by Donna Miscolta
Adela adjusted the brightness on her TV screen, dimming the picture until the whites turned to gray and the blues ran to black. Then she turned her head sideways, as if to provide the couple some privacy — a needless but civil concession. Still, Adela looked, stealing glances at their faces, their flared nostrils and wild eyebrows, their mouths pulled back like stretched rubber bands releasing again and again a noisy rush of complaints. Infidelity. Hopelessness. Abandonment. Psoriasis, hair loss, bunions. Adela shook her head, clucked softly in commiseration. Soon though, the shouts and insults, which grew in decibel but not variety, began to bore even Adela, who monitored the TV talk shows out of a sense of obligation, believing that the beam from her antenna that registered her channel choice with the Nielsen ratings somehow offered support to the aggrieved, the distraught, the fearful, the angry, the clandestinely lonely who aired their troubles to smooth-toned, large-gesturing talk show hosts and their audiences of ordinary people.
Adela scribbled a few notes, then clicked the remote control in her hand. More anxiety. A row of plush swivel chairs and in them a half dozen anorexic women, their clothes slack against the sharp angles of their hyper-thin bodies. Legs and arms boldly bared, they posed to simulate the jaunty attitude of store mannequins but succeeded only in mirroring the obstinate blankness of their eyes. Adela watched as the talk show host weaved his microphone among the members of the audience, and they stood in turn to cajole, berate, or counsel the women into recognizing their grotesqueness. But the women responded only with vague movements of their lips and small shivers of their bony shoulders meant to be careless shrugs.
The television camera moved in and out, magnifying a part and then telescoping the whole of a shrunken woman inside its inquisitive lens. It focused on a hand, splayed with the skeletal grace of a chicken’s foot. It rested on a neck rising from the scooped-out hollow of the collar bone. Then it encircled its subject whole, drawing back slowly, threatening to reduce the dwindled body even more.
Adela lowered her head in her hands, cupping her palms over her ears, making ocean sounds to drown out the loneliness of the women on TV. “Starve, raking mad,” muttered Adela. The words rang strange, imprecise, but she knew what she meant. Hadn’t she expressed her thoughts in neatly typed, double-spaced lines in letter after letter to the mayor, the Better Business Bureau, the School Board, her parish priest, the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the president’s wife, Dionne Warwick, Dear Abby on every issue that threatened in the least way the survival of the planet? The answers had come back — polite, spell-checked, and on recycled paper. But, on the whole, they were unsatisfying, inconclusive, and, Adela thought, a little dismissive. They were doing their best to address the problems of the homeless, mediocre science and math scores, affirmative action, the ozone layer, hormone replacement therapy, earthquakes, isolation, desolation, obliteration. But with what results? The parade of the forlorn, the forsaken, the dispossessed continued on TV — daytime, prime time, late night, every night. As if to prove her point, she seized the remote control and began clicking, her wrist snapping vigorously as she turned the kaleidoscope of adulterers, plagiarists, addicts, amnesiacs, and generic misfits on the 17-inch portable she kept perched on her dining room table.
Adela switched off the TV, saw her reflection in the green tube, its curvature elongating her face, its color camouflaging her worry. She turned her head from side to side as if she were facing an audience, wanting to show that she was equal to their scrutiny. She held the remote control to her mouth, her arm angled away from her body as if someone else, a TV talk show host with manicured hands and a diamond wristwatch, were holding a microphone to her. Adela cleared her throat and drew a breath, but before she could speak, before she could recite her own pain to some imagined audience, the telephone rang, and she watched herself jump in the vacant TV screen. Adela leaned closer into her reflection and hurriedly patted her hair, moved her bifocals farther up her nose, wet her lips. She cleared her throat again and picked up the phone, placed companionably near the TV.
“Hello?” Adela made her voice both friendly and professional sounding. She hadn’t answered phones all those years at the overdue desk of the city library for nothing.
A voice just like her own, polished, and courteous, only younger, came back over the line and nestled importantly into her ear. “Good afternoon. Mrs. Foster?”
Adela could not disguise the disappointment in her voice. “Sorry, you have the wrong number.”
“Well, are you the lady of the house?”
Adela brightened. “Yes, I am.”
“Excellent,” the caller exclaimed, and Adela felt as if she had been congratulated for something. She pressed the phone closer to her ear.
“Ma’am, I’m calling on behalf of Ideal Solutions Incorporated. You’ve heard of us, of course.”
Adela hadn’t. “Of course,” she replied.
“Then you know that our product outsells our closest competitor by fifteen percent?”
Adela was ready with another “of course” but it was unnecessary, since the caller proceeded to deliver a pitch that was, except for a mispronounced word and a couple of misplaced inflections, pleasingly rehearsed. Adela listened to the composed voice of her caller and the comforting words of protection and accommodation that flowed so generously through the telephone wire. Words like “guarantee,” “flexible terms,” “no-fault.” It was a speech filled with compassion, Adela thought. A voice she could trust. Adela felt her heart beating with hope as she nodded her head and uttered a few syllables of assent now and then to the caller’s earnest testimony. When the caller came to the end of her speech, the last lines lively with rhyme and recited with zestful optimism, Adela promised to send a check.
“Well, thank you so much.” The caller was cheery, but clearly had concluded her script.
Adela spoke quickly. “What did you say your name was?” She cupped her free ear with her hand as if to keep the answer from escaping.
“Tiffany,” came the reply.
“Tiffany,” said Adela. “Tiffany,” she said again. “Would you like to come over for dinner sometime?”
After a moment of silence, Tiffany giggled. Then the line clicked dead, so there was only the dial tone — a steady, indifferent buzz in Adela’s ear. Adela looked at her long, distorted face in the green tube of the television, watched her lips move like the silent puckerings of a fish behind glass. She let her arm slump down, her finger finding the power button of the remote control. She pumped the volume until the voices filled the room.
Donna Miscolta is the award-winning author of three books of fiction: When the de la Cruz Family Danced, Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories, and Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories. Her second book, Hola and Goodbye, won an Independent Publishers award for Best Regional Fiction and an International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction. Living Color was named to the 2020 Latino Books of the Year list by the Los Camadres and Friends National Latino Book Club. She has work forthcoming in Indomitable/Indomables: A multigenre Chicanx/Latinx Women’s Anthology. Miscolta’s next project, which received funding from 4Culture, is a series of essays on family, identity, and heritage. Find more information about her work at donnamiscolta.com.
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