Authors: Kirstin Cronn-Mills
Tags: #teen fiction, #teen, #Young Adult, #dj, #YA, #Minneapolis, #Romance, #Young adult fiction, #Music, #radio, #transgender, #ya fiction
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children
© 2012 by Kirstin Cronn-Mills.
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First e-book edition © 2012
E-book ISBN: 9780738732657
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Cover art: Headphones
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For Amy Tipton
John Burrows is the new Elvis because He Played Elvis First
If radio is the medium of the ugly person, then I can live my life as a voice and the world will be perfect.
But the dead air has got to go.
While I fumble with the next CD, I attack the airwaves. “And that’s Mika, with ‘Grace Kelly.’ Now let’s have some Green Day. Here’s ‘American Idiot.’ This is Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, on community radio 90.3, KZUK. Welcome to my show.” I switch off the mic with a huge sigh.
John—my neighbor, my idol, fellow music geek, the oldest DJ in the universe—claps my back. “Perfect! Don’t worry about the dead air. You’re just learnin’.” John’s from the South, and every so often his accent creeps in when he’s excited about something. “But you gotta relaaaax … ” He gestures like he’s smoothing out the air. “You gotta let it floooooow.” Another swoopy gesture. “Chatter and patter and let it floooow. Enjoy yourself !” He can see on my face that I’m still not buying it. “Maybe next time.” He leaves the booth, probably to smoke.
If I could do radio for the rest of my life, I’d be set. But I also know it’s a dying industry. Checking “radio DJ” on a high school career survey is like checking the box for “dinosaur.” And commercial radio is all that programmed bullshit, so the only place it’s okay to be a real DJ is community radio. I have no idea if a person can make a living at dinky little stations like this, but I intend to find out. Not here, of course—this is strictly volunteer. But graduation is soon, and so is summer. Life is soon.
John was a real DJ. He got me this show, because he keeps his DJ chops fresh at KZUK. His show is called Remember Me to Rock N Roll, and it’s all the stuff he played when he was a DJ in Memphis in the fifties. He made his money in radio for forty years. I can only hope.
Then—of all things—the phone rings. I stuff my voice deep in my chest and race to grab it.
“Hello, KZUK, the Z that sucks.” Maybe I shouldn’t say that, but it’s too obvious, given the call letters. I probably wouldn’t risk it at nine a.m. on a Tuesday, but since it’s 12:06 on a Saturday morning, who cares?
“No, you don’t!” A perky voice answers me. “I love your show. Can you play a request for me?”
“Who is this?” I try not to let the tremor in my hands appear in my voice.
“Just a fan.”
My very first show’s been on the air for all of six minutes—and I have a fan? No way. “I can’t do a request now, but I’ll bring it next time if I have it. Uh … what’s your groove?” Dumb. Dorky, in fact.
“ ‘In the Summertime’ by Mungo Jerry. Do you know it? It’s really old.”
“Music nerds know every song, especially one-hit wonders.” Not true, but close enough.
She laughs. “What’s your name? You haven’t said. I’m Mara.”
John’s gone, so I rush it out of my mouth. “I’m Gabe, uh, thanks, Mara, and tune in next week for your song.” I hang up before things can get any stranger.
She brings my listener total to one.
Then I realize what I did: I let a stranger talk to me, and I talked back. AND I told her my name. That’s a lot.
Possibly too much.
Silence again in the studio. But the KZUK promo is cued, and I just need to push the button. Not more than three seconds’ worth of dead air. But I forget how short the promo is, so while I’m reaching for more CDs, the world is awash in silence.
Then I get it together. “Let’s have a slow one, for you and your sweetie, from way back in the fifties. Here’s ‘In The Still of the Night,’ by the Five Satins.” That song’s for John.
It’s very still outside. The studio windows are wide open, and nobody’s around. I love being awake in the middle of the night. The darkness soothes me.
The phone rings again. I almost don’t answer it, but I can’t help myself. “Hello, KZUK, the Z that sucks.”
