Memoirs: The Arizona Payphone

The Arizona Payphone

by A.D. Shaffer

The wind whirled different in Arizona. At seven years of age, the desert went on forever. The horizon golden beneath azure with stretching scrapes of plum infused warmth. The sand softer here than the stinging dirt in New Mexico, but the loneliness the same – how small the desert makes a person feel. The interstate cut the desert in half, but all views produced the same spanning scope of sand and sky.

The payphone shone like a portal back to real life. Back to my house, my playroom, and my Daddy. But this was the desert – I could see the payphone, but it could take an hour to get there. Nothing changes in the desert. Where you were going looked the same as where you came from, seemingly endless. Mother said he was a sinister man to begin with, a stingy control freak who expected her to perform ridiculous tasks. I had no idea who she was talking about. Daddy was none of those things. He was a hardworking man who found little joy in life. If he was not at work, then he worked at home. When I was child I was his helper. Having small hands to reach where he never could, I crawled through the crevices when we dug out the basement. I stocked the shelves while he built my playhouse. I pushed him on the swings to check if the cement was set – he did not trust it for me to swing first.

“If it holds me, babe, we know it’ll due for you.”

After three pushes for good measure, we switched. I loved the feel of the air whizzing past as I went higher and higher.

“But will it hold Mother?”

“Hell no!” he said, “Between her and your sister Vic, I daresay the damn hillside wouldn’t hold. No, this is for you only, but I’m sure you’ll have to let those two brats on it. She’ll guilt you to it. But this swing set belongs to you, and you don’t have to put up with anybody’s bullshit.” He meant my nephew Joshy and niece Tamika. Joshy and I are three months apart; Tamika is a year younger. We grew up like cousins. Weird since birth.

Thinking of my father made me smile. In his world, I was not obligated to please other people. I did not have to humble myself or accept pity. I was not looked at like a burden to be dealt with accordingly. I was never shoved to the side. Tiny memories of his world led me to crave pride in myself, to reach for what I wanted, to play my hand to the best extent afforded.

I rushed to the payphone before Mother fully stopped the van. The change slick with sweat as I fed the phone and dialed numbers engraved upon my brain.

Mother saw victory when she heard Gloria’s forced niceties coming from the receiver. I knew she would only give me three minutes. She said if I talked a second longer that Daddy’s lawyer could trace the call. Expose our location. Jeopardize my very soul. Later, she would tell me that Daddy didn’t want to talk to me, and that is why I had to speak to his new girlfriend instead of him. I kept my lips pursed during the interrogation. I knew things she did not. The things I knew proved her a liar. I silently began constructing a safety net around my brain in efforts to keep out her poisoning attacks. I learned early the abilities of manipulation. In my childhood I cloaked my mind. As time wore on, I would exchange the net for walls of isolation. Thanks, Mother.

The things I knew to be true were acts or words experienced first hand. Early on I was aware to the “being” and “seeming to be” dichotomy. Mother, for example, seemed to be the jolly troop leader, devout Baptist, doting grandmother, and respectable wife. I watched Mother in action. She complained all day and night of the responsibilities looming ahead of her. Sweating and cursing then weeping for cursing.

“All day long,” Mother lamented, “my fingers worked to the bone! Nobody appreciates all the time, all the energy…and when I have so many other important things to do!”

Confused, I wondered why she offered to help when she clearly did not have time to spare. Time that could have been spent on keeping up the house. Mother was a talented stacker. She never cleaned, just piled things up: books, papers, recipes, patterns, coupons…oh! the coupons. I was with her when she volunteered. I was with her the majority of the time.

“Oh! Of course I’ll do what I can,” she would say, “Poor {insert pathetic soul lost from God}, she just can’t get ahead. Always ends up with the wrong {man or job}. If only she’d come to Jesus! We are barely making ends meet here, but I’ll cut Murph down to one cheese sandwich in his lunch. It will be fine. Angela doesn’t need another activity. I bet she’ll forget she was ever in gymnastics.”

I never mastered the cartwheel. I blamed Mother and the “poor soul” — whoever she was. Mother taught me to reduce myself so as to better other people. If I had something I should give it away. Jesus said wealth was poison. What madness. I developed a hatred for her and the poor souls. My whole life has been a rage. Why must I fend for myself, but bend over backwards for everyone else in the world?

“It’s a crock of shit,” Daddy said on the phone, that windy night in Arizona. “Don’t you listen to anything that woman says, babe. Whatever I give you is yours; don’t give it to somebody else. Don’t let anyone give you any shit. You are worth as much as anybody else is. More, really, because I love you. I’ve got a pretty good lawyer, we want you to come home.”

“We’d love to have you home, Angie Dawn!” Gloria said. “We miss you!”

Daddy spoke quietly. Mother never knew he was talking to me; she was too caught up on Gloria’s voice. Her eyes gleamed when she snatched the receiver from my hand, slamming it into its cradle.

“The nerve of that man! Not only am I to accept another woman in my house, answering my phone! But also that he couldn’t even bring himself to speak to my poor little angel. Wouldn’t even talk to her! His daughter! Instead she had to talk to the witch!”

I closed my eyes and cast my net. I wished and wished that Gloria really was a witch. A powerful one who could conquer Mother. A witch to set me free and rid me of my captor…take that, Jesus.

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