My Sister and KYA (short fiction)
KYA was the “cool” radio station back then. My sister and I used to play poker on the front steps on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, waiting for Danny Mather’s shiny black car to roll down our street as he drove back from his shift at the ice cream place. His window was always open, blasting KYA into the small suburbia, blond hair shining in the dim afternoon sun. Once in a while he would glance over at us, and my sister would sigh audibly. I hated her sigh, but I understood it–at the time, almost nothing was cooler than KYA, the too-old-for-me Danny Mather, and his daddy’s black Cadillac.
He was the reason I started listening to the station. My sister and I shared a radio, propped up next to the window in our room, and we’d listen nonstop to the Beatles, the Jackson 5, Donovan, the Osmonds, Stealers Wheel. We felt endlessly cool.
My sister had kissed a boy three years prior, and since that awkward, half-second peck (which I witnessed, from the gap in our bedroom door), she had dubbed herself the boy expert. She had sat me down one day, eyebrows up in their usual, condescending way, and informed me that “music is the perfect starter to any conversation with someone you’re interested in.”
It was not the first boy advice she had given me. A month or two before that impromptu seminar she had told me that “TV shows are the perfect starter to any conversation with someone you’re interested in.” Despite her inconsistencies, she did always have more boy experience than I did.
I discovered this when she was in eighth grade and I was in fifth, and she refused to walk home from school with me. She liked to stay for fifteen minutes after and flirt with a boy named Bob Otman. Bob had greasy hair and spent their conversations addressing my sister’s chest, but she thought she was in love. When my mother found out she was leaving her little sister to walk home by herself, however, she yelled for half an hour. My sister waited until we were alone in our room and then pinched me so hard I screamed. “You little ratting *****,” she had whispered.
I still would have pitied her, if I hadn’t been so jealous. She had always had a way of making me feel robbed of any sexuality. I believed the dynamic between us really began when we were three and seven, respectively. My sister had been obsessed with the Barbie our parents gave her for Christmas. She would dress the doll up in ridiculously short and tight clothes and prop her up on our chest of drawers, to watch the room ominously. I was also gifted a doll, but not a Barbie–instead, our parents gave me Skipper, Barbie’s flat-chested younger sister. I was convinced that on that Christmas, Skipper had cursed me.
I found some solace, however, in KYA. My parents were never big on music–they had a few opera records and didn’t mind the choir at church, but that was it. At home, I could turn on the radio and listen to people sing about love and heartbreak and the human condition in a way I thought I would never experience. I had an especially soft spot for Donovan, whenever one of his songs played. I’d imagine him in Danny Mather’s Cadillac, rolling down my street and glancing over at me, relaxed on the porch, sister nowhere in sight. Then my mother would barge into my room and tell me that “Mellow Yellow” is inappropriate for young girls. I’d wait until she’d leave to turn the radio back on again.
KYA also had giveaways on the first and third Fridays of every month. Once in a while it would be free tickets to upcoming concerts, but more often they gave away KYA memorabilia and records of various bands they played.
I remember one night they were doing a giveaway of an Elton John album, which I wanted more than anything. At that time, I had a babysitting gig with a bratty six-year-old named Lucille Rose every Friday from six to eleven pm. Lucille Rose was four and obnoxious, but she was in bed by 7:30 and her house had two telephones, so I had twice the chance of winning the record.
At eight pm or so, whatever song KYA was playing would quiet down, and the announcer, Jim Mallow, would come on, with that silky voice I had grown to love. This particular night he had said, as I remember, “Hi listeners. One of you marvelous folks will have something truly special at the end of the night. If you’re the fifteenth caller, you’ll be walking away with Elton John’s newest album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. So go ahead, pick up your phone, and give us a call!”
