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.
If anyone could cheer Dora up it was Frank. She dialed him at work and was greeted by a young man she didn't recognize. "Good afternoon," he said in a professional-sounding voice. "FPI."
"Excuse me," said Dora. "I must've dialed incorrectly."
"What number are you trying to reach?"
Dora recited the number of Frank's direct line.
"I see what happened," said the young man. "We're four three five three. You must have reversed the last two numbers."
"I'm sorry . . ."
"No need to apologize. Perhaps I can be of assistance."
"Well," said Dora, "now that I've got you . . ."
She gave a detailed account of the disturbing call she had received from Bill Pratt, and how at the very least she thought they could run a background check and make sure he wasn't another Jeffrey Dahmer. The young man listened attentively, his hmms and hunhs intimating a familiarity and understanding that Dora was sure came from long-term exposure to the criminal mind. He hadn't said a word and already she was feeling better.
"I don't know how to say this, ma'am," he said at last, "but I think you misunderstood me. This is the F Pee I, not the F Bee I. I work for the Film Preservation Institute."
"I feel like such an idiot."
"Don't. Happens all the time."
"I'm sure you've got better things to do than listen to other people's sob stories."
"The guy you told me about sounds like a real nutcase."
Dora liked this person. "If you don't mind my asking . . ."
"I was hoping you would. Mainly we document and preserve non-mainstream endeavors in cinema. Obscure stuff."
"I don't mean to sound dumb . . ."
"Film noir," he said. "The wonderful world of demise. We currently house the world's largest collection of snuff."
"You know . . . Boy meets girl. Girl invites boy back to her place. Boy dismembers girl with a bone saw while the camera rolls. That kind of shit."
"That's awful!" said Dora.
"Think of it as a magic kingdom for psychopaths."
Dora was overcome by a sudden chill. "Bill . . ." she asked. "Is that you?"
"God, Dora, I wish I could see your expression. I bet Meryl fucking Streep couldn't capture the look in your eyes."
Dora's mouth fell open like a garage-sale nutcracker. He knows my name!
When Dora came to, Jerry the janitor was giving her mouth-to-mouth. She nearly gagged on his tongue. Everyone in the office was huddled over her as though she were dead. The top of her blouse was unbuttoned. It had been Jerry's idea to massage her heart until the ambulance arrived.
When Frank tucked Dora into bed that afternoon she asked him to check the answering machine.
"Already did," he said. "It's empty. Eileen called the newspaper yesterday and told them about the misprint."
"Oh," said Dora. The little blue pills the doctor had given her made her face feel rubbery. "I thaw she's whirring."
"She starts Saturday."
"I tho hap fo'er."
Frank kissed her on the forehead. "We'll be downstairs if you need us."
"He cah meeth by my name." Dora tried to sit up but the room was spinning.
"He probably got it out of the phone book."
"Frine," said Dora. "Ina wunnoo die."
When Dora awoke, the house was quiet. "Frank," she called. "Frank!" But there was no answer. He was probably in the kitchen with the door closed. She remembered Jerry the janitor sticking his tongue in her mouth and stopped in the bathroom to gargle with Listerine. She swished the bitter solution around until the roof of her mouth tingled and burned. The minty vapors made her light-headed.
She descended the stairs and tottered into the living room, still slightly off balance from the drugs. Eileen was lying on her back in the middle of the floor with the cordless pressed to her ear.
"I didn't know you were still up," said Dora.
Eileen looked surprised and cupped her hand over the receiver. "It's only eight thirty," she said. "How do you feel?" She sat up and crossed her legs Indian-style.
"I feel great." Dora staggered to her left and almost knocked over the lamp Frank's aunt had given them for their twentieth wedding anniversary. "Where's your brother?"
"He went out to get you some wonton soup," said Eileen. "He should be back any minute."
"Who you talkin' to?"
"Some guy," said Eileen. "I think it's a wrong number."
"Then hang up."
"It wouldn't be polite."
"Hang up! It might be him!" Dora could feel her legs start to give. She staggered into the entry, knocking over the coatrack, and unplugged the cordless at the base.
"That wasn't very nice," Eileen called from the living room.
