Sometimes a Phone Call


Sometimes a Phone Call

On Scott’s 16th birthday, his father entered Scott’s room and, clearing off a stack of oboe music from a chair so he could sit down, said, “Okay, you’ve been asking us to let you date Pam. You’re 16 now. So go ahead and ask her out.”

“I’m not ready to date yet,” Scott said.

“But that’s all you’ve talked about for a solid year,” his father replied.

“I’m sorry, but a guy just can’t rush into something like that. I’ll date Pam when I’m ready.”

His father left, shaking his head, wishing he understood his son.

Scott tried to get ready to date Pam, but he had known her for four years and couldn’t remember when she hadn’t made him nervous. Even when he was 12 at a Scout-Beehive class breakfast, he’d dropped his pancakes when she asked him if he’d show her how to tie a square knot.

He spent hours thinking about how he’d ask her out. Every morning when he delivered a newspaper to her family’s porch, he looked to see if he might discover a fire in the house from which he could rescue her and the whole family. He imagined her saying, “Oh, how can I ever repay you?” and he would say, “Ma’am, if you’d go with me to the stake youth dance, that’d be repayment enough.”

Every night he’d take the hall phone with the long cord into his room and close the door. With great care he’d position the phone exactly in the center of the desk. Then he would stare at it. As a warm-up to phoning Pam, he’d dial the time-of-day number and talk to the recorded voice, concentrating on lowering his voice.

He’d become sensitive about his voice when he realized that most of the other guys in the priests group were singing bass and he was still singing the melody. In the morning when he delivered papers, he sometimes put pebbles in his mouth and yelled to the dogs who chased him along the route. He tried to imitate as much as possible what John Wayne, with pebbles in his mouth, would say to dogs chasing him if he delivered papers on a secondhand, one-speed bike.

Once he dialed Pam’s number completely. When Pam answered, he cleared his throat and hung up, his face covered with perspiration.

In order to earn money for a karate course, complete with illustrated instruction manual and phonograph records (the course was guaranteed to build confidence), he found a summer job at the Dairy Dip Drive-in. He worked from 10:00 in the morning to 5:00 in the afternoon.

He worked with Becky Williams. It was apparent from the first that they would be “just friends” because she was taller than Scott—his eyes came level with her chin—she was older than he—17 compared with 16—she had little interest in the oboe, and she had a hot-tempered steady named Joe Kruglak who had gained local fame as a fighter. Joe worked as a mechanic in a garage. It was rumored that he lifted automobile engine blocks for exercise.

During the first week, Scott learned from Becky the details of working in a drive-in. Becky worked hard. When business was slow, she launched out on a project of cleaning the grill or washing the windows. But even when they were working side by side, she would seem to withdraw from him, her blue eyes reflecting unhappiness. Scott didn’t say anything to her, and in a few minutes she’d return and they could talk again.

“Basically, what’s wrong with me?” Scott asked one morning while they cleaned out the grease trays on the grill.

“Nothing.”

“C’mon, Becky, be honest. I can take it. Is it that my silver braces clash with the gold-rimmed glasses?”

“I’ve never noticed.”

“I’ve got so much metal on my face I’m afraid to get too close to a TV set. I ruin the reception. Is it that I’m only 160 centimeters tall?”

“Centimeters?” she asked.

“I think I sound taller in the metric system. Do people make fun about my playing the oboe in orchestra?”

“No.”

“The oboe hasn’t really made it in the popular market. But someday I’m going to have a group that plays for dances that will have an electronic oboe. I haven’t figured out the details yet.”

Becky never stopped working.

“Why can’t I get a date?” he asked.

“Beats me,” she answered. “Are you going to help me lift out this rack?”

“Sure.” He bent down and slid out the grease-laden rack.

“Do you try to get dates?” she asked.

“I phoned Pam once.”

“What’d she say?”

“Hello.”

“That’s all?” she asked.

