MY NEXT POEM
In her dream, Gemma jumps out of her Civic, hurries up the walk, runs up the steps of her second story apartment in the gray Midtown Victorian. Her key doesn’t fit. The lock has become a simple slit with notched edges.
The alarm clock wakens her. Befuddled, Gemma blinks around at her bedroom: The Van Gogh print of purple irises on one wall, lace curtains at the window, the wicker rocker with her green jersey and matching slacks folded over the back—for a moment, it’s unfamiliar. Outside, a garbage truck rattles by, making Mondaycollections across the street. Gemma pushes the covers back and rises.
Thirty minutes later, she steps outside, tugging the front door to make sure it locks. Her thoughts flicker to her dream. She shakes her head. A gust of wind blows shriveled leaves from a sycamore tree across the walk; a warmish wind, mild for October.
Normally the drive to the hospital is ten minutes, but repair work on 28th Street forces her to detour at 27th. By the time she arrives, it’s too late for coffee in the cafeteria.
In the lab, she shrugs into her white coat, fluffs her blonde bangs one last time, puts her purse in her bottom desk drawer, then immerses herself in the problem of the high white cell count of Nickelson, Walter’s blood smears. At the next counter her friend Teri scribbles notes on a pad about a biopsy she has just finished. Across the room, Marilyn-of-the-Maroon-Hair, as Gemma and Teri call her behind her back, peers into her microscope, the top of her head a mass of wine-colored curls.
Gemma tries not to think about the slide for Alexander, Peter B., a kidney transplant candidate. Friday morning, after she had labeled the slide, O Positive, slight Rh-negative factor, she was sure she put it in the tray for pick up. But when she took out her purse to go to lunch, she found the slide tucked next to her lipstick and compact. She placed it in the pick-up tray just before the nurse from station three came by for collections. The memory nags. Why would she put a slide in her purse?
Marilyn’s voice jars her thoughts. “Like, I would hate to find out, you know, by accident? If there was some mix-up and I’m working on my own pap smear?”
Teri flutters her eyelids at the ceiling. Gemma stifles a smile.
At lunch, as they set their trays on the cafeteria table, Gemma tells Teri, “Last night I dreamed my key didn’t fit in the front door. Is that ever weird?” Teri is into Jungian dream interpretation, even though it’s so retro. She loves to hear about dreams.
Right away, she tells Gemma, “A key symbolizes the key to a problem.” She wraps a strand of her shoulder-length, dark hair between forefinger and thumb, considering her words. Her glance shifts back to Gemma. “Maybe you’re upset over breaking up with Al?”
Gemma lifts her brows. “I don’t think so.”
Al is a resident at the hospital with a special interest in leukemia. Part of his attraction for Gemma was his good looks, but part of it was his lanky tallness, since she is so tall herself.
“I don’t get upset,” Gemma explains. It’s true. When Al stormed out of her flat two weeks ago, all she could feel was puzzlement: The sex was good; she wasn’t in love. What was the issue?
“Everybody gets upset some time,” says Teri.
“I don’t.” Gemma picks at her salad. “It wouldn’t serve any purpose.”
“Whatever. Let’s see . . . a key could unlock a secret?”
“I don’t have secrets. I was just trying to open the door.”
“Ah. The door.” Teri nods shrewdly. “Maybe you were trying to get past your defenses. This could be about Al.”
“I told you. We’re friends. It’s amicable.” Even so, Al’s recent polite hellos in hallways unsettle Gemma.
“Break-ups are never amicable.”
After lunch, back in the lab, Teri’s remark lingers. What would Teri know about break-ups, anyway? She’s still living with a guy she met in college, a physical therapist who keeps postponing marriage.
Is this being upset? Gemma wonders. She puts a new slide under her microscope.
In her dream, Gemma runs up the steps with a sense of urgency. This time the door has changed: It’s silver and shaped like an arch. The building has changed, too: It looks like a giant circular pillbox, painted taupe. She looks around. Everything else is the same: the azalea bushes bordering the tan stucco bungalow next door on the right, the brick apartment building across the street.
She wakens to the Van Gogh poster. The irises in the poster hold her attention: for a moment they make her think of purple bobbing heads on long green necks.
This morning she leaves early because of the detour.
Usually Gemma likes to browse the newspaper while she drinks her coffee in the cafeteria, but today she brings the Styrofoam cup to the lab and sips her coffee at her desk, relishing the solitude. She likes the orderliness of the lab: three counters, a microscope on each, empty slide trays beside them, waiting for new slides; a desk at the end of each counter; everything in its place.
Teri comes in and they exchange good-mornings.
Marilyn-of-the-Maroon Hair comes in next, chattering about a date last night, and Gemma wonders: If Marilyn can do weird hair, why can’t she? It’s not like any of them meet the public. For instance, if Gemma dyed her hair purple, pulled it into a bun on top with shorter locks in front over her ears, like the side petals of irises . . ..
