Karla had just turned 42, three nights after Christmas. With a brisk step, she hurried back home from the corner store in the cold dark dribbling rain. Up the six steps of cracked concrete, she turned her bent key to her apartment lobby.
Still dripping, she heard the same old squeal of her very own dented steel door, unit number 11. She had tied her plastic shopping bag against the rain, so tightly that her cold achy hands grew impatient with the knot, and so she grabbed the dull scissors that hung above the sink. The six-pack of stale cupcakes, each of a different color, and the mini sparklers, would be her party tonight. In fact, she had two good reasons for this solitary celebration. Ten years ago, on this exact date, her divorce had come through. Not an imbalance of blame on either side, really. No abuse, but not enough caring. It had taken them three years to find out they were each looking for someone else. Since that date, Karla had found her way into three different relationships with men, and all had ended in rancor.
Happy Birthday, you four-time loser. A little chuckle as she lit the sparklers. Haha, I ain’t blowin’ these things out, but I’m sure as hell gonna eat every one of those cupcakes tonight. Her “loser” comment was only a repetition of something she had overheard, an ex-friend’s vitriolic comment to another, supposedly out of her hearing. That kind of thing hurts the worst. She had lived the ins and outs of these sad tales, and knew well the foibles of everyone involved, herself included. She knew also that she was not a bad, evil, or false person and felt, in her heart of hearts, God damn. We just can’t forgive each other our trespasses.
A little bloated, and on a sugar high, she pushed in the last cupcake in one go, washing it down with a glass of milk. The spent bent sparklers went in the trash bin. God, only ten o’clock? Ah well, let’s go to bed with a book, ’til the sugar wears off. Brush the teeth, take a pee, on with the nightgown, jump into those covers.
At 10:03, her old green wall telephone, with the kinky coiled cord, rang three times.
Paul, in those doldrum days between Christmas and New Years, had returned to his flat after a couple of days up north with his folks. He had always liked to visit them, (sporadically, that is) even though lately his Dad had been making a few innuendos about his decidedly single life of late. At 45 now, he had not been in any kind of relationship for over two years, since his wife Patty had been killed in a crash. The time was coming soon, though, that he would tire of the solitary life, and he was feeling it tonight.
Two weeks back, he’d been out for a drink with some of his buddies, and somehow the conversation had gotten ’round to what their lives were like when they were kids, or teenagers growing up. One guy had said Hey, you know something? I’m forty-seven goddamn years old, and you know what? I can remember my goddamn phone number from the house I lived in on Calvington Drive until I was sixteen. How many of you schmucks can say that? Paul had asked him what the big deal was, we all had things we remembered from our childhood, then was sorry he had said it. His wobbly little buddy was nonplussed, but not belligerent, and got up to go home. That had ended their night. The thing was, Paul thought, yes the funny thing was that he had found himself remembering exactly the same thing on his way home.
Tonight, in the quiet cold rain of December 28th, as he lay in his comfy recliner watching some brainiac show on television, he didn’t realize that he was smiling as the number surfaced once again, as if it had floated into view on one of those old Magic 8 Ball toys. I’m gonna have a little fun tonight. This’ll be just like being a kid and playing Nicky Nicky Nine Doors. He slid his phone out of his pocket and dialed the number: *** 743-5088. Melrose Three, Five Oh Eight Eight. He had to see what soul was now at the end of this nondescript number he had held in memory for thirty years. He was uncertain as to what he would say to them, or how they would react, but his curiosity was in high gear now. ………At 10:02, he dialed.
Three rings, no answer. He suddenly lost his nerve and hung up. Sat there reproaching himself for being such a chicken, lit another smoke, then took the plunge. Three more rings, then a woman’s voice. “Hello?” Hi. My name is Paul. I….. “ I’m not interested, thanks”……..No no, I’m not selling anything, please give me a sec. “Who are you?” I know it’s a stupid thing to say, but I had your phone number growing up, until I was fifteen. I just wanted to see if it was still around, and who it belonged to. “Well, that’s a bit crazy, right?” Yes, I’m real sorry. To have bothered you, I mean. No more questions. I’ll let you go, and have a good night. And, haha, please don’t report my number. “Now, how would I do that?” Well, it must be showing up on your phone, right? “Showing up? Haha, no, buddy. I’ve got a green wall phone from the 1960’s. Don’t worry about that.” Ok, well, goodbye, and sorry once again.
Paul, redfaced, lay back in his chair again, an annoyed squint upon his face. Why so nervous, old man? It seemed to him that serendipity had done its ellipse back to him after his time of grief and loneliness. He remembered once again how he had met his wife of fifteen years. It was over the telephone. He had called to make an appointment with a dentist. She had answered the phone. If an electronic signal can convey spirit, it did on that day, in both directions. Something in her voice, her inflections. They had started to chat, at first haltingly, then as if they were long lost pals. He had gotten up the nerve to ask her out, with freezing still in his cottony mouth, after he had come out from his root canal. She had thought it was hilarious.
Something about this voice tonight. He dialed the number again. Boy, this time I am going to be in hot shit. The line was busy. He hung up. Dude, go to bed. Then his own rang. *743-5088 is calling you.*
Next chapter. https://secret-lifeof.com/2018/02/19/better-call-paul/