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Charlie and His Date With Ma Bell

When you want something bad enough, it can happen

By Joe LucaPublished 9 months ago 11 min read
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Charlie was my grandfather’s idea.

Said I reminded him of a buddy he knew in the army. A guy who carried an old Zippo lighter that he kept snapping shut as he talked. Used it like a period to end a sentence.

He never smoked cigarettes though, but Grandpa had a feeling he was into the organic stuff — as he put it.

He was fun to be around and never took anything seriously. Which is kind of weird since I take everything seriously but that was Grandpa.

Born Elliot Paul and he gave me the nickname Charlie and was the only one to use it.

Grandpa was like that. Seeing things in people that others didn’t. Liking people for who they were not what they did.

He was my best friend.

Which is why I don’t talk to God anymore.

Got into it with him during the mass at St. Peter and Paul’s Church. Shouted. Made a scene and embarrassed everyone sitting in the pews looking sad and miserable.

He didn’t belong there, Grandpa, not God. He wasn’t old enough to be gone. Some disease, endo- something or other took him in late August, as he was packing to come see me. Grandma said he was having a hard time shutting the suitcase.

Was making a right fuss, cussing and jumping up and down on it, when he keeled over and hit the linoleum in the kitchen.

That was it. Gone in 60 seconds.

He was laughing on the phone that morning. Telling me he was bringing a present. Something he’d been meaning to give me but kept forgetting.

“Don’t get old, Charlie,” he had said. “Damn nuisance. Knees don’t work right. Keep forgetting where you put the keys, the screwdriver, and whatever it was you did before lunch. Stay young, Charlie.”

I was thinking about the call that morning. Riding my bike up to Sutter’s Hill Park. Hitting the skate ramps and trying some new tricks. Getting pretty good at it, considering that a few months ago, not falling off my bike was the best trick of all.

Funny what makes us happy.

Thinking about his voice. The smell on his flannel shirts. His long arms that wrapped around my shoulders and made me feel safe. And the aftershave.

Didn’t see the clouds or feel the wind picking up when I was there. Didn’t notice everyone leaving and staring back at me as they left.

Didn’t feel cold when it started to rain. It was just me, the bike, the smooth concrete ramps as I flew into the air like a bird.

A weird bird with two wheels instead of two feet. But that’s me, weird and anxious and never thinking much of my chances.

“You got to stop thinking like that, Charlie,” Grandpa had said. “All the negative waves. The moping.”

“I don’t mope, Grandpa. I pout.”

He laughed. Which always made me laugh. Made me feel lighter, less rooted to the earth, if that makes any sense.

That’s when it all came undone.

I hit the second ramp just right. Felt the wheels rise about the concrete and was flying when the lightning struck the metal whip on the back of the bike.

I don’t know, two billion volts or something hitting my fucking bike, on a Saturday morning, in Sutter’s Hill Park when there’s what, twenty square miles of nothing all around me to use as a target.

Five thousand trees, barns, church spires, telephone poles, and the hundred-foot Dairy Queen sign off Shadow Hill Road that you can see from the freeway two miles away, but heck no, the back of my bike.

They say I flew when it happened. Catapulted is how Mr. Granger, the groundskeeper put it when the cops and ambulance came.

“Catapulted him up into the air, must have been 20 feet or so. Darndest thing I've ever seen. Scared me. Felt the hand of God reaching down or something. Not that I believe in that sort of thing.”

I don’t remember much. It all happened too fast. One second, I’m about to lift my arms up, like Evel Knievel doing one of his jumps, and the next, I’m face first in the sand pit the little kids use. Head getting pelted by the rain, having one of those movie moments.

You know, when everything slows down and you see the character flying through the air, with the music playing and the wind blowing his hair back.

Only my hair was standing straight up and my face was mostly buried in the sand.

I remember feeling bad. Stiff. Head hurting. My heart racing and everything heightened. I remembered reading about that in a science magazine once. Heightened perception is what they call it.

