Karla had just turned 42, three nights after Christmas. At a brisk pace, 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 the 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 sparklers went into 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, red-faced, lay back in his chair again, an annoyed squint upon his face. Why so nervous, old man? It seemed 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.*
“Hello? Listen, I’m sorry, I ….”
” It’s okay. Don’t worry, Paul. You didn’t wake me up or anything. I just don’t normally get many phone calls. The more I thought about your little request the more I laughed about it. It’s something that I would probably do myself. What made you do it, anyway?”
“Oh, Just something stupid. One of my buddies was bragging that he could remember his childhood phone number, and it made me think about the same kind of thing. It was just an affectionate thought that came to my head because it was a nice time in my life those first 15 years. Stability, same place, same friends, happy parents. Good time. I just got curious if the old number was still around, did not mean to upset you.”
“You’re a bit strange, aren’t you? Maybe kind of like me. By the way, my name’s Karla.”
(Paul is thinking “maybe I’ve got a live one here”) “Are you kidding? Your name is Karla?”(pause on the other end, then “something wrong with my name?“) “No. No. It’s just…haven’t you heard about the infamous couple Paul and Karla who went around killing people?”
“Oh, for Chrissakes, yes. And we’re not a couple.”
“Forgive me presuming, but it feels like you’re alone. Would you like to go out for a coffee sometime?”
“Forgive me for not assuming, but are you alone or attached?”
“Okay, touche. I’m two years a widower.”
“Oh Jesus. So sorry. My mouth gets me in trouble once again.”
“That’s okay. But you didn’t answer my question.”
“More alone than you might think. Divorced ten years ago. A few short relationships since then. I guess I’m just a bitch.”
“Well, meeting for a coffee can’t hurt….unless you think I might be one of those internet stalkers.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Listen, buddy. You’re talking to somebody who still has a wall phone and gets two channels on her television”.
“Hah! This might be fun, you know? I could pick you up on Saturday.”
“Um, you’re scaring me a bit. Could I take a raincheck and call you?”
“Sure, Karla, I’ll keep the afternoon clear.”
(She is thinking “Boy, I’ve got a real live one here.”)
She lies in bed, lights out. The bitchy old TV staring at her with its snowy screen. Finishing her chocolate milkshake and chips, she wipes the crumbs away. I’ll vacuum later. She wrestles with conflicting emotions. Lonely too long, but comfortable in her penury, like an old shoe. Her long-time job as a cashier, just enough to pay the rent and eat a little. This guy just might be one of those internet creeps. And, am I gonna go through this stuff again, for the fifth time? The very last thing that worries her to sleep is her broken tooth, on the front, of course.
As for Paul, he has no such worries. He sleeps the sleep of the dead, probably the best one he’s had in years.
Thursday morning found Karla at the local butcher. Well, actually, dentist. She and her friends had called him The Butcher because of his reputation for bad jobs or not enough anesthetic. But, he had filled the need for someone affordable in this sad neighborhood. “Can you make this look more like a tooth?” He assured her he could, but it would cost her five hundred, cash on the line. “Three hundred. I can have it by Friday”. Four hundred would do it, he said, but the price would go up next week.
Thursday afternoon found her at the local Coin & Stamp shop, toting a plastic bag containing a large album. It had been her father’s. He had been a collector, and she was certain that some of the things in it had value. The short grey-haired man behind the counter began to leaf through it, paused a couple of times, took a closer look, then said: “I’ll offer you two hundred”. She knew then that there was something he wanted, and said “I just came from the library, and I looked some of these up. Just some of them. And it looks like this whole thing is worth at least five.” “Ma’am, those stamp catalogs are just guidelines. The market fluctuates.” “Okay. I’m going somewhere else.”
She walked. “Will you take three hundred?”…….sold.
By Friday afternoon, she had taken half a mouthful of Tylenol for the pain and was scratching her top lip and itchy nose. She took one more look in the mirror. It would have to do. She hoped the glue would hold out as long as he had said it would. He had taken the three hundred, with a promissory note for the rest.
She made the nervous phone call to Paul. Great. He would pick her up tomorrow afternoon. They would go for their coffee and wherever else she wanted to go. Everything would be fine. She searched her closet and dresser for her Sunday best, and found some pantyhose, a tartan pleated dress, a white lacy blouse, and a pair of her sister’s hand-me-down shoes, in navy blue. Then spent an hour ironing each one of the pleats in the kilt.
It could be said that Karla was close to being as blind as a bat without her glasses. Horn-rimmed and sturdily built to last the ages, they had a thick lens on one side and almost plain glass on the other. While she was bent over the ironing, they fell to the tiled floor with a click. Oh God. Oh God. She panicked and stumbled about looking for them. Then, crunch. She found them. In two pieces.
