Long Distance Call – New Nonfiction by Claudia Miriam Reed

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Nonfiction

Long Distance Call


  • Gone
  • The Balance of the Universe
  • The Days of Free Everything
  • The Apartment
  • The Tea Cups
  • Fiesta
  • Microeconomics
  • The Man on the Bus
  • The Man at the Curb
  • The Man Who Swallowed His Soul
  • Care Home
  • Long Distance Call
  • One of Mine


She smiles the way the kids do when they knock somebody down at recess. “Order anything you want!” she says, opening her arms like the picture where Cinderella gets to be the queen. She winks at me when I order oatmeal with butter; and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. 

We’re done with breakfast. The dining car waiter keeps pointing at the price on the menu.

“That’s not what it was worth,” she says. “This is what it was worth.” She smooths out a one dollar bill and lines up three quarters on top in a perfect row. 

We’re getting off the train. Two policemen are staring at us and talking to a fat man in a gray suit. They rush up at us. They turn her around and take her away from me. 

In the hospital courtyard, she’s Beautiful Snow White. She’s wearing a long white gown and her curly black hair flows down her back. The willow trees bow as she sweeps past them on her way to me. Her wordless soprano arias lift in the opposite direction, astounding the treetops and electrifying the birds. We hold hands and skip-walk. We click our shoes on the magic paths that curve around the trees. We settle on a bench made of white lace. 

She nods toward an old woman across the path.

“That’s my Dear Grandmother Rifka who loves me very much.”

Dear Grandmother Rifka doesn’t look at us. She sits on her own white lace and looks at her slippers. My companion folds her hands like a good little girl, waiting. 

A nurse blocks us so we can’t see Dear Grandmother Rifka anymore. “It’s time for your daughter to go so you can get some rest.”

When I leave with the nurse, the paths stop being magical. 

The Balance of the Universe

John is lying naked in the back seat of my car. 

“I have to go to work.” 

“Work. You have to go to work. That means you have to drive.” 

Having explained the situation to both of us, John rolls up the sleeping bag he had spread across the seat and lumbers off into the woods. A shaggy blond bear. 

When I return home, John is inside my unlocked cabin activating a precisely balanced network of twigs, thread, leaves and pine needles on the flat surface of the wood stove. Lightly tapped, the top portion revolves slowly, while the base remaines in place.

“I need to build a fire.” 

“This represents the balance of the universe.” 

“Yes, but I’m cold.” 

“You’re cold. That means you want to build a fire. That means I have to move this.”

“Maybe you can set it up someplace else.”

“No, when it’s gone, it’s gone.” 

Sadly, one item at a time, he dismantles his assemblage.

John is a purist. He’s also a complete pacifist and totally honest in all situations. That makes him unfit for Western Civilization.

The Days of Free Everything

He’s presiding over Harvard Square, a demigod in a long white robe that hangs loosely and splendidly over a rippling brown body. 

“Spare a hug?” he asks everyone within earshot, although it’s clear that he’ll be giving, rather than receiving.

“Sure,” I say, stepping into a loving embrace. And encountering a solid hard-on.

“See what you did?” 

“I don’t think so. I think you were that way to begin with.”

“I think you’re right.” He seems happy that I know his magic trick.

If he asks whether I can spare a fuck to go with that, I’ll have to think it over. Maybe I should ask his name.

The Apartment

I’ve got the map and the ad. 1 bd pt furn 191 Stanton #18 $75 + sec dep. The bus door folds open into a blast furnace called Delancey Street.  

One ninety one Stanton is a huge brick box. Six stories of blank windows, barred on the first floor. And somebody peed in the front hall. There’s a professionally lettered sign on one of the doors: D. Rappaport. Must be the manager’s office. Must be the towering, cadaverous man inside is D. Rappaport. 

He shuffles into the hallway, head bent, to show me the apartment, but not until he locks the office door, pulls a folding metal gate across it, and locks that, too. On the stairs — there aren’t any elevators — I can see through the windows into a matching building next door.  Everyone over there is Black. Everyone over here is white. “Less trouble that way,” explains the manager, who is also the owner.

