Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler


A Christmas Phone Call

by Allen Varney

Anson lost his fortune in an October panic on the commodities futures market, and his fiancee (for related reasons) the next day. He began to drink. By Christmas Eve Anson's friends had left like guests leaving a bad party just before a fight starts, and his health was saying farewell with the same polite rush. Amid twin blizzards of snow and holiday TV specials, Anson sat in a hotel room with two bottles, one of Scotch, the other three months' worth of sleeping pills.

The TV played It's a Wonderful Life. Always some angel in those movies, or Santa, or some fairy flitting in to make the hero's life right. Why hadn't that fairy showed up back in October, saying "Sell"?

"When the movie's over, I swallow both bottles," Anson decided, sweating. An announcer spoke, and Anson's heart jumped. But it was only a commercial break.

The fright sent him to the phone book for the crisis hotline. He punched the number frantically. The line rang 16 times. On 17 a woman answered, shouting, "Don't try to apologize to me, Neville, I'm not listening any more! And another thing, you hounded Doreen out of this house, so you aren't coming back until she does! I hope to God you find her before she does something you'll never live down --" The voice gave way to tears.

It was the first opening in the conversation Anson had, and he didn't know what to say. After a moment he hung up, and under his hand the phone rang. "Hello?"

"Operator, help, call poison control, my wife just drank a toast to my bowling championship and she used the bottle I'd been keeping my ball cleaner in, what do I do?"

"I -- you've got the wrong number. Call 911."

"This is 911!"

Anson hung up again. Again the phone rang. A guy wanted twelve pizzas for his Rotary Club partygoers. Anson hung up, and the next call came from a society matron wanting a trumpeter swan carved in ice, emergency service. The next three were in Spanish, Russian, and (it sounded like) Swedish. He never got time to take the phone off the hook.

After a call from the head of NBC's news department, who wanted to talk to Tom Brokaw about an upcoming special, Anson found a moment to think. He'd never gotten so many wrong numbers. This was a hotel phone, so they would have to reach his room through the operator at the front desk. Wouldn't they?

He dialed 0 for the hotel operator and got a book dealer in Detroit; tried again and woke up a sick old lady in an Ontario coldwater flat; dialed 0 three more times and got recordings from repertory cinemas in Miami, Boise, and Hong Kong, all showing Casablanca. A final 0 brought him -- somehow -- he never knew how -- the quintet from Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor. Fascinated, frustrated, he hung up.

The movie was almost over. Anson looked at the booze and the pills. He picked them up and read their labels for the dozenth time.

The phone rang. "Hello?"

"Larry, it's Neville. Clarissa won't let me back in the house until I find Doreen! You gotta help me, I've looked everywhere, called all her friends, I'm really worried. The way she left this afternoon, I think she may try something really foolish. Oh God, Larry, my only daughter! How could I have said such things, I love her so much. . . ."

Again Anson didn't know what to say. He hung up. He stared at the phone: a musical instrument playing strange new melodies. Then he realized he was waiting for, looking forward to, the next call. Hoping for -- what?

He put down the sleeping pills and picked up the handset. Closing his eyes, he fluttered his fingers over the phone buttons and punched seven numbers at random. The line rang twice, and then a young woman answered. "Hello?"

Anson took a deep breath. "Is Doreen there?"


"You know, there are people who love you very much, who want you to come back home."

"Forget it!" she said, breaking into tears.

"Are you thinking about killing yourself?"

No answer but sniffs.

"There's so much happening in the world," said Anson. "A lot of terrible, terrible things, but good things too. And nearly all of them . . . interesting. You know?" He kept talking in a low, quiet voice, drawing her out. She spoke of her troubles, and he of his. They talked for an hour.

She finally decided to go back to her parents, at least for the holidays. She sounded better. Anson hung up, feeling better himself, and went to the window. He imagined the phone lines stretching up the city's tall glass towers and beneath its narrow avenues, extending across the land, connecting the world like nerves. Maybe a new fashion in angels, he thought, or some fairy updating its act.

He poured the booze and pills in the sink, turned in for a sound sleep, and the next morning he checked out, charging the enormous phone bill without a quiver. He spent Christmas with an aged grandmother he hadn't seen in years, and had a great time. Now he's working as an operator for the telephone company, dating a coworker, and learning clawhammer banjo. To this day he hasn't gotten one wrong number.

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Copyright (C) 1991 Allen Varney.