By Edward G. Gauthier
As I slept, I drifted through a dream of Bob and me riding bikes out on Randolf Street in front of our old house. Mom and Dad rocked and chatted on the front porch sipping their usual wine. The setting sun coated the green mowed lawns in the cooling summer evening. We rode in hypnotic figure eights, circling, leaning gracefully, following each other.
“I’m gonna kill myself.” Some voice crashed into my reverie, and I sat upright in bed. Every time I startled awake like this my first thought was of all three of them being gone. I found my hand gripping the receiver of Dad’s old rotary dial phone. I had apparently answered it in my sleep.
“Hello,” I mumbled into the clunky receiver, wiping drool from the side of my mouth.
“Anyone there?” It was a woman’s voice.
“Who is this?”
“I called to say goodbye. And so you could say goodbye to me. I’m ready to end all this.”
“Do I know you? Look, who is this?” I reached for my watch. “It’s two forty-something in the morning.” I rubbed my face, braced myself upright and concentrated on her voice. “Oh, wait. I remember. Joan. Right? From the Commerce Group. You’ve sure got” – huge yawn – “an interesting way of waking someone.”
“No. I’m not Joan. I just want someone to tell me goodbye. That’s it. I really don’t want to leave a note. Once I hear goodbye I’ll hang up and . . . be gone.”
I flopped back onto the mattress and tried to reason out what was going on. The matron of skepticism immediately began sending out warning flags reminding me of the practical joke I had played on the crew down at Channel 8 TV, a huge birthday cake with a very large bikini-clad woman bursting forth, icing all over her. Henry, our super shy production manager, who had just turned fifty, had frozen in his tracks. Though the crew had howled with laughter, I knew the group would settle for nothing less than some payback stunt.
“Sure, you’re gonna kill yourself and don’t want to leave a note, yeah,” I mumbled into the phone. “Who the hell is this?” I asked grinning, swinging my feet over, slipping into my slippers.
“This is rash, I know,” the voice went on. “I’m . . . ahhh . . . Look, just tell me goodbye anytime.”
Her words yanked my eyes to the framed picture of Bob on the fireplace mantel. Naw, this was a prank. Never the less, I walked over in my boxers and t-shirt and picked up the picture, the old phone’s stretchy cord following me. In his full-dress Army uniform, Bob stood there looking back at me with his usual confident grin. Two years older than me, we’d been close and had argued when he joined. He wanted the discipline, the challenge, to take on the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Flag, country, uniform; it all spoke to him. I wanted him finishing his degree, getting a good start in life, a woman, a house, kids, a life. My arguments about politicians that could spend soldier’s lives like a kid throwing pennies in a fountain didn’t faze him at all. He just rubbed his little brother’s head and smiled.
The picture next to Bob’s was my parents’ wedding picture. They looked young, vibrant, with big smiles and their whole life ahead of them. My mother was the third generation to inherit this big house. They raised Bob and me here, had parties here, family reunions, business meetings, lots of bar-b-ques. Four months into Dad’s retirement, they were both killed in a car crash out on the Interstate. That was four years ago. Bob came back from his third tour of duty in Iraq for the funeral.
“Uh huh. So what you got in mind?” I asked her. “Head in a gas oven? Hang yourself in the closet? Run a hose from the tailpipe in through the car window? A prank? Really? At this time of night?”
“I dialed randomly,” she went on. “And you picked up. We’ve never met. We’ll just talk a few minutes. We’ll say goodbye. Goodbyes are important. I just want to say goodbye to someone, to have someone actually say goodbye to me. It’s not too much to expect. Is it?”
“It might be a lot to expect. I don’t want to say some magic word that allows you to off yourself. I don’t want that responsibility. Maybe it wasn’t a random number. Maybe you know me. Maybe this is a prank. Who the hell are you?”
“A name is no good at this point. I won’t even exist soon. Rachel, Meagan, Donna, Jane, pick one. I don’t know. I don’t care. Are you tired of talking? Let’s just say goodbye and hang up.”
Every time she mentioned saying goodbye, I was forced back toward Bob’s picture. I had seen his call on my cell but had not picked up because I was in an important business meeting. He was calling from Iraq. That was the day he died. The Army said he was killed in combat, hit by a bullet. Six weeks after his funeral, Jeff Briggers, his best buddy in his unit, came by. He said Bob bragged that he always told his little brother the whole truth, even when he fed fibs to his parents. Jeff was the one to find Bob’s body. Bob had shot himself.
“See, to me,” the voice went on, “you represent everyone, the world, all of it, past, present, future.” Then she exhaled heavily and whispered, “You just don’t believe me, do you?”
