This scene takes place early in the novel, soon after the ark known as ANGEL HOUSE, piloted by an entity named Professor Squimbop, has made landfall on the edge of the Inland Sea, causing the town in which the action is set to spring up out of nothingness. As the townspeople yearn to believe that they share a common past, a Reunion has been convened. Here, we are in the lead-up to that event.
Well Broadbeam woke in his room in the Hotel in the early evening of what would soon be the first night of Reunion Weekend.
He woke up every evening at exactly this time, and lay just like this thinking of the sentence he’d bring to the station, printed on a card he’d place on his desk beside his takeout dinner, just under the mic. It would be the first sentence he’d utter, as the children were brushing their teeth and putting their dirty socks in their hampers.
By the time they were crawling into bed, with their radios set at just the right volume under their pillows, Well would utter this first sentence, easing into his Radio Angel voice, finding the frequency that only those under ten could discern. Then he’d put the card away, under the rock that held down the pile that had accumulated over nine years of broadcasts.
At this point in the evening, his work was done. The children were already floating, bound to his voice, their minds shut off. Now, all he had to do was guide them out of their beds, up the Meadow-lined Road, and into the Ghost Town, the vast set he’d constructed in the Meadow to model the town as it’d been when he was their age, thirty years ago.
This was his reward, his particular means of constructing a bearable life: if he could force the children to dream of the town as it’d been for him, not as it was for them, he could feel the clutches of Death ease slightly from around his neck, if only for as long as he went on talking, alone behind the mic.
Back in the Hotel, he stretched out his toes and fingertips, reaching off the mattress and into empty space. One wall was stained with water damage that looked like a turtle slowly climbing to the next floor. Well treated it as his companion, the only other being he could claim to know in any profound sense, and dreaded the day it finished its climb and disappeared.
Aside from this, all he had were a few clothes he never wore, his shaving kit and toiletries in a cardboard box in the bathroom, and three notebooks that periodically got soaked in the bath and then dried, blimping out on the windowsill.
He rolled over and yawned. Whatever he said first would be the sentence he’d print on his card. Tonight’s was: In that place where they all lived, there was one who did not.
As he lay like this, listening to the empty rooms surrounding him fill with Reunion arrivals, his mind drifted to the streets of the Ghost Town, touring them in their emptiness until he could no longer bear to. Only the children, borne on the waves of his voice, could save it from shriveling out of existence, leaving him truly at large in the world, a state he did not believe he could survive in.
The further he stretched his limbs, the more it felt like he was floating, witch-like, out of the Hotel and across the town, up the Meadow-lined Road to the marshy site of the Ghost Town, into the house he’d grown up in.
He could feel his thought-pattern turning dangerous, the possibility of mania beginning to loom. Too long inside that house and he’d spend the night moaning in bed rather than getting behind the mic where he belonged.
So, shouting, “C’mon man!” he swung his feet onto the thin carpet, stood, and got dressed, entering a window of time that had little room for error. He had to get in his car, pick up dinner, and make it to the station in time to be behind the mic and have uttered his first sentence just as the children were closing their eyes, easing their way over the cusp of consciousness and into the kind of earnest dreaming where they would follow his voice anywhere it wanted to take them. If he missed this window, they’d end up deep in their own dreams, beyond the sway of the radio, useless.
So, he quickly did his stretches, showered, combed his hair, buttoned and tucked in his shirt, put on his shoes, and left the Hotel.
The gloved hand in the Giant Chinese takeout window handed him his chicken stir-fry and soy sauce packets in a paper bag, and Well held out the credit card the Mayor had equipped him with when he hired him nine years ago, to shepherd the town’s dreaming children through the nights so they didn’t drift into the Orchard when the Mayor was alone with his Movies, seeing him at his most vulnerable, as he feared they might otherwise do.
“It’s just a matter of keeping the channels clean,” the Mayor had said. “Keeping the nights open for me alone.”
Well pulled out onto the Strip, passing the Night School and the Mattress Store, which together comprised the town’s only site of non-solitary sex. Each was lit brightly, the Mattress Store blue, the Night School red, cars piled up in the lot, Reuniongoers looking to get sleazy right away.
He parked at the station and went in through the employees’ entrance.
After rinsing the laminated astronomical chart he used as a placemat, he positioned his big glass of water atop the mass of stars at the center, which he called View from the Upstairs Bathroom When I Woke Up to Pee in the Middle of the Night, Age Seven. After securing the door behind him, he carried a chair over to the table, opened the paper bag, and unwrapped his Giant Chinese.
He ate as the children in their houses around town shuffled unsupervised to bed. When it was time for the broadcast, they collapsed under an exhaustion that hadn’t been creeping up on them. They were fully awake, going about their business, and then snuffed.
They waited in bed, eyes closed and ears open, wearing sleeping caps just as Well did. He removed his from a drawer beneath his placemat, pretending that he, like them, was about to settle into his childhood bed, all of life ahead of him, all of the universe open to receive his dreaming body wherever it happened to float.
The time had come. He put his leftovers in the bag, then took out his keys and unlocked the inner office, which was pitch black and cold. He took his fur coat from the hook where it waited all day in the dark, and bundled it around his neck and shoulders, so that the fur came up around his mouth and nose and ears, overlapping with his sleeping cap, and then he picked up the headset from another hook, put it over his head, and turned it on.
There was an ideal volume for his broadcast, not so quiet that it passed into the warm mud beneath hearing, but also not so loud that it disturbed real sleep and brought the children too harshly back to an awareness of their actual beds. And certainly not loud enough to breach the realm of adult hearing. All manner of perverts, he knew, were listening in, and it was up to him to ensure that they never gleaned more than a distant sigh.
