Telling Time


John Bratton was trying to shoot straight on this what he had somehow decided was his last day.

   Trying things like, "Listen, the best thing for you is to hang up before the end of this minute."

   And when the customer protested, he'd say, "OK, that's what I see, that you will not call these sorts of places, that you will begin to believe in yourself."

   Some cussed him right out, but the rest, in some way, could at least hear in his voice what they probably already suspected.

   One thought he was trying to sell him some new how-to-quit-your-psychic program or something.

   Just after one of his calls, he looked over at me and said, "The thing best about knowing you're going to die like this, the day at hand and all, is, and this is for John Bratton, the thing best is the way light looks. Anywhere. Just the way it looks. Like baby eyes," he said.

   Said he knew this morning that last night would be John Bratton's last night to go to sleep. That is, intending to wake up.

   Calling himself his own name wasn't doing a thing to convince me.

   First, he looked just the same he did last night leaving Teddy's and, second, he ain't never been psychic before.

   Said he was psychic of course, like all of us do, but we don't say that to each other. I mean, goddamn.

   So, this morning he comes in, tells me he's had this vision of his own death, not how but when, and starts picking up the phone telling customers how they're wasting their money and time. I always take my break when he first comes in so I hadn't even tried taking any of my own calls in the midst of this part preaching, part pleading, part pissing me right off.

   Luckily the phone don't ring for a while so I think I'm going to get a chance to talk sense to him, but he starts going through old client lists and calling them.

   "Yes ma'am, this is John Bratton, well I was Jean Bratton when we last spoke, I was even John Bratotn then, but listen, I am now calling you on behalf of the United States Psychic Alliance asking that you seek truth in your self, not a long distance telephone call."

   We work on a combined commission, on what we make together.


   Our commercials always run at the bottom of the hour, so between somethingfifteen and thirty is always a time for us to gather together our best lines and pitches, catch our breath with a cigarette.

   Not for John, though. Not today.

   It was 9:23 and he wasn't breaking stride.

   And then he run into some fellow on the phone who wasn't going to let him off the hook that easy.

   "Sir, John Bratton was a different person then," he kept saying, along with things like, "I know that's what it says on TV" and "Sir, it was just a good guess."

   Then the fellow asked him something that hung him up a minute, something you didn't see when he was working our side.

   Eventually, he said, "Sir, again, it was just luck."

   The man said something else.

   "Sir, John Bratton's calling lots of his old customers."

   Then he sat there listening a while, looked at me but I wasn't getting involved in it.

   He said, "It's coincidence, sir, pure-t coincidence."

   This time the man took a good minute to say what was on his mind. We usually look at those as freebies because the customer's paying $1.99 a minute to tell you things while you just sit there counting. Looking at John, though, it didn't seem like anything was free.

   "Sir," he couldn't stand it any more, cut the fellow off, "I know it seems to you only a psychic would know you took the night off. I realize that's not something you do all that often, but don't you see? I'm calling every body. If you weren't home the phone would have just kept ringing. Not everyone I called tonight was home. What's that tell you, sir? How come I bothered calling them if I could have just known? In fact, sir, if you're OK calling psychic hot lines, if it was doing you any good at all, and I was psychic, wouldn't I know?"

   There must have been hesitation of some sort because John said, "Seems I got you."

   The man still had his own thoughts though, and John, as patient as he was trying to be, must have realized he wasn't going to get very far, that there were more out there he might reach.

"I want you to listen and then
I'm hanging up, got me?
Life ain't about some great secret,
at least not one somebody could tell you
over the telephone. Life's about
living, got me? And I don't mean
on one end of a telephone."

   "Sir, I'm going to have to let you go. You won't listen to a damn thing I'm telling you. If you'd have been this difficult the first time we talked we wouldn't be having to have this conversation. I want you to listen and then I'm hanging up, got me? Life ain't about some great secret, at least not one somebody could tell you over the telephone. Life's about living, got me? And I don't mean on one end of a telephone." He kind of looked over at me with that last and hung up his phone like he was some basketball player.

   I told him, "Something's got into you."