“Gabe, I have another request.”
“Mara?” My voice is high, because I react instead of think. I clear my throat to cover.
“ ‘You Know My Name,’ by the Beatles—do you have it?” She doesn’t seem to notice my slip.
I clear my throat again and pull my voice lower. “Of course. Both songs next week, just for you.”
“You’re awesome!” She hangs up without more chitchat, thank god. No more phone calls for me.
More songs go on, more music goes out into the night. Then I miss another cue, but this time it’s not my fault. With community radio, the equipment tends to be marginal. We only have two CD players, and—of course—the one with the song in it jams on me. It takes me a second to remember what’s cued up in the other one. Then a disco ball pops into my head.
“Let’s finish out the show with another danceable love song, ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ by Rod Stewart. Boogie on, people, and I’ll see you next week. You’ve been listening to Beautiful Music for Ugly Children on community radio 90.3, KZUK.”
My voice is beginning to get hoarse from keeping it so low in my chest.
When Rod Stewart’s done the Hustle off the airwaves, I plug in a tape of Marijane, the master gardener. I can’t imagine people really want to garden at one a.m., but who knows? John never came back, and what he’s been doing for the last fifty minutes I have no idea, but I find him outside, smoking.
“You know that’s bad for your heart. And everything else. You’re old.” He’s in his seventies somewhere, I think.
“I’m not that old, and you just respect your elders, all right?”
“Where were you all this time?”
He grinds it out with his heel, then puts the butt in the ashtray and grabs another smoke. “Driving around, enjoying the night, listening to your show.” He stole my car keys. “And I was being jealous, because I wasn’t that good my first night. So I was pouting.”
I flip open my Zippo and light his next cig for him. “I bet you were that good. Better, in fact.”
John chuckles. “You’d bet wrong. You were great.”
“Maybe.” I really want to believe him, because it was hard. I put myself out there, and I don’t do that.
“Next time, though, you’ve got to say more. Tell them about you. Tell a story with the music.”
“A story?” No way.
“It’ll take practice, but you’ll get it.” He looks way more convinced than I feel.
T-Pain is in my car stereo, and we have it up loud enough that college kids stumbling from party to party turn their heads to watch us go by. What’s life without loud music in your car?
When we get home, John invites me in. We’ve spent many early morning moments debating the merits of Stax versus Motown—both old R&B record labels, and it’s a toss-up—or Merle Haggard versus Conway Twitty—both old country legends, and it’s Haggard, though Twitty has his merits and Johnny Cash trumps them all. John always wins with this line: “Look, I was alive then, and you need to get a grip. You don’t know nothin’ about it.” Someday I’ll make him debate Johnny Rotten versus Sid Vicious—both old British punk legends that he hates—and I’ll win that one. Maybe.
John moved next door to us when I was ten, and, to put it bluntly, I want to
him. Musically, anyway. He’s the only other person I know who dives headfirst into music and drowns in it. I guess you could call him my mentor. I know it seems bizarre to be hanging around with an old man, but I think of him like a grandpa. And my parents trust him, after living next to him for eight years and inviting him to a billion barbeques and Christmas parties. Plus, he’s a musical god—who wouldn’t want to hang out with someone like that?
John makes us peanut butter and banana sandwiches—we’re huge Elvis fans, anything and everything, including PB&B sandwiches—and we sit down with a copy of
from the early eighties to argue about whether
by the Who (John’s choice) or
from the Stones (my choice) was the lamest sellout album for a super group.
John spends all his money on music, which is awesome for me, but it makes the rest of his life pretty empty. His living room has a couch, a chair, a table with a lamp on it, four big speakers, a killer stereo, a magazine rack for all his music mags, and that’s it. But he has three bedrooms packed full of boxes and crates of music, some organized according to artist, some according to theme or place or era. At this point his rooms contain more than 2000 LPs and 45s, plus too many CDs, cassettes, eight-tracks, and reel-to-reel tapes to count. He also has a computer full of MP3s. I think my collection’s doing all right—225 LPs and 45s, 320 CDs, 270 cassettes, and another giant amount of MP3s—and then I come over here and get a reality check.
