Author’s Note: The short story below, the sixth in an ongoing series, was drawn up based on a creative writing exercise. Here’s how it works: I pull two cards from a box of writing prompts and write whatever comes to mind — it’s that simple. This week’s topic: “person who calls talk radio shows” and “invitation from a stranger.” Below is my interpretation of that combination. And since we are just few short weeks from Halloween, I thought it might be fun to explore some darker themes with this series of stories. I welcome your feedback and, if inspiration strikes, please do share your own version in the comments!
“So, here’s the big question: is American culture dead? Taking your calls after the break.”
The little red light blinked out and Harry Jasmine dropped his headset onto the desk. It had been a long shift and he was itching for a cigarette. At times like this, he tried to remember all the reasons he had quit: a frustrated wife, the sleepless nights, and hacking fits that made him unbearable to be around. Life without smoking had been better, for sure. Still, the yearning remained.
“Nice hook, Jazzy. The lines are lighting up.” Kevin Bush had been Jasmine’s program director for nearly 20 years. The life of a radio host and his team is a transient one, but they had been together for nearly a decade on WKWZ 860 on the AM dial and consistent ratings likely meant they had at least a few more years together. After all, nothing stokes a fire like some volatile political discourse.
“You know the drill, Kev. Some guys like me use the firehose. I use the blow torch.” Jasmine smiled. Stirring up emotion was the job of every talk radio host. He just had a knack for it. Sometimes, his wife would roll her eyes at some of the prompts he’d use, but that was the business. He didn’t always like it; in fact, he usually didn’t. But it was the path he chose for better or worse.
“Okay, stand by. We’re back in 3, 2, 1, go,” Bush said with a point to his host.
“Today, we’re talking about the death of American culture. This country that we love so dearly, that so many men and women have fought to protect, is unrecognizable today. That’s my take; I want to hear from you,” Jasmine looked down at his monitor, which queued up the first caller. Was that “his take,” as he called it? Hardly. But that’s the radio business. Flammable statement after flammable statement until the end of time. “Let’s go to John right here in Louisville. John, what do ya say?”
“Thanks for taking my call, Harry. It’s great to talk to you.” The call-in routine was like the Wild West and not always in the best ways. In the anything goes world of a radio program that pulls from a cross-section of society, sometimes callers get off to a slow start.
“You as well, John. You as well. What’s on your mind?” It was a delicate balance; move the caller along without offending. The radio host must always be gracious, yet motivated to get to the next caller.
“Yes, well I tend to agree with you. Our country is in great peril.” The voice on the other end of the line was familiar, but not one Jasmine was able to readily place. In this job, they all blended together into one cornucopia of lunacy. The radio caller: the scourge of society.
Of course, Jasmine had been in the game long enough to know that he needed his merry band of sociopaths just as much as they needed him. He provided them with an outlet to share their perspectives from the dark corners of public consciousness and they, in turn, kept the lights on for him. Talk radio, particularly Jasmine’s brand of talk radio, may not be above-board all the time, but it paid the bills.
“Tell me more, John. How are we Americans going to come together to save our broken identity?” Prompts sometimes helped draw discussion out of the least socially inclined.
“There are so many ways, Harry. Just so many,” he replied in a soft voice, clearing his throat with each breath. “Perhaps you’d like to join me for dinner, and we can discuss further?”
“John, I’m grateful for the invitation, but this is a talk show and we have some talking to do,” Jasmine was a master of transitions and once the conversation shifted into dinner dates with strangers, he knew it was time to move on. “Thank you for calling in — we’ll go ahead now and take our next call. Charles from Plano, Texas, you’re up. What’s on your mind?”
This back-and-forth continued for a couple more hours before Jasmine and his program director shut it down for the night. Late night talk radio wasn’t the most glamorous profession, but it afforded Jasmine more flexibility than some of the stricter formats. Working into the early morning hours, he didn’t have any watchdogs monitoring what he said or offering critiques. At 2 a.m., he was free to be his radio self — not quite himself, but the character he had mastered during a lengthy career behind the mic.
