Late Night Phone Call from the Used to Be

An excerpt from backwards the drowned go dreaming

People like to blame things—they like to pretend life is an accident, that it’s not their fault.   But accidents can be intentional.  We make ourselves magnets by our aggressive apathy.  On top of that we are fascinated by the idea of contingency—it suggests a value to individual existence.  But there is none really.  And so I was working on the Papa Sri Frank Payne path to nirvana—drink like a fish, speak to no one, indulge regret—alcohol, asceticism, hindsight.  It was my old apartment, across the street from the graveyard of St. Boniface. The tombstones glowed softly in the moon, mocking my mortality.  Stability was good, I told myself.  

I was on the far end of a six pack of Drewery’s with kindly Mr. Beam waiting in the wings.  I was randomly severing emotional ties to inanimate objects—a favorite pass time of mine.  As they say, a rolling stone gathers no moss.  The Honeymooners was on TV.  Ralph and Alice were going at it.  I was half asleep, using my old brown leather jacket for a pillow and a beer-can for an ashtray.  Question marks of smoke peeled off the cigarette tip.  The scene was classic down-market noir, so at least some goal in my life had been achieved.

Suddenly, like one of those slow gunshots that sneak up on you—I heard the telephone ring.  Apparently it had been ringing for a while, possibly for months.  This sort of thing is bound to happen—you get a phone, it’s going to ring.  Too often self-revelation begins in this way.  I crawled around for a minute looking for the phone.  I found it under an old copy of Psychology Today magazine. 

photograph by Hal Hirshorn
Untitled, photo by Hal Hirshorn

As soon as I lifted the receiver, I wished I hadn’t.

“Frank? Is that you?”

It was Tanya. I could tell by the upward lilt of her voice, the anticipation hanging there, that she was waiting for my happy-to-hear-from-her reply.

My astral body left me for a second and I heard heels clicking down iron steps—down and down deep into the catacombs of the House of Used-to-Be, searching for that special old cask of Amontillado, the one tainted with the blood and grudges of long-gone friends.  And there she was—Tanya, back in the corner, covered with cobwebs behind the furnace, where I hadn’t really noticed her before, probably because I hadn’t been paying attention.

“Frank?”

I had forgotten to speak.  “Yeah, it’s me.” 

Tanya had taken the phone co.’s advice; apparently she had reached out and touched somebody.  There’s no abuse hot line for it.  Not yet.  You’re supposed to like it.  That’s the curse of telecommunication—you can’t lose your past anymore.  No matter where you go you’re still in the same place. 

Her slightly slurred and incomplete utterances clued me to the drink.  I looked at the clock.   2:30 am.  12:30 to her.  I must have asked how she was doing—because she told me.  I made out that she was working, getting along.  So okay, that’s good news.

“What else?” I asked.

She mumbled something about getting married and having a great stereo. 

“Married?”  I was surprised.  She wasn’t the type. 

“Surprised?” She asked.

“You’re not the type,” I replied.

“Are we types?” she asked. 

“Yes, I believe so,” I said.  Eventually, everyone is.”

She laughed. “Is that what I was to you?”

I balked. 

She claimed I had not been paying attention—or I would have an answer.

I wasn’t sure of the question though.

So she answered for me.  “No.  No you don’t know.” 

She was right on both counts. I hadn’t been paying attention.  And I didn’t know.  It bothered me that she would assume I wanted to.

I tried to picture her husband.  I could picture them in a bungalow on the beach in Oxnard or where-ever-town California, preparing barbeque for guests.  I was happy for her.  I told her so. 

“I’m happy for you,” I said.  “What’s his name?”

“You don’t know him?”

I was glad of that but there was more. There always is.

The husband was already gone—back to where he’d come from.  Apparently there had been some trouble.  She said something about a car crash, about having an operation and losing all her hair.  The scene was going downhill.  I noticed there was opera music playing in the background.  It was vaguely familiar.

“Jesus, you lost your hair?” I said.

“I lost all my hair,” she said, laughing awkwradly. “But it’ll grow back.”

