The hat I want to wear — the black one with the little veil — is in the basement. Four-year-old Alice follows me down. She wears a new black jumper and patent-leather shoes. I remind her that we have to leave for church soon, and not to get dirty.
The hat is where I expect to find it, in a box near the huge and hugely inefficient furnace that has heated my home for decades. Alice has found some of my old clothes, and tries them on. She stops winding a fake-fur stole around her waist and points to something else.
“Grandma, what’s that?”
A rotary telephone. Metal and black. I wipe away the dust, hold it toward Alice and say, “Do you mean this?”
She nods vigorously and asks, “What’s the four-one-one?”
That’s the number to find out other people’s phone numbers although you haven’t called it for a long time but you know this isn’t what Alice wants to know and Alice’s mother once laughed and explained that four-one-one is just some slang Alice overheard and it means please explain.
“It’s a phone, Honey.”
You could call it an heirloom or a relic or a totem of an earlier Information Age all of which would be true but Alice wouldn’t understand and that’s not what she wants to know anyway.
“Really,” I say. “It’s a phone. No screen, no buttons, no games. To call someone, you put your finger into one of these holes and pull all the way around to here.” I demonstrate and we both listen to the click and whir.
In the days when there only were rotary phones the time it took for all those clicks and whirs could be delightfully maddening like the time you couldn’t wait to break the news to your best friend not by telling her straight-out but by asking her to be your maid of honor or years later to invite her to your daughter Liz’s wedding and later still to Alice’s christening.
Alice points to the phone. “Can I hold it?”
Other times the slow deliberate act of dialing was a blessing because it bought you time to think of what you were going to say and how you were going to say it.
I hand the phone to Alice, who clasps it to her chest with both hands.I lift the receiver: “You listen here in the top half, and talk into the bottom.”
That thank you yes Liz is back home well not home exactly at least not yet but nearby in a place that will help her get better and you hear about kids running away and bad things happening to them but you never think it will happen to your kids and why hadn’t you gone ahead and violated your daughter’s precious teen-age privacy and maybe then you would’ve figured out something was wrong sooner and friends tell you it’s not your fault but you know nothing like this has happened to their kids at least not yet and you feel like they’re judging you as if you hadn’t already rendered a verdict yourself and what the hell kind of mother are you, anyway?
Alice waits a moment and says, “Hello? Hello!” She struggles, but still manages to hold the base of the phone in one arm. With her free hand she takes the receiver from me and puts it to her ear. This time, Alice shouts into the mouthpiece, “Hello!”
Then, in a tone I recognize as Liz’s, as my own — a tone of bafflement, resentment, anger — Alice says, “Hel-lo-oh?!”
That after getting out of that place Liz stayed clean and took care of herself and was a wonderful mother but the doctor warned that the bad things that had happened to her when she’d run away would eventually exact a physical price although even the doctor was surprised the bill would come due so soon and sure Alice still has a good father but now she’s without a mother and you’ll thank all the mourners who will tell you they’re sure your daughter is with the Lord and you think they’re right but how do you know and how do they know and why couldn’t the Author of Eternity have written a few more chapters for Liz and you have to leave for the service soon but you really don’t want to go and you think you probably will cry in church and shouldn’t you have run out of tears a long time ago?
The phone slips from Alice’s grasp and falls to the concrete floor, just missing her patent-leather shoes. A faint ding echoes off the basement’s cinder-block walls.
Alice looks sadly at the phone, shakes her head and says, “No answer.”
Ted Lietz is a freelance writer and reformed marketer. His work also has been published in such places as Every Day Fiction and Flashquake. Everyone has to be somewhere. He happens to live in Pittsburgh.