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Transistor Man glides on waves of sound, the electro-sheen of an ineluctable moment, forever in search of the perfect now. Vibrating with cosmic juice, battery-powered, meteor-showered, and super-charged, his fingers throw off sparks. Immutable, he languishes in the linger of his youth. Unstoppable.
Most days, Transistor Man sets out around ten a.m. First on foot, then he takes the bus, where one conforms to another environment – a shared existence. The radio slung at his side or nestled on his shoulder must be dampened, preferably silenced. He cannot be banned from public transit. It is essential; he has no car.
The wash and flam of traffic noise echoes off the low buildings that wall Main Street in Santa Valeria. A constant hum. Transistor Man is tuned to a higher frequency and barely registers Southern California’s swaying palm fronds, the heat of an April day, or the casual, revealing clothing worn by sun-scoured pedestrians forced to walk the pavement in the face of car infinity.
Transistor Man fishes big turquoise headphones from his faded military backpack, plugs the tiny adapter into the input and is helmeted in sweet sound. Early morning, anytime before noon, means classic rock. The local station has a DJ, so he knows the ancient gods that propel him through today’s ride are Elton John, Neil Young, and Van Morrison. Legends from his father’s time. Their voices are unique, and each sings so much like they mean it, that even if they don’t, it doesn’t matter because they have fooled him.
“Hey, Radio Man,” Gary the bus driver says. “Heading to work, kid?”
He nods with a shy smile. Milo is thirty years old. At least that’s what his mother implied recently on her way to work: “Happy Birthday, Milo.” She leaves early while he remains nestled under covers, hiding from the tide pull of day in the backwash of waking dreams.
Other people assume he’s nineteen or twenty because Milo stands six feet tall and weighs maybe 150 pounds, has a baby face and can’t grow a decent stubble, much less a beard. His clothes flap loose around him as if hand-me-downs from basketball-playing lumberjacks.
“Wassup, Cassette Boy?” says a guy in his mid-twenties, flashing some gold in his smile. He is slouched imperious on a priority seat for the disabled up front.
Various folks know pieces of Milo’s story and invent their own nicknames. Fortunately, this Victor doesn’t expect him to speak, so Milo gets by with a fist bump and a smirk, then presses through the standing riders to breathing room by the exit doors midway down the aisle.
Ashley is sprawled semi-comatose on the back seat, embracing her skateboard. Milo stares at the glorious tangle of her wavy, brown hair. She dresses weird. A long-sleeve tight shirt, then some loose, sleeveless blouse on top, and striped leggings into sneakers with ripped blue jean shorts over them. The climate and temperature are ever shifting within her.
Milo adjusts the Panasonic’s volume. Beyond the ankle bracelets traveling to see their parole officers, the bus carries mostly older, older adults. They may have been giants once, but are now stooped with age or shrunken by internal sorrows, so Transistor Man slumps himself to blend in with the average height. When you’re wired different you need to camouflage to avoid hassle, to stay in the zen of your eternal radio bliss moment. He can’t explain. Ask Buddha.
The regular people – and god bless the regular people because the world is choking on fucking insane people at the moment – are always polite to Milo. They see him strapped into his big-ass turquoise headphones, eyes droopy as if in a somnambulist state, and they smile wide.
He reads into their positive grins. That’s Transistor Man’s superpower. They suspect, no, they believe he is special. They don’t realize Milo attended Santa Valeria Community College for two years. He didn’t fit in and so-called friends kept giving him drugs. When you are jacked-in to the infinite grid of the universe, drugs only confuse. However, no reason to disabuse bus strangers of their suspicions. Such beliefs cause folks to generally leave Milo the hell alone. And that’s important. Transistor Man is on a mission; time is running out. He cannot waste energy on idle chitter-chatter, skitter-scatter discourse.
