Calls from Home
by Tim Bass
My college roommate stopped going to classes after one week. Kyle lasted through Math 113 on the Tuesday after Labor Day. That afternoon, he slunk back to our dorm, bookless, and flung himself on the bottom bunk.
“Polynomials can lick my log,” he muttered as he toed off his sneakers. “Me and algebra are done.”
I stuck my highlighter into the gully of my chem book and leaned down to talk him through it. That’s what roommates were supposed to do: support each other, tackle problems together, soldier forth as mutual encouragers and the closest of friends. The Guide to Campus Residence Life said so, using those exact words, and our RA had echoed them in our first hall meeting. At that point I had no reason to disbelieve them. I wanted to get along, and so far Kyle and I were doing fine. We had cleared the early hurdles: divvying up closet space, splitting the fridge deposit, sharing laundry detergent. The easy stuff. Now that classes had started and the bona fide challenges would come our way, we needed to be there for each other.
“Bad day?” I asked.
He showed me a math quiz, rotating the paper so I could see the grade as I hung over the top bunk. Out of a possible hundred points, he had gotten nine. The number was scrawled in red and underlined twice.
“Is there a curve?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “The curve gets me to twelve, still about a thousand points from a D minus.” He closed his eyes. “Math sucks ass. I’m retiring from it.”
This was the fifth time Kyle had announced his retirement from a class. In the past week he had said English sucked ass. Psych sucked ass. Phys ed sucked bad ass. Biology lecture was full of babes, but the lab ran three hours on Fridays with required attendance, so it sucked the worst kind of ass in the worst kind of way. Kyle retired from all of them and sold back his books for twenty cents on the dollar.
“You could get a tutor,” I said, just as I had suggested for English, psych, bio, even phys ed.
“Tutors suck ass,” Kyle said.
I had run out of helpful-roommate suggestions. I hung there and watched him, hoping he would consider my position and rescue me by saying something like, “Thanks for listening. You’re a good roommate. Because of your support as a mutual encourager, I’ll pull it together and soldier on with the best intentions for first-year college success.”
Instead, he dropped off to sleep. He lay hunched against the block wall, mouth open, a hand pushed to an ear like he dreamt of a telephone call. I watched him. Maybe he had a direct line to his future, just a week after leaving home and showing up on our hilly campus with its cavernous library, tiered lecture halls, and a million dreams of success floating across the grounds like the first thrilling chill of autumn. Maybe he had answered an atonal ring from The Beyond and heard the news that this world reserved for him a special life, one with no textbooks, no pencils and paper, no classes, and no polynomials.
Or maybe he was simply the dunce he appeared to be.
At 11 p.m. he rose and dug out the party-size bag of potato chips he kept under the bed, amid the dust bunnies already clustering on his unused typewriter and a copy of Watership Down. Then he headed out with pillow hair to discover what college offered, besides books and a degree and hope for a decent job in a secure future.
“That’s your plan?” I asked when Kyle hit day three of his retirement. Impatient, I shifted from Supportive Listening Roommate to Assertive Reasoning Roommate. I jabbed a finger at him to emphasize the change. “That’s it? You’re going to not go to class anymore?”
“What?” he said.
“Class. You’re just going to not go?”
“Jeremy,” he said, “you need to work on syntax.”
“Maybe I do,” I said, surprised by his academic grasp of syntax. “But I’ll do it in English—English class. Because I go to class. You know how this place works. You don’t go to class, you fail out. You fail out, you go home. Simple.”
He bent over and reached for his big bag of chips. He said nothing more.
I wish he had told his parents that in only a handful of days away he had learned to love everything about higher education except the part about classes, so he would now go to college but not to school. I wish he had told them what he told me: In one week he had mastered the freshman challenge of time management—when you get rid of research papers, Friday labs, and suck-ass algebraic expressions, your schedule is basically hassle free. I wish he had told his parents he intended to stay at the university at their expense. Maybe they would have done something, got through to him and stopped him from ruining his life.
But he didn’t tell his parents anything. He left that to me.
A week after quitting classes, Kyle joined a fraternity. He said there were two kinds of fraternities: academic and social. His fraternity was social, and that was important: no required study hours, no grade-point rules.
“It’s a fraternity, but not officially, not right now,” Kyle said. “The guys got a cow drunk at a party, so we’re kind of on probation. Which is bullshit, because that cow had fun.”
The first call from Kyle’s parents came a couple of weeks after he retired from classes.
