Long-Distance Operator

Back then, you could get away with something like this. It was a different world. Bob Dylan had just become a born-again Christian, Jimmy Carter was wringing his hands over the hostages in Iran. The Big Red Machine was still in tact. Phone Phreaks with names like The Snark and Cheshire Cat and Peter Perpendicular Pickle were building little blue boxes—Steve Jobs and his buddy Wozniak supposedly sold them door-to-door. The guy who called himself Captain Crunch discovered how to use a toy whistle from a cereal box to trick the network. So when a friend of mine told me about a scheme his brother used to place free long-distance calls, I decided to give it a try myself. I wasn’t hip or daring or technologically savvy. I was no techno-geek, no proto-hacker. Far from it. I was broke and stone lonely, a college freshman, and Mary Ann Nelson, a girl I’d dated the summer before, was away at school—I just wanted to talk to her, that’s all.

This is how it worked. I’d go to a phone booth at a pre-determined time, dial the operator, and ask to make a collect call. Nothing unusual. Except that I gave a fake name—I favored old-time ballplayers and soul singers, anybody late and great. The number I gave was a public telephone, too, a booth in the basement of Mary Ann’s dorm. The operator, who somehow didn’t know it was a pay phone, would put the call through. “Harry Hooper?” Mary Ann would exclaim. “What a surprise!” That was the best, hearing the pleasure in her voice, that little bit of conspiratorial playacting. She’d played the youngest sister in our high school’s production of Fiddler, doing some comic business with a broom that brought the house down, but I liked this performance better. “Oh, yes,” she’d say. “Absolutely. I accept the charges.” So just like that, at the phone company’s expense, we’d be connected.

She’d left in late August for her freshman year at a private college out east. She was smart, and her family could afford it. I was a good student, too, but college out of state was just not a possibility for me. My mother was sick, and our finances were not great. So I stayed home and attended our huge state university, wandering a little aimlessly through a campus of 40,000 students, all of whom, it seemed to me, had a greater sense of purpose and direction—and more friends—than I. I used to bump into people all the time, not meet them, but crash into them—in hallways, on staircases, on the covered bridge leading to the library, the enclosed walkways between buildings—spill their drinks, scatter their books, step on their heels, violating some unspoken and unposted rules governing space and traffic everyone but me seem to understand and observe. In those days, collision was probably my most common form of human interaction.

In those days, collision was probably my most common form of human interaction.

Two mornings a week, I sat in an auditorium and watched my famous economics professor on a television monitor. He’d been one of Kennedy’s top advisors, won a Nobel Prize, but I was obsessed mainly by the fact that one of his world-renowned nostrils was so much larger than the other—once I’d noticed, it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Some afternoons, I went to intro psychology; some afternoons, I played the pins in the basement of the student union. I went days on campus without speaking to anyone or being spoken to. I felt spectral, insubstantial, invisible.

In the campus newspaper, I read about a graduate student in engineering, from some country I’d never heard of, found dead in his boarding house only after many days, once he started to smell. That this seemed somewhat unremarkable—it was reported so briefly, so matter-of-factly—frightened me. This was beyond invisibility; this guy’s fate—disappeared, rotting in a rented room, unmissed—I could easily imagine, was simply the next, logical step toward oblivion.

I’d sit in the library and read Masterpieces of American Literature. Billy Budd, Young Goodman Brown, all that symbolic good and evil. I was supposed to come up with an idea for an essay, think of something clever to say, but I was no good at that game. The stories got to me, but not in any way I could spell out in well-developed paragraphs. I was afraid of Claggert. He made the hair on my arms stand up. I could see him, practically smell him. I figured I knew something about what grown-ups did in the woods at night. But there was no thesis in that, no utterable insight. I needed a Paper Topic, a three-point idea.

What I studied most diligently were the handful of letters Mary Ann had sent me, bland and newsy for the most part, silent on the subjects that I most wanted to hear about—Did she miss me? How much did she miss me? What did she miss most about me?—enlivened mainly by her artwork on the envelopes. She used to draw word bubbles, like a comic strip, from the face of the person pictured on the stamp and fill it with tiny printed messages. “Go Twins,” John Paul Jones would say. Or, Will Rogers, great American humorist, would remark, “My chaps are killing me.” I would draft responses on notebook paper, painstakingly crafted to sound casually collegiate and filled with what I imagined were witticisms. I would recopy them in my best hand, re-read them, and then toss them in the trash. I sounded like a complete ass.

