Winner of the Media Ecology Association's Mary Shelley Award for Outstanding Fiction (for story and radio play) 2023
Finalist for Sidewise Award for Alternate History (short form), 2022
“That’s 'Real Life,' from the Beatles’ 1985 Go and Come LP, and I’m Pete Fornatale on WFUV’s July 4, 1996 weeklong celebration.”
Pete sighed with a mix of all kinds of deep emotions as the song played. Every time he played that song – every time he heard it – he felt like crying, and his eyes burned right now. The song was not only heart-tugging and beautiful but profoundly unsettling, and he felt that he was somehow connected to it.
The Beatles were close to breaking up. Lennon had made that clear in his long interview with Pete's colleague, disc jockey Dennis Elsas, earlier this year. McCartney had, too, in what he had said about his solo song, "My Brave Face," co-written and co-performed with Elvis Costello, the first time any Beatle had done that with a non-Beatle. But no, that was not the reason Pete felt this unspeakable sense of foreboding about the Beatles, about Lennon in particular.
Pete put another piece of vinyl on the turntable. That was still his favorite way of playing music. “Here’s one of my all-time favorites – George’s ‘All Things Must Pass’ from the Beatles' 1974 Band on the Run LP. They brought in Nicky Hopkins to play piano on that one.” Pete hoped the song might make his foreboding pass. It only made it worse.
He looked at the stained analog clock on the wall. He had just twelve minutes left to his show. Maybe he'd take a walk in the tunnels below Keating Hall. That had always cleared his mind when he'd first started walking there, when he was a student here at Fordham University in the 1960s. He'd found it cleared his mind now, too, since he'd returned to Fordham and WFUV about two years ago.
No one knew exactly when or why the tunnels had been built. Likely near the end of the 19th century, in one of Fordham's many expansions, so students could go from one building to another without getting frostbitten in winter or drenched in the spring. There was a rumor that Edgar Allan Poe had something to do with constructing them, and one of the tunnels went straight to his home up on Kingsbridge Road. Not likely, but who knew. Poe's cottage on Kingsbridge off the Grand Concourse was definitely real. As was, come to think of it, Lennon's great line in "I Am the Walrus" about "kicking Edgar Allan Poe". Pete smiled. One of his all-time favorite Beatles A-sides, and the geniuses at the BBC banned it because of the nickers line. But who would kick Poe? Everyone Pete knew loved him and his work. Things must have been different over in England back in the 1960s, or at least different in Lennon’s perception.
On this Tuesday in the Bronx after July 4 in the 1990s, the tunnels were danker than usual, but Pete didn't mind. He was kindly disposed to the fungus or lichen or whatever it was on the walls, and the dankness was part of their charm. There were all kinds of stories about what existed or what could be done in the tunnels, ranging from ghosts to teleportation portals to Pete's favorite – he'd encountered it in a science fiction story written by a professor in the Communications Department decades ago, even before Pete had been here as a student … yeah, "The Last Train to Margaretville," about how the tunnels actually were conduits to alternate realities. Margaretville -- he'd had a delicious dinner there at some academic conference just last year, at the Binnekill, a restaurant on Main Street that sat above a bubbling brook.
Pete felt vaguely relieved. It wasn't just the recollection of the schnitzel. The very thought of alternate realities made him feel better. Maybe he could get to an alternate reality where he wasn't plagued by this inchoate feeling of dread about John Lennon.
Hmm … he'd been thinking so hard, he'd walked a little further than he'd intended in the tunnels. He didn't recall seeing that thick wooden door before. There were plenty of them, here and there in the tunnels, but they were always locked. He'd once asked a maintenance guy in Keating what was behind them, and he said cleaning supplies.
This one wasn't locked. Maybe someone on the maintenance crew had left it open, accidentally or because he was in the middle of a job. Pete couldn't resist. He opened the door. All he saw in front of him was another tunnel, with no sign of cleaning supplies.
He walked through the door and in the tunnel beyond for a few minutes. He saw nothing unusual – the same mottled walls – and the occasional door bolted shut. He looked at his analog watch. He'd been in these tunnels too long, and realized he was now in danger of coming late to his appointment with the WNET people in just an hour. The meeting was important – they wanted Pete to host a special on the Beach Boys, another one of his favorite groups, and their new single had Dennis singing lead for the first time in years.
He looked back on where he'd been walking. He needed to find a faster way out of here, so he could catch either Conrail or Fordham's Ram Van downtown, depending upon where he was able to exit.
He knew there was more than one exit. He'd used multiple exits ever since he'd starting walking here in the 1960s. And— ah, there was one! A different kind of door, not bolted. With any luck, there would be a steep flight of stairs upward on the other side.
