This originally appeared in On Spec.
They were the size of bricks, once, and just as heavy. Cream-colored plastic, black-rubber antennas, lit-up buttons that played a rising scale of electronic tones. They were used only in blockbuster movies, and only by high-ranking government officials seeking to prevent asteroids from destroying the earth. My sister, who is a decade younger than me, does not remember the long forgotten era in which they did not exist. In her youth they have become as indispensable as kidneys and livers; without them, she would die. The same way the domestication of wheat and barley brought us physically closer, the same way the Gutenberg press helped our intimate thoughts to proliferate, these little things – small enough, now, to be concealed in our closed fists – have corrected the course of history.
My sister knows no other world. She thinks it has always been this way. The evolution of technology travels at such a speed; these tiny mechanical advances, these shrinking microprocessors, they stretch chasms between generations. I’ve tried to explain it to her, but she doesn’t believe me. She says: “So, what did you do when you were out of the house? Use a pay phone?”
I might as well be arguing for the flatness of the earth.
With this type of thing, you can only hold out for so long. Soon an inflexible dogma works against you. Hunter-gatherers were slaughtered by weakling societies made strong by iron weapons; oral tradition was smothered beneath a landslide of printed pages. There comes a point, for the sake of you own survival, that you have to go with the flow.
So: I bought a cell-phone.
When I opened the box it exhaled that new plastic smell that since my childhood has reminded me of brand-new transformer toys still stiff in the joints and difficult to manipulate; after a while, though, my small fingers would learn the twists and turns and I could change them from robots to cars to dinosaurs to robots, all with my eyes closed. It would be the same, I guessed, with this new futuristic thing. I would learn these buttons. I would soon play them like a virtuoso.
I did as the booklet instructed me: charged the phone, installed the tiny card, punched the activation code. And with that – a tiny beep tossed up into the atmosphere, into outer space, bouncing off an orbiting satellite and back down into my ear – I became complicit in the cultural shift.
Power on, activated, the cell-phone rang almost immediately. A computer-chip symphony, like the music from old Nintendo games. On the tiny plasma screen were the words: Unknown Caller. I accepted the call.
At the other end was a man with a familiar voice. He asked for me by name, but seemed to have trouble pronouncing it, as if the word got stuck in his throat and was ejected by conscious force of his gag reflex:
Silence; interference, maybe.
“Hello?” I asked.
The voice faltered again. “Uh…hey.”
“Who is this?”
“This, uh…this is no one.”
I’d heard this man’s voice before. It was the voice of a famous actor, someone who narrates TV commercials, an elementary schoolteacher whose sluggish baritone was the soundtrack of my school day, a lost childhood friend.
I pretended to recognize whoever it was.
“Oh, hey, what’s up?”
“It’s okay,” the Unknown Caller said. “You don’t have to pretend. You have no idea who I am.”
“No,” I admitted.
“Cool. Listen, uh, this is going to sound totally weird, but just try and follow along.”
The Unknown Caller cleared his throat (even that sound – like the transmission of an old car grinding between gears – was familiar to me). “Okay, listen close,” he said. “This isn’t going to make a lot of sense, but…she’s on the right, in the reeds.”
I went to the window, looked down the street, to the right.
“That’s it. That’s all I can tell you. Just try to remember. You can’t really see her, but she’s in the reeds.”
“I can’t see anything,” I said.
“No, no. It’s not, like, an observation. Just a phrase. Memorize it, like a song lyric. She’s on the right, in the reeds. On the right, in the reeds. On the right, in the reeds. Etcetera, etcetera. Now you say it.”
“What is this?”
“Just do it.”
Like a chastised child forced to apologize, I mumbled: “She’s on the right, in the reeds.”
“See? Was that so hard?”
That familiar tone of admonishment – a sort of loving condescension – drew a loud reaction from my memory. I was sure of it then: I knew him. “Seriously, who is this?”
“What day is it?” he asked suddenly.
“No, the date. What’s the date?”
“July…something-th. I don’t know.”
“Okay, okay. So, trust me, you’ll know what I’m talking about real soon. Just remember, she’s on the right, in the reeds. Say it.”
“Say it, come on.”
“She’s on the right, in the reeds.”
“Again,” the Unknown Caller demanded.
“She’s on the right, in the reeds. She’s on the right, in the reeds.”
(Why – I would later wonder – did I submit so easily to his authority?)
“Okay,” he said. “Don’t forget. Talk to you later.”
The phone went dead. No hollow click of the plastic headset tapping the cradle. No beep. Just dead air. The digital readout said: “Call ended.”
