Ordinary songs seemed momentous when played before and after his voice. He would take live phone calls, forecast the weather, analyze a new album and deliver a brilliantly pithy joke all in the 30 second intro to the new Michael Jackson song….”
by kevin sampsell
Joe sat in his basement apartment watching Baywatch and fingering his fly. His mother was pounding on the door, trying to get him to come upstairs for a meatloaf dinner.
Joe’s mother was also his landlord. His room had been the basement since he was 14, and now at the age of 34, his mother, who loved him very much but worried about his sense of independence, had started charging him rent. Not much, just whatever he could afford. One month it was $200, the next it was $15 and a pack of Winstons. Even though Joe had a good income, he sometimes spent all his money without thinking.
“Come on and feed your sweet face, you starving artist you,” said his mother from outside the door. She was under the impression that Joe was some kind of genius artist because he had several intricate drawings of toasters all over his wall. Not only that, but he often wore black clothes and one of those little French caps.
“I’m watching Baywatch mom,” said Joe as he stared passively at the large bouncing chest of the female star, who in real life, recently married a rock-n-roll drummer with tattoos. Joe let his eyes go out of focus on the screen until all he saw was an army of undulating mammaries storming his vision, attacking his face. Joe’s breath doubled in his lungs and a shy but vile stink emanated from his pores. He rested for 45 seconds, then got up to change his pants, grabbed a bottle of catsup from his bedroom closet and went upstairs to join his mother for meatloaf.
At dinner, the conversation went like this…
Mother: I got an advertisement in the mail. It’s for a health club.
Joe: When do you want me to join?
Mother: We could go tommorow morning.
Joe: Okay, I’ll meet you by the Camaro after the Today Show.
When dinner was over Joe went to work. He was a late-night disc-jockey on the top-40 radio station. It was stunning the way Joe changed when the mike came on. At social gatherings Joe was shy, clumsy, unintentionally rude, and often very sweaty. But when Joe sat in that glass booth at work, the whole city before him from the 12-story window, all the glowing buttons and dials, tapes, headphones, telephone lines flooded and the beautiful hovering microphone covered in black foam to absorb the popping P’s and the lisping S’s as they sometimes snuck out of Joe’s mouth– here in this place Joe became Jack Rider, the gentleman with the juice and the jock with the most rock.
Ordinary songs seemed momentous when played before and after his voice. He would take live phone calls, forecast the weather, analyze a new album and deliver a brilliantly pithy joke all in the 30 second intro to the new Michael Jackson song. If you listened to his show you would swear there were at least two other people helping him in the studio; but Joe, or Jack, did everything himself. Two hands, a voice, and sometimes his left foot. His segues and fades were so good you couldn’t tell when a new song began most of the time. He would even throw in his own samples and guitar riffs that he’d play right in the studio. People in the industry began seeing him as the first truly athletic disc-jockey in radio.
Jack Rider would never let anyone watch him perform though. It drove co-workers crazy but it also earned him respect and made him seem eccentric. In the solitude of the booth, Jack Rider took calls from people, mostly junior-high students, and recorded them saying lewd things to him while he cued up the next barrage of tapes.
A couple of times he had met young girls this way. Each time he would meet them though, it would be very awkward and embarrassing for both parties. Girls would say they were 18 but turned out to be 14. They often would be obese or had bad teeth.
Here was a lesson he quickly learned: Don’t meet girls who say they look like Ricki Lake or Valerie Bertinelli. But there was one time he met a 15-year old girl who said she looked like “a thin Oprah Winfrey”. This one was quite a find, but when she saw the sweaty leering Joe in his KKZZ T-shirt she quickly bolted out of the bowling alley and rode her bike as fast as she could. But, he thought to himself, at least I got phone sex off of her. Twice.
The next morning Joe and his mother went to the health club. A man with a small waist but huge hips showed them around. It was all very nice and modern. There were two swimming pools, a weight room, Nautilus, a boxing ring, sauna, jacuzzi, and one big padded room where a tall muscular woman taught self-defense to thirteen other women. They were all gathered around a person wearing a giant pillow-like head that looked like something out of a Chinese parade. They were shouting, cursing, clawing and kicking at the would-be attacker’s skull. If it was real they would be beating its brains out. Joe did not care about the cost anymore, and in fact, cared little about the prospect of working out at this club. He looked forward instead to just watching the self-defense class and its awesome anger and destruction.