She worked at Dairy Queen that summer. I’d come around closing, ten o’clock, and she’d build me some crazy double-dip thing with sprinkles or nuts, her own creation, never the same thing twice. She gave them goofy names—The Leaning Tower of Dilly Deluxe, The Atomic Cherry-Chocolate Fudge Bomb. I’d watch her clean the machines and close up. She wore her paper cap at a jaunty angle, her blonde hair elaborately netted and pinned, an apron tied over a pair of cut-offs. I’d drive her home in my Duster, a rusty wreck I’d bought for a couple of hundred dollars. It had some congenital defect in the carburetor the previous owner forgot to mention—I went through something like three or four re-builts that summer and still you’d need to jam a pen in the butterfly valve to get it to start if you left it stand for between five minutes and an hour. But it was my first car, and I loved it. We rolled the windows down and turned the radio up. She smelled like ripe bananas, ice milk, and strawberry syrup.

Her parents went to bed at 10:30, as soon as the news was over. We’d watch the lights in their bedroom room blink off—“Goodnight, Herbert,” she’d say, “Goodnight, Helen”—and we’d let ourselves in the back door and head down the basement. It was your classic paneled, rec room set-up—wet bar, sturdy plaid furniture, bumper pool and ping pong tables. There were framed family pictures on the wall, portraits of her siblings, two brothers and a sister, all older, grown up and moved away.

We fooled around a little on the couch, but not much. To be so sexually inactive probably seems laughable today, quaint. We’d kiss and grope a little bit, awkward but ardent, and then, suddenly, she’d put an end to it. It seemed arbitrary, timed even. “Okay,” she’d say and straighten up, button and tuck, and click on a lamp. It was a kind of erotic lightning round.

Mostly we played cards—cribbage. I’d learned it from my grandfather, who’d taught me when I was a kid of eleven or twelve. He’d died years before, but I still played pretty much in his style: kept the same cards, set and avoided the same traps, lamented my bad luck in his language.

She and I would cut for deal and play at least two out of three games. We made cribbage small-talk—counted our cards, pleaded for a good cut, crowed over a big hand—and listened to music on a record player with plastic wood-grain speakers we arranged on either side of us.

She had a killer collection of R & B records: Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Jackie Wilson, James Brown. This Nordic Minnesota white girl. She played me “Mary Ann,” one of Ray Charles’ early Atlantic sides (“Oh Mary Ann, you sure look fine…”), which she said was her theme song. She knew the names of all the session men at Muscle Shoals and could sing harmony just like one of the Raylettes. She’d put on a record—Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Otis Redding live—one eye on her cards, stealing glances at my face, trying to gauge my appreciation. I’d never heard anything like it before. My record collection consisted of Chicago, The Best of Bread, Roger Miller’s Greatest Hits, and Bill Cosby comedy albums.

She had some candles stashed behind the bar, short and thick, vaguely votive, like the kind we used to pay to light at my grandmother’s church. She put them on coasters and set them on either side of the cribbage board. By candlelight, she looked a little flushed, and our game seemed spooky and secret, forbidden even, like something Goodman Brown might happen across in the woods, Hoyle’s black mass.

We never spoke the word but yes, of course, that’s what it was. L-O-V-E, like the Al Green song, what got Sam and Dave hummin’. Back then, I didn’t so much feel it as inhabit it. There was no way to put it into words. Love was the two of us in a paneled basement, the cribbage board between us, candles flickering, Etta James whooping and hollering softly from the speakers all about her tough lover, while we counted our fifteens and thirty-ones, our double-runs and nobs, our knuckles bumping as we moved our pegs.

My mother’s disease was neurological, degenerative, incurable. She’d been sick for a long time, numb, unsteady on her feet, awkward, shaky. But she’d always seemed defiant, full of wisecracks, not at all inclined to go gentle into a wheelchair. But she was getting worse now, a lot worse, and she had developed a kind of calm about her. It scared me a little. Maybe it was acceptance; maybe it was exhaustion.

