Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
 
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Voices in the Night

by Eleanor Lerman




Paul Marden was in the middle of watching a movie when the lights in his house went out. The wind had been howling for hours, rattling the windows and making the roof creak, so he was not surprised when he lost power. Indeed, for a week, as the hurricane relentlessly churned its way up the east coast and then veered out to sea, gaining strength as it prepared to turn back and slam into New Jersey-like a living thing, capable of drinking up energy from the deep ocean while thinking malevolent thoughts about the people whose lives it was about to disrupt-increasingly dire reports about the danger presented by the oncoming storm had highlighted the near-certainty of power outages. Frantic television reporters standing on windswept beaches and coastal roads in the storm's path also warned of once-in-a-century tidal surges and the likelihood of severe damage to life and limb. The newspapers said to batten down the hatches and flee inland. Paul, who had grown up spending his summers on the Jersey shore and now owned a small townhouse a block from the beach in a sleepy coastal town not far from where he had spent the happiest times of his boyhood, was not particularly worried. There was always beach erosion and some buildings lost their roofs, but in his town, there had never been any serious flooding, for example. He thought he'd lay in a few supplies and ride out the hurricane at home, as he had done a number of times before.

On the weekend before the storm was expected to make its turn toward New Jersey, a mandatory evacuation order was issued, and police cars rolled through the local streets, using a loudspeaker to tell residents they had until midnight on Sunday to leave. Many people did; Paul watched from his window as the residents of a huge apartment complex across the street packed up their cars and drove away. Paul, though, decided to stick to his decision to stay put. He went to the supermarket and bought a case of bottled water, half a dozen cans of soup, two jars of peanut butter, a loaf of bread, several packages of batteries and two huge bags of food for his dog, Samson. The dog's name had started out as a joke, because when Paul had adopted the puppy from the local shelter, he couldn't imagine it was going to grow very big. Now though, three years later, Paul found himself living with a powerful, seventy-five pound animal that looked like a German Shepherd but clearly had some other large breed's DNA mixed in there somewhere-perhaps a Siberian Husky, he thought-because Samson had pale, icy blue eyes.

The university where Paul taught a media studies course that examined the influence of radio on post-World-War II culture had decided to close on Monday, when the hurricane was expected to arrive, so he was home that morning, waiting for the wind and the rain to begin their assault. Just after dawn, the sky began looking ominous, so Paul took the dog out before the weather conditions worsened. Walking by the beach, he saw that the waves were building themselves into towering rollers; the ocean looked crazed, possessed, boiling with rage. Unnerved, Paul turned to lead the dog back home; as he did, he glanced up at the sky and saw a large flock of seagulls heading out to sea. As he watched, more gulls followed: dozens of them, hundreds-maybe even thousands, he thought, up and down the east coast-were abandoning the land to obey their instinct and ride out the storm at sea. He knew it was a bad sign.

By lunchtime, the rain had started. By dinnertime, as Paul fed the dog and heated up some soup for himself, the wind was blowing so hard that it seemed to have a voice, and that voice was screaming bloody murder. Looking out the window, Paul saw garbage cans being hurled down the street. The stop sign at the corner had been snapped in half. There were only a few trees on the block but each one was swaying so hard their branches nearly touched the ground. He had been imaging that he could take the dog for one more walk but now he realized it was impossible, so he set out some pads for Samson to use, hoping he would remember what they were for.

He had a number of radios in the house including a short-wave receiver, which he turned on after switching it over to battery power. Tuning in the police bands, he listened as patrol cars driving the local streets reported back to the station that the huge sand berms the town had built on the beach to stop the predicted floodtide had been breached. High tide was in an hour but seawater was already pouring into town.

It was around eight p.m. when Paul's cable died, his television went black, and then, a few moments later, he lost electricity. Despite the high wind, he went out on his porch to see if it was just his block that had lost power, and he watched the eerie sight of the lights on the streets around him going dark, street by street. Now, the only light in the whole town was from the moon, a battered disk imprisoned in the storm clouds. But as Paul looked towards the entrance to the beach, which was down the block a few hundred feet, there was enough moonlight for him to see a wave of black water rise above the concrete barrier that separated the beach from the street and crash onto the pavement.

He went back inside, got a folding chair, and positioned himself by his front window so he could see what was happening outside. The dog came to sit beside him, leaning his weight against Paul's leg.

For the next few hours Paul watched what he later thought of as a kind of biblical battle being waged between the floodwater and the howling wind. He lived on the far east end of town; the hurricane wind was blowing west, so as the water rushed toward his house, the wind kept pushing it back. The one-story living area of his townhouse was built about fifteen feet above his garage, but he was worried that if the water managed to make it over the sidewalk, it would spill down his driveway, push in the garage door and swamp his car.

Eventually, the wind died down and though it was nearly pitch black outside, Paul felt safe enough to check the garage. The dog followed as he walked down the stairs. Amazingly, the driveway was dry and his garage was untouched, but there was some water in the street-a lot of it, really, though it was not rising above the level of the sidewalk. Still, it was like a shallow river, carrying with it all sorts of things that floated by as he and the dog stood watching: luggage, shoes, toys, beach chairs, a child's scooter, Christmas decorations. Later, he found out that these were from the parking garage of one of the hi-rises further down the block; waves from the sea had broken through the back wall that faced the beach, rushed through the parking spaces, taken out the front door and swept into the street, carrying with it all the possessions that people had left in their cars and stored in the garage.

Still, it seemed like the worst of the storm was over. Paul and the dog went back upstairs, where the temperature was already dropping. It was November; the storm had been born over the deep water of an autumn sea and merged with a cold front sweeping in from Canada. It was going to be very uncomfortable in the house until the electricity came back on, which Paul hoped would be soon. He went to bed in his jeans and a sweatshirt. The dog jumped up beside him and they both went to sleep.

