Calling All Phone Dodgers

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Yesterday I was sitting quite peacefully with my pen on the manila paper, doodling a rather-inspired seagull to the side of some heavily crossed-out paragraphs, when someone who was talking on a phone I hadn’t answered stepped towards me.

Hold on, here she is, the person said, holding the phone out to me.   

That’s the worst kind of treachery, is what I thought.  Followed by: what I wouldn’t give for a phone bolted to the wall.  Give it a butter yellow or baby blue cord that stretches only so far—but never out of the room.  Give it a round dial and let each number on it spin back in slow-motion, so when you change your mind about calling you have plenty of time to hang up.  I would run away from one of these too; but at least it couldn’t travel after me.  It couldn’t hunt me down, in hassling rings, from my own pocket.  Or in the hand of someone striding towards me who has no idea why a disembodied voice—with its unpredictable pauses, demands, and staccato rushes of talk—would be something to avoid.

———–

My sons and I were recently watching Charlie and The Chocolate Factory for something like the sixteenth time.

Me: I wish Gene Wilder would call me.  Like, once a day.  Every evening at six or something.

Older son:  But didn’t he die?

Me:  Yes, but I’ve wished that for a long time.  Since before he died.

Older son:  He’s not really Willy Wonka, you know.

Me:  It’s his voice.  It’s slow and dreamy and…it listens.  Can voices listen?  Anyway, his voice cares about things.  It’s not a voice that would rattle off small talk.

Younger son:  Mama, are you completely forgetting?  You HATE the phone!

Me:  Well maybe I wouldn’t!  If Gene Wilder were calling me on it.

———

My mom’s college roommate had been talking on the phone during a lightning storm, and she was thrown clear across the room.  This has nothing to do with my own telephone aversion, and can’t even be used practically as a fake excuse for not answering a phone (now that you can find the weather anywhere in seconds flat on the world wide web). But it still sounds impressive, all these years later.  As a child I used to wonder about that roommate and even though I suspected otherwise—for it was not normal, to hate telephones—I liked to think she acted deaf like me when the telephone rang.  And that even on sunny days, when the phone was silent, she still stepped around it in excessively wide circles.      

———

Once a very young, smart, cute, self-made near-millionaire took a liking to me on his holiday.  Heaven knows why.  Perhaps he saw how far I swam into the bay and mistook me for ambitious.  He was stunning; clearly deep but optimistic, packed with stories but mostly curious.  On his second morning in the village he made friends with some gruff fishermen who took him out to their secret spots, and that evening he made friends with the restaurant owner, who asked him to sing and play guitar for the dinner crowds.  It was easy to see how—even though the boy had suffered a poor and sketchy upbringing—he had risen straight to the top of his profession. Several beautiful local girls watching him at the cafe wanted to carry his babies; it seemed they might have tried impregnating themselves with the very mic he used, if there was a chance it would ensure his return to them. I watched once as the gorgeous waitress in the plum lipstick set down his soda with a circle of plum-coloured lip marks around the rim of his glass.

We were just friends.  He would invite me over to his oceanside palapa to dissect things and people and ourselves while seagulls wheeled and plummeted into the sea.  And he spent one whole day teaching me his top secret techniques for memorizing absolutely anything, which I can’t reveal here.  Aside from the secrecy aspect, I only vaguely remember them.  We took breaks to swim and when we got hungry he fixed us peanut butter and pineapple jam sandwiches, which tasted better for the salt we dripped onto the bread. We were hungry together often, because our brains fired when we talked.

Then one afternoon he stood on the sand in pants, holding his shoes, and a boat was arriving to take him away.  He handed me a slip of paper with a number on it and asked if I would call him when—if—I ever returned to the land of phones.

Uh no, I said.  I don’t do telephones.

He looked at me carefully.

All those holes!  I said.   

Well, he said, I’m going to want to know more about that. 

