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Talk about "dead air," I thought as I scanned the shabby lobby of the radio station. KBXD was completely deserted. At two p.m. Friday on a gorgeous spring day in Boulder, Colorado, I'd expected that my upcoming radio interview would not glean many listeners, let alone new clients. I had, however, expected to see some personnel.
I opened a heavy wooden door and entered an unadorned L-shaped hallway. Puzzled, I listened to a woman's halting, sniffling speech, and followed the sound to the nearest corner of the shiny faux-mahogany-paneled wall. A built-in speaker blared what I realized, with a sinking feeling, was not a TV soap opera, but the actual KBXD radio broadcast.
"--just can't believe they would shut us down with no notice like this," the woman's voice, strained with barely checked emotion, was saying. "So we want all our listeners to call in throughout the rest of our programming today. Complain. Share the memories. Share the sorrow. You're listening, for the last time, to the Tracy Truett Show."
"Oh, great," I muttered to myself. My first radio spot ever and the station is shutting down? I cautiously rounded the corner, considering my options. I shuddered at the idea of trying to talk enthusiastically about my newly chosen profession, all the while with "listeners" calling in to share their grief about the radio station closing.
Through an interior window, I spotted radio host Tracy Truett. She was a large, square-jawed woman with short blond hair in wet spikes surrounding the headband of her black earphones. Her heavy makeup was smeared. She was wearing what was probably a nice-looking outfit when she'd first come to work that day--sky-blue pantssuit, paisley blouse--but the jacket was off and hanging haphazardly on a chair back, and the bow on the neckline of her blouse was untied and unbuttoned, revealing a sturdy bra strap. One thick, black shoe was on top of the table between Tracy's microphone and a liquor flask.
She continued into her microphone, "--Or, should I say, after a word from our soon-to-be-former sponsor, is our regularly scheduled program, 'Boulder Business Women.' Today, we'll be talking with Allida Babcock, who's just opened her new business here in town as a dog psychologist."
"Did you say a dog psychologist, Tracy?" a male voice broke in. He was not in my vision, but I quickly surmised that this must be the voice of the show's producer, speaking from the control room overlooking Tracy's booth.
"That's right, Greg. So now both our depressed listeners and their depressed pooches can call in and cry with us. Or howl, as the case may be."
I cringed, then made a swift executive decision. I turned on my heel and headed for the exit. Just then, from the corner of my eye, I saw Tracy Truett rise and gesture for me to come in.
Before I could make a clean getaway, Tracy leaned out the door and called, "Are you Dr. Allida Babcock?"
I turned back and forced a smile. "No, I just came in here to use your bathroom."
"You are too," Tracy stated crossly. "You sent us this photo of you in your press release, remember?"
I glanced at the eight-by-ten glossy in Tracy's hand, which was unmistakably my likeness--short, sandy brown hair, dark brown eyes, button nose. As if the facial features alone weren't enough, I realized to my chagrin that I was now wearing the very same bright yellow cable-knit sweater I'd worn for the photo.
"True, but I meant I'm not a doctor. Technically, I'm a behaviorist. I just call myself a dog psychologist in my advertisements because I thought it would catch people's attention faster."
"Yeah?" Tracy said, arms akimbo and eyeing me as if I were a disobedient child. "Looked to me like you were trying to leave us in the lurch. It's people like you, not showing up for their interviews, that caused our owners to shaft us in the first place."
I held the woman's gaze. "It's just that, with the station suddenly closing and everything, I assumed you wouldn't want guests on your show. Wouldn't you prefer to reminisce amongst yourselves?"
"Sure. But that's not what it says on today's program schedule, now is it? I fully intend to act like a professional, even if nobody--"
"Tracy? Get back in here!" the same male voice boomed over an intercom. "You've got dead air!"
Tracy grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the sound booth, then rushed over to the nearest mike. "Yes, dear listeners, we're still here, for today, at any rate." She rounded the table and reclaimed her chair, using one hand to give herself a swig from her flask, and gesturing frantically at me with the other hand to sit down at the second mike. "Today, our guest is Allida Babcock, who's here to tell us all about her new business as a dog psychologist." She shot dagger looks over the table, but her voice was pure honey. "Welcome, Allida. Glad you could join us." She slipped her earphones back on as she spoke.