Before signing the membership, Joe had to zip up his jacket to conceal the wet spot that had emerged in his pants. Once he got back home he changed his pants and ate a bowl of cereal with his mother.
On Joe’s days off he likes to go to the library and play chess with himself. When the weather is exceptional he spends time by the water front where all the tourists walk and buy souvenirs.
To relax, he stands bare-foot on a wood block in front of the ice cream shop and appears not to move a muscle. People stop and stare at him for a long time and throw quarters into his empty shoes. Is he moving? everyone wonders; and in fact Joe is moving. But you’d have to film him for the whole five hours and then speed up the film to see that what he is doing is running in place; but so slowly that time seems to move backwards around him. This is the way Joe refuels his energies for work. This is his Zen, his revenge on the bad songs and wretched commercials that he sometimes has to play at work.
Joe’s mother does not know anything about this activity, this strange form of prayer. But she does know about some of Joe’s other vices– His collecting of Pez dispensers, his love of Little Debbie snack cakes, and his occasional visits to high school football games where he conceals one of his arms in a heavy jacket and masquerades as a one-armed beggar. When arrested once, he confessed that he did this so he could talk to girls face-to-face, but since most people know him as DJ Jack Rider, his real name in the paper did not cause a public fuss.
The services of a personal trainer were given to Joe on his first day at the health club. “Come on, you can do it. I can see those muscles building,” said Hairless Steven, the trainer. His bald shiny head was almost a friendly, comforting presence, but Hairless Steven’s voice became more vicious with each leg press and stomach crunch. Some of the equipment was impossible to use because of the fact that Joe is only four feet, two inches tall, and has the wide body of a midget.
“We’re gonna make you the biggest little midget in this town. Now finish the set – Push! Come on – Push it! When was the last time you got laid you little shit. Don’t you want to smell some pussy. Here, smell my chin. You smell a little pussy? Well, you better smell it, cause that’s what I had for breakfast. Don’t you want some pussy for breakfast, you little freak? Come on! We’re gonna make you the buffest little dwarf in this town. One more!”
Joe pushed the sixty pound bar off his chest for the last repetition, then he sat up on the bench and felt dizzy.
“Good job Joe,” said Hairless Steven. “Now let’s do some upside-down toe touches.”
Joe hated Hairless Steven more than anything at that moment. He made up an excuse about going to the bathroom and snuck off to the building’s basement and started watching the women’s self-defense class.
They were just starting to stretch out as the teacher sat Indian-style in the corner meditating. Joe watched discreetly from outside the doorway. Many of the women looked like ordinary housewives, sporting makeshift work out uniforms, while others looked very serious and wore name brand exercise outfits.
After stretching, they stood in perfect lines and began punching the air in a synchronized display of controlled rage. Then they huddled up in a bunch and the teacher talked briefly about an upcoming test, or trial, or something of that nature. Then they lined up against a wall as a confused-looking man entered the room. The teacher handed the man the giant mask that Joe had seen before. It was made out of foam-padded materials and was about five times the size of a normal head.
The man looked at it as if trying to figure out what to do with it, and as he began to lift it onto his head, the teacher yelled dramatically: “Get the man with the big head!” At once, the women of the class attacked like a pack of pit bulls. The scene excited Joe, made him feel something akin to what a boy feels like the first time he sees his father naked. Repulsed, yet curious and intrigued. Not only was Joe entranced by the violence of the females, but also the sounds that emerged from the spastic flying bodies; the dull thuds and deep scratching sounds, the growling and hissing, the blunt choked words out of the tense throats–
“STOP!” “NO!” “TOWANDA!”
For a brief second, Joe thought he saw one of the women pull out a Swiss army knife and gouge the man in the private parts. When it was all over, the man lay motionless on the floor.
