Kenneth Wise

The November Selected Writer is Kenneth Wise

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Kenneth Wise

by Kenneth Wise

My eagerness to learn what really happened behind this locked door makes my hand tremble so much that I can’t insert the key to my childhood home. I’m here to reassure myself that an inanimate object cannot have power over a person and cannot push someone out of the bounds of their sanity to the point of losing everything.  

Or can it?

If this was suggested to me a year ago, I would have laughed, but from what I’ve seen recently, I’m not sure the concept is so irrational.

Six months before his death, my father lost his grip on reality and drove away all of his family and friends over something he picked up at a yard sale. I’m here to discover if this thing truly had power over him, and if it did…to destroy the thing forever.

I steady my nerves, get the key into the keyhole and turn the knob. I push it open to reveal a dusty living room frozen in the seventies, with a mustard colored sofa on top of a thick, brown, shag rug. Two dark green chairs sit across from it. 

My mother died, and all of my siblings are grown and out of the house, so my father was here alone. He was always outgoing and sociable, but towards the end of his life, he only went outside twice a day, in the morning to get the paper and in the late afternoon for the mail. 

Last week, while retrieving the paper, he collapsed in the front yard. It was dark, and he wasn’t found until the next day when a neighbor was leaving for work. The neighbor saw him and ran over, but by that time, it was too late.

My dad was wearing the same purple polo, jeans and tennis shoes that he had worn the last time I saw him, two weeks earlier. The coroner hasn’t been able to ascertain why he passed away. All the report said was “Undetermined.” We’re waiting for more test results. 

His sudden, unresolved death is strange, but everything about him before he died was even stranger. One of the major signs of his recent mental deterioration was his clothes. He always wore the same thing. It was like he was stranded on Gilligan’s Island with only one outfit. 

The only change was that he lost weight until he was dangerously thin and let his hair and beard grow out until his hair sat on his shoulders, and his beard rested on his chest. I would press him to change and clean up, but he would shake his head and claim he was too busy. 

Too busy with what? He was a retired widower on a post office pension, who turned away everyone he knew and never, ever left home. 

“I’m busy with important stuff,” he would say. 

“Important stuff?” I would ask. “That’s all you ever say anymore. What exactly is it you’re doing down in your basement?” 

He would think about it as though he wanted to tell me but would stop and say, “I can’t say.  All I can tell you is that it’s important. It’s important stuff.”

So now my father is dead. Maybe I can figure things out.

I make my way through the kitchen and down to the basement. I reach out and pull on the string to a light bulb that hangs over the short flight of stairs. The light flickers on and swings back and forth, causing shadows to sway over the unfinished, concrete room. 

I walk down the steps and see the object that overtook my father’s life. It’s a large, silver, metal ham radio. After my mother died, he picked it up from a yard sale and installed it down here. 

He spent all of his time on this stupid relic and could not be pried away from it. My family would call and call on the phone, but he wouldn’t answer. We would bang on the front door, and he wouldn’t respond. The only way we could get his attention was by yelling through the basement storm window. He would keep his headphones on and swat us away like flies.

And for what? 


I think back to the last time I showed up here in my childhood home, a month before my father’s death. The living room had been full of strange people sitting quietly as though it was a doctor’s office. They were all disheveled. One cuddled a framed picture, rocking back and forth, and a man sat with a tissue in his hands, drying his tears. Two of them could have been homeless.

I tried to throw them out, but my father raced up the stairs and screamed at me to leave them alone. 

“Who are these people?” I yelled. “What are they doing here?”  
“They’re here for important stuff,” he replied. 

I pushed past him and ran towards the basement. I was going to get on the radio and finally know what he was doing. 

All of a sudden, my father had energy like he had gotten twenty years younger. He chased me down the stairs and got a hold of me, almost tackling me like a football player. He grabbed me by my throat, stuck his face into mine and, turning bright red, he screamed, “You can never touch this radio. I’m the only one allowed to control it. Now, get out of my house!”

I put my hands up to show him I wasn’t going to fight. He let me go, and I left. When I told my brother what had happened, he was so frustrated that he came over here, climbed to the roof and took down the antenna, but that didn’t stop Dad. He kept talking into this thing. I have no idea who he was talking to, and no matter how much we asked him, he wouldn’t tell us. 