What Paul didn't realize that night was that he and the dog were sleeping in the sea. Though the hurricane wind had saved his half block from flooding-sparing his small townhouse, the two next to his and the apartment complex across the street-the rest of the town had been inundated by a storm surge that at times topped five feet. Bungalows had been swept away, houses were ripped from their foundations, shops were flooded, the boilers and electrical wiring in the basement of the hi-rises along the beachfront were destroyed, cars by the hundreds were carried from one street to another, playgrounds were smashed to pieces, seawater burst into churches and synagogues and carried away the prayer books.

Paul only began to understand what had happened when he woke up the next morning in his cold house and went outside with the dog. At the end of the street was a huge mound of sand so high and so wide that it had buried the median dividing the boulevard that led down to the beach. It took a moment for his mind to process what he was seeing, and what it implied: that while the wind had kept the flood from his house, the seawater, pulling the beach with it, had traveled all the way up the street and left the sand behind as it retreated. Climbing over the mound, Paul began to walk up the boulevard and saw that the garages of the townhouses around him had been smashed in; cars parked inside were mangled wrecks, sprouting sea grass from under their hoods.

With the dog at his side, Paul kept on walking for half an hour, seeing more and more devastation as he went. He came across a bungalow with a collapsed wall that exposed the kitchen, bedroom, living room and bath within, all covered with mud. The lobby of an apartment building was filled with seawater up to the level of a mural on the wall that depicted a placid landscape of sand dunes and beach chairs. A few blocks away, he found the owner of the small supermarket where he sometimes shopped standing outside his flooded store, looking stunned.

Paul knew the man slightly, just to say hello to when he stopped in to buy groceries, but now they addressed each other like old friends, speaking with a spare intimacy born of shock. "Ravi. My God," Paul said. "Did you lose everything?"

The store owner, a small, bearded man, looked at Paul with red-rimmed eyes. "Maybe not everything. The perishables. Meat, eggs. Stock on the lower shelves. But the canned goods, cleaning supplies higher up-maybe we can salvage those things." He put his hand on Paul's arm, a gesture that Paul experienced as a test of the fact that they were both really still alive. "If you need anything," the store owner said, "you might as well just go in and take it. A lot of this stuff is going to rot soon, anyway."

Doing as he was told, Paul walked into the dark store, followed by the dog, who of course had never been allowed in the supermarket before, so he was on high alert, sniffing the air in this unfamiliar environment. It was dark inside and hard to see, so Paul took one of the first things he saw-a blueberry pie in a box, part of a display of baked goods near the front of the store. Then he walked out quickly, thanked Ravi and headed home, carrying the pie. On the way back, he realized that he had begun to hear sirens screaming all around him. Looking up, he saw three huge military helicopters flying low overhead. The sound of their blades chopping through the air was fearsome, deafening. A convoy of army trucks came barreling down the boulevard, heading for the center of town.

Back in his house, it seemed colder inside than it had been when he was walking in the street. He put on an extra sweatshirt and buttoned himself back into his coat. Then he sat down on the couch, turned on the radio and started eating the pie. Although he was usually very careful about what he fed the dog, Paul shared some of the pie with him because it seemed like a lot of the guidelines he followed in what he was already beginning to think of as regular life-this, what he was living at the moment, was surely something else-were beginning to fade away. Hour by hour, they were getting dimmer. The time might even come, he thought, when they would simply disappear.

For most of the day, Paul did little but sit on the couch, listening to the radio with the dog at his feet. The news was all bad. As one radio reporter described the effects of the storm, it was as if the Atlantic Ocean had come ashore last night and devoured its barrier islands and seaside towns. In Paul's area, it seemed the most immediate problem was that the water treatment plant had been badly damaged so residents were warned not to try to flush their toilets or turn on the water taps, since it was likely that there was raw sewage in the pipes. Equally disturbing was the fact that the electrical substations that brought power to many of the coastal towns had exploded when they were inundated with seawater, so no one seemed to be able to come up with a timeframe for when the lights would come on again. It was, Paul thought, like listening to the news in wartime. Bombs and rockets would have done the same kind of damage.

There was a point, that first afternoon, when Paul thought he ought to be taking notes about how incredibly important a role radio broadcasts were no doubt playing in people's lives right now-including his-since there was no other way to find out what was going on. That kind of analysis would be a useful addition to the course he taught. But by dusk, he had abandoned the idea because he didn't feel capable of thinking abstractly; he couldn't study his own experience of what was happening as if he were detached from it. All he could do was try to get through the next day, week, month-however long this situation lasted.

That first night, at dusk, under a darkening sky fittingly colored by blood-red streaks thrown off by the setting sun, he took the dog out again and saw two men carrying a bucket of water back from the beach. He asked them what they were doing and they told him that by pouring seawater into the toilet tank, gravity would do its work and he would be able to flush. They also told him that the National Guard was setting up a disaster relief station near town hall and by tomorrow, they would be giving out water and meals ready to eat. Paul thanked them for the information, feeling like a frontiersman who had come across two travelers bringing news from the other side of the wide prairie. Then he went home, got the pail he used when he mopped his floors, and went down to the beach himself to get some water, with the dog following after him. He also remembered that somewhere in the storeroom behind his garage was a small Coleman stove that he had bought years ago for a camping trip he had gone on with some friends.

Using a flashlight, he combed through the storeroom until he found the stove along with the propane tanks that powered its single burner. Then, he brought this equipment upstairs, where he set the stove on his coffee table, on top of a rack he took from the oven. Finally, after lighting some candles, he put a big pot of water on the burner and set it to boil, hoping that the steam would at least raise the temperature in the living room, where he decided to sleep. Gathering up his blankets, he closed the door to his bedroom and his office, essentially confining himself and the dog to the living room, hoping that would also help to keep the space a little warmer. Then he ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and fed the dog, all the while listening to the radio. The president spoke, as did the governor, followed by the head of the state's utility company, who said that more than half of all households in New Jersey had no power; the wind had knocked down thousands of trees that had taken power lines with them, and the storm surge had destroyed electrical facilities that served both cities and coastal towns. The utility company was already calling in crews from neighboring states, but still, no one had any real idea of when power would be restored.

