Grossberg’s Ringing Phone
A Short Story by Doug Dean
Written using the suggestion "Depression"
Originally featured on 11-05-2008
As part of our series "The Bigger They Are, The Harder Empires Fall (The Ions Behind the Scenes of Every Regime Change)"

Ringing phone.

Grossberg just hung up. Grossberg just left a message for his brother.

Ringing phone.

Grossberg wonders if it is his brother. He looks to the caller ID. The caller ID says only Incoming Call—no help.

Ringing phone.

Grossberg picks up.

“-press 1. If you’d like to send your message with Urgent Delivery press-“

Grossberg hangs up.

He frowns. Grossberg had guessed. Yet, he had been fooled.

Grossberg sits at his desk for a moment. He leans back. He drumrolls his fingers on the desk. Grossberg inhales, looking at the antique oak clock hanging in front of him. The pendulum swings and Grossberg is aware of the time. He wants to buy a lottery ticket today. He places his hands on the desk, pushes, and moves himself back on his rolling leather chair. He exhales and rises.

He turns to walk across the room. Grossberg places his hand on the desk top as he turns. A pencil is knocked onto the carpet. He leans slightly on the oak desk and then pushes off towards the door opposite him. He hears car horns and a crash down on the street after his first step. The RJ pills are down in the kitchen. He glances at the window and sees the old oak. Leaves sway on thin branches. Grossberg picks up the pace towards the door. He hears the same horns but louder somehow right before his fourth step. Then he hears voices shouting — one of them sounds alien. He reaches the door. As he rounds the doorway into the hallway, he places his hand on the door frame for support.

It is three steps on hard wood to the top step, then the stair runner begins on the second step. Grossberg likes how the shag material of the runner feels under his bare feet.

There is a full-length mirror opposite the doorway to the study. Grossberg is aware of his aged, crumpled reflection as he passes. Today, he doesn’t choose to look. He doesn’t choose to see the purple robe hanging on the pale skeletal frame.

He reaches the top step and grabs the banister with his left hand. Grossberg inhales as he extends his right arm outward toward the opposing wall. He exhales and his foot descends onto the shag. It tickles him for a second. He snickers and with his right arm still outstretched, he lowers his other foot onto the third step. He is tickled again. He rubs his foot into the shag in a clamming motion before fully resting it on the step. The step creaks beneath him. Grossberg grips the banister tight. He is clamming both feet at once. A memory. The creaking echoes in the cavernous sloped ceiling. A feeding frenzy for my puppies, he thinks. At this age, this is as good as it gets, and it ain’t so bad, he thinks. Then he looks at the landing at the bottom of the stairs. He thinks of falling and stops clamming. Grossberg brings his right arm across his body and grabs the banister for double support. He furrows his brow and lowers his foot to the fourth step.

Step four brings him less pleasure and his pace quickens. As he descends, he holds onto the banister, still double handed, like a spear pointed at escaped tiger. Grossberg’s wrinkled hands inch along the banister with renewed purpose, gripping and releasing as needed. Now focused on safely reaching the landing, his face shows none of the levity from the previous shag frivolity. Step by step, he urges the creaking tiger back down.

Grossberg sighs as he rounds the landing, holding the banister with his left hand and outstretching his right towards the orange couch a few feet ahead of him. He is again aware of the shouting outside. The locked front door is to his right. He turns his head and looks at the green door. Grossberg doesn’t need to get involved. He follows his outstretched arm toward the arm of the couch. He leans on it and groans. The shouting gets louder. Grossberg hears a door slam. The RJ pills sit in the white cabinet next to sink. Grossberg lifts his head and looks at the doorway to the kitchen.

It’s eleven and a half steps away.

 

***

 

“Clam!!” cried Grossberg.

Barrister Jones threw a Coors Original from the bow of his twenty-seven foot sailboat to Grossberg who leapt up from the five feet of water and caught it with his free hand. In his other hand he waved the clam at Griffley Tomater.

“I need the bag for this…clam!!!”

All eight of them applauded or yelled ‘clam.’ Scattered throughout the sandbar were Grossberg, Griffley, Greg, Bruce, Kojak, Columbo, and Agnes, the water reaching their chests and Agnes’s chin.

Barrister Jones moved from the bow back to the radio console of The Sticky Situation but not without announcing his intention: “I’m gonna find some classic fucking rock, guys! Fuck this shit! Clam!”

