Dinner, Then a Bedtime Story
(c) 2001, 2021 Darin Miller
“Melissa spilled juice on the pho-one!” Billy shouted, racing from the kitchen and into the hallway on legs of lightning, the soles of his shoes screeching in protest as he abruptly changed direction and bounded into the living room.
With a sudden snort, Hal Walker was wrenched from his nap, sitting bolt upright in his blue suede recliner. He knew he had missed something, but for the life of him he didn’t know what it was. Then Billy flung himself into the old man’s ample lap and pulled himself upright using the old man’s neck for leverage.
“Melissa spilled juice on the phone,” Billy repeated urgently.
“It’s not polite to tattle on your sister, young man,” Hal chided.
“But Grandpa!” Billy’s face was contorted with anguish, so real for the boy, so comical to the man. “Mom said we could have pizza tonight. She left money and everything. All’s we got to do—”
“All we’ve got to do,” Hal corrected.
“—uh-huh, all we’ve got to do is call for dee-livery. But now the phone don’t work—”
“Grandpa! For Superman’s sake, won’t you let me say anything?” The boy rolled his eyes upward in exasperation before dying of mistreatment in Hal’s arms. Hal couldn’t help but grin. In little Billy Dryden, Hal could see the impish qualities that had made the boy’s mother, Molly, such a special child at that age. Billy’s tousled brown hair (which desperately needed washed) lay in clumps across his forehead, his clothes bore skid marks from the better part of the yard, and something that glowed red in the dark had stained the corners of his mouth. He was adorable. He also was quite the showman, apparently subscribing to the notion that presentation is everything.
After a moment without getting a response, Billy cautiously opened one eye. “May I speak now, sir?”
“My wonderful sister has spewed juice on the phone. Pizza! Pizza!” And he was off, racing back down the hallway to rejoin his sister in the kitchen.
Hal sighed and pulled himself up from the recliner. The last thing he needed was for Billy and Melissa to really go at each other. A nine-year-old hyperactive boy and a seven-year-old spoiled princess could be a deadly combination in the right climate. He lumbered down the hall after the retreating thunderclaps of Billy’s Nikes.
“Why do you only have one phone, Grandpa?” asked Melissa innocently as Hal entered the kitchen. Aha! In her typical fashion, Melissa was laying the groundwork for this whole incident to be Grandpa’s fault because he had been too shortsighted to see the obvious need for a cell phone or alternate extension. It was really amazing the way her mind worked. Hal figured she would either become a brilliant litigator or a criminal genius. Nothing was ever Melissa’s fault, as she saw it.
“There’s only one of me,” Hal replied. “Why would I need more than one phone? Let me see that thing.”
Melissa handed the receiver of the wall phone to Hal with sticky fingers that matched the red at the corners of Billy’s mouth. Hal gave Melissa a stern look as he gingerly accepted it.
“I told you she spilled juice on it,” said Billy.
Melissa gave him a quick punch on the arm. “Did not!”
Hal treated Melissa to another of his patented glares, the one that acted like truth serum.
“Well,” she said, pouting, “I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Doesn’t matter!” shouted Billy. “You still did it.” He punched Melissa’s arm, and the two were off, Billy running for his life while Melissa pounded along the hardwood floor after him.
It was difficult for Hal to even feign consternation with his grandchildren. Their personalities were so distinctly different, and their interaction was often more entertaining than prime time television. Hal wished Alice had lived to see their grandchildren, but she had passed early on; Molly had only been fifteen at the time. Molly had met her husband, Rob, while attending Ohio State, and they had married shortly after graduation. Rob was a good man—ambitious, but not to the point of neglecting his family. He had just earned an executive managerial position at his investment firm and tonight, he and Molly were celebrating the promotion with an evening on the town. Hal was more than happy to step in as babysitter.
Sure enough, the juice had leaked down into the crevices which surrounded the buttons on the handset, and none of them responded when pressed. Hal chuckled as he realized he’d have to buy a new phone. How does someone spill liquid on a wall-mounted device? Hal simply shrugged.
Several moments later, Hal stepped out onto the porch of his townhouse, scanning the yard for the children. They were wrestling in the front corner, near the rose bushes.
“You two behave out there!” yelled Hal, stooping to pick up the evening paper. He settled onto the porch swing and flipped to the sports, rocking gently in the warm summer breeze. He loved evenings like this. It reminded him of when he and Alice had bought the house, so many years ago, and watched their own daughter play with the neighborhood children. Clifton Lane hadn’t changed much in all the years—well-kept two-story houses lining both sides of a wide roadway which saw little more than local traffic.
