Radio Star — Short Story
"Radio Star," a short story published in the literary magazine Mondo Greco, is about an elderly woman who is isolated from the world but finds a new way to communicate.
“She’s on now,” my husband, Nick, yelled, still holding the portable phone. My sister-in-law, Loulla, ran to her kitchen sideboard and switched on the radio. The gravelly voice was clear and insistent, lasting only a few sentences, and then the announcer spoke. Nick leaned against the kitchen door; Loulla’s hand grasped the radio dial; and I sat at the small white table, staring at her fingers as if she could bring back her dead mother.
Though I longed to understand what Katina had said on that taped conversation, I refrained from asking, letting the silence pass. Then the phone calls came nonstop. Gossip in Cyprus seemed instantaneous. With each conversation, I listened to the family’s whispered Greek, responses to those who wondered if we had caught my mother-in-law’s last words.
“We missed most of it,” Nick murmured.
“Maybe they can send us a tape,” I offered, already figuring I could ask someone to transcribe it into English. A wash of guilt flushed my face as I realized that even after twenty years of marriage, I hadn’t learned enough of my husband’s language to understand the subtleties of death.
“Good idea,” he said loudly. “I’ll ask my cousin Pambos to call the radio station.” Then Nick explained that the program had followed her illness, airing news of her stroke, her subsequent decline, and then testimonial after testimonial during the two days since her death.
I knew that Katina had been a frequent radio caller. On our last visit here to Limassol, Cyprus’s southern port city, she proudly showed us her winnings from the quiz show: the taupe rug, coiled upright in the corner of her bedroom; the too-bright oil painting hanging next to Nick’s high school diploma; and the gold-rimmed coffee cups jammed into the kitchen cabinet among assorted chipped plates and mugs.
With the winning answer of Kepler, she had won her latest prize, a trip to Egypt, which she gave to Loulla. The question had something to do with revolutions of the planets. I was astonished then that this seventy-nine-year-old woman, who’d left school after the fourth grade to become a shepherdess, knew such a fact. Then, by her bed, I had discovered a worn blue booklet, completely filled with small, carefully written lines. The last entry said, “Denmark, capital, Copenhagen.” In case the questions turned to Scandinavia, she was prepared.
Before long, cousin Pambos, the eldest of Katina’s nephews, strolled into the kitchen, wearing the burnt odor of a chain-smoker. For a second, as I stared at his long nose and hooded almond eyes, I saw Nick the way he might have been if he’d remained in this Mediterranean-seared, overeating climate. I stood to greet Pambos, my wool, silk-lined black skirt sticking to my thighs in the ninety-five-degree October heat wave. He took my hand, kissed both my cheeks, and resumed speaking to the family in Greek. Occasionally, Nick translated.
“I’ve just come from the morgue,” Pambos said. And then to me, in crisp, British English, he added, “Everyone there knew who she was. They didn’t know what to do with all the flowers.”
My mother-in-law rarely left the house, except to get the mail. “From who?” I asked.
“The radio listeners, her fans.”
“But, all that from a quiz show?”
“There were other shows. Every morning, talk shows. She gave her opinions.”
“Everything, politics, people. She spoke about Nick, when he called her, his successes as a doctor, about your daughter, and you, too.”
I cringed, remembering the nasty things she had said about family members, the way she alienated friends, and, most of all, ugly suspicions she once held about me, her foreign, Jewish daughter-in-law. Had she voiced these on the radio? Had every Cypriot heard about my lack of wifely qualifications?
“You know I was with her when she died,” Pambos said proudly.
In Siamese precision, Nick and Loulla turned to face their cousin.
“She was not alone; she was peaceful.”
Loulla smiled at Pambos, but her grin was twisted, overlaid with deep remorse, that she, who had sacrificed her life for her mother, was not with her in the end. Nick wore the same smile, the crooked lips of expatriate ambivalence.
Soon, friends and relatives streamed into the house, and in the flurry of strangulated hugs, shots of whiskey, glasses of water, bowls of peanuts, and even medical symptoms unabashedly thrown at Nick, I began to hear the story of Katina’s demise. Everyone, it seemed, claimed to have been the “last” — from her best friend Mary, the last to speak with her on the phone before the stroke ... to cousin Ellie, the last to enter the apartment where she found Katina sprawled on the kitchen floor, barely breathing ... to Pambos’s wife, the last to hold her hand in the hospital.
