'A Stray'

Ian Woollen

     Aisle 9 at the supermarket is the pet food aisle. This might explain why the cell phone lying on the floor next to the Purina chow resembles a turd, Rachel thinks.

     Somebody ought to clean that up, she tells herself. 'Somebody' usually ends up being Rachel.

     - Oh, gosh, look, a lost phone, says the retiree in front of her who, nevertheless, pushes his cart on past the small, dark leather cased instrument without stopping.

      Rachel pauses, debates. She bends slowly through the aerobic soreness in her calves to pick it up and—story of her life—the phone starts ringing. Impossible for anyone in her family not to answer a ringing phone. It could be an emergency. It could be the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. It could be her foster brother, saying he wants to come home.

     - Hello?

     - Where are you?

     - In Kroger's, but...

     - The accountants called. They claimed no way. Said the depreciation formulas are a mess and no way can the elevator thing be included.

     The other voice sounds like a computerized voice, like the nonhuman speech on the weather band radio. Rachel is not entirely sure if there is a real person on the other end of the connection.

     - Um, who are you trying to reach? she asks.

     - Look, honey, this is no time to play games. God, I hate it when you decide that you're going to pretend not to hear what I'm telling you. I'm telling you that the building is going to have to be sold.

     - Excuse me, sorry, I'm not who you think I am.

     - Oh, right, who...suddenly, you're...who... a silent partner now? A dutiful widow who only wants to secure her spendthrift son's future?

     The small phone in Rachel’s palm feels oddly like a toy, and she can say whatever she wants.

     - Good use of  'spendthrift', Rachel comments, the high school English teacher.

     - Very funny. Thank you. This isn't Carol, is it? She wouldn't say that. This really is somebody else, though you do sound remarkably like Carol.

     - Yes, I mean, no, I'm not Carol. I just found this phone lying on the floor.

     - In the supermarket?

     - Right.

     - What aisle?

     - Aisle nine.

     - That's the dog food aisle, if I recall correctly.

     - Pet supplies in general, Rachel, the literalist, says.

     - Do you have a pet?

     - No, Rachel says, I used to have a dog.

     - Oh, I'm sorry. What happened?

     - Poisoned. Some kids in the neighborhood...Um... I'd rather not go into this.

     - Perhaps you should get another dog.

     - That's what my friends tell me. Maybe then I wouldn't waste time talking into some stranger's phone in the supermarket.

     - Whoa, now, hold on. I think it's very sweet of you to pick up Carol's  phone.

     - Well, thank you.

     - I wonder what Carol was doing in aisle nine? She doesn't have a dog anymore either.

     - Maybe she wants another one.

     - No. She's got me now instead.

     - Oh.

     - Of course, we are assuming it was Carol who dropped the phone. There is the possibility that, say, someone found her purse and rifled through it. The woman is always losing her purse.

      Rachel, a former girl scout troop leader, says,

     - What does she look like? I'll try to find her. She could still be in the store.

     - She's probably over in aisle two.

     - Dairy?

     - Cheese. She loves cheese.

     Walking now with the phone to her ear, Rachel no longer doubts that there is a flesh and blood person on the other end of this connection, although what kind of person remains murky. She pictures him in a swivel chair—the squeaky, antique kind at her brother's defense lawyer’s office—spinning around as they talk.

     - At lunch she was wearing, uh, a sweatsuit kind of thing, the man says.

     - What color?

     - I don't know. I never notice colors.

     - What do you mean? You never notice colors? Are you colorblind? Rachel asks. Such gross inattentions bother her.

     - No, but I just don't notice colors.

     - How do you get dressed in the morning? Rachel inquires.

     - I wear the same thing every day.

     - That's boring.

     - My wife picks out different stuff for me sometimes.

     - Carol?

     - No. But she could have been, once upon a time.

     - Meaning what?

     - To quote you a minute ago, 'I'd rather not go into this.'

     - Okay, but didn't you have a favorite color as a kid? All kids have a favorite color.

     Rachel, who rarely buys cheese, except for parmesan, selects a pound of sharp cheddar from a sale bin at the end of aisle two.

     - I must have...sure...wait a minute...red. My favorite color was red, and, as a matter of fact, she is wearing a red outfit. I think. Or maybe it's orange.

     - Sorry. There's no woman in aisle two in either a red or an orange sweatsuit. There is a woman in a blue windbreaker.

     - With, uh, dark hair, um, braided?

     - Braided how?

     - I don't know. Thick. Down to her waist. Like a pastry.

     - Nobody fitting that description. I'll go up front and have her paged.

     - Nah. She's probably gone by now. She's probably on her way to my office.

     - Are you sure? It can't hurt to have her paged.

     Rachel winces through a lower cerebellum twinge, which usually means some kind of dissent, some part of her wondering why the toy phone game is being prolonged at this point.

     - Wow, you are a real trouper, lady.

     - My sister calls me a 'trouper'. Only, she says it like that's a bad thing.

    - Yeah, my therapist does too. My current wife and I see a marriage therapist. God, I wouldn't want that job no matter how much you paid me.