When he’d gotten the knobs to this exact point, he began with the sentence he’d prepared: “In that place where they all lived, there was one who did not.”
The children’s radios under their pillows spit this up into their ears through several layers of cloth and feather, and soon they were on their way. They’d been traveling on Well’s voice all their lives, so the Ghost Town was, to them, as ancestral a place as any.
The broadcast was unspooling and gaining speed. They had taken off from the Earth, broken free from their beds, and passed through the roofs above them.
Well held the mic very close to his lips. His legs felt far away beneath him, stowed under the table in a tub of soothing gel. One arm hung by his side, over the armrest of the chair, while the other held the mic against his lips, his teeth up to the grate with his tongue pressing deeper, into the hole.
This hole in the mic was analogous to the hole in space, which had opened over the roofs of all the houses in town in which the children slept, sucking them gently from their beds and into the regions above.
“There are things you can’t know but you can know are there… things you can’t see but you can feel see you… things calling you to them that don’t want to hurt you but won’t let you go…”
Tonight’s broadcast was taking on the momentum of a litany, as many of them did. It was a gentler journey for the dreamers than when Well got to ranting, as he did on other nights, snarling curses and describing torments the body would undergo in the hidden torture chambers of the sky, where the clouds muffled the sound of breaking bones and tearing muscle.
“There are roads that look straight but aren’t, turns you make that you can’t unmake, roads that are seams on the Earth above other Earths below that whisper up through them, whisper asphalt, asphalt, asphalt, because all Earths want to be roads and all roads want to go on and on.”
He was singing now.
To pass from this town, here on Earth, to the Ghost Town as it stood in the bulging country of the mind at night, there had to be some borderland, a period of hard travel before the wonders began. So, the children in their pajamas and sleeping caps floated up the Meadow-lined Road, struggling to stay aloft and to avoid the snagging telephone wires, shivering in the high air.
When they reached the Meadow, bathed in the purple glow of ANGEL HOUSE, they turned toward it, over the marshy cold that surrounded the Ghost Town, which quivered, as Well quivered, to welcome them.
Well’s voice coursed through their brains as he threw all his strength into pulling them out of the air and planting them inside the Ghost Town, setting them on a course toward his house, where, he prayed, they’d crowd into the upstairs bedroom and keep his childhood bed from ever going cold. “Down… down… down… softly down,” he whispered, guiding them into a landing without breaking their bones.
Once inside the Ghost Town, the children were free to wander and play.
Massed on the Ghost Town streets, they commingled to reincarnate Well at that age, a group-body that resisted the weight of years which, as an individual, had made Well the man he was, killing the boy he’d been.
He would’ve loved to go further, to direct their behavior even within the Ghost Town, reiterating exact days he’d spent there as a nine-year-old, sitting in the summer sun and contemplating eternity, fitting the exact words he’d said and thoughts he’d thought back then into their mouths and minds, but this was beyond the power the radio granted him. At this point in the night, his was the role of a parent at a park, sitting on a bench while his children played, developing their own personalities a little at a time.
It was the farthest-in part of the night for Well, the waiting in blankness while the children did their living in the Ghost Town, before settling into his house to sleep. He could picture them in there, but only as clearly as he could remember his own nine-year-old body, in that same bed, thirty years ago.
The Ghost Town was thus a fertile but blank set for the children to populate in a different way every night, even though, in its essential character, it was always the same.
Well sighed and whispered into the mic, though now his voice was only background noise: “I found a lizard one day in July, on the street you’re walking down now, its teeth so sticky that when they bit me, they almost became part of my hand…”
He dug his feet and legs deeper into their gel bath under the desk, trying to keep them from jerking with excitement.
“In the heart of the woods is a heart,” he went on, “and in that heart is a bed, its sheets made of thick heart-paper, its will obscure to all but its maker, who slumbers eternally upon it.”
The children roamed the streets in twos and threes, overturning rocks and rotten logs, standing on benches, making bets with one another or talking to dream-dogs tethered to street signs, playing in unstaffed pool halls and mashing the buttons of arcade games whose screens forever blinked INSERT COINS.
Well stopped pronouncing words and let out a low, constant hum, interspersed with sighs and exhalations that were only air.
Finally, of their own accord, the children entered his house, sticking close together, bound magnetically into the shape of a single body, climbing the stairs, approaching the bedroom and the bed.
When they lay down upon it, Well pushed his head hard against the leather of his chair in the Broadcast Chamber, as close as he’d ever come to feeling his childhood pillow again, and exhaled slowly, admitting that if true peace existed, then here it was.
When it was time to lead them back to town, near dawn, he sent out a signal, like a flare, over the slack airwaves.
“The road back is the short road, the boring road,” he began. “The grim surrender to time, and gravity, and school.” His return broadcast was necessarily more concrete, and never a part of the job he relished.
The children lined up without fuss, exiting his house and beginning to separate. Sometimes he wished they’d resist, beg to stay longer, as he wished he’d begged to stay longer when he’d been nine, but they were docile, just as he’d been, eager to return to the town, not yet aware of what Squimbop’s arrival portended.
They marched out of the Ghost Town, past the specter of ANGEL HOUSE and Squimbop at his window in the Master Bedroom, back along the Meadow-lined Road toward the edge of town, past the radio station where Well sat, his feet waterlogged and his sleeping cap sweaty and wilting.
When they’d returned to their daytime houses, he turned off the mic, removed his fur coat, pulled his feet from their gel bath, dried them on a towel, and left the Broadcast Chamber to drive blearily back to the Hotel, where he’d wait in silence until night fell again.