Pay Phone ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
While Charles was in the doctor’s office, his sister Vivienne insisted on waiting for him in the car on the parking lot, even though she might have easily waited inside.
“I hate doctors’ offices,” she said. “They’re full of sick people.”
“Suit yourself,” he said.
Charles was fourteen, too young to drive himself for his quarterly checkups. His mother usually drove him, but today she had to go a funeral out of town, so his sister Vivienne was pressed into service.
He had to wait in the doctor’s office much longer than usual. When he was finished and finally ready to go, Vivienne was standing by the front fender of the car smoking a cigarette.
“I thought maybe you died in there,” she said, flipping her butt away. “I was about ready to leave without you.”
“I could have walked home,” Charles said. “It’s only about ten miles.”
“What is it with doctors?” she said. “They think their time is so precious, but your time means nothing at all.”
“I don’t think they ever think about it,” Charles said.
“They’re all jerks, if you ask me!”
Vivienne was seven years older than Charles. She had always resented his existence. She always thought of him as unnecessary and something of an embarrassment. If she could have flipped a switch and snuffed out his life, she would gladly have done so.
“Mother shouldn’t ask me to do errands for her when I’m so busy,” Vivienne said. “I have a wedding gift to shop for and I still have to get my hair done. You’re her child, not mine!”
“Don’t tell me.”
“I don’t ever want any children!”
“Fine by me.”
“They’re always wanting something and they make you old before your time. Ask any person who has children. If they had it to do all over again, they all say they would have remained childless.”
“Sounds like a wise decision,” Charles said. “Say, I missed lunch today and I’m hungry. Let’s stop somewhere and get a hamburger.”
“No! There isn’t time. I’m late as it is.”
“Late for what?”
“Kenny is picking me up at six. We’re going to have supper at that new bistro and then we’re going to the theatre.”
“You mean a movie?”
“No, dumbbell. A movie is a movie. When you say, ‘the theatre’, you mean a play with living people acting on a stage.”
“Oh, right. I’ve seen plays before.”
“I’m not talking about that junk they put on at school. I’m talking about a professional play with professional actors in it. People who have trained for years to be able to do what they do.”
“I’m still hungry.”
“When mother practically begged me to take you for your doctor’s appointment, I didn’t imagine it would take all afternoon! I thought there’d be plenty of time.”
“Oh, try not to get your panties all in a bunch.”
She looked at him with disbelief. “What did you just say to me?”
“I said, ‘don’t get your panties all in a bunch’.”
She slapped at his shoulder with her right hand. “Where do you hear that kind of language?”
“I don’t know!” he said. “I hear it all the time!”
“I’m going to tell mother what you said.”
“I don’t care.”
“You know she doesn’t tolerate vulgar language.”
“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”
“She’ll know soon enough because I’m going to tell her.”
“I believe I said earlier I don’t care.”
“It’s time you started acting your age.”
“Why don’t you act your age?”
“You have a very smart mouth, you know that? If you were my child, I’d smack you in the mouth every time you made a snotty remark.”
He mimed being smacked in the mouth and being knocked out.
“That’s not funny!” Vivienne said. “You still act like kindergarten.”
“Well, I know I don’t ever want to act the way you act! You’re a big phony and nobody likes you.”
“That’s not true! Lots of people like me!”
“Kenny likes me. He’s asked me to marry him.”
“Oh, boy! He doesn’t know what he’s in for if you ever say yes.”
“I’m very seriously considering marrying him!”
“Go ahead and marry him, then, so I can have your room.”
“I don’t think so, mister! That room is mine!”
“If you marry Kenny, you won’t need it anymore. You’ll be living someplace else.”
“We’ve going to live with my folks after we’re married so we can save enough money to buy a house. I think that makes a lot of sense.”
“Hah-hah! I don’t think so! I don’t think mother would ever go along with that.”
“Well, for one thing, she doesn’t like Kenny.”
“She does so like Kenny. She loves Kenny. She told me so.”
“That’s not what she says when you’re not around.”
“What does she say?”
“She says, ‘I hope Vivienne never gets it into her head to marry ‘that Kenny’. That’s what calls him: that Kenny!”
