Dora Sparks was alone in her office when her ten-thirty walked in looking every bit as unemployable as she'd expected. He was tall, bald by choice--she could see the razed roots of his hair lurking just beneath the shiny dome of his scalp--and had the sinewy tattooed arms of a carnival- ride operator. She made sure the electroplated gold letter opener Pac Bell had given her was in easy reach. IN RECOGNITION OF A JOB WELL-DONEwas engraved on the blade.
"So, Mr. Karloff," said Dora. "What brings you to Pac Bell?"
"A man's gotta eat," said Karloff.
"Karloff . . . That's an interesting name. Wasn't he a vampire or something?"
"No relation." Karloff smiled. His teeth were big and yellow.
Dora pretended to study his résumé. When she looked up he was holding the letter opener, familiarizing himself with its heft the way a surgeon might with a new scalpel. There were flies tattooed on his knuckles.
"This is nice," he said. "What do I have to do to get one?"
Dora had been friends with Marcy since she'd been hired by Human Resources. Marcy was one of the last of the innocents. True, she was only half Dora's age, but the distance separating them may as well have been light-years. Dora had taken it upon herself to make sure her friend didn't go through life with blinders on. Today Marcy had wanted to know why she wasn't going to hire Karloff.
"Just because he didn't gouge my eyes out doesn't mean I should give him a job."
"But all his references checked out," said Marcy. "His last boss said he was a super-nice guy and a real whiz with phones."
"Are we talking about the same Karloff? Bald, scary looking, teeth like a horse . . ."
Marcy pinched the crust from her egg-salad sandwich and tossed it to the pigeons. "He looked a little rough."
"The guy was a ghoul! He probably drinks blood with dinner."
"I heard George Johanson's going to hire him anyway," said Marcy. "I guess he ran into him leaving your office this morning. Apparently they know each other from AA."
"Good for George Johanson. Let him shoot himself in the foot. I'm not going to send that creep into a complete stranger's house to install phone lines. Once he gets inside, who knows what he might do."
That night when Dora got home her husband, Frank, had already set the table. There were three place settings instead of the usual two. She sure wasn't in the mood for company. Marcy had been right. George Johanson had gone ahead and hired Karloff despite Dora's recommendation. Couple of drunks, she thought. I hope you both fall off the wagon. "Sweetheart," she called. "I'm home."
Dora could hear Frank's voice above the hiss of running water. "I'm in the kitchen."
A thick layer of steam obscured the ceiling. She could hardly see the light fixtures. A pot of water boiled furiously on the stove. Dora blazed a trail through the steam and reduced the burner setting to simmer. Frank was hunched over the sink stripping the wilted leaves from a head of lettuce. The garbage disposal sputtered and growled. "Oh, there you are."
"I thought I'd give you a hand with dinner," said Frank.
Dora flicked off the disposal and kissed him on the cheek. "We'd better open a window before the wallpaper starts to peel."
Frank continued to pull apart the head of lettuce. He was drawing dangerously close to the pale yellow leaves at its core that almost no one likes to eat. "Eileen called me at work today. She wants to stay with us for a couple of weeks."
"I thought she was serving a life sentence."
"Well, I don't want her staying in my house."
"Your house?" He began building a salad using the jaundiced leaves.
"She just got out of jail for crying out loud," said Dora. "She's an ex-con!"
"She's my sister. You make her sound like such a shady character. She's not a necrophiliac for Christ's sake! She was in for mail fraud."
"She's a drug addict, Frank. What do you think she was spending the money on?"
"I already told her yes."
Dora didn't try to hide the anger in her voice. "What if she steals something?"
"Our wedding silver. She could sell it to buy crack or whatever it is she does."
"Dexatrim," said Frank. "Eileen was addicted to diet pills."
The nerve! Showing up at our front door fresh out of jail and expecting me to pay for the taxi. Dora would've rather reached into the garbage disposal when it was running than give big fat Eileen money out of her own purse. It was bad enough that they were going to be providing her with room and board. "More salad, sweetie?" Dora asked.
Eileen studied the anemic-looking greens in front of her. "What about you?"
"Don't worry about me," said Dora. "You're our guest." Avoiding Frank's eyes, she scraped the oil-soaked remnants onto Eileen's plate.
"You'll have to pardon the condition of the lettuce," said Frank. "I didn't have time to run to the store."
"Don't be silly," said Eileen. "The center leaves are the most tender."
Dora cleared her throat. "So . . . Eileen. How's it feel to be on the outside?"
"Dora!" Frank looked annoyed.
Eileen stared at the tomato wedge on the end of her fork. "Beats the hell out of sharing a sweaty little cell with a bunch of sex-crazed dykes."
Frank rolled his eyes. "Dora, she's pulling your leg. It was minimum security. I was there. She could've busted out with a banana and bus fare."
"Frank!" said Dora. "Don't interrupt."
"Put it this way," said Eileen. "The guards don't leave chocolates on your pillow at bedtime."
When Dora got home from work the following night, Eileen was stretched out on the living-room sofa watching TV.
"Did anyone call today?" Dora asked. The cordless phone was sitting on the coffee table next to an empty box of Ritz crackers.
"The phone's been ringing off the . . ." Before Eileen could finish, the phone rang.
Dora answered. The voice on the other end sounded Chinese. "I'm sorry," said Dora. "You must have the wrong number."
"Videophone?" asked Eileen.
"How'd you know?"
"Apparently your number's listed in the Korean newspaper under an advertisement for some kind of videophone. Must be a heck of a deal. They've been calling all day."
Dora suggested they turn off the ringer, but Eileen said she was expecting an important call from her probation officer.
By the time Frank got home the phone was quiet. When Dora told him about the misprint he suggested she call the Korean newspaper and clear things up.