Now, almost in tears, she remembered the tube of glue the butcher had given her, to be used in an emergency in case her new tooth broke again. Went to the dresser, pulled out the old magnifying glass, and set to work. That, my girl, is enough for one day. We’re going to bed early tonight.
“No, don’t come to my building. The lot is full and they’re parking on the street. I’ll meet you at the diner. It’s right at the corner of Main and 5th. Oh shit….how will I know you?”
“I’ll be the only one wearing a hat that says HI KARLA on it. Don’t worry, we’ll find each other”
So, Paul is there about 15 minutes early, after ripping a page out of his calendar in the glove compartment, penciling her name in big block letters, and sticking it on his hat band. He sits and orders a coffee, fidgets a bit.
Karla takes one last look in her closet mirror and slumps a little. Jesus. This whole outfit just screams 1960’s Bag Lady. Oh well, it’s a good test. If he can’t take me as I am, I’ll know it right away. No sense in wasting time.
She’s 15 minutes late. He’s on his second coffee, when he sees, through the slits in the blinds, a woman kind of peeking in the front window. He doesn’t know if she’s looking for something inside or studying her reflection. At any rate, it’s a little comical. A crooked pair of glasses rides on a face that squints a little as it studies its own teeth. She walks on, and a few seconds later, makes an awkward entrance.
He’s a bit stricken. Is this her? A tartan skirt with neat pleats, only a few folded over on themselves. Nylons….nylons? who wears nylons anymore? Shoes a little too big, making for a mincing stride as she walks towards his table. But, bright eyes. Yes. Bright eyes. One a little bigger than the other with those peculiar glasses. Full of spirit.
Paul stands up and smiles. What Karla sees, aside from the ridiculous hat, is a nervous guy dressed in Sunday best blue jeans, a suit jacket, and construction boots. But, he was clean.
Good. We’re both nervous. And he hasn’t laughed at me yet. Perfect start.
Paul pulls out a chair for her and smiles diffidently. Then does something that neither he nor Karla is expecting. Impulsively, he picks up her hand and puts his own over it.
“I thought you must be.”, she says, looking at his hat.
(Here is a real original, he thinks)
“What can I get you, Karla? I’m all coffeed out, but we can have lunch”.
She orders, then sits primly, with fingers entwined in front of her. Her eyes move quickly up and down, then she turns her head to the side with a little embarrassed smile.
All at once, he is charmed. She has said only five words, but, in a flash, he has taken in his first impression: Shy, but playful. An unconscious batting of the eyelashes, like Betty Boop or Mae West or one of those. He thought that kind of thing had went the way of the Dodo. The glued cockeyed glasses. The unwillingness to smile openly (wonder why?) The baggy socks pulled on over her nylons, but not enough to cover the run in them.
She sees him as a guy who’s going a little grey (he’s taken off his hat). Someone with a quirky sense of humor, maybe? (The note is still sticking out of it). Someone who has had a great sadness settle upon them. What has touched her the most is the sudden gesture he made, taking her hand like that.
He tries for the humor once again, saying “You know, I am not used to having strange women just walk up to my table and sit down.”
“And I’m not used to having someone pick up my hand like that.”
“Did I offend you? The devil made me do it.”
“Well, no. It’s like something out of the movies.”
“Hah! Funny you should say that. Just now, I was thinking the same thing about you.”
“Okay. Now I know you’re buttering me up. The last thing I look like is a movie star.”
“Now, this may sound weird. Smile for me a second, Karla.” (She does, but just a grin)
“No, smile the way you felt when I picked up your hand.” There we go. He sees the funny crooked tooth, a little bit off color from the others. She looks down at the table.
“That’s it! I know! You’re somewhere between Carol Burnett and Mae West.”
“You better not be making fun, ’cause I don’t know either one of them. I told you, I only get two channels.”
“Both charming women. Don’t worry about that.”
“I was waiting for you to say something about my clothes, and then I thought you had better not. You came to a date wearing work boots!……sorry, Paul, it’s just funny, that’s all.”
“So, I have two things to tell you. First, madam, I came in jeans and work boots because they called me in for a couple hours this morning and I had no time to change. The sports jacket was an afterthought.”
(Karla has a sheepish look, thinking she has offended him)
“Secondly, I see in you someone who has maybe disrupted her own life just to come and see someone like me, and I am touched by that.”
“Yes, well. You cost me three hundred bucks so far”
“Oh Geez, never mind. It looks like we’re both glad we came out, eh?”
“I am, Karla. (he leans over to her). “Come with me, and I’ll show you my etchings”.
“Never mind. It’s something from the movies, I think.”