Waiting for the Phone to Ring

Issue 1, True Stories.

By Sheronda Gipson

Have you ever waited for someone to die?

It’s like waiting for a baby to be born. With a lot of false starts and senses heightened, every twitch, sigh or slight eye movement is noticed and examined.

Is it now?

My sister doesn’t want to go to sleep for fear of “the call.” You know the one. The call after 12 a.m. and before 6 a.m. that means someone you know has either been arrested or someone you know has died. The ring that is louder than normal even though the ringer volume has never been adjusted. The ring that is loud and scares the shit out of you and disorients you and makes you knock over things in the dark.

We anticipated the ring.

The first time I’d heard the ring, my mother’s side of the family was together for Christmas. It was the winter of 1989 and my cousin and I had just finished our first semester in college. My grandfather was in the hospital battling colon cancer and all the children and several of us grandchildren, were home. My cousin and I had come in from a late movie and just as we entered the sweet spot of sleep before dawn, the phone rang. One of my aunts answered and gave the phone to my grandmother. I still remember her primal moan and scream, she was doubled over and someone helped her to the bed. We all jumped up to comfort her and each other. Death began our day.

*  *  *

Before the stroke, I’d gone to see her. She was sitting in her ultraluxe reclining chair that stood her straight up or reclined full out with the flick of the remote control. It was a gift for her 100th birthday. She was joking with me, telling me, as she always did, how much I reminded her of her sister Itta B. I got ready for bed that night and she shuffled to her room to get blankets for me, even though I’d already gotten the bedding I needed. The Aunts, the rotation of my mother and her sisters that took care of Momma Nettie since she turned 95, went to church the next morning, leaving me to watch Momma Nettie. I supervised her making her own breakfast, something that The Aunts wouldn’t let her do anymore. She walked slowly into the kitchen, holding on to the doorframe and the countertop and turned on the stove burner that had the kettle of water on top. I’m not far behind, walking a foot distance behind her, arms ready to catch like spotting a toddler taking its first steps. She took an aluminum pie pan from the bottom-stove storage and put it on the counter. She walked to the breadbox and opened it, pulling out a bag of Colonel bread and put two slices in the pan.

“Baby, put me some butter on this bread. Just a little.”

I opened the refrigerator, pulled out the butter tray and cut a couple of pats of butter for her. She sat at the kitchen table as I buttered the bread and put the pan in the broiler. When the kettle whistled, I poured the hot water in her teacup and mine and we sat at the kitchen table, drinking tea, eating toast and bacon — comfortable in our silence.

*  *  *

A year later, I walked up the back steps of the trailer, bracing myself to see her. The stroke had taken a toll on her and my mother said that she wasn’t doing well. It was Father’s Day weekend, and I’d stopped in on my way to see my dad. The Aunts were in full motion: cleaning, answering the phones, propping her head with pillows, asking if she was ok, feeding her and changing her. She was sitting in her recliner.

“Hey, there little one.”

She turned her head in my direction and smiled at our family’s greeting.

“Momma, do you know who that is?”

“Sheronda.”

With strict instructions from my Aunt Margret, I fed her yogurt and we watched tv that night.

The next morning, I was leaving and I saved her hug and kiss for last. I went over to her chair and kissed her head and smoothed back her thinning gray hair.

“I’ll see you later Momma Nettie, I’m heading to see my Dad.”

Behind the water pooled in her eyes, I saw panic. She hugged me tight and when she let go, she still held on to my forearms, crying and moaning, her mind wanting to say something that her mouth wouldn’t allow.

*  *  *

A week later, at around 5 a.m. or so, my mother called.

“She’s gone.”

I’d gone to bed late that night, stomach tied in knots because the family had been told that it wouldn’t be long. So I was restless and just as I’d found the sweet spot of sleep, the phone rang.

And death began my day.

Blind in Love

Fiction., Issue 1

By Cory D. Byrom

I fell in love with Ben the second time I saw him. He was a tour guide for Classic New York, one of those double-decker bus tours that takes you all over Manhattan, pointing out locations both historically and culturally notable. I thought it was a quirky job to have in this day and age, but Ben was wonderful at it. He welcomed every guest as they climbed onto the bus, asking my parents where they were visiting from and insisting that what a coincidence he had an aunt who lived in Marietta, Georgia, too! When I stepped up as they moved to their seats, he shook my hand and looked so deeply into my eyes that my ears started ringing. Had I been alone, or with friends, I would’ve sat right by him and made it my mission to have his number before the tour ended. But some things you just don’t do with your parents around, and for me, flirting is one of them, no matter how hot the tour-bus guide is.

The tour itself was fine, about what you’d expect. Ben pointed out all of the major monuments and delivered tidbits of trivia for the tourists to chew on as the bus lumbered through traffic. He pointed out the Egg Building at the Empire State Plaza. He showed us streets corners and storefronts seen in Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Big, and When Harry Met Sally. All the great tourist stuff.