The boat that was arriving to take him away had been a small and silent blip at the horizon.  But now it rose dark and spindly off the water, humming.  We both turned to face it.

Maybe I just need a mechanical lesson, I said.  Because I do doubt sometimes, that what I say into all the little holes can travel through the wires and emerge absolutely intact into all the little holes at your ear.   

I could give that lesson, he said.  He smiled at me.  But it might have to be over the phone.

We did write to each other for awhile.  In his fifth or sixth letter he provided his phone number again, and enclosed a sheet of stickers.  Quick fix for now: slap one over all those holes, he instructed. They were circle stickers in various colours—the kind of stickers used for pricing garage sales.  He had drawn variations of happy faces onto each one.

They were—and consider the magnitude of this—emojis!  Long before the concept was born.  A whole sheet of cutting-edge icons, meant for original phone screens (their receivers), and invented decades early to assuage my crazy telephone aversion.  And do you think I called him, even once?  He was what you’d call a keeper, that boy.  Which is a funny word to say about someone you threw away.

———

When I was pregnant a stranger informed me (for strangers are always informing pregnant women), that if you hand a toddler girl a toy telephone she will talk on it.  But if you hand a toy telephone to a toddler boy he will bang it and crash it around.  My sons had a plastic eye-rolling Fisher Price phone and they proved the boy-half of this pronouncement accurate. The toy phone had wheels, too, and they dragged it from room-to-room really roughly, by its cord.  God, It was inspiring.   

———–

There could be courses for phone dodgers like me.  It would chronicle wondrous early transmitting developments leading to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention (“Watson, come here, I want to see you”—now that is one perfect phone call), and outline the inner workings of telephones.  It would arm the attendees with facts about the phone, in a sneaky attempt to inspire warm, proud, expertise feelings surrounding it.  Guest speakers who love telephones and talk on them approximately every three minutes would arrive and demonstrate how to take a call with energy and affection.  And then how to hang up gently, nuzzling the receiver against its base like they are twin treasured pieces.  Like they are two sides of the locket that holds a dear voice, They might say.   

But largely the course would offer therapeutic tips for better, less nervous regard for ringing telephones. Such as:

1. Set the alarm-clock-like ringer as low as you can with it still being audible.  Consider a cell phone (Gasp! The disconnect phone-phobics experience during a call is magnified on a cell) solely for its option of a harp sound or bubbling brook for its ring-tone.

2. Have an object, photograph of, or even hand-written letter from anyone who might call you within your phone’s reach, to take out and hold while you are are talking with him/her.  Try to summon your strong feelings for the person, rather than feeling only the panicked desire to hang up.    

3. Recline in a dim room while talking.  Wrap a blanket over you.  Try closing your eyes.  Try pretending, as the voice on the other end keeps talking, that you are living back before seat belts were required.  You’re stretched out in the very back of a car looking out at the stars and streetlights and telephone wires rushing by, while the grown-ups keep on talking in the front seat.

4. Don’t be afraid to say, from the get-go, I don’t remember if I’ve told you this or not, but my brain tends to shut down when I’m on the phone.  So just let me know when I’m supposed to murmur. 

5. Remember that phone calls can be funnn!  Fun as in, it can feel like you and the other person are taking turns feeding each other spoonfuls of mushy vegetables.

Who am I kidding?  What I’d really like to do, if I had this group of phone dodgers gathered in one place, is create a telephone-free zone where we could loudly and freely explore our phone dread together.  What exactly is stressful about the telephone, other than the holes and creepy disembodied-voice thing?  Is it because someone calling always wants something (If only to, ugh, “catch up”)?   Is it because you and the caller are forced to face each other, rather than facing out together, right inside the moment? Is it something about how the phone favours synopsis, and speaking at a faster pace?