“Good show tonight, Jazz. Hot topic, got the yokels swirling.” Bush pulled no punches. He despised the show’s audience and never held back. Thankfully, his job allowed him to keep a safe distance and keep his feelings off-air. He stuck with it for no other reason than his loyalty to Jasmine. “You think they really believe that garbage?”
“What’s that, that American culture is dead? Yeah, I truly do,” Jasmine replied. “I think they believe it with every fiber of their being. I think that belief, at least in some extreme cases, gives them purpose.”
“That’s pretty sad.” Bush shook his head and jammed a few loose ends in a tattered backpack. When the shift came to an end, it was a race against the clock to get home for a few winks before the whole process started again.
“It’s dangerous is what it is. Sometimes I wonder if what we’re doing…” Jasmine trailed off. It was a tough thing to discuss; he couldn’t claim his program provided a noble service to humanity. What did it do then? What was the point? “It’s complicated, right? I can look you in the eyes and tell you that I know that what we do isn’t right in the way most people would use that word. I can do that and I’m alright with it.”
“But…?” Bush stopped packing his gear and listed to his partner. As much as he enjoyed sleep at the end of a long shift, he lived for these philosophical debates.
“But is what we do dangerous? That’s what I struggle with every day,” he said. “It’s the fine line between giving people a platform to share their feelings — constructive or otherwise — and spinning them up to such a degree that they become dangerous.”
“You just said it there: we give people a platform to share whatever they wish.” Bush didn’t struggle with the same moral dilemma as Jasmine. It was black and white as far as he saw it: captivate an audience, stay on the air, make money. A simple formula. “It’s the American way, Jazzy. Freedom of speech, my good man. Doesn’t matter what they say.”
“I hope you’re right.” Jasmine appreciated Bush’s point of view. There are many sides of an argument, not two and certainly not just one. For the better part of a decade, Bush had served faithfully as the devil’s advocate whenever necessary. Sometimes, his was the only voice that kept Jasmine on the radio. “And if you’re not, God help us all.”
A ringing phone put an end to the discourse. Jasmine waved toward his counterpart, signaling his intention to grab the line and let Bush say goodnight to the studio. On the surface, it’s outside of the norm for the studio line to be ringing at these hours, but there was little that was normal about radio life.
“Hello?” The rasp in his own voice took him by surprise. Projecting oneself into a microphone for six hours at a time takes a toll. When the light goes off and exhaustion sets in, Jasmine crashes hard.
“Good morning, Harry.” He had heard that voice before — tonight, even. While he considered his response, his brain scanned the archive of the evening’s calls for a match. “We didn’t get to finish our conversation before so I thought you might like to do that now.”
“Thanks for calling back in. I’m sorry to say that we’re off the air now and I’m literally running out the door to get home.” It was a push-button response; a recording, almost, that he kept stored away for occasions just like this. Occasions when some of the crazy slips through the cracks and he’s forced to confront overzealous fans. “Call back tomorrow, though. I’d love to have you back on the air.”
“Oh, no. That won’t do.” The man sounded disappointed, as if there would have been any other response at 3 o’clock in the morning. “I’ve got this steak dinner on the kitchen table and while it’s a bit cold now, I still think you’d enjoy having dinner with me, Harry. We have so much to discuss.”
That’s it, the dinner invitation. Goosebumps crept along his skin as Jasmine remembered the caller he had cut short earlier in his show. He always tried to be gracious and give callers a shot at making their point, ludicrous or otherwise, but something was different about this fellow. Jasmine thought back to his discussion with Bush and feared that his instincts might be right. Stir up enough emotion in your listeners and it can lead down an unpleasant path.
“Look — John, is it? — it’s late and I really do need to be getting home.” Pacifying a potential psychopath wasn’t technically part of the job description, but one might be surprised how often it came up. “Why don’t you call back during the show tomorrow and I’ll give you all the time you want?”
