The aged black spaniel gave a half hearted woof and started to her feet, then thinking better of it, sank down again in the sunlight on the worn rug, strewn with rings of pile roses that used to be red. The telephone was ringing, and I, as conditioned as any lab rat, was running down the steps to get it before my mother could pick it up. That would be a disaster because the call had to be for me, and she might then spend time talking to whoever it was, asking questions. The telephone was always ringing, except when I was already on it.
It was Terri again, calling to tell me about a new telephone hangout where kids could meet. They called a particular number—7730—and instead of connecting with an operator or an exchange, the phone blatted three times, like a calf calling for its mother. Between these tones, there was about 30 seconds during which kids could call out their names and phone numbers, at least until the phone company discovered this new pastime.
“Uh huh, Terri,” I said dubiously. I wasn’t too sure I wanted to be friends with her anymore, but at 14, I wanted to believe the best of people, wanted to be kind and forgiving, and in any case, it had been a while since those things happened, and besides, I was bored, so I put aside these suspicions, which in the light of day seemed slightly paranoid anyway. Why would Terri want to harm me? Why would anyone?
So I picked up the phone gingerly, staring into its dark depths, and dialed the number. Curiosity took over from there. Sure enough, I heard the tones, then, in the crackly silence before the next set began, the faint voice of someone calling out his number, sounding vaguely like he was calling from the moon. I found a stubbly red pencil and an envelope, scribbling the number down. It wasn’t an exchange I knew, not from this part of the city. I sat down in the chair, stacked with crackly old newspapers brown at the edges and telephone books, making myself comfortable.
“Hello?” the voice said. It was the voice I had heard a few minutes before.
“Did you just get my number from 7730?”
“Yes. What’s your name?”
“Mike,” he said. “I live in Kensington.”
“Hello Mike.” Before I knew it, I had blurted out my name.
“Where do you live?”
“I’d rather not say.” After all, I didn’t know this person at all. Maybe he wasn’t even a kid.
“That’s okay,” he said. “You have my number. You can call me back if you want to.”
“Okay Mike. What grade are you in?” Even if this guy lived in a totally different part of town, one where I would not be welcome, I could still be friendly, I reasoned.
“I started high school this year,” he said in an uncertain voice. “I should tell you that no one likes me. I’m crippled and really ugly.”
I felt a hot surge of pity. “I’m sure that’s not true, Mike.”“It is. I don’t have any friends.”
“I’ll be your friend,” I said nobly. “It doesn’t matter to me what you look like.”
This part wasn’t altogether true, but I didn’t want the boy to feel bad, and I didn’t have to date him. I could be his friend.
“Okay then. I warned you,” he said in a gravelly voice.
Just then, my mother called me in to supper. I said goodbye and promised to call again. It was probably best, I decided, not to mention this to my mother, who was the nervous type. I generally didn’t tell my parents much. They weren’t really listening anyway.
The dining table was covered with a fading plastic table cloth and placemats printed with daisies. Tuesday, so it must be roast beef. Every week, without fail, except for birthdays and holidays, my mother followed the same inevitable round of dishes—Monday, salmon cakes, Tuesday, roast, Wednesday fried fish, etc… .We never went out to eat, and my mother almost never tried any new recipes, which dad would not have liked anyway. No matter what we were eating, there was always the same pale iceberg lettuce salad and mashed potatoes with lumps the size of golf balls. My father thought no one could have a meal, any kind of meal, without potatoes and a plastic pitcher of “bug juice”—an overly sweet mixture my dad made by dumping cans of frozen juice—guava, orange, pineapple, apple, and orange-- into the pitcher, creating a liquid roughly the color and thickness of burning gasoline. No one said anything. The T.V. news blared in the background.
My father sat across from me, shielded by the newspaper. I heard his steady chewing, and the sound of huge spoonfuls of mashed potatoes landing on his plate, but he didn’t say anything, except for an occasional grunt when my mother asked him a question. My mother, on the other hand, ran back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room adding containers of butter, leftover corn, and salad dressing to the already crowded table. As she ran here and there, she kept up a constant chatter to me, to the dog, to no one in particular.
I don’t remember us ever having any conversations at the table, but arguing at dinner was another thing. Once, when my father and I were having a nasty disagreement about the war, just as we sat glaring at each other across the table, having said everything we had to say, the big hanging fixture over the table started to sway on its long elastic cord, attached to the ceiling. My father looked at me, his face red, looking as if he’d like to whack my head off. Suddenly, something shifted; bits plaster fell into the salad, and the cord gave way. The saucer-shaped fixture full of dustballs and dead flies plopped into the bowl of mashed potatoes, splattering mashed potatoes over all three of us. It made me laugh, wiping the gobs of mashed potato out of my hair, but I was the only one laughing.
Today, I only wanted to get dinner over with fast, so I could call Mike back or see who else was on the phone exchange, so I ate like my father, without looking up, and took the plate into the kitchen, dropping it into the sink without a word.
I patted the dog’s soft black fur and fondled her long spaniel ears we walked up the stairs together to use the phone in my parents’ room. Soon I was dialing again, but no one was there, not even Mike or Terri, so I took the dog for a walk in the park down the block.
At the park, a couple of little kids who had broken free of their mothers were climbing up the hot metal shute of the spiral slide and running through the sprinklers, leaving wet footprints that spread like ink on the hot steamy pavement. It might be nice to be so easily pleased.
The stink of ginko fruit filled the air. The city set out to plant only male trees because of the awful smell of the female fruit, like acres of fermented dog crap, but had accidentally planted all female trees instead. Their angel wing leaves left lovely shadows on the ground, but this time of year, the smell carried for miles.
