Wrong Number by Terese Pampellonne
Sandy had just gotten home from working a Barmitzvah out in Long Island. It was the usual deal, four hours acting like an idiot for two hundred bucks. She’d led a conga line wearing plastic fruit on her head, dressed up like a nerd for the sock hop set and handed out maracas for people to shake as they lowered themselves for the limbo. How low can you go? Pretty low, Sandy thought. Pretty damn low. The worst, though, was the big band set. The performers had to be dressed up as musical instruments and Sandy was a xylophone, which meant she had to endure people beating her with her own mallets.
She dropped her costume bag on the couch, hit the button on her answering machine as she headed to the bathroom, tearing her false eyelashes off as she went. The first message was from her mother, wondering in her flat, depressed voice if Sandy was still planning on coming home for Thanksgiving. Her mother was a manic-depressive, and you never knew what you were going to walk into. She might prepare a feast and already have all the Christmas decorations up, or the house would be dark and they’d have frozen turkey dinners. Either way, she was all her mother had, and vice versa. She’d be there.
She stuck her lashes to the vanity mirror. As her mother droned on about the dreary weather and the curling linoleum in the kitchen, she took a long look at herself. A casting agent once told her she looked like a husky Julia Roberts, but that was years ago and what she now saw was a dispiriting sight. Caked powder had lifted her fine lines like fingerprints at a crime scene. It was the face of a not old but not young actress with mediocre talent who had been too stubborn (just plain stupid?) to see that she’d been clinging onto a dream the way one hangs on to an old dress, despite its missing buttons and out of date style. Now, the only thing that kept her chasing after this fantasy was the alternative: go home and live with her mother who was fond of informing her of job opportunities in Michigan which, depending on her mood, ranged from seeing a sign in Denny’s window advertising for a line cook, to a rumor that Ford was looking for a new V.P.
She shuddered her Chekovian thoughts away, and leaned over the sink to wash her clown face down the drain. Her mother finally hung up, and her friend Penny’s voice took its place.
“I fucked him, it was horrible, call me.”
Sandy collapsed her forearms onto the rim of the sink, exasperated. Penny was dating a married man and Sandy had been begging her to not give in. She told her this was going to happen. Now Sandy was in for at least a solid month of late-night hand-holding over the telephone, listening to Penny alternate between contemplating suicide or homicide. She was just about to rinse when an unfamiliar voice called out from her answering machine.
“Irene? Irene are you there?”
Sandy turned the water off to hear better. There was a long pause. Wrong number, Sandy thought, and was about to return to rinsing off when she heard, “It’s me, Colleen. Back from the dead . . .”
The fragile, bereft voice drew Sandy into the living room. It made her think of a trampled flower. She stared down at the machine.
“I heard mamma died so I thought it would be okay to call. Tommy told me. I run into him on the street sometimes.” The woman paused. “The other night I took the train out to Coney, and I looked under the pier for where we carved our initials when we were kids. Couldn’t find it though. The beach, it was so empty and . . .” The woman paused again, and Sandy got the sense she was working up to something. “I’m rambling. You always hated it when I rambled. Thing is Reenie, even if you don’t want to see me I just wanted to ask you something. Just one thing.”
A recording came on asking for another twenty-five cents, and the caller shouted over it that she didn’t have a phone so she’d try back again. Then she was cut off, and the answering machine told Sandy in its mechanical voice that she had no more messages. She hit the message button, erased her mother, Penny, but she listened to the stranger’s once more. This time she picked up a slight Brooklyn accent, and the weariness in her voice marked her as someone older than herself. Sandy assumed it had to take a certain amount of years of hard living to reach that timber of heaviness. The ability to assess a character quickly and nail down their objective is one of the most important skills an actor can have, her acting teacher believed, and encouraged Sandy to practice this skill whenever she could: the man behind the token booth, the woman ringing up your groceries.
Sandy decided this woman was a drug user or prostitute. Maybe homeless, Sandy reasoned, based on the fact she didn’t even have another quarter to put in the phone. Whatever it was, the mother never forgave her for it and she was banished from the family home. Years later, she hears her mother has died, and gets in contact again because she herself is dying of . . . AIDS. Her objective? To be forgiven. The Coney Island story is her saying she misses her family, and the thing she wanted to ask was if she could come home and die in the home she grew up in. Sandy bit her soapy lip, unsatisfied. Too predictable. Too cliche. She was about to erase the message but then decided to leave it a few days, out of a respect for the courage it must have taken to make such a call. Too bad it had been made in vain.