"Thank you, Tracy," I said as smoothly as I could while sitting down. The chair was way too low for me. The air in the small room smelled of whiskey. Sheets of gray foam rubber were haphazardly stuck on the walls as though a child had gone wild with packing material. The low-hanging ceiling tiles gave me the impression that the roof was about to cave in on us. Somehow, I'd always pictured radio studios as fancier than this. I craned my neck and said into my microphone, "It's a pleasure to be here."
"However short-lived," Tracy added under her breath. "So, Allida. Speaking of which, you're extremely short, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am, Tracy. Thank you."
"What are you? Four-ten? Four-eight?"
"I'm five feet even," I answered, which was only accurate when I poofed my hair a little and raised up on my toes. Determined to make the most of this mess and keep the conversation focused on my profession, I continued smoothly, "Yet my height has never adversely affected me when training dogs. You see, even though a dog might greatly outweigh his or her owner, dogs are pack animals. What's important for training purposes is that you quickly establish that you, not your dog, are the top dog, the alpha dog, the leader of the pack."
"Maybe so," Tracy said with a chuckle, "but from where I'm sitting, you can barely see over the table, not to mention the microphone. How old are you, anyway? Twelve?"
"Thirty-two, actually, and I've spent twenty-five years now training dogs. During that time, I--"
"Greg," Tracy interrupted. Though she'd turned in her seat to face the pimply faced man in the control room, she still spoke directly into her microphone. "We've got to get this poor girl a dictionary or a pillow to sit on. She's going to sprain her neck at this rate. Got a dog bed back there anywhere we can fold up and stick on her chair?"
"As I was saying, Tracy," I continued, hoping my rising agitation was not reflected in my voice, "I've trained dogs for many years--" I rose to surrender my chair to the dutiful Greg, who had yanked off his own earphones, left his post, and entered the broadcast booth "--and am now working specifically with the so-called behavior-problem dogs."
Tracy let out a loud burst of laughter, then asked, "Got any tips for badly behaved employers--such as station owners?"
"Not unless they're canines," I said calmly, though my face was growing warmer by the moment. Beside me, Greg chuckled quietly as he cranked the chair into a higher position. He was older looking than his pimples and wardrobe--jeans and Boyz II Men T-shirt--would normally indicate. I guessed him to be in his late thirties. Unshaven and potbellied, he reminded me of the janitor who worked at my school in Berthoud, Colorado, more than a decade ago.
Tracy Truett scoffed and took another drink. "You could call 'em dogs, all right. Or heartless swine."
Watching her, all I could think was: Are you nuts, lady? Don't you ever want to work in radio again? Heart pounding, I forced a smile and leaned over the mike to say as sweetly as I could, "I can't imagine why they've canceled your show, Tracy. That's such a shame."
"Yeah, me neither. We got a call on line one." She flipped a switch on the phone opposite her shoe and liquor bottle and said, "Hello, Russell, you're on the air."
"Hi, Tracy. I'm calling with a question for Ms. Babcock."
Thank you! I thought. Any interruption in the show was a welcome relief, although I recognized the voice of Russell Greene, an electrical engineer who'd rented half of his two-room office to me. Russell Greene had been in love with me--or thought he was--from the minute we met three weeks ago. I'd answered his ad for office space to rent. Handsome-featured with thick, shiny dark hair and mustache, Russell had risen when I came to see him about the ad, and, as our eyes met on an even plane, his face lit up. He seemed to interpret our mutual vertical challenge as a sign that we were fated for each other--two of the same miniature purebreds.
Problem was, there was no chance, as far as I was concerned. He didn't like dogs.
"Go ahead, Russell," Tracy said.
"Ms. Babcock, I was wondering if you're as beautiful as your voice makes you sound."
I clenched my teeth and sank into the seat that Greg had adjusted and was now holding for me. In truth, I'm "cute," not beautiful, and I hate the sound of my own voice. Now able to speak into the mike without neck strain, I said evenly, "My physical appearance has nothing to do with the psychology of dogs. In fact, that is one of the many appealing aspects of dog ownership--our dogs love us regardless of how we look."
"Let me just ask one follow-up question, Ms. Babcock. Are you busy Saturday night? I was thinking a candlelit dinner for two at the Flagstaff House, for starters."
I put my hand over the microphone and whispered, "Oh, good Lord. Just kill me, now." Cheeks burning, I mentally ticked through the list of friends and associates I'd told about this show. The worst embarrassment of all was knowing my mother was probably listening to this fiasco.
