Jason Sanford

Radio Wave Ethics and Back-Woods Beatings

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 want to hear it.

A friend tells me this story while we sit at his lake house near Wetumpka, Alabama. For the past hour we've been watching the passing headlights of the Labor Day crowds—people driving home 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 portable 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'" he says when that 1970s work anthem blares out.)

At some point we drift into a rambling discussion of philosophy (or as deep of one as two almost-drunk people can achieve). After talking at length about how ethics apply to everyday situations—such as if it's okay to call in sick at work when you're really fishing with your buddies—my friend says he has a story to tell. "A great story," he states. "You can even write about it if you want." However, he adds, I must promise to never use his name with any of this.

"Statute of limitations," he explains awkwardly.

When I ask how long it'll take before he can't be arrested for whatever he's done, my friend 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."

I almost ask if having kids, or a job, means one can never admit to having done wrong? Still, I promise I won't use his name if I write about what he's about to tell me.

So call my friend "Bob."

Forget Bob's real name.

This is the story he tells.

* * *

It is midnight in Alabama. The car is parked on the edge of a cotton field on a large hill overlooking Wetumpka. Through the trees the distant street lights and car headlights wink and wave before turning into sparkles, while around the edges of the field the fence-line oaks flicker to moon shadows as the night clouds drift on high-altitude winds. Cicadas and crickets buzz for all they can in the heat and humidity.

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 with black and brown camouflage grease. There is a dab of forest green on his nose.

"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, and leans his baseball bat against the car door. Across the little cotton 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—electricity jumping from metal contact to metal contact—as Flame makes sure his stun gun still works.

"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 drips and runs 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. He reminds Bob of a smiley-faced hippie doll left over from a Woodstock souvenir stand.

One year ago, Scott got beat up at a pool hall in Wetumpka. Flame and Bob had been shooting pool with him for most of the night but, as more and more drunk rednecks came into the place, they decided to leave.

"Let's go back to my house," Flame said, "and work on my tattoo." Back in high school, Flame had been known as Jack. But after graduating he shucked that name, tattooed his arm with fire surrounding the word Flame, and took that as his nickname. The tattoo was homemade—prick after a hundred pricks with a surgical needle dipped in ink. Every few months Flame added another detail to his tattoo by getting Bob or Scott to stab his arm with the needle and ink for a few hours.

"Man, I'm sick of that bloody shit," Scott said to Flame, and added that he'd rather stay. His new girlfriend, Cindy, was going to stop by the pool hall after she got off work.

So Flame and Bob left. On the way to Flame's trailer, they grabbed some pot and got 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 onto Flame's arm when Scott's girlfriend called. She said Scott had been beaten up outside the pool hall and was in the hospital. While Flame tried to wipe the blood from his tattoo, Cindy screamed over and over into the phone that this was their fault. "How could you leave Scott alone with all those damn rednecks?" she said, crying.

* * *

As Bob tells his story, he mentions that he really doesn't remember what he said to Scott when they went to the hospital that night, or whether Scott's left or right arm was the one in a cast, or if his nose was already bandaged or not. Bob remembers the general stuff—how Cindy was furious at him and Flame, how the emergency room was crowded, and how Scott was so doped up he kept babbling nonsense about being on the beach in Panama City.

One detail Bob does remembers, though, is how on the way to the hospital he tuned the radio to one of Dolly Parton's early hits—"Jolene"—and actually cried at the beauty of everything she was singing about. "None of her songs ever hit me until that moment," he says. "After that I began listening to country music again and found I still loved it. I probably wouldn't be working in radio if Scott hadn't gotten beaten up."

When I ask why he can remember this detail but not the others, Bob says that most of his memories tie in with music. If he thinks back on all of the church services he went to as a kid, what he remembers are the hymns. His clearest memories of Christmas days past are wrapped around "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells."

"Smells bring back memories for some people," he says, "music does it for me."

This isn't a surprise. As long as I've known Bob, he's been obsessed on music. When we drive together, Bob continually fiddles with the radio. He can ramble on for hours over 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 play something that hasn't been surveyed to death."

Bob says he's always wondered about the power of radio. "I mean, 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. Who hasn't had the experience of being at a stoplight, flipping to a radio station, and suddenly 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."

