A ringing phone

Usually I forget my dreams within seconds after waking up, but this one stuck with me a while. The particulars have faded, but I remember the gist of it, because it starred my mother. Nobody else can give me that sinking feeling of being scolded, like Mom can and always does. 

It's been almost a year since she and I said goodbye at the airport, and she didn't know it then — neither did I — but I think that was goodbye forever. Mom's ongoing attempts to convert me, constant retelling of the same stories, and of course her never-ending reminders that I'm a disappointment in this way, and also this way and this way — enough already.

Thanks for changing my diapers, Mom, when I was newborn. Thanks for taking care of me when I was sick. Thanks for everything, and I'm not being sarcastic, I mean it. You were a good mom, when I was a child.

Now, though, I'm potty-trained, and no longer need a note to stay home from school, and it's tiresome and infuriating to have everything about me second-guessed, when the verdict is always that I ought to be better, and different, completely different from what I am.

Nothing I've done since third grade has been the right thing in my mother's eyes, and she never stops letting me know it — if we're in contact.

So we're not.

I love her, appreciate her, and wish her happiness, but I haven't called in a long, long time. Mother's Day is coming, but she's not getting flowers or a phone call or a card from me. She always complains that I don't write, I don't call — and I don't intend to.

My father is dead, so I've starting to think of myself as an orphan.

♦ ♦ ♦  

After my day pushing broom and proofreading at Black Sheets, I came home to the hotel and checked my voice mail from the pay phone on the wall, outside the manager's office. There were two messages from two men I didn't know, which is ordinary, because I'm the guy who'll do anything legal for $5 an hour.

The first voice mail was almost frantic: "My name's Gary Linton, and it's a long shot but I saw your ad, and I need help, tonight — like, right fuckin' now! Call me quick!" He left his number and an address, and the timestamp said he'd called less than half an hour earlier, so I could've called back while it was still sorta 'quick'.

But, nah. If it's an emergency, call 9-1-1. I don't like talking on the phone, and him giving me an address gave me an excuse not to call. The address was within easy walking distance, so I decided to walk there and introduce myself.

But first, I listened to the second message. "Hey, I'm John Bennett," said the voice. "I bought your zine at Epicenter Zone, loved it by the way, and I want to hire you." He said I'd be typing and vacuuming, and left his number but no address, so I called him back before dealing with the first caller's 'emergency'.

Bennett and I talked briefly, and I could tell that I wouldn't like him, but that's ordinary, too — most people bug me, either a little or a lot. I told him I had to leave, which was the truth — Gary had an emergency, remember — but I said I'd call again tomorrow, and we could arrange a time and place.

I hung up, and jotted a few a few details from the conversation into my notepad. Then the pay phone rang as I was still standing next to it, and being in a fairly good mood, I answered it. Thought I'd be taking a message for another resident of the building, and then tacking a note on the wall, but instead it was Bennett.

"Hey again, Doug," he said. "I forgot to mention, there's also some gardening work to be done in the back yard…" and he spoke of weeds and flowers, oblivious to my shock and rage until I interrupted.

"I didn't give you this number," I said. "I don't take calls here," and I almost said, "here at the hotel," but maybe he didn't know where I was, and I sure wasn't going to pinpoint myself for this man who'd somehow phoned me.

"Hey, don't get your tits in a wringer," he said. "I've got call-return, so I called back."

I didn't know what to say. I've heard that phones have that ability if you pay extra, but nobody'd ever used it to finger me. Eventually I pierced the silence with ice, saying, "Some people — me, for instance — think that's rude."

"Well," he said, "some people are assholes."

I hung up and, still rattled, stood there and stared at the phone. Almost instantly, it rang again, but I was done talking to that ass, so I lifted the receiver an inch, only to hang it up again. Then I walked halfway up the stairs, and stopped at the landing to think.

Call-return. It's useful, I suppose, if you get a crank call, or if someone hangs up before you get to the phone. You push a few buttons, and the machinery rings back the person who'd last called. But I didn't want that person to be me, and then — ring ring.

He was calling me back, again. And I sure as shit ain't doing John Bennett's typing, or vacuuming, or weeding his garden.

Ring, ring. There's a reason I don't have a phone. I kinda hate phones, and don't want one ringing while I'm asleep or writing or relaxing. I abhor the interruptions, so I would never give anyone the number for the hotel's pay phone — I don't even know the number.

