing that all of this could be in the palm of her hand, and yet she wanted to hear more. She wanted to hear something she had never heard before, like she did at the store.
Quietly, so as to not wake her father, she scooted to the kitchen, and grabbed anything metal she could find. Some spoons, a whisk, a roll of aluminum foil, and a big metal stockpot.
All of this in tow, she walked for what seemed like hours away from her house, until she could barely see it. She ended up in the middle of an expanse of dirt road, away from any lights. Now it was just her and the stars.
She turned the pot upside down, and stood on it. Using the foil, she wrapped the radio in such a way that she could still work the dial, but also attach the spoons and the whisk.
She pushed herself up on her tiptoes, and struggling to remain balanced, she pushed the red “power” button on the front of the radio. She imagined that she had made the radio so powerful, it could pull in a signal from the heart of the universe.
And that is exactly what she heard. She heard the stars talking to each other. She heard comets whizzing past each other, saying “excuse me” as they narrowly avoided collision. She heard the sounds of fierce creatures from distant worlds roaring each other into stillness. She heard the rings of Saturn slowly rotate like a massive conveyor belt, bringing new wondrous things to all of the planet’s inhabitants.
She stretched up on her tiptoes higher and higher, until she was part of this. Part of this infinite space, part of this night sky, part of the stars and planets and comets. She was no longer her, she was her and everything all at once.
The next morning, her father found her curled up asleep next to a pot, a ball of foil, and some silverware. He was too hungover to be angry, too grateful that she wasn’t gone forever like her mother.
He put everything in the pot, and carried it and her back to the house.
For years after, her father would tell the story of Allison, the pot, the foil, and the silverware. And then he would always laugh, turn to Allison, and say, “For the life of me, I can’t imagine what in the hell it was you were up to.”
And she would always smile, and stare out the nearest window, up at the sky. And she would always reply to nobody in particular, “Isn’t that something?”