WHERE I’M CALLING FROM
written by Raymond Carver
read by Charles Baxter
WE ARE ON the front porch at Frank Martin’s drying-out facility. Like the rest of us at Frank Martin’s, J.P. is first and foremost a drunk. But he’s also a chimney sweep. It’s his first time here, and he’s scared. I’ve been here once before. What’s to say? I’m back. J.P.’s real name is Joe Penny, but he says I should call him J.P. He’s about thirty years old.
Younger than I am. Not much younger, but a little. He’s telling me how he decided to go into his line of work, and he wants to use his hands when he talks. But his hands tremble. I mean, they won’t keep still.
“This has never happened to me before,” he says. He means the trembling. I tell him I sympathize. I tell him the shakes will idle down. And they will. But it takes time.
We’ve only been in here a couple of days. We’re not out of the woods yet. J.P. has these shakes, and every so often a nerve — maybe it isn’t a nerve, but it’s something — begins to jerk in my shoulder. Sometimes it’s at the side of my neck. When this happens my mouth dries up. It’s an effort just to swallow then. I know something’s about to happen and I want to head it off. I want to hide from it, that’s what I want to do. Just close my eyes and let it pass by, let it take the next man. J.P. can wait a minute.
I saw a seizure yesterday morning. A guy they call Tiny. A big fat guy, an electrician from Santa Rosa. They said he’d been in here for nearly two weeks and that he was over the hump. He was going home in a day or two and would spend New Year’s Eve with his wife in front of the TV.
On New Year’s Eve, Tiny planned to drink hot chocolate and eat cookies.
Yesterday morning he seemed just fine when he came down for breakfast. He was letting out with quacking noises, showing some guy how he called ducks right down onto his head. “Blam. Blam,” said Tiny, picking off a couple. Tiny’s hair was damp and was slicked back along the sides of his head. He’d just come out of the shower. He’d also nicked himself on the chin with his razor. But so what? Just about everybody at Frank Martin’s has nicks on his face. It’s something that happens. Tiny edged in at the head of the table and began telling about something that had happened on one of his drinking bouts. People at the table laughed and shook their heads as they shovelled up their eggs. Tiny would say something, grin, then look around the table for a sign of recognition. We’d all done things just as bad and crazy, so, sure, that’s why we laughed. Tiny had scrambled eggs on his plate, and some biscuits and honey. I was at the table but I wasn’t hungry. I had some coffee in front of me. Suddenly Tiny wasn’t there anymore. He’d gone over in his chair with a big clatter. He was on his back on the floor with his eyes closed, his heels drumming the linoleum. People hollered for Frank Martin. But he was right there. A couple of guys got down on the floor beside Tiny. One of the guys put his fingers inside Tiny’s mouth and tried to hold his tongue. Frank Martin yelled, “Everybody stand back!”
Then I noticed that the bunch of us were leaning over Tiny, just looking at him, not able to take our eyes off him. “Give him air!” Frank Martin said. Then he ran into the office and called the ambulance.
Tiny is on board again today. Talk about bouncing back. This morning Frank Martin drove the station wagon to the hospital to get him.
Tiny got back too late for his eggs, but he took some coffee into the dining room and sat down at the table anyway. Somebody in the kitchen made toast for him, but Tiny didn’t eat it. He just sat with his coffee and looked into his cup. Every now and then he moved his cup back and forth in front of him.
I’d like to ask him if he had any signal just before it happened. I’d like to know if he felt his ticker skip a beat, or else begin to race. Did his eyelid twitch? But I’m not about to say anything. He doesn’t look like he’s hot to talk about it anyway. But what happened to Tiny is something I won’t ever forget. Old Tiny flat on the floor, kicking his heels.
So every time this little flitter starts up anywhere, I draw some breath and wait to find myself on my back, looking up, somebody”s fingers in my mouth.
In his chair on the front porch, J.P. keeps his hands in his lap. I smoke cigarettes and use an old coal bucket for an ashtray. I listen to J.P. ramble on. It’s eleven o’clock in the morning — an hour and a half until lunch.
Neither one of us is hungry. But just the same we look forward to going inside and sitting down at the table. Maybe we’ll get hungry.
