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When he stepped off the elevator, he thought he heard ringing. A phone ringing. A phone was ringing, that’s for sure.
Who’s the lucky one? he heard Mrs. Whatever-Her-Name-Is say as the elevator door closed behind him.
Lucky enough, she probably meant, to get a call from one of their ungrateful kids. After all, they’ve got their own lives, she probably meant.
With his head cocked, he stopped to listen.
It was like his piss hitting the toilet. At first you don’t even notice it, then some guy’s standing next to you in the john at Mitchell’s and suddenly that steady stream is the only thing you hear.
Lately, though, that steady stream was not so steady anymore. Ha, ha, ha. Two, three times a night he felt the urge to go, but when he got up, he just stood over the bowl and waited. He should make an appointment about it but boy, did he hate that examination. Besides, what would Lowenstein tell him? It’s not working so good, Jack? He’d hung out a shingle to tell him that?
A phone was ringing, he would swear.
That’s the thing about living in one of these high-rises. You park the car in the garage, take the groceries out of the trunk, stop at the mailboxes–nothing but a bill for your monthly assessment and the return address stickers with the smiling faces you got from the Crusade of Mercy in exchange for your tax-deductible donation–walk through the lobby, where maybe you bump into someone, another alter kocker–this time it’s Irv Gross, one of your poker pals, a widower like yourself–kibitz a little, did you watch the game last night, what’s on sale at the Dominick’s, Gerstein in 708, he had a bypass, then in the elevator, all the way to the 16th floor. You never lived so high up before. You lived in a house or a six-flat or the back of a store–up until six months ago you lived on Bernard Street where you’d been for almost 32 years–Jesus, it takes forever and that old bag, whatever her name is, doesn’t stop talking and when you get off, a phone is ringing and you don’t even know for how long.
He stopped to listen. For a second, that’s all, for the time it took to shift the groceries from one arm to the other. Resting in front of the elevator, breathing a little heavily, sweating, he was no spring chicken, but not bad for his age, not bad. Yeah, a phone was ringing. He heard the silence down the hallway like he always heard it and then like a knife cutting through it, the sound of a telephone ringing in his ears. Sure he heard it. Was it his phone? His apartment? At the end of the hallway, 1601.
He told his legs to hurry. They were old and tired and he had to wear support hose to bed and elevate his feet, and he walked as fast as he could. Static from the tight-woven carpet made his pant legs cling. He remembered how he used to ride the stationary bike. You pump and pump and it feels like you’re not getting anywhere and then, 20 minutes later, you’re there. Why did he stop? One day he got tired, but he told his daughter he still rode it so she wouldn’t nag him anymore. She was the expert on his life. Three times a week, he told her.
Who could be calling? Yesterday they called from the podiatrist’s office to reschedule his appointment. He’d been taking a little snooze–what a miserable time of it he’d had the night before. Looking at the clock. Turning on the radio. Milt Rosenberg going on and on with that gun fanatic. What a no-class moron. Maybe he’d go back to the Halcion. Half a pill, that’s no big deal. Lowenstein had said it was OK. But Cheryl’d said “You take sleeping pills?” Like he was some kind of addict. She could fall asleep with her eyes open. What did she know?
There’d been a death in the family, the receptionist said. Death in the family, Jack thought. What was the time? He must have dozed off for a couple of minutes. Dr. Krivit won’t be back in the office until Tuesday, the receptionist said. Tuesday, Jack repeated. He shook out his head. What time on Tuesday? When Muriel died, Krivit had made a contribution to the Women’s American ORT. A guy like him, a foot doctor, he didn’t have to do that, Jack had thought. He’d go to Harmony Hall and get Krivit a condolence card. In a desk drawer in the den, he’d kept all Muriel’s condolence cards. Just last week he’d read them over. Let us know if we can do anything, Jack. We’re thinking of you in your time of bereavement. In the love that surrounds you, may you find strength. In the memories you cherish, may you find peace. To this day he had no use for anyone who hadn’t sent one.
Join a group, Cheryl had urged after Muriel died. So you can meet others in the same situation. So you can talk about it. He’d even cut out a notice from the Lerner paper: Widow to Widower Group: “What do I do now?” But he never called because what would those people have to tell him that he didn’t already know? They probably sat around and bawled their eyes out.
Who could it be? The hallway was pressing in on him like an underpass. The phone was still ringing, and he wasn’t even halfway there. When he passed 1608, he saw a gift-wrapped delivery of flowers on the floor outside their door. A purple stem stuck out of the wrapping. Was Mr. Faber surprising his wife with flowers? If he was, the old guy should have known better. Sure, they smelled good for a couple of days, but flowers didn’t last.