The whisper threw me. It was deep and dark, kind of sullen. “Who the heck are you?” I repeated.
“It really doesn’t matter.”
Then I heard three clicks through the phone. I flinched. Bob had assembled and disassembled guns on the kitchen table, but those were M-16 rifles. Whatever she had sounded like heavy metal.
“Ok. Let’s try this. When I call my friends late at night, I tell them my name. And I’m pretty sure you know my name is Stafford, right?”
“Stafford. Ok, Stafford. You want my name? Julia. My name is Julia. Does that help any?”
The data bank of my mind scrambled. Julia. Julia. And came up blank. “But I don’t know any Julia.”
“Yes. I did say we don’t know each other. I dialed a random number. This is a gun in my hand. I want someone to say goodbye to. Is that too much to . . .. Oh fuck.”
Was she crying? Or was that just a heavy exhale? I couldn’t tell but it happened again and then once more. If she was sobbing, it was too soft to tell.
“Why would my name matter?” she called out, her voice halting and breaking. “I don’t even care if it makes it to my gravestone, or if there’s a fucking gravestone.” She stopped talking. Empathy began to crawl around inside me, wanting me to let down my guard but the matron of skepticism wagged her finger.
“You know, Rudy at work told me his girlfriend could make herself cry real tears at a moment’s notice. She worked as an actress for a while. You’re not Rudy’s girlfriend, are you?”
The bang on the other end was so loud that the concussion stung the skin of my right ear. My eardrum burned. I jerked the phone away from my head so hard that I almost dropped it. I opened my mouth as wide as I could, stretching my jaw, trying to relieve the pain and the ringing. Rubbing my ear, I switched the phone to the other side. Only a gun could make that noise. I was sure. There was silence on the other end of the line.
“Julia?” There was no answer. “Julia?” I waited and listened but there was no sound at all. I held my breath. “Julia, please answer. Okay, you win. I believe you. ANSWER ME!” There was stone silence. “Oh no. NO NO NO.” I kept listening, as if I might reach through the phone and feel around for her. I imagined blood running out of some blown open artery, the brain quickly draining its fluids. “Julia. SHIT, please don’t do this to me.” Then there was a sound like sputtering, and then something striking a mattress or a pillow. I imagined her thrashing around, her body involuntarily convulsing as she clung to her last moments alive. “Julia. I’m sorry. I should have….”
I couldn’t believe it.
“Julia?” I said.
“Oh my goodness,” she said softly.
“Aaahhh. That, that was really loud.”
“Yeah. And soft at the same time.”
“That’s a real gun.”
“Yes. A gun.”
“So you’re actually Julia.”
“Well, for a little while longer.”
“Then you--ahhhh. I mean you want to...”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I imagine it as relief.”
Fuck. My spine tingled and my stomach muscles tightened so that I sat on the edge of the bed rubbing my forehead. The matron of skepticism clung to my mind by the thinnest of threads. “Look, don’t get mad at me. I mean, you weren’t using blanks in that gun, were you?” If Bob was here now, he’d slap the back of my head for asking such a question. My question didn’t slow Julia.
“No. There’s plaster dust all in the air, in my mouth, on the bed. Pttuhh. The bullet shattered the ceiling. Too much of a huge mess for blanks.”
I grabbed the matron and threw her out, locking the door of my mind against her. I began to pace, the spring coiled phone wire stretching back and forth as I walked. I suggested therapy. I personally knew two good psychologists I could call. Julia laughed. I couldn’t believe she laughed. She’d already tried plenty of that.
“But, your--your voice,” I complained. “You ahhhh you don’t sound, well, desperate. That fooled me at first.”
“Desperate? I’m way past desperate. I’ve passed up resolved. I’ve passed up all of that. Nothing has any weight now. I’m light and free. Like I said, I made this call so someone could tell me goodbye. That’s all I need. Just the plain ordinary way a person ends a phone call. Goodbye. That’s all.”
“What’s that all about? I’m not saying it but what’s with this goodbye thing?”
“It’s always gone that way. I don’t believe in the right god, so my parents reject me. My dear husband leaves with no explanation. He takes my daughter. The court says I’m unfit. People at work start talking behind my back. Everyone, everything just fades out. It’s like life evaporates away from me. They avoid me. Nobody says why. They’re just gone. They could at least say goodbye. I mean it’s just decency, isn’t it? Yes, it is. So, I want a goodbye.”
Her words went into me like a blade. I stood there rubbing the back of my neck, virtually begging my parents, my brother, to tell me what to do. They just stared back from their pictures. The same conclusion I’d been slowly coming to for the last few years arrived in me again. I was on my own. I wheeled and took in the windblown leaves of the maple tree out the window. I didn’t have a comeback for her. I couldn’t respond. I was stuck. What would I have said to Bob had I answered his call? Then she took a turn I really wasn’t expecting.