What’s J.P. talking about, anyway? He’s saying how when he was twelve years old he fell into a well in the vicinity of the farm he grew up on. It was a dry well, lucky for him. “Or unlucky,” he says, looking around him and shaking his head. He says how late that afternoon, after he’d been located, his dad hauled him out with a rope. J.P. had wet his pants down there. He’d suffered all kinds of terror in that well, hollering for help, waiting, and then hollering some more. He hollered himself hoarse before it was over. But he told me that being at the bottom of that well had made a lasting impression. He’d sat there and looked up at the well mouth. Way up at the top he could see a circle of blue sky. Every once in a while a white cloud passed over. A flock of birds flew across, and it seemed to J.P. their wingbeats set up this odd commotion. He heard other things. He heard tiny rustlings above him in the well, which made him wonder if things might fall down into his hair. He was thinking of insects. He heard wind blow over the well mouth, and that sound made an impression on him, too. In short, everything about his life was different for him at the bottom of that well. But nothing fell on him and nothing closed off that little circle of blue. Then his dad came along with the rope, and it wasn’t long before J.P. was back in the world he’d always lived in.
“Keep talking, J.P. Then what?” I say.
When he was eighteen or nineteen years old and out of high school and had nothing whatsoever he wanted to do with his life, he went across town one afternoon to visit a friend. This friend lived in a house with a fireplace. J.P. and his friend sat around drinking beer and batting the breeze. They played some records. Then the doorbell rings. The friend goes to the door. This young woman chimney sweep is there with her cleaning things. She’s wearing a top hat, the sight of which knocked J.P. for a loop. She tells J.P.’s friend that she has an appointment to clean the fireplace. The friend lets her in and bows. The young woman doesn’t pay him any mind. She spreads a blanket on the hearth and lays out her gear. She’s wearing these black pants, black shirt, black shoes and socks.
Of course by now she’s taken her hat off. J.P. says it nearly drove him nuts to look at her. She does the work, she cleans the chimney, while J.P. and his friend play records and drink beer. But they watch her and they watch what she does. Now and then J.P. and his friend look at each other and grin, or else they wink. They raise their eyebrows when the upper half of the young woman disappears into the chimney. She was all-right-looking, too, J.P. said. She was about his age.
When she’d finished her work, she rolled her things up in the blanket.
From J.P.’s friend she took a check that had been made out to her by his parents. And then she asks the friend if he wants to kiss her. “It’s supposed to bring good luck,” she says. That does it for J.P. The friend rolls his eyes. He clowns some more. Then, probably blushing, he kisses her on the cheek. At this minute J.P. made his mind up about something. He put his beer down. He got up from the sofa. He went over to the young woman as she was starting to go out the door.
“Me, too?” J.P. said to her. She swept her eyes over him. J.P. says he could feel his heart knocking. The young woman’s name, it turns out, was Roxy.
“Sure,” Roxy says. “Why not? I’ve got some extra kisses.” And she kissed him a good one right on the lips and then turned to go.
Like that, quick as a wink, J.P. followed her onto the porch. He held the porch screen door for her. He went down the steps with her and out to the drive, where she’d parked her panel truck. It was something that was out of his hands. Nothing else in the world counted for anything.
He knew he’d met somebody who could set his legs atremble. He could feel her kiss still burning on his lips, etc. At that minute J.P. couldn’t begin to sort anything out. He was filled with sensations that were carrying him every which way.
He opened the rear door of the panel truck for her. He helped her store her things inside. “Thanks,” she told him. Then he blurted it out — that he’d like to see her again. Would she go to a movie with him sometime? He’d realized, too, what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to do what she did. He wanted to be a chimney sweep. But he didn’t tell her that then.
J.P. says she put her hands on her hips and looked him over. Then she found a business card in the front seat of her truck. She gave it to him.
She said, “Call this number after ten o’clock tonight. The answering machine will be turned off then. We can talk. I have to go now.” She put the top hat on and then took it off. She looked at J.P. once more. She must have liked what she saw, because this time she grinned. He told her there was a smudge near her mouth. Then she got into her truck, tooted the horn, and drove away.
“Then what?” I say. “Don’t stop now, J.P.” I was interested. But I would have listened if he’d been going on about how one day he’d decided to start pitching horseshoes.
It rained last night. The clouds are banked up against the hills across the valley. J.P. clears his throat and looks at the hills and the clouds. He pulls his chin. Then he goes on with what he was saying.
Roxy starts going out with him on dates. And little by little he talks her into letting him go along on jobs with her. But Roxy’s in business with her father and brother and they’ve got just the right amount of work. They don’t need anybody else. Besides, who was this guy J. P.? J.P. what? Watch out, they warned her.
