Outside Line

We got home and the house was dark.  This teenage kid from down the street had knocked out all the phone lines and power lines in the neighborhood.  There was trouble at home with his parents and he was upset about it.  His mother had gotten a letter in the mail informing her that she had a cancerous growth on her right eyelid.  She didn’t want to talk about it and she had thrown away the letter, but the father ended up finding it in the trash.  They avoided one another after that, the mother in denial, the father not knowing how to approach the subject.  He stopped halfway down the stairs one morning, and through the bannister and the crack in the bathroom door, he could see her in the shower.  She caught him looking at her, her right eyelid drooping noticeably and uncomfortably, and she turned away so he wouldn’t see.  The father just stood there in his blue pajamas halfway down the stairs, not knowing which way to go or what to do.  I guess the kid figured that if his parents weren’t going to communicate, no one else in the neighborhood was going to either.

I felt bad for the kid, for his parents, for his family, but I was still mad that he had knocked out the phone lines.  I gave up and slammed the dead phone down on the hook.  My wife suggested trying our old answering machine that was built into the phone.  We could at least pick up our messages.  I shrugged and figured it was worth a try.  There was only one message on there.  It was from my daughter’s old high school principal.  He was droning on and on about something, making endless digressions that began with, “When I was your age,” trying to make it clear that he sympathized and understood.  I was about to erase the message, but my daughter said that she wanted to hear it.  She said that everyone always got a kick out of the principal’s long boring stories.  I handed her the phone and she put it to her ear and listened, laughing from time to time.

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14 thoughts on “Outside Line

  1. I feel like I'm having trouble getting an outside line around here these days. But that's alright.

    I tried to handle the logistics of the answering machine and the power being out and the phones down (not to mention the matter of “eyelid cancer”) as best I could under the circumstances. There's a fine line between surreal writing and just plain incompetent writing. I'm not sure which side of the line I ended up on.

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  2. The surreal side. This one & “The Ballroom” give me the same feeling as my favorite old episode of MASH titled 'Dreams'. Remember that one?
    “Ahhh, sleep. Perchance to dream.”

    Thank You for all of these WONDERFUL new dreams! Incompetent? Never! Your writing style is far too special to ever showcase anything less than brilliant cut diamonds.
    Cin

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  3. My son texted me from a Bernie Rally(sigh) today to say he got to meet Danny LeVito and he was really nice. Guess it's just a “nice” kind of day.
    But also, honest and sincere.

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  4. Did you mean Danny DeVito? Was that a typo? Or is there somebody involved in the Sanders campaign named Danny LeVito that I should have heard of by now? (I don't follow politics very well — or the news in general, really.)

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  5. I wouldn't call this incompetent. It's very surreal. Also, I don't think I know anyone in my age bracket that owns a landline or an answering machine anymore, but if someone took down our Internet, boy howdy would there be hell to pay, cancer in the family or not.

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  6. Agreed. We don't have a landline here anymore either. With cell phones, it just doesn't really make any sense to have one. And the last time we had a physical answering machine? Woof. That's got to be at least ten years or so.

    I remember one time, back when we did have an answering machine but also had our first cell phone, we got home from somewhere and there was this message on the machine of my wife and I talking. It was a conversation that we'd had a few hours ago when we were going through a drive-thru ordering food. It was very creepy to come home and hear one of your own conversations from earlier in the day played back on the answering machine. I was very confused by it, but then I figured out that the phone had gotten bumped and called home from my wife's purse. This was before the flip phone or the smart phones with the locking screens.

    (Hmmm, I've probably told that story before. Now I feel old again.)

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  7. I don't know about surreal, I guess all dreams are that, but lately your pieces are more like movie scripts to me. Perhaps because so many films have dreamlike elements in them: not just flashbacks but episodes of imaginings and might-have-beens, some of which are hard to distinguish from actuality, until you remember that none of this is actuality. But all the same it's more vivid than actuality. Like your “outside line”.

    As for landline, we depend on it, running two desktop computers off it. For me, cellphone is mainly for contact with family when out and about, the fewer the features the better, an unloved device whose main virtue is that when you lose it in the house you can call it from the landline, which I have to do about once a day.

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  8. I'm editing comments on my blog for a 2nd edition of its e-book, and just came across one of yours, appended to a story by Anup Roy. You said:

    “Beautiful.
    I know that I’m really into a story, when I start to see it, when it doesn’t even take an effort to imagine it any more. You just become enveloped in it.”

    This is the quality that shines out in your dream tales.

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  9. Thanks. That's good to know. It's hard for me to be in a position to judge what “shines” through. In this piece the moment where the husband stops on the stairs and looks through the bannister really seemed to capture the essense of the situation, and it was probably the thing that stayed with me the most. It's nice when there there's a simple moment or image that feels like a key that just unlocks the door to the whole thing. I like when that happens.

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  10. Also too, I realized that the bit with the husband stopping on the stairs was kind of an odd fit in the narrative. It wasn't the sort of thing someone would normally mention if they were telling a story like that — why would they or how would they even know that? — but I knew that I wanted to get that in there, and in a weird way I had a feeling it would work better for that very reason.

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