I call married people I know late at night and then don’t say anything when they answer the phone. Sometimes I hear snatches of conversation they have with one another before they replace the receiver on its cradle.
“Who’s on the phone?”
“No one there.”
“Is that guy at the office still flirting with …” The dial tone is loud and angry. Those were our friends Scott and Stacey. She’s seven months pregnant and they’re using the initials of a dead person to name their baby. I wonder if Stacey wears a negligee or just a long tee shirt to sleep in. And how do they decide who gets to sleep on the side with the phone? I wonder how it is with other people. The part they never let you see.
There is a reason I’m up this late but it’s not as simple as being an insomniac so I won’t go into it. I sleep late in the morning after Nathan goes to the office, but he doesn’t know this. I get my best hours between ten and about one thirty pm. I’ve got the routine down pretty good. I wake up with the alarm, then coffee and eggs for Nathan and move on to pick out my clothes for the day. In the bathroom, the shower runs but I’m not in it. I either count the linoleum tile on the floor or sit on the toilet lid and read the back of a tampon box. For a realistic effect, I turn on the blow dryer and while it huffs away on the counter, I put on a little lipstick.
During this entire time, I can hear Nathan chattering away to the parakeet in the kitchen. He only does this when he thinks I’m in the shower because he’s embarrassed for anyone to hear him.
“Pretty bird,” he croons. “Come on, say it. Say it.”
I dress without a bra and come into the kitchen looking like I’m ready to start my day. By the time Nathe’s car rolls down the driveway, I have the blouse over my head and the nightgown under my pillow ready to slip back on. This has been going on for three weeks.
I sleep until about two, then either go to the market or bank depending on whether we need food or cash. I keep my ears open for interesting conversation I can incorporate in my dialogue with Nathan later at dinner.
Once in the bank, I listened to an obnoxious elderly woman whine about a flat tire on the freeway and how nobody stopped to offer her assistance. That evening I was proud of myself.
“So, what’s new?” Nathan lifted a forkful of mashed potatoes.
“I pulled over on the freeway to offer assistance to a kindly, old woman,” I said. “She reminded me of your mother.”
Nathan looked at me and swallowed a hunk of potatoes. “I love you,” he said. A little butter puddled on his collar.
When I sleep during the day, I sometimes startle awake for no good reason. Because of the bird. It’s not that the bird squawks or anything, he’s actually pretty quiet. But I get these thoughts about his water and seed dish. Like they might be empty. Once a thought like this climbs into my head, there’s no going back to sleep until I check the cage. Today I have one of those seedless thoughts and so I pad barefoot into the kitchen. The bird is tinkling his bell and pecking his mirror. His dishes brim full. He looks at me with a cocked head as if he knows I should not be in my nightgown this time of day.
“Come on, say it,” I whisper. He perches on his trapeze defiantly.
I think about calling a married couple but most people we know are at work this time of day. I’m a little afraid to call a place of business and then hang up. People have things to do. Instead I call Nathan’s office and when his secretary answers, I almost ask to speak with him.
“Hello?” she says after identifying the company name. Then she says in a business-like voice, “I can’t hear you. Would you please phone back?” Before I hang up, I think I hear Nathan’s chuckle close by her phone. I call three more times to make sure. Nathan’s office is about 200 yards down the hall.
I look around the room and see the photo albums in the bookcase. Our wedding album is on top. Thick and white with a picture of our hands on the cover. Nothing else, just our hands. My hands look particularly veiny in the photo but when I check them in real life, they seem just fine.
I take off my wedding band and try it on my small toe. It fits. I look at my watch and realize the mail will be here soon. Maybe there will be a sweepstakes I can enter.
This is when I get my idea. The idea seems a little risky and strange at first, but the more I consider it, the more it seems alright. On a piece of paper, I write with my left hand in all capital letters.
“YOU LOOK LIKE A WOMAN WHO SHOULD BE IN MY LIFE. I’VE SEEN YOU A COUPLE OF TIMES IN LINE AND THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT THE WAY YOU FILL OUT DEPOSIT SLIPS THAT MAKES ME CRAZY.”
