The Number You Have Dialed
The number 617 862 6966 rang for the first time in 1963, on a telephone in my parents’ study. A stout black blob of molded Bakelite, its numbers and letters huddled in threes and fours behind finger-sized portholes like families on a cruise. Pairs of diminutive antlers on the top cradled the receiver. When it rang my family snapped to attention, alert as cats, then one of us would rush to the study to hoist the handset to our face. The phone had been professionally installed by a representative of the Bell Telephone Company when my parents moved in. He told them in no uncertain terms that tampering with it, dismantling it or installing their own equipment was Against the Law. The house, the last in a development built for the tail-end of the baby boom, belonged to my father. The telephone was the property of Bell.
By the time my younger brother was born, coincidentally, the winter after the Summer of Love, my father had an additional phone installed on the wall of the kitchen, next to my mother’s seat. A plastic unit in the shape of a bowling shoe and the color of a blister, its receiver was connected to the body by a twenty-six foot cord that had a tendency to retract over and around itself, forming double helices that hung in clumps like a giant chromosome. For the dog it was a chew-toy. For baby brother it was yet another opportunity to try to asphyxiate himself. When fully extended, the cord could reach practically anywhere in the house, which tickled all of us, since putting great distance between the receiver and the base represented the pinnacle of luxury and added to our satisfaction at owning a piece of advanced technology. On Thursday nights the house became a hushed sanctuary as my father conducted his calls to my grandfather from the sofa on the far side of the living room, the cord forming a police barrier that kept me and my brothers from entering the region of the house reserved for adults.
The central location of the new telephone had one significant drawback. My father would become irate when it rang during dinner. Any given weekday at six we were seated in our respective places about the table: my father at the head, my brother Alan on the long side across from me, and my mother at the foot, crammed between the baby and the telephone. Alan and I would be fighting over the last dank lump of tuna casserole and the phone would go off. My mother, in the middle of scolding us with her mouth full, would jump as if she had lost a filling. My father would put his fork down, frowning deeply, and command us to ignore it. His face would redden as he held his breath, waiting for the confounded ringing to stop. After the second ring he would shake his head and grumble, “Who calls during dinner? It’s rude.” After three rings Alan and I would stop chewing because once my father was angry at something it was more or less certain it would become our fault. Four rings and my mother’s face would take on that pleading look. My father would wave his hands and yell, “Answer it, Barbara!” as if she it had been her choice not to answer in the first place.
I was a junior in high school by the time my father replaced the rotary phones with push button ones. We were the last family in the state to get them. This time he bought the equipment at a hardware store and installed it without the help of a Bell professional. The old black Bakelite one in the study was usurped by a beige Trimline, a lozenge-shaped box made of two identical parts that fit together like a clamshell. The best part about it was the backlit keypad in the receiver. It was a classic piece of 1970’s design. The neat rows of buttons were more than a new way of dialing. They were a control panel. The technology behind the mechanical clicks of a traditional phone was simple, though I’m not sure I ever knew precisely what was going on. Solenoids opening and closing, or gears rotating into place, or intelligent switchboard rats that understood Morse code. Whatever the real story was, it was easier to grasp than the idea that a sequence of discordant whistles could tell the telephone system where in the world to make another phone ring. Alan was getting ready to move out of the house and baby Josh had grown into a tolerable pre-teen. We rarely did anything together voluntarily, but the three of us had fun using the keypad as a miniature synthesizer, picking out advertising jingles and forbidden rock songs. (Here Comes the Sun : (989) 989-1987. The Linus and Lucy song from the Peanuts cartoons: 1 (233) 212-1122. Our own phone number was a riff on Mary Had a Little Lamb). We were probably calling Somalia, but somehow the exercise seemed educational.
