by Mark Lucius
coffee, strong and black
The phone snapped like wire. He ignored it. So it snarled like a panther, but he lay still. Finally, before it could cut like a knife, he poked a hand through the darkness to the mobile on his nightstand. More noising. He realized the sound came from the landline they paid for but never used. He rolled over, opened the drawer, and withdrew the dusty phone.
She sounded far away, a voice fighting through a million hazy miles.
‘Always nice to hear from you, Ray. I just called to wish you a Happy Birthday…’
She had remembered?
‘…and tell you that night in Barstow – it meant a lot to me.’
For a moment he forgot he’d never been to Barstow and even as he recalled it pressed the receiver tighter to his ear.
‘Myrna, where are you now?’
‘On the moon,’ she breathed, ‘the side you never see.’
It felt like she’d entered the bedroom. He heard the clink of cocktail glasses and the clack of pool balls. People laughed and laughed. The scent of a cigarette, an unfamiliar brand, filled his nostrils.
‘I’m a singer now,’ she purred. ‘Just a traveling singer entertaining the cosmic troops. I’m up next. Wait, I’ll be back.’
He heard a high quavering voice through the din. When the piano player vamped, Ray considered how he’d gotten here. He recalled the time he had written a formal note to a Mr. Charles Greenman. Ray informed Mr. Greenman he would be calling on him to ask for the hand of his daughter. That night, Ray awoke in a sweat. He realized this meant Alice Greenman, who he did not want to marry. He hoped Mr. Greenman had another daughter, one he didn’t know about and could learn to like. He decided to write Mr. Greenman a second note to tell him of the mistake. But Mr. Greenman beat him to the punch. Ray’s phone rang at 6 a.m. sharp.
‘I’m sorry, Ray, but you can’t marry my daughter.’
‘Why not? Which one?’
‘I’ve only got the one, Ray. Alice is engaged.’
Ray felt like crying. There was a long silence. Mr. Greenman had been brusque but now seemed to soften. ‘Ray,’ asked Mr. Greenman, ‘what about Myrna?’
‘She’s in jail,’ Ray whispered.
‘Well, get her out,’ Mr. Greenman ordered.
Ray waited an eternity at the precinct house. He whiled away the time trying to figure how often he could afford to bail out Myrna. Maybe he could bail her out forever.
But now Myrna was back on the line, her murmurs reeling him in. ‘There are…billions of stars up here. Why doncha come up for a while? It’s such a nice moon.’
Doubtless he’d have considered the request, but Myrna’s voice came alive and turned urgent.
‘Ray, come. Please! They’re plotting to assassinate…’
There was a sound like someone hitting a duck over the head with a carpet beater in a phone booth. His phone went ‘bzzzzzzzz…’
A voice like a gong interrupted. ‘Sir, this is a company proud to serve you. The woman to whom you’ve been speaking has been—how did we say it in your youth?—temporarily disconnected. The call will be billed to you in a way you won’t recognize. We wish you a very happy birthday.’
Ray had been sitting on the bed, but now he got up. He felt old as Buddha. He padded around awhile, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Finally, quickly, he put on his hat and coat and gun.
He bent over his sleeping wife. She responded to his whispers and caresses. ‘Hey, I’ve got to go to the moon for a while,’ he said. ‘I’ll try to get back for breakfast.’
With sleep in her eyes, and a thin smile on her face, she stared at him for a long second.
‘Has Myrna been killed again?’ she asked.
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