As the tour ended and we departed, I had a sudden urge to press my phone number into his palm, but I didn’t have a pen or anything to write my number on, and before I had time to consider my options, my parents and I were standing on the street, my father wondering if we should take a cab back to Tom’s Restaurant to sit in a booth where Seinfeld ate. He was disappointed when I told him they only used the exterior.

The smart thing to do would’ve been to forget about Ben, but of course that’s not what I did. Instead, a week later I called Classic New York.

“I went on one of your tours just the other day, and I tell you, our guide, Ben I think his name was? Boy, he was really great. There was one bit of info he mentioned about the Chrysler Building that I found so interesting at the time, and danged if I can remember what it was now. I was wondering if I could get his contact info so I could pick his brain a little.” They told me that if I stopped by their office I could get a pamphlet that featured the information from the tour, and that they couldn’t give out the guides’ personal info anyway. Of course they couldn’t. So I went ahead and bought a ticket for another tour.

And it was during this second time ascending the stairs, shaking Ben’s hand, and having him once again look not at me but into me, that I fell in love with him. I told him I’d taken the tour a week earlier with my parents. “No shit?” I liked that he cursed on the job. “Who’s with you this time?”

“Oh, no one,” I admitted, feeling a little silly and obvious. “It’s just me this time.”

I pulled myself together and turned on the charm, flirting casually at first, then sneaking in more personal conversation during the down times of the tour. And I came prepared, with my number already written on a card. When I tried to give it to him towards the end of the tour, he said, “Thank you, but I’m really not interested in that sort of thing right now.”

I feigned offense and asked what “that sort of thing” was and what kind of guy did he take me for anyway.

He smiled. “You’re sweet, but trust me. It’s too complicated. I just can’t.”

I told him I understood but maybe we could grab coffee, very low-commitment, and we could each explain ourselves and then decide once and for all which of us was in fact the most complicated. It was a very playful pitch. By now the tour was ending and people were shuffling to their feet. He took the card, wrote his number on the back, and handed it back to me.

“Take my number instead. It’s easier for me,” he said. I worried that he was brushing me off with a fake number, but when I called the next day, he answered and we agreed to meet for coffee. He told me where to find him. Low-commitment. I was already in love.

I did find him. He was sitting at a table, coffee already in front of him, looking around sheepishly as if he wasn’t sure who to expect. He seemed to barely notice me approaching, but once I re-introduced myself, he was all nervous charm. As we got to know each other, it turned out that he was right about that complicated thing. He was more complicated than I could’ve imagined.

Ben explained that he suffered from prosopagnosia, more commonly known as face blindness. He could sit and study my face all day long (and believe me, I would’ve let him) and still not be able to recognize me if I walked up to him on the street. Picking someone out of a crowd was impossible. You know the phrase “He couldn’t see the forest for the trees?” Well, Ben couldn’t see the trees for the forest. People were one big forest to him. Simply put, he couldn’t recognize a person, regardless of how well he knew them.

“So, you see, having a relationship is just too complicated for me. I’m not ready for it right now,” he said, and I thought I could sense disappointment in his voice, like maybe he wanted to give it a try anyway. But maybe not.

“Who said anything about a relationship,” I said. “We’re just playing.”

“Just playing,” he echoed. Later that evening he kissed me for the first time. Even later still I gave him a blowjob in the back of a cab. It definitely had the structure of “just playing.”

We tried to come up with creative ways to make it easier for him to recognize me. I wore the same pair of blue Adidas every time we met. I offered to get a unique haircut, but there are only so many options for guys, and I couldn’t pull off suddenly going punk just so he could recognize me by my mohawk. I told him maybe I could get a tattoo in a recognizable location, but he pointed out that that wasn’t exactly a move someone “just playing” would do, and anyway, he thought tattoos were kind of trashy. So mostly we stuck to identifying clothing, like the blue Adidas.

Our just playing continued for a couple of weeks. It was a whirlwind of public makeouts, semi-public blowjobs, and late night hook-ups. It was during the third week that I finally saw him completely undressed and discovered the 3 tattoos on his chest and back. “I thought you said tattoos were trashy,” I said. He hesitated before explaining that he thought it was crazy that I would’ve offered to get a tattoo for him when we were supposed to be “just playing”. It freaked him out a little, so he’d added the trashy part to make sure I didn’t go too far. I think we both knew I’d already gone way too far.

“Are we still just playing?” I asked him. A smirk faded into a look of slight annoyance and he said, “I am,” and it stung.

Things started falling apart after that. I was finding it harder to hide my real feelings, and he was getting more and more selfish and careless in his treatment of what I perceived to be our relationship. There were times when he seemed disappointed to see me once I made it clear that it was, in fact, me. He finally told me he was tired of just playing with me. I was tired of just playing too, but we didn’t mean it in the same way. He told me I should stop calling him. He told me I could stop wearing my blue Adidas. I left them in his apartment and walked home barefoot.

