Can't Get It Outta My Head

Peter McMillan

I was on the road a quarter of million miles a year back then, and I used to listen to the radio nonstop. Heard a lot of music. Heard some of it to death. Top 40 played over and over, and I got to where I'd know a song two or three seconds into it. Songs would get inside my head fairly regularly. Right in the middle of my six hours' sleep was the worst. I'd fight it, toss and turn, and eventually give up, get in the truck, and drive on. Sometimes I hummed … the person next to me would say.

"Love Will Keep Us Together," didn't exactly strike a chord with a long-haul trucker, but that didn't keep it out. On the road every day and night, except one or two weekends a month, a song like that will drive a man crazy. That was 'specially so after I came home unannounced one time. But it stayed with me … way longer than the tan line on my ring finger.

Earworms. We didn't have that word for it back then. We just said we had a song stuck in our head. Not everybody had the same ones. I had some doozies. Next to Toni Tennille's was one called "Why Can't We Be Friends?" Times were tough. In there for my kid brother and out here for the rest of us: color wars, lost wars, drug wars, straight on queer, war between the sexes, war on the 'man' and by the 'man,' war on the fuzz and war by the fuzz, and so on. Only natural that somebody would come along with a song to make a killing off it.

It was a lot of years ago. At first, I was okay with it; 'Friends,' I mean. Funk was black, so it wasn't my thing, but like I always said, if it keeps me on the road when I gotta make a run, I don't care if it's a homosexual drag queen brother or an acid-tripping draft dodger up in Moosejaw. I did draw the line at country, 'cause it made me wanna get real drunk and classical, 'cause it made me wanna pull over and go to sleep.

*

Heading down to Mobile one October, I pulled over for dinner at a truck stop just outside Cincinnati, and it was playing on the jukebox.

"So what's that supposed to mean, mister? On your T-shirt there, 'Put Woody Away.' What's that mean?" asked the waitress. It was a gag gift from a buddy. On account I'd lost my shirt in the Rose Bowl betting on the Buckeyes.

I wasn't paying close enough attention to my surroundings. For the next few seconds, I saw red, intensely, and lots of it, before I blacked out. My new earworm serenaded me into unconsciousness and greeted me on the other side; waking up in the hospital, a young nurse poking me nervously with a needle. It wasn't soothing. The music, I mean. It just made me angry. Odd, I thought.

*

I yanked the IV out of my arm and told the bewildered nurse I'd pay what I owed, but didn't have insurance to cover anything else. "Where do I pay and where's my truck?" I asked.

Instead of directing me, she grabbed ahold of my other arm and escorted me to the billing department. When I left the counter, she was still there. She drove me to the truck stop and gave me some pain killers. I looked in her eyes, but had to look away. "Gotta go. I'm way behind."

"You're gonna work yourself into an early grave, Ronnie. It's not worth it."

"I'll take care. You take care, umh …."

"Janice."

"Take care, Janice."

Never did see Janice again, but I added her to my long list of 'what ifs.'

*

For a while, all-night talk radio rescued me from the repetitive strain of Top 40. I even got to where I didn't mind Larry King. After all, it was one of his interviews where I found out about this guy, Least Heat Moon, who wrote a book about his personal odyssey—Larry's words—across America's back roads, and the people he met, and the stories they told.

Thought I could do that—sure had my share of stories to tell. But I couldn't. Couldn't focus while I was driving—even talking into a tape recorder—and couldn't keep anything straight when I wasn't driving, I was so dog-tired. Stopped listening to talk radio and went back to musing through my 'what-ifs' and about the places I was speeding past and, of course, Top 40 radio, which still beat popping pills. The morning I caught myself singing "Karma Chameleon" in the shower, I switched to Mexican radio. Didn't speak much Spanish, but that was kinda the point. However, the beat was what stuck with me, and I couldn't shake it.

I won a bilingual parrot in a card game in El Paso and trained it to talk trucker talk on the CB radio. One day it died. Its last words were "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

*

Now—thirty some odd years later—I share a room with three other seniors, and I'm the only one of us who knows it. A little clock radio by my bed is just out of reach, and it's always on. The custodian, all smiles, makes sure it's set to 96.3. He likes classical music, and The Phantom is the best, he says. I know it. I mean, "The Music of the Night" I know by heart, 'cause it plays three or four or five times a day on the radio and endlessly in my head.


About the Author

The author is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario.