“I really don’t know why I’m calling…”
On the green couch in the rectory living room, I’m not primed for a sweet response – in the same mood as I always find myself when I go a long period of time without a cigarette. I catch a glimpse of Bob Holden carrying on a conversation on the office phone. He’s chuckling. Each night there are two volunteers working the phones. Since I’m the smoker, they are kind enough to give me quick access to the patio outside the living room.
In my mood, the first response that comes to mind is “When you figure it out, call back.” Despite Father Graves’ warnings about showing even the tiniest hint of animosity and hostility, these words not only enter my head but also slip over my tongue past my lips. I wince as I hear them.
My first night on the phones and I keep replaying his previous Sunday sermon in my mind. “All of us think about doing the right thing, but how many of us actually pitch in and get involved? Not donating money, mind you, though that is very, very important – but for those of you who can’t afford that financial strain, especially in these hard times – you can make a great difference by pitching in with your time.”
“I know why I called,” he gasps incredulously. There is an awkward moment of silence as he regains his composure, trying to decide whether or not to hang up on such a rude ass. “Its just I don’t know what you can do to help.”
Of course my mind and luckily this time only my mind and not my overactive tongue asked, “Then why waste my time.” But my training tells me to listen. Contact time is the goal, because the longer the caller gabs about a problem the more diffused their angst becomes. “Try me,” I challenge as I grab a cigarette and walk outside. It is cool, the black night sparkling with dazzling stars as my smoke emission clouds the purity of the air.
Through the phone, I feel a shrug, maybe a bit of a sigh, slight, not heavy with despair, but a signal he is willing to give it a shot. He clears his throat. “I’ve been dating this woman.” A monotone delivery with absolutely no emotion at first. Because of the delivery I have a hard time conjuring an image, which makes it difficult to become engaged without a picture of him in my mind. The only image that keeps popping up is a mouth on a wide pancake. You try to take a talking pancake seriously.
Still a bit defensive because of our start, I almost remark flippantly, “That’ll teach you.” Thank God I’m able to catch it in my larynx and it escapes as an aargh.
“I loved her. I did. I think. Hell, I might still, I’m just not sure.”
Stubbing my cigarette out in the ashtray provided, I slip back inside. My fingertips are numb from the cold. Bob is still on his phone, nodding pensively.
“And?” This is what the script tells us to say. Open ended responses to get them to continue. I’m hoping it isn’t going to get too heavy into the love side, because I have never been in love and if asked for advice doubt I’ll be very helpful.
“You know what I mean. At first, bells and whistles of infatuation, the works. Couldn’t even eat…”
Upon his mention of eating, my stomach lets out a long, deep growl – the kind that vibrates the stomach muscles and is overly thunderous and a bit embarrassing.
“Course there was an overpowering lust – excitement that was overboard.” His tone is bordering on apologetic – a clear signal he’s gotten past the titillated stage and has moved onto the numb stage. (I have read up a bit.)
“But you are past that?”
“Well…she’s an unusually attractive woman. Pitch black hair that hangs lightly on her shoulders. Never a hair out of place and so soft.” Stuttered bursts of breath reveal his excitement. “Shoulder length hair is my favorite. I feel it exudes femininity, if you know what I mean.”
What do I know? I climb to my feet and place another cigarette in my lips before going back into the cold of night.
“Her eyes are like opals. Dark and shining.”
So far there doesn’t seem to be a reason to escape this woman. I wait for the catch.
Bingo! I might actually be okay at this.
“She’s very mature…” He pauses, words tiptoeing lightly over a minefield – not wanting to tread through any politically incorrect convention over the phone.
An image of a wheelchair-ridden octogenarian comes to mind. I can’t help it. Maybe I tend to grasp for the extreme. I readjust my thoughts to Cougar.
“Maturity has always been an attraction…”
“Oh?” I don’t really have a vision that causes my response, just a response, but he obviously does.
“It’s not that!” he cries. “My mother and I have a very normal relationship.” There is a longer than normal pause while he weighs the truth of the statement.
