When Charles was four years old, he was quite aware of his parents as people. He would often wake very early on Saturday mornings. Not wanting to wake his parents, he would quietly tiptoe past their door and out to the living room to watch television. His two favorite programs were Soupy Sales and Jon Gnagy’s Learn to Draw program. That program regularly encouraged young artists to get their parents to buy a clingy plastic film to put over the TV tube, so they could trace the examples off the screen. But try as he might, Charles couldn’t convince his parents to buy the film.
His dad, a typical Depression Era guy and an engineer, didn’t spend money on frivolities, and there was much about the world he viewed as frivolous. Accordingly, the family had only one of everything: one pair of scissors, one roll of tape, one stapler, one yardstick, and one folding carpenter’s ruler. As far as his father was concerned, one of a thing was enough, two was splurging, and three was just wasteful. So, an expensive, mail-order clingy piece of plastic for Charles was quite out of the question. “I can get you something like that from work,” he said. But he never did.
One morning, Charles pulled a chair up to the kitchen cabinets and got the Magic Marker out of the family junk drawer. He went back to the living room and proceeded to trace John Gnagy’s drawings on the front of the TV. He became alarmed when he couldn’t erase one drawing to trace another, and quickly turned off the set. When he noticed that the drawing was still there on the glass, he ran back to bed, pulled the covers over his head, and pretended to be asleep. His dad gave him holy hell, but his mom stuck up for him and used Lestoil and rags to clean the drawing off the TV.
While writing at his kitchen table late one night, Charles starts thinking about this incident. His relationship with his father had always been complicated. He adored his dad, who was kind and attentive most of the time, when he wasn’t working late or on a business trip or upset about something Charles or his mother had done. His father had a temper, and when Charles would set him off, he very often railed at the boy for five or ten minutes, reducing him to terrified sobs. His mother would intervene, and often as a result, his parents would argue and yell at one another, frightening Charles even more. He decided he needed to be the best little boy possible, so they wouldn’t yell at each other.
Charles runs over several incidents with his dad in his mind and soon realizes it was useless to try to write anymore and goes to bed. After tossing and turning for an hour, he falls asleep and toward morning has a vivid dream about another childhood incident.
In the dream, Charles was four years old again and playing in the living room. Suddenly, in the bathroom, his mother shrieked and began to cry. Charles ran toward the bathroom and saw his wailing mother cross the short hallway to the master bedroom and slam the door.
Charles, alarmed, opened the door, but his mother, still sobbing, said in a strange voice, “Don’t come in Charles!”
“Why not Mommy?” Charles wasn’t so much scared as concerned for his mother.
“Just stay out there. Go to the living room and play.”
“Can I at least leave the door open?”
“OK, baby. Just don’t come in.”
Charles looked around and noticed a streak of blood running from the bathroom across the hall to the bedroom. Wanting to help he called to his mother, “I’ll clean this up, Mommy.”
“No, honey,” his mother said. “Just leave it there. I’ll clean it up later.”
“What’s wrong with you, Mommy?” Charles asked.
“I’m OK, sweetie,” she said, but she didn’t sound OK, and Charles could see she was crying. This scared him. He wanted to help his mother, so he went to the hall closet and got out a towel. He began to carefully wipe the blood up from the floor. He somehow thought this would make his mother feel better.
“I’m cleaning it up, Mommy.”
His mother, still weeping but more quietly, said, “Oh, honey, thanks.” After a minute she said, “Honey if you want to help, you can do something for me.”
Charles stopped cleaning and went to stand at the bedroom door. “What, Mommy?” he said, peering in and finding it hard to locate his mother’s head amid the blankets.
“Sweetheart, could you call Daddy and ask him to come home?” Charles, being four, had never called anybody before.
“I don’t know how, Mommy,” he said anxiously. The house, as was typical in the ‘50s, had a single black rotary dial phone that was hardwired to its jack in the living room by the stairs that led to the unfinished half floor above. Charles remembered his mother stretching the cord around the balustrade and sitting on the steps when on a long phone call.
“It’s OK, Charlie. I can tell you how. You’ve seen Mommy dial the phone before, right? You just put your finger in the hole that has the number and twirl it until it stops, and then let go. It only goes one way.”
“OK, Mommy. I think I can do that.” Charles already knew his numbers and could count to 30. “After I dial the number, will Daddy answer the phone?”
“Well, honey, you’ll have to dial seven numbers, and after that, a nice lady at Daddy’s work will talk with you, and she will get Daddy for you.”
Charles felt better that he could help in some way. “OK, Mommy. What numbers do you want me to dial?”
“Just go to the phone, honey, and I’ll call them out from the bedroom.”
Charles walked down the short hall and into the living room. “Mommy, why can’t I bring you the phone?” He knew the phone connected to the wall. If he could just pull the cord out, he could bring his mother the phone.
“No, Charlie, the phone has to stay there. OK, just lift the big black part off the top. Have you got it? You know how Mommy listens to the phone right? The curly cord should be down near your mouth. Have you got it?”
“OK, you should hear a buzz. Do you? OK, now put your finger in the little hole that has the seven in it. Do you see that?”
“OK, it should only move in one direction. Move your finger toward the silver thing.”
“OK, Mommy. Should I let go now?”
“Yes, Charlie. Good boy. Once it stops moving, put your finger in the hole that has the five.” Charles’s mother proceeded to coach him through the rest of the phone number.
“And when the nice lady answers, tell her you want to speak to Mark DeFries.
A woman answered the phone. Charles said, “Hi, my name is Charlie. Can I talk to my Daddy?”
“I’m sorry little boy. But your daddy isn’t here.”
“Where is he?” Charles felt like he was going to cry.
“Honey, you dialed the wrong number. If you try again, I’ll bet you can find your daddy. Goodbye.”
“Mommy, she said Daddy isn’t there and I did it wrong.” Charles’s stomach was in a knot. Why had the lady said his Daddy wasn’t there?
“That’s OK, Charlie. Let’s just try again. I’m sure you’ll get it right this time. Just be sure not to let go of the little hole until your finger hits the silver thing.”
Charles’s mother coached him through the number again, and this time the switchboard operator at his father’s work answered.
Charles, now filled with dread, said, “Hi, my name is Charlie. Can I talk to my Daddy?”
“Who’s your daddy, honey?” the receptionist said. “What’s your last name?”
“He’s Mark DeFries. Can I talk to him now?”
“Just wait a minute, Charlie. I’ll see if I can get him.” The receptionist returned quickly and said, “I’m sorry, Charlie, your daddy isn’t here right now. He’s in a meeting. What is it that you need?”
“My Mommy is bleeding,” Charles said, his voice trembling. “I need to talk to my Daddy.”
“Oh, my goodness!” the receptionist exclaimed. “Hold on. I’ll get somebody who works for your Daddy.” The next thing he knew, Charlie heard a strange man’s voice on the phone.
“Charlie? Hi, I’m Mr. Taggert. I work for your daddy. What is the problem?”
“My mommy was in the bathroom, and then she went into the bedroom, but there was blood on the floor, and she won’t let me come in, but I cleaned up the blood.”
“Oh my God,” Taggert said. “OK, ummm, let’s see. OK, look, Charlie, Mr. Dietrich lives near you. Do you remember Mr. Dietrich?”
Charles vaguely remembered that a man who worked with Daddy lived down the block. “I think so.”
“OK. Charlie, I’m going to call Mr. Dietrich. He’s home sick today and he can come and help you. Will that be OK?”
“I want my Daddy!” exclaimed Charles, now in tears. “Please get my Daddy to come home.”
“Honey, he’ll be home as soon as he can, but until then, Mr. Dietrich will help you. You just be sure to let him in when he gets there, OK?”
“OK,” Charlie said, wiping a tear from his eye. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, Charlie. Everything’s going to be all right.”
Charles replaced the receiver and went to his mother’s doorway.
“Daddy’s not there!” he exclaimed.
“Oh, no,” his mother said. “Who were you talking to?”
“A man who works for Daddy. He’s going to send Mr. Dietrich to help us.”
“Oh, that’s good. Everything’s going to be OK, Charlie.”
“OK, Mommy. Can’t I come hug you?”
“No, Charlie, you stay out there. Mr. Dietrich will be here soon.”
Dietrich showed up after 20 minutes, dressed in a suit and wearing a fedora. Charlie let him in.
“Hiya champ,” Mr. Dietrich said. “Where’s your mommy?”
“She’s in the bedroom, but she won’t let anybody come in.”
“Oh, OK. I think she’ll let me go in. Why don’t you just stay here and play?” Dietrich went down the hall, entered the bedroom, and closed the door. Charlie could hear his mother crying and Dietrich’s muffled voice. After a while, Dietrich came into the living room and made a few calls.
When he was finished, he asked Charlie if he was hungry, and made him a peanut butter and Fluff sandwich. But Charlie hated the sandwich because Dietrich didn’t make it the way his mother did, with butter and peanut butter.
“I wanna see my Mommy! Why can’t I see her?”
“She’ll be all right,” Dietrich said. “And your daddy will be here soon. Do you want to watch some TV?”
“No, I want my Mommy.” Charlie wailed and began to cry again.
“Honey?” his mother called from the bedroom. “You can come see me now.”
Charlie leapt from his chair and ran down the hall into his mother’s room. “Oh, Mommy! Are you OK?” he said, tears rolling down his cheeks.
“Yes, Charlie,” his mother said sniffing and wiping her face. “I’m OK. But you remember how Mommy’s tummy got big and I told you that you were going to have a little brother or sister? Well,” his mother turned away for a moment. “Ummm. I think there’s something wrong with the baby, and I have to go to the hospital.”
“But you’re going to be OK?” asked Charles with fear in his heart.
“Yes, honey, I’ll be OK. I’m just going to wait until your Daddy comes home to drive me to the hospital.”
A half an hour later, Charles’s father came home, and his mother and father spoke for several minutes with the bedroom door closed. Finally, his father came out with his mother and she was walking in a funny way.
“Charlie, Mommy and Daddy are going to the hospital. We want you to stay here with Mr. Dietrich until we get back. Everything’s going to be OK,” said his father.
“No! I want to come too!”
“Sorry, buddy, but you can’t. Don’t worry. We’ll be back before dinner.” His parents hugged him goodbye and left. Charles watched out the window until long after their car drove out of sight.
Charles awakes from the dream. Wow, he thinks. I haven’t thought of that incident for decades. That was intense, like a perfect recording of that awful experience. He lies in bed turning the dream over in his mind. After several minutes, he suddenly realizes that his fear of talking on the phone stems from that experience when his mother lost her fourth baby since Charles had been born. The reluctance to use the phone has bothered Charles throughout his life. He generally writes it off as an artifact of his shyness and introversion. It often takes him days to screw up the courage and the will to make phone calls to strangers. He has always credited the behavior to his tendency to procrastinate, but now he realizes he has a debilitating phobia. Shit, that’s why I hate the phone, Charles thinks. Wow. That memory must have been trying to surface for years.
Still shivering from remembering the dream, Charles goes into the kitchen, plucks the Post-It note from the refrigerator, lifts the receiver, and dials the auto shop’s number.