All eight of them applauded or yelled ‘clam,’ then everyone but Barrister resumed their respective clam searches. Kojak, Greg and Agnes liked to raise their arms in the air as they pivoted the heels of the feet into the soft sand.

“I found it! Here we go!” yelled Barrister before turning up the volume on Fleetwood Mac’s, “You Can Go Your Own Way.”

With water still dripping off of his face, Grossberg leapt up and triumphantly dunked the clam into the half-filled plastic shopping bag being presented by Griffley.

A bit cheesy, but so much fun. This is how Grossberg saw them all. What he wrote on one of the numerous psychological questionnaires he’d filled out in the past month. The question was “How would you describe your closest friends?”

Grossberg grinned at Griffley, stole a quick glance at Agnes and then turned his back on both of them. Grossberg continued his clamming while watching the sun setting over the Great South Bay. Behind him he heard Kojak’s voice.

“Clam!!!” yelled Kojak.

All eight of them applauded or yelled ‘clam.’

“It’s like a clam-fueled feeding frenzy for my dogs!!!” declared Kojak.

His brother. They nicknamed him ‘Kojak’ in honor of his recent acceptance to the Police Academy.

“You can go your own way!” Barrister Jones dove off the Sticky Situation into the water.

Grossberg cracked a smile as he pivoted. Then he heard her behind him. Actually, he heard her breathing, but he identified her right away. He was the type that could hear half a second of a song and tell you the title. From the backyard, he could hear the phone ringing in the house even when it was buried beneath a pile of blankets. For awhile, Greg, who came up with many of the nicknames, called Grossberg ‘Ears.’ It didn’t catch so Greg tried ‘Dumbo’ and ‘ET,’ both failed.

Grossberg didn’t move. He heard her hand come up out of the water and then, “clam!” Agnes’s dripping hand gripping a clam in front of his face. Agnes’s voice, deeper than most girls, soft and feminine, a little scratchy and sad; To Grossberg, her voice sounded like a oboe.

He spun and faced her.

Grossberg appreciated her looks. She wasn’t what he would’ve called flashy. He liked how her brown hair hung straight down and how her smile, a collage of small white teeth, didn’t knock him over. He liked her slightly crooked nose too, it made her genuine, he felt. Agnes’ blue eyes filled him with a mixed excitement.

Grossberg curled his toes, digging them into the soft sand beneath the water.

“Clam,” responded Grossberg with a nod and a grin. Then he yelled, “Clam!” for all six of them to hear.

 

***

 

Laid out on numerous counters, prepared in a multitude of styles, the clams had invaded Barrister Jone’s kitchen. Grossberg felt distracted by Agnes and annoyed by the sound of the sizzling butter in the pan.

“Here’s to Kojak!” said Bruce. Bruce raised his Coors Light. All seven of them applauded or cheered, ‘to Kojak!’

A toilet flushed. Barrister Jones burst into the kitchen. He immediately looked at the towering Bruce. “Bruce. Seriously, I asked you not to do toasts without everyone. Especially not without me.” Bruce shrugged, picked up a knife and resumed shucking.

Barrister turned to Grossberg. “What about you, Grossberg? You’ve been going to interviews for that new job, right? What is it?”

Grossberg’s eyes darted to Kojak and Columbo before returning to Barrister. “Oh it’s, uh, well government work.”

Everyone skipped a beat. Barrister picked up the slack.

“Oh, okay. So what is it? You think you’ll get it?” Before Grossberg could answer, Barrister started walking towards his living room. “Hold on a second, I’m gonna put on some music.”

Grossberg knew Kojak’s and Columbo’s eyes were on him, so he continued to talk to Barrister in the living room, raising his voice.

“I got it through a Civey exam. They approached me like three weeks ago, Barrister.” Grossberg paused. “I still don’t know anything about it really-“

“The Final Countdown” blared out of the living room, Barrister riding back into the kitchen on the sound. Grossberg winced, something abrasive in the mastering.

“Alright, to Kojak!” Barrister lifted his Blue Point Toasted Lager. Kojak’s Bud Light shot up from the kitchen table. Slowly, the glasses and cans lifted. Barrister shot intense looks around the room. “To Koj-“

“We just toasted, dude,” said Bruce. Barrister eyed him. Grossberg grinned.

“So what? I was in the bathroom. Toast again!” insisted Barrister. “Columbo, get that beer up!” Collective groans.

