THIS IS A VOICE FROM YOUR PAST
Merrill Joan Gerber
Every woman gets a call like this sooner or later. The phone rings, a man says: "This is a voice from your past." If you're in the mood and the caller doesn't find you in a room where other people are (particularly your husband), and if you have some time to spare, you might enjoy playing the game.
"Who is this?" I said, when my call came.
"Don't you recognize my voice?"
"Alvord's class? Florida? Your senior year?"
I paused. There had been a number of young men in my life in college, in Florida, in my senior year-- and most of them were in Alvord's class.
This call --the first from Ricky-- came just after I had given birth to my second daughter; I was living in California. When the phone rang I was in the kitchen cutting a hot dog into little greasy pieces for my two-year-old's lunch and at the same time I felt my milk coming down, that sharp burning pain in both nipples, like an ooze of fire.
"Janet?" His voice was husky, or he was whispering. "This is a serious voice from your past. You know who I am. I think of you all the time. And I work at the phone company, I get free calls, so don't worry about this long-distance shit, I can talk to you all night if I want to."
"Tell me who you are," I said, just stalling for time, but suddenly I knew and was truly astounded. I had thought of Ricky often in the kind of reveries in which we all engage in when we count the lives that never were meant to be for us.
"You must know. I know you know."
" Well, it must be you, Ricky, isn't it? But I don't have all night. I have two babies now, and I'm feeding them right this minute."
"Is your old man there?"
"Good, get the kids settled down and I'll hold on. And don't worry, I'm not going to complicate your life. I can't even get to you. I'm in Pennsylvania--and out of money."
"Hang on." I did some things I had to do for the children and then talked to him with my big girl eating in her high chair a foot away from the frayed green couch where I reclined on a pillow, letting the baby suck from my breast. Ricky told me then that he couldn't write a word anymore, it was killing him, he was drinking all the time, he had six kids, his wife was running around with someone else, and could I believe it, he, he, was working for the fucking phone company.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm really sorry, Ricky."
It occurred to me that anything else I said would sound trite, like: "We all have to make compromises," or "Maybe at some point we have to give up our dreams." The fact was, I hadn't given up mine but pursued it with a kind of dauntless energy. I didn't count the dream that he might have been my true love because I knew even then, all those years ago, that it was impossible. When he read his brilliant stories in class, he was married and living with his wife in a trailer on the outskirts of the campus. He'd already written his prize-winning story that had brought our writing-class to its knees, the one that was chosen later for an O. Henry Award.
Alvord, our professor, a famous and esteemed novelist himself, had informed us in class, in front of Ricky, that the boy had been touched by the wand of the muse-- he spoke of Ricky as if a halo gleamed over his head. He made it clear that none of us would ever reach the heights (and should not hope to) for which this golden boy was destined. "A talent like his," he told us once, "is like a comet. It appears only once every hundred years or so."
I clung to my own modest talent and I was working on it; I couldn't envy Ricky his, based as it was in Catholic guilt to which I had no access (his stories were all about sin and redemption); what I envied during that hungry, virginal senior year of college was his wife, the woman he held in his arms each night, the one whose face was caressed by the gaze of his deep-seeing, supernaturally wise marble-blue eyes.
The day he called me in California as I sat nursing my baby girl, feeling the electric suck of her pulsing lips sizzle in a lightning rod strike from nipple to womb, I remembered an image of Ricky that rose up like an illumination--we were in the university library. Ricky had come in alone and had chosen to sit across from me at one of the long, mahogany tables where I was studying. He had his magic pencil in his long fingers and was bent over his lined notebook paper to create whatever piece of brilliant, remorse-filled prose he was writing. A long lock of his dirty-blond hair fell across his forehead, and his fingers scribbled, bent like crab pincers racing over the lined notebook page, wrote words that according to Alvord would turn out to be second only to James Joyce's.
Ricky had told me that his wife worked in some office, typing business documents. He explained, in his breathy east-coast accent, that she was ordinary and dull and he had too young been seduced by her beauty, her astonishing breasts, and his own fierce desire. He assured me I knew him in a way that she never could. We had long earnest discussions after Alvord's class, and in the cafeteria over coffee, and on benches in front of the library-- debates about literature and genius (who knows now if their content held anything more remarkable than youth and idealism cooked up in a predictable collegiate stew?)
