Phone Call in The Age of Coronavirus

Marcia Aldrich on why cell phones, so thin and light and little, don’t seem fitting for momentous calls, for life and death communications, or for last words.

Marcia Aldrich | Longreads | May 2020 | 6 minutes (1,765 words)

When I imagine the call, it comes on a landline. Not a cell phone. A land line like the one propped on the little table in the hall outside my parents’ bedroom on 22nd Street, on the second floor landing. Beige with a rotary dial. Not installed on the wall but sitting fat and secure on the table where a chair joined it, perfect for those long conversations my older sisters had with their friends, the phone that rang in the middle of the night with the news my father’s only uncle had died. My father stumbled out of bed to answer its loud and insistent rings. My mother and my sisters and I followed the ringing, unheard of at that hour, assembling by our father as he heaved himself into the chair after hearing the news. I was 5 years old and it was the first important phone call of my life. The image of my whole family hovering around the phone was engraved forever as the way one receives the surprising news of death.

Recently, after years of not thinking about the phone call I imagined I might receive some day, I thought about it again. I used to torture myself by pretending it was his voice I heard on the line, saying the name he alone knew, the name he had given me because he thought it suited me better than the one I wore so heavily. And now I wanted to hear him say that name again, one last time. The global spread of the Coronavirus, our shutdown in Washington where I live, the way fear hangs in the air has perhaps triggered its return. Doctors are making their wills, never a good sign, and we’re being told it’s time to talk about death. For some of us may have run out of time to do those last things we thought we might do. In my imagination, the call still comes in on the beige phone of my childhood even though I haven’t owned a landline for 10 years. Those models are museum pieces, shoved away in attics as relics along with bone china tea sets. My husband never did sign on for the transition to cell phones. He missed the physical presence of the landline in our lives, claiming he couldn’t hear the voice on the other end as clearly on a cell phone. About three years ago he finally broke down and got one installed in our condo unit only to discover no one ever called him on it. This new version of the landline didn’t look at all like the phones of old and it didn’t operate like one either. It was much more machine-like with buttons to hit and complicated functions. Though it sat on his desk where he could readily answer, it never rang. The world had moved on. Eventually he got rid of it, the expense of the landline wasn’t justified, he said.


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Cell phones, so thin and light and little, don’t seem fitting for momentous calls, for life and death communications, for last words, or even if the calls aren’t literally life and death, they’re emotionally weighty, too weighty to receive or conduct on an iPhone or flip phone. For calls of that sort, a landline is required, or so my psyche thinks. I never picture receiving the call walking idly about my neighborhood and hitting accept on my cell phone. Or perusing lettuce at the grocery store. Or even on a picturesque trail looking out at the ferry gliding on its way to Seattle. It would be awful to get such a call as I’m imagining in public, standing in line to board that ferry or waiting for an order of coffee. Imagine being at the drugstore, a place as soulless as Walgreens, and getting the call. Because we carry our cell phones everywhere, we now can receive calls anywhere and at any time. This is a tragedy. Cell phones have destroyed the sense of the occasion of a call, the magnitude of picking up and hearing a familiar voice on the other end who has something significant to say. Truth be told, I don’t receive many calls anymore from anyone. Mostly reminders that my prescription is ready or my dental appointment has to be rescheduled. The exceptions are rare and they don’t compare favorably with important calls I’ve received in my life on a landline, like the call telling me my father had died. Now that is a call I will remember until I die.

Because we carry our cell phones everywhere, we now can receive calls anywhere and at any time. This is a tragedy.

The call came in the middle of the night just like that call about my father’s uncle when I was 5. It was early March, cold and wintery, the river that ran by our house was churning with chunks of ice, and the heat had been turned off. I know this because my husband and I had buried ourselves under a down comforter and two large dogs. Richard got up to answer the call — he was surprisingly quick about it having been woken from sleep. I immediately knew the news was bad and it was for me. No one calls in the middle of the night unless they have to. Oddly our phone was beige just like my childhood phone and sat on the dresser in our bedroom. Did I deliberately pick that model, the instrument carrying the news of death, or was it an accident of fate?

I had to get up out of bed to speak into the phone. Not easy and convenient like a cell phone that I could reach while staying under the covers. In the dark I could barely make out Richard’s shape. I heard his voice — It’s your sister Carol. That’s all he had to say and I knew. He didn’t have to say It’s about your father. I threw off the blankets, dislodged myself from the pile of dogs, and found him to take the phone. Nearly naked and shivering I heard her voice. There was no chair to fall into. I stood to hear her say Marcia, Daddy’s gone. It should require some effort to take such a call. You should have to get from one place to another and it shouldn’t be easy. You should have to run down the stairs to answer the call or stumble across the room in the dark hitting your hips on the edge of the dresser. It should leave a mark, a bruise that will take weeks to fade and remain sensitive to the touch.

There are many momentous phone calls I imagine I might receive, frightening calls I dread receiving, terrible test results, something happening to those I love, calls I don’t want to get on my cell phone or pick up as voicemail. These are inevitable and they await me. I doubt that I will escape them. But the call I imagine, the call I’ve thought about receiving is from the man who first stirred me, a troubled man I knew a long time ago before there were cell phones, a time when talking on the phone for us was rare and memorable because I was keeping our relationship secret from my parents. I feared that once our relationship became known, it wouldn’t withstand their disapproval. I was 17. Some might say 17 is too young to have a significant relationship but I would say they are wrong. With him I felt vulnerable and real. At 17 I let everything happen to me. I let him happen to me. And that wasn’t the case as I grew older. For a short space it didn’t matter how we spent our time as long as we were together. But the days between the sweet and the bitter were brief, between the hours of early fall and the dark end of the season. All that was pure affection between us was driven underground in the cold that came. We were doomed from the start, though I didn’t know it — that was something it took time for me to see. We didn’t last, or I should say our relationship didn’t overcome the obstacles put before it. But we did last in my heartbrainbody. He vanished into his life and I vanished into my life without a word passing between us ever again. I know nothing about what became of him. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive.

At 17 I let everything happen to me. I let him happen to me.

I used to periodically let myself descend into a kind of sad daze, a timeless daze, imagining that someday he would call me. Something would make him call me. Perhaps he’d have something specific to say to me. That he sometimes was overcome with remembering me, someone would remind him of me. I don’t know what he would say although sometimes I imagined him asking if it was too late. And of course it was. It had been too late for a very long time, but I still wanted him to ask. I wanted to hear him say those words. I wanted to be curled into a chair with the telephone cord wrapped around my fingers and hear his voice one more time. I used to rehearse what I wanted to say to him if I ever got the chance. I suppose I wanted to put something right before it was too late. Though I know it’s impossible for one last phone call to put anything right, to untangle what has tangled, to repair what has broken, to forgive. Mainly there’s just an ache of the unfinished. I know it is likely there will be no call. But because I am still alive, I imagine the call.

I know it is likely there will be no call. But because I am still alive, I imagine the call.

It comes in on the beige phone that sits on a table like the one in my childhood but it isn’t inside. That’s the thing about creating your own dream — you can take a landline sitting on a table and move it to where it could never be. I want the phone and table to be sitting in the middle of a deserted beach. I hear the ring though it comes from far away. I run through the country fields of my youth and along the back roads he and I used to take on his motorcycle. I hear the pit-pat of my boots slapping the ground like panted breath. I run and run until eventually I can see the green sea spread before me and then the table with the phone. I run down steps onto the hard packed sand of the beach. I hear the ring ring ring ! I am close now.

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Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women published by The University of Georgia Press. Her email is aldrich@msu.edu

Editor: Krista Stevens