“Don’t be a toast nazi, you fuckin’ clam!” said Bruce. Collective laughs.

Grossberg’s eyes found Agnes looking at him. They met for a second, and then he looked back to Barrister.

“Hey Barrister,” Grossberg addressing Barrister gained the attention of the room. “Did you hear about that guy on that Greyhound Bus leaving Philadelphia last week?”

Barrister shrugged.

“I heard about it,” said Columbo. “Fucking psycho stabbed the guy thirty times.”

“Yeah, that’s the one.” said Grossberg. “They said that the other guy, the victim, hadn’t said two words to him. He was just snoring loudly.”

“Yeah, some scary ass shit. I’m done with Greyhounds. Some lady screamed and ran to the front. Then everybody did. Driver lets them all off and jumps out himself. The psycho realizes what’s going on — that he’s fucked now. So he cuts off the guy’s head and starts bashing it against the bus window, like right in front of the crowd outside. The window cracks just as the cops got there. Half the bus was just coated in blood.” said Columbo.

“Jesus,” said Agnes.

Grossberg looked at her, uncomprehending and innocent, and that helped Grossberg make his decision.

 

***

 

“Agent Grossberg, it is my honor to introduce you to President Mohammesh,” said Mr. Casper, the Secretary of Alien Affairs.

Grossberg crossed the blue carpet in what felt like one step and shook hands with the man he admired most.

“It’s my pleasure,” said the President. “I’ve been duly amazed at the work you’ve accomplished, Mr. Grossberg.”

Grossberg struggled against the shit-eating grin he was suppressing to speak. “Thank you, Mr. President. I’ve been quite amazed at what you’ve accomplished in the past four years as well. Not just in my field-”

Grossberg imagined what he sounded like as he spoke. Grossberg felt self-conscious, but knew he shouldn’t. Grossberg deserved this praise. He knew he did. The U.S.E. was far safer now because of his groundbreaking work. His work had brought them their first alien for Christ’s sake. Grossberg had captured the alien himself. Yet still, he worried about how his voice sounded. Then again, this was the President of the United States of Earth.

“-but in your work with Unification Policy, I mean, sir, I didn’t think I’d see a unified Middle East in my lifetime, let alone be standing here in 2064 with the man who accomplished it.” Mohammesh grinned. His teeth looked very white against the backdrop of his dark brown skin. It was July in mid-town Manhattan and outside the sun beat down through thick humidity. Grossberg wondered for an instant how he smelled.

“Well, thank you, Mr. Grossberg. Those are very kind words, indeed,” said Mohammesh. “But we’re here to discuss your accomplishments. Won’t you have a seat.” Mohammesh directed Grossberg to the leather seat in front of his desk with a wave of his hand. Then with a smile, he dismissed Casper.

“I hope you don’t mind if we talk one on one,” said Mohammesh.

The shit-eating grin won out and Grossberg could only nod.

“These aliens, the Bannerians, Mr. Grossberg,” began Mohammesh. “Well, to a man like myself, a man of diplomacy and peace, these Bannerians are the worst kind of monster. Unreasonable, almost unstoppable, murderers.”

Grossberg nodded as Mohammesh went on.

“I have to confess that I’ve only found out about The Alien Problem and the Bannerians role in it during my tenure as president. There were only whispers of it on the International Senate floor. A lot my knowledge of your accomplishments have come after the fact, since I took office. So please pardon my ignorance if I leave anything out or seem to have overlooked any of your sacrifices.”

Grossberg nodded.

“You were recruited to the AAD in ’23, am I remembering correctly?”

“Yes sir,” said Grossberg.

“You delivered us our first ‘live one’ in ’29, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“You turned down numerous promotions that would’ve taken you out of the field, out of danger, even into your fifties. Why is that Mr. Grossberg?” asked Mohammesh.

Grossberg cleared his throat and tried to hold back the grin. “Uh, Mr. President, you can call me Eli if you like.”

“Well, thank you.”

Grossberg blinked and wiped the sweat from his palms onto his thighs. He had imagined this meeting a hundred different ways. Grossberg wanted to sound the part of a humble and pious civil servant when answering this question. But Grossberg knew it was almost an impossibility to do so. His commitment to his career, his commitment to staying on the front lines, in the field, for less pay — these things were Grossberg’s life. Grossberg was being asked by his current idol to describe his life’s work, his ambitions, what he substituted for having a family and a life like his brother’s — his accomplishments, like his children, but he wanted to speak humbly. Grossberg wanted President Mohammesh to understand that he this wasn’t about credit or fame. And of course not, the world knew nothing about the Alien Affairs Division or the work they had done for the past eighty years.

