"When would be good?"
Philip thinks of his life in New York, the way he asked perfect strangers over to his camper-size studio in the East Village at all hours. The buzzer was broken, so he had to instruct each one to yell from the street. "How about now?" he hears himself say into the phone.
"Now?" Melissa says.
He waits for her to tell him that it's too late, too dark, too cold. But she takes him by surprise.
"Actually, I've waited too long to tell you this. So now sounds good to me."
After they say good-bye, Philip presses the Off button and tosses the cordless back into the rumpled mess of the bed. The skin beneath his cast itches, and he jams two fingers into the narrow pocket of space just above his kneecap, scratching as hard as he can. His mother stares down at him as an onslaught of questions spill from her mouth like she's regurgitating something and she cannot stop: "Aren't you going to tell me what's going on? I mean, why the hell would that girl call here after all this time? What, she doesn't know how rude it is to phone someone so late? For Christ's sake, aren't you going to answer me?"
Philip quits scratching and pulls his fingers free from the cast, which looks more like an elongated ski boot with an opening for his bruised toes at the bottom, instead of the plain white casts kids used to autograph when he was in high school only a decade ago. "If you shut up for a second, I'll answer you."
His mother crosses her arms in front of her lumpy breasts, making a dramatic show of her silence. The other night he'd watched Inside the Actors Studio and one of those actresses with three names (he could never keep track of who was who) had talked about playing her part for the back row of the theater. That's how his mother has gone through life these last five years, Philip thinks, her every move broad enough for the people in the cheap seats.
"She wants to talk to us," he says.
"I dont know. Whatever it is, shes going to tell us in person."
"Now? She cant come over now. Its the middle of the night."
"M," he says. The letter is a nickname Philip has used for her ever since he moved home one month ago. Shes never questioned it, but he assumes she thinks it stands for mother. By now you might realize that it stands for that other M word: madwoman. His own private joke. He goes on, "Two A.M. is the middle of the night. Technically, it is still early evening. In New York, people are just finishing dinner."
At the mention of the city, she squeezes her lips into the shape of a volcano and shoots Philip a disgusted look. It makes him think of the only time she came to see him there, after the police called to tell her that he was in the hospital. She took Amtrak in. His father caught a JetBlue flight up from Florida. They had a Chase family reunion, right there on the tenth floor of St. Vincents as Philip lay in bed, the wound on his neck buried beneath a mummys share of gauzy bandages, his leg freshly set in its ski-boot cast, his body black and blue beneath the sheets.
"This is not New York," she says before turning and thundering back up the stairs, offering him a glimpse of her dimpled, jiggling ass through her threadbare gown.
A whole new meaning to the words rear view, Philip thinks.
When he hears the dull clamor of her opening drawers and slamming them shut, Philip reaches for his crutch and uses it to leverage his thin, aching body out of bed. The lights are off in the family room, but there are tiny ones everywhere: the red dot on the cable box, the flashing green numbers on the VCR, the blinking green light on the charger of his cell, the orange blur on all the dimmer switches. Together, they leave him with the vague impression that he is gazing out the window of an airplane at night. That image stays with Philip as he limps down the wide, echoing hallway. He takes the shortcut through the dining room no one ever uses, with its long mahogany table and Venetian glass chandelier, then crosses through the foyer into the bathroom beneath the stairs, which is about as small and confining as one on an airplane.
From Strange but True by John Searles. Copyright John Searles 2004. All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
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