So she and J.P. saw some movies together. They went to a few dances.
But mainly the courtship revolved around their cleaning chimneys together. Before you know it, J.P. says, they’re talking about tying the knot. And after a while they do it, they get married. J.P.’s new father-in-law takes him in as a full partner. In a year or so, Roxy has a kid. She’s quit being a chimney sweep. At any rate, she’s quit doing the work.
Pretty soon she has another kid. J.P.’s in his mid-twenties by now. He’s buying a house. He says he was happy with his life. “I was happy with the way things were going,” he says. “I had everything I wanted. I had a wife and kids I loved, and I was doing what I wanted to do with my life.” But for some reason — who knows why we do what we do? — his drinking picks up. For a long time he drinks beer and beer only. Any kind of beer — it didn’t matter. He says he could drink beer twenty-four hours a day. He’d drink beer at night while he watched TV. Sure, once in a while he drank hard stuff. But that was only if they went out on the town, which was not often, or else when they had company over.
Then a time comes, he doesn’t know why, when he makes the switch from beer to gin and tonic. And he’d have more gin and tonic after dinner, sitting in front of the TV. There was always a glass of gin and tonic in his hand. He says he actually liked the taste of it. He began stopping off after work for drinks before he went home to have more drinks. Then he began missing some dinners. He just wouldn’t show up.
Or else he’d show up but he wouldn’t want anything to eat. He’d filled up on snacks at the bar. Sometimes he’d walk in the door and for no good reason throw his lunch pail across the living room. When Roxy yelled at him, he’d turn around and go out again. He moved his drinking time up to early afternoon, while he was still supposed to be working. He tells me that he was starting off the morning with a couple of drinks. He’d have a belt of the stuff before he brushed his teeth. Then he’d have his coffee. He’d go to work with a thermos bottle of vodka in his lunch pail.
J.P. quits talking. He just clams up. What’s going on? I’m listening. It’s helping me relax, for one thing. It’s taking me away from my own situation. After a minute, I say, “What the hell? Go on J.P.” He’s pulling his chin. But pretty soon he starts talking again.
J.P. and Roxy are having some real fights now. I mean fights. J.P. says that one time she hit him in the face with her fist and broke his nose.
“Look at this,” he says. “Right here.” He shows me a line across the bridge of his nose. “That’s a broken nose.” He returned the favor. He dislocated her shoulder for her on that occasion. Another time he split her lip. They beat on each other in front of the kids. Things got out of hand. But he kept on drinking. He couldn’t stop. And nothing could make him stop. Not even with Roxy’s dad and her brother threatening to beat hell out of him. They told Roxy she should take the kids and clear out. But Roxy said it was her problem. She got herself into it, and she’d solve it.
Now J.P. gets real quiet again. He hunches his shoulders and pulls down in his chair. He watches a car driving down the road between this place and the hills.
I say, “I want to hear the rest of this, J.P. You better keep talking.”
“I just don’t know,” he says. He shrugs.
“It’s all right,” I say. And I mean it’s O.K. for him to tell it. “Go on, J.P.”
One way she tried to solve things, J.P. says, was by finding a boyfriend.
J.P. would like to know how she found the time with the house and kids.
I looked at him and I’m surprised. He’s a grown man. “If you want to do that,” I say, “you find the time. You make the time.”
J.P. shakes his head. “I guess so,” he says.
Anyway, he found out about it — about Roxy’s boyfriend — and he went wild. He manages to get Roxy’s wedding ring off her finger. And when he does he cuts it into several pieces with a pair of wire cutters.
Good solid fun. They’d already gone a couple of rounds on this occasion. On his way to work the next morning he gets arrested on a drunk-driving charge. He loses his driver’s license. He can’t drive the truck to work anymore. Just as well, he says. He’d already fallen off a roof the week before and broken his thumb. It was just a matter of time until he broke his God-damned neck, he says.
He was here at Frank Martin’s to dry out and to figure how to get his life back on track. But he wasn’t here against his will, any more than I was. We weren’t locked up. We could leave anytime we wanted. But a minimum stay of a week was recommended, and two weeks or a month was, as they put it, “strongly advised.”
As I said, this is my second time at Frank Martin’s. When I was trying to sign a check to pay in advance for a week’s stay, Frank Martin said,
“The holidays are always a bad time. Maybe you should think of sticking around a little longer this time? Think in terms of a couple of weeks.
