He tells us his name is Johnny. He tells us he lives in the desert and that the Arizona sun is white, not yellow. White, not yellow, he says maybe once or a hundred times. Johnny has a shrewd sense for ordinary details. About driving his kid across the desert under that blister of white, the dead coyotes in the road, dropping his kid home with his ex, the smoke that fills his car, the substance he doesn’t want to hit but can’t not hit once the kid’s gone.
When Johnny speaks you sometimes want to close your eyes, cull the senses to listen, listen so hard you hear the creak of language, words into syllables, syllables into sound distilled. He has vocal chords that bunker low in his body, that make a rusty clamor, collide with discord then smooth at the fulcrum fold of the throat. That first gruff hello can be followed to this grace, beginning to end, start to finish. I close my eyes and listen because I have to listen. I always listen. We call him Johnny Chronic. He’s a regular.
When Johnny Chronic calls on Tuesday, I’ve been sitting at my desk for maybe an hour. Sarah is on the sofa, eating pretzel sticks and trying to hang her hair over the arm of the couch so that it touches the floor below. She arches with a pretzel steady between barred teeth until she feels ground, touch down.
What are you doing?
“It’s Tuesday today,” Johnny roughs out. “I just dropped the kid off at his mother’s. I’m waiting until she opens the door. Saint of a woman she is, keeping him waiting in this heat.”
I close my eyes and listen. Johnny Chronic doesn’t usually take long. We cut everyone off at twenty minutes, unless of course you want to go on with the caller. But Johnny Chronic isn’t bad, just a little off. Minor substance abuse, minor dissociative tendencies, minor schizophrenia. There are other regulars and their names are all written
on the white board that hangs on the wall above Sarah. Agoraphobic Anne has already called twice today. King Kush has been on the clock. There have been a handful of newbies, someone writes on the board below the week’s frequent callers, it’s that time of year. The green writing is signed with a Christmas tree and a Jewish star.
“Today,” Johnny Chronic tells me, “is also Zack’s birthday. I had to get the kid something, hell he goes through. You know.”
The treat was a surprise, he tells me. Something he bought on his way to pick Zack up from school. It was one of those sugar cookies where they pile high the white frosting with the blue trim, dot two eyes and call it a boy.
“They’re Zack’s favorite.”
I hear the metal flick of Johnny Chronic’s lighter. He breaks off when he lights it and only continues talking once the joint’s been lit. The sounds are different when he inhales.
The muscles and the singing strings dive deeper, the voice moves elsewhere in his body, far from me.
“He’ll go to bed with these blue stains all over his face, no matter how much Lorraine scrubs. She worries the teachers will think bruises but I think he’ll look like a Turner watercolor. My boy, the Blue Rigi, a masterpiece.”
He laughs as he exhales and the chords resurface. He’s close to me again. I listen as he goes on about Turner, the ex named Lorraine, and the cookie with the white frosting, blue trim and eyes. Sugarcane eyes, he reminds me, not chocolate.
When I put the phone down it’s just Sarah and me. It’s always just Sarah and me. When we started volunteering they told us to slot our names in the calendar, our time by extension. We were last to sign but there were still plenty of empty boxes.
We picked several blank slots, the ones that assured no postured weather-talk and, to Sarah’s delight, no slap on the wrist for eating office snacks straight from the container. More than anything we didn’t want our names slotted near senior members. The ones that stuck around too long seemed off, like they were flocking to the program—the phones, the callers—to bag something rabid, to hold something at arms-length.
“I don’t want to get it,” Sarah says when her line rings. “I won’t. Stop. Stop looking at me like that.”
Last week Sarah got her first. The woman, who called herself Aina, answered the line already with a belly’s worth of Demerol. She just wanted to talk. Sarah told me she stayed on until the end.
We’re taught in training how to take these kinds of calls. We learn how to talk a caller down, how to get an address, how to send a paramedic. They want us to hear it before they say it, to stay on the scent of that devotion to life they say we all share, if it’s not already too late.