The nurse from station four comes in with several slides. Gemma brushes the odd thought away.
At lunch, Gemma tells Teri her new dream.
“Buildings represent your personality. Your personality is undergoing a change.”
“I don’t feel any change,” says Gemma, then remembers her fantasy of purple hair.
“The building was circular,” Teri muses. “Circles mean the inner being. Maybe you’re having a hard time getting in touch with your inner being. Are you sure breaking up with Al has nothing to do with this?”
“It’s comfortable between us,” Gemma insists, though she does miss the sex.
“I don’t mean to pry, but . . ..” Teri stirs sugar into her coffee, then meets Gemma’s eyes. “You never said—was it ... other women?”
Gemma shakes her head.
“Career conflict? Was he threatened by your work?”
Gemma laughs. “What threat is a medical lab technician to a doctor?”
“I don’t know, I just . . ..”
“It’s hard to explain,” Gemma tells her. “See, I liked making love with him, but it wasn’t love. It was more something like nostalgia.”
“Something about his build,” Gemma murmurs, then breaks off, under Teri’s stare.
Teri takes a sip of her coffee, puts the cup down carefully, and says, “That’s . . . interesting.”
Back in the lab, Gemma stares at the test tube for Roberts, Priscilla, who may have Leukemia. Before the break-up, Gemma might have discussed it with Al. She admires the dispassionate way he dissects and analyzes cellular elements and enzyme behaviors. Thinking about his new chilliness with her stirs her in a way she doesn’t understand. She puts a new blood smear under the microscope and peers through the lens, as if she might see a hidden layer of Al’s thoughts.
In her dream, Gemma’s desire to get home is so intense she runs the red light at H and Alhambra and a four-way stop sign at 25th. She parks, dashes up the walk and stairs. This time she doesn’t even try the key. Instead she reaches a hand out and brushes her fingers over the slit in the silver door in a familiar gesture, but the door of the pillbox building remains closed.
She glances around. The azaleas are gone. The bungalow is gone. The apartment building. The car—which is ridiculous, because she just got out of it. Gemma starts to perspire. Looking down, she realizes she’s wearing too many layers of clothing—a jacket over a sweater, over a turtleneck, over a tank top. She wakens to the poster of irises.
At lunch, Teri says, “Even the flower bushes were gone? That’s heavy. Flowers signify blossoming relationships. And Al isn’t supposed to figure into this, huh?”
Gemma clicks her tongue against her teeth and tosses her head.
“Okay, okay.” Teri holds out a palm. “Just asking. And you were shedding clothing? Wow. Clothing is, like, your persona. It’s your mask.”
Gemma drums her nails on the table, remembering how stifling it was under all the clothing. “I was hot,” she says.
“And the building seemed familiar?” asks Teri.
“Probably because you dreamed about it earlier. Although . . .. Teri pauses.
“What?" Gemma is surprised how raggedly such a simple word can come out.
“Familiar places in dreams can stand for childhood. Maybe you want to go back to your childhood.”
“No, I don’t,” says Gemma. “I . . ..”
Now that it’s been mentioned, she feels her childhood blurring. Recollections of growing up in Oakland with science teacher parents seem like a thin film of memory superimposed over a fainter, more distant childhood she can’t quite glimpse.
Back in the lab, Gemma has difficulty concentrating. She wonders if she’s coming down with something. Maybe she’s handled contaminated blood without realizing it. But she can’t remember spilling any drops of blood during her lab work.
She tells Teri and Marilyn she has doesn’t feel well and needs to go home.
Teri’s forehead wrinkles with concern. “You do look pale.”
“It’s the cafeteria food,” says Marilyn, who always eats out.
Gemma nods weakly and opens her bottom desk drawer to get her purse, then spies them: several small plastic bags, each filled with labeled slides.
Time stops for a breath, then starts again. Dreamily, Gemma scoops the bags into her purse, glad the purse is so large and that the drawer isn’t visible from where her lab-mates sit.
“I’ll call you tonight to see how you’re doing,” Teri promises as Gemma hurries out the door.
In the parking lot, Gemma revs the engine. She pulls into traffic. The longing grows in her, as if guiding her. Instead of turning right on Alhambra, she turns left, then left again on Folsom, going east. Small bungalows flank each side of the street, then the larger homes and mansions of the fabulous forties and the East Lawn Cemetery on the right. She passes a succession of shopping centers, public storage businesses, the substation at Power Inn Road.
A fork on the right takes her onto the Jackson Highway, past a garden center, past empty fields of stubble, a concrete plant, apartments, churches, a business park, a landscaping business.
Traffic has thinned, and Gemma is on open road, the only car in a desolate landscape. In the distance, trees and farm houses dot ranch lands on either side. On the right, against the horizon, a line of transmission towers drapes garlands of power lines.
She comes to a fenced-in field with a dish-shaped structure in the center gleaming metallic in the sun. Gemma pulls onto a shoulder, brakes, and gets out.
