White Courtesy Telephone

The moving walkway in the IAB terminal was interminable and the building, in Houston's August, did not seem to be air-conditioned at all. For an eternity, Paul stared at a little newsstand at the end of the visible hall; when the walkway finally dumped him in front of it, he turned a corner and was pleased to be in a more spacious area which included a food court and a bookstore. Although his destination was still twelve gates away, he had almost three hours until his flight, due to the vagaries of scheduling from Lubbock, home of the Buddy Holly Walk of Fame. Re-adjusting his three carry-ons--the laptop, the garment bag and the small suitcase-- he went into the bookstore to look for his book.

At the bottom of the science fiction section was a shelf of works based on television shows and movies; there were others there from the same publisher, but his novelization of Rogue Orb was not present. Vaguely depressed, he selected an old novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, a writer he much admired, and went to buy it from the suddenly interested clerk-- typical Texas bland English good looks, too much make-up--when he suddenly heard an announcement over the public address system:

"Deirdre Tanaka, please dial 3400 on the nearest white courtesy telephone."

His heart pounding furiously, Paul stood frozen; after holding out his change to him a long moment, the clerk asked, "Are you all right, sir?" He took his money and book and bolted from the store; as soon as he had rounded the corner so that she could no longer see him, Paul stopped still so abruptly that he was almost hit by an electric cart, whose driver was calling out the words "Cart-- beep beep". To buy himself some time to think through what had just happened, Paul went up to the counter of Mr. Gordon's Cookies and asked for a Dr. Pepper. He was in that anxiety state where he fancied that everyone was looking at him strangely, as the clerk had; he knew he had a decision to make, and that there was only a minute or two to make it. Deirdre would find a white courtesy telephone and answer her page; then she would go on and board a flight somewhere, and be lost. He had once stood aboard a fast-traveling large ferry in Hawaii, and been looking down into the water at the exact moment when an interacting effect of the reef and the light coming down from above had made a small patch of water translucent, just long enough for him to see a dolphin racing the boat twenty feet below; the clear spot had occluded an instant later. This moment was like that one.

He still could not decide what to do, and delayed another minute by reading the sign on Mr. Gordon's counter:

"All food stands are individually owned and operated. Please ask for condiments, water and cutlery at the stand where you bought your food. Thank you."

He broke away and asked a startled stewardess, walking past with her little wheeled suitcase following obediently behind her: "Where can I find a white courtesy telephone?" She gestured wordlessly and he saw a little counter, about ten yards away, with the lonely white phone sitting on it. He was there in a leap, terrified that some quarrelsome person would get there before him.

"May I help you?" asked a female voice which was all the essentially neutral but friendly sounding electronic female voices of the world distilled into one.

"I need to page Deirdre Tanaka," Paul said.

"Is she a passenger?"

"Yes," Paul said, desperately hoping she would ask no more questions.

"Where in the airport is she supposed to be?"

He had no idea; but it came to him suddenly that he had heard her paged in IAB, so here she must be. He told the voice and she said, "Hang up. I'll call you back if she answers."

He hung up and a moment later, heard: "Deirdre Tanaka, please dial 3700 on the white courtesy telephone."

He waited an excruciating moment--he was sweating--before the phone rang. He seized it up and heard Deirdre--unmistakably Deirdre's fluid, assured voice--saying "Yes?"

"Deirdre," he said, audibly trembling, "Its Paul."

After a moment of silence he felt the need to say, "Paul Banner."

"Paul," Deirdre said, "How is this possible?"

"I'm in the Houston airport, like you, and a moment ago I heard you paged," he said. "So I took a shot."

"How long has it been?"

"Eleven years."

Deirdre's laugh verged on the baritone. "Paul Banner," she said. "I' m finally really interested in someone again. Well, as they say, timing is everything."

Paul was trying to think six moves ahead, as in a chess game. Everything which presented itself to him seemed like a pick-up line. He wanted to say, "Be interested in me," but he knew that was the wrong way to go. He also wanted to start slow and ask her where she lived now, and what she did. But she might not have time.

"Deirdre, I know this is very strange. Do you have a minute to talk to me, or is your flight leaving immediately?"

"I have a minute or two."

Please, please, please, he thought, volunteer to meet me. But she didn't.

Do I talk to her about my own life, or do I make my pitch? He felt like a piece of direct mail, which has roughly thirteen seconds to interest the reader before being consigned to the trash.

I have done pitch meetings, for book ideas and for movie scripts as well, where I have learned the art of encapsulating a whole story in a catchy sentence.

