Fall 2008, Volume 5

Fiction by Darryl Halbrooks

The Ringtone Maker

Frank sucks his lime and makes a face. He licks the salt off his wrist and tosses back a plastic flagon of coffee, gone cold after eight hours in his thermos. Frank’s given up tequila. Says it was giving him bad ideas. Couldn’t quit the salt and lime thing though.

 “I’d say we got off easy tonight,” he says.

“Not too bad,” I say, “especially for a weekend.”

It’s our regular end-of-shift wind-down. I do Diet Coke with lemon and one of those tiny Italian cigars that could be mistaken for a twig off some forest fire victim. Frank says I look like a female Clint Eastwood. I narrow gunslinger eyes at him and take a pull from my Diet Coke. I run my sleeve across my mouth.

Sundays through Tuesdays are quiet in this college town but things’ll start to pick up again on Wednesday when we retake the reins from Stella and Porter. They get light duty because they’re new and we like to break rookies in easy.

 “How’s Mary doing?” I ask. It’s a question I’ve been avoiding.  I suppose if he really wanted to confide in me he would have by now.

“Still pretty weak,” Frank says, “but her hair’s beginning to grow back. You know, it’s just that stubble. It’s coming in all gray so she looks sort of like a little old man.”

I touch his hand as he smiles a sad smile into his cup.

“The worst part though, her mother’s still here. I try to steer clear of the old bat but it ain’t easy. Her ass consumes most of the living room.”

Diet cokes spews out my nose, extinguishing my Parodi.

“Goddamit Frank.”

He tries to give me a light but the thing’s too wet and I have to shake my last one out of its little box.

 “She’s still mad about us moving down here,” Frank says. “Mary’s trying to convince her to make the move herself ‘cause her highness ain’t getting any younger but the way I figure, she’ll outlive all of us, running on meanness.”

 “It can’t be that bad,” I lie.

The truth is, I met the Wicked Witch of the North once, and all I can say is, better him than me.

Frank moved down from New York for the quiet life. Mostly what we see here is your mountain road roll-over, your heart attack, your OD, or the occasional alcohol poisoning on Thursdays and Saturdays (the two big student party days). ‘Course you can double all those unfortunate incidents on football weekends.

Back in the Empire State Frank specialized in jumpers. Says he talked down twenty out of thirty but it was beginning to wear on him. Says he’d rather pump a stomach or pull some redneck out of a creek from an upside down pickup than scrape more stockbroker brains off the sidewalk.

“What about Nick?” Frank asks. “He still in country or off in some Tibetan Monastery?”

“He’s here but I’m taking him to the airport tonight. He’s off for Santa Fe.”

“At least you can drink their water,” Frank says as he stares absently out the window at two humping dogs.

“Somebody should get these fucking dogs out of here,” he says.

I expel more diet coke out my nose.

“Why don’t you go with him?” Frank says. “You could use some time off.”

“Being with Nick on one of his trips, isn’t exactly what I’d call time off,” I say. “If I went with Nick I’d be stumbling up and down some rocky trail. Not exactly restful. I could use more time staring at the inside of my eyelids.  Know what I’m sayin’?”

Frank nods, pours the last of his cold coffee, grounds and all, into his cup and throws it back like some hombrè in a wild-west saloon. He stands, gives me a hug, and a little wave and we go our separate ways.

Nick has a cushy job. Two classes a week in civil engineering gives him mucho free time to work on his book although I don’t know who buys these volumes about urban traffic patterns or the roofless mall, but he manages to use his expertise to get the most out of life while I do a lot of the real work around the house¾small construction projects, household repairs, that sort of thing. For a woman, I’m pretty handy with a power tool. Most see Nick as the brains behind our domestic arrangement, but I don’t think he could drive two nails without mashing one thumb.

I don’t mind though because he’s so pretty.

When I walk in the door, he’s sitting at the breakfast nook, staring at his laptop.

“What have you been up to all day?” I ask, as if I didn’t know.

“I work!” he says.

I tug his salt and pepper ponytail, bringing his lips up to mine.

“Have you and Frank been smoking Parodi’s again?” he asks, making a face.

“Nah. Frank’s given up smoking.”

“What about your day?” Nick says.

“The usual,” I say, surveying the interior of the fridge, hoping for something, not knowing exactly what, and not finding whatever it isn’t. I emerge with a fistful of celery and a container of Philly Cream Cheese Lite.

“Two heart attacks,” I say, crunching my celery. “We got one of them to the ER alive, but I don’t know what happened after we dropped him off ‘cause we got called to a semi tractor-trailer versus PT Cruiser out on the Interstate. The big rig was the winner by a landslide, but I think the mom and kid’ll be OK.”

“What about Daddy?” Nick says, removing the rubber band from his ponytail, shaking out his hair like a super-model.