“Tell me about you, Stafford. Ok?”
“Yeah, tell me something about you.”
I cleared my throat. “The crew at work says I’m very curious, you know, determined to find out stuff.”
“Why, do you think?”
“Oh, been that way since I was a kid. Whenever my mom took Bob and me to visit her friends, I’d get bored, go in another room, and start digging through drawers. Bob would follow along and giggle at me. He and Mom said I was nosey, but that wasn’t it. Looking in those drawers was like looking straight into those people’s personality. What was important to them, the way they placed things in there, if they were organized or disorderly. It was easier to analyze the drawer than to talk directly to the grownups.”
“Digging around in other people’s lives, huh? Sound like you could use a little therapy.”
With the word “therapy” out of her mouth, an idea jumped into my head. “Hey wait,” I said. “That’s how I could learn more about you. I’ll analyze one of your drawers.”
“Look, it’s easy. You just look in a drawer. Don’t pick a clothes drawer though. They’re all the same. Pick a drawer, tell me what’s in it and how its arranged and I’ll tell you little secrets about yourself that’s impossible for me to know otherwise. I assure you; it works.”
“I just wanted a phone call. That’s too involved.”
“Hey, I am involved here. A few minutes ago, you fired that gun and I visualized blood spilling out of your brains. Look, just give me a chance. Hell, I don’t even know where you are. I can’t control you. You’re planning on hanging up later anyway. Come on. Try it. Please.”
“A drawer. Are you serious?”
“Yeah. No, really. Pick a drawer and just give me an accurate description of what’s in it. What can it hurt?” Another deep breath from the other end of the line oozed out of the receiver.
“I’ll do this, but you owe me a goodbye. Alright?”
“Ok. A drawer. Just any drawer?”
“Just so it isn’t for clothes.”
“Well. My nightstand has a drawer.” I heard the drawer slowly being drawn open. “There’s a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, some Altoid breath mints.”
“Oh wait,” I interrupted. “I need to know if the things in there are arranged nice and neatly, everything in its place, or are they just tossed in, you know, all mixed up.”
“On bottom it’s orderly because everything is square shaped. But the stuff on top of that is just tossed in.”
“Give me the stuff on top first.”
“Gum, breath mints, an empty bottle of Bayer aspirin, a tube of rosewater and glycerin cream for my skin, two clarinet reeds – one broken and one new, fingernail clippers…”
“There’s eight cents in pennies, a tube of Elmer’s regular glue and one of super-glue, a few bobby pins, a plastic hair band, and a crumpled-up piece of paper with something written on it.”
“What’s the writing say?” Paper rustling filled the phone.
“Humm. Go straight to the heart of danger, for it is there you will find true safety.”
“Uh huh. Sounds far-Eastern. Is that everything on the top level?”
“Yeah,” she answered. Things bumped around in the drawer.
“My pocket dictionary…” she continued.
“Face up or face down?”
“Face up, why?”
“Dust on it?” I asked again.
“Okay, keep going.”
“There’s a small Bible, facing down, with dust. Let’s see, there’s six old letters from this past year.”
“In a pile or close together or were they scattered about in the drawer?” I asked.
“They’re rubber banded together, face up, no dust.”
“How are they addressed?”
“To me. Yeah.” There was a long hesitation. “From my ex-husband…from last April. I’d rather not read them.” Silence for a few seconds. “There’s a big round button I used to pin to my shirt that says, ‘Lisa’s Mom. #4. Tigers T-ball.’ There’s a picture of my little girl that hurts me a lot, because she won’t have me around now. But she’s strong and smart and she’ll be ok. I have to believe she’ll be ok.”
I was about to ask about her daughter when, through Julia’s phone, I began to hear police sirens. Neighbors. Thank goodness for neighbors. Someone must have heard the shot. It suddenly hit me that I had to keep her talking till the cops got to her.
“Uh-huh. Is that everything?” I asked.
“No. The last thing is a tiny screwdriver set in a little plastic box and that’s about it. So how crazy am I?”
I hesitated only a moment, listening to background sounds from her side. The sirens got louder. I dove in.
“Okay, Let’s see. Ahhh, that tiny screwdriver set is probably used to put the frame of your glasses back together, ahhh, whenever those little temple screws fall out, so you’re capable of dealing with the physical world. You ahhh you ahhhh can change a clarinet reed so you’re somewhat musically talented, but it’s not your main thing in life. Ahhh you know, maybe a hobby. And ahhhh, there’s no dust on the little dictionary and it was face up, so I’d bet you like things well defined and and and… clearly presented. Maybe you’re probably neat and orderly. So, how am I doing so far?” I asked loudly. “Am I…am I close?”
