“ Open Line is an eerie urban fable, a cautionary tale told in [Ellen] Hawley’s swift and commanding voice.”—Heather McElhatton, author of Pretty Little Mistakes: A Do-Over Novel
Annette Majoris is a late-night radio host spinning her wheels in flyover land. Her big personality and gorgeous voice have only gotten her so far and she desperately needs a hook. One slow night, with a caller ranting about the usual things, she decides to take it to the next level—just throw it out there—what if the Vietnam War never happened? What if it was a government-concocted nightmare? A mind-control experiment of grand proportions?
When the lines light up like a Christmas tree, she knows she’s hit on something special, but even she can’t imagine how far this will take her. With a few simple questions, Annette has inadvertently tapped into the wounded American psyche and found a way to heal it. If the Vietnam War never happened, then the United States had never suffered defeat and none of its veterans had been involved in the atrocities of war.
Buoyed by political powerbrokers and their puppets, her outrageous claims gain legitimacy and virtually overnight Annette is speaking to crowded halls, dating a milling magnate, dining with the governor, and meeting with TV producers. But has she really unmasked the greatest conspiracy in American history, or is she just being played for a fool by the powers-that-be?
With pitch-perfect dialogue, Ellen Hawley ’s second novel is a high-energy political satire. No stranger to the world of talk radio, Hawley once moonlighted as a call-in host for a Minneapolis radio station. She now divides her time between homes in Minneapolis and Cornwall. Visit her website at www.ellenhawley.com.
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|Publisher:||Coffee House Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Ellen Hawley is the author of the novel Trip Sheets, which won a Writer's Voice Capricorn Award. She has moonlighted as a radio host, driven a cab, taught creative writing, and was the editor of the Loft Literary Center's magazine for eighteen years. A native New Yorker, she now divides her time between homes in Minnesota and Cornwall.
Read an Excerpt
Open Line A NOVEL
By Ellen Hawley
COFFEE HOUSE PRESS Copyright © 2008 Ellen Hawley
All right reserved.
Chapter One Annette didn't believe it herself at first. It was a slow night, and some caller had a bug up his ass about Vietnam. He said it marked the beginning of the end of American greatness, led directly to September 11th, to Saddam Hussein, not to mention to America's loss of pride, and how many kids these days even knew this great nation's history, and rah rah rah until it was getting up Annette's ass too and there was nothing to do about it but scratch.
"Brian," she said into the mic, but he kept talking-taxation, terrorists, and it all traced back to et cetera and so forth. God, he was boring. Annette was damn near asleep on her own show. She had a good voice for radio-low, sexy when she wanted it to be-and she pitched it at him hard, but he wasn't having any of it. He ran right over her, going on about individual responsibility, the decline of educational standards, stuff she didn't disagree with but that didn't mean she wanted to hear it from him.
"Brian, sweetheart, if you don't let me get a couple of words in here I'm going to have to cut you off."
"I'm just trying to make a point," Brian said, but he stopped talking after he said it, which was good because she only had one other caller standing between her and dead airtime. She lived in terror of dead airtime.
"Here's what I'm trying to tell you," she said, drawing it out now that she had space to work in. "And listen carefully, because this is important. This is what the government doesn't want you to know: there was no Vietnam War. It never happened."
Brian went ballistic, talking about weapons, graves, photographs, costs. The open phone lines lit up and the callers' names lined themselves up on her screen as fast as Nick could single-finger them on the keyboard. With the hand that wasn't typing, he gave her a thumbs-up sign through the window.
"Brian, sweetie," she said, cutting in. "I've read all that, I know what they say. What I'm telling you is it's a fake, a phony, the biggest scam a government ever put over on its citizens."
Brian splattered himself all over the phone lines. The dead, the injured, their families, and what kind of a person ... Annette grinned at Nick, although he was still looking at the keyboard, searching for the space bar, or the enter key. This was too good not to share, even if she had to share it with nothing better than the top of Nick's head. The waiting callers glowed on her screen, as lovely to behold as money in the bank.
