The phone calls come three nights in a row, 2:30’sh, from different people, waking, scaring us to death. The black, landline rotary dial hammers its bells like a fire alarm. Our spartan apartment has good acoustics with hardwood floors, graphite ceilings tiles, and brick walls. Cork-wood shelves buckle with Racing Forms, theology texts, books of fiction and how to write it, and old movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s on VHS. But, the ring reverberates with no area rugs, curtains, or much furniture to absorb the sound. We’ve just moved to Seattle, sleepy wife Hanna and me, near the junior college and a Fred Meyer’s department store.
The first call is from Hanna’s friend, Debra. They did finance and credit risk in San Francisco for a year at a Japanese firm and discovered they were both newly baptized Catholics. They walked to daily Mass during lunch hour, Old Saint Patrick’s, discussing the promises of faith – fiduciary and theological.
The only time I met Debra and her Swede fiancé Larry was at Hanna’s going-away party in Haight-Ashbury. Hanna had gone to the bar for another round and Debra appeared through the cigarette-smoking crowd. She said, “Are you faithful?”
“Uh,” I hesitated. “And you are?”
She let loose a brilliant smile, a laugh big as her arching nose, and said, “I’m Debra, Hanna’s lunchtime Catholic friend.” Cleft chin and philtral dimple, she was slim in a clip-dot blouse akin to Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Even the beehive, though hibiscus highlighted, but not as tall as Hanna. Few are. Or pulchritude. Debra stroked her cocktail stem with a teasing delicacy, pimiento-stuffed olives eyeballing it all. “An apparition. I thought the lovely missus was keeping you a sacred secret. The ex-priest turned writer and gambler – here in the naked flesh.”
“No priest, just ex-seminarian.” I wanted to joke full-Monty. But fully clothed in an olive tweed jacket, I said, “Apparition, big word for a Catholic newbie.”
“Not so new.” The top button of her blouse popped open, showing naked collarbone and a grape-colored birthmark.
“Hanna says you’re moving to Seattle. Transferring to the same firm?”
“No. UW, graduate school.”
“That where Larry attends?”
“No, Ph.D. at USC. But he’s taking me up there, help me settle in. Hanna says it took some convincing you to move.”
“No really, she’s happy-ish and wants to explore a new city. Have manual typewriter, promised to follow. Plus there’s horseracing there.” I paused, wondering what Debra really knew, like Hanna’s sinking depression, meds, and recent desire to have children, something we had not set out on.
The jukebox suddenly blared Henri Mancini’s “Something for Cat,” followed by “Party One, Two, Three” – tracks from Breakfast At Tiffany’s. The packed bar jigged to the snazzy trumpets. In consenting rhythm, Debra said, “So what do you write? Porn under pseudonym or a nom de plume?”
I wanted to sass cliterary fiction but said, “Short stories like the writer Paul Varjak in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
“Jesus Christ,” she laughed, “you’re obsessed with that movie as much as Hanna. She says Larry looks like Varjak.”
Looking back, I suppose he did. Especially in a trim-cut suit. And a haircut.
Hanna returned then with rum and cokes. “Good, I see you’ve met,” she said in a baggy cardigan hiding her perfect body, sleepy as her long, tired marcelled blond curls.
“I should check on Larry,” Debra said, turning red. “He tends to get lost at parties.” British-sounding as Audrey – parties.
Meeting Debra put a face to a name. It spawned fantasy and the birth of a short story idea of a train adventure, the four of us locomoting up the Pacific Northwest. There’d be berths, dining cars with spalted tabletops, and rustic bogies in tow. I’d find Debra in a sundress like a James Salter fiction character in the sitting compartment – a girl with birthmarks on her leg, birthmarks the color of grape.
But that’s not how we traveled. Hanna and I packed our books, movies, typewriter ribbons, etc, and U-Hauled a four-cylinder hatchback. We made it in sixteen hours, stopping only for gas, snacks, and to take turns driving. Meanwhile, Larry motorcycled Debra up the coast. I imagined her yellow-scarfed in a sidecar, drinking sidecars from a thermos. They went in stages, seeing the sights, staying in motels – I had fantasies about those too.
