I’m reading the diaries of Marcus Aurelius beside my open third story window on a brisk, sunny autumn day in Albany, NY, when I hear a man singing on the sidewalk. I press my face to the window like I do at night when the drunks and college couples argue in the street. The man is standing beside my garbage cans. I’ve seen him before–he’s homeless. He holds a brown paper bag and hosts his radio show. “Ladies and gentleman, Michelle Smith is a liar and a fraud. Now another hit from the 1950s.” A dime store cowboy, he sings: it’s an iterative, plaintive country lament that suits his forlorn voice. His rusty baritone is one pack shy of a voice box. He belts out half the chorus, drinks from his paper bag, then delivers the end of the chorus. In lieu of a bridge, he repeats his line about that woman, Michelle Smith, the liar and fraud. He loops again: a verse, half the chorus, a swig, the rest of the chorus, Michelle. I don’t recognize the song, so I write the lyrics in the cover of my Meditations. A bird lands on my oriel. It’s a goldfinch, I think: a yellow belly, black wings. Fugitive harbinger. And the homeless man— an auger? Michelle Smith— a signal; a symbol; a sister? I watch the bird until the bird flies off. I lower my head and read about Rome.
An hour later and the man is still hosting his radio show. I’ve had enough meditations for one day. I set the book of stoic aphorisms on my desk and open my laptop. The first hit on the stolen lyrics is the 1954 film The Outcast. “Yesterday’s gone. Love me from now on. Be true to me. Forget about the past.” There’s a Ricky Skaggs version of the song. A Willie Nelson cover, too— and one by Billy Walker. The Internet tells me the original was written in 1955 by Webb Pierce and Cindy Walker. Pierce was a honky-tonk musician. A reviewer of Pierce on amazon.com complains that Pierce’s songs are not very “well-preserved” by artists, citing the discrepancy between the number of covers of Pierce’s songs compared to covers of the luminaries of the 50s and 60s. Preservation. Cover. Protection. A city is a fortress of plywood and brick: a song a ploy. Something tells me the search I’m running is a foxhole, want for a fox. The name “Michelle Smith” returns too many hits. The Internet won’t give me what I’m looking for. I listen to the song online— it sounds all wrong.
My sister is a homeless opioid addict living in Richmond, Virginia. She will never leave her city, where she knows the locations of the shelters, churches, dealers, and the abandoned Section 8s. Some nights my sister sleeps under a bridge. Some nights she’s a prostitute. She emails— off and on— when she gets ahold of a GoPhone or the man she spends a night with has a Wi-Fi connection. I’ll send her my replies, and weeks go by. Months. Two years once passed before I heard from her.
The homeless man moved on. I remember his voice. His song gave weight— the tragic?— to that sunny morning in a city where I never felt at home. A city that never loved me. I’ve since flown those concrete pastures for the peaceful green of country living. Now the only homeless men I see are those who cross the Dunn Memorial Bridge in the evenings: seeking refuge in the city shelters. Like me, perhaps, they desire freedom from the denser populations; by day they cross the Hudson, to the suburbs and the rural outposts, returning to the city at night when the cold sets in. Or maybe they’ve just arrived, by Amtrak, from a former life, stepping off the platform at Rensselaer station; and across the river the city calls to them like a jewel, a token gleaming in the night. The city from far away looks clean, well-lit, and small: a museum display— an exhibition named “The Promise.”
Brian Phillip Whalen’s writing appears or will soon in The Southern Review, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Hotel Amerika, Sonora Review, Puerto Del Sol, Cherry Tree, and elsewhere. Brian received his Ph.D. in English from SUNY Albany in 2015 and currently teaches at The University of Alabama. He serves as Special Features Editor for Quarterly West.
“Broadcast” first appeared in print in Thin Air.