At that moment Frank's key bit into the dead bolt and the door swung open. Dora collapsed to her knees and sobbed until her eyes were nearly swollen shut. Frank helped her to bed and fed her another one of the little blue pills.
Despite Frank's suggestion that she take a few days off to regain her strength, Dora wanted to get on with her life. There was no reason why everything shouldn't be business as usual. The first day back at work she hired everyone she interviewed. Men without references, men with little or no experience, men whose faces twitched when asked if they had ever committed a felony, men with bad BO. She kept the letter opener close by, often clutching it in her hand beneath her desk. She had even started carrying it home with her in her purse. Go for the eyes, she would repeat to herself in the dimly lit bowels of the parking garage. Go for the eyes.
Toward the end of the week, she was interviewing a volunteer from the Center for Eating Disorders--a vomit jockey!--when it dawned on her that whoever was stalking her phone lines was probably someone she had turned down for a job. Someone with a motive and an intimate understanding of telecommunications. She was sure of it! Only who?
The detective Dora spoke with epitomized the too-little-too-late stories she'd heard about on the news. She told him about the misprinted ad for the videophone in the Korean newspaper and the menacing stranger who had been harassing her ever since.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Sparks," said the detective, "but you yourself admit to having initiated contact with this person."
"I don't know how he did that," explained Dora. "I was trying to call my husband."
"Be that as it may . . ." he said. "We need more to go on than a few wrong numbers. Nine times out of ten nothing bad comes of something like this."
In spite of the detective's reassurance, she was unable to escape the feeling that the odds were somehow stacked against her.
Dora could no longer sleep without the aid of the little blue pills. Overcome by exhaustion, she was forced to take a leave of absence. Mostly she lay in bed writing letters to people she would have usually telephoned. Although Frank was dead set against her using drugs, he agreed to allow her to finish out the prescription. By then they would have an unlisted number and everything would be back to normal.
Eileen's first day on the job was a Saturday, the same day, coincidentally, that Dora finished her pills. It had been days since she had heard from the voice. Maybe he had tired of her. She looked in the bathroom mirror and saw that her eyes were underscored with dark circles. A little sunlight would do her good. She sheathed the letter opener in her bathrobe pocket and ventured outside to collect the mail. Among the catalogs and coupon books was a postcard from Marcy. In less than thirty words her friend detailed how well George filled out a Speedo, and then asked if Dora would pick up her mail. Buoyed with a sense of purpose, Dora showered, shaved her armpits, and slipped into her favorite sundress. Once on the road she rolled down the windows and put on a tape that she and Frank liked to listen to when they were feeling romantic. She turned the volume up so loud she could hardly hear herself think.
She was lip-synching the words to "Stand by Me" when her cell phone started ringing. At first she thought it was part of the song, a secondary instrument orbiting the periphery of the main melody--a tambourine maybe. However, when the song ended the phone was still ringing. Without thinking, Dora ejected the tape and took the call on the speaker.
"You naughty girl." The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. It was invasive, godlike. "Driving under the influence."
"Leave me alone!" cried Dora. She tried to hang up but the phone would not disconnect.
"Dora, sweetie, I'm worried about you. You sound out of sorts. Are you sure those pills you've been popping aren't affecting your judgment?"
"What do you want from me?"
"I'm calling on behalf of the annual Red Cross blood drive. Of course, you'd have to sober up before we could accept a donation."
"I don't . . . under . . . stand."
"Blood, Dora," said the voice. "Vampire's burden. You never know when someone you love might need it."
Unable to endure another second of the sadistic baritone, she ripped the phone out of the center console and threw the uprooted unit out the window. She swung a U-turn into the oncoming lane, setting off a chorus of angry horns, and floored the accelerator for home.
Dora ran over the mailbox pulling into the driveway, and staggered to the front door like a wounded game animal. Once inside, she engaged the dead bolt and peeked through a slat in the shutters, expecting the oxidized flanks of a van or a long, low-slung sedan to creep by the front of the house. She was certain she had been followed, but the street was empty. Trembling in fear, she realized she'd left the letter opener on the passenger seat. Who was she kidding? If the voice wanted her dead, she was dead. He knew her every move. She had even considered the possibility that it was her own husband. But that was crazy. This was real life, not a talk show. Frank loved her.