By the time he had finished with the sports, the comics and the sales flyers, Billy and Melissa had returned to the porch. “Grandpa!” wailed Billy.
Melissa giggled and chimed in, “PIZZA!”
“Oh, you want pizza, do you?” asked Hal, carefully folding his newspaper and placing it beside himself on the swing.
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” Billy said, running from one end of the porch to the other and back again. Melissa leaned against the porch rail like a dainty sculpture, nodding her head earnestly. Billy added, “I’m about to starve my pants off.”
Hal raised an eyebrow and looked at the boy. Billy couldn’t keep a straight face to save his life and collapsed in a series of giggles. “You’re a silly little man, do you know that?” Hal asked.
“Well, duh!” said Billy, rolling his eyes and giggling some more.
“Well, would you look there,” said Hal, pointing out toward the street. A compact Chevrolet, comprised mostly of interlinking rust particles, was pulling into the driveway. A lighted dome rested on the flaking top of the car, advertising Maloney’s Pizza Shack, 555-YUMM.
Billy’s eyes were wide with wonder as a lanky, pimple-faced teenager emerged from the vehicle, a large box held horizontally at his side. Melissa squealed, clapped and ran out into the yard to meet him.
“I thought the phone was broked,” said Billy.
“Broken,” corrected Hal. “And it is.”
“Then how—?” Billy’s voice trailed away as the pizza man reached the porch.
“So how did you do it?” asked Billy, with mozzarella cheese stringing down his chin.
“Do what?” Hal asked, having long since lost the thread of conversation. He had been watching Melissa, who was dissecting each piece of pizza into its individual components before eating them one at a time. She had pizza sauce halfway up her arm with a little streak tinting her long blonde hair.
“How did you order the pizza?” asked Billy, sighing with exasperation.
“I called,” said Hal, patting at the corners of his mouth with a paper napkin. “How did you think?”
“But the phone is broked—um, broken!” said Billy, tossing his fork to his plate with a clatter.
“Ah, yes,” said Hal. “So it is. Maybe it was magic.”
Melissa’s eyes brightened while Billy’s rolled upward again. “Magic?” she asked wondrously. “Really?”
“No, stupid!” said Billy.
“Don’t call your sister stupid,” chastised Hal.
“Well, it sure wasn’t magic. That’s dumb,” said Billy. “That’s TV stuff.”
“All right, then how did I do it?” challenged Hal.
Billy folded his arms across his chest and deliberated. After a moment, he sighed. “I don’t know. Tell me.”
“It was magic,” insisted Melissa.
“It sure was,” said Hal, smiling at his granddaughter. He turned to Billy and winked. “I’ll tell you later,” he whispered.
Even though Molly allowed the children to stay up until 9:30, Melissa inevitably dropped off around 8:30, no matter how hard she fought it. Billy, on the other hand, could have probably gone on until 11:00 without missing a beat. His energy was exhausting to watch. Hal found it most efficacious to tell the boy stories. He supposed it was a sort of hypnotism, lulling the child to the brink of consciousness and then pushing him over the edge.
Billy liked adventures. He also liked scary stories. His favorites were a combination of the two. Hal always made his selections carefully; he didn’t want the boy to have nightmares, for Superman’s sake! He hoped he wouldn’t be pushing the envelope tonight. It was a good thing Melissa had already fallen asleep. She had nightmares at the slightest provocation.
Hal inspected Billy after his shower and sent him back to brush his teeth again. (Pizza sauce was still evident on the boy’s breath.) Afterward, he tucked him into his bright red-white-and-blue bed, pulling the Superman sheets up to the boy’s chin. Hal had long ago set up a room for each of the children in his big, empty house.
“So, tell me,” Billy said.
“Tell you what?” asked Hal, settling into the overstuffed armchair that was positioned near the head of the bed.
“Oh, all right! Let me dim the light, and you get settled,” said Hal, reaching up and darkening the desk lamp that hung its head out like a goose from the headboard.
“It was in a neighborhood very much like this one that it happened. As a matter of fact, it was a family very much like this one.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Billy, struggling to his elbows. “How does this explain how you ordered the pizza?”
Hal looked at him sternly. “It’s my way or goodnight to you, young man.”
Billy flopped back on his pillow and stuck his bottom lip out a little. The corners of Hal’s mouth curled upward almost imperceptibly. “Okay,” Billy said. “Go on.”