Suddenly I saw a huge, hairless baby down in that basement of the House-of-Used-to-Be, a crazy female Buddha-child sitting in the lotus position, holding a liquor bottle and slurring through the story of her life…

Suddenly I saw a huge, hairless baby down in that basement of the House-of-Used-to-Be, a crazy female Buddha-child sitting in the lotus position, holding a liquor bottle and slurring through the story of her life while a painted wall listened furtively, a wall poorly illustrated with an opera-hall audience composed of everyone she ever knew or wanted to, everyone who had wronged her or needed to be impressed.  My face must have been painted on that wall. She explained she might be going back to jail soon, if the lawyer didn’t come up with a deal.  She’d been set up—so she said. 

There was a pause.  “Are you listening?”

I mumbled something sincere like, “No, I am, really. I’m sorry.”

I doubt that I was really sorry though, because being sorry would require some interest on my part and I was perfectly happy not having any—interest that is.  I found a cup of cold coffee near my bed. I figured I better start waking up if I was going to participate.  She asked if I was different, after all these years.  Was I a teacher, a writer, a guitar player?  Or was I still a bum?  It was okay from her, the ‘bum’ thing.  She didn’t mean it in a derogatory way.  We were, both of us, proudly bums.

“Actually, I guess I am a bum,” I said. “I’ve done nothing with my life.” It was dismissive and it rolled right off my tongue, no burden at all.  I was actually slightly surprised.  But it was no burden for her either.  She was only ever mildly interested in any ambition I might have had.  But maybe my thinking that thought was a kind of resentment.  Or maybe that was a trait we shared—a mutual lack of interest in each other’s ambitions. Ours was an operatic ambivalence.

Whatever song the singer was singing in the background finished and then there was applause.  Then there was the sound of a bottle breaking on her end of the line.  Someone in another room perhaps, where-ever she was living at the time—Oxnard or LA.  I didn’t want to ask, but I did.

“Where are you?”

“Olympia.” She thought I would be surprised.

“Olympia, what?

“Washington.”

“What are you doing up there?”

“I told you I was in an accident.”

I didn’t see the connection.

She said something offline, to the bottle-breaker, apparently.  The man’s reply, the voice, the breaking bottle—it didn’t sound pleasant.  I let it bother me.

“Is everything alright?”

“Yes, fine.”  She was lying.  The radio applause was fading, unsatisfied.  Maybe she was in an unhappy marriage.  Maybe she was looking to me for comfort or something.  Perhaps I should have been sympathetic.  I briefly scolded myself.  Then, having forgot what we had just talked about, she started over.  She asked what I’d been up to. 

I told her not much. 

Was I having any affairs, any chicks? 

I said no chicks, no old lady.  

Then I heard the man in the background again. “Hey, are you finished yet?  I need the phone.”

The music came back on, heightening the sense of tragedy. There was something very incongruous going on. “Since when did you start listening to opera?”

“I don’t. Pauly likes it.”

“Pauly?”

“Yeah, Manzoni.  You remember?  Pauly Manzoni.  Anzo’s dad.”

I did remember.  I wished I didn’t.  The son was bad news. I couldn’t imagine the dad.  Still, I couldn’t let it go. I was being sucked into the vast sadness.

“What are you doing with him?

“He gave me a job.”

“Doing what?”  

Another pause. “A little of this, a little of that.” She chuckled.  You know, I can’t get around very well and we needed money.”  

“We?”

“Yeah, my husband, remember.”

“But I thought he was gone.”

“He is, now.” 

“Right.  So what else going on?”

“Nothing.  What’s about you?”

“Same thing. Nothing,” I said. “I got up.  I made breakfast. I wasted the day.” I paused. “I waste every day, it’s a hobby.”

I could tell she wanted to laugh but she didn’t. “You’re full of shit, man.”

“Always was and will be. Nothing weird there.”

“You know what is weird though—thinking about the kind of person you end up being.”

“I don’t think about it. That helps.”