   "Yeah," he said, and was using that tone people get when they're about to share their testimonial with you, smiling that smile, and I was thinking, well, that at least makes sense of this, but what he said was, "Life on this planet's like one step, and I can feel my foot coming down."


   John's wife, Heidi, left him a year and a half back. Left with one of John's best customers, a man named Manny the Cobbler.

   John used to call him the cobbler because, from the time Manny started calling and asking John about women, John stayed in nice shoes.

   By the time he ever knew he was called the cobbler it didn't bother Manny that John had such nice shoes because, by then, Manny had Heidi.

   But John still had the shoes. That bothered Manny.


   John took to this business.

   It ain't for everybody, this trying to know things you don't. Though you'd might think it was.

   John, though, he took to it. Where a lot of new guys will come in for their day's training and the next day you can see where they got their act from, a little bit of Rooster's crowing, some of Ben's bullshit word-play, and always, I think, too much of my charm, John had us all stealing from him after a week. Smooooooth. Jean Bratton he called himself.

   "Yes ma'am," he might say, "If we might sit quietly for a few minutes," and he'd pause, "if we might sit quietly I shall begin to channel my gifts through you toward your necklace, and then, and this ma'am, is only through the utmost effort on both of our parts, through quiet, focused channeling, then we will begin to bring our gifts home, back through you, and to me, hoping, focusing as well, though, ma'am, because hope alone as you know is not enough or you would already have your necklace back, for I can see you, ma'am, I can see you during all those times of hope and worry which washed over you like the great rains. Are you ready then, ma'am, for us to sit together in this fashion?"

   Never seen them say no. Not once. Well, one time I was home watching a movie and Rooster called me, couldn't believe it, said, "Somebody turned down Jean Bratton."

   "Fuck you," I heard John say in the background.

   Once John did get them settled down and quiet, he'd put the phone down, leave them sitting there channeling or focusing, and go outside for a cigarette.

   Wasn't long John started talking about going into the business himself, which would have been fine until Rooster, he started this business, pointed out some fine print in the contract about just that sort of thing.

   "Means what you've learned and developed, etc., etc., in the psychic phone business belongs to the United States Psychic Alliance."

   Things were never quite the same between those two from then on.

   Wasn't a week after that, though, I heard John over there, got some fellow going along, asking about his love life and that sort of thing, and then he says, "Sir, and this is something I'd only recommend in a case such as yours but, sir, what I see for you, in today's world of sexual disease and perversion, the safest, most healthy sex life for your future involves something in which you've already placed great trust and that is, of course, sir, the telephone. Yes sir, let me get you this number of a business Jean Bratton recommends highly. Madame Heidi's Heinie-Phone Palace."

   Of all the psychics around here, as of yet, nobody's been willing to speculate right out loud how John's wife actually come to meet Manny the Cobbler face to face, but there's no denying that it was John first sent him her way.


   It's hard to get in much more than a "your special he or she is going to come to his or her as-of-late misguided senses and come back to you," with him in the background. And he won't listen to a thing I got to say on the matter so I decide to hell with it I'll by God call Rooster.

   "I'm going to kill the bastard," Rooster said, and when I told John this he got the biggest see-I'm-psychic, told-you-so grin going, and says he was wondering how he was going to go.

   "Since I am going," he said, "I think it'd be right funny to leave old damn Rooster a mess of trouble on my way out."

   And so now I got to try to make my couple of dollars with him there beside me working the other side of things, and me knowing, at any minute, big old Rooster's going to bust in and all John's going to have for him is that grin.

   That's when I get my idea.

   Now at no time did I think the idea was actually good, but that approach, following an idea out like that, can bring me across another idea, one I might would call good. Probably that's what I was hoping for out of calling Heidi.

   I knew I'd have to approach her just so. Careful, but not as to sound careful. Clear, but not like I got to be clear for her. More like I'd talk to her if she'd called me, something she'd never done, not directly. I'm sure she did, in fact, call me a few things, indirectly, back when me and John first learned about Teddy's.

   Teddy's is two blocks from where we work and the second-closest place we can get a drink. It costs five dollars to get in, but they have food, though it is little food, and, well, they have their waitresses wearing teddys.

