West of the Equator
The wind-up clock, taken from his youngest son’s bedroom before the separation that became the divorce, faced the ceiling from a section of help-wanted newspaper ads on the dinged nightstand by the bed. Long ago he had unscrewed the feet and wrapped duct tape around the twin bells to muffle the alarm. The clock still roused him but more gently now. The muffling tape allowed him to start the day, or maybe drift back asleep, or maybe hover somewhere between the day and the drift. Maybe, maybe not. Herman Balinsky was a man saturated in maybe.
The alarm clock rang. He reached over, turned off the bell, and, as he did every morning before leaving the bed, wound the spring until it resisted. Ritual was important. (Imporant, he said. "Gotta have ritual," he’d tell people. "It’s imporant.")
Then, as always, he reached under the bed, where a dozen scuffed loafers lay scattered among an assortment of unopened colored laces in a brown paper bag, five size 38 belts, and a plastic bin of socks—black, blue, and tan silk, a lot of socks. Socks were imporant. He pulled out a pair of socks, struggled into them under the sheet. He never looked before he stood. Sock color would determine what shirt and trousers were to be worn on any given day.
It was more logical than Einstein’s wardrobe. He had read about Einstein, the genius Jew, who kept five of the same suit in the closet. Einstein turned down the offer to be President of Israel. Herman often thought he would make a better head of Israel because his wardrobe was more diverse. Einstein declined the presidency because he claimed not to deal well with people. He and the genius Jew, they had a lot in common.
Herman Balinsky dragged his legs past the edge of the mattress and stood. He put a palm against the wall for balance and leaned forward just enough to look over his paunch. Black socks. Good color. It would be a good day.
"Fuck," he said.
* * *
He finished dressing. As he was brushing his teeth, the telephone rang. Herman turned to look for the phone, which was on the table next to the bed, buried under a Sunday New York Times he bought for half price on Monday.
He didn’t answer the phone. It stopped ringing. He was thinking of New York, toying with a return.
He’d last been to the city fifteen years before, just after his father died. He’d skipped the funeral and gone directly to the old apartment, like an old salmon swimming upstream—but just to look. He wanted nothing from it and certainly nothing from the old man, dead or alive. Nothing but a National Geographic. Cover story on China. On the flight back to Miami he read about the Great Wall.
The phone rang again.
My whole life is about alarms, he thought.
In his mind, with the telephone directly connected to the motel’s reception desk, there was a fifty-fifty chance that whoever was calling had mistaken the motel’s name, and in this way "Paladin Inn" to the caller was a place of business. In this way, the motel receptionist was Herman Balinsky’s personal receptionist. And then he thought, I live in a motel.
He tossed his toothbrush into the sink and plodded, around a scrapbook that held a blank pictureless portfolio, over the tan carpet, its burdened dust too tired to plume. He swept the newspaper to the floor, picked up on the seventh ring, and said, "Yeah."
A voiceless static came through the receiver. It could have been anybody—Marsha, one of the kids, maybe an old boss. Or China. He wondered how life was in China.
I’d be big in China. Small people.
He closed his eyes and hoped for China. A whole country calling him! With all those millions of people placing phone calls that flew through the fiber optics every second around the entire planet, entire lands buzzing with telephonic electricity, wasn’t he entitled to a breach in the technology, some freak crossed connection that would let slip through a call from China to him, there, in Miami Beach?
He received these voiceless calls every few days. They had followed him from house and family to separation and the Paladin Inn. At first he had cursed the call. Recently he had taken to staying on the line, not talking, just breathing—Herman and the phone and the caller. Now he anticipated the call, grew fond of it, found in it something that resembled love and dependency.
The line went dead. He frowned and cradled the receiver in his arms. He glanced at the clock. He was late.
When he stepped toward the door, the phone cord stretched and pulled until the base fell to the carpet. He dropped the receiver and left the room without acknowledging the crash. He knew that sound.