posted Apr 8, 2006
I'd hear from Sharon once every couple years, on a pay phone, in some state-sponsored home. I imagined other folks her age squirming around her in wheelchairs. Bad art on the walls. Plants dying in plastic pots on high windowsills.
We were never really friends but I was nice to her when others weren't, so she kept in touch. Her most recent call was a week ago, as I was sitting down to dinner with my family. She was at a new home. She called it "the prison."
I asked her if she was allowed to leave.
"Oh, sure," she said. "But this place is out in the boonies and I don't have any teeth."
"What happened to your teeth?"
"I had an accident and they won't give me replacements."
Sharon was a poet I knew from the days I used to go to open mic poetry readings, about ten years ago. Even then, her body and mind were decaying. But she was a good poet and her craziness was vicariously thrilling to most people, if not a little confrontational. She walked with a cane, and never drove a car. Before moving to Portland in her late 30s, she had been a regular in the San Francisco poetry scene and had a couple books published. One of her author photos told me that she used to be a bombshell. High cheekbones, sex kitten eyes, and blonde hair slicked back like a model.
Sometimes she heckled other poets.
"Did you hear that?" she asked me. "People are always yelling here. Even at bedtime."
I did hear something through the phone line. Like she was calling from a carnival all of the sudden. I asked her if she was able to do any writing.
"They threw away my computer. I have to write in my journal. I have lots of journals. But they're not publishable."
I wondered when Sharon was last published. I used to see her work in several small magazines but that was many years ago. I was never clear on what was physically wrong with her. She once said something about Agent Orange. She was married to someone who was exposed to Agent Orange and it affected her too. I don't know anything about war chemicals. And I'm not sure if she was ever telling the truth.
Someone told me her brain was damaged from a bad drug prescription. Someone else implied that she was beat up when she was a stripper in San Francisco. Before she was a stripper she taught sex education to high schoolers. Her friends back then were mostly Scientologists; L. Ron Hubbard wannabes. She was reckless and intimate with many of them. She turned her past into poems. She also talked about-and wrote about-how much she hated her father. She called him "The Devil." Now she had different enemies. New enemies, all the time.
"There's a guy down the hall from me who steals peoples' cats," she told me. "He takes them to the boiler room and then they're gone. He broke into my room and took my black wig. I've called the police on him several times but I can't press charges because I'm in their system and they don't believe me."
"What do you mean, 'in their system'?"
"The police have been told not to take my calls."
I understood that what she was saying was the truth to her. She wasn't exaggerating. If she broke into police files and looked up her name she would be shocked if they didn't corroborate what she was telling me.
"Are you still writing?" she asked me.
"Not poetry," I told her. "Mostly short stories."
"That's what I should do," she said. "That's where the money is." There was a pause while she waited for me to respond but I didn't know what to say. "Are you friends with Butch Stein?" she asked me.
"I know who he is," I answered. Butch was a guy who won a bunch of poetry slams but would sometimes disappear on long drug binges. He once called me too, to apologize for something I couldn't remember. He had to, he told me. It was one of the twelve steps. To make amends. Straight from the AA Big Book, written over fifty years ago.
"He tried to fuck me," Sharon said.
There was a stunned pause. For a second, I forgot whom I was talking to. I tried to piece it together. Butch, a handsome twenty-nine year old with an Irish accent and Sharon, a fifty year old head case with a body twice its age. "What? Butch Stein?"
"Oh, you bet. He gave me a ride home about a year ago and tried to get fresh on my couch. He didn't expect me to put up a fight, but I did."
"That's really weird," I said before realizing she may take that as a slight. "I mean, doesn't he have a girlfriend or something?"
"Some people like to fuck cripples," she snorted. "I'm not interested in sex anymore. Or I should say that I am interested in sex, just not sex with penises."
"I understand," I told her for some reason. I heard someone else yelling in the background where Sharon was. Again I imagined a group of slouching wheelchair drivers rolling aimlessly around her, one of them squawking about their medicine or a baseball game.
"I guess I better go," she said. "I just wanted to see if you remembered me. Sometimes I see your name somewhere and I remember that you weren't as full of shit as some other people. Remember when you bought groceries for me?"
I thought about it for a second and did remember. Maybe six years ago. She gave me a list over the phone. All frozen foods and toilet paper. I had to take them to her in her fifth floor apartment. It was a bland place with brown carpet in the hallways and clammy air full of TV-through-the-wall noises. Her dishes hadn't been washed and I think she complained about me getting the wrong brand of ice cream. "I remember," I said.
"Okay. Talk to you later." She hung up before I could say anything else. I suddenly felt dazed, and then, strangely, I thought of numerous other things I could have talked to her about. My family had started dinner without me. I held the phone away from my ear and let the dial tone hum freely.
In my head, I saw a clear picture of the phone that was just on the other end. It was a plastic green one, hanging on the wall, push buttons nearly rubbed clean, a small crack splitting the bottom where someone once punched it. A sticker with emergency numbers, applied on the side, top left corner of it peeling away, ink smudged. A metal phone book holder coming out of the wall underneath, empty and cold.
© 2006 Kevin Sampsell