I wondered for a moment whether it was a mistake to keep calling that guy Mike. But my life was so desperately boring I couldn’t resist the opportunity to do something different, to meet new people who would not sound exactly like those I already knew, people who were not in books, but in the real world.
For a week, I spoke to people on the exchange. Soon I came to know all of them. There was always Mike, Terri, a few from school, some boys from Central High School, utter snobs who would have nothing to do with the likes of me—too young, they said. After a while, Mike began pressuring to meet me.
“You said you were my friend.” His voice took on a hard, wheedling tone. “I should have known you were only saying that.”
“You know I mean it.” An edge of guilt pressed on me, like something sharp.
“Then come and meet me. What harm could it do? I know you’re just a friend.”
I instinctively pulled down the leg of my shorts, feeling exposed and uncomfortable, but agreed to meet him at a movie theater in his neighborhood, if he would promise to come alone. After I hung up though, I felt I had made a mistake. But I didn’t want to be a bad or untruthful person. I wanted to be as good as my word.
So the following Saturday, I boarded the Frankford Elevated train, peering anxiously out the window for the stop where he had told me to get off. I knew it was the 4th stop down from where I got on. It wasn’t so easy to tell where I was otherwise because all the platforms, signs, and empty wall space were covered with graffiti. Even the train windows were filled from frame to frame with territorial tags, in red, black, or blue, leaving only the odd corner from which I could scan the landscape for familiar landmarks.
The train lurched and creaked its way around the track, looping through warrens of abandoned buildings, rooftop signs advertising The Starlight Ballroom, which had shut down long before I was born, and turban-shaped roof fans. Sometimes a child would wave from the window of a building as they passed or a woman would look up as she hung the family wash in the courtyard, passing her hand over her eyes to shield them from the bright flash of the train in the sunlight. I wondered about all the lives going on down there, in a place very different from my own dull suburban neighborhood, and thought perhaps it was a good thing after all that I was venturing into one of those places, whatever the doubt I might be feeling. But it was too late now; I put these fears out of my mind and concentrated instead on what I would talk about with Mike.
I got off the train, following Mike’s directions. The stores here were narrow and old, their paint peeling. While in my neighborhood the smell of fresh rye bread filled the air, here the market advertised Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip. Pictures of smiling pigs adorned the butcher shop. Soon the movie theater came into view.
I wore a short, bright red and white striped mini dress and white tights, dark wild curls blowing around my face, looking entirely out of place in this neighborhood, where the women and girls looked at me in disapproval, dour and suspicious, dressed in their mid-calf skirts and neutral colored slacks, broad hats shielding them against the sun.
The marquee at the theater advertised a movie featuring the Rat Pack… something I would never think about seeing under normal circumstances. Frank Sinatra was someone my father liked, not at all my usual choice. I hadn’t thought to ask about the movie we would be seeing.
Then, in front of the theater, I saw a knot of boys standing expectantly by the door. There were four of them. In the center, I recognized immediately, stood Mike, exactly as he had described himself. His face was a swollen mass of acne, red and oozing. His hair stuck out in straw-like hanks like an albino porcupine’s quills. He leaned on a crutch, and grinned like a grotesque jack o’ lantern. Even his eyes, though not pink, like a real albino’s, were horrible, magnified three times the usual size by thick lenses. I almost turned and ran, but pricked on by guilt, kept moving forward, remembering the promise not to be dissuaded by the boy’s looks, even if he had broken his promise to come alone.
I willed my face to look pleased.
“Hi!” I said brightly. “I didn’t expect you’d bring your friends.”
“They wanted to come,” Mike said, glancing sideways at the boys who flanked him on both sides, all of them wearing some variation on the uniform of plaid short sleeved shirt, work pants, and heavy work boots, their hair parted and slicked back on the sides and topped by sad looking plaid caps like fallen layer cakes. It struck me that Mike certainly seemed to have friends, though he had sworn on the phone that he had none at all. I was the one who was alone, unprotected.
I thought immediately about Terri, who had told me about the exchange. I tried to squelch the feeling of betrayal, tried to believe I was wrong about Terri, about the boys’ intentions.
Like guards, the boys on either side of Mike took my arms, not too tightly, but they made it clear I wasn’t going anywhere now, so I slipped like a prisoner into the theater’s worn lobby. Old posters for movies that had long ago passed through my neighborhood movie theaters lined the walls, coming attractions here. The smell of popcorn made me feel vaguely sick.
As the boys laughed among themselves, asking each other which of the Rat Pack they liked best and ignoring me, I looked down the dark aisle and tried to make some kind of plan. Digging my feet into the worn pile of the carpet, I sat down on the very end of the row, holding onto the arms of the chair as hard as I could, but the boys pushed me into the middle, toward the dark wall, on an empty row near the back of the near-empty theater. Fear rose in my throat like swallowed rocks, and I tried to climb over the red velvet seats, their plush worn bald in spots, to a row in front or in back of me, but the boys held me with their strong arms, laughing.
After a few minutes of frantic groping, struggling with more strength than I knew I had, I finally squeezed through the group and ran out the door into the bright sunlight, vomiting in the gutter, the sound of Sinatra and the boys’ raucous laughter in my ears.
I half ran, half walked to the subway stop, looking behind me in a panicked way, but the boys didn’t follow, didn’t even come out of the theater. Once on the train, in the overly bright light of the compartment, I glanced down at my laddered white tights, where a line of scarlet menstrual blood marked my right leg, almost down to the ankle, feeling that I had been here once before.