Motels have been a nimbus place since childhood, after a birthday weekend to an amusement park with Little-League Coach Earl. It stormed the first night, rain spraying the window like Earl’s ejaculations. I ended up with chancroid sores I thought were terminal. Blood tests and therapists later, motels are something else now when considering consenting adults, and wishing I were one in the right circumstance.
+ + +
Hanna says of the first call, “Christ! That damn ring is so loud. Who could it be?”
I grab the brick-like desk phone on the floor next to the framed futon, head into the front room as far as the cord will leash. “Hello,” I say into the handset receiver – like talking into a turkey leg with a coiled tail.
“Hi,” lambs a voice. “It’s Debra.”
“Hold on,” I whisper, disoriented, not wanting to wake the apartment building, all the angels and saints, dominions and principalities, and anyone else who should be asleep. “I’ll get Hanna.”
“No, don’t. I want to talk to you.” She sounds drunk. And on fire, in a breathy way.
“Oh,” I say, putting my thumb in the phone’s finger well.
“How are you?” she says relieved and sated as though she knows where my thumb is. “Did you write today?”
+ + +
When I come back to bed twenty minutes later, Hanna, half asleep, says, “Somebody on Olive Street not get their newspaper?”
Customers call but never this late. I rush a fervent prayer asking God for guidance to say the right thing, escape the inevitable.
“It was Debra,” and know I should have lied.
“What!?” Now she’s awake.
“She was drunk, feeling guilty, and having an affair with someone in the department. Blew him in the bathroom at a party tonight.”
“Charming as a whore in a motel. Does Larry know?”
He knows as much as Hanna about my birthday motel. “No,” I say. “Debra wanted my opinion on if and how to tell him.”
“I don’t follow. It sounds fishy. Why is she calling you? You met her once three months ago. Christ, she and I went to daily Mass for a year.”
“Beats me,” I say, not wanting to seem prurient but realizing it could have been me in the bathroom.
“I know the way she looked at you. She was probably hoping it was you in that bathroom.”
“She just wanted an ear.”
“She wants your cock.”
I don’t sleep that night, thinking of that.
+ + +
The next night, we jump like startled caracals at the call.
“What now!?” Hanna says.
It’s Simon, a friend from South Bend. We noviced in the seminary, returning God’s call to see if we had the makings of celibate Catholic priests. That is, we believed God had called us to serve. We went to daily Mass, praying for guidance and holiness, though I knew I could not lose the taint from childhood events. Simon and I volunteered at a sanitarium. We comforted the sick, dying, and elderly who had bed sores. I called him Simon Pure; he had that kind of soul, and a bowl haircut. I had a similar mop hairstyle and patients called us the monk twins. Simon was ordained, and I left the order after meeting and following Hanna to San Francisco. But later, Simon met a woman too, left the priesthood, and got married, a modern haircut, a job, and started a family. But now his wife has bone cancer.
“She can’t stand the pain,” he says in desperation, this man of steadfast faith in God’s Will. “She’s been in treatment for months and wants a medication cocktail. An overdose.”
“Jimmy, we used to care for people, but now it’s different.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, thinking I’d die young.
“I pray for her and to do the right thing. Tell me.”
+ + +
When I come back to bed, Hanna says, “Was that Debra again?”
“His wife is terminally ill.”
“Me too.” I shuffle under the wool covers, trying to get warm. The heater isn’t working. Gas bangs in the old exposed pipes as though the Devil himself is trapped and wielding a sledgehammer. I’m wondering if we’ll explode.
“Simon’s considering an overdose cocktail.”
“His wife wants it?”
“She’s the one who bought the syringe.”
“What did you say?”
“What could I?”
