It’s hard to believe this was once his dream. The microphones hanging from the ceiling, mounted into metal frames that seem more like robot arms than recording equipment. The catalog of music that at one time had been a wall of CDs but was reduced to thousands of audio files on the monitor in front of him. Boards glowing with light, each representing a person that together made up their community of listeners.
Years ago, when the phone lines opened, Mike watched the board illuminate, one beacon turning into 20 then 50 then 100, like it was a city waking up in this world they were sharing. Now it reminded him of visiting a city he loved, desperately wanting to experience the life of a native, to be one of them, but instead feeling like an imposter, always relegated to the periphery, observing the majesty in front of him, but never living it.
“This is Mikey McPherson, your Midnight Magic Man, here to sprinkle some stardust on your pillow, and hopefully, a little love,” he says slowly, softly, and sultrily into the mic.
For the past 10 years, every Friday and Saturday from 7:00 to 9:00 P.M., Mikey’s voice has traveled on sound waves into people’s cars and homes around the Midwest. At one point, the marketing creatives wanted to dub Mike as “the voice you get down to,” but Mike shot that down faster than an enemy plane flying into his airspace. First and foremost, he wanted to maintain at least a modicum of self-respect, and the name would surely pulverize that. Also, one mention of people “getting down to his voice” left him with a mental image that soured his stomach. The repeated mentions that would come with a six-figure marketing budget meant his nervous system would never release the pressure on his gag reflex, and the lobes of his brain would never be scrubbed free of it.
Propelled by the tips of his cobalt and cardinal Nike trainers, Mike slides a few inches over to his computer to queue up the next song, his wheels falling into the well-worn tread formed by nights upon nights of following the same path.
“Here to set the mood is Billy Paul with his classic, ‘Me and Mrs. Jones.’ He may not be faithful, but he sure knows how to master a slow jam.”
Growing up, Mike remembers his parents turning into this very program every Friday.
Back then Sammy Silver hosted Slow Jams at Seven, introducing his parents’ favorite R&B songs in his deep bass. Mike couldn’t decide if the depth of Sammy’s voice was natural or put on like a Darth Vader mask, but either way, it had him hooked.
So much so that in his late elementary school (and, embarrassingly, his early middle school days), Mike created his own radio show modeled after Slow Jams at Seven. Sitting at his laptop with a cumbersome and touchy desktop microphone plugged in, he dropped his voice at least three levels beyond what puberty would induce and played songs he liked but understood little lyrically. Frequently, Mike employed Sammy Silver’s phrases, like “Let Silvey slide right on in and show you how to play this funky music right” and “nothing is sexier than a night with Silvey,” to the shock of his father, who would wag his finger at him and tell him to watch his mouth. His mom consistently failed to smother her smile.
As Mike was in character, they were too, mimicking either someone they were obsessed with at the time (Austin Powers for Ronnie and Veronica Mars for Maeda) or a cooler version of themselves. Middle school-level jokes consistently worked their way into the conversation no matter who they were, and they later realized that their voices high on their own humor weren’t too different from those when they were actually inebriated.
Now, decades past middle school一wow, has it been decades?一Mike can’t remember the last time he hung out with Ronnie and Maeda, let alone shared in that drunkenness of friendship.
The song ends and Mike positions himself in front of the mic, his hand hovering just above the darkened phone board. “A great song, isn’t it? Since we’ve heard from Billy Paul tonight, I want to hear from you all. What are you up to?” Mike ekes out a laugh. Truth be told, this is his least favorite part of the night, a truth that serves as a reminder for how much he has changed since he first stepped into this booth 10 years ago.
He loved the rapport, the way conversations could start at one point and veer into a completely different direction, the shades of humanity it showed him. Each had their distinctions, yes, but they were also similar, united on this show by two things: their love of slow jams, and their love of love.
“Let’s take the first caller.” Mike hits one of the flashing orange cubes on the board, and it goes solid. “You’re on with Mikey. What’s your name and what are you up to?”