“I’d rather not go into it. It’s personal.”

Everyday at noon Joe walked over from the garage to have lunch.

“C’mon out,” he’d order Becky.

While Scott cooked Joe’s hamburger, she’d sit for a few minutes with him. Joe spent his time complaining about his boss, the people who brought their cars into the garage, and her. Before he left, he’d say to Scott, “Put it on my tab,” which meant Becky would pay for it.

During the second week Scott worked there, Joe got angry at Becky for some reason. They began to argue about something. Scott tried to listen but he had a line of little league players waiting for super dips. Finally Joe stood up, banged his fist on the table, and walked off. Becky watched him go, came inside, paid for Joe’s meal, and helped Scott serve super dips. She remained quiet for the rest of the day.

After two days Joe came back. She hurried out to talk to him while he wolfed down a hamburger and fries. When she came back, she seemed happy.

A week later Scott asked her if she’d mind if he called her up at night to help him build his confidence.

“Becky, this is Scott.”

“Hello, Scott.”

“Hello, Becky,” he said confidently. “You don’t mind if I talk on the phone with you?”

“No, I don’t mind. Joe’s out at a party with some guys tonight.”

“I just want to get practice talking. Nothing serious, you understand. Like the weather. How do you like the weather?”

“Fine.”

“Me too. I’ve always liked weather,” Scott added, and then after a long pause asked, “Becky, what do girls look for in a guy?”

“That’s hard to say. It depends on the girl.”

“Well, what do you like? Somebody who treats you rotten?”

There was silence from the other end.

“He even swears in front of you, doesn’t he?” Scott asked.

“You don’t like him, do you?” she asked.

“What do I know? He’s the success, not me. Maybe it’s something I should try. Let’s say you and I were going steady. I’d go to your home after work, sit down in front of the TV, drink Fresca, and watch the baseball game. Say something to me.”

“How’s the game?”

“Don’t bother me when the White Sox are batting!” Scott roared into the phone. “Can’t you let me have five minutes in peace?

“How’d I do?” Scott asked, returning to his normal voice. “I really walked over you, didn’t I? It’s not as hard as I thought it’d be.”

“I don’t like it,” Becky said, her voice straining.

“But that’s what Joe does to you.”

“Is it?” she asked.

“Sure. You’re not very serious about him, are you? I mean, you’d never do a dumb thing like get married to him, would you?”

“I don’t know. He’s asked me.”

“I think he’d probably treat you the same way after you were married. I’d never treat you that way, though, even if we were married.”

“Oh? How would you treat me?”

“Special. Like if we were married and had two cars, I’d trade cars with you once a month and take yours in to have the oil changed. You’d never have to worry. And I’d empty the bag on the vacuum cleaner.”

“I think we’d better hang up now,” she said, her voice melancholy.

“Sure. I didn’t say anything wrong, did I?”

“No. Goodbye.”

“Yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

When he went to work the next day, she worked quietly.

“You’re not mad at me or anything, are you?” he finally asked.

“No. Just thinking.”

“I’m sorry if I said anything that hurt you—about you and Joe.”

“It’s okay. Maybe I needed to hear it.”

“I think you’re a fine person, Becky. Like the time you threw in four cents of your own money so that little kid could have enough for a cone.”

“I think you’re nice too.”

“You, a girl, think that?” Scott asked, wiping off the counter. “I wish I were. I feel like the friendly neighborhood zero.”

“You aren’t.”

“If I lettered in football, then I’d be somebody. I’d have a red R on my jacket. When I walked down the street, people would stop and say, ‘Look, he’s got a letter on his jacket.’ Then I’d be somebody, and Pam would go out with me.”

“You’re somebody now. You just haven’t realized it.”

“If I was just better at talking to people. My dad talks to people all the time. Even gas station attendants. He just walks up and starts talking. By the time the tank’s full, they’re old friends.”

