by Maggie Nerz Iribarne
Listen to this story here on the Kaidankai podcast.
Ron struggled to unlock his new apartment’s cranky door. He wiggled the key, turning it upside down, right side up. Finally, he succeeded, revealing his new home - a dim space with drawn shades and a folding chair sagging in the middle of the main room. He sniffed a rancid, greasy smell. He opened the window, saw two teenage boys, skinny and hunched, smoking by a dumpster in the shifting late afternoon sunlight.
He turned away and saw the phone.
“What the hell?” he said, examining the heavy black landline with a rotary dial sitting on a shadowed ledge, a back wire dangling behind, untethered. He picked up its solid receiver, pressed it to his ear. The weight of it. They don’t make things like this anymore, his barely formed thought, interrupted by a feminine voice, sweet yet confident and helpful.
“Information, please?” she said.
“What? Who is this?”
“Information. How can I help you today, please?”
“I don’t - What?-Who are you?”
“I’m the ‘voice with the smile’-a Bell Telephone operator connecting from your local exchange. Would you like the date and time?”
The receiver grew heavy and hot in Ron’s hand.
“Alright,” he said.
“5:45 PM, Eastern Standard. Saturday, August 2, 1947, sir.”
Ron slammed the phone to its base, yanked at the cord, bundled up the whole contraption, and tossed it in the living room closet.
Waking sweaty in the night, tangled in sheets, his mouth foul and thick, he fought the urge to cry. Scenes from his failed marriage stalked him.
Where were you? Who do you think you are? Get outa my face.
At least he never hit her, never once, not with his hand, anyway.
He scanned through old messages on his iphone, screen glare creating a small respite from the darkness. He searched for signs of better days, when Marci’d text him halfway through his shift. How’s it going, hon? Missing you…
He rose from the bed and shuffled to the kitchen, drank a tall glass of sulphury water.
Unable to resist, he went to the closet, the phone.
Ron examined the old wire leading nowhere, slowly lifted the receiver, listened.
“I don’t know what kind of-prank -or -whatever-this is- but-“
“Pranks are not part of our script, sir,” she said, her voice joyful, steady.
Ron’s tongue lay thick and still in his mouth.
“Information, please? Please, sir, may I give you more information?”
“Well, do you perform, you know, other services?” His penis perked just saying this.
“No, sir, Bell Operators are not prostitutes. We are ‘paragons of perfection.’ ”
“Oh,” Ron said, penis deflating.
She sneezed. “My apologies for sneezing. May I help you with anything else, please?”
“Sneezing ain’t a sin, lady.”
“Bell operators are required to practice good nutrition, exercise, and hygiene, even in our leisure time. We must be eagerly friendly and composed at all times.”
“Huh,” said Ron. “Well, you wouldn’t like me then.”
“Do you need more information, sir, please?” she said.
He attempted to calm his jagged breath. Breathe in, breathe out.
“I’d like to know how to get my wife back,” he mumbled.
“That’s fine, sir, I can help you with that. First, I need to know how you lost her.”
“I was an ass, I-“
“Swearing is prohibited by our Design for Life program. It’s generally not useful to-“
“Okay, well. Jealous, I guess. She says I’m nasty. Controlling. ”
“Thank you, sir, for that information. Have you apologized? Apologies are necessary in all human relationships.”
“I did, every time-usually-but I drink and it always happens again. I threw a glass at her, and, well-“
“Alcohol consumption is forbidden by our Health-Appearance-Personality program. Alcohol is not helpful in the workplace or in private time as it makes operators mentally and physically unstable.”
“Yeah, it ain’t that easy to quit.”
“Do you have outside interests? Our specialists in our labs say, ‘People with interests seldom have time to be frustrated.’”
“Jesus,” Ron said, throwing the phone in an empty cardboard box, pushing it into the hall.
Morning. A hazy, bluish light filled the room. He needed to go out, hit the thrift store for some furniture, get some groceries. Day shift tomorrow. No booze tonight. He showered, hot water pelting his face. He fought a weary, internal pull to return to the bottle, the bed. He covered his tattooed chest with a tee shirt, slicked his hair back from his face, grabbed the keys. In the hall, he kicked the box with the phone, the receiver fell on its side on the floor.
“Goddamit-c’mon,” he called out into the grey quiet of the hallway. The lineup of closed doors watched, seemed to await his next move.
He crouched down on the floor, picked up the receiver, leaned into the cement wall.
“What about you? What’s your story?” he said.
“Bell telephone operators are forbidden from sharing personal-“
“C’mon, you must have something keeping you-in there? Do you get paid?”
“We’ve been paid since the war ended, but-“ her voice trailed off. “We are now receiving counseling to help divert our attentions from salary. The Bell Telephone Design for Life program tells us, ‘Unions instill in operators a lack of respect for authority and result in independence of action by the individual.’ “
“My, uh, Marcie kicked me out-why don’t you get yourself-I dunno-outa there-somewhere?”
A fuzzy silence played in his ear.
“Information, please?” she said, her confident tone cracking a little, “Please, sir?”
He hugged his knees to his chest, cradling the receiver between his ear and shoulder.
“Will I be a better man?” Ron whispered. “Can I change-?”
“Based on past performance, sir, this seems unlikely. May I give you any other information, please?”
Ron dragged the phone outside to the dumpster, heaving it over the edge, hearing it crack. The voice of the operator persisted.
“Information, please?” she repeated, fading as he slumped to his car and drove away.
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is living her writing dream in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. She writes about teenagers, witches, the very old, bats, cats, priests/nuns, cleaning ladies, runaways, struggling teachers, and neighborhood ghosts, among many other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at https://www.maggienerziribarne.com.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.