I wait. Bob Holden is grim. His head sways back and forth slowly and he wipes a tear. I peer at him closely. What is bothering old Bob? Though we’ve barely met, I look at him as a possible mentor. That’s because since there are only two of us, Bob wins by default.
“Where was I?”
“Oh yes. My mother.” Another pause. “How did I get to my mother? Oh, look at the time. I’ve got to be running…”
“How did it go?” asks Father Graves in the reception line after services on Sunday.
I shrug. My upper lip a misty plain, my mouth arid and God knows my pits are drenched. They keep the heat turned up for services. Finally I peep, “Seems okay so far.” And it does.
He insists on chatting further but as I drop into the thick-armed leather chair in front of his wide mahogany desk I decide to come clean – a bit of confession. “I’m not quite sure that this will be a long term thing,” which is absolutely true, because, so far in my twenty-six years of life I have yet to stick to much and have yet to accomplish anything with more than mediocre results, “but I’m willing to keep it up for awhile.” The words limp over my tongue like sick children, slow, a bit pitiful and unbelievable, but as soon as they pass my lips I feel a burden lift from my shoulders.
I begin to rise from the chair, assuming my volunteering career is still intact.
“I’m counting on you,” he announces, his voice still singing, melody of a song bird, just as it was during the sermon and I freeze in mid-rise, hands gripping the sides of the chair. My knees cry like walnut shells in a nutcracker as I straighten up.
“I’ll keep you informed.” Why not?
“It’s a new program for our parish. I know you will contribute to its success. Did you have any problems last night?”
I shake my head. I really didn’t.
“Remember – Just listen,” he calls after me as I leave his office.
“Hello? I am here to help.”
“I’m calling because I know my boyfriend did. And don’t try to tell me he didn’t because I’ve bugged his phone.” She pauses to catch her breath, and then adds quickly, “He doesn’t know that and I sure as hell don’t want him to find out.” Her voice is husky – and irritatingly grating as her words continue at a sprinter’s pace.
I’m breathless listening.
“Besides, it isn’t really a bug where I can hear what he’s saying, just a gadget that alerts me to the number he’s calling. So who is this anyway?”
I ignore her and ask, “Why did you do that?”
“Wouldn’t you? I’m over twenty years older than he is. I have kids, four of them – two older than he is. Buster, I won’t get this lucky again and I want to protect my interest. So, who is this anyway?”
“Don’t you trust him?”
“Has nothing to do with trust. More with need…” She coughs – a wet cigarette hack. “Maybe it is trust, I don’t know.” A pause and I wait. “More like panic. Panic is probably more accurate.” Her voice softens and the pace slows. “When my husband left I had such fear, you can’t imagine. The breadwinner out the door…”
I’m an orphan. The state has been my only breadwinner. I do know fear of indecision and worry about the unknown. I have no one to trust either, so I keep my mouth shut.
“It’s one thing if I’m the only dependent, but all these kids! Hungry mouths all around – deep dark throats open like frogs croaking. And why? A younger woman! Shocker, huh?” She catches herself and drops into a whisper. “Younger than his own daughter. I tell you, it makes you stare into the mirror, naked – pinching here, lifting there, taking a full assessment of the pluses and minuses. The final outcome – I’m damn firm for my age. Believe you me!”
“I believe you.” Why do I believe? Father Graves told me to, didn’t he?
“Good, because I’m not lying. Besides he was no Adonis.”
“Not many of us are.”
“True, but that’s not why I’m with a younger man. Believe me I have no devious plan to get revenge by jumping in the sack with some youngster – a kid. We just happened to develop a mutual attraction. It is quite innocent. Age has nothing to do with it. I mean, he’d have to have one of those mother complexes and he swears he doesn’t.”
“I believe him. I do. Besides, why psychoanalyze something this good? When it’s going well don’t ask questions, leave the what-ifs out of it. Poking around those areas just screw things up, don’t you think? After all is said and done, if you go to sleep with a smile on your face, that’s what counts.”