Half crazed, Dora filled a coffee cup with gin, ran a cold bath, and went from room to room yanking the phones, wires and all, out of the wall. One by one she committed them to the bathtub, silencing each one. By the time she went after the cordless, water had overflowed the coral-pink fiberglass tub and was spreading across the bathroom floor. Not finding the receiver in its cradle, she ransacked the guest room, scattering Eileen's meager possessions with the force of a tornado. Frank's convict sister had spent nearly every night for the past week mumbling into the AWOL cordless.
By the time Frank got home, the overflow water from the bathtub had transformed the carpet in their bedroom and the entire upstairs hall into a stain-resistant marshland. Dora could hear her husband swearing as he slogged up the last few steps and peered into the guest room where she lay in a quivering heap among the unfolded clothes and thumbworn People magazines, bawling her eyes out.
"Jesus, Dora!" Frank shouted. "The house is sinking. Call a plumber . . . Do something!"
Dora looked into his eyes. "It's you, isn't it, Frank?" Frank shook his head as if to say, You poor creature. And like that he was gone.
Dora crawled after him. The carpet squished under her hands and knees. As she reached the bathroom door the sound of running water halted abruptly and she could hear Frank cursing under his breath. When she peeked inside, he was staring at the bathtub. With a flick of his hand he sent a tube of dandruff shampoo gliding across the silvery surface like a toy battleship. He must have sensed her presence because he spoke without turning his head. "For Christ's sake, Dora!" he said, submerging his arm to the elbow in an attempt to retrieve the drowned telephones. "Have you lost your mind?"
Dora was looking at the TV in the living room when Eileen walked in wearing her uniform from Hot Dog on a Stick. She smelled of corn-dog batter and deep-fryer grease. Frank was upstairs shouting into the cordless. Dora didn't dare ask where he had found it.
"What's going on?" Eileen wanted to know.
Even as Dora explained what had happened she was not convinced any of it was real. The last two weeks had been like living in a nightmare.
For half an hour, Frank had called every carpet cleaner in the yellow pages hoping to find someone to vacuum up the water before the floorboards started to rot. Apparently everyone had gone home for the night. Frank had ordered Dora to stay on the couch and not to move. Eileen patted her on the head and went upstairs to help clean up the mess with bath towels, bedsheets, and anything else absorbent they could find.
That night Dora lay awake well past midnight, haunted by the cold godlike voice that had possessed her car. She craved the dreamless oblivion of the little blue pills but the prescription bottle was empty. She'd checked it twice. She had even read the warning labels on every product in the medicine cabinet looking for something that "may cause drowsiness," but the strongest thing she could find was a crinkled tube of fungicide that had made her lips go numb.
Dora could hear Eileen's laughter warbling in the thin-walled confines of the guest room. She slipped out of bed and tiptoed down the hall. The damp carpet was cold beneath her bare feet. Despite Frank's efforts it still squished when she walked. Soon she was standing outside the guest-room door, her need for the little blue pills as deeply felt as the nerve endings prickling beneath the surface of her skin. The door was slightly ajar. Eileen was lying on the bed, the cordless pressed to one ear. "I already told you who it was," she said. "Don't even joke like that. It's not funny." She buried her face in the pillow and cackled like a witch.
Eileen jumped when Dora pushed open the door. "I've gotta go," she said into the phone. "You can tell me all about it tomorrow night."
"Hot date?" Dora asked.
"We'll see." Eileen drew her knees in close to her chest and pulled her T-shirt down over her legs. A glittery decal on the front read A SMILE IS LIKE A BUTTERFLY . . . IT GOES WHEREVER IT PLEASES AND IT PLEASES WHEREVER IT GOES. Little yellow- and-blue butterflies fluttered around the stylized letters. "So, what brings you to this neck of the woods?"
Dora could picture the phones lying on the bottom of the bathtub. They reminded her of the personal effects left behind by the victims of a shipwreck. "I couldn't sleep," she said.
"Insomnia's the pits."
"I was hoping you might know a secret remedy."
"I could warm you some milk in the microwave."
"I was thinking of something a little stronger," said Dora.