On the third floor, the door marked 18 is oversized, institutional green, and metal. He unlocks it. In the main room there’s . . . a bathtub? It’s opposite the stove and refrigerator and covered with a sheet of plywood. That must be where you wash your dishes; there isn’t any sink. The only window is across the back wall at the other end of the room. I step forward to see what’s outside. Rappaport steps forward just behind me like an ominous shadow. He’s preventing me from stealing the refrigerator. The refrigerator must be the pt furn. There’s nothing else removable in here.

The view from the window is gray, like Rappaport. The poor sunlight has nothing to reveal but a paved-over courtyard dimmed by surrounding buildings and imprisoned by a high, chain-link fence. One small tree is trying to survive in a square cut out of the concrete; looks like it’s ready to bend over and quit.

“Bedroom,” says Rappaport, opening the narrow door of a windowless space that was probably intended to be a closet. Now, it’s intended to be a bedroom and a closet. The closet part is the bar running from wall to adjacent wall across a corner of the room.

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“In the hall. Do you want the place?”

No. But it beats sleeping in Central Park. I give Rappaport six twenty-dollar bills, two tens, one five and five ones. He holds out his long hand, palm up, and counts the bills silently as they land. After straightening and pocketing the assortment, he hands me the key and shuffles back to his coffin.

The Tea Cups

“Are you clean? I’m looking for a nice, clean girl.”

He’s studying me the way a hungry person studies a peach found on the street. Is it edible or a source of ptomaine poisoning? 

“I’m clean but I’m not a prostitute,” I answer helpfully.

He nods and wanders off in search of a safe commodity. 

No one confronts me on the return trip from Post Office General Delivery. I’m bringing back the boxes I mailed to myself from the last city and prostitutes don’t drag dollies loaded with five cartons of household goods secured with bungee cords. The men who want free sex are pretending not to notice me; they want it really free: no money and no labor. 

My load rattles its way back to one ninety one. Should I try to pull the whole rig up to my apartment? I imagine walking backwards up two flights of stairs, losing my grip, and watching everything roll back down and crash. Do I carry the cartons up one at a time? There isn’t any elevator, remember?

An old man is watching me. Watery eyes above a bulbous red nose with enlarged pores. He’s sitting on a kitchen chair he must have dragged onto the sidewalk from his apartment, the one with the open door, clinging to the side of the building like a barnacle. 

“You moving in here?”

“Third floor.” 

“You have cups?”

I’m running through all the possible translations. Maybe he just means cups.

“I just brought one. I figure I can buy some more if I need to.”

“I’ll give you some cups. I have some real pretty ones.” 

Without waiting for a response, he struggles into a standing position and propels himself toward his apartment, leading by his bony shoulders and slowed down by one unbending leg. Step-drag. Step-drag. Step-drag. He’s expecting me to follow. Well, why not?  He can’t hurt me. He’s a head taller than I am but not much wider. One kick would double him over.

As we pass through the door, close together, I smell the aura of stale wine he’s emitting. It’s coming from his breath and his body, not from his white t-shirt and gray slacks, which appear to be clean. His tiny room is clean, as well, nearly half of it filled with a narrow bed made up with perfect hospital corners and covered with a brown Army blanket. US Military Retired? The bed doubles as a sofa with the help of two hard pillows leaning against the wall, one of them reading NYU. 

“So you went to NYU?”

“No. I wanted to. The only place I went was to hell.”

I don’t ask.

Now he’s standing in front of a wall-mounted shadow box full of ornate 19th Century teacups. 

“You can have three.” 

“Were they in your family?”

“They were in second-hand stores. Most of the stuff in there is crap but once in a while you get something good.”

“These are more than good. If you had the right buyer, they’d be worth a lot of money.”

My benefactor, whose name is Glenn, is impatient, possibly in pain, swaying on his unsteady legs. Between gritted teeth he repeats, “You can have three!”

