“Give it here!” I shouted.
The flames were spreading.
“Shit, man, stomp out the fire, you’ll get the goddamn dumb number. Shit, hold on, jump!”
I jumped on the fire, dancing around. Smoke rose and the fire was out by the time Mr. Janus, the editor who faced two ways at once, found the number on his Rolodex.
“Here, goddamn it, here’s the crapping number. Vermont four-five-five-five. Got that? Four-five-five-five!”
I struck a final final match until he shoved the Rolodex card under my nose.
“Someone who loved you,” it read, and the telephone.
“Okay!” shrieked the editor.
I blew out the match. My shoulders sank with sudden relief.
Fannie, I thought, we’ll get him now.
I must have said it out loud, for the editor, his face purple, sprayed me with his saliva. “What you going to get?”
“Myself killed,” I said, going downstairs.
“I hope so!” I heard him yell.
I opened the door of the taxicab.
“Meter’s ticking like crazy,” said Henry, in the back seat. “Thank God I’m rich.”
“Be right with you.”
I beckoned the taxi driver to follow me out to a corner where there was an outdoor phone booth.
I hesitated for a long while, afraid to call the number, afraid someone might really answer.
What, I wondered, do you say to a murderer during suppertime?
I dialed the number. Someone who loved you, long ago. Who would answer a dumb ad like that? All of us, on the right night. The voice from the past, making you remember a familiar touch, a warm breath in the ear, a seizure of passion like a strike of lightning. Which of us is not vulnerable, I thought, when it comes to that three-in-the-morning voice. Or when you wake after midnight to find someone crying, and it’s you, and tears on the chin and you didn’t even know that during the night you had had a bad dream.
Someone who loved you . . .
Where is she now? Where is he? Still alive somewhere? It can’t be. Too much time is gone. The one who loves me can’t still be in the world somewhere. And yet? Why not, as I was doing, call?
I called three times and went back to sit with Henry in the back seat of the taxi, listening to the meter tick. “Don’t worry,” he said. “That meter don’t bother me. There’s plenty of horses waiting and lots of lettuce up ahead. Go dial the number again, child.”
The child went to dial.
This time, a long way off in another country, it seemed, a self-appointed funeral director picked up the phone.
“Yes?” said a voice.
At last I gasped, “Who’s this?”
“For that matter, who’s this?” said the guarded voice.
“What took you so long to get to the phone?” I could hear cars going by on the other end.
It was a phone booth in an alley somewhere in the city. Christ, I thought, he does as I do. He’s using the nearest pay booth for his office.
“Well, if you’re not going to say anything…” said the voice on the other end.
“Wait,” I said. I almost know your voice, I thought. Let me hear more. “I saw your ad in Janus. Can you help me?”
The voice on the other end relaxed, pleased by my panic. “I can help anyone, anywhere, anytime,” he said, easily. “You one of the Lonelies?”
“What?” I cried.
“You one of the…”
Lonelies he had said. And that did it.
I was back at Crumley’s, back in time, back on the big train in the cold rain rounding a curve. The voice on the phone was that voice in the night storm half a lifetime ago, saying its say about death and lonely, lonely and death. First the memory of a voice, then the session with Crumley knocking my head, and now this real sound on the phone. There was only one missing piece. I still couldn’t put a name on the voice. Close, familiar, I almost had it, but. . . .
“Speak up,” I practically shouted.
There was an interval of suspicion on the other end. In that moment I heard the most beautiful sounds of half a lifetime.
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