Helped into the booth and yanked the phone off the hook.
“Yes?” I yelled.
But it wasn’t Peg.
“Who is this?” I said.
Silence. But someone was there, not two thousand miles away, but very near. And the reception was so clear, I could hear the air move in the nostrils and mouth of the quiet one at the other end.
“Well?” I said. Silence. And the sound that waiting makes on a telephone line. Whoever it was had his mouth open, close to the receiver.
Jesus God, I thought, this can’t be a heavy-breather calling me in a phone booth. People don’t call phone booths! No one knows this is my private office.
Silence. Breath. Silence. Breath.
I swear that cool air whispered from the receiver and froze my ear.
“No, thanks,” I said.
And hung up.
I was halfway across the street, jogging with my eyes shut, when I heard the phone ring again.
I stood in the middle of the street, staring back at the phone, afraid to go touch it, afraid of the breathing.
But the longer I stood there in danger of being run down, the more the phone sounded like a funeral phone calling from a burial ground with bad telegram news. I had to go pick up the receiver.
“She’s still alive,” said a voice.
“Peg?” I yelled.
“Take it easy,” said Elmo Crumley.
I fell against the side of the booth, fighting for breath, relieved but angry.
“Did you call a moment ago?” I gasped. “How’d you know this number?”
“Everyone in the whole goddamn town’s heard that phone ring and seen you jumping for it.”
“The canary lady. Checked her late last night…”
“That was last night.”
“That’s not why I’m calling, damn it. Get over to my place late this afternoon. I might just rip your skin off.”
“Three o’clock in the morning, what were you doing standing outside my house?”
“You better have a good alibi, by God. I don’t like being spooked. I’ll be home around five. If you talk fast you get maybe a beer. If you bat an eye, I kick ass.”
“Crumley!” I yelled.
“Be there.” And he hung up.
I walked slowly back toward my front door.
The phone rang again.
Or the man with cold ice in his breath?
Or Crumley being mean?
I banged the door open, jumped in, slammed it, and then, with excruciating patience, rolled a fresh white sheet of Elmo Crumley into my Underwood and forced him to say only nice things to me.
Ten thousand tons of fog poured over Venice and touched at my windows and came in under the cracks in the door.
Every time it is a damp drear November in my soul I know it is high time to go from the sea again, and let someone cut my hair.
There is a thing in haircutting that assuages the blood and calms the heart and makes the nerves serene.
Beyond that, I heard the old man stumbling out of the morgue in the back of my mind, wailing, “My God, who gave him that awful haircut?”
Cal, of course, had done that awful job. So I had several reasons to go visit. Cal, the worst barber in Venice, maybe the world, but cheap, called across the tidal waves of fog, waiting with his dull scissors, brandishing his Bumblebee Electric clippers that shocked and stunned poor writers and innocent customers who wandered in.
Cal, I thought. Snip away the darkness.
Short in front. So I can see.
Short on the sides. So I can hear.
Short in back. So I can feel things creeping up on me.
But I didn’t make it to Cal’s, just then.
As I stepped out of my apartment into the fog, a parade of great dark elephants went by on Windward Avenue. Which is to say a pavane of black trucks with huge cranes and immense pile-pullers on the back. They were in full thunder, and heading for the pier to knock it down, or begin to knock it down. The rumors had been afloat for months. And now the day was here. Or tomorrow morning at the latest.
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