by Mark C. Marino
[pre-publication version of a story published in Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies; 1997, Vol. 28 Issue 3, p103]
You should hear people talk on the phone, not just out of the corner of your ear, not just one side of the conversation—but listen—because there are no hiding places on the phone. No backdoor, no under the bed, no closets. You’ll see more naked people in phone conversations than flashers in Central Park. Their conversations become the stuff of dreams as they strip off each layer of clothes. I’m not talking about 900 numbers. I’m talking about the Morse code of true passion. Dot-dotdot, dash to the chapel, sign the love letter “Always yours,” and let Cupid deliver it in the quivering lines down the city streets to a waiting heart.
“No” becomes “Yes” with just a pause. A girl can slam her man with an extra hiss of static. Even before the phone company hired me (and I can’t tell you which one) I always liked to eavesdrop on these conversations.
Maybe it’s because my mother and father never talked much about love or anything else, especially not sex, except in code. She’d side step it, not the sex, but the talking about it. No, the sex she had to do—the Wifetask she’d call it—at least, I think she meant sex. I don’t think she was talking about polishing the family silver. We had only one piece of silver, and Mom wouldn’t let Dad put his hands anywhere near it.
Because my Mom always talked about The Wifetask, or silver polishing, and not sex, I’m fascinated with the talk of sex that goes on under the table, under the breath, in the code words, throbbing in each syllable.
And people give you plenty of throbbing syllables. Well, take Jeff and Aly for example:
“’Luisa la desea a Tomas.’ Is that right?” Jeff asks.
“No. If she wants him, it is not ‘la desea,’ but ‘lo desea.” Aly sounds tense, but calm. She’s a reliable voice for the school.
“Then is it ‘Quiere ira la opera con el’?” Jeff asks, never asking just one question when he calls.
“Very good. Call back when you have any more questions.”
Deseo. Desire. Those two talk about it all the time, and I’ve caught every luscious word. Aly is phone-support staff for the language correspondence school, Espanol por Grabadoras. “Grab” and “adore us,” something about it caught my ear. Maybe because I added “Helen” to the end as though someone was calling to me, as though I were desired like a drop of agua in the desert.
Aly helps Jeff when she can, even though Jeff is obviously calling for more than help learning Spanish.
“I have problemas with my cassettes,” Jeff says. The Gypsy Kings tear the clothes off a loose love song in the background at his house. In Spanish I believe their name is pronounced Hipsy Kings. The emphasis on the HIPS. Those Latins know hips.
When Aly doesn’t respond Jeff says, “Tengo que comer on my cassettes.”
“Puedes repetirlo, por favor?” Aly asks.
“Tu are muy bonito, and I would like to talk to you about sexual relations.”
“Oh, it’s you again,” Aly says. Of course, I recognized Jeff. He’s got this lilt to his voice. I’d think a little light in the loafers if he wasn’t coming on so strong to her.
“Of course. Claro que si!”
“What’s your name anyway?”
“Me llamo Guacamole—Senor Guacamole.”
“Bien, Guacamole. Que tal?”
“I want to take you to Espana.”
“Really, Mr. Guacamole, and how old are you?””
“I am veinte—siglos-six…”
“You are twenty centuries and six years-old? Oh—”
“Twenty six! What—Why? Am I too old for you?”
“Four years too young,” Aly says.
“Cuatros anos no son muchos.”
“No, no es mucho. But I do not go out with estudiantes or desconocidos.”
“Well, I’m—I’m not a loser.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it. Call me later.”
The ideal romance: he doesn’t know any Spanish. Only she can teach him. Their love grows as they translate; change their unspeakable yearnings into conjugated love.
I know all sorts of Spanish: madre, padre, siesta, lambada, maricon and Gloria Estefan; although, I’m not totally sure what maricon means. I also know enough about Spanish culture not to invite a Spanish male into my house if I’m not up for romance. I know what our countries have in common, the international language of love. My husband and I even use it, but only when we have nothing else to say.