“Hi Mikey. My name is Walker, and I just have to say that I am so pumped right now. I’ve been trying to get on your show for years,” Walker says, his voice landing somewhere between a tenor and Sammy.
“Well thank you. I’m excited to talk with you, too.”
“Yeah, yeah, thanks,” Walker says, breathily. “I’m also pumped because I just proposed to my boyfriend of three years and he said yes, and I am so happy.”
Mikey wishes it wasn’t the case, but Walker’s elation sends his stomach into a ruinous freefall. It feels as if it’s reached the peak of a rollercoaster to drop 200 feet in five seconds.
“Wow, congratulations to you both! What’s your boyfriend’s name? How did you pop the question?” Lucky enough for him (or maybe it’s unfortunate), Mikey’s had enough practice cloaking his emotions with manufactured happiness that he doesn’t miss a beat as his heart stumbles. Instead, he fumbles with a Post-It on his desk left there from the show before, Bianca Black Rush Hour Rhapsody. Be real, it reads. He folds it like an accordion until all he can see is be.
“Hollis,” Walker says. “And I took him to where we first met, this hole-in-the-wall bar in our town, and ordered him the same food and drinks we were eating that night. I was going to request that the restaurant had your show on, too, like they did when we met, but they already had that covered.” He breaks into a fit of laughter, a loud guffaw, electric with so much happiness that a smile manifests on Mikey’s face, brief, but there all the same. The tears in his eyes last longer.
“I am honored to be a part of it, and that we are the chosen show of that restaurant. Thank you for sharing that with all of us. I think I can speak for us all when I say we wish you many, many years of happiness, and don’t be a Mr. Jones!” he says, his finger extending into a point of its own volition. Even after all these years, he has to remind himself that there’s no one watching him. No one sees him.
Walker thanks him, and with the press of another button, another listener shares their story. A few are from people sharing how they are at home, listening to the music, and recalling how it takes them back to earlier times. Some are friends, tipping back beers together, or having a little party. Most are stories of couples一newly dating, years in, married decades一telling him the highpoints of their days and how his show is factoring into their night. It’s humbling to hear the impact he, or at least Slow Jams at Seven, has had on them, and how in this small way, they are all strings in the fabric of each other’s lives. In another way, it’s devastating.
Every weekend, Mike is smacked in the face with what he wishes he’s had, but knows he won’t get: love, someone to come home to at the end of the night, to whom he is more than just a personality behind the microphone.
For a while, he kept the nagging voice buried in the back of his mind, smothered until he could hear no more than a whisper. But, with time and repeated erosion, the voice clawed its way out and screamed at full volume. There was no ignoring it anymore: in reaching for his dream, he had let go of other things, those he didn’t seek at the time, but now finds himself grasping for. Time and again he comes away with an empty palm.
While he plays slow jams two days a week, his life every day has come to feel like a slow jam, trudging along at a snail’s pace, any progress negligible.
Less than 50 minutes later, Mike has wrapped up the show, the red light above the recording studio door going dark. He packs up his computer, grabs his water bottle, waves goodbye to his recording team, and drives home, the skyscrapers of Chicago swallowing him up on both sides.
Some nights, Mike craves nothing but silence, but many times, he turns to the comfort of other human beings. It’s ironic that the nurturing he seeks comes from the radio, he knows, but, just like when he was young, Mike cannot deny the peace that the voice of another human being can bring. Miles apart, sometimes states and countries apart, there is connection, and in connection, Mike feels less insignificant.
While Slow Jams at Seven is for lovers一and, well, lusters一the lovelorn souls like him have to turn to a different show. Slow, calming, romantic intro music plays as a group of women harmonize over the title Marcel: Where Broken Hearts Go.