I worked my usual strategy. As Jim announced the number to call I began dialing on the telephone at the bottom of their staircase. When I heard the line ring once, I would run upstairs, as quietly as I could, to the other telephone on the wall. There, I dialed the number again and then padded back downstairs, where I listened to a few more rings until I heard “KYA, you’re caller number three” Redial, then back upstairs again, three, four rings, and– “KYA, you’re caller number nine.” Then redial, ring, downstairs, redial, ring, upstairs, answer (“KYA, you’re caller number fifty-three”), and on and on. Finally, I had placed the call upstairs and had rushed downstairs to listen to the phone ring for what seemed like a full minute, when– “KYA, you’re caller number… Oh, congratulations, you’re caller number fifteen!”
I almost couldn’t believe it. The odds always seemed stacked against me; my sister was the lucky one. But there I was, phone in my hand, listening to Jim Mallow announcing my name for everyone tuned into the KYA station to hear. I had been trying for months, but Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the first thing I had ever won through the radio. Jim Mallow informed me that they would be mailing it to me in the next week.
Half a month later and I had listened to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road nonstop in the room my sister and I shared. Once in a while my sister would look up from her magazine to tell me “it’s not even a good album,” or “It’s too loud,” or roll her eyes. I didn’t care. I had won it, not her.
I was having my first boy over to the house, a quiet kid named Evan Meyers. He was no Danny Mathers and certainly no Donovan, but he wasn’t unattractive. He was in my math class, and while he wasn’t the brightest, he was nice to me and had asked me to go out for ice cream the week before. We got to talking about music, just like my sister had condescendingly advised, and I found out he was just as obsessed with Elton John as I was. I told him about KYA and my record and asked if he wanted to come over and listen to it. He said yes, of course, he’d love to.
I picked a day when my parents and my sister were out. I cleaned the room, sprayed a bit of perfume I had stolen from my mother’s drawer, and laid Goodbye Yellow Brick Road artistically next to the record player for when Evan arrived. I put on my sister’s pink floral dress (she always looked so good in it) and waited for the doorbell. I ushered him in and we sat, elbows almost touching, on the edge of my bed. He brought up school, and we chatted, a little awkwardly at first, but soon finding our groove.
We were listening to “Your Sister Can’t Twist” and chatting about school when my sister flew through the bedroom door, saying “Pat ditched me, I guess he wanted to take Amy to the movies–” she stopped when she saw us, frozen on the bed. The song was still playing. Your sister can’t twist but she can rock and roll…
“That’s my dress.” She said, simply.
“Oh, uh, yeah.” I said. I could feel Evan’s eyes on me.
“Well give it back. It’s mine. Last time you borrowed something you ripped it, remember?” Her hand was open in front of me.
“Can’t I wear it for today?” I could feel my palms get more and more sweaty as her eyes narrowed.
“Just take it off!” She screamed.
And before I could react she ran over to the record player, pulled Goodbye Yellow Brick Road off the turntable, and threw it, full force, at the wall next to me. It shattered. The music was gone, but I was so familiar with the song that I could hear the next lyric playing in my head. Now I’m in heaven with the aching feet, But I’ll be back tonight where the music plays…
I write this story now because I received a letter from my sister last week, in her typical fashion. Fancy pink stationary, which meant she had a new boyfriend, a wealthy one. Blue, loopy, affectionate letters. She told me, in great detail, of her decision to go vegetarian and her boyfriend’s awful daughter from a previous marriage. “When are you going to get a boyfriend?” She wrote. “I want to hear all about him. My beau”–I hate the word “beau”– “has this great job in the city. He produces music. That was our first date. He has the best taste in music. And I’ve recently been so into Elton John! One album he likes to play is called Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. I doubt you’ve heard it, other than the hits–he believes that hits are what kill an album.”
It’s amazing, I thought as I read it, how bad people will develop amnesia for their badness. She had seemingly forgotten how Evan went home apologetically that afternoon, the first boy I’d ever really “dated,” and I cried for hours. She’d forgotten how she snapped at me to “shut up” and called me a “slut” and made me clean up my shattered record. She’d forgotten how ashamed I was to ever see Evan again, so I ignored him for weeks and never called him.
I mailed back nothing, and I breathed her out.
