the cold caller


When Ruth’s phone rang, Aimee and Francisco sat up straight in their chairs, bug-eyed with supportiveness.  Charles, who was Aimee’s husband, was also there but he wasn’t so impressed by the situation.  This is why just as Ruth was saying hello, Charles snuck a peak at the scores of the Lakers game on his I-Phone.

“Hey, Ruthie,” the voice said as clear as always, “how’s my heart?” This made Ruth blush.  The caller always said things like that, but they were private words, and they sounded a little too exposed and defenseless now that they were coming through her phone’s tinny speaker.  “I have some friends with me,” Ruth said.  “I hope that’s ok.”

“It’s fine by me, but,” the caller paused, and during the break, Ruth’s stomach tightened.  “Do you mind taking me off the speaker for a just a second?”

“Sure, she said.  OK, I’m off.”

“Good.  Is it Aimee?” the caller asked.

“Yes and her husband.”

“And Francisco, I bet.”

“Yes, Francsico, too.”

“OK, that’s fine.  I’m fine with them.  But going forward, you should think about who you tell.  Not everyone is going to understand.  You know what I mean?”

“Yeah,” Ruth said.

“Not everyone’s going to allow you to have your dreams.  Take it from me,” the voice said.  Ruth looked up and saw that Aimee was asking what he was talking about.  Francisco was smiling and nodding, still supportive though a little less buggy in the eyes.  For his part, Charles was grimacing at his phone and mumbling something about how much he hated AT&T.

“But this isn’t a dream,” Ruth said.

“No, you’re right.  This is not a dream.  I misspoke.  It’s anything but,” the caller said in reassuring tones.

As usual, for the next twenty minutes, they spoke about Ruth’s day.  To be more accurate, she spoke and the caller listened.  And then, at some point as had happened during every conversation for the last month and a half, static took the line over and the caller told her he had to go.  “Same time tomorrow, kiddo?”

“OK,” Ruth agreed.

“Good.  Give Aimee a hug for me.  Best to your husband.”  Then there was nothing.  The voice lost to a fogbank of static.

“I toll you,” Francisco said, breaking the silence that had overtaken the room.

“I knew someone was calling,” Aimee said.  “I never doubted that.  And if I remember right, he does sound like your dad, but Ruth.  Honey…”

“You don’t think it’s him,” Ruth said.

“Do you?  Really?  I mean, it’s kind of impossible.”

“I don’t know,” Ruth said.

“Ruth,” Charles interrupted as he put his phone in his pocket, “we don’t want to see you get hurt.  There are so many scams out there.”

“I don’t know, either,” Francisco said.

“Really?” Aimee looked over at him.  “So you really believe that’s him?  You’re not just trying to be supportive?”

“He knows so much,” Francisco said.  “Look at how they spoked together.  It’s especial, ” Francisco said with emphatic spittle flying from his mouth.

“I think it’s easier to believe that a scam artist somehow found all this stuff out than it is to believe that her father is calling from wherever he is now,” Charles said.

“What does that mean?” Ruth asked.  “He’s in heaven.”

Charles shot a pained look at his wife.  The extra skin on his face being pulled taught by an annoyed grimace.  “Oh, God.  I didn’t mean he wasn’t…you know…a good person or whatever.  I’m just saying I don’t know what happens when people die.”

“Francisco,” Aimee was still in disbelief that she’d lost an ally.  “Yesterday, you said you were nervous about this.  That’s why you wanted us to come.  You remember saying this, yes?”

“Yes, but he knows so much.  It’s difficult to believe that it’s him.”

“Wait, you can’t or you can believe,” Charles said.  “I’m confused.”

“What? Francisco asked.

“You can or you can’t believe him.  I’m not clear on what you’re saying,” Charles said, a wiggly snake of a smile forming on his lips.

“This is not about my English, Charles.”

“Ruth,” Aimee turned away from the two men who she sensed were about to start in on each other again.  “Just for a second, let’s say that your dad was calling.  Have you ever asked him why he can’t visit?  That would kind of take care of the problem, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, I did, actually.”  Ruth got up and asked if anyone wanted tea.  Francisco said no and Charles, who sensed the phone in his pocket vibrate, pulled it out and ignored the question in place of his own.  “Do you think I can put the TV on for a second?” he asked.

“Are you kidding me?” Aimee said, annoyed that her husband was obsessing over a game and a ten-dollar bet.

“What do you think happens to us when we…we, you know…decease?”  Francisco asked out loud to no one in particular.

Ruth came back into the kitchen with a couple boxes of tea in her hand.  “Black or herbal?” she asked.