"On top of which," Brian said, "the photos ..."
"Hey, pictures can be faked. Anything can be faked. You read the papers? We've had the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense, the Department of Warm Feelings about Your Government, all of them planting news stories that are really just P.R. pieces and the media gobbling them up as if they were the real thing. We've had reporters getting paid to say what the government wants them to say. We don't know what's real anymore. I see a tree these days, I have to kick it to make sure it's not metal. Brian, baby, a photo's nothing."
Brian said yes but ...
"O.K., answer me this," she said. "If the Communists won the Vietnam War, how come the Soviet Union collapsed?"
She punched a button and cut Brian off, then gave his silence half a second to prove he couldn't answer.
"Can you answer me that?"
He couldn't and she took another caller-not the one who'd been on hold, who wanted to talk about the Islamic hordes piling up at the borders to attack America, or so she'd told Nick, who'd left the s out of Islamic. Annette would've been fine with that last night-she'd done a pretty fair riff on Islamic hordes and they were a thousand times better than having to talk about the fishing season-but the thing about them was that she didn't own the topic. The best she could do with it was come off like a pipsqueak echo of everybody famous who'd already defined how America thought about the issue. So screw the Islamic hordes. Vietnam was hers, and tonight Annette was rich. She could skip anything that didn't interest her and take the first of the callers she'd drawn out of the deep night silence.
"Diane, talk to me. Did you fall for it too?"
"What I think? I don't know. I know the last caller was rude to you and I don't think that's right, but I do know some people who went over there and one of them lost, you know, a part of his leg and all, so I don't know, when you think about it, how it could help but be true, you know?"
"So you're telling me you fell for it."
Annette uncapped her bottle of Evian while Diane explained how she wouldn't say she'd fallen for it exactly, but when you know someone, and she'd seen him in shorts and all, and there was no question about the leg ...
Diane had an invertebrate's voice, a jellyfish voice. She was the kind of caller who'd talk all night without ever committing herself to an opinion but who'd never let herself be budged from whatever it was she sort-of believed. Annette set her water bottle down without drinking from it.
"Diane, Diane. I'm not talking about a leg here. I believe the leg, but have you ever asked yourself if you really know how he lost the leg? Have you ever wondered why more people came back from this war with their heads messed up than from any other war in history? It's because of the disjunction between what really happened and what they believe happened."
Disjunction, her mind echoed. A great word, disjunction.
On the other side of the window, Nick shook his head and grinned at her. The lines were full, and he had nothing better to do than look moony. That was Nick's great gift: he looked at her as if he'd never seen a better looking woman, and night after night Annette rode on that. For the full length of the show, he let her believe that she was more than just pretty enough not to embarrass the truly beautiful, let her believe it so intently that her voice became the voice of a blindingly gorgeous woman. The forgettable brown hair and the thick knees dropped away. Hell, it was all a trick anyway, this beauty business. First she had to believe it, and then the men would. Or maybe the men had to believe it first, and then she could. Whichever way it worked, it didn't matter. This was radio. She was the best looking woman her listeners could imagine.
She let Diane dither: she didn't think people should be rude, of course, even when they disagreed, but on the other hand . . .
It struck Annette that Diane was arguing with her seriously-that a full bank of callers was waiting to argue with her seriously-and that could only mean one thing: Annette was really good at this. It was ridiculous how good she was.
Half a long minute later, Annette lost any hope that Diane would complete either a thought or a sentence, so she cut in.
"What I'm saying," Annette told her, "is it was a massive experiment in mind control. Mind control and god only knows what else. I don't think anyone knows yet what they were really trying to hide, but I'll tell you this much: this isn't the first time the government's tested weapons on its own soldiers. You know about the A-bomb? The atomic veterans? They lined these guys up, stood 'em at attention, set the bomb off, and then studied 'em like guinea pigs to see what happened."