He became Transistor Man at age twenty-six, but only put the jigsaw puzzle together recently. A great displacement is coming. That is certain. Whether it’s provoked by rising temperatures, the flooding of coastal areas, or a nuclear apocalypse is unclear at present. What he knows, is that even if Santa Valeria is spared such horrors, it will become a magnet. For those fleeing submerged cities, overheated continents, and the devastation wrought by religious wars. It might happen soon, but will definitely occur over the next decades. At some point, the grid will go down, meaning no more electricity or radio. But radio is Transistor Man’s lifeblood. So his mission has been to collect cheap batteries – of all kind – wherever he spots them. The other part is to record numerous radio shows on his father’s big cassette machine at home for the future. Difficult, as new blank cassettes are tough to find and used ones can tangle, unspool, and worse, clog and corrupt a player.
“Hey, Battery Boy,” says a wiry dude with a face as old as one can possibly achieve at twenty. Meth freak. “I saw some Maxell cassettes down at Sparrow Records.”
Sparrow Records is part of Transistor Man’s weekly orbit. Milo whispers, “Thanks.” He always whispers while wearing headphones so as not to shout and disturb the peace.
A few rules to follow on public transit, and in the street. Do your laundry. Nobody likes stinky passengers, not even other smelly people. Do not reek of piss. They can throw you off the bus, out of stores and restaurants for that alone. And anyone who smells of number two? Just once and you never ever see that fool again. Most important, don’t yell or act violent unless you’re being physically threatened. The common person is frightened by babbling, aggressive strangers. And they should be.
“You take care, Radio Man,” Gary hollers from up front.
Milo exits the bus and Ashley dashes out just after. He wants to share something with her, but instead coughs diesel exhaust as she rolls downslope on her skateboard.
When the outside world does press in – at rush hour or during fire-engine siren emergencies – he nudges his radio closer so the panic of reality, a bardo of dreams that he chooses to disbelieve, recedes into the background. Total madness. A burbling cacophony of voices on speakerphone, audio announcements spilling off tour buses, car alarms, bass-heavy stereos throbbing inside vehicles constipated by sound, abrupt screeches of brakes, the street jive of public discourse and traffic light invective.
At the back of the Salvation Army thrift store, Transistor Man receives donations three hours, twice a week. He holds down a similar gig at Goodwill. With a room to sleep in at his mother’s place, Milo just needs enough money to buy fast food to power him through the day, and for batteries and cassettes.
During early afternoons he switches to a rap and hip-hop station. Today, the local reggaeton channel makes him laugh while sitting at his post. He is half Latino, though being born in Northern California, has only ever learned English. Beyond a few curse words and random phrases, Milo rarely knows what the Spanish voices are rapping about, but they seem funny. “Vato es cabron, vato es cabron,” repeated over and over. He must not chant those words on the bus, however mesmeric.
Milo hasn’t seen his father since he was twelve. Dude basically disappeared. Milo treasures a fading photo of Paco from the eighties. He’s wearing a white tank top outdoors with an Afro mushrooming above like a Brillo Pad crown, and on his shoulder sits a massive stereo rig. Must weigh twenty pounds. That’s his dad: Boombox Man. Paco came from one of the islands below America’s belly. Sort of part of the US, except totally on their own in an emergency.
Street dudes ask, “Where you from?”
He shakes his head. “I’m an Annexican.”
No one gets it. When he explains about the two islands being annexed in 1898, no one laughs either. And it’s only half-true. His mother’s family is from Kansas.
Paco called once in 2008, early morning, and asked to speak to him.
“This is your dad, Milo. Listen, you need to consider getting a magicJack. Tell your mom. It will save you so much money. You interested?”
“Dad? For real, magicJack?” The phone jack that plugged into a computer so folks could make unlimited calls with no monthly fee? “Where you at, pop?”
“Got to go, son. Talk to you soon.” Milo heard voices reciting similar phrases in the background and guessed Paco was a telemarketer. Called them by accident.
So Transistor Man has serious father issues. Boombox Man is his hero, who he loves and idolizes, but Milo also hates his deadbeat dad’s guts.