Ode to a Car Theft * (personal essay)
In 2016, someone stole our green, 1995 Subaru Outback. It had been sitting so innocently in our driveway at the time, flaunting its indescribable, homely appeal that it shares with aging rat terriers or rust. I like to think whoever stole it saw that kind of appeal, maybe in the peeling paint, the outdated seats, the clock that never tells the right time. I like to think that he saw our little Subaru as just the car to settle down and get old in. Maybe he was looking for a way off the life of crime. A 1995 Subaru Outback will get you there.
I do sometimes wonder if our Subaru was afraid, when he picked the lock (or however car thefts do that sort of thing). Did it feel a little violated? Or was it just happy to be straying from the path it routined day in, day out?
I didn’t expect to feel as sad as I did, when my dad woke up one morning, made his usual breakfast, put on his normal clothes, rallied me up and out, just to find the car missing. I expected anger, but I never expected sadness.
Yet there I was, standing hopelessly on the sidewalk that day, missing that creaky old stick shift.
If we took the long way to school, I’d remembered, up the massive hill, we would hear the Subaru’s engine slow in protest. Every time, I’d think this will be the day the engine fails, we roll back down the hill, and die. This time. And if we ever made a stop on that hill, the car would pause a moment, sway back down a good five feet, and then make its ascent. I remembered how my stomach would drop, every time.
And then there was the car’s stupid little horn, a sad “beep beep” sound. It confidently alerted other drivers that Road Runner really wanted you to stay in your own **** lane.
There was my dad’s hand on the stick, somehow blindly knowing which gear was which, while listening to NPR, making a lane change, and releasing the clutch.
Or when I was little, I wanted to drive so badly that I used a frisbee I found in the backseat as a steering wheel. If you had happened to pass us on the road, you would have seen a middle-aged man driving, and directly behind him, a ponytailed girl expertly maneuvering a frisbee, using a squeegee squished upside-down in between the seat cushions as a stick. You would see her taking it very seriously.
When a car is stolen, most families give up and continue on with their lives. They might buy a new one, and perpetuate the natural circle of car life. My family, however, was determined to hold out hope for our green, 1995 Subaru Outback. It was out there. We could feel it.
A month later, and we discovered it was out there, about a mile away, resting peacefully in another neighborhood. We brought it home safely, and my dad baptized its rebirth with a small zombie bobblehead on the dashboard. Fitting, for a car who came back from the dead.
I am grateful that we were reunited with our little stick shift. Last summer, my mother discovered that it was cheaper for insurance if we declared that I was the main driver of the Subaru, which meant I needed to actually learn how to drive a stick. My dad took me to Merritt College, where I used to have soccer practice every Friday, and he would watch and cheer me on. He pulled into the empty parking lot, we switched places, and he began the lesson by saying, “At some point, you will kill the motor. It happens to everyone.”
Then he showed me how to gas it, then take the foot off the gas, and gently on the clutch, shift, then gently release the clutch while slowly reapplying the gas. He showed me how to shift from second, then to third. I was completely terrible. But I knew why.
Nothing seems more intimate between car and owner than to drive a stick. I had loved this green beaten thing for seventeen years, but I had never tried to tame it. I had never tried to find the sweet spot between how much clutch to release and how much gas to apply, the way it bounces when you screw up. It was the first time I felt like the car had some control over how I drove it, and it’s thrilling and hard and, in a way, sweet.
I have never been a “car” person, and neither has my dad. But there is something remarkable about getting to know the car you’ve known your whole life, your dad coaching in the passenger seat, while you look out at the sunsetting view in front. It felt almost religious.
Lastly, of course, to the person who could see a fleet full of decent, sturdy, or even fancy cars on our street, but chose to steal our green, 1995 Subaru Outback with the manual shifting and the Roadrunner horn and the green paint peeling, I say this: you picked well, my friend.
*if you were in Nancy’s Poetry seminar this semester, you may remember I also wrote about this car for the actual “ode” we wrote.