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The Caller - Tamarah Rockwood

There was a surge of electricity across the wires after the transformer exploded on Osage Avenue. The sky washed white from the flash. Everything I could see around me was shadowless. As if it only existed in that moment; for that purpose, and then was washed away into the sewers with the dark southern California summer deluge.

The wall in the alley smelled like fresh paint and rain. The lady who lives next to us, and no one knows her name, spray painted the outline of a Los Angeles cityscape next to it last night. I assume she is the one painting the wall, even though I haven’t witnessed anything. But the spray cans are next to her potted geranium, so it wasn't hard to figure out. She is pretty good at painting. There are other places down the alley she has made little murals of gardens, spaceports, and portraits. It all started after the kid was hit by a car a few months back. A memorial was painted on the wall where it happened; small figures of Winnie the Pooh characters on a gentle pastoral landscape. After that, more paintings began to appear. Perhaps they were therapeutic for the woman. Maybe she knew the kid. But the alley back here only faces our townhouses. It is a shame we are the only ones who can see them.

It was Tuesday night, and I tried to avoid the summer rain beneath the brown awning which sheltered the slots of empty carports along the back alley. The trash still hadn't been picked up. There was a shrine with white flowers on its side next to the dumpster. No one wanted to move the memorial dedicated to the kid, understandably. But the flowers died a long time ago. The stems had begun to rot and the soil was full of bugs. Between the overflowing dumpster and the bugs, it just smelled like death. I tried to toss it on top of the garbage on Sunday. Apparently it had fallen off. I scooped the pot up into my empty pizza box and threw them up there again.

My father had always been the one to order pizza when I was growing up. My mother found it trashy to order pizza from a delivery service. She didn't like the neighbors seeing a delivery man bring food to us, like we were poor or something. Which we were. Living in Lawndale during the 80s was both too hard and too bright. Meals were made with either tuna or cottage cheese. The television lit the entire living room while we ate dinner out of wooden bowls. At night we watched Wheel of Fortune and I learned how to spell phrases that would come in handy later, like, "A Bitter Pill to Swallow," and, "individual Results May Vary."

The tapered crabgrass lawns which came with our pastel ranch houses were too rough to walk barefoot over. The yards were fenced in with chain-link. The sidewalks were uneven from gnarled tree roots. The narrow streets were lined with Datsuns. The sun charioted directly over our houses in a pale cascade during the day until we could barely see the blue fade out during the evening. Although, it never got really dark out here. Even the evening sky had a neon pink sheen that reflected off the marine layer of clouds. There was always noise from the 405 freeway and Hawthorne Boulevard, which split our hamlet in two. It smelled like lawn clippings and tar. No one in my neighborhood could afford to eat at Denny's. We made the most of things, when we had things.

When I turned 18, it was easy to leave my mother's house, since I didn't have much to take with me. A blanket, some clothes, my shoes, some books. No one was home when I left, so no one saw me leave. I almost pulled some pictures of my family off the hallway wall to take with me, but decided against it. I could remember their faces just fine. Their bourgeois words, the way their feet stomped on the floor, the back of their heads. After I left, I moved into the attic of a steeply angled cottage in Hermosa that was owned by a philosopher who taught part-time. His place was a few blocks away from bicyclists cruising the Strand on Hermosa Beach. I could hear the ocean above the freeway. The air smelled like salt and tar. Enormous oil tankers loitered a mile off the coast pumping crude into the pipeline that fed the Chevron refinery a few beaches down. The first night I spent in the rented attic I ordered pizza from Gino's downtown and listened to the waves come and go.

The owner of the pizza joint was a nice guy. He didn't talk much. His wife took care of orders, mostly, so I talked to her on the phone. Their son works part-time for them in the evenings doing deliveries. He is about my age and very chatty. I never tipped him well.

I did find that the walk to Gino's pizza joint isn't too far, so I took to just picking up the pizzas myself. Last summer I was running late after work and had to take a shortcut through a long eucalyptus park. It cut 10 minutes off my route, which was convenient.

