Voicemail

Voicemail

I deleted her voicemail. It happened in the dirty bathroom of the corner pub on Beach Street in Chinatown. It was where I went to drown out my sorrows with cold chicken feet and beer, the only place I’d go to on a Friday after work since it was in between my office and the commuter rail. I was always multitasking, so peeing while making phone calls was nothing new to me. After listening to my new messages the saved ones automatically played, and sometimes I’d listen to them. There were the voices of those I loved, rarely important in content, but for one message in particular, it was a person that was no longer alive. Hearing my sister’s voice was a small moment where I could pretend that she was still here, talking to me in real time.

Then it happened. I accidentally hit the “7” for delete instead of the “9” for save. Her message had been on there for almost a year, ten months to her passing, and every time I listened to it I’d feel my heart give an extra pump, like it had been softly shocked by those paddles, and it would remind me how it felt to love. I stared at my phone while the recording of a woman’s voice kept asking if that was all, if I was done. Someone was banging on the door, yelling “Hurry up!” and the music was reduced to a thumping you could feel in your body. I wasn’t done though, I wanted her voice back, but there wasn’t a number for undo. Eventually the recorded woman’s voice said “Goodbye,” and she was gone.

The phone hung up and that was that.

The following day I called out of work. I told them to use my vacation time, the entire two weeks’ worth. We had a no-questions-asked policy when it came to using personal time. It was a part of my boss’s new plan for a healthy work environment to try and be considerate, hopefully boosting profits in the long run. Office dogs and Friday group CrossFit sessions were also about to begin, so really it was perfect timing for me to avoid doing forty squats and something called a burpee with my coworkers.

Hungover and hurt I drew a bath so I could be suspended, removed from this reality. It was all I had planned for these mournful two weeks. I even went as far as moving my television into the bathroom so I could let my mind rest while watching daytime dramas, like we used to on snow days. We would make a feast of snacks like popcorn and s’mores made in the microwave, and then sit together in suspense hoping Luke and Laura would finally come together.

The TV fit perfectly on the shelf behind the toilet where the basket of towels used to be, and I put an empty coffee can next to the side of my old claw foot tub so I could spit out the pits of cherries – the fancy orange and red kind my mother used to buy us – and I kept the lights off with the blinds slightly tilted to let in only a small amount of sunshine. It was the deepest bath tub I’d ever owned, big enough so I could comfortably fit with only my kneecaps, shoulders, and head poking out of the water. I was new to bath-taking, so I didn’t come equipped with oils or salts.

I was only two days into my isolated mourning when I started receiving the phone calls. The first few times it rang I didn’t bother getting out of the water to answer it. The automated woman’s voice taunted me. I hated her. It was after the fourth call when I climbed out of the tub, annoyed it was disrupting my wallowing in water. I stepped out of the deep tub onto the hand towel I’d placed on the linoleum, grabbed another towel that didn’t wrap around my body completely, and walked into the kitchen. The number was foreign so I let it go to voicemail. I listened to the message. It was a man I did not know, and he left a long, sorrowful message. He said, “I don’t blame you for not answering. I wouldn’t answer if I were you either. I just need you to know I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. And you shouldn’t forgive me, but I want you to forgive me.” He paused. “If you want to.”

He went on and on about how he deserved it, “me” not picking up, that it was his penance for letting “me” down. At the end of the message he said he felt better talking it out, that he didn’t expect “me” to call him back, and that he’d try again another time.

This time, I pressed “9” for save.

I felt bad for him as I stood there in my kitchen while Clancy licked the dripping water from my legs. Our routine: me, standing there after a shower, and Clancy, my old dog, licking my leg.

“Poor guy,” I said to him. He looked at me with his ears perked, listening.

Thump. My house was an A-Frame. Whoever designed it didn’t think it through since there was a triangle of glass on both sides at the apex. Birds, multiple times a day they’d hit the window. Thump. Then, they’d fall to their deaths by either my front door or by the slider to the back patio. Sometimes they’d get caught in the Hydrangeas out front, and I wouldn’t notice until Clancy found them for me, rotted and decomposing. When we first moved here together it was awful. I’d never seen anything like it. Clancy barked every time one hit, making the scene all the more dramatic. Now I was used to it and the cleaning of the bodies became a weekly chore. I’d always meant to do something about it. Cover up the glass with curtains or paper so the birds could see it from the outside, but like most things, life kept going, and I kept forgetting.

Still in my towel, I opened the front door to check on the bird. The softness of my body was pushing through the uncovered gap at my side. I noticed my neighbor, an older woman who’d been checking on me, and simultaneously trying to set me up with men who came around the neighborhood – a mailman or a garbage man – she was a woman who found it odd that I don’t want to be bothered with meeting anyone. I liked being alone, I’d tell her. She was now waving at me from her mailbox and pointing to Charles, the mailman, who was next door. I looked down into the gravel that surrounded my front steps while holding my small towel together. There it was, a Blue Jay, lying there like it was asleep. It was beautiful, and strong looking. I’d go back out later and pick him up. I used to just put them into plastic bags and throw them away, but one night while we were cleaning them up she said something. I was standing over the couple of bird bodies, rubber gloves on my hands, and she said that she didn’t feel right with how we were disposing of them. “What are we supposed to do with them?” I asked. “Bury them every single time?” She said yes. So we did.

