The rain had soaked him through, but the phone booth was dry. His quarter dollar clinked in the coin slot, and the rotary made a worn-out zzt-click when he dialed 0 for operator.
He listened, gave the number to the operator, got thinking.
It had been far too long since he'd called her. He couldn't say exactly how long it had been, but he had to do it now or he never would. He was caught up in all of this music business now, this touring across America, with all the wild violent flings that came with the wild violent shows. Sometimes, though, after a late one, he'd get back to his apartment and collapse in front of the television, too worn out for any kind of afterparty. When this happened, he let his thoughts about her swirl as cream in coffee swirls: lazy and somehow beautiful, though eventually blending with everything else until there is no longer anything special about it, it's just coffee that happens to contain cream because that's what you do with coffee and that's what happens with cream.
He opened his lighter—ping!—and the phone rang once.
Tonight a bundle of guilt had made its way into his stomach and settled there, and almost without thinking he'd stepped into this phone booth at a quarter of twelve. But what was he trying to accomplish by calling her up now, after he had already done her so much wrong?
His fear of commitment had never been fair to her. Never in the three years since their marriage had anything he'd done been fair to her. They had only gotten married in the first place because that's what people did, and she had always done her best to hold them together, but it wasn't enough, it wasn't right. Her efforts were like trying to drive a bus the wrong way down a one-lane street. What did he expect would happen? As forgiving as she was, this had to be the end of the rope.
He lit the flint. As the phone rang a second time he wondered vaguely if this American rain wasn't turning him into very sad bastard. He closed the lighter with a tinny clack, not lighting a cigarette, as the rain pattered outside.
Someone picked up the other line at last—
"Hello?" came a strange man's voice from the receiver.
The caller's grip on his lighter tightened and his heart seized.
The operator said to the stranger, "This is a collect call to Mrs. Pinkerton from Mr. Pinkerton, do you accept the charge? It's from the United States—"
click. Connection terminated.
Suddenly the man in the phone booth was nothing but words. He cursed the stranger out for going behind his back like this, at the same time pleaded for her to change her mind, a string of fragmented apologies falling out alongside sick threats. Recipient irrelevant, legitimacy uncertain, all clambered to punch through his teeth and shatter the gently raining air because despite all of his unfathomable agony he could not open his mouth.
The operator said to the caller, "I wonder why he hung up... Is there supposed to be someone there besides your wife, sir?"
The lighter was pressing angles into his palm. He turned and slammed open the phone booth door and half ran into the rain. The phone hung abandoned by its cord.
The operator bit her lip. After a period of silence on the caller's end, she ended the connection, two weeks new to this position and unsure of what else to do. She tapped her fingernail on the table and studied the switchboard in front of her.
She was becoming used to odd phone calls in this line of work, but something about this one had been especially out of the ordinary. The person making the call had sounded strangely familiar, though in what way she couldn't place. When she paired that familiarity with how tired he had sounded... something felt wrong. It was like hearing that President Carter had come down with pneumonia.
An itching feeling told her she should investigate. A nagging thought told her to stop being so interested in the problems of complete strangers. How would she even find him? He'd called from a payphone.
She sighed and yawned. Her shift would be over soon, and her thoughts were drifting, but she resolved to take one more call before she left to get a coffee. She didn't want to shirk her work, but the familiarity of the mysterious stranger's voice was still bugging her. She sat back and mentally laid out the facts. The man had sounded British from the few words he'd spoken, and he was making a call to England judging by the extension number... but the operator just couldn't place where she'd heard him speak before.
Maybe on the radio?
The rain had stopped, and he wandered through back streets. Though a cigarette glowed faintly between his lips, he flicked his silver lighter open and closed continuously, as if he were performing a ritual.
He took a drag and held it, passing neon signs and darkened apartments, listening to the sounds of the midnight city. Cars rushing gently in the distance, occasional muffled shouts and drunken laughter, faint strains of sensual music coming from somewhere unknown. City silence. Quiet, but alive in its quietness. Washed clean by the rain on the surface but still wholly rotten, a cesspool of warmth and iron and grime.
He exhaled smoke, pushed away his mental poetry, and kept walking.
One foot after another, leather boots creaking, listening to the sound of the soles on the wet pavement, he moved in time to some distant metropolis tune, tapping on lampposts and fences with his lighter as he went.
The metal melody vibrated up his arm and struck a chord with him, and in his mind's eye he saw himself six months ago, picking out notes on his weathered guitar in the apartment with his face hanging on the walls. Totally absorbed in the music, he hadn't noticed her until her hand waved in front of his face.
She'd said something. He still couldn't remember what. Even her face in his memory was blurry and indistinct, though he knew she had been worried and incredulous in equal measure. That had not so much been the beginning of the end as it was simply the end itself.
His lips moved to the tune of his memory, and his feet carried him out of alleyways and dark sidestreets into a cleaner part of town.
She sat in the coffee shop and closed her eyes. With her hands curled around a hot cup of black coffee and the warm post-rain air pouring through the propped-open door, she felt like she could fall asleep sitting up. Waves of drowsiness washed over her as she listened to the gentle rush of cars passing and strangers walking on the street outside. Most were silent, but one stranger was half-singing, half-speaking a vaguely familiar tune. She tried to make out the words drifting in.
"...your heroes for ghosts... hot ashes for trees..."
She blinked awake with a start as disparate thoughts in her brain clicked together. That was where she'd heard the mysterious caller's voice before— it had been on the radio! That song had been a radio favorite for three years now and its singer had just passed her by on the street, there was no mistaking it.
Suddenly, for no reason she could fathom, she stood, told the employee at the counter she'd be right back, and ran out the door of the coffee shop. He was in sight down the street, and she continued running to catch up. His voice rose and fell as she fell in stride with him.
"We're just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl..." he murmured at the sky. He noticed her after a moment and stopped walking, presumably searching her face; his eyes were obscured by absurdly dark sunglasses and his face was blank. "Hello?"
"Hi. Hi, I was, um, the operator on your call. I just... wanted to say that I'm sorry that happened..." She trailed off, a little out of breath from running.
His expression didn't change. She tried again.
"You know what I'm talking about, right? With the—"
Silence. She turned to leave.
"Wait," he said. "Wait." He stepped in front of her and removed his sunglasses, revealing prominent dark circles under his eyes. "Thank you. I appreciate it. It's... I mean it." He looked down at his hands, the sunglasses in one and a square silver lighter in the other.
Despite herself, she smiled. "You're welcome. I hope that, uh... things go well for you."
"Thank you." He looked back up and smiled back, but only a little, as if he hadn't had much practice.
They looked at each other for a while, not thinking much of anything, neither of them wanting to leave but neither knowing what to say. Finally she said, "Do you, um, want to come in for some coffee with me?"
"They're still open. It might do you some good," she offered. "You look like you were out in the rain, come on and warm up."
After a moment, he nodded, and put his sunglasses on the top of his head. As they walked back to the shop entrance, he flicked open his lighter.
"Do you take cream in your coffee?" he asked.
She furrowed her brow. "Not usually, no... Why?"
"Just... wondering." He closed the lighter. "Just wondering if anyone else did."