The top two wires between fence posts are barbed, but the lower two are easily parted. With a quick look at the road to ensure she is still alone, Gemma widens their space and squeezes through, holding her purse close to protect the slides inside from any jarring.
She runs across the field to the arched doorway of the round building, touches the notched slit on the knob. The door swings inward. Passing through overhead rays, Gemma feels layers of herself, like so many onion skins, atomize and fade away. She joins the tall entities waiting for her, their purple heads nodding. Their large eyes blink welcome, along with approval that she made it.
It’s time to go home.
Back in her old lab, compiling notes from the expedition, aRlca glances again at the slides she brought back from earth. Blood types, tissue matches. . .. You’d think earthlings would be free of disease by now, but they still die off at a surprising rate. And now they’re aiming for the stars, bringing their diseases with them.
ARlca lifts a slide: Lithgow, Samuel. A child who had Leukemia, like Roberts, Priscilla. She wonders if Al has finished his residency. Such an emotional species.She wonders if Teri still interprets dreams.
Just last night aRlca dreamed Teri asked Al how he felt about the break-up. “Sad,” he said. “Very sad.” And aRlca woke with a dull ache inside that might have been fatigue.
Or maybe something like sadness.
When I pulled up to her house, I saw her sitting on the doorstep. She was smoking a cigarette, the tendrils of gray wafting above her head as she looked at my car with a visage I could not quite decipher. She had never smoked when we first met. She only took it up a few months ago. Things are getting rough at work she told me, and a part of me believed her. Stressed people smoked cigarettes: it was the way of the world and who was I to inquire further into her mental state?
She took one last drag before crushing it underneath her boot. She had dressed up a surprising amount for a weekend in the woods. She had a beautiful black dress on with her brown boots. Her maroon lipstick stuck out from her pale face. But there was something else there, something she couldn’t hide. There was the truth, hidden deep in her irises, around the rims of her eye sockets, in the curves of her lips, in the movement of her body. The cold, unfeeling, unfiltered truth that she hid deep within herself so as not to hurt me with it.
“Ready?” I asked, trying to sound cheerful. She put on the smile she had been wearing the last few months and nodded as she entered the car.
“Yeah,” she said. I kissed her hand before driving away.
We did not talk much in the car: we were never good at small talk. We were one of the few couples who actually enjoyed going to movies together. We liked experiencing things with one another, not just incessantly babbling. We did a fair share of that, too, towards the beginning, but we learned that silence was more welcoming than speech at times. But now the silence was too pronounced. It was almost annoyingly present, like the buzzing of tinnitus.
“Jerry bought me some flowers the other day,” she said, a ghost of a smile hiding in the corner of the lips, neighbors with the truth.
“Oh?” I said. I knew what the implication was, but did not want us to argue on the drive to the cabin. It was so important we made it to the cabin.
“Yeah,” she said, licking her lips. “He’s such a nice guy,”
“Was he the one I met at the Christmas party?”
“No, that was Mark.”
“Oh,” I said again before focusing on the road. Sometimes deer would jump out across the highway and if you were not careful you could run into one and irreparably damage your vehicle.
We rode in silence a bit longer. When we got to the cabin, we stayed silent as we unpacked our small suitcases. It was lovely up there: the crisp air whisked through my hair and the bite of early winter was only mildly present. The foliage had changed to lovely oranges and reds. The kind of colors Jerry had likely brought her at work. Her favorite color was purple, but of course Jerry would not know that. Jerry would not bring her violets. He would not know to.
The cabin was smaller than I remembered it. The company that rented them out had pictures online that made it seem like a spacious getaway. What was in front of us was a cabin with a master bedroom, living room, and kitchen. It was the size of a modest one-bedroom apartment, but I did not mind.
The bedroom had been arranged the way I had asked. I let her enter first because it was for her - as everything was - and she smiled softly when she saw the rose petals on the bed. There was a bottle of red wine sitting on it. I walked in behind her and wrapped my arms around her waist.
“Oh, Kevin,” she said softly. “It’s perfect.”
I did not respond to her. I did not know what to say. I just held her as I felt her turn around and hug me tightly. Almost too tightly: it was as if she was afraid I was going to blow away or disappear.
I made her dinner that night and we drank the wine and we laughed like we had in the beginning. I had always been able to make her laugh. I never found myself particularly funny, but she found me hysterical. For the longest time that was all that mattered. She would lean her head back and her gums and teeth would flash in the light and her gorgeous signs of amusement would spill from her throat like a bubbling brook. Now, when I tried to make her laugh, I felt like an aging comedian at a crumbling comedy club. There was still mirth, but the room was emptier than it had been.
“Do you understand why?” she asked me in bed. We were holding each other. Her head was on my heart, my hands caressing her hair and arms. She had been crying and I had cried as well. We had swept the roses off the bed before climbing into it. And I did understand. But I didn’t want to.
