Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pay Phone

Bill Collins rode his bike down the trail.  It had been a tough ride, but he was nearly to the home stretch when a flash of light caught his eye.  He slowed down and took a swig of tepid water from his bottle.  The late afternoon sun reflected off the glassy side of a phone booth.

You don't see those much anymore, he thought, taking another drink.  The booth was a good reminder, though.  He should probably let his wife know he was on the way. 

Bill pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, and his fingers went through the motions, but nothing happened.  The battery was dead.  When he replaced the phone, he felt something else in his pocket and pulled it out.  A quarter. 

Mom had always warned him to take a quarter along when he went out, just in case he needed to call.  These days he carried his own phone everywhere, but he still followed her advice.  For good luck?  He didn't know. 

He wondered how much pay phones cost these days.  Everything else was more expensive than it had been when he was a kid.  He swung down his kickstand, and stepped into the booth. 

"Local calls - 25¢"

"How about that?" he muttered.  Dropping his coin into the slot, he dialed quickly.  Only after he'd pressed the last digit did he realize that he'd dialed the only number he had ever called from a pay phone--his childhood home.

Telephone companies had come and gone, but Mom and Dad had held onto that phone number for years.  Of course, it had been disconnected after Mom's funeral.  Bill waited for the recorded message to tell him that the number was not in service.  He couldn't hang up.  Mother had been very strict about that.

"If you dial a wrong number, you must apologize.  Never hang up without speaking.  That's just rude."

From telephone manners to table manners, Mom had drilled him on every form of etiquette.  He'd done a lot of eye-rolling over her proper ways.  Still, he knew that courtesy had earned him his job, and gallantry had won his wife.  He'd never told his mother how much he appreciated her lessons.  What would he give for one last conversation with her?  That would be worth far more than a quarter.

As the dull ring tone droned in his ear, Bill closed his eyes and envisioned the big black rotary phone jangling on the wall, remembered the way he would drag a stool beneath it, lift the heavy receiver, and answer--

"Collins residence."  A child's voice cut through his reverie. 

Bill's eyes snapped open.  "Really?"  Collins is not an uncommon name, he thought, but it's funny that another Collins family has been assigned the same number.  Bill wondered if it was done alphabetically.

"Whaddaya want?"  The kid interrupted his thoughts again.

"Oh, I'm sorry.  May I speak with your mother or father?"

"Dad's not home yet, and Mom's powdering her nose."

Bill chuckled.  That was the same excuse his mother had trained him to give when she was out of the house.  He'd asked her once if it counted as a lie.  She primly declared it a "euphemism."  That shut him up.  It was a long time before he found that word in the dictionary.

"Do you wanna leave a message?"

"Yes, please."  Bill rattled off his cell phone number.  "And the name is William Collins."

"Is not!  That's my name!  Stupid crank caller." 

"But--"  Too late.  The boy had hung up.

Bill leaned against the cool glass of the phone booth as a wave of dizziness washed over him.  He suddenly remembered having the same conversation, some forty years before.

His mother had been in the powder room, freshening up before Dad came home for dinner.  When she emerged, she asked about the phone call.

"It was just a prank, Mom.  Some guy who said he had my name."

Mom smoothed the crumpled message paper.  "It's an unusual phone number," she said thoughtfully.  "Still, it would be rude to not return the call."

Over his protests, she'd dialed, listening patiently to the rings of a phone that did not yet exist. 

Bill stared at his dead cell phone, willing it to work just for a moment.  Nothing happened.  He shoved it back into his pocket, then mounted his bike and pedaled home with renewed vigor.

He had some things to tell his wife, before it was too late.


  1. love it...all of it.....thanks for sharing all your words

  2. What a wonderful Twilight Zone tale...it's good to get a chill from this..thank you.

  3. A solid story, heartfelt, nostalgic...just beautiful.

  4. oh man...i love stories like this...ah if only they had connected you know...great piece...

  5. It didn't take long for the chills to set in .. I loved this!!

  6. Shivers...back to the future and back...

  7. wow and double wow- Outer Limits wow!

  8. Great story! Also, while I was reading it my husband came in and started talking about time travel-- odd coincidence.

    I really like the detail about wanting to thank his mom for teaching gallantry. My mother in law has been thanked by a ruffian friend of her grandson's b/c she always made him take off his hat indoors. When he had a new serious girlfriend and met her parents, he took off his hat. They were very impressed!

  9. An intriguing story! And how have I been missing your Magpies all these months? Do you always post late?


  10. Yup, pretty late. When I started, the Mag image came out on Thursday. I guess I'm still on that schedule, even if I think about it all week.