"Deirdre, I have known for eleven years that I acted like an arrogant young moron. In the time since, I have had other relationships, but I haven't met anyone who meant as much to me as you did. Not a day goes by where I don't think of you for at least a moment, and I would welcome the chance to repair what I did. If I can't do that, then at least I'd like to be your friend."

There was a long silence then. Finally, Deirdre said, "Well, Paul Banner...you still have it."

That's not good, is it. "Still have what?"

"The patter," she said.

"This isn't patter."

"This is actually sweet," she said, and for a moment Paul wanted to believe that she meant "you're very sweet." But he immediately saw that "this is actually sweet," meant something very much like "victory is sweet" or even "revenge is sweet".

"I used to daydream sometimes that you would come back all sorry and beg forgiveness."

"I beg forgiveness," Paul said.

"In my daydream, you were strung out, shaky, not even good looking any more, and you needed me to take care of you."

"Please let me in."

That startled laugh again. "That's really remarkable. That's what you used to say in the fantasy."

I'm in between....I'm alive. She's not giving an inch but I'm still on the phone.

"I have a suggestion to make," he said. "If you have time. I'm at the white courtesy telephone opposite gate IAB 12. Please come and meet me. We can get an iced decaf cappucino at Gordon's Cookies and talk a little while."

But he had said a wrong thing.

"Paul Banner....you're confused. You were the one who liked the iced decaf cappucinos. Not me."

Paul was staggered. Deirdre was right. When he thought of her he thought of iced decaf cappucinos in the street cafe at Capulet's on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. After classes at NYU film school. But it had been his drink. Deirdre would take a cup of hot black coffee.

"You're right," he said. "Listen, Deirdre. Then tell me where you are and I'll come to you. Or if you don't have time, give me a phone number. Or take mine down." She was quiet. "I looked for you. It was about four years later. It took me that long to figure out I was an idiot. But I couldn't find you anywhere. I have no idea where in the United States you live."

"I may not even live in the U.S."

He was deflated. "Now you're playing games with me."

"You're right. I'm sorry. But you are a man who walked out of my life under really disgusting circumstances eleven years ago. You suddenly page me in an airport. I don't know who you are today or what you're up to. I didn't even know you then. I only thought I knew who you were."

"Well. If you have the time, I can tell you all about me. I'd just like to sit with you somewhere and talk in person. This phone doesn't cut it. Though its really good to hear your voice."

"IAB 12, you said."

He soared. She was considering it.

"That's it. Will you come?"

"I don't know yet. Paul, I lied about something else. I have kept up with you."

"You have?"

"I know you've published three books. I read Child of Wards. I know your latest is a novelization of Rogue Orb." Paul sank again. He hated "novelization".

Deirdre continued, "I have a question for you. Its not a very polite question."

"Fire away." He was mentally prepared to answer any question about lies, infidelity, alcohol or drugs. But she said:

"Rogue Orb was a great book. I meant the original one. I don't know if you remember we read it together. You turned me on to it."

His heart hurt him as he remembered the Brooklyn Heights apartment with the large window overlooking the rear courtyard on Willow Street. There had still sometimes been fireflies in the summer then, and the air had that fresh summer-night quality from childhood. Smart beautiful Deirdre in her long childlike nightgown lay on the couch with her head in his lap and by the light of the small snake-necked lamp he read to her from Rogue Orb.

"So," Deirdre said, and it seemed to him her tone was harder-- he remembered angry Deirdre, accusatory Deirdre, in their last days-- "along comes Aurthur L. Mintz, mangler of novels--the man is a very serious mangler--and produces a really awful movie called Rogue Orb, which purports to be based on that marvelous book. But it really isn't. Its set on a planet with the right name, and the protagonist is also called the same thing. But there is a killer android, like the Terminator, and an alien, like in the movie Alien, neither of which were in Rogue Orb." He was quiet now. "Yes," he said after a moment. "It was a very bad movie."

"And then, in the footsteps of Aurthur L. Mintz, along comes Paul Banner. And someone--I don't know if it was Aurthur L. Mintz or Paul Banner or some unknown genius--suggests that it would not be wise to re-issue Rogue Orb in connection with the movie. First, its five hundred pages long, and rather densely if beautifully written. Second, readers will find neither the android or the alien of their desire. Someone doubtless imagined throngs of disappointed movie-goers, who had been anxious to re-live their movie experience, lining up at bookstores to return Rogue Orb. So Paul Banner is contracted to write a novelization of the movie based on this great book. An imitation of an imitation, so to speak."

Paul had stopped attending science fiction conventions which grouped authors and readers, and now went only to those which centered on movies and television. People who never read any other kind of book loved his Rogue Orb, because it was faithful to the movie, with a few additional scenes, a little bit of "back-story" and some explanations of the movie's more incoherent moments. People who had read the original Rogue Orb hated his; in fact, they thought it was a travesty. As Deirdre did. At the last science fiction novelist convention he had attended, three readers had approached him separately and spewed vituperation. He had tried a different answer to each and none had turned away wrath.

