ROTARY DIAL • by Deirdre Fagan

Chuck reached for the phone. He had never talked much on the phone and had never much liked it. He wasn’t that sort of man. He had been the sort of man who awoke at 4:00 a.m., even on weekends, dressing fully before leaving his bedroom by pulling on his worn boots with certainty and buttoning his shirt carefully with his calloused hands. He would then pour a plastic cup of black coffee, and be on the way in his Ford F-150 with the cup screwed into its base on the dash by 4:15. He was a man of many expressions but few words. His eyes were black holes deep in their sockets, and his mouth was set tightly against the backdrop. A pursing of the lips and a slight squint and he said his piece while pacing a length.

But this morning Chuck reached for the phone. Ever since Ethel died, he made calls. He dialed randomly at first, willing to speak to anyone who answered the line. Sometimes he reached businesses and would engage in an inquiry. What are your hours today? I was wondering if I could make an appointment. I am wondering what it would cost to refinance my house…if I could get a better deal on life insurance. Sorry, I must have the wrong number. Other times he would reach a residence. Are you a friend of Archie’s? He told me I should call you about a problem I’m having. …I must have misdialed.

Then Chuck started calling for Ethel. He asked every woman who answered if she was Ethel. He dialed outside his area code. Sometimes he would reach someone who would stay on the line 45 seconds or more. Other times the person would hang up immediately. Sometimes he was taken for a telemarketer. Once he was yelled at for calling during supper. Once he dialed a sex line.

Then one day, before the coffee Chuck had poured had even cooled, he dialed Ursula.

“Hello? Is Ethel there?”
“Ethel, I’m calling for Ethel.”
“No, Ethel isn’t here, just me, Ursula.”
“Oh, sorry, Ursula, I was just trying to reach Ethel.”
“Oh, that’s okay, Ursula, Ethel, what’s the difference? They sort of sound the same, don’t they?”
“Yes, I suppose they do. But, I don’t know, what sort of a name is Ursula, anyway?”
“I think it’s Latin. I don’t know. We’re German. Strong German stock. Ursula sounds German, doesn’t it? It sounds more German than Latin. Who is Latin anymore? I mean, unless you’re talking about Latinos, but that’s not the same thing, is it?”

Chuck wondered if it was. He never knew anyone who was Latin or Latino, he didn’t think. He knew Ethel, and she was English and Irish.

Chuck and Ursula talked while Ursula sipped her coffee in Arizona. Chuck lived in North Dakota. He had never been to Arizona. It didn’t much matter to him where Ursula was, though. He was just happy to be talking to her. Then Ursula said she had to go. She was going to go do some garage sale hunting and “the early bird gets the worm.” “It was nice talking to you, Chuck. I hope you find Ethel,” she said, and hung up.

Chuck missed Ethel even more now, but he didn’t know what number he had dialed to reach Ursula. He had been told he should update his phone, but he didn’t see anything wrong with a rotary dial. He didn’t understand why everything had to be updated. Things were good as they were.

Chuck began dialing randomly, trying to reach Ursula again, but he kept getting the usual responses. Now he would say, “Ethel?”… “Ursula?” When no was said to both, he would get a sinking feeling.

Then Chuck’s monthly phone bill came. He pulled it from the envelope, realizing it had all the long distance numbers he had dialed. Now he had Ursula’s number, but could he call her again? Was he being presumptuous? He’d heard someone say that once, that certain things were presumptuous. He’d heard that at The Golden Biscuit. The waitresses were talking about how it was presumptuous to go on a date with a man and expect him to pay for dinner. Chuck had never thought about that. Ethel had always thanked him for such things.

Chuck didn’t know if he should call Ursula or not, but he couldn’t help himself.

Chuck looked in the mirror the morning he called again. His flannel wasn’t curving out in the middle like it used to. His shoulders were now sloping and his belly was not.

“Hi, it’s Chuck.”
“Oh, the man from North Dakota? Did you ever find Ethel?”
“Well, no, not exactly, but I did think that maybe we could talk a bit more, that is, if you aren’t going out to the sales.”
“Oh, no, Chuck, I don’t go out on Wednesdays. On Wednesdays, I quilt. Let me pour a cup of coffee. Do you like coffee, Chuck?”

Ursula described her quilt projects and stitches and the gals in the quilting club, and Chuck listened; just the lilt of Ursula’s voice soothed him.

Chuck imagined Ursula as he leaned his head back in his easy chair and let her voice pour over him.

And that is what started it. A misdialed number, looking for Ethel, and Chuck had found Ursula.

The next time Chuck called, Ursula was cooking. “A ham steak and some fried potatoes.” When they hung up, Chuck decided to order out from The Golden Biscuit. He raced to pick up his supper, straightened his flannel, and called Ursula back. They listened to each other chew and take drinks, and in between the talking and chewing, there was laughter.

The next day, the phone startled Chuck.

“Chuck? It’s Ursula. I hope you don’t mind me calling. I was just, I was pouring myself a cup of coffee and….”
“Thank you… for calling.”

Deirdre Fagan is a widow, wife, and mother of two who has published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Most recently, her work has appeared in Amaryllis, Easy Street, Eunoia Review, and Poetry Breakfast, among others. She is also the author to Critical Companion to Robert Frost and has published a number of critical essays. Fagan teaches literature and writing at Ferris State University where she is also the Coordinator of Creative Writing.

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