Still, that night in the library, he stopped his work to stare intensely at me across the table time after time--but didn't smile. We were like conspirators, we knew we shared a plan, an ingenious plot to outfox time, mortality, death--we were both going to be famous writers, and we would --by our words alone--live forever.
At some point that evening-- in his frenzy of writing--Ricky's cramped fingers relaxed, his head dropped sideways onto his arm on the table-top, and he fell asleep in the library. He remained there, vulnerable and naked in my gaze, breathing as I knew he must breathe as he slept beside his wife in that trailer, his mouth slightly open, his blue-veined eyelids closed over his blue eyes, his nostrils flaring slightly with each breath.
I watched him till the library closed, watched his face and memorized every line of his fair cheek, the angle of his chin, watched fascinated as a thin thread of drool spooled from his slightly parted lips to the tabletop. I looked around me to be sure no one was near or watching. Then, before he woke, I very slowly moved my hand across the table and anointed the tip of my pencil with his silver spit.
The second time Ricky called me my husband was in the room. It was thirty years later, a day in late August. I--with a slow but certain fortitude-- had written and published a number of novels by then. My three daughters were grown. The baby who had been at my breast at the time of his first call was in graduate school, and older than I had been when Ricky slept opposite my gaze in the library.
"Janet? This is a voice from your past."
A warning bell rang in my chest. At that moment I was busy talking to my husband about some family troubles (my mother had had a stroke and we were about to put her in a nursing home) and I felt rudely interrupted. I wasn't ready to engage in the game he wanted to play."
"Which past?" I said. "I have many."
"It's Ricky, your old buddy."
"Ricky! How are you?" I said his name with some enthusiasm because he expected it, but I felt my heart sink because I knew I would have to listen to his troubles and I had no patience just then. The game of "remember what we meant to each other" had lost its appeal since by this time everyone I loved filled up my life completely. I had not even a small chink of space left for a latecomer. "Are you still living in Pennsylvania?"
"No, I'm right here!"
"Right here?" I looked down into my lap as if I might find him there.
"In sunny California. In your very city. And I'm here for good."
"How did you know where to reach me? My number isn't even listed!"
"I found one of your books back east and on the cover it said what city you lived in. So when I got here--and I want you to know I picked this city to settle in because of you-- I went to the library and asked the librarian. I knew a librarian was bound to know where the city's most famous writer lived. I told her I was your old buddy and she gave me your phone number."
"I'm not famous, Ricky."
"Me neither," he said. "How about that?"
I told him I would call him back in a half hour--and in that time I explained to my husband, more or less, who he was. An old college friend. A used-to-be-writer. A drunk. I don't know why I dismissed Ricky so unfairly. Something in his voice had put me on guard. And I could see that this tag with time was a game there was no sense in playing. I had settled into my ordained life like concrete setting in a mold, and I no longer trifled with the idea that I might want to change it. At least not by trailing after romantic visions. With a sense of duty, though, I phoned him back...and braced myself.
"You won't believe the stuff that's happened to me," he said. He laughed--he almost cackled--and I shivered. "Can we get together?"
When I hesitated, he said, "I've been through AA, I'm a new person. I'm going to join up here, too, of course. The pity is that before I turned myself around I lost every friend I ever had."
"How come? Because an alcoholic will steal from his best friend if he has to, he'll lie with an innocent face like a newborn baby. There's nothing I haven't stooped to, Janet. I've been to the bottom, that's where you have to be before you can come back. I've rented a little room in town here, and I'm hoping...well, I'm hoping that we can be friends again."
"Well, why not," I said. I had the sense my house had become a tunnel and I was getting lost in the dark.
"But mainly--I'm hoping you'll let me come to your class. I want to get started writing again."
"How did you know I teach a class?"
"It says on your book, Janet. That you teach writing at some university or other."
"Well, you certainly are a detective, aren't you?"
"I'm sly as a fox."
"I guess you could visit my class when it begins again after Labor Day. I'll tell my students that you studied with me in Alvord's class. Since most of my old students will be coming back to take the advanced class, they already know about Alvord. In fact, I quote him all the time. We use all his old terms--'action proper, 'enveloping action' --his dedication to point of view. Maybe we can even get a copy of your old prize story and discuss it."