"What about the pills the doctor gave you?"
"The jerk only gave me enough for four days."
"Did you try taking a hot bath?"
Dora didn't want to go anywhere near a bath. It would be like returning to the scene of a crime. "Hel-lo!" Dora knocked on her own head. "Is anyone home?"
"I'm not asking for heroin!" said Dora. "All I want is something that'll knock me out for a few hours."
"I don't have anything."
"Don't act so fucking pure." Dora leveled her index finger at Eileen. "I know all about your seedy little life." Eileen's lower lip trembled. Tears wet her eyes. She looked small sitting on the bed, childlike. "Why are you doing this?" she pleaded.
"There must be someone you can call."
"I'm on probation. If I get caught doing anything illegal, they'll put me back in jail."
"Be a bitch then," said Dora. "But if you're hiding anything from me, I swear I'll find it." With that she yanked out the dresser drawers one by one and dumped their contents on the floor: maraschino-cherry nail polish, a black-and-white photo of Frank and Dora at their wedding, a Fleet's enema, tampons, men's XL T-shirts, a half-eaten Snicker's, black control-top panties, a children's illustrated Bible, a rubber-banded stack of legal documents . . .
Dora was tearing through the pile on her hands and knees when she noticed Eileen reaching out to her. "Don't you dare touch me!" hissed Dora. "Or I swear to god I'll wrap that stupid T-shirt around your neck and hang you out the window so all the neighbors can see what a little tramp you are!"
Eileen recoiled as if snakebitten. "Please, Dora," she sobbed. "You're scaring me."
When Eileen's date arrived, Dora was propped up on the sofa, the episode in the guest room as distant now as the dull thud of his knock on the front door. Despite Frank's earlier objections, he now agreed medication was the way to go. At least until their lives were back in order. He did not want a repeat of last night. The new pills were pink and football shaped. They suffused her with a warm sense of well-being that tickled the base of her skull. Carbonation for the mind. Millions and millions of tiny bubbles . . . She could hear them whispering her name. "Dora . . . Dora . . ."
The fog cleared and she could see Eileen hovering over her, her smiling face virtually indistinguishable from the wilted get-well balloon bouquet Frank had brought home--what was it?--two, maybe three days ago.
"I want you to meet someone," said Eileen.
Dora could see Frank standing in front of the TV, his arms and legs and face much longer than she remembered.
"No," said Eileen. "Over here."
Before Dora's brain could transmit the necessary impulses to her neck muscles, she was descended upon by another face. Teeth bared, it seemed as though the grinning well-wisher would not stop until his canines were firmly planted in her throat.
"Dora," said Eileen. "This is Max." A dark-haired man in khaki slacks and a powder-blue oxford shirt stood over her.
"I know Dora," said Max. "We work together." He smiled and gave a little wave.
Dora thought she would swallow her tongue.
"I'll be darned," said Frank. "How'd you and my sister meet?"
"Wrong number," said Eileen. "Max called about the videophone and we just started talking."
"Best mistake I ever made," said Max.
For the first time in a week Dora's mind was besieged by a horrible clarity: the man from AA who wanted to bash her brains in, the snuff films, the godlike voice in her car just yesterday. It was Karloff! Immobilized by fear, she desperately tried to locate her husband, his face drawn in a wicked fun-house grin all the way across the room. "It's him Frank!" she croaked. "He's the one who's been calling me!"
"Oh, for Christ's sake Dora . . ." Frank turned to Karloff. "My wife's been under a terrible strain lately. You'll have to forgive her."
Karloff looked at Dora, then at Frank, and nodded gravely.
"But it is, Frank!" cried Dora. "I swear!"
"I don't have to take this shit!" Eileen shouted. "Eileen--please," said Frank. He knelt in front of Dora. "Sweetheart . . . Look at yourself. Yesterday you thought it was me. We'll get through this but you have to make an effort. Now apologize to Max."
Dora turned her attention to Karloff. "Show them your tattoos!" she said. "I bet you didn't know he was wearing a wig!"
Karloff looked embarrassed. "Chemo," he said. "A few months ago I had this thing with my prostate. I'm still not comfortable with my new look."