We are young, but come from a forgotten generation: the last to be taught in classrooms that had no computers, the last to spread our teenage angst through pole-suspended phone-lines. Telephones, in our primitive childhoods, were anchored to the architecture, and we begged our parents to have them installed in our bedrooms; we stretched those spiral cords as far as we could, and then cordless phones appeared, and it seemed that we were suddenly living in the magical future that science-fiction films promised. Cordless phones! Hover-cars were the logical next step! At school, we researched reports in actual books. We wrote on lined paper and stained our fingers blue with the ink of disposable ball-point pens (disposable pens! – what a fantastical luxury they must once have been!). When we left for university, we eagerly traded mailing addresses; I still have some of those letters hidden away: how are things, things are fine, school is okay, school is hard, you wouldn’t believe how drunk I was this weekend, see you at Christmas. Handwritten, folded into intricate origami trapezoids, they seem strangely frail, now, relics that belong in a museum.
A few weeks after I received my new phone, I spent the weekend at Walsh Lake with those friends of mine from the old days, the pen and paper days. Trent was there, and Kristen, and Jimmy Crowley. We slept overnight at Matt McIsaac’s cabin, and on Sunday afternoon were joined by Matt’s older sister, Sarah, and her two kids. While we lay in the sun and baked away our hangovers, the kids played: their thin legs propelled them off the edge of the dock; they spun like turbines beneath the water, keeping their weightless bodies afloat. After a while, the boy, Jeremy, got bored, and sat on the front deck watching a movie on a small electronic device (here, to my surprise, a generation separated from my sister; she will reflect, one day, that she knew a time when movies were watched in theaters, on desktop computers, or even on television: not on these miniscule handheld devices that have flourished in the wake of her childhood). The girl, Jennifer, loitered in the water, near the dock where it was shallow enough for her to stand, and every so often she would pinch her nose and duck beneath the water. When she emerged, she would look up towards the cabin to see if her brother or mother or uncle was watching, and inevitably they were not, so she would duck back down again, disappear from sight. For a while Trent played with her. He threw an empty beer can into the water and she would doggy-paddle madly after it, carry it back to the dock. When she dropped it as his feet, he’d growl, “stop it! I’m trying to litter!” and then he’d throw it again.
For lunch we roasted hot dogs over an open fire, ate them with stale buns and soda that had been sitting out all night, which was flat and warm and tasted so much like our syrupy-sweet childhood that the flatness and warmness didn’t matter. The kids ate quickly and went back to playing, and my cell-phone, zipped in the pocket of my backpack, chimed to life. I flipped it open (my fingers had memorized this maneuver, among others). It was my sister. She had been using my laptop, and in the middle of some important typed exchange – with a friend, with a boy she liked, with some internet predator on the far side of the world – it had crashed. She couldn’t restart it. As I tried to explain the process of resuscitation (which is distinct for every computer: they become finicky, after a time, like spoiled pets), Sarah walked down to the edge of the lake and called out her daughter’s name.
Into the phone, I said: “…no, stupid, turn it off, and then when it’s in the middle of restarting push the reset button.”
“…it’s the tiny button – like, in a little hole – you’ll need a pin or something to push it, but you have to push it when it’s starting up, not after it’s already loaded.”
“Because if it’s already loaded, you’ll reset it and it will do the exact same thing. You have to reset it in the middle of the start-up. Trust me…”
Matt brushed past me and walked around to the far side of the cabin. I could hear him calling out for his niece. Trent, too, had risen from the table. He walked down to the edge of the water and joined Matt’s sister.
I hung up – but not really, because there’s no cradle, just that silver button that severs the invisible particle stream – and followed the others down to the water. As they disappeared into the tangle of shoreline brush, still calling out the girl’s name, I walked to the end of the dock, where earlier she’d been dunking her head beneath the water. It was calm and clear, and the sun was high enough that I could see to the bottom: smooth stones embedded in nothing-colored silt, aquatic plant life scattered here and there. Nothing else.
From up above Matt’s voice called out: “Jenny?”
Kristen, too, was somewhere up above, in the trees: “Jenny?”
And, of course, there was that other voice, that familiar voice, which in my memory had become my own, repeating, repeating, memorizing the phrase like a song lyric. It spoke aloud in my head, like a sudden burst of static through a loudspeaker:
She’s on the right, in the reeds.