Guiltily, I pick the prettiest ones: a fluted turquoise with a scattering of tiny, cobalt blue flowers; a light green with dark green leaves and a gold rim; a cream with a rim lavishly bordered in roses. I stack one inside the other and hold them against my chest — which means I can’t push Glenn away when he tries to obtain a thank you kiss. I turn my head to one side but he manages to slobber on the side of my mouth. As soon as I get upstairs, I’ll wash my mouth in the sink . . . There isn’t any sink, remember? I’ll have to lift the plywood off the living room bathtub and lean down.

Back outside, I lower the cups carefully to the sidewalk and lift the top carton off the dolly. It’s the one with my drawings, brushes, watercolors, a few books . . . I tuck the cups into the next one down, wrapping them up in towels and wash clothes.

I packed these containers to be light enough to carry but I didn’t factor in the stairs — or the heat. Okay. I’ve made it to the second-floor landing with the first box but I feel like I’m going to pass out. I’m afraid of what I might be rubbing against but I need to lean on the wall. One more flight. One carton delivered. Four more to go. I’m back downstairs for the next . . . Hey! There are only three!

In the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of a sidewalk full of passersby, somebody stole my second carton of possessions — pretty cups and all.


A couple of blocks down, a fountain is leaping into the air, arcing into the street, soaking the parked cars. Kids are running through, shrieking with joy and cold water. The little round guy standing next to the open fire hydrant with a wrench in his hand and his belly button showing is everybody’s hero. 

I edge close enough for the spray to cool me down and the music to heat me up. Rhythm is blasting from the speakers in front of La Tienda Boricua: congas, bongos, guiros, timbales . . . Three women are dancing a mambo on the sidewalk. Even the barefoot, water-soaked kids can’t help working their hips. 

The cops are furious. They’re leaping out of their cars, shutting off the water, yelling  “Who did this?” People are yelling back in English and Spanish and waving their arms. No one has the slightest idea who opened the hydrant. The kids are back on the sidewalk, shivering and being wrapped with towels. The cops are shutting off the music, too. Why? Whose peace is being disturbed? Everyone’s leaving. The grocers are pulling the speakers back into the silent storefront. The mothers are leading the little ones home, leaving a trail of wet footprints. The sidewalks are empty.


 “Excuse me. Do you mind if I take some of those home?” I’m pointing at the bruised fruit the street vendor is removing from his display and dumping into a carton. 

“Take them all,” he says, handing me a large bag. I thank him although we both realize he’s not being generous. The more damaged fruit I carry home, the less he has to get rid of. All in all, it’s a good catch. The carton smells more like fruit salad than garbage; must be this afternoon’s throw-aways. Most of the apricots are squishy. But there’s a lot of solid stuff left on the pears and even some of the peaches. Nothing wrong with the apples but a few, small soft spots. I’ve got the bag half full and there’s more to claim. . . 

“You don’t need to do that. Let me buy you some good fruit.”

A customer in a gray suit is flashing a self-congratulatory smile; condescension oozes out of him like flatulence. 

“Thank you but I’m doing fine. There’s no point in throwing away perfectly good food.”

“That is not perfectly good food. I’m happy to buy you something fresh.”

He doesn’t look happy. He looks angry. I straighten up to confront him: “Are you aware that our entire economy is built on waste?”

He’s furious. “OK. Go ahead! Beat yourself up!”

Of the two of us, he’s the one who looks beaten. I’m enjoying the discovery of four nearly perfect peaches. 

“Bad temper,” I say to the vendor when the suited man huffs off. 

“You ruined his day.”

The Man on the Bus

He’s at back of the bus, engrossed in whatever he’s writing. From time to time he stops, frowns slightly, and consults blank space for the next word, or sentence, or idea. I stand up and move closer to him, wanting to be at the back door when we approach my stop. I see that his tennis shoes are torn. I see that his writing is a continuous coil of ballpoint loops. It fills every line but the last two. Frowning slightly, he ponders the question of how to finish his story.