At six the next morning, Sandy was sitting on a newspaper on the sidewalk outside of the Actor’s Equity building, sipping from a cup of coffee. It was an open call and she was on line with at least a hundred actors waiting for the building to open up, most standing slack with resolve, like cows waiting their turn to be milked. Today they were auditioning for a Christopher Durang festival at a theater in Schenectady. Most likely the play was already cast but Sandy figured she might have a shot. Playing crazy, neurotic characters was her forte.
The cold, autumnal wind rushed through the empty street like a river through a canyon, sweeping debris into small eddies and newspaper tornados. The front page of yesterday’s POST got caught up on the rounded tip of her sneaker. Sandy read the headline: BAG LADY NUMBER 2. She’d read about the first dismembered woman, found in a number of garbage bags underneath the Queensboro Bridge and thought of the homeless woman who had called last night. Then she reminded herself she’d made that up. She had no idea if the woman were homeless or not, and shook the page off her foot, watching it as it flew down the street until it wrapped itself around a parking meter.
Sandy sat back and huddled around the warmth of her paper coffee cup when a few moments later laughter erupted up in front of the line. Curious, she leaned forward to see an old man with his fly wide open, lurching and stumbling up the sidewalk. As he passed by he reeked of urine and sweet-smelling booze. A few feet ahead of her, a couple of guys were still snickering.
“What’s so funny,” she asked one of the guys.
“He asked if this was the soup line and what time did they open.”
A few more laughs broke out, but Sandy didn’t find it in the least bit funny. She leaned back against the stone wall and hunched down into a fetal curl for the long wait until the building’s doors would open.
She wasn’t seen until close to three that afternoon, but she’d anticipated this, and brought her work clothes with her. She waited tables at a Piano bar run by two fat old sisters who spoke in Hungarian accents and wore too much make-up --- Zsa Zsa Gabor wannabes. She was standing at the corner of 43rd and Broadway, waiting for a pay phone to become available because she forgot her cell phone at home. Tourists buffeted her as they passed by, cars honked loudly in the street, but Sandy was oblivious to it all. Deep in her mind, she was still seething over the audition.
The auditor couldn’t have been more than twenty-two. Probably some low-level assistant who answered phones in the casting director’s office. He’d already seen seventy-two actors and it showed. His skin was the color of veal and his handshake weak, having been in the windowless, airless room most of the day. Then there was the pained look on his face when she announced she’d be doing Baby in the Bathwater, a famous Durang monologue. Obviously he’d heard it so many times that day he probably had it memorized. The ultimate insult, though, was when she finished. Doodling on the desk in front of him Sandy had to clear her throat to get his attention. He looked up, startled, and said, “Thanks Mandy. We’ll be in touch.”
A phone became available and Sandy dialed up her machine. Her first message was from her optometrist, reminding her of her appointment, the second her mother, accusing her ninety-year-old neighbor of digging up the bulbs in her flowerbed and replacing them with defective ones. Her voice was caustically energized, a telltale she was in a manic phase. She knew this would go on for awhile, and because Sandy had gotten her answering machine from a friend who had forgotten how to fast forward to the next message, she resigned herself to a long wait and began to scan Backstagefor next week’s auditions. Until she realized she was listening to that sad voice from last night.
“Irene, I know you’re there. I don’t want you to think I’m spying or anything, but I saw you go in. Irene? Please pick up.” Sandy covered her other ear with her hand and pressed into the corner of the stall so she could hear better. “I just want to ask you one thing Irene, then I swear, if you don’t want to see me, I’ll go. I’ll disappear like I never existed. Irene?” She paused, and Sandy felt herself gripping the receiver in the irrational hope that this Irene would pick up the phone. “God, how long are you all going to hate me,” she said, her voice quavering with defeat before hanging up.
Sandy stared at herself in the phone’s shiny steel casement, wondering why this Colleen couldn’t just go up to Irene and talk to her? Maybe what she’d done was so awful, she was worried her physical presence might arouse some kind of violent reaction. She would have continued speculating on this poor woman’s offense but Penny’s voice came on asking why she hadn’t gotten back to her, followed by Sommes casting asking if she were available for some stand-in work on a television show about criminals and lawyers. She immediately hung up and dialed the casting agent, hoping they hadn’t gotten somebody else already. She looked at her watch. Penny would have to wait, her mother probably wouldn’t even remember she had left a message, and as for the wrong number . . . somehow she was going to have to straighten that out.
The next day, she was on the set at Chelsea Piers, doing stand-in work for the new Assistant D.A. on the show, a cocky brunette. All the blocking and lighting was done with Sandy, and then the ‘real’ actress would step in and do the scene. It was a monotonous, boring job. It made her feel like rented furniture, but it paid well enough for her to call in sick to her waitressing job and endure a five minute tirade of Hungarian - accented frustration. During the lunch break, she called her mother from her cell phone in the holding room, where all the actors waited until they were needed. When things got to be too much, she could use the excuse she was being called to the set. The conversation went like this.
