As she reached for the phone, she hesitated momentarily and bit her lower lip, second-thinking her plan to call collect. If her mother accepted the charges, it might put her into less of a giving mood. So, yeah, she decided, don’t call collect. She’d been careful to consider how to go about making the call. She’d figured 3:00 would be best since her mom would be at work, excited about the recent boom in business, but during the afternoon lull so she wouldn’t be so stressed out.
All day, she’d rehearsed the conversation. It had gone so well in her imaginings: she would listen patiently to her mother ranting about her customers from Britain and Pennsylvania; she’d feign interest in the gossip – whose baby was having a baby, whose mother just died; and she’d willingly divulge a balanced account of her Austin experience, telling an amusing tale about Jackie’s cat and making sure to garner some sympathy by mentioning that everyone at work spoke Spanish so she couldn’t understand them and she was pretty sure they nicknamed her “the flake.” Then she would make the request.
In her rehearsals, it worked so well. But now, here she was, 30 seconds from making the call, and she had neglected a detail as fundamental as not calling collect. It shook her confidence. She momentarily decided she’d wait until tomorrow, but when she peered up at the calendar, she remembered tomorrow was a Friday and it was the 31st. The call couldn’t wait.
She picked up the phone and dialed the lodge. She held her breath as it rang two, three, four times.
“Hello?” a woman’s voice answered.
“Uh, hi. This is, uh, Cassie Mitchell.” She intoned “Mitchell” like it was a question.
“Oh, hi Cassie! It’s Rhonda Miller. You’re probably trying to get ahold of your mom.”
“Um, yeah. Uh, hi Mrs. Miller,” Cassie stuttered. “Do you work at the lodge now?”
“Oh, no,” she replied. Cassie could picture her gesturing as she spoke. “See, the lodge just changed its number to 870-WOODPECK, so Marvin got the lodge’s old number so we’d get all those outta-towners calling for the lodge and we could tell “˜em about the Ivory-Billed Burger. We just tell “˜em to come on in and try it when they’re in town, then we give “˜em the lodge’s new number.”
“Wow,” Cassie said politely. “That’s a good idea.”
“Yeah, we get twice as many calls now.”
“So the lodge’s new number is 870-WOODPECK?”
“Yep. Clever, huh?”
“Yeah.” She hesitated. “But that’s eight numbers.”
“What are you getting at?”
“Well, I mean, normally a phone number is seven numbers, right?”
“Is it? Never occurred to me.” She paused briefly. “Why, you’re right! College must be doin’ you good.” She laughed.
“Oh, I’m not in college,” Cassie replied too quickly.
“Really? I thought you and Jackie LaFarge were both at the University of Texas.”
She considered lying, saying she was indeed in school at Texas or maybe not at UT but in some community college. But nothing really fit with her “I’m not in college” disclosure. “No,” she began, resigning herself to the truth. “Jackie’s in school here, but I’m just working.”
“Really? Hmm. That’s strange.” Cassie guessed correctly that Mrs. Miller was currently trying to reconcile this version of reality with Cassie’s mom’s story about why she was in Austin. “So where are you workin’?”
Cassie nervously looked at the clock on the wall. If this conversation dragged on much longer, she’d miss out on her small window of opportunity to make the request. But if she cut it off too soon, Mrs. Miller would be armed with some scandalous gossip. “Um,” she started, “I work at a hotel.”
“Oh! Just like your mama! Apple doesn’t fall far, does it?”
Cassie suspected she may have just been insulted, but she wasn’t sure. “Yeah,” she said, drawing out the “yeah” so it had just a hint of sarcasm, in case it needed to be taken as a retort.
“You like it?”
“It’s alright. Most of the people I work with speak Spanish.” Maybe if she could get Mrs. Miller to feel sorry for her, she could save some face. “They call me la flaka, which I think means “˜the flake.'”
“Now why would they call you “˜the flake’?”
“Cuz I forget towels and stuff every once in a while.”
“Well, we all know how good those Mexicans work, don’t we?”
Cassie did know. In fact, she’d been so impressed by her co-workers, she once confided to Jackie that “everyone says they’re lazy, but it’s not true at all.” For a second, she thought Mrs. Miller was consoling her – as if to say, “well, you can’t compete with all-stars.” But then she remembered where she was from. “Actually,” she began, but censored what she wanted to say – that’s why we left, you know; that’s why everyone leaves Brinkley; we wanted to not be so narrow-minded. “I guess I am a little flakey.”
“Oh, honey, don’t sell yourself short.” Jackie had said the same thing to her just two days ago. The previous weekend, they had gone out with a couple of sophomore guys down to an expensive club on 6th Street. They left around midnight and started walking east, past the pawn shops underneath the highway and into a sketchy neighborhood. One of the guys, Jason, claimed there was a college over in that area and that he knew a guy who was throwing an “after-bar,” he called it. But Cassie doubted him. “College neighborhoods don’t look like this,” she whispered to Jackie. And when they passed a storefront with a dilapidated sign that read “Mercadito,” she nudged Jackie and pointed discreetly.
The boys tried to talk them into walking just a bit farther, but the girls wouldn’t have it. In the days that followed, both boys called for Jackie, but Cassie was apparently off their list. “Don’t worry,” Jackie said, “they’re jerks. I’m not gonna call them back.”
“I know,” Cassie pouted, “but you’re still more fun than me and prettier and smarter.”
“Oh, c’mon,” Jackie protested, “we both know you’re way smarter and prettier than me. Don’t sell yourself short.”
“Cassie?” Mrs. Miller asked. “Are you still there?”
“Yeah,” Cassie said. “Sorry. Just remembering something I had to do.”
Last night, as they were sitting on their couch brainstorming Cassie’s predicament, Jackie had burst out excitedly, “Ooh, I know what you should do!”
“And what’s that?” Mrs. Miller inquired.
Jackie had leaned toward Cassie with a mischievous grin. “You should call your mom and be like, “˜Mom, I’m pregnant. The father just flew back to Jamaica and I lost my job at the hotel.'”
“Um,” Cassie said to Mrs. Miller, “it’s nothing. I just kinda have a problem.”
“And then,” Jackie had said, “when she’s freaking out, you can be like, “˜just kidding. Everything’s fine. I just need 200 dollars for rent.'”
“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Miller sympathized. “You’re not pregnant, are you?”
“A girl in one of my classes said she did that to her father and he was so relieved he was like, “˜okay, here’s $300. Just promise me you won’t ever actually do that.'”
“Yeah,” Cassie said. Mrs. Miller went silent. Cassie could picture her holding her hand over her mouth. “And I need $200 for an abortion.” The words escaped her like a handful of frogs.
“Oh, honey, you don’t want to do that.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Miller. I shouldn’t have told you.” Rhonda Miller couldn’t have known what Cassie actually meant by these words. Two hundred dollars was much easier to come by these days, with the birdwatchers coming in to town to see this great big extinct woodpecker. Of course, Joanne Mitchell should have had easy access to that amount with business at the lodge being so good, but poor girl. How could you tell your mom you need $200 for an abortion?
“Don’t worry, Cassie, I’ll keep your secret,” Rhonda announced. “Listen, when do you need this money by?”
“There aren’t many people here I can trust.” As soon as she said it, Cassie realized it was true. Austin was not home. Cassie heard Rhonda Miller arranging to wire her $200, but the voice was muddled, like it was traveling through a string and a paper cup.
By the time she hung up, she felt nauseous. She wanted to vomit, to exorcise the lie she had given birth to, but at the same time, she felt hollow, like she had just aborted a fetus. And in a sense, she had.
She never felt closer to her mother.