The Man at the Curb

He’s laughing out loud at something across the street. I don’t see anything funny, just the usual gathering of homeless people. They’re sitting on the sidewalk, their backs against the wall, next to stolen shopping carts full of plastic bags. 

“What’s funny?” I ask, figuring I have time for an answer before the light changes. 

He turns to me but waves one hand at the shopping carts. His face and accent tell me he’s from India. “This is America,” he says. Looking back at the men on the sidewalk, he burst out laughing again. “This is America?”

The Man Who Swallowed His Soul

At the edge of the trail, a soft white goose feather. I lean down to claim it. A young man with a bag of groceries has stopped to watch me.  

“You have a feather,” he says, as though trying to understand the message.

“I do. I collect feathers.”

He says nothing but looks at me expectantly, the way a puppy watches a fork lifted to a mouth. 

“And you have a baguette,” I say. “You must be taking it home for your dinner.”

“I can’t go home anymore. My parents threw me out.”

“You’re homeless?”

“Kind of. It doesn’t bother me.”

That makes sense. We’re headed for one of those glorious summer nights when sleeping under the stars is a privilege. 

“How old are you?”


“Well, maybe it’s good that your parents threw you out. That way you get to be on your own.” 

“That could be.”

“How did you manage to buy all that?” 

“They have a program. You can show up just for a day and work for some money.”

“You’re saving up for your own place?” 

“Kind of. But I keep spending money, too.”

“A little ganja now and then?” 

“Used to. I’m nervous about psychedelics now. I almost died. The evil forces wanted me to give them my soul. But I refused.”

“Good for you! I’m really glad you refused.”

“Then they tried to just take it, to pull it out of me. They were pulling it out of my mouth.”

“What did you do?”

“I sucked it back in. I swallowed it.”

“Nice going. It’s not your time yet.”

Relieved, he looks down at the solid earth and just breathes.

“What were you taking?” I say.


“That’s a very good drug for separating your soul from your body.”

“Have you taken it?” 

“A long time ago. I was about your age. I took it with a boyfriend. Our spirits left our bodies and crossed in the air. We made a figure eight, an eternity symbol. And then we crashed back down. I thought it was love magic. He thought it was just drugs.”

Just drugs?”

The Care Home

A woman with poofy blonde hair bursts into the Visitor’s Room. She leans down to hug the resident I came to see, an old man in a wheel chair. 

“Hi, Dad! I love you,” she enthuses.

“I love you, too.”

“What’s your name?”


“You sure it isn’t David? My dad is David. What sign are you?”


“I’m not going to argue with you. I don’t like to argue with people. But you’re a Scorpio. My dad is a Scorpio. He got into computers when it was just getting started. He was married five times. He has a house in Lake Oswego and a cabin on Mount Hood. Do you remember that?”


“It’s okay. I love you anyway.” She exits the way she came in.

“She’s my good friend,” Tony says.

“What’s her name?” 

“I don’t know.”

Long Distance Call

“Aunt Charlotte! It’s Claudia. Harriette’s daughter.”

“My daughter?”

“Harriette’s daughter. Your niece, Claudia.” 

“Oh. Claudia!” 

“I called to say I love you.”

“I love you. I wish you were here!” 

“Me too. Are people nice to you there? Are they taking good care of you?” 

She has no answer.

“Pat says your hair is white now. I remember when you died it red.” 

“Oh, Good Lord.”

“My son Josh says hello. His daughters are already school age!” 

“They’re smart girls. They’re taking good care of me.”

I have no answer.

“Do you have a window in your room?”


“What can you see out the window?”

“I see two men.” 

“What are they doing?”

She has no answer.

“Aunt Charlotte?”


“Do the men work at the home?”


“Where you are.”

She has no answer.

“Aunt Charlotte, are you still there?” 

“Yes. I hope you weren’t waiting for me.” 

“I was waiting to talk to you. Seems like you’re going in and out.”


“Where do you go when you go out?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Does it scare you?”


One of Mine

“I worked on all of ‘em,” says Ben. “I built all them buildings. I’m the guy that put up the steel.”

Not an answer we can take to court.