There are unconventional figures in the park after 10 p.m. The normal groups of skaters in parking lots are there during the day, practicing board kicks and sharing energy drinks. A couple of homeless nests are behind bushes along the path I walk on. The men laying in them listened to baseball games on wind-up radios. Once in a while at dusk I would pass a short blonde woman running by dressed in a black spandex get-up adorned with reflective tape and matching black rhinestone cap. She looks like a business-type. I've seen her run with her false lashes on a couple times. Otherwise, the trails were pretty sparse at night. Just a few of us wandering around in the dark, getting food.

Last October, as the sky tipped towards earlier sunsets, I tripped over a huge tree root in the dim light. I fell hard on my knee and the pizza I was carrying flew out of my hands and down the ravine into the storm water. A man helped me up and bought me a new pizza. I took him home.

The men I brought home had no names. I would order pizza and pick up men on the way back. Some of them liked to carry the pizza for me, but most didn't. The lights in the philosopher's place were usually out when I got there. They stayed off until the men left. Sometimes they would take the empty boxes out to the trash for me. But most didn't.

The philosopher taught evening classes at the local Community College. It was easy to memorize his routines. He took his breakfast at 11 a.m. every morning. The toast with marmalade was accompanied by a large mug of coffee and coconut milk. I think it was because he has a problem with dairy, but I never asked. After breakfast he does Tai-Chi in his sunroom. Then he takes a shower and either runs errands or goes into his tiny study to grade papers. He leaves for class around 3 and returns after 11. He has an old long-haired cat that follows him around in the mornings, but sleeps for the rest of the day on the wicker couch in the sunroom. A few of the men I have brought home have been allergic to the cat, but not many.

I haven't visited my mother since I moved out. She might have moved, but I don't know. My bus drove past her apartment complex on a re-route once, and I saw a blue sedan in the carport instead of her red Kia. But maybe she had a visitor staying. After my father left, she started renting out a room to college students to fill the hole. They were all polite, but messy. My mother was always wiping pubic hair off the toilet seat. Her house was quiet and immaculate, otherwise. Everything was in order. Everything had its place.

My father left when I was 14, which was just old enough to develop breasts but not old enough to buy beer. I found out he was leaving on accident, funny enough. He was packing up his truck in the carport when the city bus dropped me off on the corner. I was coming down with something that morning, but my mom made me go to school anyway. So, I threw up in the middle of algebra class, then in the nurse’s office, then in the birds of paradise in front of the office. I made it home on an empty stomach without barfing on the bus, thankfully.

The workout my abdomen got from dry heaving left me tired and annoyed. The walk home wore me out. My father had just finished packing his camping gear into the back of his truck as I turned the corner and found him. Red and yellow cords fettered his hands. His long mustache draped across his lip like a gray feather. I stopped in front of the open door to his truck. He stopped pulling the cords across the boxes laid out in the bed.

”What are you taking?"

"Just a few things."

I walked toward him. ”Where are you going?"

I could still smell his breath. It was an earthy musk of cigarettes and whiskey.

"I don't know, pumpkin.”

There was a pizza box in the passenger seat where I used to sit and play with the loose panel on the door. He used to take me with him when he went to the batting cages. Sometimes he would put his large helmet on my head and I would it wobble around like a bell. I never got to hit any balls, since that part cost money. But I loved going with him. Sometimes it seemed like he liked having me go with him. Those times he let me have a sip of his beer. One time he gave me his pocketknife, but the blade was loose and it fell off. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I kept that in the top drawer of my dresser. Other times, he would drive me home and take off again. It was never clear which time it would be. I can only imagine that time it was something I did.