“That sure sounds nice, Harry. And when you get home, I’ll have this steak dinner ready for you.” Jasmine’s heart skipped a beat. When he gets home? Was this man in his driveway? “Your wife is a lovely woman; we’ve had a fine discussion this evening. I was disappointed, however, that she doesn’t share the same opinions as you and I do. I don’t think she’ll be much use to us.”
Jasmine’s hands shook as the caller continued. He held the line with John, trying to remain as calm as possible while pounding out 9–1–1 on his mobile phone. The operator picked up and Jasmine moved the phone to the receiver so the woman on the switchboard could listen in and gather facts.
“John, I understand if you’re upset that we weren’t able to speak earlier but threatening me or my wife isn’t going to accomplish what you think it will.” He wasn’t quite sure what John hoped to accomplish. Jasmine had come upon many fanatical listeners through the years, though he had managed to brush them off and move along without incident in most cases. This was different. This felt closer.
“Well, I suppose we’ll know soon. Perhaps you can talk some sense into her. Hurry home before your steak gets any colder — “
“John, I’m sorry, where are you calling from?” Surely these ramblings were a ruse; a hoax to scare the old radio host. Perhaps this time he pushed his listeners — this one, at least — just a bit too close to the edge.
“Just come on home now. We’ll be waiting at the dinner table.” The line went dead. Jasmine relayed his address to the emergency operator listening on the other end of the line and then raced across the studio and into the parking lot.
Home was a 10-minute drive across town, but with the soft light of dawn approaching and a mind filled with worse-case scenarios, he felt as if he had aged a week. Jasmine pulled into the driveway and slammed on the breaks. The kitchen light was on.
He approached the front door in a dead sprint as a cascade of police cruisers pulled in behind with lights flashing. Within reach of the front door, in quick succession, he heard gunfire — pop! Pop! Fearing the worst and no longer fearing for his own life, he burst through the front door to find his wife standing over a figure he hadn’t seen before. She held a pistol in one hand and the loose remnants of a cloth restraint around the opposite wrist. Duct tape hung from the edge of her cheek, a red mark remaining where it had been affixed to her mouth.
“I got free.” Her voice was shaky. Her body fell limp in her husband’s arms as a half-dozen armed officers filtered into the living room. “He said he knew you — he knew you from the radio. He made me watch him make you dinner. Harry, what in the world?”
“I’m so sorry, love. I’m so sorry.” It’s all he could do. He didn’t know John from Louisville, but he couldn’t say he hadn’t incited him. “I’ll stop the show. I’ll stop it. This should never have happened.”
Jasmine ushered his wife onto the front lawn while the officers scanned their home. Alternating flashes of blue and red lit the quiet street and brought curious neighbors onto their own front lawns and porches. Jasmine paid them no mind; he held his wife and tried to put this ordeal behind him.
John entered through an open window in a guest bedroom. Jasmine’s wife, Helena, had been asleep upstairs when she woke to the smell of cooked beef wafting up the stairs. While uncharacteristic of her husband, she assumed he was just a bit hungrier than usual. Tiptoeing down the stairs, she found herself face to face with the murderous end of a pistol and was quickly bound and confined to a corner of the kitchen while her captor prepared a meal and prattled on about his plans to “take back his country” or some such nonsense. He was in a trancelike state; coherent, though not fully present. After much discreet wriggling, she freed herself, lunged for the pistol resting on the kitchen table, and ended the ordeal.
“Why would he target you? What could you have possibly said to provoke him to this extent?” Helena was still grappling with the nightmare she had endured in the early morning hours. Truthfully, it wasn’t a situation that could be explained away so easily.
“I walk the line every show — I know that; it’s the job.” Jasmine stepped back and brushed his wife’s hair from her eyes. “I don’t know why he did what he did, but I know what I do, and I know I can’t anymore.”
It was a cool autumn morning, and it was on this day that Jasmine determined to walk away from a career that has been both a blessing and a curse. There would be no more callers, no more controversial opinions. No more guilt and no more stress.
And most of all, no more unwanted dinner invitations from strangers he’d prefer to avoid.