‘Reaching Rose’ by James Purdy

James Purdy specialises in purgatories (purdy-gatories). Mr Sendal spends his evenings in a bar, going back and forth to make phone calls, although there is never anyone at the other end. One night, tired of the performance, he realises that “the people he really cared for were all dead”. Richard the bartender’s comment the following night – that he admires Mr Sendal’s liveliness, the fact that he keeps so busy – sparks off a crisis. The personal exchange, a rarity in Mr Sendal’s life, terrifies him, because if the bartender knew the phone calls were fake, there “would be nothing”: “his world was merely this bar, was Richard, and most important of all the telephone booth; but all of them went together, the booth and the bar and Richard could not be disassociated”. Forcing himself to maintain the act, he remembers his “most important telephone number” – that of a woman called Rose: “a thing happened then, as though a message had been written in letters of fire over the bar mirror”. When he goes to call her, the story reaches hallucinatory heights, in a very mid-century, melodramatic way. There are few writers less afraid than Purdy of confronting loneliness at its most eviscerating. 

First published as a standalone story individually in English and Dutch, by Avalon Press, 1994. Collected in The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy, Liveright, 2013