“Welcome back, you’re here again with me, Dr. Marcel Bagen, and tonight, we’re talking about missed chances. Looking back, we all have things that we would’ve liked to do differently, some big, some small, and some stick with us more, some so much that we constantly find ourselves hung up on them, tethered to a rope we can’t untie. But that doesn’t mean it always has to be this way. If you would like, I invite you to call in and share your story with us. Tell us what has been holding you back, or what is no longer. You never know who your story may help, or how it will help you.”
They’re the definition of ships passing in the night, except instead of ships, it’s one going into the recording booth as the other is coming out. And yet, Mike feels as though, from listening to her show on the regular, he knows her better than most of his co-workers. In asking people to bear their souls, she has done plenty of it herself. You don’t become known as “the Brené Brown of the greater Chicago area” without being honest, and if there is anything that Mike respects, it’s honesty. Yes, he realizes it is more a parasocial relationship than anything, but in it, he finds that comfort of connection, and tonight, he feels like she is talking right to him.
The reality is, since Marcel has a show on the most popular station in the Midwest and syndication deals in other markets, she is talking to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, and the topic of missed chances is one with mass appeal. But here Mike is, a 39-year-old man, wondering if this tune of the radio was fate.
Is that the worst thing he’s thought about himself? No. Not even today.
Throughout his multiple years as a Marcel listener, Mike has considered dialing into the show to mine a nugget of Marcel’s wisdom, but he’s always held back. To call and request a song is one thing, but to offer up your pain to an audience, that’s another, and he never wanted to risk someone recognizing his voice and open up the whole Midnight-Magic-Man-is-looking-for-radio-therapy can of worms.
But, without a thought to the repercussions, Mike reaches for his phone in the cupholder, and dials the number of the station he knows by heart.
The phone hums with the ringtone, and after the fourth, he’s directed to the phone board. As he waits, the once-buried voice shouts: Do you really want to do this? Are you this pathetic? Where do you think this is going to get you? If people find out, is this how you want to be known? Is this worth it?
Mike’s mental nemesis offers up good points that he won’t deny, but his answer to them is the answer to most things in life at the moment: a question mark so gigantic, there’s little room for anything else, let alone any certainty.
The only thing that squeezes through is the image of the rose-colored Post-It note on his desk: Be real.
Those are the words he chooses to listen to. Besides, he’s burned through his employee assistance program’s three free therapy sessions a long time ago, and to little avail. Maybe radio therapy is the only way to go.
“Hello, and thank you for calling into Marcel. Who do I have the privilege of speaking with tonight?”
The voice shocks him as it suddenly pours out of his phone, echoing out of his car’s speakers seconds later. It takes another few for him to scrounge up his own.
“Uh, I’m一” Mike clears his throat to dislodge the bass of the Midnight Magic Man and settle back in at his normal baritone volume. “Mike. From Chicago.”
Nothing, the voice chimes. Everything, the rest of him answers.
“I think mine is a series of missed chances,” he says.
“Hmm,” she replies. “Can you tell me more about that?”
The answer comes easier than Mike thought it would. “Ever since I was a kid, I had this dream in mind for what I wanted to do with my life, and every opportunity I had to try and achieve that, I took, and it worked because I achieved what I wanted. Except, doing that meant not doing other things, and I was aware of that at the time. I knew that I had to miss some things I would’ve otherwise ranked as important to do this, but that’s what you do when you’re going after your dream, right? You work your as—butt off. But now, I’m years into this, and it feels more and more like I’m treading water. It’s like, yes, I have this. I did this. I accomplished something that is really hard to do, but now, I can’t help but think I forgot that there were other parts I would want too. In my job, I hear stories about people’s lives, and I see my friends progressing, and they have kids that are freaking teenagers, and other than work, I can’t say that I’ve moved forward. I feel like I’m perennially stuck at 25. And I’m not saying it wasn’t worth it, because this career has given me a lot of great things, a lot of great opportunities, but I keep coming back to whether there may be other things out there that are worth more, and that it may be too late for me to get them. It’s cliché to say but with hindsight 20-20, I think I did it wrong, that I missed out on a different life, and yeah, that’s my story. That’s where I’m at. In some kind of purgatory of my own making.”
