Hang Up
Sarah Layden

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 Crafty Goat.

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