All He Had To Do Is Call
(This is another story based on an incident in my own life; it's about a man I used to work with. rh)
He wasn’t crying, exactly. The tears were just seeping silently down his thin, deeply-grooved cheeks. He blotted the wetness with a mashed lump of tissue.
“I never did nothing to nobody,” he said. His coarse voice was quiet but intense.
“What do you mean, Cal?” I said softly.
“I never cheated on my wife, for one thing. And I could have. Believe me, I had lotsa chances.” He took a breath and let it out. “I never cheated on anyone else, either. Never stole any money. Never spread around a bunch of shit about anybody. Hell, I never even lied very much. ‘Specially not to people I know. It just don’t make no sense.”
Cal touched his forehead for a moment. “Funny thing is, I never prayed much, either. Now I’m praying all the time.”
“About what happened?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No, I never believed in that shit, praying for yourself. Didn’t seem right to me. I just want an answer, that’s all.”
His eyes swept the room, as if searching for something. His voice grew louder. “I musta done something to somebody.”
His eyes came back to mine again. I held his gaze. “You aren't being punished, Cal. Shit happens, that’s all. I heard you say that yourself. A hundred times.”
He shook his head and looked away. “It ain’t the same. This is goddam different.”
His eyes were blazing now. “This is me, for chrissake. Don’t you get it?”
“But it could have been me,” I said quietly. “It could have been Jose. It could have been Chris himself.”
“But it wasn’t,” Cal protested. “It wasn’t any goddam one of youse. It was me.” He looked down at his calloused hands. His voice was almost a whisper now. “You don’t understand. Nobody does.”
A puff of disgust erupted. “Fuckin Jose never even came to see me. Can you believe that? Him and me working together, every fuckin day for the past five years? And he don’t even come to see me?”
“Has anyone else been here?”
Cal shook his head. “Just you. And you and me don’t even work together anymore.”
Both of us were silent for a moment, lost in our own thoughts. Cal looked out the window. The sun was shining bright and hot. The sky was as blue as a turquoise ring.
“Maybe they just don’t know what to say, Cal.”
“They don’t have to say a fuckin thing. All they have to do is sit here for a couple fuckin minutes. Is that too much to ask?” His eyes were glistening, demanding. “Is it?”
I shook my head. “No, Cal, it isn’t. I don’t know why they don’t come.”
He dabbed at his eyes again and then dropped the wad of tissue on his lap. “They said six months, maybe less. Can you believe that? Six fuckin months.”
“Did they say anything about the shark cartilage?”
“Said it’s a bunch of shit. Christ, I don’t know. They’re probably right. But you can’t just sit here and wait. You gotta try something. Anything.”
His cell phone erupted, its announcement maddeningly upbeat, cartoon-like. Cal grabbed for it.
He nearly knocked over a glass that was also on the small, chair-side table. Water sloshed over the rim, splashing the open Bible.
As he snatched it up, the phone looked tiny and fragile in Cal’s large fumbling hands. It almost disappeared completely as he eagerly punched the talk button and then clamped the phone to his ear. His voice was suddenly strong.
A string of small faraway words quickly drained away the hope. Cal’s twisting face turned scarlet. “I don’t give a shit about the state police,” he yelled. “And I ain’t giving money to anyone. So fuck off.”
He hurled the phone across the room. It bounced off a flowered sofa and then caromed between two sets of stubby wooden chair feet. It disappeared under one of the chairs.
Cal’s wife leaned through the doorway. “You okay, honey?”
“Goddam fuckin phone,” Cal muttered. “Everybody wants money. Give money here. Give money there. That’s all they want. Goddam donations.”
She studied his face for a moment and then she glanced at me. Her smile was thin and weary; apologetic. “I’ve got to take Cal for a treatment in a few minutes.”
I got to my feet. “Of course.” I reached down and patted Cal’s boney knee. “I’ll come back tomorrow. Okay? We’ll talk some more.”
Cal stared at his hands as though he hadn’t heard me. “All he had to do was call,” he said.