It was just the two of us at home. My father was long departed. I remembered him mostly as mean and drunk, a volatile storm to be avoided, a loud noise. By the time he left for good, I was ten and felt more relieved than anything else. My older brother had dropped out of the university himself two years before after one-half-hearted semester and was living with some friends in New Mexico. He didn’t quite have our father’s gift for the clean break—in almost ten years, the old man had managed exactly one postcard and couple of very modest checks by way of child support, no return address. My brother called from time to time, full of high-speed-chatter about Tex-Mex cuisine, all his big plans. “Hey, Bro,” he’d say when I’d pick up the phone; sometimes I just handed the receiver right to my mother. I resented him, and I envied him, too, his distance, his devil-may-care freedom.

We managed all right. There was a county-paid nurse who came five days a week. Carla was brisk and cheerful. She talked tough to me—“You can take a break, Brat,” she’d tell me, “Get lost”) and joked with my mother, took her blood pressure, cleaned her up, and fiddled with her hair, which was beyond me. Carla secured us some special equipment: a fancy walker, wheeled like a grocery cart; elasticized, circulation-enhancing socks; an oxygen machine, which my mother needed only on bad days. There was a big mechanized chair-bed, a kind of orthopedic La-Z-Boy—“my throne,” my mother called it—which we set up in the living room. It became her command-and-control center. Before I left for the university, I’d set her up: telephone, television remote, water pitcher all within reach.

Mostly she watched television. It made me feel bad sometimes, the junk she watched: morning chat and game shows, all the black-and-white re-runs—Andy Griffith, Lucy, Bewitched. But it was light and noise, some connection to the world outside. When I’d get home, I’d make something to eat. It wasn’t cooking exactly, just a little boiling and basic food-warming. I’d fill two plates and pull up a chair. We watched the nightly news together and then Ted Koppel, “America Held Hostage.”

So that was my life. Spend the day lost and anonymous wandering at the mega-university. Then, home to my mother, a can of Campbell’s, Jimmy Carter getting burned in effigy, the stale, sad smell of 24-hour illness. I used to brood about those hostages, wondered how they spent their days. I wasn’t a hostage exactly but neither was it much of a life. One day following the next in a kind of grim and gray succession, no exit strategy, no rescue mission in the offing. Is it any wonder I looked forward to those calls?

The first time, I was scared. I knew it was against the law to rip-off the phone company—it was theft, and over a certain amount, it would a felony. I had no real moral qualms about it, but I was the timid, law-abiding type, afraid to get caught.

It was a Saturday in October. At 1:00 p.m. the call would be placed—I had the number written down. I spent a good deal of time choosing a phone to use, examining and considering various possibilities, feeling downright furtive, casing various booths.

This is what I learned. All phone booths smell like cigarette smoke, at least they used to. There are butts on the floor, wads of gum stuck to the shelf, things spilled, sticky stuff on everything. Probably more desperation per cubic foot than anywhere else outside a jail cell. People rip out the phone books, cut wires, unscrew things, plug the coin return slot with disgusting substances. There’s graffiti, most of it vengeful, bitter. Not too many little hearts with initials, I’ll tell you that.

Eventually I chose a booth across the street from her DQ. It was closed for the season now, boarded up, but I liked the associations. I could remember her moving around inside, while I worked on my cone, that wonderful sense of contented anticipation. There was a football field somewhere in the neighborhood, and a game being played—I could hear the PA and some crowd noise.

Just as I was about to make the call, I saw a cop car, stopped at a light two blocks away, and the thought crossed mind, it really did. This is it, it occurred me, and I felt a weird kind of relief. The jig is up. The police cruised right on by, of course, leaving me just a little off-balance.

“Yes,” I told the operator. “This is Dr. Samuel Cooke.” I spoke slowly and distinctly, trying my best to sound like a serious adult.

I felt a certain amount of pressure to say something interesting or important or at least funny. I never felt at ease. Back then, for one thing, remember, long distance sounded different. None of that fiber-optic stuff, no pin-dropping silence. There was always that hum in the background.

What did I have to say that was worth doing time for? Turns out, not much. We talked about talking. Congratulated ourselves for being so clever, so bold. “I can’t believe it,” I said.

“Samuel Cooke,” she said.

“Dr. Samuel Cooke,” I said.

“You don’t think they can listen in?” she said. “Hear what we’re saying?”

“Nah,” I said, but it made me wonder.

We went on like that for a few minutes, not really saying very much, just making noise. She told me about her roommate, who’d earned a pair of perfect 800s on her SAT and wasn’t shy about letting people know it. To relax, the roommate read French poetry and played the oboe. “Everybody here is a genius,” she said. “Except me.”