I turned right and saw only the jutting finger of rock that sloped parallel to the dock and disappeared into the water. But past it, on the far aside, sure enough, there was a patch of reeds jutting from the glassy surface like follicles of fine hair. There was a small ripple, too, as if a fish had just come up to snatch a skating insect. A moment later, a small blond head emerged from the water, and just as quickly it sunk back below. More ripples. And silence.
She was on the right, in the reeds.
In that seizure of realization, the progression of physical and mental commands in my brain became hopelessly jumbled, and as I bent at the knees to jump in, I thought also to call out for help, but the sound that came out of my mouth was not a word, rather a moan, a trilling siren-sound, the midnight death-knoll of a loon, and I froze in that bent position, like a swimmer at the gates, moaning, and it occurred to me that I should point to where she was – point to the right, to the reeds – but the locomotive act of lifting my arm interfered with my crouch, and I popped back up to a standing position, and still that weird sound – not quite words, not quite a yell – was spilling out of my mouth. Again, the girl’s head popped out of the water, and then her tiny hand. And then she was gone.
All at once, like a compressed spring suddenly freed, my body went loose, I was in the water and above me, carried by the breeze that came up off the lake, was the echo of my call, finally articulated:
It was another six months before I heard again from the Unknown Caller. The familiar voice struggled again to spit out my name, a piece of gristle stuck in his teeth and worked loose with his tongue.
“What’s up?” he said.
I’d expected the call sooner. In the weeks after I’d pulled the little girl out of the lake, whenever my phone buzzed to life, my stomach would spill into my heels; each time the ringtone echoed from the pocket of my jeans, or from the darkness beneath the bed, or rising up through a heap of dirty laundry, I would flip the phone open and wait for my coughed-up name, wait for an explanation, but they were inevitably Unknown Callers of a different sort – calls from overseas, calls from payphones, calls from primitive land-line numbers – and I soon forgot that I was briefly touched by some omnipotent force.
The Unknown Caller, though, hadn’t forgotten me.
“You there?” he asked.
Six months had provided me with ample time to consider what I might say to him if he ever called again, but the phrases and statements I’d compiled were suddenly gone; his voice was a magnet swept across the hard-disk in my head. “Uhhhh…”
“Good work,” he said. “Told you it would be easy to figure out.”
His nonchalance annoyed me. “Why don’t you just say, hey, the kid’s gonna drown, don’t let her go in the water?”
“It’s not that easy,” the Unknown Caller said.
“What’s not that easy?”
“It’s too much. Too much information. I don’t want to ruin things for you. You can’t know what’s going to happen. You have to figure it out right then and there. In the moment. It has to be, like, your own free will.”
Definitely someone I knew; definitely a childhood friend, his voice subtly masked by the few bass notes gained in puberty.
“Hey, man, don’t be pissed at me.”
“You know, I can barely swim,” I said.
“You can swim just fine.”
It was true.
“So, what is it this time?
He said: “Buy a bus ticket to Winnipeg.”
“…is that a metaphor for something else?”
“No, that’s it.”
“Am I going to be able to figure it out?”
“Nothing to figure out this time. Just buy a bus ticket, go to Winnipeg, visit your grandmother.”
“…and this time, for Christ’s sake, when she says ‘I love you,’ say it back.”
So, though I couldn’t spare the time, though I was forced to compose an intricate series of lies to get a few days off work, I did as I was told: I bought a bus ticket to Winnipeg and visited my grandmother. I stayed with her in the same house where I’d wasted my childhood summers, slept in the same hard bed in the same guest bedroom, and in the mornings, half-awake and staring about, scanned the same bookshelf crowded with the same self-help books and spiritual guides that had intimidated me when I was young: John Hellerman’s New Path to Spiritual Discovery, Get Organized!: Tips to Turn Your Hectic Lifestyle on its Head, Thoughtful Christianity for Teenagers. Now, like the horror movies that once gave me nightmares, these books appeared ridiculous, and the bookshelf – which had once seemed Holy, cluttered by all that suggestive theology – seemed instead a parody of something significant, like those massive new churches built with sloping skylights and giant video screens. Books, too; what’s the point of them anymore? I could store the complete works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Stephen King in the memory card of my small phone; the whole contents of that cluttered bookshelf would occupy a physical space no larger than a quarter. Who needs those bulky paper bricks?
