9.

Charlie sat with his back against the phone booth. He assumed the police were looking for him, but he couldn’t remember if he’d told Milero where the booth was.

There had been no note with the nuts. He had in fact spent the rest of the night searching the bed, then the apartment, then the hallway outside the apartment, until he realized it was past nine. He was supposed to show up in Milero’s office with a lawyer at ten. But he didn’t have a lawyer and he hadn’t tried to find one. He’d grabbed his heavy brown leather jacket and a pair of gloves and bolted out the door just in time to catch the nine-twenty-five bus, arriving at the phone booth twenty minutes later. He realized that if Vitek were to call, it would probably be at three, but he felt he couldn’t take any chances, so he waited.

At one, he went into the diner to use the men’s room and buy a sweet roll, then hurried back out to the phone booth. At two-thirty, a young man with a shaved head in an electric green suit got on the phone. He talked an unusually long time, getting increasingly loud and belligerent, until Charlie began to pick up bits of the conversation: the man was upset because his “shipment” hadn’t come to the usual “drop.” Charlie wondered if he was a drug dealer. At quarter-to-three, he couldn’t stand it any longer, and he tapped on the side of the booth and pointed to his watch. The man gave Charlie a quick scan with his eyes, registered disdain, then turned his back. Charlie came around to the open door. “I’m expecting a call.”

“When?” the man asked.

“Any moment,” Charlie said.

The man again turned his back, but Charlie could hear that he was winding up the conversation. The man walked away without looking at Charlie. It was seven minutes to three.

Charlie resumed his seated position against the side of the booth. Nobody used the phone for the next hour, and it didn’t ring. He realized that a patrolling police car had taken notice of him. It had passed twice, and was now approaching very slowly. He got up and walked to the end of the block and then around the corner, where he found a newsstand. He bought a newspaper and a bar of Belgian chocolate from a Middle Eastern man who smiled kindly but didn’t say a word. As he turned to head back to the phone booth he caught a glimpse of the police car at the corner, so he reversed his direction and continued on around the block. When he arrived back at the phone booth, the cops were nowhere in sight. He waited, on his feet this time.

Night came, and still no phone call. Charlie, afraid to go home, spent the night in the booth. At one point he saw the owner of the diner begin cleaning up, and he ran over to get another sweet roll. The proprietor, a heavy man with a Eurasian face and a gray ponytail, gave Charlie his change, then told him to wait a moment. He poured some milk into a paper cup and handed it to Charlie. “Better with milk,” he said with a faint accent.

At exactly eleven, the phone rang. A woman, probably in her forties, spoke in a husky, expectant voice. “It’s me,” she said.

Charlie, not quite knowing how to respond, said, simply, “Hello.”

“Thank God you’re there. I’ve been thinking about you all day. Jesus, this is driving me nuts. He wanted to make love to me tonight. I had to go through with it, but all I thought about was you. It was your tongue on my breasts, it was you inside me. I miss you so much. I’m not even sure if he’s asleep, but I had to call. I prayed you’d be there, even while he was doing me. I prayed I could talk to you. God, just hearing your breathing gets me hot. I’m glad you could get away. Can we slip off to Reno next month? I can just tell him I’m going to stay at Janis’s in Santa Rosa — I cover for her when she steps out on her floppy dick of a husband. I don’t know why it’s so complicated. But Christ, there’s the kids, and all the money issues, I don’t know.” Charlie heard quiet sobbing at the other end, then: “Do you still want me?”

Charlie thought a moment. “Yes,” he said, “I do.”

There was a long pause. “Ralph?”

Charlie spoke more vehemently. “Is Mr. Vitek there?”

“Who is this?”

Charlie didn’t answer. The silence continued for some time, until finally the woman hung up. Charlie crouched down on the floor of the booth and rested his face against his knees until he fell asleep.

10.

He kept the phone booth in his sight and earshot all the next day. His clothes had gotten dirty and disheveled in the past twenty-four hours, and perhaps because of this, he felt both more accepted and more ignored by the cops, by the guy in the diner, and by the two thuggish vagrants who made this block their home base. He ate nothing but sweet rolls. Three o’clock passed, then another sunset, with no word from his mother or Vitek.

That night, at eleven, the phone rang again. “It’s me,” the same voice said. “How have you been?”

“So-so,” Charlie answered.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I wish you were with me right now. I wish I could smell you. I want you like I can’t believe. I think I finally understand what tattoos are for. If I had your face tattooed on me, over my womb, then you’d be here, you’d be stuck on my belly, forever. That’s how it feels. I want your taste and smell to stick with me to the grave. It’s like some kind of deep pain, only I need it. Do you miss me? Do you miss my smell?”

“Yeah,” he said, feeling the sting of loneliness. “I miss you.”

“Do you miss having my breasts in your mouth?” Charlie didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing, but stayed on the phone. Each time the woman exhaled, he thought he could feel her breath against his ear.

“Don’t you just want to suck my tits? Don’t you miss it?”

Charlie, confused and forlorn, sighed. Then something inside him relaxed, and he felt his misery mutate into a lowdown carnal ache. “Yeah,” he said. “I miss it big time.”

“Tell me. Tell me what you want to do to me.”

“I’d like to be lying next to you right now,” he said as a pleasurable creepiness took hold. “I want to be there licking your breasts, licking you all over.”

“Jesus,” she said, “you’re making me wet. You’re fucking driving me crazy. I don’t know what I’m doing here with him. You’re so much better. You turn me on faster, you get me higher, you make it last longer. I love it when you do me from behind.”

Charlie felt his breath get short, heard himself say, “Yeah.”

“You love it too, don’t you?”

“I do, yes. I love slipping it into you from behind, like a wolf.”

“What’s your name?” she asked.

Charlie was struck dumb.

“What’s your name?”

“This is Ralph.”

“Yeah, right. Don’t fuck around with me. Give me a name.”

He felt a faint terror pulling at the muscles between his shoulder blades. “My name’s Charlie.”

“That’ll do. Call me Serena. Charlie, I want to fuck you something fierce. I want you in my mouth. I want your face between my legs. How bad do you want to fuck me? Do you want it bad?”

Serena’s voice had suddenly become dangerous, threatening. The sexy throatiness had lowered to a grating rasp — he wasn’t even sure if it was female. He didn’t respond.

“Tell me how bad you want me,” the voice said. “Tell me what you want to do to me. Make it rough. Tell me.” Charlie said nothing. The loud, uneven breathing continued for a full minute, then the phone went dead.

11.

Charlie was awakened by a cool damp feeling in the seat of his pants. A dog had pissed just outside the phone booth, and a small stream had trickled in to where he was sitting. He got up, went around the corner to where the Middle Eastern man was just opening the awning to the newsstand. Charlie bought a paper and went back to his daytime position on one side of the phone booth and sat on it, hoping it would absorb some of the urine from his pants.

He was facing south. The rising sun warmed the left side of his body. His breathing became a series of sighs: for some reason he felt himself, at least temporarily, begin to relax. The passing traffic seemed both musical and cinematic. The sky was as blue as Joelle’s eyes were the very first time they opened up and looked calmly into his.

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