Nick was still watching her with cow's eyes, but he was chewing on a slice of dried pineapple now. He grazed his way through the show every night-dried fruit, nuts, fried-looking things that came from health-food stores, compact slabs that looked like candy bars but promised energy, long life, infinite job security. They'd given him a cow's bulk-not fat but not muscular either. Just big.
Diane was going on about her friend's leg again. Annette took a sip of water.
"Gotta move on, Di, we've got half of the greater metropolitan mosquito control district on the line here, but I want to tell you this first: I'm not questioning your friend's honesty. I know he believes what he's telling you. What you have to ask yourself is how he came to believe it."
She punched the button for the next line.
"Michael, talk to me. What do you think?"
Michael was a vet. He'd been over there. He'd seen people die. She heard a break in his voice, tiny but unmistakable, and she clutched-couldn't force a single word out into the air, couldn't think anything more useful than holy fuck. Diane was one thing, but this guy was real.
This guy was also leaving a bald spot in the middle of the conversation: dead airtime, the one unforgivable sin on a talk show, but she couldn't-could not-force herself to step in and fill it.
"The thing is," Michael said, his voice under control again, "is the war, the reasons they gave us for the war, never made much sense to me anyway. We were fighting over there so we wouldn't have to fight here? Come on. The Vietnamese weren't about to invade us. We knew that. So now that you've asked the question ... I mean, it sounds insane, right? But the whole war was insane. I mean, people think Iraq is nuts, and they're probably right and all, but I was in Vietnam. I saw some things ..."
There was that break again, that pause, and it wasn't exactly like she clutched this time, it was more like something clutched her, dug its claws directly into her guts to keep her from saying a single syllable.
"I'm not the same person I was before, and that's the truth. So I'm not saying you're right, o.k.? I'm not saying you're right. All's I want to tell you is I did some things. And I've lived with the things I did. All my adult life. So if you're right, if I've been carrying that around for nothing...."
His voice flew sharp-edged and painful through the wires to the control board, through the soft night air of the suburbs, into Minneapolis, into Saint Paul, out to farmland that would turn into suburb in the next two weeks; it materialized in people's cars, in their bedrooms, in their kitchens and prison cells, slipped down their ear canals and into the mysterious workings of their brains. The claws had let go of Annette's insides, but she didn't notice any mental shift as Michael's voice lodged in her brain. It was nothing she could have told anyone about, nothing she even remembered later, when people asked about it, although she remembered the caller clearly, because Michael was the turning point. He spoke and the joke erased itself, leaving no traces in her memory. She had in all seriousness raised a possibility, and Michael had confirmed it. That was all. The moments that came before Michael erased and reformed themselves so that the idea-the possibility-had now come to her the way rain came from the sky. She was an open channel, a set of wires, a control board with knobs and slides and stuff whose names she'd never bothered to ask about, carrying the idea into the world without knowing its source, or even thinking to ask.
It was a humbling experience.
* * *
She wrapped up the show with all the lines still lit and she and Nick settled themselves on the steps outside to drink a beer from the cooler in his car. They were wired, both of them, adrenaline pumping through their veins, driving them to talk too fast, laugh too loud, open a second beer apiece and pour alcohol into their agitated bloodstreams. Moths stuttered through the parking-lot floodlights, and behind a screen of trees the late-night traffic fled the northern suburbs for the southern and the southern ones for the northern, leaving nothing behind but a wisp of noise and a gradual tendency toward warmer weather and extreme storm activity worldwide.
"Where do you come up with this stuff anyway?" Nick asked during the second beer. He was leaning against the locked door, grinning at her like he was in on some huge joke.
"It came to me."
She said it seriously, almost angrily, taking as much fun out of the joke as she could.
"You are something else."
"Sure I am."
He set his beer down and dropped heavily to his knees at her feet.