“You can learn,” she said. “Talk to the customers.”

“Why not?” he answered.

A few minutes later a Volkswagen with three college girls from California stopped for burgers and fries and drinks. Becky cooked the burgers and fries while Scott got the drinks ready.

“Nice day, isn’t it?” Scott leaned over the counter to talk to one of the girls.

“Yeah.”

“Tell me, how’re things in California? Are the oranges doing well?”

“What?” the startled girl asked, upset by the intense manner with which Scott spoke to her.

“The oranges in California. How’re they doing?”

“I dunno.”

Scott leaned farther out, straining to catch some threads of sanity in the conversation. “I guess if they weren’t doing well, we’d have heard?”

Now almost shouting, Scott continued. “I mean, since we haven’t heard, we can assume we’ll have a good crop of oranges this year.” Almost as a command, he barked out, “Wouldn’t you say that?”

The girl slowly backed away.

“I see you are driving a Volkswagen. How is the gas mileage?”

“I’m not sure.”

“I think that’s funny!” Scott yelled, his eyes open wide. “You got a small car so you’d get good gas mileage. And yet you don’t even know what gas mileage you’re getting. Don’t you think that’s funny? Well, don’t you?” Scott barked, his voice cracking.

“Please, could we have our food?” one of the girls pleaded.

As soon as the food and money exchanged hands, the girls ran to the car and drove off, missing the driveway and going over the curb.

Scott and Becky watched them speed off. “Now you see what I mean. I never say the right thing. That’s why I’m so afraid to call Pam. I’d mess the whole thing up.”

“Look, if you want, Scott, I’ll help you phone her after work.”

After work they crossed the street to the bowling alley where there was a phone booth. Becky sat Scott down and calmly discussed with him how to make the phone call to Pam.

Then she led him to the phone booth. Halfway there, he stopped and practiced saying hello in lower and lower tones. “Hello, hello, hello, hello.” A departing bowler stole a worried glance at him and then quickly hurried out the door.

Becky dialed the number and handed him the phone.

“Hello, hello, hello,” he said, finally reaching the desired pitch. “Pam, this is Scott. I’m your paper boy … Oh, I’m sorry about that. Tell your father I’ll try not to throw it on the roof anymore. Goodbye.

“Maybe I’ll call her a couple of times just to break the ice.” Scott told Becky as they left. “Was my voice low enough?”

Joe had been waiting for Becky, his late model sports car parked at the drive-in. When he saw Becky and Scott coming out of the bowling alley, he hurried over to them.

“What were you two doing?” he asked suspiciously.

“We were making a phone call,” Becky said.

Joe walked over to Scott, and stared at him angrily. Joe jabbed one finger at Scott’s chest.

“Don’t get ideas about spending time with Becky after work,” he said sharply.

Glancing over to Becky, he ordered, “C’mon. I’m in a hurry.”

A few days later Scott received the box containing an instruction book and record teaching karate, and an eight-by-ten glossy photograph of someone who claimed to be the king of karate.

That night Scott began his instruction. Over the next several days he spent hours looking in the full length mirror and shouting “Heaaah!” His parents grew to love and appreciate their backyard, spending much time there, as far away as they could get from the house.

“Becky, how come you sometimes don’t come to church?” he asked one morning while they cleaned up the wrappers left from the night before.

“Some Sundays I’m with Joe at the beach or else at the car races. Why?”

“Your parents don’t make you go?” he asked.

“My real parents are divorced. My stepfather isn’t a member, and my mom doesn’t want to make him mad. About the only time he’s home is on Sunday.”

They finished up outside and went in to make up some hamburger patties. “I thought it was going to be great at first when Mom remarried. The second week he took me and my sister out on Saturday. He took us to a fair and bought us cotton candy and hot dogs, took us on rides, and even bought us both a huge teddy bear. After he got us home, he quit paying any attention to us. It was as if his getting us the teddy bear proved what a loving stepdad he was. Now he doesn’t talk to us except to yell. Sometimes I wish I could leave home.”