I spent a week in Winnipeg, rolling old coins that smelled like blood, carrying old newspapers to the recycling bin, driving through the city in my grandmother’s old Crown Victoria, picking up milk and bread and dropping off boxes of old clothing at the Salvation Army. In the evenings, over bowls of chicken-broth borscht and cabbage rolls, my grandmother told me, like she always does, the story of when I was three years-old and ran away from home, and she apologized for the time that she spanked me for refusing to vacuum the upstairs hallway. This second event I could not recall, and she was dumbfounded that such a momentous crime could go unnoticed. She said: “You probably shut it out, it was so awful.” I told her it was no big deal, but she apologized anyways, and I accepted.
A week later, back at home, I received a call. Not the Unknown Caller, this time, but my mother. She was calling to tell me that my grandmother had died.
Two years later, in the middle of the night:
“Quick, what’s the date?”
“It’s three o’clock in the morning, man…”
“What’s the date?”
“I don’t know.”
“Like, the eleventh. Or the tenth.”
“You should know if it’s the eleventh or the tenth.”
“If you don’t know, then it’s the tenth.”
“Sure. Yeah. September tenth.”
“You need to make a phone call.”
“Okay. To who?”
“I don’t know. The police. No, not the police. Someone else. Like the government or something. Department of Foreign Affairs. Can you call them? Or the Department of Defense. There should be a number in the blue pages, right?”
“I don’t know. Do they just take calls like that? It’s three in the morning, eh?”
“Yeah, I know. I just…totally forgot. Fuck! Listen…call somewhere in New York instead.”
“The police, first. Then the mayor’s office. Then, I don’t know, the fucking national guard or something. Wait, no! I need you to call in a bomb threat. I’ll find the number for you. That will totally work.”
“I’m not calling in a bomb threat. What the fuck?”
“Here, wait. Let me figure this out. I’ll call you back.”
I waited up for a few hours, then fell back asleep. The Unknown Caller never called back. I suppose he wasn’t able to figure it out. Then again, who could?
Another ten months before I heard again from the Unknown Caller. I was living with a girl, and from the modest gains I was able to accumulate in my career as a hotel desk clerk, we were able to carve out a pleasant little nook of urban domesticity: we brought reasonably priced bottles of wine to dinner parties; we had a framed print of Klimt’s The Kiss on the wall behind our couch; we signed up for a special package that allowed for unlimited calling between our two phones, and sent text messages to each other from opposite ends of the grocery store.
Cn U gt mlk.
R appls in fridg bad?
Yes gt appls.
Gone were the days when I fumbled over this slick silver device and felt like one of those sad anachronists who preferred typewriters to word processors, who passed off personal computing as a fad, and who – as that fad became a way of life – found themselves hopelessly overwhelmed, eighteenth-century footmen put suddenly behind the wheel of a car, so used to dealing with biological processes that they are unable to comprehend the agility of the electronic pulse; how well it mimics – and improves upon – human physiognomy.
Now I often wondered: how did I ever live without this thing?
When he called, the Unknown Caller said: “This one won’t be as obvious. I have to be careful not to screw things up, you know?”
“What do you mean?”
“I can help you out, but I have to be careful. One false move and it’s over.”
One false move? I thought: who talks like that?
The voice answered: “You’re wondering, Who talks like that? I know. Totally melodramatic, right? I just…have to be careful. Trust me.”
“I know you. We’ve met, right? Fuck, I feel like your name is on the tip of my tongue…”
The voice laughed. A familiar giggle (like everything else). “Anyways, here’s the next thing. Not totally straightforward. You’ll figure it out, though. You’re not as smart as you think, but you’re smarter than you think. Know what I mean?”
“Okay, so, listen close…ready?”
The voice drew a breath, a dramatic pause, then announced: “Avoid gladiators in Brazil.”
“Brazil? I’m going to Brazil?”
“Well, I don’t know. Just listen. Avoid gladiators in Brazil.”
Silence, for a bit.
“Try not to think about it too much,” the Unknown Caller said. “Learn the phrase, memorize the words. You’ll figure it out. You always do. Avoid gladiators in Brazil.”
“Avoid gladiators in Brazil. Is that, like, a euphemism?”
“I don’t know. Kind of, I guess. To be honest, I don’t really know what a euphemism is.”
I smirked, and somehow he heard the curl of my lip.
“…and neither do you, so don’t act like you’re hot shit.”
Brazil was a dance club in Niagara Falls.
I was there for the weekend with Greg Branch, an old friend from college who – though he’d lost an inch of hair at the peak of his forehead – had managed to retain the square-jawed good-looks that had doomed him, when we were living together in residence, to whoredom. We bar-hopped, we went to strip-clubs, we went to the casino, and while we feigned expertise at the blackjack table, my girlfriend, back at home, sat alone beneath The Kiss, and wandered through grocery store aisles with no one to consult about the decaying state of our produce. She called me a few times, left a few text messages, but – here’s the dark omen of things to come – I left my cell-phone turned off for the entire weekend.
