Flash in the Pan
A Quarterly Posting at Tiny Lights
When I Call
by Arlene Mandell
For Mary Kostick (1911—2000)
The phone rings three, four times. I wait for her to pick up, picturing her white Florida bungalow shuttered against the midday heat. Each time I'm afraid the phone will go on ringing, but she answers, at last, in her quivery voice.
"Aunt Mary, it's Arlene," I say.
"Arlene?" She coughs once, then again. "Arlene, how nice of you to call, dear." Her voice sounds rusty, as though she's using it for the first time in days.
We discuss the hot, humid weather in Beverly Hills , Florida , and Closter , New Jersey . When I ask about her health, she says, as always, "Not too good, but I don't want to complain." I provide bits of news about our family, once clustered in working class neighborhoods in Brooklyn , now scattered in fourteen states. She takes it all in, remembering the birthdays of people she hasn't seen in decades.
Then I tell her about the sepia-tone picture of my parents I just found while going through my mother's crumbling photo albums. "They were visiting the Statue of Liberty. It's dated May 1940."
"That's just nine months before you were born," she says, amazing me once again.
"I know. I'd like to think I'm the twinkle in my father's eye. He's wearing a pinstriped suit with wide lapels," I continue. "My mother's wearing a broad-shouldered suit, black hat and white gloves."
"She always dressed so smartly," Aunt Mary says, "the smartest dresser of all the brothers' wives."
I compare the photo in my hand with my mother as I saw her yesterday, in mismatched polyester slumped in front of a blaring TV, smiling vacantly at me.
"And I remember how beautiful you were at all the weddings," I say, "with your black hair in an upsweep and your sleek black cocktail dresses. Red lipstick, too. You always wore bright red lipstick."
"Do you remember when Uncle Abe and I took you to the rodeo?"
As soon as I hear her words, I remember that day, more than fifty years ago, and the smell of hay and barnyard animals as we climbed the stairs in Madison Square Garden . Since they had no children of their own, they would borrow me every so often.
"We saw Roy Rogers and Dale Evans," I say, "and then we went to the Automat. I had macaroni and cheese and a real cowboy with boots and a cowboy hat sat at our table." For a moment I am that six-year-old again, breathless with excitement, glancing shyly at the cowboy from under my wispy blonde bangs.
Aunt Mary has a coughing fit and I wait for her to catch her breath. Then she mentions my uncle, who died at eighty-one while sitting at their kitchen table. "He wasn't an easy man," she sighs and I agree. We leave the rest unsaid.
Soon I say goodbye and she thanks me over and over for calling. "It makes my whole day," she says. We both know the next time I call, she may not answer, but this, too, we leave unsaid.
Arlene L. Mandell, a former writer/editor at Good Housekeeping magazine and retired English professor, lives and writes in Santa Rosa , CA . Her poetry, short stories and essays have appeared in several hundred print and electronic publications and seven anthologies. For a copy of her poetry chapbook Variations on a Theme , contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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