I set down the pen and reread what I have written. I giggle. The bird swings evenly, back and forth and whistles a little. I have never received a note like this, but now I think I deserve one. Once in the fourth grade, Mrs. Jerome had us make little mailboxes out of pink construction paper and paint red hearts on the sides. When we passed out Valentines, everyone needed plastic bags to carry theirs home in. I tucked my three neatly into my lunch pail and when my mother rinsed out my thermos, she found them.
“How nice,” she said, “to be well liked.” One of them was from Mrs. Jerome.
It is dark and I have loaded all the dishes in the dishwasher. Nathan is coaxing me to play Yahtzee with him. He has laughed off the note as a teen-age prank and told me there’s a lot of that stuff going around lately. He, himself has gotten a batch of phone calls at work this afternoon that drove his poor secretary crazy, he confides.
“Kids,” he says in disgust, then rolls five twos and shrieks, “YAHTZEE!” like they do in the commercial. That night I fall asleep composing another note in my head. A new note. A better note.
In the morning, I can hear Nathan from where I am sitting in the bathroom talking to the bird. He has given up on “pretty bird” and now has a new phrase.
“Call me a cab,” he says over and over.
There are 192 tiles in the bathroom if you don’t count where the sink meets the wall because those are cut in half. You can’t really count those.
After Nathan is gone, I dress and a button snaps off my blouse. I will sew it on later. For now, it’s okay to come undone. I am too excited about the note to fall back asleep so I sit on the couch with a pad of paper and a red felt tip pen.
“I REALLY CAN’T TAKE MY EYES OFF YOU. I FOLLOWED YOU HOME THE OTHER DAY. YOU HAVE A NICE HOUSE. DON’T YOU THINK IT’S TIME I SEE THE INSIDE?”
I take care in planting the note in the house. I pick a spot near the front door where Nathan puts down his briefcase. I forget what I do the rest of the afternoon, but the television is on and the clock moves. I get the mail. I only call Nathan’s office twice. Once I get his secretary and once I get Nathan himself, sounding annoyed.
“Hello?” he says, “Now, look here. You kids better knock this off.”
I think of something to make for dinner that I haven’t made in a while. I put some eye shadow on and when Nathan comes through the door, I have spread checks all over the table next to a calculator so it looks like I’ve been busy balancing things. I am ready.
It turns out Nathan doesn’t see the note right away because he is carrying a dove. It’s gray and has a broken wing. Nathan found it on the side of the street. Not in the gutter, but almost.
The dinner grows hard because Nathan goes to the store for some kind of special tape and an eyedropper. And of course a cage. You can’t put a dove in with a parakeet.
Later in bed, he leans over and says, “I see you got another one.”
“Mmmm,” I say and wait.
“Where do you find these things?”
I think for a moment before I answer. “On my windshield when I’m parked at the bank.”
“Oh,” he says softly and flips his pillow looking for a cooler side.
I think he will tell me to switch branches or something. He tells me to feed the dove with the eyedropper. Twice a day. He will leave the mixture in the refrigerator. I sneak out of bed and dial Scott and Stacey’s number.
The next day, I try my wedding band on a chain around my neck. It’s a little unpleasant to have something hit my chest when I make a sharp move. I wash my hair in the kitchen sink and afterwards reach in and pull out a tangled red clump. Actually, I could have just turned on the garbage disposal.
I feed the parakeet and let him flap around the living room. He lands on the curtain rod. The dove stays on the bottom of his cage and tries to spread his wings. He gets the taped one half way out and then opens his beak but no sound transmits.
I call Nathan’s secretary and listen to her chirp, “Hello? Hello? I think you better grow up,” she says. I call right back again because now I have the urge to speak to Nathan.
“Did you just call a moment ago?” she asks.
“No,” I say and think she has a lot of nerve accusing Nathan’s own wife.
Nathan gets on the line and he sounds like I’ve interrupted him from something important.
“What is it Nancy?” he asks.
“I’m having trouble feeding the dove,” I say.
“Just use the eyedropper.” I hear a pencil tap.
“I’m afraid to touch it,” I say. “It’s wild. It could have something.”