Had I ever had good fortune, I probably wouldn’t question it either. But isn’t bugging his phone questioning the relationship?
“You won’t tell him I called?”
“Not even if I knew his name, or knew yours for that matter. Whomever I speak with, no matter what they tell me, can count on strict confidentiality.” There, I finally say it. Maybe she’ll realize I’m a help line. That line comes from Father Graves. It is his belief that the more folks confess the better they feel. He must have been a Catholic in a different life.
She giggles. The tone borders on childlike, or maybe psychotic. “I just thought of something funny. I know he’s calling, but he has no idea I’m calling.”
“Do you feel a sense of power?”
She lights a cigarette, the exhaling of smoke loud and obvious. “I deserve a bit of power. I’ve never had any before. The rat never allowed it. He never listened to any of my opinions, even on kid issues. Aren’t the kids supposed to be a mother’s territory? After awhile I just kept my trap shut. It kept him quieter.”
“Any harm in trying?”
“Couple of bloody lips. One trophy of a shiner. Course his favorite trick was a swift kick in the ribs after he threw me on the ground. Bruises were hidden. I guess his arguments were too strong, if you know what I mean. My opinions kind of fizzled out.” Without warning, she sobs. At first I think it’s another cough, but it morphs into a whimper. After a deep breath, she says, “All the abuse I took for twenty five years and the bastard walks out! Didn’t I deserve better?” Before I can respond, she says goodbye.
I’m in a sweat. The only sound is the hum from the lamp. Holden has left. I kind of remember him waving. I go back outside and light a cigarette. My hands shake. Exhaling forcefully I think back over the two calls, and begin questioning my decision. First I’m not sure I’m up to the task, and secondly I wonder whether or not I’m helping.
Struggling to fall asleep back in my room, juiced over both conversations, I dream of roller coaster rides with a faceless couple in the car in front of me. Inching up to the peaks, zooming into the valleys, they never turn to each other, but each of them turns and gaze at me. Just pancakes with no features – one with long black hair and the other completely bald. The more I try to get their attention, calling, yelling, then finally screaming, the further their car pulls away. We ride the roller coaster until the alarm clock shatters the dream.
Driving to work I can’t shrug the vision of her ex-husband kicking her in the ribs – wearing heavy work boots, he takes off at her as though he’s a field goal kicker, the soft, sick sound of flesh imploding followed by the sharp crack of ribs. In my mind, she never lets out a peep – too tough, too proud. The pride I feel for her is matched by the anger I feel towards her ex – a type of man I have had occasion to run into at certain foster homes.
I don’t shrug the image until I load my first truck and sign off on the bill of lading. As usual none of the drivers do more than grunt at me as I drink coffee in the break room. Some are nicer than others, but as talkative as a lot they are with other folks, they don’t take to me.
Since I have no family, they are my contact with the outside world. In the warehouse by 5:30 am and back home by 6:00 pm. After 8 years my back and knees are feeling the results of walking on concrete all day long. Father Graves used this as a selling point to get me to volunteer. “It can only increase and improve your contact with the outside world,” he promised. “This may help you develop contacts that can get you a different career.”
“He hasn’t called has he…” It is a statement, not a question.
I glance into the office at a large bald guy named Sully. He gabs away as he sips coffee from a Styrofoam cup.
“At least the gizmo says no. Did he? I’ve got to know for sure!” She is frantic.
“You know I can’t comment.”
“You do recognize me…” The panic dissipates and I feel her self-confidence rise like a balloon.
I don’t want to let her know her voice is unmistakable – certainly more of a negative than a positive, and besides, though she probably won’t believe me, I know I shouldn’t bring it up – the growl is beginning to grow on me. “Yes, I recognize you.”
I hesitate. “Your…concern.”
“Bullshit! I sound like a cement mixer. I know it and you know it!” She adds a cackle.
“I happen to like your voice.”
“Imagine that! All my life I’ve been called everything from Froggy to Baa Baa and you, whoever you are, tell me you like it.”
