"Death by Numbers" Honorary mention in Literary Taxidermy Short Story Competition
(The requirements for this competition were that you use the first and last lines of one of three books/stories--Through the Looking Glass by C.S. Lewis, The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett, or A Telephone Call by Dorothy Parker. I chose the latter because I was not at all familiar with the story and I wouldn’t be influenced to tell it a certain way.)
Please, God, let him telephone me now. I’m only asking for one call. One call so I know he’s okay, so I can tell him I’m okay. So he doesn’t worry. He’s a big worrier.
Oh, he needs to know about the branch. The storm. The giant, healthy branch from our ash that fell with a BOOM last night in those strong winds, right in between our house and June’s, damaging nobody’s property but crushing a baby rabbit. A miracle, June cackled, and I knew she meant about there being one less rabbit to eat our hostas and arborvitae. I hate the destructive little buggers almost as much as she does, but my breath caught when I saw its tiny, broken body, its soft fur moving a little in the early morning breeze.
I don’t know. Maybe I won’t tell him about the dead baby rabbit. He’s already uneasy about that ash, how it’s looking less and and less healthy as the years go by, how Emerald Ash borer larvae may be making their home in it as we speak, how it could kill somebody someday. And now it’s gone and killed a helpless bunny.
The house is so quiet. I lift the receiver to make sure there’s a dial tone. Strong as ever. I’m glad we kept the landline. It’s a little old school, but when he calls me, I’ll be able to imagine the telephone wire physically connecting us, touching both of us at the same time, almost as if we were touching each other again.
I look at the old mantel clock we put on top of the fridge. I’ll wait thirty more minutes then dash out to run those errands I’ve been meaning to get to for a few days. Okay, a couple of weeks. I admit I’m getting a little tired of canned chick peas on toast. That’s something I can tell him with an aren’t I tough kind of laugh, but I’ll have to follow it with don’t worry, I’m not starving myself. June brings me huge dinners, and though her cooking sometimes makes me miss those chickpeas, (he’ll laugh) it’s filling.
I won’t tell him she and I always sit in the kitchen nook instead of the dining room, so I can be close to the phone. June’s fine with it. Besides, she’s good company. She doesn’t expect conversation.
I grab a pen and the “To Do” notepad that’s on the counter next to the phone. I’ve crossed out the “Do” and written in “Say/Tell.” I add to the list the numbers forty-eight: Storm/branch, and forty-nine: June’s dinners. I scan the numbers above to make sure they’re all still relevant, things he still needs or would want to know. They range from pretty banal to at least twelve variations of I love you/I miss you/Why did you have to leave me so soon?
Number two is Psychic. Should I make that the first, a greeting to lighten the mood? As in, It’s so funny you called! I went to a psychic and she told me you’d be reaching out. If I do, I’ll have to hold back what wants to come out next, the Why has it taken you so fucking long? that rises like bile. Usually I can take a deep yogi breath in, deep yogi breath out and it passes. Speaking of which, I really should get back into yoga, but even a walk around the block would be more than I’ve managed in a while. Ha. Even though it’s dumb, to make it an even fifty items I add Yoga or walk? to the bottom of the list. I won’t tell him I don’t have the energy for either.
My pen hovers over number one, Funeral details. I know he’d want to know. I would. But, not for the first time, I think he probably already knows everything and going over it would be a waste of valuable time. Maybe I’ll just ask him if we wants to talk about it, so I put a question mark next to it.
I glance at the clock. Five, ten…fifteen minutes since I last looked. Fifteen more and I’ll leave. He used to laugh at how I had to tell time by calling out each five minute interval. It’s just the way my mind works, I’d growl. Depending on my mood, it made me so mad I’d lash out and say something mean about how his brain was messed up, too, how he sounded like his ditzy, old mom, made no sense when he was tired.
And he was tired a lot.
I’d give anything for him to tease me like that again.
My eyes wander—my attention span isn’t so great these days—and I pick up the stapled printout of the article from Paranormal Today I found online, about people who say they were contacted by their dead loved ones through various electronics, apparently the preferred communications vehicles of ghosts these days. TVs turning on by themselves, doorbells ringing and no one at the door. One lady even got a text from her dead husband’s phone that said I’ll wait. And lots of cases of telephones ringing and no one answering on the other end.
I re-read it for the thousandth time, hoping by some divine intervention the sentences I dread won’t be in it. But of course, there they are:
“Invariably, the survivors said messages from or contact with the deceased occurred within the first week after their passing. In each case, without prompting, the interviewees said they felt at peace afterwards, believing that the spirit of their loved one had passed on soon thereafter. It was as if, one subject said, the deceased ‘wanted to provide and receive reassurance that everything would be all right on both sides of the veil so he could move on.’”
The calendar’s on the fridge. I don’t want to look at it, God, I don’t want to, but my eyes are drawn to it anyway, and a familiar heaviness crushes my chest. It’s not even on the right month now. I’m not sure what day it is exactly, but I’m pretty sure the pages haven’t been flipped for at least two months, judging by the stormy weather, the green everywhere. The baby animals. Keeping the calendar current is his job anyway. Lists are mine. An unspoken division of labor among many unspoken things in our twenty-three years together, some important, some not.
That’s why I have my list at the ready now, so even if he can’t speak when he calls, at least I’ll have them at my fingertips, the things we never said.
I glance from the calendar up to clock again. No matter what it says, I know I won’t be leaving by the meaningless deadline I’ve set, but just for something to do, I count. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five.