earache

Despite how badly the guy claimed he felt about his behavior, Elston thought he demonstrated even less dignity talking about it in a grocery store aisle so anyone in the store could hear him…..”

 

by t.r. healy

 

His wife hated to send Elston to the grocery store because he put into his cart whatever looked good to him. They were almost out of some staples, however, so she asked him to pick them up since she had to work late tonight. Reluctantly he agreed to even though he had planned to watch a hockey game on television.

Already his cart was a third full and he had only found a few of the items she had on her list. Still, he was determined to get everything she requested even if he had to stuff some of the articles in his pockets. Usually he forgot something when he did the shopping, but not this time he told himself. Everything she asked for she’d get even if he had to go to more than one store.

As he rattled down the frozen food aisle toward the bakery, he heard a sharp bark of laughter from the next aisle and looked over and saw the back of a hulking man standing in front of a stack of cartons of bottled mineral water. A palm-sized cell phone was pressed against his left ear.

“I guess I shouldn’t have done it but I did,” he said, sounding flustered. “I couldn’t help myself. I had to find out if she was being honest with me.”

Elston continued on, amazed at the things people said in public on their cell phones. Time and again, he had heard discussions of the most intimate details of people’s lives in elevators and shops and lobbies and theaters. They acted as if no one could hear them, as if they were actually at home in their bedrooms and kitchens instead of places surrounded by strangers. They weren’t naive or stupid, he believed, just indifferent, so accustomed to conducting such conversations with certain people that they forgot where they were sometimes.

The hulking man’s voice was so shrill Elston could hear it two aisles over at the sushi counter. He sounded contrite but also terribly aggrieved as he described the various places he followed the person he didn’t trust. Elston suspected it was the guy’s wife but it could have been a girl friend. Whomever it was, he felt betrayed by her. But he also was clearly embarrassed by what he did.

“I felt like a pervert,” he admitted to the person on the other end. “Like some damn peeping Tom.”

For an instant, Elston was tempted to turn around and push his cart past the hulking guy, just to see if he recognized him, but then decided to move on to the checkout stand. He was not really interested in him or his problems. And, despite how badly the guy claimed he felt about his behavior, Elston thought he demonstrated even less dignity talking about it in a grocery store aisle so anyone in the store could hear him.

*

Elston couldn’t resist the temptation a few months ago when he overheard someone talking on a cell phone on the third floor of Burton’s Department Store. He thought it was the voice of Libby, a florist he dated a few months before he met his wife, and immediately made an about face and walked in the direction of her raspy voice. Soon he found himself in the bathroom fixtures corner of the floor, moving through row after row of basins and sinks and faucets and tubs that were so bright his eyes hurt. He could not see her but still heard her, seemingly always just a few feet ahead of him as he strode past linen closets spacious enough to store a family car.

When he reached the escalator, he saw a slight woman descending on it with a cell phone in her hand. He didn’t think she was Libby, her hair was not as dark and was much longer, but still he followed her down on the escalator. Briefly, as she slipped the phone into her purse, she glanced around and he realized she was someone else, someone a good five years older than Libby. He watched her get off the escalator on the main floor, nudge past a group of Shriners, and move down an aisle of glass-enclosed watches and bracelets. Even though she was not who he thought she was, he followed her past the watches and down an adjacent aisle of fine perfumes and lotions, as if hoping she would somehow transform into Libby. She moved briskly, her hair bouncing against her sloped shoulders, and headed toward the Auletta Street Exit then out the revolving glass doors. He was only a few steps behind her when he barged through the doors and watched her cross the street against the traffic light and board a crosstown bus.

Grimacing, he slumped against a huge display window and watched the muddy bus lumber down the street. Suddenly he felt utterly ridiculous, a stranger himself, and wondered what had induced him to continue to follow the woman once he realized she was not Libby. Hope, he reckoned, pushing himself away from the window, or maybe boredom. He really wasn’t sure but was confident he would never do anything that foolish again.

*

Just the other week, pausing in front of a cigarette machine near a bus stop, Elston heard a gruff voice behind him snap, “Don’t do it!”

Guiltily he looked around, expecting to find someone from the office reprimanding him for thinking about breaking his pledge to quit smoking, but the only person he saw was a freckled man leaning against a lamppost.

“I told you not to,” the man insisted, casting a sidelong glance.

Elston backed away from the machine. “Excuse me?”

The man didn’t reply but continued to gaze in his direction as Elston stepped toward him. He was within a few feet of him when he saw the cell phone cradled against his ear and realized the man was engaged in a conversation.

“You want something?” the man suddenly asked Elston when he caught his eye.

“No, sorry.”

“Then why are you looking at me?”