     - Actually, my sister is a therapist, sort of. She's in grad school to become one.

     - Better warn her to get out before it's too late.

     - I don't think that very fair of you to...

    - Hey, gotta go. Sorry. I'm being buzzed. Bye now. Good luck.


     Rachel stares at the phone. She punches a few buttons, hoping to activate a redial. 'Good luck?' Nothing more. That's it? Good luck at what? At getting the phone back to Carol? Forget it, buster. Outside in the parking lot, packing her groceries neatly into the trunk of her Toyota Echo, Rachel imagines selectively describing this situation to her sister. As luck would have it, she and Suzie are scheduled to meet for lunch.

       They meet downtown at the Porticos. Her sister insists on sitting outdoors.

     - You kept the phone! No. Tell me you didn't. You still have the phone? Why not just drop it off at the lost and found. The store must have a lost and found.

     - Finders keepers, Rachel says.

     - Okay, of course, true to form. You always nabbed a lot of my stuff that way, sister Sue says.

     - Do you think I'm crazy?

     - Psychotic crazy? No...Man crazy? Yes...you must be holding on to the phone for a reason... I think it must represent a phallus.

     - I withdraw the question.

     - A castrated phallus!

     - Suzie, I'm paying for this lunch, so don't give me any more of your junior therapist interpretations.

     - Should we have a drink?

     - I'm offering to pay for lunch, not a binge.

     - Order something for me, please. My head aches too much to read the menu.

     - How about some soup?

     - Sure. A bowl of loudmouth soup.

     - Loudmouth soup?

     - That was the name for a martini at Daddy's club.

     - Forget it.

     - Okay, make it some gumbo.

     - Do you see that one little cloud up there in the sky? How can there be just one cloud up there? Where did it come from? The sky has been solid blue for days.

     - Maybe it's a lost cloud.

     - Maybe it wants to be alone.

     - Have you heard anything from our fugitive brother?

     - No. I dreamed he was in Montana. At that pioneer ranch museum place we visited on the cross country trip, remember? Rachel says.

     - Knowing him, he's probably headed somewhere warmer.

     - Disneyland.

     - Disguised as Goofy.

     - Wouldn't have to be in disguise for that.

     - Do you think he did it? Do you think he's a thief?

     - I think we all did it.

     - No, we didn't. That's your enabler speaking.

     - Forgive me for sounding out of date, but I thought 'enable' used to mean 'help'.

     - If he called, would you report him?

     - I was going to ask you the same question.

     - Asked you first.

     - No, Rachel says, no...except sometimes I think maybe he would want us to report him. As in, he really wants to come back, but can't turn himself in.

     - Maybe that's why you didn't turn in the cell phone.

     - Or maybe that's why I'm going to order us double cheeseburgers, fries, and chocolate sundaes.

     Standing naked on the bathroom scale that night, Rachel bounces and rocks on her feet, making the pink needle on her mother's old scale carom wildly around the numbers. In the bathtub she grades her students' mid-term exams, accidentally dipping several essay booklets into the green Vitabath bubbles. How to explain bubble stains to the kids? Pizza stains are one thing, but...oh, well. Keep them guessing. She knows her nickname among the kids this year is 'Miss Hairy Legs'.

     The phone rings again at midnight. Half asleep on top of the bedspread—reading light on, exam books open beside her, eyes closed for the past few minutes, or more than a few minutes—she answers. It's a man again, but not the same one. Younger maybe. Rachel, knowing her voice sounds somewhat like the female voice the guy is expecting to hear, settles easily into a drowsy monotone.

     - Did I wake you?

     - Mmmmmnunh.

     - Listen, I've been thinking a lot about what you said last week.

     - Oh?

     - About the way I behave at parties.

     - Yeah.

     - I probably haven't told you the story about the big birthday party when I was six.

     - Yours?

     - Yeah, mine. My birthday party.

     - Okay...

     - You probably didn't know I ever was six.

     - Unh-hunh.

     - It was a surprise party, but it was like too much of a surprise.

     - How?

     - Like I didn't handle it very well. I mean, people jumping out from the closets and behind all the furniture and under my bed. And I could tell that my folks wanted me to be thrilled by this, so I pretended to be very thrilled, despite feeling freaked out, and maybe that is sort of what you're sensing about me when you say that I seem to get weird at parties.

     - Hmmm.

     - Sorry. You sound tired. I'll let you go back to sleep. But I just wanted you to know that I do think about what you say.

     - Thanks, Rachel says.

     - Don't forget to dream about me.

     - Bye.

     Instead, she dreams about Montana again. The touristy dude ranch where her family stayed on their big trip out west. Early nineties. But in the dream everyone is the age they are now. Rachel and sister Sue and a third person, who may or may not be her foster brother disguised as a cowboy, riding on droopy horses that never obey any commands. They clop lazily along the winding lower meadow trail.

     - Should have come with us last night.

     - Where? Rachel, the dreamer, asks.

     - Snuck out to the horse barns.

     - Why?

