I didn’t even want a cell phone. My wife Lea got it for me when she renewed her plan.
I would have left it on the kitchen table and never charged it if she didn’t insist I carry it with me. What’s the point of having a phone at home if you’re going to make calls from the car, I argued unsuccessfully. She occasionally called under the guise of making sure I hadn’t forgotten to do this or go there, but we both knew it was really just to make sure I had the phone and to prove it useful. Even so, I still insisted I didn’t need it, so I never gave the number out or used it to call anyone but her.
That’s what made it so infuriating when people started calling.
The call wasn’t Lea’s office number or cell, and the prefix told me the call was from Danville, about an hour and a half from where we lived. I wasn’t going to answer but I figured something might have happened and Lea had someone calling me for her.
The caller was a woman, who asked for someone I didn’t know and whose name I didn’t pay attention to since it wasn’t mine.
“Wrong number,” I said.
“Oh, sorry,” she said. And we hung up.
The next time it was a male voice on the other end.
I laughed when I started getting calls from the Danville jail, always hanging up without incurring the cost of the call.
Most times I didn’t answer, and since I didn’t have a greeting, sometimes people would leave a message.
That’s when I realized I had been given someone else’s life. Through these errant calls and voicemails, I had access to all the previous holder of this cell phone number’s friends, and their desire – and his -- for their friendship.
“Call me,” a woman said sensually.
“Come pick me up,” a broken down friend pleaded from the side of the road.
There were invitations to parties, requests for rides to the store. Someone called seeking a shoulder to cry on. They all left messages, and I listened to them all with a shameful voyeurs’ interest and a chuckle, always thinking, ain’t happening.
It wasn’t long before these calls fell away.
And that’s when she called.
The first few calls I didn’t pick up and the caller didn’t leave a message. But the calls kept coming, and she started leaving messages: “Are you there, Shawn?” …. “Why won’t you pick up, baby?” … “I wish you would pick up.” It got to the place I started recognizing the number. There was a pleading, placidness in her voice, and she sounded like an older woman, maybe even elderly – and that she was elderly was the only reason I didn’t just delete her messages and forget about it. My mother had died just a couple of years earlier, and I felt sympathy for this woman in a way I probably wouldn’t have felt before. I decided this was something I had to deal with, and finally I answered with the intention of telling her that she had the wrong number. And that’s just what I told her ... the first time … the second time … the third time … the fourth --.
When it started she would apologize and get off the phone. But later, there would be no response. No request to talk to anyone. No voice at all. She would just sit there. Occasionally, there would be the sound of a television in the background, but most of the time there would just be silence. And she never hung up. That would always be left to me after several unresponded to hellos.
Just to make conversation, I finally told Lea about it over dinner.
“How sad,” she said.
“Not at all,” I said. “That’s what happens when fat fingers meet bad eyesight.”
“Maybe there’s more to it than that,” she said. “Maybe she’s an older woman who doesn’t have any friends and is reaching out to someone; trying to find someone who cares or someone she cares about.”
That’s what happens when you marry the softhearted, I thought.
For another year, the calls kept coming – more sporadically, once or twice a month. There was no reason for me to keep answering. She seldom spoke, and when she did she asked for Shawn – and I wasn’t Shawn and couldn’t help her find him. I wanted to ignore these calls but Lea had shamed me enough that I just kept answering.
“May I ask your name?” I finally asked one evening into the sound of a news broadcast that served as background for the silence.
“I want to talk to Shawn?” she asked.
“May I ask your name I repeated?” I was trying hard not to sound perturbed.
“Sherry,” she said, hesitantly. With that out of the way her voice was stronger as she said, “I just want to talk to Shawn.”
“Sherry,” I said, “I’ve told you before this isn’t Shawn’s phone. You’ve got the wrong number.”
She continued to sit there in silence, like she was waiting for me to burst into laughter and say, “Hold on, he’s right here …” and then hand the phone to Shawn. But that wasn’t going to happen, so after a few more seconds of listening to the background of news, I hung up.
I wrote her name down. I wanted to tell my wife I had gotten more information about “The Lost Caller,” as Lea had dubbed her.
I forgot to tell Lea over dinner, and I didn’t give the scrap of paper I’d written the name on a second thought. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t long after that the calls stopped. It had been a couple of months before I even realized it.
Actually, I didn’t think about it again until one Friday night when my wife asked if I had heard from The Lost Caller lately, and fretted about her. It was only then that I remembered the piece of paper and got out of bed and went in search of it. I dug it out from the middle of a stack of papers on the end of the dining room table and brought it back to Lea, who set it on the nightstand on her side of the bed.
The next morning I found her at the computer in the guest bedroom when I got up to take my first pee of the day.
“I found her,” she said, her glaze locked on the computer.
What I had to do couldn’t wait, but she was still reading when I got back.
“Found who?” I asked. She was always talking about something and then acting like she had already told me but I hadn’t listened. I listened -- I’m sure she just wasn’t telling me all the stuff she claimed she was.
“Sherry … Sherry Kearney,” she said. “I found her. It’s her obituary. She died about a month ago.”
I stood over her shoulder and read. How she died and where wasn’t immediately mentioned, but it did say she was fifty-five years old, from Danville, and a secretary. That was as far as I got when Lea noted, “I found Shawn, too.”
She clicked the mouse and another window came up as she said, “He’s dead too.”
He was twenty-one years old and had died in a car wreck two years ago. It was a single car accident. He was speeding and hit a tree, just being reckless and irresponsible. Then again, that’s what young people are.
“Of course, I can’t say for absolutely sure … but I’m pretty sure this is them,” she said. “Right names; mother and son from the right area.” Lea looked up at me. There was nothing more to say.
If this was her, and this was them, maybe she died of a broken heart. No parent wants to bury a child and no parent really ever accepts it – you don’t have to have children to know that. Maybe now they are reunited; maybe before she died she found acceptance; maybe now she found peace.
Why had she decided this was the phone number of her son? Maybe it had been his. Maybe she had been calling this number hoping – wishing -- it would be his voice to answer one day. “Hey, mama,” I imagined she dreamed of hearing. “I’m on my way and I’ll be home soon.”
I could not suppose what she was willing to give for the last two years to hear the voice she wanted on the other end: the rest of her life … die happy that moment? But, of course, that hadn’t happened. She had always gotten me … a stranger. And yet, she kept calling.
I didn’t know if I had done a service or disservice each time I answered. Before I would answer maybe she was enjoying a futile moment of optimism that this time she would hear the right voice? Or was I making her more morose when the call was picked up and she heard my voice, the wrong voice, the voice that confirmed to her that he was never going to answer again? I guess it doesn’t matter now.
It bothered me that my wife was right and that I had been so uncomforting – even if I knew there hadn’t been anything I could have done. I decided to go for a walk.
Jamie C. Ruff is a former reporter, native of Greensboro, NC, and author of three e-books: the western “Colby Black: from Slave to Cowboy,” the contemporary tale of camaraderie and personal conflict “Reinventing the Uninvented Me,” and, most recently, the coming of age story “The Peculiar Friendship.” All are available for download at Amazon.com. He is also a contributor to short-story.me.