Abraham Morgenstern reverently offered Sidra the Radio Shack catalog, as if it was his most prized possession.
“This is the new one,” he said. “Shall we begin with the CB radios and then move on to the antennas? And please, call me Abe.”
Sidra rolled her eyes, which fortunately Mr. Morgenstern – Abe – could not see, and started reading. She was barely through the first line, “Realistic TRC-410. Compact, but with all the necessary features. Hysteresis-type squelch…,” when noise from the street below drowned her out. Looking out the window, Sidra saw people at the bus stop cheering as a woman wearing a feather boa screamed “no money, no honey” over and over to some guy honking his puke yellow Mustang.
Abe seemed oblivious to the noise. And the heat, thought Sidra, as she wiped her face with the hem of her t-shirt. It had been particularly gross climbing the stairs to his room today. It was unusually hot for San Francisco and, with a dead rat in the stairwell and urine-soaked carpet in the hall, the Hotel Leo was even more disgusting than usual. Despite its supposed elegance in the early 1900s, it was now the Tenderloin’s most rundown flophouse. A fan in Abe’s room would help, but he’d told her fans interfered with radio waves. Go figure.
“Please continue Sidra, perhaps with more zest?”
She made a face. Zest? She didn’t do zest. But if that’s what the old man wanted: “Big LED channel readout! An LED S/RF meter! Auto-modulation circuit! Ceramic filters!”
Abe clapped his hands with pleasure. “Magnificent!”
* * *
The police had arrested Sidra a few months earlier for shoplifting a necklace. She’d had enough money to buy it, but stupidly wanted to see if she still had skills. It was her first offense as an adult, so the judge sentenced her to community service and a social services agency assigned her to read each week to blind Abe. As community service gigs go, it had sounded great. Way better than picking up trash, right? Not exactly.
On their first Saturday together, she thought Abe wanted to order something when he handed her a Radio Shack catalog. Instead, he politely asked her to read every single word in its 176 pages. For three solid hours she dutifully read each digit, acronym, and megahertz, but she only got up to page 99, coaxial connectors – whatever those were. She finished that catalog last week, and Sidra hoped that today she’d get to read a book or newspaper to him. But nope, he had handed her the new Summer 1981 Radio Shack catalog.
Sidra found Abe pleasant enough, but a bit puzzling. He only talked about radio stuff and there was nothing interesting in his room – two chairs, a bed, a dresser with a bunch of radios and antennas on top, and a hot plate. No photos of relatives or anything else with clues to his background. Sidra didn’t like people she couldn’t get a quick read on. Her superpower was staying one step ahead of everyone.
She glanced at Abe. His face lit up when she read certain descriptions in the catalog. It was peculiar, but she didn’t care enough to ask why. Still, no harm in humoring him.
“The priority switch gives INSTANT, DIRECT access to either Channel 9 or Channel 19!” She added a “WOW!” for good measure.
“A priority switch? Oh my, that is spectacular!”
Sidra couldn’t help herself – she giggled. What a thing, she thought, to be part of this man’s absolute, inexplicable joy.
* * *
A few weeks later, after reading about the six-band Realist DX-60 for the third time, curiosity got the best of her.
“Abe, what exactly is a shortwave radio?”
“It is simply a radio frequency, like AM and FM. Shortwave can travel farther though, which means I can listen to broadcasts from all over the world.”
He continued, excited by her interest. “Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation, projected in different directions by antennas. Those in the shortwave band are reflected from the ionosphere – a layer of electrically charged atoms in the atmosphere. By tuning my receivers to specific frequencies, I can collect certain signals. It is quite something!”
It was the most Abe had spoken to Sidra since she’d started reading to him. Unfortunately, she didn’t understand what he was saying.
“The radio waves are reflected from outer space?”
“Yes, that is it!” Abe said. “Although there are other ways to receive electromagnetic waves too.”
“Through your teeth. Just like Lucille Ball. One time she was on TV and announced that during World War II she had picked up radio broadcasts through her fillings.”
Abe leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “You should know that I, too, have communicated with other beings through my fillings.”
Good lord, Sidra thought. That’s what I get for asking questions. She did not want to know if he talked to little green men with his teeth. Time to wrap things up.
“How about if we finish this page and that’ll be it for today?”
“Actually, I was hoping when we finished that you would join me for lunch,” Abe said. “If you have time.”
Sidra was taken aback by the invitation. But she was hungry.
“Sure, um, I guess so,” she said, hoping there’d be no more mention of outer space. “Thanks.”
“Excellent! If you could get my cane from under the bed, I’ll excuse myself and then we will go. ”
Abe amused Sidra with his more formal manner of speaking – “excusing himself” meant using the restroom down the hall. She reached under the bed for his long white cane and saw a shoebox. Curious, she pulled it out. There were hundreds of tiny pieces of paper inside. Fortunes – from fortune cookies. What an odd thing to save. Underneath all the paper was a thick envelope and a rectangular case covered in dark blue velvet. Hearing Abe’s footsteps, she hastily grabbed the envelope and one of the fortunes, slid the shoebox back under the bed, and picked up his cane.