     - The worker guys were having a party. It was somebody's last day.

     - Why didn't you wake me up?

     - We tried.

     - No, you didn't.

     - You were snoring. Sawing a full rick. Wouldn't respond.

     - No way, liars, that's your excuse. I think you guys were too afraid that I'd tell mom and dad, Rachel sniffs.

     - Wrong.

     - Yep. You thought I'd rat.

     - If that's true, why are we telling you about it now?

     - Because you know I won't go to mom and dad if I wasn't there, that I would never just snitch on you guys. It would be because I felt guilty about doing it myself, Rachel says.

     - When you put it that way...

     - You'd only tell mom and dad if you felt guilty about doing it yourself?

     - That's how it usually happens.

    - Loco lady.

     The cowboy guy, who may or may not be her brother, starts talking in a mix of English and Spanish which in the dream Rachel understands, or understands enough to know that he is describing an event at the party that involves a person who has jumped bail on a car theft charge and somebody else ending up sick and "calling Ralph on the big white phone". Which does sound like one of her brother's lines.



     Ignore it.

     "Our father who art in heaven—"

     Morning headache twinges.

     Stretch two three touch the sky.

     Behind the eyes.

     Try the deep breathing.

     Migraine light flashes.

    Take the new medication at breakfast.

     Don't forget to thaw the chicken.

     Flaxseed goes back in the fridge.


     Upstairs, pressing the tiny buttons again on the cell phone, intending to call in sick to work, Rachel accidentally-on-purpose activates a re-dial. Who will she get this time? The man in the antique swivel chair answers. He's sipping on a hot cup of something.

     - Yeah?


     - Uh, hello.

     - Who is this?

     - This is aisle nine.

     - Who?

     - Aisle nine at the grocery store. Remember?


     - Jesus.

     - You don't remember.

     - Sure, I remember. What do you want?

     - I don't know.

     - You still trying to get that phone back to Carol?

     - I suppose so.

     - Well, don't sweat it. She already ordered up a new one.

     - Oh.


     - But you can talk to her if you want. She's sitting right here.


     - No, wait...

     - Hello, this is Carol. Hello?

     - Sorry, I've got a migraine. I'm kind of woozy - on a new drug.

     - Don't you hate it when people try to tell us that we bring headaches on ourselves? That it's just a stress problem?

     - You get headaches too?

     - Used to.

     - Not anymore?

     - Not since, well, let's not jinx it.

     - What happened?

     - Honey, if I knew, I'd put it in a bottle and sell it for a million dollars.

     - So, ouch, there is hope.

     - Hope?

     - That things can change.

     - Some things, yes. Oh, yes. You gotta believe it. Other things, no. Take Buddy Boy here, for example, he is one thing that will never change.

     - Like my brother.

     - I'm surprised the phone you found is still working. I told them to cancel it.

     - Aren't you mad at me?

     - Mad about the phone? No, dear. It's my fault. I dropped the damn thing.

     - No, I mean mad about your boyfriend.

    - What?

    - That I was calling up your boyfriend to see if he wants to have lunch.

     - Buddy Boy?

     - No. The other one. I was trying to get a hold of the other guy. The one who calls at midnight, Rachel whispers.

     - Look, I'm afraid maybe your new medication is...



     The connection goes dead.

     Rachel shuffles into her living room and plops the phone down on the fireplace mantle, home to all manner of knicknacks. 


     After a week among the mantle artifacts, the cell phone becomes another one of the wine bottles and pinecones and seashells. Rachel occasionally picks it up and listens for the ocean. One day she hears, or thinks she hears, a faint tapping, like the tapping on the wall between bedrooms that she and her brother would pursue at length, guessing at the meaning of each other's taps without any formal code.

     - You up?

     - Yeah.

     - It's cold.  

     - Slippers.

     - You stole them.

     - No. Suzie did.

     - Can I crawl in with you?

     - No.

     - Why not?

     - We'd get in trouble.

     - So?

     - Stoner. You're high.

     - Let's run away.

     - Where?

     - Wherever you want.

     - The river.

     - You'd really do it?

     - No, but I'm afraid you would.

     - I ran away from the other place twice.

     - Was it scary?

     - Sort of.

     - Don't ever run away without me.

     - You'd never go.

     - How do you know?

     - Obvious.

     - If you go, I'll tell.

     - Dare you.

     - I'd figure out where you are and I'd find you.

     - Double dare.

     - Shhhh...someone's coming.

     Rachel puts the phone down softly. Back among the seashells. She feels as if a decision has been made, although about what is not clear. She wanders outside to the rusty green lawn chair that seems to move mysteriously around the edge of her backyard. She always finds it in a different place. The sky is the exact blue of her curled iris bed. She pries off her shoes. She wonders if this feeling of decisiveness involves searching for her foster brother or forgetting about him?

      A rustling noise interrupts her from the hedge along the alley. A wet, black nose appears. A lolling, red tongue. Oh, that's it! Yes, that is it, hello. A decision has been made. It is time for a new dog. Even if it is a stray. Especially if the dog is a stray.