I work for a major phone company, and I won’t say which one. Their motto is “So clear you can hear a heart beat.” I try to listen to these conversations to see if I can hear someone’s heart beating. I mean 911 can’t tell if OJ slapped his wife or if they were playing hothands, and I’m supposed to hear a heart beating. Maybe if I find a real-life example they can use it in a commercial. In the meantime, I get paid for sitting around here waiting for someone to call me on the complaint line.
It’s not taping calls, but listening to calls isn’t very legal either. When I used to work for the government they used to call it “not as legal as we’d like, but the laws are changing, and we’d hate to be caught — out in the cold.” I don’t think that anyone really cares about wire tapping or listening in except for other phone line companies. That’s why they fight so much for customers, I think. The company with the most clients can pick and choose whatever they want to listen to.
Since long before I picked up Jeff and Aly, I’ve listened to Sir Edmund Fickleton and Francisco Balbueno argue about babies.
Sir Edmund Fickleton forbid his daughter, Gwendolyn, from dating Francisco. Francisco got one slap shot past the goalie, and now there’s a bambino on the way. Gwendolyn, no surprise, doesn’t have much say in these matters because the men will handle it. Hopefully one of them will have the baby too.
“Nobody knows how much I love your daughter,” Francisco says.
“Especially Gwendolyn, I’m sure. Why don’t you leave her while you still have the chance?” Fickleton, the father, speaks like the Queen of England with an umbrella stuck up his butt, except, of course, his voice is lower.
“Leave her? Actually, I think we should have la boda in March,” Francisco says.
La boda. That’s wedding. It’s feminine because if it were up to the guys, you’d have what? A three minute jobby: “Dearly beloved. Yeah, yeah, I (got stuff to) do. Amen.” A Hostess Ho-Ho, a swim suit edition wedding gown, and pretzel rings.
“La boda? LA BO-DA? People generally do not have that ceremony once they’ve already opened the gifts. Am I making my meaning clear? No, no wedding…unless…she’s thinking of marrying someone else.”
“Don’t you want to give her a proper wedding? Think of Gwendolyn. One simple, pretty, little boda.”
“Body!” Fickleton screams, “That’s what you’re really thinking about. You want little Gwendolyn’s body. There’s no reason to mince languages here!”
“Boda! The wedding, just because I want your daughter to—”
“Why don’t I send her back to you!? Maybe I’ll just pack her in her little frock and petticoat and send her back to you and your wife.”
Of course the lady loses out on everything. Look at the package I got Bubby’s wedding ring of fat that grows another band every year, bouquets of hair, flowering out his ears and nostrils, the honey moon that rises over his belt to shine at me when he bends over to pick up something. Cake? Reception? Dancing? Nah. Try renting movies—usually ones about naked women. Not that the stories aren’t enticing. Each film has a different angle on the naked women. Some of them fall from grace to nudity, and some climb their way up to the top of the strip-tease industry.
After our trip to the theater, we sally to the public phones. The ones right there on 42nd St. are the most convenient. In the summer, we might hike up to a cluster near the park, where Bubby puts his arms around me, hairs dripping down them with sweat. His grease, the muck and tar that paints his skin while he’s repairing phone lines all day, is city grease. I am his city queen.
I don’t see what the big deal is about his movies? He tells me most of the other women he’s been with have sooner or later left him over them, but the way I see it, we all tap into someone else’s love life sooner or later.
The sweat and slime from his thick hair swims down my back, and I am chilled.
I do the dialing. You should see his face while he’s listening. This is a line where I have this tape of me making love sounds. You know wheezing, like “Huuuuuhhhh. Huuuuuhhh.” Or dial up the executive 900 lines that the heads of the phone company use. I mean it makes sense that the top dogs get their own private lines. My one friend was one of them. The whole time she kept telling them that her father, a Federal Trade Commissioner, could come home at any minute and catch them and impose restrictions on the tele-communications industry. They got their kicks, and this was a way I could give Bubby his.
I’ve always wondered why I never felt so lonely I needed one of those lines. Maybe it’s because the Malevoice sex lines are so dull. It’s just a loop tape of a guy saying, “Well that’s that. I’ll call you tomorrow.” Talking to people, makes me want to get off the phone. They look straight at me. They know, they think that I need something from them. And then I’ll make all the stupid mistakes I watch these people make. No, I’m with those priests. It’s the voices in the dark just talking about themselves that do it for me.
