Hotline Heavenby Frances Park
The romance of a middle-aged couple who meet on a suicide hotline. The caller is Jo, a baker of cakes who is thinking of killing herself, while the man who takes her call is crisis volunteer Monk, a stock car driver. Lots of ups and downs.
- Permanent Press, The
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By Frances Park
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1998 Frances Park
All rights reserved.
Monk's premonition involves an icy road and shattered glass and trees out of nowhere. "A black, starless sky that holds no heaven, Jo." It's winter now and he won't leave the house come nightfall. Not for a movie or a meal out. Nothing can hold a candle to his premonition.
Monk's no coward, though. He's not afraid of death. "When you've lost one of your own, you don't want to live forever anymore." I know the feeling, I've been there, when dying in your sleep might be welcome on a rough night. And Monk's had plenty of those nights. I've heard him walking around.
But his premonition is merciless. Without God. I say this as someone who prays every night with the fear that I'm talking to myself. So, I want to know: Where does Monk's premonition come from? What does it mean? Is it a feeling or a vision or what? Is it an omen or maybe, possibly, hopefully, just a fleeting moment of doom?
Monk's face grows dark, unshaven. "I don't know, Jo. I can't explain it to you in the light of day."
In the light of day I bake at The Cake & Coffee. Heavenly Angel Cake. Lemon Supremo. There's no hint of chocolate mousse or crème fraiche on the menu, but that's okay. When a whiff of country air comes through the kitchen and stirs up the smell of cinnamon and vanilla, I'm glad I'm here in Canterbury, Pennsylvania. The flow feels good. It feels natural. Sometimes — like now — when I'm walking home at night it feels sensual. I can almost hear Monk humming in my ears. The air moves through me like it traveled down from the mountains to tell me something deep and stirring. I could walk for a lifetime and never find a better flow.
And part of the flow is Monk, who moved us here last summer. In the four years we've been married, Monk and I have crisscrossed the map from Florida to Montana to Massachusetts to Alabama, to wherever Home-Mart sends him to set up shop. They're willing to give him a permanent position in their Dallas headquarters but he likes to be on the move, to Go in and get the job done with fun. That's the Home-Mart motto.
But now, in the dead of winter, Monk's solemn. Nothing grows in his world but icicles and despair. No more humming. He mills about the house at all hours. His eyes drift out to sea when we're talking. Where is he?
Monk's looking out the window like a prisoner wishing for a few bars of sunlight. For years that was me, working up the will to live. I was living with my mother, then my sister — I was past the age of hope. Now I'm coming home to a husband with a cake box in my hand. The smell of leftover stew on the stove. Thank you, Hotline Heaven. I give Monk a big bear hug.
"How was work today? Did the electricians ever show?" He nods glumly. "Oh, yeah. Miswired everything, then blew their fuses."
"To top it off, two hundred cartons of everything from toilet seats to desk lamps got misrouted during the ice storm. Now we can't track the truck down. We're going to open our doors with nothing on the shelves but doormats. Welcome to Home-Mart," he moans.
I open the cake box. Mocha Marble. A whiff of coffee and sweet buttercream makes me dreamy.
"Don't worry," I say, "the truck didn't just zap into thin air."
He mumbles something to the contrary.
But nothing zaps into thin air. Trucks get lost and memories fade, but everything turns back up.
Like my history of loneliness. It still drives me to prayer. Even when I'm growing drowsy from the sound of Monk humming me to sleep, I'm praying this will go on forever.
Monk heaves himself off the couch. "Soup's on."
Monk's middle-aged now. His moustache has gone gray and he's moving around like a wheelbarrow. I'm not complaining, though. I'm not God's gift and I waited a long time to find someone who would love me.
Monk had a life with a previous wife, way back in his stock-car racing days. "Me and Black Beauty on a strip to heaven." Hannah was his wife, Black Beauty was his car. Then a red-haired son with a brain tumor, dead at nine. His name was Micky and he was small for his age. Micky loved the crunch of seeds in his mouth — watermelon, apple, sunflower, all kinds.