And yet it was ringing, and it was for me.

I was standing on the landing, which seemed unwise and exposed, so I walked the rest of the way up the stairs to the second floor. From there, I couldn't see the pay phone, but I could still hear it ringing. Ring, ring.

I was panicked and felt cornered and unsure what to do. I could've gone back downstairs, answered it, and told John Bennett I would kill him if he ever called again. It would've been the truth, too, but I was frozen solid, paralyzed, and I didn't do that, didn't do anything.

How long the phone had been ringing I don't know, but Mr Patel came out of his office and answered, "Hotel McMillan," so now this psychopath on the phone knows where I live. 

"Doug Howard?" the landlord asked. "Olland?" Pause. "Holland?" Another pause. "What room is that?" Pause again. "2386?" he said, astonished. "This is a four-story hotel."

I relaxed enough to slightly smile. 2386 is not a hotel room, it's the box number at my maildrop, and the maildrop has nothing to do with the hotel.

"Just a moment," Mr Patel sighed into the phone, and I heard footsteps as he walked back to his office. After a lot of silence, maybe the rustling of pages in the hotel's registration book or maybe I imagined that, he came back to the phone and said, "No, nobody named 'Holland' here," and I smiled again. Holland is my pen name, not a name I'd rent a room under. 

After another pause, I heard Mr Patel's patience evaporate. "You want this hotel's address? Absolutely not. Nobody named Holland lives here, and you sound like someone trying to make trouble. I do not tolerate trouble," and then came the resounding smash of the receiver coming down with enthusiasm. 

I waited a few more minutes at the top of the stairs, but the phone didn't ring again.

Maybe, just maybe, I'd been a bit rude when Bennett used call-return to ring the pay phone, the first time. Ordinary people use call-return, and ordinary people don't mind getting phone calls, so you could've convinced me that I was the one who was out of line — but not after his second call. And not after listening to him pester the landlord, trying to reach me again after I'd hung up, twice.

Mr Patel will never know it, but he may have saved a man's life tonight. Not mine. John Bennett's.

I'm not sure I've ever seriously, literally thought about choking the life out of someone before, but it wasn't a joke or hyperbole when I wrote on the previous page, "I would kill him if he ever called again." And the invitation still stands.

This hotel is where I sew up the rips in my sanity every night, and I am not particularly good at that kind of seam work. Things are a little tattered, OK?

Try intruding on me here, shattering the only solitude I have in the world, and you're pushing me into a dangerous place. I don't know whether I'm capable of violence, but if you come after me on my home turf we'll find out.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Up in my room I seethed for a while, before remembering the first voice-mail's 'emergency'. As much to calm myself as to find a gig, I walked to the address that Gary had left on my voice mail. I was expecting a house or an apartment, but the address was a tavern.

I was still on edge from the phone intimidation, but like a bad joke, "a fat guy walks into a bar…". It was mostly empty inside, with half a dozen men scattered at stools and at tables, watching a baseball game on TV and drinking beer.

To the bartender, I said, "I'm Doug."

"Happy to hear it," he said. "What are you drinking?"

"I'm not drinking. Maybe I'm working. Are you Gary?"

"Fuck yeah, I'm Gary. You're the guy who does anything?"

"Legal," I said, "for five bucks an hour."

"Fuck I am glad to see ya," he said and was. "My regular guy fuckin' quit on me, and my weekend guy doesn't have a phone, so I'm like totally fucked." He motioned me toward the back room, where an elderly woman was washing beer glasses. "This is my mother," he said, "and she fuckin' does not want to be here. You'll be the dishwasher and mopman and whatever else comes along, and fuck, I hope you can start right now."

"Well, fuck," I said, quickly learning the lingo, "why the fuck not?" To his mother I said, "Guess you're free to go," and she handed me the washrag. No Hobart here, which Dishwasher Pete says is the best industrial dishwashing machine. There was no machine at all, except me, and I washed a lot of dishes, mostly glasses, until 2:30, half an hour after the bar had closed. I also mopped up some spills and plungered the toilet.