“I never thought about it before,” Aimee said.

“Black,” Francisco said to Ruth.

“And now,” Charles asked his wife, as he texted something to the friend he had his bet with.

“I don’t know, but this all seems too weird to me.”

Like her friends, Ruth was also unsure what to think.  The caller, whoever he was, had started phoning six weeks earlier, and now, every night Ruth made sure to have her phone on her.  The caller had her father’s voice, and he used a lot of the same expressions her father was fond of.  But there was also the fact that whoever he was, she enjoyed their talks.  Francisco was a great husband.  He listened to her whenever she wanted to talk about anything, and somehow, unlike the other men she’d dated before getting married, he never seemed to get tired of listening.  He was the conversational equivalent of one of those sponges sold late night on TV that absorbed everything you could throw at it.  Messy spills at the work place, stained friendships you wanted to clean up and forget, thick stewy splotches of daily irritations.  But there was something different when speaking to the caller.  It was an unfair comparison, Ruth knew it.  If the caller were truly her father (and she had come to believe he had to be) he’d known her long before anyone else.  Long before she met Francisco, that was for sure.  With her father, she could bounce things up against him, and though he absorbed, he resisted as well.  The same was true of the caller.  They were like sponges with borders.

Even so, it wasn’t easy to accept that the caller could be her father.  In order to get there, she had to go through a range of emotions that kept shifting on a weekly basis.  During the first week, she was dismissive:  what kind of idiot would call and pretend to be somebody who’d been dead for two decades?  During week two, she was angry: what kind of idiot would pretend to be someone who’d been dead for more than two decades?  Week three brought on insecurity: what kind of idiot am I that I keep picking up the phone when some other idiot calls and pretends to be someone who’d been dead for more than two decades?

It was at this phase that Francisco got involved.  Once, he even grabbed the phone out of Ruth’s hand and started yelling, which was sweet but ineffective.  Francisco, like his own father in Argentina, was often louder than he needed to be when on the phone, so anger and excitement blended into each other.  He also changed into Spanish when he really got going, which, Ruth knew, didn’t help much considering that the caller, whoever he was, probably couldn’t understand.

By the fourth week, Francisco told her to go to the police as did Aimee, which Ruth did, though she did so half-heartedly.  The nice desk sergeant explained to her that there was nothing to be done for it.  There was no crime in calling.  If the caller had been trying to sell her something, maybe then, she could block the number and file a complaint with the feds if the guy didn’t stop.  Yes, if the guy were cold-calling, Sergeant Lewis, a heavy-set black man with large bags under his eyes, explained, then something might be done for her.  But impersonating a dead person was no crime, as strange as that seemed.  “The law is kind of f’d that way, if you excuse my meaning, ma’am,” he said just before taking a ponderous slurp of what smelled to Ruth like hot, liquid, garbage.

It was shortly after coming back from the police station that Ruth decided to accept the caller at face value.  The fateful moment when she decided to confront the caller straight-on about some of the metaphysical difficulties that came with his story.  “So, basically, God didn’t give you a cell phone sooner.  That’s why you didn’t call me?” She tried not to sound pointed when she spoke; she even attempted to be amusing, though obviously, the caller didn’t see anything funny in what she said.

“I called as soon as I could get your number.”

“What does that mean?” Ruth asked.

“I had to make a lot of calls in order to get the right one,” the caller said calmly.

“What? God doesn’t have white pages?”  The caller didn’t say anything.  “I’m joking,” she said, scared that she’d offended him.  “So do you have ears?” Ruth asked trying to change the subject.

“Little girl, what kind of question is that?  Of course, I have ears.”  The caller sounded condescending, which on later reflection, was sometimes how her father spoke to her when he was annoyed.

“I don’t know.  Why would a ghost have ears?  I mean what’s the point?  If you were really who you say you are, then you could answer that, couldn’t you?”  Ruth felt herself getting mad and Francisco, who was sitting next to her reading looked up and passed his hand under his neck.  “Cut, Ruth.  Cut it.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” the caller said.  I guess I’m playing it all by ear, too.  No pun intended.”  Then came a sound, a silvery whistle encased somewhere in the middle of a husky laugh, like a squirt of liqueur hidden in a creamy chocolate shell.  It was that sound that convinced her.  Who else but her father could sound like he was joyful and wheezing at the same time?  From then on, she believed she was speaking to her long-dead father.