When he finishes, Mike’s body is heavy with the same exhaustion that accompanies 48-hour stomach flu, and yet buzzing with the same anxious buzz of a spur-of-the-moment meeting with his boss. It’s destabilizing, and he grips the steering wheel to root him in his solidness.
He prepares for his word vomit to be met with radio silence. Even for a therapeutic program, it feels a bit much, and if he was Marcel, he’d be thinking what the literal hell?
“Mike, thank you for sharing that. I am sure it wasn’t easy, and I know feeling that way isn’t easy. I know I say this a lot, but I’ve been there. Not the exact same circumstances, of course, but similar, and I’m going to tell you what a great friend told me, and that is that you are not doing it wrong. You did—and you are doing—what you needed and wanted at the time, and there is nothing wrong with that. We are humans. We all operate on different timelines and just because yours doesn’t match with someone else’s doesn’t mean that yours is wrong or that theirs is. No matter who we are or how old we are, we’re always figuring it out.”
Inside his ribcage, somewhere tucked between his heart and lungs, the pulp of pain that had been moaning for ages receives the lowest dosage of cortisone shots, and the ache eases slightly.
Bullshit. That’s not true. You can’t believe that. You missed your shot a long time ago.
“How do I know that? How do I know there’s another chance coming?” he asks of Marcel.
“You don’t,” she says, and for an answer rife with doubt, there is none in her voice. “But you don’t know that you’ve missed it yet either. That’s the thing with overanalyzing the past. You can’t change what happened and you never know what’s coming for you either. Right?”
“Yeah,” he replies with enough doubt for him and her combined.
“The important thing is that if you know what you want now, you can go after it. As you said, you know how to work for what you want and get it. There’s no reason that can’t apply to other parts of your life, too. If you don’t want this to be your life, it doesn’t have to be.”
She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Plenty of people can’t escape their lives. “Do you really think that’s true?”
“I do. That’s the thing about having a radio show like this. You get to hear a lot of stories from people that show you what humans are capable of, and more often than not, they give you hope.”
Marcel would have no way of knowing that the Mike on the line is the Mike down the hall from her, and yet, with her statement, it feels like she does. Their areas of focus may be very different—after all, no one is calling up Marcel to play hookup hits—but this they share. Rather than looking at his caller’s stories solely through the lens of his own heart pangs, Mike could choose to see them as encouraging. He could see them as proof that people, be it friendship or in love, find their way to each other all the time.
“I would never bet against humanity, and I don’t think you should bet against yourself,” Marcel continues.
He blinks them away, the watercolor of the city lights becoming realism. “Thank you, Dr. Marcel.”
“You’re welcome, Mike from Chicago. Is there anything else you’d like to share?”
“No, this is enough.” The pulp inside his chest is far from healed, but at least it seems more bearable.
“Good,” she says. “One thing before you go. Your voice sounds very familiar. Have we spoken before?”
For some reason, it triggers a warmth to spread through him. All he can attribute it to is that while he’s frequently recognized his radio voice, it’s far less that he is for his own一one he did not to spend dozens of hours practicing, all to feel like a poor mimic of the Sammy Silver everyone loved. It’s the one that’s always been his. The only thing it required of him was for him to just be.
Mike considers telling her the truth with a simple yes, and no elaboration, but he decides against it. As a child, he discovered that the magic of the radio is not only in the beauty of the music, but in that of the kinship between the souls riding the same airwaves, connecting without ever having to be in the same room, without ever having to know one another. Mike feels that magic now, as he drives the Chicago Loop to his apartment, and wants to hold onto it, untainted.
For today at least. Next week, when Mike’s back in the office, he will make the effort to find Marcel and introduce himself as Mike from Chicago in person. He can make a joke about how she helped him through his slow jam of life, and she’ll see in the flesh another example of the impact she has made, a reminder they all need once in a while.
They could turn off the FM waves, but this connection wouldn’t fade into silence.