Monk doesn't talk much about life before me, and I don't mind this closed door. A past is not a premonition.
In bed Monk stares at the ceiling, taking in that sky that holds no heaven.
"Something violent's out there," he breathes. "Some faceless monster."
I clutch him. "Describe it to me. Is it physical or spiritual or beyond?"
He's not listening, he's out there. "It's going to do me in, the worst way."
"How is it going to do you in, Monk? How?"
Monk stares at the ceiling. "With my eyes pinned open."
With my eyes pinned open, I take in the aromatic kitchen at The Cake & Coffee where the act of cracking eggs in a bowl says it all. The frozen ground that makes me feel strong and silent and part of the earth. The streams and trails winding around mountains.
I like the flow here, the cycle of life. It feels like home.
One a.m. and Monk's walking around.
"Go back to bed, Jo," he suffers.
I search for the right thing to say. Life is fragile at one in the morning.
"I was a woman with no life. A job in the Food Barn bakery, a room in my sister's basement where it was dark and hopping with crickets. All I saw for myself was growing old and warty and reliving better moments while the world moved on. My sister's family didn't want me down there. I could hear it in their silence and their footsteps over my head. When the door shut, it was like a coffin closing. I could hear them talk about me through the heating vent in the kitchen. The husband called me Miss Misfit. The teenaged sons called me Broom Hilda. But where could I go? I had stepped off the world and lost my footing."
Monk's listening, even though he's heard this story a thousand times before. I could tell it a million times, he always listens like it's breaking his heart. It's the story of how I took care of my mother the last years of her life, then moved in with my sister. It's the story of how the world waits for no one.
I kneel at his feet, I take his hands. I'm praying for him to face his demon, his premonition. The icy road and shattered glass and trees out of nowhere. I know it's all in his head. That's what scares me.
"Monk, I know how sometimes it hurts to be alive. I thought about dying all the time. Morning, noon, and night. I was so close to death I could taste it. And it almost tasted good. One night I called Hotline Heaven. Your voice was on the other end."
Monk hangs his head like it's his fault for not saving me sooner.
"When I met you, Monk, it was like coming out of a dark dream."
He fidgets, cracks a smile. "I love you."
"And I love you, Monk. I love you more than God. But now it's your turn to come out of a dark dream."
"I don't get it," he says. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying, let's go for a ride."
We're flying on a narrow country road. Thirty, forty, fifty. My heart's going a hundred.
Monk's in heaven. He rolls down the window and shouts to a sleeping mountainside:
"It's Saturday night at Delta Speedway! Watch Monk Miller and Black Beauty zoom to the moon!"
"Slow down, Monk!"
He accelerates like a quake is cracking in our path.
"I used to feel this way every night, Jo. Alive. Alive! Like I was one with the strip and the sky and the stadium lights. There's something about the whole picture that stays in your field of vision even when you're stocking faucet handles and tub cleansers."
He sticks his head out the window, takes a deep breath, then murderously rolls it up. "You know what? It's a sin some things never leave you."
Like Rocky Road Cake. I close my eyes and whip up the memory of melted marshmallows and chopped nuts folding into bittersweet chocolate sauce. While Monk sings, "I'll never rock 'n' roll my stomping soul to sleep," I'm floating.
"I just had a revelation," he says, deadpan.
I open my eyes.
"There is no premonition. Just me cursing myself."
He slows down. "For being Home-Mart Man of the Month."
"Got the call from Dallas today. We're talking a monkey-suit dinner and a per diem increase."
"That's wonderful!" I argue.
But Monk flips off the gods.
"I'm Home-Mart Man! Strike me dead before show time so I don't have to give a speech on how I get the job done without fun!"
Somebody tell me, what makes Monk run?
"I gave up a dream with the heart still pumping, Jo. I wanted to be king of the road. But now it's come to me like headlights from some winding, mind-bending road: I'm Home-Mart Man."
"That's call for congratulations!"