   John told Heidi it was a sports bar named after some forward on the old New York Nets.

   "Whoever heard of anybody on the Nets but Dr. J.?" I asked him.

   "Exactly," he said.

   When she found out different, she didn't have to say a word to any of us at work, you could just see it in her step, in the way she picked her feet up between steps.

   Something about the way she said hello on the phone sounded just like when she walked, that same clip.

   And so of course it surprised hell out of me when she said yes she would come down and talk with John about this dying mess.

   But before we got off the phone she said she had this little story she wanted to tell me. She'd always wanted to tell me.

   Her mother'd been widowed at 19, Vietnam and all, and little Heidi, she was already three, could remember them getting the call, and so her and her mother kind of, in that way, as she put it, grew up together.

   "As you were telling me about John there I realized my mama. Of all the people in the world, my mama had it right. Ain't that a damn thing?"

   "One time," she said, "this man, Mr. Puttney, who worked on our car, gave Mama this bird," I was sitting there watching John give away money, listening to his ex-wife tell me a bird story, and waiting on Rooster to come in and turn the whole place into a red-faced, fat-grabbing wrestling match.

   "Mama wasn't going to put anything in a cage," she was saying, "so she just let the bird around the house. Liked to get in drawers and things. Liked to drink out of your glass. Anyway, a couple years later, Mama kind of got herself a boyfriend, and something about that bird hopping around made that fellow, Ken Burns was his name, made him not think so highly of her. He'd call her names. Then for Christmas he got her a bird cage. On New Year's Day, though, she shot him in the back of the head. Did four and a half years. On the day she got out, we sat drinking margaritas and she said, 'If you do for a man, generally they'll do for you. If they don't do for you, you just do them in."'

   "You say John believes he's reached the day his sun's to set?" she asked me. "I wouldn't miss it for the world, not the whole world."

   When she hung up I could hear Rooster's old Corvette pulling up outside.

   I shot John the "here comes Rooster look," but he didn't break stride. In fact he sort of grinned, telling somebody, "so you spread the word, the answer's in our heart, not in our hand."

   When Rooster walked in he took the phone from John, pinched himself there between the eyes, said, with the best annunciation I've heard in a while, "John, tell me what in hell you are doing."

   "My best," John said.

   "What's that?"

   "Doing my best, Rooster. That's all."

   Rooster was starting to twist, a little, there between his eyes, which he now shut tighter than I'd of guessed eyes shut.

   Both phones were ringing.

   Rooster, and I know it's because he couldn't think straight about John, I knew it then, looked at me talking about, "You going to die, too, or are you still working around here?"

   So I answered the phone. And because neither Rooster nor John knew what they wanted to say next, they both turned their attention to me. And this fellow's on the other end, saying, "Wife tells me her psychic called. Said he turned about on her."

   "Sir, what can I do for you?" I asked him, getting out my good pen and pad, using my Roman numerals.

   "I want to know what you expect me to do with these bills."

    "Sir, I'm not sure what you mean." I did scratch through my Roman numeral.

   "I mean you don't expect us to pay now?"

   I didn't need this. Rooster didn't. John didn't. Not then. We were all there, not needing this.

   And then Heidi walked in, did that thing where she flips the light switch twice.

   Said, first thing, "Always knew you'd be making a big scene about going, John."

   She'd dressed for the occasion. Black.

   Not quite widow black though. More that black people wear to slip from dinner to late night. With the boots.

   "We smoke outside," Rooster told her.

   "I'm sorry, Rooster, and how are you?"

   She put her cigarette out in a cup I guess John was through drinking from.

   "Look, this ain't no social situation," Rooster started. "Your husband there..."

   "Ex," she said.

   "Ex then, has lost his damn mind."

   "Well, my mama always said you got to have something before you can lose it."

   "That's just an expression." It was the fellow on the other end of the line.

   "Yes sir," I said.

   "Well?" he asked me.

   "What?" I asked him.

   "Tell them."

   "Tell them what?"

   "Tell them it's just an expression, losing your mind is."

   "Sir, do you realize this is costing you money?"