Kyle’s fraternity brothers renamed him Light Bulb because of his last name: Watts. They embraced him with cult fervor and stayed in constant contact, calling a dozen times a day and dropping by our room at all hours to collect keg money and announce the latest changes to the latest plans for the latest party. I met the brothers—Smokey, Curly, Boner, Felton, Scrote, Cheez-Whiz, a quiet one they called G-Spot, and an endless parade of others, all with first names only. They always wore neckties with bulky knots, but they refused to tuck in the tails of their oxford shirts—it was, they said, their fashion statement of contempt for the dean who disciplined them and the snob academic Greeks who wanted to drum them out of existence. The wrinkled brothers adopted Kyle and gave him his new name and clung to him, and he to them. It was as if they rode together on some loud, rusty truck that might hopelessly break down any moment, so they would need each other to push.
The first call from Kyle’s parents came a couple of weeks after he retired from classes. His mother said they had not heard from him.
“I hope he isn’t sick,” she said.
“No, he’s fine,” I said. “He’s just busy.”
This was true. Kyle had indeed been busy for the past several nights: six hours of TV football with the brothers on Sunday, poker with the brothers on Monday, and on Tuesday, something with the brothers called a bong-a-thon. At the moment, he was out with Spinner, Felton, and Runt, playing a game they called Putters and Peckers. Felton worked part-time as a night guard at a country club, and the brothers liked to sneak out there and strip naked and whack golf balls into trout ponds. They invited girls as a cheap excuse to get their clothes off, and Kyle said it worked a few times.
“He’s always kept a full schedule,” Mrs. Watts told me. “He never stopped in high school. Go go go, all the time. Band. Student council and honor society. Future business leaders. Anything and everything.”
She stopped, as if waiting for some word from me.
“Yes,” I said. “Here, everything and anything. He’s into that.”
She seemed to understand me.
“Good for him,” she said. “Good for Kyle. We want him to stay busy. What’s that they say about idle hands?”
“They’re the devil’s workshop,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “The devil’s.” I could hear her breathing into the mouthpiece. “Is he taking care of himself? Is he eating properly?”
I spied the party-size chip bag crunched against the typewriter under Kyle’s bunk.
“He likes potatoes,” I said.
“That’s my Kyle. That’s my boy. He does love his vegetables. When he was here, I was buying ten pounds of potatoes a week. Ten pounds.”
She paused. I heard her sniffle.
“That’s a lot of potatoes, Mrs. Watts,” I said.
“Sharon,” she said. “Call me Sharon. You’re in college. You’re an adult now, a young man, just like Kyle. It’s all right to call me Sharon.”
“That’s a lot of potatoes, Sharon,” I said.
“Indeed,” she said with a small laugh. “A lot of potatoes indeed.”
Three weeks into his new life as a college non-student, Kyle and some of the brothers sneaked a bag of marijuana into our dorm room and rolled possibly the biggest joint in the history of recreational drug use. It looked like a burrito. Zizzy lit it, and in no time the room smelled like they had set fire to a car tire.
This caught the attention of our baldheaded hall manager, also a member of the social fraternity. He was the brother they called Curly. He banged on our door.
“Hey, Light Bulb,” he yelled. “What’s going on in there?”
“Cramming,” Kyle said. “Got a test in herb-ology.”
He let Curly in. Stroker now had the joint, and he handed it over. Curly took a long toke.
“You’re going to set off the smoke alarm,” Curly said. “Stuff some towels under the door.”
Sharon phoned again.
I lay on the top bunk with my English book resting open on my stomach. My professor called it a text on cultural literacy and empathetic inter-gender identification. I called it the red book, because it was red.
The phone rang. I set the book aside, pushed back the covers, and crawled down, using Kyle’s mattress as a step.
Sharon was on the line. I climbed back up to my bunk, pulling the spiral phone cord tight.
“Is Kyle managing the workload properly?” she asked. “He’s not studying too hard, is he?”
“I wouldn’t say too hard,” I said.
“That’s good news,” she said. “Very good news indeed. I want him to enjoy himself, get his nose out of those books every once in a while and have some fun. College isn’t all about studying, you know.”
Her voice held a hopeful tone, like the up note at the end of a bird’s song. I imagined Sharon Watts as a helper, a nurse, perhaps, or an elementary school teacher, someone who made sure people had what they needed to get through another hour in this life. She spoke with a quiver. She said properly and indeed. Kyle never talked about his parents. He kept no photos of them on the window sill, where I’d set up my picture of Dad carrying Mom piggyback, my shadow angling toward them as I worked the camera. I envisioned Sharon as a person who understood the measure of other people’s burdens.
“He’s having some fun,” I said.
