Johnny America


An­oth­er Round


Illustration of a hand holding a slip of paper with a phone number written on it.

I saw it next to my com­put­er. A phone num­ber I didn’t rec­og­nize. It was on a scrap of pa­per I didn’t rec­og­nize ei­ther. I had no idea when I wrote it down. Maybe some­one else wrote it down. I stared at it. It beckoned.

So I called the phone num­ber. A voice spoke: “Go to the cor­ner of Hal­st­ed and Di­vi­sion. There will be a phone booth. Wait there for a call. Don’t tell anyone.”

So I did. I took the bus. I hopped on the #8 Hal­st­ed, and when I got to Di­vi­sion the cor­ner was jammed with peo­ple, all cran­ing their necks to get a look at the sole phone booth. There was sort of a line, but it stag­gered here and there, and peo­ple jumped in front of oth­er peo­ple to be clos­er to the phone booth. Plus peo­ple were yelling at each oth­er, curs­ing, push­ing. The whole cor­ner had come alive, like an in­sect with twelve heads and a hun­dred legs, squirm­ing like it had been stepped on.

“Are you in line?” I asked a la­dy who ap­peared to be in front of me. 

“We’re not sup­posed to talk,” she snapped. “Then it won’t work.”

“What won’t work?”

She stood there, push­ing away any­one who tried to cut in line. Her arms were fold­ed. She wore a stern look, a look that scared me with its sense of right­eous­ness and dis­ci­pline. A man got out of the phone booth. He had a dis­cour­aged look on his face and clutched a piece of pa­per. He walked away slow­ly as an­oth­er took his place in the booth.

“It’s a test,” she hissed. “To see if we can fol­low instructions.”

“Oh,” I said. I won­dered how she knew that. 

“Did you call that phone num­ber you found scrib­bled down and couldn’t fig­ure out where it came from?” I asked.

She gave me an­oth­er an­gry glare. A sec­ond man emerged from the phone booth, look­ing wan and pale and dis­ap­point­ed. Like the one be­fore him, he slow­ly walked down Hal­st­ed Street, found a bar, and went inside.

I ex­pect­ed the la­dy to re­ply with some­thing, but she stood there, fum­ing. She was clutch­ing a piece of paper.

Then I felt a tap on my shoul­der. I turned around and faced a man about my age, with a scrap of pa­per. The scrap of pa­per had the same phone num­ber on it that my scrap of pa­per had. I be­gan to think I should have brought it. “Is this the line?” he asked.

I want­ed to an­swer but re­mem­bered what the voice said. “Do not tell any­one.” Was this guy ‘any­one’?  Was I? Did I count?  Did the la­dy count?  I put my fin­gers to my lips in the uni­ver­sal sign for keep­ing the mouth shut. 

The man got of­fend­ed. “Are you telling me to shut up?” he asked. “You want to put up your dukes?”

I shook my head from left to right, then right to left, the uni­ver­sal sign for ‘no.’

“Damn right,” he said. “Scared, aren’t you?”

I shook my head up and down, down and up, the uni­ver­sal sign for well, you know.

The sun reached its zenith. Hal­st­ed got hot­ter. Peo­ple ar­gued, fought, yam­mered in line. Some gave up and went home. Fi­nal­ly, the la­dy in front of me went in the phone booth, closed the door, and I heard the phone ring. She said one word, and then she hung up.

“Ass­hole,” she said to me as she walked down Hal­st­ed Street, and went in the bar the first man went in. Now it was my turn.

I en­tered the phone booth. It was claus­tro­pho­bic and hot. I didn’t know what to ex­pect. I had no piece of pa­per with me. I was emo­tion­al­ly naked. I was wait­ing for some­thing, des­per­ate, cu­ri­ous, ea­ger to find out what the phone call might be about, hop­ing not to be dis­cour­aged. The phone rang.

“Did you talk to any­one?” the voice asked.

I de­cid­ed to lie. “No,” I said.

“Not to any­one in line?” the voice persisted.

“No,” I repeated.

“OK, here’s the deal, ass­hole. Hang up, walk down Hal­st­ed Street and pre­tend to look dis­cour­aged. You’ll find a bar. Walk in and or­der a light beer. Don’t talk to any­one ex­cept the bar­tender. You’ve made it this far, friend. Don’t screw it up.”

I walked out of the phone booth, kicked the side­walk like it was my worst en­e­my and slow­ly head­ed to the bar, which was now so full that the crowd spilled out on­to the side­walk. A sign out­side the bar said:

Light Beer — $50

Every­one was qui­et­ly buy­ing drinks. There was an air of ex­pec­ta­tion, but the sub­dued, qui­et kind of ex­pec­ta­tion you some­times see when peo­ple have to work ex­tra hard to con­vince them­selves that some­thing is le­git when it’s not. Julius Cae­sar once said, “Men will be­lieve what they wish to be true.” Great in­sight, but look what hap­pened to old Julius. I rec­og­nized the peo­ple here as folks who had pre­ced­ed me in line. I worked my way to the bar, el­bow­ing in front of peo­ple block­ing my path, par­don­ing my­self and se­cret­ly ap­plaud­ing my good luck in be­ing un­like them.

“What’ll you have, ass­hole?” the bar­tender asked.

With a greet­ing like that, I knew I had it made. I was so over­joyed; I threw down my light beer and or­dered an­oth­er. It was on­ly $60.

Filed under Fiction on April 2nd, 2021

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Reader Comments

Hazi Smith wrote:

I like it. Makes me want a beer.

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