"Sleep with me, Annette. It'll make you happy. And if it doesn't, then at least it'll make me happy. Shouldn't one of us be happy?"
"Fuck off, Nick."
He reached for the last of his beer, chugged it, and heaved himself upright.
"It's what you want, you know."
"What I want is a daytime show in a town where they don't know which end of the cow eats hay, that's what I want. Christ, Nick, don't you want to be someone?"
"I am someone. Everyone's someone."
Annette shook her head. Had he even grown up in America? Where was she supposed to start with this guy?
"Besides, I don't sleep with people at work. It's bad for the complexion."
They watched each other for a few seconds, measuring the shifts that had taken place in the distance between them. Or that hadn't taken place. They both felt something different in the air tonight. Neither of them could have named it yet, but it wasn't about sex. Or it wasn't primarily about sex. Nick asked her to sleep with him once a week, give or take a few days, and she always turned him down. She wasn't sure he'd even want to sleep with her if she said yes. Asking was what he thought he owed her, that was all. Or what he thought he owed himself. It was oddly restful, that absence of any real want between them. It let them stay friends. So nothing new there. Still, he seemed further away than usual, and the distance made her feel like she'd left a sweater somewhere during the day and had only now missed it.
"Nick, I'm going to make a confession here, O.K.? And don't let it go to your head. If I did ever sleep with someone from work, it'd be you."
He slammed a fist to his chest, right over the heart, as if he were saluting the flag or having a coronary, and he grinned so thoroughly that she forgave him for acting as if her show tonight had been a joke. How could she not? Sure, Nick dressed like he reached into the laundry basket blindfolded every morning, and sure, his life was going nowhere, but he was also the only person she'd ever known who she didn't have to read for hidden plans or meanings. And he was the only Minnesotan she'd met who liked her, who didn't think she was too pushy, too loud, too New York. Who didn't fault her for not having that Minnesota-nice surface. Maybe if she slept with people from work she really wouldn't sleep with him. He was the kind of guy who got hurt. He was the kind of guy who people like her had to protect. A gust of good feeling blew through her: for Nick because he was who he was; for herself because she could protect him; for the two of them together because they could drink beer and not do anything more than make jokes about sleeping together.
He reached a hand down to pull her to her feet.
"Ready to go to your lonely bed?"
"You go ahead, Nick. I want to sit here a minute and see if I can't slow down a little."
"You sure? You'll be all right?"
"Go on. You think the moths are going to attack me?"
He looked doubtfully at the trees that separated the station from the houses on either side, from the freeway in front, measuring the threats gathered in the darkness-the dangers only a man could assess or protect against, the risk he was taking in leaving her.
"Up to you, I guess."
He packed their empties into the cooler and left her to the uneven whoosh of the freeway and the surge and swoop of her tightly strung nerves, which hurled her from elation to the verge of tears. She'd been good tonight, damn it. She'd been brilliant. Limbaugh, Stern, none of them were any better than she'd just been. And who'd heard her? Nick and his fellow cows, that's who. No one who'd help her career. Christ, if anybody deserved a show in New York, she did. She wasn't asking for syndication. Yet. She just wanted her chance. Couldn't any American boy be president? Didn't any girl just maybe have a shot at it in this new century? And what was a president, after all, in this day and age? There were better things to be, and she was owed her chance at them.
In the meantime, she was lonelier than she would ever have believed possible, and all she really wanted was a chance to move back home.
Was that so much to ask?
Chapter Two History's made by accident as much as it is by plan. If Stan Marlin hadn't come home from a Minnesota Liberty Constructive meeting mad enough to chew his way through the door of his Jeep, he would never have heard Annette on the radio that night, and regardless of what she believed or didn't believe about the Vietnam War, she wouldn't have talked about it for long. Something else would have come up. History would have flowed around her like one more rock in the river, and it would never have noticed her contribution.
Excerpted from Open Line by Ellen Hawley Copyright © 2008 by Ellen Hawley. Excerpted by permission.
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