Old Sharp Photo

by Bob Thurber

It's crazy you even recognize her voice, creepy that she's somehow tracked you down after all these years, downright silly that you're standing in socks, stained briefs, a yellowed t-shirt with a cigarette burn beside your navel (put there purposely one night, just to see if you could still feel), but what makes it all seem like some bizarre lost episode of the Twilight Zone is the phone isn't even your phone. It's not in your name, not your number, just a privately owned coin-fed payphone mounted on a wall of a dilapidated rooming house for men only, and as far as you know the number is private, unlisted, not in any directory in the world, printed or otherwise. So how in hell...?

You hate this phone more than you have hated any phone before. Once a week, usually Saturday morning, the superintendent uses a stubby little key to open the coin box and every time you catch him emptying it you open your door a crack, make some small talk, then plead with him to turn the ringer volume down, and each time he gives you the same hard look, then says the same thing: he doesn't know how, he has no idea how to regulate the volume, and he reminds you he's told you that like a million times, then he invites you to take a look so again you look and you see nothing: no lever, no knob, no adjustment mechanism. You can't do anything, he can't do anything, so nothing changes, and you get stuck answering the thing day and night to stop the shrill ringing, though you rarely use the phone to make calls yourself, despite the convenience of it being mounted three steps outside your door, a location that creates hallway gridlock, especially on weekend nights. The thing's a fucking nuisance, totally useless to you because you've never once given the number to anyone. Who in hell would you give it to?

But here you are answering again, late on a Sunday night, hearing your ex-wife's voice, recognizing the deep, flinty, suggestive tone, understanding who's calling in a heartbeat. She says, hey, how you doing, like the two of you chatted yesterday, not ten years ago, then she doesn't wait for a response, so you figure okay she's high or drunk or demented, because it's been ten years. She says, listen, yesterday I was cleaning out a closet and found a box full of useless junk and at the bottom of the box was a picture a snapshot a black and white no frame just an eight by ten glossy with the two of us in our pajamas sitting across from each other eating breakfast though I suppose it could be lunch or dinner you can't see what's on our plates but it's a really nice shot tightly focused very sharp plenty of natural light probably because in those days we never hung curtains we couldn't afford curtains remember so you can see our faces half our faces good and sharp like a couple of statues in perfect profile excellent detail as I say black and white but with all the shades of gray and we look so young and pretty goddamned happy the two of us though in an odd pretty hard to describe way neither of us is really smiling in our expressions there's not a trace of worry no stress lines no tension just youthful lazy calmness radiating almost serene the way our eyes are lined up a remarkable photo but for the life of me I can't remember where it came from who snapped it if we were on acid or why anyone would be in our kitchen taking snapshots so early I'm assuming it's morning so why would anyone especially a skilled photographer with obvious talent so what I'm guessing is it was taken right before we got married the summer when all your artsy pals and their hippy girlfriends used to wander in crash on the couch pass out on the carpet make themselves at home eating whatever they could find after we had gone to bed after telling them all to please keep the stereo and all conversation down to a dull roar because our neighbors had real lives and the landlady's son was a cop remember so we implored them to cool it with the volume on the music and shut off the lights lock the door when they left which any of them rarely did but most importantly extinguish all candles incense sticks joints cigarettes pipes remember that fat piano player Peter who always smoked cherry tobacco in a corncob pipe and once snorted heroine then burned a huge hole in the couch you made him swear to leave nothing burning ever fearing next time the whole house would go up in flames while we slept dreaming our future believing we were moving even in sleep toward some magical idyllic life we'd share together though that didn't exactly happen now did it she said coughing laughing her voice trailing off not with a question mark but a verbal exclamation point that drops into a silence that stretches out until it actually makes the phone vibrate before you suspect she has hung up leaving you there with the cord tangled under one arm looped once around your waist pacing the tight space the cord allows holding the phone a full minute before you understand the silence isn't attached to her, not a pause while she lights another cigarette, not her brooding, but a terminated connection. The line is dead line and it's a done deal, which considering you haven't spoken a single word is equivalent to picking up the phone as you so often will half-asleep and dull-headed, picking up just to stop the ringing, frequently hearing the voice of some stranger, usually a man looking for a man, but sometimes a woman sighing across the wire in exasperated breathless fashion, declaring she's sorry, so terribly sorry. she's a wreck, her hand is shaking, and she's apparently misdialed the number, reached the wrong man, whoever in hell you are.

Bob Thurber is an old, unschooled writer widely published in literary journals, magazines, and on the Internet. He resides in Massachusetts. His short story, “The Cat Who Waved,” appeared in Issue #5 of The Cafe Irreal; “Shuteye” appeared in Issue #15; “The Bartender Story” appeared in Issue #32; “You Don’t Belong Here” appeared in Issue #34; “A Woman on the Bus” appeared in Issue #38; Crackers in Issue #40; and Mister Fumble Bumble and The Merry Widow of The Shoemaker in Issue #40. Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel, his first novel, and Nickel Fictions: 50 Exceedingly Short Stories, VOLUME ONE, were both released in 2011.