It was 1957 and we lived on the edge of a small, quiet Wisconsin town of 307 persons. I hadn’t started school yet and had little contact with the world outside of the village and the fields surrounding it. Then one day the telephone came to our house. It was large and black and had a handle on the side. One crank on the handle and Mrs. Brown, the operator, came on the line saying, “Hello, who do you want to talk to?” We would say, “the Zwickeys” or “John’s store” or “the Nelsons,” and she would plug us into the switchboard to make the connection. Then, of course, she would more or less listen in so she could disconnect us when we were finished. There were several families on our line, and we each had a different ring. Ours was a long and a short; the Zwickeys’ was two shorts and a long. It was obvious when someone besides Mrs. Brown was on the line listening, because then the line had a funny hollow sound. In such a small town, everyone knew everyone else’s business. The phones just made it easier and a bit quicker.
We thought of the telephone in those days as something between luxury and necessity. When the coal-burning trains that roared across the prairie started a fire at night, or when someone was hurt, the phone was worth its weight in gold. If it rang after bedtime, everyone on the line picked up the receivers, just in case. Those first few years it never rang often enough to be a nuisance.
For years Mrs. Brown talked to us almost daily, yet I never met her. After endless requests, my mother finally took my brother and me to Mrs. Brown’s house to see what she did to make the phones work. She lived in town in a small brown tar paper house with the shades drawn behind old lace curtains. The switchboard, where all the magic was worked, was right in the living room! It was about three feet square and sat on a small table. There were many thick black cables sticking out of the several dozen holes in the board. Each hole was someone’s phone line! Mrs. Brown spun around on her high wooden rolling chair whenever the board jangled, and talked to everyone in the world from her dim, small living room. I never saw that room again. After a few years, we got a new blue phone with a rotary dial, and Mrs. Brown was out of business. Even then, as a child, I had a faint, uneasy sense of loss.
When I moved out on my own, I kept my telephone under a pillow, having stuffed its bell clappers with tissue paper to dull the sound. The magic was gone. The phone was just one more thing telling me what to do. Answer me! Of course, I ran to it every time it rang. With effort, it finally became easier to answer it at a reasonable speed — no need to knock over lamps to get there on the first ring. Still, I leapt up from anything that had my previous attention, feeling stupid for doing so. One day the phone rang and I didn’t pick it up. It felt great; I stared it down until it went silent. I don’t know why it took me so long to remember that the telephone was a tool, not an authority figure; but I slowly overcame what had become an almost instinctive response to run when it rang.
Now, thirty years and thousands of calls from that first black crank phone, I look at the new touch-tone phone on the table. It will never hold the excitement and wonder of that first phone, but sometimes it still seems somewhat magical as it sits quietly on the end of a slender cord, full of possibilities.
Lately, because of illness, I find myself alone a large part of the time. My home is in a rather isolated area, so my telephone has become even more important these days. It is my link with the rest of the world. I pour my fears, sadness, and hopes into it — sometimes for hours at a time. And into my ear rush warm tones — reassurance, ideas, funny stories. I crave the sounds more than the words; the human tones fill me like a lullaby. Touched by another, I feel the stirrings of my own response. I am warm and alive. I hang up and cry, so deeply moved by such simple contact.
But weeks pass, and I’m still on the telephone, still alone too often. I’m jumpy and angry. I feel confused. I look at this piece of hard plastic in my hand, a wire connecting it to a plastic box, another wire from the box to my wall, a tiny voice bleating out from the earpiece. This is a cruel trick! I am so lonely. I am barraged with these disembodied voices asking how I am doing. I want to say, please hang up the telephone, get in your car, drive up here, and hold me.
When the telephone rings, my daddy’s face gets this intense look, and all conversation stops. Who’s going to get it? Will they get it fast enough? Where’s the (overly) portable phone?
After the call is over and we are once more seated around the dinner table, no one remembers that I was telling a story, except for me, and when I begin again no one cares.
When I grow up I may not have a phone. No — I’ll have one, I just won’t answer it. Sometimes, if I happen to be near the phone when it rings, I might enjoy the novelty of picking it up, leisurely, with one finger. I may be too slow and the ringing will stop on its own. Who cares? If it’s important, they’ll call back.
