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calling when no one is there
january 11, 2003
The phone rang and rang and rang the other morning, three rings, four rings, five rings, six rings, seven rings, ring, silence, ring, silence.
We were eating breakfast in bed, scrambled eggs and sausages, hot buttered toast, so we didn't bother getting up. The answering machine was supposed to pick up after the third ring, but it didn't.
(One thing I noticed about the phone calls we used to get, before we installed our answering machine, is that no one ever hung up after three or four rings. They'd always hang in there for at least a dozen, two dozen rings, just in case.
(This persistence always flattered me, because it suggested the caller believed we lived in so huge a mansion, with so many rooms, we'd have to cross so many marble-tiled floors to get to the phone that it was worth hanging on, under the possibility I was, at the first ring, hundreds of carved archways away from the phone, pissing down into a glittering gold toilet.)
It turned out to be my dad. I found out, after tilting my plate over the kitchen sink, flipping up the garbage disposal switch, by checking the little caller ID box we also have attached to our phone.
I called him right back, from the breakfast nook phone.
He's in his early eighties, if anything about being in your eighties can be characterized as 'early', still living in the town in which he was born, Greenwich, Connecticut. He sold the family home a few years back, after my mother died, a sensible thing to do, and bought a condominium, not in the sense of a tall, narrow house in an attached row, but rather an apartment you own in an apartment building.
(The angry arguments so common between father and son, which had us at odds for years, have long blown away. One time, after I started dating and therefore was rarely at home, the three of us, me, my mother and my father, drove to a store to buy something. I was in my late teens. For some reason I don't recall, the store may have been boring, I stayed in the car, sitting in the front passenger seat, smoking. Through the wide front windows, I could see my parents moving around inside, as if in an aquarium, noticed the way my mother held her purse straight down from her arm as she looked at the displays, rather than over her shoulder, the same way my then-current girlfriend also held her purse, and in an epiphany realized my mother was someone other than just my mother, was a human being in her own right; saw my dad walking around with both hands in his pockets, usually a sign of nervousness, and realized he also was more than just my father. That began a long process of me gradually coming to realize that the fact they were my parents, although important to them, was not the most important part of them, and shouldn't be. Until then, I had always argued that they didn't own me. It finally occurred to me, that day, that I didn't own them, either.)
He and his companion of recent years, Kay, a really wonderful woman we met during their visit to Dallas in the late-nineties, were about to leave for a month and a half vacation in Florida, to escape the coldness of New England. He was just getting over strep throat, he told me, and had been to the emergency room a few times about a persistent nose bleed.
"Why is your nose bleeding so much? Is it the dryness of the weather?"
"I broke my nose once. That makes it more susceptible to bleeds."
When did he break his nose? He said it in the active voice, 'I broke my nose', not the passive voice, 'my nose was broken', so I assume it wasn't from a fight in his youth, it was walking into a door, or a tire iron slipping, flying upwards off a lug nut into his face, but I didn't ask. Maybe some day I'll regret not asking.
Every time I talk to him, and he to me, there's the sense we very probably will not see each other again, living fifteen hundred miles apart. We speak mainly about the weather, but that's all right. Before I started making serious money, while I was still only making humorous money, he'd inquire with a father's questions about how our car was running, how our jobs were doing. One time I told him Mary and I had planted a butterfly garden in our backyard, to attract butterflies. "Why would you want to do that?"
We ended the call as we always do, saying 'I love you' to each other. His last words are always the same. 'Okay, Bob.'
While we were eating breakfast, while the phone rang, rang, we watched Fox Cable news, with its commercials for all the different miracles you can buy for $19.95 plus shipping and handling. The thing I dislike about the commercials, except that they're so unintentionally humorous, is how they portray life before the wonderful new invention is discovered. Every 'before' person is as inept as I feel in my worse moments (trying to fry bacon, for some reason leaving the bacon in the skillet long after it's cooked, smoke rising, attempts to get the burning bacon out of the pan absurdly incompetent, using the spatula not to lift out the bacon, but instead to stab at it; cooking a pot of pasta, and then halfway through a sensible tilt of the lidded pot over the sink abandoning all reason, allowing the pot to fall into the sink, pasta slurping out).
Or is that what it's like when you get old?
Joe, Mary's dad, flew down from Milwaukee to stay with us over the holidays. We had a great time. His flight was delayed several hours for the usual mysterious reasons, and he was once again selected from the line for a thorough search, we've decided because of his old-fashioned, over-sized shoes.
While he was here, we'd start each morning with hot coffee, different breads and rolls, a variety of imported butters. All the foil-wrapped butters were much better than the American brands, with a texture to them much like soft cheese. The winner, to my tongue, was Somerdale, from England, which had a distinct dairy flavor, and a slight sourness. Meggle, from Germany, was also good.
We tend to cook more elaborate dinners during his stay then we do otherwise. This time around, his favorite was again Mary's sea scallops in cream and basil sauce, the recipe for which can be found under FRIENDS BEFORE FOOD, with Spaghetti alla Carbonara and Lobster Thermidor, two new dishes we debuted this year, tied as runners-up.
Lady, who delivered five kittens on the white carpet of our master closet ten weeks ago, is in heat again. We keep all nine of our cats indoors, so there's no chance she can get impregnated again, the male cats having been long ago neutered, but she keeps calling. The cries awake me in the middle of the night, me rubbing my tired eyes, yawning, lying in the soft darkness, being able to track her doomed progress around our house, up and down the stairs, by the increasing, decreasing volume of her calls. The calls themselves are so well articulated, that after listening to them for a few minutes, they begin to sound human, a child's voice, but the voice of a child with an impediment, and in fact come to sound like, Hello! Helloooo! Hello! At three o'clock in the morning, my brain still squashed, it's pretty fucking eerie.
Our five kittens now have names: Thor, Athena, Button, Sweet Pea, Beauty. In this shot, Beauty's somewhere else (probably eating). When they're not sleeping, they're batting around everything in the house that's the approximate size of the top joint of a thumb (the weight is perfect for hitting across the carpet, and the size lets them pick it up in their fangs, to trot away from the others for some private play). Our home is littered with these small objects, torn from where they belong, filling the rooms with mysteries. The other evening, I was at the opened refrigerator door, twisting a bottle of water out of a blue six pack, a pale purple gleam on the kitchen floor by the sink. Was that an amethyst? Twist, twist. What would an amethyst be doing on our floor? After I freed the bottle, I leaned my shoulder against the refrigerator door to close it, walked over to the jewel. It was the transparent cap from a bottle of hairspray.