With the sleeve of his jacket, Jack rubbed his forehead. His feet pushed ahead. Go, he said. A couple months ago his car had stalled in a flooded viaduct on the way back from the Warehouse Club and he’d had to walk knee-deep in water to call AAA for help. Trash swirled around him. The water dragged his pants down. He’d lifted one foot in front of the other. Go. Why didn’t you tell me? Cheryl said weeks later when he finally mentioned what had happened, but all he said was I’m telling you now. You could have drowned, his son Larry said when they talked long-distance. I could’ve, Jack had said.
But he didn’t. And now somebody was trying to reach him. He could count out the possibilities on his fingers. Of one hand. His daughter Cheryl, who got so many calls she needed an answering machine. Sometimes he called her and left a message: Give me a call sometime. One of his poker buddies, wanting to bum a ride to the game. The dry cleaners, because he’d left his cleaning there over 30 days. Aunt Lil. Lil? She never called, she sat on her throne in her Gold Coast apartment and waited for him to call. OK, let her wait. Maybe it was the insurance company. They were calling because he still owed them on the plate glass insurance. He’d gotten the bill a month ago but hadn’t paid. Why should he pay, it was such a rip-off and he wanted them to beg. What did he need plate glass insurance for? To look out the window and see the sights? That’s what the real estate agent had said when she sold him the place. Enjoy the view. Sit on the terrace. Watch the stars. Twelve dollars semiannually for insurance. What for? In case he threw himself out the window? Ha, ha, ha! Don’t talk like that, Cheryl would say, but he was only joking.
Boy, these groceries were heavy. And getting heavier every year. Who said he didn’t have a sense of humor? Larry, LA Larry, his son the west-coast hotshot. He never called either. You could count on that. Lighten up, Larry’d said the last time they talked. When Jack had tried to talk to him about money. When he’d tried to tell him a thing or two. Lighten up. Was that how they talked out there? Larry thought money was a cash crop in California, he thought it was the Gold Rush. He probably ate kiwi fruit, whatever that was. When Larry first told him he was moving to California to be near the ocean, Jack pointed in the direction of Lake Michigan and said, what do you need the ocean for when we’ve got all the water you could possibly want out here?
He tightened his grip on the grocery bag. He jostled it around. How much did Larry pay for groceries? He paid $30 for a haircut. He bought bottled water. He got himself a leather briefcase with a monogram. A monogram! So he could see himself coming and going. What was wrong with the briefcase Jack gave him–the one that he got as a premium at the bank? His son didn’t know a thing about money. Twenty bucks for assorted sundries and what did Jack have to show for it? Three heads of lettuce. A couple packages of all-beef hot dogs. Two Lean Cuisine chicken breast entrees because Cheryl was always harping on him about cholesterol. OK, let her harp. At the checkout counter he’d picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated. Larry, what kind of a son was he, he didn’t even pay attention to sports.
The door to 1605 cracked open. Mrs. Weiss peeked out, nosy! She almost made him drop the grocery bag. What a busybody. She stood at her peephole all day for excitement. Always asking questions. Did he have children? Was he retired? What business is it of yours, Mrs. Horseface? Sixty-nine years old and though he’d been in business for himself for years, now he worked as a cashier changing sawbucks in a car wash. Should he be proud?
Once he’d played poker with her husband, Eddie Weiss. Doctor Eddie Weiss. A heart man. Thought he knew everything. Had no card sense. Played like flush was a medical condition. If it was football they’d have called him for delay of game.
Ah, Mr. Kamin. Jack? Jack, that’s right, isn’t it? I heard footsteps, I thought I would check. It’s always better to look. I see you went grocery shopping. Did you pick up any bargains? I saw in the paper navel oranges are on sale at the Dominick’s, 35 cents a pound. Oh, you have some there, pointing to his bag. A very good buy. She nodded, wiping her hands on a towel.
Jabber, jabber, couldn’t she hear that his phone was ringing? He didn’t have time for her nonsense. What if they hung up? Bargains? At Dominick’s there was some fresh cut-up pineapple in the produce section. When no one was looking, he’d snatched a few chunks. Maybe he could sneak a look into her apartment. The mirror in the foyer was all steamed up. Was she cooking the doctor a little something for his dinner? He took a whiff. Pot roast. It smelled like pot roast. When was the last time he ate pot roast for dinner? It made his mouth water.
You should get some, Ada, Jack said, nodding his chin at the oranges and walking past her. His voice trailed behind him. Before they run out. My phone is ringing. Otherwise…He gave a shrug with his shoulders. I wouldn’t want my daughter to worry. She’s been trying to reach me for days.