My father's thick mahogany hands were stained with tobacco. They gripped the steering wheel as he backed the white truck out. He left a cloud of exhaust on the driveway. I fell asleep in the carport wrapped in one of the gray wool blankets he left in the open garage. My mother found me when she got home and led me to our brown corduroy couch. My brother got home later after his part-time shift was over at an auto-parts store. We ate spaghetti that night, but we ran out of ground beef so our mother used leftover chicken instead. It was fine, but it didn't taste the same. I did the dishes while some old movie was playing on TV, and Steve went out with some friends. Our mom reorganized the pantry after I went to bed. My stomach was finished revolting against food. None of us talked about the record player that was missing from the dining room.

The man I found tonight lay across the middle of my bed like a smelt. His arms were fixed straight along his sides and his large nose was turned to the left. I turned it so he could breathe. His feet were long and soft like bread. Even in the dim light I could see a scar cutting into his cheekbone. His hair was curly, but it was growth from a very short style. His head seemed too big to fit in a hat, but proportional to his shoulders. There was a long line down the middle of his back which moved the thin white undershirt he wore. He was messy when he took his jacket off, so I figured he was an older college student. Some dirt fell out of his pockets, which I'd have to sweep up later. But he looked tired. I tried to feed him. He fell down on my bed and slept.

I brought him home with the pizza. It was a warm night outside and the sun didn't set until after 9. It was light enough for people to see us walking together in the park. We passed a few kids playing soccer, so I guess school was out. I bummed a cigarette off him when I invited him over. He didn't say anything, which was nice. The path was still muddy from the rain earlier. He left his shoes on the front porch. The philosopher wasn't home yet, and the cat was sleeping on the wicker couch.

It started raining again around 11. I left the window open to get a breeze into the attic. It was stuffy up here, since all the warm air of the house collected in the arches above my bed. Summer rains cleared the dust off the sunbeams, my mother would say. I could smell the fresh spray paint from the alley. The woman was painting her cityscape alone underneath the awning.

The man left his clothes scattered around the room. I picked them up and folded them on a chair next to the door. Dirt fell out of his pockets, which was weird. I don't know how he got dirt in his clothes, since his navy blue slacks looked like office attire. When he entered my room, he pulled his shirt off too rough and a white button popped off. I put the button back in the lapel pocket of his blazer and draped them together on the back of the chair. His gray chinos weren't worn in the cuffs, but mud was dried along the thighs. Even his socks had dirt on the inside.

I collected the brown cotton comforter off the man and curled up next to the window. Just one more cigarette, and then I'd go to sleep. The strike of the lighter was so loud in the room I thought it would wake him, but it didn't.

I listened to him breathing on my sheets. I listened to the clacking sound of a spray paint can being shaken in the alley. I listened to the rain washing the dust out of the air. I listened to cars driving in the distance. I listened to the waves come and go. I worried about exile, which was maddening. The old philosopher downstairs made me read Hesse last summer. The guy wrote a book when he lived in exile. I had to read it as per the conditions of signing the rental contract with the philosopher. Hesse's wife went mad, his child was ill, and his father died. So, he left and wrote a few books in exile. I don't know what he found in that rented room in the mountains. Maybe the sounds of his dying father weren't there to torment him, or maybe his wife wasn't begging him for relief. Maybe he could just hear himself. I can’t stand the sound of my own thoughts at night. There is a small radio I play next to my bed while I fall asleep at night. Either way, he won the Nobel Prize for whatever he found. So, there must be something to it. I ate the last piece of cold pizza from Gino's pizza box and fell asleep in front of the window.

I had a dream of rowing a small wooden boat in the ocean. The waves tapped the sides of the boat like they were knocking on a door. We rocked back and forth together until the waves crested over the edge of the boat. My hands were wet, and the oars were slippery. I could feel the tapping inside my head. One wave rolled into another, tapping with a thousand fingers. Brown fingers reached onto the side of the boat, and I looked over. The man was looking away from me, downward towards his soggy bread feet, past the point when the sunlight hung in the waves.

I heard a noise in the room. It was barely morning, and the man was leaving. The brass hinges on the wooden door clacked shut and I listened to him creak the floorboards on his way downstairs. He opened the front door and put his gray shoes on. Then he kicked the dry mud off the sides on the stairs. And he was gone.

