An Essayby Rick Bass
The radio operator didn’t like me. She worked the switchboard down in town for my shortwave, which was how people got in touch with me back in the late-1980s. There was no electricity up here then, no telephones, no nothing. Friends dialed the radio dispatcher’s number, and she rang me up on the radio. She was a severe churchgoing lady, severe even by standards in western Montana.
The radio wasn’t like a telephone call. People back in New York, or wherever they were calling from, thought that it was, because they were on a telephone—but out here, on the Canadian border, up in the trees and mountains, it was like a live talk show. Everybody in western Montana could hear our conversation, which was broadcast over the radio, and during the short winter days, the long winter nights, that was what a good number of the folks up here ended up doing—monitoring each other’s shortwave calls to hear all the dirt, to get all the juice. The radio dispatcher didn’t like me because my callers were often drunk and used coarse language; and I was too shy to tell them, my callers, that they were on the air—and besides, with many of my friends—so wild!—this would only have inspired them to further profanity, so I quivered and winced, imagining the church-lady operator listening, imagining my neighbors listening, imagining, in bouts of winter paranoia, the FBI and the FCC listening, taking notes—and I, as well as all of western Montana, listened to Mark Richard saying, “I watched her in the mirror as she straddled me from above” and another writer friend’s less ethereal descriptions, “I dreamed of doing it with savage pork-chop strokes, Rick.”
And why they told me these things in the first place, I didn’t know—I didn’t ask to hear them—neither did the church lady—though perhaps that’s why; perhaps the callers thought, “Why, let’s call up Bass and make him squirm”—but I was too shy to tell them, Please, stop it, and so I, and the operator, listened to Gordon Lish use the f-word like water, when he was on the radio calling to tell me about some new development, as enthusiastic as a twister—“Bass,” he said, “you’ve got to read this, it’s fanfuckingtastic, you’ve fucking got to fucking read this fucking book”—and the church lady didn’t even clear her throat. I trembled at some of the things she had to listen to, and I wouldn’t have blamed her for holding it against me, but I never dreamed of saying anything to any of the callers. All my life, I’d been shy, and I wasn’t about to change that.