I think it best not to delve into it. “You do sound concerned.”
There is silence. “I guess,” she finally admits with a sigh. “Curious might be more accurate. He hasn’t used the phone all day, which worries me because he just may have discovered the bug, which means he’ll be pissed, which means he may just tell me to go to hell. He may think I’m spying on him.”
Hello! “Wouldn’t you feel that way?”
“I’d be flattered.”
“I’d think he did it because of the love he feels for me. You know, couldn’t stand not knowing everything I was doing. I would definitely take it as a compliment. Really, how often does one care enough about another person to go through the amount of hassle and expense to bug their phone? It isn’t cheap.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“I’ve had this one a few years and it wasn’t cheap then. Course the price of electronics is less these days.”
“Why did you buy it in the first place?”
“To bug my husband.”
“It worked. I found out who he was going out with. I’d just gotten out of the hospital. He was calling this young bimbette. Not much of a boost to my recovery let me tell you. I was already feeling less ladylike, if you know what I mean, and he was rubbing it in by calling her right under my nose.”
“Wait a minute,” I interrupt. “What were you doing in the hospital?”
“First class jerk, you have to agree. Dontcha?”
“Can’t argue with that.” I want to stop and reflect but she keeps coming at me like a Gatling gun.
“I get a third of my femininity lopped off and he doesn’t even have the common decency to give his affair a tiny respite so he can attend to his ailing wife – the woman who bore him four children.” She lights a cigarette.
I’m at a loss for words. Finally, “I’m sorry.” I am.
She inhales, then during her exhale, she says, “Funny, isn’t it?”
Nothing seems particularly funny. “What?”
“I don’t know you from a hole in the wall and you seem to care more than he ever did.” She sighs. “Course, he’s not quite as shitty as I make him out to be. He didn’t run to this twenty-year old kid just because I had the surgery. He was with her before that. Matter of fact, the little tart turned out to be a stronger person that I originally gave her credit for. She made him stay home with me during recovery. Pretty upstanding, if you ask me.”
“Yet she ran off with him?”
“No,” she giggles. “Matter of fact, it wasn’t her. Their affair only lasted a couple of weeks longer.”
“How long had it been going on?”
“Best guess is about six months. I don’t know if she left him because of me or because she caught on to him.”
“Well, I finally realized he’s one of those animals who’s only happy when he’s on the prowl. Once he catches his prey the fun quickly disappears. Shit! Look at the time. I’ve gotta run. Time flies when I’m talking with you.”
The phone rings again on my way outside for a cigarette.
“Your lines have been busy for a half hour.” It’s him.
“I suppose.” He hesitates, building the nerve to admit his reason for calling.
I drag on my cigarette and wait.
“My real problem has to do with…sickness.”
I drag again and continue waiting.
“I know this might sound callous, but listen and see if you agree. Um, sickness after you are already married is one thing, but prior to marriage…”
“Are you sick or is she sick?” Pretty good roadblock.
“Her. Was. Is? Could be again, I’m afraid. That’s what bothers me. Am I setting myself up for too much pain if something does happen to her?”
“You never really know what’s going to happen though.”
He exhales loudly. “But when you’re both healthy you don’t dwell on tragedy, sickness. With this strike against her, I’m afraid I might dwell on it and as a result, ruin our relationship.”
I understand. “Maybe take both views and compare. Is life, taking all the issues into consideration, better with her or without her?” Even though I’m still outside I break into a sweat. The pressure of possibly affecting another person’s life is pretty daunting.
“It’s all I do.”
“How serious is the illness?”
“Can kill.” He gulps back a sob. Silence.
I light another cigarette.
“Does kill in many, if not most instances. It has been removed and so far so good…”
Hearing him say it makes it worse – as though it’s now out in the open and there is no turning back. After saying nothing for close to a minute, during which I frantically grasp for something enlightening to say, he just hangs up. The dial tone is a knife and I choke on my tears – totally helpless and angry. It’s eleven before I gain enough composure to lock up and head home. Sully did wave as he left. At the door, pausing for a deep breath of the cool night air the phone startles me. I dash back in ready to apologize for my rude silence.