Paul listened to all this as he sat on his couch, next to his makeshift stove. The dog sat on the floor, opposite him. Until nearly midnight, Paul listened to the radio and looked at his dog, who regarded him with those strange, ice-colored eyes. Paul had the feeling that the dog was studying him, waiting for any commands he might be given. Paul was exhausted-the stress of the day made him feel like he had been doing physical labor for twelve hours straight-but his adrenalin level kept him from sleeping. The dog, too, still seemed to be in a highly alert state. At one point, there was a sound on the porch, which Paul identified as just the wind making the wooden boards creak, but he saw the dog look to the door and keep his eyes focused there for a long time. If anyone came through the front door right now, Paul had an unmistakable sense that the dog, usually a placid creature, despite his size, would tear them to pieces.

At last, Paul felt like he could sleep. He blew out the candles and turned off the camping stove because it would be too dangerous to leave it on while he slept. Then he lay down on the couch, in the dark, under a pile of blankets. The dog tried to get onto the couch to lie beside him, but it was too narrow, so Paul got up and pushed it together with a smaller couch to make room for Samson. He stretched himself out again and the dog arranged himself against Paul's back. Grateful for the extra warmth the dog radiated, Paul fell asleep thinking about a magazine article he had once read about a cave in France where there was a trail of prehistoric footprints that appeared to be of a young boy walking beside what must have been some kind wolf-dog. A child and his companion, a tame wolf, who was in the state of making the transition from enemy to friend.

The next morning, Paul got his car out of the garage and drove into the center of town to see if he could find out what was going on. The dog was beside him in the passenger seat, and Paul could tell that he was once again in a hyper-vigilant state that seemed to be the counterpart to Paul's own tension. His thoughts were racing: what if they couldn't fix the water treatment plant? Would the whole town have to be condemned? What if everyone whose house was damaged or destroyed never moved back in? Would Paul end up living in a ghost town? Would he have to buy a gun to defend himself? He was aware that some of these ideas were a little crazy-he was a forty-five-year old man, a more-or-less successful academic, decent looking, socially liberal and financially conservative, and he had very little frame of reference for relating to the situation he found himself in right now. So, he tried to push aside his troubled thoughts and just pay attention to driving, since there were no street lights working and almost every other vehicle on the town roads seemed to be a speeding police car, state trooper, or military transport.

When he found the National Guard checkpoint, Paul thought they would want to inspect his i.d.-maybe, his jumbled mind told him, they would already worried about looters or criminals coming into town to steal from people's battered homes-but that wasn't what happened. When he pulled up to the soldier who signaled him to stop, the young man simply asked him to roll down his window, and then placed a case of water and a box of self-heating meals ready to eat in the back seat. Paul said that he really didn't need these things, but the soldier, speaking in an unexpectedly kind voice, told Paul he should take the food and water because, as he didn't really have to add, as was now abundantly clear, you never know. Then the soldier waved him on; already, there was already a line of cars behind Paul, waiting to pick up their own emergency supplies.

On the short drive home, Paul kept the radio on, switching from one news station to the other, becoming impatient when a newscaster reported a story that didn't directly relate to the storm; at the moment, it was hard to believe that anything else mattered. He still found it very difficult, though, to grasp the magnitude of what he was hearing: thousands of people had been effectively left homeless and everything they owned had been destroyed. There would be no rail service into New York for days, maybe weeks, because tracks were torn up and stations were under six, seven, ten feet of water. Boats were on the railroad tracks. Upside-down train cars had been swept onto the roads. It all sounded impossible, crazy.

Over the course of the next week, Paul spent most of his time in the house, on the couch, bundled under blankets while he listened to the radio, with the dog resting beside him. He went to sleep listening to the radio and in his dreams, in the background, he heard the news being read by men and women whose voices he also woke up to, voices that he came to know intimately. He did go out once or twice a day to walk the dog or to go to the National Guard checkpoint to collect more bottled water. A number of times he considered leaving, but where would he go, especially with the dog? Most of his friends were also living in homes without heat and light, though granted, their towns had not been declared a disaster zone, as his was. He kept in touch with people by text messaging, since phone calls were almost impossible; along with all the other havoc the hurricane had caused, it had decapitated many of the cell towers throughout the state. Even the university where Paul taught was temporarily closed because the campus had sustained significant storm damage. There were a number of other reasons he stayed put, some of them informed by magical thinking: despite the dire predictions he heard on the radio about how long it would take to get back to anything like normal, he woke up every morning thinking that surely, soon, the lights would go on in the world again.

One bright afternoon, full of sunshine, a FEMA urban search and rescue team came to his door. They just wanted to see if he was alright, they told him; they were checking on everyone who had made the questionable choice to ride out the storm. The team consisted of two men and a spirited young woman with long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. She was holding the leash of a golden retriever wearing a service harness emblazoned with the words Canine Search Team. The big yellow dog started happily wagging his tail when he saw Paul framed by the open door-another successful rescue!-but just behind him, Paul could hear Samson growling low in his throat. He told the blonde woman that he was fine and went back into his house.

Finally, on his ninth night in the dark, Paul suddenly became aware that there were lights flashing outside. He could see them through the blinds. Stepping onto the porch with the dog, who now never left his side, he saw a group of men in reflective vests climb out of a power company truck as a crane lifted another worker up towards the transformer atop at pole at the end of the block. Standing beside him on the porch, the dog growled. Paul told him to be quiet, and he obeyed.

An hour went by. There was a lot of back and forth between the workers who methodically went about their business, handing each other tools and conferring about whatever damage they had found in the transformer. At one point, the man standing in a bucket at the end of the crane did something that caused sparks to fly from the electrical box and Paul despaired; his mind raced through all kinds of terrible scenarios that ranged from the workers leaving and not coming back for days to the belief that they would never come back, never be able to restore the electricity.