"Great. So when can we get this friendship on the road again?"
"Look--I'm having a Labor Day barbecue for my family and some friends on Sunday--why don't you come? Do you have a car?"
"I can borrow one."
"Do you need directions? I'll have my husband give them to you."
I called Danny to the phone and handed him the receiver. "Tell my friend Ricky the best way to get here." I wanted Ricky to hear Danny's voice, to know unequivocally that I was taken, connected, committed...that I wasn't under any circumstances available.
A stranger rang the doorbell, a man eighty years old, skin jaundiced, skeletal bones shaping his face. The golden hair was thin and gray. Only his voice, with an accent on his tongue like the young Frank Sinatra, convinced me he was the same Ricky. When I shook his hand, I felt his skin to be leathery, dry. When I looked down, the nails were bitten to the quick.
He came inside. I felt him take in the living room in one practiced glance--the art work, the decorations, the furniture--and then we passed out the screen door to the backyard where the party was in progress.
Danny was on the patio, grilling hamburgers and hot dogs over the coals. My three daughters, one already married, and two home from their respective graduate schools, looked beautiful in their summer blouses and white shorts. I saw the backyard as Ricky must have seen it--alive with summer beauty, the plum tree heavy with purple fruit, the jasmine in bloom, the huge cactus plants in Mexican painted bowls growing new little shoots, fierce with baby spines.
My other guests included my sister and her sons, my eldest daughter's husband, a few of my students, several women I had been in a book club with for the last fifteen years. Ricky looked around; I could feel him adding up my life and registering it in his bloodshot eyes.
I took him over to meet Danny and then said: "Let's go sit on the swings and talk." We tramped across the brilliant green of the grass to the old swingset where my daughters used to play. Ricky was wearing a formal gray wool suit, his bony frame almost lost inside its wide shoulders. He swung slowly back and forth, sitting on the splintery wood seat, his hands clutching the rusty chains. He talked looking forward, into air.
"My son Bobby is the one who invited me out to California. He made it big-time," Ricky said, and laughed.
"Is he in movies?" I asked.
"Not exactly. He dove into a city pool in Philly and broke his spine. Now he's in a wheelchair for life. I got him a sharp lawyer who brought a deep pockets lawsuit against the city. Bobby was awarded a million and a half bucks, enough to take care of him the rest of his life and, if I play it right, take care of me, too! My other kids don't talk to me, so Bobby is my only salvation."
"But why is he in California?"
"He's living in a fantastic halfway house out here--the best in the world for paraplegics; Bobby gets all kinds of services, I even can bring my laundry over there and he'll get it done for me free. And he's got enough extra pocket money to help me pay my rent for a while till I get a job."
"What a terrible thing to happen to him."
"No, just the opposite. He was a beach bum, a loser. Now he's got it all together, the whole future taken care of. I think he's relieved. He can use his arms--he plays wheelchair basketball. He lifts weights. He gets counseling, he gets his meals served. Sometimes I wish I could change places with him. But no, I'm back at square one, looking for a job again."
"No more phone company?"
Ricky made a strangling noise in his throat. "I'm going to write my novel, Janet. Finally. I'm going to get it together before I die. If I can sit in on your class, I figure it will start my motor again. You probably teach something like the way Alvord taught us. That old magic. Maybe I can feel that excitement again. I'm counting on it, it's my last hope."
"Do you ever hear from Alvord? Did you stay in touch?"
"In touch! I lived with him for a year in Florida when I was really down and out. He took me in, told me he loved me like a son. The trouble was he didn't feed me, Janet. He offered me a place to stay on this farm of his, and then all I could find to eat in the house was Campbell's soup. I think one day he actually hid the bacon from me so I couldn't get my hands on it. So I had to take his truck into town with some money of his to get some food, but I'd been drinking again and I totaled it. He told me I had to leave. He gave me fifty bucks and bought me a train ticket back to Philly. But he was a pain, anyway, preaching to me all the time about being a man, taking responsibility for my kids. I swear, the man was a genius but he's losing it, Janet. He's in his eighties now. He used to think I walked on water."
"We all did."
"That's why I came to live near you. You're the only one on earth who really knows my genius."
