In first grade, my teacher went around the room and asked every student to recite his/her address and phone. My class had 12 kids in it; it was the only first grade class in the entire school. 3 of the 12 were my cousins. Up and down the rows she went, until she got to me. With my denim overalls and cowlick like Dennis the Menace, I proudly pronounced 7 digits as my own.
Yet my teacher looked perplexed. I had not recited the phone number on the contact information she had in front of her. She wrote a note home to my parents, letting them know that I needed to work on memorizing the proper phone number for class.
My mother, at the ripe old age of 26, was all too familiar with notes from my first grade teacher; but this one confused her. Sitting at the table, taking off her white pumps, her smell a blend of sweat, nylons, and deep fryer from the diner where she waited tables--she looked at me with those tired, old eyes and asked me our phone number.
Again, the same 7 digits, I proclaimed, proudly. Her long blonde hair, parted in the middle, a style out of date for 1985, hung in long strands as she tilted her head at me like a confused puppy.
Then, a revelation. She grabed the phone book, fanned it open to a page, and asked me to say it again.
The same 7 digits, and her face fell: I had recited the phone number of the local tavern.
Whenever my father was late coming home, my mother always knew where he had run off to. She would tell me or my sister to pick up the phone, and she would tell us the number to dial. I can still see the dial on that baby blue rotary phone spin as she called out the digits like a bingo caller. My mother was not stupid; having one of us call fueled the Catholic guilt firmly embedded in my father, and he would start his trek home in that beat up blue Duster we owned--the one with the ripped upholstery my sister loved to pull out and blow out the window, like blowing fluff off dandelions and making a wish.
My parents were and still are very social people. My whole childhood can be measured by the trail of quarters put in various video games to keep me occupied in bars across two different states; my teenage years can be counted by the odometer on our Oldsmobile that I drove across the backroads on Thursday nights when my father played in tavern league softball--I was 14 at the time that started; and even my adult visits can be seen best through the visits of various VFW posts in the state of Texas where my parents have lived for the past decade.
It is how I learned to entertain myself, to blend into the wall, to be silent. I wasn't there to be part of the social club; I was there to avoid paying a sitter, to play chaueffer, or to be carted around as the kid who is doing something with his life (my sister is constantly between jobs...). I certainly am not expected to speak.
During the Christmas holiday, three years ago, my mother surprised my grandmother by coming to Wisconsin. I drove her from the airport to the northern most region of the state...in a blizzard. On Christmas Eve night, my mother had me take her to a bar so she could play a slot machine--for 5 hours. No one was there, I slept in my car, and a police officer stopped by and gave me a breathalyzer test, assuming I had passed out in my car.
Ironically, first grade came back to me at that moment. I wanted to say to him, "Well, officer, I'm not drunk. I'm just the driver. In fact I know the phone number of this bar--I learned it 25 years ago, and I've never forgotten it...but don't ask me the phone number for my home--for some reason I never could get that one down...."
And when I relayed the story to my mother, after going back into the bar, she didn't even avert her gaze from the spinning fruits on the machine: "I didn't even notice you had left," she said, cigarette dangling from her mouth.