She asked me about my classes. “Fine,” I said. I wanted to tell her where I was, steer us back to those summer nights, but I didn’t know how to do it. Finally she said something about needing to study, and we made a date to talk again in a week. It was free, why not? Ours for the taking, like a dollar on the sidewalk.

Mary Ann’s father was rich, I guess, older, quite possibly out of his mind. He didn’t seem to have a job or a career in any conventional sense—no office, no title or degrees, no visible ties to any company or organization. He may have been retired, but from what, I don’t know. They had a big brick Tudor house in a desirable neighborhood, two nice cars, guys who did the lawn work, but where the money came from, earned, inherited, or what, was never clear to me. As far as I could tell, her father spent most of his time in an office on the main floor—they called it his den—cutting articles from newspapers and magazines, obituaries, features on public figures, book reviews and advice columns, and filing them in one of several tall cabinets that lined the walls of the room. He had a huge pair of silver scissors, a serious shiny implement, like a hunting knife, and rarely stopped cutting, even to say hello. I’d stood in the doorway a couple of times and made small talk with him. A father at home, a benign one, was something of a novelty to me, an unfamiliar species, and I was interested in observing him. He was genial, inquiring about my college plans, curious as to the effect of the recent drought on the parks I tended for the city. He listened patiently. But he never put those shears down. I could sense his urgency—enough about the weather, there was work to be done.

Her mother was small, gray, quick. If I stood too long chatting with Herb, she’d sweep us out the door. She struck me a kind of a domestic border collie, quietly intelligent, subtly in control, pleasant, but entirely capable of nipping your ear if you didn’t move along her prescribed path. She brought Herb his lunch on a tray—sandwiches with the crusts cut off, ice tea with a lemon wedge.

Once a week we were on the phone, filling at least twenty illegal minutes of long distance each time.

Sometimes she told me jokes, Henny Youngman stuff, one-liners, beyond corny. My roommate’s so conceited everyone calls her Mimi. Never marry a tennis player—love means nothing to them. She loved puns, complicated ones: A dog’s mouth is the seat of his pants.

Once she started crying, but wouldn’t tell me why, wouldn’t even admit that she was. “What’s the matter?” I asked.


“Why are you crying?”

“I’m not.”

“Why are you making crying-like noises?”

“Shut up,” she said, and started sobbing. “Tell me a joke,” she said. “Tell me a godddamn joke.”

The only jokes I could remember were the ones I’d picked up from the city crew about Ed Gein, the Mad Butcher of Plainfield, a Wisconsin man who murdered women and robbed graves and whose house was a ghoulish museum: furniture upholstered in human skin, a refrigerator full of organs, soup bowls fashioned from skulls.

“What did Ed Gein say to the police when they came to arrest him?”

She let loose a convulsive sigh, which I took as permission to proceed.

“Come on guys, have a heart.”

It was some sick stuff, to be sure, but times were different, I think. Before Jeffrey Dahmer, mass murder in Wisconsin probably seemed funnier. I kept it up, ran through my entire repertoire, the complete and definitive Ed Gein collection, one after another, every single disgusting joke that I could remember, I may have even tossed in one or two of my own invention, something about foot-stools.

“What did Ed Gein do to get himself in trouble when he was in school?”

“Smoke butts.”

“What did the finally arrest him for?”

“Selling arms to Russia.”

Ed Gein seemed to do the trick. Pretty soon she was laughing. It was sad and desperate laughter, which I understood.

What we shared, I’ve come to believe, was a certain sense of peculiarity, a kind of scaly oddness we’d both learned to shield from the world so skillfully and consistently, it rarely felt like a defense. What was it? Nothing profound or horrid or permanently disfiguring—not some psychic sixth finger, no sucking chest wound of the soul. But something real.

“If things would just stay the same,” my mother said to me. “I can eat, and I can sleep. I can change channels. My faculties are in tact.”

“More or less,” I said.

“This bad but no worse,” she said. “I could handle that.”

“Steady-state,” I said.

“No miracle cures,” she said. “Just my daily dish of misery, the usual adult dose.”

I nodded.

“Too much to ask?”

In late November, we—or, rather, she—got busted. Mary Ann told me in a letter, hurriedly scrawled on notebook paper, no talking stamp. The way she explained it, it was handled very decorously by some college official, with the utmost tact, the way, say, a British valet informs his man that his fly is open. Someone in the house was receiving telephone calls—“irregular calls”—from the Midwest, Mary Ann was informed. The calls would cease immediately, and that would be the end of it. Supposedly everyone in the house was talked to, but Mary Ann didn’t believe it—she knew she was the only Minnesota girl.