Monk laughs all the way to hell. "If I stepped into Black Beauty today, I'd blow her tires. Look at me, Jo! You're married to a big fat stinking sack of fertilizer!"
I want the mountain air and Monk's hands in my hair, not this. I want the flow to take me away.
Monk pulls up to a scenic stop. The gothic view of the valley with its petrified-like forests and church steeples hushes us.
"What's going on, Monk?"
He shuffles in his seat and pushes back his hair with both hands.
"Saw a boy in Hardee's a few weeks back. He reminded me of my own. Same hair, same be-bop. Walked by me with his milkshake like I was nobody, then hopped in a truck with his old man."
"You hardly ever talk about your son," I murmur.
Monk's eyes fill with moon and memory. "No. No, I don't, Jo. But I think about him all the time. I wonder how tall he would've grown up to be. Would he have shot up at thirteen like his pop? Or would he have been a pipsqueak for the rest of his life? I wonder when everyone would've stopped calling him Micky and started calling him Mike. Twelve? Twenty? Never? He could've joined the pit crew! My head engineer and number one hombre. Afterwards off to Jumpin' Jacks: Home of Horny Truckers and Lazy Fuckers — Quaint, We Ain't. Graffiti on a bridge," he recalls.
"Sometimes I wonder if those seeds caused his tumor. Like all that crazy crunching did something to his brain. Set off some bad cells. My ex used to say, 'If that's the way you think, you're next.' But that's the way you start thinking when you lose one of your own.
"No, I don't talk much about my boy, but I'm always thinking about him. In my own warped-out way. I mean, give me a sesame seed bagel and I head for the hills!"
He shuts out the moon and chokes:
"He was so small he couldn't touch the sky!"
Calling Hotline Heaven! Give me a sign, a message. What on earth do I say?
"Spill your guts to the gods, Monk!"
"I was Monk Miller, Stock Car Stud! But I couldn't even afford to bury my own son! Got down on my knees and begged Hannah's old man to loan me five thousand dollars. And he gave it to me, along with a look I'll take to my grave.
"I had to give up racing and get a job so I could pay him back. Only I didn't have a college degree. No skills to speak of. Are you kidding? I spent my youth cruising the back roads for girls, passing the pipe and honking at Old MacDonald farmers, 'Move over, Quaker, cause I gotta shake her!'
"Home-Mart offered me good money. Pension and benefits and Homers to joke around with. Hard to believe there was a time Home-Mart was my crack of heaven in the sky, but it's true. Whenever I feel like tearing off my name badge and flushing it down the drain I remind myself it paid for Micky's funeral. A fine mahogany coffin and a plot by a sassafras tree."
Monk pictures the cemetery where his son is buried, and begins to weep.
This is not the voice of a man who hums me to sleep when I can't. This is not the voice I heard night after night on Hotline Heaven. "Don't hang up on life, Jo. Don't hang up on me, either." Once, an old song on the radio brought him down and he said the only reason he ever volunteered to do Hotline Heaven was to help himself. But I wasn't listening between the lines.
Suddenly the sky changes.
The moon fades.
A halo rises over the valley, then sparks in the sky.
It takes on the form of an angel.
"Don't you see it?"
Monk blinks through tears. "What? Where?"
"Up there! It's an angel!"
Monk summons his senses and cries:
"Oh, my God! It is an angel! A little angel!" He prays with ancient fervor. Then:
"Is it Micky, Jo? Is that Micky up there?"
Wings flutter in my eyes.
"Yes, it's Micky. I know it's Micky."
"It's a miracle," he gasps.
It could only happen here, in Canterbury, Pennsylvania, where the flow travels down from the sky to the mountains to me.
Back home, back in bed, I tell Monk I think tonight was a sign.
"I think we ought to settle down here, Monk. Make Canterbury our home. I can stay on at The Cake & Coffee. You could be store manager or district supervisor or something."
He jokes, "I'm Home-Mart Man. I can do whatever I want." He finds my hands under the covers and holds them for steadiness. Quietly, he breaks down.