But after another half hour, one of the workers walked over to Paul and told him to try his lights. Paul went back into his house where he flipped one switch and the lights in his living room went on. Another switch, and there was light in his kitchen. He heard his refrigerator rumble back to life. Down the street, he heard some faint cheers as the streetlights winked back to life.

The first thing he did was turn up the thermostat and gratefully watched it start to rise from forty-five degrees to fifty, to sixty. Then he took a shower, finally peeling off the layers of clothing he'd been wearing for the past few days: a sweatshirt over a turtleneck on top of a long-sleeved tee-shirt. It seemed miraculous that his hot water heater was able to deliver even lukewarm water within an hour after the power came back, but it did. Then Paul looked around at his living room, with the Coleman Stove on the coffee table and the other grimy clothes he'd worn over the past nine days piled on a chair and burnt-out candles sitting in dishes on his kitchen counter, and decided that he needed to do some cleaning. He needed to put away the evidence that for so many days, he'd been living so close to the bone, so deep in the dark. The power had come back on around nine o'clock. Paul started cleaning around ten and kept it up until well after midnight, when he finally returned to his bedroom for the first time since the night of the storm. The dog, of course, came with him. And that night, he never turned off the radio. Even when he finally fell asleep, completely exhausted, it was still on.

****

It was about a year later that Paul started driving around at night. The urge to drive through the town and its surrounding communities took hold of him one evening when he was on his way home from teaching a class. It had been a golden bright fall that was now fading into the dull pall of early winter. As Paul drove along the road into town, he noticed that a new sign had been put up welcoming visitors to a Christmas festival at a local church. Every November, the church put up a sign to remind people about the festival, but perhaps the one Paul had seen year after year that featured a smiling Santa had been destroyed in the flood because this sign not only looked brand new, it had a different picture on it: a Christmas tree and a pile of presents. It was only a small alteration from the usual, but somehow it seemed to open Paul's eyes to all the change that had taken place in the aftermath of the storm.

The first difference, of course, was that the piles of debris that for weeks had lined almost every street were long gone. For a time, it had looked like all the houses and hi-rise apartment buildings in town had disgorged their innards onto the sidewalk. Splintered sheetrock, boilers, washing machines, carpeting, couches, photo albums, luggage, bookcases, clothing, pots, pans and dishes-all the ruined, waterlogged possessions of human beings were jumbled together with the building materials ripped from their homes. Then, one day, like something out of an urban fairy tale, giant pickers had appeared in the town: huge machines with claws that were like monster-sized versions of the penny arcade game where you tried to grab a prize inside a glass display case. The pickers spent two weeks methodically traveling from one end of town to the next, and when they were gone, all the debris had vanished with them.

But there were other changes, too. The boardwalk, which had been turned into a twisted hulk by the force of the storm surge, had been rebuilt. Instead of wood, however, the new version had been constructed with planks made of some synthetic material that was a much darker color than the old, weather-worn boards. Some local stores had vanished, others had opened where the previous ones had stood. The movie theater, an old Moorish building famously painted pink, had been so badly damaged that it had to be demolished and in its stead there was now a multiplex that looked like a big neon box. One whole section of town made up of small bungalows built in the 1920s as summer rentals and only winterized a few decades ago had been so badly flooded, their walls and pipes and electrical wiring so corroded by seawater, that they had to be razed to the ground. Now, new homes were being built; bigger, fancier; unaffordable to the younger crowd who had made the neighborhood into a busy center for bar-hopping and hanging out in the local restaurants and surf shops.

It was the urge to visit and revisit this altered reality that compelled Paul to get into his car at night and drive. He felt like he was traveling through a kind of double landscape, one in which his eyes saw one thing but his mind kept displaying pictures of something else. It was as if he was experiencing the past and present of the town as layers that somehow existed concurrently, at least in his thoughts: beneath the new, he still saw the old. Beneath what had been rebuilt, he saw what had been damaged. Sometimes he felt that he could see more than that: there were layers beneath the layers, and more beyond even those, going back to the days when the town didn't exist, when the coast-even the continent-was unpopulated and a dense, tangled forest marched down to a rocky shoreline where now there was a sandy beach.

Paul always took the dog with him when he went on these nightly drives. He was the necessary companion, an essential component of the experience Paul was having as he drove the dark roads, looking into the past and seeing the present. The dog no longer growled at other dogs or readied himself for some fierce response when confronted by strangers, but in the car, he was always alert and watchful, panting softly, looking straight ahead with his icy eyes.

Besides trying to process how deeply he was affected by his double vision of the landscape, there was another reason that Paul felt compelled to go driving at night: it was a chance to listen to the radio. Although the medium was his field of study, he had fallen out of the habit of actually turning on the radio very often, until his nine days in the dark when the radio-and the dog-were just about all he had to interact with. Paul felt that listening, really listening to the voices in the night was an experience of the most basic sort, reminiscent of listening to stories told around ancient campfires, of participating in the oral tradition of passing along gossip, rumors, history-all the tales of humanity. Now, other than on the music stations, where frantically upbeat disc jockeys teed up songs and read commercials, most of the nightly chatter centered on news and politics, though there were still quite a number of call-in shows whose sleepless, angry, depressed or simply weary audience wanted someone, anyone, to hear their complaints. Some nights, though, when the ionosphere was playing tricks, acting like a broadcast highway through the thin, cold night air, Paul could pick up a distant station based in the Midwest that had a different focus. The host was interested in the occult, and he often had guests on who discussed related subjects. This was a whole subcategory of radio culture that Paul often included in the course he taught-programs that put a spotlight on the strange, the weird, the supposedly paranormal-and when he could tune in the station, he listened, he thought, with professorial interest.

