FU 9 1806
by Stewart Bernstein
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Last Wednesday, June 12th, hump-day, was our usual poker night. As we always say, “Just a bunch of studs playing stud poker.” From 7 until the last hand, my house is where you can find us. I’m the host, so I’m always sitting near the kitchen. You know, so I don’t have to yell too loud for my wife to bring more food and beer. Sonny sits to my right, Marvin to his right, Jay to his, and then Jeff. No place cards needed.
We all grew up in South Philly, a working-class neighborhood. Same experiences, same values; play hard, work hard, get married, have kids, and go to church, synagogue or whatever, but only on the important holidays. And lastly, and this is the most important, poker every Wednesday. A simple life for us simple peons. A simple life that was about to change.
Sitting in front of us are our bottles of beer, our cards and ash trays each overflowing with the remains from our Phillies cigars, (What else did you expect?). And one was overflowing with the ashes from the sweet cherry smell of Prince Albert pipe tobacco. Yeah, one of us thinks he’s sophisticated. Go figure. And you can't forget the half-eaten slices of pizza on oil-stained paper plates. Pizza and beer, the poker snack of champs. Although our wives might say it a bit differently, “Pizza and beer, the Poker Snack of Chumps.”
Poker is just an excuse to drive each other nuts. No one really cares who wins. It relieves our stress. That’s what it’s all about. We bet, bluff, and poke fun at each other with every draw of the card and bet. (Hey, maybe that’s how poker got its name?)
“You call that a bet, 25 cents? What’s the matter wife shortchanged your allowance this week?
“Hey, bet already. We’re playing poker. This isn’t your old lady’s canasta club.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see my wife Connie in the kitchen giving me the sign. It’s our special sign that involves the use of just one of her fingers. She’s letting me know that she’s tired. It will take at least an hour to clean up our mess, and she wants to get to bed at a decent hour, so wrap it up! I sign back.
“Boys, last game by order of the management.” I shuffle. Someone starts to talk about our old neighborhood, which got me to thinking,
“Hey, does anyone remember their phone number from the old neighborhood?” Not a one did. But I did- FU 9-1806. To every adult FU stood for Fulton, but not to certain kids like me. Maybe that’s why I never forgot it.
Anyway, Sonny started it. “Do you think it’s still a number?” The argument began. “How can it? That’s when we had rotary phones and party lines.” “Yeah, and we now have ten digits?” “Well, why don’t you try it. What do you got to lose?”
They were right. I didn’t have anything to lose, so I picked up my cell phone, set it on the table, put it on loudspeaker and dialed.
The phone rang. That’s strange I thought, and I could see on their faces that they were thinking the same thing. “How could seven digits connect?” But it was ringing. It didn’t have the tone that you normally get with a cell phone. The ring had a tinny and faraway sound to it.
“Must be going to an automated operator”, I said, “You know, telling you that ‘The number you dialed is not in service, please check the number and dial again.’"
We all had surprised, confused looks on our faces as it continued to ring. After about four rings a boy’s voice answered, “Hello”.
My breath took a breath. The hairs on my arms, chest, legs, all of them, stood at attention. My whole body was tingling. I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t make a sound. I had no voice. I was paralyzed.
You see, I recognized that voice. That was my voice as a kid. It was me! I must have been about 11 or 12 as best as I could tell. I looked at my phone. The caller ID had my last name on it. My last name! I hung up. The phone and I were mute. I just stared.
Sonny yelled out first, “Hey that sounded like you!” Jeff and the others joined in. “Yeah, it did.”
I could hardly hear them. That voice, my voice, was like a tidal wave crashing inside my head, drowning out and muffling whatever they were saying. I needed to regroup. I needed time to think. To clear my head. There has to be a rational, logical answer. There has to be. I just need time to think. I need to be alone.
“Guys, come on, it was just a voice. It wasn’t me. I’m right here. It’s what those computer nerds always say when they can’t explain why the computer or internet isn’t working, ‘It’s something in the ether’.” That was the best I could come up with, even though I didn’t believe it. They all had a yeah-yeah-sure look on their faces. They shrugged their shoulders and we finished the game. Afterwards they put on their coats, gave each other back slaps and left, except for Sonny.
We were next door neighbors and best friends when we lived in the old neighborhood, and to this day we still live next to each other and still are the best of friends. As kids, every Saturday, we would go to the matinee and take in the cartoons, the next chapter in the “Rocket Man” serial, and the double feature. We talked religion, heaven, hell, life, afterlife, nothing was off limits. He was there whenever I needed him. He was there for the good times and the bad. The worst was when I lost my younger brother in a car accident.
I caused it. Everyone says I didn’t, that it was the driver’s fault, but I know better, I was there. It was my fault. I killed him. That moment is always with me. It’s an 8mm movie stuck in the projection room of my brain, waiting to restart and replay his death whenever it feels like. He is always the victim. I am always the villain.
