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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cloyne Court- Excerpt 8

Cloyne Court, Episode Eight
By Dodie Katague
Based on a true story that took place in Berkeley, California in the later 1970s.
To the right of the front door, was the telephone switchboard booth, the size of a tollbooth on the Bay Bridge. On one end was the original style-telephone switch panel with the spaghetti maze of quarter inch amplifier jacks, patch board panel and rotary dial like the ones they used in the 1930s before telephone operators were replaced by an electric relay switch. On the other side were mailbox dividers and a stack of unsorted mail and packages.

Sitting in the booth was a woman wearing a telephone operator’s headphone and microphone. She appeared to be about five foot, with short-cropped brown hair and looked normal except for a gold ring in her pierced nose. As she waited for a call to patch through, she sorted the US mail into the mail slots divided by alphabet. Every third piece was dropped into a trashcan outside the booth. “Doesn’t live here. (Drop) She graduated. (Drop) He dropped out. (Drop) Hey Kyd, do we have a Jim Jones living here?”

No answer. (Drop)

“I’m looking for Sandy, the house manager,” I said. “I’m Derek Marston. I’m moving in.”

“I’m Cindy. So, you’re the new guy. I hope you last longer than the last one.”

“What happened to the last one?”

“He was an ex-marine on the G.I. bill. We don’t get too many of those at Berkeley. I guess he couldn’t hack it. You know, the politics, the class work and the magic mushrooms. Kind of wigged out after the last party. He was one of the weird ones.”

She declared this as if ‘weird’ didn’t apply to her. But weirdness is in the eye of the beholder. For all I knew, voting for Gerald Ford was a weird offense punishable by some subliminal shunning. I reminded myself not to disclose that fact.

As she spoke, I saw a flash of gold in her mouth. She had a pierced tongue with a double-knobbed stud sticking through it.

“How do I find the house manager?” I asked.

“Down this hallway, stairwell at the end on the right, up three flights of stairs to the ninth floor, room Nine B.”

I didn’t understand her directions. Did I have to climb nine flights of stairs? Cindy must have seen my puzzled look.

“Listen carefully to me,” she said, then sighed as if she were already bored with what she was about to say. “I’m only going to tell you this once. This ground floor and main hallway are numbered as the fourth floor even though there’s only one floor beneath us. Three floors are in every wing. You are standing in the central wing. The floor above us is the fifth floor, and the floor above that is the sixth floor. Got it?”

“Somewhat,” I answered. “Is the floor beneath us the third floor?”

“No, that’s the basement.”

“Where’s the ninth floor?”

“Good question. The west wing is down the hall in that direction.” She pointed west. Thank God! If she had pointed in a different compass direction, I would have been lost forever in a geographic twilight zone.

She said, “The fourth floor ends where the fire door used to be. So you can’t really tell. Once you walk through that threshold, you are on the seventh floor. Are you still with me?”

“Seventh floor. Got it.”

“Take the staircase up. Above that floor is the eighth floor and above that is the …” She paused to let me fill in the blank, as if to test me on my knowledge.

“The ninth floor?”

“Very good. And on the east wing where the kitchen and dining room are, that’s the first floor, so if you’re following the logic here, the two floors above them are …” She paused again to let me fill in the sentence.

“The second and third floor?”

“Hey, you’re smarter than you look,” she said. “I’ll ring the house manager’s room.” She plugged a cord into a jack and tapped out the Morse code letter ‘B’ on the ringer: Ringgggg Ring Ring Ring. Ringggggg Ring Ring Ring.

“What room was that again?” I asked.

She looked at me with an exasperated glare. “The University must have lowered their admissions standards. You’re the third person this week that has an attention disorder. Nine B.” The phone rang, and she turned away to answer the call.

As I walked down the main hallway, I could see the walls needed a coat of paint. Some glass panes on the multipaneled windows were cracked and opaque from the accumulated dirt and grime. The main-hallway carpet looked recently vacuumed, but the collection of dust in the corners suggested a need for a more competent cleaning. Overflowing trashcans should have been emptied days ago judging from the smell.

I climbed the three flights of stairs to the top floor and came out on floor nine onto a narrow hallway where a rotary phone, sitting on top of an Oakland area Yellow pages, rang. I sidestepped my way around the fifty-foot length of telephone cable snaking back to the telephone jack box at the other end of the hallway.

Every floor had a communal hallway telephone. Each room was assigned the Morse code equivalent of the room letter. When the phone rang on my floor, I listened to the rings to see if it were for me. Of the useless things I learned at Berkeley, I still remember American Morse code. I also learned to hate the Morse code for P, five short rings. The two women who lived in room P received calls all hours of the day and night and never answered their phone on the first set of rings.

Watch for Excerpt 9 tomorrow!

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