(This is an excerpt from my short story, Landline. Follow the link at the end to Artifact Nouveau to read the rest.)
The telephone rings, its echo bouncing off my bare walls and faux-wood floors.
I answer on the third ring, my voice creaky with neglect. “Hello?”
“Is Mario there?”
I clear my throat. “I’m sorry. You’ve got the wrong number.” I click the “Talk” button and replace the receiver, noticing for the thousandth time how silent the room is, how there isn’t even another person’s breath to break the quiet. I should turn on the television. I should become one of those people who watch the Real Housewives of Wherever just to have something to talk about at work in the morning, just to kill the silence.
Chelsea, my tabby, saunters into the room and rubs against my calves.
In the kitchen, I pour myself another glass of cabernet.
The next call comes two days later, at about the same time. I’m in the kitchen washing my single plate, spoon, fork, knife and glass. I wipe wet hands on my jeans on the way to the phone. “Hello?”
“Is Mario there?”
“You’ve got the wrong number,” I say, and ease the receiver into its cradle.
Back in the kitchen, a dinner plate is half-submerged in the plastic tub in my sink. For a long moment I stand with my hips against the edge of the counter, watching soap bubbles form and pop, and then I plunge my hands into the cold water to finish the job.
I normally don’t even answer my landline. I shouldn’t even have it anymore – my professional and social contacts, such as they are, reach me through my cell phone. Initially I told myself that I was keeping the landline for my mother, who had always been slow to adapt to change. But recently, after fifteen years as a widow, she’s moved in with a man ten years younger in Cleveland, a man with a daughter still in high school. Now she has regular contact with teenagers – has regular sex, sure – and her calls light up my cell phone with uncompromising frequency, her cheerful messages overwhelming my inbox.
So I’ve had to admit that I’m keeping the landline purely for old times’ sake – I like the person I had been when that number rang regularly, for me or for Henry. For a long time I’d kept the outgoing message that identified us as “Henry and Clair” and found reasons to press play over and over, reminding myself of that Clair, that version of myself. I’d even kept our ancient phone, manufactured before ID display screens. If I had a therapist, I would pose the question: Is $43.99 a month too much to pay for nostalgia?
Most days when I come home from work and listen to my messages, it goes something like this:
Hi! As a homeowner, you may qualify for a lower interest rate – Delete. I’m not a homeowner.
This is a message from Conservative America! – Delete. Not a conservative.
If you or someone you love – and I hesitate here before hitting delete. But there is no one, not anymore.
Paula Treick DeBoard