I walk over to the radio and try to compose myself. What am I going to hear on this thing? What can this do that so consumed my father? I’m so afraid to find out that I can barely pick up the headphones. 

I manage to get them on and listen. I hear nothing, not even static. I move through the dial, but I don’t pick anything up.

Is this thing even turned on? I lean over the side and see the cord to the radio is lying, unplugged, on the ground with a pile of dust on it. Jesus, what was he doing here all day?  He wasn’t even talking to anyone. 

The pathetic image of my father down here talking into an inanimate object strikes me with so much force that I fall forward onto the table and have to hold myself up with both hands.  I should have done more. I asked him to get help, but I should have insisted on it. I should have forced him, but now, sadly, it’s too late for that.

Maybe there isn’t a big mystery behind his insanity. Maybe he was just a lonely, old man, who lost it at the end of his life and spent his time talking to himself. Perhaps I should take some comfort that this radio might have somehow soothed his loneliness.

But it doesn’t explain the strange people in the house. Probably that will always be an enigma. 

At least I can take this thing apart, dump it on the curb and get rid of it, so I can forget about that part of his life forever and focus on better memories. 

As I reach for the ham radio, I think that I actually hear something coming through the headphones on the table. I stop and listen, but all I can hear is the hum of the house’s heating system. I shake my head and chuckle. Maybe I’m losing it too…like father, like son.

I continue to work on disassembling the machine when, I hear a loud crackle from the headphones. I lift them next to my ear and hear the voice of a young girl, “Mommy?”

I freeze. This can’t be working. Wildly I glance at the cord…it’s still unplugged.

“Mommy, are you there?”

I slowly put the headphones on. I wait, but I don’t hear anything else, then, “Mommy, I’m here. Can you hear me?”

I pick up the microphone, push in the button on the front of it and say, “Hello?”

“Hello, is this Larry?”

“No, this is his son.  Who is this?”

“It’s Maggie. He said my Mom would be there today. Where is she?”

“My dad, Larry, he passed away. Who’s your mother? Where are you reaching me from?”

“Why isn’t my mom there? Larry promised me she would be there. ”

“I just got here. I don’t know anything about this.” Suddenly, there is a banging on the front door.  I drop the microphone and take off the headphones. I slowly creep up the stairs and come out of the kitchen. 

Again loud knocking on the door.  A woman with frazzled, curly hair sticks her head against the window next to the door and cups her hands together so she can see into the house. She spots me, slams her palm on the window and motions for me to let her in. 

I slowly open the door. She pushes past me, seemingly frantic. “Where's Larry?”

“He passed away.”

She slaps herself on her forehead. “Am I too late?”

“Too late for what?”

“To talk to my daughter.” She pulls up her sleeve and looks at her wrist. “He told me to get here at 9:00 and it’s already 10:30.” She shoves her watch in my face.

Ten thirty? I got here at 8:30 and have only been here for a few minutes.

The lady blurted, “Larry told me that there would be problems getting here. I left my house at 7:30. I was driving along and got a flat tire. I brought it to a gas station. They plugged it, and, as soon as I started up again, bang! Another one.  I ditched my car and ran for a bus, but it was late and then that broke down. I practically ran here for the last three miles. Don’t worry, I didn’t run into any of the electrical workers. I didn’t see a single one.”

“I don’t have any idea what you are talking about.”

“You don’t?”

“No, I just got here a few minutes ago.”

She throws her hands in the air. “I should have known it.  Ever since my daughter disappeared, I’ve gotten calls at all hours of the day. They tell me to do the craziest things like go outside, face north, throw water up in the air and catch it with your mouth and then you’ll know where your daughter is. I’ve done all these things. Every person who calls—I do what they say.  You know what it’s like to not know where your daughter is for ten years?  Larry called me and told me that he can connect me to my daughter.  I asked him how, and he said, ‘Just trust me.  This is important stuff.’”

“He told you to come here?”

“Yes, he said, ‘Be here today at 9:00, and you can talk to your daughter.’”

“There was a girl on his radio this morning.”

She grabs my shirt and yanks me towards her until I’m inches from her face. “You heard her?”