And there was. He sprinted up the stairs so fast his legs hurt. He opened the door to a soft rain. It wasn't bad. He squinted and saw he was on the west end of the campus. Ok, it would be Conrail to Manhattan. He had no idea what its schedule was, but the trains ran pretty often.
He walked quickly past Duane Library towards the train station. He loved that old library, with its winding steps to shelves over-crowded with books. He heard a train in the distance and quickened his pace. It was definitely coming from the north. It would be close, but he was good at catching an arriving train. He knew he could pay onboard. He dashed past the ticket booth, nearly collided with an elderly woman, and apologized over his shoulder. He rushed down the stairs to the tracks, just as the train came into the station. He walked through the open doors and smiled. He always enjoyed these last-minute boardings. He sat on one of the worn cloth seats and awaited the conductor.
A woman soon approached in a tight uniform and a book of tickets.
"Grand Central Terminal," he told her.
She nodded. "Five dollars," she said.
Pete gave her a five-dollar bill, and she reciprocated with a ticket stub.
As she walked away, Pete noticed that it said "Metro North" on the back of her uniform. He hadn't seen that before. It usually just said "Conrail."
The train arrived at Grand Central about 20 minutes later. A group of buskers caught his ear and eye. Three young women were singing "Yes It Is." It was one of Pete's most beloved Beatles' songs.
He looked at his watch. He'd made good time on the train and had a few minutes to spare. He took another five-dollar bill from his wallet and placed it in the open guitar case, which already had plenty of bills and coins.
The women finished the song with the word "true" in lovely lilting harmony. "Thank you," the lead singer, a woman with long black hair, said to him. The other two were blonde. The three reminded Pete of the Bangles.
"You were wonderful," Pete said. "Do you do requests?"
The lead singer nodded.
"How about 'Real Life'"? Pete asked.
The woman scrunched her face. "You mean 'Real Love'? I think I read in Rolling Stone that 'Real Life' was the original name of the song."
Pete shook his head and laughed. He'd read every issue of Rolling Stone, and had never seen any article or review or interview that said that. He certainly didn't want to insult these singers and tell them he was Pete Fornatale and he no doubt knew much more than they did about the Beatles. "Ok, could you play me that song?"
The women nodded and began singing. It was beautiful – exactly the same as "Real Life," except they were singing "Real Love."
"Thank you," he said, when they were finished, and impulsively reached in his wallet. All he had was a ten-dollar bill and a twenty-dollar bill. He put the ten in the open guitar case with a flourish. "You deserve it," he said.
"Isn't that President Reagan?" one of the women asked.
"When did they change the guy on the money?" one of the other women asked. "Alexander Hamilton's on my ten-dollar bills."
Pete didn't know what to say. He looked at his watch. If he stayed here much longer, he'd be late for his appointment. He pulled his cellphone out of his pocket and called one of the WNET people he was supposed to meet. The phone rang and rang with no answer, and no voicemail. He put the phone back in his pocket. He didn't really care about the pictures on the money. He cared about NET. But he cared most about the Beatles. "Can you tell me all you know about that song?" he asked, gently.
The women looked at each other. The first one he had talked to looked up at him and considered. "You gave us $5 of real money. Even if the $10 isn't real, I guess your $5 is worth a few minutes of conversation."
"Thank you," Pete said. "When did you last hear that song?"
"I saw the video on MTV the other night," one of the women said. "Very moving."
"I don't think I've seen that," Pete said. "What did you find moving about it?"
"I mean, you know, with Lennon and all, it was very emotional," she said.
"Yeah," Pete said, "John always has a voice that pulls at your heart."
"And seeing him come back to life on that video, on this song, was really something," one of the other women, who hadn't spoken before, said, with something like tears in her eyes.
Pete opened his mouth to say something but stopped. This was getting crazier by the minute.
"What do you mean 'come back to life'?" he asked, slowly. Had something happened to John Lennon that he somehow hadn't heard about? Impossible!
All three women looked at him, with expressions from suspicious to amazed. "You know he was assassinated in 1980, right?" the woman with long black hair finally asked him, in a husky voice.
No, I don't, Pete thought. "Look, I— thank you. You have a lot of talent. Apologies for the interruption." He opened his wallet for the twenty, but thought the better of it. He might need it for other things. He reached in his pocket and found two quarters. "Thanks," he said again, and put them in the guitar case. They had George Washington on them. "They're real, right?"
All three women nodded.
"Thanks," Pete said again and hurried away.