When it starts, I watch as I near the curb on the other side of the street. My back is to him. I hear the scream, “Watch out! Watch out!” I hear the screech of brakes, the thud. I turn and look behind me. I see the car. I see him lying in the street, jangled, mangled, unmoving. I run and stop. I’m standing over him, numb. I hear the sirens. I see the stretcher, my Mom and Dad’s contorted, anguished faces wet with tears. Their words, between the sobs, “How? Why?"
I know how. I know why. I didn’t hold his hand as we crossed. That’s how. That’s why. I killed him. And over and over again I see it, hear it, relive it. It’s my punishment.
Sonny looked at me, “Look I don’t buy that ether shit. You know and I know that was your voice”.
I was standing but feeling lightheaded. I had to sit. I leaned forward with elbows on the table holding the sides of my head.
“Sonny, I don’t understand. That was my voice. But how is that possible?”
“I don’t know. But if I were you, I would forget what you heard and never, ever dial that number again. Never. You hear me?”
I promised but I wasn’t sure I could keep that promise.
That night, I tried to sleep but couldn’t. I was twelve again and reliving my brother’s death. I could see it so clearly. It was a Saturday, June 15. I’ll never forget that date. Sonny couldn’t make the movies, so I took my younger brother. He was seven, and this was the first time we were going together to the movies. He had the biggest smile. He was going on a big adventure with his big brother. Mom made me promise to make sure I held his hand as we crossed the streets.
“Of course, mom.” Another promise I didn’t keep.
Before we could get to the movies, we had to cross the Avenue. It was a busy two-way street filled with cars and buses moving up and down its four lanes. If you crossed with the green light, no problem. Cross with the yellow and you needed to time it just so. Do that and you’re safe. If I had only held onto his hand, he would have been safe. He kissed and hugged our mom and off he went on his last big adventure.
I still hadn't slept, and it was now Thursday morning. Connie sensed something was wrong. She was used to those times when I remembered, and she knew how to deal with it. But this was different. I heard her voice. I heard the sounds she was making, but they were not turning themselves into words. The sounds entered my ears and there they died. They never made it to my brain.
I knew I was in trouble, and I knew I couldn’t face reality. I needed some help. I took a tranquilizer and a sleeping pill. Connie helped me crawl back into bed. I closed my eyes and prayed that the pills would switch off the projector, turn off the guilt, even if it was just for a few hours. It worked. I slept all through Thursday.
I woke up on Friday morning vaguely remembering what had occurred. My brain felt fuzzy. I had to concentrate to peek through the pills’ veil of fog clouding my thoughts. Then, slowly I began to remember. My phone number, FU 9 1806. The call. The voice! I jumped out of bed. I called for Connie. She wasn’t home. She left me a note, “I’m visiting my sister for the day. And Sonny came by yesterday when you were asleep to see how you were.”
I was alone. I made and ate some scrambled eggs. I made and drank a full pot of Maxwell House. My brain was back to normal even though the situation was far from normal. I knew I had to do something. But, what? Call again? No, I promised Sonny. I got to think.
I got it. I know what I need to do.
I got into the car, turned the ignition, took a deep breath, then put it in drive and took off. I was going back to my old neighborhood. My old address. With all that’s happened, I needed to see, to confront whatever was going on, to realize it was not real. Just my imagination ignited by my sense of guilt.
When I was only a few blocks away from my old neighborhood, I parked the car and decided to walk, to kind of sneak up on ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ was.
As I walked, I looked around and saw how gentrification had changed the look, smell and the flavor of the neighborhood. The corner church was now condos. Grocery stores were now high-end markets and luncheonettes, like Kramer’s and Nate’s, were now coffee shops.
I was now approaching the corner that was just one block from my old street. That’s where Kramer’s and Nate’s luncheonettes were located. Back in my time, they had served the neighborhood and the teachers who taught at Key Elementary school just a few blocks away.
It was lunchtime as I got to the corner. I stopped and couldn’t believe, refused to believe, what I saw. There were my elementary school teachers-Miss. Green, Mrs. Frazier, Miss Barker-walking into Nate’s. How can that be? They looked and were dressed just like I remembered them. Even Nate’s looked exactly the same. His luncheon special was posted in the window: “Corned beef with slaw, $1.25. Onions two cents extra”. What’s going on? I couldn't stop to think. I had one block before turning into my street. I had to keep moving forward.
Then, as I turned into my old street, what I saw caused me to stop in my tracks...again. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were coming home from school to eat lunch, watch some TV and get back to school. I knew all this because the two I saw were my brother and me! But how? I had returned to find answers, get clarity, restore some of my sanity. Instead, I now had more questions than answers. Everything was far from clear.
Was I going insane?
There had to be a reason for all of this. I panicked and hurried back to my car. As I passed Nate’s, I had the sensation of passing through whatever was covering the past, stepping through it and into the present. When I did turn back, the old was gone. No more Nate’s. No more Kramer’s. No more little me. No more little brother. My old world was gone.
