Phone’s Ringing, Dude.
I did not notice the payphone until it began to ring.
I had stood at that bus stop a hundred times, but had never seen nor heard the phone before. Had it always been there, or had it only appeared that day, called into existence by a force beyond comprehension, or perhaps by the city’s public works department? There was no way of knowing, and I would never have wondered had it not begun to ring.
It was only me standing at the stop. No other commuter had yet arrived, and the FS bus was not yet in sight.
When the phone began to ring, I did not know what to think. The mere sight of it was in and of itself perturbing in a day and age when a phone could not be just a phone. The ringing added another eerie layer to what had until that moment been a typically uneventful morning.
Ring, ring, ring, it went.
It rang five times before I thought that it might be ringing for me.
Should I answer it? I thought. I know that in movies, when the payphone rings for you and only you, you must answer, but also that answering brings with it grave consequences. No one ever answers a ringing payphone to discover that they have won the lottery or that their true love has finally found them. Answering usually means learning that a sniper has a bead on you and that you need to do exactly as he says, or that Dick Laurent is dead — no, wait, that’s the intercom.
Ring, ring, ring went the payphone, and increasingly I wondered if I should pick up the receiver and hear whatever it had to say. There was no way of knowing what secrets the voice on the other end of the line might have to share with me unless I answered the call. Then again, what good could possibly come from picking up?
As I weighed it, the best outcome was neutral — a wrong number, a random dialer. More likely than not it would be a negative result. It was like finding a bag of money at the site of a drug deal gone wrong. Best case scenario, you take the money and spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder. Worse case scenario, you get gunned down off-screen in a cheap motel room and the movie goes on without you.
Ring, ring, ring.
There was, of course, an element of curiosity that couldn’t be denied. In a sense, it didn’t matter what was on the other end of the line. If I didn’t answer, I would wonder the rest of my life what adventure or experience I might have missed out on. Perhaps, if I answered, I would be sucked away into some seamy underworld and, if I survived, come away a changed and better man. Or perhaps I would find myself forced to question the decision I have made over the course of my life and, in reflection, come to a sort of enlightenment that I might otherwise have not obtained. Surely this was just as likely an outcome as me being gunned down in the street, yes? And if I never answered, how would I ever know what I’d missed out on?
A line began to form behind me, and I spied the FS far down the street. The payphone continued to ring. I noticed that the other commuters ignored it, just as I was pretending to. Perhaps they didn’t hear it at all, and the ringing was in my head. Or perhaps they just assumed it was for me and we’re going to give me first crack at answering. I didn’t want to ask if they heard the ringing, for fear of looking like a crank.
Asking someone else to confirm reality is, regardless of the answer, a sure sign that it’s slipping away.
No, it was better to ignore them, and to ignore it, until I knew whether or not I should answer it.
Ring, ring, ring. The bus drew nearer, but the payphone kept ringing, and to my ears, at least, the ringing was getting louder. The payphone was trying harder to get my attention, crying out to me, “You really want to answer me, don’t you?” And although I did want to answer, I also knew that, again, there was very little good likely to come out answering that phone. Wasn’t there?
Ring, ring, ring.
The bus pulled up to the stop.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
The doors opened.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
I climbed on the bus, tagged my card, and watched as the other commuters did the same.
The payphone was still ringing when the bus pulled away, and as I watched it recede into the distance, I wondered what might have happened if I had answered. I tell myself that nothing good would have come of it. Nothing good at all.
But all day long, I heard the ringing in my head. It distracted me in meetings, kept from focusing on my work. It haunted me through lunch and through dinner. It was constant, unyielding. As the day wore on, I came to regret not picking up the receiver, knowing that no matter what had happened, at least I wouldn’t have had to deal with the agony of not knowing, with the uncertainty that comes with not taking that chance. Ring, ring, ring, it went in my mind. Ring, ring, ring.
When I returned from the office that evening, and disembarked at the same stop, the payphone was still there but the ringing had stopped. Either someone had answered it or the caller had gotten tired of waiting.
It has been a week now. The ringing in my head continues but the payphone has remained silent. But if it rings tomorrow — if it ever rings again — I will be sure to pick up. If it ever rings again, I will be there to answer.