These other two I’m listening to, Aly and Jeff, have been talking for a couple of days. I picked up Jeff’s call when I saw it going into a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood. I’m convinced you can hear those Latin hearts beating ten times louder than a gringo’s.
Two Mondays ago, I catch the call.
“Hello, is Alice or Anne or Armond there?” Jeff asks.
“Aly or Al, how can I help you,” Aly says. Now she’s got this deep, extra spicy, thick salsa voice, flowing low like some sultry Guatemalan river.
“I’m having some trouble with my Spanish course,” he says.
“Do you have specific questions?” Aly asks.
“What does a man do without una mujer?” he replies.
La mujer. That’s what they call women. Where did it come from? Moo-Hair as in “cow hair.” Or maybe Moo-Herr. “German cows.” It could be the Greek letter mu and “air” which might be some ancient equation for what makes up a woman: take mu, or Man, add Air and you get una senorita. Like a man deepened and widened by the breath of passion.
One day, Jeff whispers, “I can hear your heart beat.”
“No, you can’t.”
“I can hear you breathing,” he goes on.
“I’m not breathing,” Aly says.
“You’re breathing more than most people, more sensual, with more gusto.”
“I’m breathing heavy because I ran to the phone.”
“Did you think I might talk to someone else if they picked up? Fall in love with them?”
Cheesy like la Velveeta, but I can hear my own heart beating now. Their breath sizzling up the phone. My throat’s gone dry. I want to clear it, but can’t. They couldn’t hear, could they? Somehow I feel like I might expose myself, like they might somehow see me, and then I’d miss it all.
“They’re starting to wonder why I spend so much time talking in English,” Aly says.
“Do you want to switch to Spanish?”
“Si un poco, si puedes.”
“I solo want to decir, <<Amote>>.”
“You don’t love me, and it’s <<te amo>>.”
“Amote. Amote. Amote.”
“Silencio, mi pequena flor,” Aly says.
“And tu, mi largo perro,” Jeff says.”
“No soy su perro.”
“Entonces, por que ladras?” Jeff says.
“Perro” or “Pero” is either “but” or “dog.” So he has either called her his big butt, which is stretching it because the pun is in English not Spanish, or he has called her his big dog. That line at the end was “Then why do you bark?” Which confirms my dog interpretation.
They do not mean anything they say when they insult each other. You can’t hear this, but I can. Their intentions. Their inflections always dripping with lust, with amor. I can see her, crouching like a dog, or a cat, un gato, which is masculine with the “o” but should be feminine, shouldn’t it? He has her on his leash. He pets her fur. She licks his hand. I cannot hear the licking. I can’t even assume that they’ve met yet.
Bubby and I have never done anything like that. The other day, I started thinking maybe it was because he was seeing someone else. I wondered if he’d tell someone if he was having an affair. I even tracked our line for a little while to see if there was someone else he called. There was only one number, Paul, Bubby’s bowling coach.
“I think that I’ve lost her this time,” Bubby says.
“Okay. Well do you think she’ll leave you? What’s she going to do, call up one of these guys and—”
“She doesn’t have to. I’ve lost.”
“Win, lose, it’s all how you look at it. I say, they don’t win until they get the goods.”
“Oh, yeah, and what goods are they? They don’t got her rump lying next to ‘em every night, but they’ve got everything else. Goods?!”
“You mean, they win even though she comes back to you?”
“I’m the loser, Paul. I’m the loser.”
“No argument, Bub.”
“I just have to wait until the last shoe drops.” Then a long pause, beer cans open on both ends of the line. “Do you think we should talk to her about it together?”
“Nope. Just you, buckaroo. I know you want moral support, but I’ll send it from here.”
“I can’t. I can’t face it. I mean, it’s been so long since we been together, I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
I don’t know where he gets an idea like that. Me cheating? Juan Fuerte left me two weeks before I even met Bubby, and that’s the last man I loved since 1962. It’s funny. I’m the one who’s there with him every night, and yet does he tell me he thinks I’m running around the old circuit, no. He calls Mr. Spare.