Abe opened the door and tilted his head.
“Something is askew.”
“I closed your window,” she said.
“Thank you,” said Abe. But he looked pensive.
* * *
Abe held Sidra’s elbow while navigating their way out of the Hotel Leo, tip-tapping back and forth with his cane. She was amazed how many people greeted him, and how he recognized everyone’s voices – “Arnie, good afternoon to you,” to the hotel manager sitting in his usual haze of cigarette smoke. “Lovely song Marcus,” to the annoying man with the boombox on the front steps. “Jade, how are you feeling this week?” to the woman running the newsstand.
At the corner, they turned left and came to Happy Delight, a small Chinese restaurant she’d never noticed. The place was shabby, with chipped Formica tables and torn leather booths, but it smelled wonderful. An elderly woman hurried over as soon as they walked in, bowed, and patted Abe’s arm affectionately.
“Hello Mr. Morgenstern. You brought a friend!”
“Good day, Mrs. Huang. Yes, this is Sidra. I want her to try your remarkable lo mein.”
By the time they sat down, Mrs. Huang was already back with two heaping bowls of chicken lo mein. Rejecting the chopsticks, which she had no idea how to use, Sidra took a generous forkful of noodles. She wasn’t big on Chinese food, but she’d try to get it down.
“Oh my god! Abe, this is delicious!” she exclaimed. Seriously, it was incredible.
“That it is. I come to Happy Delight every Saturday for Mrs. Huang’s lo mein,” Abe said. “Chew slowly, so you can taste all the flavors and textures. Paying close attention changes everything.”
“Sure thing Yoda,” Sidra said.
“Yoda. Y-o-d-a. You know, from Star Wars? The Empire Strikes Back? Yoda’s a wrinkly little wise teacher.”
“It is similar to the Hebrew word ‘Yodea’ – one who knows. But Sidra, you do not need a Yoda. Everything you need to know is already inside you.”
“And that’s why you sound like Yoda!” she said.
When they finished their meal, Mrs. Huang brought two fortune cookies to the table. Abe asked to Sidra read hers aloud. She did so, while shaking her head at the irony: “To believe in the unseen is both a triumph and a blessing.”
* * *
That evening, back in her apartment, Sidra taped her Happy Delight fortune in a notebook and began to write about how ridiculous it was to believe in things you couldn’t see. Then she remembered the fortune from Abe’s shoebox – he would never miss it – and pulled it out of her pocket: “Be kind always. You never know what someone is going through.” She taped it to another page and wrote “kindness is overrated.”
She hoped the contents of Abe’s envelope would be more interesting, but it was just a bunch of faded newspaper articles about the Holocaust and some hospital. She skimmed the clippings. Depressing, but not anything about Abe. Then two headlines caught her eye: “Holocaust Survivors Have Own Wing at Insane Asylum” and “Jews Attacked at Mental Hospital: 4 Die, 11 Hurt, 3 Blinded.” The last article said all “the lunatics” were “resettled” in San Francisco.
Was Abe a Holocaust survivor? Had he been in that mental health place? Sidra wished she hadn’t poked around in his belongings. His life wasn’t her business. She needed to do her community service stint and be done with him. The articles didn’t change anything. Or maybe they changed everything.
* * *
Happy Delight became part of their Saturday schedule and eventually Sidra asked Abe why he liked Radio Shack catalogs so much. Without hesitation, he said the numbers were soothing, like a mantra – though admittedly an unconventional one. He also said the radios were more than electronics. They were connections.
He told her stories about the things he learned and people he met through his radios. On his CB, he talked every day to truckers all over the U.S. and Canada. His favorite driver called himself Charlie Tuna. He’d been driving a big rig since he got out of San Quentin and gave Abe weekly updates on his travels. Using the shortwave radio, Abe heard broadcasts from all over the world, telling Sidra about labor strikes in Paris and Queen Elizabeth’s birthday parade. She learned “ham radio” was slang for Amateur Radio, and not something involving pork, and that he used it to talk to people in Morocco and Brazil. Abe’s stories reminded her of Arabian Nights, where Scheherazade told the king a different story every night to stay alive. She’d read that book over and over in middle school, trying to escape the miserable reality of Foster Family #3. Like Scheherazade, the stories had kept her alive.
Each Saturday night, Sidra taped a new fortune in her notebook. The day her fortune said, “Your dreams are only your dreams until you write them down – then they’re goals,” she started writing about what each fortune made her think about. There was always some truth, some nugget of wisdom to extract. After getting “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page,” she wrote about all the places she wanted to go. When her fortune said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest,” she wrote a long list of things she wanted to learn about and sent away for college catalogs. “Don’t wait for anyone else to light your fire: you have your own matches,” was the incentive she needed to ask for a raise at her waitressing job.