“Yes,” I said softly. There was nothing else to say.
She looked up at me with those glowing blue eyes and I felt my insides flip. I felt the warmth rise from my gut to my throat to my eyes.
“Do you really?” she asked me, looking into my eyes. I could not lie to those eyes. To that forehead I had kissed. To that visage I had been so blessed to stare into every morning and fall asleep with every night.
“No,” I choked out, “but I don’t think it matters.”
She paused and broke eye contact with me.
“No, I suppose it doesn’t,” she said and we held each other tighter as we fell asleep. For the first time, in a long while, we did not kiss each other goodnight.
In the morning, I got up early to cook breakfast. She was still sleeping when I was setting the table but the smell of bacon and the sound of sizzling eggs must have woken her. She came out of the bedroom in the tank top and boxers she had worn the night before, rubbing her eyes. She was so beautiful.
“Hungry?” I asked her. The ghost of joviality was slathered on my lips, but she only nodded and faintly smiled before moving her plate next to mine, sitting down. I finished making the meal and then delivered it before sitting in my own chair. She looked at me, quickly grinning, before digging in.
After breakfast, she stepped out on the porch to smoke. I did the dishes inside, washing away the grime and the stains. The plates glistened underneath the running water.
We went on a hike that afternoon through the colorful woods. The sounds of wildlife surrounded us. We had changed into our hiking clothes in separate rooms before leaving. We walked side-by-side, holding hands, through the woods and up the steep trail.
At the top of the hill was a single tree that now wilted and bent with age. Branches had been ripped from its torso, twigs lying in the grass at its base.
I laid a blanket down at the base of the tree, underneath the remaining branches. She sat on it and I retrieved some trail mix and water for us to share.
The view was nothing short of incredible. Laid out before us was the expanse of the forest. In the distance, we could see the tiny dot of our cabin, shrouded by the foliage. We did not speak, but we did not need to. We had both already looked at the weathered carving in the tree bark: KB + LS. After we finished eating, we cuddled on the blanket and kissed softly underneath the blue sky. The wind nipped at our skin, but I felt warm in her arms. We held each other tightly and the tree guarded us as it always had.
We watched a movie that night. It was funny and we both laughed. We were in bed, holding each other again, but our laughs were individuals. They did not join each other in happiness. They were two parallel lines that shot out into space and time on their own accord.
When the movie ended, she left for a cigarette and I sat in the bed flipping through the channels. There was nothing good on, so I turned it off. She returned to the bedroom a few moments later and sat down next to me. Her hand traced circles on my leg and I looked at her with hot eyes. We kissed passionately, ferociously even. We clawed at each other and held each other closer as we kissed. The clothes slid off our bodies and the silence of the room was filled with a united moment of ecstasy and passion as we moved and felt as one. But we were crying by the end of it, holding each other for comfort as best we could.
After it was over and we had both shed our tears, we held each other once more in the cool dark of night. The sound of the wind crept through our window and I ran my fingertips across her arm. Her head was on my heart again and she was listening. ThumpTHUMPthumpTHUMPthump. The ticking clock of life underneath her ear. She then rested her chin on my chest and caressed my face. I kissed her palm.
“Do you understand now?” she asked me softly. Those eyes. I could not escape them.
“I think I do,” I said. “But I don’t want to.”
She nodded and ran her arm down my chest, resting it on my stomach. I felt hot, wet tears fall on my heart. I did not know what to do, other than run my hands through her beautiful brown hair.
The next morning I made her breakfast. She was awake as I did and she did not eat. I ended up eating my portion and throwing away the rest.
We sat on the porch of the cabin for a few hours, holding each other in the small swing provided on the porch. We did not need to speak. The swing creaked and groaned as we clung to each other in the cold morning. A frost had spread across the grass and as the day grew later it melted into a thin film of glistening moisture.
We drove back to her home in silence. We held hands the way there, but as we drew closer we found ourselves finding other uses for them. I had to drive with both hands on the wheel - the deer could jump out of nowhere and I wanted to be prepared - and she smoked a cigarette. She blew the smoke gracefully from the car window.
When we arrived at her house, I parked and turned the car off. We got out and I walked her to her porch. We looked at each other for a moment and I saw the truth again in those beautiful eyes. She hugged me tightly and I gripped her just the same. We stood on the porch, holding each other, for ten minutes. Our grips never lessened. And then we kissed passionately, romantically even, until it gave way to the tears again and we decided just to hold each other.
Neither of us wanted to let go, but we knew we could not hold on to each other forever. So we kissed once more and I kissed her forehead. We did not need to speak. I already knew what she was going to say. She already knew my response. Instead, she went into her house and closed the door. I watched her go, feeling my heart twist in my chest, before I went to my car.
