Sunday, October 19, 2008

This number is always connected

I love the light slanting through the grape leaves and the last sweet small purple grapes dangling above the steps to the bookstore door. Looking across the road to the unnamed hill at the end of town, the hill I hiked decades ago when I first came here, where there were limestone walled creeks hung with ferns and deep forest glades and old dusty logging roads, where one night the teens I hiked with and I ran into illegal poachers gutting deer by firelight, where one whole meadow was full of shooting stars in a difficult spring, and where in fact my eldest child was conceived--looking at that hill I feel a sense of having come home.

Or--well, I'm not sure it is home. But it is a sense of joy and refuge.

When we moved the bookstore my partner wanted to switch phone companies and numbers. It made sense financially for certain, but I told him no. My phone number is in the hands of too many wanderers these days, and I never want some kid dialing a number from a jail cell or a broken down corner in the middle of nowhere and hearing "this number has been disconnected".

Two nights ago one of those calls came. From jail, from a prison I don't usually get calls from, one out in the high desert lands. As usual the modulated voice droned "This is a  collect call from X at ABC prison, to accept the charges..." I pushed the right number, and the voice of one of my wanderers came on. As ever he thanked me for taking the call, and as ever I said "I will never refuse a call from you".

He's about the age of my oldest son, around 30. This is his...gosh, I've lost count...perhaps his 5th time in prison. He's been in and out on petty charges since he was a kid. His younger brother was a close friend of my son's, till they had a falling out over a girl. He's in jail too. I met the younger brother when he was 14, in a storm. He was living beneath a bridge with his heroin addicted and very sick Vietnam veteran dad. His dad had pneumonia. He came for help.
And there are two sisters; the eldest doesn't touch base with anyone, or with herself much; the youngest is a survivor. When she was 4 and 5 I used to make sure she had food, as she wandered with her addicted and desperate mother.

The mother in question was not the mother of my caller, however, nor of his brother. But close enough; their mom drowned in the beautiful river at the base of the hill I used to wander. The boys were..I don't know, maybe 6 and 7.

The stories I could tell you would break your heart; shatterings that started when that father was left for dead in Vietnam, years and years ago. Shatterings that seem to continue in the boys, who are always about to get rich, who are beautiful to look at, and very charming.

So my caller said "Dad died, I just got the letter, and my sister says she's gonna call me here, and she can't do that". His young voice was choked and desperate. "I have to be tough here" he said "I can't break, I can't break down, I wouldn't survive". He said he had 25 days to his release and he didn't want to blow it. He said "Call my sister, please. Tell her I love her, but not to call". And we talked, a conversation about his father, his sister, his life, punctuated by the "This Call Is From an Inmate at a California Prison. It is Being Monitored".

"At least Dad died clean" said my friend. And indoors, was the subtext, because that was an issue. He was a charming man as well, and like his boys always about to get rich. And when he did, he'd say, when his luck turned, when his ship came in, he was going to buy me a huge building for a bookstore so I'd never worry about rent. And all the roses my heart could desire. And all the treats for my animals. "I'll set you up good" he'd say, and I'd smile and thank him.

"It's only us" said the voice in the phone, in the darkened bookstore, as I sat beside Champ and listened. "It's just my brother and my little sister, and she did everything. Tell her how proud I am of her, she did everything. It's her birthday you know, the 25th. She'll be 21 then. Tell her I'm sending her a card."

I will, I said, of course I will.

"You are the only one who will take my calls" he said. I said, "it's because I love you, and your family. Somehow you are part of mine. I'll be here as much as I can for you". And I told him we'd moved, but we hadn't changed the phone number. Remember the old donut place, I asked?

It took him back. Back to the days when his mom was alive, and everything was possible.

So I phoned my redhaired surrogate daughter, and there was laughter in the background, which made me feel good. And I passed on her brothers wishes and his love. And she said she was fine, and she said she couldn't wait till her brothers were free again, and they could be together.

And yes, she always carries my number with her.

I hung up. And I cried, and I inwardly hoped once more that these kids will get some breaks, that they will be smart, that they will make good choices, that the boys will please stay out of jail this time, that their beautiful young sister will be okay.

And if they are, or if they are not, I'll be standing here for them, ready for their calls. And maybe their parents are standing by for them too. I don't know, life is pretty strange.

But the grapevines--oh, they are beautiful these days.