“She doesn’t like his hairdo. She says it makes him look like a woman. I don’t like his hairdo, either.”
“Well, isn’t that just too bad! I’m sure Kenny will be absolutely crushed to hear you don’t like his hair.”
“Do you really want to be married to a man who looks like a woman? If you ever have any kids, they’ll be mutants!”
“Do you mean like you? You’re the mutant! As soon as I laid eyes on you when mother brought you home from the hospital, I knew there was something terribly wrong with you. I think aliens from outer space dropped you off at the hospital and mother was just unlucky enough to get stuck with you!”
“I hope that’s true,” Charles said. “Because if it is, it means I’m not related to you in any way!”
“If you insult me one more time, I’m going to stop the car and you’re going to walk the rest of the way home.”
“Oh, what do I care?”
In another mile, the traffic slowed and then came to a standstill.
“That’s the thing about being out this time of the day,” Vivienne said. “Traffic is just too heavy!”
“What am I supposed to do?” Charles said. “Bust into tears?”
“I hear sirens. That means there’s a wreck up there somewhere.”
“We might be stuck here for hours.”
“Go find a phone and call Kenny!”
“Are you crazy? I won’t do it!”
“Call him and tell him I’m stuck in traffic and I’ll be a little late.”
“I said no!”
“You might need me to do something for you some time.”
“I doubt it.”
“If you want my room, you can have it when I marry Kenny and move out of the house.”
“If you move out of the house, you won’t have anything to say about your room.”
“There’s a police officer over there! Go ask him what’s causing the delay!”
“Are you crazy? Do you think I want to get hit by a car?”
“Cars aren’t moving. We’re all just sitting here. Oh, this is maddening! This is the last time I will ever take you to the doctor!”
“Oh, you make me sick!”
Finally the police officer came closer to the car and Vivienne motioned him to her window.
“What’s the problem, officer?” she asked.
“Multi-car pileup about a mile ahead.”
“I’m in a hurry terrible!”
“Everybody’s in a hurry, ma’am! I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait it out. Nothing to be done until the wreck’s cleared away.”
After the officer was gone, Vivienne covered her face with her hands and began crying.
“Is your date with Kenny really that important?” Charles asked.
She reached into her purse and handed Charles her change purse.
“Here, take this!” she said. “Go and find a pay phone and call Kenny and after you’ve done that, have yourself a hamburger. On me.”
“And then what? I’m supposed to walk home?”
“Call yourself a cab. Pay for it out of my money. Mother can pay me back later.”
“Oh, all right! But you are a lunatic! You know that, don’t you?”
He put the change purse in his pocket and walked four or five blocks in the direction away from the logjam of stopped cars and angry drivers.
He didn’t see a pay phone, but he did see a restaurant and was instantly captivated by its smells of cooking food. He went inside, sat at a booth, and ordered from the elderly waiter a deluxe cheeseburger with everything on it and a chocolate milkshake.
When his food arrived, he ate quickly, not because he was in a hurry but because he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. The cheeseburger was the best he had ever tasted and he wanted another one, but he didn’t want to press his luck. He was supposed to call somebody, wasn’t he? Oh, yes, he was supposed to call Kenny and deliver a message from his sister, who might still be stuck in traffic.
While he was paying his check, he asked the cashier the whereabouts of the nearest pay phone.
“There’s a booth up the street about three blocks on the corner,” she said. “You can’t miss it.”
He thanked the woman and went back outside into the cool evening air.
He was walking along, thinking how carefree he felt and how grown up he must look to the casual observer, when a boy not much older than he was approached him from an alleyway.
“Can you give me a dollah?” the boy asked.
Before he had a chance to respond, the boy put out his hands and pushed him over backwards with unexpected force. He lost his balance and fell easily.
While he was on his back on the sidewalk, too stunned to move, two other boys rifled his pockets and took Vivienne’s change purse with her money in it. After they had what they wanted, they ran off laughing.
“That was too easy!” one of them yelled.
He groaned and tried to stand up, finding that his head hurt terribly and his elbow might be broken.
“I want to go home!” he said piteously, but only to himself, because nobody else was around.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp