The year, 1996. The time, universal. Somewhere, far back-a-bush, “Mmm Bopp” squeaked out of a short wave radio into the humid night. The radio sat in a corner of a thatch hut, on a knock-an’-stan’-up table, its antenna broken crudely and splinted back together with a thick coating of flimsy scotch tape and an emery board. In the other corner, a pile of coals smoldered in the rusted lid of an old cookie tin releasing thick white whips of pungent smoke. The coals were bits of coconut husks mixed with chunks of white oleander bark, creating a lightly poisonous air that drove off the mosquitoes.
“It is now 24 hours universal time and you are listening to the billboard top-forty on The Voice of America. Coming up, ‘The World Hour.’” Using the tuning knob, he SCANNED the airways very intently….there must be something on the short wave worth listening to at 2400 hours. “Next on BBC radio news: will Butros Butros Ghali serve a second term?”
“Will Butros Butros Gahli get a second name?” Jan grumbled at the radio as he got up to re-light his pipe. The matches were damp from the humid air. As soon as he struck them against the side of the box, the red sulfer tip crumbled off. It took ten matches before one sparked up.
Everything was damp. It was the beginning of the rain season, and frogs clucked away in the half-empty rain drum outside, their croaks echoed, competing with the radio for his attention. “Butros Butros Butros—,” Jan grumbled, tuning out the frogs until they became a constant hum in the background. The short wave was an auditory window to the world he had escaped from years ago.
Jan grew up in a middle class suburb of Detroit Michigan. His parents were strict Catholics, and when he was a teenager he worked at the neighborhood country club and hung coats. It was the early 60’s and he was in a band. The summer he turned eighteen he spent most of his time in his friend Peter’s loft, watching him build sculptures out of wax and barbed wire as they both split a joint. Then his parents threatened to take away his allowance so he applied to college. After college they threatened to take away his allowance so he cut his hair, which was, at the time, down to his shoulders. He spent three days working on a resume and on the fourth day he did acid. Again. He rubbed the wall of Peters loft and said, “They can’t keep me in here!” Peter agreed as he stared at the Tiffany lamp.
On the sixth day he packed a bag full of necessities (those which he thought were necessities at the time) and bought a bus ticket to Mexico. Days got warmer, his hair got longer. Again. His allowance got shorter, until one day, he found himself in a Guatemalan Prison, and it no longer came at all. Peter was the one who bailed him out.
“You’ve got to snap out of this you bloody wanker.” Peter scolded over the phone to a newly released Jan.
“I did.” Jan said. “I’m out!” He wasn’t speaking about the Guatemalan prison.
“I’m worried about you,” Peter said.
“I’m worried about you,” Jan replied. He was eyeing the taco stand outside the phone booth.
Peter still got an allowance, but no one called it that anymore. His parents were just showing their support. There was no need to bring it up.
Jan never saw Peter again.
Years had passed since his traveling days. Now Jan spoke to his short wave on the quiet nights and the loud ones humming with calls from creatures of the night. His favorite was BBC. He liked their approach to world news. His second favorite was Radio Sweden; thier science shows. The Voice of America (VOA) seemed to sound a lot like the V.O. the Hanson brothers, but if nothing else, it made him smile.
It got fuzzy sometimes when the splinted antenna was temperamental. Jan ignored the static. It seemed that every evening on Radio Sweden, reports of groundbreaking studies linked something new to cancer. Last week was fluoride; tonight it was those new cellular phones.
Funny, he thought, how he had spent half his life away from all of these cancerous things yet still managed to develop the disease. “Wherever you go in the world you can’t escape the sun,” He laughed when the town doctor told him. Not that it was the sun that Jan had been running from.
When I first met Jan I was working at a corner store on the outskirts of St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. Once a month he came into town, making a spectacle of himself: a forty-something white man in a faded Hawaiian shirt and patched flared jeans, his sun streaked hair snarled into a bun at his neck. Jan never hesitated to shake a hand or crack joke. Everyone in the town knew him; no one disliked him. He had become a part of the landscape: “Crazy Jan.”
He came into my store one day, looking to buy some tape and two emery boards. I asked him why, so he told me. I suggested a long piece of wire, explaining how it might help the radio signal.
The next time he came into my corner store, about a week later, he didn’t buy anything. He tinkered around the small shop, touching things, looking at them up close, mumbling.
I asked him if he wanted some tea. He said yes. We sat on the cement slab out back under the canopy of yellow bell vines and drank lemongrass tea. We talked until the sun was low and Jan started fidgeting, saying he had to catch the last bus into the bush before dark.
I never saw his place, only heard about it. We talked about why we were there, that island in the tropics so far from our original homes, our families. The tourists called us ex-pats—but how you be an ex if you never were? We talked about how we would go to Panama one day; Buy a boat and chart our way around the Atlantic. Neither of us did one thing to make that a reality.
Sometimes weeks went by and I didn’t see Jan. When he did emerge from the bush, he looked wild eyed and ragged. He was talking about how he broke out of the wall; something about Peter who never did.
I saw him walking around in circles in the marketplace looking for a Muscovy duck. A rebel duck, he said. That’s what he wanted.
Eventually, he stumbled into the store and slumped onto a stool, looking spent.
“They’ll put me away,” he said. “That’s all they wanted to do with me.”
“Who are they?” I asked. The sunlight prismed through my crystals in the window.
He cast me look of disgust, like I should know. “They said lithium would help. But it kills you. It gives you cancer. Cancer!” He shouted. He lurched forward. I stepped back and he retracted into a small crumpled man on the stool, his head in his hands.
“I tried it,” I said.
“What?” He looked up.
“Lithium. I tried it. It didn’t work, I mean, I didn’t feel any better, just a different type of bad.”
“How do you—on the bad days what do you do?”
“The crystals help.” I said. “It’s light therapy. You have to sun your crystals. You should try it.”
Jan stood up rubbing his face and shakig his head, “The crystals can’t save you Sharla. It’s all in your head.”
He walked through the door and into the town shouting it. “The crystals can’t save you!”
About six weeks later, a man from the bush village came into my store trying to sell me a short wave radio with a broken antenna held together with wire. I bought it. Waiting tensely for him to leave, locked the door, then I wrecked the store. I threw my crystals in a bag and dropped them in the latrine out back.
I tossed myself in the heap of overturned trinkets and junk and cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, I my face was marked pink from being pressed into a pile of objects. I immediately remembered where I put the crystals and ran outside with a long stick to fish them out, scum, feces and all. I spent all day washing them and rocking back and forth, talking to myself. I chose this over the drugs. No one had to see.