I’m 15 and it’s the middle of a doldrums-filled summer. It’s a sweaty hot day, a real record breaker. It feels like I have a melting fruit rollup covering my face. I’m convinced that flies are nesting in my hair. Soon they will start to breed.
Here I am, with nothing to do, just sitting on an old couch with a broken spring in it. I can tell it’s busted by the squeaking sound it makes every time I breathe. All I can think about is this sharp rusty spring coiled and poised -- just inches away and preparing to bore its way into my left butt cheek the next time I blink.
That was the day I called him for the first time. I could tell you I was watching Bugs Bunny cartoons, reading my dad’s Playboys, eating a bologna sandwich with Miracle Whip and drinking Kool-Aid, but that would be a lie because I can remember little more about that day other than what happened next. Besides, I hate Miracle Whip.
So, I pick up the phone and just start dialing. Calling no one in particular, and without any agenda in mind, I embark on another crank call. It’s something I like to do with my best friend and cohort in crime, Kelly, mostly when I’m bored – I call people up and antagonize them. Sometimes I’m Dr. Jerkinoff from the local hospital, inquiring about an upcoming sperm donation. Other times I enjoy doing the classics -- all the basic, tried and true stuff – like calling liquor stores and asking them if they have Sir Walter Raleigh in a bottle, or calling bowling alleys and inquiring as to the size of their balls. I pick them out from my mind’s rolodex – just another one of the unoriginal, somewhat juvenile gags I’ve been able to stockpile over the years.
It’s a random number, but for some reason it immediately sticks in my head, like a really bad song you just can’t seem to forget the lyrics to. Like Muskrat Love or Put the Lime in the Coconut.
Someone picks up. He sounds old. 40-ish. Like someone’s uncle. The initial image in my head is Ward Cleaver.
I haven’t said a word and he sounds as though he’s already pissed.
“You tell me first.”
“No, you tell me.”
Oh my God, I’m thinking. I’m playing the “I know you are but what am I” game with a grown adult.
“Forget it. Screw you.”
Then, he explodes. This crazed man on the other end of the phone calls me 7-10 things I’d heard my Dad say when he forgot I was in the room; 4-5 I had heard the older kids talk about, and a couple I had never heard before, but decided were definitely worth finding out the definitions for, and soon.
Suddenly I realize I’m in a state of shock. My first instinct is to come back with something witty, sharp. But, I’m tongue-tied. This guy succeeded in doing something all my teachers and schoolyard nemeses had attempted to do without luck for so many years – he had shut me up. And he wasn’t even close to being finished.
“What’s the matter, punk? Can’t talk? How ‘bout I kick your ass? Meet me at the Dairy Queen on Van Nuys and Reseda in an hour!”
“I’ll be there, butt hole,”
I reply in a frightened falsetto and hang up. I don’t know what location he’s referring to. I don’t even know the city. I guess he figures I live close by, for some reason.
And that was the end of it – or so I thought.
Until next fall, when I decide to call my anonymous friend again. The number comes back to me, without even thinking, and the phone starts to ring.
“Hello?” I inquire.
“Oh, you again, eh?”
Wow, I’m thinking. He remembers me. This guy must not have many friends.
“Yeah. That’s right.”
“You never showed up at the Dairy Queen.”
“Because, I was afraid…”
“That’s what I thought, you little…” he interrupted.
I abruptly cut him off.
“I was afraid of going to jail for kicking some old man’s ass!”
And, that, of course, set him off again. This time his diatribe was longer, more vulgar and venomous, but just as entertaining. I can hear this guy going absolutely berserk, frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog and banging the phone against his head whenever he’s finishing one insult and about to begin another.
I hang up the phone, scared and confused by this dynamo of hate, but at least somewhat satisfied that I had not frozen up and wimped out like the last call. This time I got in one good line, I tell myself.
Over the next decade or so, I call my buddy a lot. Every holiday, when I’m home from school I make sure to ring him up. And he’s always just as pissed at me and just as ready to fight.
He calls me punk. I call him butt head. He calls me nimrod. What’s a nimrod, anyway?
The calls always travel the same path. He rants and raves, and almost invariably finishes up by challenging me to fisticuffs. It never changes. He always wants to meet me at the identical Dairy Queen on the same corner. And, of course, I never show up. I hadn’t even bothered to look up the names of the streets or even what city he lived in.
After awhile, I found myself wondering what my angry pal looked like. I thought about what he might do for a living or in his spare time. Did he have any hobbies, was he married or divorced? Why was he so mad? What had happened in his life to make him explode the way he did? Why did he hate me so much?
Usually when you make a prank phone call, there’s a certain level of anonymity. It’s a lot like cutting someone off while driving or throwing eggs at someone’s house. If you do it right, they’ll never know who did it, and you’re off the hook for any accountability. That’s what was on my mind when I called him one night over the Thanksgiving break during my senior year.
And the line was disconnected.
My heart sank. Why am I so bummed? I wonder.
All kinds of thoughts race through my mind. What happened? Did someone finally take him up on his offer of fisticuffs? Did he die in his sleep? I knew so little about him that I couldn’t even fathom why his phone number no longer worked. I decided to dial it again just to be certain, but it was true. There was no forwarding number.
My antagonistic, confrontational phone friend was gone. All of the questions I had would never be answered. I had made his life miserable over the phone during almost my entire adolescence, and I really didn’t miss him as much as I did the chance of listening to him implode just one last time. I knew right then, sitting there with the phone in my hand listening to a dial tone that my life would be a little different forever.