THE RADIO

“Medio’s the shortest street in Long Beach—only one block.” That’s what the Manager told Jimmy and Sheila Gallagher when they rented a furnished efficiency at Medio Apartments in June of 1966. The pink stucco building, circa WWII, had a couple of straggly palm trees in front, symmetrically planted on either side of an archway, that led to a raggedy-lawned patio. Each unit on the two floors had its own entrance door, like a motel back in Minnesota. Jimmy insisted on the second floor so Sheila would be safer during all her time alone. For the first several months that Sheila lived there, Jimmy spent few nights with her. Recently married, the young couple made good use of the apartment when they could be together.

A kitchen, a bathroom, and a sitting room with a Murphy bed that came out of the wall rented for $80 a month. Next door, on the bed wall side, lived an elderly couple who had retired to California from Kansas. They rented their apartment 20 years before because of its low cost and the short walk across Long Beach Boulevard to the ocean. The lady told Sheila that in the beginning they went every day. By the time Sheila knew them, it was a big event to haul out the walkers and totter over once a week. Mostly, they took in their sun on the flat, tarred roof of the building.

At night, with both beds down, Sheila listened through their thin, shared wall to the elderly couples’ noises—snores and snuffles and trips to the bathroom and lots of rumbling, indistinguishable conversations. She imagined them discussing numerous aches and pains and memories.

On those times when Jimmy got leave from his ship, which seemed to be in and out on maneuvers nonstop, he laughed at Sheila as she insisted that they sleep with their heads at the foot of the bed “to get as far away from the Ancients as possible.” He teased her for blasting the radio during lovemaking. “So they won’t hear us.”

“We hear enough from their side,” he said. “Besides, maybe it’ll bring back good times for them.”

Unconvinced, Sheila insisted on the camouflaging rock and roll.

Mrs. Ancient once commented, “You sure play that radio a lot when your husband’s home.”

Sheila said, “He’s a great music fan. Hope it doesn’t bother you.”

With a wry smile, the lady answered that it didn’t.

The unit on the other side of Sheila’s remained vacant, used for storage most of the time she lived on Medio Street. At least it stayed quiet. On their few dates to dinner and a movie, Jimmy and Sheila came back late, heady with the fragrance of night-blooming jasmine. Then, as they walked past the unoccupied apartment toward their own door, she would notice the Manager standing by his window at the other end of the building and say, “He gives me the creeps,” as she watched him raise a bottle to his mouth.

“He’s waiting,” Jimmy would say.

And she would say, “I s’pose that’s true.”

To Sheila and Jimmy the Manager and his wife seemed old, but they probably were about 50. Their apartment had a bedroom. In the bedroom the Manager’s wife lay dying of cancer. The day the young couple rented their apartment, she had huddled on a rocking chair in the front room, fingers playing with a crocheted afghan—the skinniest woman they’d ever seen. They never saw her after that. According to the Ancients, he used to work at Douglas and she managed the building. After she got sick he stayed home taking care of her.

The Angel of Death never visited while Sheila lived on Medio Street—for either Mrs. Manager or for Mr. and Mrs. Ancient. But every time she heard a siren’s howl, Sheila pictured stretchers and aid cars coming to cart one of them away.

Too soon the day that she dreaded dawned. They had been married less than six months. Sheila stood on the pier with a crowd of weepers. A band played “Anchors Aweigh” while Jimmy’s ship left for Vietnam and Japan. The length of the cruise was unknown but Lifers said, “Plan for at least nine months.” After the band dispersed and people drifted away, Sheila stood watching Jimmy’s ship fade to a dot on the horizon, trying to keep him with her. She didn’t worry much about him going to a war-torn country. After all, he was in the Navy. She mainly worried about the long separation and if he would remain true to her. She had heard lots of stories.

Once completely alone, Sheila’s life became almost totally predictable: work all day, home and double-bolted in her apartment by 6:00 p.m.—no matter how high the temperature, no matter how many invitations from friends at the office to go out and experience Long Beach’s nightlife. She holed up with her fan on, watching TV, wearing nothing but the T-shirt that still carried Jimmy’s smell. Saturday, she bought a few groceries—mainly canned spaghetti and TV dinners, at the market near her apartment—and did a load of laundry at the room built into a corner of the sunroof. She always encountered the Ancients holding hands between lawn chairs under an umbrella, yakking away at each other.

Every payday Sheila shopped at a nearby department store, buying presents for Jimmy. Since she wasn’t sure what he would like, she bought him stacks of Civvie shirts. She had also been told that when the sailors returned from cruises, they brought heaps of gifts—red-and-black enamel jewelry boxes, mother-of-pearl compacts, jade rings. Sheila wanted things to give back to him. She would place her accumulated purchases around her on the Murphy bed, turn the radio up, and imagine the celebration they would have when Jimmy finally came home.