“I thought you said something to me.”

“I didn’t say anything to you, mister. I don’t even know you.”

“My mistake.” Elston turned and walked back to the bus stop.

“Idiot!” the man said loud enough for him to hear.

*

Increasingly, regardless of where Elston went, people were talking on cell phones, even in places where they were prohibited. At times, he wished he had wads of cotton to stick in his ears but he didn’t want to look ridiculous so he struggled not to pay any attention to them. On a couple of occasions people he knew approached him to ask why he didn’t acknowledge their greetings. And he apologized profusely, saying he heard someone call his name but assumed it was just another person yakking on a cell phone.

“They are pretty prevalent all right,” a neighbor from down the street remarked to him one afternoon.

“You’d think some folks couldn’t survive without them.”

“Not for very long anyway.”

Late one evening, taking the bus home from work, Elston was seated almost directly across the aisle from a woman with cinnamon red hair who was talking on her cell phone. As usual, he strained to ignore what she was saying and paged through a crumpled copy of yesterday’s USA Today someone had left on the floor. It was difficult, though, because the woman appeared quite agitated with tears gathering in the corners of her spaniel brown eyes.

“You know damn well I can’t afford that, Ray,” she said in a gravelly voice, scrunching her legs under her on the cracked leather seat. “I’m already working myself ragged to make ends meet. I can’t do anymore than what I’m already doing.”

He glanced over at her as she listened to Ray, amazed how bright her eyes were in the pale wedge of twilight blazing through the window.

“That’s impossible.”

Listening, she touched the corners of her eyes with the back of her sleeve.

“If I do that, I’ll have nothing. I might as well be out on the street.”

Elston tried not to listen but he couldn’t help it as her voice gradually rose above the thrumming bus tires.

“Tomorrow?” she asked.

Idly he turned another page of the paper.

“I’ll be there. Nine o’clock sharp. At … Square.”

He didn’t make out where she said she would meet Ray and was tempted to ask her but knew she would look at him with contempt and tell him to mind his own business.

She reached for her purse as if she had completed the call but continued to hold the phone against her ear.

“I know what’ll happen if I don’t come. I know it only too well.”

He watched her close the lid of her phone, still wondering where she was going to be tomorrow night at nine. There had to be half a dozen squares located downtown that could be the place, maybe a few more he didn’t know about. He didn’t care, though, it was none of his concern.

So he told himself after he got home but he just couldn’t get the telephone call out of his head. The more he tried not to think about it, the more he did. Even the next day at work he caught himself thinking about the desperation in her voice. She didn’t appear to be someone on the wrong side of the law but Elston suspected this guy Ray probably was and he was afraid Ray was threatening to draw her over to his side. Somehow he wished there was something he could do to prevent her from keeping the appointment. He knew it was none of his business, she was a perfect stranger like all the other people he heard talking on cell phones, but he could not help but worry about what was going to happen tonight.

*

That evening, after watching Wheel of Fortune on television, Elston got in his car and drove to the nearby Chevron station to fill his gas tank before the rates got any higher. Then he swung by Ainsworth Square and cruised around it a couple of times, searching for the distraught woman he overheard on the bus last night, but he didn’t see her. He was surprised, figuring Ainsworth was a likely place to meet someone since it was right in the center of town. Many people were milling around the cobblestone plaza but not anyone who resembled her. Devereux Square was a mile and a half away, on the edge of the waterfront, and he went over there and circled it but all he saw were some derelicts sprawled across the steps around the fountain listening to a salsa station on a portable radio.

“Damn,” he groaned out loud, glancing at his watch. In another eight minutes it would be nine o’clock.

Next, he drove to Pennywell Square then Sedgewick then Van Brocklin but was unable to find her. He was frustrated and upset, as if he were the one she was supposed to meet tonight. Of course, if he saw her, he really wasn’t sure what he intended to do other than to watch and make sure Ray didn’t hurt her. He considered confronting the guy, or maybe just palming his horn to scare him away, he just hadn’t made up his mind, but was sure he would do something when he saw them.

Finally, heading back home, he swung by Ainsworth again then on an impulse parked his car and got out and walked among all the people gathering there. Perhaps he didn’t really remember what she looked like, having seen only her profile, but he was confident if he heard her voice he would recognize her at once. So, back and forth, he wandered across the square, listening intently as if everyone there had a cell phone clasped against their ears.

Originally published:
Issue Fifty
November 2007

 

(collages: john richen )


T.R. Healy was raised in the Northwest and has also lived on the Atlantic seaboard.  His stories have appeared in such online publications as The Bent Pin Quarterly, The Flask Review, The Houston Literary Review, and Shine.

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