“With Joe?”

“I don’t know. Him or somebody else. I seem to attract guys like Joe.”

Scott wiped his eyes and then continued to slice up some onions. “Becky, come with me Wednesday to church. Our Explorer post is having somebody come in to teach dancing. You’d have a good time. And you should see some of those guys. They’re all taller than me, and some of them have their own cars.”

“What about Joe?” she asked. “He gets very mad.”

“You leave Joe to me,” Scott said, looking at his karate-toughened, onion-juice-covered hand.

“What would I wear?” she asked.

“A dress if you have one.”

“I do, but I don’t wear dresses much because Joe never likes me to dress up. He says we’re never going any place where we need to worry about how we look.”

After work Scott and Becky walked over to phone Pam.

“What’re you going to say?” Becky asked.

“Don’t worry. You treat me like such a kid sometimes. I have it all figured out. A little light conversation to put her at ease. Then I just ask her if she’ll go with me to the movies Saturday.”

Becky got in the phone booth first, and he crowded in after her. With the door open they had more room in the booth, but the fan didn’t run.

Becky dialed the number for him.

“Hello, is this Pamela Robertson who lives at 345 Riverside Drive? … Pam, this is Scott McCovick who lives at 349 Riverside Drive.”

Scott cupped his hands over the phone and asked Becky, “Now what?”

“I told you we should’ve practiced,” she whispered. “A little light conversation, remember?”

He stood looking at the phone as if he’d never seen one before.

“Say something!” Becky said.

“Pam,” he continued, “I saw you spraying for dandelions a few days ago. What kind of weed killer do you use?”

Becky grimaced.

“No, that’s okay,” Scott added. “You don’t need to go all the way out to the garage to find out. I’ll ask your dad someday.”

In order to start the fan running so they could get some air, Scott crowded into the booth and closed the door. Becky could just barely breathe.

“You sure did a great job. I bet you killed off every dandelion in your yard. That’s what I like about you, Pam. You’re very thorough.”

“I’ve got to get out of here,” Becky whispered to Scott. He put the phone down, opened the door, and let her out. Then he grabbed the phone, and stepped inside the booth.

“Pam, are you still there? … No, nothing’s wrong. Pam, I’m planning on going on a mission … Yes, in about three years … Well, that’s kind of you to say. I just didn’t want you to think I was out to get married out of high school.”

“What are you doing?” Becky asked impatiently.

“I’m putting her at ease,” Scott defended.

“Pam, what did you say? … Yes, I guess it does sound like I’m talking to somebody else at the same time. Well, keep it up with your lawn. Goodbye.”

“You didn’t ask her out,” Becky said, trying to be kind.

“It didn’t come up in the conversation. Give me time. Pam is a wonderful girl. She pays attention in seminary class. I know because I sit behind her and watch her all the time. What if she says no?”

“Why should she say no?”

“Why? Who wants to go out with an oboe player who is also the oldest paper boy in town?”

“So what if she does say no?”

“Don’t say it. If she says no, it’s all over between me and girls. I’ll become an Olympic swimming champion.”

The next day at work, Scott gave Becky a karate demonstration. Resting a board between two bricks, he brought his hand down swiftly and broke the board neatly in two.

“Scott, that’s great!” Becky said.

“Well, it’s a start,” he said modestly.

“What do you mean? It’s terrific!”

“Actually it’s not as impressive as it looks. I took a board and cut about two-thirds of the way through and then filled it up with plastic wood. I’ve got another board here to show off when those little league players show up.”

During lunch Joe found out that Becky was going to activity night with Scott.

He walked up to the window and said, “Come out here.”

“Your hamburger’s almost ready,” Scott answered.

“Stay away from my girl!” Joe yelled at him.

“I just asked her if she’d like to go to church with me tonight.”