Except for his weekly calls to my grandfather, my father avoided talking on the phone. He would limit his side of the conversation to a series of one word answers and grunts, often occupying his mouth with other things, like eating dessert, when it was his turn to talk. His favorite dessert was sugar free lime Jell-O with breakfast cereal mixed in (he was diabetic, and a chemist, and this concoction was designed to slake his sublimated desire for chocolate cake). When I moved into my own apartment after college, a typical conversation would last no more than forty seconds. It would start with the standard how-are-you’s, and then the crunching would begin. I could see my father sitting in his chair at the end of the kitchen table, the cord making lazy loops around the nut bowl my mom used as a centerpiece. He would be spooning a composite of green Jell-O and Grape Nuts into his face, making a mess out of polysyllabic phrases like “unemployment” and “Jewish girlfriend”. When he decided the conversation was over he would just put the receiver down on the table and stop talking. Sometimes mid-sentence. Never after saying goodbye. At first I was bewildered by this breach of protocol. Eventually I found it comforting to listen to the clattering of his spoon and mixing bowl for the half minute between the moment he called out, “Barb, come hang up the phone!” and the moment my mother, docile and long-suffering, dropped whatever she was doing and returned the handset to its receptacle on the wall. He wasn’t paraplegic or anything. He just needed to be in control.
The phones remained in place, on the wall of the kitchen, in the study, next to my parents’ bed, long after the three of us got married and established our own homes. Eventually, my brothers and I bought sleek cordless handsets, carried iPhones in our pockets, and Skyped when we went on business trips. When we had kids we bought them smartphones, too, mere moments after they were old enough to spell LOL. As my cute city apartment became too small to contain my growing family, my childhood home became too much for my parents to handle. They began to hire people to do simple things like dragging the trash to the end of their driveway and shoveling the front walk. Finally, they threw in the towel and moved to an assisted-living community on the other side of town where they took possession of a two-bedroom unit. I watched them struggle to decide what to keep and what to give away as they entered a chapter of their life which didn’t include a two-car garage, furnished basement, or stairs. The living room sofa fit the new apartment nicely. The kitchen table didn’t make the cut. My father tried to return the Trimlines to the phone company, but by that time there was no phone company left.
The number 617 862 6966 now rang a set of small, cheap cordless phones (VTech CS67 Series, $30 at Best Buy). The base unit, which sat on the two-person table they installed in the breakfast nook, was a flimsy plastic wedge in black and silver. It contained the digital answering system with a blinking LED to indicate a message was waiting. It didn’t take long for the battery compartment cover to break off. My father sutured it with a Band-Aid, then wrapped the entire handset in duct tape, his repair material of choice. When I visited a few weeks after the move there was duct tape on the floor lamp, on the remote control for the TiVo, on the iPad. That’s when the place began to feel like home.
As an adult I tried to repeat my father’s habit of a Thursday night call to my parents. I was neither as punctual nor a diligent as he was, so my weekly calls were more or less bi-weekly, and sometimes no more than once in any given month. While I attribute this to the gusto with which I experienced life away from the living room sofa, my brother and mother interpreted these long periods of radio silence as a lack of involvement in the family.
True to character, my father would rarely answer the phone himself. It was my mother who would fumble with the handset, sometimes putting the wrong side to her mouth because the thing didn’t have a three-pound cord attached to it which indicated which side to talk into. Her greeting was always the same. “Hi, doll.” A few sentences later she would mix up my name with one of my brothers or with the name of our dog who died in 1980. Then she would pass me to my father who, between slurps, would shift the conversation to ask about his grandson. I didn’t mind, since one of the advantages of having a kid is to let my parents focus on his achievements rather than on my flaws. My father had developed a cough that was set off by any small crumb that touched the back of his throat on the way down. After he died we discovered he had the beginnings of esophageal cancer, but for many years I just thought he was just a clumsy eater. It wasn’t the sound of him wetly masticating his food that interrupted our calls, but the paroxysms he suffered to hack it out.
I can’t remember the last time I spoke to my father on the phone. Our relationship became strained after Alan died. I was visiting my in-laws in Canada when Josh notified me by text message. “Brother deceased. Funeral Thursday”. It’s not that we aren’t close. It was the kind of news that didn’t require the additional sentimentality of a verbal exchange. When I called to help with the arrangements, my father’s voice was weak and distant. At the funeral he refused to get out of the car, even when the men–Josh and his son, I and my son, and my fatherless nephew–took turns shoveling dirt onto the coffin. Afterwards, he retreated to an easy chair, put a blanket over his knees, and let grief consume him. When he died less than a year later, I was, uncannily, back in Canada for a remedial visit. This time the iPhone I use for international travel lit up with the old number. It was my mother’s voice. Resigned. Spent. Astonishingly, she managed to get through the conversation without forgetting my name.
