Variations on Stolen Themes (I)

When reading the things my friends write, I’m often sent on a trip back in time, as something mentioned trips a memory, and begs to be relived and then recorded here, as a sort of variation on their themes.

Theme: Radio Shows
Variation: Chicken Heart, Cosby, and Me

Rana mentioned old radio programs, and I was suddenly seven years old, lying on the bed farthest from the window in the end bedroom in my grandparents’ house in New Jersey. The wallpaper is multicolored, green, orange, and yellow daisies. The front window is blocked by an a/c unit. The closet, a tiny thing in the corner, has a curtain instead of a door.

Instead of a nightstand there’s an old wooden desk under the a/c unit. The wood is dark brown, nearly black. The top is scarred and stained, and holds a lamp, a gun-metal gray manual typewriter, and a radio that I always thought was the transistor radio that my mother built as a science project when she was a girl, but have since learned was not. It’s old enough that it still hums when my small fingers find the dial in the dark, and turn it on.

Talk radio was my talisman, then, against nightmares. As long as the radio was on, the real world was represented, and I was safe. (Talk radio, late at night, is still my defense when my over-active imagination creeps me out.) But on the night I’m revisiting there is nothing comforting about the sounds emanating from the ancient machine.

The program is Bill Cosby’s tale of hearing the Chicken Heart story on a radio program when he was a boy. He tells part of the story, and the image of the pulsating Chicken Heart is engraved indelibly into my brain, not as part of a comedic bit, but as one of those things that retains the power to chill for reasons that are never discovered. It’s a stupid story, made surreal by the situation, I am lying in bed, in the dark, hearing the faint murmur of a dinner party in the dining room below, surrounded by the soft whir of the air conditioner, and I am getting goosebumps because I am listening to a radio show about getting goosebumps while listening to a radio show.

Hour later, my grandmother comes in to turn off the radio. “You should be sleeping,” she says. She turns the a/c power to a lower setting, pulls the soft pink comforter up around my shoulders, and I smell her L’Aire de Temps perfume, and the powder she uses after her showers, and the earthier scents of coffee and lipstick when she bends to kiss my forehead, squeeze my hand, and tell me she loves me.

Back in the here and now, I wonder if it is not the Chicken Heart story that caused my general aversion to chicken.

And if I close my eyes for a moment, I fancy that I can smell my grandmother’s perfume and powder.