It came when there was a moment of crisis or danger, like a leopard about to make you the dinner special or you’re about to fall off the roller coaster because some pimple-faced college kid was working the girl behind you and not pushing the safety bar in tight enough.

I heard the raindrops hitting my head, like knuckles rapping on a window. Rap-rap-rap. And the wind, sounding like a jet taking off.

So, when some people came running and were staring down at me, thinking some Alien just crash-landed in the sand pit, they all started shouting at once.

“Hey kid, are you okay?”

“Can you hear me?”

“Are you alive?”

Only they weren’t shouting, they were all whispering. Talking softly so as not to scare me.

Too late.

“Am I dead?”

That got a laugh, though I didn’t think it funny. I was serious. There was a circle of people standing around me. Rain falling down through the middle. Me looking up into the dark ominous clouds above. Yeah, I thought I was dead.

Turns out I was lucky, according to the EMT.

“I’ve seen this happen before,” she said nodding. “They looked like fried chicken wings.”



Turns out there was no visible damage except for some minor burns on my hands, where I gripped the handlebars. Other than that, I was one lucky son of a bitch.

Not sure my mom thought that exact thing. She came running into the ER like a woman possessed. Hair flying back, handbag swaying, knocking someone’s hat off on the way.


In a panic until she saw me sitting on the edge of the examining table as all three of us watched her coming.

Me, the young intern doctor checking me out, and the older nurse. Betty or Bernie, something like that.

“Elliot, my God are you okay?”

“I’m fine Mom.”

She finally stopped in front of me, took a deep breath, and a good look at her son, and started to laugh. And I mean howling laughter, like the dam had burst and all of it came rushing down.

In between gulps she pointed and said, “Your hair, Elliot, it’s standing straight up.”

“Thanks, Mom, I appreciate you pointing that out — to everyone.”

Then she reached in and hugged me. Then started to cry.

The doctor and nurse backed off, giving us the moment.

“God, I was so scared.”

On cue, the young doctor moved back in and stated the obvious, “Your son is a lucky boy. We can’t find anything wrong with him. Other than the burns on his palms and elevated electrolytes, which is totally normal, he’s fine. Really lucky actually.”

The drive home was awkward, my mom kept looking over at me every five seconds or so like I would suddenly vanish or something.

She squeezed my hand, then shouted sorry. Then eyes back on the road.

It went like that all the way. Me, mom and my thoughts about Grandpa and wanting to call him and tell him what happened. Share the details. Hear his laughter as I described my hair and how I landed in the pit. But that wasn’t going to happen.

By the time I walked into school on Monday, my hair sprayed down so I looked somewhat normal, everyone knew what had happened.

I walked down the hall toward my locker and felt a thousand eyes on me. The fugitive who had finally been caught and was being led to his cell.

Or in my case, the jock who had won the game over the weekend.

“Hey, Elliot.”

“Hi, Elliot, how are you?”

“Saw the local news, pretty cool.”

“Nice hair, dude.”

Otherwise, the day was uneventful. Guys always stared at me in math class. Girls always looked my way in English 303. Smiling. Eyes wide with appreciation that I wasn’t dead.

And at lunch, there’s usually never less than 15 people squeezed onto my table, all asking questions at the same time.

Normal stuff.

But it was in Miss Carlson’s history class that life took a turn.

I liked Miss Carlson. She was young, relatively cheerful, smart, pretty, and listened. She was quick to point out something good and slow to criticize which made life for a 15-year-old a lot more pleasant.

It was the sounds though in the periphery when I first noticed something wrong. The soft voices. The almost painful tap-click of her chalk stick as she wrote across the blackboard.

The sound of the mower trimming the field for this weekend’s game, four hundred yards from where I sat. The beating of Miss Carlson’s heart as she stood three feet in front of me, a seriously worried look on her face as every other one in the class stared at me.

“Are you okay, Elliot?”

I looked around, looked up at her, and said, Fine. Why?”

