'Call from the Past'
A phone was ringing somewhere. A distinctive chirping analogue phone.
It seemed to swing in and out on a bedside table in a room he couldn’t piece together in his mind. All the parts were scattered.
He took a sharp intake of breath, a sudden feeling of falling catching him. His head bobbed. His hands tightened on the faux leather steering wheel. He was driving, how long had he been driving? Where was he going? Where was he? Who was he?
He rolled down his window and let the wind batter his cheeks as he craned his neck trying to stop his eyes spinning in his head long enough to read a road sign.
He looked in his rear-view mirror and saw a sign for Poplar avenue.
He was driving in the slow lane of a highway sectioned off in the middle by a line of cypress trees. Driving past a motel with large bulbous palm trees collected almost like a bunch of flowers in the parking lot.
It didn’t really tell him much; he wasn’t familiar with the area.
He wound the window up as the air started to sting his cheeks. He turned the rear-view mirror down quickly and looked at his face. There were light scratches already fading on his cheeks. James turned the mirror up again and didn’t give it much thought.
He passed a small one story building, yellow brick with red trim. Only the words ‘CHEAP CIGARETTES’ embossed on the side. There was a McDonalds that looked like a texmex restaurant on his right and a gas station. He checked his dash, he didn’t need gas.
His reactions were slow, even moving his head was a grand gesture a colossal effort. He didn’t see the car in front slow down for the light. He slammed right into the back of a Honda civic. His face hit the steering wheel hard.
He could see the coffee cup, but he didn’t try to stop it. It was white and made of stained porcelain, it said ‘CHINA’ on the bottom. It hit a deco floor of black and white tiles, shattering and spreading a brown gritty liquid on the floor, that could only be coffee. He straightened and took in another sobering breath bracing his neck. Pain worked its way through his body, like a hurdler jumping all the vertebrae in his spine.
A waitress galloped over with a fresh pot of coffee as if that could put humpty dumpty back together again. She was small and girlish and had mousey brown hair, a pale pretty face with delicate features. Wearing a green plaid skirt and apron as some kind of uniform with a white blouse. Her name tag read; ‘Becky’.
“Are you alright? What happened to you?” She said, a genuine tone of concern in her voice.
“What?” James said.
“Your eye is bleeding” She pointed to her eye and held herself delicately.
James padded his eye with his hand until it came up wet. “Oh yeah, I think I was in a car accident”
“Oh my god, I’ll take care of this, we have a bathroom in the back you can get cleaned up.”
The sound of running water.
James opened his eyes, there was someone in front of him, through the steam, he wiped the glass. It was a man, a man with brown hair, he had a cut over his eye, light scratches on his face. There was blood. It took him a moment to realise it was his own face. It felt alien to him, was he wearing a new face or was it always like this?
The poet Pool, in his poem “Somebody’s been wearing my face again” wrote: ‘In this hall of mirrors/Built by liars, I am a pale reflection of myself.’
The water was running hot, he dipped his hands in it and slowly padded his face.
It stung but he kept at it.
After a few minutes it was clean and he felt a warming sensation under his collar. The steam cleared and he took another look at himself. He was still wearing his work clothes, a jacket he’d never seen before. It was maybe one size too big sitting on his shoulders making him look like a tailor’s dummy. It was a leather bikers jacket with a yellow stripe running up the arms.
He patted the pockets, they were empty. He opened it and put his hand inside the inside breast pocket and came out with a peculiar matchbox which had the same pattern as the floor. A hatched black and white, with a strange symbol that may have been a bird of some kind. Embossed in black it read “Twin Pines lodge” With an address ‘West capitol avenue, Sacramento’.
Puzzled he turned it over, it was blank but someone had drawn a set of lips on the back with red lipstick. As if it was a kiss.
Puzzled, he flipped it back over before putting it back in his pocket.
He came back through the kitchen. It was a small greasy spoon kitchen, not a piece of stainless steel in sight. Just grubby looking plastic and wood that looked like it was falling apart. Evidently he was allowed in the employees only bathroom and it just slipped his mind. A sweaty bald chef with exposed hairy shoulders didn’t look up from a big pot of chilli he was stirring, muttering something in Armenian. James hadn’t seen anyone else in the place eating when he came in. The chef must have been preparing for the lunchtime rush. Maybe this place was popular with truckers. He came around the counter. Only now noticing the old crone at the till with the wire frame glasses looking at him as if he was a fly doing the back stroke in her ice tea.