And maybe never-discussed desires between the phone dodgers would emerge, such as:  I always want to play like a blind person on the phone, and get the other person to describe the scenery.  I wish there was a device inside a phone that beeped (only on your end) when you were saying too much or not enough or more of the same thing.  I wish there was a phone with a button you could push during your phone call to summon a bit of quality narration from a third source, played into both your ears.  Then, when it ended, you two could talk about it.   

———-

I was once driving through the hometown of someone I had known, when I was suddenly struck, as though possessed, with a wild urge to hear his voice.  So I pulled over to a roadside gas station and—hark!—there was a pay phone, over to one side by the toilets—because yes, it was that necessary.  And a local phone book was swinging from a chain below it, its tiny font proclaiming all voices were accessible, with the right code.  The whole set-up was genius.  Here was a metal box that you could feed little metal circles into and press a sequence of numbered buttons to again enjoy the company of someone.  You could pay the box for a chance to say things you hadn’t.  It was pure magic—the deeply human kind.  And even though the cord was a creepy and resembled the stiff but winding underside of a silver snake, I bowed a little to the pay phone in awe, and in gratitude.

It’s you!  He answered.  I just broke my leg this morning! It hurt, but he was laughing.  I began to laugh too.  I’ve been driving so long my clothes got stuck to the seat, I said. Even now when a phone is ringing I would do well to remember this call; which like all other calls took someone to dial, and someone on the other end to actually pick up.  I would do well to remember how nothing, not the car doors slammed at the pumps or the semis blowing by on the freeway or the emotionless operator demanding Please. Deposit. Twenty. Five. Cents. could make that a bad call.  And how I fed the phone every coin I had, and how I wished I had more.  And how when I hung up the receiver my coins fell with a sad, final clunk, and something fell inside me too, and in surprise I claimed it for what it was: an entirely different kind of phone dread.

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Let’s Pretend This Is Just A School Photo

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My older son won’t give his recent school photo to the girl who adores him.  No one does that, he says, and I suppress the astonishment and dismay in my tone when I answer: Oh.  I suppress plots to slip her one.  I could sneak it into her backpack pocket, or slide it into her rain boot in the cubby room.  But I won’t.  For it is in the job of parent, to realize these 3 or 6 or 10 or 17 year-olds—yours and their companions—aren’t you.  Still, I hold the sheet of his photos carefully, nervous and in awe, as though I am holding the first run of counterfeit hundred dollar bills.  Do I dare cut them apart, or will the scissors shake crazy curves into their borders?

Always when the school photos come home I find myself digging out the second grade class picture of the boy I loved.  I set it on the edge of the desk, peering down at him.  In it he’s dressed as he was most every day, with a moon of white T-shirt rising in the open V of his button-down shirt.  It is still all there, in that 2 x 3 inch square:  not just a boy but the love I felt, and the ways I couldn’t love.  I was a tough and confident tomboy, but the sight of this boy caused a lump of pre-defeat to lodge in my throat.  I began hiding in the shadows of the cubby-room, to better spy on him.  I started turning into myself, you might say.  At the least you could say I learned how a single hanging coat, when it belongs to the right person, can spark or purr in your hand.     

The boy and I.  He and I.  Because I learned this also somehow, that a love story has to include this pronoun formation if it is to believed.  So he and I.  We built an elaborate village with blocks on the classroom carpet.  We both knew, even as we threw ourselves into the construction, that our real job was to make each other laugh.  The clock above the teacher’s desk stopped clucking.  At one point we got into a little metal matchbox car together, and cruised through the streets of our half-built village.  Our wheels snagged on the yellow carpet.  When the bell rang for recess we pretended not to hear it.

At the end of the year, the boy moved away.

Kansas City became like Oz to me, because he lived there.  I learned to draw Missouri’s shape and decided I would go there, first thing, on the day I learned to drive.  At a Reds game I convinced my dad—it was quite difficult—to buy me a Kansas City Royals cap.  I wore it so much the inner white band turned grey.  The Royals sucked that year.    