I didn't actually count, but I had the sense Ricky ate at least five hamburgers, and as many hot dogs. He hung around the food table, his mouth going, not talking to anyone, but looking at my women friends, their faces, their forms. He looked my daughters up and down--there was no way to stop him. At one point he came to me and said, "Your daughters are really beautiful. All three of them. They have your soul in their eyes." I wanted to distract him. I asked him how often he saw his son; he said, "As often as I can, he gives me CARE packages. I don't have much food in the new place."
After our guests left, I packed up all the leftovers for Ricky: potato chips, lukewarm baked beans, the remaining coleslaw, a package of raw hot dogs and buns to go with them, a quarter of a watermelon, lettuce and sliced tomatoes, even pickles, even mustard and ketchup.
"Listen, thanks," he said. "You're a lifesaver. You don't know how lucky I feel to have found you again. Could I ask you one more favor, though? Would you mind if I came back tomorrow and used your typewriter? I need to write a letter to apply for a job. Someone gave me a tip about a job being night watchman in a truck yard. All I would have to do is sit in a little shed and watch for thieves. I figure I could write all night if I get it."
My reaction was instinctive; I knew I didn't want him back in my house again. "Why don't you let me lend you my electric typewriter? I use a computer now, so I won't need it for a while. I do love it, though--it's the typewriter I wrote my first novel on."
"Then maybe it will be lucky for me. I'll guard it with my life."
"Okay, give me a minute, I'll go put it in its case." I left him standing in the living room with my husband, but I heard no conversation at all--not even ordinary chatter. I could see why Danny was unable to think of a single thing to say to him.
Ricky finally left, laden like an immigrant--bags of food, paper, carbon paper, envelopes, stamps, my typewriter. He stuffed it all into the trunk of an old red car.
Danny and I watched him drive away. He didn't wave--he tore from the curb like one possessed.
"Funny guy," Danny said.
"I don't think we know the half of it," I told him.
I found Ricky's O. Henry prize story in a book and had thirty photocopies made for my students. At the start of class I distributed the copies and told my students that at 7:30 a guest was arriving, a writer of unique skill and vision, a man we were honored to have visit our class. I warned them about the pitfalls of the writer's life, how one could not count on it to earn a living, how so many talented writers fell by the wayside due to pressures of ordinary life. This visitor, I said, a very close friend of mine from the past who had missed what you might call "his window of opportunity", hoped to join our class and work as hard as anyone in it. "He had a whole life in between of doing something else he had to do. All of you are young, at the start of your first life, and if you really want this, this is the time to do it."
When Ricky arrived at my classroom, it was already almost nine PM. He apologized, saying the bus had been late. He was wearing a red V-necked sweater, and looked less cadaverous than at the barbecue, but still much older than his years. He seemed elated to find that a copy of his story was on every desk, and when one of the students asked him how he got the idea for it, he said, simply, "I had thought many times of murdering my brother."
By then, we were already in the midst of having another student read his story; I told the class that next week we would discuss Ricky's story.
I nodded for Harold to go on reading; his story was about a day in the cotton fields of Arkansas, and how the men, women and children picking cotton on a burning hot day reacted when the truck that delivered them failed to leave off drinking water. When the last line had been read, Ricky spoke out in the exact tones of our teacher, Alvord.
"It comes alive on the last page, finally, you see, because it uses all the senses. Since a crying baby can seduce a reader from the very death of Hamlet himself, the writer must bring everything to life. And you do, young man! You do!"
The class was silent, and then a few students applauded Harold and then everyone did--till his embarrassed smile lit up the room. I announced that we would take our usual ten minute break. When the class had filed out, I thought I would find Ricky waiting to talk to me about my students, to tell me how the class had seemed to him, if it would suit his purposes. But he left the room without a glance in my direction, and when I looked out into the hall, I saw him in deep conversation with one of my students, a young woman. When the class reconvened, neither one of them returned for the second half.
At seven the next morning, my student phoned me. "This is Alice Miller. I'm so sorry to disturb you," she said, "but your friend, the famous writer, borrowed my car last night. We went out for coffee and afterward he said he had an urgent errand to go on, he practically got on his knees to beg to borrow the car. He said that although he knew I didn't know him very well, you could vouch for him, and he promised he would have my car back in my carport by midnight. He borrowed ten dollars, too. He never came back. And I can't get to work without it!"