Can you do a couple of weeks? Think about it, anyway. You don’t have to decide anything right now,” he said. He held his thumb on the check and I signed my name. Then I walked my girlfriend to the front door and said goodbye. “Goodbye,” she said, and she lurched into the door-jamb and then onto the porch. It’s late afternoon. It’s raining. I go from the door to the window. I move the curtain and watch her drive away.
She’s in my car. She’s drunk. But I’m drunk, too, and there’s nothing I can do. I make it to a big old chair that’s close to the radiator, and I sit down. Some guys look up from their TV. Then slowly they shift back to what they were watching. I just sit there. Now and then I look up at something that’s happening on the screen.
Later that afternoon the front door banged open and J.P. was brought in between these two big guys — his father-in-law and brother-in-law. I find out afterward. They steered J.P. across the room. The old guy signed him in and gave Frank Martin a check. Then these two guys helped J.P. upstairs. I guess they put him to bed. Pretty soon the old guy and the other guy came downstairs and headed for the front door. They couldn’t seem to get out of this place fast enough. It was as if they couldn’t wait to wash their hands of all this. I didn’t blame them. Hell, no. I don’t know how I’d act if I was in their shoes.
A day and a half later J.P. and I meet up on the front porch. We shake hands and comment on the weather. J.P. has a case of the shakes. We sit down and prop our feet on the railing. We lean back in our chairs as if we’re just out there taking our ease, as if we might be getting ready to talk about our bird dogs. That’s when J.P. gets going with his story.
It’s cold out, but not too cold. It’s a little overcast. At one point Frank Martin comes outside to finish his cigar. He has on a sweater buttoned up to his Adam’s apple. Frank Martin is short and heavyset. He has curly gray hair and a small head. His head is out of proportion with the rest of his body. Frank Martin puts the cigar in his mouth and stands with his arms crossed over his chest. He works that cigar in his mouth and looks across the valley. He stands there like a prizefighter, like somebody who knows the score.
J.P. gets real quiet again. I mean, he’s hardly breathing. I toss my cigarette into the coal bucket and look hard at J.P., who scoots farther down in his chair. J.P. pulls up his collar. What the hell’s going on, I wonder. Frank Martin uncrosses his arms and takes a puff on the cigar.
He lets the smoke carry out of his mouth. Then he raises his chin toward the hills and says, “Jack London used to have a big place on the other side of this valley. Right over there behind that green hill you’re looking at. But alcohol killed him. Let that be a lesson. He was a better man than any of us. But he couldn’t handle the stuff, either.” He looks at what’s left of his cigar. It’s gone out. He tosses it into the bucket. “You guys want to read something while you’re here, read that book of his The Call of the Wild. You know the one I’m talking about? We have it inside, if you want to read something. It’s about this animal that’s half dog and half wolf. They don’t write books like that anymore. But we could have helped Jack London, if we’d been here in those days. And if he’d let us. If he’d asked for our help. Hear me? Like we can help you. If you ask for it and I/you listen. End of sermon. But don’t forget. If,” he says again. Then he hitches his pants and tugs his sweater down. “I’m going inside,” he says. “See you at lunch.”
“I feel like a bug when he’s around,” J.P. says. “He makes me feel like a bug. Something you could step on.” J.P. shakes his head. Then he says, “Jack London. What a name! I wish I had me a name like that. Instead of the name I got.”
Frank Martin talked about that “if” the first time I was here. My wife brought me up here that time. That’s when we were still living together, trying to make things work out. She brought me here and she stayed around for an hour or two, talking to Frank Martin in private. Then she left. The next morning Frank Martin got me aside and said, “We can help you. If you want help and want to listen to what we say.” But I didn’t know if they could help me or not. Part of me wanted help. But there was another part. All said, it was a very big if.
This time around, six months after my first stay, it was my girlfriend who drove me here. She was driving my car. She drove us through a rainstorm. We drank champagne all the way. We were both drunk when she pulled up in the drive. She intended to drop me off, turn around, and drive home again. She had things to do. One thing she had to do was to go to work the next day. She was a secretary. She had an O.K. job with this electronic-parts firm. She also had this mouthy teen-age son. I wanted her to get a motel room in town, spend the night, and then drive home. I don’t know if she got the room or not. I haven’t heard from her
since she led me up the front steps the other day and walked me into Frank Martin’s office and said, “Guess who’s here.”
But I wasn’t mad at her. In the first place she didn’t have any idea what she was letting herself in for when she said I could stay with her after my wife asked me to leave. I felt sorry for her. The reason I felt sorry for her was on the day before Christmas her Pap smear came back from the lab, and the news was not cheery. She’d have to go back to the doctor, and real soon. That kind of news was reason enough for both of us to start drinking. So what we did was get ourselves good and drunk.
And on Christmas Day we were still drunk. We had to go out to a restaurant to eat, because she didn’t feel anything like cooking. The two of us and her mouthy teen-age son opened some presents, and then we went to this steak house near her apartment. I wasn’t hungry. I had some soup and a hot roll. I drank a bottle of wine with the soup. She drank some wine, too. Then we started in on Bloody Marys. For the next couple of days I didn’t eat anything except cashew nuts. But I drank a lot of bourbon. On the morning of the twenty-eighth I said to her,
“Sugar, I think I’d better pack up. I better go back to Frank Martin’s. I need to try that place on again. Hey, how about you driving me?”
She tried to explain to her son that she was going to be gone that afternoon and evening, and he’d have to get his own dinner. But right as we were going out the door this God-damned kid screamed at us. He screamed, “You call this love? The hell with you both! I hope you never come back. I hope you kill yourselves!” Imagine this kid!
Before we left town I had her stop at the liquor store, where I bought us three bottles of champagne. Quality stuff—Piper. We stopped someplace else for plastic glasses. Then we picked up a bucket of fried chicken. We set out for Frank Martin’s in this rainstorm, drinking champagne and listening to music on the radio. She drove. I looked after the radio and poured champagne. We tried to make a little party out of it. But we were sad, too. There was that fried chicken, but we didn’t eat any of it.
I guess she got home O.K. I think I would have heard something if she hadn’t made it back. But she hasn’t called me, and I haven’t called her. Maybe she’s had some news about herself by now. Then again, maybe she hasn’t heard anything. Maybe it was all a mistake. Maybe it was somebody else’s test. But she has my car, and I have things at her house. I know we’ll be seeing each other again.
They clang an old farm bell here to signal mealtime. J.P. and I get out of our chairs slowly, like old geezers, and we go inside. It’s starting to get too cold on the porch anyway. We can see our breath drifting out from us as we talk.
New Year’s Eve morning I try to call my wife. There’s no answer. It’s O.K. But even if it wasn’t O.K., what am I supposed to do? The last time we talked on the phone, a couple of weeks ago, we screamed at each other. I hung a few names on her. “Wet brain!” she said, and put the phone back where it belonged. But I wanted to talk to her now. Something had to be done about my stuff. I still had things at her house, too.
One of the guys here is a guy who travels. He goes to Europe and the Middle East. That’s what he says, anyway. Business, he says. He also says he has his drinking under control and doesn’t have any idea why he’s here at Frank Martin’s. But he doesn’t remember getting here. He laughs about it, about his not remembering. “Anyone can have a blackout,” he says. “That doesn’t prove a thing.” He’s not a drunk — he tells us this and we listen. “That’s a serious charge to make,” he says. “That kind of talk can ruin a good man’s prospects.” He further says that if he’d only stick to whiskey and water, no ice, he’d never get “intoxicated” — his word — and have these blackouts. It’s the ice they put into your drink that does it. “Who do you know in Egypt?” he asks me. “I can use a few names over there.”
For New Year’s Eve dinner Frank Martin serves steak and baked potato. A green salad. My appetite’s coming back. I eat the salad. I clean up everything on my plate and I could eat more. I look over at Tiny’s plate. Hell, he’s hardly touched anything. His steak is just sitting there getting cold. Tiny is not the same old Tiny. The poor bastard had planned to be at home tonight. He’d planned to be in his robe and slippers in front of the TV, holding hands with his wife. Now he’s afraid to leave. I can understand. One seizure means you’re a candidate for another. Tiny hasn’t told any more nutty stories on himself since it happened. He’s stayed quiet and kept to himself. Pretty soon I ask him if I can have his steak, and he pushes his plate over to me.