“I don’t know who it was, but there was someone on his radio downstairs.” 

“Was it Maggie?”

“I think that’s what she said her name is.”

“Oh my God, Maggie!” she screams. She pushes me out of the way and runs into the house.  She gets into the living room and spins in a circle. “Where’s the radio?” 

Before I can respond, she disappears into the kitchen. I hear her hurry down the steps to the basement. 

I follow her and see her standing over the radio. She picks up the microphone. “Maggie, baby, are you there? Can you hear me?”

I stand behind her. She continues, “Maggie, please say something.”

I reach over and hand her the headphones. She puts down the microphone and, with her hands shaking, she puts them on. She says again into the microphone, “Maggie, are you there?”

She stops and stares straight ahead. A single tear falls from her eye. She sinks back into the chair, puts her head down and sobs.

“Can you hear her?” I ask.

She keeps her head down and nods. I reach over and pull out the earphones cord that is hooked up to the machine so the sound will come through the speakers. “Mommy, it’s me.”

She lifts her head, picks up the microphone and says, “Where are you?”

“I’m not anywhere. When you die, you aren’t really anywhere.  It’s kind of hard to explain.”

“You died?”

“I did, Mommy, a long time ago.”

“I’m sorry that we never found you. We did everything we could, but we just couldn’t.”

“I know. I could hear you calling to me, but you couldn’t hear when I called back. I have to go, but I need to tell you something.”

“What is it?”

“Uncle Gabe did this to me. He’s the one. He did it.”

“My brother?”

“I’m sorry Mom. I have to go.”

The signal cuts out. The woman screams, “No, no don’t go! Maggie, come back!”

The room remains silent.  She says it again, but there is no reply. The woman turns to me.  Mascara is running down her face. She takes her thumbs, wipes away her tears along with the makeup, stands up, embraces me and says, “Thank you.” 

She slowly walks up the stairs.  I hear her go through the kitchen, cross the living room and close the front door. 

I remain frozen, trying to comprehend what I just witnessed. I’m stuck in place. Was that the greatest prank in history? Is someone playing a joke on me?

There is a notebook on the table next to the radio. I open it and a loose piece of paper falls out and floats to the ground. I pick it up. 

If you are reading this, then I have passed away. Now it is up to you. There is an afterlife. There are ghosts trying to reach us. I, Larry McGovern, bought this radio and realized that these ghosts have a story to tell about their lives, how they died and a desire to communicate with those they have left behind. You have been chosen to bring these spirits into communion with their loved ones.

First and most important, when you are doing this work, you must remember that this is important stuff and should be treated as such. Second, and just as vital, everything about this must remain a secret, and the truth of this instrument must be guarded at all cost.

Beware of the electric company, especially the ones wearing the reflective jackets. Once you step out of this house you are in danger because they will find you. 

My dad was down here this whole time thinking he was talking to dead people through a radio he got from some nut from New Jersey and was paranoid about the electrical company?

But I did talk to Maggie. That did happen, and it seemed she had passed away, and her mom did mention something about the power company. If Maggie was out there, then other people that I can contact must be too. 

And then something moves inside of me. Something takes hold of my body and sends electric currents shooting through, raising the hair in my follicles. I feel the movement of electrons from one atom to the next for the creation of static charges.

The electricity changes me. I flip through the notebook and get to the end. A newspaper clipping of an obituary is stuck between the pages. There are parts of the articles circled and underlined. Dates and numbers seem to be translated into frequencies. I begin to piece together my father’s system. He would break the code in the newspaper, contact the people, get their story and set up a time for the family member to talk through the radio. Maybe I can do the same thing.

I put the headphones on and play with the dial until I get some reception. I find Robert “Buddy” O’Neil, who owned the largest chain link fence company in the South. He was killed by his nephew, who clubbed him to death in his Jacuzzi and made it look like a robbery. I connect with Liza Cunningham, who was killed when her husband put a hit on her. Jacelyn Lanceman disappeared when she went on a hike in the woods. She fell down a ravine, broke her neck and drowned. Her body floated down the river until it washed out to sea.

