"You listen to that station?"
"I have before," I said. "Especially when I was in middle school."
He shook his head. "It would be different if she had no access to good music. If she was deprived of culture. But I've made her tons of CDs. She just won't listen to them. Instead, she chooses to fill her head with that pop crap, listening to a station where they pretty much just play the occasional songs between commercials."
"So on your show," I said, "it's different."
"Well, yeah." He glanced over at me, shifting gears as we headed back onto the main road. "I mean, it's community radio, so there aren't commercials. But I think you should be responsible about what you're putting out there for people to hear. If it can be pollution or art, why wouldn't you choose art?"
I just looked at him. Clearly, I had really misjudged Owen Armstrong. I wasn't sure who I'd thought he was, but it wasn't this person sitting beside me.
"So where do you live?" he asked me, switching lanes as we approached a stoplight.
"The Arbors," I said. "It's a few miles past the mall; you can just—"
"I know it," he said. "The station is just a couple of blocks from there. I have to stop in there for a second, if that's okay."
"Sure," I said. "That's fine."
The community radio station was in a squat, square build-ing that had once been a bank. There was a metal tower beside it, as well as a somewhat droopy banner hanging across the front entrance, wrus it said in big black letters, community radio: radio for us . There was a big window in front, on the other side of which I could see a man sitting in a broadcast booth wearing headphones and speaking into a microphone. There was a lit-up sign in the corner of the window that said o air: apparently, the N was burned out.
Owen pulled into a space right up front, then cut the engine before turning around in his seat to pick through some CDs on the floor. After gathering up a few, he pushed open the door. "Back in a sec," he said.
I nodded. "Okay."
Once he disappeared inside, I started checking out some of the handwritten names on the CD cases, none of which I recognized: the handywacks(assorted), jeremiah reeves(early stuff), truth squad (opus) . Suddenly, I heard a beep, then turned my head to see a Honda Civic pulling into the spot next to me. Which wouldn't have been noteworthy, really, except the driver had on a bright red helmet.
It wasn't the kind football players wear, exactly, but something a little bigger, with more padding. The guy wearing it looked to be about my age and was dressed in a black sweatshirt and jeans. He waved at me, and I waved back, tentatively, and then he was rolling down his window.
"Hi," he said. "Is Owen inside?"
"Yeah," I said slowly. His eyes were big, blue, and long-lashed in the small cutout of the faceplate, and his hair was past his shoulders, pulled back in a ponytail that was poking out from under the helmet. "He said he'd be back in a second."
He nodded. "Cool," he said, sitting back in his seat. I was trying not to stare at him, even though it was kind of hard. "I'm Rolly, by the way," he said.
"Oh. Hi. I'm Annabel."
"Nice to meet you." He reached down to his cup holder, picking up a paper cup with a straw poking out of it and taking a sip. He was just putting it back when Owen came out of the building.
"Hey," Rolly called out to him. "I was just driving by and saw your car. I thought you had to work today."
"At six," Owen told him.
"Oh. Well, that's cool," Rolly said, sitting back in his seat with a shrug. "Maybe I'll come by or something."
"Do that," Owen said. "And Rolly?"
"You know you still have your helmet on, right?"
Rolly's eyes widened, and he lifted up his hands to his head, carefully. Then his face flushed, almost as red as the helmet. "Oh," he said, pushing it off. Underneath, his hair was matted down, and there were creases across his forehead. "Yeah. Thanks."
"No problem. I'll see you in a bit."
"Okay." Rolly put the helmet on the seat beside him, smoothing a hand over his head as Owen climbed back behind the wheel. As we backed away, I waved at him again, and he nodded, smiling, his face still slightly pink.
Once back on the main road, we drove for a moment before Owen said, "It's for his job. Just so you know."
"The helmet," I said, clarifying.
"Yeah. He works at this self-defense place. He's an attacker."
"The one people practice on," he told me. "You know, once they learn the techniques. That's why he has to wear padding."
"Oh," I said. "So… you guys work together?"
"No. I deliver pizzas. This is it, right?" he asked as we came up on the entrance to my neighborhood. I nodded and he put his blinker on, then turned in. "He does the radio show with me."
"Does he go to Jackson?"
"Nope. The Fountain School."
The Fountain School was an "alternative learning space," also known as the Hippie School. It had a very small student body and an emphasis on personal expression, and offered electives like batik and Ultimate Frisbee. Kirsten had dated several somewhat crunchy guys from there, back in the day.
"Left or right?" Owen asked as we came up to a stop sign.
"Straight. For a while," I told him.
As we headed farther into my neighborhood, not talking, I got the same feeling I'd had that morning with Whitney, like I should at least attempt to make conversation. "So," I said finally, "how'd you end up with a radio show?"
"It's something I've always been sort of interested in," Owen said. "And right after I moved here, I heard about this course they have at the station where they teach the basics. After you take it, you can write up a show proposal. If they approve it, they give you an audition and, if they like what you do, a time slot. Me and Rolly got ours last winter. But then I got arrested. So that put us back a bit."
He said this so nonchalantly, as if he was talking about a vacation to the Grand Canyon, or attending a wedding. "You got arrested?" I asked.
"Yeah." He slowed for another stop sign. "I got in a fight at a club. With some guy in the parking lot."
"Oh," I said. "Right."
"You heard about it?"
"Maybe something," I said.