Harold at the Phone Company

Voices

I was having telephone trouble,
so I contacted the phone company.
A garrulous voice that called itself Harold
let me know I had found what I was looking for.

“How may I help you?” he asked.

“I’m hearing voices,” I replied.

“What the hell?”
he muttered not quite quietly enough.
Then: “Excuse me?”
as he wiggled a finger in his ear,
like that would somehow get him better reception
or maybe change the words I had just placed in his tubes.
(At least, that’s what I imagined.)

“Let’s start again,” he told me,
in a tone too many use with children.
“You do know that you’ve reached the phone company,
and that I can only help you with problems involving your phone?”

“Yes,” I replied,
in a tone not enough use with the smarmy.
“I know who I called and why.
As I told you, I’m hearing voices.”

“Geez, lady. Can’t you give a guy a break?”

A giggle.
Mine.
An apology.
Mine.
Then:
“I don’t like to complain,
and I can’t always explain.”

“Try, please.”

“When I pick up the phone,
I hear other people’s calls.
I know that Heather is leaving Philip
because she thinks she’s in love with Harold
—oh my gosh, Harold, not you;
I’m sure it’s another.”
(But I swear I heard him
choke on his own spittle.)
“Betty has cancer,
Joe lost his job because he drinks too much,
and Martha is having a crisis of faith.”

Nothing.

“Harold? Are you there?
Do you know who you work for
and why you answered the phone?” I asked
in a tone doctors use with the head injured.
“Harold?”

Throat clearing.
“Yes. Yes. I’m here. Sorry.
How long has this been going on?”

“Well, how should I know?
I’ve never even met Heather.
But I don’t believe she loves him
—Harold, that is. The other Harold.
She’s just feeling neglected by her husband,
who works too much and talks too little.”

Again, nothing.

“Harold? I thought you wanted
to help me with my phone problems.
Are you still there?”

“Yes. Yes!” he barked.
“How long have been
listening to other people’s
private conversations?”

“Oh!
I don’t think I like your tone.
But if you’d like to know
how long I’ve been subjected
to other people’s problems—
well, that would be my whole life.”

“Ma’am. Ma’am.
That is not what I meant.”
(His voice was filled with
all the contrition he could pump into it,
and that wasn’t much.)
“I simply want to know
how long you have had
phone trouble.”

“Since the day before yesterday,
thank you very much.
Can you fix it?”

“Yes. I’m sure I can,”
he told me.

A pause.
Then:
“Are you sure
she still loves her husband?”

Attachment Issues

Susans Story

Twilight
has descended upon
Susan’s sunshine.

She shook off Daddy’s shackles
and has taken up with a gay man.
It sounds strange,
but when nobody’s wrong,
nothing is right,
and they make up the rules as they go.

Rules like:
1. Nothing bad ever happens
2. Love is all that matters
3. When you cry, do it loudly
4. Record every thought, move, and meal
5. Never hurt anyone’s feelings

Nonsensical to you and me perhaps,
but this isn’t about us.

Susan fears the responsibility that comes with freedom
and is desperate for more guidelines.
Five are not nearly enough,
but she strokes her long blonde braid
and comforts herself with the reminder that
she and her lover haven’t known each other long.

Besides, she’s very much aware of the problem
and is working to remedy it.
Little by little.
Baby steps will get her there.
Commercial breaks never go to waste;
every second is spent
thinking,
thinking,
thinking.

If only the ideas would slow down so she could catch them.
They flit in and out of the light—
She has to be quick.
Almost got one—
No! It’s gone,
and her show is back on.

It’s all right, she tells herself.
In six more minutes.
OK, now. Go!
Closing her eyes usually helps.
There!
A word,
another,
three more.

She’ll corral them this time.
Being happy—she caught a glimpse of that phrase.
Smoking, public, soda—what does it all mean?
She tries to gather and sort.
Why can’t this be easier? she asks the mom on the screen.
Then a smile slowly erases that vertical line between her eyebrows.

Two days later, Susan is waiting to be buzzed through
the front door of Balsam Acres.
The small, frail body
taking up too little of the bed in room 149
surprises Susan.
Was she always so gaunt?

Soon enough, the vellum lids flutter open.
Susan smiles, and makes small talk,
but is careful to keep it short.
Then she clears her throat, gazes into the ice-blue eyes
and asks, How did Daddy write his rules, Mama?

Rules? the woman asks with surprising volume.
Rules? Why, he lived by only two,
and he sure as hell didn’t make ‘em up.

That can’t be right, Mama.
Nobody can live with only two rules.
The sock rule! Remember that one?
And, and, the going-out-with-friends rule, Mama.
What about those?

But Mama answers with only a snort
and turns her back on Susan again.