Through Google and Facebook, I’m able to track down all of their family members.  Lisa’s sisters hang up on me twice. I track down Lisa’s mother, who is in Florida, and she’s willing to believe me. The other families hesitate, but I’m able to convince them by sharing things only a person who was speaking to their loved ones would know. I have Buddy and Jacelyn’s family coming in tomorrow and Lisa’s mom the following day. Buddy’s son was so excited, he said he’d jump on a Red Eye to be here in the morning. 

Suddenly I hear a knock at the door. I go up the steps and see a young man in his late twenties standing outside. 

“I’m Steve, Buddy’s son. I arrived at the airport and raced over here. I hope it’s okay.”

“I thought you were coming from California.”

“I did. I flew in overnight.”

“That’s impossible. I spoke with you a few minutes ago.”

“We talked last night. Don’t you remember? I raced to the airport and got here. You were right—it was tough traveling. I switched planes twice, and a rental car broke down, but I’m here.”

I don’t remember telling him he’d have trouble traveling. I look at my watch. It says 8:00. I squint and see that it says a.m. Is my watch broken? Something isn’t right.

I lift my head and see a power company truck pull into the neighborhood and stop at the end of the street. A man jumps out and puts on his reflective vest.

“Come inside.” I pull Steve by the arm and invite him to sit down on the couch.

A second car pulls up in front of the house. A young man and three women pile out and rush up the steps. They introduce themselves as Jacelyn’s family.

I see a second electric company truck pull into the street from around the corner.

I ask Jaclyn’s family to come in and I quickly shut the door behind them.  

My cell phone goes off, and I see that it is from my wife. I ignore it. I’ll call her later. 

I look out the window and see the electrical company is putting out cones. 

I make some coffee and hand it out to the group, and one of Jacelyn’s sister says, “I just want to thank you for contacting me. To be honest, at first I thought it was a sick joke, but the things you were able to tell me made it clear that you know more than anyone could make up.”

Jacelyn’s daughter wipes a tear from her eye. “We had pretty much given up ever knowing anything about our mother, and then all of a sudden out of the blue you called.”

This is what my father had become, a sense of hope for people. This is what I can be now.  “Let’s get started,” I say. “One case at a time, though.”

I take Steve down and dial up Buddy. Soon enough the two are talking. His son takes the news hard that a family member killed his Dad, but he’s happy to know what happened.

Next I bring down Jacelyn’s family, and despite some glitches, we are able to connect them.  After the call, the three embrace and cry.

I walk them upstairs and take them outside onto the front porch.

My wife’s car pulls up to the front yard. She leaps out of her car and confronts me. “I’ve been trying to reach you all day yesterday and today. It’s 5 p.m. and you haven’t returned any of my calls. Your office has been calling all day. What’s have you been doing, and who are these people?”

Jacelyn’s family steps aside, so they aren’t between me and my wife.

“What have I been doing?” I repeat her question.

“Yes, and look at you! You haven’t shaved or showered, and you look terrible. Have you been drinking?”

I reach up to my face and feel the stubble. She’s right. I haven’t eaten or slept in more than twenty-four hours, but I know I’m sober, except for the tingle of an electric current that I still feel.

At my feet is the newspaper. Ignoring my wife, I pick it up and flip to the obituaries. I scan it and catch all the things I never would have seen before. The dates, addresses and ages listed are secret numbers that will let me find these people. The rest of the world can’t comprehend it, but I can.

My wife yells at me. “Hey, are you listening to me?”

“What have I been doing?” I repeat for the second time.

“Yes, I want to know what you have been up to.”

“Important stuff. I’ve been doing important stuff,” I say.

There is a sudden noise from the street. The employees from the power company have stopped their work and seem to be interested in what’s going on at my front porch. The man in the first truck still has his vest and sunglasses on. He gets out of the vehicle, places a cone in front of my house, then turns to me and tips his hardhat. He begins to walk in my direction.

I keep the paper in my hand, jump back into the house, and slam the door shut, leaving my wife on the other side. She bangs on the door.

I ignore her, go back into the basement and, with the new clues I’ve found, I continue my work to find ghosts. 

Ken Wise’s short stories have been published in the anthologies Uncertain Promise and Surprised by Joy. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia with his wife and two children.