I put on a shirt and some pajama shorts. I ate a leftover piece of fried chicken and cold biscuits, and sat in the kitchen for a while listening to the noises my refrigerator made. Clancy was next to me, always by my side.

“What do you think boy? Another soak, another episode? Or bed? A twelve-hour sleep sounds good.”

I tossed him the pieces of fried skin that I’d peeled back from the bones of my leftover breast.

“Slow down buddy.” He seemed to swallow the entire piece all at once, not savoring any of the wonderful salty taste, so with the next piece I held it for a little longer, forcing him to linger on the moment.

My phone rang. It had been about four hours or so since the last call, so I didn’t expect it to be the same man, but it was, it was the same number. I grabbed the phone.

“I should probably tell him he has the wrong number,” I said to Clancy. He was listening.

I let it ring. I didn’t answer it. I couldn’t. I wanted to hear his voice in a message again, that way I could replay it whenever I wanted, and in that moment, I realized I was starting a collection, a collection of voices. When the ringing stopped, I waited for the other ring, the short butterfly voicemail sound letting me know the message was finished. I decided it would be better to get cozy in bed, take a cup of tea, and get settled before I listen to his story. When ready, just like those snow days with her, I picked up the phone and held it to my ear.

“Hey,” he said. “I ugh, I just figured I would try one more time today, one more time before bed.”

His voice was deep and clear. The kind that was good for radio or voiceovers. It penetrated the receiving end of my phone and the baritone sound swam around in my ear. He sounded middle aged, a little older than myself, and for some reason that made me feel even more sorry for him.

“I thought of you,” he said. “Today I thought of you when I walked past that great butcher we used to go to. I laughed a little because of the time that pigeon shit on you out front of it. You were so mad! I let you use my shirt to wipe it off. I was actually pretty pissed about that but I never told you. I loved that shirt, but I didn’t care either, I just wanted you to be happy.”

I looked to Clancy who was lying in a ball beside me.

“Poor guy. That was a horrible story,” I said to him. “Why would he say that? That was awful and will not impress whoever it is he thinks he’s calling.”

The man went on.

“I love that memory,” he said. “I love it because of what we did after that. Remember? We went down to the water so you could wash it off your arm and the little bits out of your hair, and we ended up staying down there until dark, talking. It was one of my favorite nights with you, sitting there, listening to the water splash along the rocks with the tide.”

Then he hung up without saying goodbye, like the end of a chapter, or television show.

Oh, I thought. That’s a better story.

I hit “9” to save again.

I felt bad for him, but I also felt a little empowered. Allowing him to leave a message on my phone felt like I was helping him work out whatever it was he was going through, or what it was he lost. Was I being selfish? Collecting his stories like a journal. Part of me knew I should answer, tell him he had the wrong the number, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to talk to anyone right now, but for some reason he was okay. I felt like we had something in common.

The next morning, I got back in the tub, but figured I should be a little more productive in there so I shaved my legs. I didn’t have to shave that often anymore, so I never noticed when my razor was dull. This day, it was so dull that it left little cuts on my knees and red bumps of razor burn all over my shins. Later on, after the bath, I made some tea. Thump. Shit, the Blue Jay. I’d forgotten to clean it up last night.

“We’ll get them today Clancy, okay? Don’t let me forget.”

I rubbed the boney top of his head where the hair was short and poked my skin. I’d been working so much lately I hadn’t noticed how old he was getting. I looked around. I hadn’t noticed how disastrous my house was looking, so I made a plan to clean it up. I put on one of her old shirts, the same one I stole out of her closet fifteen years ago and had been wearing to bed ever since. I couldn’t put on my sweats because of the razor burn on my legs, so I left my room in the t-shirt and underwear.

I went to the living room, knelt on the brown carpet we’d meant to change, and started pulling all the books from the shelf with the idea of arranging them back onto the shelves by color, something I saw on the internet and always wanted to do but she never let me, she said it would bother her so much if they were out of order. She liked them by genre, and then alphabetized within that. I started pulling them off, making piles on the floor that consisted of old college anthologies, and some classics she gave me that I promised I would someday read and never did. Behind the bottom row of books, I discovered a dried-up palm. She must’ve hidden it in there. She used to go to Church all by herself. Not every weekend, and mostly on holidays, but she always went on Palm Sunday, the only member of my family to take to a religion. She’d bring back these supposedly blessed palms and put them in places like above doorways and across the tops of dressers. I wasn’t a believer, I’d tell her “Gods and ghost aren’t real,” and when the palms dried up I’d throw them away. “Keep them until I get you new ones the following year,” she’d tell me. “But they’re dead and dry,” I’d say. So, she started hiding them. It was sweet, I thought, that she wanted to keep me safe. I held the palm I found behind the books in my hands. It was old, and dry, but still strong and the edges sharp. I put it back on the shelf that was now going to be the blue shelf.

My phone rang.