“All right then. Where was I? Oh, yes. It was a hot summer, very much like this one. The family was called Pitts, I think. Yes, that’s it. A mom, a dad, a brother and a sister. Anyway, on a particularly hot day, wouldn’t you know the air-conditioning went out. Mr. Pitts was at work and the kids were at the swimming pool.
“Mrs. Pitts had a big party planned for that night—lots of important people, like Mr. Pitts’s boss and the president of the company, too. It wouldn’t do to have the air-conditioning broken, now, would it?”
Billy shook his head.
“So, Mrs. Pitts called for a repairman. They were very busy. Apparently, lots of folks’ air-conditioners had broken down that week, but they said they would send someone out as soon as possible.
“Mrs. Pitts—I believe her name was Prunella—went about her business, tidying the house and preparing the main course in the slow cooker. The house was every bit of ninety degrees, and she had opened the doors and windows so fresh air could get in through the screens. As she was dusting the mantel in their living room, she saw a fellow in a dark green uniform approaching the front door. He was carrying a metal toolbox—you know, like the one I keep my screwdrivers in—and Prunella went to meet him.
“‘Oh, thank heaven!’ she said to the man. ‘Maybe my party will be saved after all! Come on in and see what you can do to get that blasted thing running.’” Hal’s voice went comically falsetto as he imitated the woman. Dropping back to his normal inflection, he added, “If Prunella had been paying attention, she might have seen the momentary look of confusion on the man’s face, but she was lost in her own thoughts, worrying about how quickly time was getting away from her. She had to have time to make herself presentable too, you know. So, she pointed to the door of the basement and returned to her chores.”
Billy sighed impatiently. “The phone, Grandpa, the phone.”
“I’m getting there,” said Hal. “Anyway, over at the pool, the children swam until they couldn’t swim anymore. The girl, Melinda—about the same age as your sister—was going home with a friend to spend the night. The boy, Charlie—about your age—was going to a Boy Scout meeting and was staying the night with a fellow Scout. Trouble was, as Charlie started collecting his things from his locker in the changing room, he realized he hadn’t brought his uniform with him. He told his friend he would have to stop by his house first and get it before he came over.
“When Charlie approached his house on his bicycle, he saw that all of the doors and windows had been closed. Apparently, the air-conditioner repairman had been able to get the unit working again. Charlie laid his bicycle on the sidewalk by the porch and bounded up the stairs, giving the doorknob a quick twist as he propelled himself forward. Guess what happened?”
Billy shook his head, not caring to hazard a guess.
“The door didn’t budge, and Charlie ran right into it. WHAM!” said Hal, clapping his hands together loudly.
Billy laughed and echoed, “WHAM!” He clapped his little hands, too.
“Well, Charlie didn’t think it was too funny. He had stubbed his nose and nearly fallen down! Besides that, Prunella never kept the door locked, and Charlie knew she hadn’t planned to go anywhere that day. He guessed she must be upstairs taking a bath and had decided to lock the door while she was in the tub.
“The Pitts kept an extra key hidden along the underside of the porch swing, and Charlie knew just where to look. He let himself into the house and was immediately greeted by a wave of sweltering heat.”
Billy interrupted, “Sweltering?”
“Yes. Thick like a big wool blanket,” said Hal.
“Anyway, he walked through the living room, past the dining room, and then into the kitchen, but there was no sign of Prunella. The slow cooker was still cooking away on the counter, the heavenly smells of roast beef wafting through the hot air. Steam rose from other pots on the stovetop, and Charlie immediately sensed that something was not right. Prunella would never have left the stovetop on if she had to go out.
“So, careful as he could be not to make a sound, Charlie slowly climbed the stairs,” said Hal, pausing for dramatic effect.
“Was she dead? Did he find her dead?” asked Billy, his eyes twinkling in anticipation.
Hal narrowed his eyes and looked at the boy. “Dead? What kind of babysitter do you take me for? Would I tell you a story about a dead mother and send you off to bed? I don’t think so.”
“Well, where was she?”
“Hold your horses, I’m getting there. When Charlie got to the landing of the second floor, the feeling that something was amiss had grown, and he wondered if he should turn around and run away. But he worried about his mother, and he felt like he should make sure she wasn’t somewhere in the house, hurt and unable to respond.
“Careful not to make a sound, Charlie tip-toed down the hall toward his parents’ bedroom. The door had been pulled to, and Charlie lightly tapped a knuckle against it. ‘Hello?’ he whispered.
“He jumped when he heard a thump from the other side of the door, like something somewhat heavy had dropped to the floor. Before he lost his nerve, he twisted the knob and threw open the door. What do you think he saw?” asked Hal.