“Oh. Hello Sandra.”
“You sound tired.”
Talking to her mother could be as maddening as trying to pick up spilled salt from the floor, grain by grain. After a few more rounds of this, Sandy assured her mother she’d be there for Thanksgiving, to which her mother answered, “Thanksgiving. As if you and I have anything to be thankful for.”
Sandy hung up and a muscle along the side of her jaw began to spasm. The holding room she was in had emptied out. She peered down the hall toward the Kraft service table, where she could see extras lining up for lunch. It seemed that’s all she did lately. Wait in line, take a number. Watch for the crisscrosses of tape on the floor of the set so she’d know exactly where to go. If only life were strewn with little crisscrosses, she mused, so you’d know how to get from point A to point B. And if you ended up somewhere you didn’t want to be, you could always retrace your steps to see exactly where you went wrong.
Sandy wandered back into the room and wandered over to the window looking out at the industrial buildings across the Westside Highway. It had been raining on and off all day, and the clouds hung in ugly gray clots. She thought about the caller, Coleen. It seemed no one would have anything to do with her, not even her own mother. As crazy as Sandy’s mother was, it was still comforting to know that at least someone cared about what happened to her. If she ended up like one of the dismembered bag ladies, at least her mother would be there to make sure she was pieced together properly before being buried. Sandy couldn’t imagine what she’d have to do to alienate her mother to the point where she wouldn’t want to see her. In fact her mother still looked at Sandy’s career as a flight of fancy and that one day her daughter would return to her senses, come home, and watch slide shows for the rest of her life. Sandy knew that at this point in her career she was just treading water, like a shipwrecked survivor in the middle of the ocean grasping after whatever debris came her way.
She got home at two in the morning. It had been a grueling day, and when she saw the red light on her answering machine blinking, she felt a guilty pang. She meant to change the greeting on her answering machine. If she left her full name instead of just her number, she was sure the caller would realize her mistake. She let her bag slide off her shoulder and thud to the floor. Couldn’t do anything about it now. But after she’d undressed, took a shower and sat down in front of the answering machine holding a glass of red wine did she realize --- she’d been hoping to hear from the caller all day. She pushed the button and the machine beeped to life.
After another call from Penny and scanning past ten hang-ups, the anticipated voice sighed, “It’s Colleen.”
Sandy exhaled, relieved.
“You always said I was stupid to the point of being stubborn, so I’m calling to tell you that I’ll be on the Coney boardwalk tomorrow, in front of the Wonder Wheel.”
There was a sound, like a sniffle, either from emotion or a runny nose, Sandy couldn’t tell, followed by a weak laugh.
“Remember how hard it was to get me to go on that thing Irene? I was so scared, I wouldn’t open my eyes until the second time around, when you said if I didn’t open ‘em not only was I going to not get any ice cream, it was going to be my last chance ever to be on top of the world. Then when I did, and saw the ocean and the lights and all the small people lookin’ up at us, I was glad you made me. I would have been sorry if I’d kept my eyes closed and missed out on seeing all that.”
There was that sniffling again, but when she resumed speaking, the wistfulness was gone from her voice, replaced with that sadness that reminded Sandy of a trampled flower when she’d first heard it.
“Anyway, that’s where I’ll be. Ten o’ clock ‘cause I know you work late. And if you don’t show, I won’t bother you anymore.”
She hung up, and the machine beeped, indicating the start of a new message. Sandy quickly reached out and pushed the pause button. Except for the hiss of her steam pipe, it was silent in her apartment. Her glass was empty. She refilled it and sat for a long time, imagining Colleen. She pictured a woman in her forties, thin and worn with frizzled black hair and chipped nails, shivering in the cold as she stood underneath the Wonder Wheel on the deserted boardwalk, waiting. What would she do when no one showed up? Would she do something desperate? She kept hearing that voice, void of hope, as she sat up for a long time, thinking about what could be done.
Waiting on the subway platform, Sandy wondered why she was doing this, why she even cared. The woman was probably some hard-up junkie trying to hit this Irene up for money. She’d probably be pissed when she saw it was Sandy. Maybe even mug her. It would have been much easier just leaving a message on her machine, telling the woman she’d been calling the wrong number. There were a ton of things she had to do today: pack her costumes for a Barmitvah tonight, pack for her trip home. The train’s pinpoint light appeared in the dark tunnel. She told herself she’d walk up to the woman, tell her she’d been leaving messages on the wrong answering machine, and go. It would be that simple.