At the moment, Kyle was out buying whipped cream with Melon Head, Wilt, and Spaz. They had put a kiddie swimming pool in the bed of a pickup truck, and their plan was to fill the pool with the whipped cream and climb in and wrestle the girls from some social sorority while the truck cruised across campus.
“Fun is part of what college is all about,” Sharon said. “I wish I had a nickel for every time I said that to Kyle.”
“I’ll bet you’d be rich,” I said.
Sharon gave a half-laugh, half-sniffle.
“Indeed I would,” she said. “But it’s true, you know. Having a little fun is good for you. Relieves the stress.”
“Kyle doesn’t seem stressed.”
“Good. That’s great. I’m glad to hear it.”
I had no luck getting through to Kyle, but Sharon was a different story. Sharon talked to me, not around me. She listened. Knowing I could lift her spirits, even if for just a minute, gave me a sense of purpose I had not found at college until now.
“And what about you?” Sharon asked. “You’re having fun, too, right?”
“Yes,” I said, crossing the wavy line from half-truths to outright lies. “I’m having fun here.”
“Fun with a capital F?” she asked.
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Sure,” I said. “Fun with a capital F.”
The truth was, I never left my room except to go to class and to eat, alone, at the dining hall. I missed high school, those uninspired buildings and the hordes of awkward teenagers, all of us enduring years of routine and common suffering. Everyone had a place in high school, including me. I understood it now that I had pulled away and gone to college. A place. My place. Looking over my shoulder, I saw it in a fresh light against the dreary backdrop of boredom, restlessness, and constant dreams of escape. I wanted to reverse the march of time and return to high school, to the block schedules and the dress codes, the small, regimented, comfortable world where I knew the way things worked, where I knew what was expected of me and how to deliver it.
Weeks into college, I had not fully unpacked. I kept a suitcase zipped and ready for the road, which I intended to hit as soon as I worked up the nerve to tell my parents this experiment was over and if they acted fast maybe they could get their money back. I had heard little from them so far. They sent a postcard from a road trip and said they had converted my bedroom into what they called a “social den.” In my mind, I saw my yearbooks and Red Sox posters stuffed into the attic, replaced by their Pink Floyd albums and wallpaper with flowering vines. They didn’t call.
“You need to be on your own for a while,” Mom told me on move-in day.
“It’ll do you good,” Dad said. “You’ll have fun.”
They drove away smiling. I couldn’t tell if they were putting on an act to encourage me or if they were already celebrating my departure from their house forever. Lots of parents divorce as soon as their children get to college. They figure the kids are grown now and can handle the awfulness of the split, or at least are sufficiently distracted by their new lives at school to spend much energy caring. My parents seemed to be going the other way, growing closer without me, happier, and that hurt as much as if their marriage had crashed and burned.
At four the next morning, Kyle stumbled into our room shirtless and leaning against a girl he called Champ. He flipped on the lights, and I saw splotches of dried whipped cream in their hair and down their arms. Champ wore a bikini.
“See, he’s asleep,” Kyle said, even though I had my eyes open and looked right at them from my pillow.
“OK,” Champ said.
I left notes for Kyle.
Your mother called.
Call your mother.
Your mother wants to know if you’re OK.
He called them once, in the middle of the day, when he knew they were at work.
One night I answered the phone and heard a man’s voice.
“Kyle?” he said. “Good to hear your voice, son.”
“This isn’t Kyle,” I said. “It’s Jeremy. Kyle isn’t here.”
Kyle’s bedcovers were mounded against the wall. His chip bag lay on the bare mattress.
“Oh,” Mr. Watts said. “You sound like Kyle.”
The lie burned in my stomach. It was so bad, and I wanted to tell him.
I told Mr. Watts that Kyle was out studying at the library. In truth, he was out mixing gin and fruit juice for the social fraternity’s luau. He had brought in an abused orange water cooler that day and spent half an hour scrubbing at a coat of black gunk covering the inside. Finally he said, “Screw it. The liquor’ll kill the germs.” Then he dug a Hawaiian shirt out of the dirty clothes and headed off with Wordsworth and Trouser Snake.
“That Kyle,” Mr. Watts said. “He’s a workaholic.”
More like an alcoholic, I wanted to say. But I said, “He stays busy, that’s for sure.”
Mr. Watts lowered his voice.
“Between you and me and the lamppost,” he said, “Kyle’s mother and I are a little concerned. We don’t want to smother Kyle, but he doesn’t stay in touch as well as he should. He’s always on the go. We worry.”
I listened for a hint of suspicion in his voice, some sign that he and Sharon had caught on to Kyle, that they knew the real story and were ready to hammer him if they could get to him. But I heard only the lonesome tone of a powerless father ignoring his instincts and hoping for the best.
