the phone began its menacing jangle.
I woke with an indigant, annoyed
start and flailed my free arm
toward the ringing.
Six rings...twelve rings...thirteen now.
"...ummMMMPH!" I ummphed, reeling
in the fallen receiver as I groped groggy
in the deep deep dark.
"I SWEAR IT!
"SHESAID IT! SHE CALLED ITWAS HER,
The voice on the other end was breathless
and frantic and charged with a
preternatural rush of adrenalin ---
there was a buzzing of wonder and of terror
in his voice, all at the very same time.
It was my little sib, oh dads, and I
figgered the spirits had gotten hold of him all
right (the incorporeal ones, 'natch).
The clock, ominously striking midnite,
was ringing in All Saints' Day, which
would've been her 99th birthday.
I shook the remnants of Halloween out of
my head, cracked the Genesee some
grizzly old crone had thrown to me ---
"...here! Trick-or-Treat for dads!"
---as I made the appointed rounds;
this year chaperoning a fairy tale princess
resplendent in netting and polyester lace,
and a hellish Orkin Man upon whom
the kingdom of buggies and beasties had
levied an exacting and
unmerciful insect revenge.
The fizzy suds flushed
frosty-cold down the old gullet, swooshing
around with the secreted Milky Ways and
Junior Mints and Smarties sloshing
together in my jelly belly.
These days you hadda
grab your faves outta the kiddie bags
as soon as the rounds were over ---
their inventory control systems were getting
tighter and achieving greater
accuracy as years passed, you know.
There were never any Mallo Cups anymore though.
I hadn't had one since she left, I guess.
My brother's train-wreck soliloquy came
to a screeching, violent halt. He was
hyperventilating, and I heard the click
of a Bic fire up a coffin nail.
"Grandma?? Grandma CALLED you?!?"
She had been dead for 26 years.
She was kind and rotund; as jocular
with the kiddles as she was grave with the
grownups. In her final year, she was
in the midst of the ruins of
her third marriage.
Her heart was as broken as her English.
Not a day went by without some glimmer of
her memory visiting me.
My brother, however, was two years old
when she died. He had no clear
recollection of her whatever.
That night, though, he picked up the phone
and heard the distinct rat-a-tat of
Hungarian punctuating the white noise of
phone squelch. Of course, we were fluent
only in the crudest of rude
Hungarian aphorisms and maxims,
but we were around the language enough
to know "The Magyar" when we heard it spoken.
A female voice, it was, and its urgency and
plaintive insistence in delivering a
single message over and over again paralyzed
him, mercilessly shaking his psyche.
He could not understand her words.
"...in English --- PLEASE --- in English,"
he pleaded, feeling a choking gulp
welling up in his throat, and flattening
the sides of his face with his hands where
the tears cut hot rivulets
of uncertainty and dread.
She stopped, seeming to hear him.
The squelch began undulating; softer, softer
--- retreating through the wire.
"Please, Grandma, PLEASE!!"
He had called her by name. There was
nothing but the phone and his diminishing
connection now, and he felt a wild
desperation seize him as the line noise
faded in and out.
He clenched the receiver harder and harder,
pushing it to his ear, pleading for
her to speak to him again.
But she did not, and the connection did
a slow fizzle to silence like
the final sparkler at a surprise party.
Seconds later, my brother and I were
there alone and together on the phone just
after midnite, and in our mutual silence
we thought about her,
and we thought about her memory,
and we thought about the Call.
He is haunted by her still.
Once a year on the eve of All Saints'
he puts his little gremlins to bed with
their candy bellies and their bellyaches
and he waits for the Call ---
but she has not yet returned.
Whether it was her on the phone or some
archaic switching system gone berserko,
the truth is that whatever
you choose to believe, my grandmother did
in fact appear to my brother that night.
He needed her to --- somehow he called
her, and somehow she came. The truth
is that she reached out and shook his soul,
and reclaimed a forgotten place
in his heart that was rightfully hers.
I envy him that, but I know he needs
her more than I do now.
Besides, I'm just old
enough to remember knowing her.
I can close my eyes and hear her Hungarian patter,
and the broken way she'd coo at me in
her faltering, halting English. I can smell
her freshly waxed linoleum, the aroma
mingling with the Sunday stuffed cabbage.
The Sunday paper, worn from
reading and (the juicy bits) recited aloud
to family members nonplused at those
troubled times, lined the path to the bathroom,
and I'd Silly Putty-up Beetle Bailey
while they argued that man would never
go to the moon, or while they
wept listening to a posthumous recording
of their fallen Kennedy idol on an ancient Victrola.
There she is, even when I close my
eyes on the bus bearing me away from the
tyranny of the day. I shut out the
strangers whose faces have become
familiar to me lo these many years,
and she comes to me with a newfangled
Beatle record and an embrace
I can still feel if I remember hard
enough, and Sunday dinner and kisses and
praise for Crayola scribblings,
abstract and heartfelt.
Just before my bus stop,
I reached into the recyclable blue
plastic bag full of Mallo Cups I had finally
found downtown that day after all those years,
tore into the candy
and let it all melt all
marshmallowy in my mouth as I floated,
free in an endless and timeless place.
God, it was all so good now --- it was all so good.