Three-quarters through the cruise, his ship docked at Yokosuka. Husbands called their wives with news that the end was getting near. Sheila had been waiting for almost a week when the phone rang long after midnight. They stumbled through some words for a few minutes without much to say except how much they missed each other, which had already been said in letters. She teased him about the Yokosuka street girls, praying that he would stay away from them. He asked her about work and her friends there. Hearing his voice and knowing it would still be months until he returned, having nothing much to say and such a short time to say it in; this turned out to be the worst night of the cruise.

After the call ended with Jimmy saying, “There’s a whole line of guys pushing for the phone,” Sheila used the bathroom and went back to bed, where she cried herself to sleep. A short while later she awakened to water pouring on to the floor. The innards of the tank had gotten stuck, and the toilet gushed all over. Not knowing about the intricacies of plumbing, she made an emergency call to the Manager, who came rushing in to dam her flood. After he showed Sheila the knob that turned the water off, she sat on her chair, clutching her robe, knees under her chin like a chastened puppy. He had brought a mop and pail and rapidly sopped the water up, his robe swinging as he hurried to get it done before leakage seeped to the floor below.

When he turned to talk to her, his robe had parted, revealing his pitifulness, as he slurred, “Gotta get back to the wife. She’s havin’ a really bad time. Needs me to talk to her all night long.”

Sheila learned about the functioning of toilets that night and about being so drunk from sadness that a person could not feel his own nakedness.

A few weeks before Jimmy came home, the Manager emptied the storage apartment next door, and new neighbors moved in. Sheila never saw them. He tended bar in San Pedro; she worked as his barmaid. Their hours were upside down from Sheila’s.

For the first couple of nights, she didn’t hear them. Then it started and, more nights than not, a repeat performance occurred. At 2:00 a.m. they arrived, slamming their door and speaking loudly. The clamor escalated. He hollered. She screamed. He accused her of coming on to customers—men she had spent too much time serving. She accused him of having a dirty mind. Before long Sheila would hear crashes against the wall, like chairs being thrown, and the man yelling, “Don’t hit me, you slut!” The woman would shriek, “It’s none of your business, you son of a bitch,” and Sheila would hear another crash. The first time she had her hand on the receiver to call the Manager, when she heard, “Sweet stuff—please stop,” in the woman’s softened voice. The noises changed. The man moaned, “Baby—oh, baby.” For the next 10 minutes, Sheila huddled in the dark, staring across the room at that shared wall (glad it wasn’t the bed wall), waiting for their noisy release and wishing they had a radio on at peak volume.

The day, at last, arrived when Jimmy’s ship came home. Sheila stood on the pier with the same crowd of wives and children, while a band played “America the Beautiful.” Everyone stared at the hundreds of white uniforms in lines by the ship’s railings. Eventually, Sheila recognized the face she searched for.

At 2:00 a.m. that night—spent and asleep—they jolted awake to the Bruisers’ noises. Sheila hadn’t wanted to concern Jimmy, so she had never mentioned the bartender and his barmaid.

“What the fuck—is he going to kill her?” Jimmy quickly ran through his options: call the Manager; call the cops; put on his pants and go save her himself.

“Just wait,” Sheila assured him.

After it was over they cuddled on the bed listening to the snores and snuffles on one side and the complete silence on the other.

“They’re probably sharing a smoke and rubbing new owies,” Sheila said.

Jimmy said, “I guess that’s one way to keep excitement in your marriage.”

A short while later he got stationed on base. This meant that Jimmy would never have to leave again, so they moved to a bigger place.

The day Sheila returned their keys to the Manager, he told her, “Had to evict those neighbors of yours. Hope they didn’t cause you too much trouble.”

Sheila said that she had survived, and living next door to the elderly couple had been a delight.

“They’ve been married almost sixty years and still act like honeymooners.” The Manager frowned. Sheila didn’t think this quite the case, but maybe from his perspective. “Those others, the bar people,” he continued, “fifteen years of wedded bliss, and somehow they haven’t killed each other. It don’t seem fair.” Then, “You’ve been a good tenant. All the best to you and your fella.”

Sheila thought about it and gave him a quick hug.

Being together forever and ever lasted two more years. Sheila wondered sometimes about Mr. and Mrs. Manager and how long she lived after they moved away. And she wondered about the Ancients, hoping when they finally went, it was together. And she wondered about the Bruisers and how many years their bodies held up.

Mostly, Sheila wondered about Jimmy and herself. It sure wasn’t the way she had hoped. There never seemed to be a thing to talk about. Jimmy started going out at night with his friends from the base. Sheila started running with a group from the office. The new apartment turned into a mess. Nothing seemed to work—even the radio. When it broke, they never bothered to replace it.

Published by Lullwater Review

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