Back in the diner he felt a little more ironed out. It was a cosy little spot, meeting halfway between fifties diner and soviet canteen. It had a sort of doctor’s waiting room feel, not entirely clean but not entirely dirty. It didn’t look like it had always been a diner. The interiors were all wood and brick. A light coloured wood, maybe ash. The furniture consisted of black metal chairs with red seat cushion and laminated wood tables. The was a row of booths along the front of the diner, the benches of which looked like garden furniture. Wood and black metal. The floor was half carpeted at a strange angle intersected the floor with a grey carpet that looked like the type you get on the floor of a taxi. The walls were covered slapdash with football paraphernalia; Jerseys in glass cases. Flags for various teams behind the counter above the coffee machine. An old bevelled television hung in the corner behind the counter above a two-foot Betty-boop statue dressed as a waitress with an empty tray. The TV was playing some infomercial where old people pretended they lost their car keys. The counter was Bakelite or some kind of cheap white plastic with the same chairs pulled up to it like a classic diner counter. A man on the end in a green hunting jacket sat slumped with his head on the counter next to a cup of cold coffee, not moving a muscle.
The waitress was waiting for James with a fresh pot of coffee and a faint worried smile on the edge of the booth he was sitting at.
“Are you alright” She asked.
He shook his head like he didn’t hear the question and said “Huh? Oh yeah, I guess.” Looking behind her head at the blinds above the window, yellow decorated with kitsch pictures of coffee and slices of pie.
“Do you want anything to eat? There’s fresh chilli, pie?” She fluttered a little and motioned for him to sit.
He waved a hand at her and said “Err no, I’m not hungry.” He closed his eyes tight and opened them again at a sudden pain behind his eyes. “Do you know a place called Twin Pines Lodge?”
“I should, I pass it every day when I come into work” She smiled and tilted her head as if asking herself a question. “It’s just five minutes up West Sacramento, that way on your right”. She swished the coffee pot in the direction he was sure he’d come and looked back at him and casting a pursed smile. The smile revealed deep ridges along her mouth that made her look a little older than he initially thought she was.
His throat got dry, Sacramento. That was a six-hour drive from Riverside and he didn’t remember any of it. Sweat starting leaking out the corners of his hairline, making his skin feel taut and itchy. He swallowed hard trying to hide his reeling thoughts.
“Seriously, are you ok” He glanced at her neck, it was smoother and younger. She had a nice natural smile but his situation had caused her to over-starch it. Round full lips, slim shoulders and a firm full bust with a slightly rounded waist. His mouth started to fill with liquid and there was a muted tittering in his ears that made his ears itch.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes.
“Do you want me to call an ambulance?” Becky said.
“No it’s alright”.
She smelled sweet, like maple syrup and dried egg yolk.
He couldn’t be sure if he closed his eyes again but he saw that tree. The one with the mannequin parts hanging from it. Beautiful and clean, swaying in the breeze. He saw Becky, her dainty bare arms, her wide firm waist, her full chest. She was a work of art on display. Her head, her eyes on him, perfect and clear and dead.
He felt her hand on his shoulder and there was a deep shifting inside, as if he was going deeper underwater. He stumbled as if falling in a dream and caught himself, awaking suddenly. All the blood rushing to his head.
“Are you alright?” Becky asked, her eyes wide.
He heard the woman at the counter coughing loudly.
“I have to go, thanks, uh, thanks.” James muttered as he barrelled out of the door onto the hot street. Almost tripping over the magazine rack by the door littered with glossies about cars and sports. He stood dazed for a minute in the California mid-morning sun. He forgot where he parked. Outside the diner was a small concrete patio area with black metal furniture, without the seat cushions. They looked like they were there mostly for decoration since one metal table didn’t even have any chairs around it. And the other was far too close to their specials menu sign. Looking up to the right he saw a smooth path that must have circled around to the back of the diner. He followed it around back to the small unmarked lot. His car was parked neatly in the corner.
He perched behind the wheel of his Hyundai, the bumper was sagging even lower now.
He glided out of the parking lot behind the diner. He couldn’t remember even pulling up. The place was cheery enough. A simple single story diner that looked like a chain from the outside but clearly wasn’t; ‘Coral’s Place’. Just a small rectangular building made of red brick and a glass front. A sloping slate roof, the roof made it seem a lot closer to the ground. A squat building surrounded by a waist-high metal white fence with a few small cypress trees sprouting out of the concrete out front.
He took the Hyundai west on the Lincoln Highway, going up onto west Capitol Avenue Sacramento.
It was a small highway lined with more cypress and California pepper trees and seemed to be nothing but parking lots.
He passed a couple of motels packed closely with a Chinese restaurant sandwiched between them. A little barbershop that looked like a house in monopoly. Another set of motel’s the Freemont and the bel air. After that was a market with all the signs in Spanish. A hefty burger and a McDonalds squaring off on an intersection and another motel; the Sahara. On the other side was an innocuous U-Haul facility and on the other side of that were another pair of motels, the something ranch and the Twin pines lodge.