“He’s on the go,” I said to Mr. Watts. “No doubt about that.”
“Just like high school,” Mr. Watts said. “Band, student council, honor society, you name it. The boy never stopped. Hardly had time for girls.”
I thought of Kyle’s night with Champ, the squeak of the hinges on our bunk bed’s metal frame, the rhythmic wheeze of the springs. I had covered my head with my pillow, but still I heard Kyle grunting like an ox.
“It isn’t so bad, Mr. Watts,” I said.
“Randall,” Mr. Watts said. “You can call me Randall.”
“All right,” I said. “It isn’t so bad, Randall.”
The lie burned in my stomach. It was so bad, and I wanted to tell him. I wanted to say it’s so terribly bad, Randall, awful, worse than you can imagine. Kyle is wasting his life and your money and the college enrollment space that should have gone to somebody who would appreciate it, some kid who never sat on the student council or got an honor society invitation, and then had his application rejected in favor of your potato-loving Kyle, who at this moment is out wearing a dirty shirt and drinking toxic amounts of fruity booze with a cluster of other aimless idiots who are taking their own parents for a ride.
The next night, the social fraternity streaked through the dining hall. T-Dog, Pink Eye, Bigfoot, Hunch, Pie Face, Doctor Blood—all the brothers, a hundred percent participation. Curly the hall manager. Big Johnson and Little Johnson. Possum, Preacher, Furp, and the rest—including Kyle, of course, who led the pack wearing only my rain boots. They snaked in, hands high, clapping and punching the air and singing their social fraternity theme song, “We Will Rock You,” changed now to “We Will Cock You.” They danced past my table and down through the middle of the room, then U-turned at the salad bar and rumbled back through, thrusting everything they had in all directions for the world to see. I nearly lost my mac and cheese.
“How original,” I wanted to say to Kyle. “Didn’t your grandfather streak when he went to college in, like, the seventies?”
I knew Kyle’s grandfather wouldn’t have been in college then, but I could not imagine his dad, naïve Randall Watts, zipping through a public place naked and drunk and grinning about it. I wanted to ask Kyle about the brothers and the nudity. First the golf, then the wrestling. Now this. A bunch of guys who get naked together all the time? That’s how rumors get started.
I had cooled down by the time Kyle showed up at our room. He switched on the late news and said, “Jeremy. Dude, check this out.” The TV station had picked up the streaking story. Across the screen, a cafeteria security tape showed the naked brothers romping past gaping undergrads and half-eaten lasagna. I saw myself in a far corner.
“A group of university students pulled an old college prank tonight,” the newscaster said in a lilting voice that barely suppressed laughter. “It’s called streaking, and apparently it’s making a comeback. These young men paraded through the cafeteria wearing smiles and, well, pretty much nothing else.”
The camera blurred the genitals, but the streakers’ faces appeared remarkably clear. As I watched the TV from the top bunk, I saw that the one at the head of the line, the one the brothers had named Light Bulb, beamed with savage satisfaction.
The shot cut to the anchor, who leered at a monitor and said, “Whoa, fellas. Take it easy by those Bunsen burners.” Then he mustered a look of mock hard-news seriousness and added, “The streakers barely escaped before campus security arrived. No word on whether the university will try to get to the, uh, bottom of this.”
One Thursday my dorm had emptied out, as usual, for College Night, the weekly cattle call to the downtown bars, where bouncers ignored the fake IDs and beer sold by the bucket. The dorm fell silent on Thursday nights. Sometimes I spotted a bored campus cop making the rounds, or a work-study racking up easy hours at the front desk. Usually, though, it was just me. On Thursday nights, the loneliness gripped me like a fever.
I called home. When the phone reached eight rings, I nearly hung up. Then I heard clicking sounds, as if someone were fumbling the handset. A man’s voice came on the line.
“Hey, Dad,” I said.
“Who’s this?” the man asked. It wasn’t my father. I heard voices in the background.
“Jeremy,” I said.
“Germany?” the man said.
“Jeremy,” I repeated.
“Jersey?” He was shouting now.
“Jeremy,” I shouted back. “It’s the name of a person. Me. Can I speak to my mom or dad?”
The background voices erupted into laughter. I wondered if I had dialed into a practical joke and other people listened in at my expense. Then I heard a glass shatter, followed by more laughter, then music—the first hypnotic notes of The Dark Side of the Moon. It was my house, all right. I pictured my dad, eyes closed, bottle in hand, announcing to the guests, “People, it’s the Floyd. The fucking Floyd.”
The man coughed into the phone.
“We need more ice,” he said. He seemed to wait for a response from me.