Aimee called over sometime during week seven.  She said she’d been thinking about things since she’d been over and she wanted for them to get together, “just the two of us,” she said in a whisper-voice that hinted at how serious she was.  This, Ruth knew, meant that Aimee was going to do her older sister routine.  Even though Ruth was older by six months, she always seemed younger compared to the more professional, more practical person Aimee had become over the years.

They met for coffee the next day during Aimee’s break.  She worked as a personal assistant for a famous econ professor at UCLA who was currently out of the country on personal business.  “Code,” Aimee had told Ruth for him going off to a country that allowed prostitution and at the same time, lacked a press corps interested in the sex life of an advisor to the president.  “So, about last night.  Kind of crazy,” Aimee said, bobbing her head—another sign of what was to come Ruth’s way.  “I’ve been thinking a lot about this caller, and…” (more bobbing) “I didn’t want to seem like a I was trying to gang up on you because you know that wouldn’t be my intention—never.  But driving home with Charles, we both realized that maybe we’ve all lost some perspective.”

Ruth opened a packet of sugar and stirred it into her coffee though she was still conscious of Aimee’s bobbing head.  For a moment, she wished she could be like the little melting granules of sugar she was pouring into her cup and just vanish.  “It’s just not possible, honey.  Please tell me you know that,” Aimee said.  Ruth shrugged her shoulders.  “I mean I’m the one who watches all the ghost shows.  You’re the one who’s always getting on me to stop.  You don’t even believe in ghosts.  Do you?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe he’s not a ghost.”

“He has to be a ghost if it’s him—doesn’t he?  I’d probably be a little more sympathetic if he appeared in an attic or something.  That seems more legit for a ghost.”

“We live in LA.  No one has an attic.”

“You know what I mean.  If this voice belongs to your father, why doesn’t he come visit you?  Why is it always a call?”

“I asked him that, and he told me he didn’t really know where he was.  He just has this phone and calls me when he can.”

“That’s kind of convenient, don’t you think?”

“I guess.”

Aimee leaned forward.  “So why?”

“Why what?” Ruth asked.

“Why are you letting this guy, whoever he is, do this to you?”

Ruth looked up for the first time since the bobbing began.  “It’s not just what he knows about me and mom and Richard.  There’s this quality to the way we talk…You know when he was alive, we didn’t always get along so well, but it’s different now and still the same.”

“Have you told Richard about any of this?  What does he think?”

Ruth went back to stirring her coffee.  “I’m not going to tell Richard because he’d get overly rational and start yelling, and I don’t want to hear that kind of negativity right now.  Hint.  Hint.”

“OK, Forget it, ok?  Forget I said anything.  I just can’t believe that you actually believe your father is calling you.  It’s crazy.”

“Maybe,” Ruth said.  “But maybe the world is more nuts than we think.”

That night when her phone rang, Ruth was making a cup of tea.  She was feeling vulnerable and she had a giant mug of hot water in front of her as a bunch of questions shot through her brain in rapid succession:  Chamomile or Oolong?  Was the caller for real or a fake?  Does God pay for cell phone use?

“You spoke with Aimee today, didn’t you?”  The caller asked as soon as she answered.  “You always sound different after you talk with her.”

“She’s just being a friend.”

“I know Aimee has always been a good friend to you, and I appreciate that.  Don’t think I don’t, but there’s not much I can do to prove who I am.  I just can’t come visit.”

“Why not?” Ruth asked.

“I told you already.”

“Yeah, but what you said didn’t make sense.  If you can call me, then why can’t you come visit?”

“I don’t know.  It’s not how you think around here.  I’m not even sure what this place is, but it’s not like I can walk out—that much I do know.”

“It’s heaven, dad.  It has to be heaven.”

“OK, sure.  It’s heaven.  But it’s not like there’s a bunch of clouds and harps and stuff.”

“I just need to know that this is real.”

“Are you on the phone right now?” the caller asked.  “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” Ruth said.

“And Aimee and Francisco and Aimee’s husband—what’s his name?”

“Charles.”

“Does he ever go by Charlie, by the way?”

“I don’t know,” Ruth said.  “I always call him Charles.”

“Right.  Well, all of them, they heard me the other night—right?”

“Yeah, but…”

“But what?  Girlie, I know some people aren’t going to understand, but you need to.  This is me.  Even if I can’t come and see you.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem.  I don’t understand why.”

“Do you know how lucky we are?  Not everyone gets this.”

“What?” Ruth asked.

“Do you know how long it took me to find you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Just because you get a phone around here, doesn’t guarantee anything.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ruth said.  “Wait a second, can you hold on?  I think Francisco’s home.”  She called out, but no one answered.  “I guess not.  OK, so what were you saying?”

