The Long-Distance Call
by Charles C. Cole
I was unemployed after 20 years. I’d been voluntarily downsized with a modest payout and was now busy collaborating with an outplacement service to “repackage” me (review my acquired skills, revamp my online profile). I was, therefore, home far more than usual.
Thinking of reducing expenses, I asked my teacher-wife, “Why do we still have a house phone? We all have cell phones.”
She said, “I don’t know how many accounts I created over the years where I gave them the old number. And if we ever have a power outage, the land line will sustain our connection with the outside world long after our phone batteries die.”
“When was the last time we lost power?”
“Right before Christmas. It only lasted two hours. We were lucky.”
The first time the land line rang, someone wanted me to take an election survey. The second time someone offered to help refinance our cars. The third time was “Mr. Nobody,” as my late mother called him. Why did I bother answering? Good manners instilled by my parents?
One day while I watched online videos for outmaneuvering an “application tracking system,” an automated program for culling out non-standard résumés, I felt a twinge of self-doubt and pleaded aloud, “Mom, if you’re there, I could sure do with a dose of your social networking superpower about now. When you talked to people, they always thought they were your best friends. How did you do it? What was the trick?”
No response. No surprise. Shut inside without an air conditioner on an historically hot and dry summer, I paused my creative job hunt for a few games of digital solitaire. Followed by a few more. My adult son, who still lives with us because he’s on the spectrum, came over to give me a hug. He’s the best hugger in the house, possibly in my life. I’m grateful.
“I knew we’d get you addicted to videogames eventually,” he said smugly, noticing my screen.
“Just taking a break,” I explained. “Waiting for the president of some large healthcare company to accidentally dial our number and realize there are no coincidences.”
The phone rang. My son’s eyes got big as saucers, then he laughed. “You’re good,” he said. “Go get ‘em, tiger.”
“Let me see. Someone’s reminding me of our upcoming high school reunion.” I picked up the receiver. “Speaking.” (Holding back on information in case it was random spam.)
“That’s what it says in the phonebook,” I said, turning back to my son. “Do they still make phonebooks?”
“What’s a phonebook?” he asked, dead serious. I waved him off.
Looking for a little break, I said, “I’ll take it outside from the patio furniture.”
“Mr. Cole, you still there?”
I stepped out. There was a gentle breeze, and it was blue-sky sunny. Some good with the bad.
“How can I help?”
“Is this Charlie Cole?”
“You found me.”
“This is your spirit guide. One of them anyway. Your mom asked me to call.”
“My mom’s deceased, loser.”
“That tracks,” said the voice.
“What can I do for you?” I asked, feeling a little impatient. “I’m expecting a call, so I’d like to keep this short.”
“Your mother says: during the interview, don’t be afraid of eye contact and keep beaming ‘I love you!’ to everyone in the room. They’ll feel it if you mean it, and they’ll naturally want to spend more time around you.”
“Who is this?” I asked.
“My friends call me Hake.”
“Hake, I suggest we get to the punch line. Are you trying to sell me something? Because I’m between jobs at the moment and hoarding every penny.”
“You asked your mother a question. She told me to call you and give you the answer. As you know, she can be very persuasive.”
I called his bluff. “Pop quiz. What was my maternal grandmother’s name?”
“Hold on. Let me ask.” He was back in a flash. “Maria Caruso.”
“Put my dead mother on the phone,” I pushed, trying not to think how ludicrous it sounded.
“She’s not available right now.”
“That tracks,” I snapped.
“I mean, she’s here but not here; it’s a relative term. It’s a big place, you understand. She’s busy. She’s doing great, by the way. Thanks for taking my call and good luck. You’ll be great!”
“Wait! Do you really know my mother?”
“Of course. I call her ‘my angel without wings,’ which is funny because that’s what she used to call you. In human form, she was a short Italian Catholic from Staten Island who never swore, but she was a professional when it came to giving someone the cold shoulder. Den Mother, Girl Scout leader, nurse. Am I right?”
“Who is this?”
“I have to go, but it’s been great talking to you. Next time you find a five-leaf clover, just know your mother’s helping you spot them. She gets a real tickle out of it.”
“Can she call me back? Can I talk to her?”
“You talk to her every day, especially during your sojourns into the woods. She hears you.”
“I’d love to hear from her.”
“I bet. But, right now, I have to get off the phone because your career counselor is calling, and she’s getting frustrated by the busy signal. Remember: love works better than vinegar.”
Boom! An already strange call ending with an expression that my late father had used freely and frequently.
The phone went dead. Then, without any ringing, I heard my career counselor, Barbara, on the other end: “Hello?”
“Here,” I said.
“That was weird. Your line was busy.”
“Sorry about that. Unexpected family business.”
“I hung up and then picked up the phone to redial, and we were already connected. You were already there. No ringing.”
“Weirder things have happened,” I said.
“You have time to talk?” asked Barbara. “I have a great lead. Unless you want to do a video call.”
“The phone works just fine,” I said, “in fact, better than I ever expected.”
Copyright © 2021 by Charles C. Cole