It reminds me of the governor of Illinois, whom I was working for before Bubby and I moved to New York. Well, I wasn’t working for him; it was the opposition party that hired me. (I won’t tell you who, but they’re experienced at this sort of thing.) They had me write down every conversation he had. They didn’t want any tapes; had learned that lesson the hard way. He might be sick they said, and because they couldn’t hear his voice, I would have to describe it. I soon found myself looking for different ways of writing down turned-on, hot-to-trot, caliente, gunning his engine-as he’s talking to his wife. Not about much. Usually little flirty things. After a while, I decided to start making up things to fill the void. So I’ve got him calling four women: a nun, a dancer, a woman of the night, oh, and even—get this—a guy, a Senator from New York. I’d make him go on and on about what he’s doing while he’s talking in the Oval office, or whatever shaped room’s in the Illinois Governor’s mansion.
The best way to make these up was to take the real things the Governor said to his wife and then add the fake things the other people might say. Like in real life, the governor’d say, “Do you want me to bring anything?” Maybe he’s talking about groceries.
I’d have the Senator reply, “Nope. But maybe we could do a little legislation” in a suggestive voice. I’ve always liked innuendo.
Then the Governor really says, “Well I won’t be up too long tonight.”
And the Senator says—you know, I’m writing that he says, “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll be up long enough.”
What a scandal, I thought, but I figured that that’s what they wanted to read. I mean, who cares what he’s really doing? But get this, a couple days later, when I pick up the newspaper, I find out that other party (I’m sure you can guess who by now) got caught bugging the Senator from New York’s office. Naturally, I got canned like beets. But even worse, I found out later (well I listened to a few calls before I left) that the woman the Governor was talking to wasn’t his wife at all, it was his sister-in-law. I could’ve caught the real scandal. But isn’t it always the way that we make things up because we don’t want to get up off our shared butt and see what’s really going on?
So I ended up on the streets with no referrals, no skills, and no work until I got this three-seventy-five an hour job, where I screen complainers, the ones that find the number. I send the legitimate ones to the five-dollar-an-hour workers who make the final decisions on who deserves to be connected with headquarters and actual phone company response staff. I don’t think anyone actually makes it that far, though. We weed out the chaff pretty well.
And every day, and many nights (even when I’m not supposed to be working) I come here and listen. Leaning on the desk. I’ve got my coffee mug. I rest my elbows on my table covered in pictures: my wedding day at the all-night chapel in Jersey all those years ago, a high school photo of my friends dunking my head in a bowl of punch because I wouldn’t kiss Barry Kinner arid because I wouldn’t shave my head in “Truth or Dare” or was it just “Get Helen”? I keep these photos here to remind me of people. That there are people. That I’m not the only person with a body, or that this isn’t the only day that ever happened. In phone hypnosis, you can believe or forget anything.
Sometimes I’m shaken from a daze by my own phone ringing. Mom’s old phone that I’ll always think looks like Dad’s head. Dial for eyes that I can poke my fingers in when I’m mad. His jaw jutting out, smooth and wide. Ears poking up and two pressure points that will shut him up when I slam this slice of his skull back down. Here his noggin’s preserved in black, hard plastic. Heavy as lead. Unbreakable without a sledge hammer. Unmoving except in spasms when it rings. The brass bells inside clanging away like a burst of his laughter, “Ho-ho-ho” or “Ah-ha-ha, don’t even think about it, honey. Just go back to your little friends, and leave this to me.” And I remember that Mom and Dad didn’t really speak to each other. Except, “Telephone’s for you… Again,” because my mother loved to talk on the phone, had a whole village that she ran through the phones. Mrs. Breacher. Mr. Foglestein. The Leary boys even called her sometimes for advice. Dad slowly became the phone in my imagination and now my memories. His voice only words just ringing. But it rarely rings, and I never use it. My number isn’t listed, and I don’t really want to talk to anyone. Just listen.