“She’s not going anywhere with you or anybody else!” Turning around to Becky, he asked, “Are you?”

“You don’t own me, Joe. I can go to church if I want to.”

Joe whirled around to talk to Scott.

“You come out here, or I’m going to come in and get you.”

“Yes, sir.” On his way out, Scott spotted the board and the two bricks. He picked them up and carried them out, setting them up on the picnic table.

“Ahhhhmmm,” Scott cleared his voice, “I should warn you,” he said, his voice still too high, “that although I may appear to the casual observer to be harmless, I’ve been trained in the martial arts.”

“Break your date with her,” Joe demanded.

“Why? So you can yell at her and make her feel crummy. She deserves better treatment.”

“I’m gonna break your head.” Joe started walking toward Scott.

“If you hit me in the mouth, you’re going to waste over a thousand dollars in dental care. There may be a law suit.”

“You asked for it, kid.”

“Wait, Joe. Don’t do anything hasty. See this board. Heeaaah!” Scott’s hand broke the board in two.

Joe stepped up to Scott and launched his right fist into Scott’s mid-section, doubling him over. Joe turned and left.

Scott lay down on the ground, gasping for breath, while Becky knelt down and tried to comfort him.

The first words he was able to speak were, “I want my money back.”

That night he met Becky at church. As she walked up to the door, one of the older guys in the post saw her and said, “Wow! Look at that! She’s beautiful! Who’s she gonna dance with?”

“That’s my friend. I invited her tonight. Of course, I had to fight her former boyfriend first. Joe Kruglak.”

“You fought Joe Kruglak?”

“Sure, I’ll tell you about it sometime. But you’ll excuse me now, won’t you?” Scott made a grandiose gesture of opening the door for Becky.

Thursday after work, Scott and Becky again called Pam.

“Pam, this is Scott … You found out what weed killer you were using? … Yes, I’m sure it’s very good. Pam, when do you get your braces off? … You know, we got braces about the same time and we’re going to get them off about the same time. I mean, it’s an experience we’ve shared, isn’t it? When I first got them, I got part of an apple peeling caught in them. Maybe you remember. That was when I spent a couple of days with my hand in front of my mouth.”

Becky closed her eyes and shook her head.

“No, Pam, Becky’s just a friend. Why? … Oh, really? He is? Look, you tell him that Becky is a fine girl … No, I think she broke up with Joe. Look, to give you an idea of what kind of girl Becky is, I hope she won’t mind me saying this. You know I work with her at the Dairy Dip. She is very good about cleaning the grease trays on the grill. Not just once a month, but at least once a week. You know what I mean? … Look, you tell Mike to come around tomorrow and I’ll introduce him to her.”

Scott turned to Becky and gave her a smile.

“Pam, if you come with him, I’ll let you have our 89 cent banana split for only 59 cents.”

Becky tapped him on the shoulder and shook her head, making a round O with her thumb and index finger.

“Pam, I’ll even do better than that. I will buy you a banana split. Just for you, though, not for Mike. Okay? Bye.”

He hung up the phone and grinned at Becky.

“Pam’s cousin is in the Explorer post at church, and he really likes you. He wants to take you to a fireside Sunday evening. You’ll say yes, won’t you? Because if you do, then I can ask Pam, and we can double, and Pam’s cousin can use his dad’s car.”

“Is he the tall one?” Becky said with interest.

“None other.”

He walked Becky home, wheeling his bike.

“Poor girl,” he finally muttered.

“What do you mean?” Becky asked.

“Pam. She’s really fallen for me.”

“How can you tell?”

“Well, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but this morning when I was delivering papers, she was outside spraying for crabgrass.”

“So?” Becky asked.

“So? You don’t see what that means?”

“No.”

“Becky,” Scott said, placing his hand on her arm, “You’d better stick with me for awhile. When it comes to things like this, you’re such a child.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ed Holmes