I first started having my “telephone dreams” more than thirty years ago. The story is always more or less the same. There is a crisis. I try to call for help and I cannot remember the number to call, or it is so long that I get confused while dialing, or I am cut off or drop the phone, or I get interrupted or realize I have the wrong number, or an old number, or I have made a mistake about whom to call, or I wonder whether I’m doing the most expedient thing, or I drop the paper that has the number on it or can’t find it in the first place, or I can’t find the phone even though it is ringing, and when I finally get through (if I get through) it turns out to be the wrong number or person, or it’s busy.
I especially remember one dream in which there was a large valley with a long, winding river. I could see a young child on a small raft that was speeding toward the rapids. If I could just reach someone at a post on the river, the child could be saved. Then the nightmare began, with close-ups of the child on the river, then distant views, and I fumbled endlessly with the phone until I woke up frustrated and furious.
Counselors have told me the dreams indicate my strong feelings of helplessness and my inability to communicate. I hated the phone as a kid; it was agony to have to call someone. I didn’t really learn to get along with the phone until I was forty-four and began to work as a crisis counselor for a chemical dependency unit in a large hospital. To my consternation, I am very good at it.
I still have misgivings about using the phone. I don’t have a television, and I’d rather walk than ride; the continuing depersonalization of everything in our culture makes me feel like I’m on the wrong planet. I get confused when a voice is all I experience of a friend for months at a time. How can I come to terms with the fact that the same technology that could save my life, that helps me with infinite details and allows me to communicate over long distances, is also undermining my basic connection with life?
I think my dreams are also symbolic of the human condition. I want to run down to the river and pull the kid out, and wake up with hope in my heart.
The telephone is the perfect invention for a person like me, who loves people and solitude equally. At thirty-eight I can finally come out and say that I hate to travel. I hate to sleep in other people’s beds (even if I love the people).
Half my friends and family live in Los Angeles, but I spend as much time on the phone with my friend Rita, who lives right around the corner. And my relationship with Barbara, who’s forty-five minutes away by D and B trains, is spent almost entirely on the phone.
Next to photographs, the telephone is the greatest human invention. Sometimes I lie in bed at night and imagine it in history or literature. What would the world be like if Napoleon had been able to call up his spies in Moscow? What if Anna Karenina had been able to sneak upstairs twice a day to call Vronsky? I bet the whole thing would have been over in three weeks:
“You never return my calls.”
“He never returns my calls.”
“He’s a jerk. Forget him, Anna. I met this guy yesterday, in that little chocolate shop. . . .”
Brooklyn, New York
As the school bus rattled away, I stood and savored my momentary freedom. Another sultry summer of isolation had begun. Sweat beaded on my upper lip and my clothes clung to my body, which had sweated through seventeen such summers. I grasped at those brief moments on the road, when I could still feel, if only the heat of the sun. Suspended there in time, I was myself. Once I reached the house, I would be nothing — just a child they never wanted. I would struggle to maintain an identity within myself. As I stood there in that red dust, I knew they were watching, binoculars posed near a front window, or high up in the barn loft.
The telephone was my umbilical cord to reality. Without it I was totally alone. It was my connection to Michael, and he was my affirmation that I was real and alive. His voice would pump life into me each time I heard its smooth softness, bathing me like cool water on a hot day.
On Friday and Saturday nights the lure of communal boozing and loud country music would call them away from their lair. Unwatched, I could call Michael. For hours we’d listen to each other breathe, making love over the telephone. I miss you. What are you wearing? I want you. I’d like to kiss you there. The telephone would burn in my hand. Afterward I would cool it down with a damp cloth. They’d return and stagger around looking for signs of my activities in their absence. They checked the sheets, the bathroom, me. They checked the telephone.
The insides of the telephone could easily be removed back then. The telephone could still ring, you could still hear the voice on the other end, but the caller couldn’t hear you. They did this once. I guess they thought it would be cruel for me to hear someone and not be able to respond, for someone to hang up on me because only silence could be heard. My feeling of isolation, of being trapped, was unbearable without that one link to the outside. I dialed Michael; just his voice would calm the panic that rose within me. Hello, is anyone there? Kathy, is that you? Hang up and call back if you want me to come get you.
