Friday, April 15, 2011

Mr. Telephone Man

Edwin Balder staggered into his bedroom, turned on the light, and fell onto the bed. What a night, he thought, before he was able to take in the cacophony of sound that surrounded him at such an ungodly hour as this. It wasn’t rap that Molly Brown had playing this time, but some kind of screeching metal music with wailing guitars and the kind of bass that might as well make it your standard hip-hop song. To make matters worse, Molly’s bedsprings began vibrating and pounding down on Edwin’s ceiling in a torrent of sound. Bounce, bounce, bounce-wacka-bounce. Bounce, bounce, bounce-wacka-bounce. He heard Molly scream and Matt Joyless moan as if someone were beating him instead of copulating with him. Edwin had no choice but to put his pillow over his head and wait for it to stop, which it did, in less than two minutes. Then the music stopped and he heard voices, the muted, banal conversation of the unsatisfied. Edwin heard Molly get out of bed and pound across her room as was her fashion. There was a brief silence and then her toilet flushed. Edwin felt as though he were going to be sick.

He managed to get back out of bed and stumble into the living room. The Chinese woman’s television was on low, so it only hummed. Edwin heard bedsprings above him again and felt as though he were being taunted by some cruel spirit, but it was only Gerhardt turning in his lonely, sexless bed. Edwin sighed. It had been quite a night, he thought a second time, as he picked his ancient, cordless phone up off its stand. He dialed Lawson Thomas’ number as he walked into the kitchen, intent on fixing himself one last scotch before it was time to retire from the horror show that had been this day.

“Hello?’ Lawson said in a muffled, exhausted voice.

“Don’t hello me, Benedict Arnold!” Edwin spat into the phone. He took a sip on his scotch and water, and hoped that he had been loud enough.


“Don’t mom me. You know damned well who this is, you lousy Tory.”

“Edwin, what in the hell do you want? It’s…” Lawson was silent a moment. “It’s almost four in the morning.”

“As good as any a time to call my back stabbing ex-best friend.”

“I have to get up in an hour to jog.”

“Not my concern,” Edwin said, taking his phone and his drink into the living room. “At least you slept this evening. I just got home and I was forced to listen to wild kingdom raining down on me in my bedroom.”


“Never you mind, Benedict. It was a pathetic display of underdeveloped machismo anyway. I hope the harlot was left unsatisfied and embarrassed in her musical choice.”


“Rap would’ve been so much more preferable,” Edwin said.

“Look, man, I have no clue what you’re talking about. If you don’t get to the point I’m hanging the fuck up,” Lawson said.

Edwin stopped short. Lawson rarely swore at him. He usually kept his invective reserved for The Man. “You know exactly what I mean.”

“I assure you that I don’t.”

Edwin has more scotch. “When were you going to tell me that Natalie was back in town and working at Hunter College? The next time I stopped by for one of those cafeteria lunches that you’re always bragging about?”

Lawson sighed. Edwin could almost picture him on the other end of the phone, hunched over the side of his bed, head in his hands, and acting the role of martyr. “You’re assuming that I knew that Natalie was back.”

“She works with you, does she not? You two are colleagues.”

“Where did you come up with that?”

“I had a deep and fruitful discussion with my two new friends, Benny and Ivan, and we came to the conclusion that you’ve been holding out on me, Benedict Arnold. You’ve kept this vital information stored in that head of yours all this time.”

“You discussed this with two bar drunks,” Lawson said.

“They’ve been hurt, all right. And don’t you slander my friends that way,” Edwin said. “Explain yourself, man!”

“Can’t we talk about this tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow I’ll have forgotten your small existence.”



“Stop calling me that,” Lawson said. He was awake and probably pacing around his bedroom now, Edwin thought. Good.

“I’ll stop calling you that when you begin flapping your gums, and start spilling those beans of yours.

“I told you that I didn’t know Natalie was back.”

Edwin finished off his scotch. “But you know now.”

“Can we talk about this tomorrow, please, Edwin,” Lawson said.