After a lifetime of living under my father’s reign of control and irascibility, my mother emerged frail and bewildered, with her capacities already in decline from Parkinson’s disease. She continued to live in the apartment she had shared with my father until she was no longer able to dress or shower without help. Josh and I arranged to move her to a unit within her complex where she could receive full-time supervision. We dismantled the apartment, culling the furniture, books, and artwork that had survived the initial move from our childhood home. It was like sending a kid to college, only, while we picked the few pieces that fit into her new studio, no more than a bland closet, with a view worthy of a Motel 6, we were faintly aware this would be her final move. The sofa where my father made his phone calls was too long. The teak buffet with the hidden cache of candy reserved for guests had to go, too. Besides, there would be no more guests, so there was no point. As for the kitchen table, my mother would be eating at the communal dinner table of the absurd with Edie the Holocaust survivor who is afraid of potatoes, and William, the Professor Emeritus of theology who the nurses address as “Billy”. Her daffy non-sequiturs would fit right in, and she would never need to eat alone.
The number 617 862 6966 still rings on the cheap VTech phone, humbly waiting at the foot of the bed in my mother’s room. She rarely gets to it before the outgoing message begins to play. It is my mother’s voice, recorded before the Parkinsonian tremors shook her confidence, asking the caller to leave a message so she can call them back. She never does.
Old people live in constant terror of falling because breaking a bone or knocking your head can, rumor has it, lead to an early and painful death. The principle being that, if you’re old enough, you wouldn’t outlive cancer or heart disease anyway, but a broken bone will lead to an inescapable downward spiral which will do away with you in no time. After her move my mother started to fall with some regularity, engaging in a dangerous sport the staff there called “furniture walking”, the geriatric equivalent of free climbing. Sometimes she would get as far as the door, gripping the jamb as paralyzed and terrified as a first-time sky-diver. Her walker, only a few feet away, might as well have been in France. While she escaped these falls with a few bruises and a twisted ankle, her inability to successfully ambulate qualified her for a month of physical therapy in the nursing unit in the basement. The other residents refer to this section of the campus obliquely and in hushed tones, as that is where many of them expect to eat their last egg-white omelette. My mother is convinced she will walk out the front door some day in tip-top shape.
I have forwarded my mother’s number to ring on the cramped table next to her hospital bed, between the plastic cup of apple juice, used tissues, and spooky urine-colored medicine bottles. There, calls arrive on a phone that is so cheaply made it is actually disposable. (Sci-Tech disposables for hospital use, sold in lots of 20 at $8 apiece). She is lucky to have a single room, even if it has all the personality of a broom closet. She has placed a photo of my father on the radiator (the last and worst that was taken of him, when he was bloated and ill). Aside from that, all of her familiar belongings remain upstairs in the studio she hopes to return to, where the walls have crept inward on my family’s diminishing world.
I have become increasingly aware that the number 617 862 6966 will shortly outlive its owner. Instead of relinquishing it to Verizon, I am going to have it forwarded to a SIM card. I don’t mind paying a small monthly fee to keep the half-century old number out of the hands of someone my parents would have disapproved of (a connoisseur of hip-hop music or a cat lover are two examples, but the list is practically infinite). I can imagine holding the gossamer chip in the palm of my hand, a weightless flake, and a reminder of how life shrinks away, taking all the treasured voices with it. Before Parkinson’s finishes the job of silencing my mother, I will slip the SIM into an unlocked iPhone and ask her to record a final outgoing message. I think it should start with “Hi, doll”. But then I should let her say all of the things she never had the courage to say in person. Don’t leave a message, it’s my turn to speak. Get your own damn water. I didn’t love all three of my children equally. These insights into what she had really been thinking all these years will comfort me as I grow old. And out of respect for my father I will put the phone into airplane mode at the dinner hour.
JOEL WACHMAN is a writer and computer technologist from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has written for Harvard Review and the Boston Globe, and has won awards from M Review and Alternating Current Press, and most recently from Sycamore Review, for his works of creative nonfiction. His short stories and essays have appeared in anthologies from Wising Up Press. He is currently seeking representation for his young adult fantasy novel about a guitar prodigy.