The Salvation Army sits at the base of the descending hill of Main Street, a receptacle zone where everything eventually slides down to. The most congested, frantic area of the small city. And even after a mere three hours of mellow work, Milo feels polluted. He is paid his minimum wage daily in dirty worn bills from the cash register. They know Transistor Man’s plans, or at least the rough outline of the food, batteries, and cassettes trinity.
After clocking out, he wends his way up the slight incline, checking into pawn shops, thrift stores, used bookstores, electronic junkyards. It’s his duty. Being the third major town on the coast north of Los Angeles, all kinds of stuff washes ashore. Milo is not above buying the odd comic or paperback and burying it deep in his knapsack. There are times when radio reception is so bad, the static distortion harshing his ears, that he stashes the Panasonic and finds a laundromat to plunk down on a bench and read. Which he does now, a quarter mile up the slope.
“Don’t you have to get home for dinner?” Juana, the manager of Soap & Suds asks him.
People assume Milo’s underfed and starving. Wrong. Food’s just not a priority.
“No moleste,” he jokes, not in the mood for conversation.
Juana once said, that as a Gringo-Latino, Milo needed to know three Spanish expressions to survive in Southern California: Cuidado for watch out, be careful; con permiso for excuse me; and no moleste for don’t hassle me – please leave me alone.
Milo waves goodbye and staggers out into the warm dazzle of late afternoon. Luck is with him today. He finds a cache of twenty Duracell Copper Tops discounted at Grocery Outlet. The big-ass D size ones he treasures. Milo ties the handles of the plastic bag so the precious cargo bulges, sealed in below. Such is the river of life he navigates.
Transistor Man walks. AM, FM, AC/DC, electric crackle, static jibber-jabber, clearing to sharp focus as he moves toward alignment with the transmission source before it fuzzes back out into the ether, incomprehensible and harsh.
Between snacking at Dunkin’ Donuts and listening to talk radio at a bus stop bench while buses sigh, unload, then depart, the day escapes him. Transistor Man soon travels through the just dark of ghost-lit shop windows and watches the random spill of car headlights splash across him.
“No moleste,” he whispers to no one.
Up ahead he spies Victor and the big, strung-out dude Spider approaching with purpose. One hassle of street life is, the person you call friend by day, often holds another agenda at night.
“Yo, Radio Freak,” Victor shouts. “Help us out with ten bucks, man.” Victor worked at the Salvation Army before getting fired for stealing. He knows they pay Milo daily in cash.
Milo shakes his head. “I loaned you some three weeks ago and before too.”
“Not asking for a loan.” Victor’s stubbled face is twitchy and Spider is vibrating with the shakes.
“C’mon, guys,” he tries.
Spider lunges in, digging through Milo’s blue jean jacket’s breast pockets. He finds a cherry Life Saver fuzzed with pocket lint and tosses it, then pulls a photo out of the other side.
Damn, he brought along the old picture of his dad by mistake today.
Spider shows it to Victor and they both start laughing.
“Who is this pimp?” Victor asks. “Look at that hair and his shirt. And that stupid-ass boombox.”
“Give it back.”
“Fuck you. Give us your money or…” Spider twists the photo, on the brink of tearing it in half.
Transistor Man snaps. He grabs the long, tied end of his plastic battery bag, swings it around in the air then lands the copper top weight hard against Spider’s head. Once. Twice.
“Holy shit.” Victor watches Spider collapse and drop the photo. “That’s how you treat friends? Damn, I would have given you money, if I had some.” Victor seems uncertain of his next move.
From out of nowhere, Ashley rockets into their drama on her skateboard heading downhill. She slams against Victor, knocking him onto a parked car’s hood, while she tumbles to the sidewalk. Ashley recovers the upended skateboard and launches into Main Street to continue her mad descent against oncoming traffic.
“Run, Radio Man,” she shouts, then laughs, the ha-ha-ha trailing off to merge with the airy whoosh and wheel bounce of speeding cars.
