Two Phone Calls
By: Harvey Huddleston
He’d just hung up with his mom from their facetime call. It had been a good one. She’d said a few times that she couldn’t hear him so he’d spoken louder, a little worried that he might be disturbing the other residents. But then Amber would tell him if he was. After getting them connected, Amber had gone off on other duties while his mom looked at him and tried to listen. She’d been a little distracted, her eyes wandering off but not any more than usual. There was one thing during this call he’d never seen before. She’d reached toward the screen a few times and tapped it with her finger. Of course, she didn’t know her hand was blocking the Ipad camera’s view of her face. Still, he wondered about the tapping. There were so many things he couldn’t ask or talk about during these calls.
She’d said he had cute glasses. Glancing at his thumbnail image at the top of the phone, he wondered what the hell she was talking about.
I got these glasses at the drugstore.
Drugstore… you can get anything at the drugstore…
Yes, you can.
That was good. It was always a success when a word like “drugstore” struck a note in her memory. That’s how he’d learned to communicate with her during this last year, saying words she might recognize and trying to find ones she would react to. There were the old standbys, the names of his brothers and sisters or friends of his she’d known but which, when hearing them lately, more and more often left her clueless. He’d scored by bringing up St. Louis where she’d grown up. There was no reaction to Busch Stadium but Sportsman’s Park took her somewhere for a moment. That was the stadium she’d gone to as a kid to watch the Cardinals play. She repeated Sportsman’s Park back to him and smiled. St. Louis was working so he kept on with it.
And Vanderventnor Avenue.
She repeated, Vanderventnor… such a funny name…
Yeah, Vanderventnor, with that coalyard across the street?
But there he knew he’d gone off into the weeds. He decided to try the grade school she’d attended, where she’d liked the nuns. He thought of a photograph of her, taken when she was eight or nine. The studious nerd, sitting straight up in her desk with a pixie haircut, all bright eyed and ready to learn.
And St. Aloysius.
More recognition. She repeated, St. Aloysius…
Yep, your old school. That time Bill drove us around St. Louis and we went to see your school.
But then she faded again so he pulled back on that too. He’d wanted her to remember that day when his brother’s friend, Bill, who lived in St. Louis, had driven them all around the city, searching for mom’s old places. And then when they’d finally found where St. Aloysius had been, it was just a newly dug hole in the ground. Mom had gotten such a kick out of that, how they’d torn down her grade school just before she’d come back to see it. It became a joke for the rest of the day with her saying over and over, the nerve of those people, tearing down my school. Will you get a load of that!
Amber came back and said, “Ms. Lauraine, you don’t have your call with Nancy until 10:30 so you can talk a little longer today if you want.” Mom just looked at Amber, not understanding, so he said, “Sure,” for both of them. “Okay then, you just go on talking and I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Mom stared off to wherever Amber had disappeared to.
You’ll be talking to Nancy with all her kids.
She repeated, Nancy… with her kids…
There’s about ten of them now. Kids, grandkids, great grandkids, kids everywhere.
But then he was losing her again. It was so hard to keep a conversation going. He’d learned that unless he could jog something in her memory, everything led to silence.
Sometimes he wondered if silence was what she actually wanted. These facetimes were so hard for her. There was that time she’d kept staring at the TV in the room and talking to it instead of him. That was unsettling until he figured out what she was doing. But then it became more unsettling when he realized that she was talking to the people on TV the same way that she talked to him. For her it was just more faces on more screens. None of it made sense. But then Mom was nothing if not a survivor. He guessed that at some point, as her memory had gotten worse, she’d decided to not worry about something that didn’t make sense, that it was just the latest in a long line of mysteries that had come her way, too many to count, much less to remember.
The first thing she’d usually say was, “You look good,” and he’d answer, “You look good too.” Then he’d ask, “How are you?” And she’d usually answer, “I’m just sitting here. Like always.” She used to ask when he was coming home but she didn’t do that much anymore. He wondered if she even remembered that he lives a thousand miles away. Today she’d asked, “What’re you doing today?”
I’m going to the store.
Do you have a car?
No, I’ll take the subway or bus.
I took the subway once.
Yes, you did. We rode all over town on it.
Such clarity for a few seconds but then that faded too. He noticed how she looked at Amber when she came back to say that the call had to end. It was like she was trying to figure out what Amber was saying, as if she wanted to understand so that she could follow Amber’s instructions better. He thanked God for Amber. She was such a sweetheart.
Mom, it was so nice talking to you today. Thanks for calling me.
Amber spoke up, can we just go ahead now and set up a call again for this time next week?
So Ms. Lauraine, we have to end the call now so that we can call Nancy.
Mom spoke up. Nancy has kids.