My friend had a school photo of the boy, from before he moved away.   He said he would trade it for my cap-gun.  I loved my cap-gun in the more normal, active, mingling way that healthy people associate with the word love. It was silver with cur-le-cues etched in the handle.  I polished it every day with the tail of my shirt.  I could twirl it round and round on my finger and then grab it in perfect shooting position.  If I had a photograph of my cap-gun I would attach it here with the boy’s, so you could gauge for yourself the magnitude of that trade.   But since I don’t I will attach the school photo of myself from the time.  I think I look exactly like that cap-gun.   

The boy’s school photo kept me company.  The smile he’s hiding in it—but not well enough you can’t see it coming—made me proud of my choice.  I used to cover half his face with one small hand, and then slide it over to cover the other half.  On and on like this, trying to decide which side of him was more handsome (usually his right).  I would also spin the photo, in increments, to all angles—twirling it in a flatter, slower way than I had my cap-gun.  it always amazed me what a completely different boy he looked like when he was upside-down.  Around this time I kept asking my mom if she would part my hair to the side.  And she tried, but none of the parts looked right.  Which is to say, none of them started in the crazy place I wanted, which was the crazy place where his did.

So much of being a parent is playing Let’s Pretend.  I know this; and yet every year when my sons arrive home with their school photos I seem to play the game harder.  As in:  Let’s Pretend my heart is fine.  Let’s Pretend love means action, and I only love who’s here.  Let’s Pretend these 2 x 3 images of my son aren’t gold.  Let’s Pretend no paralyzed girl would ever carry one around with her into other continents, into other lives.  Let’s Pretend they’re just after-thoughts I will slip into the relatives’ Christmas cards.  And it goes on.  Let’s Pretend cap-guns are dangerous, that even loose rolls of caps are dangerous.  Let’s pretend I’m not cheering for the Royals.  Let’s Pretend I have nothing to do with what my sons choose to wear.  And Let’s Pretend, when my younger son allows me to button his shirt, that it’s just another morning task.  Let’s Pretend, as my hands fiddle up his front, that I don’t feel wounded, healed—or so unbelievably lucky—to be knocking my knuckles against the white moon of his T-shirt.

Stuck Again: My Private Enterprise

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view from an elevator floor

Years ago I came into some money, and the first thing I bought was a building with an elevator.  Actually no, it was second—after the white silk pajamas with navy blue piping.  I got my money’s worth on those:  they are the pajamas I go sailing in, the pajamas I wear to work.  I can’t tell you where the building is, or what business I have running there, as a front.   It is named for a literary character, and I try to please him with every aesthetic decision.  Talk of movies is banned inside the building, for instance.  And all the doors open with roller skate keys.

The elevator is often stuck, so I made the stairs nice.  They are wide and well-lit, snaked with a railing made of pink ivory, which feels so good that at the very top and bottom some people move their bodies forward, just momentarily, without yet taking their hands off the wood.  Beneath the railing are little holes through which music can be piped, very faintly, so that people think they’re hearing the song in their head.  Good things happen between people on that staircase, though the stairs aren’t my business.  Once you make something your focus, it happens everywhere around you.   

Every morning I get down to work in my silk pajamas, reading an elbow-high stack of letters from people who want to ride in my elevator.  Because this is my enterprise:  I run an elevator that gets stuck.  It gets stuck for anywhere from one to five hours, depending on how much you want to pay.  And I orchestrate who gets stuck in it.  It may seem like an insurmountable task, but I have a jet and two limousines.  I have lots of plausible and very formal decoys for summoning people, perfected over the years.   Most people, even the happiest and busiest ones, want to be summoned.  They know it’s how the greatest adventures and sagas begin: with a mysterious summoning.

I won’t bore you too much with the procedure, once the sought party arrives in my building.  But basically it goes like this:  A person steps into an empty elevator, believing herself headed for a very important meeting on the fifth floor.  On the third floor, someone that she might know or hate or love or lost steps into the elevator.  The doors slide shut.  The elevator starts to move up, buckles, and comes to a halt between floors.  The lighting in the elevator dims to the level of candlelight.