"Jo, tonight my whole field of vision changed. Now that I know Micky is okay, now that I know he's an angel, the premonition is gone. It disappeared. Just like that."
But nothing zaps into thin air. Not trucks or memories or premonitions. Thank God for that crack of heaven in the sky, like a whiff of caramelized sugar on a gray winter day. Or when Monk hums me a song that keeps me going. I take this as a sign of love.CHAPTER 2
So we stay.
Canterbury is a town of tiny bridges over creeks and giant isolated rocks that stand as landmarks. The mountains surround it, singing. In the winter the whole place freezes over like a sculpture from God, and surely the spring thaw must be something. This I'm waiting for: an icicle dripping from a blossoming branch, a pink bud struggling to flower on a dark, mossy trail.
Monk and I buy the house we're renting at a rock bottom price, even for these parts. The owner, a retired music teacher named Clyde Bell, seems glad to get it off his hands.
"Now I don't have to lie awake at night wondering whether it'll blow away," he chuckles over coffee and a hunk of Maple Marvel. Then, just like that, he changes his tune. "I built this house for Lizzie. She called it her little anchor in the earth."
For the third, no, fourth time, Clyde has come by to bid the house a final farewell. His ceremony is touching. He wanders into each room, talking to himself, then makes himself at home in the kitchen. He moves and chews like a man who's taken a bad fall. Monk goes berserk, watching him. All he sees are coffee rings on the table and crumbs on the floor, not someone so lonely his bones would break if the wind unexpectedly blew in.
"After Lizzie passed on, it was hard for me, being in this house, all alone. All the creaks came to life. I'd think Lizzie was coming up the walk. So one day I made a decision. I put our furniture in storage, put the house up for rent and moved into a rooming house. It's bare bones living, but I've got my buddy Mac. Big Mac, I call him, all five feet four of him. Graham keeps calling, wants to know when I'm coming. When? When?"
"Who's Graham?" I ask.
"My son," he replies like I ought to know. "He lives in Palo Alto. A technoid at Power Corp. I don't care for his measure of success — commissions and contracts — but he means well, his door's always open. He calls me every Sunday night with the same line: 'There's a room here with your name on it, Dad.' God help me, they've turned my boy into a blinking robot!" He pauses. "The truth is, I don't know if I can ever say good-bye to Canterbury."
Monk has other ideas. "Got to move on," he says, checking his watch.
I voice my disagreement by warming up Clyde's coffee. One sip charges him up.
"Lizzie was my life. My whole life! I was a down-on-my-luck piano player, hitching nowhere when I saw her at a fruit and vegetable stand in the middle of the Shenandoah," he says, now singing rapturously, "She was bagging beauties in the country sunshine, She was a farmer's daughter but I made her mine. We packed a picnic basket, and found a cool spot by a tree, We ate sweet plums and peaches, then I asked her to marry me."
"Did you write that song for her?" I ask him.
"That and a few hundred others," he nods, hearing songs. Lots of songs. "After the funeral I was walking back to the car when my foot came down wrong and I broke my ankle. But I hardly noticed. Lizzie's death was too big a blow."
Monk starts in on some paperwork, grumbling. He doesn't want to hear about Lizzie or songs or a son in Palo Alto. He just wants Clyde to go home.
Our house is small, clapboardish, nothing on the walls but a fresh coat of paint. No sound system, no TV, only the rural hush coming through. Our backyard goes on forever.
Our house sits by itself on a hill like a wooden chapel. On a foggy morning a passerby just might mistake it for one. No steeple, though, just my praying heart. No more premonitions, no icicles breaking in our path.
Excerpted from Hotline Heaven by Frances Park. Copyright © 1998 Frances Park. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
FRANCES PARK and GINGER PARK are the authors of several award-winning books for children. The idea for The Have a Good Day Cafe originated many years ago when the authors would drive to work together and see a Korean family setting up an outdoor food cart each morning. The Parks both live in the Washington, D.C., area.
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