They’ve restricted the timeframe for telephone calls because I was dialing people all over town. It’s a collect call, but I’ve found that most people will accept the charges, worrying someone they know and care about has been incarcerated.
Then, usually very quickly, they understand they don’t know me. They say, “You’ve got the wrong number,” and I say, “You’re probably right.” They say, “Don’t call here again,” and I say, “I’d be amazed if I did.”
It’s become an issue, I guess, because today the local paper has sent a reporter to talk to me. He asks who I call, people I know or random numbers. I lie and say just random. Every once in a while I call my wife, but we are not on speaking terms—for a number of reasons beginning with our estrangement and ending with me violating restraining orders in various ways, so if she answers, I don’t say anything. I listen to her breathing, but neither of us hangs up. Then I start singing, sometimes just bits and pieces of songs, but always a minor key thing, and if I don’t know all the words I just ride the tune, my voice rising and falling and unstringing itself from my end to hers. She listens. I know she listens because right when I go quiet, she hangs up.
“We would like to know why you’re doing this,” the reporter says. “Are you looking for money?” He offers me a stick of gum.
“No,” I say, taking the gum. I break it down the middle and put half in my mouth.
Like nearly all reporters, he wears a tweed jacket and small round glasses. It’s January, and his cheeks are still red from the cold. He’s trying too hard, with the tweed and round glasses and questions. He lowers his notepad, takes off his glasses and says, “You wanted some real human contact, is that it?”
To which I say, “I have plenty of opportunities for real human contact.”
“With the outside world, I mean.”
“Yeah, that must be it.”
I wasn’t the only one to do it. I used to take turns with White Bubba. They call him White Bubba because, though he’s black, there’s another black Bubba here, and he’s darker than my friend. You can probably guess what they call him—Black Bubba. Prison is full of these annoying little redundancies.
The reporter scribbles on his pad. “May I see what you’ve written?” I ask. He shows me the pad. “You misspelled my name,” I say. I take his pencil and correct the mistake. “So, that’s everything, right?” I say, handing back the pad. “Who what when where why?”
Wheel of Fortune plays on the television behind the reporter. A large woman has won a trip to Italy and half a Mercedes, so far.
“It’s not really that kind of piece,” the reporter says. “It’s more of a feature, like, human interest.”
Once, White Bubba called the guy who turned him in. He was going to threaten him, tell him, in so many words, to watch his back, he had connections, all that. He was getting excited talking about it. But when he dialed, no one answered. “Fuck you,” White Bubba said into the phone. “Fuck you,” he said twelve more times. I told him the guy probably knew who it was calling. I don’t think that ever crossed his mind. “Fuck you, too,” he said.
“I’ve talked to some of the other men, and they suggested you probably do it out of boredom,” the reporter says, “since there’s not much else to do.”
To which I shake my head. “You’re way off. You’re looking at the wrong end of the line.”
Say an Italian man answers and screams at me for a few moments, then hangs up. I imagine his wife asking who it was, what all the screaming was about, and then his son asking, in English, and the father having to explain it again in half-English. But the son gets the gist of it and tells his friends about it the next day on the bus, embellishes, a frightening new note added to each retelling. Suddenly I’m a lunatic who was threatening his father’s life, etc. Kids who used to bully him stop their bullying. A girl who always thought of him as a loser is suddenly drawn to him. He’s shown that there are parts of his life no one knows about—interesting, compelling, possibly dark or sinister parts, hidden from view. The girl’s intrigued, they start dating, their life together careens, dips, stalls, picks up steam, they get married even though he doesn’t get along with her mother and even though for a long time she has known every side of him.
Or, say I dial my house and my wife answers. I listen to her breathing, listen for other sounds. I sing—those sad, sad little songs—and I imagine her over there perched on the kitchen counter where the yellow land line is mounted on the wall below the gray elephant-face clock, which she glances at out of habit, then looks through the doorway into the living room, where on the couch is an assortment of elephant-shaped pillows and on the bookshelves are porcelain and oven-baked clay elephants glazed in blues and greens, an elephant from every occasion, elephant everything because she has always felt herself big and unpretty. She has filled the house with them. As I sing to her, the taupe elephant teakettle blasts a high note, she hops off the counter, presses the receiver to her shoulder. The cord tightens behind as she moves to the stove in a slight hobble, a give on her right foot, which is missing two toes.
She used to say I never told her anything. “Tell me something,” she’d say. “What else? More. What else?”
I tell the reporter less and less. He doesn’t want to know, really. I’m not going to sing to him either.
Again he removes his glasses, pinches his nose. He gets up to leave, handing me his card, says he wants to talk further. But I think they’ve had enough of me and my phone calls, so I give him back his gum, the chewed-up half, something to remember me by.
Robert Hargett is pursuing a Master’s degree in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Find him on Twitter at @RobbieHargett.