"Maybe if Eileen's busy answering the phone all day it'll keep her out of trouble," said Dora.
"I'm sure she's got more important things to do."
"She was watching TV and stuffing her face when I got home."
"Give her time to adjust," said Frank.
"She should be looking for work."
"Oh, Dora," Frank sighed, "leave her alone."
Dora lay in bed that night thinking about the possibilities of a phone that allowed you to see the person you were talking to. If everyone had videophones, she wouldn't need to conduct job interviews in person anymore. She could simply dial a prospective employee and give him a quick once-over. She wouldn't need the letter opener.
Marcy wasn't at work the following morning. When Dora asked Judy the receptionist if Marcy was sick, she was told that Marcy had been fired for having sex with George Johanson on company time. The two of them were supposed to be working after hours on the new database when Jerry the janitor had caught them "going at it like a couple of rabbits" in the middle of the conference table.
"Who around here didn't see that coming a million miles away?" whispered Judy. "Those two couldn't keep their hands off each other."
Dora had to swallow her gum to keep from choking on it.
When Dora got home that night the house was empty. She laid her hand on top of the TV. It wasn't even warm. She half expected to find Eileen hiding out in the pantry, inhaling her nonstick cooking spray from a paper bag. It was the kind of thing drug addicts with no money did to get high. The average suburban home was like a drugstore to these people. But the pantry was empty.
Dora checked the answering machine. The message display flashed "20." One of the calls was from Marcy. Her voice sounded different somehow--not like the Marcy who'd been shocked to hear that certain men and women preferred sex with animals. The nineteen other messages were people calling about the videophone.
Seven thirty rolled around and still no Frank or Eileen. Dora was inventorying her jewelry when the phone rang. "Hello." She could hear a woman's shrill laughter in the background but there was no reply. "Eileen, is that you?" Nothing. "If you're calling about the videophone you have the wrong number." Dora was about to hang up when a man replied. His voice had the rehearsed, over-friendly tone of a salesman.
"Hi. My name's Bill Pratt and I'm calling on behalf of Alcoholics Anonymous. We're sponsoring a raffle to benefit alcohol-awareness programs in neighborhood high schools."
"Sorry, but I'm really busy right now." Dora wanted to check the wedding silver before Eileen showed up.
"Everyone who donates receives two tickets to the Splendini Brothers Carnival."
"I'm sure it's wonderful," said Dora, "but I told you I'm busy." She hung up.
Dora was halfway to the dining room when the phone rang again. This time she grabbed the cordless. "Hello."
"Yes, I'm calling about the videophone." It was the same over-friendly voice.
"Look," said Dora, "I don't think you're very funny."
"You're right. It's just that it's such a worthy cause I feel like I should give you a chance to redeem yourself."
"Please don't call here again," said Dora. She beeped the line dead.
Dora had hardly taken a step when the cordless went off in her hand. She jumped. "I know someone who's in AA," she warned. "Don't make me report you to the head drunk."
"Look lady . . . I used to have a drinking problem. If you'd talked to me this way a couple of years ago, I would've found the nearest bar and drank myself into a rage thinking about you tucked away all safe and sound behind your goddamn telephone! You have AA to thank that I don't come over there right now and bash your fucking brains out!"
Dora was on her third glass of wine (or was it her fourth?) when Frank and Eileen walked in the front door. They were laughing and carrying on like old college buddies.
"Guess what," said Frank. "Eileen found a job."
"I'll be back on my feet in no time," said Eileen.
"Congrats," said Dora. When she tried to stand, her legs gave out and she slumped back into the cushions.
"What's wrong, sweetie?" Frank asked. "You don't look so hot."
"A man threatened me over the phone."
Frank's smile lost its robust curve. "What man?"
"I don't know. He said he was calling for donations for AA and wanted to bash my brains in because I wouldn't give him any money."
"That's one way of going about it," said Eileen.
"Oh shut up, you stupid cow!"
"Dora!" said Frank. "Don't talk to Eileen that way."
Eileen put her hand on Frank's shoulder. "It's okay. I'd be a little edgy, too." Eileen acknowledged Dora with a frown. "I'm gonna call my probation officer and tell her the good news."
As soon as Eileen was out of the room Dora buried her face in Frank's chest and cried until her tear ducts ached. That night she lay in bed alongside her snoring husband wondering what Bill Pratt--if that was really his name--looked like. Probably no worse than some of the creeps she interviewed. Besides, as long as they were separated by who-knows-how-many miles of phone line there was nothing he could do to her.
When Dora called Marcy from work the next day a man answered the phone. "I'm sorry," said Dora. "I must have the wrong number."
"I thought I recognized your voice. It's George . . . George Johanson. Hold on. Marcy's right here."
Dora could hear the rustle of bed linens and her friend's little-girl giggle.
"Howdy stranger," said Marcy. "Long time, no see."
Dora wanted to hang up. "If you're busy, I can call back."
"George and I are eloping!"
"We leave for Bora Bora mañana." Marcy squealed and dropped the phone. "George! Stop that." She retrieved the phone. "I would've told you sooner . . ."
"Marse--Please! Everyone in the office saw it coming."
"You sounded so surprised," said Marcy.
Dora changed the subject. "Ask George if he knows someone from AA named Bill Pratt."
Marcy held the receiver away from her face and asked. "Nope," she said. "Should he?"
"Well, sweetie . . ." said Marcy. "We still got a lotta packin' to do. Wish us luck."
Dora could hear George in the background. "Bye, Dora!" he shouted. She was glad she didn't have a videophone. She could picture him lying in bed, his spent penis drooping between his slack thighs, a gin-and-tonic smile warping his shapeless lips as not-so-innocent Marcy attempted to straddle him for the third or fourth time since sunrise.
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