There hadn't been many people when my surprise shift started at 4:30 or so, and it was Monday night so I would've guessed a small crowd, but I would've guessed wrong. Whenever I came out of the back room, there were more and more and still more people sitting and standing around the bar, getting loose and liquored and some of them getting drunk. At the peak, there were about 70 people crowded into what's really a rather small tavern. 

"Fuck," Gary announced at 2:05, after the last customer had left and the doors had been locked, "you did pretty good. I sure as fuck hope you'll be back tomorrow."

"Fuckin' A," I said. "Gotta work for someone else during the day, but I'm yours in the evening."

I'd worked 9½ hours without a break, and it had eased most of my anger over that bastard Bennett. Gary owed me $47.50 and paid me $60 in green cash, so damned right I'll be back tomorrow.

♦ ♦ ♦  

I have never used the call-return feature, but I read an article about it when it was first introduced. The software remembers the last call received, and it can return that call, but it doesn't reveal the number, and it forgets the number when the next incoming call is received.

So before leaving, I asked Gary if I could use the bar's fuckin' phone, and he said fuck yeah, and at about 2:40 AM I dialed that bastard Bennett's number. It rang a while, and when someone sleepy answered, I hung up. And with that, the hotel's number has been wiped off Bennett's phone. 

I said good night to Gary, and walked alone through eight blocks of slums. Turned my key in the door at the hotel, stepped inside and stopped to stare at the pay phone. In the future, I'll check my messages at the phone booth at the corner.

From Pathetic Life #24
Monday, May 6, 1996

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.


  1. Returning to the scene of the opening crime at the end of the story is a writing device you rarely use, and use to wonderful effect in today's reprint of Pathetic Life (A Ringing Phone). I chuckled through the whole piece, but also marveled at the writing craft that jumped off the page. Your Pathetic Life work is notable for its honesty and reporting of a difficult life in the Bay Area. Of course you're a funny guy and there are wise, humorous insights in your Pathetic Life writing, but todays was a full, smartly-written, enjoyable, hilarious essay. This is writing a full level above what a competent reporter of daily life could produce. This is fuckin' art.


    1. . . . and that was a good pickup, using profanity when talking to Gary but discarding it when speaking to his mother. Sometimes environment exerts a stronger force than genetics in establishing speech patterns.


    2. Compliments are appreciated, man, but I never know what to say except thanks. Thanks. :) You find insights I didn't know I'd inseen.

    3. Doug, I've seen you write that you frequently have a hard time distinguishing the good writing from the so-so writing from the really good writing. I've been writing all my life, and I know exactly what you're talking about. As your web friend, and as somebody who enjoys a lot of your writing it seems a small favor to let you know the pieces that really stand out for me. Of course, those might not be the same pieces for everyone who reads your stuff, but I exercise no control over that. When you write something that really sticks to the page and nobody else has said that, I let you know, not just to make you feel good, but to let you know that a piece really connected with me. I don't expect you to reply to that kind of comment -- I certainly don't expect a "thank you" because I was sending my feedback for the purpose of calibration. Of course, not everybody can write a 300 word piece that fully connects with someone under any circumstances, so I'm obviously also saying that, at least that day, you're an extra-fine writer.

      I think the piece we're talking about is national magazine level material, but it would have to be the kind of magazine that used fuck, fuckin-A, fucker, and several more inflections of fuck in their publication. That would exclude several Mormon monthlies and a few Catholic journals among others.

      Fuck yeah.



    4. I read the magazines, or at least the pieces that catch my attention, and sometimes I think my stuff is better than theirs. I got ego. :)

      But usually the next thought is that the publication should have higher standards than that, which is why I've let most of my 'literary' subscriptions lapse.

      I remember a sci-fi/fantasy zine that said they wanted "Catholic-themed" fiction. So absurd. Please give me a future where when someone says Catholic people have to Google it.

      Meanwhile, my brother is having his surgery today at a Catholic hospital, which seems so oxymoronic. Will they pray before cutting him open?

  2. IIRC, that place you washed dish was the Albion? Corner of whatever alley is on 16th, between Valencia and Guerrero? This incident was before I moved to SF, but I think you pointed it out to me once.

    1. Hmm, IDK why I'm A. Nony Moose, but this is in fact Captain Ham Fat Pockets.

    2. For commenting on the blog — and for no other function — Google logs me out of my login almost daily. It's just another bug they don't fix.

      I don't remember the name of the bar.


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