One night, late, Paul was cruising around a nearby shore town that was famous for its amusement park. Its iconic roller coaster had been washed into the sea and some of the wreckage had not yet been carted away. Like a drowned sea monster, the twisted steel rails still lay in the surf, washed over by moonlit waves.

Paul had been listening to a discussion about how massive doses of vitamins could cure everything from impotence to cancer when he began to hear the faint, almost ghostly sound of another conversation that seemed to be going on behind the robust voices extolling the virtues of megavitamin therapy.

It was the occult program, drifting into the frequency of the stronger station. By fiddling with the radio dial, Paul was able to get a good fix on the signal. As he listened, Paul realized that he had picked up the station at the point where the host, a man named Danny Simon, had apparently been talking to his guest for a while; they were coming back after a commercial.

"Okay now," Danny said, in the kind of deep-toned, conspiratorial voice that was familiar to Paul as one of the tools of the trade for the hosts of these kind of late-night programs, "as I was saying before the break, let's take some calls. You're going to be talking to the medium LeLe Lyons, who is joining us on another phone line, from her home in Harborview, New Jersey."

Well, that was interesting, Paul thought. Harborview was just a few miles from where he was, right now. He decided to pull over and listen to one or two callers talk to the medium. As Paul parked the car, the dog turned to glance at him but then faced straight ahead again, looking out into the night.

"Hello there," Danny Simon said as he picked up the first call. "I'm putting you through to LeLe now."

Some static buzzed through Paul's radio speaker and then, after a brief pause, a woman who identified herself as Mary Ellen from St. Cloud said hello to LeLe. Apparently, that was all it took, just hello, for the medium to connect with the caller, because LeLe quickly came on the line and began speaking. Her voice sounded odd to Paul, high-pitched and weak, like it was a strain to talk. Still, she had some very definitive news to share with Mary Ellen from St. Cloud, telling her that her parents, both of whom had passed away within a year of each other, were together now, safe and content in each other's company. LeLe went on to describe a recent engagement party that Mary Ellen had hosted for her daughter and relayed the information that mom and dad had not only been present at the party but were quite taken with the daughter's fiancé, a graduate student in economics named Henry.

Oh yes, Mary Ellen said. Yes. She told the medium that all the information was not only correct but also comforting. Danny Simon then disconnected that call and welcomed another.

Paul listened for about twenty minutes, but soon his attention began to wander. He was thinking about starting up the car again and getting back on road, when he was suddenly astonished to hear LeLe say something about a disc jockey named Happy Howie. He had missed the first minute or so of what LeLe had been saying so he wasn't sure how Happy Howie had been brought into the conversation, but now he focused in with great attention.

Quickly, he turned up the volume on the radio. A gibbous moon, like a bright, white plate with a broken piece missing from its lower edge, was framed in his windshield as he heard LeLe's voice strengthen slightly.

"Hmm," she murmured into the airwaves. "As I was saying, it doesn't often happen that someone who has crossed over steps forward without a particular person on this side asking for him, but Happy Howie is very insistent, so I guess we'll have to hear him out. He says that there's someone listening in right now-someone named Paul-who he'd like to talk to."

"Well, isn't that something," Danny Simon interjected. "I remember Happy Howie. Back in the day, he was the top dj in New York, the first guy to interview the Beatles when they came to the states to do the Ed Sullivan show. He was still rocking in the 80s, as I recall. He had a show on WPLJ for years."

"He wants to talk to Paul," LeLe insisted in her quavering voice. "Paul," she continued, "Howie knows you're listening, just like you used to listen to him on the radio, at night in your room. You used to call in all the time and ask him to play your favorite song: 'Hungry Like the Wolf' by Duran Duran."

"That's really fascinating," Danny said. "So Paul, are you out there? Do you want to connect with Happy Howie? Please give us a call."

Last year, on the night of the hurricane, Paul had never panicked, though in large part that was because he didn't really understand the strength of the storm. Even in the days after, when he had sometimes felt as if he was living in an altered reality, he was less frightened than aware, very aware, of the unexpected situation he found himself in and alert to the different ways he had to deal with problems he had never before had to even think about confronting. Now, hearing the medium suggest that Happy Howie-who indeed, he had called many times when he was a teenager to request that he play "Hungry Like the Wolf"-was supposedly eager to connect with him from beyond the grave, Paul felt much the same way: alert, but cautious. Careful. Not ready to do anything, not even to respond.

Instead, he switched off the radio. He just sat in the car for a while, looking out at the dark sky, the broken moon. Beside him, the dog was still panting softly, relaxed but watchful. Eventually, Paul started up the car and drove home.

Over the next few days, Paul's state of awareness began to center around the feeling that somewhere inside himself he was waiting to see what would happen: was he-his mind, his psyche, the unknowable workings of his brain or whatever else was in charge of making decisions about things like this-just going to let go of the bizarre experience of supposedly hearing Happy Howie call out to him through a medium appearing on a radio show, or was that going to prove impossible? As it turned out, maybe forgetting the incident was not exactly a hopeless goal, but it was proving to be difficult. Paul often woke up thinking about it. He thought about it when he walked the dog in the morning, under a cold, white sky, and again, when he returned home from teaching his classes and took the dog out again. The incident also occupied his thoughts when he was trying to go to sleep.

One Saturday morning, after washing his breakfast dishes and then simply standing motionless at the sink for a while, Paul finally gave in. He went to his computer and searched an online white pages for LeLe Lyons in Harborview, New Jersey. He didn't find the exact name, but a listing for L. Lyons seemed promising. Without hesitating, he dialed the number. As soon as the phone was answered, he knew he had the right person.

"Hello," said LeLe in her thin, wavery voice.

"This is Paul. I'm the person Happy Howie wanted to speak to when you were on the radio a few nights ago," Paul told her.

"Oh," LeLe said. Then she hesitated for a moment, as if weighing her own desire to deal with Happy Howie again. "Well," she said finally, "I think you should come see me." Then she added, "I charge for private sessions. One hundred dollars."