"I'll see if I can reach him at the number I have for him," I told her. "I'm so sorry. I'll call you right back."
But his landlady did not find him in his room. I called Alice back and told her I could only imagine that there was some emergency with his son who was a paraplegic. I reassured her that he would surely have the car back to her very shortly but in the meantime to take a taxi to work, that I would pay for it.
I learned later that when finally Ricky did return the car to Alice, he never even rang her bell. He left the car at the curb. She found the inside of it littered with cigarette butts, racing forms, empty paper cups, and the greasy wrappers from MacDonald's hamburgers. The gas tank was totally empty. There was not even enough gas left in the tank for Alice to get to a gas station to fill it up.
Toward the end of September, I was about to apply for a fellowship and realized that I needed my typewriter to fill out the application form. My anger overcame my revulsion, and I dialed the number Ricky had originally given me. His landlady answered and informed me that he'd moved out bag and baggage--that "he shipped out to sea."
"To sea!" I imagined him on a whaling ship, thinking he was Melville, or more likely that he was one of the sailors in Stephen Crane's story about men doomed at sea, "The Open Boat," a piece of work whose first line Alvord had often quoted: "None of them knew the color of the sky."
But my typewriter! I wanted it, it was mine. I felt as if Ricky had kidnapped one of my children.
"Let it go," my husband said. "It's an old typewriter, I'll get you a new one, it doesn't matter. Write it off as a business loss. Write him off--your old friend--if you can as one of those mistakes we all make in life."
In the days following, I had trouble sleeping. I held imaginary conversations with Ricky, by turns furious, accusatory, damning, murderous. "I trusted you!" I cried out, and in return I heard his laugh...his cackle. Alvord had often talked about evil in his class; the reality of it, how it existed, how it was as real as the spinning globe to which we clung.
Days later, in a frenzy, I began calling hospitals, halfway houses, rehab clinics, trying to find the place where Ricky's son lived--if indeed he had a son.
"Don't do this to yourself," Danny said. He saw me on the phone, sweating, asking questions, shaking with anger, trembling with outraged.
But one day I actually located the boy. He was in a hospital in a city only a half hour's drive from my house. I named his name, Bobby, with Ricky's last name, and someone asked me to wait, they would call him to the phone. And a man picked up the phone and said "Yes? This is Bobby."
I told him I was a friend of his father, that his father had my typewriter.
"Oh sure, I know about that. You're his old friend. He left the typewriter here with me. You can come and get it." His voice had the same tones as Ricky's voice. The same seductive sound--the "Oh sure" a kind of promise, the "come and get it" the serpent's invitation.
"His landlady said he went to sea...?" I felt I must have another piece of the puzzle, at least one more piece.
"Yeah--he got a job teaching English on a Navy ship. I told him he better take it, he wasn't going to freeload off me the rest of his life."
"I'm sorry," I said to the boy. "I'm sorry about your accident...and about your troubles with your father."
"Hey, don't worry about it. It's nothing new. But if you want his address on the ship I could give it to you."
"No-- thank you," I said. "I don't want it. I think your father and I have come to a parting of the ways. Good-bye, Bobby, I wish you good luck."
"You, too," Bobby said. "Anyone who knows my father needs it."
Then, two years after I talked to his son, I got the third phone call. "This is a voice out of your fucking past."
"Hello, Ricky." My heart was banging so hard I had to sit down.
"I heard from my son you want your goddamned typewriter back."
"You'll have it back. It's in little pieces. I'll be on your doorstep with it in twenty minutes."
"I don't want it, Ricky. Don't come here! Keep it."
"I said you'll have it back. I always keep my word, you fucking..."
"Please, keep it. I don't need it! Keep it and write your book on it!"
"Just expect me," Ricky said. "I'll be there, you can count on it. Watch out your window for me."
And so I did. For a week. For a month. I keep watching and sometimes, when the phone rings, I let it ring and don't answer it.
This story was first published in The Chattahoochee Review, Summer 1997, reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories, 1998, and included in Merrill Joan Gerber's book Gut Feelings: A Writer's Truths and Minute Inventions, University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.