“He has serious doubts.”
“He does?” Of course he does.
“He’s been hinting strongly as of late. I don’t blame him, I really don’t. Anyone in his right mind should harbor doubts. For example, I look around me – and if you were to walk in on me right at this moment you’d see my son Harvey passed out drunk on the couch.
“My daughter Lydia, rummaging through the kitchen for food. She’s nineteen going on a hundred, just ran off with a forty-five year old guy who has twin twenty-year-old sons who both still live with him. Lydia says they’re the cutest guys. Just who is she running off with? All three of them, for all I know. And if she is with them, why the hell is she in my kitchen stealing my food? Oh, and did I mention she’s pregnant. The father? My money’s on one of the sons.
“My own twins, twelve-year old towhead boys are fixtures in the basement in front of the TV. When they aren’t fighting with their sister for food, I can smell them toking up.”
My heart rams my chest as I try to keep up.
“And you’ll love this, when Harvey got home, as he stumbled to the couch, he snidely remarks that I’m a Cougar. My own son calls me that! I’m surprised he even notices anything. He’s been on a binge for a month – ever since his bimbo dumped him. That came out of left field let me tell ya. I didn’t think she was that smart. Some people fool you, ya know.” She pauses to light a cigarette. “My boyfriend is using the cancer as an excuse. For my money, it’s my family he really fears.” She exhales a quick, short sob. “I knew I shouldn’t have brought him into this house.”
“You can’t hide them from him, though.”
“Besides, don’t give up on him yet.” My words catch me off guard. Am I just instilling false hope?
She snorts. “On one hand if he does stay, is there something wrong with him? Who in their right mind would step foot for a moment into this trap, let alone consider staying?”
“I don’t know.”
The next two nights are filled with other calls. None from either of them. Each time the phone rings I jump and am let down when it turns out to be someone else. I just march numbly through these calls as I always march through my job and my life. I get pumped only for their calls.
By the third night I feel the same withdrawal I have each time I try to quit smoking. I’m tense and quick tempered.
“The call came when I was at the office!” He sniffles and gargles the mucous of a good cry in his throat. “Her doctor. He told me to come to the hospital as soon as I could.”
I tighten, my throat closes. “Was she in an accident?”
He ignores my question. “Don’t you hate hospitals? Those scrubbed antiseptic fumes everywhere. They burn my nostrils. The way the nurses stare at you with quiet desperation – cause they’re trapped – inevitably we are all going to end up just like the patients.”
“When did she get there?” I am shocked.
“Last night. You should’ve seen her.”
The word should’ve grabs my throat like a pair of hands. Tears flood my eyes, beginning to roll over my eyelashes onto my cheeks.
“Just a shock of black hair stretched across the pillow.”
I gasp. We both sob before he hangs up.
Sully is in the other room in deep discussion, more animated than I’ve ever seen him, doing most of the talking. Finally he just sits up straight, shrugs as though he’d lost the argument, lost the battle. It is a tough racket.
Outside, my hands shake as I light a smoke. I haven’t even asked where the funeral home is, where I can send flowers or something. I struggle with a glaring void, an emptiness I once was used to, but have been missing as of late, much to my surprise and…joy. Now it’s back. The thought of her kids – what will they do?
I wish I had thanked her for the jolt she’d provided. How, because of her, I’m awakened, abruptly shocked from my mundane existence.
The phone rings and I stare at it. I can skip it, but then, it might be him calling back to give me the arrangements.
“The prick did it! Left me, bang! I was right – it was the family. He called them sociopaths. Called me a hypochondriactic sociopath. Is that even a type? I told you, didn’t I? What a pussy. No balls whatsoever.”
My relieved smile grows into a wide grin as I glance into the office at Sully who wears an expression of shocked sadness and is shaking his head slowly like a boxer who has lost a fight as he hangs up his phone.