I did not move for a while. I just sat there, thinking about how Jerry was not going to know that she wanted violets instead of roses; that she needed to laugh fully and heartily; that she needed a light and not a shadow; that she deserved more than a withered cabin in the middle of the woods. I looked at the house for a long time, wondering if I was going to get out and walk up to that door, or if she was going to exit it and run to my car. But, eventually, the cold truth filled my head. I turned my car on and glanced towards her seat. A single rose petal sat next to me. It must have traveled on her dress from the cabin. I did not touch it. I let it be and I drove away.
I wanted so badly to look into the rearview mirror as I left, but I understood why I could not.
For fifteen years now, I have kept watch from the windows of my one-bedroom on the 9th floor of this building. My children are grown – Jorge moved to the suburbs with his fancy wife, Mitzi, and their two blond children, and Maria and José moved to what is, she tells me, a really nice apartment in a new high-rise, built in the 90s, it was.
Maria is a good girl; she calls me every night at 7 to check that I am still here, still alive; checks to see that no druggie broke down the door and robbed me (of what? I ask). Every night, it is the same.
“Hóla, Mommy,” Maria begins, her voice sounding for the moment as if she is twelve. “Did you eat today? Did the aide come? Did Mrs. Mendez bring up your newspaper” How are you feeling?”
What do I tell her? Everything is fine; I am fine. I am not starving and nobody robbed me. I don’t say, “I am old; I am marking time. I have lived my life,” because she could not handle that. That girl, she thinks I will live forever. She should know; nobody lives forever.
Since I hurt my back trying to move furniture for one of the rich ladies I cleaned for, I have spent hours at this window, and my world has shrunk to what I see through these panes of glass. Occasionally, I will wipe dust off the inside window’s surface with the hem of my apron, but the weather controls the outside; in early spring, it is often splattered with dirt splashed off the old brick siding, then it will rain and my view will be clear.
From this window, I have a view of West 57th – half a block back if I look to my left; half a block forward if I look right. I see people on bicycles; I see cars, taxis, vans, buses, delivery trucks, limousines, police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, and pedestrians. This building is at the older end of the street – block after block of older housing. There has been talk about tearing it down for years, but it hasn’t happened yet. Laundry still flies between neighboring buildings like the tails of a kite. The tarred playground below me is still used by children, though not so many these days. The webbing is missing from rusted basketball hoops, and chains are broken on most of the swings. I have watched children grow up through this window. I have watched little black and brown children come with their abuela who stands with other grandmothers, round and comfortable, talking and laughing while their grandchildren swing and run and chase each other. I watch these children from one year to the next; I have my own names for each of them. I watch as they lose their round cheeks and legs and begin to stretch up. I watch as their interests move from swings and slides and merry-go-rounds to basketball and football, and some to loitering and smoking and idling about with one or two others. I think they are up to no good.
There are few white children on this playground, but when I see one, I wonder why they are here in this place, this place where mostly factory workers and domestics like me live. What do their parents do? When I say these things to my children, they both act like I am crazy for wondering all these things. “Who cares?” Jorge asks. “It’s nothin’ to us!” But it is something to me. It is my world. It is all I have now.
One of the children I watched grow up was a little girl with blond pigtails, and loose strands of straight hair that flew about her face. I watched as she became elementary school age, and played with one or two others on the playground, as she walked hand-in-hand across the playground with one young man, then another. I hadn’t seen her for a couple years and then, when I rolled up to the window this mornings, there was a young blond woman, walking head down, across the playground. It took a minute before I recognized her. It was the same little girl, now grown, no longer in pigtails and shorts and tee shirt, but with a stylish haircut, wearing a smocked print dress. I watched as she approached the one remaining usable swing on the playground, watched as she absently sat and pushed herself back and forth slowly, then faster; watched as she climbed to her feet, then planted both feet firmly on the worn seat of the swing; watched as she bent her knees, pumping, the swing moving now, back, forward, higher and higher the swing rose, the air pressing against her, flattening the soft fabric of her dress against the tell-tale swelling of her belly. As I watched, she rose higher and higher, until her body was nearly horizontal, her hands white around the rusty chains.
“Stop!” I wanted to call. “Stop now!” But all I could do was watch. Watch and hold my breath.
“I just love your house Dee, always have, and these new yellow curtains really finish it off,” Penny said.
“Thanks, it’s quiet and private, and the yellow in the curtains brings in the color from the woods on either side of me,” Dee answered.
Ruby sat at the kitchen table drumming her fingers and pushing the magazines on the table around. Penny sat next to her. Dee was smiling and still looking out the window at the woods.
“You gonna answer that?” Ruby asked.
Penny craned her neck around, looking for the source of the sound. “That a phone?”
Penny shook her head. “Landline. Dee’s the only one I know who still has one.”
“Dee, you have to pick up the phone, not stare at it,” Ruby said.
The blood drained from Dee’s face as she came to the table and sat. “I have caller ID.”
Ruby brushed gray bangs out of her eyes and squinted. “Everyone does. You’re white as a ghost. Did you see a ghost?”
“Yes. No…I don’t know.”