"We're outta here!" said Eileen. She grabbed Karloff by the arm and stormed out of the house.
Dora dragged herself from the sofa and went after them. "You can't let her leave with him!" she begged. "He's crazy!" Frank straitjacketed her with his arms and kicked the door closed.
Dora watched through the window as Karloff and Eileen pulled away from the curb in his red-and-white Pac Bell van. She could see the felled mailbox lying on the front lawn.
"It's okay," Frank whispered in her ear. "Everything is going to be just fine."
When Frank called Dora down to dinner Friday night, she thought it would be just the two of them. Eileen had been spending most of her free time with Karloff. With each passing day the pink football-shaped pills plunged Dora more deeply into a wonderful walking trance. As she descended the stairs, she could see the eager faces awaiting her arrival.
Frank. Eileen. Karloff.
All week Frank had been going on about what a nice guy Max was and how good he was for Eileen. "Dora, honey," he said. "The three of us chipped in and got you a get-well present. It was Max's idea."
Karloff smiled timidly and nodded. He was wearing a blond wig that made him look like a young Robert Redford.
Eileen threw her arms around Dora and said, "I'm sorry for being so insensitive. I know how rough the last couple of weeks have been on you."
Dora wondered if she was dreaming, an extension of the same prolonged nightmare. The voice, Karloff's wig, the green-and-yellow polka-dotted box in the center of the coffee table.
"Well," said Frank. "Aren't you going to open it?"
Eileen bounced on her toes like a little girl. "Open it," she chimed.
Dora plopped down on the sofa and began stripping away the wrapping. She hadn't realized how strong the pink football-shaped pills were until the last of the paper had been removed. She stared at the package in utter bewilderment, the odd markings on its surface no more familiar to her than if she had been attempting to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.
"Don't try to read it, silly," said Eileen. "It's Korean."
"It's a videophone," said Frank.
"Max thought of it," Eileen said proudly. "He heard about our phone shortage."
"It's the best on the market," said Karloff. "I have the same one at home."
"This way you'll always know who you're talking to," said Frank.
Dora didn't know what to say.
Eileen beamed. "Max said he'd come over Sunday and set it up."
"No, no . . ." said Dora. "I'm sure Pac Bell wouldn't mind sending someone over during the week."
"Sunday'll be just fine, Max," said Frank. "I've got a golf date but Dora will be here." Frank put his arm around her. "Won't you honey?"
Frank hadn't been gone five minutes when Karloff showed up bright and early Sunday morning. Although Dora hadn't seen Eileen since the night they had given her the videophone, she assumed she was at work dipping skewered hot dogs in corn batter. Drawing on two pills' worth of courage Dora released the dead bolt and opened the door. If she was going to die, at least she wouldn't feel it.
"Good morning," said Karloff.
Dora was surprised at how respectable he looked in his freshly pressed uniform and blond wig. If anything, he now looked too good for the job she'd denied him. "Well, aren't you the cat's meow," she said.
Karloff made as if to adjust an invisible bow tie.
For a moment they just smiled at each other. At last Dora said, "Come in."
Although it hadn't rained in weeks, Dora was impressed that Karloff wiped his feet on the doormat before entering. "Where do you want it?" he asked.
Dora noticed an array of potentially lethal instruments dangling from Karloff's tool belt. So this is it, she thought. Why hadn't she just given him the job--let someone else take a screwdriver in the heart?
"The videophone . . ." he said. "What room do you want it in?"
"I'm sorry," said Dora. "I'm still waking up. How about the kitchen."
Dora was amazed at how quickly and efficiently Karloff worked. Watching him install the videophone, she forgot how frightened she was. Maybe she had been wrong. Maybe he wasn't such a bad guy. "You know, Max," said Dora. "I have a confession to make."
"You don't like the phone here."
"No, no. You're doing a beautiful job. It's just that . . . Remember when I interviewed you?"
Karloff secured the base to the wall and looked at her.
"Well," Dora said, "I wasn't going to hire you."
"I know. Marcy told me."
"You just . . ."
"I know I'm not the most clean-cut-looking guy."
"I'm so ashamed of myself."
Karloff smiled. "Don't give it a second thought. If I were you, I wouldn't have wanted to send me into a complete stranger's house looking like I did."