My mouth was dry. I stood up and put the blanket back on my bed. As if nothing had happened, since nothing did happen. The kimono I got for myself last Christmas had fallen off the hook on the back of the door and onto the floor. I picked it up. Underneath was another pile of dirt, and a black leather wallet, both of which had fallen out of the man's pants. The wallet sat on the floor in between the chair and the doorframe. As loud as the rain.

I didn’t want this wallet. I don't want to know this man's name. I don't want to know what credit cards he has, or what his wife looks like, or where he lives. He was a man, just like all the other men. He walked, he ate, he breathed, he slept. All the men look the same in the dark. For all I know they all eat the same things. Bugs and bread. They don't speak. They don't ask me about myself. I have no face to give the men. The men I bring home are as nameless as the ducks I feed in the park.

The wallet was there. It had a purpose to exist, and it was in my room. I stepped around it like it was a fish. Maybe I could toss it out the window, but then it would just lay in the garden beneath my window like a trout. I could let the trash take it away for me, but then I would be burdened with guilt for making this man I remembered cancel his credit cards and have to submit paperwork at the DMV for a new driver's license. My foot nudged the chair and tried to get the wallet to scoot into the hallway so I could kick it down the stairs. Maybe the philosopher would find it and get rid of it for me. The chair strategy was useless. The wallet on the ground was maddening.

Instead, I walked barefoot, sidestepping the foreign object, down the creaking wooden attic stairs. The philosopher was eating his toast with marmalade at the table early this morning. He wore a thin printed cotton robe that seemed to match the thin maroon carpet. He was growing out a beard and his fingers scratched his pink chin beneath the whiskers. There was a pile of books by Kant next to his coffee mug.

"I thought you were a nihilist,” I poured coffee from the stainless steel carafe into a pink mug.

"I could be a nihilist. I could be a Martian. I am who I am."

"That's what Kant would say."

"What would you know what Kant would say?"

"You made me read him last year."

"Are you accusing me of something, young lady?" The philosopher gazed at me over the wooden rims of his glasses.

"I wouldn't dream of it."

"Dreams are for Freud, and that textbook was last semester. We are being forced to teach this drivel about duty of morality. You should read it, it would suit you," the philosopher handed me a triangle of toast. "Your caller left early."

"He left his wallet in my room."

"I see." He poured coffee into his gigantic mug. "Are you going to take it to him, or have you rifled through it already?"

"I haven't even touched it," I sipped my coffee. "It's sitting on the floor upstairs."

"You haven't even touched it," the philosopher's smiled. "It is not your duty to reunite the two?"

"It is not my duty. The wallet belongs to the man, ergo the duty is upon him."

"The man was in your room, so you controlled the man by territory."

"If I controlled the man," I set my coffee on top of his stack of books, "he would have left sooner."

"Even so, you should return the wallet. Throw it in the mail, find where he works and give it to the receptionist," the philosopher stood up and cleaned his plate in the sink. "If you let it stay, it will be a dark cloud over you. Fate will find out."

The problem with fate, I thought underneath the head of the shower, is that it is a bum deal. And it is impolite to meet fate twice.

The wallet was made of a worn black leather with black nylon stitching. It looked exactly like every other wallet I have seen men take out of their back pockets. There was nothing special about it. I really couldn't tell the difference between this one and the one my father sat on the keychain above the telephone in the kitchen. It was just a wallet that smelled like sandalwood.

There was one time I opened my father's wallet to get money. My friends were going to the movies that evening and mom said I could go with them. I told her I had money already, but I didn't. Just a teenage lie to get me out of the house with no hassles. If I said I didn't have money she would have made me mow the lawn for chores or something, and I didn't have time for that. So, I went through my father's wallet looking for some. It was there, along with slips of torn napkins with phone numbers on them. He did construction for a living, so he always had odds and ends laying around the house. One time he borrowed a backhoe for a project and left it in our front yard right before he took off for a few months. He did that. We had to call the city to get someone to take the backhoe away. When he got back, he didn't ask about it. So, I didn't ask him about the phone numbers with out-of-state area codes.

