Then it was night and ten-thirty. I had fallen asleep on the kitchen cot with the Progressive flopped open across my chest, and I awoke with the television news over and a young man with blow-dried hair shouting out at the end out the end of a Brewers rhubarb story; yes, and the phone was shrilling, too. Is it a terrible call? If I had had a body-guard his name would be Bruno, he would answer phones eagerly and say immediately, “The boss ain’t here.” If I had had a companion or an agent she’d’ve had a low, soft voice, would be ready with a wisecrack and then would have said, “We aren’t accepting calls at this time.” I knew it had to be the fourth floor hospital calling about sick-call-ins. I clumped across the room, finally, to the sink, and spoke into the phone: “Yes, ma’am, I’ll be in as soon as I get dressed,” my standard ten-thirty words.
On the other end of the line, Bob laughed, and behind him I heard the tinkle of glass. A human voice called someone’s name. Bob said, “No such luck, George.”
“Whoops, Bob, my lad,” I answered. “I can do what for you?”
“I wonder.” said Bob. “Is Milo by any chance sitting around at your place?”
“Milo? Certainly not. He knows better. Who’s looking for him?”
“Ah. Frank won a bet on a game,” Bob said glumly, as if he had just sold out to the American Nazi Party. “He made me call you to pay him off.”
“Tell Frank his shyness is a surprising new quality,” I said. “Tell Frank to try Milo’s number. I could be long distance. Somebody at that place you’re at should know the number.”
“No, see, George,” Bob answered hastily, “he don’t want Milo, he was finding out if you had him there, like, hanging around.”
“Well, it’s almost eleven o’clock, guys. I try to sleep at night when I got the chance.”
“God, you weren’t in bed, were you?” gasped Bob.
Frank had grabbed the phone. “Hey, Putz,” came his loud voice into my ear, “we’re just down here at the corner; you’re off work tonight, aren’t you?”
“Manner of speaking. It’s not like I want to throw the time away.”
“Listen, Putz, this is something. We got oysters. The owner here at this place just got back from Cape Cod and he drug all these oysters back here still alive in the shell. He can’t freeze ‘em – it kills ‘em, see? – So they’re all right here in our laps. Putz! You remember that time you drank down a raw egg in your beer?
“Cost you five bucks on the bet,” I said. “Who could forget?”
“Yeah, so now listen. Bob’s got problems tonight. He needs some friends. You still anybody’s friend, Putz?”
“What kind of problems?” I remember the time they gave me a pail full of problematic white bass to keep from throwing away perfectly good food. I was cleaning fish until midnight out on the back step.
“No really,” pleaded Frank. “His son. He got some bad news about his son, the older son, the son from his first marriage. Listen I can’t talk good, they’re right here close.”
“Something’s happened to Bob’s son?” I asked, as if I had a hearing aid with a defective battery. “Is he dead?”
“No, didn’t die,” said Frank, his voice fainter. “Damn near as bad.”
“Get hurt? Crippled? Car accident? Drug addiction?”
“No. Gimme a break, Putz.”
“If this is a lie,” I said menacingly. A night-time celebrity show was starting on the flickering television, the audience erupting in obedient laughter there in the sanctity of my kitchen.
“Ah, hell, that’s all right, let it go,” snarled Frank. “You got all your wheeler-dealers to take care of.”
“Don’t start,” I said, without conviction. The room suddenly lit with lightning from the west windows. Then close thunder. “Was that you, Frank? I said into the phone.”
“Will you cut the comedy and come down here?” he barked.
I thought: going immediately, I could pull out early, making a clear statement on my preference for solitude tonight. That way was better than refusing to go out at all, and have them come here knocking at the door having drunk too much and being in the mood to sit at my table for the rest of the night.
“I’ll take it up with the committee,” I said.
“I’ll come right over and pick you up,” offered Frank gallantly.
“My car is still running. I can pick myself up,” I answered. “And I have to listen anyway to that noise in the right front wheel.”