“His dead mother!” exclaimed the boy.
“I told you that I don’t tell dead mother stories,” said Hal.
“Oh, right. Um, a pirate?”
“What would a pirate be doing running loose in a residential neighborhood? Pirate stories tend to be set at sea.”
“I don’t know! Tell me!” implored Billy.
“Well, it was his mother, alright,” said Hal. “She was bound to one of the dining room chairs—whatever it was doing up there, I don’t know—by furnace tape, of all things. She also had a big strip across her mouth. She had managed to lift her feet a little and drop them back to the floor, which was the sound Charlie had heard.
“Charlie crossed the room and, as gently as he could, pried the tape from his mother’s mouth. ‘Charlie!’ she whispered. ‘There’s a burglar somewhere in the house. You have to get out of here. Go get the police!’”
“A burglar?” Billy asked incredulously.
“That’s right,” said Hal, leaning back in his chair and crossing one leg over the other. “The air-conditioning repairman was no air-conditioning repairman. Prunella had been so anxious to get hers fixed in time for her party that she didn’t ask to see any identification. The gentleman had been staking out the neighborhood for hours, and Charlie’s house, with its doors standing open and all its windows raised, was too much temptation for the thief to resist. He had to at least have a look, you see. Well, wouldn’t you know that Prunella had spotted him when he had least wanted to be spotted? She invited him right in. He returned the favor by forcing her to haul one of the dining room chairs up to her own bedroom where he promptly bound and gagged her, and then scavenged the house for things to steal. What’s more important, he was still in the house. Fortunately, Charlie hadn’t crossed his path downstairs, but that had only been dumb luck.
“Charlie started to pick at the tape on his mother’s wrist, but she told him, ‘No! There’s no time. You have to go and get the police!’ Charlie’s eyes wandered to the phone, thinking it might be best to place a quick call to 911, but he could see from where he stood that the face of the phone had been entirely smashed. Without further protest, he turned and left the room. He hoped his mother would be safe until he returned.
“It was once he was in the hallway that he heard the movement downstairs—heavy footsteps against the hardwood floors. He knew that the thief was walking right below him, near the foot of the stairs. There was no way for Charlie to get past him without being seen.”
Billy’s eyes were wide, and his mouth was open—just a little. “What did he do, Grandpa? What did he do?”
Hal smiled. “Our lad Charlie was a clever little fellow. First, he checked the telephone extension in the hallway. The face of that phone had been smashed, as well. He lifted the receiver and heard a dial tone, nonetheless. He pressed the jagged plastic which had once been the ‘9’ button, but there was no tone in his ear. The dialing mechanism had been destroyed.”
“Just like Melissa did to the phone in the kitchen!” Billy noted excitedly.
“More or less,” said Hal. “But by now, Charlie hears the heavy sounds of the man’s work boots climbing the stairs. As far as Charlie knows, the burglar doesn’t even know that he’s inside the house. If nothing else, he should have the element of surprise on his side. Still, Charlie was a nine-year-old boy, and the intruder was at least of an appropriate age and stature as to impersonate, even if unintentionally, an air-conditioner repairman. This meant that a physical altercation might prove unwise.”
“Altercation?” Billy asked, his nose scrunched up inquisitively.
“A row, fisticuffs, a fight,” said Hal, watching the boy’s expression as it reached enlightenment. “So, Charlie had to outthink the villain. As the footsteps continued to near, Charlie sneaked down the hallway to the guest bedroom at the rear of the house. Prunella always kept the room ready for unexpected company, and she had decided some time ago that as a matter of courtesy, guests should have access to the telephone without having to leave their room. In other words, there was another phone extension in there.
“Charlie hoped for more dumb luck, that the phone might still be in one piece, but alas—it was not. Its face had been caved in, too. Still, Charlie grabbed the phone and crawled underneath the bed, dragging it with him.”
Hal uncrossed his legs and raised his elbows, linking his fingers behind his head, smiling at his grandson. “That’s some story, huh? Let’s turn the lights off now and send you off to sleep.”
Billy sat straight up. “What? No! You have to tell me what happened.”
“What happened?” Hal asked absently.
“To the Pitts! What happened next?”
“Oh, all right,” said Hal, unclasping his hands and leaning forward in the chair. “About ten minutes later, the police arrived and arrested the burglar. Turns out he had been doing his afternoon robberies for several weeks in that area, and the police were mighty glad to have finally caught up with him.”
He volunteered no more information and watched Billy’s face go from bewilderment to ponderousness to impatience, all in a span of about ten seconds.