“Can you remember any addresses? Did any of them have names, like [REDACTED] or something? If we know where you were, we can find out who was there and which products. . .”

“All dead,” says Ben. “That was 40 years ago.”

You’re still alive.”


“Oh, come on now.” In the file on Personal Injury Client Ben [REDACTED] I switch from the Intake Screen to the Medical Screen. “You have asbestosis. That means you’ve lost some lung capacity but it doesn’t mean you’re dying. I’ve had asbestosis clients in their late 80s. Even some in their 90s.”

“Plus I smoked. That’s probably what done it.”

I try not to sound exasperated. “There is only one cause of asbestosis and that’s asbestos exposure. And what we’re trying to do here is figure out who to sue.”

Edward, my supervisor, rushes over, signaling for me to put the phone on hold. “Some clients don’t like to think they’re suing people,” he scolds. “It makes them feel they’re doing something improper.” 

I nod as though the instructions made sense. Why would people call an attorney if they aren’t planning to sue? And even if some of our clients are that proper, this one isn’t. Ben reminds me of home. He reminds me of my mother, whose favorite exercise was calling me a goddam stinking bitch, which isn’t to say that we didn’t love each other.

“I can’t remember any goddam names,” says Ben.

“You don’t have to remember the guys you worked with. We’re going after — I look at Edward to make sure he doesn’t object to “going after” — the companies that made the products that contained asbestos. And we’re going after the companies that told their men to use those products around you. Did you work next to any guys who were spraying fireproofing on the beams after you got them in place?”

“All the time. That goddam stuff would get in your hair.”

“Where were you working when you were next to fireproofing crews?” 

“Just about everyplace.”

Answers that get you nowhere also remind me of my mother. I control my frustration by dropping my hands off the keyboard, balling them into fists, and digging my nails into my palms. “Can you tell me the names or the addresses of any of the buildings you worked on? How about just one?”

“I worked on the [REDACTED], [REDACTED]. Must have been Spring, 1973.” I fill in the Place of Exposure box. “I remember that because that’s where this Mexican guy . .  . His harness didn’t work right. And he fell off the scaffold. Killed himself.”

“Oh, my God.” I lean towards the phone as if my head could touch Ben’s, halfway across the country. “It must have been horrible to see something like that.”

“It was. Mexican or not, he was just a kid. And a nice kid, too.”

“So, they stopped the job?” I wait to complete the line “Spring, 1973 to . . .” in the Dates of Exposure box.

“No, they didn’t. I couldn’t even look down to see what happened next. I had this I-beam in the air.”

“Well, maybe it’s just as well you didn’t see it.” I could feel Edward listening for unprofessional conversation on company time. “What was the kid doing on the scaffold? Was he one of the people spraying fireproofing?”

“He was popping rivets,” said Ben. “He had a rivet gun and when he backed up to. . .” Edward looks like he’s ready to stand up and come over.

“Do you know who was spraying fireproofing?”

Ben goes silent. Miffed about being shut up. Retreats into default crustiness. 

“I don’t remember any goddam. . .”

“I mean the company. Did you see names on any uniforms? Or on their trucks?”

“[REDACTED],” said Ben, as though it didn’t matter. “[REDACTED].”

“Out of?” I tried.

“Out of [REDACTED].” 

“I’m so glad you remembered.” I write [REDACTED] in capital letters to make sure the attorneys notice. “That’s the kind of information that will help your case. Can you remember another place?”

Another silence. I use the time to look up the company in the Defendants data base. Sure enough, there it is. A code already assigned: [REDACTED]. Got one! I exult silently.

“And I worked on [REDACTED], the one up by the waterfront. And the [REDACTED]. And the . . .”

“Wait! Wait! Let me get it all down!”

“We have to take a break.” 

Why now? He’s just starting to get it!  “Do you have an appointment? Should we set up a time to continue the interview? We’re doing really well. . .”

“I have to use the bathroom.”

“Oh. Don’t let me stop you.”

“I wouldn’t let you stop me.” 