There had to be a bookstore with an encyclopedia in or near Grand Central. He found a Barnes & Noble on 5th Avenue. He walked as quickly and inconspicuously as he could to the reference-book section. He picked up a World Encyclopedia and turned to the Beatles. Oh my God— he felt sick to his stomach. The women were right. It said here that John Lennon had been shot to death in December 1980. He frantically picked up another encyclopedia and opened it to the Beatles. And then another. God almighty! Same thing! Same thing! What the hell was going on?
Pete half sat, half collapsed on a plush chair and pondered what to do. The air conditioning felt too cold. He realized he'd broken out into a cold sweat. He was going crazy. He felt weak. He hoped he wasn't having a heart attack.
He was in no condition to the see the WNET people now, even if he wanted to, which he didn't. The best thing was to return to what he knew – Fordham University, where all of this had started. Or maybe it had started when he'd encountered the girl group who looked like the Bangles and sang like the Beatles. He wasn't sure. No, he was. This losing his mind was all a piece of when he had played "Real Life" on his show. That had unnerved him, as it always did. He'd walked through the tunnels for some peace. He'd taken the train to Grand Central. And then this. Whatever it was, not peace.
He needed some caffeine. Or maybe a drink. Yeah, that would calm him. But he needed a clear head. He needed some coffee.
Thank goodness they were now serving it here. He got up, shakily, tried to relax, and walked carefully to the coffee bar.
He ordered a coffee, jet black. He took out his wallet, took out his twenty-dollar bill, and had another jolt of anxiety. He hoped the woman behind the counter didn't think this was funny money, like the singers in Grand Central did about his ten-spot. If she did, he might not only be unable to pay for this coffee. How would he pay for the ticket back to Fordham? He had an American Express card at home, but he didn't like to use it.
He looked at his twenty-dollar bill. Andrew Jackson was on it. He took his coffee and gave the bill to the cashier. He shut his eyes and prayed.
"Here's your change, Sir," she said. "Are you ok?"
Pete smiled. "Yes, fine, thank you!"
Of course, he wasn't ok, not by a long shot. But at least he'd have no problem getting back to the Bronx, and maybe sorting this out. At least, he hoped so. He sat at a small table and sipped.
He walked, as focused as he could, back to Grand Central. The coffee had strengthened him, but he didn't trust his legs. He kept thinking about what he had read in those encyclopedias. If this was a dream, it was one mother of a complex, detailed vision.
Not only was John Lennon murdered in 1980, according to those encyclopedias. The Beatles had disbanded in 1970! Band on the Run was a McCartney-only album with his new band Wings released in 1973! "Handle with Care" – a huge hit for the Beatles in 1988, the biggest of the decade – was recorded and released by a supergroup that same year, consisting of George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and two guys Pete hadn't heard of! He’d quickly turned to the Roy Orbison entry in the first encyclopedia. It said the Big O had died in 1988 – his heart had given way! All three of those encyclopedias agreed. Goddammit! Pete couldn’t take any more of this – he’d talked to Roy Orbison just two weeks ago -- in May, 1996 – about the new TV series David Lynch had asked Roy to write a new song for. Pete couldn’t bear to think about those insane encyclopedias any longer. It wasn’t good for his heart or his soul.
Except Pete was certain he was the one who was deranged. He hoped he'd be able to talk a little more to those women singers, but they were gone. He felt like that Frank Converse character in Coronet Blue. He’d watched every episode of that series in the 1960s. He had found himself during those five years, something neither the Converse character nor he himself on this uniquely harrowing day had been able to do.
He stepped up to the counter and bought a ticket to Fordham. The next train would be leaving in 15 minutes. He looked around the station and realized that there was no sign, anywhere, of Conrail. It was all Metro North, the name he had seen on the conductor's back on the way down here.
He boarded the train, sat in a comfortable seat, and closed his eyes. He hoped that this train with the new name would bring him back to Fordham University – to the Fordham he knew. The last thing he thought before he fell asleep is maybe he should warn John Lennon not to go back to the Dakota on that fateful day. He had the number of Lennon’s publicist … No, that had happened in 1980, and everything Pete had seen in Manhattan today said he was still in 1996. This was some sick, sick trick of alternate history he’d walked into, not time travel. He needed to get the genres of his life straight.
He woke up as the conductor announced the train was approaching the Fordham station. Years of riding the New York subways had given Pete a sixth sense which enabled him to wake up from even a deep sleep as his train approached his station. The sense had carried over to Conrail – or Metro North, or whatever this train system was named, in this awful world in which the Beatles had split in 1970 and John Lennon had been killed in 1980.
The question was, how could he get back to the world he knew? Although he had boundless curiosity about this nightmare world, or the jagged contours of his dream, whichever it was, he wanted to get back to where he'd been earlier this afternoon. That was what his soul most desired. He needed, desperately, to get back there. And then he could consider what he'd seen and heard and read today from the comfort of what he had known his whole life.