Like Rashomon, each had a private vision of Katina’s final moments; each was desperate to share that information, caught in the adrenergic frenzy of Death’s before and after. As I listened to them, their eyes sparkling, I noticed the retreating glances of Nick and Loulla, whose own remembered “lasts” would be indelibly surprinted with the smugness of other’s self importance.
* * *
On the morning of the funeral, we went to Katina’s apartment. First, Loulla and I stripped the bed, putting the linen and several soiled handkerchiefs into the washing machine. Nobody knew why, but it was a custom to clean the dead person’s bedding and discard it within three days of death.
It was strange being in Katina’s apartment. We kept ourselves busy; no one wanted to feel her absence. But, being an in-law, I allowed myself the image of her tiny, bent, withered body as she shuffled around the house in her tattered flower slippers. Amidst the muted clap of her feet upon the linoleum floor, I heard her incessant chatter, voicing her every thought, interrupted by self-pitying groans. I pictured her sitting at the kitchen table, her thick shock of salt-and-pepper hair, framing her drawn, age-spotted face, while her bony arthritic fingers furiously folded grape leaves. I reconstructed a family dinner when she dominated the conversation. Her wry smile suddenly faded when her eyes watered, crying from some imagined slight and then laughing at a retold family blunder, all with the uncontrolled abandon of an unweaned child.
It was no wonder there were so many versions of her last moments. Katina was a woman who inspired both intimidation and braggadocio.
We looked at photographs in the living room when the phone rang. With three telephones in the house, each turned to the loudest ring because of Katina’s poor hearing, the bells and clangs were so shrill, I felt as if a police-car siren burst in the room. I dropped the photos in my lap and stared at Loulla stationary by my side, who was staring at Nick, also in a freeze motion, standing by the bookshelves.
“Who could it be?” he finally asked. “Nobody knows we’re here.”
Like a robot, he moved to the phone and picked it up. It was a New York friend who, visiting his father in Cyprus, had taken a chance that he’d find someone in the apartment. He had heard about Katina’s death from the radio.
“Oh, that radio,” I said, still stunned by its power. I recalled that last month, Loulla’s husband had been in Athens and heard Katina speak all the way from Cyprus. He had said it was a shock for him to turn on his car radio and hear his mother-in-law. He only prayed she wouldn’t say anything mean about him.
I didn’t know why, but I walked toward the phone, somehow wanting to see this instrument, the red rotary that tinkled each time a number was dialed, Katina’s prime tool of communication. My eyes immediately focused on a piece of paper laying beside it, a half-torn envelope. I recognized it from an invitation to a wedding Katina never attended. On it was a crude map of the United States, the tip of Florida hanging limply beyond its actual proportions. I had drawn it six months before, on Easter morning. On the upper right corner, I had written the name of my daughter’s university, enclosing it within a large circle.
That map was not only evidence of my last contact with Katina, her last glimpse of a country she only visited once and found severely lacking, but was also her last link to the granddaughter she rarely saw. Suddenly, the utter bleakness of waste rose in my throat and I lifted the envelope and put it in my purse. No one else would realize it was missing.
Before we left, I took another walk around this apartment that I suspected I would never see again, at least with Katina’s things in place. In her room, I was startled by the neat stack of her bedclothes on the bare mattress. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found the opened bedside book by Jean-Paul Sartre. It wasn’t that she was an existentialist, though I wouldn’t have discarded the notion. It was just that she read whatever anyone donated to her and gave the same weight of interest to Sigmund Freud as Nikos Kazantzakis. I closed the book and placed her folded eyeglasses on top.
Nick was not ready to leave. He sat on the couch, writing on a paper, consulting Greek and English dictionaries.
“What are you writing?” I asked.
“An obituary for the radio.”
As I waited for him to finish, he asked me to check the English dictionary for the spelling of “radiocast.” Skimming the page, my eyes stopped at an unexpected listing. Radio star: “a cosmic radio source of very small dimensions and relatively strong radiation.”
Piled in the car, we drove to the funeral in Kolossi, a small town, about twenty minutes away by car, where Nick’s parents were born. The church overflowed with people, all dressed in black. We were shoved inside. Some kissed us; but most bent their heads, allowing us to move toward the center. I looked around, astonished. I felt like I was watching Saddam Hussein with all his mustachioed followers. The townsfolk, either relatives of Nick’s father or mother, seemed to be shorter, heavier, or female versions of my husband.
