by Kristen Gleason
What is a phone but a bone held outside the head? What else but a shard of skull glued to the skull? In the end, I intend to approach Death like a man who has slipped from a cliff, but right now I don’t shy from holding His skeleton close to my ear. This is the state I am in: reckless, but prepared. Should she call, little Dot, I will not fumble. I will answer with the type of swiftness that disorients the caller. I will answer and say, Forgive me. I know what went wrong. We were walking around with Death in our ears.
At first, the phone brought us together. Our jobs were not good for us, and so we called each other constantly—in boredom, for succor, as friends. I worked designing store signs, and Dot led tours around the car museum. I met her while Virginia and I were estranged, and we glommed on to each other instantly. We oozed, Dot and I, together.
We developed a phone pattern, which Dot required so that she’d feel safe and trust my friendship. She led a tour of the cars once every hour, on the hour. Therefore, I made sure to call her at five minutes to the hour, every hour. She answered every single time. Very often, she was on the roof of the museum drinking a tiny bottle of wine. She preferred red, two little bottles nestled in a paper cradle, which she thought was cute. Sometimes, I felt she focused overly on cuteness. I felt it unbecoming in an adult and so I asked myself some hard questions: What did I like about her? Wasn’t it the way she resembled a baby of something? Defenseless and a little stupid. Whiny and exacting. Wasn’t I a sucker for cute, too?
No. I got it wrong. It was not her cuteness. Never her cuteness. I liked her because she was kind and in need and so unlike Virginia. She was the simple, basically pretty, cure to my apathy.
It didn’t matter what we talked about, Dot and I. She had a pleasant tone, requiring little response. She’d tell me, I’m bored. People who like cars are horrible. They all laugh at Fatty’s Pierce-Arrow. It’s so wide! they say. How fat was Fatty? they ask. I really can’t take it. I told a bunch of them, Mr. Arbuckle was about as fat as that man. I pointed at a fatso in the crowd. I said, He was that fat and had to ride in a fat car. I might get fired. I hope I get fired.
She was always telling me how she’d burst into tears. So-and-so made me cry today, she’d say. And I’d think, That dumb little thing, she probably deserved it, but it’s okay because listen to the bubble, the gurgle, of her peanut voice.
Before I knew how gravely I needed Dot, I would sometimes dread our conversations. The phone would burn against my face, and the burning was often accompanied by an overwhelming grief. A sense that nothing would be interesting ever again and that the effort of listening to her was shrinking my brain. I would think, at such times, of Virginia and of the uncanny way we had of finding each other, in a garden or supermarket. She was, in memory, eternally present but gleaming the edge, hovering within earshot, standing somewhere in the library, moving ahead of me through the train. I would think of how much I’d like to be back in her good graces, riding the bus with her, answering ads in the classifieds, chatting endlessly over a plate of salad greens. Virginia—smart, dark and mocking. Hair like a man’s. I’d forget, on the phone with Dot, that Virginia made me useless. I’d forget because the phone is a bone. It siphoned away my good judgment and made me critical of love. Love, which has nothing to do with cleverness! Love, which should be easy as pretending to listen, just like sure, fine, okay, whatever.
It was one day at work that I finally understood love in earnest. I was shuffling paper, pointing weakly at a crappy design I’d created for a client. The client, dressed in red, asked if I had a family of my own, if I’d ever had to take care of someone other than myself. I said I supposed I never had. My girlfriend, Virginia, was a train and fed herself, saw the world alone, even while she lived at my side. The business owner told me he could tell, by the cut of my pants, that I was totally without dependents and so could not be trusted with his business. He was right. It hit me like the urge to vomit. I needed a thing to take care of, more substantial than a pet. Dot was that thing. When I understood this to be true, I told Virginia I was leaving her for good (in a note), called Dot and left a voicemail: It’s not our normal time, but we must speak. Where are you?
After that, Dot and I began our relationship in earnest. An immediate ingrate, I began to again loathe the duty of calling her every day, but when once she failed to answer, I panicked. I sat at my desk with the dull rectangle of the phone before me. Between 12 and 2 PM, I dialed her number 61 times. I began to picture, with delirious precision, what horrid thing had befallen her. Splattered, fallen drunk from the roof of the car museum. Fucked by a fat man in the roomy seat of the Pierce-Arrow. Run off with someone less precious than I. Had I failed to take care?
I called again and again. Sometimes I let myself say, Oh! Sometimes I didn’t wait for the ring to sound before I hung up and called again. I locked myself into the stocks of the phone and waited for my humiliation. A shard of bone had pierced me. It had drifted into my brain.
The rest of the day, I was a robot. Call and listen. Sob and compose. Eat four croissants. Finally, I thought to call the museum. Could you tell me when the next guided tour begins? I asked. The man at the museum paused and before he could answer, I screamed, Isn’t there a girl to lead me around? and the line went dead.
Years ago, I’d taken Virginia on a walking tour through Japanese gardens, and I thought of that tour right then. She’d been bossy. Laughed to see me on top of the bridge, blocking children with my doughy body. Teased me at tea until my hand shook. Led me in circles past the stone statues and told me I resembled them, wide and squatting. I’d mistaken her meanness for discernment, but I was wrong. Oh, anything but meanness! I needed my Dot.
I told my boss that I felt ill and left work with my phone tucked in my armpit. I took the bus to the car museum, and when I realized I might not hear the ring over the sound of the engine, I set the phone to vibrate and sat on it.
I saw Dot gazing off the roof from her usual perch. When I stepped off the bus, she raised her tiny bottle to me—in mocking or salutation, I could not tell. She yelled down at me: A woman carried her puppy through the museum today.
I welcomed this tidbit hungrily.
Wasn’t she a dear to always notice soft things? I called her on the phone. She mimed holding one to her ear and yelled down again: I left my phone in my locker today, and then disappeared from view.
I ran inside. She could not see how I’d panicked, how I’d misused and suspected her. I needed to smash her phone before she got to it. Mine as well. To hold her hand and tour the museum. Instead, she appeared in the lobby. She held her phone between two fingers, as if it were something rotten. You called me 235 times, she said. I laughed and laughed and grabbed at her, but she stepped away.
I just wanted to talk to you, I said. I thought you were dead, you idiot. You Dot. You little Dot. My Dot.
Then the bone vibrated in my hand, and I felt it move inside of me and shake everything down to the fat-sick chambers of my heart.
She left me then, in the lobby of the car museum, she called me crazy, and I have not seen her since. What I wouldn’t give now for her dullness, for the sound of her voice saying squat.
I’ve seen everything. Everything is thinkable, everything has been thought of, and yet she thinks of nothing. I dream of her roundness on the couch next to me as we watch TV, the pliant shape of her soft abyss and the quiet inside of our life together.
I call and call and call again. Someday she might answer, moved by accident or pity, and if she does I will seize the moment. Little Dot, I’ll say, We’ve been victims, you and I. Meet me on the bridge in the Japanese garden. Bring your phone. We’ll toss these bones in the pond together. We’ll drown the Death that’s come between us, love.
Kristen Gleason lives in Athens, Georgia. Her writing has appeared in The Collagist, Everyday Genius, Five Chapters, Caketrain, Slice, and elsewhere.