I can’t sleep again, thinking of a BBC’s series, Balleykissangel, about a fictional town in Ireland. The young British Catholic priest, during a hospital visit, called on a hospice patient, a retired judge called Mickey. The name evoked a mousy cartoon character from an amusement park. Mickey and the priest got acquainted over chess. Mickey, sunken faced, baited the priest with expert board moves and theological questions. The judge became cantankerous on faith and church. The priest said he sounded like the devil. Known for stiff fines, Mickey taunted the priest with the harshest verdict – he had given his terminally ill wife a lethal cocktail.
The priest’s eyes widened with shock.
“She was in terrible pain,” Mickey declared. “She was wasting away before my very eyes and made me promise I would do it. I loved her so much.”
“You killed her,” the priest said. “Every soul is sacred.” It was a line straight out of my theology texts from college and the seminary.
The judge admonished, saying he knew the priest wouldn’t understand. “I’m not seeking forgiveness for something I don’t regret doing. I couldn’t let her suffer any longer.”
Next day, the priest returned, composed, and replied, “We should try to keep our promises.”
Mickey died a few hours later but I don’t know if I could have kept the promise to his wife – that’s something you did for an old sick dog, not a human being. But what do I know? I also don’t know if I could have shown the compassion of the priest, either. It’s not the kind of ending I would write.
+ + +
The third night, the phone rings right at the wrong time.
“Oh my god!” Hanna complains.
It’s our next-door neighbor, Lilly, who sounds frantic. She’s young, wholesome, and lives with her significant other, Milly.
“Just a second,” I say almost naked but not confessing because I have no indication she’ll go for sass like Debra. Plus, she’s in a state. “I’ll be right out.”
Delirious, I turn around in circles like handlers do to racehorses to confuse and settle before loading them in the starting gate. I grab my robe hanging on the bathroom door.
“Jimmy?” Hanna says in the dark.
“It’s Lilly. Go back to sleep,” I whisper, fastening my robe. I open the front door and light revolts from the hallway. Almost blind, I see Lilly standing stick-figured in a linguine-strap sundress even though it’s winter and snowing. Nevertheless, her shoulders are brilliantly freckled, distinct as birthmarks.
It was raining when I first met Lilly and Milly. They were on Olive Street caught in a sudden downpour, running on the sidewalk hand in hand with bags of groceries like salmon out of water, necks, shoulders bunching at each slapping raindrop, legs fish-tailing. I pulled over on my route.
“You guys want a ride?” Their sweatshirts and jeans were already soaked.
“Hey,” Milly said with a smile, “you live in our building.”
“That’s OK,” Lilly said like I was a Chester, the molester. “It’s not too far.”
“Here, then. Consider an olive branch.” I offered an umbrella.
“Thanks,” they said with wet smiles and went along.
At home, I found the umbrella at my door with a note. Thanks for the cover, The lesbians in #102. Come by for a beer.
+ + +
Lilly says, “I’m sorry for calling so late. But Milly is spending the weekend at her mom’s to explain our marriage, and I can’t get out of this dress.” Shoeless, discalced as a nun, she wiggles her bare pink toes. There are ten, perfectly naked and freckled, nails glazed with clear polish.
“I’ll get Hanna.”
“No, you can do it. Just unzip.” She turns, lifting a bush of hair, exposing nape. I hadn’t noticed the allure when drinking a case of beer with her and Milly, who caught my eye first. Then Lilly says, “You know we each want to have a baby. But it costs twenty-five grand. We can’t afford that. We need a donor. You seem faithful to your wife – I mean we got you drunk and not one move on us – but could you be persuaded? You can give each of us a ride. You did offer once.” I know she’s smiling the way we all know things without seeing. “You could even, you know, in each of us, you wouldn’t even have to visit the sperm bank. No ties. We could even go to a motel so it isn’t so close to home.”
I find the zipper without answering. She stands, wiggling those toes. The zipper snags, then comes down, splitting the flowers on the dress. There’s no back of bra, no hook-and-eye, as though God’s eye is vacant. Bare ripples of vertebrae appear, resembling flesh-colored callets.