A woman handed me a tapered candle and lit its tip with hers. I held it close to my chest, slanting it forward, allowing the wax to drip discretely. All eyes fixated on the priest, who swung a chain attached to a gold ball filled with steaming incense. He intoned and continued shaking, maneuvering around the closed casket, which overhung with bouquets and wreaths.
Family friends flanked me; on my left, Androula coughed from the heavy sweet steam, and on my right, Elena, an ex-New Yorker and the only woman to wear slacks, gently held my elbow. The priest began passing around a large wooden crucifix for people to kiss. I suddenly remembered one of the first presents Katina sent me, a tiny gold crucifix, and my horrified embarrassment when I had to explain to her that Jewish people didn’t wear such symbols.
There was a light tapping on my back, and an old woman motioned me to kiss the cross, which was mysteriously coming my way.
“I can’t,” I said. “I can’t.” I felt like a child caught cheating. All previously bent heads seemed to be staring at me.
I grabbed Elena’s hand. “I couldn’t kiss the cross,” I stammered.
“You did what you must.”
“Will they all be talking about me?”
“Maybe a few years ago, but I think things have changed.” Her voice wavered. She squeezed my hand.
After the service, we stood outside the church, in a processional. We, the royals, received the visitors, shaking hands and kissing cheeks.
“I was her friend, from the radio,” a woman said, pressing her wet cheek to mine. “We spoke on the air very often.” I looked deeply into the woman’s face; she was a girl really, no more than seventeen. It was then that I realized that Katina didn’t just speak to the elderly, the isolated, people like herself. The radio was blind to age, blind to looks, blind to sight. Loneliness could be shattered by a flick of the switch.
At that moment, something like jealousy overcame me. Despite my efforts at trying to indirectly speak to my mother-in-law through translated snippets, despite my proddings to Nick to call his mother, to ignore her critical tirades, I had failed to connect. I had failed to connect to something as simple as turning a dial.
What was I doing at this funeral? Who was I to stand in the line of the intimates? If it were true that the wife inherits the mother-son bond, why hadn’t I done more to untangle the long years of conflicting knots?
Reaching my arm to the next on line, I instinctively offered my cheek. The receiver, a woman about my age, grasped my hand and drew it to her chest.
“She always said nice things about you,” she said.
I looked at her, my eyes imploring her to be sincere, certain that she had confused me with someone else; not this feminist, Jewish foreigner, but someone hovering over me, someone who belonged.
“Yes,” she said, “your mother-in-law spoke kindly of you.”
A mass inside my chest dissolved and I felt heaving hysteria pushing to the surface. I held the woman’s hand, even as she began to hug Loulla, standing to my right.
At the cemetery, the mourners stood around the newly dug grave. A group of men lifted the coffin’s cover and placed it to the side. Others passed a shovel. I tried to push myself through the crowd, wondering why strangers would vie for front-row views, getting increasingly angry that they weren’t opening a spot for me. Finally, I managed to squeeze through two children, lunging so far forward, I almost tottered into the grave. I could see Katina’s face, so frail and withered. Though Nick told me later that at the last moment the priest had covered her with a sheet, I was certain she could see me throwing dirt in her face, and I only feared that I would collapse on top of her.
Once, during a visit to Pambos’s home, Katina rested in the sun, elevating her leg, which she had cut on some glass. Complaining she couldn’t move, she closed her eyes. While she thought we were all inside the house, I caught her bending down in one swoop from the waist to the ground to pick some weeds. Though I backed out and coughed before I reentered the yard, I couldn’t resist telling Nick about his “histrionic” mother.
After dinner, Pambos turned on the radio and all the guests began to dance, the women passing a white handkerchief to each other. Forgetting her injured leg, Katina rose, grabbed the handkerchief, and stepped gracefully to the bouzouki music.
“Your leg,” I screamed, instantly translated by Nick.
Though she had laughed and suddenly cramped her leg, she looked at me with a mix of conspiratorial need and anger. Had she ever forgiven me for giving her away? For letting her know, that while I didn’t fully understand her language, I understood her actions?
Then I remembered her radio fan who said, “She always said nice things about you.” With clenched fists, I dug the shovel into the pile of fresh earth, lifted the load over Katina’s body, and scattered the dirt inside.