When the phone rang, I suddenly thought of an ex-girlfriend sitting in a smoky bar somewhere on the other side of town with hair in her eyes and a cell phone in her hand. Either that or my mother rolling over in bed to pick up her own receiver.
The receiver—still a-ring, I realized—lay at the side of my bed, far away from its base and the caller ID box. I answered it anyway.
“I didn’t think you were going to pick up.”
I sat halfway up in bed and patted some still-damp patches of hair into place. An ambulance cried in the distance.
“They’re coming for you.”
“Where were you today?”
“I won’t be around tomorrow either. I thought you should know.”
“Are you sick or something? What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. Nothing. I’m just not going to be able to make it.”
“But…we’re going tomorrow,” I said. “Am I supposed to think of things to say by myself?”
“I’m sorry. Is it fair to say that I just don’t feel like it?”
“What do you want me to tell him, then?”
“Tell him I wasn’t feeling well. Tell him the dizzy spells are back. I haven’t forgotten. Tell him I’m sorry.”
On the other end: Dial Tone. I punched PHONE and the display went from lightning-bug yellow to licorice-black. My mother. She always liked the black but I could only eat the red.
I walked to the window and looked out. They were rolling someone in. The stretcher convulsed as its front wheels crossed the threshold between the black asphalt of the pavement and the white concrete of the ramp. Another jerk as the back wheels bounced up onto the ramp and then they were on their way. The uniformed man in front was hunched over and looked back over his shoulder as he guided the stretcher through a set of automatic doors.
How does the fallen man’s wife get to the hospital on a night and at a time like this? Does she dart to the coolness of the garage and fire up the starter in her nightgown? Surely she doesn’t stop to apply any makeup. She sips no coffee. She doesn’t stop to think that she has woken up alone. Concerns about the legality of driving twenty-five miles over the limit in slipper-feet fail to take root in a mind detained by one idea, one hope, one wish only.
That mother—the man’s wife—returns from the hospital the morning after. She wears her husband’s big winter coat over a dark-green-plaid flannel gown. Her only child, a son, meets her in the kitchen and a smirk spreads across his face. He sees that she hasn’t got the morning paper with her.
“Mom. You’ve got dad’s coat on,” he says.
The mother clutches her keys so tightly that they make tiny little pockmark impressions in the flesh of her palm. She drops the keys to the counter with a dank! and brings both hands to her face as she begins to weep. She backs herself up against the kitchen wall. Her head is roughly even with the top of the wooden spice rack hanging by a nail at her left. The weeping changes to sobbing. She drops her head down so that her chin rests in the depression of her collarbone. The child reaches out his hand and says, “Mom. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
He stops when she rips her chin off of her chest and bangs the back of her head on the wall behind her, sounding a large thud! She does this again and again, each time with more fervor until she is outright pounding her head against the wall. The beginnings of a soft depression are now apparent in the soft-toned wallpaper she took weeks in picking out.
The mother is in no shape to realize that the spice rack at her left is ready to bounce right up off the tip of its solidly driven nail. Her son stands there agape and imagines that the words forming his most recent utterance are still afloat there in the air, ripe and ready to be plucked down and stuck into the back pocket of his jeans. He sees that the spice rack is in danger, but fails to react before it becomes free of the nail.
A dozen bottles of equivalent shape and size dive towards the stern white tile below.
Only one busts—the chili pepper—begetting a veritable mushroom cloud of fine red powder. The empty thunk! of the wooden rack hitting the floor leaves the room quickly, but the mother continues to sob and now has taken a seat on the floor. The back of her head still beats against the wall but quietly now. She stops the motion for a second, to stifle a sneeze. The child reaches toward the back of his skull and feels a small bump of bone beneath his still-damp hair. He looks down at his mother. Her robe has crawled up and has quit its ascent just below her knees. Her ankles there look pasty, white, fleshy. There is slush around the edges of her slippers and already it has begun. The makings of a puddle have collected on the floor. In his mind, he imagines opening the door to the laundry room closet. Light rushes in and illuminates the handle of a mop.
The moon was full but its rays were obscured as they mingled with the melting pot of light stewing up and down the boulevard.
Again the phone rang. I left my spot at the window to answer it. It had to have been her. But when I picked up the receiver: Nothing.
“Hello,” I said. “Hello?”
The caller ID read only: Unavailable Unavailable.
I whipped my sheets around in the sky above my bed and when all the air was gone from beneath them, I smoothed them out against the mattress with great big strokes of my hand. I swept them over back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth.
My good pillow was warm and soft and all fluffed up the way I like it—welcoming as I plopped my head down into it. The comforter closed in on me with an hermetic precision. I was like leftovers encased in a monstrous shroud of plastic wrap. Cars whizzed by every now and then and I could hear the sporadic cry of an ambulance in the distance. My soporific cocktail was complete.
I wanted to stay like that: right there on the very precipice of slumber and wakefulness, one toe dangling in dreamland and both arms whirring at my side.
I would be a King Tut to future generations. Upon entering the building, archaeologists would request a key from my landlord. “Oh, yes, here you go,” he’d say, reciting room numbers and corresponding resident names in his head. He’d pet his jaguar of a dog on the head as it hunkered down and shivered. Straightening his glasses he’d say, “Ah, the third one on the right. Oh, no. Wait. Yes, ah, the third one on the right. Right, Marble?”
They would thank him and wend themselves back through moist, mazy hallways, navigating empty rooms and swatting at cobwebs until coming upon my door. Behind it, they would meet a blockade of storage cells that would take them days to work their way through. Finally, they would champion it. And then they’d see me there in the bed. Beside me would be the phone and next to the phone a small, yellowed note. Please, it would ask of them, take a message if I’m away.