"Alright," Paul said. He was prepared to have been asked for more. "Just give me directions."

A while later, as he opened the door to leave his house, the dog seemed to purposefully slip into the space beside him, matching his step as he walked onto the porch. Paul hadn't intended to take the dog with him, but since he was already halfway down the front stairs, Paul didn't feel like forcing him to go back inside. He opened the car door, and the dog took his usual place in the passenger seat.

It took an hour to drive to Harborview, which proved to be rough-looking town of strip malls and undersized houses crouching behind the ragged barriers of shrubs and chain-link fences. Paul found the house he was looking for in a cul-de-sac and parked on the street, at the edge of the patchy lawn. Keeping the dog on his leash, Paul got out of the car, walked up to the door and rang the bell.

At first, he wasn't sure if the person who answered was the one he had come to see, because he couldn't tell if the home's inhabitant was a man or a woman. The individual who stood before him was very thin and dressed in shapeless clothes: old jeans and a denim shirt with a patchwork daisy stitched on the pocket. But she-she, Paul thought now, definitely-was also wearing makeup, though it looked like it had been hastily applied, and the colors were too garish for the person's pale, almost sickly looking skin.

But this was indeed LeLe, as Paul found out when the medium introduced herself. If nothing else her voice was unmistakable; it seemed to travel the octaves, up and down, quavering all the time. Stealing another glance, Paul finally realized that LeLe Lyons was most likely a transsexual, though maybe in the early stages of transitioning from one gender to another. Maybe that's why she seemed to be caught between identities, still figuring out how to present herself, how to speak and even how to dress.

LeLe led him into a small living room that was poorly furnished: just a couch that had seen better days, a table and a few chairs. She motioned for Paul to sit at the table and took a seat opposite him.

"Do you mind if I ask you for payment before we begin?" she said.

"I brought cash," Paul told her. "I thought that might be helpful."

The medium nodded, but in a way that made his supposed thoughtfulness seem inconsequential. Paul handed her five twenty-dollar bills, which she slipped into the pocket of her jeans. She looked over at Paul then, but said nothing for what seemed like a long time, which made him uncomfortable.

Just to break the silence, he finally spoke. "I hope you don't mind the dog,"

"No, I don't mind. If he's here, I guess he's supposed to be," LeLe replied. Then, just a moment or two later, she took a deep, sighing breath and said, "Howie is stepping forward. He's very eager to talk to you."

"Really?" Paul said cautiously.

"Oh yes. Very eager. He says that he particularly remembers you because of how good you were at Howie-speak, that language game he invented. Whenever you called in to his show, you used it when you asked for your song, 'Hungry Like the Wolf.' Do you recall that?"

"Yes," Paul said, though before this moment, he couldn't even guess the last time he had given a thought to Howie-speak. "I do."

"That's good," LeLe told him. "Howie is so glad to hear that." LeLe suddenly leaned forward; Paul read her posture as reflecting an urgency about the next part of the message she was delivering. "Can you say something to him, to Howie? He would so much like to hear you use Howie-speak again. He says it would be fun."

"That's what he wants?" Paul asked.

The request seemed ridiculous. Wanting to convey his feeling to LeLe, Paul spoke in a whisper, as if that would keep Howie from hearing him, but that seemed ridiculous, as well. Still, LeLe seemed to understand his discomfort and for the first time, she smiled. Then she shrugged, a gesture, Paul thought, meant to make her brief smile seem more sympathetic. And it did; Paul suddenly felt a little more relaxed. LeLe seemed a little more human to him, a little less removed from the experience she was leading him through.

"I know these communications can sometimes seem kind of off-kilter," she said. "But the people who come through, like Howie, have often been gone a long time. Maybe that has something to do with it, but I've found that it's often hard to figure out why they focus on certain things and not others. It's best to just try to go along with them." The smile disappeared now and her face lost whatever animation it had momentarily possessed. It was a seemingly lifeless mask that asked him, "Can you do that?"

"Okay," Paul said, though he still felt embarrassed. "Hi, He-a-zowie," he said, finding he could effortlessly recall the mash-up of sounds and syllables that characterized Howie-speak. "I'd le-a-zov to he-a-zear 'He-a-zungry Le-a-zike the We-a-zoolf', if you could spin that for me."

LeLe nodded; apparently, Paul had successfully fulfilled Howie's wish even though he had neglected to keep using Howie-speak all the way through his request.

"Howie says thank you," LeLe told Paul solemnly. "And he wants you to know how glad he is that you followed in his footsteps-not exactly, he reminds me, since you're not actually on the radio. But you teach a course about the cultural influences of radio broadcasting. Howie knows how much you admired him when you were a teenager, how much you liked to listen to his program, and he's gratified that he helped you find a direction for your life's work. He knows that you worked on your college radio station, but you couldn't get a job in broadcasting so you went to graduate school. Concentrated on media studies, got your masters, and all that. Howie says that's very impressive, especially to someone like him, because he never even went to college. But he wants you to know that a lack of higher education never hampered him at all; in fact, he had a very interesting life. He emphasizes that: very interesting-and very successful. He knew the Beatles very well, the Stones-even your favorite, Duran Duran, though of course that was later. He even got high with Simon LeBon before a Duran Duran concert. That's one incident you didn't know about, did you?"

"No," Paul said. "I never heard that story."

"Well, he couldn't exactly tell it on the radio," LeLe reported, "not in those days. But he's laughing about it now. He says it was a blast."

"I'm glad he had a good time," Paul offered.

"Howie says he always had a good time. He was a very popular personality. He won lots of awards and he made a lot of money."