We went to Brazil with a waitress. She served Greg and I dinner, and between the appetizers and main course was charmed by our (his) easygoing banter (which to me has always seemed awkward, though I suppose those blurry remarks are brought into focus by his throbbing bicep veins). She was meeting some friends later, she told us, and invited us (Greg) to come along. So, after we’d finished our meal, we waited for a while at the bar, and then, at ten o’clock, took a cab to Brazil.
I knew immediately that this was the place. Brazil. And I knew what I had to do. Avoid gladiators in Brazil. But it seemed to me, in my drunken state, that those things were mutually exclusive, and that my mission was not to avoid Brazil, but rather to avoid any gladiators I might encounter there. This questionable logic raised no objections from my conscience, and we spent the night – Greg and I and the harem of blonde girls he had, with no effort, acquired – cuddled together in a booth near the back of the club, slipping out in pairs to cruise the dance floor, to fetch drinks, to smoke on the balcony (after my third cigarette, I had a terrible thought, but when I checked the package I found that they were called Medallions, not Gladiators). Round after round of shots came our way – Ghostbusters, they were called; Kahlua mixed with Coke – and as all of this was happening, I did the most reprehensible thing that a boyfriend can do: for the entire night I didn’t mention once that I was currently attached. I consciously omitted the aspect that – when I wasn’t in Niagara Falls, when I wasn’t surrounded by cute and curious girls – was the thing by which I defined myself. Such an omission is, in itself, a form of adultery, but in my drunken state it seemed a minor bit of carelessness. Of course, what happened later – after we’d gone back to the waitress’s place, after we’d smoke a joint and everyone went to sleep except for the waitress’s roommate and I – that was another, more literal form of adultery.
The Unknown Caller was displeased.
“I don’t understand. What happened? Brazil! Avoid Brazil.”
“It was the gladiators thing. It threw me off.”
“How could that throw you off?”
“I figured some asshole would try to pick a fight with me, so I steered clear of all the tough-looking guys. Gladiators, you know? You said yourself it was vague. So I did what you said. I avoided gladiators in Brazil.”
“Gladiators!” A familiar cry of exasperation. Surely this was some long-ago authority figure; someone easily frustrated by my idiocy, someone comfortable with scolding me for it.
I defended myself: “Avoid blondes in Brazil. That might have been a little more helpful.”
“So, tell me, if there were no gladiators, how the fuck did you get so drunk?”
“And what else?”
“I don’t know. Alcohol. Drinks with alcohol.”
“What kind of shots?”
“I don’t know. Tequila, but I skipped that one. And…this thing called a Ghostbuster.”
“Yeah, like the movie.”
“A shot of amaretto and peach Schnapps, right? And you drop it into a glass of orange juice?”
Such a drink exists. Amaretto and peach Schnapps, mixed together and dropped in a glass of orange juice, known to my friends and I – and perhaps the wider world, though we had to explain the process whenever we ordered it – as a Gladiator. Two weeks too late, and the infinitesimal moving gears of his riddle finally clicked into place. The room around me seemed to bow outwards with the force of the realization, like the truth – the mistaken name of this ridiculous cocktail drink – was something huge that the world had trouble swallowing. “No,” I said. “The thing we had…it was Kahlua and something else, and you drop it in a glass of Coke. Not a gladiator.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
The line went dead. The Unknown Caller was gone, just like the girl, who had driven away earlier that same week, the framed Klimt sticking out of the trunk of her car. I had made a cuckold of her – this lovely girl whose digital shorthand I had come to know so well, with whom I shared the bond of unlimited calling privileges – and in the horrible, shamefaced wake of it, I realized that I loved her. The Unknown Caller, like everything else, had seen this coming. He called back a few minutes later: “It would have been good with her, you know. That was the last test of your loyalty, and we blew it.”
I spat out an excuse: “It was the gladiator thing. And I was drunk.”
But not on gladiators, which I suppose was the dilemma.