Penny put her coffee cup on the table and leaned forward. “Dee, what’s going on?”
“Go check the caller ID, Penny,” said Dee.
Ruby rolled her eyes, picked up a National Wildlife Foundation Magazine from the table, and started thumbing through it.
Penny rose and went over to look at the caller-ID box. “It’s blank.”
Dee called out, “Press the arrow-up button.”
Penny pressed the button and read out loud, “Tibbitts, 433-7833.”
Penny returned to her chair. “Dee, what’s going on?”
Ruby put the magazine aside. “You mean other than someone named Tibbitts called?”
Penny ignored her and stared at Dee, waiting for an answer.
“I don’t know,” Dee said softly.
Penny turned to Ruby and said, “Dee’s maiden name was Tibbetts.”
“My dad died in a nursing home nine years ago,” Dee said. “The phone number I grew up with was 433-7833. My mother died when I was three, it was always just us two. That’s my dad’s phone number.”
“Are you saying he’s calling from the grave?” asked Ruby. “What do you think he wanted?”
“Ruby!” shouted Penny. “Dee’s upset. Be nice.”
“I couldn’t answer it. I was afraid it might be Dad.”
“Maybe you should take the landline out,” said Penny.
Ruby snickered. “That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said, Penny.”
“I don’t know. I’ve always had a phone on the wall,” Dee said in a soft voice.
“But Dee, we don’t call it, we call your cell,” Penny said. “All I got was telemarketers on the landline, so I cancelled mine five years ago.”
“I’m not sure I even have your landline number,” Ruby said. “Maybe you should call the phone company and get rid of it and find out who has that phone number.”
Dee stood up and stretched to her full height of five feet eleven inches. “I need to be alone right now.”
Dee was shaking as Penny got to her feet. “Come on Ruby, it’s time for us to go. I’ll call you this afternoon, Dee.”
Once outside, Ruby asked Penny, “What do you think she’ll do?”
“I don’t know, but I hope she calls the phone company.”
The following Monday, the coffee group was again at Dee’s house. “I see the phone’s off the wall,” Ruby observed. “Finally came to your senses."
Dee smiled. “Yes, the landline’s gone. The phone company told me the number was spoofed. Telemarketers falsely project local phone numbers to make you think it’s a local call so you answer it.”
“Spoofing, huh?” Penny shook her head. “Just bad luck your old number was chosen.”
As the conversation lulled, Dee’s cellphone ringing in the middle of the table drew everyone’s attention. The screen lit up and the number 433-7833 appeared.
Dee stood and pushed back from the table so quickly her chair fell over. “Oh my God! There it is again!” she shrieked.
“Don’t answer it, Dee,” Ruby said.
They stared at the phone until it stopped ringing.
“Call the phone company again,” Penny insisted. “Use my phone.”
“How’d they get your cell number? Do you get many telemarketers calls on it?” asked Ruby.
Dee started crying. “I’ve never had a telemarketing call on my cellphone. Not many people even have it; I wouldn’t give the number to the landline company, so it can’t be them.”
Penny frowned. “There, there, Dee. We’ll do something.”
“I didn’t sleep last night. That’s three nights in a row. And now this.”
“Call the phone company again,” Ruby said.
Penny woke with a start, halfway between asleep and awake, uncertain of what woke her. The digital clock read 2:43. Then her cellphone rang again.
She answered it when she saw Dee’s name and picture appear. “Dee, everything okay?”
“He talked to me.”
“Dad! It was him. He sounded far away… maybe like he was inside a can or something, but it was him. He called me Dee Anne. No one’s called me that for years. He always did. He sounded tired. He said he was cold.”
“Dee, get a grip. Do you actually believe your dad called you from the grave? Really?”
“He didn’t say much, but it was him.”
“I’m on my way. Stay put.”
The porch light was on when Penny pulled into the driveway. She let herself in and found Dee sitting at the table, dazed.
“You haven’t slept for days, have you?”
Dee shook her head and started crying. “He said, ‘You left me.’ and ‘I need you.’ He said it twice.”
“Oh, Dee, I’m so sorry.”
Dee put her head on the table and Penny patted her back. The silence was shattered by the ringing of Dee’s cellphone.
“Put it on speakerphone,” Penny said.
Dee answered, pushed the speakerphone button said, “Dee Anne, you left me,” said an eerie gravelly voice. “I need you. Come to me… come to me.”
Dee was shaking so badly it took her three tries to hit the end-call button.
“You heard it, too. That was Dad talking to me. Penny, what should I do?”
Penny took a deep breath. “There has to be a logical explanation for this. Let me make some coffee. Want me to call Ruby?”
Ruby arrived dressed in her house coat. She waddled up the steps into the house. “Glad you called me. I don’t know what’s going on but it has to stop. I called the police and all they said was fill out a form.”
Penny straightened and asked, “You called the police?”
“Yeah, it didn’t go anywhere. Dee’s shaking like a leaf. We need to do something. I have some, um, pills left over from my surgery, I could get them.”