Looking across at LeLe as she relayed this information, Paul had to admit to himself that it was all very bizarre. The information was accurate-at least what he was being told about himself and how his early interest in Happy Howie had influenced his choice of media, in general, and radio, in particular, as a course of study, though of course he could hardly vouch for the veracity of the Simon LeBon incident. Still, it was all definitely bizarre. And Happy Howie sounded remarkably unaware for someone who had supposedly crossed over to the afterlife. In fact, he sounded like the kind of egotistical, self-important bigmouth who might have seemed cool and edgy to a teenager, but now left Paul feeling sour and a little depressed. Was this really what he had come here for? To hear Happy Howie remind them both of how the remembered past could be both idealized and disappointing at the same time? Paul didn't need spirits from the great beyond to convince him of that, so what was the point?

Just as he was thinking about saying Well, thanks a lot, got to be going now, LeLe suddenly took another deep breath and sat back in her chair. There was a look of something like shock on her face.

"My God," she said softly. "You won't believe what just came into the room."

"What do you mean?" Paul said, looking around, seeing-of course-nothing.

"He's gone," LeLe said softly. "But now they're here. A whole pack of them."

"What?" Paul said. This was even more bizarre than the Howie conversation, but it was also very unsettling. "A pack of what?"

At that moment, the dog, who had been quietly lying on the floor, suddenly stood up, raised his muzzle into the air, and let out a howl. Paul had never heard him do that before, but as he looked from the dog over to LeLe, he saw her nod.

"Wolves," she said. "Wolves who lived long ago. They are the ancestors of your dog."

"I don't understand," Paul stuttered. "Wolves?"

"It was their howling you heard in the wind on the night of the storm."

Paul stared at the medium. She seemed to be looking off into an invisible distance that the dog was also aware of. He had stopped howling, but his attention, too, seemed riveted on whatever it was that LeLe was seeing.

The medium then spoke again. She said, "Do you want to know the reason that they're here?" She didn't wait for an answer; Paul knew that he wasn't expected to give one. "They tell me that they are here to see what they have wrought."

After that, LeLe closed her eyes and seemed to collapse in her chair. Paul waited a few moments, but still, she did not move. He assumed that her posture meant the wolves had now disappeared.

Finally, rising to his feet, Paul said, "Okay. Well. I guess that's it then, right? Thank you very much," he added because he didn't know what else he was supposed to say.

LeLe barely acknowledged him. She seemed exhausted, spent. Perhaps, Paul thought, this reading-or what had she called it? A communication? Perhaps it had been particularly odd, even for her.

He tugged on the dog's leash and Samson followed him without hesitation, as he always did. There was no more howling, nothing particularly unusual about his behavior. He simply jumped into the car and positioned himself in the passenger seat, panting softly, waiting for Paul to start the car and head home.

As he drove, Paul kept going over and over what he had experienced in the past hour and always found himself coming back to the fact that his caller from the great beyond had been that idiot, Happy Howie, while the dog had been visited by his ancient ancestors. That is, if he believed any of this-though in a way, he thought, that hardly mattered. Trying to tell himself that he had somehow been duped, taken both for a fool and for the sum of one hundred dollars, did nothing to stop him from wondering why, if the medium was going to manifest anyone for him, it couldn't have been his late, loving parents, for example, or even his grandparents who surely would have had some kind words for him.

Still, since he couldn't figure out how LeLe Lyons could have discovered his childhood obsession with Happy Howie, he was willing, at least for the time being, to accept that she was some sort of extraordinarily sensitive individual with a talent for channeling some greater consciousness. But what was that? Since Paul didn't believe in God-at least he thought he didn't-the closest he could come to naming what LeLe had tapped into was to call it the universe, but then, what was the universe trying to tell him by presenting him with two such polar opposites in terms of the beings who had been manifested for him?

In other words, Paul asked himself as he drove through the night with the voices on the radio murmuring in the background, was the universe basically stupid or profound? Coarse or transcendent? Was there some connection he was supposed to understand that linked the wild, primitive past to the present and the future, or did existence just bump along, getting handed off from one clueless, self-absorbed Howie-like boob to another? Perhaps the wolves who had howled in the hurricane wind-As a warning? A greeting?-had indeed seen what they had wrought, as LeLe had suggested, but Paul wondered what they thought, now, of the path they had taken. Of casting their lot with human beings, those fragile lumps of bones and genes and sinew. Carriers of dreams and confusion. He looked over at his dog, whose ice-blue eyes were fixed on the road ahead, on that same inscrutable distance where the wolves had gathered. But they did not seem to be there now. Ahead, there was only the road.

****

Many months later, on a mild spring afternoon, Paul was sitting in his office at the university, looking out the window at the trim lawns and orderly, flower-lined borders lining the paved walkways that led from one building to another. He hadn't thought about the storm for a while, but it came to his mind now as he pictured how the university grounds had looked when he'd come back to work two weeks after the hurricane had blown through. Here, almost every tree had been either uprooted or badly damaged; the lawns were slick with mud and oil, and damaged cars that had been lifted out of the parking lot behind the main library had been scattered helter-skelter as far as the eye could see. None of that damage was evident now, so Paul was surprised by this momentary return to the double vision that had haunted him for so long after the storm. For the most part, he no longer experienced that sort of thing, nor did he go driving at night anymore, not since his visit to LeLe Lyons.

Paul was soon able to put these thoughts aside and prepare himself for his next appointment: a meeting with a student to discuss the theme of an important end-of-term paper. He had been having these meetings most of the day and to make them easier on the students, all of them seniors who always seemed to find these conversations anxiety producing since the paper would count for a good part of their final grade, Paul had brought the dog with him. It was a deliberate ploy to make the students feel relaxed-after all, wasn't it kind of cool to have your professor's big, friendly dog lying at your feet while you discussed your coursework? The head of his department had approved this gambit because it seemed to be effective. Besides, the university liked to project the image of being kind of cutting edge, kind of hip and bohemian, and a professor with a dog fit in nicely.