The advance of technology is merciless. Bits and bytes are rendered futile the nanosecond they’re born, like the whole of a single human life against the black canvas of geological time: just a flash of light, just a burst filament in a light-bulb. My cell-phone – special to me as my first, but increasingly unreliable as the tiny chips inside were scuffed and worn by the invisible waves they channeled – became obsolete. The goal of technological evolution is to shrink our appendages so that we can float through life as limbless torsos; our five senses can experience the world, now, without the cumbersome propeller of physical effort. Imagine if they didn’t exist. Imagine it was something else. Imagine that we still wrote letters, and licked stamps, and waited weeks for our questions to be answered. Imagine that friends still recognized each other in the arcs and angles of one another’s handwriting. Imagine that Lumiere’s moving pictures had failed to find an audience, and instead the turn of the century ushered in an era of unparalleled perfumery; imagine that we gathered together in dark theaters, closed our eyes, and listened to stories told in smells: epic romance written in the fragrance of sweet vanilla and jasmine; gothic tragedy written in the stink of smelted iron and tanned leather. Small changes, a trajectory knocked astray by a few miniscule degrees, and at the far end of things the miles that separate us from the place we might have been are too many to count.
My new phone is half the size of my old one; slim like the face of a wristwatch, almost the size of a credit card, but able, with only these ten buttons, to perform all the tasks previously delegated to the industrial computing power of home PCs (gigantic adding machines, they were; they filled rooms, they roared like jumbo jets; I passed through elementary school without them, and now, it seems, I will pass the through the rest of my life without them; all I need, now, is this diminutive accessory).
The last call I received on my old cell-phone was from the Unknown Caller.
“What now?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just wanted to say hi.”
We had never spoken without the pretext of some vital exchange of information. There was an awkward silence.
“Got a new phone, huh?” the voice said.
“How’d you know?”
“After everything, you’re surprised that I know about your new phone?”
“Want my new number?”
“Got it already.”
“Of course you do. Stupid question.”
The transmission faltered; ambient sound devolving into a pattern of digital burps and belches.
The Unknown Caller’s voice reemerged: “…can’t talk long. I’m running low on battery.”
“This new one I got, it has this lithium battery that lasts for sixty straight hours. And you can charge it in the sun. Is that nuts, or what?”
A beat. The voice, like the first time it spoke my name aloud, faltered: “One last thing, okay?”
“Keep the old phone. As a souvenir.”
“Hey, man. Wait. You at least have to tell me your name.”
The Unknown Caller whimpered: “Hey, maaan…” The mocking tone of an older brother. “Just keep the phone. You’ll figure it out. It’s really not that big a deal.”
“Wait! You have to explain. This is, what?...like, seeing into the future or something, right?”
“Nah. Nothing that exciting.”
“Come on, man.”
“Come on, maaaan…” He laughed. Just like my father; a breathless falsetto crackle, like the sound of fissures opening in thin layers of ice; the same laugh that, for years, I’d been making a conscious effort to mimic. “I’ll see you around, okay?”
More static. Cosmic dust obscuring the signal. “…not literally. Kind of, though. It’s complicated.”
“Who are you? Please.”
“See you later.”
The line went dead.
I did what he told me: I kept the old phone. It was eventually packed away in an old shoebox along with other shrapnel of the electronics revolution; other stuff that, for some reason, I was unable to properly dispose of: old cassette tapes, dead double-A batteries, dead mini-flashlights, dead digital watches, various adapters for various devices that I no longer owned. For the next several decades the shoebox sat in the crawlspace beneath my childhood home, and forgotten there among the pipes and cement pilings, survived a flood, a small fire, and the birth of my first child. Twenty-three years later, newly divorced and ruing all those things I wished I’d done differently, I came across the shoebox once again. My old phone, to my surprise, still worked. The battery still held a small charge. Just enough for three or four calls. And though the memory card, over time, had eroded, a single number remained: my own.
It seemed strange, considering the relative brevity of our contact, that I never once questioned the advice given to me by the Unknown Caller. Maybe because I never took it seriously, wrote it off as a prank, and then, when his prophecy came true – when that tiny hand reached up from the lake – my doubt was immediately deleted. That first time, in the heaving moments after I’d crawled out of the water carrying that cold little body, still unable to account for the last few minutes of my life – as I’d swum faster than I ever had, as I’d held my breath longer than I ever had – I could hear the Unknown Caller’s voice echoing in my head, and I decided that it must be The Voice of God. Who, besides God, would care enough to make these corrections?
I dialed my old number. Essentially, the phone was dialing itself, but instead of a busy signal, it began to ring. It sounded faint, faraway; the trilling of a bell in the middle of a sandstorm.
Someone picked up.
This kid’s voice, I’d heard it before.
The question occurred to me again: who, besides God, would care enough to make these corrections? Only one person, and he must have thought it was appropriate, all those years ago, that God was speaking to him in his own voice.