“I want to talk to my mom and dad,” I said. “Could you put one of them on?”
A series of tones blared in my ear. The guy was pushing buttons on the keypad. He yelled into the room, “That was Jerry. He’s bringing ice.” Then the handset thumped into the cradle, and the line went silent.
I answered a knock one day and found Sharon and Randall at the door, red-eyed and slump-shouldered.
“Kyle around?” Randall asked.
We sat in the cramped dorm room and waited for Kyle to return from wherever he had gone the night before. Randall fidgeted with his shirt collar. Sharon clutched a tissue.
“Busy ought to be that boy’s middle name,” Randall said. “I’ve always said that.”
“He has,” Sharon assured me.
“The boy tore through high school like a blur,” Randall said. “I’ve never seen a fellow pile so much on his plate.”
“Type A personality,” Sharon said. “He gets it from us, you know.”
“And now he’s doing the same thing in college,” Randall said. “I’ll bet he’s into everything.”
“He does do a lot of different things,” I said.
“Like what?” Randall asked.
I thought of the wrestling and the streaking and the gigantic joint.
“Like athletics,” I said. “And art. And chemistry.”
“That’s Kyle,” Sharon said.
“Ol’ Kyle,” Randall said. He slapped his knee.
“Type A all the way,” Sharon said.
Their watery eyes roamed the room, over my books on the desk, across my family picture on the sill. Randall rubbed his hands together and looked at the floor. Sharon’s cheek twitched as she fought the urge to break down. She forced a smile, and I caught a hint of how she would look if she were happy. I saw the faint origin of Kyle’s delighted expression when he ran with the brothers.
Kyle didn’t show up that day. He seemed to possess a radar, some genetic scanner that helped him find college fun with a capital F while avoiding all accountability for his actions. Perhaps he was cleaning his cleats for another round of Putters and Peckers with Felton, Worm, and Mister Jiz. Possibly, he was off rounding up beer and whipped cream for more kiddie pool wrestling with Champ. Or maybe he was just around the corner from our room, building a fat joint with Curly and waiting for his parents to give up and leave.
To occupy themselves during their vigil, Sharon and Randall changed Kyle’s sheets and straightened his side of the room. Sharon twist-tied the nearly empty bag of chips and stood it by his unplugged reading lamp. Randall set up a desk organizer, complete with a calculator and a rainbow of highlighters. Sharon thumbed through The Guide to Campus Residence Life. Randall worked the crossword puzzle in the student newspaper. We made small talk until we ran out of topics, and finally I pretended to read. An unbearable silence filled the room.
At dusk, Randall shook my hand and Sharon hugged me, and they gave me a handful of cash and asked me to make sure Kyle got it. They wrote a note saying they were sorry they didn’t catch up with him today but they knew he was a busy young man, and they were proud of him and loved him, and they hoped he would give himself a break from the pressures of college and have some fun. They asked him to call home.
I never saw Sharon or Randall again. They kept calling, but Kyle was never there to answer.
The semester drew to a close, a curtain sliding over the short days from Halloween to Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving to exams. I assumed Kyle’s grades, F top to bottom, arrived in the Watts family mailbox just before Christmas. I imagined two scenes, and they stay with me still. In one, Kyle sprints naked down the snowy driveway to grab the envelope and use it for rolling papers before his parents can find him out. In the other scene, the more likely one, Light Bulb rests on a chaise lounge in the Florida Keys, drinking mai tais with Skunk and Ripper and a dozen party girls, while back home Sharon treads warily to the mailbox and pulls out the university letter and carries it in, as heavy as her heart, and she and Randall open it together and read the sad news they have seen coming all along, and they cry tears of despair and relief, the way people do when a patient finally dies after months on the breathing machine.
I don’t know which scene happened, because I never again heard from anyone in the Watts family. After exams, I took my suitcase and books and picture, and I left that college in the deepest recesses of my memory. I moved back home and settled into the guest room.
Sometimes at night, as I lie awake amid the noise of laughter and the Floyd blasting from my parents’ new social den in my old bedroom, I think of Kyle. He’s out there somewhere, a busy boy in Berkeley or Ann Arbor or Chico or Chapel Hill—always a college town, the perfect place for a degree in fun with a capital F. Bloomington, maybe. Or Las Cruces. I think of Sharon and Randall at home by their phone, dialing numbers that connect all over the globe, searching, struggling to fill the empty space cut into the core of their souls. I wonder who will pick up on the other end of the line and listen to their aching, needy voices, and I wish it could be me. ■
Tim Bass (“Calls from Home,” p. 6) teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His work has appeared in Small Spiral Notebook, Fugue, Word Riot, and other publications.