I hear the smile in his voice and smile back. “Client initially resistant but responds well to human-to-human touch,” I write under WORK HISTORY COMMENTARY – ATTORNEY WORK PRODUCT – DO NOT RELEASE. 

“I wouldn’t write that up there,” says Edward, who is suddenly standing in my cubicle, looking over my shoulder. “If you want to evaluate the client – and you should – you should create a Client Evaluation Memo and save it in the Investigations Folder.”

I nod, highlight the words, and hit Command X, to make them disappear. After Edward strides back to his desk, clearly pleased with himself, I hit Command V and made the words reappear. The attorneys like my top-of-the-page comments but it’s dangerous to tell Edward he’s wrong.

“I’m back,” says Ben. 

“Feeling better?” 


Now we were on a roll. Ben names the contractors who poured fireproofing powder into mixers, raising clouds of asbestos dust right under his nose. He names the mixes: [REDACTED], [REDACTED] and [REDACTED]. He recalls crews of Mexican and Filipino immigrants who used chain saws to cut asbestos-cement sewer pipes and send an arc of debris in the general direction of his lungs. The ends of the pipes said [REDACTED] and [REDACTED].

I tell Ben it’s beginning to look like a solid case. 

Edward, reaching over me to press the Hold button on my phone, informs me that I’m not authorized to reach such conclusions. “The clients will think we promised them something and that can mean trouble.” 

Reconnected, Ben tells me he plans to use some of the settlement money to buy an RV and visit his grandchildren. “I never even seen the little one.” Then he would come home and hire some other working stiffs to rebuild the roof. “My wife was always after me to fix the roof. But I was getting too weak to get up there anymore. I was all out of breath from just climbing the ladder.”

“Did you tell her that?”

“No. Hell, no.”

I check the Personal screen on the data base. The contact section for Spouse is marked “deceased.”

Ben reports removing the original brake shoes in a 1979 [REDACTED] and replacing them with [REDACTED] brake shoes from [REDACTED], [REDACTED], California. He reports removing and replacing the drywall on his house, mixing, applying and sanding [REDACTED] joint and taping compound. No childhood exposure. His father and older brother had come home with a potentially toxic substance on their clothes but it was all coal dust. 

He’ll be asked all the same questions at the deposition, with the defense attorneys in full howl trying to confuse him. Seeing that Edward has left the room for his 2:15 coffee break at precisely 2:15, I advise Ben to kick ass.

“I know how to do that,” he says. “Don’t you worry.”

After hanging up, I print out the 11-page report and carry it down the hall to the editor. He’ll make any needed corrections and pass it back up the hall to the attorney who supervises — and terrorizes — the investigations department. The attorney will have it elevated as an offering to the god-like partners in the upstairs offices. The partners will instruct the pre-trial paralegal to inform the defendants identified in capital letters that they are being sued. 

Seven months later, the file is back on my desk. The paralegal has assigned Ben’s case a new number and changed the designation from Personal Injury to Wrongful Death. The Medical screen shows a progression in diagnoses from flu-like symptoms, to pneumonia, to mesothelioma. I’m instructed to update the report, changing the word “plaintiff” to the word “decedent.” It will not be necessary to interview the heir, a son living on the East Coast with three of Decedent’s grandchildren, the youngest of whom has never seen his grandfather.

“I’m sorry,” says Edward, speaking pro forma. “He was one of your clients, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, he was,” I say. “He was one of mine.” 

Claudia Miriam Reed is a former news writer who won an award for investigative journalism. She has just completed a book-length memoir, tentatively titled “Whatever Happened to the Revolution.” One of her short stories was published in the fall, 2019 edition of “Sunspot Lit Magazine.” Her memoir in letter form was published in the Fall 2016 edition of “The Letters Page,” a project of the University of Nottingham. Two others stories won first- and second-place awards in the 2009 Prose Contest sponsored by the Redwood Branch of the California Writers Club. Another received honorable mention in the 2005 nationwide E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction contest. In 2003, she was invited to read her story “Slash Marks” at a San Francisco fundraiser for the Family Violence Law Center.