“You were talking to yourself?”

“I was?”

“Something about how loud my chalk was. The lawnmower. The voices down the hall. You sure you’re, okay?”

I nodded convincingly. “Absolutely. Just some random thoughts. It was nothing.”

She smiled, sort of, and walked back to the front of the class. Brought the chalk stick back up but stopped. Looked back at me and then continued.

I cleared the back entrance of the school later that day without anyone following me. Ran across the field and through the far gate — and only then did I slow down.

I walked home in a fog that afternoon. Didn’t remember a street corner or light. Didn’t remember a single car, a storefront, or a bird flying overhead.

I tried not to think about what happened that day. The heightened sounds. The worried looks. People suddenly became my friends when they couldn’t remember my name before.

All I know is that I did hear the lawn mower at the other end of the school. Okay not a feat of magic but it was far away and no one else could.

I did hear Miss Carlson’s heart beating — loud and beautiful and worried because of me. But I couldn’t explain it. It never happened before.

And as I looked around me, at the small-town world that surrounded me, that had been a part of me all my life, I heard so many things.

The sound of a hammer pounding a nail into wood at the new construction site over on Emerson Avenue. I heard the mailman explaining to Mrs. Gutirrez that he would double-check at the station for her son’s package and no, he was sure it wasn’t still in his truck.

I heard little Anthony Buckminster up in his treehouse on the corner, talking quietly to a picture of his dad that he always carried. The dad he hadn’t seen in three years who left one morning and never came back.

I could hear, Edgar, the tabby who lived in the house across from me, sitting in front of the oak, staring at the squirrel who watched him from a safe distance. Heard their conversation, the same one they shared every day.

I heard everything I didn’t really want to hear clear as a bell.

The sounds of life all around me that no one pays attention to. Like the tree falling in the forest that makes a sound that no one actually hears. Only I could.

I reached into my back pocket to check how much money I had and pulled out several bills. Enough for a chocolate thick shake at McMurray’s. Just what the doctor ordered.

As I approached the ice cream parlor on Taylor Street, I saw two ladies from the PTA that I recognized walking toward Starbucks. Looking at me and then looking away, they were deep in conversation.

“They say it was a miracle he wasn’t killed.”

“That’s what I heard. The doctor that saw him in the ER is my neighbor’s son, you know, Robert and Sherry Tenzin.”


“Anyway, he said there was nothing wrong with him. I mean a million volts strikes his bike, melts the frame, burns a hole in the concrete underneath him and he walks away unscathed. How is that possible?”

“A miracle I guess. What else could it be?”

They turned in unison and disappeared into the store.

A miracle I thought, but it didn’t fit. A miracle is a person coming back from the dead. Or someone falling out of a plane and dropping 30,000 feet before landing in a 40-foot snow bank and telling his story to a reporter for People Magazine.

People get electric shocks every day and live. People get into plane crashes and walk away with a headache. I know a carpenter who fell off a roof, 25 feet and landed on a pile of roof tiles and only broke a finger.

Those aren’t a miracle just some luck. As the doctor said.

I was almost at McMurray’s and took out the four dollars for the shake when the payphone just outside the store began to ring — loudly.

I stopped and stared at it. I hadn’t heard a payphone ring in years. I even felt for my own cellphone in my pocket and wondered who even used a pay phone these days.

But it kept ringing. Kept getting louder.

As I walked up to it, apart from the hundred stickers that were pasted all over the thing and that someone named Dick had carved his name into the black plastic, I noticed that the metal cord attached to the receiver was broken off. It was just dangling free.

I shook my head and started walking toward the entrance but it stopped me again with another ring.

I walked back to it and picked it up.


“Hi, Charlie. How are you, son?”



About the Creator

Joe Luca

Writing is meant to be shared, so if you have a moment come visit, open a page and begin. Let me know what you like, what makes you laugh, what made you cry - just a little. And when you're done, tell a friend. Thanks and have a great day.

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