Bad Call

Don't lament everything lost to technology.

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Have caller ID, return call, call block, and reverse look-up put an end to obscene phone calls? I’m not talking about telemarketers. Nor am I including paid phone sex with a hostess working a 900 number. Nor consensual phone sex — the ultimate safe sex in prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (safe, that is, barring the absence of an undisclosed recording device). No, I mean the heavy-breathing strangers with a message.

 

Actually, my obscene caller wasn’t a heavy breather. At least not with me. We never got that far. He’d ask if I wanted to  “talk sex.” I’d hang up. Sometimes I played along so far that I’d say “No” before I cut him off. I tried not to slam down the phone.

The calls took place over a number of years. They weren’t so frequent that I thought it would be useful to report them to the police. Besides, I always believed that each would be the last.

They terrified me. They began late at night when nobody I knew would try to reach me except in an emergency. Even if I’d had an answering machine then, I would have picked up the receiver. My mom was elderly and ill. A phone’s ring after 11 p.m. signaled crisis: the call with news we dread although we know with certainty that someday it will come.

His call would last only the few seconds, but when it was over, my emotions mixed relief — that it hadn’t brought bad news about my mom — with anger that my home had been invaded by telephone.

For the sake of convenience, I’ll call the perp “Ted.” In short, Ted would call some time after 11 p.m. to ask if I wanted to “talk sex,” and I’d hang up on him.

But then I decided to do something different. I’d communicate. “Look,” I said, “I hate being called so late.” And then I went on to explain that my mom was sick, that his calls were scaring me. I asked him to stop.

Mirabile dictu, Ted stopped. After a few months of silence, he switched to the afternoon and early evening — just like the telemarketers. I was surprised and grateful that he’d taken my wishes into account. But not so grateful that I ever said “Yes,” and I don’t remember thanking him.

Besides, I hadn’t ruled out the possibility that my gratitude for his empathy was misplaced. Maybe Ted’s work schedule had changed so that afternoons became more convenient than late at night.

Years pass. Picture black and white images: calendar pages fly off the screen. Afternoon light streams through my bedroom windows. The radio is set to the classical music station. Without a scintilla of trepidation, I answer my ringing phone, but the music’s too loud, so I can’t hear what the voice is saying. Cheerful and curious I say, “Just a minute. I’ll turn down the radio.”

And then, in the new silence of my room I ask the ordinary question. I want to know who’s calling.

“You don’t know who I am,” he answers. He sounded hurt, almost offended, by my failure to recognize his voice.

Reading this, you have an advantage over me, as you were expecting Ted to reappear. I had no such expectation: I thought I was rid of him. After all, people with whom I’d had actual relationships had vanished from my life. Why shouldn’t Ted?

But perhaps, like me, you wonder about the tone of his voice. You might have thought that, considering his purpose, those words would be husky and seductive or, perhaps, imperious and scornful. If this were fiction, I wouldn’t dare write that he was saddened by my question.

“I’m sorry,” I say. I’m given to easy apologies under most circumstances and had been fooled by his tone into thinking that the situation required remorse. I still didn’t know who this was.

“You asked me not to call late,” he says, reproach in his voice edging out the pain, “and I didn’t.”

“Oh, right,” I answer, his identity becoming clear. “I do know…”

And I probably sounded grateful rather than angry or disappointed because he asked his usual question. I gave my usual answer and hung up. I was glad he hadn’t asked about my mom.

But something had changed.

What’s the ending here? Is it that when he phoned the next time it was with sincere apologies, ma’am, for having disturbed you so many times? Or does this end with a confession that I yielded and a PG description of what happened? Or how the day after the conversation he sent a dozen roses with a sweet note saying I was the best and he’d always cherish the memory? Or, ironically, how, after I surrendered and said everything he wanted to hear and more than he’d been capable of imagining, he left me sitting by the phone waiting for his next call that never came? None of these.

Of course he called again. And I was ready.

I told him that if he gave me his telephone number I would call him back and talk as long as he wanted.

He hesitated. “Are you going to do anything bad with my number?”

I heard the fear in his voice. I knew what he meant; he wasn’t afraid I’d write it on a bathroom stall or scrawl it on the wall next to a public phone. No. He was afraid I’d give it to the cops and bring charges. But what charges? He’d never said anything obscene, but we both knew he’d probably broken some law. I wasn’t going to turn him in.

“Look,” I said, slipping into an instructive tone. “You have my number. You’ve called me lots of times. Why shouldn’t I have yours? I won’t do anything bad. I promise.” I was in a promising mood. “I’ll call you back. You’ll see.”

Ted gave me a number, and as I dialed I wondered if what he’d given me was real (remember, all this took place before caller ID, before the ubiquitous *69 return call). He answered the phone on the second ring. I heard kids in the background, at least two of them, young kids. Were they his children or younger siblings? Either way, it was strange, and about to get stranger.

“I’m going to read to you,” I said. “Is that OK?” Before I dialed, I’d chosen a book from my library. I was torn between Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers and an outdated sociology textbook. I went with the latter. Without pausing for his answer, I just about crooned a word calculated to make him agree. “Comfy?”

He said he was, but I didn’t see how he could be “comfy” with those kids running around. But that wasn’t my problem. So I opened the book at random and began to read in a honeyed voice about, as I remember, the dysfunctional family. I know that wasn’t what he expected.

He didn’t say a word, and after 20 minutes of textbook prose delivered in my best Butterfield 8 voice, I asked again, in the same sweet tone,  “OK? Enough?”

It was. He never called back.

The long-feared wrenching phone call about my mother’s imminent death had come months before, made by my mother herself at 6:07 p.m. Nothing like what I’d expected. But that’s another story. • 6 May 2010

Miriam N. Kotzin, associate professor of English at Drexel University, co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and teaches creative writing and literature. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a founding editor of Per Contra. She is the author of A History of Drexel University (Drexel University, 1983), a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press, 2010), and two collections of poetry, Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press, 2008), Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press, 2009), and Taking Stock. Her novel, Cutter’s Vision, is represented by Don Gastwirth.

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