He was surprised she remembered that so he added, “Nancy has so many kids,” and Amber answered, “She sure does.”
Do you have kids, Amber?
No, it’s just me and my husband. But we have dogs. I never wanted kids and he didn’t either. Lucky for us I guess. Okay, we need to hang up now.
Bye, Mom. I’ll talk to you again next week.
Then the phone screen was back. It was a good call. She hadn’t said anything about not knowing what was happening or wondering who some vague person was. What person, Mom? But she could never say. He felt so helpless during these calls, useless is more like it. He hadn’t been back for almost two years now. Even if he did fly down, in-person visits weren’t allowed so talking to her from Memphis wouldn’t be any different than from New York. She doesn’t know about viruses and pandemics. All she knows is that somehow she’d ended up there and sometimes Amber puts a little screen in front of her where faces talk to her. Sometimes she recognizes the voice or face but the thing she can’t understand is why people never visit. She’d visit them if she could. But then, maybe no one visits anyone anymore. They just talk on little screens like space people when they have something to say. Or even when they don’t.
Walking to the store later, he thought of another phone conversation they’d had. It had been after a day and night he’d spent in Boston. He’d hitchhiked there from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, where he was stationed. Once in the city, he’d gone to the aquarium. Then he’d met a girl in the Commons who was AWOL from some branch of the military. Or that’s what she’d said. She was trying to sell dime bags of marijuana in the Commons so she could get enough money to buy a dress, a dress she needed so she could visit her kid who lived with some in-laws.
He’d hung out with her that afternoon until she had enough money for the dress and then they went for coffee. While sitting in a cafe with her, he finally decided for sure that she was a lunatic first class. But there was still the dress she needed so he went with her to a used clothing store. She tried on some mini dresses, all of them slinky, one with sequins. He’d suggested the most conservative one so that she wouldn’t scare her in-laws any more than was necessary.
She took the subway out to a suburb and he went to see a play with a plan to meet up with her again later. After the play he waited at the USO near the Commons but then she never showed up, not that he’d really expected her to. He figured he was probably lucky that she didn’t. It was too late to hitchhike out of the city so he went to the bus station with just enough money for a bus ticket back to Otis. But then when he got there, he found the doors to the station locked and wondered how that could be in such a big city. All he could do was wait until they opened in the morning. It was around one a.m. so he prepared himself for the long wait.
That section around the Commons was called The Combat Zone and now he knew why. Such a collection of werewolves and derelicts he’d never seen before. And he’d seen a few in his nineteen years. It also explained why the bus station doors were locked. He’d just have to wait there until they opened. After about an hour, a taxi driver who’d been sitting there in his car got out and approached him.
You know, last week a guy was standing right there where you are when he was murdered.
Yeah. So what I’m saying is, you shouldn’t be here.
I don’t have enough money to go anywhere else and still be able to get a bus ticket when they open.
How much you got?
About four dollars.
Come on then. I’ll take you to a Y. It’s cheap.
I probably still won’t have enough.
So I’ll loan you a few bucks.
He went with the taxi driver and stayed that night at the Y. It was pretty run down but he slept and then the next morning took a city bus to the station. There he caught a greyhound back to Cape Cod, thinking about the extremely nice taxi driver who’d given him money because he didn’t want to see him murdered.
The bus let him off at a rotary from where he still had a long walk to the base. On the road just off the freeway was an abandoned building that looked like it had once been a visitor’s center. A telephone was out front and he still had some change so he decided to call home. He hadn’t done that for a while as the phones at the base always had long lines backed up at them. He called collect and she accepted the charges.
Hello there. How are you?
Where are you?
Cape Cod. I’m walking back to the base now.
Are you okay?
I’m fine. I’ve been to Boston. I saw the aquarium there.
Do you need money?
No. I’m fine. We get paid on Tuesday. Just thought I’d call to see what’s going on.
Everything’s the same here.
That’s good. So that’s all I really wanted.
Are you sure you’re alright?
Yeah, you should’ve seen that aquarium. It went up five stories high and you walked around it in a circle up this ramp. Sharks, sea turtles and this big thing. I didn’t even know what it was. Somebody said it was a whale. You wouldn’t believe it.
Are you by yourself?
Yeah, but I’ll be back at the base in a little while. The mess hall should still be open. Say hi to everyone.
I will. Hey, I’ve got some money here to send if you need it.
I don’t. Really, I’m fine. Really.
He hung up and began the long walk back to the base. But then the walk wasn’t so long. In fact, fifty years later, he couldn’t even remember it.
Harvey Huddleston is a playwright living in New York City. He received a BA in English and Theatre from The University of Memphis and a Masters from Columbia University. His short fiction has been published in Otoliths and The Eunoia Review.