It was reaching noon now and the sun was no longer shining sideways through the glass at the top of the house. The man left another message. I lay on my back on the carpet and pressed the button to hear his voice. Clancy plopped down next to me and stretched his body out so was aligned with mine. He was almost as long as me when we laid this way, and it felt good having another warm body next to mine.

“I want to tell you I’m sorry,” said the man. “Tell you, not my phone. I want to see your eyes, even if they look back at me with anger. It’ll be worth it, and I can take it, it’s okay. I just want to tell you to your face.”

He went on about this. Begging to see her, or him, or whoever it was he thought he was calling. He was missing this person incredibly. I could hear it in his voice. It had holes in it.

“It’s not the same around here without you,” he said. “There’s no one to make coffee for in the morning. I just…” he said, letting some silence linger for a little while. “I just need to see you. Meet me at the bench by the water, the spot by the butchers. Meet me tonight at six and if you don’t come I’ll stop calling. I promise. I…”

Then the recorded woman’s voice came on. “End of message,” she said. And the phone hung up.

Still on the floor I looked around my house. Books piled in stacks around me. Pictures in thrift store frames were scattered about, mostly of Clancy. Two coffee cups hung on the metal tree rack next to the coffeepot. Two cups that would never both be used except for the rare occasion of a guest. There were things, things collected, and all of these things reminded me of someone that was no longer here. This house was a home, and now all it was to me was a horrible design that killed the birds.

Clancy stretched, pushing his head into my arm. As I stared at the ceiling I thought of this man who was so desperately trying to find peace and I was standing in the way by not telling him he had the wrong number. Maybe he saved it in his phone wrong? Maybe the person he wanted used to have this number, I thought. Should I tell him? Yes. I had to tell him. I couldn’t let him go on living like I had this past year, a drone, a mechanical-being, closed off from the rest of the human population. I decided I had to get out of this house. Maybe he could move on, find love, happiness, or peace again, whatever it was he was looking for. I’d written it off for myself, but that didn’t mean it had to be over for him.

“Time to get it together Clancy,” I said, and he looked up at me, tilting his head backwards so he could see my face. I rubbed his chin that was becoming grey instead of the nut brown it used to be.

Thump.

“Oh those damn birds.”

I got dressed. The navy-blue pants caught the razor burn on my legs so I pulled my socks up high beneath them as a barrier. I wore a collared shirt that had rose heads as buttons and I put a long necklace over it, the one with a key at the end. I brushed my teeth and cleaned up the bathroom. I even put the television back into the bedroom. I took her shirt, the one I wore to bed and the palm back out from the bookshelf, and put them into a paper bag from the stash I kept under the kitchen sink. I brushed my hair. I got the rubber gloves from the bathroom and went outside. It was still bright. The sun was warm but the air was cool. There were three birds on the ground outside of my house. Their bodies lay still on top of the white gravel. I stood there, with the yellow gloves that went up to my elbows, the ones she laughed at when I bought them for being “excessive,” she said. I wondered for a moment if they saw the glass. Maybe I had the last resort house. Maybe it was the place all the birds knew about in bird land, as the one to go to if they wanted out.

I picked up the little bird bodies one at a time. Two were firm and no longer warm. The one from this morning was soft and I could feel the warmth of it, even through my gloves. I put them into the paper bag, along with the palm and the shirt, and I got the shovel out of the shed. I was thankful that we had a little bit of land behind our house. It was the last row in the development, so it was in the only line of homes that had more than the half acre of plotted space.

I dug up the soil that was still soft from summer. It was her favorite time of year, when the sun was still warm and the air crisp, when the color of the leaves brought them to life even though they were dying. I put the paper bag into the earth. The sound the dirt made hitting it was loud, and it startled me. I don’t know why I wasn’t prepared for that sound. I filled the hole with the rest of the dirt, replacing the red and orange leaves to the top of the pile like the decorations you’d put on top of a cake.

I walked downtown to the bench by market we used to go to, and the little lobsterman’s dock that turned into a restaurant at night selling what he’d caught, along with his wife’s homemade chowder. It was our favorite. I walked there hoping I’d see him. I felt like I knew exactly what he looked like. I pictured a man older than me, with a dark beard that was beginning to grey, a belly. I imagined he’d have a cap on, like the old Irish one our father used to wear. Either way I knew I’d recognize him. There’s a certain look someone has in their eyes when they’ve lost a person who was so close to them, someone they loved. I already knew what I was going to say to him too. I was going to tell him to move on, that it was early enough for him to remember how to live. That he could make a home, and fill those holes I heard in his voice. That eventually he’d stop seeing a person out the corner of his eye while he was brushing his teeth, that he’d stop thinking random strangers looked just like her, and someday, he’ll remove her clothes from his drawers and realize she’s not coming back.

I sat against the large rocks that stood between the edge of town and the bay, and smelled the salt. I watched the birds. Small, fragile looking white and black terns made fast, bombing dives into the ocean, only to come back up and fly again.

Kelly lives near the New Hampshire seacoast with her daughter and husband. You can find her teaching at GrubStreet, a Boston-based nonprofit writing center, and occasionally at the University of New Hampshire. Her work has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine.

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