   "That's what I called about. Course if it is to cost me, seems like you'd at least tell them what it is I said."

   "He says losing your mind is just an expression."

   "Who?" They all asked.

   "Him," I said, shaking the phone.

   "Is he paying?" Rooster asked.

   Just then John got up, stretched real big, and said, "It is endearing to have those close to me gathered tonight."

   Heidi took out her lipstick and mirror, started in on herself.

   Rooster started what we used to call his crowing, which was mainly strung together cuss words with no distinctions between them, so that, if you were to want to write down what Rooster was crowing, it'd look like one big word and would sound like a different language if you were to try to read what you'd written.

   Heidi was making this sort of smacking noise and kissing a napkin, then putting a little lipstick back on, smacking and kissing the napkin again.

   "What in the world?" The fellow on the phone wanted to know.

   I didn't know what to tell him.

   All I knew was Rooster was going to bust at any juncture. The only thing, I believe, that had saved John so far from just an old-fashioned ass-whooping was his rubbery attitude, the way he was holding himself, or really, wasn't holding himself, like he had really given himself over.

   "He's getting pretty worked up." It was the fellow on the phone again. "What's going to happen?" he asked me.

   "How in hell should I know?" I asked him, and Rooster froze in mid-crow. Diane quit with the lipstick. John, though, had this proud look come over him.

   The fellow on the other end started telling his wife, way off in the distance, how the guy on the phone, me, "ain't no more psychic than you, Doris," and John was saying, aiming his voice over at the telephone, "Sir that's just what I was trying to tell you," when all of the sudden there's this horn blowing out in the parking lot, almost like one of those alarms, but it's more persistent than that, more annoying.

   Rooster fluttered all up in a mess and sort of rolled out the door in a tight ball. Made the calendar fall off the wall.

   "I was wondering when he'd show up," John said, and we were all scared to know who he meant, but it wasn't hard to figure out.

   Rooster came right back in. Said to Heidi, "Good thing you're warmed up." She was still kissing the napkin, though she'd about run out of fresh places, but Rooster was looking more at John, until the honking started back up, and then he turned to her, said, "Well, go settle things down with him."

   "Who?" Heidi asked.

   "Manny the damn Cobbler."

   "I'm not going out there. I quit him."

   "Well he ain't quit you."

   "I'll go out there then," John said, and even with one of the phones ringing, and Manny the Cobbler's honking, a silence come over the room like a sickness.

   It was a well-known fact Manny the Cobbler had once served time.

   "For bad checks," John said. "I told ya'll this was coming."

   "Don't matter what for," Rooster told him. "You learn things in there any ordinary man on the street don't know how to defend."

   "That ain't all he learned," Heidi smacked.

   "I'm going," John said, jumping to his feet.

   And we let him.

   And when the door closed, the room felt like a parallelogram, and the man on the line, his wife was yelling at him now, how it was costing money and all, but all he wanted to know was should he call 911.

   Rooster and Heidi looked like they were listening for their names, leaning forward, their hands on their knees.

   "Well, should I call them?" The fellow wanted to know.

   "Just be quiet a minute," I told him.

   "I can't," he said.

   I asked him why.

   "The wife. It's costing us money."

   "Here," I told him, "I'll call you right back."

   Rooster loved that.

   But the guy's wife picked up the phone, asked if this was some kind of game or show or anything they should be aware of.

   "Ma'am, my friend might be out there getting killed," I told her. "That sound like a game to you?"

   She said, "Well let me give you back over to my husband."

   "What in the hell?" Rooster asked me.

   "First, I want to ask you something." It was the man's wife.

   "It's short," she said, and I couldn't tell if she said her and her husband were once out in the country or out of the country because John come back in, saying how he'd made his peace with Manny, didn't call him Manny the Cobbler.

   "He ain't that bad," John said.

   Manny honked his horn a couple times.

   "Why don't you go out and talk to him?" John asked Heidi. "Make him feel better about everything? I've got to get back to work."

   Vincent Craight Wright, who in another lifetime was POINT's fiction editor, teaches writing at Oregon State University.

© Copyright by POINT, 1997
Last modified 6/23/97