Sidra found herself smiling more. And talking to people she had previously ignored. It certainly improved her tips! But it wasn’t about the money. It was for the stories. They gave her an unexpected, totally unfamiliar, sense of something. She didn’t have a good word for it. It just felt good. Like last week, when she’d sat down with James, who was always in the hotel lobby with his mangy cat. It was like she’d handed him a hundred bucks instead of merely saying hello. He enthusiastically invited her to pet the cat – introduced as Bubbles – and, while scratching its ears (and praying it didn’t have fleas), he told her wild tales about when he worked on a fishing boat in Alaska.
She was enjoying Saturdays with Abe. Last week, as they ate at Happy Delight, Sidra had asked him why he had so many kinds of antennas.
“Oh yes,” said Abe, “I have been meaning to tell you about them. The antennas connect me beyond our earth and our solar system, to other galaxies. With the right antenna, I can communicate with extraterrestrial beings.”
Sidra sighed – louder than she had intended.
“You are skeptical Sidra,” Abe said. “But I assure you, we’re not alone. We are not alone in the universe. We share it with many other life forms.” He paused. “You think believing that makes me weird, don’t you?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Ah, but I can hear your face,” he said. Then he chuckled. “That is fine. As I recall it was Dr. Seuss who said we are all a bit weird.”
As she finished her lo mein, Sidra pondered all that she was learning – from fortune cookies, Dr. Suess, a trucker named Charlie Tuna, and a blind man who believed in space aliens. She broke open her cookie and had to laugh: “Do not be afraid to learn from everything and everyone.” Of course.
* * *
Today Abe seemed agitated. He kept interrupting Sidra, asking her to start over.
“What’s up with you?” she finally asked, putting the Radio Shack catalog down.
“I am worried,” he said. “The solar eclipse is next week, and Jesse went to visit his daughter in Sacramento.”
“He lives down the hall. Without Jesse I do not know what to do,” Abe said. “He takes me to the park for each eclipse. We put on our hats and then, when the sun and the moon collide, Jesse’s eyes become mine.”
Well, that sounded bizarre, even for Abe. He put his head in his hands, looking miserable.
“What day is the eclipse?” Sidra asked.
“I have the day off from the restaurant, so I can walk you to the park if you want.”
“You would have to wear the hat.”
“Sure Abe, I can wear a hat.”
* * *
On Friday, Abe met Sidra in the lobby with a lumpy helmet on his head made from aluminum foil. He held out a second, identical one to her.
“Here you go. I made it yesterday and hope it fits.”
“It is your hat. You said you would wear the hat.”
No way she was putting this pile of tinfoil on her head! But she took it. He’d never know if she just carried it.
“Fits great,” Sidra said.
Arnie banged on the bullet-proof glass and yelled. “Abe, she doesn’t have it on!” Then he grinned and gave her two thumbs up.
“Sidra, we cannot go if you do not wear your hat.”
Well, it was, after all, San Francisco. Maybe no one would notice? She put it on.
As they walked, Abe continued talking about the helmet. “The radio waves during an eclipse are intense. It is most important to protect your brain…” Then, as if reciting scientific fact, added “otherwise the sun and moon will not have full access when our eyes switch. This time I hope to see beyond the stars.”
Sidra stopped. “Wait, did you say our eyes switch?”
“It is the whole point of the eclipse Sidra. We each put on the glasses and during the eclipse, there is a cross-oculisation. I will have your eyes and you will have mine.”
“Meaning I’ll be blind?”
“Only for the length of the eclipse.”
Okay Abe, she’d play along.
“And my eyesight will come back?”
“It will. Jesse’s always does,” said Abe. “But you might see things differently than before.”
* * *
Dozens of people with cameras and solar eclipse glasses were in the park setting up lawn chairs and telescopes. No one looked twice at the old man and young woman wearing aluminum foil helmets. Sitting down on an empty bench, Abe opened the beautiful velvet case she’d seen in his shoebox, under all the fortunes, and pulled out two pairs of exquisite, antique gold eyeglasses with amber lenses.
“One pair for you and one for me,” he said. “With these, during the eclipse, that which has been cloaked in darkness will become visible.”
* * *
When the moon took its first bite of the sun, Abe reached for Sidra’s hand.
“The trees, Sidra!” Abe exclaimed. “The flowers! The fountain! The park is as breathtaking as I remember. Now for an opening, so I can peer into the cosmos. ”
Sidra couldn’t see a thing.
“Abe, this isn’t funny.”
Suddenly Sidra’s darkness turned blood red and what looked like human remains rose from the dirt and began to wail. What was happening? She screamed. Or thought she screamed. Swirling straightjackets surrounded her as shadowy figures called out. She had to be hallucinating. Is this what was in Abe’s head? His mind’s eye?
It was as if he knew what was happening. He wrapped both his hands around her trembling one. “Breathe, dear Sidra…breathe,” he said. “Nothing you see can hurt you.”
Sidra slowed her breath and as she did, glimmers of soft light began to appear and slowly grew bigger and brighter. She felt Abe’s energy and kindness flow through her as everything came into focus. There was an explosion of light around her. Or inside her? She wasn’t sure. But the frightening shadows faded, transforming into kind faces and stories and radios.
Sidra wasn’t sure about the whole universe – but, she thought, perhaps on this planet, she was no longer alone.