“Hmm?” I say, my voice dream-like as I watch this feminine act of his. Many of his actions are feminine and graceful, yet in most ways he’s totally male. The guys he plays ball with complain to me about what an animal he is.

“The mister, he says.”

Meester, is how he says it. Nick’s Greek. Nick the Greek.

“It was just the woman and her kid,” I say. “Daddy was probably working, unlike some.”

I punch him on the arm.

Nick’s accent is part of his charm. His female students must love him. I can imagine them watching, chins on fists, elbows on desks, as he undoes his ponytail and shakes out his hair while lecturing on green-spaces, pedestrian thoroughfares and bike paths.

“Want to know what I learned today, Babe?” he asks.

“Tell me.”

Nicks says we should learn something new each day. He says a day without new information is a day wasted. Sometimes I don’t know what he sees in me. I’m not that great looking and I feel stupid around his friends, like other faculty members or the grad students he has over for dinner. They’re almost all foreign and I’m such a yokel. He’s a better cook than me too. The one time I had my friends over, it was a strain. The two groups remained pretty segregated. I tried to get Frank to tell about his jumper experiences, but you could tell that didn’t go over big with the wine and cheese crowd.

“There’s theees giant bat een Spain,” Nick says. “Eeet flies up thousands of feet, then dives to catch a song bird een flight. Eeet wraps eets wings around it, which means eet can get no leeft so eet falls like a rock. But the attack takes place so high up, eet has time to eat the soft parts of the bird while eet’s falling, then just before eet heets the ground, eet drops the carcass and opens eet’s wings like a skydiver opening hees chute at the last second. What do you think?

“Wow!” I say.

But I can’t help thinking of the scene Frank and I got called to last year, the chute didn’t open. 

“Leesten to theees,” he says.

Nick flips open his cell phone and scrolls through to his sounds file. It’s his new hobby, ringtones. He’s spent days downloading various programs with which he can make his own music and other sounds. He’s had the whole day for this nonsense, having finished the latest chapter in his book and having touched up the oft-recycled talk he’s giving two days from now in Santa Fe. He presses a button and the Twentieth Century Fox movie theme plays.

Da ta ta taahhh, ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta tahhh, da da da daaaaah, da da da dahhhh, da da da daaahhhhhhhh!

“I like it,” I say.

“You can have eet. Eet’s so much better that that one you have.”

He put my current ringtone on as well, two years ago, but it’s always bothered him. It’s the same tune but sounds as if it had been pecked out on one of those little electronic mini-pianos using the assortment of tinny rhythms and percussion sounds provided by the Casio Corporation. This one’s the real thing, performed by the Twentieth Century Fox orchestra or whoever.

“I have more,” he says. He plays several, explaining how he used his sound mixing programs to overlay tracks and blend them together. There’s the chattering of the Kookaburra with a backdrop of tree frogs, Jimmi Hendricks’ version of the Star Spangled Banner, a barking Rottweiler accompanied by the high-pitched yipping of a lapdog and finally the howling of a pack of wolves. The wolf pack is led by the mournful cry of a single alpha male who chimes in over the chorus every few seconds.

“I’ll stick with the movie theme, thanks.”

“You sure?”


Nick’s always finagling trips to conferences in the most interesting places he can find, and since his classes both meet on Thursdays (his arrangement also) he can be away for days without even missing “work.” For the rest of us, that can be a little hard to take. On the other hand, I’d just as soon not go along. I’m still recovering from our last vacation. He finds these adventure tours on the Internet and signs up without checking with me first. This one was a three-week death march to Everest base camp, an ugly, unsanitary collection of tents and tanks, bad food and headaches, nausea and weight loss. But who couldn’t shed a few pounds? The whole reward was a giant tailgate party without the burgers and beer and no football game at the end.

Altitude doesn’t bother Nick, but I thought my head was going to bust open. He was in heaven though. He cooked for some of the other expeditions and helped them pack stuff up to camp 1 while I nursed my throbbing head. He even picked up a new religion. Came away with a bunch of prayer flags and a wooden Buddha that now sits in the corner of our living room. The thing has only recently stopped scaring the shit out of me every time I come through the door. Sometimes I come home to find him sitting opposite it, naked, cross-legged with his arms open on his lap. Once it was Nick and three grad students in a circle, two guys and a girl (none naked thank goodness) all ohm-ing to the statue, which as far as I could tell didn’t ohm back.

 Me and Frank, we’re atheists. We’ve seen way more than these enlightened folks, but to each, his or her own, I say.

On the way to the airport, we stop for dinner at Ted’s Montana Grill. I order the buffalo steak and Nick gets the Cobb salad. Our waiter looks at us suspiciously, as if he thinks we have our roles reversed. On the way home from the airport I almost fall asleep at the wheel.