That night, Joe went to work and dedicated a song to “Towanda”, a name he knew nothing about, yet understood that it had some kind of deep meaning.
He looked out over the city lights and saw stars. He looked up into the stars and saw city lights. Everything seemed to be turning and melting together. He could not tell where the tilted city ended and the blurry skyline began. His lonely and confused soul, the city, the universe. It was all one entity.
And after the dedicated song, there was silence.
The phone lines were blinking, the stars and porch lights were blinking, and there was no sound coming out of any radio in town. For the first time ever on the Jack Rider show, there was dead air. Joe imagined himself standing on a wood block, big and muscular, and being spat on by thirteen women. Time was moving backwards now. Joe closed his eyes.
His hand moved to the button that turned on the microphone. But still silence.
Ten minutes later Joe had still not produced a sound for his audience and had barely moved a muscle.
The next morning he was suspended for two weeks.
During those two weeks, Joe spent more and more time at the health club and less time at home. The benefits of his workouts were beginning to show; his chest was higher and his arms were thicker. Even his sweat began to take on a different odor. When his mother did see him on these days he was elusive.
“Have you started taking steroids or something, honey? You’re beginning to look like someone else entirely. You’ve even shaved your cute little sideburns, and you haven’t put up any new toaster drawings lately. Come on and talk to your mother Joe, I’m worried.”
“Everything’s okay mom, can’t you wait until after Baywatch,” Joe said from the other side of his door.
In Joe’s mind, he wondered if he even wanted to go back to work. A rumour was starting to spread that Joe had lost his mind and some people outside the radio industry had even found out that Jack Rider was actually a midget named Joe. Still, with all the mystery surrounding his situation, he was getting even more offers from popular radio stations around the country, some of them offering double his previous salary.
“Come on you chubby little pecker boy! You want to ever see your feet again? Well you’re going to have to work some of this disgusting fat off. How do you even tie your shoes, you flabby pig?” Hairless Steven was training a new member, who looked to be about 12 years old and slightly overweight.
Joe watched with disgust for the macho bully.
“You want to get some pussy before you get out of junior high? You gotta get trim and buff! You gotta work some of the fat away from your dick so the girls can get to it. You wanna smell my chin? Do you wanna smell what you’re missing?!”
The boy finished his sit-ups and then threw up on Hairless Steven’s Nike cross-trainers.
Joe got off the stairmaster and went to use the bathroom. Across from the bathrooms there was a door open to a room that Joe had never noticed before. He reached his arm inside and found the light switch.
In the basement, the women’s self-defense class had a large attendance on this day and they were all stretching out as the teacher meditated in the corner. After she was finished meditating she blew a whistle and the class gathered around her. She told the students that the end of the course was next week, and that the last day would be a strenuous two hours of testing their skills and knowledge. She said she was proud of the class and that they would be rewarded for their dedication. Several students looked sad or nervous about the prospect of the course ending. So many bonds and friendships were made, and the whole class felt stronger and more empowered.
The teacher shouted out an order and the students fell into perfect lines like disciplined soldiers.
They shouted fiercely as they kicked into the air. Then they grunted from the center of their guts as they stepped into their punches, their palms flat and strong, striking the throats of the imaginary attackers.
Then, all of a sudden a door of the gym was swung open. A short bulky creature stumbled its way in. Its hands were holding up the giant foam-padded mask, steadying the strange thing so that it would not fall off. The teacher looked confused, but the women of the class looked ecstatic.
It was Joe behind the mask; the mask he had located in the equipment room just minutes previously. He could barely walk with it atop his short bulky frame. He could see the women tense up, and felt the blood rushing to his heart. He shouted from behind the mask: “POP QUIZ! POP QUIZ!” And the women converged, giving Joe what he finally realized he had always wanted.
Kevin Sampsell writes, publishes, promotes, sells, and writes reviews for books in Portland, Oregon. He has also taught 8th graders how to re-mix James Tate poems. When he’s not thinking about books or watching cartoons with his 6-year-old he follows the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team with a religious enthusiasm. More from Kevin can be found in the Vault of Smoke.