"I'm so relieved you understand." Dora touched him on the shoulder. "Frank and I both think you're really good for Eileen."
"That's nice of you to say but apparently Eileen doesn't think so."
"Why? I think she really likes you."
Karloff frowned. "Eileen called me and broke up the night after we gave you the video phone. I guess she met someone else."
"No? That's terrible!"
"I just wish she'd had the decency to dump me in person. I hate it when people hide behind their telephones. They make brave people out of cowards."
"Well, don't you worry. I'm sure there are plenty of nice women who'd be interested in you." Dora pinched his cheek. "Just between you and me, I never thought much of her anyway."
"You're sweet," said Karloff, "but I'd better be going. I'll call you when I get home to make sure the phone works."
For the first time in weeks Dora was anxious for the phone to ring. She thought about what Karloff had said about telephones making brave people out of cowards. It comforted her to think that the man who had been threatening her didn't even have the courage to show his face. When the videophone rang, she snatched the receiver from its cradle.
"Dora, it's Max. Can you hear me?"
"Yes, but I can't see you."
"Press the green button on the base."
Dora located the button and pressed it. The screen flickered on. "I feel so high tech." She couldn't help giggling.
"How's that?" Karloff asked.
Dora could make out a shadowy figure in the center of the six-inch screen that could have easily passed for a tabloid snapshot of Bigfoot. "You're still a little blurry," she said.
"See the dials on the side of the screen? That's your brightness, contrast, and focus. Fiddle with those and see what happens. I'll be right back."
Dora got everything adjusted so that a wide-angle image of Karloff's kitchen came into view. It was like looking through a peephole. A set of carving knives and a white Formica countertop occupied the lower part of the screen. In the background she could see a smoking ashtray resting atop a small dining table. The room was wallpapered with a pattern of yellow ears of corn and dancing scarecrows. When Karloff returned he was no longer wearing his wig. He was breathing heavily and mopping his bald brow with a paper towel. "Can you see me now?" he asked. His face took up the entire screen.
"Clear as crystal," said Dora.
"What do you think? It's a good way to unmask who you're talking to."
"Oh, Max. Thank you so much."
"Hold on. Someone here wants to say hi to you." The screen went black.
"Max," Dora called. "I can't see you." She could hear his voice in the next room. It was muffled, far-off.
"Be right there."
Dora was startled by the sound of glass breaking and was about to call his name again when the screen blinked back on. It was Eileen. One eye was nearly swollen shut, the other ringed in yellow and purple. Her mouth was covered by a strip of silver tape, and her arms appeared to be bound behind her back. Her cheeks were adorned with the letters H and i, as if tiny red lightbulbs had been screwed directly into her skin. Karloff clutched her by the hair like a bunch of carrots. "Oops," he said. "I forgot to dot the I." He plucked a burning cigarette from the ashtray, took a slow drag, and applied the glowing tip to Eileen's cheek.
Dora gaped in horror. "Max!" she howled. "What are you doing?"
"Making sure your new phone is working."
Eileen was wearing the butterfly T-shirt. It was tattered and bloody, a tear in the front exposing one of her breasts. "Oh god, Max!" Dora pleaded. "Let her go!"
"You told me you didn't care much for Eileen."
Eileen's eyes locked on Dora, tears streaming down her cigarette-scarred cheeks, wetting the marquee-style letters like rain. Mucus bubbled from her nostrils. Bloody stalactites drooled from her chin. Her fear was more real than anything Dora could have imagined. She desperately wanted to hang up, to disconnect from the image in front of her. But she couldn't--not face-to-face like this.
Karloff's hand passed in front of the screen. Dora could see the flies tattooed on his knuckles, the way they seemed to crawl from the gaps between his fingers as though hatched from the poison yolk of his fist. Then slowly, with a theatrical flair, he laid the slender blade of a filet knife to Eileen's throat.
Dora screamed. "Oh god, Max . . . No!"
"You know what they say," said Karloff, holding the knife steady. "One picture . . ."
With that he pressed Eileen's face to the screen, and with a fluid stroke opened a line of communication that would define state-of-the-art well into the millennium.