Tracy took a swig from her flask. "Oh, hey, Rusty, hate to tell you this, but I'd have to say Allida here is turning you down flat. However, I'm free Saturday. What time you want to pick me up?"
There was a click on the line. Without missing a beat, Tracy said, "We've got another caller," and flicked a switch. "This is Tracy Truett, and our segment's called Boulder's Business ... Broads." She guffawed as Greg shook a fist at her while reentering his control room. "Ah, lighten up, Greggy. What are you gonna do? Fire me? And considering our guest here works with female dogs, I coulda said something a lot worse." She laughed at her own liquor-influenced wit. "Let's hear from our caller. You're on the air."
A deep, all-business woman's voice said, "I have a question for Miss Babcock."
Mom! Though relieved to hear the familiar voice, I automatically straightened my shoulders and stared at the phone.
"Allida, I mean Miss Babcock, my friends and I are here in my kitchen with our many dogs, and we just want to say what an intelligent, competent person you seem to be."
"Thank you." I smiled at my mother's fib. My mother was far too much of a loner to have more than one friend in her house listening to the broadcast.
"We all want to bring our dogs to see you, and we just want to know where your office is located and how we can go about getting an appointment with you."
I felt such a rush of love and gratitude that my eyes misted. I gave my exact address in downtown Boulder, then my phone number, and said, "It is important that you call me first, because many times I can tell over the phone if my services are going to be helpful to you and your dog. For example, I would almost always first want to ensure you've consulted a veterinarian. Also, I can determine over the phone whether my initial encounter with your dog should be in my office or at your home."
I heard a familiar woof in the background, and my heart lurched a little as I instantly recognized the deep tones of Pavlov, my German shepherd. I wished I could be with both of my dogs right now. I was currently renting a room in a house--all I could afford till my business got established. Sadly, the owner forbade dogs. Though my cocker spaniel, Doppler, had won the woman over--influenced, no doubt, by my insistence that I would not move in without at least one of my dogs--she drew the line at the German shepherd.
"Did you have any other questions for our guest?" Tracy asked my mother.
"No, though I must say that you are the worst interviewer I've--"
Tracy flicked a switch and said, "Oops. Line went dead. These darned phones. But we got us another caller. You're talking to Tracy True-It-Is. How ya doin'?"
"Hi, um, my name's Beth Gleason," said a quiet, youthful, female voice. "Actually, I have a problem with my dog?"
"Yes, Beth. What's the problem?" I asked.
"He won't eat. It's like, he's starving himself to death."
"First off, when a dog won't eat, it's usually a medical problem. Have you taken him to a vet?"
"Yeah, and they say there's nothing wrong with him. He's a collie. I got him from the shelter after his owner died."
"I see. And do you know much about his former owner--especially, what your dog's feeding routine and brand of dog food were?"
"Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I know a lot about the former owner. Just about everybody in Boulder knew her. You probably read about her death in the papers. It was all over the news about six weeks ago."
I had moved back to Colorado less than a month ago, but didn't want to distract Beth from her story, so I merely said, "Go on."
"It was that rich lady, Hannah Jones, who was found shot to death in her house, and they finally ruled it a suicide."
Across the table, Tracy grinned wild-eyed at me, then at Greg in his control booth, and let out a low breath, mouthing the words, "Hot damn!"
"Beth, my first reaction is that we probably shouldn't go into all of this on the air."
Tracy immediately gestured at me and tried to shout within a whisper, "Yes, we should!"
Doing my best to ignore Tracy, I continued, "I would very much like to help, though. You might want to call my office. Just tell me one more thing. Do you know if you're giving your dog the same brand of dog food Ms. Jones had been giving him?"
"Yeah, like I said. I'm giving Sage, that's my dog's name, the same food he always had. I got the original food itself. The people watching him after Hannah died brought Sage's forty-pound bag of dog food to the animal shelter with him. But--" She paused. "I know this sounds crazy, but ... It's just, like, the way Sage barks like mad at men--especially, well, really only if it's a man wearing a coat."
That was interesting and gave me some immediate theories, but again I thought it best not to interrupt.
Beth continued, "And Sage, you know, flinches from loud noises? I just--I really think he's trying to tell me that Hannah Jones didn't commit suicide. This is so embarrassing, so you can tell me straight out if you think I'm nuts here."
She paused, and I could hear her take a deep breath. Beth said, "I really think Sage witnessed Hannah's death. I think a man in a raincoat shot her."