It’s a sterile business, these calls. It’s listening and it’s not. They say it is, but I don’t really know. Listen, from the Old English hlysnan, “obey”. The Old Irish, clunim, “I hear”. The message the training begins with, about compassion and support and refrain from suggestion, all that begins to fall away in these calls. Every pleasantry and pause is shorn off and at the center of it all is force, obedience. Force to make living things live, listening to prove agency. No one wants this call. Every volunteer wants the diagnosed and the medicated and the isolated, not Sarah’s call.
Eventually she answers, because she has to answer. It’s Johnny Chronic again, she mouths. I reach for a pretzel. Sarah’s voice is perfect for the job. I want to bottle it. Rich and smooth, not a fleck of indecision in it. It’s the kind I trust, the kind I want to posit theories of humanity and goodness in. She gives all the appropriate ‘ahs’ and rhythmic pauses, tracing the outline of a fallen pretzel on the notebook in front of her.
Sometimes he calls more than once, like today. Sometimes he calls several times an hour, speaking about Lorraine and Zack, all the while puckering on a joint with you, pausing here and there to suck at it. From Sarah’s voice I know he’s okay today. He’s never suicidal but he toys with ideas. This is fine. This is okay. We all indulge in this sometimes.
When we leave the hotline office the sun is already down. Except it’s not really an office and there’s still a rim of red yolk at the horizon. The hotline is located at one of the inland schools, where they padlock the gates and bathrooms after 6. Sarah drives tonight.
Last week, after Sarah got her first, we went out for ice cream. But the ice cream parlor was closed and we had to go to the burger joint instead. Bent over a bloody mess of onions and cheese Sarah talked about grief as the inception of growth, the kick off to the great, great soul cleanse, scrubbing the cerebral floor, finding the inner peace!
“It’s not a two-step.” I watched her flag down the waitress and ask to see the menu again. “And I know what you’re doing,” I said, nodding to her half-eaten burger.
She licked her fingers and wiped her mouth.
“You can feel it, you know.”
“You’re supposed to feel it, a something after a call like that.”
“No, not…no,” she said, waving it off. “I mean you can feel it, on the phone.”
“When the line goes quiet. There’s a hum, a vibration. Several seconds at least. You can feel the life I mean. And then it gets stronger. And then it disappears.”
I looked at her for several seconds. She had a line of mustard on her cheek.
“And anyway, I am reeling. Hurting, grieving, distraught. Feeling I mean. Look. Watch me reel.” She winced, shoving the rest of the burger in her mouth.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Johnny Chronic says next time I’m back at the hotline. “That’s what I keep telling myself. I’ll get him back. Once I kick it I’ll get him back.”
His son has been gone a week now, but Johnny Chronic still drives by every day, parking behind the ocotillos and high stepping over the fallen red cacti bulbs to get a closer look.
“I bring it just in case. I would never use it. But what if I come across another coyote?”
I close my eyes and try to picture my version of Johnny Chronic crouched behind the cacti, watching his ex-wife and son. No, not picture, visualize, smell, feel. There’s a white sun above. The ex in the kitchen. The son at the dining room table. Working on homework. Math problems.
“They aren’t there. They left. I don’t know where to. I’m still sitting in the car.”
I scrap the visual and start over. I ask Johnny why he thinks they left. I ask him to describe his setting. It’s a calming technique, for him, but it’s also for me.
“I’m sitting in my car,” he breathes, pausing to light up. “Brown below, blue above. Sky’s tired, looks like it can’t wait for the day’s end. It’s afterschool time, clock says three-o-nine.”
I pry the soft vowels from his words, noon, school.
“Tired is too simple. Maybe I’m just tired. But the sky does look full. A little too ripe. Like it could rot and sour at any minute. Like the moon might have to rush up to hide the body, cover up the mess when dark breaks in.” The vowels arrive in small exhales.
Maybe he is tired. Maybe the sky is ripe. Every syllable sounds ready. The consonants too sharp, the vowels too round. I close my eyes and move my lips over the soft sounds again, blue, moon. He fills in the rest of the details.
Johnny Chronic is leaning back in the driver’s seat of his pickup, rifle across his lap, dry earth below, holes in the brush that give way to nothing now, a view of an empty house. He says that from his car he can make them there. If he focuses hard enough he can picture Lorraine in the kitchen and Zack at the dining room table, talking, eating, he says. Homework, math problems, I think. When he looks up again, the image won’t stick, he knows that, but there’s a moment where he can convince himself. A split-second, really, where by some trick of shadow or wind-blown curtain he can believe they’re there. He takes another long inhale.
“It’s a fault in my eyes,” his voice says from somewhere deep, “but I don’t deny it, don’t deny the split-second glitch its due presence. It’s a nasty trick I play with myself,” his voice levels out again on the exhale, “but the trick keeps them close.” The joint is out.
He pauses to light up again and I wonder if he looks in the rearview mirror when he smokes, if he watches his mouth shape around the joint, press tight when he lights it, the first nascent plumes rolling out from the corners of his mouth. I wonder if he watches himself pronounce the world, all its loops and tricks.
“I just want my son,” he says.
I peel away from my own images, trying to push this picture of absence instead.
Hard as I try I can’t not picture the boy. I can’t not picture Zack at the kitchen table, or better yet, sitting shotgun with blue stains all over his face. Like an opening sore every gone image returns. Lorraine and Zack and the sky that is probably no longer blue, the sky that has probably already been replaced by the moon, crawl back from the recess of their own expulsion. Back into the scene I’m trying not to picture. All around Johnny Chronic are the absences, the vacancies, and he in the middle of it all, with a gun across his lap.
Later that week Sarah asks if I can cover for her at a sitting job. I’m a full-grown woman with a full-time job, one that puts me in pantyhose and an office and a subordinating role from 9-5, but I call in sick. I don’t know why.
“Sure,” I tell her. “I’ll cover. What’s the address?”
When I get to the house I’m told to pick up the children. The school mistakes me for their mother. I eye them through the rearview mirror. The younger of the two has dirt across his face, baseball practice today, and the older, the girl, is telling me about the test she has in class later this week. History of Religion.
She asks me to quiz her and I do.
“Who, what, when, where and why—for every term,” she says, “this week is just Judaism.”
I ask her about Abraham and Moses and the Torah. The where always seems to be Canaan. Dates are thrown out and she reminds me B.C.E., not B.C. No one uses B.C. anymore. Around 1800 is the birth of Abraham and monotheism. In 1250 Moses crosses the Red Sea. In 1220 Saul rises to power and unites the twelve tribes. She tells me how Abraham was supposed to kill his son, an offering to God in the white sky above, but how God nixed that one last minute. Something else happens in 920 but I can’t remember the What.
By the time we arrive at their place I know a great deal about Judaism. Conceptually, very little, but the dates are of the utmost priority the girl reminds me, sucking on a pigtail.
“It’s all about the When.”
Once they’ve had their snacks, I help the younger with his homework. He has a spelling test next week. This I can handle. Fourth grade spelling, I know all about it.
“Organic,” I say.
“Organic,” he pauses. “O-R-G-A-N-I-C. Organic. Meaning related to the body, meaning related to life. Meaning ‘this salad is organic.’ And the synonym…fresh. Fresh and organic are synonyms.”
“Okay,” I tell him. “Neutral.”
“Neutral. N-U-E-T-R-A-L. Nuetral. Meaning not picking a side, as in a war. Meaning ‘there were no nuetral countries in the war’. A synonym for nuetral is indifferent.”
I make the necessary corrections and move onto the rest of the words.
They pay me one hundred for the day with an extra twenty ‘for the hassle’. It’s more than I’d make at my office job.
On the way home I think about all the business deals made with God. Prayers and handshakes. I think about the Red Sea cracking and splitting into slabs and what a relief it must be to step into the sea. What a burden to emerge again. Stopped at the light I watch an old man cross the street, an unlit cigarette tucked behind his ear.
The next time Johnny Chronic calls, Lorraine and Zack are back in the house. At first he thought it was the glitch again, the split second delay when the eyes are still reeling from daydream. But then he saw movement, color, a body, Lorraine, Zack at the kitchen table. He puts down the phone to step out of the car and watch them through the openings in the brush. I wait for his return and listen to nothing, my own breath returned as static. When he picks up the receiver again he tells me not what he saw, but what he sees, held in his hands in the driver’s seat of the pickup.
“They were ruby last time they were home, the bulbs on the ground are jam red now. The bloom season should have ended months ago, these shouldn’t even be here— Have you ever seen ocotillo flowers?”
I tell him no and he begins to tell me about the inch-long flowers, long lean petals curled into the shape of a bullet. When they begin to bloom, he tells me, the petals peel back, the spat of yellow pollen comes up and the hummingbirds and carpenter bees sniff them out. He sometimes takes a handful and scatters them on a salad. The bulbs are tangy. Supposedly they can be placed on fresh wounds too, to slow the body’s escape.
He remembers vases of the blooms all over his old place with Lorraine, jars of dried flowers on the bedside table. He remembers throwing the jars to the ground and watching the glass break before the blubs scattered, always spreading quieter than he had hoped, rolling submissively across the wood floor. One year, after a big bloom, after Lorraine put all the fresh flowers in vases and all the dead ones in jars, Johnny Chronic went through every room and smashed them, every one of them. The house was littered with the flowers until Lorraine and Zack returned from her mother’s and Johnny Chronic had to leave his narcotic stupor to sweep them up. By that point all the bulbs, even the freshest, were as dark and dried as raisins.
Yes, I’m still here, I tell him. I’m still listening. Listening and remembering the early calls between us. I know Johnny Chronic has a history of violence, that’s why he can’t see Zack. His meds make him subdued. They make discrimination and discernment difficult. The drugs don’t help either, they only make him angry. In a Thorazine daze he’s lashed out at Lorraine, thrown vases and jars and bruised his knuckles on the walls. He never wanted to hit her. He never meant to strike him.
Johnny Chronic is still on the meds. His still gets angry, has thoughts about breaking things or hurting Lorraine. But he doesn’t really want to.
In one of our first calls he told me about the thoughts he had as a boy. The thoughts he sometimes still thinks on, joint smoke hovering around them. He went on once for an hour about the dreams, nightmarish ecstasies where horror film actresses ran around in skimpy underwear, masked figures chasing them with machetes and chainsaws, weapons of various forms. He was particular when he talked about these childhood dreams, detailed.
He didn’t really want to hurt women, he told me, especially in the dreams about Lorraine. But the idea had fascinated him as a boy. It fascinated him as a man. He always broke things after the dreams because he felt guilty about the obsession, guilty and scared.
Powerless? I had wanted to ask when he first told me, but I held back. There was an unbridled and naked power in the simple question, a cutting away to an understanding I had about Johnny, an understanding of helplessness that the hotline didn’t teach us. Helplessness under the weight of our bodies. Bodies that ingested medicine and spat out side effects. Bodies with minds and fascinations. Disobedient bodies.
On the phone now he’s telling me about collecting the jam red flowers for the jar on his bedside, cupping them in his hands and pocketing them for later. After we say our goodbyes the line goes dead.
Sarah is packing up to go. The call log goes in the top drawer, the pens in the mason jar. She’s babysitting again tonight. “Duty calls” she says.
I ask her about them. How are the spelling words going, are Abraham and the gang still stuck in Canaan?
“That’s a good and an affirmative,” she says, “highest reviews from Mom and Dad by the way. I usually just take them to the park to wear them out. Kudos to you, getting the homework done and all that.”
On the way to the car a group of older women arriving for the school’s senior art class walk past. One of them throws her head back laughing, swinging a long red bag over her shoulder. Left shoulder.
“Hey!” Sarah says from a few steps ahead, turning back to me. “Why don’t you come along, just to pick them up, just to say hi? I can drop you off after I grab the kids.”
Okay, I tell her. I have nothing better to do. I’ve been calling in sick to work a lot lately, too distracted with everything. Last week my boss caught me staring into the coffee pot.
When we pick them up the kids shuffle into the back. From the passenger seat I turn around to look at them. The boy has another streak of dirt on his face, the girl two pigtails limp at her shoulders. I don’t say anything. They don’t see me. They’re looking out the window where a man is selling oranges, two for one, by the freeway entrance.
“Who wants an orange from some smelly old homeless man?” the younger poses to no one in particular. The older girl looks over, twists her mouth into the shape of concern and looks away. She turns her focus instead to getting a pigtail into her mouth, hands free, rolling her shoulders and bobbing after it with her mouth agape. Sarah nudges me.
“Stop staring, will you?”
I draw my eyes to the road ahead, fat gray lanes and trees on both sides. I can just barely hold each scene as we drive along before the next patch of road unfolds. It’s all green and gray but there’s no consistency. I feel something slide up beside me on the center console.
“Mom said someone needs to quiz him” the girl whispers. The confession is followed by a swift kick to her rear and a hushed “shut up” from behind her. Sarah looks over at me to mouth that word, please.
The boy rolls his head back and gives a grunt of submission, handing me the flash cards without even looking at me.
“Okay,” I tell him. “Neutral.”
“Neutral. N-E-U-T-R-A-L. Neutral. Meaning not picking a side, as in an argument. Meaning ‘he was neutral to their fighting’. A synonym for neutral is indifferent.”
“Okay” I tell him, “empathy.”
“Empathy. E-M-P-A-T-H-Y. Meaning to understand feelings. Meaning ‘she felt empathy for the boy’. And a synonym is pity.”
I look the boy over, warily.
“Understand someone’s feelings?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “But I don’t think the test will ask me that. The other words in the sentence don’t need to be spelled right, just the one.”
Sarah drops me off at home. Standing on the curb to watch them leave I see the girl finally got the pigtail into her mouth and the boy is staring at me. The window casts a blue tint on his face, the dirt a straight of cobalt across his forehead. I feel caught on the curb, transfixed, until a knife of white severs the glance and I have to bring my hand to my eyes to block the sun, see again, meet his eyes. But by this time they’ve already driven off, they’re far down the road, and I’m left only with an after image of inky blues and watery shapes.
Johnny is worse today. There are no bulbs on the ground, no scarlet fleck to wonder at.
“How am I supposed to? How am I supposed to? I don’t know.”
He’s not smoking today but his voice rises and falls out of habit. Maybe I imagine it. His breath picks up and mine leaps to match it. We need to calm down. I ask him to tell me what he’s doing and he tells me.
I feel the chill of night, the white sky nowhere in sight this hour of the evening. I hear the crickets, see the light on in the kitchen. See the dots of light that run down the desert strip and up the lip of a ridge beyond Lorraine’s house. I wait for the flick of the lighter that doesn’t come.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m here,” I tell him. “It’s Thursday. I’m on the phone with you.”
“Are you alone?” he asks.
Sarah is off the clock tonight, babysitting again.
“But are you alone?” he presses, after I’ve already answered. It takes me a minute.
“Yes” I say. I don’t know why I say it or if I mean it, but it barrels out from my throat with level certainty. It sounds like a prayer. The long pause is filled with the sound of crickets and every once in a while Johnny strums on the silver of his rifle. Tinny music.
“Nasty trick we play to pretend we’re not. Nastier still to say we may be.” The tinny chorus plays. I think of Lorraine and Zack but I don’t see them in the car. The lack sits there instead.
“I think you’re here,” he says, “in the passenger seat.”
I will the image. I can pull the lever on the right side of the seat to recline another inch, roll down the windows to feel the heat. I look through the windshield at the night sky. There’s more stars here, millions of them. The crickets are louder and the sound is more piercing with the window down. Their songs repeat and I lose track of where one ends and the next begins. Each new cry insists on the prior.
I don’t respond because I don’t know if he’s right. But I think I’m not here. I think I’m in another place, burrowed under the wall and waving back at myself from the other side.
Eventually one of us puts the phone down.
Eventually it all stops.
There are questions. Wheres and whys, maybe even a when. I haven’t heard from Johnny in a few weeks.
The tough part is you don’t know the reasons, the why someone stops calling. I don’t know where Johnny is, or if he quit his substance, or if he got his kid back. My gut tells me no, but I don’t know why or if I should trust it. A part of me thinks maybe. Maybe he’s still sitting in his pickup, gun across his lap, the ocotillo trees peppering the ground with red bulbs again. Maybe another coyote did come by, and maybe he did shoot it with his rifle, or something worse. Maybe the kid and the ex are home this time, light on in the kitchen. Maybe divine intervention did as advertised, intervened.
There are still questions. Every time the line rings I think of the sun, pale, not the seductive yellow a kid might paint with his fingers. Everything a shade of white and red, yellow nowhere on the spectrum.