Nick calls me from Santa Fe. His flights were delayed, the usual trouble in Chicago, so he wakes me at two AM my time to let me know he’s OK. He’s giving his paper tomorrow morning but intends to be in the high country by afternoon. On trips to conferences or to testify as an expert witness in some traffic-related manslaughter case, he manages to find time to hike the nearest mountain or kayak the local class-four rapid. He tells me he’ll be out of touch unless he can get his cell to work up there.

On Monday morning I’m trying to sleep in when I get a call from Frank. Something’s gone down on campus. Stella and Porter are on it but he wants me to keep my radio on. I switch on the tube and there’s a mention of what they’re calling an incident on the local news but they don’t know much yet. Campus police are investigating. No big deal. I go back to sleep but keep my radio close by. At about nine all hell breaks loose. Frank calls me and I head down to the hospital. On the radio, ABC News breaks in for a live report. A gunman, perhaps two, is on the loose on campus. When I get down there, Frank’s got the buggy fired up and sirens are wailing. We race along beside police cars, heading to the science building where things are apparently hot.

We arrive to see students jumping out windows and we can hear shots inside. I run toward a girl lying face down on the ground. At first I’m not sure if she’s wounded or injured by her drop from the open window two stories up.  Frank’s suddenly beside me. He grabs her shoulders and I get her legs. We hightail it to the ambulance where we treat her for what we suspect is a broken ankle. Above us a guy appears at a shot out window. He hangs out as if he’s trying to signal to us, then slumps. Even from where we are, we can see blood leaking down his arm. He shows no further signs of life and there’s no way we can get to him.

Sirens, loudspeakers telling everyone to stay inside, black clad S.W.A.T teams running everywhere with automatic weapons at the ready, officers crashing through doorways. Inside the building, the shooter or shooters, maybe police, are firing round after round. It’s a perfect hell. Two students appear at a door and stagger out screaming. The boy keeps going but the girl stumbles and drops. Frank dashes for her, but before he can get there he lurches. He turns back to look at me, holding up one finger as if he’s just remembered something of great importance. He falls face first and bucks once as another shot hits him.

There’s nothing anyone can do at this point to get to either Frank or the girl. Emergency personnel are told to stay put until things cool down. More shots from inside the building, then silence. We wait twenty agonizing minutes, hearing nothing. Orders to the contrary or no, I grab my bag and run for Frank who’s been lying in the open for all this time. I check for a pulse. Nada. I’m still operating on adrenaline and too pumped to feel the grief I know will come later. I run to the girl who’s alive but bleeding from several wounds, arm, leg, somewhere in the abdomen. By this time Porter’s with me and we do the standard lift-and-carry to his ambulance where Stella is waiting. I run back to Frank and signal Porter to help me. We get Frank back to my ambulance, but it’s too late.

Over the police radios we hear that the death toll has topped twenty, many more wounded but there’s nothing we can do until the all clear. They don’t know yet if the shooter is waiting and reloading or among the bodies. At last we get the OK to take out the wounded. I dash in with Porter, Stella and about a hundred other EMTs from all over and we begin saving lives. Police have already black-tagged many of the victims so we look for red tags. After an hour of this, covered in blood myself, I happen upon a room with no signs of life. There must be ten or twelve bodies, some piled on top of one another, one or two behind overturned desks. Apparently they had tried to shield themselves, but the madman just came around and shot them point blank.

Here’s the strangest thing though. In some ways I can’t believe I’m even aware of it but this room, despite all the death, is alive, with the sound of music. Under and next to each body, cell phones are playing happy little tunes, all but one. It belongs to the girl I recognize as one of the grad students sitting cross-legged in front of our Buddha. From her phone comes the howling of wolves. I pick it up and flip it open.

“Hey Babe,” comes the voice on the other end. “How’s eet going?” I flip the phone closed and drop it.

 I was already crying anyway.

Then I notice a movement.

From under one of the bodies, a girl crawls out. She’s unhurt, as far as I can see. She’s been playing dead.

She runs to me and we sink to the linoleum in a tearful hug.

“Let’s get you out of here,” I say.

She gets up but hesitates, looking back at the bodies from which she had emerged like Lazarus.

“My keys,” she says.

“Let’s go,” I say.

The two of us emerge from what seems like a different era into the bright sunshine of a changed world.

BIO:  Darryl Halbrooks has previously published work in The Chaffin Journal, Slow Trains, Broken Bridge, Kudzu, The Gihon River Review, Amoskeag, The Hamilton Stone Review, Dispatch Literary Journal and Spoiled Ink. His awards include First prize, short fiction (2006) Ann Arbor Book Festival, First prize short fiction (2007) Carnegie Center, Lexington KY, Finalist: Stickman Award, New Millennium Writings, Third Coast Prize, The Edelstein Prize in Short Fiction, The Writer's Place Short Fiction Award.