He cocks his head while
is on. “Maybe it’s okay. But these people did
. This album blows ass compared to
.” That’s the Who’s rock opera.
Then I realize how long I’ve been at his house. “I’d better go. If my folks heard us come home, they’ll be wondering why I didn’t come inside an hour ago.” I hand him back the crate of music I put by the door when I came in. “Can’t wait for the next show.” And that’s true—it’s the coolest thing in my life, no contest.
He waves at me before he picks up the crate. “Good night, Elizabeth.” Then he disappears back into a bedroom to put the music away.
My birth name is Elizabeth, but I’m a guy. Gabe. My parents think I’ve gone crazy, and the rest of the world is happy to agree with them, but I know I’m right. I’ve been a boy my whole life. I wish I’d been born a vampire or a werewolf instead, or with a big red clown nose permanently stuck to my face, because that stuff would be easy. Having a brain that doesn’t agree with your body is a much bigger pain in the ass.
I know there are ways to match things up, though I have no access to any of those ways right now, plus everything costs a ton of money, which sucks. And there are 24/7 reminders that I’m not really me, like my name. Not that Elizabeth is a bad name, but it’s not what I think of as my real name. That’s Gabe.
I also know people think I’m an ISSUE, and that gets really old. Any time THOSE SCARY TRANS PEOPLE come up, everybody flips out. It was even a talk show issue a while ago, the pregnant trans man and all that stuff. I get it, it’s the craziest thing in the world, but it’s not gross and wrong, it just is, so why do people lose their minds over it? Honestly, world, I don’t care what you think. Stick your issue up your ass.
Big talk, huh? I really don’t have much to bitch about. My parents love me—at least they used to, up until this last announcement—and nobody’s ever beat me up. But I also stopped trying to make people believe me a long time ago. It was easier to hold it all in. But that’s almost over now. I can almost breathe.
Got it, world? I’m a guy. A scared guy, though I try not to show it, and a guy with a long freaking road ahead of him. But still. Just a guy.
I let myself out John’s front door. When I step onto the porch, I notice the air: it’s a little warm. But it could still snow tomorrow, you never know. Nothing like April in Minnesota, and our lovely town of Maxfield is smack in the middle of the southern part. It has zero excitement, forty thousand people, two high schools, one college, and lots of crap-ass radio stations. KZUK is the only decent one.
After I brush my teeth, I check, and John’s lights are still on. Most nights he stays up even later than I do. He told me that when he was still working, his show was ten p.m. to two a.m.—not quite the graveyard shift, but not as civilized as drive time. We both like the dark the best.
Every night before I go to bed, I dust Elvis’s first 45, a pristine copy from the first pressing: “That’s All Right,” Sun Records, 1954, with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the B side. No scratches, no damage, just perfect vinyl. It’s on a stand, on my desk. John gave it to me, from his private collection. Some people say “That’s All Right” was the first rock and roll song ever. I read online that John was the first person in the United States to play it on the radio, and when I brought it up, he denied it for three months. He’s pretty modest. Even if I didn’t like him as a human, which I obviously do, I would worship him for that reason only, even though I had to read it on the Internet.
Elvis gets me through. When I’m stressed, which is about 95 percent of the time, I imagine Elvis saying, “That’s all right, Gabe,” and it helps. If I’m really fumbling around, I think
what would Elvis do?
Sometimes Elvis answers.
I crack the windows in my room and the faint sounds of
waft from John’s house.
When you think about it, I’m like a 45. Liz is my A side, the song everybody knows, and Gabe is my B side—not played as often but just as good. When 45s were around, most DJs didn’t care about B sides, but some were big hits: The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now” and U2’s “The Sweetest Thing,” for example. We don’t really have B sides anymore, since digital music wiped them out, but digital’s not me. I’m analog, Wall of Sound, old school to the core, and it’s time to let my B side play. My radio show is a deep new groove on it.