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He walked into the diner and went straight to the men’s room. When he came back around to the counter, the same Eurasian man — did he ever do anything but work? — nodded and got him a sweet roll without waiting for his order. “Very fresh this morning,” he said in an accent that seemed thicker. Charlie took the sweet roll to his spot by the phone booth and, sitting back down on the newspaper, savored each bite as the cars and trucks flowed past him along the Embarcadero. Something in him had shifted: this was where he was for now, so why not feel at home?
In the early afternoon, he picked up the paper and began reading the front page with its faint yellow stains. There was a suicide bombing in the Middle East, and a bank robbery in the Mission District. The state senate was debating the budget for the seventy-third day. A well-known local businessman, Leroy Sutter, had disappeared five days ago — this rang a bell: had he seen something on TV about it? He flipped the page: a bond measure to renovate the baseball stadium, soaring foreclosures on mortgages, the mayor’s affair with his daughter’s dance teacher. Somewhere in the middle of the sports section, Charlie dozed off.
In his dream, he was walking by the diner very late at night. It was closed but the owner was inside, making the next day’s sweet rolls. A bell began ringing, and Charlie realized that he was looking into a bank, not the diner, and the sweet rolls were stacks of money that the man had laid out for a robber, whom the alarm had scared away. He decided that the money was his for the taking, and stepped into the open door.
The dream had been so absolutely real that when he woke up Charlie still thought the ringing bell was a bank alarm. It took a few moments for him to realize that it came from the phone, and another few moments to figure out that he’d better answer it quick.
Vitek’s voice intoned in its familiar, measured cadence: “You are a bit slow in answering.”
“Mr. Vitek, how is my mother?”
There was a pause. “Who is this?”
“Mr. Vitek, please tell me what has become of my mother.”
“Oh, it is you.” The man seemed genuinely surprised.
“Of course it’s me. Please let me talk to my mother.”
“Is there a woman nearby — tall and thin, wavy black hair, with the long face and nose of a Modigliani portrait?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Please just answer my question. Is there such a woman in the vicinity of the phone booth?”
“Mr. Vitek, please, talk to me about my mother.”
“Excuse me, but I did not call to speak with you. Now if you will find the woman I have described and put her on the line, I would most appreciate it.”
“There’s no such person around here.”
“I don’t believe you.” Vitek seemed upset.
“There’s no woman in sight, except a couple young girls with their boyfriends at the diner.”
“You must have scared her away. How long have you been there?”
“Quite a while, but I never saw a middle-aged woman.” He thought. “But I fell asleep.”
“Fell asleep where?”
“Next to the phone booth.”
“My good gosh, she must have thought you to be a hostile derelict. You scared her away, you idiot.”
“Please tell me about my mother.”
“Please, Mr. Vitek, tell me something.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Is she in pain?”
“I doubt it.”
“What kind of answer is that?”
“A better one than you deserve.”
“At least you didn’t cut her toes off. I guess I should thank you for that.”
“Ah. Brazil nuts. I believe you saucy Americans call them ‘nigger toes.’ A disgusting term, but evocative nonetheless.”
“I would like to speak to my mother.”
“I don’t think she’s in the mood to talk right now.”
“Please put her on, Mr. Vitek.”
“You let her down. Betrayed is not too strong a word.”
“Mr. Vitek — ”
“Would you please check again to see if Mrs. Sutter has arrived?”
“She’s not here. May I speak with my mother?”
“I’m afraid she’s in no condition to speak just now, especially not to her disappointment of a son. Another time perhaps.” Charlie heard the telephone go dead. He caressed the handset as though it were his mother’s lifeless arm, stroking it softly and remembering the last time he saw her in her apartment. A great sorrow flooded his being, filling him up so that he thought he would either burst with it or drown.
Stepping out of the booth, he surveyed the street, thinking he might discover Mrs. Sutter, but there was still no wealthy, middle-aged woman in sight.
Charlie took a room in a welfare hotel in the seedy Tenderloin district. He figured the police were still looking for him, so he used the name Ralph Booth. He cashed out all the money from his checking and savings accounts, and kept the cash in little piles that he hid around his room. For the next three weeks he left the hotel only to walk the half-block to get packaged food at a corner grocery. He spent all his time in his room or, occasionally, in the lobby, in front of the TV with four or five other male tenants. He rarely spoke to them.
After those first weeks, he began venturing out in the evenings. It was almost summer. He would wait until dark, then step out the door, pick a direction, and walk. He walked without purpose or destination. It was his intention to see the city as if he’d just arrived, to stumble onto it, to discover it and learn it anew. He wanted to feel like an immigrant.
One night he wandered the streets near the Embarcadero. He saw on the clock on the Ferry Building that it was ten minutes to eleven, and found himself rushing to the phone booth by the diner. He stood by the booth, trying to look nonchalant, and waited. The diner was dark and looked completely empty inside; there was a For Lease sign over the door.
Sure enough, the phone rang at eleven. He heard the familiar voice: “Hey, it’s Serena. Are you there, Honey?” He recognized her voice, which now sounded unambiguously female: the voice of a depressed, middle-aged woman.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Baby, I’ve been missing you something terrible.”
“I’ve missed you too.”
There was a pause. “Charlie? Is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Jesus, Charlie, where have you been? It’s been so long.”
“I know — seems like years. My life has changed. You wouldn’t recognize me.”
“Are you okay, Honey?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“I think about you sometimes. Things with Edgar have gotten worse.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“They got better for a while, but now the whole marriage is in the toilet. We don’t even sleep in the same bed anymore. I’m in bed now. I’m calling you from my bed. This used to be his office, but now he uses the bedroom as his office. Even the kids know something’s wrong.”
“I’ve been through rough times myself. I live in a flophouse. I eat chips and processed cheese. Two of my neighbors have died since I moved in.”
“Jeez, Charlie, sounds like you’ve hit a snag in life’s river-ride.”
“I think I might have run into Hoover Dam.”