He understood — he knew that the silence was me. I hung up and dialed again. I waited in the heavy silence. Soon there would be no further need of the telephone.
We didn’t have a telephone when my mother was dying. We were in the Peace Corps, living on a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. That didn’t stop my father from trying to call me, though. He dialed the emergency number that all responsible Peace Corps volunteers give their families before heading overseas. It rings a phone somewhere in Washington, D.C. Someone in D.C. then dials the number of the Peace Corps director in the volunteer’s country.
Our director lived on a different island — the main island, where a lot of people had telephones. But on our island only the tourist hotels had phones. Tim, the director, dialed the number of the hotel closest to where we lived. Our island had very little motor vehicle traffic, but it did have taxis to carry the tourists to the hotels. So the owner of the hotel, who answered the phone when Tim called, found a snoozing taxi driver outside and sent him up to our house. “Just go to the Americans’ house,” she told him, and he knew right where to go. Because of this chain of events, I was able to get the news of my mother’s imminent death directly from another human being, even if he was a stranger, instead of through some piece of crackling plastic.
It took several days to get back to my hometown because airplanes came in and out of that country only a couple of times a week. My mother died while I was in transit. But I didn’t need a telephone to tell me it had happened. My dreams, the night she died, communicated to me much more clearly than a piece of plastic ever could. Mom was gone.
This morning I hear on the radio that AT&T again is asking the Public Service Commission for permission to raise its rates. I am making out my check for my telephone bill, which averages $200 a month. I start thinking about my addiction to the telephone:
Last night, I made a long-distance call to my daughter in Manhattan, who needed to work through her feelings about: (1) not getting any decent acting auditions for the past eight months; (2) quitting her bartending job out of frustration over being treated badly by the management; (3) what she was going to wear for Halloween at the restaurant where she was just hired; (4) her growing affection for a young man of whom just about any mother would approve; and (5) her novel-in-progress.
Two nights ago, I made a long-distance call to my son, 140 miles away at college, and even farther away from thoughts of mother and home. He told me that he was reading a book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, which he doesn’t realize captured my own attention in the Sixties. I was glad he couldn’t see my satisfied grin as he read to me the parts that were so exciting to him. He also couldn’t see me looking at my telephone bill’s listing of forty calls he charged to me as he tried to contact his girlfriend in the early morning for two weeks last month. I knew that something must be amiss between them, but I sensed no trouble in his voice; so I only asked (very casually) how things were going. His enthusiastic monologue about his dreams for theater and education told me more than the answer he never got around to giving.
Last weekend, I made a call to my younger brother in New Paltz, who tried to convince me to sabotage the workings of the grand jury on which I am serving and updated me on the brain synchronization machines that he’s building. I also called my mother in Yonkers, who is widowed and lonely and always derives considerable satisfaction from chanting a litany of offenses committed against her and her way of life by most of the rest of the world.
The telephone keeps me uniquely connected to the changing energies and wisdom of people I love. It enables us to continue that ancient tribal therapy — the telling of our tales. Is it worth $200 a month? I hate to admit it, but the truth is, it usually is.
Watervliet, New York
Twenty-five years ago, in my early thirties, I was having tea with a woman whose telephone rang a lot. After the fourth interruption she sat down, sighed, and said, “If only people would say three words — ‘Can you talk?’ ”
I try to remember to do this.
Laura K. Popenoe
Port Townsend, Washington
In 1969, when my father died at 7 p.m., my mother waited until 11 (when the rates changed) to call me. “What difference would it have made?” she said indignantly.
A few years later, she called when I was making love. After twenty rings I could no longer stand the intrusive sound and angrily picked up the receiver. “Hello,” I screamed. “Who is this?” I was hoping to intimidate the caller into hanging up before the conversation began. “Are you busy?” asked my mother. She knew it wouldn’t take twenty rings for me to reach the telephone in my studio apartment if I wanted to speak to anyone. “Yes, I’m busy. I’m making love,” I said in my most sarcastic manner. “Well, this will just take a minute,” she said.
Over the years my mother and I became more and more estranged; finally, several years ago, I decided not to return the messages my mother left on my answering machine. But this didn’t stop her from calling. Whenever she had something to say she’d leave a message on the machine. As the months grew into years, the messages became more and more lengthy, full of gloom and doom pronouncements — who had died, who was ill, who had lost their jobs. She never mentioned the fact that we had not spoken for years.
Then one day, I happened to answer the phone when she called. “Hello, dear,” she said, as if nothing had ever happened. All the rage and anger I’d suppressed over the years welled up. I screamed, “I want nothing to do with you. I don’t want to speak with you. I’m going to hang up.” Without skipping a beat, she said, “Well, if you’re going to be that way, I don’t want to speak to you either. Put the machine back on and I’ll leave a message.”
New York, New York
When I was thirteen, and still adjusting to braces on my teeth, I spent an hour or more most every day talking on the telephone with Tracy, my seventh-grade sweetheart. She was also the first girl I made out with at one of those junior-high kissing parties where the lights kept coming on, exposing couples wallowing awkwardly on orange and green bean bags. I can’t recall now what Tracy and I talked about for so long, but I know it was highly confidential — confidential enough to warrant my stretching the telephone cord across the kitchen and into my room, where I would shut and lock the door on it. Ours was a wall phone, black, mounted in a corner beneath a rooster constructed of various beans and brightly colored kernels of corn glued to a canvas. After I closed my door, there remained only six inches of cord between doorjamb and receiver. There I passed countless hours of my youth, tethered.
Over time the cord lost its curl and would no longer retrieve itself into a knot. Finally it hung limp and straight, like ironed hair. That was about the time it quit working altogether, and I was told I would have to buy a replacement. I chose a twenty-five-footer. The extra length not only let me romp freely in my bedroom while chatting with Tracy, it also allowed my grandmother to converse from the toilet seat with Dorothy, her stepmother.
Not until I moved far from home did I begin to see just how strange and marvelous an invention the telephone is. And how expensive. I lived for a brief time in Los Angeles, where I studied drumset. One night I was talking to my girlfriend Teresa back in Tennessee. She had called so drunk that after five minutes of relating what she would do to me if only I were within reach, she passed out. I shouted her name into the phone and banged the receiver loudly on the coffee table to wake her, but she was not to be roused. I tried hanging up, but the connection couldn’t be broken from my end. Meanwhile, my roommate Steve was expecting a call from his girlfriend in Tennessee. Our other roommate, Jim, who played keyboards, brought in his synthesizer, which we wired directly into the telephone. But even the ruckus of fireworks, machine guns, and emergency alarms failed to budge Teresa. She woke ten hours later, hung-over, and dreadfully sore from having slept on top of the telephone. Fortunately the phone company believed her story and relieved her of the greater part of a big phone bill.
Three years ago I moved again to California, too far from Patsy, the woman with whom I’d spent five wonderful years. Then, as now, I had little money. The telephone sat mostly unused in my room, a temptation I couldn’t afford. When Patsy and I did talk, I found the experience unsettling. It was a tease. It carried only a fraction of my being to the end of the line and brought only a fraction of hers in return. What got left behind were arms that wanted to hug, lips that longed to kiss, hands and noses and eyes.
During the months I missed Patsy most, rather than call in the evening when there was a good chance she’d be home, I would dial her home number (previously mine too) during the day when I knew she was at work. The phone would ring and ring, but there was never an answer. I sat and listened to the ringing, knowing it filled the room where so many cold nights she had whispered, “Snug me,” and we had curled together, an exquisite complication of limbs, beneath flannel sheets and layers of blankets. It cost me nothing to stir the air, from so great a distance, in that room. After a few minutes I became entranced by the repetition of ringing. Then I imagined the intricate pathway each ring traveled, from its distillation into an electronic signal to its journey across miles of wire and switching stations, or perhaps shooting far into space where it was bounced off a satellite into my hometown.
As to the number of times a phone will ring if the party you’re calling isn’t home, I learned there is no limit. Only when I hung up did it stop, leaving me more homesick than ever.
Today I called Violet: “I’m mad at you because you left me the dishes, the bed, the laundry, and I have to buy salt to make spaghetti!”
“If you hadn’t slept late, I would’ve remembered the laundry! You would’ve reminded me!”