“Now,” Edwin said.

“Who is that?” Edwin heard a voice say.

“It’s Edwin,” Lawson said to the voice.

“Is that Sour Bear?” Edwin asked.

“Mary’s here,” Lawson said. “You woke her up too.”

“It’s just as well. You artsy Brooklyn animals just can’t wait to get into the sack with the next so and so.”

“We’re dating. Exclusively.”

“Tell the little strumpet that playtime is over for the night.”

“That’s it I’m hanging up,” Lawson said.

“You do and it’ll be the last time we talk, sir!”

“Hold on.”

The other line went dead for a moment or so. Edwin thought that Lawson had hung up on him, and got up off his couch and began pacing his living room. Cars drove by. Buses roared up the street. Edwin looked out of his cracked, wooden blind, at the bright streetlights on 75th Street, and seriously considered moving out of New York City for the first time. There’s simply no peace here, Edwin said. To live in New York was to live with the dregs of society. Maybe it was just Brooklyn. It had to be better in Manhattan, he thought. Then Arlene came to him; beautiful Arlene with her black hair and blue eyes. Edwin suppressed the very idea of her, for it was Natalie that he still wanted. Still, it was a pity that nothing would ever happen between he and Arlene.

“Are you there, asshole?” Lawson asked.

“Well, haven’t we developed the keenest of vocabulary,” Edwin said. “Is that Sour Bear’s influence, or are you watching some urban crime thriller?”

“I was sleeping. But you want to talk, so let’s talk.”

“Fine,” Edwin said. “It’s always right down to business with you, isn’t it, Mr. Teacher?”

“You called me,” Lawson said.

“Oh did I?”


Edwin was silent a moment. “If you say so. Now tell me what you know about Natalie.”

“All I know is that she moved back at the end of the summer, and that she started teaching creative writing at NYU in the fall.”

“Ah Ha! So you do work together!” Edwin shouted. But then he remembered that Lawson taught at Hunter College.

“There’s more,” Lawson said. He was silent a moment. So silent for such a moment that Edwin’s heart began to beat faster.

“Spit it out,” he demanded.

“Natalie’s written a book.”

“So? I’ve written ten books in my head.”

“Yeah, but this one’s been published. On paper,” Lawson said. “Or you can download it on an E-reader.” Edwin said nothing. He took the phone back into the kitchen and poured himself another scotch and water. He opened the fridge but there were no ice cubes left. “Edwin?”

“Well, I’m not surprised,” he finally said. “Natalie was always creative and she had quite an intellect when she wasn’t so bogged down in being a woman. If anyone other than myself was to do anything on a creative level, I expected it to be Natalie.”

“I have four books out there,” Lawson said.

“Theory books,” Edwin laughed. “On college presses.”


“So where can I get her book? The campus bookstore?”

“Mary and I downloaded it from the Sony Reader Store,” Lawson said.

“How twenty-first century of you,” Edwin said. “And was it worth it? What did she write about? The trappings of being a modern woman with infinite choices?”

“That’s the thing, Edwin.” Lawson paused. “The book is about you.”

“All flattering I assume.”

“It’s about your relationship with Natalie.”

“That’s…” Edwin stopped himself. “She wrote about that?”

“All of it,” Lawson said.


“Look, man, I didn’t want to tell you this over the phone, not at this hour. I was going to call you tomorrow, or I was going to stop by.”

“How much of me is in there?”

“Enough, Edwin,” Lawson said.

Edwin downed his scotch and water in one gulp. Then he staggered into his bedroom and fell upon his bed a second time. He could hear the television from up in Molly Brown’s apartment, and she and Matthew Joy laughing at some stoner comedy that the networks only had the gall to play after the witching hour.

“Edwin,” Lawson said.

“Well, I’m sure I don’t know what to say right now,” Edwin said.

“Are you all right?”