About the letters—they are rather like tear-stained applications.  People over fifty years old and some criminals occasionally request getting into the elevator to apologize, to explain.  But for the most part everyone wants to ask.  They want to ask a lover or a parent or a friend:  Why didn’t you want to be with me?  The sheer numbers of these letters has allowed me to deduce, with some assurance, that feeling guilty is easier to live with—it needles one less painfully—than being rejected.  I do get exhausted by the abandonment cries—at these times the letters expressing unfulfilled lust are more refreshing, and I’m likely to grant a request that says simply, This person made me laugh, and I need to laugh again.  Because really, who can gauge the strength of a connection, or the damage of a broken connection, by the words someone writes about it?  I worry sometimes that the people I select are just better writers, with cool handwriting.  The people who really need to be inside a broken elevator with someone would probably write poorly.  They would not be able to write about it at all.

Regulations are quite strict, in terms of furnishing an elevator.  But a single chair is allowed, in a rule dating back to when lift attendants had long shifts.  In this case it’s green velvet, and closer to a love-seat. The elevator interior is painted butter yellow with cream trim, and one wall is mirrored from floor to ceiling.  This allows a person to finally see himself beside the person he stands with in dreams, in memories.  The flocks of birds wallpapered to the ceiling are so faint I’m not sure anyone notices them.  No murders have happened in the elevator, though one far corner of the hardwood floor was gashed by fingernails or teeth.  No babies have been born in the elevator, though three separate women have written to tell me their babies were conceived in it.     

I sit in the empty elevator sometimes, riding between floors, and it’s quite peaceful.  I think about how humans are bad at talking.  They are bad at saying what they feel.  They blame their scars, they blame their upbringings.  They say this much, but they still can’t talk.  I run—I break—an elevator to give them another chance.  To say what they need to; to ask the questions they couldn’t.  And I always hope the other person—the summoned one—will be able to talk too.  It doesn’t always work, of course.  I see this, because it’s my job to apologize profusely for the unprecedented and totally unexpected mechanical malfunction! as the elevator doors open.  I wear a jacket embroidered with the name of my cover-business, and as the broken elevator descends I worry clouds of fingerprints into its brass buttons.   Sometimes people fly out, not looking at each other.  I see in the client’s face that the dream of closure, or true love, or just acceptance—whatever it was she wanted—has been shattered.   In my elevator.  And I can only hope—sometimes I even put my hand on the despairing person’s shoulder and insist—that peace, or something better, will move in to fill that big spot where the dream was.

But oh, my private enterprise—it too was once only a dream—pays me wildly.  And I’m not talking about money.  It pays with so many good stories, which I can’t tell here.  It’s in the client contract that I have to disguise them as fiction.  But it also pays with moments of success.  Like the moment when two people who haven’t spoken in decades walk out of the elevator hand-in-hand, wearing each other’s shirts.  Like the moment the doors open on a woman holding the baby—now a grown woman—she’d given up for adoption.  Or like that moment when, after three hours stuck, the elevator doors open with a ding…and the people inside it don’t even look out.  Even this morning, there was a moment when two long lost lovers, just released, were almost to the door, about to separate into the busy street.  But then one rushed up to take hold of the other’s arm–he wrapped it really, with his arms, like it was a vine he wanted to swing.  Wait, he said, We forgot to go up!  And I know–because I stood by, watching the numbers flash in quick succession–that this time the elevator ran smoothly, all the way to the top.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