“Like God how did I become this middle-aged chick with a back problem. I look at myself and I’ve become run-down, you know.  But I’m better now though.  Not drinking.  I really think I’m getting it together.”

“I hope you’re better.” But she didn’t sound better. And she was drunk. But then again I’d never heard her express any recognition of a problem before.  So maybe she was better. 

“You ever think about us?”

“It’s strange, but it seems as if it were something I watched on TV, you know, not something I lived through.”

“Yeah, well everything seems that way to me.”  She paused, maybe even a little surprised by the act of agreeing with me.  “You’re like that to me. Not to offend you but . . . I don’t know what I was doing, you know.  I still don’t, but hey I’m trying.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I like to think those days, you know, that they were an important part of my life.  But now, it seems like . . .I don’t know.

“Yeah.”

“You can’t trust it.  And I know I’m adding and subtracting, stuff that maybe didn’t even happen.”

It was fine with me if she was disappointed in the past.  I wasn’t that upset.  I’m not given to morbid confession normally.  But self-doubt, that’s a different thing.  But this wasn’t really self-doubt.  It was something more sinister.  It was theatrical self-doubt. It was an act. I decided to push for a conclusion.

“Look, why are you even calling me after three years?”

“Just thinking about stuff. I was wondering if I was ever in love.  I mean, do you think we were love?” She said this as if expecting a negative reply.

“Tragedy maybe. I think we were in tragedy.”

“You would think that. I actually think you can only fall for tragic women.  It’s something in you.  And you saw that in me, or at least you wanted to.”

I tried to take the slight lightly. “Tragedy is the easy part, Tanya. Tragedy has an end.” Unlike this phone conversation, I said to myself. 

She sidestepped my profundity.

“Look, I’m not saying any of this to make you mad.  I just wonder.”

“Uh huh.”  I was mad, just not enough to show it or make it matter.

“I mean half the time I was only trying to get along with you.  But it wasn’t fair.  You saw it as a weakness.  I couldn’t win.”

“That was no intention of mine.”

“But you know, I kinda wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for you.”

“What?  You’re blaming me. Look, your life’s your own, the results of your own actions.”

“My re-actions you mean.”

“They’re the same.”

“You’re missing the whole point, it’s not your decision to make, man.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, your intention is not what’s important.  You’re not the one defining it.  It’s your . . . I don’t know . . . we all have a certain effect on people is all.”

“I don’t know what you’re saying, but it sounds fucked up.”

“I’m saying it made a difference to me, it made a difference how I lived.

“It didn’t seem to back then.”

“Don’t you see, I’m not trying to say I was any better, I’m just saying, alright?”

“Look, Tanya, to tell the truth, I have no idea what you’re talking about, or what you want. It sounds like you want off the hook.”

“Forget it then. Maybe I should go.” I could hear her tiredness building up over the phone, her voice coming through the lines slow as syrup, thick and viscous. I didn’t want to get stuck in it.

I said it was good to catch up.

There was a long pause then, as if we were sharing breath, sharing thoughts.  Maybe she was thinking the same things as me.  Or maybe she was on the nod.  I don’t know.  I heard her winding down like a doll whose mechanism was exhausted, repeating the words “Forget it then.  Forget it then.  Forget it then.”  At least that’s what I thought I heard.  It was what I wanted to do—to forget.  And I had, until the phone rang.

Then I realized she had already hung up.  That was fine too.  The conversation was getting deeper than I wanted to go. And though depth is often mistaken for truth, death is the only certainty.  One day you wake up and you’re old.  The next day maybe you don’t wake up at all.

I did wake up though.  It was a little later that same evening. I looked around the room.  It seemed a little duller than before, as if the color had sort of bled out of it.   The clock ticked slow and loud and sinister like something from an old black and white movie.  I could hear the blood pumping through my veins in time.  My unshaven cheeks scratched the air and the air made a sour noise.  A pile of salt on the table blew slowly away in a draft from the window. Moonlight clung to the floorboards of that old Uptown apartment like a stain. 


Stories Writing

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