They let us keep the TV on until the New Year has been rung in at Times Square. Some of us are still up, sitting around the TV, watching the crowds on the screen, when Frank Martin comes in to show us his cake. He brings it around and shows it to each of us. I know he didn’t make it. It’s a God-damned bakery cake. But still it’s a cake. It’s a big white cake. Across the top of the cake there’s writing in pink letters. The writing says “Happy New Year — 1 Day At A Time.”
“I don’t want any stupid cake,” says the guy who goes to Europe and the Middle East. “Where’s the champagne?” he says, and laughs.
We all go into the dining room. Frank Martin cuts the cake. I sit next to J.P. J.P. eats two pieces and drinks a Coke. I eat a piece and wrap another piece in a napkin, thinking of later.
J.P. lights a cigarette — his hands are steady now — and he tells me his wife is coming to visit him in the morning. The first day of the New Year.
“That’s great,” I say. I nod. I lick the frosting off my finger. “That’s good news, J.P.”
“I’ll introduce you,” he says.
“I look forward to it,” I say.
We say good night. We say Happy New Year. Sleep well. I use a napkin on my fingers. We shake hands.
I go to the pay phone once more, put in a dime, and call my wife collect. But nobody answers this time, either. I think about calling my girlfriend, and I’m dialing her number when I realize I don’t want to talk to her. She’s probably at home watching the same thing on TV that I’ve been watching. But maybe she isn’t. Maybe she’s out. Why shouldn’t she be? Anyway, I don’t want to talk to her. I hope she’s O.K. But if she has something wrong with her I don’t want to know about it. Not now.
In any case, I won’t talk to her tonight.
After breakfast J.P. and I take coffee out to the porch, where we plan to wait for his wife. The sky is clear, but it’s cold enough so we’re wearing our sweaters and jackets.
“She asked me if she should bring the kids,” J.P. says. “I told her she should keep the kids at home. Can you imagine? My God, I don’t want my kids up here.”
We use the coal bucket for an ashtray. We look across the valley where Jack London used to live. We’re drinking more coffee, when this car turns off the road and comes down the drive.
“That’s her!” J.P. says. He puts his cup next to his chair. He gets up and goes down the steps to the drive.
I see this woman stop the car and set the brake. I see J.P. open the car door. I watch her get out, and I see them embrace. They hug each other.
I look away. Then I look back. J.P. takes the woman’s arm and they come up the stairs. This woman has crawled into chimneys. This woman broke a man’s nose once. She has had two kids, and much trouble, but she loves this man who has her by the arm. I get up from the chair.
“This is my friend,” J.P. says to his wife. “Hey, this is Roxy.”
Roxy takes my hand. She’s a tall, good-looking woman in a blue knit cap. She has on a coat, a heavy white sweater, and dark slacks. I recall what J.P. told me about the boyfriend and the wire cutters — all that — and I glance at her hands. Right. I don’t see any wedding ring. That’s in pieces somewhere. Her hands are broad and the fingers have these big knuckles. This is a woman who can make fists if she has to.
“I’ve heard about you,” I say. “J.P. told me how you got acquainted.
Something about a chimney, J.P. said.”
“Yes, a chimney,” she says. Her eyes move away from my face, then return. She nods. She’s anxious to be alone with J.P., which I can understand. “There’s probably a lot else he didn’t tell you,” she says. “I bet he didn’t tell you everything,” she says, and laughs. Then — she can’t wait any longer — she slips her arm around J.P.’s waist and kisses him on the cheek. They start to move toward the door. “Nice meeting you,” she says over her shoulder. “Hey, did he tell you he’s the best sweep in the business?” She lets her hand slide down from J.P.’s waist onto his hip.
“Come on now, Roxy,” J.P. says. He has his hand on the doorknob.
“He told me he learned everything he knew from you,” I say.
“Well, that much is sure true,” she says. She laughs again. But it’s as if she’s thinking about something else. J.P. turns the doorknob. Roxy lays her hand over his hand. “Joe, can’t we go into town for lunch? Can’t I take you someplace for lunch?”
J.P. clears his throat. He says, “It hasn’t been a week yet.” He takes his hand off the doorknob and brings his fingers to his chin. “I think they’d like it, you know, if I didn’t leave the place for a little while yet. We can have some coffee inside,” he says.
“That’s fine,” she says. Her eyes light on me once more. “I’m glad Joe’s made a friend here. Nice to meet you,” she says again.
They start to go inside. I know it’s a foolish thing to do, but I do it anyway. “Roxy,” I say. And they stop in the doorway and look at me. “I need some luck,” I say. “No kidding. I could do with a kiss myself.”