So that was that. I sent her back a postcard from the bookstore. What lousy criminals we are, I wrote. I thought about my mother’s sad wish, her doomed impossible dream. This bad but no worse.

It was going to end, I feared, whatever it was that was between us, our thing without a name. To call it a “relationship” would have lent it a laughable self-consciousness. We’d somehow managed to keep it off-the-books, untitled. We weren’t a couple in any formal sense; she’d have gagged on a phrase like “my boyfriend.” We were pen-pals, I guess, cribbage buddies, partners in tele-communications crime.

The end would be less overtly difficult than some kind of ritual break-up. There was no ring or letter jacket to return, no paperwork involved, no call for tears. We wouldn’t have to hate each other afterwards.

This is how I imagined it. There would this other guy she met at school. He’d probably be from the Midwest, too. When Count Basie wanted to fire one of his musicians, I’ve since learned, he never did it directly. He just hired a new guy. You don’t need two drummers. The first guy would get the message and pack it in.

This other guy, I imagined—Mary Ann would probably marry him. We’d become friends eventually, the two of us. He’d be a deeply sane and decent man—Minnesota is full of them—a man with no dark side. He fishes on opening day, plays poker on Friday night, works hard, goes to church, changes his own oil. He loves a good steak and a cold beer. Next to a guy like that, I feel like Dostoyevski, swarthy and unkempt, dark and bearded, twitchy with obsessive tics, hot with secret guilt. Brood is simply not part of his emotional palate. I admire that. Mary Ann understood. We would make each other miserable.

My mother took to using her oxygen machine more and more. Started at 4 and pretty soon was dialing it up to 7. One morning she slipped behind her walker on the way to the bathroom and took a nasty fall. She need ten stitches above her eye and had bruises all up and down both legs. Right after that, Carla got us a wheelchair. After years of hearing my mother talk about it—her desire to be dead rather than in a wheelchair—it was a little surprising how quickly she changed her tune. What a marvelous contraption it was, she announced. What an ingenious feat of engineering. Carla showed me some tricks in maneuvering it, and my mother seemed delighted to be rolling. Next, she said, she was going to play wheelchair basketball, take it to the hoop in her new ride. I think she would have endorsed them—no particular make or model, just wheelchairs in general—if she were invited, become a national spokesman.

My brother called and told us about a job he’d gotten as an uncertified substitute science teacher. His specialty were spectacular demonstrations—dry ice, phosphorescent explosions—Mr. Wizard stuff, which was just his style. My mother sat back in her chair, grimaced a little while she shifted her weight, adjusted her green oxygen tubing.

Afterwards, my brother got me on the line alone. “Talk to me, Bro,” he said. “How’s Ma? Really?”

“Tip-top,” I told him. “Better and better everyday, in every way.”

“You’re a prince,” he said. A few days later, he sent me a couple of twenties in a school district envelope. “Something for yourself,” he’d written on the back of a tardy slip. In this respect, he was like my father, mostly a deadbeat, but, according to my mother at least, a big tipper.

I got it in my head somehow that I should visit Mary Ann’s parents. A couple of weeks had gone by since we’d talked last, and I missed her. I’d driven by her family’s house two or three times before, just to have a look, I suppose, to remember those summer nights—waiting outside for her parents to flick off the news and go to bed.

Late one gray afternoon, I pulled up in front of the house. I don’t know what I had in mind exactly. Maybe I imagined a charming luncheon with the Nelsons, the first step in some sort of Jane Austen courtship, crustless sandwiches and clinking glasses of tea, polite conversation about current events—while I charmed my way into Herbert and Helen’s heart. Probably I just wanted to visit the place, to see things that would make me remember, help me feel what I felt—I guess I wanted to pay a visit to the Mary Ann Museum.

I know I could have just called her, kept it short and paid for it. I had her number. How much could it have cost? Could have gone for the off-peak rates. But I didn’t, I’m not sure why. It just didn’t seem like an option.

