They were all sitting in flame red chairs in the garage of a boy named Bill. They all had names such as Jack or Bill, Jim, Art, Steve, Mark, Ron, Lee, Hank. Sometimes I think they selected me as their scapegoat because my first name had more than one syllable. The chairs were arranged in a neat circle, and the telephone sat in the center of the circle like some immense insect they were trying to tame. They were all drinking cans of Coors and smoking Camels. I visualized Beth and Mother sitting in the den, eating popcorn, drinking pink lemonade, creating word combinations, and I yearned to be with them, but Jack handed me a beer, Art placed a cigarette in my mouth, Jim pulled up a chair for me, and I had to stay. I didn't like the taste of beer and I was incapable of either lighting a match or inhaling smoke, so I put down the aluminum can and the cigarette and ate M&M's, which were consumed in great quantity by the gang so that Bill's parents-who couldn't have cared less or known more-would smell sweet chocolate rather than bitter malt or black tobacco.
These abstentions, of course, did little to endear me to the denizens of Bill's garage, but I sat back in my flame red chair and watched them dial. They'd request that a large pizza be delivered to the house across the street, then half an hour later rush to the garage window and laugh at the next-door neighbor's rebuff of the poor pizza man. They'd ask beautiful little girls: if your Uncle Jack was on the roof, would you help your Uncle Jack off? They'd tell lonely old women: I'm from the Electric Light Company-would you please look outside and tell me if your street lamp is on? It is? Well, would please turnit off? You're wasting electricity.
This was a droll enough way to spend a Friday evening and I was starting to enjoy a little the blind dialing, the passing of the phone, the random cruelty of the calls, but then it was my turn. The telephone was placed in my lap and I said, "No, I just came to watch. I told Bill that when he called. I'm not calling."
I stood up to depart, but they blocked the door.
"Oh, yes you are," Jack said.
"Come on, Jerry, be a sport," Art said.
"Yeah, Jer, don't puss-out on us," Jim said.
"You can't watch and then not call," Hank said.
Perhaps Hank was right. It was unfair to watch the wickedness without doing the deed-in that way, not unlike a night I spent recently on Santa Monica Boulevard watching naked girls dance on dimly lit stages, but running in terror when approached by a coolly attractive and surprisingly inexpensive prostitute-so I returned to my chair, held the phone in my hands, and asked, "Who do I call? What do I say?"
"You call who you want," Steve said. "And you say what you want, but it's got to be nasty."
I tried to think of something nasty. At the time, there was a television program in San Francisco called "Dialing for Dollars," whose master of ceremonies interrupted a very old movie every five minutes to call one of our lucky viewers out there and ask (for progressively larger amounts of money until some spinster finally knew the answer): who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1956? Who is the only person to have been nominated five times for Best Actor and never won? Where was Gig Young born, and who was his leading lady in Last Train to New Orleans? What movie are we showing tonight? Is anyone, is there a single blessed soul, out there watching and, if so, why? To call someone, tell him it was Pat McCormick from "Dialing for Dollars," ask a perfectly simple question, and-no matter what our lucky viewer said-say I was sorry but that was not the answer we were looking for: wouldn't this be nasty enough? I thought it would, dialing.
"Yullo," an old man answered after a number of rings and burped. Immediately, I saw him: recumbent, in gray socks and white whiskers, on a prickly couch; overhead, dirty red drapes; at his feet, trustworthy schnauzer and trusted Scotch.
I was thirteen years old, my voice was very high and hesitant-obviously not that of the exceedingly smooth Pat McCormick-but all the boys were looking at me and listening. I said, "Good evening, sir, this is P-P-Pat McCormick on 'Dialing for Dollars,' Channel 2 Weekend Movie. We've just stopped at the climactic scene of Snowbirds in the Sahara to call and ask you a question worth twelve h-h-hundred dollars. That's right, twelve h-h-hundred d-d-dollars. We're looking for the name of a movie that's currently very popular and stars K-K-Katherine Ross, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford. It's called Butch Cassidy and the Blank Blank. We're looking for the blank blank, sir. Can you hazard a guess? It' worth twelve h-h-hundred d-d-dollars. The clock is ticking...."
I couldn't tell whether the boys were laughing at the brilliance of my hoax or the obvious schism between who I claimed to be and who I was.
The old man said: "I don't know the name of any goddamn Birch Calliope and the Blank Blank, but I damn well know you ain't Pat McCormick. I know the sound of that man's voice and you ain't it. You're a kid who's got a speech problem, isn't that right, kid? Well, whadja callin' here for?"
"N-n-not even a w-w-wild guess, sir? Ten seconds and counting...."
"Whadja doin', kid? Your speech counselor toldja to make telephone calls, impersonatin' public personalities or somethin'? Whadja doin'? You ain't 'Dialin' for Dollars' any more than I'm the 'Flyin' Nun.' But I can tell ya somethin', kid, you've got a mouthful of marbles. I never heard a kid talk so bad as that before. Callin' here like that, you otter be ashamed."
"F-f-five seconds. F-f-five, f-f-four...."
"I got a solution, though, for you, kid. Read about it in Reader's Digest. Last month, I think, maybe the month before. Listen good, now, here's what you do: stick a coupla wads of cotton in both your ears. That's right, just stick some cotton in your ears. You won't be able to hear yourself when you talk and it'll do wonders for you, kid. Really, you gotta try it."
Actually, I did try it several years later in the form on an electronic gizmo called the Edinburgh Masker, which was approximately as effective as the cotton cure.
"No, I'm sorry, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is not the answer we were l-l-looking for. Heh-heh. No, I'm s-s-sorry, that's wrong, sir. We'll just have to call another one of our lucky viewers. B-b-but as a consolation prize we're sending you a forty-five of Nancy S-S-Sinatra s-s-singing, on one s-s-side, 'These Boots Are Made for Walkin'' and, on the other, 'Love Is a Velvet Horn.' That's right, absolutely free. Bye, now. Yes, bye. Goodbye."
I returned the receiver to its cradle and tried to laugh a little with the guys-took a sip of Coors, a long drag on a Camel-but I was sweating profusely, my hands were shaking, and the boys understood what had happened. They were oddly commiserative, too. They clapped me on the back, told me it was a good prank, and Mark even picked up the phone to try the same stunt on someone else, but the old man was still on the line. That happens sometimes: one person hangs up, the other stays on, and the connection remains unbroken. All night long the old man reclined on his prickly couch, sipped his Scotch, and said, "Let me talk to the kid with marbles in his mouth. Yeah, Pat McCormick; put him back on." I had to listen until midnight to the details of the cotton cure.