The Phone Call
I sat on the steps for a very long time. No one passed, no cars went by.
It was as if the world had stopped. Then the mailman walked by. I was
so happy to see him I nearly jumped out of my pants. ‘Hi!’ I shouted to him.
‘Hello,’ he answered back. ‘How are you today?’ I said. ‘I’m just fine. How
are you?’ he said. ‘Well, I was a bit lonely until I saw you,’ I said.
‘There’s no reason to be lonely. There’s all the world to keep you company,
he said. ‘I guess you’re right,’ I said, as he disappeared down the block.
Then school got out and the streets were flooded with youngsters. They were
sweet and friendly. A while later work ended and the grown-ups came home. They
were exhausted and not so friendly, but, still, they reminded me that there
was a world out there. I sat on the steps all that time, thinking about
what a funny place we live in. Then I got up and went in the house. I had
lost my job at the oil refinery and was waiting to hear from several other
companies. I had some savings and wasn’t too worried. Jack called and
asked if I wanted to go hunting tomorrow. I said I’d like to but I had other
plans. Then Betsy called and asked if I wanted to go drinking tonight. I
said that sounded great, but I just couldn’t. I waited for the phone to ring
after that, but there was nothing. I played some crossword puzzles, then
watched television and fell asleep on the couch. I woke up in the morning
feeling achy and lost. I wasn’t sure where I was. It took me a few minutes
to figure it out. I was home, as always. I shaved and ate breakfast.
My mother called and I said I was just fine. It was a lie, of course, but
the truth would hurt her more. I wanted to go for a walk, but I was afraid
of missing a phone call. Finally the phone rang. The voice said, ‘Hello
my name is Mark Smith and I’d like to offer you a job as president of Prudential
Banks, the largest bank in America. Are you interested?’ ‘Well, yes, but
why me?’ I said. ‘We want someone with no experience and no ideas about
banking, and you seemed ideal,’ he said. ‘Why would you want someone like
that?’ I said. ‘We want to kill him,’ he said. ‘I don’t think I’m interested,’
I said. ‘It’s a great salary, nice vacations,’ he said. ‘No thanks,’ I
said, feeling relieved and very lucky to be just where I am.
I sat by myself at a cafe downtown. I had a hamburger and a malt.
I had to get back to work in a while, but I had enough time to chat up
the waitress. Her name was Irene and she was from the same nearby town
as I was. In fact, we had gone to the same high school and had the same
English teacher. I liked Irene. She said to me, ‘Do you ever get home much?’
‘Oh yeah, about once a month,’ I said. ‘How about you?’ ‘I still live
there. I commute, I guess you could say,’ she said. ‘Do you ever see
Bobby?’ I said. ‘Oh yeah, I dated him for a while,’ she said. ‘No kidding.
Bobby used to be my best friend,’ I said. ‘Is that a fact? We had a vicious
falling out, but I really liked him,’ she said. ‘What did you fight over,
if you don’t mind me asking?’ I said. ‘Oh, he was seeing another girl.
Marianne was her name,’ she said. ‘I used to date Marianne myself,’ I said.
‘It’s a small world,’ she said. ‘Yes, it certainly is,’ I said. Then
I hurried off to work. I didn’t go back into the cafe for a week, but when
I did Irene had some big news for me. My divorced mother was dating her
widowed father. We could hardly believe it. It practically made us brother
and sister, but not quite. We could date each other if we chose. We looked
each other in the eye and then looked away. I couldn’t go back into the cafe
for a while after that. It was just too much. I was dating a local girl
anyway. But we eventually broke up, over nothing really, I never did
understand it. She said she wanted more freedom, so I let her go. When I
went back to the cafe Irene wasn’t there. She had quit the previous week
and no one knew why. I asked about her around town, but no one knew anything.
Finally I called my mother and asked her to ask her father if he could help me
locate her. She called me back the next day and said he didn’t know where
she was, but if I heard anything to please call him. I became obsessed
with her and her whereabouts. I quit my job and looked for her full-time.
I had some savings which allowed me to do so. I had a tip that she might
be on St Thomas. So I bought a ticket and went there. After searching
the island thoroughly I gave up and flew back. That’s when I discovered
her living in my attic. She said she was sorry, but she just wanted to
be closer to me and didn’t know how to tell me. I asked her to come down and live with
me in my space. She said she couldn’t now that our parents were married.
It would be too much like incest. ‘I didn’t know our parents were married,’ I said.
‘They didn’t want anybody to know,’ she said. ‘Why?’ I said. ‘In case we
got married,’ she said. ‘Why?’ I said. ‘It would be too much like incest,’
she said. ‘Oh,’ I said, not knowing what she meant.
The above poems are taken from James Tate’s posthumous collection The Government Lake, published in July by Ecco HarperCollins.
Artwork © Fons Heijnsbroek