For fifteen years he'd carried her phone number, checking every so
often to see if it had changed. In this way he followed her from
Binghamton to Boston to Chicago, and then to a suburb outside the Loop
once she'd married and had children. He'd call from payphones on
business trips, listening to the outgoing message on her machine
(cutesy, including the cat's name, Whiskers. He'd thought her more
original than that. But no: Whiskers).
They had failed together. They had been together and failed. Together
they had been failures.
At first they had not. How else could it be? They had punctuated one
another's lives at a distance, over the phone they had made each other
weep with near-identical histories of loss, they had winked into the
mouthpiece, imagining they could be seen. They were seen. She made up
for him a series of stories about an elephant who could speak, a bandit
who stole ladies' undergarments, a couple searching the world for a
person who allegedly had died, but might still be alive. She had been
recovering from a storm of death swirling around her, young death, and
the stories helped. I'll take care of you, he said. She invisibly
tattooed his words on the inside of one wrist, which she stared at with
longing when he failed in his promise. He still called, a silent
reassurance. He still called, picturing her all the time, naked, when
he was alone, which was all the time.
Back then, grief had made her easily weak. Someone who flopped into
arms as if in a faint, who landed in beds because they were soft. The
dark hid her expression. He'd ask, Are you crying? And she'd lie: I'm
happy. Make no mistake. When a woman cries in bed, she misses the
missing. Now when he called and hung up, he hoped she cried in bed and
thought of him. But she no longer cried in bed.
Of course it was him. No one else would want to know her yet be so
incapable of knowing her. In the few seconds' pause between "Hello" and
the hang-up, she conversed with dead air. A few words at first, then
whole sentences, then stories. One about a girl who cut off her hair to
give to birds. Another about a stranger on a bus who carried a
newspaper umbrella, which was covered in headlines of sorrow. And that
old story, her favorite, the couple's mission to disprove death. She
told her husband and small children that she was a volunteer
storyteller for shut-ins. A little true.
Home alone, she gave the female characters her name and the male
characters his name. She paused, waiting for the click. Sometimes it
came in the middle of a story, sometimes not at all. They waited one
another out. Each one thinking, without knowing what the other was
thinking, Don't hang up. You are the story I tell myself, about myself.
Stay with me. Stay.
Sarah Layden has work in or coming from Pank, Anderbo, Zone 3, Juked, Freight Stories and others.
To link to this story directly: http://wigleaf.com/201003hangup.htm
Detail of illustration on main page courtesy of
w i g · l e a F