“No drugs,” said Penny. “That’s not a solution.”
“Okay, you’ve known her longer than I have.”
“Dee, I’ll stay here with you tonight and tomorrow,” said Penny. You need to rest.”
Ruby drained her coffee and said, “I’ll stay till morning and see what happens. Give me your phone, Dee, so you can rest.”
“No! He might call.”
Penny caught Ruby’s eye and shrugged. “Okay, you can keep your phone, but only if you try to go to sleep.”
Dee walked down the hall and closed her bedroom door. Ruby looked at Penny and shook her head.
“Ruby, what’s there to do? I’m afraid for her safety – she may be dangerous to herself.”
“She just needs some rest and to shut her phone off.”
Penny cocked her head and looked at Ruby.
“Yup, that’s her phone again,” Ruby said.
The same scenario played out every hour on the hour.
Dee emerged and smiled at her two friends sitting at her kitchen table. The kitchen clock flashed 7:30. “Thank you, girls. I slept well. Just what I needed.”
Ruby stood, put her hands on her broad hips, and stared at Dee. “We could hear your phone ring every hour. And we could hear you crying. Don’t lie to us.”
“Ruby!” Penny exclaimed. “Be nice.”
Dee collapsed into a chair. “Ruby’s right. I didn’t sleep. He keeps calling and telling me to come to him.”
Penny rose to comfort her. “You’re going to get through this. We’re here for you.”
“I need to go now,” Ruby said. “But I can come back tonight. Call me, okay?”
“Will do, Ruby. Thanks for being here for Dee,” said Penny.
Dee fell asleep at the table. Penny muted both her and Dee’s cellphones. She moved Dee’s so she would sleep. On the hour, Dee’s muted phone lit up with a call, but Penny just smiled and didn’t answer it.
Dee woke several hours later. “Penny! My phone, it’s missing!”
“It’s right here. You were asleep so I moved it to keep it from being knocked off the table.”
Dee looked at the phone. “Two missed calls? Dad called and you didn’t let me know. He needs me. He might have been telling me where he was and now I’ll never know. You should leave now.”
“I was trying to help, that’s all.”
Dee turned away and said, “You shouldn’t have done that. I’ll be okay the rest of the day and tonight. I don’t want you or Ruby to come over or to call me. Okay?”
“I mean it Penny. Make sure Ruby knows.”
“If that’s the way you want it, okay.”
Ruby called Penny the next day. “I’m concerned about Dee. I had a restless night worrying about her.”
“I slept fine,” Penny replied. “It’ll all work out fine. She’ll get over it.”
But Dee wasn’t getting over it. She answered her phone at 1:00 AM and the voice was back. “Come to me. I’m at the house. Come now. I need you now.”
She was out the door like a shot and into her car.
The lack of sleep had taken a toll on Dee’s decision-making ability. She was driving too fast on the curves in the swamp when she was distracted by her phone ringing.
“Tibbitts, 433-7833” flashed on the screen. It’s Dad. She took her eyes off the road and reached to the passenger seat to grab her phone.
She looked up and there was a car coming at her, half in her lane. She swerved to the right and went through the guardrail and was airborne before a cedar tree stopped her progress – and her heart.
The driver of the oncoming car smiled and kept on driving.
The funeral was modest and tasteful, just like Dee. Her estate was bequeathed to the National Wildlife Foundation. Her lawyer handled the affairs which were all prearranged with explicit instructions. None of the details were a surprise to Penny, who, after reading them, suggested a lawyer should execute the will.
Penny walked into the real estate agency handling the house sale and offered ten percent over the anticipated selling price of the house and the contents. The offer was accepted immediately. An earnest check was handed over, the papers signed, and it was a done deal.
Thirty days later, the closing went off without a hitch.
Once home, Penny went into action. She called her nephew and said, “Tell them to present the deal.”
Penny sold her newly acquired house for ten times what she paid for it. The house and the woods were the last obstacle to the development. Penny had no idea how her nephew kept it under wraps for so long, but he did and she was now set for life. She never really liked the house anyway.
The empty page stares back at me. I sigh and take a last sip of my tea.
‘Perhaps it is time to give up?’ I ask myself as another story I am writing ends the same. I happily start with the bits and pieces that pop up in my head while the rest of the tale is forming as I go along. And then it all stagnates. The storyline breaks down and I don’t know how to mend it. I can’t make it a real story with a proper beginning and a solid ending. Defeated once more I set aside my laptop and let the sounds of the coffee shop invade my senses again; the soft murmur of the other customers, the tinkling of the cups of tea and coffee. The old fashioned doorbell that rings softly as the door opens.
I notice a man who just walked in. He takes a quick look around, walks over to my table and boldly takes the seat across from me. He gives me a somewhat arrogant look as I just stare at him.
‘Well then,’ he says. ‘Here I am at last. It took me some time, but I finally made it.’