“You are trying so hard, Stafford. My goodness. Wow. I never imagined it would be so light.”
Light? I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. I glanced at the window. It was still dark out. Then the sirens were right there and I heard tires grind to a halt on gravel. To cover up the noise of the cops, I began to almost holler into the phone.
“Emotionally speaking, you’ve you’ve ahhh ahhh you’ve been through some hard times. My guess is that ahhhh the greatest of your pains have come recently, say . . . say within the last year.”
“Uh-huh. I wonder if it’s too late to like myself?” she mumbled.
“What?” I asked.
“Stafford, I need you to stop. Listen to me.” Julia’s tone was so direct, her voice so cold, it disarmed me. I just stood silent; my pacing halted. “Looking at this picture of my daughter, I can see other family … I mean…is that your parents wedding? Are they your family? Your brother?”
I wheeled and looked at the pictures on the mantel. “What? How did you know… wait. Have you been in this room? How could you possibly know—I mean, well shit! You know my family? My brother? You know me? You can’t really be Julia because I don’t know any Julia. What the hell! Why would you fire a pistol into the air? Some prank, huh?”
“Stafford,” her voice came through the phone like a soft breeze. “I don’t know you and I’ve never met them.”
I could hear pounding on a front door followed by someone hollering that it was the police. The pounding got much louder, some cop throwing his shoulder into a heavy door. The breaking of glass followed close behind.
“Strange that I see them. You should move on, you know. Oh Stafford, you have got to hear this. Bring flowers to their graves. Cry. Pray. Do whatever you have to do. Maybe even sell the place. but you have to move past them. They will always love you. And, if you had answered the call from Bob, you would have done fine. Let that go.”
“Julia, I never . . . I never told anyone, not anyone, how I feel about that call. How could you possibly…?
“Believe me, Stafford, some things can’t be explained,” she answered. “You don’t deserve this, such a crazy call late at night like this. I’m causing you a lot of tension and you’ve done nothing to deserve this. It’s time. I’m gonna go. Thanks. Thanks for trying. I can’t put it off any longer. Goodbye. Remember you owe me a goodbye,” she whispered.
I was about to say it when I heard, through her phone, another door break open. It was loud, right there. Men’s voices flowed through the phone clearly.
“Hello,” I yelled but got no response.
“Hey Sarg, she’s in here,” came a cop’s voice. “Typical. We’re too late. Brains all over the ceiling.
“Yeah hell. That’s too bad,” a deeper baritone voice responded. “Smith and Wesson .38 revolver. Still a little heat in her body. Must have just happened. Nobody else here. Yeah, looks typical.”
“Hello,” I yelled again.
“Hey, that cell’s got a call,” the cop said as he picked up Julia’s phone. “Hello?”
“Hello. I . . . was talking . . . to Julia,” I said.
“Yeah. Look mister, I’m officer Debbs with the local police. I’ll need your name, address, and phone number.”
I gave the officer my contact information. He asked how I knew the victim. Victim. I tried to explain. I tried to be as accurate, as honest, as I could be. He almost seemed bored.
“Look, man,” he said lecturing me. “These things can be stressful. Take it from me. But what you’re saying would be completely impossible. She used a six-shot revolver and five of the bullets are unfired. She fired once. I can assure you, she didn’t say a thing after that.”
Later that morning at the local precinct, I shook Officer Debb’s hand. He had learned her name. Julia Ann Remblich. She was right. We didn’t know each other. At least not at the beginning of the call.
Debbs referred me to Lieutenant Bedford, a trained crisis negotiator who worked closely with 911 services. He listened to the whole phone call account as he nodded knowingly. He’d been there, done that. This guy had incredible experience. We talked for two hours. Though I still felt strangely stung by the call, I left there having signed up for an internship under Lieutenant Davy Bedford for three hours twice a week. I figured I would keep my job writing ads, for now, but would sign up for psychological profiling classes I could take at night.
Two days later, I stood next to Julia’s wooden casket. There were pictures of her growing up, graduating from high school, wedding pictures, standing in front of a white house holding her daughter’s hand. A small group sat and chatted a few feet away from the casket. I’m not the praying type, so I just laid my hand on the dark wooden casket and whispered “goodbye.”
Out on the rainy street, the matron of skepticism looked a little worse for wear, a little less confident, but she followed along willingly to the local bar.
"Night Call" (short story) Edward G. Gauthier, J.J. Outre' Review, http://thejjoutrereview.com, August 1, 2016. (Unfortunately, this website is now defunct)