“Honey, do I have to come home from work to feed a bird?” Tap, tap, tap.
“I’ll figure it out,” I mumble.
“Use the gloves in the garage,” he says and I know he’s right.
“Yeah, I say. “I got another note today.”
“Okay,” he says, “I’ve got Stein on the other line. Just save it.”
“It was on the front door this time,” I say and make my voice rise. “He really does know where I live.”
There is a space before Nathan talks when I think I know what he will say, but I am wrong.
“Alright, see you at dinner. Make your famous roast chicken, okay?” He hangs up.
The parakeet lands on the dove’s cage and both birds look at each other. I get out my sewing basket and sew my wedding band on the blouse with the missing button. I try it on and it buttons up fine now. The dove looks kind of funny and small at the bottom of the cage and I think the parakeet may be frightening it so I whisk him off and watch him fly, a green blur, back to the curtain rod. I go out to the garage to find the gardening gloves. I have to move bags of Halloween costumes to get to them. Nathan likes to dress up and thrill neighborhood children.
When I come back inside, the dove is not alive. I don’t know what to do so I take a dishtowel and drape it respectfully over the cage. I can’t call and inform Nathan because Stein is on the other line. I call his secretary but hang up before she can complete the “O” in “Hello.” I do this a few times.
There’s nothing to do but write out the note that I have mentioned to Nathan.
I KNOW YOUR HUSBAND PLAYS GOLF ON SATURDAYS. HOW ABOUT IF WE PLAY SOME HOLES OF OUR OWN? JUST LET THINGS TAKE THEIR COURSE AND MAYBE TEE HIM OFF A LITTLE.”
I laugh because this new note is really pretty clever. I peek under the towel but the dove is still lying there motionless. I tear the note in what I hope looks like a gesture of disgust and leave the two pieces on the counter where they can easily be fit back together. I am buttoning and unbuttoning the wedding ring where there is a knock at the door.
Through the peephole I can see a teenage boy with exceptionally clear skin. He holds a paint bucket and looks straight into the peephole like it would be a camera lens and smiles. He is without braces. I ask what he wants and he tells me he is painting addresses on curbs for five dollars. I open the door and glance at his skin and into a bucket of clear red paint. I tell him six numbers that I want on the curb and he smiles showing teeth without fillings. From the window I watch him paint, his muscles flexing as he concentrates. During the entire time, he sticks his index finger in his left ear and pulls out something waxy.
When he finishes, I ask how much extra to paint a few red hearts on the side or our mailbox. He does it at no charge probably expecting a nice tip. He’s an enterprising kid and doesn’t stare at my buttons so I give him two dollars extra.
Nathan comes home later looking tired and out of focus. He instantly asks about the dove.
“Nathe,” I say, “It didn’t make it.”
“Oh hell,” he says and I think of his secretary answering her phone. “Well, what can you do?” He rubs his temples. “You try to help Mother Nature but she has her own plans. Let me get the thing out of here.” He lifts it gingerly out of the cage with the gloves. Nathan really cares about things like small animals and stuff. I knew that was a good sign when I married him. A gentle sign.
I am jittery and anxious because I have two things to show Nathan. Two things he can’t possibly stay calm over. But Nathan comes in already knowing the first thing.
“Nancy, why did you paint those hearts on our mailbox?”
“Hearts?” I ask and I am genuinely bewildered. I have truly forgotten about the clear-faced kid.
After Yahtzee, Nathan takes a shower. I dial Stacey’s number and say nothing. I hear the phone being shuffled and suddenly Scott is on the phone yelling at me.
“Look, you sonofabitch! You call my wife one more time and I’ll break your fucking face.” I hang up feeling tingly and excited. I think it’s because I have never heard Scott swear before, but I can’t be sure this is the reason.
Nathan has decided the best thing to do about my mystery person is to ignore him. Show no reaction, he says. Kids get bored with that after a while.
“But do you think it’s a guy who might try to rape me?” I ask seductively the next morning.