“How did he make the call?” Billy begged.
“Very simple,” said Hal. He got up from the chair and crossed the room to where Billy’s desk was. Hal had furnished it from garage sales, building a “play” office for his grandson (although it turned out Melissa most often used it). There was an ancient desk lamp, a cast iron manual typewriter and a gutted rotary telephone he had bought for a quarter. It was the telephone in which he was interested, plucking it up and carrying it over to the bed.
“Have you ever heard of Morse Code, Billy?” asked Hal.
Billy sighed. “I’m a Boy Scout, for Superman’s sake! Of course, I’ve heard of Morse Code.”
“Don’t get snippy. I was just asking,” said Hal. “See, nowadays, folks are used to fancy gadgets of all sorts. Did you know that early automobiles were started by turning a crank that stuck straight out of the front of the car?”
“No way,” said Billy doubtfully.
“Yes way,” insisted Hal. “I would not kid my one and only grandson.”
“Would you kid Melissa?”
“You bet. There are lots of things that we just take for granted today. Take for instance, did you know that a television set used to only come with twelve channels and a UHF band?”
“UHF?” asked Billy.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter—you could never get anything on it anyway. Point is, most of your TV came in on channels two through thirteen, and since cable wasn’t around, you had to rely on an antenna. This meant you really only got about three to five TV stations. Can you imagine that?”
Billy shook his head, his mind trying to picture a world before Nick Jr.
“What’s more, if you wanted to change the channel, you had to get right up off of your lazy butt and turn the knob.”
Hal chuckled. “That’s right, the knob. Everything’s done on circuits, nowadays. You want to change the channel? You press a button. You want to change the channel from where you sit on the couch? You press a button. You want to fix dinner in the microwave? You press a button. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
Billy’s face was comically vacant, apparently still disturbed with the notion of prehistoric television.
Hal placed the phone on the bed in front of Billy. “What do you notice about this telephone?” he asked.
Billy studied it then said, “It doesn’t have no buttons.”
“Any buttons,” corrected Hal. “And you’re right, it does not. It is a telephone with a dial.”
“I’ve seen those before,” said Billy. “On television.”
“That’s right,” said Hal. “I’m sure you have. And they operate on today’s telephone systems just as well as the pushbutton phones to which we have grown far more accustomed. You just put your finger in the hole that corresponds to the number you wish to dial and turn the dial clockwise until you meet the metal stopper. See?”
“Yes, Grandpa,” said Billy impatiently. “I could figure out how to dial a phone, I should think.”
Hal chuckled again. “I suppose you could, my boy. Listen very carefully while I dial a ‘5’.” Hal put his finger into the dial and turned it. “Do you hear the clicking sound? It’s not Morse Code, but it’s a similar concept. Listen carefully while I do it again.” He repeated the maneuver, slowing the dial’s counterclockwise return by leaving his finger in the hole. Billy counted five clicks.
“What you probably didn’t know is that those five clicks can be replicated like this,” said Hal, lifting the receiver and tapping the plungers upon which it had rested five times in quick succession. “When the plungers are down, such as when the telephone is hung up, the line is disconnected, but with the receiver lifted, when you group a series of clicks together on the plunger, it is just like dialing the number on the face.”
“So that’s how Charlie used the phone?” asked Billy.
“Exactly,” said Hal, standing and returning the phone to the little desk. “That’s also how I called for the pizza this evening. Charlie simply lifted the receiver and tapped the plunger ten times. He had learned how in the Boy Scouts, from one of the troop leaders. When the operator answered, he quietly explained that he needed the police immediately, and she dispatched them right away.”
Hal leaned over the bed and kissed his grandson on the forehead, pulling his sheets up and then turning off the gooseneck lamp. “I shall have to replace my telephone tomorrow. Melissa really did a number on the keypad with the spilled juice.”
“She breaks everything.”
“Well, she does,” said Billy, nestling deeper into his pillow.
“So did you learn anything from my little story?” asked Hal.
“Never let anyone into your house unless you are absolutely sure who they are,” said Billy firmly.
“Right-o,” said Hal. “And you should never make that decision. Always get your mom or dad. Anything else?”
“Always keep your doors locked,” said Billy.
“Good, good,” said Hal. “Anything else?”
Billy grinned, his eyes glistening in the near darkness. “Yep. I know what I’m going to do for the science fair this year. Can you find me an old phone that’s gots more guts than that one?”
“That has more guts than that one,” corrected Hal.
“Good night,” Hal said, smiling to himself as he closed the door.