I wrapped a towel around my head after the shower and sat on the edge of my bed. There was no reason to not touch the wallet. It didn't have stingers or anything. I wasn't going to be poisoned by it. So, rationally, I picked it up and opened it. The guy's name was Carl Sandburg, same as that poet the philosopher had me read when I first moved in. He lived across town and worked at the IT place near Gino's pizza shop. There was a school picture of a young boy with a droopy eyelid and curly brown hair who looked like him. One receipt from a toy store, two from a florist. No wife. One debit card, one credit card. Sparse items.

It was about noon and sunny outside. I figured I could catch Carl on his lunch break to give this thing back and avoid that dark cloud the philosopher threatened. My boots were on the back porch next to the rusted-out charcoal grill the philosopher bought last spring. He said he was going to learn how to grill pizzas, and then promptly never did. Neither of us follow through with things. There was a fish tank I found for free on the way home from Gino's one time. It was outside one of the businesses nearby, some accounting firm or something, and I guess they got sick of taking care of the fish. Maybe they all died, I don't know. But I thought that having some living creatures in my room would be nice. I spent a few days scrubbing it and cleaning out the filters and sanitizing the plastic plants and little castle and putting it on top of a chest in the sun room where the philosopher does Tai Chi. It looked like a miniature abandoned world.

"It looks like there was a kingdom here that once lived in harmony until one day a guy threw the entire world away," I chuckled to my roommate, who was not as amused.

The man's work building was white stucco with blue trim and it smelled like a dentist's office. There were two large concrete pots next to the glass door with wilting black-eyed Susans. No one was around. It was quiet outside and the white reception desk was empty inside. The floors were scuffed white laminate flanked by faded landscape paintings on the walls. The doorway was narrow with just enough room for two people to bend around each other. I jiggled the handle to get in but the glass door was locked. I took a cigarette out of my purse and lit the end. I'd just wait for someone to show up, I guess.

I stood next to the locked door. I have always found it strange to stand alone in a city of 7 million people. It is something that seems impossible, and yet it happens despite my disbelief. From the step I was on I could hear the cars on the freeway, even though I could not see them. I heard a roofer somewhere nailing shingles to a house. Voices of women echoed between the stucco walls, talking about scheduling plans. The empty building was surrounded by people I couldn't see. They existed beyond sight in abstractions. Phantoms of noise which built the houses and fed the squirrels in the park and drove the cars and locked the doors. Noises which existed in the world drifting into my ears to try to convince me they were real. That they were there.

Inside, a woman wearing a fire-engine red pencil skirt walked down the stairs behind the reception desk. She saw me holding my hand over my eyes next to the front the door.

"Can I help you?" she opened the door. The woman wore an ivory blouse with loose threads hanging out of the shoulder seams. It was probably a hand-me-down shirt. The skirt had the beginning of pills along the hemline. Her foundation was thick on her face and created premature wrinkles around her eyes, especially in the dim lighting. She looked my age despite her bright coral lipstick, but was filling the role of someone with more experience than she had.

I held up the object, "I've got Carl's wallet."

The woman raised her eyebrows. "Oh," she opened the door and stepped outside with one of her patent leather heels. "Carl is in a meeting right now. But can you wait for him?"

"Sure." I followed her inside to the lobby room chairs. She turned the white halogen lights on.

"He usually goes on his lunch break about this time. He'll be coming through here very soon."

"Got it. I'll just hang," I watched her shuffle to her padded chair behind the desk and then turn around. She put her lacquered fingernails on the desk.

"Where do you know Carl from?"

"We met in the park." My voice echoed up the stairs.