Milo sprints uphill leaving Victor confused. “This ain’t right,” he whines. “We’re all fucking bros here.”
Ashley thrives on perpetual motion. Maybe twenty-one and close friends call her Ash. When not skateboarding, she rides a rusty three-speed bike. Ashley can be sweet and flirtatious when tired, or a scolding sister if she catches you screwing up, but transforms into a holy terror when high or drunk on cheap wine mixing with her mood medication. She is both the alluring unknown and a kind of sketchy feral cat.
People try to mess with Ashley yet she always returns, sometimes bruised or standoffish. Might see her stretched out and dozing undisturbed at the back of the bus on certain mornings. It’s not allowed, but drivers leave her be. Ashley is family; they want to protect her.
Out of breath, Transistor Man slumps inside Washington Park, listening to nineties modern rock. He feels groggy, though won’t actually sleep for at least two hours. Milo shoos away a smelly guy who wants to share his bench. Finally, he hears the 11:30 last bus of the night grinding into its stop thirty yards away and sprints to catch it. Yes!
Milo spends an hour reading while eating pancakes at Denny’s because breakfast is wasted on those just awake, their taste buds still drowsy. Other radio men of the older, bearded variety squat at far tables. Afterwards, he trudges toward his three-floor apartment complex to navigate the outdoor barbecue pits, the children’s abandoned scooters and wheeled toys.
Most nights, he leans in the doorway of his mother’s bedroom and describes the things that inhabit his mind. Milo speaks soft not to wake her, and she echoes this early in the morning, talking to him while he slumbers. That’s how they communicate.
Tonight he recounts finding the batteries, the struggle to keep his ten dollars so he can continue to give her fifty a week, even though that won’t make a dent in her rent. He promises to never take the sacred photo of Paco outside their house again.
She breathes and even snores through the recital, but toward the end, a kind of inner mom wakes up – unattached to her true being and concerns. A sleep-talking mother. “You have enough blankets, son?”
The day’s heat rose to near 80, and now it hovers around 70. Milo’s blankets will be piled on the floor. “Yes, Mom.” She sighs in satisfaction as he leaves.
Setting his radio on a night table, he plugs in the AC cord not to waste precious battery juice. To wind down, Transistor Man listens to a college station’s jazz show in bed. Love songs by Miles Davis; ballads by John Coltrane. The music is haunting and tragic, but it’s not his sadness. So he can savor it, enjoy the beauty and imagine a time when black men in loose-fitting suits walked the pawn shop streets carrying brass saxophones and trumpets. An ancient faraway world that reminds him of history class, which makes him sleepy.
Milo halfway wakes hearing his mom speaking and coffee brewing, then submerges again. While the rest of the world turns solid, he goes liquid into the soft wash of dawn. Consciousness returns when his mother massages his shoulder and runs her hand through his hair. She never does that so he opens eyes wide. Transistor Man finds himself on the bus heading downtown with Ashley just leaving as the side doors hiss. He tries to shout “Ash,” but his throat gives out a sandpaper rasp. She’s already outside, clattering away on her skateboard, gazing ahead, not behind.
He sees the old and disturbed, the daytime workers and reformed criminals seated around him. Notices Victor looking sheepish. Familiar dudes glance at Milo with knowing, sympathetic faces. They have felt the same untenable emotions for Ashley lancing their guts. Nothing needs be said. You can love the wind or the sea or the sun, but you can’t have them, and someday – without meaning to – they will wound you, in a deep and profound manner.
Milo hears the Panasonic crackling at his side and all other distractions fade. Transistor Man has a mission; he endures.
Max Talley is a writer and artist from New York City who lives in Southern California. His fiction and essays have appeared in Fiction Southeast, Entropy, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Gravel, Santa Fe Literary Review, Bridge Eight, and Atticus Review. Talley's novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014, and he is associate editor for Santa Barbara Literary Journal. His short story anthology, Delirium Corridor, is forthcoming in August, 2020.