Coming out of the Stillwell Ave. subway she was greeted with Nathan’s mustard yellow sign. It was still early, and quiet, except for a Manhattan-bound subway’s wheels screeching along the elevated train tracks. Great blocks of utilitarian housing complexes loomed tall and forbidding in the sky. Along Surf Ave. squat, low-rent storefronts hugged the street. Most were still shuttered. A few people strolled along the gray beach, peppered with litter and sea gulls. Sandy walked past the food shacks and souvenir shops until she finally reached the giant Wonder Wheel, looking ominous behind a gated fence. No one was there. Just a few seagulls picking at a black garbage bag.
She leaned against the railing and looked out over the ocean where the sun was a ghost of its usual self. A chill wind wrapped her hair around her face. She pushed it away to check her watch. Ten on the dot. She looked up and down the boardwalk, but no one was coming in either direction. Now she felt ridiculous. She turned around and watched as the gulls screeched at each other over the black garbage bag. Sandy stomped her foot down.
. Her yell sent them flapping up to the top of a lamppost. She stared at the tattered hole they’d made and thought of her mother --- the endless rounds of Gin Rummy, the slides, the frozen turkey dinners for Thanksgiving --- and she began to fantasize about not going. So what if she was alone here in New York? It was a lot better than being alone with her mother. As she thought about this possibility, one she’d considered many times but had never followed through on, her eyes wandered up and down the other storefronts on the boardwalk, seeing but not taking in an incongruous detail. Finally it clicked into focus.
None of the stores had garbage out front. And they wouldn’t. The boardwalk had been closed for some time. Sandy’s eyes zipped back to the tattered hole of the garbage bag, and then she checked her watch again. Ten twenty-five. Colleen wasn’t showing up. She looked back to the bag, her mind somersaulting with gruesome plot developments and told herself it was just garbage, but if it were just that then why was she unable to go see for herself?
The gulls had worked up the courage to fly back down from their lampost. They were creeping up to the bag with a preternatural slyness. This time Sandy waved her arms and cursed. One held its ground and angrily flapped its wings at her. She threw a soda can that had been left on the railing, and it took off. She looked hard at the bag. She could call the police, and let them check it out themselves. Only she wouldn’t give them her name because she’d feel foolish if it turned out to be just a bag of garbage. And how would she feel if it turned out to be what she thought? Sandy walked away, first at a normal pace, then she broke into a run, allowing herself only one last glance over her shoulder to see the birds were back, pecking and tearing at the bag.
The next evening she was on a plane to Detroit, staring out at the black void as she sipped from the tiny bottle of vodka, worrying about the last phone call she’d had with her mother before boarding the plane. She’d called to let her know the time her flight was getting in, and at first Sandy thought she sounded good. Her mother claimed to be in the middle of decorating the aluminum Christmas tree, and Sandy could hear a laugh track from some television show in the background. But then she told Sandy, in a bizarrely ecstatic voice, about an entire family that died from carbon monoxide poisoning --- a faulty heater. “Sandra, I can’t think of a better way to die than in your sleep with your entire family around you, can you?” she’d asked. Sandy said yes, and silently thanked God her mother’s house ran on electric.
She drained the bottle, and wondered what kind of Thanksgiving Colleen was looking at. As soon as she got home from Coney Island, she left a message on her machine telling her she’d been calling the wrong number but so far there had been no calls. Perhaps Colleen discovered her error before making the trip to Brooklyn, and right now was enjoying a Thanksgiving reunion with this Irene. Irene would let her come home and live until she got herself straightened out, if that’s what was needed. Maybe even for good.
Sandy sighed and turned her face away from the window. Inventing other people’s lives was a necessity for her craft. The problem was, she had the feeling it prevented her from inventing her own. It seemed she could never project into the future any farther than the next audition, the next job --- the next trip home. Any farther than that, the picture always got as dark as the sky outside. Sandy felt more comfortable staying in the present. It was safer and in her experience, it was all anyone could really count on. She closed her eyes, feeling warm from the vodka and snug from the tight fit of the seat and before long she was drifting off and dreaming of riding the Wonder Wheel, all the way to the top of the world.
© Terese Pampellonne 2012
Terese is a graduate of Hunter College's MFA program. Her first novel, The Unwelcome Child, was published in 2005, and short fiction from her collection Ten Ways To Kill Your Mother, has appeared in Caprice, Flying Horse, Colorado Review, New Works Review, Wired Art and Ascent. In addition to her prose, she's a playwright whose plays, The Doomsday Club, Conditional Commitment, Fifteen Plus Toll (which won Hunter College's McGlinchee Award for Best Play), Lunchtime Go-go and Dressing on the Side, have been performed here in New York City by various theater companies. Currently Terese is working on her second novel, and lives in Manhattan with her husband Robert, as well as her dog Matilda and cat, Rosebud.
Wrong Number was read by Lauren Norman on November 7th 2012