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April 15, 2024

Time Traveler 20

By Sand Pilarski

The day after the final finals, I was scratching furiously with a red pen at student's exam results. How many years have I been cursing myself for essay tests for finals? I asked myself. The telephone rang on my desk, making me jump with alarm. What if it's him? I picked up the receiver, trembling from my stomach out to my fingertips. "Hello?"

"Hello," a garbled voice began, introducing an unintelligible name. "This is a courtesy call from Horizon. Are you satisfied with your long-distance carrier? Would you like a free month of long-distance calling -- "

"Remove me from your calling and mailing list," I told her. "Immediately." And hung up. Goddamned telemarketers. I promised myself to put my number on the Do Not Call list as soon as I got back from Ohio. I had been so naive as to think that having an unlisted number would exempt me from being the target of forcible advertising.

The scrambling of shock, hope, disappointment and anger in my head made me lose my train of thought. I shook my head, took a drink of ice water, and went back to grading. The exam I was working on made me itch to be an English teacher as well as one of Comparative Religions, the grammar in the sentences was so awful. This is a dilemma for teachers -- do we dock for spelling and grammar as well as for inaccuracies about what we've been teaching? Well, I rarely speak in complete sentences in class (unless I'm pissed) so I suppose I should try to work with the expression of the student on the exam, and perhaps encourage him or her later to pursue some more professional style.

Another exam completed, an easy one, another addition to the list of "Done For The Holidays," and the phone rang again. I froze, wondering, will it be him, calling me to let bygones be bygones? What would I say?

"Mrs. Renoir? I'm calling on behalf of CityCard, wouldn't you like to be able to purchase all the Christmas gifts you wish you could buy to make your family happy this season? We can offer you an incredible offer --"

I pulled the phone cord out of the jack.

En aquellos dias ... zhili bili Dyed y Baba ... once upon a time ... a phone rang and it meant someone wanted to talk to you about something. In fact, I can remember when phones had actual bells in them that rang, in distinctive patterns for each household on a party line, and if you picked up the receiver to make a call, a woman's voice would say boredly, "Operator." And you talked to the woman and told her the number you wanted to call, and sometimes, if you didn't know the number, but just the last name, the operator would have a conversation with you and try to find the number and connect you.

As a small child overhearing adults complaining about certain neighbors who listened in on the party line to other peoples' conversation, I was intrigued by the subterfuge and violated secrecy. How exciting! I would pick up the phone if my parents were outside, or occupied in cleaning out the cellar, and listen for my first taste of uncensored adult dialog (my parents were always and obviously careful with what I was allowed to hear) hoping for something I could tattle to the rest of the neighborhood kids. At last! After many attempts, I heard the tinny voices of two unknown elderly women, and I listened avidly. And less avidly. And then carefully hung up, disgusted with their obsession with the afternoon soap operas, about which I knew nothing but the titles. I never bothered to try to spy on the party line again.

The adults in my life found the change to a dial tone and functional rotary dial annoying. A dull buzz, and you had to remember a string of numbers? How rude! How unsociable! And the operator was no longer down on Main Street in a glass-fronted office, but rather out on the edge of town where the phone company built its new and crisp-looking brick building, all one story with a parking lot in front of it! Is this progress? But the party line days were over, and the prices went up, and before long, few had rotary-dial phones. More numbers, this time area codes, replaced more operators, and the prices went up.

It was just before I moved to Port Laughton that the telemarketing began in earnest. Kimsky and Burlie had an unlisted number, but everyone in Defiance was talking about how they were getting calls from complete strangers asking them to buy things. Faceless and untouchable, the telesalespersons grew bolder and bolder, interrupting people at their mealtimes, waking them from sleep, and impolitely continuing to pester even when people said, "No thank you."

Many purchased extra phone machines that would tell them who was calling, or a speaker system so that friends could say, "It's me! Pick up the phone!" And more than a few people just stopped answering the phone completely, preferring to check over the messages on an answering machine every so often, and hoping that they hadn't missed an important call.

Mr. A. G. Bell and Mr. T. Watson step out the front door of their building, grinning broadly at the miracle they have accomplished, the sound of a voice traveling through wires to be heard by a listener in a distant room. As they step to the sidewalk, Mr. Watson trips over a beggar sleeping beside the stoop. "Pardon me, here's a coin for your trouble," he says to the beggar. As they stop in the tobacco shop for a celebratory cigar, an unshaven man in a threadbare coat thrusts a tin cup at them. Mr. Bell drops some small change into the container.

As they walk to their favorite pub for a celebratory drink, a woman with bunches of wildflowers blocks their way on the sidewalk. "Buy some posies, gents?" she mumbles barely intelligibly.

Mr. Bell and Mr. Watson dodge around her, saying, "No, thank you."

At the corner, the thin white cane of a blind man whacks Mr. Bell's shins. The man's sightless face turns toward the inventor and he holds out his hat and a fistful of pencils. "Only a nickel for two," says the blind man, "or a dime for five," and another unkempt individual quickly reaches out and grasps Mr. Watson's coat sleeve. "If you can spare a nickel for him, how about the same coin for me?"

Brushing at his coat, Mr. Watson hurries on, with Mr. Bell hopping and rubbing his shin beside him. Outside the pub, a group of three holds out their hats. "Change your luck," says one, offering for sale a dirty and balding rabbit's foot. "Here you go," says the second, "I'll give you this fancy watch for free if you just put a bill in the hat and enter my raffle for this here silverware set." He opens his jacket to reveal some forks and spoons.

"This is insane," says Mr. T. Watson, edging around the trio. He and Mr. A.G. Bell enter the pub and find seats at the bar. The third beggar follows them and puts his hat on the bar, inside up.

"Now, gents," he says, pulling out a dirty and dog-eared little notebook, "I'm an enterprising fellow, and if you invest a couple bills with me, I can promise a return of no less than ten percent by next Thursday. Are you game? I guarantee you won't lose by this endeavor, in fact, the more you invest, the greater your return. Can I take down your names as the discriminating fellows you appear to be?"

Mr. A. G. Bell waves his hand in dismissal. "Please leave us alone, my good man, here's a coin for your trouble!" Mr. Bell turns to Mr. Watson and says, "There must be a solution to this, Thomas. One ought to be able to walk down the street for a few minutes without being pestered for money, don't you think?"

"Yes, sir, I do. Do your think your new invention will help?" says Mr. Watson, sipping his pint.

"Well, Thomas, I certainly hope so. Perhaps being able to communicate with people at a distance will bring to the attention of the affluent the plight of the poor, and everyone will have what they need to get by. I know that all these people are trying to survive, and I respect that. However, to be clasping at random passers-by, unasked for and persistent, is certainly objectionable." Mr. Bell raises his pint to Mr. Watson's. "Thomas, here's to Progress!"

From grand experimental breakthrough to household nuisance, I thought. The clarity of the telemarketer's voice would have made Alexander Graham Bell turn backflips, but all I could feel was relief in disabling the blasted telephone, and regret that the last two calls were not from whom I wanted to hear.

There were only fifteen more final exams to look at. I could be done by one, and drive down to the department and enter the grades in by two, and come home to sleep until seven, and board a plane at ten for Ohio. And then rest.

My rental car crunched up the late afternoon snow fall that had settled on Kim and Burlie's lane. When I parked to one side of their garage, they had already come piling out of the house. Nicolai took my suitcase; with a quick impertinent peck on my cheek, Dimitri scooped up my carry-on and briefcase. Kim gave me a warm hug, and Burlie handed me an icy beer in one hand, and a fat joint in the other. "Kimmie told me what's been happening. Don't ask, don't think, just have a hit and a guzzle." He plied the lighter and I did as told. Now I was free to hurt and hopefully heal up again.

As I coughed, wasting precious smoke, I mangled out "The kids?"

"Oh, shee-it," Burlie said, "they've always known, I think. I don't give a damn. Dimitri is of age, and Nicolai is old enough to be drafted, so goddamn it, he's old enough to know about pot as far as I'm concerned. Just lock your door at night so Dimitri doesn't come calling. Or me," he said giving me a gentle goose.

"Knock it the fuck off," I said, in habitual response. It suddenly felt good to let go of the social conduct of Port Laughton University. I'm sure much of that feeling was due to the third hit off the weed, but it was therapeutic, nonetheless. Gad, that smoke was potent. All of a sudden I didn't feel anything. What a welcome relief! "Snow is pretty strange stuff," I mentioned, as we entered the house.

"Gus," said Kimsky, "have you seen the weather report? The Cosmic Muffin decided to give you a treat. By tomorrow evening we're supposed to have two feet of snow on the ground!"

A blizzard sounded like a remarkably good idea just then. "I haven't seen snow falling except on television for five years," I said spacily. "Last time I was here in the winter, as a matter of fact." The last few words sounded more like 'zamatterafack' and I snickered.

"You're stoned," pronounced Kimsky.

"Ah, yahhh. Aren't you?"

She laughed. "Hell, yes. Want some pretzels?"

Giggling the way we did when we were in college, I said, "What do you think?" and we laughed like fools.

Spending those three weeks with the Burlington family was like going back in time. Their lives in rural Ohio were not substantially different than it had been when I had fled there so many years ago, not very different from the lives of the generation before them. (Except for the microwave, the computer, and the availability of the marijuana, that is.) A simpler time, centered around their household and the daily task of surviving.

They heated their house with a woodstove, cooked over fire (they had propane tanks at the back of the house), gathered at the close of day to chat and keep company. When the electricity failed the first afternoon I was there, no one was put out at all. The only difference was that the television didn't work. That was a blessing, though, as Burlie got out his guitar and played and puttered with it while Kim and I chattered and cackled, trading stories about work and life.

I fell easily again into the routine of their lives, helping bring in wood, cooking what seemed to me to be vast quantities of food, including pies and cakes and cookies, to stuff Burlie and his large sons and their girlfriends, with extra wrapped up and taken to Kim and Burlie's surviving parents while the dishes were still hot. By the time breakfast was cooked the sun was up, and cleaning up after breakfast took until nine. Some household tidying and a little study while everyone was at work and school, and then by three in the afternoon, people came flowing back to the hearth, first Nicolai home from classes, (unless he was out running around with friends), then Kim (though she would soon take a week's vacation to extend the Christmas holidays) and Dimitri after, puffing and rummaging for leftovers to hold him until suppertime. The early darkness of December would fall by the time Burlie rumbled in, and the house would smell of wonderful things, real fried potatoes simmering, pot roasts, stews, bread baking. We would sit at the laden supper table laughing and teasing and passing food back and forth, and eventually clear away the plates to set the table up for playing dice or cards.

My most cherished memory from that visit was one of the few evenings we did aimlessly watch some television while we chatted. I was sitting, leaning, beside Kimsky's legs, while Dimitri sprawled on the floor near my feet, having challenged me to a dice game. Burlie dozed on his recliner, while Nicolai and his girlfriend spoke in low tones sitting at the kitchen table. I leaned my temple against Kim's knee, comforted by her lasting friendship, and she put her hand on my head, in silent communion of sympathy and love.

They were also a very wicked three weeks, for Kimsky and Burlie were determined that I should not only spend little time alone, but also should spend little time sober. I think the only time I could say I was straight was when they were all gone from the house.

At those times, I would read from my battered volume of Eliade, or watch the snow falling, or hug a pillow tightly to ease the pain, and be drawn again and again to the scenes of my drama: the first day I ever saw Valentine, his eyelashes dark on his cheekbones as he read a newspaper; the words on the card that had accompanied flowers as blue as my eyes; the rush of pleasure in the first kiss; lying naked together in my bed as the wind rattled the shrubs outside against the windows. I would wonder what he would say if the world and our circumstances were different, and we were still lovers, and he saw the snow fall with me. Some days I would bundle myself up and go sit outside on the picnic table in the side yard, and watch the river, the colors black and brown and auburn beside the snow, with the winter landscape reflecting the silence and chill of my soul.

When Kim would come home from work and see my eyes haunted again, she'd start pouring, be it beer or wine, and break out a joint and encourage me to get senselessly blown away, and join me, regaling me with stupid jokes and stories, coaxing me to tell whopping false stories about life in California. Had someone told me that their way of recovering from grief was to get bombed for a few weeks, I would have been concerned, even thought it was a bad idea. But I swear it helped. Under the anesthesia, I talked frankly with Kim and Burlie about my intense feelings of hopelessness, and they listened (the anesthesia was probably the only way they could without being bored to death) and spoke words of comfort.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-11-28
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