Fiction September 2013

The Contest

Charles Gullung

The radio station was KLOF, number 570 on the AM dial, and the building was set in what we called Grassland, an isolated area of weedy fields that extended from the edge of the city for about a mile to the industrial side of town. Its tall, skinny tower was right behind it, anchored by four long cables, and at night the red lights blinked from the top. We thought it was sort of magical, that there was an actual place where Wild Johnny Hateras would play records all day and Bobby Barberi all night, and whenever we drove on Surplus Avenue, we looked for the orange call letters, KLOF, standing lit on the roofline. How could there be so much in that one place? The radio station shared the building with Apocalypse Carpets, and once a month or so I would see KLOF on my way to Anvil Bridge and Iron, the shop where my dad was a welder. I was eleven that year, the year of the contests. The year they gave away the house.

My mother listened to KLOF all afternoon, when it was country-western—the old country-western, which had a definite honky-tonk whine and wasn’t big, bold, or shiny the way country became later. These were plaintive songs that sounded like they’d been recorded in somebody’s kitchen right after everyone had stopped crying. My mother had an unending garden that circled the backyard in a loop, and she worked on her hands and knees in pedal pushers that year, 1958, in her garden gloves, with her trowel. I remember so many afternoons with the radio on our patio beating out, “Dream on, dream on, teenage queen, prettiest girl we’ve ever seen,” while I halfheartedly weeded the fence line and reeled from the wild metaphors in the music, though I didn’t know that word that summer. I saw that a lot of unlikely stories held together, given the muscle of a melody. “Get them out by the roots, my dear,” my mother would say, and I would hurry on pulling the tops off the weeds so I could get to the next fence post and be free.

Eldon Backman and Lanny Loper were always waiting for me in the park to play some Strikeout or Off the Step, which are perfect games for three guys. Sometimes we would ditch our mitts in the hedge by the fountain and ride down to the river, where we were not supposed to be, and throw rocks at everything. We all had good arms.

“Did you guys call in for the Big Pop Please on KLOF?,” Eldon asked. We’d left our bikes and were down the bank of the river under the scrawny half-dead willow tree, waiting for something to float by. There were clumps of hollow reed husks we called tubes, and if you broke off a piece you could pretend to smoke it. Lanny had lit a tube one time with his stolen matches and sucked on it. He said the smoke cut him like a knife.

“You called in?,” I asked.

“Yeah,” Eldon said. We all knew the contest. You called in and a girl put you through to the recorder and when you heard the bell you said “Big Pop Please.” They recorded your voice, then once an hour the station played five people saying the phrase, and if you heard your voice, you called and won a case of lime or strawberry Big Pop sodas.

“No,” Lanny said. “No one wins that. They just get you to listen to the radio. Wild Johnny Hateras is full of it.”

“Jeez, I think he’s cool.”

Cool was a new word that year. It had been out, but we were just starting to use it.

“He’s better than that cowboy crap they play all day. I do like Elvis and those other guys.”

“The Everly Brothers,” Eldon said. We’d had a long talk about “Wake Up Little Susie” the week before: what we would say if we came home late like that. Lanny kept saying that the kids in the song had done it, and he kept quoting the “Ooh la la” in it, and Eldon and I were with the guy: they’d just fallen asleep at the movies.

I felt something when I rode down Orchard Street, where Cordelia Level lived. What is that feeling? It doesn’t have a name.

“That’s not going to happen,” Lanny said. “You don’t fall asleep on a date. You fall asleep in social studies with Mrs. LeBride.”

He had a point, but it didn’t sway us.

We were eleven and yet we felt the pull of romance and intrigue, and if there is a time when things are ineffable, it was that time; it was that year. I felt something when I rode down Orchard Street, where Cordelia Level lived, though I made a point never to look at her house—I just pedaled like a man with a noble mission. What is that feeling? It doesn’t have a name.

“Eldon,” I asked my friend, “did your mom get the second house clue?” I had tossed my handful of rocks. Nothing was coming down the river today.

“I think she did. What was it?”

“It was something like ‘It all starts in the middle of nowhere.’ It makes no sense.”

“They won’t give away a house,” Lanny said. “They are full of it.”

“Yeah, they will,” Eldon said. “You can’t say it on the radio and not do it. It’s the law.”

“Which house? A dollhouse?”

I knew the answer because I’d seen the radio station’s brochure, which my mother had driven out to KLOF to retrieve. “It’s one of the model homes in Holiday Hills.”

“Way out on the hills?”

“Where they’re building all those new houses.”

“They’re big houses,” Eldon said.

We, all three of us, slept in the finished basements of the little houses in Poplar Grove, our neighborhood west of the river.

“The picture shows a room with a pool table in it,” I said.

“Do you win it too? The pool table?,” Lanny asked. “This is all crap.”

“Oh,” Eldon said and pointed upriver to where the two orange canoes from the Girls Summer Recreation Camp were steering toward us, four girls in each.

“Soak ’em,” Lanny said.

“Don’t,” I said.

“It’s Mrs. Keppner and them,” Lanny said. “Soak ’em. She’s not going to stop and chase us. This is going to be great.”

“I can hear you boys,” Mrs. Keppner said. Riding first in the second canoe was Cordelia Level. As soon as I saw her orange canoe, the entire river changed for me the way her street changed. The word for that change is still waiting to be invented. The miserable willow tree now seemed a magnificent giant trailing its limbs in the water and the canoe trip itself, which would have gone from the school boathouse to the junior high, about four blocks, seemed an adventure.

“We’re going to soak you,” Lanny said.

“No we’re not,” I said.

“I know your parents,” Mrs. Keppner said.

“You don’t know mine,” Lanny said.

“I know your mother, Lanny.”

Eldon and I took our yellow reeds and sat in the long June grass, big shots smoking. Two girls in each canoe were paddling carefully, none of them paying us any attention. I watched Cordelia Level paddle as they all turned and headed for the Seventh South bridge. The bridge changed while I watched. Cordelia Level was lighting up the neighborhood. It was hard to sit still. I wanted to grab my bike and ride down to the junior high.

“Your mom is going to win that house,” Eldon told me. “My mom said so. Your mom wins things. She’s a brain.” My mother did win things. She wrote jingles and phrases and had won our hi-fi and my bicycle and a ton of records and our washing machine and even some money. When she wasn’t gardening, she had a pencil in her hand.

Lanny waited a minute. Then, with the canoes out of range, he threw a rock. It splashed way behind the girls, and no one turned around. “Man,” he said. “We’ve been robbed. When is that going to happen again?”

“I don’t know,” I told Eldon. “I don’t think so. The clues are hard; they’re all tricks, backwards, clues in clues. I don’t even get what they’re asking.”

“She’ll get it,” he said, pointing at me with his mock cigarette. “They all add up to make a map to where you find the key, and she’s going to do it.”

“The key to what?,” Lanny asked, coming over. He had thrown the rest of his rocks in a spray out into the river and was brushing his hands off.

“The house.”

“Where is the key?”

“It’s buried.”

“Just buried? Around?”

“It’s buried somewhere within the city limits and the clues—they give two every day, one from Wild Johnny Hateras and one from Bobby Barberi—make a map. Like directions. They said it could be in the middle of nowhere.”

Lanny was thinking it over. “Middle of nowhere? That’s like right here. You mean the key to the big house could be buried right now at the park under second base?”

Eldon stood up. “Let’s go see.”

Presented by

Ron Carlson is the author of six story collections and six novels, most recently Return to Oakpine, published by Viking in July. He is the director of the Graduate Program in Fiction at the University of California at Irvine.

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