But how? He walked through security at Fordham with no problem. He didn't have to show the guard his ID – she knew him. Pete figured the best chance he had of getting back was retracing the steps he had taken to get here. Pete half laughed to himself. "Get Back" was a big Beatles hit in the history Pete remembered. He hadn't checked in the encyclopedias to see if it was a big hit here.
The encyclopedias – there were no doubt more of them in the Fordham library, and as he walked back to Thebaud Hall, which is where he'd emerged from the tunnels, he toyed with walking into Duane and checking out some other encyclopedias. He was tempted, but he needed to get back, get back to where he once belonged, as McCartney might tell him, if he were here, singing in his ear.
Pete entered Thebaud, went to the men's room to splash some cold water on his face, and proceeded to the staircase to the basement and the tunnels. He had a fleeting fear that the door to the tunnels wouldn't open, but it opened just fine.
He retraced his steps as best he could. He felt nothing unusual, no change in anything, but, then again, he'd felt nothing peculiar as he'd entered this twisted world in the first place. He found the dankness reassuring, sensory evidence that he was in the right place. He reached Keating, and was glad to see the door to its stairs was not locked, either.
He climbed the stairs to WFUV on the top floor faster than usual. His phone made a noise. He looked at it. Three calls had come in from the people at WNET.
He called back. "I ran into a problem on the train—" he began.
"Penn Central," Jennifer, the woman on the phone said. "We heard about the broken train, and hoped you were ahead of it, or were coming down here another way."
"Yeah," Pete managed to say, as he entered the FUV offices. And what exactly now was Penn Central? Another name for Conrail?
"How about we reschedule for next week," Jennifer asked, "would that work for you?"
"Sure," Pete said, barely able to think.
"Great," Jennifer said. "I'll confirm via email. Unless you have a Facebook account?"
"Email is fine," Pete said. He didn't feel like telling her he'd never heard of anything named 'Face Book'.
He ended the call and walked by the studio. Dennis Elsas was on the air. He was playing some song that was new to Pete.
"That was Paul McCartney," Elsas said, when the song was over. "Singing a song from the science fiction musical he did with Isaac Asimov. Been years since I heard that."
Notes from the author:
1. A radio play has been made of this story, featuring musical performances recorded just for this play by Anne Reburn and Spencer Hannabus. The radio play is on Killerwatt Radio's Bobby Roberto Presents. The radio play is FREE. Here's the link
The radio play of “It’s Real Life” is set on Paul Levinson’s home campus of Fordham University and has a fictional version of the legendary New York disk jockey, Pete Fornatale of WNEW-FM and WFUV (Fordham’s radio station), hurrying through the tunnels under the campus, which transports him to an alternate reality. Full of Beatles references and music, and the interview with Levinson at the conclusion of the play is rich with Fordham and musical history (and music) and is extremely well done — the whole package is highly recommended. Tune in and be transformed into your own alternate reality. --John F. McMullen, author of Cashing A Check - A Collection of Poetry
Here's an extended interview about the radio play, on Captain Phil's Planet, on WUSB Radio
2. Here's Anne Reburn's video of her performance of "Real Love" in It's Real Life. And here's my review of Anne Reburn's Music.
And my interview with Anne ...
3. My interview with Spencer Hannabus, who sang my song "It I Traveled to the Past" (words by me, music by John Anealio) at the end of the radio play
4. Here's an hour-long interview about the radio play
5. Great new review on Bloggerhythms of the story: "a truly inspired short story involving the band ... Levinson's It's Real Life is totally original, fascinating and a lot of fun." Read the full review here.
6. I'm writing a short novel that picks up where this short story leaves off. Watch here for announcements.
7. Like alternate reality stories? I discussed them, and their adaptation in TV series and movies, at a Zoom lecture on February 15, 2023 presented by the Science Fiction Association of Bergen County. See free video recording of that here.
8. Interested in Edgar Allan Poe? Here's my review of The Pale Blue Eye.
9. And you might enjoy the following:
- I talk about why I wrote "It's Real Life" at 1hr 1min into this interview:
- My reviews of The Beatles: Get Back
- My thoughts on The Beatles "Now and Then"
- More about Fordham's tunnels in my science fiction:
And read the story here.
- I interview Christine Feldman-Barrett about her book, A Women's History of the Beatles
- I defend Paul McCartney in a 1971 Village Voice essay (my very first published article)
- I review every chapter of Rob Sheffield's Dreaming the Beatles
- My Fall 2023 essay, "The Beatles and Podcasts," free in the Journal of Beatles Studies
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme