Caller, West of the Rockies
Station One — October 2018
Anyone can go lonesome in the country. That’s no great accomplishment. You take to the hills, you find yourself a cabin, and you drive into town once, maybe twice a month. There’s no mystery, really. You come to inhabit your absence: you aren’t at the breakfast counters, you aren’t at church and you don’t go to town meetings, and you cede things in threes — no more library books, no more bottle returns, no more haircuts. You stand at the mouth of your woods, still, and you have turned over the poetry to others. Out under the autumn moon, you are someone else’s idea of Thomas Wolfe’s Lonely Man. But there’s no mystery, not really.
You go lonesome in the city, that’s another story. You become a conduit. A lightning rod for energies you don’t understand and devices outside of your imagination. You become the whir at the center of a vortex. This is how.
The bus pulls into the rest stop. It’s one of the great ones on the Pike — Charlton, Mass. You could really lose your mind here, one kiosk at a time. Quinn gets out and heads straight for the side entrance. He’s made this trip before, often, but not recently. They’ve probably changed a few things since then.
Quinn is tall, in his early forties, unassuming. He looks like the sort of guy who holds doors for groups of tourists, and so he does. He stands at the side entrance, aware that he is becoming who he looks to be. An older couple exits, the man in a green shortsleeved t-shirt and red MAGA hat and the woman in two white sweatshirts, a crew under an oversized zip-up. Weird for Massachusetts, Quinn thinks, but then again this is the turnpike. You see things. This is the turnpike and probably, now, this is America.
They have fifteen minutes, the driver has said. It’s a small contingent: ten or twelve folks on an early-afternoon Greyhound from Boston to New York. Quinn guesses that the family of four from Illinois will take an extra ten minutes fumbling with their pretzel order from Auntie Anne’s. They will come back smelling of cinnamon and hot butter but somehow this will go sour after they’ve been back on the road for a while.
The girl at the Starbucks takes his order. A medium, tall, whatever they call it — this will last him deep into Connecticut. He wonders if they will stop at that McDonalds just outside of New York. Sometimes they do, if he remembers right, somewhere around Bridgeport or Waterbury. Waterbury with the giant crucifix, a hundred feet high on a hill.
He asks for some heavy cream. It’s hit or miss if they have it outside of your standard shop, or really more like if they’re willing to go into the fridge special for you, but this time they do. You’re the guy who holds doors and puts an extra buck in the tip jar, he tells himself.
It’s an unseasonably warm day for late October, and most of the folks at the rest stop move quickly from station to station. It is as though the warm weather is animating them. No one stands still for very long. People are into and out of their pockets. If Quinn hooks into this for more than a few seconds, he will have to steady himself against a wall or a pillar. They are piping the Verve singing Bittersweet Symphony through the sound system, two or three notches too loud for Quinn’s taste. It’s a great song but come on.
As he heads for the bathroom, Quinn notices a pay phone that looks to be in service. They are advertising four minutes for a dollar. This is for what, the guy who left his cell in the car and forgets if his wife wanted onions in her taco from Fresh City? Quinn’s head goes to antiseptic. Why don’t they have a wall mount cleaner next to the phone? He wouldn’t touch that thing with his dead uncle’s hands, not without wiping it down a few times first.
Someone yells, hey, you dropped something, and when Quinn turns to look it is like the room has gone quiet. Quiet and cold. He can’t figure who yelled, no one is pointing or nodding. People are moving, but they’ve slowed down.
When the pay phone rings, it is one of those things where he’ll look back in time and say yeah, of course, it was going to ring. But when it does ring, shrill and sure like the report of screeching tires early in the morning on the main drag of a small town, he reels from the noise.
Someone yells again, hey, you dropped something, and when Quinn turns to look it is like everyone in the room is looking away from the pay phone, that somehow their eyes have been oriented away from the booth and their ears squeezed shut to the ringing.
Quinn answers the phone because by now, this is also who he is. Others may hear the ringing, though not today, but Quinn has become the one who answers. He picks up the receiver and jams it in the crook between his right ear and shoulder. This could be a while.
“Quinn,” the guy on the other end says. “Is it really you?”
“This is Quinn.”
“Jesus it’s been twenty years,” the guy continues. The guy’s voice is middle of the road, weary, mottled and spotted by decades of cigarettes. Quinn recognizes it the second the guy says ‘twenty years.’
“Mark,” Quinn says. He grabs for the wall of the booth with his right hand and leans into it.
The voice on the other end of the connection goes quiet. Quinn waits. There are a few clicking sounds, and then there is a chuckle. “I’ve been dead for fifteen years,” Mark says. “And now, this is how we are going to do things.”