A short story-
The Phone Call
When I was in junior high school my mother and stepfather bought a cafe in a neighboring town. Because it was also the Greyhound bus stop for the town, the cafe was required to stay open until the last bus of the night had come and gone, about 11 p.m. A couple of employees opened the cafe at 6:00 the next morning and my mother and stepfather arrived at the cafe in time for the first bus of the day at about noon.
After the last bus departed, the work of cleaning and prepping for the next morning took about an hour. So my mother and stepfather didn’t get home until well after midnight. This meant I was home alone all evening and had to get my own supper and make a lunch to take to school the next day. A bowl of cereal sufficed for breakfast. My mother soon decided this was not a good situation and arranged for me to go live with my father and stepmother in Tacoma, across the state.
I lived with them until the end of my sophomore year of high school and then, as my mother and stepfather had sold the cafe and were keeping more normal hours, I moved back to live with them. The two and a half years I lived in my father’s house was the first time I had gotten to know him. He and my mother had parted company when I was just a toddler and I had only seen him on short visits a few times over the years.
Shortly after I moved to Tacoma my father and stepmother bought a new home in the suburbs and got a new phone number. To help me remember the number, I made up a little mnemonic device. I guess it was a pretty good mnemonic because I have remembered the number ever since. I don’t remember any of the many other phone numbers I have had in my lifetime, only that number.
About ten years after high school graduation I was married and living in Chicago. On a Sunday afternoon, as my wife and I were getting ready to leave for church to have our 10-day-old son baptized, I got a phone call from one of my sisters in Tacoma with the stunning news that our father had suffered a massive heart attack and died that morning, at the relatively young age of 52.
Among the many painful thoughts that filled my mind during the following days was the realization that my new son, nor any of his future siblings, would ever get to know their grandfather, to smile at his corny jokes, to hear his wonderful tenor singing voice, to look upon his face or into his dark, expressive eyes.
About twenty years after that sad Sunday, I and my family were living in Seattle, where I worked at an insurance company. One day, I had some business reason to drive down to Tacoma for the day. I stopped at a cafe to get some lunch and, as I sat at the counter eating my tuna sandwich, I noticed a pay phone on the back wall. This brought to mind that still-remembered phone number from so many years before. It had come into my thoughts from time to time and I had sometimes thought about dialing the number, just to see what I would be connected to – maybe a barbershop, or hardware store, or maybe it wasn’t even a working number anymore. But I never did it.
This day, the urge to call the number was stronger than usual, perhaps just because I was in Tacoma. When I finished lunch and paid my check I stood for several seconds looking at that pay phone. Not knowing exactly why I was doing it, I walked back to the pay phone and dialed that number from my past.
When I heard the third ring at the other end of the line I began to think nobody was home and was about to hang up when I heard the sound of the receiver being picked up. A man’s voice said, “Hello.” I was startled by how much that voice sounded like my late father’s. When I didn’t speak the voice said again, “Hello.” It was like an electric shock going through me. That was my father’s voice. I tried to think of something to say but nothing would come to me. I heard the phone at the other end being hung up.
I was feeling somewhat numb as I walked to my car. I sat in the car staring through the windshield but not really seeing anything. Then, suddenly, another memory popped into my mind. Something that had lain undisturbed on the sea bed of my mind for decades was floated to the surface.
It was my sophomore year in high school. My father and I were sitting in the living room watching a ball game on TV. The phone in the hall rang. It had rung a couple more times by the time my father picked up the receiver and said “Hello.” After a few seconds he repeated, “Hello.” Apparently he got no response so he hung up the phone. He stared at the phone a few seconds with a strange expression on his face. As he returned to his living room chair he looked at me with that same odd expression. I asked “Who was it?” After a long pause he said “They didn’t speak.” I assumed it was just a wrong number.
Now, as I sat in my car, my mind was racing and I replayed the mental tape of those two “Hellos” and the odd expression on my father’s face that day, all those years before.
I have never been a person who gives much credence to things mysterious or miraculous or other-wordly. I am more of the cautious, unadventurous type, the kind of a boring person who always rattles the doorknob after locking the door. Just to make sure. But the sound of those “Hellos” and the memory of that long-ago day haunted my thoughts for a long time. I knew logically that it was all just a coincidence. Nothing more. Something like THAT couldn’t really happen. Could it?