I stood on the front step, and as I reached for the bell, I caught a glimpse of Herbert through the picture window’s open curtains. He was half-dressed, wearing a sleeveless undershirt and some elasticized, orthopedic-looking shorts; he had something on his shoulder held in place with a bandage or gauze, a hot pad maybe. A long strand of uncombed hair hung crazily off his head. He was bent over the open drawer of an end table, rifling through its contents, shouting and tossing things out behind him onto the floor—pens, a legal pad, catalogs. He looked misshapen and crooked, he looked like an angry gnome. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I could hear and feel the abrasive quality of his voice. It was a relentless grinding whine, like a drill bit, metal on metal. I couldn’t see his wife, but assumed that she was the one he was boring into. No wonder Mary Ann waited for the lights to go off, no wonder Helen was wound so tight. I backed down the steps, got in the Duster—it turned over, thank God—and went home.

The next day I skipped classes and went to The Wax Museum in Dinkytown, an Emporium of drug paraphernalia, t-shirts, incense, black-light posters, and used records. I flipped through the bins and pulled out all the lp’s I recognized from Mary Ann’s collection—a bunch of Ray Charles, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. And then I started picking out records that I imagined would be the sort of thing she’d go for—Jerry Butler and the Silhouettes, Rufus Thomas, Gene Allison. They had a certain look, a certain feel—the singer was usually well dressed, spiffy, but the song titles were melancholy. If it was recorded in Memphis, if the person on the cover was sweating, if it had “Soul” in the title, if when I held it my hands I could feel Mary Ann, I bought it.

The fellow behind the counter—ponytailed, wearing John Lennon glasses and some sort of peasant smock—flipped through my records before ringing me up, making little hums, which I imagined signaled his approval. The dingier the record, the more obscure the performer, the more impressed he seemed. “Cool wax,” he said.

It didn’t bother me that the records were used, the covers beat-up, already frayed and worn and sun-faded. I liked it that they came with a history, that somebody else might have spun them in another basement somewhere. When I lugged them out to the Duster and sat them on the passenger seat, it was a substantial stack, a couple of city phone books’ worth. I felt as if I’d gained something personal and inevitable, pre-ordained even, something earned, like an inheritance.

At home I heated up a couple of pot pies, made smiley face incisions in the frozen crusts. I found a tube of crescent rolls in the fridge and baked them, too, and boiled a bag of frozen corn.

Carla had been in and straightened things up a little, done my mother’s hair, helped her put on some make-up. She seemed cheerful and pathetic, both, all spruced up for a date that wasn’t going to arrive. We ate and watched the news, which was more of the same—a plane crash in Antarctica, a shooting in Ireland, angry mobs and embassies.

I decided to spin some of my new cool wax. We had a console stereo in the living room, a big piece of furniture, with built-in speakers.

I got up and lifted the lid. One of my brother’s Grand Funk Railroad albums was on the turntable. I cleaned the fuzz off the stylus and loaded three records on the changer. “Do you mind?” I asked my mother, and she just waved.

I liked everything about those old records, even—maybe especially—the scratchy non-silence between tracks, those amplified pops and crackles in the vinyl you heard as soon as the needle dropped, exactly what digital technology has now eliminated. It was like the background, long-distance hum on the telephone while the operator put my call through—audible anticipation.

I kept the volume low so as not to disturb my mother, but she got interested in the music. “What is that?” she wanted to know. “Turn it up.” It was Jerry Butler singing “Only the Strong Survive,” talking all about the lessons his mama taught him: You gotta be strong, you gotta hold on. Just the sort of thing my mother loved, her cup of tea exactly.

We listened to Wicked Wilson Pickett, I’m In Love. We listened to Marvin Gaye singing duets with Tammi Terrell, You’re All I Need.

After a while, my mother fell asleep. I could hear her breathing, labored but regular, her oxygen hissing quietly. The room was dark now, the television flickering soundlessly, but I didn’t put on any lights. I loaded more records on the turntable.

I thought about playing cribbage with Mary Ann. I remembered how when she counted a good hand, she gave the cards a little snap. “A cooler,” is what she called 12-points. If she made it to the end of the board on the first deal, that was visiting Aunt Minnie’s Room. She knew how to cut the deck with one hand. That seemed more important to me than a perfect SAT.

I closed my eyes and listened to Al Green. His voice sounded ethereal, not connected to any human being, just the sound of pure longing. I was tired of being alone, too. She has got to hear this, I thought. Now or never. I got up and reached for the phone. Mary Ann picked up on the second ring.

“Listen to this,” I said.

First published, Cincinnati Review.