“I was telling you that there aren’t guarantees.”

“Right, ok, but what does that mean exactly?”

“How many phone numbers do you think there are in the world, girlie?”

“I have no idea,” Ruth said.

“Well, guess.”

“I really have no idea.”

“12 billion numbers, Ruth.  And counting.  When I got this phone, I just started calling.  Do you know how many calls I had to make to find you?  I mean not all those 12 billion people speak English, so that saves time, but still, you could’ve moved to Italy for all I knew, and you could’ve answered the phone with Pronto instead of hello.  Or hola because you decided to move to Argentina with your husband.  Or maybe something in Japanese for all I knew because you went to Japan to teach English.  Did you ever do that, by the way?”

“You didn’t know my number?”

“How could I?  The last time I saw you, you didn’t have a phone.”

“So you called number after number until you found me?”

“That’s what I’m telling you, yes.”

“So the after-life is like a giant call center and you’re like one of those people who cold-call?”

“I guess that’s one way to think about it.”

There was another noise in the front room, but Ruth didn’t pay attention to it.  She was looking down at her cup, watching the tea bag lose itself in the water, which is how she was feeling just then: she was dissolving into this crazy situation where she was arguing with her dead father.  “OK, let me understand this,” Ruth said forcing herself to look away from the cup of tea in front of her.  “You kept calling until you found me, but how did you know it was me when I answered?”

“Do you remember the first time I called?  The very first time.”  Ruth thought about it, but couldn’t remember exactly.  “Think back,” the caller said, “you really don’t remember?”

“Weren’t you trying to sell me something?”

“Bingo!”

“But I told you I wasn’t interested,” Ruth said.

“Yeah, but I was pretty sure it was you, so I kept you on the phone long enough until I got a confirmation.”

“Who gave you this confirmation?”

“That, I can’t really say.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Umm,” the caller said, “can’t.  I knew that the phone would act strangely if I made contact with you, and sure enough, after a couple minutes, the phone vibrated in my hand.”

“That might’ve been call-waiting,” Ruth said.

“What?” the caller asked, sounding confused.  Her father had always been a little challenged when it came to technology.

“Francisco, I’m in the kitchen.”  Ruth called out after hearing footsteps on the second floor.  “You’re bumming me out here,” she said to the caller.  “I hope you know that.  Because if what you’re saying is true, then death is kind of depressing—I mean more depressing than people think.”  She heard a little bit of static on the phone.

“No, Ruthie, you’ve got it all wrong.  We’re lucky.  You just have to come to accept that.”

“I don’t feel so lucky.”

“Well, you’ll learn to feel that way soon enough.”

“Don’t do that.  Even if you are my dad, still, it’s been a long time.  You can’t just…whatever you’re doing right now just stop.  Please. ”

“I cannot believe you.”

“What?” Ruth asked, a little surprised that the caller sounded annoyed.

“You used to do this all the time when you were a kid,” the caller said.  “You remember how badly you wanted Moosey?  You said you wanted him.  You begged and pleaded with your mom and I and then you got him and you decided you didn’t want him anymore because he was scary.”

“Oh my God,” Ruth interrupted.  “Who are you?”

“I told you, already” the caller said.  “You know who I am.”

“No, no there’s someone standing in front of me,” Ruth told the caller.

“It’s not Francisco, is it?” the caller asked in a calm voice that surprised Ruth again.

“No,” she said.

“And he has a gun?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, girlie, I’m sorry.  I was planning to tell you.”

“Who are you?  I’m going to call the police.” Ruth yelled.

“Ruthie, I was going to explain it all, but…well.  I just missed you and when I found you I thought we should be together again.  I was going to tell you everything.”

“Oh my God,” Ruth screamed.  “Oh my God, please don’t.”

“It won’t hurt, Ruthie.  I promise.  We only hire the best around here.  Real professionals.”

“Oh my God.  Oh my God.  Oh my…”

“And now you’ll be here with me and we’ll make calls together.  We’ll find mom next, and then your brother.  It’ll be great,” the caller said.  “We’ll all be together.  Just like old times.  It’ll be great.  You’ll see.”

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Categories: fiction

Author:the circular runner

g. martinez cabrera currently lives in San Francisco with his lovely and talented wife. He holds degrees from Columbia and from the Harvard Divinity School where he spent three years thinking about lofty things. Since then, he tries to write some lofty and some not-so-lofty things down so others can see how lofty he sometimes is. When he’s not writing or spending time with said wife, he tortures young people with learning. He blogs at www.circularrunning.wordpress.com and Tumbls at www.circularrunning.tumblr.com

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