I waited for about 20 minutes. I watched men come in and out of the office. Some were in groups, some were alone. They all had the same khaki pants and the same blue blazers. Some had short haircuts with light stubble, some were bald and wore goatees. But from my seat in the corner of the room, they all sounded the same. Round words bubbled out of their mouths after they laughed loudly at jokes. I watched them come and go, in and out of the building. I wasn't sure if I would be able to recognize Carl. They all looked the same in this light.

"Do you have a bathroom in here?" The woman pointed to a hallway behind the stairs. I helped myself to the invitation.

On my way back into the lobby, the woman stood up. "Carl just walked outside, you just missed him."

"Which way did he turn?" I ran for the door.

She motioned with her fingernails, "Left."

The sun was bright outside. It had stopped raining and I couldn't see the park across the street. My eyes adjusted and I turned towards the sidewalk. Carl and his muddy Oxfords were walking ahead. He carried a bag in his left hand. His curly hair shone in the sun and his head was down. I put my hand in my jacket pocket and felt the wallet. It was still there.

I jogged after Carl. He was a different duck in the park. He had a name and a place. He had a credit card that he paid every month. He had a wallet that might have been given to him for his birthday. I had this wallet. I had the picture of his son. I was going to reunite them.

Carl walked past Gino's and turned left again down an alley. I ran to catch up with him. The air smelled like marinara and basil. I could hear Gino yelling at the delivery man in the back of the store. There were cars driving to lunch. A mother was pushing a squeaking stroller in the park across the street and her child was upset. There was a soccer game going on in the field behind the eucalyptus trees. An older couple sat in the shade on the bench I turned at when I walk through the park at night. The ducks were sitting in the shade on the lawn.

The alley by Gino's store led to a garden in the back. It was attached to the gray stone church next door. They always had sandwich signs in the way along the sidewalk announcing potlucks or church events for kids during the holidays. I walked to the brick gatehouse and saw Carl sitting on a bench in the courtyard. It was a small space with a dry fountain in the middle. There were little plots of flowers on the ground staring up at Carl.

Carl stood up and placed a pot of white flowers on the ground. It was a very little spot, maybe as long as a camping stove. The flower pot spilled some dirt into the cuff of his pants when he leaned over. I stopped walking. He was visiting his son's grave. His son had died and left him. He was alone at night and walked through the park to forget that people had names. Before his wallet fell out of his pocket, he grieved alone. I found him when he was nameless.

He turned around and saw me. My lips were dry. "I have," I tried to remember what I had. There was something that existed in my pocket for a purpose. "I have your wallet."

Carl frowned. I held his wallet out to him. He walked over to me and took it. "Thanks."

The scar on his cheek was pink. His skin was pulled tight by tendons in his neck. His eyes were bloodshot. The edge of his eyelid was pink. He walked past me. His shirt was white and unbuttoned at the top. He had a brown chest. The stains on the side of his shirt were buff. His coat was the color of the grave.

"It fell out of your pocket the other night," I licked my lips. "Do you remember?"

There was a caterwaul of a fire engine across the street.

He kept walking, "No."

"We met the other night, in the park."

“Thanks.” He took the wallet and stuffed it in his pocket.

I watched dirt fall off the cuff of his pants as he walked out of the alley. He did not look back at me. I stood next to the grave and watched his hands hide inside his jacket. At the end of the block, the stoplight turned red and the traffic stopped. The fire engine drove by. A kid in the park kicked a soccer ball into the road and ran out to get it. Carl turned right and disappeared.

The sky was a muggy dull overcast that morning. Everything I could see around me was shadowless. I heard myself cry. There was no one with me in that alley to witness. I got a pizza at Gino's and fed ducks pieces of crust before the rain returned to wash away the smell of the sandalwood on my fingers.


Tamarah Rockwood is an award-winning poet, playwright and fiction writer. She has authored one poetry book, Petals of Magnolia. She is a graduate in Creative Writing at Harvard Extension School. Her, her husband, Ben, and their 5 children live on an island in Washington State.


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