‘I think you hold me for someone else,’ I try to respond politely.
‘I most certainly do not. I know exactly who you are and I also know I arrived just in time.’
‘Who are you?’ I ask.
‘Oh come on my friend, you’ve read this sort of thing a hundred times. You’ve seen the films. Make an educated guess.’
My thoughts immediately form the worst-case scenario of tales where an unknown person just walks into the life of the leading character and starts behaving in this sort of mysterious way.
‘You’re the devil?’ is my stuttered reply.
‘Now, don’t flatter yourself. Try again.’
‘A ghost, then.’
My mind is running through the options. I look across the table and can’t help but notice that even though he has rejected my first guess, he has a smug and devilish smile on his face. He crosses his arms and waits for my next idea.
‘I don’t know. I give up.’
‘So soon? That’s a pity. I really thought you would have more ideas running around in that brain of yours. Especially since you so vehemently insist that you want to be a writer. And not just to anyone who will listen, but to yourself as well.’
‘How do you know that?’ My answer is somewhat heated. I start to dislike this man. His self esteem is irritably high, and his ego big enough to fill the entire coffee house. And on top of it all he seems to know things about me, whereas I have no inkling as to who he might be.
‘Look closer’, he continues. ‘Look into my eyes and tell me who I am.’
He leans forward over the table. His deep brown eyes stare at me intently. And then the realization hits me. He merely laughs at my shocking intake of breath.
He sits back again and gives voice to my thoughts.
‘Yes my friend. You are correct this time. I am you. Or rather, I am the other you.’
My mind is reeling as I come to terms with this idea of which I know to be true somehow. I open my mouth, but no words form. I look at him again, a vain hope inside telling me that I saw incorrectly. That hope is crushed immediately, and before I can rise and flee from this scene he grabs both of my hands and leans in close again. His voice has taken on a hard edge.
‘Now listen to me, friend. Stop lying to yourself. I am who you could have been. I am the version of you that you want you to be. I am free. I have all the time in the world, as long as I keep writing everyday and finish page after page. I am the creative spirit that resides somewhere inside of you. I live the dream. Your dream.’
He lets his words sink in before continuing.
‘I am who you can never be. But you have the potential to be someone even better. You can become a writer. And although you can never be as free of all responsibility as I am, it should not hold you back. Better yet, enjoy all the benefits from it while being a writer on top of that. And stop lying to yourself.’
As I hear these words again I can’t resist the urge to react. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You tell yourself every day you want a different life. You want to become a writer. Well, do something about it or resign to the fact that this is your life and start enjoying it more.’
He leans back in his seat, the smug face replaced by a very serious expression. His words echo in my head. The same words I have told myself a thousand times before, but somehow never seriously acted upon. The half formed tales I have written this past year are still nothing more than newer versions of never finished projects that already litter my past. I know he is right, but I have doubts still. I try to explain them. ‘I just don’t know if I am any good. I fear that I will fail miserably. The stories form, I write the scenes, but somehow they do not become a whole. The tales will not finish, and I start on something else. I lack the discipline to complete them. Or even to write at all, sometimes.’
‘Discipline,’ he promptly replies, ’is something you will have to build yourself. But if you want it enough, and I mean really enough, you can find your discipline.’
‘What if I lack the talent?’
‘Maybe you do, but at least give it a try before you start to believe that statement. Haven’t people reacted positively to the parts you let them read? And you best believe you do have stories and tales running around in your head. You even made one up right on the spot.’
I stare at him incredulously as he finishes. ‘I did not.’
‘Yes you did. Just take a look.’ He indicates the laptop I had put aside. Curiously I take a look at the screen. There are words were before there was nothing but an empty page.
‘I didn’t do that’, I start. But as I look back across the table there is nobody there. I stare at the blank wall and empty seat wondering where he could have gone so fast. In my head I try to replay my conversation with him but it is too confusing and after a moment or two I decide it must have been my imagination running wild. I have been dreadfully tired the last few days and maybe I just start seeing things. I come to the conclusion I want to go home, back to my wife who carries our unborn child. Another upcoming responsibility I gladly accept. What did my imagination tell me about that again? Enjoy the benefits of them while being a writer? I guess my imagination can be correct, but still, where to find the time for it all?
I return my empty mug and pay the nice lady behind the counter. She wishes me a good day with an honest smile, a rare thing these days. As I return to the table to collect my laptop I can’t resist the urge to look at the screen again. To my surprise, the words are still there. I sit down and start reading. It starts with a man sitting in a coffee shop, a man who wants to be a writer but is struggling with his stories. Then an unknown person enters and boldly takes the seat across from him.
A few moments later, I leave the coffee shop with a smug smile on my face.
Billy Dean is a free lance writer with degrees in English and Engineering. His craft essays, personal essays, poems, short stories and how-to-guides have been published in trade journals and magazines and on the Internet. He enjoys reading, writing, hiking and cycling.