"Its a tribute to the book," had been his first answer. To the second reader, he had said, "I loved the original and felt I could protect it by doing a novelization as close in spirit as possible. If it hadn't been me, it would have been someone who had never read Rogue Orb." To the third, he said, "Its a living."

Deirdre was harder than she had been eleven years ago. She had had brilliant moments of sarcasm, but they had not been sustained. She had been too tender-hearted and had enjoyed life too much to be bitter.

"Mea culpa," was all Paul could find to say.

"That's all you have to say? Paul Banner! Stand up for yourself! Justify your choices!"

Paul felt like a weary child, a wizened science fiction child one thousand years old. "Maybe I'm doing what I was cut out to do."

"Ah, self pity," Deirdre said.

"Please. You're still on the phone with me for a reason." Was he regaining control, or provoking her to hang up? "If my life is unsatisfactory, tell me about yours."

"Oh, I'm not done with you yet. The script from film school?"

"Purchased, as you knew, but never produced."

"I knew that. I watched for it. My guess is, the money lasted four years."

Admit it? She would know he had started searching for her when the money ran out. It sounded mercenary; but the money had symbolized first hope, then self-delusion. He preferred to think he had searched for her when the self-delusion ran out. When the arrogance ended.

He could not lie to her in this conversation. It would be deadly; she would know. "Yes. Four years."

"Aha," Deirdre said, apparently pleased with herself. "So you started looking for me then. But I was gone."

"You left New York."

"New York had nothing left for me. I had no interest in it. New York was you."

"You know," he said, "I have only good memories of us."

First flare of actual anger. "Spoken like the liar who left. The one who leaves only has good memories. I have no good memories of us. I only remember two years of my life during which nothing I believed turned out to be true. I was wrong in every particular. And it fell apart in a day."

He had a manuscript on disk at home which was almost autobiographical. He had always hated time travel stories; but five years after leaving Deirdre, he had written one which was almost mainstream fiction. Except at the end the protagonist went back in time and fixed everything. His agent had little confidence in it and two editors had told him it was trite and unpublishable.

So he told her about it.

She didn't say she wanted to read it. Instead: "Paul Banner."


"What do you believe in?"

"I believe in you." He was startled by his words. They had the honesty of being uttered without any forethought; but he had absolutely no idea what effect they would have on her.

"In me! But what about you?"


"I remember saying to you, at least once before, that before I would salute a Banner, I need to know what it stands for."

"Deirdre," he said to the white courtesy telephone. "I had an answer to that question in 1983, and it was a completely wrong one. Isn't it possible--isn't it just possible--that I'm a better man now, without an answer, than I was with one?"

"Yes," she admitted, "you sound more honest than you ever did. Though you used to feign honesty quite convincingly. Maybe you are now."

"Oh, if I were faking, I would have come up with a dozen better stories. Please, Deirdre, I want to see you. Just for a few minutes, so we can talk."

"IAB 12."

"Yes. Will you come?"

"I'll think about it."

I'll think about it means yes, he remembered. When he had first wanted to make love to her, I'll think about it meant yes. It had meant yes when they moved in together. When they discussed marriage.

"I'll be waiting."

Paul sat down near the gate, in sight of the white courtesy phone. He was hopeful for thirty minutes. At the end of an hour, he was rageful, at himself and at her. For a little while he wanted to page her again, but wouldn't. All the pride he thought he had lost boiled up again, a return of the repressed. It was a nasty, violent pride, and he could not control it: he wanted to turn the tables, plan revenge, harm her in some way. As he had before. He wondered, and not for the first time, if he had harmed her before because of an attack of arrogance after selling the script, as he usually thought, or because he wasn't up to her, as he sometimes thought. Because again he was inadequate and violent.

By the end of the second hour, he was quiet inside and when he boarded his flight, he was pre-occupied with the plot of Rogue Orb II: The Return to Willow Peak.

Some years later, when he again passed through Houston, he opened a phone book and found Deirdre Tanaka. She had not been passing through on the way to anywhere; she lived there. But he didn't call her.

If he had, he might have found out that Deirdre Tanaka had come into his field of vision at gate IAB 12. She was wearing sunglasses and had tied her kerchief around her head. Deirdre was no longer thin, and her hair, like her mother's and grandmother's before her, had gone prematurely gray; the color she had dyed it was much redder than the shade of eleven years before. When Paul's gaze passed by her vacantly, Deirdre turned away, got back on the walkway, and followed the signs to the taxi stand.