I can’t stop listening. I just keep thinking that there are probably thousands of great pairs out there. If I only had a thousand ears and a billion years… Sometimes I think of all the calls I could listen to back when I was working for Bell, when AT&T was the phone company. Ma Bell. And those angry little men had to tear her apart. And why destroy this big mama? They said it was to promote competition. But, who can compete with mama? Tell me.
The word in Spanish for table “mesa” is feminine.
“Yes, I have a table,” she says.
He asks, “Well, what could we do with it?”
“It’s a table. Why don’t you use your imagination?”
He says, “We could set the table.”
“A table does not mean that much to you,” Aly says. “You do not have much of an imagination.”
“Tables are for dinner!”
Now he may not have very much of an imagination, but I do. I love tables. It’s a woman thing. I have the dream now. There are beeswax candles on the table. A loaf of fresh hot pan… Sangria in goblets soon to be swept off the table. Enter a woman: her lips, red jalapenos; her cheeks, breasts and arms, all dove white. Palomas. A man, seeping with machismo. A meal: arroz con pollo. She reclines on the table. La mujer esta en la mesa. He leans over. He says, I want you, “te deseo.” Her skin tastes like salt and lemons. He strokes her with wild hands like the lone mariachi making love to his guitar with the swimming chords of “Volare.”
On Wednesday, Aly and Jeff can’t seem to get off the phone, maybe because in Spanish there are almost as many words for goodbye as there are words in English for doing the Deed.
“Goodbye,” she says.
“Goodbye. I’ll talk to you later,” he says.
“Hasta pronto,” she says,
“Soon? Right, soon. So until then,” he says.
“Hasta la vista,” she says.
“Let’s go to the Vista Hotel,” he asks.
“Vamos a comer a Las Sierras Azules,” she says.
“Spanish. Dammit. Okay, yo…quiero…” I can almost hear the pages flipping in his diccionario. “…ir to the restaurant con you. Tonight?”
“Si. I will call you,” she says.
“Okay.” Big pause. Will he say it again? “Amote.”
“No. Stop that. You do not know me. We haven’t even met in person. You do not know what that means. Buy a new dictionary. Why do you keep saying that?” she asks.
The next day. Jeff calls Aly. It’s bright and early, 8:01 AM. I’m just about to stir the sugar in my coffee. I am half awake.
“So you didn’t call me,” he says. He is speaking to Aly as if he were a cabron, a cuckold, as Sir Edmund calls it, meaning a man whose wife cheats on him. I think that word can only be masculine. I think the word for a woman who’s husband is cheating on her is just “mujer,” because let’s face it, all muchachos cheat, right?
“I was out to lunch,” she says, all bitchy.
I can hear Jeff’s heart pounding.
“It’s some other guy. What’s his name?”
“You don’t know where I was. You don’t know where I am. You don’t know who I am.”
“I know who you are. You’re a cheating no good—”
Beep-Beep. She is saved by her call waiting.
“Sorry, I have another call coming through. I’ll be back when I’m done.” She clicks out.
I stay with him on the line because I can hear him pacing. The soles of his shoes practically ravishing the non-wax tiles as he storms back and forth. His teeth grind down. He sniffs, wiping his nose with a Kleenex; not the kind with lotion, it scratches his nose. His hand wrings around the phone, nails eating into the plastic, like he’s throttling her. Tears gush to his eyes, rumbling in his ducts, like a full blast of water through rusted bathroom pipes.
“I’m back.” She’s back.
“Another call?” he asks. One sniff, no wiping.
“Another call,” she says. “Yes, I have to go. It’s about business.””
“Puta,” he says. Whore.
A pause now, and both hearts pounding. The Hipsy Kings die out behind savage timpani, bongos. The beats intertwine like tangled phone chords, twisted, but gradually they stabilize, slow down a bit, match tempos. Now they have one rhythm, the drums, and Jeff’s breath, syncopated, is a maraca shaking.
“I love you,” Jeff says.
“Escucha.” Listen. “What if I meet you at the club?” she asks.
“Lo siento.” I am sorry, he means, I am pathetic. I’m the tequila worm. Swallow my puny existence whole.
“Will you meet me at the club? We can have lunch.”
“Will we talk?” Jeff says.