“Thanks,” she says calmly over her shoulder. “Promise me you’ll think about it.” She walks away, easily pulling the dress off – rear end surprisingly bulbous. Resentful of the test, I am still a deer in headlights of the flesh.
+ + +
“What did your new drinking buddy want?” Hanna says under the covers.
“A stuck zipper.”
“You don’t want to know,” I say, getting into bed.
“I don’t follow, but I trust and have faith in you.”
But I’m not going to father their children either when I won’t my wife’s – there has to be coitus, too often blocked by meds. I feel worn out from the last three phone calls and two sleepless nights with a third in front. Donor-seeking lesbians, a drunk dalliant engaged woman, and euthanasia by an ex-priest – it’s hard to make sense of anything anymore. You know?
+ + +
In a few weeks, Hanna’s had enough of rainy Seattle. It’s time to move to sunny San Diego where we were raised. She’s apothic, she’s determined, she wants to be near her mother. She puts in for another transfer, and I give notice to the rout manager, reluctantly. Then I pack the short stories I wrote that no one will read or publish.
We load the U-Haul and Hanna drops the box with the rotary phone. It make a half-ringing/half-shattering noise, worse than a call in the night or a dropped glass bottle of her meds. She doesn’t salvage the phone; she just throws the box in the dumpster, saying, “I hated that fucking phone.”
The lesbians' olive-branch us an industrial padlock with key for the truck’s back gate. “You’ll need protection,” Lilly teases, funning.
Milly adds, “Wouldn’t want anything to fall out or you get robbed overnight at a motel.”
Hanna and I hitch the car, drive south. Crossing the rust-colored Golden Gate, “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s repeats on the worn cassette tape. We pass through wider-than-a-mile San Francisco where our married lives began. I want to stop at our old apartment, like a pilgrimage. Even somewhere for breakfast. After a tiff, we keep going, Hanna wants to make time.
+ + +
After climbing the mountainous Grapevine on Highway 5 north of Los Angeles, the U-Haul chugging and slow as a funicular, it starts raining. Everything seems showered with impressionism. I spot the blurred six red flags atop the roller coaster of the amusement park, then the motel, and the lime-green neon sign that says open, forever buzzing in my head.
“Why are you slowing up?” Hanna asks from dozing. “Don’t tell me you want to have fun and go for a ride.”
I imagine hearing the click-clack of the roller coaster. “No. Nothing,” I say and speed up, looping back from molesting memory, still too close to home.
When we arrive in San Diego, I send back the lock and key in the mail with a thank-you note, wishing the baby-seeking couple good luck with family plans.
+ + +
Years later, I hear from Simon, his wife’s cancer miraculously in remission. Apparently he decided not to administer the syringe. Or just missed the vein – can you imagine her coming down the stairs the next morning like an apparition or ghost? The lesbians, I learn through the grapevine, each have a child said to look like the postman, who must have rang twice.
Hanna and I unhappily move a third time before she gets into the University of Chicago graduate school where she wants me to get a real job. Or around there, anyway. Some department.
“You can’t gamble on horses and deliver newspapers forever,” she says.
I agree but don’t follow.
“But you promised!” she says.
Feckless, I leave Hanna, hop a train, and migrate back to San Francisco in an almost anadromous way, not to spawn but to rent our old apartment, now rodent-infested. So, I adopt a tabby named Secretariat who becomes a great mouser, crunching rat bones at all hours. He super-models a Cindy Crawford grape-colored mole on his upper lip and naps on the manual typewriter, drooling on the spool instead of his bearskin rug – until I discover something called catnip.
Years later, Hanna forwards a postcard of a Catholic monk sent to her in Chicago. Across the sepia picture she’s chicken scratched in black marker: This is for you, like a phone call in the night. On the back, it’s signed by Debra. She married the Swede, is teaching high school math in Philadelphia, and wonders how we are. Keeping the faith? Family yet? Jimmy still writing?
All the best,