It’s been two months since I fell in love with Ben. I don’t know how many times I’ve taken the Classic New York bus tour. I don’t shake his hand when I get on the bus, and I avoid eye contact. Before I went back to the tour, I got a new haircut. I grew out a goatee, too, and sometimes I even wear fake glasses. I know it doesn’t matter, because he won’t recognize me anyway- he can’t recognize me- but as long as it’s a game of dress-up, it’s easier to convince myself that I’m “just playing.”

Starlight Peppermint

Fiction., Issue 1

By Grant Jerkins

I remember the first time I saw you. I was in my car—drive-thru banking—to get a check cashed. And even though I was on the far outside lane, you looked across all five traffic aisles and made eye contact with me. Yes, the security camera captured my image, and I’m sure it was on a monitor right there next to you, but you crossed time and space, to meet my eyes with yours. And when my money arrived through the pneumatic tube, I found you’d slipped a piece of candy into the envelope.

Starlight peppermint.

I wondered if you did that on purpose. If you were sending me a message.

I remember, too, later that August, it was hot and humid. The air conditioner in my car didn’t work—and I’ll never forget this—I was making a withdrawal. You greeted me by name. And when the clear plastic canister came through the tube, I grabbed it and held it in my lap while I twisted open the top. It was the oddest sensation. Icy vapor from inside the air-conditioned bank, flowed out of the canister and pooled into my lap. I lifted the container to my face, and the cold dry air spilled from it, brushing my lips and nose. I could smell you. Your perfume. It was like standing next to you. It was like you sent the essence of yourself through time and space, just to get to me. I was so affected that I couldn’t even speak. I replaced the canister and sped away. I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings.

Driving home, I wondered if you did that on purpose. If you sent that little bit of you, to me, on purpose.

Two days later, I was back with a deposit. I drove around the bank first, scouting it out, so I would know which lane was yours. This time I had a plan. I was so nervous, I couldn’t bring myself to speak or look at you. I wanted to appear distracted, so I turned up the radio and snapped my fingers and bobbed my head and waited for you to send me the receipt for my deposit. And when the transport canister slid down the tube and landed, I grabbed it and drove off. I kept the canister and drove away.

I had your air. Your perfumed essence, trapped in the plastic cylinder. Like a genie in a bottle. I had you.

I figured this must be a common-enough occurrence in drive-thru banking. People accidentally taking the tube container. I even searched online for the words bank drove off with canister, and there were over twelve million results. It happens all the time. Most likely by distracted people listening to the radio.

That night, I put you in my bed. The canister you. I laid you in the clean sheets while I took a shower. I wanted to be fresh. And then I fixed us two glasses of wine, to reduce anxiety, so we could be ourselves with each other.

I opened you. Consumed you. It was heaven. I know you felt it too.

The next day, I went inside the bank, and I asked for you by name—for Laurie. Because of course I’ve seen your gold-plastic name tag. The inside-teller (Roberta) told me you were busy and that she would be happy to help me, but I stood off to the side and waited for you. When you finally came out and saw me, you had this funny look on your face, almost like you didn’t recognize me. I smiled at you—sheepish, embarrassed, guilty. And I held up the canister. I said I was sorry. Understanding broke across your face, and you grinned and cocked your head to the side and asked me if I did it on purpose. Ha-ha. Then you laughed some more and said don’t worry, it happens all the time. It felt like you were reading my mind. Like you were sending me a message. Then I watched you open the canister. It was just a reflex on your part. Like maybe you were a little bit nervous and didn’t know what to do with your hands. I watched your fingers slip inside, and I thought about the residue from last night that was in there, coating the circular walls, and how my essence was on your fingers now, and how later, you might put your fingers to your lips and part of me would be inside of you.

In a rushing breath, I told you how good of a job you were doing at the bank, and how courteous and professional you always were to me, and how you made me feel like my business was truly appreciated, and that I wanted to tell your manager what an asset you are to the bank, but I was late for an appointment and if you would just give me your business card, I could call the manager later and tell him exactly who I was complimenting.

So you gave me your card.

Laurie Ciresi.
Customer Service Specialist.

Ciresi is not a common name. Not common at all. You were easy to track down. But you knew that would be the case, didn’t you?

Many nights, I watch from the stand of weeping willows behind your house. Sometimes with binoculars, and sometimes I just go right up and look in. You should really cut those hedges. They are a security risk. Or get your husband to do it. I don’t think he’s right for you. You two almost never sleep together. That says a lot.

Now that the weather is getting crisp, sometimes you open your windows to let in the evening air. When I get up close, I can smell your essence seeping out. It reminds me of how we first met, at your work, and how you sent me the air you breathe through the pneumatic tube. How I wondered if you did that on purpose. Ha-ha. It makes me smile now. How I brought the canister home, and then brought it back to you with a little bit of me left inside. Molecules of me. And now here I am, waiting for you, out under the stars. Starlight, remember? I wonder how many billions of years our atoms have swirled around the universe, only to arrive here, tonight, to be at this moment, bathed in starlight.

Time and space converge like the cards of a shuffled deck, and here we are.

What happens next?

I notice that you forgot to close your bedroom window all the way tonight. I can’t help but wonder if you did that on purpose.

If you are sending me a message.

I surely do wonder.