J.P. looks down. He’s still holding the doorknob, even though the door is open. He turns the doorknob back and forth. He’s embarrassed. I’m embarrassed, too. But I keep looking at her. Roxy doesn’t know what to make of it. She grins. “I’m not a sweep anymore,” she says. “Not for years. Didn’t Joe tell you? What the hell. Sure, I’ll kiss you.
Sure. For luck.”
She moves over, she takes me by the shoulders — I’m a big man — and she plants this kiss on my lips. “How’s that?” she says.
“That’s fine,” I say.
“Nothing to it,” she says. She’s still holding me by the shoulders. She’s looking me right in the eyes. “Good luck,” she says, and then she lets go of me.
“See you later, pal,” J.P. says. He opens the door all the way, and they go inside.
I sit down on the front steps and light a cigarette. I watch what my hand does, then I blow out the match. I’ve got a case of the shakes. I started out with them this morning. This morning I wanted something to drink. It’s depressing, and I didn’t say anything about it to J.P. I try to put my mind on something else and for once it works.
I’m thinking about chimney sweeps — all that stuff I heard from J.P. — when for some reason I start to think about the house my wife and I lived in just after we were married. That house didn’t have a chimney — hell, no — so I don’t know what makes me remember it now. But I remember the house and how we’d only been in there a few weeks when I heard a noise outside one morning and woke up. It was Sunday morning and so early it was still dark in the bedroom. But there was this pale light coming in from the bedroom window. I listened. I could hear something scrape against the side of the house. I jumped out of bed and went to the window.
“My God!” my wife says, sitting up in bed and shaking the hair away from her face. Then she starts to laugh. “It’s Mr. Venturini,” she says.
“The landlord. I forgot to tell you. He said he was coming to paint the house today. Early. Before it gets too hot. I forgot all about it,” she says, and laughs some more. “Come on back to bed, honey. It’s just the landlord.”
“In a minute,” I say.
I push the curtain away from the window. Outside, this old guy in white coveralls is standing next to his ladder. The sun is just starting to break above the mountains. The old guy and I look each other over. It’s the landlord, all right — this old guy in coveralls. But his coveralls are too big for him. He needs a shave, too. And he’s wearing this baseball cap to cover his bald head. God damn it, I think, if he isn’t a weird old hombre, then I’ve never seen one. And at that minute a wave of happiness comes over me that I’m not him — that I’m me and that I’m inside this bedroom with my wife. He jerks his thumb toward the sun. He
pretends to wipe his forehead. He’s letting me know he doesn’t have all that much time. The old duffer breaks into a grin. It’s then I realize I’m naked. I look down at myself. I look at him again and shrug. I’m smiling. What’d he expect?
My wife laughs. “Come on” she says. “Get back in this bed. Right now. This minute. Come on back to bed.”
I let go of the curtain. But I keep standing there at the window. I can see the landlord nod to himself as if to say, “Go on, sonny, go back to bed. I understand,” as if he’d heard my wife calling me. He tugs the bill of his cap. Then he sets about his business. He picks up his bucket. He starts climbing the ladder.
I lean back into the step behind me now and cross one leg over the other. Maybe later this afternoon I’ll try calling my wife again. And then I’ll call to see what’s happening with my girlfriend. But I don’t want to get her mouthy son on the line. If I do call, I hope he’ll be out somewhere doing whatever he does when he’s not hanging around the house.
I try to remember if I ever read any Jack London books. I can’t remember. But there was a story of his I read in high school. “To Build a Fire”
it was called. This guy in the Yukon is freezing. Imagine it — he’s actually going to freeze to death if he can’t get a fire going. With a fire he can dry his socks and clothing and warm himself. He gets his fire going but then something happens to it. A branchful of snow drops on it. It goes out. Meanwhile, the temperature is falling. Night is coming on.
I bring some change out of my pocket. I’ll try my wife first. If she answers, I’ll wish her a Happy New Year. But that’s it. I won’t bring up business. I won’t raise my voice. Not even if she starts something. She’ll ask me where I’m calling from, and I’ll have to tell her. I won’t say anything about New Year’s resolutions. There’s no way to make a joke out of this. After I talk to her, I’ll call my girlfriend. Maybe I’ll call her first. I’ll just have to hope I don’t get her son on the line. “Hello, sugar,”
I’ll say when she answers. “It’s me.”