The last student of the day, a serious and thoughtful young woman, showed up at his office exactly on time. She arranged herself in the chair beside Paul's desk and settled some notes on her lap. The dog, who was stretched out near the desk, rolled over to sniff the bag, since students sometimes brought treats for him. But this girl had nothing for Samson. She gave him a perfunctory pat on the head and then looked over at Paul.

"So," she said. "Should I begin?"

"Sure," he told her.

Consulting her notes, she laid out her idea for her paper. She wanted to explore what she called a major cultural shift in radio broadcasting in the New York area that affected the rest of the nation, as well: the period in the late nineteen sixties to early nineteen seventies when local FM stations switched from playing pop songs and counting down the week's top ten singles to an album-oriented rock format. That, she said, heralded an era of interconnection between cultural and political movements such as Woodstock and the anti-Vietnam war protests and the kind of music that was played on the radio.

She was methodical in her presentation, and the theme she laid out was both relevant to the semester's coursework and the subjects Paul had been discussing in class for the past few months. And yet, as she spoke, as the soft afternoon light with its spring tones of green and yellow began to darken into evening's blue, Paul felt like he was having trouble hearing her. Worse, he soon began to have difficulty concentrating on what she was saying; the more intensely she spoke about the importance of what she called a cultural upheaval, the more forcefully she outlined an argument for the significance of the events she wanted to write about and the people involved, such as the disc jockeys, who of course included Happy Howie-how influential they were, how tuned into the changing times-the more Paul felt himself mentally detaching from what she was saying. It wasn't that he disagreed with her. In fact, just the opposite: it was undeniable, he thought, that these events had brought about marked changes in late 20th century American society. They had helped usher in a new day, a new era, a new dawning of social consciousness-the student was using all these terms-but so what? So what? Paul found himself thinking. Most of the people she wants to write about are dead now anyway. Their lives, the things they did, came and went in the blink of an eye. That's exactly what's going to happen to me, too. I'll be here and gone and I have no idea what any of this means. What the purpose is. If there is a purpose. If there is anything to understand about any of this.

Grimly, he found himself focusing on his encounter with the after-life version of Happy Howie, which would seem to indicate that if there was any deep meaning to uncover about the brief span of any living being's individual existence, or that individual's connection to the endless generations who had passed before and would follow after-if indeed there was any meaning at all, any link between the individual and the cosmos, the universe, the great, mysterious unknown that was out there, somewhere, beyond the sky, beyond space and time and light and dark-then there was still no guarantee that it would ever be revealed. Not in this life and maybe not in the next. If there was a next.

Or maybe, Paul thought, just maybe, nothing was ever revealed-not unless you wanted it to be. Not unless you were ready. And even then, it could all be a lost cause. Or maybe, Paul thought, maybe not.

"That sounds like an excellent topic for your paper," Paul said to his student, feeling like he was crouched down somewhere deep inside himself, operating the levers of a puppet self who smiled at the serious young woman, mouthed some compliments about the excellence of her presentation and then ushered her out of his office. He went back to his desk and stared out the window again, watching as evening slowly completed its banishment of the soft spring afternoon. Then he clipped the dog's leash to its collar and led him outside, to the car. He was in a hurry now, but he wasn't headed home.

Paul drove the speed limit, but inside, he felt like he was rushing, flying towards his destination, which was Harborview. He was there in less than an hour, parking on the street in front of LeLe Lyons' house. Behind drawn curtains, he could see a light on, but that was only what he expected. He hadn't bothered to call because he knew she would be home. He needed her to be.

And when she opened her door to him, she didn't seem all that surprised to see him, either. "Oh," she said. "Paul." And then she led him into her living room. She didn't ask why he had come, nor did she ask for payment.

With the dog beside him, Paul sat at her table, in a small circle of lamplight, and she sat across from him, just as she had the last time he was here. A few moments went by. LeLe closed her eyes and took a breath. Paul studied her face and noted that she seemed to have become more comfortable with herself: her makeup was more subtle, her dress more feminine. But Paul had little time to reflect on LeLe's appearance because she soon opened her eyes and looked around the room. Her glance traveled quickly from one darkened corner of the living room to another.

"Oh my," she said. "Oh my."

"I won't talk to Howie again." Paul told her. "That's not why I came."

LeLe shook her head. "It's not him," she replied. "Not this time." Then she reached out her hand, as if to touch the darkness. "The room is filling up with shadows," LeLe said. "Hundreds of them. Thousands." In a whisper she added, "No, I'm wrong. There are many, many more. They are standing outside the walls. They are gathering on the horizon."

Just as she spoke, the dog jumped to his feet and let out a sharp yip. It was not the howl Paul had heard from him before, but something like it-a sound halfway between a greeting and a warning. A sort of, who goes there? Paul thought, as he stroked the dog's ears to calm him. LeLe spoke again. "The beings who are here-they haven't all passed," she said. "Many of them are unborn souls." She looked astonished, mesmerized. "Unborn souls," she murmured. "I've never encountered anything like this before."

"What do they want?" Paul asked.

"I don't know," LeLe told him. And then she asked, "Do you?"

Paul shook his head, but it was only to gather himself before he answered. In a moment he would speak, summoning from himself the voice of a man who had survived a great storm. Who lived alone but for a powerful dog with ice-blue eyes. Who had thought that his double vision was a symptom of troubled mind, but now knew it to be an invitation, a clue. "No, I don't know," Paul said finally. "But if they want to tell me, I'll listen." He settled back in his chair and felt the dog lean closer to him.

"It's alright," Paul said to everyone around him. "I'm ready."

THE END


2015 Eleanor Lerman

Bio: "I'm the author of a number of collections of short stories, poetry, and a previous novel, Janet Planet, based on the life of Carlos Castaneda. I'm also a National Book Award finalist and have received both NEA and Guggenheim fellowships. I am also the author of Radiomen, which was recently published by The Permanent Press. More at my web site, www.eleanorlerman.com ."

E-mail: Eleanor Lerman

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