“What, I’m supposed to wake up to remind you to do what you promised to do?”
This amused me. I stuck out my jaw to yell at her more, and heard a dial tone.
I had pushed the disconnect button with my chin.
This never happened when I was twelve, and Lyndon Johnson was President.
I called her back, worried she thought I’d hung up.
“How could I make the bed, when you slept until I left?” she continued.
“You think of everything, don’t you?” I replied, smiling without intending to.
“You could borrow some salt from Sarah — or Nancy, or Anique.”
“What kind of idiot goes around borrowing salt?” I said. “I’ll do the shopping, I’m just mad about it.”
Somehow after that, I wanted to buy the salt.
The Number 4 Subway
New York, New York
When I was in junior high school, we were required to take one semester of art. Never having been encouraged in that area, I assumed I couldn’t draw; I naturally proved myself right over the course of the semester. We drew self-portraits and made collages and various other projects I’ve long since forgotten. But I remember well the assignment to draw an inanimate object expressing an emotion. People were drawing happy refrigerators, giddy cars — everything was just so cute.
I drew an angry telephone. This was before the push-button model, when telephones had little round faces with rotary dials, rounded receivers, and curlicue cords. I really didn’t give the drawing much thought; I just started slicing the paper with dark, jagged lines. When I was finished, there was no doubt that this phone was pissed off.
In retrospect, I can see that the drawing was a call for help — a call for someone to notice that something was very, very wrong. At the age of fourteen, I had already withstood nine years of sexual abuse without uttering a word. It wasn’t too long after this, actually, that I finally realized I had the power to say no — and I said it. So I suppose I answered my own call for help. Now, twenty years later, I’m just beginning to deal with the rage.
I might add that the phone was my only drawing during the entire semester to be displayed in the classroom. Amidst all those cute toasters and perky percolators was one outraged telephone, waiting to be answered.
New York, New York
Boys could call you but you couldn’t call boys. Because calling boys was chasing them. And you couldn’t chase boys. You’d never ask why; you just knew. Mother never said: only fast girls chase boys. Or: ladylike girls wait. Or: you are a slut if you call boys. You knew.
In eighth grade I telephoned . . . Ben, we’ll call him. He was next door at, say, Scott’s. I had a right to call Ben because when I’d been sick with pneumonia, he’d sent me a special get-well card. The front showed a man going to a drug store asking for a damada. You opened it up and there was the clerk asking, whatsa damada? And the guy answered, nothing’s damada with me, it’s my friend who’s sick. It was 1969, and I still remember that. And he had signed it: Love, Ben.
So I had two girlfriends over, and we called Ben at Scott’s and we said we needed them to come over and fix our record player. So they did. It was a little shabby old green record player. We hid the big built-in stereo in the living room. They fixed the old one and we played The Supremes. Or maybe they couldn’t fix it and we talked about playing The Supremes.
They left. My girlfriends left eventually and my mother came back to my room and shook her finger and said, don’t call boys. Don’t chase boys. I don’t know if she was more upset — or rather, disappointed, I think that was her word — about the deception or the phone call itself. In my defense, I showed her the get-well card. The love on it. She said something in response. I don’t remember what. But I felt I had revealed something too personal, opened myself up too deeply. The dominant feeling was this: she doesn’t understand. She couldn’t understand.
Ben and I rediscovered each other the summer between our sophomore and junior years of college. We fell into the easy rhythm of a home-from-school-infatuation-with-an-old-friend. In September we both left to spend our junior years abroad. A few weeks into the semester I took the train and ferry from Paris to London. I missed a connection and arrived close to midnight. It was too late to call so I went to his hostel and stood outside and couldn’t figure out a way of reaching him. I found a bed and breakfast and came back in the morning.
The weekend was awful. We had sex because it was our first chance to be alone — even though we told each other we shouldn’t feel obligated just because it was our first chance to be alone. We were both disappointed. It was his first time. I felt responsible. We met one more time, in Rouen, the town where Joan of Arc was martyred, and then we knew it was over. Or at least he did. He said, I feel you expected me to come here and say I love you. He was right. And he wouldn’t say it.