The pendulum swung on the wall clock.

“Sir, Mr. President, I stayed in the field because with my knowledge and physical ability, my heightened sense of hearing, I felt I was more well qualified to be on the front lines than many others. I thought my remaining in the field might spare the lives of my colleagues and innocent citizens. That is, it just seemed like the right thing to do, despite the loss of money and risk. I felt an obligation.”

Mohammesh nodded.

“So, Mr. Grossberg, or Eli, I’m sorry. So, Eli, now that you’re approaching mandatory retirement, what is it that you want?” asked Mohammesh.

Grossberg thought about attending his brother’s wedding. Grossberg thought about not attending Agnes’s wedding a year later. Then he spoke.

“Well, Mr. President, I’ve heard talk about a new procedure. I want it. I want my life extended. I want to live for another sixty years, the length of time that most folks I know have lived without having to worry about aliens, I want that. I’ve also seen some experimental pills being passed around based on Bannerian DNA. The pills, “rejuvenation pills” I believe they’re called; make these field agents young again — for a day or so. I want a lifetime supply of them so I live out my extra sixty years being young and strong when I want to be. Even if only to play volleyball or paint my house. Oh, and I want a house. With a room, an office, like this one. Oh yeah, and an oboe.”

Mohammesh had started laughing but Grossberg didn’t know when. Then Mohammesh said, “I like you, Eli.”

 

***

 

They’re still fighting, Grossberg thinks. One of them is alien, he thinks. Grossberg holds an RJ pill in his right palm. His left shoulder leans against the door frame. In his left hand is a pint glass, half full of water.

The police won’t come in time, he thinks. I have a responsibility, he thinks. Balancing on his shoulder, he raises his palm to his mouth. The heel of his palm bounces off of his lip as he throws the clear-coated capsule at his throat. The pill sticks to the back of his tongue. He wants to gag. Grossberg grunts, urgently raising the water glass and keeping his balance.

Water on his tongue calms him. Grossberg swallows the floating pill and water with one more grunt.

Only takes a minute, he thinks. He looks at the door. One minute to take effect.

Grossberg feels a tingling. He feels it first in the middle of his back, just below his neck. It is like being lifted. His spine is straightening. He looks at his bare feet on the wood floor of the front hallway and realizes he isn’t leaning anymore. His feet look the same. He feels it in his thighs next. Tingling and burning as he tosses the empty pint glass onto the couch. His arms pointing outward, he is opening and closing his hands to get his blood moving.

His wide eyes glance at the framed photograph of he and Agnes at the coast in ’23. That day, he was in his twenties, shirtless and strong.

Today will be like that, he thinks. I have a responsibility to society, he thinks. Grossberg’s unshaven face is flush. His extended forearms growing back to their youthful shape. Their rightful shape, he feels.

He bends repeatedly, his knees forming forty-five degree angles as he does. He is swinging his arms. The collar of his robe is flared. The purple robe tightens around his chest. Grossberg bends and springs forward. His hand turns the brass knob easily and he pulls open the heavy wooden door. With a grunt, he pushes open the screen door and barrels out onto his porch.

The two men are squared off face to face. They stand in the middle of the street. One is tall, lanky and young. The other is stocky, middle-aged and of medium height. Neighbors stand on their porches, watching the altercation.

Grossberg takes the stairs of his front porch in one leap and hits the grass running. The men don’t see him yet. He ducks behind his old Prius and listens. He just needs to hear them talk for a second before he can identify the alien. Grossberg listens carefully as the men both converse at once.

“-Cocksucker, mutherfucker! You know I ain’t my fault when some dumb mutherfucker pulls out, doesn’t even look-“

“-Dipshit asshole! You better believe I’m not payin’ for smashing the sup’d up shitbox of some wannabe racecar driver barreling down the-“

The Dipshit Asshole is an alien, he thinks. Pretty sure of it.

Ringing phone. Kojak calling back (for the last time).

Grossberg springs up from his hiding spot. He lands on the hood of his car. Both men stare at the muscular Agent Grossberg, towering above them in his taut purple robe.

Read More By Doug Dean

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

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