Thinking back to our earlier conversation, I ask him if radio waves are also like ethics.

He smirks, but doesn't answer.

* * *

Flame and Bob found out later that when Scott walked out of the pool hall to see if Cindy had arrived, someone hit him from behind with a baseball bat. The police found bloodsmears and dragmarks for twenty feet across the asphalt and cement parking dividers. The police figured Scott got beat up 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 the gang for their 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. Flame was short and squat with massive arms and Lester kept 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 marched 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 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. Scott had only moved to Montgomery a few years ago and didn't have Bob and Flame's history with half the town.

In the end, Lester's lawyer worked a plea deal—a month in jail and 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 the horizon—but the prosecutor simply said the plea bargain was the best they were could get.

Scott nodded, and muttered to Flame and Bob that he'd get payback.

At first Flame and Bob ignored him. But as the months went by and Scott kept talking about getting even, they realized he was serious. When Bob said there was no way Scott could take on all three of the Bama Boys, Scott agreed and said he'd settle for Lester. When Flame said Lester weighed three times as much as Scott, Scott said that was okay becauce Bob and Flame were going to help him. And since Bob was the only one who'd ever fought Lester—Scott refused to call getting hit from behind a fight—Scott continually asked him about Lester's fighting style.

"That was back in high school," Bob would say. "He didn't have a style. He was bigger than me and just kicked the shit out of me."

In the end, Flame and Bob gave up trying to stop Scott and said they'd help him. Bob still isn't sure if they agreed to help out of guilt over leaving Scott alone at that pool hall—or simply to get Scott to stop bugging them about Lester.

* * *

According to Bob, when you promise to help a guy beat someone up, you can't just hang out together anymore. 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 Bob says.

Even after agreeing to help, Flame still figured Scott was bullshitting and that they'd never do anything. As time went by Bob guessed he was right. Still, Bob couldn't figure out how he felt on all this. He still hated Lester 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 Cindy and said they were going after Lester.

"We ain't going after 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 Lester's house. They parked across the street and waited for more than two hours, hunched down in their seats so passing drivers couldn'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 everything that happened. 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 a bar called Deacon Blues. Cindy agreed to hit Lester up there and convince him to go out with her.

"Think you can get him to drive to that overlook just outside the city?" 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 Lester 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 work Lester over with the baseball bat.

"What about Bob?" Cindy asked.

"We'll let Bob give a real scare to Lester," Flame said. He walked back into his bedroom and came back with a large double-barreled shotgun. Bob didn't like the idea of a gun, but Flame said he 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 cotton field. Moments later Lester drives his pickup truck into the field and parks next to the dropoff, killing his headlights while smooth music comes out truck's open windows. That's good, Bob thinks. 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 pickup truck just as Flame shocks Lester with the stun gun. Cindy bolts out the other side of the truck as Lester grabs the steering wheel and screams. Bob waits while Scott and Flame tug Lester like a mother trying to pull her kid away from a favorite toy.

Flame has to stun Lester twice more before he lets go of the steering wheel. Lester then falls into a fetal position 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 . . ." The same words, over and over.

"That's fucking enough," Bob suddenly yells. Scott hits Lester one more time with the bat, then he and Flame step away. Lester lays there on the ground, crying and shaking and bleeding 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. The other barrel. Click.

Lester keeps crying and saying, "Don't hurt me, don't hurt me," as if he's unaware at almost being killed just now.

They get in Flame's car and drive away, leaving Lester crying on the ground.

* * *

Bob repeats to me 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.


* * *

While driving 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 things was to stand by his friend.

But now, driving that back road home, he feels disgusted at the thought of Lester laying there on the ground and begging them not to hurt him. 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.

On their way home they pass an 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 they call 911. "It's the right thing to do," he says. 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 at the overlook over Wetumpka.

Then they are driving again.

The radio keeps playing music that Bob says he no longer remembers.

* * *

That's Bob's story as he tells it, these ten years after the beating. Even though we're still drinking our beers, I don't feel myself getting anywhere near to drunk.

"Well, it's over and done with," I say. "Not much you can do about it now."

"Of course," he says, adding 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. It's a hell of a song to hear—really going to go somewhere, it is."

* * *

Jason Sanford is the fiction editor of storySouth. Read more of his essays here.