So we wrote letters and I kept sighting his doubles all around the continent. I sort of fell in and out of love with a Tunisian and then a Michigander and, finally, it took a sixty-hour-a-week newspaper internship a year later in downstate Illinois to get over Ben.
He moved back to our hometown after college. For a while, whenever I went home, I’d call him. He was polite, friendly, busy. As if nothing had happened. Whereas I’d keep remembering, keep writing, over and over: a poem about getting my period at his Bar Mitzvah luncheon, a story about that sad autumn in Europe (my first published fiction), an essay about our high school reunion.
In Paris I felt that if only my life became enjoined with his, he would save me. I would be a writer. I would have a place in the world. I realize that what I wanted from him, always, was what no one could ever give me, not deeply at least, where it could settle, down into the bones — reassurance.
That night in eighth grade I’d felt that the only way to bring him into my life was through a phone call that broke an ingrained rule. I had to sneak because I couldn’t chase after boys. The reason you couldn’t chase boys, I think now, went beyond the fear of sex. The reason was this: you might get one. You might find it was possible to have a life, receive just desserts, without pain. At fourteen, that vision of life was too unbelievable, too foreign to accept.
It was early morning when the telephone rang and I got out of bed to answer it. In a matter-of-fact voice, a friend of the family told me my mother was dying. An aneurism had burst inside her head, she was hemorrhaging, and the doctors didn’t expect her to live past noon. My father came on the line. He whispered, “She’s bleeding, hon, she’s bleeding,” before his voice broke entirely.
I watched myself hang up the phone then pick it up again to call my husband at work. He rushed home, collected me, and we climbed into the cab of the old green Ford and started on our way to the hospital. Some minutes later, as we came down the curve of the mountain, grief and need seized me. A cry rose inside me: “I want my mother. I want my mother now.” I stared unblinking at the road ahead until my eyes were dry.
When we reached the hospital, we rode the elevator to the intensive care unit on the fifth floor. In a room at the end of the hall my mother was still on the verge of death. A doctor, a neurosurgeon, came into the room where we waited. Looking everywhere but at the faces of pain and bewilderment we turned to him, he recited mortality statistics for victims of cerebral hemorrhage, then left us. We didn’t see him again.
There were more phone calls to make. I stationed myself by the pay phone and called my sisters, the people at work, some relatives in the Midwest. Their flights arranged, my sisters called back. Later that day, we met them at the airport, where we hugged each other and tried not to cry in front of strangers.
The fifth-floor waiting room filled up with relatives and friends. We sat and talked, stood and circled around and sat again, smoked cigarettes, and ate the food visitors brought with them. Mostly we waited for any new word from the doctors. While we waited, we speculated: would she live or die? And if she lived, what would be left of our mother, wife, sister, friend? Would she know us, would we know her?
She held on to life. On the third day, holding my father’s hand, I walked down the hall to see her. The fragile skin of my mother’s face was stretched smooth, wrinkles erased by steroids and fluid from the I.V. Tubes ran from her bruised arms, her nose, and from the hole in her forehead where a catheter drained away the blood that was flooding, drowning, her brain.
I touched her hand. “Mom, I’m here.” I told her I loved her. I wanted her to get better if she could, but if she couldn’t, that was OK. “I’ll always love you, Mom.”
It was like talking long distance over a bad line. Her words came back garbled; out of the tangle of sounds, the only word I could distinguish was my name, once. I wondered what she heard from her end. Was it my best grown-up voice, calm and loving, or the frantic cry of a little girl, lost and afraid?
At the week’s end, we knew she was not going to rally again. Her coma deepened. Her body, coaxed by machines, continued to function. We didn’t know for how long — weeks, months, maybe longer. My father gathered us in the waiting room, where we made an unlikely circle in the lamplight, friends and family holding hands, awkward, solemn. Weeping, my father said what we all knew: our deathwatch had to end. We couldn’t live at the hospital indefinitely. He sent us home.
Two nights later, my phone rang at 1 a.m. The hospital had called, my father said, and he was on his way back there — alone, he insisted. Still numb with sleep, I walked through the dark house and got back into bed.
Lying awake an hour after sunrise, I heard the phone ring again. “Don’t answer it,” I almost called out. I turned over in the bed, closed my eyes, and felt her death settle over me.
Half Moon Bay, California