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Baby in snow, 1971

Are your dead drifting closer, as the calendar creeps towards Christmas or Hanukkah or Solstice or Kwanzaa or whatever you celebrate?  This is something that goes unadvertised amidst the sales and parties and light displays—the way the dead people we loved slink back to us in December.  Maybe they like the skies that press down and leak water, snow or ice for days.  If they could they would make mud and ash and lace and candy bracelets fall too.  Maybe they think we are summoning them, what with the dark falling early and the lit candles in the windows and the boy soprano caroller with that deadly last note.  Maybe your dead just like holidays.  Maybe your dead miss families, and they want to stand at your shoulder as you tear open the red and green and golden envelopes that collect in your mailbox.  Is that really the neighbor of our childhood? The dead friend seems to bark. She looks like a dried husk of that kid!  You might start to concur; you might think you’re going crazy.  But I’m here to say now, you are not crazy.  The dead do like December.  Many choose it for the month they slide back to visit.  And though it is the busiest time, though it feels hard enough to meet the endless needs of the living, I am suggesting here that you make room for your dead, in moments.  It’s not like they want you to go with them—that is to say, don’t think they want you to die.  Let’s assume they only want to reminisce (what else can they do, really?), and if you travel back with them a little you might be rewarded with something like a glowing calm.  You might feel—how can I say it without sounding crazy?—like you have made the past happy.  Maybe even happier than it was.  For don’t forget:  it can take a long time to love someone.  We can’t always do it right while the person is alive.   And maybe the dead can’t either, and this is why they reappear to us in gauzy, gracious glimpses, offering wiser or nicer words than they would have.

Just a few days ago, for example, my sons were speculating on the merits of various-sized tablets (but not the paper kind, nor the stone-scroll kind one marks with a pickaxe), when the long yellow hair and square face of my long lost friend N— appeared above them.  She was looking from one boy to the other with amusement, or maybe she found the big difference in their hair styles funny.  Either way, she was laughing to herself.  The scar around her neck was draped as perfectly as a necklace.  At last she looked up at me.  You need to hold firm, I heard her say, and her dark eyes glittered again in the devious way they did, the way that made me whisk by her door at the end, forgetting to say goodbye. Just tell them the elves only own wood-working tools.  They have no wires or fuses or RAM in their workshop.

And soon, I know, during this or that over-long holiday concert, I will be again twitching in the front church pew, and without moving her eyes from the priest my grandma will offer her hand to me.  Hands can be played like instruments, which is something I knew once but have forgotten.  I will fold each of her fingers forward, one at a time, and then lift them back in a random order.  She will hold them limp or firm as requested silently, by my own little fingers, which only now as a mom do I realize must have felt so valuable in hers, so vulnerable. When I’m done with her hands, I will spin the thin silver bangles around her age-spotted wrist round and round. Just softly, so that they flash but not clatter.      

The snow arrived here yesterday.  It snuck in during the night.  In the morning, I was watching my son pretend to snowboard down the hill on a cheap plastic sled.  He kept persevering, going a little further every time, even after wild spills.  When he crash-landed he would lie on the ground without moving for a long spell.  Not because he was hurt, I realized, but because the quiet was perfect down there.  At last he would stand up slowly.  He only hears snow, is what I thought.  He’s still collecting his Ghosts of Christmas Past.  And even though I was looking at my son I was suddenly seeing my dad as I had never, in fact, seen him.  He was hunkered down on Christmas Eve, arranging a Flexible Flyer sled for me.  Some presents were piled on the wooden back of it, and its twin red blades poked out from under the tree like the dead witch’s ruby-slippered feet.  I really did get that sled for Christmas.  And later he and my sisters piled on it, behind me, because even though I was the youngest and therefore always the last to choose a seat—in this case the sled was mine.  And we really did fly….down and down, laughing, blurring…straight into a thorn bush.  Again, riding this memory, I take all the thorns in my face.  But this time I don’t jolt up and run away from him, sobbing salt down my stinging cheeks.  I lie there in the snow, in the perfect quiet.  I’m sorry Care, my dad says, like he would never.  I picked a bad path.  I listen.  Even the thorns in my eyelids have kindly missed my eyeballs.  I stand up slowly.  Then I raise my face to him, and he begins to pluck them out.