Oh yes, it’s like that, said Mrs. Weiss. Go. Hurry. They always call when you’re not home.
Maybe you’ll invite me in for coffee tomorrow, nu?
My door is always open, she said. Coffee and a piece of mandel bread.
He could sure use a cup of coffee. The coffee at What’s Cooking? tasted bitter this morning. Was that only this morning? When that waitress questioned him about the tip. Well, she got what she deserved. Boy, was he hungry. Walk. Walk faster. His legs were hardly moving. Sometimes he got phone calls for solicitations. Could he please give ten dollars to Misericordia? Children with Tay-Sachs disease needed his help. The girl’s voice was young and eager. She sounded like a college student. Can we count on you? the girl had said. He reached for his checkbook and he gave.
Now he fumbled in his pocket for the keys. Behind him he heard the whoosh of Mrs. Weiss’s door, the catch of her lock. In front, he saw the end of the tunnel like a stop sign: 1601, the last one on the right. One more second, he’d be there. Yellow light from the wall fixtures lit the way. Outside his door the phone was as loud as Larry’s car alarm. He’d heard it once when he went out to LA to visit. Some beat-up jalopy had barely kissed Larry’s bumper. What kind of car is this? Jack’d asked. His son drove an MG. It’s a classic, Larry said, do you like it? LA Larry, MG Mogul, Jack laughed. Wasn’t that funny? but Larry didn’t think so.
He hoisted the groceries on his hip and a navel orange jumped out of the bag, bouncing off his fingers to the carpet. He almost tripped on it. You could have broken your leg, he imagined Larry saying as he reached out to steady himself and the groceries flew all over. Twenty dollars’ worth of fruit and frozen food rolling down the hallway. Shit, he muttered. Under his breath. So Mrs. Weiss shouldn’t hear. Get to the phone. Just leave it. Keep looking for the keys. In his pocket he felt the roll of quarters he’d picked up at the bank for poker tomorrow night, Lifesavers, some loose change. Then he searched around in the other pocket: wadded bills, Bic pen, finally the round metal ring. He wiped his lips. Perspiration fell onto his collar from his chin. He needed a shave. First he pushed his way straight into the kitchen, to the wall phone mounted next to the hanging plant. He lifted up the receiver. It was cold on his ear. The smell of oranges came up to him, a cloud around his head. When he listened, no one was there.
Jack waited until night. That was the one thing he could do, he could wait.
Maybe they’d call back. Maybe they’d try again in a couple minutes. That’s what he would do. Call back. Pick up the phone again. One minute someone isn’t home yet and the next they walk in the door. The door shuts. The lock catches. They throw their groceries on the kitchen table. They look in the refrigerator, scan the shelves, peel themselves an orange. That’s how it happens. The refrigerator hums. The toilet flushes. That’s what separates you from the silence. First it’s crowding in on you and then you hear the telephone ringing. The phone could ring at any minute.
Jack was patient. He would wait.
In the meantime, he turned on the TV and watched Jeopardy, his favorite program. He rested his arm on the arm of the couch where Muriel’s cigarette had once burned a hole in it, and fingered the burnt brown edge. The fabric flaked in his fingers. “Who was General Patton?” a woman said. He pulled out a stack of greeting cards from the desk drawer and started to rummage through them. Each one had a date on the envelope because he wanted to keep track. Now he picked up an old Father’s Day card, sent the year before Larry had decided he liked salt water better than fresh. We Couldn’t Do Without You, DAD.
When the Weight Watchers commercial came on he hurried into the kitchen. By now the Lean Cuisine chicken breast entrees were running with sweat. He shoved the frozen food in the freezer, he pushed the heads of lettuce into the bin. Back in the den he looked at the telephone he’d had installed so he wouldn’t have to run to the kitchen to answer. He imagined that the minute someone was calling the phone would light up like the one at the car wash, one line after another, and he would see all the buttons turning red.
After the evening news he couldn’t wait any longer. No one ever called after ten. An el train had been rear-ended, the reporter had said. Two cars jumped the tracks. He clicked off the remote and went into the living room. He stood in front of the picture window just like the real estate agent’d told him. He took in the view like she said. From the 16th floor he could see everything, or as much as he wanted. He even thought he saw stars. When he squinted the sky was full of them. He leaned forward with his fingers splayed against the window frame. What should he do, shout hip hip hooray?
Instead, he went to the dining room table where he kept all his paperwork. He felt in his pocket for the pen. Fat chance the insurance company would call, so he reached for his checkbook and paid the overdue plate glass insurance bill right there and then.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark DeBernardi.