“We will. Hablaremos.”
“Where will I see you?” Jeff asks.
“I’ll meet you in the locker room. By the towel bin.”
“Bastante bien,” Jeff says.
“Adios chico,” Jeff says.
The club? If it’s that club—the NYBC—it’s an all men’s sports club. And “chico”— hic-O, not Chic-A, not the feminine A, but the round, pico, shocked “Oh, my,” O of a man. Clear as a bell. And all this time, I let myself get attached to Aly. I took up “her” side, and there he goes, he—not a she—tricks me, like a typical man. What a crying shame. These phone lines are muy, muy malos.
And suddenly, my phone rings. Is it Jeff? Or Aly? It could be. I mean, when you’re floating in this phone space, not really anywhere, listening, and you only ever go anywhere when someone else starts talking, and you can’t really get back to where you were sitting because your soul and mind are flowing out through wires—And the ringing interrupts, a clang of hammer against bells on the complaint line that no one knows the number to. My dad’s head, and he’s screaming shouting through gritted teeth, “Hurry up and pick this up before I fall over dead.” Dad’s head’s going to crack if I don’t pick this up. And I’m wondering what would happen if I just didn’t answer. But how could I do that?
So I pick up, “Hello—phone company,” so clear you’ll never be sure who you’re talking to.
Silence on the line. I’m about to hang up when I hear a cough.
“Hello? Who’s this?” Now it’s got to be someone from the company. Who else would call?
“Do you want to go out tonight?” the voice asks, and I’m not about to hazard a guess that it’s even for me.
“You could meet me downtown,” the voice says, “or I could come there.”
“Who is this?” I ask, fumbling with the computer, number tracking keys.
“Who is this?” the voice asked back.
And I don’t know what made me say this, but I asked back, “Aly? Jeff?”
No answer. And I could feel his eyes on me, or her eyes, from some part of the room. Like someone’s out there, watching me, waiting for me.
“I think you’ve got the wrong number,” I say.
“Yeah, right, Helen. I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while. I’ve been thinking, it’s like almost going on a year since we really talked things out.”
A year? I hadn’t seen my Uncle Nick in a year.
“Honey, it’s me.”
“It’s eating me up not knowing how you’re doing.”
“But why did you call me? This isn’t Bubby. Bubby never calls me here.”
“I know. I wanted to see what was new. I had to call you at work because, because….” the voice drifts off.
“Couldn’t you wait till I got home?”
“Yeah, but it’d be like not seeing you at all, I was sleeping. And I know if I stay here I’ll be asleep. You know I’m always asleep, and I’ll be getting up for work early tomorrow, and it’ll be the same thing.”
I ask, “But why don’t we talk now? This is good.”
“NOT ON the PHONE!”
“But the phone, el telefono—it’s as good as being in persona.”
“If I wasn’t on the phone with you now, you wouldn’t even talk to me.”
“How could I?” I ask.
“Those men, or whomever, every one of them, every single person you come in contact with, who you care about at all, you talk to on the phone, or you pursue, you stalk on the phone. And the people you deal with in real life get what? The old busy signal. Now, I’m not complaining, really Helen, I know this is your hobby—”
“Hobby! You’re calling my vocation a hobby.”
“But you’re not even getting paid tonight.”
“It’s still not a hobby. I’m an amateur.”
“You’re a voyeur.”
“And what are you, Bubby? You’ve never listened in on a conversation, or peeked in a window? And what about your movies?”
Bubby sighs like he’s looking at all the crossed wires in the world, and he says, “Sure, the movies. I was stuck in a rut, but it’s starting to wear off, I go to see some with women with clothes for the whole movie sometimes, which is hard if you consider all those art films. Look, meet me at Howard Johnson’s or forget it.”
“Are you afraid someone’s listening?
“No, the other way around. See you,” he says.
He hangs up.
And the dial tone sings out like a foghorn, like the sound of the morning alarm clock.
 Wrong Number
 Does she want to go to the opera with him?
 Tape recorders.
Mark C. Marino is a writer, living in Los Angeles with his wife and children. He also teaches writing at the University of Southern California.
For more of his works, go here.