“I…I just don’t know how I missed this. I mean I keep close attention to new authors. I have a standing subscription to McSweeny’s. I’m on the up and up with this sort of thing. I make it my hobby, if you will. Not only am I offended that Natalie Presley, for that’s how I’m forever refereeing to her, in the formal only, has taken to writing a tome about me, but I’m angry as an avid watcher of new literary talent, for not being first out the box in discovering her.” Edwin slumped into his pillow. “This is quite a load to carry, Lawson.”

“I know, Edwin,” Lawson said. “I’m going to come over tomorrow and we’ll talk or something. I’ll bring the E-reader if you want.”

“Don’t bother,” Edwin said. “And I mean that in the kindest of ways. You and your devil device, please spend the day with Sour Bear. I plan on being at the Barnes and Noble quite early tomorrow to pick up this slanderous piece of fiction. And then we’ll see whether or not I have a lawsuit.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Edwin said. “You are free to go about your business.”

“All right, man.”

“And to think I was going to give her a second chance.”

Lawson hung up and Edwin lay back in his bed, feeling repulsed by the very idea that Natalie Presley had written a book about their relationship. True, Edwin had often had flights of fancy where fame was concerned. He’d imagined writing a popular yet edgy novel numerous times, and seeing his name in all of the journals. In his head, Edwin has been interviewed dozens of times, and had squired and bedded so many young starlets that it would make the common man’s head spin. He’d even once imagined himself the lead singer in a famous rock and roll band or two. But these delusions, for as Edwin got older he knew that’s what they were, were always on his terms. They were not dictated by someone else. But now with this book people would know. They’d know all about him. Old friends would know more than they should. Acquaintances would be able to make assumptions. Of course strangers wouldn’t know a thing, but that wouldn’t stop Edwin from thinking that they were looking at him as he passed them on the street.

Oh how he both hated and loved Natalie Presley in that moment. Oh how he wanted to cry. But there was no time for that. From Molly Brown’s apartment the music started again. It was rap for real this time. What sort of callous little hussy played rap at four o’clock in the morning? Then the bedsprings started squeaking. Bounce, bounce, bounce-wacka-bounce. And Edwin got out of his bed determined to kill someone.

By some miracle, or by sheer alcoholic adrenaline alone, he reached the second floor of the apartment and Molly Brown’s hellish red door. The hallway smelt of marijuana smoke and you could hear the gross, sweating animalistic moans and grunts going on inside. The rap music thumped with power, and Edwin was truly surprised that he was the only neighbor in the building poised to knock on the door and create a scene. Had everyone else given up? Did no on care for the sanctity of peace and quiet? Edwin always had to go it alone with these community saving endeavors. He should just give up and let it all go to hell, he thought. He was just about ready to knock on the door when the panting, moaning, bouncing, and rap music stopped. Quickly he backed away.

“I heard youse!” Gerhardt shouted from his doorway. The old curmudgeon was already fully dressed. Gerhardt pointed at Edwin and sniffed. “Is that dope? I smelled youse smoking dope!”

“Surely, you don’t think that was me in there with that hooker?” Edwin said to his only other known enemy. “I was merely coming up here to complain.”

“You’re a drunk!” Gerhardt shouted. “A drunk and I heard youse having sex, and smelled youse smoking dope. I heard youse flushing your toilets and listening to Gershwin, and I’m going to call the landlord about all of youse!”

Edwin had no recourse but to run before someone heard Gerhardt shouting. He made it around the bend and down half a flight of stairs, before he realized that if no one heard the racket that Molly Brown was making, then no one would hear Gerhardt shouting. Unless it was reality television or some smoker’s dull soliloquy on the front stoop of the building, the denizens of this apartment were deaf to their surroundings. Edwin tried to stop running, but in his inebriated state he could not. So he tripped and rolled down the other half of a flight of stairs, landing on the very last step. For a moment he laid there. Edwin’s hip and thigh were burning. His knee on his left leg was throbbing. He wondered if this night would ever end. Then the super, Mr. Isaiah Sheppard, came by pushing a broom. He sniffed. Edwin knew that he could smell the marijuana.

“What are you doing on them steps at this hour?” Sheppard asked. “Meditating?”

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