I don’t know how I got home. My mind couldn’t, wouldn’t focus. Instinct must have taken the wheel and gotten me safely home. Connie was still out. I thought of calling Sonny, but I knew he would be angry with me. I had to figure this out on my own. Why was this happening and why now? I’m not a true believer but was this the devil’s work? God’s? I kept coming back to the same questions, ‘Why? And why now’?
I looked at my watch to see if Connie might be home soon. Then, it hit me. It’s Friday June 14th. Tomorrow's Saturday the 15th. The day I killed my brother. If this was the devil’s work, was he tormenting me, giving me a taste of what hell would be like? But what if this was God’s work, that he’s ready to perform a miracle, to let me go back, to return to the scene, and save my brother? That he is forgiving me, absolving me, allowing me to finally get rid of my guilt, which has attached itself to my soul and been a part of every beat of my heart since my brother’s death.
I was ready to believe. I must believe that it is God, not the devil doing this. Tomorrow I would save my brother!
I went to bed early. Connie was not yet home. Strangely I was at peace and fell into a quick and deep sleep. When I woke, Connie was already in the kitchen making our traditional Saturday stack of pancakes, with melted butter, syrup, and lots of coffee. That aroma of pancakes, coffee and the knowledge that I was going to save my brother filled me with joy, the kind of joy I would see on the faces of the congregants on TV during one of those hallelujah sermons. I could have been right there beside them, jumping, raising my hands, and giving praise to the Almighty. I didn’t tell my wife why I was so full of joy, and she didn’t ask. I could see that she was just relieved that I had bounced back.
It was 11:30 AM. The matinee would start promptly at 1. My brother and I would leave the house at 12:30. It was time for me to leave. I kissed Connie, gave her a big hug and told her I had something important to do and would be home late afternoon. I got in my car and left to save my brother.
I wasn’t going to take any chances that I would be late, so I went directly to the Avenue, parked my car, and waited a little off from the corner. I knew what I was going to do. I would yell and warn my brother and save him before the car hit him. I won’t be the villain anymore. I will be that unknown hero in the crowd who yelled out and saved the boy.
When I got there, I looked around. I didn’t recognize anything. It was the present. The present. “Come on God, stop joking. Stop toying with me. Please, haven’t I suffered enough?”
It was now 12:30 and my brother and I would just be leaving our home. It was almost time. Time was ticking and nothing was changing. Everything was as it should be if you were living in the present. But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted the past. My past. Ten minutes to accident. Nine, eight. Still nothing.
And then it happened. The buildings, streets, now appeared like one of those watercolor paintings, where everything is runny, blurry. The lines of the buildings became wavy. Their colors started to fade, and their shapes began to blend into each other. But, when I looked at my hands, my clothes, they were unlike those paintings. I was an oil painting with bright, vivid, colors and crisp lines.
As I continued to look at the Avenue and the buildings, I saw the oil paint begin to replace the watercolors and repaint the scene with those bright and vivid colors and crisp lines. The buildings were being redrawn, reshaped. They were now as solid and real as I was. They were now my familiar past.
I looked around but still didn’t see them. There were kids still in line in front of the movie theater, so I knew the doors hadn't opened yet. I knew I wasn’t late. But still no sign of them.
This was where it happened. I couldn’t be wrong about that. I… I see them!
They’re approaching the corner. It’s crowded. We are at the back of the crowd. I’m holding my brother’s hand. I didn’t remember that. We pause with the crowd who are looking at the traffic light. It turns green but for some reason the crowd doesn’t move right away. By the time we start to cross the street it’s yellow. I’m still holding my brother’s hand. I start to quicken my pace; my steps are longer than my brother’s. By the time we get to the middle of the street, the light changes. I run. My hand slips from his.
I, the adult me, sees the car. Now’s the time. I scream out with all my might, “Watch out! Watch out!” My brother is startled. He looks around to see who’s calling.
He stops right in the path of the car.
He’s hit. He’s dead again. I killed him again. This time I wasn’t twelve. This time I was an adult. I thought it was God’s work giving me a second chance, but God wouldn’t do that, would he? It had to be the devil, right?
Anyway, I swear that’s what happened. At least, I think that’s what happened. And, if it did, when did it begin, in the present, in the past? I can’t even be sure when it ended. Then, now? Nothing has changed though, he’s still dead. We killed him, adult me and child me killed him.
Wait, maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe I don’t even have a brother. Maybe I’m merely insane which means I didn’t kill him, or anybody. But if I am sane then we did kill our brother.
Doctor, please you got to tell me, I’m begging you, what am I?
As a child of the 50s, Stewart Bernstein spent too many afternoons in darkened theaters watching horror movies like "Them," "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," "Dracula," "Frankenstein,", "Rocket Ship X-M”, the “Flash Gordon” serials, and too many hours in front of the TV watching shows like, “Science Fiction Theater”, “The Twilight Zone” and later on, “Tales From The Crypt”. After retiring from law, he now has the time to incorporate in his writings the themes and feelings from those old time sci-fi movies and TV shows that still haunt him.
About the Host
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.