Nathan chuckles lightly and pats me on the behind. “You’re safe and sound, Nancy,” he says. “I’m a very careful person.” He leaves without bolting the front door. I remember last week when he told me to always lock his car up now that he has a built-in cellular phone.
I bring out the yellow page telephone book and look under entertainers. I have decided to have a singing telegram come to our door. I choose this idea over sending flowers because that seems so ordinary.
The first time the woman answers the phone, I hang up. But I call back in five minutes because the idea is worth doing. I describe to her exactly what I want and when.
“Who will be the recipient of Mr. Hunk’s strong vocals?” she asks.
“Nancy Spect.” I spell the last name. I give her my credit card number. “Can I request someone a little older looking,” I say, “Someone who couldn’t possibly look like a teenage boy.”
She asks me if Ms. Spect is a senior citizen? I hang up.
I can hardly get to sleep the rest of the day, I am so eager for Nathan to see this. I smile as I fill the bird’s seed dish until it overflows and mixes with the gravel on the bottom of the cage.
At the bank, I try to catch the teller’s eye but he is all business. I hand him a dollar and ask for four quarters. “Is there anything else?” he asks when I linger at his window.
“I would like a receipt for that,” I say. He snatches a scrap of paper and scrawls
“4 quarters given to N. Spect for a dollar bill.”
I am pleased because I know I will stay on his mind. He might even tell his wife about me over tacos tonight.
Back at home, I dress carefully. This will be my night. High heels are appropriate. I pull a red pair from under the bed.
When Nathan walks in, he notices.
“You look nice,” he says and I cringe a little. Maybe I should call this off. But I look at the moving clock and see that the telegram office has already closed. Soon a Mr. Hunk will be here singing “Love Me Tender.”
Nathan moves to the bird and whistles at it like a man who drives by a woman wearing a short skirt. I check my hem length.
The knock comes during the roast chicken. It is more of a musical rapping and I pull back the printed curtains near the table.
“Nathan,” I say, “That’s the car that always parks next to me at the bank.” I make my voice real shrill and staccato as I point to blue Mercury.
“Is that right?” Nathan sets down a spoon full of applesauce. I watch his arm stiffen as he throws open the door.
A man in tight black jeans and a blond mustache says my name like he’s been saying it for years. Then he sings, slowly at first but with projection. The napkin flutters from my hand as I look at Nathan who seems shy and embarrassed. Tight Jeans is using his arms now to emphasize certain parts of the song. I try to catch Nathan’s eyes to convey my fear over this total stranger bursting in on us, but he is politely giving Tight Jeans his undivided attention.
For a second there is blood trickling down Tight Jean’s chin and his hand grabs for the wound as he reels back, stunned. “You come near my wife again,” Nathan says, “and I’ll break your fucking face.” But when I look up, Tight Jeans is finishing up with a flourish and his face grins flawless. He has hit all the right notes for a magnificent ending. Nathan nods and gently closes the door.
“Nancy,” he says, “I’d like to talk to you.”
“In a second, Nathan,” I say rasping my throat. “I think we should call 911 and report these incidents.” I want my concern to be contagious. “Get his license plate,” I say as I run to the phone. On my way, I notice the seed dish in the parakeet’s cage is empty. When the police answer after three rings, I wait for a second and listen to our connection. There is a little static. I hang up.
Nathan has come into the room looking a little funny and small. He stretches out one arm as it if is sore.
“I’ve been thinking, Nancy. You have a lot of time these days, how about coming into the office with me.” This doesn’t sound like a question. “You used to type my term papers in college and you have a great phone voice. Suzanne is really bogged down and she could use the help. My office is only down the hall and I could keep an eye on you.” He stops now because his eye has landed on something. “What is that? Is that your wedding ring?” He points to my shirt and wrinkles up his brow.
I feel slightly tingly and excited and I don’t know why. I want to go and bake Nathan’s favorite apple streusel. But I don’t. Instead I imagine myself sitting at a desk down the hall from Nathan’s office. I will type transcripts perfectly at 95 words per minute and Suzanne will notice the wedding glint on my ring finger. People will call me on the phone and when I see the switchboard light up, it will be with my most business-like voice that I will say, “Hello.”